2020 Fantasy Football Sleeper Predictions

Article written by Tyler Buecher of Fantasy Guru

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Unearthing value is perhaps the most rewarding aspect of fantasy football. Well, besides winning.

Those that drafted Mark Andrews in the 12th round last year know what I mean. The same goes for Lamar Jackson drafters at the Round 9/10 turn. Finding players that blow past their average draft position and turn into league winners can help either salvage a squad that was subjected to early-season injury or let you steamroll the competition as you blow by them for first place.

One way to extract value in your leagues is to target some of last year’s most-hyped players that fell short of expectations. Deemed “post-hype sleepers”, these are players that had a lot of hype in 2019, and for whatever reason (injury, poor performance, etc.), have become a sleeper or value pick this season. These types of plays aren’t always going to lead to home runs, but they often have potential ceilings that are worth taking dart throws at the right cost.

Let’s go through a few of last year’s most-hyped players that failed and see how they can potentially rebound in 2020

Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland Browns

The 2019 offseason was filled with high expectations for the Browns, but perhaps fantasy drafters were just a year too early on that call. Poor coaching, poor play calling, and poor execution led to a 6-10 season and a coaching staff overhaul. Expectations are high once again after the hiring of HC Kevin Stefanski and the offseason moves Cleveland has done this year. For it all to come together to a winning record, look for one of the biggest rebounds in Cleveland to come from the QB position.

For those with short memories, Baker Mayfield was considered an elite prospect entering the NFL. At Oklahoma, PFF charted him with elite grades when in a clean pocket, under pressure, throwing deep, and adjusted completion rate. In fact, one could argue he’s been one of the top collegiate prospects to enter the league during the entire PFF College era. He parlayed that collegiate success into setting the record for most passing touchdowns by a rookie in 2018 (27) despite starting in only 13-of-14 games played. He averaged 17.2 FPPG that year and was PFF’s No. 11 graded QB as a rookie.

This offseason, the Browns doubled down on improving their offensive line by adding top free agent Jack Conklin to man the right tackle spot and spent first-round draft capital on left tackle Jed Wills Jr. They also added one of last year’s most productive tight ends in Austin Hooper to bolster a passing attack loaded with receiving weapons like Odell Beckham, Jarvis Landry, Kareem Hunt, and David Njoku. What makes Mayfield an appealing asset is this defense is almost equally talented and should provide a positive game script to allow Nick Chubb to act as the engine of this offense. That should subsequently set up Mayfield to operate as a highly efficient quarterback and hit some positive regression, particularly on the pressure side of things.

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Playing behind a fortified offensive line and working with a creative play-caller in Stefanski that thrived calling bootlegs and play-action will also help Baker in 2020. Last year when Stefanski was in Minnesota, Kirk Cousins passer rating on play-action dropbacks was 129.2 (4th-highest) compared to 97.2 on all other attempts. That 32.0 increase in passer rating was eighth-highest. One of the other QBs that thrived in such situations? Mayfield at +33.7 (sixth-highest). Mayfield might not springboard into top-5 fantasy status, but his current FFPC ADP (QB15) is one that he has a strong chance to outperform if he can return to his efficient ways in 2020. From everything the Browns have done from coaching staff to personnel, it looks like there’s a strong chance for that to come to fruition.

Jordan Howard, RB, Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins picked up Howard mid-March on a two-year, $9.75M contract. The details in the contract show he’s due $4.75M this year ($5.0M for 2021) with a team-friendly escape in 2021 where they can release him with zero dead cap. Contrasting that with Matt Breida’s recent trade-in late April — one-year, $3.26M — and it looks like drafters are perhaps getting ahead of themselves declaring Breida the superior fantasy play over Howard at this time:

Breida’s receiving skillset is often praised by analysts as a reason to target him over Howard, but Breida’s reception totals in his first three seasons (21, 27, 29) at 8.4 YPR rivals that of Howard’s start in Chicago (29, 23, 20) at 7.8 YPR. We also have the scary potential of Ryan Fitzpatrick possibly starting most, if not all, of the 2020 season. Fitzpatrick has historically targeted his running backs at an 18% clip, below league average from last year. Receiving work in Miami from this backfield could be limited given Fitzpatrick’s tendencies to throw downfield (7.9 YPA from 2018-2019, ninth-highest).

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Projecting Howard for the majority of carries feels like a safe assumption at this juncture. Howard should specifically see both early-down work and interior carries at his size (6’-0”, 230 lbs), running behind a revamped offensive line that has been upgraded through the draft and free agency. He has the third-most rushing yards (3,895) and seventh-most rushing touchdowns (30) since entering the league in 2016 with an impressive resume to date:

Don’t forget — Ryan Fitzpatrick led this squad in rushing yards last season. There’s a reason one of their first moves in free agency was to upgrade the talent in the RB room by bringing in a back like Howard. OC Chan Gailey has historically gone with a one-back system, but with a talent like Breida on this squad, it’s difficult to definitively state how the backfield touches will be dispersed. What we do know is that Howard’s cheap price tag is a culmination of him coming off an injury-shortened season, going to a lesser team in Miami, and the backfield competition with Breida. It’s well within Howard’s range of outcomes to seriously outkick his RB41 ADP with a ceiling of RB2 potential. After advocating for Breida heavily in the early part of this offseason, I’m now on board grabbing either Dolphins back at the current ADP.

JuJu Smith-Schuster, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

This isn’t really a “bold” prediction, so I’ll keep this one relatively short. If you’ve been following any of my work this summer I’ve been very excited to invest in both the Falcons and Steelers squads for fantasy purposes. Looking at last year’s fantasy drafts, Fantasy Football Calculator had JuJu going off the board with an ADP of 12.9 (WR5). For those that spent first or second round capital on the rising star, many were left holding the bag as injuries to himself and his quarterback led to a WR65 finish. Drawing a current ADP of 37.8 at the FFPC (WR11), JuJu gives drafters with picks 10-12 a chance to start RB-RB or RB-TE and still net a WR1 with upside at the Round 3/4 turn.

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The return of Ben Roethlisberger cannot be understated enough. He was the overall fantasy QB3 when last healthy (2018) and has been a top-10 fantasy QB (FPPG) each of the five years prior. He’s supported Antonio Brown — the fantasy WR5, WR1, WR1, WR1, WR1 — during that five-year stretch and that “WR1” baton has been transitioned to JuJu. After what JuJu did his first two seasons, he was in some historic company prior to last year’s injury-shortened season:

In a game where we are playing for upside (first place), I don’t see how fantasy drafters can let a player of JuJu’s caliber fall to the fourth round.

Anthony Miller, WR, Chicago Bears

The good thing about following fantasy Twitter is that there are constant player discussions all year round. The bad thing is that it can sometimes be an echo-chamber (see Calvin Ridley). In 2018, fantasy pundits were all suggesting to grab rookie Anthony Miller after he posted back-to-back 1,400+ yards & 14+ TD seasons at Memphis. After all, the Bears traded up to grab him in the second round of the NFL Draft and there was little competition for targets for him in Chicago. While Miller has had some sporadic strong outings, consistency has been lacking to date from him fantasy-wise:

After adding Nick Foles to help supplement the passing attack, perhaps we see Miller rise to outkick his WR51 ADP. Taking a look at our WR Slot Grid, we see that Miller was the primary slot receiver for Chicago in 2019 (77.7%). Foles has historically thrived targeting his slot receiver and he’s now going to a team that has three former coaches of his that know this in QB Coach (John DeFilippo), OC (Bill Lazor), and HC (Matt Nagy). Only the Patriots threw to the slot more times than the Bears last year so they should remain a heavy slot team in 2020 with Foles. That could lead to a career-high in targets for Miller with a chance to put up strong fantasy outings. Lazor was the Eagles’ OC when Foles posted his historic 27-touchdown and 2-interception season in 2013. The two clearly have a strong rapport and I’d imagine Lazor can get the most out of Foles in their reunion.

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Miller still carries those strong attributes that made both Chicago and fantasy owners alike salivate in 2018. Perhaps an upgrade at quarterback is all it takes for Miller to climb into the next tier of wide receivers in 2020 as a third-year, post-hype breakout.

Chris Herndon, TE, New York Jets

For FG subscribers from last year, Herndon was a regular name on both our weekly waiver articles and Livestreams. Suspensions and injuries prevented Herndon from ever breaking out to the degree we had anticipated, but for all the same reasons we targeted him last year, we are going back to the well in 2020.

Let’s briefly recap his history to this point. Entering the league in 2018, Herndon was a fourth-round selection out of Miami. He joined a crowded tight end group that year that constantly rotated snaps and limited him in terms of opportunities to run routes. Despite these hurdles, Herndon became just one of 20 rookie tight ends to finish their rookie season with 500+ receiving yards and 4+ touchdowns. That feat has only been accomplished six times in the last 20 years despite the league’s growing pass-heavy tendencies. Herndon did all of this while pass blocking on 19.3% of his passing snaps.

After adding some significant contributors to the offensive line through free agency and the draft, the Jets have prepared Sam Darnold to take the next step as a passer in 2020. That should lead to fewer pass-blocking snaps for the athletic Herndon and more routes run in return. The Jets are starved for receiving help with their 183 vacated targets from last year (third-most). Herndon, who is entering his third year and second season in Adam Gase’s system, knows this offense and has showcased the best rapport with Darnold to date:

While Herndon hasn’t seen quite the level of hype of the other names listed above, he was someone that many fantasy players had their eyes on in 2019 as a sleeper with upside. Suspension and injuries cut those fantasy aspirations short last year, but he’s a strong candidate to return better production than his current TE21 ADP indicates. Invest with confidence.

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