Sleepers, some more than others, for next year to keep an eye on. We all know the big guns, the players who are the face of the NFL. Whether it’s the longstanding greats in Brady, Rodgers and Wilson or the new guys, Mahomes, Jackson and Allen they’re who we look for first. The aim of this article to to bring to light some of the players from last year who were great and we didn’t even realise.
As usual I’ll preface this by saying there are more than I name here. These are just some of my favourites. Some of these guys have been around a while whereas some are relative newcomers. Some are starters whilst some could well be pushing for more time this year.
With so many positions this is likely to be Part 1 of 2 or 3. As such if I have missed YOUR position it will be covered in the next couple of weeks. As always I’d be interested to hear your feedback on everything I’m covering.
I should point out that all grades and stats are taken from Pro Football Focus (PFF) and they grade out of 100. Something to bear in mind whilst I throw numbers at you.
This section pains me as it is probably two of my least favourite teams to cover, but that’s just because I’m a Ravens fan.
Ryan Tannehill (Titans)
With an overall PFF grade of 90.6 Tannehill is continuing to show that he is far more than the bust that he was in Miami. Yes, you could argue he plays well in the scheme that he is in but that is the teams good planning, not a knock on Tannehill. He was the number 5 Quarterback last year according to PFF and a big part of the reason the Titans have improved so much recently.
Yes, he has Derrick Henry and A.J. Brown but without him they wouldn’t be who they are either. Another surprising thing to note is that per PFF’s grading system, Tannehill was the league’s leading rushing Quarterback, 3 whole points ahead of….Sam Darnold. PFF do note quantify how a Quarterback runs in the same way as we all do. To illustrate this, much of what Lamar Jackson does with his legs doesn’t count for QB running scoring with PFF. Don’t ask me to explain it all, it’s very complex……also I cant right now.
Baker Mayfield (Browns)
The second part of my gross QB’s section (alright….I’ll stop..), Mayfield makes it in as PFF’s number 8 overall Quarterback. This is as much a nod to just how much he has improved from 2019 than to anything else. After the 2019 season it was make or break for Mayfield. He was at a precipice between bust or franchise leader. Fortunately for him, and millions of Browns fans Kevin Stefanski arrived.
It cannot be overstated how much he has done for Mayfield. who posted easily his worst overall rating of 74.4 in 2019. In 2020 Mayfield picked that up to 85.7, the highest grade of his career. The change in system worked for Baker and he repaid the Browns faith by taking the Brows to the post-season. Much as I hate to say it, Baker and the boys are legitimate Championship contenders going into 2021.
I could give you all day and you wouldn’t name me these two guys who sit in PFF’s top 5 Running backs from 2020.
Gus Edwards (Ravens)
I’ll start with a player who I imagine you’ve only heard of if he played against your team or you are a Ravens fan. Gus the Bus has been extremely consistent in his 3 years since signing as an Undrafted Free Agent in 2018. Last year he posted an overall grade of 85.5, good enough for 5th on PFF’s overall list.
Edwards is reliable as they come, always good for over 5 yards a carry as well as having the knack for running through contact. He runs hard and direct and acts as a perfect compliment to J.K Dobbins and Lamar. It was a surprise to nobody last year that he pretty quickly unseated Mark Ingram as RB2 in Baltimore. He then quietly, without fanfare, posted 803 yards and 6 touchdowns. Edwards added to his repertoire achieving a further 129 yards on 9 catches, good for 14.3 yards per catch. He won’t be RB1 on the Ravens but there is more than enough to go around for him to have a large part to play next year.
Damien Harris (Patriots)
Coming in at Number 2(!) on PFF’s list is New England’s starting back in his second full season in the league with an overall grade of 90.3. We really can’t even consider his first year, he had 4 carries. He played in 10 contests last year as a result of starting the year on the PUP but when he came back he quickly pushed Sony Michel aside. He had 137 attempts which is a small sample size, but one which indicates he has far more to offer.
New England are not well off at Running Back, so this is definitely a year we will see more of Harris, as long as he stays healthy. Michel did not have his 5th year option picked up so this is Harris’ backfield until he messes it up. For fantasy purposes he is a great late round grab. He could put up great numbers this year if the Patriots decide they’re going to go all in on a more featured running game, a la the Ravens.
The top 8 receivers were as expected so I have skipped them. An interesting point though, Justin Jefferson was Number 2, tell me he didn’t have the greatest rookie season of a wide Receiver ever. I’ll fight you!
Will Fuller V (Dolphins)
Before he went and got himself suspended Will Fuller was having quite the season. Enough to put him 9th on PFF’s list with an overall grade of 86.2. He posted 5 games of over 100 yards in his 12 outings as DeShaun Watson’s favourite deep ball target. If we ignore Week 2 against the Ravens, where he was held without a catch, Fullers average depth of reception only dipped below 10 yards in 1 game. He was good for 38 first downs on 53 receptions, a Quarterback’s best friend.
As part of a Dolphins attack that is built for speed, Fuller should have a great year in 2021. I expect him to start on the outside (after his suspension finishes) opposite DeVante Parker with Jaylen Waddle frying people’s minds from the slot. Tua will start to push the ball downfield more and Fuller will be the main recipient of these looks. If he can also continue to develop as a mid-range guy then 1,000 yards should be eminently achievable for him. He is a 10 touchdown player in the right environment, this may well be it. There is every chance he is Miami’s top receiver come the end of the season.
Corey Davis (Jets)
A player who was drafted to high and has never really lived up to the billing, Davis finally came good last year. He did it at just the right time to, in a contract year. Number 10 on PFF’s list, Davis put up 984 yards and 5 touchdowns on 65 receptions playing against some favourable coverage in Tennessee. Averaging just over 15 yards a reception is never a bad thing, and Davis achieved success on 61% of his contested catches. Another one who was often good for a first down, Davis caught 49 of his 65 receptions for first downs.
Moving to New York, Davis has the chance to put himself in clear WR1 territory. He is on a team with a rookie QB who can make every thrown in the book and has the speed to get open more often than not. Davis makes his Quarterback look good, when targeted last year Tannehill achieved an overall 123.6 passer rating. The Jets are a team who will be chasing a lot of games so there are yards and scores to be had. Davis offers Zach Wilson a reliable target who can break off a big play as well as make the difficult catches.
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Jonathan Jones (Patriots)
It has been 5 years for Jonathan Jones but man, he has made some strides. He came undrafted into the league in 2016 and didn’t see much time on the field, when he did he wasn’t great. Every year though has brought improvement. He topped out last year posting a grade of 80.7 which was good enough for 5th of PFF’s list. In pass coverage he allowed a reception on 70% of targets which doesn’t sound great. What he has done however is brought his yards allowed per catch right down do 9.7 yards.
Jones is in line to push for a starting spot in nickel sets and may see time outside as well. He lined up for 63% of his snaps in the nickel slot position and this is where i expect to see him for much of next year. Coming off career years in both tackles and interceptions, he is an integral part of the secondary. Jones is not one of the stars at the position in the league. What he does is go about his business well and successfully, the perfect Belichick player. If the Patriots want to return to the Playoffs it is these kind of guys they will rely on.
Darious Williams (Rams)
Williams is not a star name in the league either. He plays opposite THE star Cornerback in the league in Jalen Ramsey and it is hard to get out of that shadow. Writing this I have learnt he was initially picked up as an Undrafted player by the Ravens. Seems all teams let some good ones go. Williams posted PFF’s 4th best overall grade last year with an 81.0. One of the standout stats for this guy is that he only allowed completions on 48% of balls thrown his way.
Williams was great in coverage, picking off 5 balls in the 19 games that he played last year. Quarterbacks throwing his way scored an average 55 passer rating (that isn’t good). What the Rams have in Williams is potentially another star corner. He is not ever going to be as loud as Ramsey but I guarantee that oppositions OC’s won’t want to target him any more than Ramsey (who actually allows a higher percentage of completions). Williams is going to be a big part of one of the leagues best Defences next year.
Jesse Bates III (Bengals)
Every team needs a silver lining, Jesse Bates is certainly one for the Bengals. Bates took an enormous step forwards in his third season. He increased his overall grade by basically 30 points, from 61.9 to 90.1. He may not be a sleeper so much after a season like that but I couldn’t ignore it. As a testament to how other teams view him he was only targeted 35 times in 16 games last season, allowing only 178 yards and 1 touchdown all season.
Bates has the ability to become a multiple All-Pro after getting the nod for the first time last year. He was second team last year, that won’t happen again, first team All-Pro is in his future. Anyone who plays IDP fantasy football, don’t take Bates, he just doesn’t get targeted enough! Jesse Bates should be in the backfield for years to come for the Bengals. If you didn’t notice him last year I implore you to pay him some attention this year.
Jeremy Reaves (Washington)
Everyone who reads my articles knows I love Kamren Curl who plays Safety for Washington. It appears I am about to fall equally for his future partner in Washington. Reaves is another undrafted guy who has had to wait his turn. That came in Week 12 last season when Troy Apke was injured and Reaves was the next man up. He had his first game time in Week 12 but from Week 15 he was starting. Over the 6 games he was involved in he posted an 81.6 overall rating, 4th best according to PFF.
Yes he only played 263 snaps, a very small sample but he looked great on the field. If Reaves can maintain the kind of form he showed at the end of last year then he is making a big case to be the longterm starter alongside Kamren Curl in Washington. He will likely take a step back next year as Landon Collins and Troy Apke will be back. If he plays like he did last year however, he will soon be ahead of Apke. This is a big flag plated for the future here by me. Curl and Reaves are both young and inexperienced. IF they live up to their potential though they could be awesome for Washington.
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