Welcome to this edition of the Lowdown. This is my little corner of the fantasy football universe — feel free to pull up a chair and stay a while!
In my last column, I explained the difference between value plays and sleepers. Of course, it goes without saying that while finding value is important, it’s not the only important thing; sleep is important as well. I know this because every time I emerge from my office looking for my wife to help me out with some task, she’s taking a nap. This is after her usual 8-10 hours of sleep the night before. When I ask why she’s always sleeping, she starts babbling something about “sleep being necessary for your mental and physical health, and youthful appearance”. I’m too busy to research whether or not she’s BSing me or just trying to avoid helping me out, but I’ll admit she’s still looking good while I’m… well, you can just look at my profile pic to see where this comparison is headed.
So in sticking with this whole sleep theme, I put together a list of players that I consider sleepers heading into the 2021 NFL season. Just to be clear: this isn’t the typical experts’ sleeper list, which is usually comprised of low-end QB1s and WR3s. See, a lot of the bigger “experts” in this industry hate being wrong; more to the point, they hate being associated with being wrong. That’s why you’ll look at a “Sleepers” column from a site with an acronym for a domain name and find players like Derek Carr and Diontae Johnson being touted as sleepers. Similarly, I’m avoiding giving you a list of rookies and guys coming off season-ending injuries– talking heads who do this are leveraging the psychological quirk of humans that leads us to recall the one bold prediction that hit while forgetting the 10 that failed miserably.
So, here’s my list of sleepers for 2021: guys that you draft in the later rounds, after all your starters have been rostered and key backups are in place.
Jameis Winston, QB NO (ADP 150, QB29)
Winston is the guy I’ve been projecting all along to come out on top in the QB competition in New Orleans, for two reasons: (1) Taysom Hill isn’t an NFL-caliber starting quarterback, and (2) If Winston is under center, Sean Payton can still deploy Hill on the field; the reverse can’t be said if Hill is under center.
Look, Winston is nightmare to coach IRL; there’s no doubt that Bruce Arians’ ulcers healed the moment Winston was cut in 2020, despite Winston having come off a 2019 season that saw him pass for 5109 yards and 33 TDs. But for fantasy purposes, consider that Winston averaged 3947 yards and 24 TD with a 61% per season as the starter in Tampa Bay (72 games in five seasons). Let me put that into perspective: the only player in NFL history to throw for more yards than Winston over the first five years of career was Peyton Manning. So it’s completely befuddling to me that Winston is being drafted below rookies and guys with reconstructed body parts.
As long as Winston is the starter, you can almost guarantee a big season out of him; if Payton can coach him up to the point where he can tell the difference between his teammates and defensive backs, he’ll be a Top 12 QB.
Phillip Lindsay, RB HOU (ADP 148, RB50)
Lindsay will be part of an RBBC on what is likely one of the worst offensive teams in the NFL; why pick him as a sleeper? Because the dude has a history of overcoming the odds and balling out, that’s why.
As an undrafted rookie out of Colorado in 2018, Lindsay not only made the Broncos’ roster– he rushed for 192/1037/9 and caught 25/241/1 on route to a Pro Bowl nod. He followed up his rookie season with another solid 224/1011/7, 35/196/0 campaign. Injuries limited Lindsay to just 502 rushing yards last season, leading to his departure from Denver.
The fact that Lindsay is competing against David Johnson and Mark Ingram for carries is a bit concerning, but that’s old hat for him. I see the Texans trying to run the ball a lot in 2021, and as the season wears on, it’ll be Lindsay’s play that rises to the top. At his current ADP in a 12-team league, Lindsay is being viewed as an RB5, which is just nuts to me. There’s a good chance Lindsay wins the lion’s share of carries between the 20s, with Ingram serving as the short yardage back and Johnson being the odd man out.
Marquez Callaway, WR NO (ADP 150, WR75)
Callaway is being drafted after Michael Thomas (ADP 68, WR24). That isn’t a misprint: the receiver who is on the PUP list, who’ll miss anywhere from six to 17 games, who clearly doesn’t want to play for the team anymore, is being drafted waaaaaay ahead of the best WR on the Saints active roster.
Callaway, an undrafted free agent in 2020, had a quiet rookie season, posting 21/213/0 on just 27 targets; it’s easy to see why so many folks are sleeping on him. But if you’ve been following the buzz from the Saints camp, or if you caught his performance against the Jags this preseason, it’s clear Callaway has some skills. He also seems to have built up a rapport with Jameis Winston (did you see those two TD catches vs. the Jags?), so if Winston is starting under center, I expect Callaway to be the most heavily targeted WR on the field. He’ll be climbing the ADP charts soon, but at his current WR6 level he represents fantastic sleeper value.
Tyler Boyd, WR CIN (ADP 122, WR44)
If you think that my double-dipping the Saints for sleepers is somehow unethical or cheating, I’m going to give you another WR sleeper. People are so amped up about the LSU connection of Joe Burrow to Ja’Maar Chase, as well as the continued development of Tee Higgins that they’re overlooking the obvious: Tyler Boyd is currently the best receiver of that group. After posting back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons, Boyd dipped to 841 yards last year– which I’m assuming is the reason that both Higgins (ADP 100, WR32) and Chase (ADP 82, WR27) are being taken ahead of Boyd. However, looking at the stats a little more critically, we see that Boyd started eight games, while both Higgins and A.J. Green had 14 starts; further all three players had roughly the same number of targets (Boyd-110, Higgins-108, Green-104) but Boyd by far had the best catch rate (72% vs. 62% for Higgins vs. 45% for Green).
So while you can debate which of the three Bengals receivers has the most upside, there’s no doubt that the Cincinnati receiver being slept on the most is Boyd.
Mo Alie-Cox/Jack Doyle, TE IND (ADP 151, TE38/40)
Let me paint you a picture: an offensive guru on the sideline. A young QB under center. A questionable WR corps. Two talented TEs. Yup, I’m talking about the Philadelphia Eagles of the 2016-17 and 2017-18 seasons.
On those teams, OC Frank Reich realized that he had more receiving talent among his TEs (Zach Ertz, Trey Burton) than his WRs and adjusted accordingly, giving his untested QB (Carson Wentz) a path to success. Sound familiar?
The 2021 Colts seem to be constructed very similarly to those Eagles teams. Wentz isn’t a rookie but he might as well be, considering that there are plenty of questions regarding his ability to still be a quality NFL QB; the Colts’ WRs, as a group, are unimpressive. There’s a strong RB group and good TEs.
Neither Jack Doyle nor Mo Alie-Cox are as talented as Ertz, but both are very solid; Doyle has a Pro Bowl on his record (2017)– the same year Ertz earned the first of three Pro Bowl nods. Cox flashed moments last season where he looked as if he were ready to make a big leap, ending up with an 80% catch rate.
This selection is probably the most “non-nerdy” of the bunch, and is based on nothing more than conjecture, but if you’re looking for true sleeper candidates, these two guys are it. The expert consensus seems to be Doyle over Cox for this season, Cox over Doyle as a dynasty sleeper.