Predicting fantasy football sleepers and breakouts for 2021

By Rachel Wold
Sep 27, 2020; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) throws a touchdown pass during the second quarter against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

As football enthusiasts shift their focus to the 2021 offseason, here are some under-the-radar fantasy football sleepers and breakout players to consider when drafting.

Here is a look at each major position on offense and where to find the best value in your fantasy football drafts.

Updated: April 20, 2021, 8:38 AM PST

Read More: Fantasy football dynasty rankings: Young NFL stars to target in 2021

Fantasy football sleepers for 2021 NFL season: Quarterbacks

Cam Newton, New England Patriots

The Patriots have decided to kick the tires again with Newton for 2021. And, it might be time for potential fantasy drafters to do the same. New England is not messing around and the team has been very active in free agency, adding multiple talented playmakers to help Newton to succeed this fall.

This makes him a sleeper coming from what was a pretty disastrous 2020 fantasy season.

Taylor Heinicke, Washington Football Team

Fantasy football sleepers: Taylor Heinicke
Jan 9, 2021; Landover, Maryland, USA; Washington Football Team quarterback Taylor Heinicke (4) passes the ball against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers at FedExField. Mandatory Credit: Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

Even though Washington signed veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick to the squad, Heinicke comes with some sleeper appeal moving forward. After all, Washington recently locked Heinicke up to a new two-year deal. This is worth soaking in as Heinicke could be the guy Washington plans to phase in while Fitzpatrick mentors.

For those who watched Heinicke in his Wild Card performance against Tampa Bay in Week 18, the young quarterback showed promise. He passed for 306 yards while rushing for another 46. With Alex Smith likely done in Washington, Heinicke is a sleeper QB to stash, “just in case.”

Read More: Washington Football Team QB Alex Smith leaning toward playing in 2021 NFL season

Jameis Winston, New Orleans Saints

Fantasy football sleepers: Jameis Winston
Dec 25, 2020; New Orleans, Louisiana, USA; New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston (2) before their game against the Minnesota Vikings at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

While it would seem the Saints plan to roll with Taysom Hill under center in 2021, Winston (newly re-signed) could be called to duty if Hill sputters. Don’t panic, however.

Despite those gnarly turnovers Winston was famous for in Tampa Bay, he last chucked the ball for a league-high 5,109 passing yards in 2019. This equated to fantasy points galore!

More of the same could be coming — with hopefully far fewer turnovers — making Winston a later-round sleeper to target in 2021 fantasy drafting.

Read More: Is Sean Payton endorsing Jameis Winston as New Orleans Saints QB in 2021?

Carson Wentz, Indianapolis Colts

Sep 23, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) during the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 23, 2018; Philadelphia, PA, USA; Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz (11) during the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Wentz’s fantasy season went up in flames in 2020 when he was ultimately benched for rookie Jalen Hurts. But, no more of that for 2021.

This big fantasy QB bust will get a fresh start with the Colts — via a big blockbuster trade — which should reignite his NFL career. Reuniting with former Philadelphia Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, who’s now the head coach in Indianapolis, should help Wentz get back on track.

Plus, the Colts sport an exciting group of receivers including T.Y. Hilton and youngsters, Michael Pittman Jr. and Parris Campbell.

Hopefully all those elements launch Wentz into the fantasy-relevant column again. Fingers crossed. He’s worth taking a flier on as a sleeper option due to his high-end talent level. That raw ability is undeniable.

Read More: Predicting 5 blockbuster NFL trades after Carson Wentz deal

Joe Burrow, Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Burrow
Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Joe Burrow (9) gives a thumbs up to the fans after the fourth quarter of the NFL Week 4 game between the Cincinnati Bengals and the Jacksonville Jaguars at Paul Brown Stadium in downtown Cincinnati on Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020. The Bengals collected their first win of the season, 33-25, from the Jaguars. Jacksonville Jaguars At Cincinnati Bengals

Burrow’s rookie season ended abruptly when the young quarterback tore his ACL in Week 10. Before this, Burrow was averaging a respectable 268.8 passing yards per game, and he had scored 16 times.

Read More: 2021 NFL mock draft: Philadelphia Eagles, New England Patriots land quarterbacks in 2021 NFL Draft

Look for Burrow to quickly get back on course, primed to breakout in 2021 with the offense he played so well with before his injury. Expect Tee Higgins — who is just getting started, coming from 908 yards and six touchdowns — to bust out as well in his second year. Burrow and Higgins have the talent to be one of the most coveted QB/WR fantasy football combos to own this fall.

Baker Mayfield, Cleveland Browns

Baker Mayfield: Cleveland Browns
Jan 10, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Cleveland Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield (6) reacts against the Pittsburgh Steelers in the first quarter of an AFC Wild Card playoff game at Heinz Field. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After taking his team through two postseason contests and impressing, Mayfield seems to have turned a new leaf. As a fantasy quarterback heading into 2021, he should keep evolving. He’s got an excellent wide receiving corps — including Odell Beckham Jr’s return — to help keep the fantasy points rolling in.

Read More: Browns expected to pick up Baker Mayfield’s 2022 option

It is also worth mentioning that Mayfield’s interceptions dropped from 21 in 2019 to just eight in 2020, while his passing touchdowns increased by four.
Who is ready to rock and roll with Mayfield this year?

Fantasy football sleepers for 2021 NFL season: Wide receivers

Antonio Gandy-Golden, Washington Football Team

Fantasy football sleepers: Antonio Gandy-Golden
Sep 20, 2020; Glendale, Arizona, USA; Washington Football Team wide receiver Antonio Gandy-Golden (10) against the Arizona Cardinals at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Gandy-Golden should be ramping up for more success in his sophomore year as a WR3 option in Washington, behind Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel.

So, scrap Gandy-Golden’s injury-plagued rookie campaign. And, take note that Gandy-Golden led the Independent Conference in 2019 with 79 receptions and 1,396 yards, and he was thought to be a steal in the draft when Washington acquired him in the fourth round..

With an average yards per catch of over 17 in college and a 6-foot-4 frame that makes for an inviting red-zone target, Gandy-Golden has the kind of big-play upside fantasy owners can enjoy when they take a late-round flier on this young wideout.

Read More: Washington Football Team draft picks: Top 2021 selections, ideal prospects to target

Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Fantasy football sleepers: Tyler Johnson
Dec 26, 2020; Detroit, Michigan, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver Tyler Johnson (18) runs the ball during the third quarter against the Detroit Lions at Ford Field. Mandatory Credit: Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

Johnson’s fantasy stock could rise if the Buccaneers do not re-sign Antonio Brown. This has yet to be determined and given the constricted salary cap situation the Bucs are operating under, Brown may find there is a market out there willing to pay him more than the Bucs can afford to.

Keep an eye out to see what happens in free agency, as Johnson has the potential to slide in as a slot receiver, catching passes from the GOAT himself, Tom Brady.

If anything, Johnson is worth a late dart throw in redraft leagues and has plenty of sleeper value, making him worth rostering in dynasty fantasy football leagues. He did have some clutch catches in key spots during Tampa Bay’s run to Super Bowl LV, so Brady obviously trusts him.

Read More: Bruce Arians speaks out on Tampa Bay Buccaneers key free agents

Denzel Mims, New York Jets

Denzel Mims
Nov 29, 2020; East Rutherford, New Jersey, USA; New York Jets wide receiver Denzel Mims (11) gains yards after the catch during the second half against the Miami Dolphins at MetLife Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

New and exciting things are happening for the Jets, which means primo fantasy potential for Mims, selected 59th overall in 2020. With a quarterback shift from Sam Darnold (traded to Carolina) to likely a top rookie prospect, the Jets offense should be running more efficiently under new coaching. This should boil down to Mims fetching plenty of targets — even with the newly-signed Corey Davis — joining the Jets in 2021. He is a fantasy football sleeper you will want to stash on your team.

Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers

Aiyuk has a fantastic opportunity to build on the 748 yards and five touchdowns he scored as a rookie. These numbers should have been higher if Aiyuk — when left wide open many times — had been better targeted last year. With a rookie QB likely entering the mix, look for Jimmy Garoppolo to play more focused than ever with his job security on the line.

This season just screams breakout for Aiyuk with the chains moving in the Bay area.

Read: Latest trade rumors on team’s quarterback plans

Laviska Shenault, Jacksonville Jaguars

fantasy football
Dec 6, 2020; Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. (10) celebrates his touchdown during the first quarter against the Minnesota Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sports

It’s very likely the case that Shenault gets Trevor Lawrence as his quarterback this fall. Yippee! This will mean a world of difference for Shenault, who already turned heads at times in his 2020 rookie year. Even with a revolving door of quarterbacks last year in Jacksonville, Shenault managed to record 600 yards and five touchdowns. Pair Shenault with Trevor Lawrence, and cash in with fantasy points.

Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs

With no more Sammy Watkins in the picture, look for Hardman to have a more dominate roll on offense. He will start opposite Tyreek Hill and should only build on the 560 yards and four touchdowns he last accomplished in 2020.

With defenses blanketing both Hill and Travis Kelce to the best of their ability, Patrick Mahomes will be forced to look Hardman’s way on a regular basis. Nab Hardman with a late-round pick as a sleeper who should definitely pull his weight this year.

Darnell Mooney, Chicago Bears

fantasy football
Jan 3, 2021; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Darnell Mooney (11) makes a catch against Green Bay Packers free safety Darnell Savage (26) during the third quarter at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the Bears tagging Allen Robinson, look for Mooney to have a larger role on offense. He could be a fantasy stud in the making, now that a dependable QB in that of Andy Dalton has joined Chicago.

Mooney should be on course to see an increase in the 98 targets, 631 yards and four touchdowns he produced as a rookie.

Jerry Jeudy, Denver Broncos

fantasy football
Sep 14, 2020; Denver, Colorado, USA; Denver Broncos wide receiver Jerry Jeudy (10) is tackled by Tennessee Titans cornerback Malcolm Butler (21) in the first quarter at Empower Field at Mile High. Mandatory Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Look for Jeudy to build on a solid rookie campaign when he averaged a big 16.5 yards per catch in 2020. In all, Jeudy tallied 856 receiving yards but found the end zone only three times. With Courtland Sutton’s return, Jeudy will have more opportunities to make the YAC plays that pad his fantasy stats. This should remain the case even if the Broncos stick with Drew Lock under center.

Marquez Callaway, New Orleans Saints

Keep Callaway in mind in later rounds of drafting. If the aforementioned Winston winds up starting for the Saints, he’ll be looking for receiving options outside of Michael Thomas and Tre’Quan Smith when they are drawing coverage.

For now, it would appear that Taysom Hill will be under center in Week 1. Either way, Callaway is fantasy sleeper worth stashing on a Saints offense that might have to rely upon throwing the ball more often than running it in 2021.

Jalen Reagor, Philadelphia Eagles

Dec 13, 2020; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver Jalen Reagor (18) makes a reception past New Orleans Saints outside linebacker Demario Davis (56) during the fourth quarter at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

Limited to just 11 games in his rookie year, Reagor did little to dazzle his fantasy owners. Those who stuck with Reagor on their rosters saw one measly touchdown be scored which accompanied 36 yards on average per clash. No good.

Perhaps playing healthy and assuming a WR1 role catching passes from Jalen Hurts will be just the boost Reagor needs to wake up and take his fantasy game to the next level.

Fantasy football sleepers for 2021 NFL season: Running backs

D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions

Fantasy football dynasty rankings: D'Andre Swift
Dec 20, 2020; Nashville, Tennessee, USA; Detroit Lions running back D’Andre Swift (32) runs for a short gain during the second half against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Many people are counting on Swift to be a fantasy football star next season. It could work out. He’ll be partnered with Jared Goff, who should rely heavily on Swift for check-downs to move the ball.

Detroit Lions draft picks: 2021 NFL Draft selections, Lions mock draft

Swift can do it all. He rushed for 4.6 yards per carry and eight touchdowns in just 13 games as a rookie while catching 80.7% of his targets for 357 yards and two touchdowns. Swift will be a gem of an RB to own, especially in PPR fantasy formats in 2021.

P.S. Don’t let the presence of a newly-signed Jamaal Williams sway you from trusting in Swift’s breakout potential.

DeeJay Dallas, Seattle Seahawks

Fantasy football sleepers: DeeJay Dallas
Nov 15, 2020; Inglewood, California, USA; Seattle Seahawks running back DeeJay Dallas (31) runs the ball ahead of Los Angeles Rams safety Nick Scott (33) during the first half at SoFi Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

We saw Dallas in limited action last year when he helped fill in for an injured Chris Carson and Carlos Hyde.

Heading into 2021, the Seahawks re-signed Carson. While this certainly flattens Dallas’ fantasy value, he should still be drafted as a handcuff. Even with Rashaad Penny in the picture, Dallas has appeal, taking into consideration, the oft-injured Penny has played in only 27 games in his three seasons in Seattle.

With Carson’s proneness to injury as well, Dallas may be called upon to step up and contribute in a big way.

Damien Williams, Chicago Bears

Fantasy football sleepers: Damien Williams
Feb 2, 2020; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Kansas City Chiefs running back Damien Williams (26) scores around San Francisco 49ers cornerback Richard Sherman (25) during the fourth quarter in Super Bowl LIV at Hard Rock Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Williams opted out of his 2020 Chiefs’ season, much to the dismay of those who drafted him last summer. However, he will return to the league to join David Montgomery in what could be a one-two punch at RB.

Because Williams was M.I.A. last year, some may write him off when fantasy drafting begins. Though, remember, it was Williams who helped spark his former Chiefs’ comeback in their Super Bowl LIV triumph over the San Francisco 49ers. He scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns to aid the victorious cause.

Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

fantasy football: Saquon Barkley
Sep 20, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) is helped off of the field after suffering an injury during the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

Barkley is due for a significant fantasy rebound, having had plenty of time to recover from a torn ACL he suffered in Week 2 of last season. Daniel Jones and the Giants need him back on the gridiron more than ever, when Barkley should return to being the focal point of their offense. 

Read More: Super Bowl 2022 odds: Kansas City Chiefs still favorites despite loss to Tampa Bay Buccaneers

This is a guy who stunned his fantasy owners in 2018 with a league-high 2,028 scrimmage yards 15 touchdowns. As long as Barkley stays healthy, he will receive a ton of touches. Don’t be surprised if Barkley is one of the top fantasy football studs in 2021.

Giovani Bernard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

fantasy football: Giovani Bernard
Dec 27, 2020; Houston, Texas, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Giovani Bernard (25) runs the ball against Houston Texans linebacker Jonathan Greenard (52) during the second quarter at NRG Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

A sneaky sleeper RB pick in 2021 might just be Bernard. The Bucs honed in and signed this free agent as they are a pretty savvy team at finding talent in recycled players.

Think back to when Tom Brady made James White a fantasy staple in New England, and this could be what happens with Bernard in Tampa. Both backs are similar in physique and skilled in catching passes. Bernard is worth a lower-round pick in PPR fantasy formats as such.

AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers

Jan 16, 2021; Green Bay, Wisconsin, USA; Green Bay Packers running back AJ Dillon (28) runs with the ball while Los Angeles Rams safety Nick Scott (33) and linebacker Troy Reeder (51) attempt to tackle during the first half of a NFC Divisional Round playoff game at Lambeau Field. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

So, the Packers surprised the fantasy world when they re-signed their No. 1 RB, Aaron Jones. Don’t worry. With the Packers moving on from free agent Jamaal Williams, Dillon will inherit the No. 2 role alongside Jones. That is a spot where Dillon should see plenty of goal line work and touches when the Packers are in the winning position to allow Jones to rest.

Aside from this tag-team action, Dillon is definitely worth drafting as a backup should Jones miss time. He displayed some nice potential as a rookie while filling in here and and there back in 2020. When given the ball, Dillon rushed for a bruising 5.3 yards per carry proving he’s ready to take his fantasy game to the next level.

Anthony McFarland, Pittsburgh Steelers

McFarland is a dark horse fantasy sleeper entering 2021 with James Conner out of Pittsburgh. Benny Snell looks to be the next in line to start at RB, however, McFarland should play a complementary role.

We saw a sampling of McFarland in action last year when Conner was sidelined. Also, keep in mind, McFarland averaged 6.7 yards per carry over his two seasons at Maryland before the Steelers drafted him in 2020.

Jeff Wilson, San Francisco 49ers

Jan 3, 2021; Glendale, Arizona, USA; San Francisco 49ers running back Jeff Wilson Jr. (30) against the Seattle Seahawks at State Farm Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Wilson is a deep sleeper who comes with plenty of appeal to draft and stash. The 49ers’ tailbacks seem to constantly deal with injuries and Wilson really impressed last season when called to the field. Quick on his feet, Wilson bulldozed his defenders, rushing for 4.8 yards per carry. And in all, he averaged 61 total yards per game, while scoring 13 times in limited usage.

At the least, Wilson is a must-own handcuff to Raheem Mostert — who will despite missing eight games in 2020 — presumably slated to start.

Fantasy football sleepers for 2021 NFL season: Tight ends

Hunter Henry, New England Patriots

Fantasy football sleepers: Hunter Henry
Dec 17, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Los Angeles Chargers tight end Hunter Henry (86) against the Las Vegas Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Henry just landed a sweet spot playing for Bill Belichick and the New England Patriots. He will now work with QB Cam Newton who always had a nice connection with his tight ends in Carolina. Even sharing the field with Jonnu Smith, Henry comes with plenty of sleeper value provided he stays healthy as he continues his NFL career in New England.

Read More: Los Angeles Chargers draft picks: Top selections, prospects to target in 2021 NFL Draft

Cole Kmet, Chicago Bears

Fantasy football sleepers: Cole Kmet
Nov 1, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears tight end Cole Kmet (85) practices before the game against the New Orleans Saints at Soldier Field. Mandatory Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Kmet enters 2021 slightly under the radar. But now that Dalton has arrived in Chicago, this makes Kmet an intriguing fantasy sleeper.

Last year as a rookie, Kmet played second fiddle to Jimmy Graham. However, Graham is slated to take up tons of salary cap space and Chicago could decide it wants none of that heading into the new season in retooling its offense.

Given the landscape at tight end isn’t great in fantasy football, Kmet is worth a stash, especially in dynasty formats.

Read More: Chicago Bears rumors: Allen Robinson trade could be in the cards this offseason

Adam Trautman, New Orleans Saints

Fantasy football sleepers: Adam Trautman
Nov 8, 2020; Tampa, Florida, USA; New Orleans Saints tight end Adam Trautman (82) catches a touchdown pass against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the first quarter of a NFL game at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Things will be moving and shaking in New Orleans this season, opening up the door for Trautman to make a fantasy impact at tight end now that Jared Cook has signed on with the Los Angeles Chargers.

Whether it’s Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston slinging the pigskin in 2021, Trautman should be more involved on offense.

Read More: New Orleans Saints draft picks: Top selections, prospects to target in 2021 NFL Draft

Tyler Higbee, Los Angeles Rams

fantasy football
Jan 9, 2021; Seattle, Washington, USA; Los Angeles Rams wide receiver Robert Woods (17) celebrates his touchdown with tight end Tyler Higbee (89) against the Seattle Seahawks during the fourth quarter at Lumen Field. Mandatory Credit: Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

Higbee was a bit overhyped heading into 2020 when his receiving yards dipped by over 200 last year compared to 2019. However, Matthew Stafford will now be throwing the ball in Los Angeles is getting us giddy again about Higbee as a breakout fantasy tight end. Stafford has always kept his tight ends involved and the big-bodied 6-foot-6 Higbee will be a sweet red zone option for the veteran quarterback. Look out!

Kyle Pitts, 2021 NFL Draft

fantasy football
Dec 19, 2020; Atlanta, Georgia, USA; Florida Gators tight end Kyle Pitts (84) catches the ball against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Brian Branch (14) during the first quarter in the SEC Championship at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

It’s a little bold to throw a rookie tight end in here without even knowing which team will draft Pitts yet. But, all mock drafts have this Florida standout flying off the board early. In our exclusive Sportsnaut mock draft, we have Pitts selected by the Miami Dolphins.

Pair Pitts up in his home state with Tua Tagovailoa and fantasy fireworks might happen sooner rather than later. It’s rare that a TE entering the league is this sought after. If not the Dolphins, Pitts is a fantasy sleeper who could give studs such as Travis Kelce and George Kittle a run for the money.