When drafting late in my fantasy football leagues, I'm looking for deep sleepers. To clarify, you want potential starting players who will outplay their draft position that are drafted after round 12 of 12-team leagues with 20 roster slots. In short roster formats (16 rounds or less), some of these players will go undrafted.
QB Tua Tagovailoa, Miami Dolphins
Multiple 2021 rookie quarterbacks (Trevor Lawrence, Trey Lance, and Justin Fields) will be selected this fantasy draft season before Tagovailoa. His college resume in 2018 (4,156/48) and 2019 (2,857/35) was stellar over 24 career games.
In his rookie season with the Dolphins, he gained 1,923 combined yards with 14 touchdowns and five interceptions over 10 games. In this year's draft class, Miami added a dynamic playmaker (Jaylen Waddle) who has experience playing with Tagovailoa. They also signed a deep play threat (Will Fuller) who showcased possession skills in 2020. The nucleus of their receiving corps gives Miami a chance to be a much better team passing the ball.
Tagovailoa projects a back-end QB2 in 12-team leagues. In my early projections at Sports Illustrated, he ranked 17th while being on a path for 4,431 combined yards with 29 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.
RB Javian Hawkins, Atlanta Falcons
With no faith in Mike Davis being a long-term solution at running back for the Falcons, my late-round flier in their backfield is Hawkins. He played well over 21 games at Louisville over the past two seasons, leading to 2,532 combined yards with 17 touchdowns and 20 catches. He gained 5.9 yards per rush and 9.3 yards per catch. However, his ceiling in touches looks limited due to his size (5’8” and 185 lbs.) while not having the ideal skill set to land the top pass-catching role.
Hawkins’ ceiling if landing a split starting role later in the year would be 10 to 15 touches with a chance to reach RB3 status in some games. His ADP (229) puts him in the free-agent pool in a good portion of leagues.
RB Xavier Jones, Los Angeles Rams
The loss of Cam Akers in the Rams’ offense gives a natural bump in value to their next two backs on the depth chart. At the very least, Jones projects as the handcuff to Darrell Henderson, who continues to move up draft boards.
In his best season in college, Jones gained 1,355 combined yards with 25 touchdowns and 20 catches. After signing in LA as an undrafted free agent, he didn’t touch the ball once in his rookie season.
The coach-speak out of Rams’ camp in early August has been positive, giving him a chance to earn a one-third running back opportunity out of the gate. Los Angeles may use him as their goal line back with a chance to see some action in the passing game. Jones comes over the board in 12-team leagues as the 64th running back with an ADP of 208.
WR Bryan Edwards, Las Vegas Raiders
Over the past week or so, Edwards started to get high praise out of Raiders’ camp, which invites a fact or fiction story for fantasy owners. He finished with 11 catches for 193 yards and one touchdown over 12 games in his rookie season. His size (6’3 and 210 lbs.) invites scoring upside, and he gained over 20 yards on 45.5 percent of his catches in 2020.
His resume at South Carolina (234/3,045/22) over four seasons led to Las Vegas drafting Edwards in the third round last year. His best season came in 2019 (71/816/7), catching 62.8 percent of his 113 targets.
Here’s a look at my initial scouting report for Edwards before last year’s draft:
Edwards should be an intriguing wide receiver at the next level. His size (6’3” and 210 lbs.) paired with his strength and speed should rank him much higher on the WR prospect list. He has the feel of a big, physical wide receiver in the NFL with the route running and release to win over the short areas of the field. Edwards has the wheels to get on top of some cornerbacks in the deep passing game. His hands should improve with more chances at the next level while already owning the ability to snatch contested passes in traffic. He’ll make some spectacular catches with one hand. Edwards can bounce off defenders or beat them with his speed. He’ll win in space on many one-on-one matchups while also showing some value as an open-field runner.
His ADP is 224 over the past three weeks in 12-team PPR leagues in the high-stakes market. Edwards jumped to pick 196 in August after getting his training camp hype.
In my last set of projections, I had him listed as the Raiders’ WR4 (28/395/1). However, Las Vegas wants him to start, pointing to his opportunity almost doubling if he keeps a starting job while staying healthy. I will be upgrading Edwards early this week to reflect his recent momentum.
WR Terrace Marshall, Carolina Panthers
Marshall ranks as the WR3 in the Panthers’ offense that projects to throw a ton of balls to the running back position. Robby Anderson (95/1,096/3) and D.J. Moore (66/1,1193/4) will also remain active in the passing game, putting Marshall in developmental mode early in the season.
At LSU, he also sat behind two exciting wideouts (Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson), but he still turned in a productive season (46/671/13) in 2019 with Joe Burrow behind center. In seven games in a Covid season, Marshall caught 48 passes for 731 yards and 10 scores on 70 targets.
He projects to be a vertical threat early in his career while doing damage on comeback throws. Marshall offers size (6’2” and 205 lbs.) and speed (4.38 40-yard dash on his pro day). However, his release looks questionable and lacks tempo. He needs to add more fight to his game off the snap and at the top of his routes to reach a high level.
With one injury to a wide receiver in Carolina, Marshall could see a healthy number of targets. His ADP (170) prices him as a mid-tier WR6 in early August.
WR Anthony Miller, Chicago Bears
I'm going to be against the grain with Miller as a deep sleeper. Nico Collins is the receiver gaining some press in the Texans' camp over the summer, but I don't see enough in his college resume (78/1,388/13 over 27 games) to expect a significant role in his rookie season.
My interest in Miller strictly comes if Deshaun Watson finds a way to start for the whole season for Houston. Over three seasons with the Bears, he caught 134 balls for 1,564 yards and 11 touchdowns, but he underachieved his success in two best years in college (95/1,434/14 and 96/1,462/18).
His ADP (263) puts him in the free-agent pool in most fantasy formats. Miller is only a player to follow while we wait to see how the Watson situation shakes out.
TE Pat Freiermuth, Pittsburgh Steelers
A left shoulder injury kept Freiermuth out of the Steelers' first preseason game. Pittsburgh added him in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft after success over 29 games at Penn State (92/1,185/16). However, he only played in four matchups (23/310/1) due to a right shoulder issue that required surgery.
Freiermuth needs to jump Eric Ebron on the depth chart to become fantasy relevant in his rookie season. Ebron finished with more than 50 catches and 500 receiving yards in four of the past five years. He also missed the first preseason game with a minor elbow issue.
In the early draft season in 12-team PPR leagues, Freiermuth ranks 50th at tight end with a high ADP (265). Pittsburgh has plenty of depth at wide receiver, which limits the receiving opportunity for their tight ends. I don’t expect to draft him, but I’ll keep an eye on him just in case his playing time increases.
More Fantasy Football:
- 2021 Fantasy Football Rankings & Stat Projections
- 10-Team PPR Mock Draft
- Fantasy Football Handcuffs: Backup RB Breakdowns
Senior analyst Shawn Childs is a multi-sport, high-stakes fantasy legend with lifetime earnings in the high six-figures. He has been providing in-depth, analytical break downs for years all while helping his subscribers to countless titles and winnings across season-long & DFS. A inaugural inductee of the NFBC Hall of Fame, Shawn can teach you how to prep like a champ!