Some of you are already rolling your eyes at the term “sleeper,” a treasured fantasy football term from decades gone by. Thanks to the proliferation of fantasy football news, rankings, and analysis on the internet and social media, sleepers have become an endangered species in 2021. After watching James Robinson‘s rapid ascension to fantasy relevance last year, even armchair fantasy football analysts have a pulse on undrafted free agents these days.
For our purposes, a sleeper is an under-the-radar player who should exceed expectations in terms of the draft capital spent to acquire him at his ADP (Average Draft Position). By definition, we’re excluding anyone drafted in the first eight rounds (ADP 96 or better) and shifting our focus to players who typically aren’t being drafted as starters. Honorable mentions include Derek Carr (QB22, ADP 193), Rondale Moore (WR72, ADP 218), Henry Ruggs III (WR56, ADP 136), Tyrell Williams (WR85, ADP 325), and Anthony Firkser (TE24, ADP 192).
Each featured player is relatively inexpensive, yet boasts enough upside to blow his ADP out of the water. Target them at will, but be ready to pounce a round or two early to beat fellow league mates to the punch. Follow Drew DeLuca on Twitter (@DrewDeLaware) for updates on these and other prospective draft targets.
(The following analysis is intended for leagues with half-PPR scoring. All stats are per Pro Football Reference unless otherwise linked. ADP data comes from Fantasy Pros consensus rankings and are current as of August 10, 2021.
Trey Lance (San Francisco 49ers, ADP 136, QB21)
It took 49ers Head Coach Kyle Shanahan all of four days to go from “highly doubting” the idea of Trey Lance opening the season as the 49ers starting quarterback to letting the rookie lead the first team in practice. But that doesn’t mean he’s going to become the starter. Yeah, okay.
It’s fair to be skeptical of his college stats. After all, Lance only played one full season at an FCS school, and he didn’t get to face the toughest team in that realm: his own. Yet, we can’t ignore his incredible 30:1 career TD/INT ratio, nor can we gloss over his single-season total of 1,100 rushing yards (and 14 TDs on the ground) in 2019.
Cover up the name of his school, and his athletic profile is as impressive as any top-tier prospect. PlayerProfiler.com comps Lance to steady veteran Matthew Stafford, but that sells short the rookie’s insane ability to create on the run and rack up rushing yards. This gives Lance, assuming he wins the starting job we know is ultimately his, a very high fantasy football floor. His ceiling as the perfect quarterback for Kyle Shanahan’s system is higher than what everyone thought Patrick Mahomes‘ would be in Andy Reid’s offense.
Xavier Jones (Los Angeles Rams, ADP 179, RB57)
In the wake of the devastating season-ending Achilles injury to Cam Akers, Darrell Henderson‘s fantasy stock has enjoyed a renaissance as a coveted commodity. However, Henderson has yet to prove to be durable enough to step into the massive shoes that Akers was expected to fill, nor has he been consistent in terms of his play and production. Enter 5’11”, 208 lb SMU standout Xavier Jones, who scored 25 touchdowns and averaged over 105 yards from scrimmage per game as a senior in 2019.
He doesn’t boast the most exciting prospect profile, but Jones has something more important: the faith, trust, and confidence of his team. An abundance of reports after the Cam Akers injury told the football world how high the team was on Jones, but these were largely dismissed as preseason fluff. Meanwhile, Devonta Freeman signed with the Saints, D’Onte Foreman inked a deal with the Falcons, and Todd Gurley, LeVeon Bell, and Adrian Peterson (among others) remain unsigned.
The longer the Rams go without signing a veteran running back, the more credence we place in what we first perceived to be coachspeak. Jones is almost free, and it’s hard not to love a guy at that price who’s in line to fill Henderson’s 2020 role at a minimum.
Bryan Edwards (Las Vegas Raiders, ADP 184, WR63)
Unlike Jones, Bryan Edwards boasts a scintillating prospect profile; the second-year player out of South Carolina had all the makings of a first-round selection in a deep wide receiver class until a November 2019 meniscus tear (knee) sent his 2020 draft stock tumbling. Our favorite post-hype sleeper this year, Edwards continues to turn heads during an impressive 2021 training camp.
Beat writer Levi Edwards said he looked like Randy Moss on the field, quarterback Derek Carr has compared him to Davante Adams, and head coach Jon Gruden even threw the name “Terrell Owens” around. This gushing wave of lavish praise is embarrassingly too rich, but we’ll allow it since Edwards is one of our favorite late-round dart throws.
We expect Edwards to take a big step forward in 2021, and he should easily fill the vacancy left behind by Nelson Agholor, the former Philadelphia Eagles first-rounder who finally blossomed in this very role last season after struggling with drops his entire career. Agholor is nowhere near as physical or athletically gifted as Edwards, so we see a much higher ceiling. We see 65 receptions for 900 yards and 4 touchdowns as reasonable projections that fit comfortably within his realistic range of outcomes, so we don’t plan to leave any drafts without him in the later rounds.
Quez Watkins (Philadelphia Eagles, ADP n/a, WR n/a)
Lost in the shuffle of a historically deep rookie wide receiver class, Quez Watkins went off the board as a Round 6 selection of the Philadelphia Eagles last year. The pick was lauded by some draft experts as a nice under-the-radar selection, but all eyes were squarely on first-round selection Jalen Reagor, a resounding disappointment as a rookie who shrunk in the shadow of Justin Jefferson, taken one pick later by the Minnesota Vikings.
While Reagor has been the beneficiary of post-hype sleeper hype entering the 2021 season, Watkins has been relatively ignored to date by most fantasy football analysts residing outside of the Greater Philadelphia area. Watkins, who started last year on injured reserve, played in all four of the Eagles’ final games last season, scoring his first NFL touchdown against the Arizona Cardinals in Week 15. His increased workload culminated in a 54% snap share in Week 17.
Watkins ran a scorching 4.35 in the 2019 NFL Combine’s 40-yard dash and has developed some impressive chemistry with starting quarterback Jalen Hurts. Beat writers have been furiously beating the drum for the sophomore so far, so I had to see for myself earlier this week. I was extremely impressed with his consistent ability to create separation, make contested catches, and maintain concentration on deep balls. Don’t take my word for it, see for yourself:
Quick takeaway from tonight’s Philadelphia Eagles Practice (through a fantasy football lens):
2020 6th Round WR Quez Watkins continued to build on his impressive camp; he absolutely balled out. Here’s one of several sensational downfield catches. Remember the name late in drafts pic.twitter.com/YyoPquAK4e
— Drew DeLuca (@DrewDeLaware) August 9, 2021
Watkins is going undrafted in virtually all leagues, yet he’s in a situation where someone will step up and produce flex-worthy numbers opposite the Eagles’ 2021 Round 1 selection, rookie DeVonta Smith. Will it be Reagor (WR69, ADP 186)? Maybe! He has flashed at times, but his overall inconsistency, even in training camp, isn’t what we expect from a first-round draft pick, nor will it endear him to his new coaching staff if it continues. None are bad options at ADP, but we actually prefer Travis Fulgham (WR96, ADP 286), who most fantasy football managers remember from last year, or Watkins at the even lower going rate of absolutely nothing whatsoever. Both will be easy cuts for priority free agents if they don’t pan out early in the season. Meanwhile, Reagor managers will be tempted to hold for longer than they should if he gets off to a slow start, thereby missing out on fresh roster additions that can help their teams over the course of the season.
Adam Trautman (New Orleans Saints, ADP 191, TE19)
Last but not least, we have the main beneficiary from the extended absence of Michael Thomas. No, it’s not Alvin Kamara, Tre’Quan Smith, or Marquez Callaway, as most believe, although all should see an uptick in target volume. Second-year tight end Adam Trautman, who made Jared Cook expendable, enjoys the largest uptick in both target share and production on the heels of the Thomas news.
Trautman entered the 2020 NFL Draft as one of the top-rated rookie tight ends; some, like FantasyPros analyst Kyle Yates, had him ranked first overall. Many fantasy football analysts are fading Trautman on the belief that he’s merely a below-average talent with less than ideal speed, and believe he’s a lumbering, stone-handed oaf who has somehow stumbled into a situation where vacated targets exist. That would be a mistake. A standout at Dayton, Trautman led all collegiate tight ends in targets (95), receptions (70), and touchdowns (14). Per PFF’s Jeff Ratcliffe:
“While it’s always tricky to project small-school players for dynasty purposes, the fact that Trautman posted the second-highest single-season grade (94.2) among tight ends in the PFF College era bodes well for his long-term fantasy outlook. In case you’re wondering, the highest grade came from Dallas Goedert (94.9) in 2017.”
Trautman was selected in Round 3 by the Saints last year, which represents significant draft capital for a tight end. He went on to catch 15 of the 16 passes thrown his way as a rookie. His stunning 94% catch rate, tops among all nine rookie tight ends with five or more targets, is clearly unsustainable. However, Cook and his 60 targets from last year are gone, and Trautman will haul in nearly all of those, not to mention incremental volume associated with the absence of Micheal Thomas. He has a unique ability to create separation in tight spaces, as evidenced by his 3 cone time at the 2019 NFL Combine when he posted a time that beat all but one wide receiver in an incredibly deep and gifted class.
Add it all up, and we project 52 receptions for 545 yards and 5 touchdowns for the insanely agile and sure-handed Trautman in 2021, making him a significant value at his current ADP. Regardless of who lines up under center for the Saints in 2021, Trautman will be a fixture in fantasy lineups as the season progresses. Before long, Trautman will turn legions of doubters into believers; strike now before his rising ADP no longer offers tremendous value for the rest of us!
Photos by Fred Kfoury III and Kyle Ross/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare (@graphical_ark on Twitter)