UPDATED: September 1, 2021
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.
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.
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.
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 stand-alone flex appeal or more in '21.
Damien Harris, RB, New England Patriots
Harris showed some flashes of potential last season, posting three games with at least 100 rushing yards and finishing with an average of five yards per attempt. He won’t do much in the passing game, but Harris will open the season as New England’s starting running back after the trade of Sony Michel to the Rams. He'll be worth a look in the middle rounds as an RB3 on your roster who could develop high-end flex value.
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's 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.
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 stand-alone flex value in an offense that lacks real firepower.
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.
Cole Kmet, TE, Chicago Bears
Kmet could fit into the sleeper or deep sleeper category, as he's being selected in the late rounds of most drafts. He showed some flashes of potential at the end of his rookie season, and the Bears should look to get him more involved in the pass attack in Year 2. While the presence of red-zone threat takes away some of Kmet's luster, he's still a worthwhile late-round No. 2 fantasy tight end who has some statistical upside.
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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!