March is the biggest month for player movement in the NFL, but it’s also a good time to set our earliest expectations for the upcoming year. We’ve done some early rankings and mock drafts for the 2021 season, but we know those will be rendered moot by free agency and trades in the coming months. But there’s still value in establishing how we view players at this point, so we can know how much things have moved by the time we get closer to the season.
We’re going to be doing more of that on the Fantasy Football Today podcast this week, as we’re giving an early look at our sleepers, breakouts and busts for the 2021 season, and I’ll have some of our top choices right here for you in the newsletter this week, starting with some sleeper candidates today. But first, here’s a quick rundown of what you might have missed from around the NFL since the last newsletter:
- We could have a 17-game season in 2021 — According to NBC Sports’ Peter King, that is “highly likely,” in fact. The expectation is it would still include just one bye week for every team, so we’d be looking at an 18-week season. We’ll have all offseason to talk about the fallout of that once it becomes official, but my initial thought is it would create more injury concerns for Fantasy players to deal with, and I wouldn’t be opposed to expanding rosters to add a bench spot to accommodate that.
- Washington will release Alex Smith — Smith’s release should save $14.7 million against the cap for Washington. Smith made a miraculous comeback from his broken leg back in 2018, and deservedly won Comeback Player of the Year for it, but he also clearly wasn’t the answer for Washington in the short term, let alone the long term. Who will be that answer remains to be seen, but unless Washington makes a surprise splash, this figures to be one of the least interesting passing offenses in the NFL for Fantasy. However, if they signed someone like Ryan Fitzpatrick, it would at least make Terry McLaurin a viable low-end No. 1 option, so let’s root for something like that.
- The Cardinals signed J.J. Watt — Not exactly big news for Fantasy, but it could help make the Cardinals a better defensive team, which should lead to more rushing opportunities for Kyler Murray and whoever the starting running back is. Kenyan Drake is a free agent, so it could be Chase Edmonds as the lead back in Arizona, and that could make him a top-20 option at the position.
- The 49ers have inquired about Teddy Bridgewater — The Panthers are intent on finding an upgrade at QB, and Bridgewater could be on the move. That being said, 49ers GM John Lynch told reporters last week they are primarily looking to upgrade the backup spot behind Jimmy Garoppolo.
- The Texans released Duke Johnson — And they are also looking to retain David Johnson but at a lower salary than his $8.5 million cap number. They could save $6.4 million by releasing him, and it’s hard to see how he would find a significant deal as a free agent, so a reunion makes sense. Of course, the outlook of the entire Texans offense is totally up in the air until we figure out what’s happening with Deshaun Watson.
- Julian Edelman (knee) is a question mark for 2021 — According to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, Edelman wants to play in 2021, but it’s not clear if his knee will cooperate. He’s still rehabbing and will be 35 this offseason, so Edelman figures to be a pretty fringe-y option without even taking into consideration New England’s iffy QB spot.
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Early 2021 Sleepers
When we’re looking for sleepers, we’re ultimately just trying to find players we think are being undervalued in Fantasy drafts. But do “sleepers” really exist in Fantasy sports anymore? Come August, every player will be so picked over by the industry that it’s hard to find much value. There aren’t really that many inefficiencies left in Fantasy drafts.
Of course, those inefficiencies haven’t been smoothed out yet. Free agency will shake up the landscape, and the draft will do the same. Then we’ll be left to try to sort through who benefits and who stands to lose value. That’s the process that gets us to that point in August where the sleepers are harder to find.
Right now? Well, if you’re drafting in a best-ball league or something, it’s quite easy to find inefficiencies in the marketplace – if JuJu Smith-Schuster winds up signing somewhere he can be a No. 1 option, the sixth-round price I paid for him in our too-early mock draft is going to look like a steal. You could argue that, right now, Smith-Schuster is a potential sleeper, though one who could end up shooting up draft boards come August.
On Friday’s episode of the Fantasy Football Today podcast last week, Dave Richard, Jamey Eisenberg and Heath Cummings talked about their favorite early sleepers for the 2021 season, and it’s worth listening to the full discussion, because there were plenty of fascinating names and discussions in the full pod. In today’s newsletter, I’ve got a few of my own sleeper options, plus I pulled out some picks of Dave, Jamey and Heath from the pod for you to hear their takes.
These players could be some of the best values in drafts this summer. Or they could be early-round picks by August.
On the podcast, Adam Aizer asked Jamey, Dave and Heath who their favorite sleepers right now are, so I figured I would start there. Here’s what they had to say in response to the question:
- Jamey: “Laviska Shenault. I think it’s going to be fun to see what they end up doing in Jacksonville with their receiving corps and what ends up happening to enhance it, if they do. If they don’t, then I think he’s in a great spot.”
- Dave: “My favorite early sleeper is going to end up becoming like a very popular, trendy breakout and it’s AJ Dillon with the Packers. It looks like Aaron Jones is on his way out — It sounds like the Dolphins are interested and the Jets are interested. One or both of those teams really might pay him a lot of money to be their lead back, and that would just open the door for Dylan to be at least in a timeshare. And that’s if they keep Jamaal Williams and/or draft another running back. I would imagine that Dillon would get the first crack at being the main guy if Jones leaves Green Bay. He’s going to be a very popular pick.”
- Heath: “I think I’ll say Raheem Mostert. It seems like Jeff Wilson is more popular than Mostert, and I’m not sure that that should totally be the case … He’s averaged 5.6 yards per carry for his career. And I think for as long as he’s healthy, he’s going to be a good running back for Fantasy as he pretty much always has been. So hopefully, he’s healthy for 10 or 12 games next year.”
Heath’s answer led to a bit of a back and forth, because Dave is much higher on Jeff Wilson than Mostert. Here’s how that went:
- Adam: “Dave, you like Wilson better, right?”
- Dave: “I do. I think he can handle the ground and pound of the season better than Mostert can. I think that’s been proven. He’s also younger than Mostert and it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if they split work and those were though 1A and 1B running backs in SF, but I’ll take the guy who’s been better in short yardage and goal line situations. That’s Wilson.”
- Adam: “They were splitting work last year. Mostert’s last four games and of course he got hurt. But in those four games. But Mostert had 53 carries, Wilson had 46 carries.”
- Heath: “The only part of that I would debate — because the younger part, I think, matters a lot – is that Jeff Wilson ‘s career high in carries is 126. He has not proven at all that he could handle a full season’s worth of work.”
Where do I come out? Is it a cop-out to say I’ll wait to see where they are drafted? I think Wilson and Mostert are very similar players, and I don’t want to end up paying a premium for a backfield that typically doesn’t see many targets, so I’ll just take whichever one is going later. My gut says that will likely end up being Mostert, though it’s possible both end up getting drafted high enough that it won’t be worth chasing them either way. If they’re going in the top-70, I probably won’t be buying.
It’s worth listening to the rest of the podcast, because there’s about an hour’s worth of discussions on other potential sleepers from every position. Here are the sleeper candidates I will be buying for 2021:
- Jamaal Williams – We’ll have a lot more clarity about Williams’ value once free agency is settled, but he could be in line for a big boost in playing time – either in Green Bay or somewhere else. Aaron Jones seems likely to take the biggest offer as a free agent, which likely won’t be with Green Bay, which means Williams could be right there alongside A.J. Dillon in 2021. And, while the assumption is Dillon will be the lead back, Williams should have plenty of opportunities as the primary pass catcher – Dillon had just two targets last season and caught just 21 balls in three seasons in college. Williams and Jones combined for 98 targets last season, and if most of those go to Williams and he gets another 150 carries, he’ll be in that RB2 discussion. And, if he leaves and finds a starting job of his own, he could get there, too. He’s one of my favorite players to draft right now.
- Jalen Reagor — It’s not a great sign that Reagor finished as the No. 97 WR as a rookie, especially given how little competition there was for targets in Philadelphia. But I’m willing to give him at least a partial pass, given how difficult his circumstances were. Reagor suffered a small tear in his shoulder just two weeks before the start of the season, and though he was able to play through it by Week 1, he then suffered a torn UCL in his thumb in Week 2. He came back in Week 8 but never quite got going, though in fairness, that was around the depth of Carson Wentz‘s struggles and the team’s subsequent decision to go with Jalen Hurts at QB. In a normal season, that would be a lot to go wrong for one player; add in that it happened without a normal offseason program for a rookie, and it’s not surprising Reagor never got going. With a normal, hopefully healthy offseason of work with Hurts, I think Reagor can still be a valuable Fantasy option as the Eagles No. 1 wide receiver.
- Denzel Mims – Like Reagor, Mims dealt with an injury in training camp, though in his case, it was a hamstring that kept him out until Week 7. He immediately stepped into a pretty big role for the Jets and put up 19 catches for 324 yards in his first six games, solid production given the mess that was the Jets offense. He left the team in Week 14 to deal with a family issue and had just 33 yards over the final three games. Like Reagor, I’m willing to give Mims a bit of a pass for how much he struggled, and I’m willing to buy in to a new coaching staff and QB for the Jets. He might just be the No. 1 option in this passing game, and who knows, maybe they’ll pull off that trade for Deshaun Watson they’re hoping for.
- Benny Snell – Snell is kind of a placeholder here for whoever the Steelers end up starting at running back. It very well may be him – he’s the most likely option right now, at least – and he could be a viable No. 2 Fantasy RB if that’s the case. Snell was a disappointment in 2020, but he never really got consistent opportunities; in his three starts, Snell did average 11.7 PPR points per game with at least 12 in two of three. The Steelers are going to try to figure something out with the run game after having to rely too much on Ben Roethlisberger‘s arm last season, and if Snell gets the chance to be the lead back, he could be better than expected.
- Gabriel Davis – Davis was very productive as a rookie, finishing with 599 yards and seven touchdowns on just 62 targets, and the question now is whether there’s room for more in Buffalo’s offense. That will likely depend on whether they opt to move on from John Brown, a potential cap casualty. If Brown is gone, Davis could be an excellent flex option as a big-play, boom-or-bust receiver. It’s what he was as a rookie, it’s what he was in college, and he could be a week-winner in the Desean Jackson mold if he gets the opportunity.