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DS Sleepers

Top 10 Fantasy Football Sleepers

By Jared Smola 8:08am EDT 8/10/21

Trey Lance, QB, 49ers

It’s a matter of when -- not if -- Lance takes over as San Francisco’s starter this season. And the buzz out of camp has us thinking it might be very soon. Potentially Week 1.

While QB Jimmy Garoppolo has reportedly been inconsistent, Lance has regularly flashed the skill set that made him the 3rd overall pick of this spring’s draft.

“He’s putting on a show,” Sports Illustrated’s Grant Cohn tweeted on August 4.

Lance’s teammates have noticed, too. DT D.J. Jones called Lance “special.” WR Trent Sherfield called him a “baller.”

When Lance does hit the field, he’ll boast the ingredients to post big fantasy numbers. He has plenty of arm strength and a high football IQ (28 TDs vs. 0 INTs at North Dakota State in 2019). More importantly, he has the size and athleticism to be the next dominant rushing QB. Lance goes 6’4, 224 pounds and racked up 1,100 rushing yards with 14 TDs in that 2019 season. The tape reminded us of a more athletic Taysom Hill.

The 49ers have been using Lance on read-option plays throughout camp -- and you can bet that HC Kyle Shanahan is ready to take full advantage of that athleticism. Shanahan was Washington’s OC in 2012, when then-rookie Robert Griffin finished 7th among QBs in fantasy points on the strength of a 120-815-7 rushing line.

Lance has that type of upside this year.

Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Dolphins

There wasn’t much good to take from Tagovailoa’s 2020 season. He finished outside the top 25 QBs in completion rate, yards per attempt and QB rating. He ranked 27th among 32 qualifiers in Pro Football Focus’ passing grades. He was yanked for QB Ryan Fitzpatrick multiple times. And he scored as a top-12 fantasy QB only once.

But there were ample excuses:

  1. He was a rookie.
  2. He was returning from a serious hip injury suffered the previous November.
  3. He was playing behind a leaky offensive line that ranked 21st in PFF’s pass-blocking grades.
  4. The pass-catching corps was weak, especially when WRs DeVante Parker and Preston Williams were sidelined with injuries.

So we’re willing to give Tua a mulligan. Let’s not forget that this guy was the 5th overall pick of last year’s draft after a brilliant career at Alabama. He set single-season school records with 3,966 yards and 43 TDs as a true sophomore in 2018 and was on a similar pace in 2019 before the injuries came. Tagovailoa left Tuscaloosa with a career 69.3% completion rate and 10.9 yards per attempt.

He’s in a much better situation heading into his 2nd pro season. He’s another year removed from that hip injury with a year of NFL experience under his belt. The offensive line has potential to take a step forward after Miami invested 3 top-42 picks in the unit over the last 2 drafts (Liam Eichenberg, Austin Jackson, Robert Hunt).

And, most importantly, the WR corps is much-improved with the arrivals of Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle. Both guys boast elite speed, which is what this Fins passing game was missing last year. (Plus, Tagovailoa and Waddle spent 2 seasons together at Alabama.)

Don’t be surprised if Tua breaks out as an NFL sophomore and crashes into fantasy’s top 15 QBs.

Michael Carter, RB, Jets

It was surprising to see Carter slip into the 4th round of this spring’s draft. At least 1 scout that we respect had him as the top RB in this draft class.

And the North Carolina RB checks plenty of analytical boxes. He averaged 6.6 yards per carry and totaled 71 receptions over 4 college seasons. Last year, Carter beat 1st-rounders Najee Harris and Travis Etienne in missed tackles forced per attempt, yards after contact per attempt and Pro Football Focus rushing grade.

The biggest reason he lands on this Sleepers list, though, is the opportunity he finds in New York. Carter’s competition for touches reads: Tevin Coleman, La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson and Josh Adams. The latter 3 are holdovers from the previous regime. Coleman is easily the most accomplished of the group and has experience in the Jets’ new running scheme. But he’s 28 years old, carried only 28 times last season and got just $400,000 guaranteed on his 1-year deal.

Carter has already seen a bunch of 1st-team work in training camp. And The Athletic’s Connor Hughes believes he’s “a step above” the other RBs.

Don’t expect to get 300+ touches out of Carter this season. He’s just 201 pounds. And New OC Mike LaFleur comes from the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree, which tends to use multiple RBs.

But Carter is a strong bet to lead Jets RBs in targets -- and we like his odds to lead in carries, too. Part of a young offense that could ascend quickly, Carter is an upside play in the 7th or 8th round of your fantasy draft.

Trey Sermon, RB, 49ers

49ers HC Kyle Shanahan has never invested a higher draft pick in a RB than he did in Sermon, who went 88th overall this spring. And the ‘Niners traded up to get him, sending a pair of 4th-round picks to the division-rival Rams.

There’s plenty to like about the rookie. Sermon had a choppy college career but flashed early and late. He tallied 744 rushing yards and caught 16 balls as a true freshman at Oklahoma. And he exploded for 524 yards and 3 TDs over his final 2 healthy games at Ohio State. (No, that’s not a typo -- 524 yards in 2 games.) Sermon has plenty of size at 215 pounds and earned a 97th percentile Relative Athletic Score at his Pro Day.

It’s also worth noting that the scheme Sermon ran in at Ohio State is similar to what the ‘Niners run. That’s helped the rookie get off to a fast start, earning 1st-team reps in minicamp and training camp and even impressing in the passing game.

Sermon will most likely be part of a committee attack in San Francisco. That’d keep him from being a true league-winner but could still result in a strong fantasy season. This is an excellent system that opens up big lanes for RBs. Take this, for example: 33 RBs averaged 2.5 yards before contact per attempt over the past 2 seasons. Five of them were 49ers.

But Sermon’s real upside comes with the chance that he takes full control of this backfield. We haven't seen it recently, but Kyle Shanahan does have some history of deploying a feature back and producing high-end fantasy finishes. Over his first 10 seasons as OC/HC, he produced 5 top-9 half-PPR RBs.

There’s no stalwart standing in Sermon’s way. Raheem Mostert has been efficient over the past 2 seasons but had trouble staying healthy. Jeff Wilson is expected to miss at least the first 6 games of the season after spring knee surgery. Wayne Gallman isn’t a special talent. And Elijah Mitchell is a 6th-round rookie.

It’s within the realm of possibility that Sermon simply emerges as San Francisco’s clear best RB and captures a big share of the backfield work.

Darnell Mooney, WR, Bears

If you watched a Bears game last season, you probably saw Mooney get overshot on a deep ball. He saw 23 targets 20+ yards downfield -- 15th most among WRs. But Mooney caught just 4 of those. That ranked 55th.

The problem, of course, was QB play. Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky ranked 20th and 38th, respectively, among 38 qualifiers in adjusted completion rate on deep passes, according to Pro Football Focus.

Mooney didn’t stand a chance.

The arrival of QB Justin Fields changes everything. The Ohio State product has a big arm and deadly accuracy to all levels of the field. He ranked 2nd among 154 draft-eligible QBs in Pro Football Focus’ 2020 adjusted completion rate.

The Athletic's Adam Jahns expects the Bears offense to feature more deep passes this season, whether it’s Fields or veteran Andy Dalton under center.

"[HC Matt] Nagy’s offense has always been vertical," Jahns wrote. "His practices in the offseason program and camp have featured plenty of shots down the field, including this year with [Andy] Dalton and [Justin] Fields in OTAs and minicamp. Nagy wants to be aggressive down the field. It’s in his playbook and in his nature as a coach and play-caller."

That’s good news for Mooney, who averaged 16.7 yards per catch at Tulane and blazed a 4.38-second 40-yard dash at the 2020 Combine.

Anthony Miller’s departure should lock Mooney in as the #2 option in a passing game that could surprise this season, especially if and when Fields takes over.

Elijah Moore, WR, Jets

No player has created more buzz over the past couple of months than Moore.

It started in June, with The Athletic's Connor Hughes calling Moore "undeniably the most impressive" player at OTAs.

Then came this from HC Robert Saleh: “His work ethic is off the charts. His mindset is off the charts … He’s a dynamic young man ... He can line up wherever you want, and he’s going to execute it at a very high level.”

And the hype has rolled right into training camp. The New York Daily News' DJ Bien-Aime called Moore “unstoppable.” Hughes said he’s “been the team’s best player. And it’s not overly close.” NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah compared Moore to Tyler Lockett (which really made us swoon).

None of it should come as a big surprise. Because Moore is an awesome-looking prospect. He led the entire country in catches (10.8) and receiving yards (149.1) per game as a junior this past year. Then he clocked a 4.35-second 40 time and earned an 87th percentile Relative Athletic Score at his Pro Day. The Jets made Moore the 34th overall pick of this spring’s draft, reportedly passing on multiple trade offers to get the guy they had ranked as the 16th best prospect in the class.

Moore has already worked himself into 1st-team reps at training camp, playing both out wide and in the slot. And while the Jets surely envisioned WR Corey Davis leading this team in targets when they signed him to a big contract in free agency, we’re starting to think it’ll be Moore who emerges as fellow rookie Zach Wilson’s top dog.

Mecole Hardman, WR, Chiefs

You saw Hardman on virtually every Sleepers list last summer. Not ours.

NOW is the time to buy.

Hardman is coming off a disappointing sophomore season -- at least relative to the expectations most had for him. He didn’t take much of a step forward from his rookie campaign and wasn’t usable in fantasy football, finishing 62nd among WRs in PPR points and scoring as a top-24 WR in just 2 of 16 games.

But Hardman was always a guy who was likely going to take a while to get rolling as a pro. He was a high-school QB and got just 2 seasons of extensive experience at WR in college.

Everything we’re hearing out of Chiefs camp suggests the light bulb might just now be flicking on for Hardman. He’s run with the 1st-team offense and been a consistent standout. Here’s what The Athletic’s Nate Taylor wrote on July 30:

“Known for his rare speed, Hardman has produced more consistent repetitions while polishing his route-running ability in the middle of the field. Hardman has run routes from each of the Chiefs’ main three receiver positions ... The first three practices have featured Hardman executing shorter routes, the types where he has to be precise in both his release and his cuts to give [QB Patrick] Mahomes a clear throwing window.”

Sounds like a guy becoming a complete receiver, rather than just a deep threat.

Sammy Watkins’ departure has the Chiefs’ #2 WR job up for grabs. Hardman is looking like the clear favorite to take it. And Patrick Mahomes’ #2 WR is certainly someone we want to take a shot on.

Bryan Edwards, WR, Raiders

The comparison to Terrell Owens is peak August hyperbole. But, by all accounts, Edwards has had an excellent offseason.

“Ask anyone around the Raiders facilities and they'll tell you how excited they are for Bryan Edwards,” Levi Edwards of the team’s official website wrote on August 4. “During camp, he's been on a mission. He's not only been creating separation on his routes, but is also using his physicality to go up over defensive backs and catch tightly contested passes.”

Word out of Raiders camp has Edwards running with the 1st-team offense, opposite Henry Ruggs and with Hunter Renfrow in the slot. Edwards won a starting job out of camp last year, playing 75% and then 61% of the offensive snaps in Vegas’ first 2 games. Then injuries derailed the rest of his rookie season.

But Edwards is healthy now and might just be ready to show why he was such an intriguing prospect coming out of South Carolina. His college production profile was excellent: From a freshman-year breakout to an SEC-leading 7.1 catches per game as a senior. And the tape showed a physical receiver with strong after-catch skills.

TE Darren Waller will remain the top dog in this passing game. But there’s opportunity for a #2 target to emerge after the departure of WR Nelson Agholor, who finished 2nd on the 2020 Raiders with 82 targets.

Anthony Firkser, TE, Titans

The fantasy buzz on Firkser died down after the Titans traded for WR Julio Jones. And that certainly hurt Firkser’s target projection.

But it didn’t kill it. Tennessee lost a combined 192 targets from a year ago with the offseason departures of WR Corey Davis, WR Adam Humphries and TE Jonnu Smith. Jones won’t soak up all of those -- even if he does play all 17 games.

Firkser figures to gobble up a solid chunk of the 65 targets Smith leaves behind. Add that to the 53 targets Firkser saw last year, and he could easily top 80 targets. That’s something only 12 TEs did last season.

We’ve already seen Firkser capitalize on expanded opportunities. With Smith out vs. the Browns in Week 13 last year, Firkser turned 7 targets into 5 catches and 51 yards. And after Smith exited early in a Week 6 meeting with the Texans, Firkser exploded for an 8-113-1 line. He finished 5th in yards per route run and 10th in Pro Football Focus receiving grades among 34 TEs with 40+ targets.

This is a sneaky good pass-catching TE who has a real chance to be the #3 passing-game option on a strong offense.

Gerald Everett, TE, Seahawks

This is as much a bet on the Seahawks passing game as a bet on Everett.

The buzz out of Seattle has new OC Shane Waldron deploying a fast-paced offense. It makes sense: Waldron spent the past 4 seasons working under Sean McVay in Los Angeles, where the Rams ranked top 12 in situation-neutral pace each year. Some added tempo would be welcomed news in Seattle. The Seahawks ranked 24th in situation-neutral pace in 2019 and 22nd last year

A faster pace means more plays, which lifts an entire offense. And the Seahawks already ranked top 16 in passing yards and top 4 in TDs in each of the last 2 seasons.

Last year’s Seattle TEs combined for 108 targets -- a number that could climb in 2021. On top of the boost in pace, the Seahawks still don’t have much at WR behind D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett. The team is probably hoping D’Wayne Eskrige will emerge as the #3 WR, but he’s a rookie out of Western Michigan who’s missed most of the offseason with a toe injury.

The Seahawks return TEs Will Dissly and Colby Parkinson. But Everett is the clear favorite to lead the group after inking a fully guaranteed 1-year, $6 million deal in free agency.

Although he never broke out with the Rams sharing the field with TE Tyler Higbee, he did rank top 18 in yards per route run in both of the last 2 years. He was an exciting prospect coming out of South Alabama, totaling 90 catches, 1,292 yards and 12 TDs over his final 2 college seasons and testing as an 88th percentile athlete at the Combine. And, of course, he should be familiar with this offense after following Waldron from Los Angeles to Seattle.

Everett looks like the #3 target in what should be 1 of the most efficient and productive passing games in the NFL.

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