Some fantasy football owners are content to play in their standard, 10- or 12-team leagues year after year. Even in those leagues, “deep sleepers” can matter in fantasy drafts. Some owners don’t just want the sleeper everyone is touting; they want their final-round picks to be real lotto tickets. The list below matters even more in 16-team leagues (or bigger). There, any edge you can find means that much more because the sure things on your roster are fewer and farther between. Our 2020 Deep Sleeper Team tries to find the potential breakouts who can be difference-makers in those formats.
To make this team, players had to be drafted well outside of fantasy starter territory according to FantasyPros ADP data. Many of these guys are going undrafted in standard leagues and probably only make draft-day benches in the deepest of leagues. That doesn’t mean they can’t have value.
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Some of them have proven themselves in small or medium samples before, like Tyrod Taylor and Breshad Perriman. Others have barely touched the ball in the NFL, like Damien Harris and Jace Sternberger. All of the players below provide some reason to believe they can outperform (and maybe greatly outperform) the position they’re being drafted in.
And let’s face it — it feels better to swing for the fences with an off-the-board pick than it does to play it safe with a boring, low-ceiling veteran.
Fantasy Deep Sleepers: Quarterback
Tyrod Taylor, Chargers
Quarterbacks who run are consistently undervalued in fantasy football. Everyone knows that their rushing yards add value, but it’s usually underestimated just how much value a QB like Taylor adds with his legs. Throw in the probability that Justin Herbert gets starts for the Chargers at some point in 2020, and most drafters want nothing to do with Taylor.
That means you can grab a player who finished 16th in QB fantasy points in 2017 and eighth in ’16 in the last round of your draft if you want. You could literally take whatever kicker you wanted in the second-to-last round and still get Taylor after that. That’s silly for a couple of reasons.
The first is this: If you’re in a standard one-QB league, there will be available starting QBs on the waiver wire. If Taylor loses his job, he’d be a simple drop, and if you’ve already drafted a good starter, you might not need your backup except for a bye week or injury. Caring too much about Week 14 with your backup quarterback (or your backup backup quarterback) who you picked in the 15th round would be a mistake.
Then there’s the Chargers offense. Taylor never had weapons like these in Buffalo: Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, and Hunter Henry. That must feel like immense luxury to Taylor. Add in Austin Ekeler’s ability after the catch and that’s a lot of talent doing most of the work for Taylor’s arm.
Maybe you can’t convince yourself to draft Taylor in a standard league, but if you’re in a two-QB or Superflex format and still want to wait on QB, he’s the perfect target as someone who, at least for the first half of the season, will rival the top-12 QBs in fantasy points per game while coming at a steep discount.
Honorable mention: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Dolphins; Jameis Winston, Saints
Fantasy Deep Sleepers: Running back
Damien Harris, Patriots
It makes sense that the Patriots would hold off from using a well-regarded rookie last year only to unleash him on the league this year. Harris has received a “heavy workload” early in training camp with Sony Michel and Lamar Miller missing out on some action due to injury. That doesn’t mean Harris will unseat the veterans immediately, but it means he’s making a good early impression.
If Harris could win the job in an offense that will no longer be so dependent on its quarterback, he’d have workhorse potential. At 5-11, 213 pounds, he’s a thick running back. He also proved to not be a zero as a receiver in his final year at Alabama, when he reeled in 22 receptions for almost 10 yards per catch.
There’s always potential frustration with a running back in New England since it seems like their roles often change from one week to the next, but that also leaves room for a late-round selection like Harris to all of a sudden be a prominent fantasy starter. All it would take would be one Bill Belichick whim.
Jerick McKinnon, 49ers
If your first reaction to seeing McKinnon’s name is something to the effect of, “He’s still in the league?,” that’s totally fair. He hasn’t touched the ball in an NFL game since 2017. But the 49ers have kept him around while he’s battled injury woes, which suggests they believe in him. McKinnon has worked as the third San Francisco running back behind Tevin Coleman and Raheem Mostert early in camp.
McKinnon’s best early-season value could come as a third-down back piling up points in PPR formats. In Minnesota in 2017, McKinnon caught 51 passes at 8.3 yards per reception. While Mostert isn’t a bad pass-catcher, McKinnon could take that role from him. According to Rotoworld, 49ers running backs combined for the fourth-most PPR points in football last year.
Any player you take at RB in the late rounds is a flier, and, sure, we don’t know if McKinnon is even the same player coming off multiple injuries, but there’s something to be said for drafting a player who has produced at the NFL level as others take speculative grabs at rookies who are bigger unknowns than McKinnon.
Honorable mention: Bryce Love, Washington; Darwin Thompson, Chiefs; LeSean McCoy, Buccaneers
Fantasy Deep Sleepers: Wide receiver
Breshad Perriman, Jets
To select Perriman in 2020, you have to believe that his hot finish to the season last year on a different team with a better quarterback can translate to the Jets offense with Sam Darnold. But you don’t have to believe that too heavily since Perriman is being drafted as the No. 58 WR off the board. That’s a WR5 or even WR6. He doesn’t come at a high cost.
Perriman finished last season with three-straight 100-yard games and five-straight games with more than 70 yards. No, New York’s offense isn’t as conducive to him putting up consistently big numbers as Tampa’s was, but the end of last season might have also been a glimpse of a former first-round pick finally seizing an opportunity.
Robby Anderson has moved on, which means Perriman should at least live up to the value Anderson has held in New York, which is more of a WR ranked in the 40s than the back end of the 50s. And Perriman’s pedigree is greater than Anderson’s ever was. A continuation in performance from the end of last season isn’t impossible, and what other receiver are you drafting in Perriman’s range who’s ever had a stretch like Perriman did less than 12 months ago?
Bryan Edwards, Raiders
First, let’s explain how Edwards gets enough reps to be useful: Either he beats out Tyrell Williams for his starting spot or Henry Ruggs III plays a heavy dose of slot snaps in place of Hunter Renfrow. In either of those scenarios, Edwards will get a ton of early playing time. Some of the early chatter out of Las Vegas suggests the rookie from South Carolina could slide into action like that.
Then there’s the second part of Edwards’ sleeper value — he might align more readily with Derek Carr’s arm talent than Williams or Ruggs do. Both of those guys, while capable of working shorter patterns, also like to get behind the defense into areas where Carr struggles to consistently connect. At 6-3, Edwards is a more do-everything receiver who can find value in the red zone and near the sticks.
Most likely, one or two Las Vegas receivers become worth owning while the rest are a crapshoot from week to week. Maybe Edwards’ odds are a bit lower than Ruggs or Williams to contribute, but if he gets the playing time, he’ll likely surprise.
Russell Gage, Falcons
Gage fits the bill of a PPR special. His yards per catch isn’t exciting, but when given the opportunity, he reels in passes. Across his four starts last year, Gage was targeted 33 times. He’s also a converted defensive back, so he’s relatively new to the WR position.
Gage’s upside comes from the departure of Austin Hooper. The Falcons acquired Hayden Hurst as his replacement, and maybe all of Hooper’s 97 targets from last year go to Hurst, but there’s a chance the over-the-middle role is more readily filled by Gage. In that scenario, he could have PPR value even if Julio Jones and Calvin Ridley stay healthy (and if one of them gets hurt, Gage will be a prominent PPR waiver pickup).
Honorable mention: Phillip Dorsett, Seahawks; Van Jefferson, Rams; Tre’Quan Smith, Saints
Fantasy Deep Sleepers: Tight end
Jace Sternberger, Packers
There’s always a chance Robert Tonyan beats out Sternberger to replace Jimmy Graham, but the second-year player out of Texas A&M ilooks like the favorite. Sternberger was touted as a vertical threat as a third-round pick, but he didn’t catch a pass last year.
Assuming Sternberger wins the starting job, the bigger question is whether Green Bay’s offense even likes throwing to the TE anymore. It’s hard to tell whether the lack of tight end production for the Packers the past few years was due to Jimmy Graham being washed up or Green Bay simply not caring about throwing to that position. That will make all the difference for whether Sternberger matters.
He’ll either fill a final bench spot or start the season on the waiver wire, and the biggest thing to watch with him (or Tonyan if he wins the job) is target share. If the starting Green Bay tight end sees seven or eight targets each of the first few weeks, no matter what production follows, that’s a good sign that there will be the involvement needed to matter in fantasy.
Honorable mention: Dawson Knox, Bills; O.J. Howard, Buccaneers; Gerald Everett, Rams; Jacob Hollister, Seahawks
Fantasy Deep Sleepers: Defense
This pick could look a little worse if the Jaguars do indeed trade Yannick Ngakoue, but with his apparent discontent, we can approach this selection without him too highly considered anyway.
Jacksonville’s first two weeks of the season are middling matchups against the Colts and Titans, followed by potentially better matchups with the Dolphins and Bengals. In a deeper league, you could do worse than that.
Their pass rush should be improved as Josh Allen continues to mature and first-round pick K’Lavon Chaisson joins the fray. They also drafted C.J. Henderson in the first round, which should lock down one of the cornerback spots, too. If Ngakoue ends up playing ample time, the Jaguars defense could be useful in a streaming capacity all season long.
Fantasy Deep Sleepers: Kicker
Joey Slye, Panthers
Slye came onto the scene last year as an injury replacement for Graham Gano, and Carolina’s letting Gano go this offseason points to Slye having the job in his hands. Slye did miss seven kicks out of his 32 attempts last season, but that’s in part because Carolina unleashed him from deep.
No kicker in football attempted as many field goals from 50-plus yards as Slye’s 11. The next closest in that category attempted eight, which is the number Slye made. If your league rewards kickers who make long kicks, Slye can be that much more valuable.
His job should be even more secure than just his long kicking suggests because he was first in the NFL in touchback percentage last season among kickers with double-digit kickoffs. There’s no reason for Carolina to look elsewhere from the monster-legged Slye. Maybe you take a more established kicker if you’re in a standard league, but in a 16-team league or greater, Slye should almost surely be worth the investment.
Honorable mention: Josh Lambo, Jaguars; Brett Maher, Jets