The term sleeper has different meanings for different people in the world of fantasy football. Some folks believe it’s simply a player who will outperform his draft position. That would include players like Justin Herbert, James Robinson, and Justin Jefferson in 2020. Others believe it’s someone who was a relative unknown who emerges into a useful fantasy option, such as Myles Gaskin, Curtis Samuel, or Robert Tonyan.
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Both of these definitions are true but with a caveat. I don’t see a player as a sleeper if he’s already been a valuable fantasy asset in his career. For example, Carson Wentz, Marvin Jones Jr., and Noah Fant don’t feel like sleepers to me. Wentz has been a top-12 QB multiple times. Jones has scored nine TDs in three of the past four seasons and was the WR18 last season. Fant was a top-10 tight end in 2020, so can he be a sleeper?
Could these players be labeled as bargains in 2021 fantasy football drafts? Absolutely. But they’re certainly not considered sleepers based on my definition of the term.
With that in mind, here are 10 players to target in the middle to late rounds who could be the best of the best of the 2021 fantasy football sleeper class.
Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos
Williams was a second-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft and is without question the future leader of the Broncos backfield. That’s due in large part to the fact that Melvin Gordon is entering the final year of his contract. While I see the veteran as the team’s Week 1 starter, the backfield did lose 125 touches when the team let Phillip Lindsay walk as a free agent. I can see Williams having standalone flex appeal or more in 2021.
Chase Edmonds, RB, Arizona Cardinals
Edmonds was the RB25 last season, making him a high-end No. 3 fantasy running back in most leagues. I think he can be better in 2021, and the addition of James Conner makes him even more of a sleeper. That’s because Conner’s presence in the Cardinals backfield is considered a detriment to Edmonds’ value and has moved him down draft boards. Entering a contract year, the versatile running back could be a draft-day gem.
Michael Carter, RB, New York Jets
Carter might be on the smaller side at 5-foot-8 and 201 pounds, but that didn’t stop him from putting up 1,245 rushing yards (eight yards per attempt average) in his final year at North Carolina. What’s more, he put up those totals while sharing the workload with the aforementioned Williams. The Jets don’t have a true No. 1 running back, so the former Tar Heel will push Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, and La’Mical Perine for touches.
Trey Sermon, RB, San Francisco 49ers
When the 49ers took Sermon in the NFL draft, it instantly piqued the interest of fantasy managers. That’s because coach Kyle Shanahan’s offense has produced more than its share of star running backs. His system has led to five top-8 fantasy finishes at the position. The loss of Jeffery Wilson also moves Sermon up the depth chart, making it even more likely that he’ll push Raheem Mostert and Wayne Gallman in the rotation.
DeVonta Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
Smith is coming off a bananas final season at Alabama, posting 117 catches for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns. While those totals are a pipe dream at the NFL level, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner landed in a great spot to succeed as a rookie. He’ll be reunited with Jalen Hurts in an Eagles offense that doesn’t have a true No. 1 wideout. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if Smith is the most targeted Eagles wide receiver in 2021.
Laviska Shenault, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
Shenault’s rookie totals weren’t what you would call eye-popping, as he finished as the WR46 last year. However, he did have 600 yards and five touchdowns, and he did it catching passes from a rotation of mediocre (or worse) quarterbacks in Gardner Minshew, Jake Luton, and Mike Glennon. With Trevor Lawrence now under center and plenty of targets up for grabs, Shenault should be in a better position to produce points.
Joe Burrow, QB, Cincinnati Bengals
Burrow isn’t a traditional sleeper since we all know the collegiate stat-sheet stuffer, but he still has much to prove at the NFL level. The good news is that he’s scheduled to be back from a serious knee injury in plenty of time for Week 1, and he’ll have his former LSU Tigers teammate, Ja’Marr Chase, back in his arsenal. Burrow was also on pace for almost 650 pass attempts as a rookie starter, and he’ll chuck it plenty this season.
Jamaal Williams, RB, Detroit Lions
Williams was supposed to be added as a complement to D’Andre Swift, but new Lions OC Anthony Lynn has referred to him as “a classic A back.” That doesn’t mean he’s the favorite to start, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Williams plays a bigger role in the team’s offense than we might have projected when he first signed with Detroit. I can see Williams having some standalone flex value in an offense that lacks real firepower.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins
Tagovailoa didn’t have a spectacular rookie season, but he did show some flashes of potential despite not having a preseason due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was also coming off a serious hip injury, so the cards for statistical success were stacked against him. Now in 2021, with a traditional offseason and the addition of offensive weapons like Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle, Tagovailoa could end up being a fantasy asset.
Adam Trautman, TE, New Orleans Saints
Trautman is in a great position to emerge as an effective weapon for both the Saints and fantasy managers in 2021. The team lost Emmanuel Sanders and Jared Cook as free agents and didn’t add significant competition in the passing game, so the stage is set for Trautman. Head coach Sean Payton’s offense has been very tight end friendly in the past, so don’t be surprised if the Dayton product puts up top-15 fantasy totals in 2021.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!