With the NFL season kickoff rapidly approaching, it’s time to start prepping for your upcoming fantasy football drafts. For an in-depth breakdown of the players who can help you dominate your league, The Ringer’s Fantasy Football Draft Guide is a great place to start. But for a bonus addendum to that excellent resource, I sifted through the dozens of potential breakout players and high-upside handcuff options that didn’t quite make it into our PPR, half-PPR, and standard format top-150 groups.
While there’s usually a good reason these guys are falling into the 13th, 14th, or 15th rounds or later in your draft, it’s still possible to find some hidden gems with your last few picks. Here are seven of my favorite fantasy super sleepers for the 2020 NFL season, along with why I think each could outplay expectations.
WR Steven Sims, Washington
Sims remains almost mystifyingly under-the-radar heading into the season, currently ranked as the WR87 (292nd overall) in PPR formats, according to FantasyPros’ consensus ADP. The fact that he’s basically free doesn’t make much sense considering the 5-foot-10, 176-pound dynamo finished his rookie year on an absolute tear for Washington, hauling in 20 passes for 230 yards and four touchdowns (while adding 167 yards on kick and punt returns) over the team’s final four games in 2019. Sims demonstrated strong chemistry with fellow rookie Dwayne Haskins and ranked as the overall WR9 in PPR in that four-week stretch. He’s now headed into 2020 with a hold on the team’s slot receiver role.
Why he’s going so late: It seems that few are buying into Sims’s late-season flourish. The former undrafted free agent doesn’t check many boxes when it comes to the typical breakout star: He wasn’t invited to the combine, went undrafted, and lacks both size and prototypical testing speed and explosiveness for the position (he ran the 40-yard dash in 4.56 seconds while registering a 31-inch vert at his pro day). Put bluntly, Sims would be a massive outlier when it comes to his measurables and draft slot if he were to break out in 2020.
Why he could outplay expectations: For starters, the opportunity for volume is there. While Terry McLaurin projects as the team’s clear no. 1 option on the outside, Sims has a chance to see plenty of targets from the slot. Kelvin Harmon is done for the season after tearing his ACL in June, and the rest of Washington’s receiver depth chart is up in the air. And while Sims’s pro day testing numbers came up well short of average, anyone who watched him play―whether he was returning kicks, catching a pass, or taking a jet sweep around the end―could see his quick-twitch change of direction and natural playmaking skills on display. I think he could build on an intriguing rookie campaign in 2020.
TE Ian Thomas, Panthers
Thomas is one of a handful of talented-but-still-developing tight ends (including Blake Jarwin, Chris Herndon, and Irv Smith) available in the later rounds who could earn more prominent fantasy roles in 2020. Among that group, Thomas checks in as the cheapest―he’s currently ranked the TE24 with an ADP of 226th overall in PPR formats―making him one of my favorite last-round pickups. Thomas has caught 52 passes for 469 yards and three touchdowns over his first two seasons for the Panthers, playing mostly in a backup role behind Greg Olsen. With Olsen gone to Seattle, Thomas has a chance to become Carolina’s seam-running mismatch creator.
Why he’s going so late: Drafters evidently still harbor doubts that Thomas’s breakthrough performance is coming this year. He has languished behind Olsen for most of his first two seasons, and when he’s gotten opportunities to start, his numbers have been inconsistent. It also doesn’t help that Carolina’s offense is a massive question mark, with a new coaching staff in place and a new quarterback under center. There’s just a lot of uncertainty around the third-year pro.
Why he could outplay expectations: Thomas has shown flashes that indicate he’s destined for a fantasy breakout. He’s big, he can move (he ran a 4.74 40-yard dash and jumped 36 inches in the vertical at the combine in 2018), and he has put together a handful of intriguing performances in his short career, including a nine-catch, 77-yard game against the Browns in 2018 and a five-catch, 57-yard, one-touchdown outing against the Falcons last year. Thomas has the inside track to the starting tight end job in Carolina, where he could emerge as a reliable underneath target for Teddy Bridgewater. Bridgewater has relied heavily on short and intermediate passes for most of his career, but it’s promising too that the former Saints quarterback was efficient working the middle of the field at all three levels last year―an area that Thomas has the skill set to exploit. Thomas won’t cost you much, and it wouldn’t be too surprising if he walks into 80 targets this year.
RB Ryquell Armstead, Jaguars
Armstead is one of my favorite late-round fliers, a smart hedge against Leonard Fournette’s waning primacy. Fournette’s job security as the Jaguars’ lead back is questionable heading into the season―GM Tom Coughlin is out, OC Jay Gruden is in, and Fournette is in his contract year after the team declined his fifth-year option. The team could move to a heavy running-back-by-committee approach under Gruden, which would certainly benefit Armstead, and there’s even a chance that Jacksonville will look to deal Fournette away before the season starts (or at some point during the year)―a scenario that’d likely push Armstead into the starter role.
Why he’s going so late: After shopping Fournette in the weeks before the draft, the Jaguars now appear content to head into the season with Fournette as their lead back. That clearly would limit Armstead’s role significantly. It’s also not clear that Armstead is the true handcuff option to Fournette, with Chris Thompson, Devine Ozigbo, and rookie James Robinson all in the picture as well.
Why he could outplay expectations: Jacksonville’s offseason decision-making speaks volumes. After first shopping Fournette, the team opted against using a draft pick on a running back, two choices that seem to indicate they’re high on their second-year backup. Armstead logged the second-most snaps among the team’s running backs last season, experience that could make him the most obvious choice as Fournette’s successor … if it comes to that. Armstead has the size to be the team’s early-down banger―he rushed for 108 yards on 35 carries as a rookie―and he flashed as a receiver too, hauling in 14 passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns. If Fournette steps aside, Armstead could inherit a three-down workload.
WR Randall Cobb, Texans
Cobb quietly racked up 83 targets in the Cowboys’ high-octane passing offense last year en route to the WR44 finish in PPR, scoring an average of 10.3 points per game in 15 outings. Now in Houston on a three-year, $27 million contract (another in a long line of puzzling Bill O’Brien moves), Cobb brings sneaky value as a late-round dart throw: Currently ranked as the WR76 (237th overall) in ADP, Cobb’s going to be a frequent last-round pick for me thanks to his potential to earn a bigger-than-expected role in the Texans’ passing attack in 2020.
Why he’s going so late: At 29, Cobb is no longer the dynamic hybrid player he was early in his career with the Packers, and the veteran pass-catcher heads into 2020 as the forgotten man in Houston―thanks in large part to the handful of higher-profile trades and signings executed by O’Brien over the offseason. With Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, and possibly even David Johnson and Kenny Stills above him in the passing game pecking order, Cobb projects as the team’s third or fourth option.
Why he could outplay expectations: The question of whether or not everyone can stay healthy is what makes Cobb a good late-round flier. Fuller has struggled to stay on the field his entire career, and again missed time in 2019 to hamstring and groin injuries. Cooks missed two games last year with a concussion and has suffered five documented concussions in six seasons. If either (or both) of the team’s top two receivers miss games, that could push Cobb into a primary role in the passing game. It’s likely that Cobb is already being drafted well below his floor as a low-end flex option in PPR leagues.
WR James Washington, Steelers
Washington quietly broke out for the Steelers during the second half of the season in 2019, shedding earlier troubles to emerge as a viable deep threat and playmaker for a mostly dysfunctional offense. The only thing about his breakthrough performance, though, is that apparently no one noticed that it happened. Fantasy drafters have instead been enamored of the very real upside of Diontae Johnson. Following his exciting rookie campaign, Johnson is currently coming off the board as the WR38, with an ADP of 101st overall. Washington, strangely, ranks as just the WR73 with an ADP of 236th overall.
If you look at the second half of both receivers’ 2019 seasons, though, that wide gulf is tough to reconcile. From Week 9 on, Johnson saw 54 targets, catching 34 passes for 384 yards and two touchdowns in nine games to rank as the WR39 in that stretch. Washington, meanwhile, saw 53 targets in that same period, catching 34 passes for 574 yards and three touchdowns to check in as the WR25.
Now, I’m not saying that Johnson doesn’t deserve the hype; I think Johnson could be a star (and it’s worth noting he wasn’t even 100 percent for most of his rookie season, playing through a groin injury from Week 2 on). What I am saying, though, is that Washington probably deserves more attention from fantasy drafters.
Why he’s going so late: Washington’s rookie season was a disaster, and it’s often tough to look past that poor of a performance. He’s also projected as the third option in Pittsburgh’s passing game in 2020, behind both JuJu Smith-Schuster and Johnson.
Why he could outplay expectations: It won’t be tough for Washington to out-play his current ADP of “free,” even as the third option in the Steelers’ passing game. With Ben Roethlisberger back under center, Pittsburgh has a chance to get back to its high-octane, downfield-attacking style again in 2020―and that could be a boon for a deep threat like Washington.
TE Gerald Everett, Rams
Everett looked well on his way toward a breakout campaign last year, highlighted by a six-game stretch from Week 4 to Week 10 in which he ranked as the TE7 in PPR after tallying 28 catches for 322 yards and two touchdowns. A knee injury brought Everett’s fantasy momentum to a screeching halt, though, and forced him to the sideline for a month late in the season. With Everett out of action, Tyler Higbee slid into a bigger role and took advantage―exploding for 43 receptions for 522 yards and two touchdowns over the team’s final five games—production that made him the overall TE1 in that stretch by a country mile. Higbee, who signed a four-year, $29 million deal before the 2019 season, now heads into 2020 as the team’s presumed starter, leaving Everett’s role—and his potential fantasy impact—a massive question mark.
Why he’s going so late: While Everett impressed during a short stretch in the middle of the season, Higbee’s late-season breakout is impossible to ignore. There’s still plenty of question marks around the latter player, of course, but the elite, top-end numbers Higbee posted down the stretch makes him the clear favorite for a featured role in L.A.’s passing game in 2020 and beyond. Everett, meanwhile, heads into his contract year looking like the fourth or fifth option behind Robert Woods, Cooper Kupp, and Higbee in the team’s passing attack.
Why he could outplay expectations: The fourth-year pro boasts top-end athleticism (he notched a 4.62-second 40-yard dash at the 2017 combine, which ranks in the 88th percentile for players at his position) and incredible elusiveness in the open field (he racked up 13 broken tackles on just 38 touches, per Pro Football Focus). We can’t rule out the idea that Everett, not Higbee, will take back the role of the team’s pass-catching tight end. That makes him worth a late-round flier.
WR Jalen Hurd, 49ers
Hurd is an intriguing breakout candidate in 2019, a positionless player who could don a number of different hats for the 49ers. The running-back-to-receiver convert is listed nominally as a receiver for San Francisco, but he can line up as a de facto tight end or running back, depending on the situation. After missing his entire rookie season to a back injury, Hurd will have to stay healthy to make a fantasy impact, but his upside in a Kyle Shanahan–designed offense is scintillating.
Why he’s going so late: He hasn’t played a down in the NFL, and it’s unclear exactly where he’ll land on the team’s receiver depth chart in 2020. His spectrum of potential outcomes is as broad as it gets: He could be a starter, a jack of all trades but master of none with limited fantasy relevance, or a bench warmer.
Why he could outplay expectations: Deebo Samuel’s status for the first half of the year is in limbo after suffering a Jones fracture in his foot, an injury that could help open the door for Hurd to play a major role in year two. The 6-foot-5, 229-pound pass-catcher will have to compete for snaps and targets with guys like Trent Taylor and Dante Pettis―both potential late-round draft picks to keep in mind too, by the way―but brings the ability to line up in the slot for the 49ers (where he primarily lined up in college), to bump even farther inside and run tight end routes over the middle of the field and up the seam, or even take some handoffs out of the backfield. The former five-star running back recruit for the Vols racked up 2,844 yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground in college.
Hurd is a great last-round pick who’d be easy to move on from early in the year if he ends up buried on the San Francisco depth chart. If he starts the year as a featured part of the 49ers’ offensive game plan, though, he could bring intriguing fantasy upside thanks to his ability to both catch passes and carry the ball as a runner.