Third-year wide receiver sleepers to watch for fantasy in 2021

While we all dream of filling out rosters with the hottest names in fantasy football, successful managers are those who can routinely take advantage of suppressed values during the draft. Perhaps due to bad luck, injuries, or simply taking longer to adjust to the NFL game, several third-year receivers are now entering a make-it-or-break-it season. Whether sleepers or potential breakout candidates, here are a few fantasy wide receivers to keep in mind when on the clock in your drafts this summer.

How do you find sleeper candidates in fantasy football at wide receiver?

Before we dive into some names, it helps to focus on the key areas when looking for mid-to-late-round values. Otherwise, we are just throwing darts at random names.

A few factors to consider are players who have dealt with injuries. When making the leap to the NFL, every rep is critical. Missed time can derail a career faster than anything, as players have to play catch-up.

There is also a team-based factor to consider. Did the team go through a coaching change? If so, this would mean a whole new playbook and a potential role in the offense. NFL players, especially wide receivers, are creatures of habit. It is a timing-based position where they need to be in lock-step with their QB.

Also, look for guys who fit a certain athletic profile and had sustained college success. Those are indicators of talent and are a sign that they could replicate it at the NFL level.

You can get as granular as you like to focus on where you find the most success, but these are just a few examples that are worth considering.

Third-year wide receiver sleepers to watch for fantasy in 2021

Which wide receivers will take a step forward and prove valuable assets in 2021?

Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts

It has to happen this year, right? I have been a fan of Parris Campbell since he was terrorizing the Big Ten, but he has to be the poster child for unfortunate injuries. Campbell was limited to just seven games during his rookie season. He endured four separate injuries (sports hernia, hamstring injury, broken hand, and foot fracture), three of which required surgery.

In Week 2 of last season, the big one hit. Campbell suffered a season-ending MCL and PCL tear against the Vikings. In total, Campbell played in 9 games and caught 24 passes for 198 yards and 1 touchdown.

Campbell is cleared from the injury and has been a full participant throughout the spring workouts.

One of the most significant factors in favor of Campbell succeeding in 2021 is the acquisition of Carson Wentz. When paired with Frank Reich in 2016 and 2017, Wentz enjoyed the most success when targeting slot receivers. In 2016, Jordan Matthews generated 117 targets, 73 receptions, 804 yards, and 3 touchdowns. The following season was Nelson Ahgolor’s turn, with 62 receptions (95 targets) for 768 yards and 8 touchdowns.

Wentz loves to target slot receivers, and given Campbell’s ability after the catch (4.31 40-yard dash), he could easily be an 80-target receiver with 700 yards in 2021. His talent and opportunity will allow Campbell to outperform his WR70 (188.8) ADP vastly, making him one of the top wide receiver sleepers in 2021 for fantasy football.

Deebo Samuel, San Francisco 49ers

As a rookie, Deebo Samuel recorded a sensational season. He finished with 966 yards and 6 total touchdowns, catching 57 of 81 targets in 15 games. In 2020, Samuel hauled in 33 of his 44 targets for 391 yards and 1 score in seven games.

There is no question he benefited from the absence of George Kittle last year. Still, Samuel has just as good of a chance of being the WR1 on the team as anyone. While his aDOT (average depth of target) is comically low at 2.3 yards, his 12.2 yards after the catch per reception was the fourth-highest in the NFL in 2020.

When combined with a 75% catch rate and the likelihood of Trey Lance under center for most of the season, Samuel is a third-year fantasy breakout candidate at wide receiver. While just on the cusp of “sleeper status,” I am more than happy selecting Samuel at his current WR40 (95.9) ADP, which is nearly three rounds later than teammate Brandon Aiyuk.

Jakobi Meyers, New England Patriots

There is no beating around the bush that the New England Patriots were awful as a passing offense in 2020. However, despite their struggles, Jakobi Meyers was an under-the-radar revelation.

He led the Patriots’ receivers in virtually all categories, totaling 59 receptions on 81 targets (19.2% share) for 729 yards. Yet, the third-year receiver failed to score a touchdown. In fairness, it took until Week 11 for New England to throw their first touchdown to a WR.

When we look at Meyers, the 14 games played last season are misleading. In reality, Meyers played in only 11 games. Furthermore, he saw just 22 snaps in the first three games combined — he was inactive or DNP in Weeks 4 and 6. From a per-game basis, this is massive.

Meyers totaled 45 yards or more in nine of 11 games (81.8%), including two with 110+ yards. From Week 7 and on, Meyers was the WR22 in PPR formats with 12.8 ppg while averaging 7.3 targets, 5.3 receptions, and 65.6 yards. These are not numbers to overlook.

Although the team added Nelson Agholor and Kendrick Bourne at receiver, Meyers should be the uncontested slot receiver on an offense that can only get better. Still, even with all of his success, Meyers is the WR98 (279 ADP) in PPR drafts at the moment. How many other WRs in this range have the upside to lead their team in receiving? At this point, Meyers is an auto-pick for me at his current value and is one of the best sleeper wide receivers you can select in fantasy football.

Mecole Hardman, Kansas City Chiefs

Is this the year that Mecole Hardman breaks out? I say yes. Entering 2021, Sammy Watkins is now in Baltimore, and the Chiefs have virtually no playmakers outside of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.

While playing on just 44% of the snaps last season, Hardman recorded 41 receptions (62 targets) for 560 yards and 4 touchdowns. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the most consistent WR in fantasy, as he finished the WR61 (128.1) in PPR formats while averaging 8.0 pts/game. With that said, his snap percentage is likely to be closer to 80% in 2020, and his quarterback is the Patrick Mahomes.

Anytime I can add someone likely to see 80-plus targets from Mahomes, I will do it 100% of the time, especially at Hardman’s current 147.7 ADP (WR54).

It’s all or nothing for the Chiefs wideout in 2021, but I am projecting the third-year wide receiver puts it all together as a breakout fantasy football sleeper.

Jalen Hurd, San Francisco 49ers

Jalen Hurd is the deepest of deep third-year fantasy football sleepers at wide receiver. In fact, he has never played a single snap in the NFL. But I can’t help but think about what Hurd can do if he stays healthy in 2021. A third-round pick in 2019, Hurd missed his rookie season with a back injury. Then, before the start of 2020, Hurd tore his ACL and was once again sidelined for the year.

Every bit of news coming out of camp is raving about Hurd and where he is at physically. He brings a skill set that you simply can not teach. First off, he is 6’4″ and 230 pounds. He clocked a 4.64 40-yard dash at his pro day, which is not bad for a player that size. Here is the kicker — he was a running back in college, not a receiver. While at Tennessee, he totaled 2,635 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. He was less than 400 yards short of becoming Tennessee’s all-time leading rusher.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense is predicated on getting playmakers in space and letting yards pile up after the catch. This is why both Aiyuk and Samuel fit the same profile. However, Hurd is a bigger version of both of them. The 49ers have an open competition for the WR3 role on their offense, and Hurd could be that guy while presenting either Jimmy Garoppolo or Lance a substantial red-zone target (77 5/8″ wingspan).

Hurd is a complete dart throw going undrafted in fantasy, but he fits the mold of someone I would take a shot on as a sleeper. The odds aren’t great, but it also didn’t cost anything. I’ll take a few shots on Hurd as a third-year sleeper in 2021 and hope the converted wide receiver can finally live up to the expectations.

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Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football and a member of the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association). You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.