Fantasy football draft season is just around the corner! Over the last few years, managers who’ve put a greater emphasis on grabbing rookies in their drafts have been rewarded with late-round bargains like Isiah Pacheco, Elijah Mitchell or James Robinson. Of course, a big part of that success is picking the right players in the right situations with their respective NFL franchises.
Also, the reality of this fantasy situation is that there are far more disappointments than rookies who blow up in the stat sheets. It’s not exactly finding a needle in the proverbial haystack, but knowing what to look for (depth charts, personnel, etc.) can help us avoid busts and hit on some rookies in the late rounds.
In an effort to make some significant late-round gains in drafts, here’s my look at eight deep rookie sleepers who could exceed expectations in Year One.
Note: Players are listed based on current average draft position (ADP) data.
Roschon Johnson, RB, Bears
Johnson landed in a spot where he could compete for a prominent role in the Windy City. The Bears have both Khalil Hebert and D’Onta Foreman ahead of him, but the rookie runner might cause the latter to be released or move down the depth chart. If that happens, Johnson's stock would certainly increase. This will be a committee regardless, but Johnson is interesting as a flier in redrafts.
Jayden Reed, WR, Packers
Reed should get a chance to serve as the No. 3 wideout in Green Bay behind Christian Watson and Romeo Dobbs. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we really don’t know what to expect from new No. 1 quarterback Jordan Love as a passer. Still, Reed is a deep sleeper in a Packers pass attack looking for playmakers to emerge in camp. Consider him late as a No. 5 wideout.
Tank Bigsby, RB, Jaguars
Bigsby rushed for over 2,000 combined yards and 20 touchdowns in his final two seasons at Auburn. An elusive, powerful runner, he could be used as a goal-line runner for the Jaguars in his rookie year. He’ll have some work to do with D’Ernest Johnson and JaMycal Hasty also in the backfield mix, but Bigsby has a shot to etch out a role and become Travis Etienne’s primary fantasy handcuff.
Chase Brown, RB, Bengals
The Bengals appear set to open the season with Joe Mixon as their No. 1 running back (that wasn’t always clear in the offseason), but Brown could be relevant in fantasy drafts. That’s due to the fact that Brown could end up winning the No. 2 spot on the depth chart ahead of Trayveon Williams and Chris Evans. In that scenario, we could see Brown getting drafted late as Mixon’s handcuff.
Luke Musgrave, TE, Packers
Musgrave battled multiple injuries in college, but when he was out on the gridiron, he was productive. A huge target at 6’6” and 253 pounds, he will compete with fellow rookie Tucker Kraft for the top spot on the Packers depth chart after the loss of Robert Tonyan. Questions abound in the Packers’ pass attack, so Musgrave will be an interesting late-round flier in redraft leagues this season.
Cedric Tillman, WR, Browns
Tillman had a fantastic collegiate season in 2021, posting over 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. He played in just six games last year, though, as he dealt with a high-ankle sprain. The Browns are somewhat crowded at wide receiver after adding Elijah Moore via trade, but that doesn’t mean Tillman can’t make some noise at times as a matchup-based fantasy option in Year One.
Israel Abanikanda, RB, Jets
Abanikanda landed in a tough spot, as the Jets are loaded at running back with guys like Breece Hall, Michael Carter and Zonovan Knight all in the mix. Hall is coming off a torn ACL, however, and his status for the start of the regular season is in question. If he isn’t ready to roll, Abanikanda could earn some early-season fantasy appeal as the Jets’ potential starting runner in the interim.
Deuce Vaughn, RB, Cowboys
Vaughn is tiny at just 5’5”, but his stats at Kansas State were huge. The Cowboys were expected to sign or draft an established running back to replace Ezekiel Elliott and pair with Tony Pollard, but instead the team grabbed a boom-or-bust back in Vaughn. He did land in a good spot, but his size is a huge concern. With only Ronald Jones ahead of him beyond Pollard, Vaughn is a player to watch.