Next up in SI Fantasy’s look ahead to 2019 are our early predictions for next season’s sleepers. Remember, the term “sleeper,” as originally conceived, is basically a dead letter in fantasy parlance. When we say “sleeper” nowadays, what we really mean is “undervalued.” Still, we’re not looking for players going in, say, the fifth round who should be going in the second or third. They, too, are undervalued in a technical sense, but isn’t in the spirit of the term. We still want to find players who are coming off the board late in drafts, meaning any fantasy owner, no matter their draft slot, will have more than enough opportunities to target the players in question. They may not be the unknown quantities they once were, but they are still undervalued to an extreme degree. That trait about sleepers is immutable, no matter how popular fantasy football becomes.
Curtis Samuel, WR, Panthers
Samuel would have been a prime sleeper candidate this season had he not suffered a significant ankle injury that ended his 2017 season in November of that year. An irregular heartbeat cost him all of September this season, and he didn’t have more than four targets in a game until Carolina’s Week 11 loss to the Lions. He caught five of seven looks for 55 yards and a touchdown in that game, instantly securing a larger role in the team’s offense for the rest of the season. He had a touchdown or at least 80 yards in five of the final seven games of the season, putting up 27 catches for 370 yards and three scores in that span. That translates to a 16-game pace of 61 receptions, 845 yards and nearly 7 touchdowns. He’s going to have major potential in 2019, his third year in the league.
David Njoku, TE, Browns
Njoku had a solid sophomore season in the NFL, catching 56 passes for 639 yards and four touchdowns. He didn’t take off the way that many—or at least I—expected after Baker Mayfield took over for Tyrod Taylor, but he did do nearly all that aforementioned damage in the 13 games Mayfield started. Njoku averaged 3.6 catches, 44 yards and 0.3 touchdowns per game with Mayfield under center. That comes out to a 16-game pace of 58 catches, 700 yards and 4.8 touchdowns, and doesn’t price in everything Njoku will gain by having a full offseason to work with Mayfield. The Browns are clearly an offense on the rise, and Njoku has a huge role as he heads into his third season, during which he will be just 23 years old. You’re going to want a line of investment in Cleveland’s offense, and Njoku will be one of the most affordable ways to get one.
Courtland Sutton, WR, Broncos
Despite being a high second-round pick, Sutton never really had a chance with the Broncos in year one. He was behind Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas on the depth chart to start the season, and didn’t have more than six targets in a game until the week before Thanksgiving. Not only did he have to fight Sanders and Thomas for targets most of the season, he had to fight them for practice reps during the season and training camp. That’s not going to be the case next season.
Sutton will likely enter 2019 as the No. 1 receiver in Denver. The Broncos got late-season contributions from DaeSean Hamilton and Tim Patrick, and they, too, will be significantly in the mix, but neither of them were the 40th overall pick in the draft. Sutton did well with his opportunities in 2018, catching 42 of 84 targets for 704 yards and four touchdowns. He’s going to get plenty more of those next season.
Dante Pettis, WR, 49ers
Pettis, the 44th overall pick in the 2018 draft, started the season strong, catching three passes for 96 yards and a touchdown on just seven targets in the 49ers’ first two games. He then went silent for nearly two months, missing three games in October because of a knee injury, and getting all of one target in the four games in which he was active between Weeks 3 and 9. Pettis became a regular in Week 12, and over the next four games hauled in 17 passes for 338 yards and four touchdowns. That’s good for 16.58 points per game in half-PPR leagues, better than all but five receivers—Davante Adams, Antonio Brown, Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins and Julio Jones—did for the full season. The 49ers have a real shot to be one of the league’s breakout offenses next season, and Pettis should be one of the team’s key pass-catchers. George Kittle is going to have a huge role, and it’s likely the team brings in another receiver. Still, they didn’t use the 44th overall pick on Pettis just to bury him one year into his career. He’s going to have every chance to establish himself as a regular starter, in both real life and fantasy, next season.
Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Bears
By any realistic measure, Trubisky had a great 2018 season. In his first year under Matt Nagy, the second-year quarterback threw for 3,223 yards, 7.43 yards per attempt, and 24 touchdowns against 12 interceptions in 14 games. He provided a ton of fantasy value with his legs, too, running for 421 yards and three touchdowns on 68 carries. He ranked 13th among quarterbacks in points per game in standard-scoring leagues, one-tenth of a point behind Russell Wilson. One great place to find sleeper candidates is on up-and-coming offenses, as we’ve already discussed with Njoku and Pettis. The Bears have already begun their rise, an earlier-than-expected exit from the postseason notwithstanding. Trubisky was as close to a rookie as a second-year quarterback could be this season after playing in a prehistoric offense under John Fox and Dowell Loggains in 2017. In year two with Nagy at the helm, Trubisky could take off. His draft-day price will almost certainly have him among next season’s biggest bargains.