Wide receiver is once again the deepest position in fantasy football in 2021, with significant contributors and potential breakouts usually available late in drafts. To explain why, let’s just stick with the obvious reason — teams roll out anywhere between two and four receivers on any given play. We know, we know — “What’s next, you’re gonna tell you a pass-first league?” None of this is new or groundbreaking information, but it’s relevant when trying to pinpoint WR sleepers and draft steals who are too low in the rankings.
In explosive offenses, we’ve seen two or three wide receivers from the same team have high finishes, like Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson last year (both top 10). Of course we want to target bonafide No. 1 receivers early in the draft, but they go quickly, and when you’ve already spent early draft capital at running back, quarterback, and tight end, you need to know the under-the-radar sleepers as you approach the middle and late rounds.
You never want to rely on injuries in fantasy, but injuries can take a wide receiver with decent production and thrust them into the No. 1 role in an offense. Some of the sleepers on this list already have the opportunity to be No. 1 option for their teams, even if it’s by default. Whether you love a certain player’s talent and profile or not, they will undoubtedly see a lot of targets in a lackluster wide receiver room.
Rookies are usually significantly discounted, and taking a flier on some of them could lead to low-risk, high-reward picks. Many fantasy owners don’t follow the college game closely and are unaware of what some rookies can bring to the table in year one. If you’re among that group, our list highlights several rookies who can make an immediate impact. Of course, the obvious rookie favorite is Ja’Marr Chase, so he’s not listed among the sleepers. Guys like Jaylen Waddle, Rondale Moore, Josh Palmer, and Rashod Bateman are among rookies who could vastly outperform their ADPs.
Remember, with sleepers, especially rookies, don’t panic. Take Jefferson’s rookie year as a prime example. Jefferson started slow in the Vikings’ first two outings (five catches for 70 yards combined), only to explode in Week 3 for seven catches, 175 yards, and a touchdown. We all know how his season went after that. In many cases, fantasy owners either dropped Jefferson or traded him for a lackluster package. It takes time for rookies to get a hang of the game. Don’t get caught quitting on them too early.
Because fantasy leagues come in all sizes with a wide variety of formats (standard, PPR, bonus-points for 100 yards and long touchdowns, etc.), we tried to give you a variety with our sleeper picks below. Some are receivers we simply feel are undervalued; others are guys who won’t be on your radar at all in even a 10-team league but definitely could get drafted in a 14-teamer. Find a few that make sense for you and hope that lotto ticket cashes in.
2021 Fantasy Football WR Sleepers: Potential wide receiver breakouts, steals
Mike Williams, Chargers. Think of Williams as a discount version of Kenny Golladay. He won’t catch a lot of balls, but he will deliver chunk plays that often produces good weeks. In 2019, he caught just 49 passes for 1,001 yards, averaging over 20 yards/reception (all career highs.) In ’20, he caught just one less pass for 250 fewer yards and put up 13.2-plus fantasy points four times, having lackluster outings otherwise. In ‘21 his ceiling is raised with year-two Justin Hebert. Rocket-armed QB plus aggressive deep-ball field-stretcher equals fantasy success, especially in standard formats.
Jerry Jeudy, Broncos. Jeudy didn’t exactly make the immediate impact some had hoped for in his rookie season. Even without Courtland Sutton in the fold, Jeudy caught just 52 of 113 targets, producing 6.6 fantasy points per game (FPPG). Of course, Drew Lock isn’t exactly the most friendly fantasy quarterback, but at least Jeudy did draw a large number of targets. Even if Sutton returns healthy and ready to take over the No. 1 WR spot, any improvement in Broncos’ quarterback play could mean an uptick for Jeudy. There will still be plenty of targets to go around.
Michael Pittman Jr., Colts. Like Jeudy, Pittman Jr. had quite the underwhelming rookie campaign. He was used primarily as an underneath target, with an average depth of target (aDOT) of 8.45 (lowest on the Colts). However, he is in prime position to be the No. 1 WR in Indianapolis. If Parris Campbell can stay healthy and take over the underneath role, the 6-4, 223-pound Pittman possesses the size to be an alpha receiver out wide. The last time Carson Wentz was adequately protected by his offensive line, he was in the thick of the MVP race. If Frank Reich pulls that Carson Wentz out, Pittman should see deep, accurate targets.
Gabriel Davis, Bills. Davis is the likely WR2 in a top-three offense, but Emmanuel Sanders and Cole Beasley will have something to say about that. The good news is Josh Allen trusted Davis in 2020. He caught 35 balls on 52 targets for 599 yards and seven touchdowns acting as the Bills primary deep threat. Like the equation we learned with Mike Williams — rocket-armed QB plus aggressive deep-ball field-stretcher equals fantasy success — Davis could really break out this year. Of course, with all the mouths to feed in Buffalo, he could also be a total boom-or-bust play most weeks. Either way, he’s worth a late middle-round pick.
Henry Ruggs III, Raiders. No rookie receiver was more of a letdown than Ruggs III in 2020. It’s important to remember that players with first-round draft capital get plenty of time and patience, so he should still see opportunity. The hope is he’s not just “one of those fast guys.” You at least hope for those kinds of players to score loads of touchdowns, but Ruggs charted just two, with one seemingly being a Jets attempt at tanking. However, since he has the first-round draft capital, his price is low enough in fantasy drafts (WR49 ADP in PPR) that he’s worth a flier.
Jakobi Meyers, Patriots. Meyers is a strong candidate to become the bonafide WR1 in New England. With Julian Edelman retiring and N’Keal Harry’s trade request, Meyers and Nelson Agholor will contend for the nod. Meyers saw the most work in a putrid passing offense in 2020 (59 catches, 729 yards, zero touchdowns). The impressive Meyers statistic was his 26 percent target share (seventh among WRs). Cam Newton will likely be replaced with Mac Jones at some point this year, and it’s fair to assume the Pats passing offense will improve as a result.
Laviska Shenault Jr, Jaguars. Shenault flashed his yards-after-contact skills in year one. Jacksonville should be bad — really bad — and what do bad teams usually have to do? Air the football out. Expect the Jags to be among the league leaders in passing attempts with their new franchise QB Trevor Lawrence. Shenault is set up to potentially surpass DJ Chark as the No. 1 option in Jacksonville. In fact, he already finished ahead of Chark in total fantasy points in 2020. If he jells with Lawrence early, he has the A.J. Brown-like YAC acumen to make noise in fantasy football. As a bonus, he’ll get some work on the ground, too (18 carries, 91 rushing yards last year).
Darnell Mooney, Bears. Surely you’ve seen the video of Mooney burning defensive backs to a crisp only to be overthrown by whichever lackluster quarterback the Bears put out there, but if you haven’t, here it is. He showed his 4.38 speed on several occasions during his rookie season, ranking 11th among wide receivers with 23 deep targets. Unsurprisingly, he ranked 69th in target accuracy. Chicago traded former second-round pick Anthony Miller to Houston, solidifying Mooney’s role in the offense at WR2. Even Andy Dalton is an upgrade from the likes of Nick Foles and Mitchell Trubisky, and if Justin Fields is as good as advertised, Mooney will carve out a nice fantasy role opposite Allen Robinson.
Tyrell Williams, Lions. Williams finds himself on our list of sleepers mostly due to the absence of quality wide receivers in Detroit. Outside of Wiliams, they have Quintez Ceaphus, who didn’t show much as a rookie, Breshad Perriman, who has shown flashes but never consistency, and fourth-round rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown. Rams receivers Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods have shown it’s possible to be a fantasy stud with Jared Goff at QB, and Williams has shown big upside in the past — most notably 2016 when he had 1,059 yards and seven TDs with the Chargers. The opportunity is certainly there in Detroit. For what it’s worth, Williams ranked No. 2 in contested catch percentage in ’20, per PlayerProfiler.com.
Russell Gage, Falcons. An increase in opportunity is imminent with the loss of Julio Jones in Atlanta. In 2020, with Jones in and out of the lineup, Gage produced 10.5-plus PPR fantasy points in nine out of 16 outings, seeing 10-plus targets in four games. He’s more attractive in PPR formats due to his low aDOT of 8.15 in ‘20. He’s still likely to be the No. 3 option in the passing attack with the addition of Kyle Pitts, but it’s apparent Matt Ryan trusts him. In a high-volume passing attack, he’s worth a dart throw in the later rounds of the draft.
Mecole Hardman, Chiefs. At last, Sammy Watkins is out in Kansas City. Hardman has every opportunity to be the clear-cut No. 3 option the Kansas City passing attack. A wideout who possesses 4.33 speed in an elite offense run by Patrick Mahomes presents unlimited potential in 2021. Of course, his ceiling is limited with Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce hogging targets, but if Hardman can garner more than his laughable 10-percent target share in ‘20, he could be viable play most weeks.
Van Jefferson, Rams. Yes, the Rams are loaded at the wide receiver position, but there will be plenty of targets to go around in a high-powered air attack.. After losing Cam Akers for the entire season with a torn Achilles’, it can be assumed Los Angeles will lean more toward the pass. Tutu Atwell will likely take a redshirt year and won’t be heavily involved in the offense, while DeSean Jackson has proven he won’t be healthy for the majority of the season (played in only eight games over the past two years). Jefferson is heading into his sophomore season and looks poised to settle comfortably into the offense.
Elijah Moore, Jets. Moore is a route-running technician who thrives in getting open with comfortable separation. In his final year at Ole Miss, Moore exploded for nearly 1,200 receiving yards and eight touchdowns. Coming into his rookie season with fellow rookie Zach Wilson could prove beneficial for his production. Wilson has no prior allegiance to any of the pass-catchers in New York, so it’s not out of the realm of possibilities that Moore hits the ground running as its No. 1 WR.
Rashod Bateman, Ravens. Even if you’re a Lamar Jackson doubter, Bateman presents tremendous upside in his rookie season. In a pedestrian passing offense at Minnesota, Bateman posted 2,400 receiving yards and 19 receiving touchdowns in 31 career games. He was drafted to be the No. 1 wide receiver right out of the gate. The Ravens made wide receiver a top priority in the offseason with the addition of Sammy Watkins, Tylan Wallace, and Bateman, hinting at their plan to enhance the passing offense in volume and efficiency. Bateman projects as an alpha No. 1 wideout, and with Hollywood Brown and Mark Andrews as solid pass-catching threats already in the offense, Bateman could step into a favorable position early.
Rondale Moore, Cardinals. Many fantasy owners worry about Moore’s size (5-7, 181 pounds). His elite athletic profile and early college production suggests he won’t be just another John Ross. In his true freshman season at just 17 at Purdue, Moore commanded a 29-percent target share, posting 135 touches for 1,471 yards from scrimmage and 14 total touchdowns. There’s a chance he’s not a huge priority in the offense in 2021, but he certainly has the tools to be one. It’s Christian Kirk’s prove-it year, and failure to produce early in the season may lead to an increase in Moore’s usage. Regardless, Arizona used four-WR sets on 20 percent of their offensive snaps, far more than any other team in the league. Moore will be on the field in some capacity if he stays healthy (a big “if” given his injury history).
Amari Rodgers, Packers. Like many Packers players, Rodgers fantasy prospects will be heavily reliant on Aaron Rodgers’ status with the team. Aaron has shown time and time again he can elevate the players around him to higher fantasy ceilings. With Davante Adams as the only wide receiver who is etched in stone to see a lot of usage, Amari has a chance to seize a significant role in the Green Bay offense.
Josh Palmer, Chargers. Palmer being selected in the third round in the 2021 NFL Draft came as a surprise to many, but it’s a good indication of how the Chargers’ front office views him. Outside of Keenan Allen and Mike Williams, no other Chargers WR looks all that impressive, hence why they made Palmer a priority. Palmer’s collegiate numbers (99 catches, 1514 yards, seven receiving touchdowns) won’t amaze anyone, but when you consider the atrocious Tennessee passing offense he played in, his production was respectable. Being tethered to a promising young stud in Justin Herbert bodes well for his chances early in his career. Keep him on your watchlist early in the season.
Tre’Quan Smith, Saints. The fantasy community has long anticipated a breakout season for Smith. It seems this year could be the season it finally happens. Michael Thomas (right ankle) is expected to miss the early part of the season and will likely deal with lingering effects from his injury like he did in 2020. Per PlayerProfiler.com, Smith ranked eighth among wide receivers last season in average target separation (2.14). This indicates it hasn’t been an issue of getting open. With Emmanuel Sanders out of the fold and Thomas dealing with significant injuries, Smith should finally see a high volume of targets.
Marquez Callaway, Saints. The former undrafted receiver flashed during his rookie season when given the opportunity. Callaway will get the chance to take over for Michael Thomas (right ankle) at X-receiver, a position that often sees a lot of work in Sean Payton’s offense. In 2020, Callaway played one game without Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders being active. In that Week 7 game, he saw a 28.6 percent target share, posting eight receptions for 75 yards. Don’t believe the Callaway hype? Just ask Emmanuel Sanders. The 11-year NFL veteran had high-praise for Callaway in their one year working together. It’s not often a veteran goes out of his way to talk up an undrafted player, but it happened, and that should excite you heading into an increased Callaway role in the offense, at least for as long as Thomas is out. Consider that could be half the season, Callaway is a worthwhile late-round investment.