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2021 Fantasy Football: These WR sleepers have awakened — but can you trust them next season?

Liz Loza
·6 min read
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Hitting on an under-the-radar player — before he becomes a waiver-wire darling — is one of the most thrilling experiences available to fantasy enthusiasts. The virtual game requires managers to sniff out these sleepers on a weekly basis. Most dart throws exist as band-aids, helping rosters hobble from one matchup to the next. Others, however, emerge as truly ascendent studs.

So which of 2020’s unexpected stars will continue to shine in the new year? Last week, I covered QBs and TEs. This go-around, WRs are under the microscope.

Justin Jefferson, WR, Minnesota Vikings

No one really believed Bisi Johnson was going to be the Vikings No. 2 WR … but I also don’t think anyone anticipated a rookie, coming off of an abbreviated offseason, who spent time on the Covid-19 reserve list, would post top-10 fantasy numbers. So much more than just a slot receiver (who I comped to Keenan Allen well ahead of the season), Jefferson cleared 100 yards in seven of 16 contests.

He also forced the third-most missed tackles among rookie WRs (13) and recorded nearly 1,500 air yards (WR7). The LSU product quickly became Kirk Cousins’ favorite target between the twenties, out-targeting Adam Thielen by a margin of 8.9:6.5 from Weeks 7 through 17.

With a full offseason under his belt, there’s no reason to believe Jefferson can’t be a WR1 (top-12) for FF managers in 2021.

Brandin Cooks, WR, Houston Texans

Cooks gets traded so often (four teams over seven seasons) that it’s easy to forget he’s cleared 1,000 yards in five of his last seven campaigns. In 2020, the 27-year-old was able to capitalize on the 150 targets vacated by DeAndre Hopkins’ exit, drawing nearly 8 looks per contest (WR18). While Will Fuller’s suspension helped to boost Cooks’ volume further, it’s worth noting that the Oregon State product averaged seven looks per game over the first 12 weeks of the season (10.25 from Weeks 12-17). One of the league’s best deep threats — attached to one of football’s most-skilled QBs — it’s no surprise that Cooks dominated in air yards, recording 1,354 on the year (WR13). He finished December as the WR15 in fantasy.

Right now, the tea in Houston is hot and the makeup of the Texans’ 2021 squad remains unknown. Cooks has three years left on his deal, but the team has an out, as there’s no guaranteed money attached to his contract. Meanwhile, Fuller enters the new year an unrestricted free agent, though current reports indicate that he’s expected to re-sign with Houston.

But who’s going to be throwing the ball?

It seems as though Cal McNair is going to need a miracle (or perform an unlikely about-face) to keep Deshaun Watson under center. Until that domino falls, projecting Cooks’ future production makes about as much sense as my father-in-law’s obsession with Tripadvisor. Recognizing Cooks’ talent and consistency, however, I’d rank him in the WR30(ish) range for 2021.

Houston Texans wide receiver Brandin Cooks
Once again, the offseason is littered with question marks for Brandin Cooks. (AP Photo/Sam Craft)

Diontae Johnson, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Johnson was the least slept-on sleeper heading into the 2020 season. While nagging injuries and drops (11, WR1) plagued the 24-year-old for a portion of his second pro campaign, the Toledo product rewarded loyal managers with a top-24 fantasy finish. Recording 144 targets, Johnson led the Steelers’ receiving corps in opportunities per game, averaging 9.6 looks per contest (WR6). He also impressed after the catch, logging 387 yards over the regular season.

With Juju Smith-Schuster set to become an unrestricted free agent, Johnson likely enters 2021 as the Steelers No.1 WR. Whether or not Ben Roethlisberger plays out the last year of his contract remains to be seen, but a new QB might not be the worst thing for Johnson’s stock. The extra year of experience gives him an edge over Chase Claypool, placing him just inside the top-25 FF players at the position.

Corey Davis, WR, Tennessee Titans

Largely written off as a bust, the former first-round talent became the poster boy for late bloomers in 2020. Just 16 yards shy of 1,000, Davis recorded career numbers in his fourth pro-campaign. Emerging as the Titans’ No. 2 WR behind A.J. Brown, Davis drew 23.1 percent of the target share, averaged an impressive 10.7 yards per target (WR8), and closed out 2020 as fantasy’s WR31 overall. Whether it was staying healthy, his rapport with Ryan Tannehill, being utilized by Arthur Smith (who has since secured the Falcons’ head coaching position), or finally putting it all together, Davis is unlikely to return to Nashville in 2021.

Already one of the buzziest free-agent wideouts, the Western Michigan product has been linked to numerous receiver-needy squads including Baltimore, Philadelphia, and New England. Were the Titans to let Davis walk, I’d pass on his ability to ROI in a new offense with a new QB. From durability issues (dating all the way back to the Combine, and occurring as recently as Tennessee’s Week 18 loss to Baltimore) to an inability to adapt quickly, Davis’ lack of consistency can’t be trusted.

Regardless of landing spot, he’ll find his way into the low-end WR3/high-end WR4 territory — but I’m not biting.

Brandon Aiyuk, WR, San Francisco 49ers

George Kittle and Deebo Samuel combined for a total of 15 games. Their mutual absences allowed Aiyuk to earn starter status by Week 2. In fact, the rookie recorded 100 percent of the snap share before mid-October. It makes sense that he led the Niners in targets (97), catches (60), and receiving yards (748). Interestingly, Aiyuk either scored or cleared 100 yards in two of the four games in which all three pass catchers were on the field.

Demonstrating consistent talent after the catch, offering formational versatility (432 slot snaps, 286 on the outside) in Kyle Shanahan's complex scheme, and excelling in the red area of the field (9 of 14, WR18), the 22-year-old figures to shoot up draft boards over the summer. The ascent may have started sooner than many anticipated but it’s here … and that genie isn’t going back in the bottle. He’ll be a top-25 play in 2021.

Which 2020 sleepers do you think have staying power? Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF

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