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.
However, I think there are different levels of sleeper value among NFL players.
For example, the athletes I labeled as traditional sleepers are likely to come off the board in the middle to late rounds. Then, you have another tier. I like to call them deep sleepers. These players have late-round average draft positions (though some could certainly move up this summer) but could bring back some value based on their skills and potential opportunities on their respective team's depth charts.
With that in mind, here are 10 players to target in the mid to mostly late rounds who could be the best of the best for the fantasy football deep sleeper class of 2021.
Trey Lance, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Lance might not be a sleeper among the fantasy football analysts, as he's being picked ahead of many starting quarterbacks in the NFL. The rookie doesn't have such a title for Week 1, as Jimmy Garoppolo is poised to open the season as the top quarterback in San Francisco. Who knows, he could hold the job all year, which does make Lance a sleeper. If and when he takes the job, however, Lance could be a fantasy league winner.
Justin Fields, QB, Chicago Bears
Much of what I wrote about Lance also pertains to Fields. He's going to play behind a veteran starter, in this case Andy Dalton, to begin his rookie campaign. No one thinks the Red Rifle will keep the job long, however, making Fields a popular sleeper option in the late rounds. Like Lance, some fantasy analysts are jumping on Fields as their QB1 and adding a veteran late to start until Fields lands the job during the season.
Phillip Lindsay, RB, Houston Texans
I don't consider Lindsay a traditional sleeper, because he's already been a 1,000-yard back at the NFL level. However, he is someone I would target in the late rounds of drafts. The Texans offense is going to be a mess, and the backfield is crowded with David Johnson and Mark Ingram in the mix. But I think Lindsay, the youngest of the trio, could bring decent value as a late-round flier. Keep him in mind as a No. 5 runner.
Rhamondre Stevenson, RB, New England Patriots
The trade that sent Sony Michel to the Rams was a big win for Damien Harris, who is now a more valuable sleeper in fantasy drafts. However, it also makes Stevenson more of an option for fantasy managers towards the end of drafts. The Patriots don't typically feature rookie backs (besides Michel), but Stevenson has looked good in the preseason and would be the next man up if Harris went down or struggles in 2021.
Darnell Mooney, WR, Chicago Bears
Mooney didn’t produce spectacular numbers as a rookie, finishing 50th in fantasy points among wideouts. He did flash some potential at times though, none more memorable than an 11-catch explosion against the Packers in the regular-season finale. The Bears have moved on from Anthony Miller (traded to Houston), which makes Mooney the team’s projected No. 2 wideout behind Allen Robinson in 2021.
Marquez Callaway, WR, New Orleans Saints
The Saints will be without Michael Thomas for the first several weeks of the season, leaving Tre'Quan Smith as the de facto No. 1 wideout. Or is he? Reports suggest it's Callaway, not Smith, who has looked like the team's top option in the pass attack. Smith has missed time in camp with a leg injury, which has allowed Callaway a chance to shine. I'd take the young upstart in the late rounds as a No. 4 or 5 wideout.
Henry Ruggs III, WR, Las Vegas Raiders
Remember when the NFL world was absolutely gushing about Ruggs, comparing him to Tyreek Hill? Heck, he was the first wideout picked in the 2020 NFL draft! I'd guess that the Raiders regret that decision now, but Ruggs is still young, talented and in an offense that lost its top wideout (Nelson Agholor) as a free agent. Maybe he'll be better off as a late-rounder in best ball, but I'd take a chance on Ruggs as a No. 5 in redrafts.
Russell Gage, WR, Atlanta Falcons
Gage finished last season with career-bests across the board, but those efforts weren't good enough for a top 30 finish among wideouts. Still, the future could be brighter for the former LSU product after the Falcons decided to move Julio Jones via trade. Gage immediately becomes the favorite to start opposite Calvin Ridley in a Falcons offense that should score a ton of points this season. That makes him worth a late pick.
Elijah Moore, WR, New York Jets
Moore has drawn rave reviews in Jets camp, despite the fact that he's missed some time with an injured quadriceps. When healthy, the rookie has spent time with the first-team offense and has shown the ability to play inside or outside. With slot man Jamison Crowder on the roster, that's going to help keep Moore on the field more often this season. He's a fine target in the late rounds as an upside No. 5 fantasy receiver.
Dan Arnold, TE, Carolina Panthers
We're talking deep sleepers here, right? Well, Arnold is among the deepest at the tight end position. Reports suggest he's developed a fast rapport with quarterback Sam Darnold (let the Darnold/Arnold nicknames begin), and at 6-foot-6 and 220 pounds, Arnold could be a reliable target in the red zone. His ADP is so low that he's not even being drafted in a lot of 12-team leagues, but Arnold is a name to watch in camp.
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!