Think your fantasy football work is done after draft day? Or that you’ve got all the knowledge you’ll need for the season ahead because you’re familiar with all the picks made in your 10-team league?
A deeper knowledge of the NFL landscape — even the players who weren’t picked — grants a fantasy manager a significant advantage. It enhances your chances of endgame success in your draft or auction, if the league’s depth warrants it, and it prepares you to pounce in an instant when things happen during the season, such as claiming free agents to help plug holes on your team.
Keep this in mind: You’re probably going to turn over as much as, if not more than, 30% of your draft-day roster during the course of the season. That’s the reality of this game; it changes quickly and you need to be ready to adapt.
That’s where this column comes in: Each year, I identify a number of “deep sleepers,” players who by all accounts won’t — and probably shouldn’t — be drafted in a single standard, 10-team ESPN league but who have a good chance of contributing sometime during 2020. Jot these names down, because if a number of team-related factors align in their favor, they just could be this year’s key to a championship. Last year’s list included Darren Waller.
Again, these are deep sleepers, meaning you aren’t going to find Drew Lock, Mecole Hardman or Noah Fant on this list, though I do very much like all three. Those are all much more well-publicized names who should be drafted in almost every ESPN league, whereas this list takes the sleepers exercise another step. Be aware, though, that with the deeper digging comes a heightened chance of player failure. We’re examining skills first, role second, and sometimes the latter never aligns.
Dan Arnold, TE, Arizona Cardinals: An undrafted, converted wide receiver out of Division III school Wisconsin-Platteville, Arnold, predictably, brings traits commonplace at his former position to one typically known for size and strength. In three season-ending games for the 2019 Cardinals after being claimed off waivers from the New Orleans Saints, Arnold averaged 13.1 air yards per target, a rate more characteristic of a wide receiver, while catching a pair of touchdowns.
Perhaps seeing hints of future promise in Arnold’s 4-76-1 Week 17 stat line, the Cardinals passed on addressing the tight end position during the offseason, pitting him against Maxx Williams, a pass-blocking specialist, and Darrell Daniels, who has 51 catches combined in his four college and three NFL seasons, for starting duty.
In Kliff Kingsbury’s system, which used an increasing number of three-receiver, one-tight end sets in the second half of 2019, Arnold might be an important red-zone cog.
Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona Cardinals: His limited size — he’s 5-foot-9, 207 pounds — might work against his prospects of ever capturing a bell-cow NFL role, and as he’s known more for his receiving than rushing prowess, he might be redundant on a roster that features a capable pass-catcher in Kenyan Drake as its starting running back.
Still, injuries and performance changes do happen, and we shouldn’t forget that Drake was a three-and-a-half-year disappointment with the Miami Dolphins who showed us his upside over only eight games, three of which were legitimately forgettable. That’s not to say that I don’t believe in Drake, but if he’s unable to repeat, Benjamin brings similar skills to the table for a team that loves pass-catching running backs. Frankly, he’s probably a smarter understudy pick for Drake than Chase Edmonds.
Miles Boykin, WR, Baltimore Ravens: After opening eyes at the 2019 combine, including registering among the event’s highest SPARQ scores in history, then drawing raves during the preseason, Boykin was a major disappointment once the regular season came along. We’ve never heard that story before, right?
In Boykin’s defense, however, Week 1 coincided with Marquise Brown‘s emergence as a bona fide deep threat, and the Ravens attempted the fewest pass attempts in the league, so the quiet year shouldn’t have come as a complete surprise. Boykin did haul in three short touchdown passes, and Lamar Jackson wasn’t afraid to test him deep, evidenced by that 16.5-yard average depth of target (fifth most among receivers with at least 20 targets).
There’s no reason to simply move on here without giving the sophomore a second chance, especially with an opportunity to capture a starting role across from Brown in 2020.
Antonio Gandy-Golden, WR, Washington Football Team: It hasn’t been easy to identify fantasy-relevant receivers from Washington the past couple of years, but on a receiver depth chart that is effectively wide open after Terry McLaurin, Gandy-Golden could be one of 2020’s most unexpected rookie breakthrough stories.
He’s a sizable target — 6-foot-4, 223 pounds — with good hands, things that should serve him well as a perimeter and red zone option, and he showed an ability to handle large workloads during his college days at Liberty. Yes, Washington did everything it could during the offseason to bring in competition for the rookie, but the X receiver spot still appeared to be Gandy-Golden’s to lose as training camps opened.
Bryan Edwards, WR, Las Vegas Raiders: He enjoyed a prolific college career at South Carolina, catching 234 passes for 3,045 yards in his four seasons, and probably would’ve been drafted sooner than the third round if not for a broken foot he suffered while preparing for the NFL combine that ultimately caused him to miss the event.
While Edwards landed with a Raiders team rich in wide receiver depth, it’s also one lacking in top-shelf positional talent, as well as one that doesn’t have a clear-cut, superior choice at the X spot. He comes advertised as an excellent route-runner, great at making contested catches, even if he lacks elite breakaway speed.
Even if Edwards can’t crack the Raiders’ starting lineup initially, he’s a great dynasty pick who might well wind up a mid-2020, top weekly FAAB target once he gets his chance.
Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Miami Dolphins: November 2019 hip surgery cast doubt not only on his draft stock but his prospective NFL career in its entirety. Remarkably, though, Tagovailoa has already made a full recovery, and at the onset of training camp, he was expected to not only practice without limitation but to compete with Ryan Fitzpatrick for the Dolphins’ starting job.
While the severity of the operation coupled with the absence of preseason games might make it difficult for Tagovailoa to emerge as a September starter, that the team is in a rebuild makes it likely that the Dolphins will turn to him sooner than later, regardless. He’s an extremely accurate passer (completed 69.3% of his career college pass attempts) who couples it with decent mobility (though the injury could take some of the luster off in his rookie year) and is the best dynasty-league quarterback prospect in this draft class.
Ian Thomas, TE, Carolina Panthers: A quality fill-in for Greg Olsen during the veteran’s injury absences the past two seasons, Thomas this offseason graduated into the starting tight end job in Carolina — or at least the pass-catching portion — now that Olsen has joined the Seattle Seahawks.
In the nine games Olsen missed in 2018 and 2019, Thomas averaged 9.8 PPR fantasy points, including 12.2 in his most recent six. While Thomas might lack an otherworldly skill set, he did post impressive (for a tight end) numbers at the 2018 combine, including a 4.74 40-yard time and 36-inch vertical jump. It’s an opportunity-based pick, but this is also a heck of an opportunity.
Darwin Thompson, RB, Kansas City Chiefs: You probably know the name, being that he was an extremely popular, higher-end sleeper entering 2019. Let this serve as your reminder: Sometimes we’re all just a year too early with our predictions. In fairness, Thompson endured a disappointing rookie year, finding his way on the field for only 97 snaps (19 of which came in the Chiefs’ 40-9, Week 13 blowout win) and getting stuffed on 7 of 37 carries.
Still, he managed comparable, if not faster, speed metrics than his positional competition — yes, the small-sample caveat does apply — and had a quicker 40 time (4.53) at his pro day than Clyde Edwards-Helaire did at the combine (4.60), so it’s not unthinkable that Thompson could carve out a meaningful role now that Damien Williams has opted out for 2020. Certainly Thompson is worth a dart throw in leagues of 14 teams or greater.
Trayveon Williams, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: It’s difficult to gauge a player’s skill or NFL readiness when he played only six offensive snaps and didn’t once touch the football (including on special teams) during his rookie season. At the time of his sixth-round selection, however, he was regarded as a strong passing-down back with solid but unspectacular rushing skills (à la Austin Ekeler, Duke Johnson Jr. or Nyheim Hines) and a good blocker.