Fantasy football, like most everything in this world, evolves and with it, so does its terminology. Thirty years ago, a sleeper article was riddled with little-known, under-the-radar names of players you would draft late and hope would perform at a much higher level. The ability to out-produce your draft position remains the criteria, but with the growth in football coverage, both in reality and fantasy, there are very few, if any, stones left unturned. One day, we will all agree upon a new word to replace ‘sleeper,’ but considering you found this article simply by typing “2021 fantasy football sleepers” into your search engine, we’ll leave it alone for now.
In the meantime, let’s take a look at some of those players who we believe will significantly out-perform their draft position and become strong starters for your 2021 fantasy football teams.
Carson Wentz, QB IND – Reunited and it feels so good? That’s what we’re banking on as Wentz makes the 2021 Sleepers list now that he’s back in the nurturing arms of Frank Reich, his old offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. Reich was a big part of Wentz’ development and helped the then-24-year-old to one of his best seasons before a knee injury limited him to just 13 games in 2017. While Reich is now the head coach, his fingerprints are all over the offensive game-plan with which Wentz is all too familiar. The big key to a successful season in Indianapolis for Wentz is going to be the offensive line. In Philadelphia, he was running for his life on a regular basis and was routinely beaten up on his blind side. The Colts line is light years better and the added time to set up in the pocket is going to make a huge difference. Coupled with a strong rushing attack to help open up the play-action, things are certainly looking up. And even better for fantasy is his bargain-rate ADP.
Ben Roethlisberger, QB PIT – Football life is rapidly coming to a close for Big Ben and he wants to make one more run at a Super Bowl this season. Health is always a concern, but when you look back at most of the injuries he’s endured, they have been more on the minor side, giving rise to his reputation as a high-drama diva. The Steelers have done some offseason work to improve the offensive line, they brought in Najee Harris who is capable of serving as an every-down back and he’s got the receiver weaponry to rack up strong passing numbers. You obviously cannot trust him to be your No. 1 starter, but you should be able to stream him in for a number of starts throughout the season.
Sam Darnold, QB CAR – When was the last time a player got out from under Adam Gase’s thumb and didn’t thrive? Darnold has gotten an undeserving bum rap here in the NFL and it’s all his former coach’s fault. Now that he’s away from the Jets and working under Matt Rhule and Joe Brady, we expect Darnold to produce top-flight numbers at a bargain price. Having Christian McCaffrey coming out of the backfield will help pad his passing totals and the offense Brady runs is perfectly tailored for Darnold’s style of play. He can stay in the pocket if he has the protection or he can roll out and extend the plays with his legs. His accuracy and ability to get rid of the ball quickly will be highlighted by the underneath slants Brady likes to use in his scheme and if the defense has the coverage downfield, Darnold isn’t afraid to run the ball himself. He’s already got a familiarity with Robby Anderson and will quickly bond with D.J. Moore and rookie Terrace Marshall, Jr. No ghosts here, baby!
Damien Williams, RB CHI – If you’re looking at the Bears backfield and you know how Matt Nagy loves to rotate in backs and use them as pass-catchers, then you know Williams’ presence on this team is unnerving a lot of people, specifically Montgomery truthers. Nagy watched how successful Williams was in Andy Reid’s offense and since he [Nagy] is a disciple of Reid, he knows Williams can and will fit with what he’s wanted to do since the day he was named head coach of the Bears. He’s more durable than Cohen and he’s also capable of running between the tackles so the defense can’t automatically assume they know the play-call. As RB55 according to recent ADP, he’s a solid depth play for those investing in early RBs and he becomes an intriguing target for those who are trying a Zero-RB strategy. If he’s getting decent snaps in this offense, he should produce.
Phillip Lindsay/Mark Ingram, RB HOU – This will be a situation to monitor as we head into training camp. David Johnson looked completely gassed last year and it wouldn’t be much of a surprise to see the Texans cut him at some point during training camp. If they do, Lindsay and Ingram could find their way into a two-back time-share with Lindsay handling the early-down work and Ingram as the third-down, pass-catching back. Lindsay’s biggest short-coming is his pass-blocking and he’s actually never been that great of a pass-catcher, while Ingram, a solid pass-blocker, has routinely handled that aspect at every stop he’s made, starting with his time in New Orleans before Alvin Kamara’s arrival. The Texans are likely to be playing from behind most of the season, but they will have to try to establish the run and when there are goal-line situations, without Deshaun Watson running it in on his own, Lindsay and Ingram could grab a few touchdowns themselves. Of course, should Johnson stick around, Ingram might be the odd-man out as Lindsay still would handle the early-down work. Think of it as a three-man cage fight – three will enter, only two will leave.
Giovani Bernard, RB TB – What Tom Brady wants, Tom Brady gets. That’s how things were handled in Tampa Bay last season and by doing so, the Bucs won the Super Bowl. Brady wanted Gronk as his tight end. the Bucs added Gronk. Brady didn’t want to deal with the inexperience or sloppy play from either Ke’Shawn Vaughn or Ronald Jones, so he lobbied for Leonard Fournette and his wish was granted. Brady wanted Antonio Brown, the team got him Antonio Brown. So when Bernard became available, Brady finally found his replacement for James White and the Bucs brought in Bernard. He’s had his troubles with injuries, as most undersized backs do, but he’s a strong pass-blocker and he can still be a strong asset running out in space. Jones and Vaughn are going to remain on the roster and Bruce Arians may rotate backs in and out, but once Bernard has the trust of Brady, he’ll be a lock for third-down work.
Michael Pittman, WR IND – As a rookie, Pittman racked up 503 yards and one touchdown on 40 receptions, but really started to blossom late in the season, including a five-catch, 90-yard playoff performance. Standing 6-foot-4 and weighing in at 230 pounds, Pittman has the size, the speed and the hands to become a go-to receiver for Carson Wentz this season. His route-running also improved as the season went on which should allow him to work off an expanded route tree, so look for the Colts to utilize him both across the middle and as a downfield threat to stretch the defense. T.Y. Hilton is already starting to age out of the league, Parris Campbell hasn’t been able to prove himself on the field due to injuries and Zach Pascal’s skill-set limits him to work out of the slot. With Wentz’ powerful arm and a strong offensive line, Pittman should have a better time this year to complete his routes and become a true WR1.
Mike Williams, WR LAC – It’s been a rough road for fantasy owners who have invested in Williams over the years. In 2018, he had fewer than 700 receiving yards, but racked up 10 touchdowns. In 2019, he enjoyed his first 1000-yard season but managed just two touchdowns. He was supposed to put it all together last season, but he never really seemed to click with rookie Justin Herbert who spent much of his time looking for Keenan Allen over the middle or the combination of Jalenn Guyton or Tyron Johnson deep down the middle. New head coach Brandon Staley and new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi both said they have strong expectations for Williams this season and could push Herbert into a change in target distribution. Usually, it’s the third year for wideouts to break out, but it could be the fourth time that is the charm for Williams.
Darnell Mooney, WR CHI – Things haven’t really panned out for Matt Nagy during his tenure as head coach of the Bears, but he continues to tweak his offensive personnel in the hopes of recreating the magic he witnessed as the OC in Kansas City under Andy Reid. Mitchell Trubisky has been replaced by Andy Dalton and, eventually, Justin Fields. Damien Williams has joined the backfield as a rotation of versatile, pass-catching backs is preferred for this scheme and Cole Kmet should end up the new starting tight end. The receiving corps, however, has remained the same and while Allen Robinson remains the No. 1 target, Mooney should step out into the spotlight a little more this season. It may not happen early in the year should Dalton be the Week 1 starter, but eventually, Fields should take over and that will vastly improve the passing game. Fields can scramble and extend plays with his legs, so while he does, Mooney will wear down the coverage with his speed and find his way to some open room. There really aren’t a whole lot of options in the receiving corps, so Mooney should have no trouble carving out a larger role during the preseason.
Mecole Hardman, WR KC – Success in fantasy football is predicated on opportunity. You can do all the scouting you want, but if a player doesn’t receive the opportunity to step out into the spotlight, then how amazing his skills might be, he’s never going to get the opportunity to show them off. We already know that Travis Kelce is the No. 1 target in this offense and Tyreek Hill is second. The pass-catching running backs will probably combine for the third-highest target rate on the team, but with the amount of gunslinging Patrick Mahomes does, there is definitely room for one more. With no Sammy Watkins on the team anymore, Hardman could finally get his chance to flash that amazing speed with more regularity. His ADP has him as WR61 and he’s basically being ignored in drafts right now. Drafters are looking for him around the same time they’re looking for guys like Nelson Agholor, so he’s worth the shot in re-draft leagues, a must-own in best ball and could become a better dynasty option if he sees an increase in targets and proves he is capable of handling an increased workload.
Terrace Marshall Jr., CAR – The more I’ve studied Joe Brady’s offense, the more I like Marshall as a sleeper in fantasy. Sam Darnold is going to vastly improve the passing game as his accuracy and arm strength are both wildly better than that of Teddy Bridgewater. He can also roll out and extend the play with his legs, giving his receivers additional time to shake their coverage. Brady loves to have his receivers run slants underneath while also releasing running back Christian McCaffrey from his blocking. This forces the defense to float coverage to the running back which leaves the receivers over the middle in one-on-one or mismatched coverage. With a speedy group of wideouts, it becomes very difficult for the defense to keep everyone covered. Marshall will fill the void left by the departure of Curtis Samuel and should be able to beat out David Moore for the third spot in three-receiver sets. For what he’s costing in drafts right now, Marshall should be a fantastic late-round grab.
Denzel Mims, WR NYJ – Here’s another guy who is practically free in drafts and could blossom into a quality receiver for the Jets. The team is in full rebuild-mode and if the team parts with Jamison Crowder, whom the team has asked to take a pay-cut, fifth-year wideout Corey Davis becomes the elder statesman, with Mims on the opposite side and rookie Elijah Moore in the slot. Mims has the speed to be a true downfield threat and his size makes him an optimal red zone target in the vertical passing game. Rookie Zach Wilson may be asked to shorten up the passing attack in an effort to just move the chains and methodically march down the field, but Wilson loves throwing that “hero ball” downfield and coming away with the long touchdown. This could be even more prevalent as the Jets will be playing from behind most weeks and Wilson will look to take more deep shots to try and get them back into it. He’s a great option for best ball drafts and could eventually prove to be an asset in re-draft leagues as well.
Jared Cook, TE LAC – When Hunter Henry left to sign with the Patriots, the Chargers new OC Joe Lombardi immediately lobbied for Cook, who he knew from their days in New Orleans. Cook is a big dude with good hands, decent route-running skills and can run down that seam with the best of them. He’s also a huge red zone presence which will be needed for sure. Over the last three years, Cook has averaged just over 700 yards with seven touchdowns per year and as TE20, no one is touching him in drafts still. With so many suspect names after the top 12 are gone, you’re better served with the safe floor of Cook than you are begging for upside plays and streaming the position.
Gerald Everett, TE SEA – Despites having appeared in 16 games in three of his four seasons in the NFL, injuries always seem to hamper Everett and limit the number of snaps and targets he sees. He routinely ended up behind Tyler Higbee as a result, but now leaves Los Angeles and heads north to division rival Seattle. While DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett see the bulk of the receptions, we have seen Russell Wilson hit his tight ends in the end zone once he gets inside the 15-yard line. Jacob Hollister and Will Dissly have combined for 12 touchdowns over the last two seasons and Everett is actually faster and a better pass-catcher than both. This year, Dissly could hang back as more of a blocking option which would free up Everett for a more active role in the passing attack.