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12 Fantasy Football Sleepers

By Jared Smola 9:08am EDT 8/18/20

Joe Burrow, QB, Bengals

A #1 overall pick coming off 1 of the greatest college seasons of all-time joining a Bengals team with a strong pass-catching corps. Frankly, we’re surprised Burrow isn’t getting more hype. He’s the 18th QB off the board in ADP.

WR A.J. Green was impressing early in camp before suffering what looks like a minor hamstring injury. There’s certainly still risk with a 32-year-old who hasn’t played regular-season game since December 2018. But Green averaged 77 yards and .67 TDs per game in 2018 and posted a 75-1,078-8 line in 2017.

There's plenty of depth behind him. WR Tyler Boyd returns after turning in his 2nd straight 1,000-yard season. Cincinnati spent the 33rd overall pick on Clemson WR Tee Higgins, a 6’4, 216-pounder with some shades of A.J. Green to his game. WR John Ross provides big-play pop whenever he’s healthy. And Auden Tate is an underrated, big-body possession receiver. The Bengals also sport a pair of solid pass-catching backs in Joe Mixon and Gio Bernard.

Burrow should also have volume on his side this season. The 2019 Bengals ranked 6th in pass attempts. Winning just 2 games played a part in that. But Cincinnati also finished 7th in situation-neutral pace and 6th in pass rate when games were within 1 score. In short, this looks like an up-tempo, pass-leaning offense.

The cherry on top is Burrow’s rushing upside. He totaled 767 yards and 12 TDs on the ground at LSU over the past 2 seasons and could make a Dak Prescott type of impact with his legs this season.

There’s QB1 potential here.

Tyrod Taylor, QB, Chargers

Will rookie Justin Herbert take over for the Chargers at some point this season? Probably. But Taylor is so cheap that anything you get from him is gravy. And we like his odds to at least make it to Los Angeles’ Week 10 bye.

Herbert simply won’t have much time to prove himself in this COVID-impacted offseason. Taylor is a favorite of HC Anthony Lynn, who worked with Taylor in Buffalo back in 2016. And the schedule sets up favorably. Here are the Chargers’ 9 games prior to the bye week:

at Bengals

vs. Chiefs

vs. Panthers

at Buccaneers

at Saints

vs. Jets

at Dolphins

vs. Jaguars

vs. Raiders

The Chargers could very reasonably win 5 or 6 of those games — and it’ll be tough to yank Taylor if he’s winning games. There are also some strong fantasy matchups among those 9 games. We project the Bengals, Panthers and Raiders to be 3 of the bottom-6 QB defenses this season. The Bucs, Jets, Dolphins and Jaguars might also be positive matchups.

Like Burrow, Taylor will benefit from a solid pass-catching corps and his own rushing ability. WR Keenan Allen, WR Mike Williams, TE Hunter Henry and RB Austin Ekeler form a strong quartet. And Taylor has averaged 6.4 carries, 36 yards and .3 TDs across 46 career starts. That’s a 16-game pace of 103 carries, 578 yards and 5 TDs. Those marks would have ranked 3rd, 2nd and 4th among QBs last year.

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ravens

Hot take: Investing in Baltimore’s running game is a good idea.

The 2019 Ravens set an NFL record with 3,296 rushing yards. QB Lamar Jackson accounted for 1,206 of those. But Ravens RBs still combined for 393 carries, 1,954 yards and 14 TDs.

Mark Ingram remained effective last season and figures to open the season as Baltimore’s lead back. But he turns 31 in December, so the cliff probably isn’t too far away.

Any step back from Ingram would open the door for Dobbins, who strung together an impressive 3 seasons at Ohio State. He set the Buckeyes’ freshman record with 1,403 rushing yards in 2017, topped 1,000 yards again in 2018 and then exploded for 2,003 yards and 21 scores this past season. Dobbins ranked top 12 among draft-eligible backs in both yards after contact and missed tackles forced in 2019, per Pro Football Focus.

This is a physical, downhill runner. And 57% of his carries last year came on run-pass option plays. The Ravens easily led the league in RPO rush attempts last year. Simply put, Dobbins looks like a perfect fit in this offense.

And he’s off to a nice start in training camp, drawing raves from multiple media members.

“J.K. Dobbins is a wow,” Ravens play-by-play man Gerry Sandusky tweeted. “He has explosive lateral movement, vertical burst, and looks silly smooth out of the backfield in the passing game.”

At a 6th- or 7th-round price tag, this rookie has league-winning upside.

Zack Moss, RB, Bills

Moss looks like a fresh version of Frank Gore for the Bills.

Buffalo clearly wanted to pair a bigger back with Devin Singletary last year. Gore — then 36 — faded over the 2nd half of the season but averaged 11.5 carries across his first 8 games alongside Singletary. Gore was also Buffalo’s primary goal-line back, carrying 11 times from inside the opponent’s 5-yard line. That not only led the Bills, but also ranked 12th league-wide.

Moss looks tailor-made for that role: A 5’10, 220-pound tackle-shedding machine. He topped 1,000 rushing yards in each of his final 3 seasons at Utah and ranked 2nd among draft-eligible backs with 89 missed tackles forced last year, per Pro Football Focus.

No disrespect to future Hall-of-Famer Gore, but Moss could easily prove to be an immediate upgrade on the ground. And he’s experienced in the passing game, totaling 65 catches for 681 yards (10.5 YPC) and 3 TDs over the past 3 seasons. Note that Singletary was an inefficient receiver last year, ranking 40th in yards per target and 41st in yards per route run among 43 RBs with 30+ targets.

So in Moss, you’re likely getting at least 10 or so touches per game, including goal-line work. And there’s a chance he turns this backfield into a full-fledged committee.

Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington

Washington’s backfield is wide open following the release of Derrius Guice. So why not bet on the freakily big and fast rookie?

Gibson blazed a 4.39-second 40 time at 6’0 and 228 pounds at the Combine. That earned him a Speed Score of 122.8 that led this year’s RB class and ranks as a top 25 mark all time. Freakily big and fast.

Now, we didn’t get to see much of Gibson in college. After spending his first 2 years at East Central Community College, Gibson transferred to Memphis, where he totaled just 77 touches across the past 2 seasons. That’s more forgivable when you consider he played behind NFLers Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard in 2018 and the highly touted Kenny Gainwell last year.

When Gibson did get the ball, he was awesome. He averaged 11.2 yards and scored 4 times on 33 carries. And he took 44 receptions for 834 yards (19.0 YPC) and 10 TDs. Pro Football Focus charted Gibson with a ridiculous 33 broken tackles on his 71 offensive touches in 2019. He also earned Conference USA Co-Special Teams Player of the Year honors last year after averaging a big 28.0 yards with 1 TD on 23 kick returns.

Washington made Gibson the 66th overall pick of this spring’s draft — notably ahead of both Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Zack Moss.

Then HC Ron Rivera made waves in May when he compared Gibson to Christian McCaffrey.

“He's a little bit bigger than Christian, but he's got a skill set like Christian," Rivera said. "This is a very versatile, young football player that we really think is going to be a guy that can get on the field for us early and contribute."

And that was before Guice got released. If Gibson can just get half of the 117 carries and 113 targets that McCaffrey garnered as a rookie, he’d be a serious factor in PPR leagues. Washington is not only shaky at RB, but also at WR and TE. So there’s room for Gibson to carve out a significant role on the ground and through the air.

Jamison Crowder, WR, Jets

We nailed Crowder on this list last year and are going right back to the well.

After going outside the top 60 WRs in ADP last summer, Crowder finished as the WR26 in PPR points. And he ranked 14th over the 2nd half of the season. Once QB Sam Darnold got over his mono, he and Crowder got rolling, connecting on 43 of 72 targets for 511 yards and 6 TDs over their final 9 games. All 4 of those marks led the team.

Crowder should again be the top dog in this passing game in 2020. Robby Anderson, who finished 2nd on the team in targets last year, departed in free agency. The Jets added free-agent Breshad Perriman and rookie Denzel Mims, but neither guy has any in-game rapport with Darnold. (And Mims is currently sidelined with a hamstring injury.)

With an ADP sitting in the 10th round, Crowder is a cheap source of heavy target volume.

DeSean Jackson, WR, Eagles

What could have been last year …

Jackson exploded for 154 yards and 2 scores on 8 catches in a Week 1 win over Washington. He played 69% of Philly’s offensive snaps in that one and led the team with 9 targets. It looked like he was in line for a BIG season.

Then came the core-muscle injury in Week 2. Jackson was sidelined until Week 9 — and lasted just 4 snaps in that game before aggravating his injury. He then opted for season-ending surgery.

Here’s the good news: Jackson is back to 100% and again finds plenty of opportunity in the Eagles’ WR corps. The team added 1st-round rookie Jalen Reagor, plus late-rounders John Hightower and Quez Watkins. But WR Alshon Jeffery is unlikely to be ready for the start of the season after last December’s Lisfranc injury. WR J.J. Arcega-Whiteside can’t be counted on for a significant 2020 contribution after an ugly rookie season. And WR Marquise Goodwin opted out of the 2020 season.

So Jackson is a virtual lock to open the season in the starting lineup. And he has a chance to lead the team’s WRs in targets, depending on how ready Reagor proves.

You know the risks with Jackson: He’s 33 now and has played all 16 games in just 2 of 12 NFL seasons. But it sure looked like he had gas left in the tank last year. And back in 2018, D-Jax averaged a big 18.9 yards per catch with the Bucs, ranking 19th in Pro Football Focus’ receiving grades and 9th in yards per route run among 79 WRs with 50+ targets.

The downside is more than priced into Jackson’s 11th-round ADP. The upside has him producing as a high-ceiling fantasy starter for your squad.

Henry Ruggs, WR, Raiders

There are certainly warts on Ruggs’ prospect profile. He never topped 46 catches or 746 receiving yards in a season at Alabama and feasted on weaker competition. That’s reason to consider fading him in dynasty.

But it’s a different story in redraft. The Raiders obviously love this guy. They made Ruggs the 1st WR off the board in a loaded class that included CeeDee Lamb and Jerry Jeudy.

That makes Ruggs a good bet for a significant 2020 role. Consider this: Ruggs was the 8th WR picked between 10th and 20th over the last 10 drafts. Five of the previous 7 averaged at least 5.4 targets per game as rookies. That’s a full-season pace of 86 targets, which is a shade below what we have Ruggs projected for.

The Raiders have already talked about moving the rookie all over the formation, including starting him in the slot. We like that fit. Because despite his sub-4.3 speed, Ruggs was more effective on short and intermediate routes than deep downfield at ‘Bama. His 10.5 yards after the catch per reception last year was a top 5 mark among all draft-eligible WRs. We also heard GM Mike Mayock talk about getting Ruggs “manufactured targets” shortly after drafting him. So it sounds like Vegas is set to maximize his skill set.

Volume and big-play ability combine to make Ruggs an intriguing pick in the double digit rounds of fantasy drafts.

Curtis Samuel, WR, Panthers

Samuel let a lot of folks down last year. One of the buzziest names in fantasy football last August ended up finishing 36th among WRs in PPR points. (And frankly, it didn’t even feel like he scored that well if you owned him.)

A lot went wrong for Samuel. The biggest problem was Carolina’s QB play. Cam Newton went down early, and Kyle Allen struggled in relief for the most part. The Panthers ranked 20th in passing yards, 31st in TDs and 31st in Football Outsiders’ pass offense DVOA.

Samuel was also miscast. His 14.8-yard average depth of target and 26% rate of targets 20+ yards downfield were both top 20 marks among WRs. Going deep to a 5’11, 196-pound former college RB doesn’t seem optimal.

So a new QB and coaching staff in Carolina this year should be good news for Samuel. Teddy Bridgewater is a conservative but hyper-accurate passer — and definitely a big upgrade over Allen. HC Matt Rhule talked up Samuel’s versatility back in July, noting that he can be used "at RB, slot, outside.”

In his final college season, Samuel caught 74 balls for 865 yards and 7 TDs and added another 771 yards and 8 scores on 97 carries. That type of usage in the NFL is a pipe dream. But it gives you an idea of Samuel’s ability to produce in multiple facets.

With the Panthers expected to deploy an uptempo offense — and the defense likely to have them playing from behind often — something like 100 targets and 30 carries are within reach for Samuel. They level of volume would give him a shot at weekly-starter production.

And he’ll be much cheaper in your draft this year than last. Samuel’s ADP is currently sitting in the 16th round.

Brandon Aiyuk, WR, 49ers

It’s been a tough couple of months for 49ers WRs. Deebo Samuel suffered a Jones Fracture to a foot in June that has him iffy for the start of the season. Jalen Hurd went down with what’s believed to be a torn ACL over the weekend. If confirmed, he’ll miss the entire season. Travis Benjamin opted out of the 2020 campaign earlier this month.

That’s all cleared the path to playing time for Aiyuk, who the ‘Niners traded up for to grab at #25 overall in this spring’s draft. HC Kyle Shanahan says Aiyuk was his top WR in this year’s class. That’s a bit tough to believe, but the point is that Shanny loves this kid.

He certainly looks like a good fit. Aiyuk is at his best with the ball in his hands, where he averaged a huge 10.9 yards after the catch last year. We’ve seen guys like Samuel and TE George Kittle rack up big YAC numbers in this offense.

Aiyuk has gotten off to a strong start in camp, running with the starters and reportedly showing a quick rapport with QB Jimmy Garoppolo. The rookie could feasibly open the season as San Francisco’s #1 WR. And the early-season schedule is sweet: vs. Arizona, at the Jets, at the Giants, vs. Philadelphia and vs. Miami.

Blake Jarwin, TE, Cowboys

He hasn't seen enough volume to be a fantasy factor, but Jarwin has been an efficient pass-catcher over the past 2 seasons. He’s hauled in 75.3% of his targets and averaged 11.6 yards per catch. His 8.7 yards per target is good for 11th among 54 TEs with 50+ targets over the last 2 years. Jarwin ranked 24th in yards per route run among 54 TEs with 20+ targets in 2018 and then climbed to 9th out of 56 last year.

Dallas is seemingly ready to hand the reins to Jarwin this season. TE Jason Witten departed in free agency; the Cowboys didn’t add a significant competitor to the roster; and they gave Jarwin a 4-year, $22 million contract.

So he’s set to play a big role in what looks like a top 5 passing game. Just how many targets can Jarwin get? Well, Witten and WR Randall Cobb leave behind 83 apiece from a year ago. First-round rookie WR CeeDee Lamb figures to soak up a chunk of those. But Jarwin could certainly settle in near Witten’s target level. Only 9 TEs topped his 83 targets last season.

If Jarwin gets that type of volume in this offense, we like his chances of a top 12 fantasy finish. He’s currently TE20 in ADP.

Jonnu Smith, TE, Titans

Smith did a lot to get excited about last year. He ranked 7th in yards per route run among 35 TEs with 40+ targets. He finished 9th in that group in Pro Football Focus’ receiving grades. Smith was especially good after the catch, where he ranked 9th in total yards and 2nd in per-catch average. PFF also credited him with 14 avoided tackles — 3rd most behind George Kittle and Travis Kelce.

Now, Smith’s 44 targets ranked just 31st among TEs. Even with Delanie Walker out for the final 9 games of the season, Smith totaled only 33 targets — 20th at the position.

The key to unlocking more volume in 2020 will be getting more passing in general out of Tennessee. The 2019 Titans ranked 29th in pass rate and 31st in pass attempts.

We know this team wants to pound it on the ground with Derrick Henry. But they’re still a good bet to chuck it more this season. Last year’s Titans were just the 10th team over the last 10 seasons to attempt fewer than 450 passes. The 2019 Ravens joined them. But 7 of the previous 8 teams threw it more the following year. The group as a whole averaged an increased of 66 attempts.

If Smith can get that kind of bump in volume and lay claim to the #2 spot on Tennessee’s target totem pole, he’ll have a good shot at a TE1 finish. He’s going, on average, as the 16th TE in recent fantasy drafts.

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