Fantasy Football: Deep sleepers for 2021 drafts

By this point in draft season, you've probably read dozens of sleeper lists. The fantasy industry does a great job repackaging many of the same players as breakouts and lottery tickets and deep sleepers and draft values.

Today, you're getting yet another list of deep names. My pledge to you is that I have not personally hyped any of the players mentioned below in our recent sleeper series, nor have we pushed them on any pod. Also, I've actually drafted or added these guys somewhere, at least once. We're going deep in the ranks here; all are buried in terms of ADP and widely available. Let's begin with a player who hit the fantasy radar late last year...

Ty Johnson, RB, New York Jets (7% rostered)

While we've all been drafting Michael Carter as if he's the one Jets running back worth pursuing, the rookie fourth-rounder has not, in fact, been treated as an essential contributor throughout the preseason. Of course it's reasonable to hope he'll eventually acquire new coordinates in the team's backfield hierarchy, but, for now, it sure seems as if Tevin Coleman and Johnson will get the early run.

You might recall that Johnson delivered a 100-plus yard rushing performance the one time he saw 20 carries last season. He's averaged 4.5 YPC over 117 rush attempts and he's been a capable receiver as well. Johnson has also given us a glorious preseason highlight...

There's a very good chance we'll be recommending a non-Carter Jets running back (or two) when we write the opening week pickups column. He's certainly worth a deep league flier.

Juwan Johnson, WR/TE, New Orleans Saints (6%)

Remember all that mid-summer sleeper buzz surrounding Adam Trautman? Well, it turns out that shoulda been focused on Johnson, a converted wide receiver (thus the dual-eligibility). His development has been a consistent story throughout camp and preseason, before Trautman and Nick Vannett both suffered injuries. Johnson appears to be the favorite to lead all Saints tight ends in targets. All those Trautman talking points about Jameis Winston feeding his tight ends in goal-to-go situations still apply to Johnson.

Ty'Son Williams, RB, Baltimore Ravens (18%)

The season-ending knee injury to J.K. Dobbins is a brutal story for lots of reasons, not the least of which is that he's simply fun to watch. His absence should lead to a huge opportunity for Williams, a preseason standout who's clearly leapfrogged Justice Hill on the depth chart. He spent his collegiate career at three different schools, finishing up at BYU, but having his final season cut short by an ACL tear. No less an authority than John Harbaugh has said that Williams is gonna play; we're not speculating on anything here. Baltimore has had plenty of success with its backfield committee in recent years, so please don't assume Gus Edwards will dominate touches.

It's certainly possible the Ravens will add a veteran free agent or a late cut from another roster, which might change our read on this backfield. But at the moment, Williams is definitely a player of interest. If we're drafting tonight, I'm looking at him late.

Parris Campbell, WR, Indianapolis Colts (9%)

T.Y. Hilton will miss an as-yet-unknown period of time with a back/neck/disc injury, forcing Campbell back into the mix for snaps and targets. He of course hasn't been able to stay healthy and available in his brief pro career, but he's had his moments when active...

He's gonna be one of those guys I just can't quit, apparently. Campbell was a terrific player at Ohio State, catching 90 balls and scoring 12 touchdowns as a senior. He also has 4.31-speed and a 40-inch vertical, so it's not as if he lacks any key athletic traits. Campbell opened 2020 with a promising 6-catch, 71-yard game before a knee injury (PCL) derailed his season. Keep his name on those 2021 cheat sheets.

Sterling Shepard, WR, New York Giants (37%)

If this name doesn't thrill you, well ... OK, sure. Understandable. Shepard has missed 10 games over the past two years and, fantasy-wise, he's never quite matched the promise of his 8-touchdown rookie season. We're still waiting for his first 70-catch campaign. And he's tied to a sketchy quarterback and an equally sketchy offensive system. There are some fleas here, for sure.

But Shepard might just be the Giants No. 1 receiver to open the season, considering the fact that Kenny Golladay (and almost everyone else in this receiving corps) is still recovering and rehabbing. Shepard also has the Reception Perception stamp of approval, which we can all feel good about. He's a good name for the end-game, particularly in any sort of PPR format.

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Carlos Hyde, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (15%)

You hate this one most of all, right? Yeah, I knew you would. Whatever else you think of Hyde, you gotta know he's gonna see plenty of work in Jacksonville — the Travis Etienne injury clinched it, but this was going to happen anyway. Do you really think Urban Meyer will be the first NFL coach who doesn't find a way to give 10 or more touches per game to Hyde? No, this is happening. He split the first-team snaps fairly evenly with James Robinson in the preseason.

Hyde is on the wrong side of 30, but he's averaged 4.4 YPC over the past two seasons and he's just one year removed from a 1,000-yard rushing season in Houston. He's never been the flashiest back and he hasn't had a substantial receiving role in years, but he can get what's blocked, plus a few extra inches. And, again, coaches love giving work to Hyde. This is an immutable fact.

Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Philadelphia Eagles (8%)

The rookie fifth-rounder had a productive preseason, carving out a role for himself, it seems, in two-minute situations and passing downs. Gainwell was enormously productive last season at Memphis (where everyone seems monstrously productive), gaining 2,069 scrimmage yards, catching 51 balls and scoring 16 touchdowns. Miles Sanders, you might recall, had some difficulty catching footballs in 2020. Gainwell enters his first pro season having already earned a supporting role and he's running behind a talented-but-flawed back. Clearly, the rookie will have an opportunity to claim additional snaps and touches.

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