Ryan Heath’s Five Sleepers for 2021

Ryan Heath presents three simple tables you must see before you draft while running through some of his favorite sleepers in 2021.

One year ago, I complained about the death of the word “sleeper.” It seemed like a good rant to signal to you all how trendy, avant-garde, and against the grain my analysis would be. For all my talk, the results were rather pedestrian. Chase Edmonds and D’Andre Swift both outperformed their ADPs from that column, though neither were exactly league-winning picks. The rest of my picks were even less inspiring.

All this is to say that I’m dropping any pretense or bluster from my analysis this year. The following is a selection of players I like to outperform their ADP this year, full stop. I will back up everything I say with data or game theory as always, but I will make no claims of league-winning picks, cheat code ADPs, or can’t-miss prospects.

You read that right; I’m breaking from the sea of hyperbolic voices and wrestling personas in this “industry.” Measured humility and straight talk will be my brand this year. Calling something my brand is also a fantasy analyst cliche, but I’m taking baby steps in my detox. You can follow my progress on this journey on Twitter @QBLRyan.

(All analysis is intended for leagues with PPR scoring. All stats are per FantasyData, unless otherwise linked.)

 

Ty Johnson (New York Jets, ADP 237.0, RB73)

 

I’ll start by saying I definitely understand why some are into Michael Carter. The target shares and rushing efficiency the rookie posted in college while competing with second-round pick Javonte Williams were genuinely impressive.

With that said, this is a fourth-round NFL draft pick we’re talking about. A workhorse role is rather unlikely for Carter this season, given the rookie year usage of recent fourth-rounders:

 

Player Attempts Targets Snap Share
Joshua Kelley 111 23 25.3%
La’Mical Perine 64 15 26.5%
Anthony McFarland 33 9 8.1%
Deejay Dallas 34 20 13.7%
Bryce Love 0 0 0%
Justice Hill 58 15 17.3%
Benny Snell 108 4 16.8%
Tony Pollard 86 20 18.1%

 

To find a day three pick who seized a lead role their rookie year, I had to go all the way back to Jordan Howard in 2016. Even recent late-round breakouts like Myles GaskinAaron Jones, and Chris Carson did little in their rookie seasons. A strictly change-of-pace role is the most historically likely outcome for Carter.

If not Carter as the lead back in New York, then who? With Tevin Coleman always a poor bet to stay healthy, the process of elimination leads us to Ty Johnson. The third-year player is essentially free in all formats, sports 4.45 speed, and has the edge over Carter in size. Johnson split first-team reps with Carter and Coleman in OTAs, making this backfield rather ambiguous. I don’t see a reason to think the range of outcomes of any of the three is particularly different, so taking the most affordable option in the final round of drafts seems prudent.

I won’t overemphasize the importance of Shanahan acolyte Mike LaFleur’s running scheme, but there’s reason to think the Jets could provide more fantasy appeal on the ground this year. A 2020 Myles Gaskin-esque breakout is about the best you could hope for Johnson, but at worst he’s an intelligent final-round pick that you’ll know whether you can drop based on his Week 1 role.

 

Antonio Brown (Tampa Bay Buccaneers, ADP 93, WR38)

 

Never did I think I’d be discussing Antonio Brown as undervalued in fantasy football in the year 2021, but here we are. On both a per-snap and per-game basis last year, Mr. Big Chest himself led all Tampa Bay receivers in targets. If you don’t believe me, see for yourself:

 

Player Per-snap target % Targets per game
Mike Evans 12.7% 6.8
Chris Godwin 12.4% 7.0
Antonio Brown 18.9% 7.6

 

Once Brown was active from Week 9 onward, he was Tom Brady’s clear favorite target, reaching nearly a 20% target share and leading Brown and Godwin in that metric as well. Why is Brown available rounds after Evans and Godwin?

Aside from a bit of risk inherent to Brown’s age, the only answer is damaged brand equity. His on-field play measured up just fine against Evans and Godwin, with Brown pacing the trio in metrics like average target separation and yards per route run. Brown also recorded zero drops to Evans’ seven and Godwin’s four last year.

It does not matter what you think of Antonio Brown’s latest Snapchat story; it only matters what Tom Brady thinks. Draft Brown with confidence as a great weekly FLEX play at his depressed cost.

 

Hunter Henry (New England Patriots, ADP 96.8, TE10)

 

Though Hunter Henry wasn’t paid quite as much guaranteed money as Jonnu Smith this offseason, I prefer Henry for fantasy purposes. New England will likely run more than enough 12-personnel for both tight ends to see the field plenty, but what the pair will be doing may differ significantly.

Route participation is calculated by dividing the number of routes a tight end runs by the number of passing plays their team runs. Tight ends ranking high in this metric are spending most of their time contributing in the passing game, while ones who rank low are staying in to block much more often. Here’s how Henry and Smith stacked up recently:

 

Player Route Participation (2020) Route Participation (2019)
Hunter Henry 81.7% 73.9%
Jonnu Smith 65.8% 48.8%

 

The numbers tell us that Henry has historically been utilized much more as a receiver than Smith, with both having been up against fairly similar target competition on their previous teams. We can’t be sure how the Patriots will utilize these players, but the lack of receiver talent on the team could allow either tight end to approach a 20% target share, putting a TE1 season squarely in both players’ range of outcomes. If forced to choose, I’ll take the player with the better receiving track record who is still cheaper on certain platforms.

Similar to Brown, Henry is more of an ADP arbitrage play than a “singlehandedly win you your league” type of sleeper. Tight ends are tricky after the top few options, but if you’re not paying up for Travis Kelce or Darren Waller, Henry is a great bet later in drafts.

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Justin Fields (Chicago Bears, ADP 156.6, QB22)

 

The quarterback market has become incredibly efficient in fantasy football. For years, it was optimal to wait obscenely long at the position and prepare to stream players off the waiver wire.

That was then, and this is now. There’s now a weekly advantage to a top-tier quarterback due to the slew of dual-threat stars that have entered the league. Fantasy football breaks when a quarterback is prolific through the air as well as on the ground, to the point where the highest-ceiling play is drafting a QB with rushing ability late in hopes he puts together a surprising season through the air. This was the process that led to Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen in recent years.

Fantasy gamers have wised up to this dynamic, as a glance at the top six quarterbacks by ADP will tell you. This means we have to look a little deeper for our mobile QB.

Justin Fields is unlikely to start Week 1, but that’s why his ADP is reasonable right now. You need to get him soon before he sees preseason action and the hype train leaves the station. Andy Dalton is a shell of his former self and has to open the season against the Rams, Bengals, and Browns. A 1-2 or 0-3 start will have the Bears coaching staff antsy to save their jobs. I favor Fields over Trey Lance (who also fits this process) mostly for this reason.

Whenever Fields does hit the gridiron, he could be an immediate fantasy QB1 option. Whether you look to the 15 rushing touchdowns in 22 career games at Ohio State or the 4.46 40-yard dash Fields ran at his pro day, it’s hard not to get excited about him. Pair Fields with a cheap QB that has a good early schedule and cross your fingers. (I recommend Kirk Cousins for potential early-season shootouts against the Bengals, Cardinals, and Seahawks).

 

Zack Moss (Buffalo Bills, ADP 86.7, RB38)

 

Though it was in limited action between injuries and a split backfield, Zack Moss had very impressive advanced metrics last season. He ranked seventh in the NFL with a 29.4% juke rate (evaded tackles per touch) and tied for fifth in yards created per attempt on the ground. This means he was breaking tackles and gaining yards beyond what was blocked for him at higher rates than talents like Aaron Jones, Jonathan Taylor, and Antonio Gibson. Interested yet?

Where Moss really sets himself apart from backfield mate Devin Singletary is in the red zone, possessing a 20-pound advantage. Moss tied Josh Allen for the team lead in goal-line rushing attempts last year, with each having 11 from inside the five-yard line. Allen scored seven times on those tries, while Moss scored just four. That balance could shift closer to even this year given random variance and the desire the Bills ought to have to limit the hits their young star QB takes. Buffalo ran the most plays in the red zone of any team last year, and their high-octane offense should ensure there are plenty of touchdowns to go around once again.

While Moss consistently out-snapped Singletary in the second half of 2020, the one area in which he has yet to take the lead has been usage in the passing game. Week after week, Singletary topped Moss in both target share and routes run. Moss has multiple seasons with over 25 catches on his college resume, and exceeded Singletary’s marks in both yards per target (5.3 to 5.2) and catch rate (77.8% to 73.1%) in his limited sample last year, per PlayerProfiler.

It seems likely that Moss is at least as capable a pass-catcher as Singletary, but backfield usage can be hard to predict. The bottom line is that any shift toward Moss in either the passing game or the touchdown department in one of the league’s best offenses would make him a bargain at his current ADP.

 

Photo by All-Pro Reels/Wikimedia Commons | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

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