Justin Dunbar’s Five Sleepers For 2021

Justin Dunbar highlights five potential sleepers for the upcoming fantasy football season

What exactly is a “sleeper”? According to Google, a sleeper is “a person or animal who is asleep or who sleeps in a specific way”, but that doesn’t sound like what we are going for here. Instead, we are looking for overlooked players; those who deserve more credit than they have been given this offseason.

The term “sleeper” is generally one that is utilized too frequently. Is a player picked in the top five rounds really a sleeper? No; there needs to be legitimate proof that the player is actually being “slept on”. With that in mind, let us establish some criteria for a “sleeper”

  1. Cannot have an average draft position (ADP) that would insert them into one’s starting lineup
  2. Cannot have an ADP within the first ten rounds of a 12-team draft
  3. Has legitimate “starter” potential

These five players all have the ability to become players who you want in your starting lineup. Based on their current ADP, however, you don’t have to invest anything more than a bench spot on them. As much as the term is overused, it is extremely applicable to them. Also, shout out to tight end Tyler Higbee and wide receiver Tyler Boyd, who are underappreciated fantasy contributors, but don’t meet the criteria for inclusion.

All Stats via Pro Football Focus. ADP via NFC.com

 

TE Blake Jarwin, Dallas Cowboys (ADP: 177, TE21)

 

Last year was difficult year for the Cowboys. Obviously, they lost their star quarterback, Dak Prescott, for the season due to an ankle injury in Week 5, while they were without practically every starter of their offensive line. Yet, that wasn’t all; tight end Blake Jarwin also missed the entire season after tearing his ACL in Week 1.

After signing him to a four-year, $22 million contract, Dallas clearly had high hopes for Jarwin to replace Jason Witten as the team’s starting tight end. In fact, in 2019, a case can be made that he was a much better player than Witten. His 1.82 yards/route run ranked ninth at the position, while he demonstrated the ability to make plays after the catch (5.1 YAC/reception) and work down the field (10 aDOT, 11.8 yards/reception). Considering that this came in just his second season, there were plenty of reasons to be optimistic about his outlook heading into 2020.

In Jarwin’s place, Dalton Schultz finished as the 10th-best tight end in fantasy points, earning 85 targets and running 553 routes. The Cowboys were the league’s most pass-happy offense last year, and since they’re likely to once again be positioned for shootouts with a well-regarded offense and struggling defense, that should be the case again. Assuming Jarwin wins the starting job and continues to work at a high aDOT, there is a lot to suggest he will finish close to where Schultz was last year. Between the projection needed here and him coming off of the injury, there is a reason he is being drafted where he is. On your bench, though, he has the exact type of “ceiling” that you want to be targeting.

 

WR Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs (ADP: 123, WR50)

 

Hey, Mecole Hardman qualifies by just a hair! I know what you’re thinking; wasn’t he considered a sleeper this offseason. Well, this year is different! At least, I hope so! To be fair, it isn’t as though the 23-year-old hasn’t displayed his talents when called upon. For his career, he’s averaged nine yards after the catch per reception, in addition, t0 15.1 yards/reception. Meanwhile, his 18.3% target/route run ranked third on the team, behind only Travis Kelce and Tyreek Hill.

With Sammy Watkins departing for Baltimore, now is Hardman’s time to shine as the clear third option in the passing game. Last season, he only ran 410 routes over 19 games, but I’d expect him to play a significantly more impactful role. Plus, you would expect positive regression from his 14.6% drop rate. As evidenced by his target rate, he’s clearly getting open and is a focal part of the offense when on the field, and that’s a combination you want to bet on.

Do you know what else I want to bet on? A player catching passes from Patrick Mahomes. Yes, Kelce and Hill will command significant target shares, but the Chiefs also ranked third last year in pass attempts/game; there are plenty of targets to go around.  Is there a chance that Hardman doesn’t see more snaps or becomes much less efficient with a higher workload? Absolutely. That said, the talent and opportunity far outpaces his current ADP. In a lot of ways, he’s the Blake Jarwin of wide receivers. Or, is Jarwin the Mecole Hardman of tight ends?

 

QB Daniel Jones, New York Giants (ADP: 162, QB21)

 

Daniel Jones? The same quarterback who has averaged just 6.6 yards/pass attempt for his career and threw only 11 touchdowns last year? Yep, that Daniel Jones! First off, let’s throw away the touchdowns- a lot of it is due to variance. Remember, he threw 24 touchdowns as a rookie, which made him a classic candidate for regression. Expect him to meet somewhere in the middle next season.

As for his inefficiency as a passer, there is a lot to suggest that it wasn’t just Jones himself that led to it. The 24-year-old’s 74.4 PFF passing grade ranked 18th at the position, which isn’t fantastic, but not 6.6 yards/pass attempt bad. Additionally, he earned a 90.5 passing grade from a clean pocket, so if he can see positive regression in unstable situations under pressure, he is in a position to benefit.

Jones also will benefit from an upgraded group of weapons; mainly, the addition of star receiver Kenny Golladay. He had the second-highest receiver drop rate, while his 5% big-time throw rate ranked in the upper half of the league. There is also the upside that he increases his overall aggressiveness, something likely to happen with Golladay in the mix. He only threw a pass 20+ yards down the field on 9.6% of his pass attempts, but when he did, he earned a 95.6 passing grade. In other words, despite this being his best area to throw the ball to, it wasn’t a featured part of the offense. Yet, you don’t add one of the game’s better deep threats without planning to open up the passing game.

Also, don’t discount Jones as a runner. His 30.2 rushing yards/game would put him on pace for over 500 in a 17-game season. Take out the three games he played injured, that average increases to 36.64 rushing yards/game. With Jones, you’re getting a dual-threat quarterback who will benefit from positive regression in unstable areas as a player, has fine underlying numbers and will have a better supporting cast this season. Now, playing behind a poor offensive line and under offensive coordinator, Jason Garrett isn’t ideal. That being said, he’s a much better option as a backup quarterback than he has been given credit for. Who’s excited to see Danny Dimes be upgraded to Danny Quarters?

 

WR Sterling Shepard, New York Giants (ADP: 171, WR64)

 

Let’s stick with the Giants passing game, shall we? Even despite the dysfunctional nature of it, Sterling Shepard was still able to produce 13.2 points per game, a number that looks even better (14.09) if you take out a Week-2 game in which he left the game early due to injury after running just ten routes. Generally, a player with this type of track record goes a lot earlier in drafts, but not in the case of Shepard.

A lot of this is due to concern over Shepard’s target share. As someone who didn’t make a lot of big plays (9.9 Y/REC), he’s produced at the level he has by accumulating a lot of receptions. Nevertheless, with the Giants adding Kenny Golladay and first-round rookie Ka’Darius Toney, many expect him to eventually fall out of favor. That said, are we sure these concerns aren’t overblown? Toney, who tested positive for COVID-19, is well behind schedule, and may not start in three-receiver sets as is. Even if he does in the slot, Shepard already played 67.1% of his snaps out wide in 2020, meaning he’s perfectly capable of being the second option in the passing game. Instead, it would be Darius Slayton and his 94 targets that would more likely be the odd man out of this offense, while Shepard continues to operate adequately in his role.

I understand Shepard isn’t the most flashy player, but someone is going to get targets in the short passing game, especially if Jones isn’t as aggressive as we’d hope for. If so, Shepard will be the one who stands the gain the most from that. While he might not offer the lofty upside as some players, he’s arguably being priced below his floor, which is something you will want to take advantage of. We’re always taught to buy stocks when they are at their lowest price, and this is a clear example of that.

 

RB Justin Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers (ADP: 280, RB80)

 

Talk about a true sleeper! In most drafts, you won’t even see Justin Jackson drafting, meaning the cost to acquire him is as inconsequential as it gets. To be fair, he is someone who hasn’t rushed for more than 270 yards in a season over the first three years of his career and has little draft capital attached to him as a former seventh-round pick.

At the same time, that doesn’t mean Jackson hasn’t showcased his abilities when given the opportunity. In his 141 career rush attempts, he’s averaged 4.9 yards/attempt and has proven capable of being an explosive runner with a career 39.7% breakaway rate. Meanwhile, he’s also averaged 1.68 yards/route run in his limited sample as a receiver, in addition to three straight seasons with a PFF grade over 72.5.

Will these numbers carry over if given a larger workload? Maybe not, but at least he’s proven capable of producing when given the opportunity. Austin Ekeler is clearly the top running back in Los Angeles’ offense, but he’s never been the sole features bell-cow back; at least one other running back will receive carries. Thus, Jackson’s true competition is second-year running back Joshua Kelley and sixth-round rookie Larry Rountree III. Neither has a lofty draft position associated with them, with Kelley being brought in as well from another coaching staff and failing to make a major impact (59.8 PFF rushing grade) last season. Assuming he comes back soon after testing positive for COVID-19, Jackson can certainly win that competition with a strong preseason, which is well worth your last pick in the draft. As a fellow Justin, here’s hoping he can do just that!

 

(Photo by Cliff Welch/Icon Sportswire)

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