Hitting on an under-the-radar player — before he becomes a waiver-wire darling — is one of the most thrilling experiences available to fantasy enthusiasts. The virtual game requires managers to sniff out these sleepers on a weekly basis. Most dart throws exist as band-aids, helping rosters hobble from one matchup to the next. Others, however, emerge as truly ascendent studs.
So which of 2020’s unexpected stars will continue to shine in the new year? Over the next few weeks, I’ll break it down by position. First up, QBs and TEs.
Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers
Was it a surprise that Justin Herbert ended 2020 as the Chargers’ starter? Nah. But not many expected him to take the field in Week TWO … and, in that effort, to lead the Chargers into OT against the Chiefs. Over 15 games, the former Duck fell outside of the top-12 fantasy producers just five times and averaged 23 fantasy points per game (QB10). Even when key offensive starters were unavailable, Herbert connected with backups, utilizing his arm strength, and showing keen awareness. As a result, he broke numerous (6) NFL rookie records and is the heavy favorite to take home the 2020 OROY title.
The former first-round pick will enter 2021 free of Anthony Lynn’s ultra-conservative play calling. While LA has yet to announce the team’s new HC, any of the rumored frontrunners would seriously charge the Bolts’ offense. Imagine Brian Daboll (or even Joe Brady) coaching up the 22-year-old gunslinger and actually encouraging the deep ball DGAF. Herbert could lead the league in money throws (QB6 in 2020), especially considering the surrounding offensive talent. There’s no way he isn’t drafted inside the top-10 (probably eight) FF studs at the position. It’s way too early, but I’ll take the over on 4,500 passing yards and 37 total TDs.
Jalen Hurts, QB, Philadelphia Eagles
Remember the beginning of the pandemic when people were getting loose with their styling — growing mustaches or dying their hair shocking pink? But then everyone realized we were going to be in this situation for more than a minute and they had to either walk it back or stock up on beard oil? They all had to decide on going back to what they knew (even if it was less than inspiring) or leaning into a new look (that required a different sort of upkeep and energy).
That’s the conundrum the Eagles are facing under center.
Before Doug Pederson’s firing, it seemed that Hurts would be the starter in 2021. Now, it’s not as clear. Per his appearance on The Michael Irvin Podcast, Troy Aikman (who spoke to Pederson after his dismissal) intimated that Jeff Lurie may feel he’s sunk too much money into Carson Wentz to cut bait just yet. From a fantasy POV, I know we’re not doing that again … regardless of the new HC. But it’s hard not to project Hurts as a legit fantasy factor in the new year, especially after the spark he provided to fake and IRL football squads a month ago.
The QB9 over the last five weeks of 2020, Hurts embodies the new-era signal caller. On the real-life football field, his legs can evade a pass rush even behind a banged-up offensive line. In the virtual game, that same skill set provides a Konami Code to managers seeking an advantage. Even with the fumbles and a dusty receiving corps, Hurts averaged 30 fantasy points per game over the three contests in which he played all four quarters.
He’s also a player that never seems fazed by the outside tumult. Whether it was losing his job to Tua Tagovailoa, moving to Oklahoma (where he ran in 20 scores), or taking over for Wentz, the Texas native has consistently demonstrated maturity and leadership skills well beyond his 22 years. There is plenty of drama to be had in the City of Brotherly Love before fantasy drafts kick off, but right now, it’s hard not to imagine considering Hurts a top-15 QB pick.
Mike Gesicki, TE, Miami Dolphins
Buzz surrounding Gesicki’s breakout potential has been mounting since he was drafted in 2018. His measurables — in tandem with his usage as a receiving weapon deployed via the slot — piqued fantasy managers’ interest heading into 2020. While the Penn State product posted top-seven numbers overall, he wasn’t unlocked until midway through the season when Tua got the start. From Weeks 9 through 17, Gesicki averaged over 7 looks per game and recorded five top-10 fantasy outings. Before the team’s Week 7 bye, however, he failed to clear five receptions, find the end zone, or finish inside the top-15 fantasy producers at the position. Fortunately for the 25-year-old (and dynasty enthusiasts), Tua is the future in Miami. Gesicki is a solid second-tier option and deserves to be ranked in the top six-to-eight range.
Robert Tonyan, TE, Green Bay Packers
Since Jordy Nelson’s release in 2018, speculation regarding Aaron Rodgers’ second-favorite receiving option has been brewing. Forget those MVS (the drops tho) versus The Lazard King (but the injuries) debates because Bobby T is the Thanksgiving Dinner winner. The QB turned WR turned TE was fourth in team targets but converted (see what I did there?) at a rate above 88 percent (TE1). Turning 59 looks into 52 catches, the Indiana State product was second in team receptions and scores (11).
Tight end is one of the most TD-dependent positions in fantasy. And chasing TDs is never prudent. Therefore, it’s unlikely that Tonyan posts top-four fantasy numbers again in 2021. Depending on how the postseason shakes out, however, he’s likely to be prominently featured again next season. While he is a RFA, I can’t imagine the undrafted local kid (he grew up in Northern Illinois) not wanting to stay with the organization. Nor can I fathom a player so favored near — and efficient in — the red zone not being re-upped. Right now, I’d rank him a low-end TE1, just outside of my top-10 players at the position. Fingers crossed that a splashy postseason showing doesn’t inflate his stock.
Logan Thomas, TE, Washington Football Team
There are plenty of narratives surrounding the Washington Football Team. Obviously, the emergence of a dominant defense is chief amongst them. But the offense is also building something special with Terry McLaurin, Antonio Gibson, and Logan Thomas developing into a capable nucleus. It seems the only missing piece is a QB. Admittedly, that’s a big piece, but I’m confident that Thomas can succeed regardless of who Washington starts under center. Because he’s done it all year.
Thomas is coming off a postseason effort in which he was second in team targets (9) with Taylor Heinicke starting, making the ODU product the fourth QB that Thomas has played with over the 2020 season. And remember, Thomas is a player who is still new to the tight end position. He transitioned from playing quarterback himself in 2016. Now he’s looking back on a 110 target (TE3) campaign in which he’s run an average of 36 routes per game (TE1). Thomas has produced, regardless of the situation. He’s top-three in receptions (4.5/gm) and top-seven in completed air yards. Those numbers are a testament to his plus athleticism, and an ability to successfully apply his pre-existing knowledge of route concepts. Heading into a contract year I’m boldly bullish on the vet. FF: 79-802-7
Which 2020 sleepers do you think have staying power? Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF