Fantasy Football: Cam Akers injury fallout plus Mike Williams, Elijah Moore and my favorite sleepers for 2021

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We knew the slow days of the offseason were coming to an end any day now, but on the day many rookies reported to camp Tuesday, we got some extremely unwelcome news about Rams second-year running back Cam Akers

Akers suffered a ruptured Achilles tendon and will have season-ending surgery in the coming days, a devastating end to his season before it even got a chance to begin. Dave Richard broke down the injury and what it means for the 2021 season and the Rams offense over on CBSSports.com, where he expresses plenty of skepticism about Darrell Henderson’s chances of stepping up to fill Akers’ shoes. You should check out his thoughts here, and then check out the Fantasy Football Today emergency podcast about Akers’ injury where Jamey Eisenberg seems to be a bit more optimistic about Henderson’s chances of being a must-start Fantasy RB:

That news obviously overshadowed everything else Tuesday, and you’ll get my thoughts on the situation below — including what it means for Akers in the long run. And, all I’ll say for now is, I hope Akers bucks the trend for running backs with Achilles injuries. However, that wasn’t the only thing we wanted to talk about today. I’ve got 10 of my favorite sleeper picks for the 2021 season a little lower in the newsletter, and we also had a special guest Liz Loza from Yahoo on the podcast to talk about the toughest players to rank, including Jalen Hurts, Saquon Barkley, and Joe Mixon, among many others. 

For the rest of the week, I’ll have my breakout and bust picks for the upcoming season Thursday and Friday, along with whatever news and notes trickle in from the official start of Cowboys and Steelers camp — all players will be reporting Wednesday morning. 

And then next week, we’re really in the thick of it. All veterans will report to camp — minus the holdouts like … Aaron Rodgers? — next Tuesday, and I’ll be switching to a Monday through Friday schedule for the FFT Newsletter. Draft season is about to begin. Let’s just hope we can avoid any more bad news for the time being. 

Akers Injury Fallout

To start with, this is just a huge bummer. That goes without saying, but in this instance, it’s particularly disappointing. Akers was one of the most exciting players in Fantasy. There was some disagreement about just how good he could be, but I think everyone wanted to see what he could do with the opportunity. 

Henderson will now step up into the lead back role for the Rams, and at least for now, they aren’t looking to bring any veteran running backs in. That leaves unproven guys like Xavier Jones, Jake Funk, and Raymond Calais as the options behind Henderson for now.

I’ve got Henderson basically sliding into Akers’ departed role, more or less, though given that he clearly gave way to Akers by the end of last season despite looking pretty solid in his own right, I’m baking in the assumption that he won’t have quite as heavy a workload. Still, he ends up as RB18 in my first run through projections, and I’d be willing to take him in the fourth round range in drafts right now. He isn’t as sure a thing to hang on to the role as Akers, and he hasn’t been able to stay healthy so far in his career, but Henderson definitely has top-12 upside. 

As for Akers’ long-term potential … this definitely complicates it. Ruptured Achilles are some of the toughest injuries for professional athletes to come back from, and the history for running backs is very, very tough. 

It’s hard to find a comprehensive list of running backs who have suffered an Achilles rupture, but I think I have a pretty definitive list and it is … ugly. So, so ugly:

  • LenDale White, 2010 (age 26) — Never played in the NFL again
  • Andre Brown, 2010 (24) — Out of the league by 2013
  • Mikel Leshoure, 2011 (21) — Out of the league by 2013
  • Earnest Graham, 2011 (31) — Never played again
  • Kendall Hunter, 2012 (24) — Played 16 games, had 80 touches in 2013, never played again
  • Beanie Wells, 2013 (26) — Never played again 
  • Vick Ballard, 2014 (24) — Had torn ACL in 2013, Achilles in 2014, never played again
  • Arian Foster, 2015 (29) — Cut midseason following year, never played again
  • Branden Oliver, 2016 (25) — Eight games the following season, never played again
  • D’Onta Foreman, 2017 (21) — Played one game in 2018, out of league in 2019, returned as reserve in 2020
  • Isaiah Crowell, 2019 (26) — Out of league
  • Marlon Mack, 2020 (24) — We’re still waiting to see, but … 

It’s about as bad as you could possibly imagine, but it’s also not quite as bad as all that makes it seem. The truth is, the sample size of running backs who suffered a ruptured Achilles is very small, and you can at least make the case that Akers’ combination of age, talent, and draft capital make him stand alone from this group. He’ll get more opportunities than a guy like Ballard did coming back from his injury, due to his place on the depth chart and how much the Rams invested in him in the draft. 

Of course, it’s also easier to say that the likes of Foreman or Leshoure just weren’t that good, or that Wells and Foster were already on their way out by the time of their injuries after we know how they fared. 

And you can point to the likes of Demaryius Thomas and Terrell Suggs or go cross-sport to Kevin Durant and find examples of players who came back from this injury and continued to thrive. This isn’t a zero-percent chance kind of injury, after all.

But, look for whatever evidence you can find — this piece I wrote back in 2015 about Achilles tears in the NBA, say, or actual research from medical/scientific journals written by people who are actually smart — and it mostly points to the same, troubling, but inescapable conclusion: A ruptured Achilles is one of the worst injuries a high-level athlete can come back from. There have been medical advances that make it more likely, but all things considered, this is just a really tough situation. . 

Chris’ favorite sleepers

I don’t know how you want to define a “sleeper.” Heck, I don’t even know how I want to define a “sleeper.” But, I’m gonna put it the same way Ted Lasso did when he was asked about the offside rule: “It ain’t easy to explain, but you know it when you see it.” 

Here are my favorite sleeper picks heading into the start of training camp. You don’t like my picks? Well, that’s okay! Heath Cummings’ sleepers are right here, and you can go ahead and read Jamey Eisenberg’s here. I’m sure you’ll find something you like!

  • Jake Funk/Xavier Jones, RB, Rams — There’s absolutely no clarity about the Rams backup situation now. Training camp will be telling, but right now, we’re looking at two seventh-round picks and an undrafted free agent. The Rams seem to like Jones, but he was just a special teams contributor last season. He did show an all-around skill set in college, though it’s not like he was a dominant force at SMU. I’m a little more excited about Funk, who tested very, very well at his Pro Day despite suffering two torn ACLs in his time at Maryland. Health is obviously a concern and he’s unproven as a pass-catcher, but I like the athletic profile. Ultimately, what it comes down to is, Henderson is unproven and hasn’t stayed healthy, and this could be a very good offense for running back production. This is an offense you want pieces of. 
  • Mike Williams, WR, Chargers — We’ve seen Williams dominate in the red zone. We’ve seen him be a hyper-efficient deep-ball specialist. The hope is, this is the year we see him put everything together. I’ve always liked the talent, but injuries have definitely made things tough for him — he only missed one game last season, but he left two others early. If you remove those two games, all of a sudden his 17-game pace looks like: 110 targets, 62 catches, 966 yards, and seven touchdowns. He’ll need to do better than that to be a starting-caliber wide receiver, but like with the Rams running backs, this is a passing game you obviously want a part of — Justin Herbert really does look like the next big thing — and Williams is way cheaper than his talent should be. 
  • Elijah Moore, WR, Jets — So, this isn’t necessarily an offense you need a piece of, obviously. Though, it’s also obvious that this Jets offense has as much room to grow as any in the league. Zach Wilson is an uber-talented QB who could very well have his own -Herbert-esque breakout. If he does, Moore is going to be a big part of that. Moore didn’t really start putting up huge numbers until last season, but he was magnificent, hauling in 86 passes for 1,193 yards and eight touchdowns in only eight games. He’s small, but he’s lightning quick, and has drawn plenty of praise so far from everyone around the Jets. He could very well be their No. 1 option in the passing game from Week 1.
  • Emmanuel Sanders, WR, Bills — The general assumption has been that second-year man Gabriel Davis is ready to step up and take on an even bigger role for the Bills, and he very well may be. But, I’d bet on Sanders being the No. 2 option in this offense, and that can be a very valuable role. Last season, Cole Beasley had 82 catches for 967 yards in 15 games, and while Beasley is still around, it sounded like Sanders was already ahead of him in the pecking order by spring minicamps. Sanders was still very effective in the low-volume Saints offense last season (74.4% catch rate, 8.9 yards per target), and now he’s in a pass-first, pass-second offense with the Bills. It’s another one of those offenses you want a part of, and Sanders is a cheap part. 
  • Rondale Moore, WR, Cardinals — I don’t quite know if the Cardinals passing game is ever going to be one you want a big part of, but I think Moore might be the catalyst if it does become that in 2021. He’s a perfect fit for how Kliff Kingsbury has run his offense because he’s an absolute dynamo with the ball in his hands. The Cardinals Moore is even smaller than the New York version at 5-foot-7, but that did not slow him down in his time at Purdue, where he averaged 8.9 catches per game over three seasons, with 71% of his yards coming after the catch. Injuries are a concern here, as well, but he might be perfectly suited to turn those short-area throws into big plays for the Cardinals, and might be the skeleton key that helps unlock Kyler Murray’s potential. This is a fast-paced offense that threw the ball 575 times, and Moore could step onto the field as the No. 2 option. 
  • Devontae Booker, RB, Giants — You can feel the Fantasy community is starting to get a little antsy about Saquon Barkley’s readiness for the season, as he continues to play coy about his potential timetable. I’m still working under the assumption that he’ll be something close to a full-go participant by Week 1, but Booker is a pretty good hedge if you aren’t sure. Booker isn’t a star, but he’s a rock-solid contributor across the board, and we just saw Wayne Gallman — who I’d argue is a tick less talented than Booker — emerge as a viable starting option for the Giants with Barkley out in 2020. If Barkley misses any time, Booker could be a must-start option. 
  • Taysom Hill, QB, Saints — If you’ve been reading this newsletter all offseason, you should know I’ve made no secret that my preference is for the Saints to start Jameis Winston at QB. I think he’ll be better for Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas‘ Fantasy value, while also being a pretty solid option in his own right. But, if we’re just talking about who will be the better Fantasy QB, I think it’s Hill. Despite being thrown into the starting lineup in the middle of the season in an offense made with Drew Brees in mind, he averaged 23.1 points per game in his four starts. With a full training camp to implement an offense around his skills, and I have no doubt Hill would be a top-10 QB for Fantasy. At least. 
  • Michael Gallup, WR, Cowboys — Gallup might be one of the most underappreciated wide receivers in the league. He had 1,107 yards in 2019, and while he took a step back in 2020 with the addition of CeeDee Lamb, there should be no doubt that this offense has room for three potential starting Fantasy WR if it is clicking at its highest level. For all the talk of how good Lamb was before Dak Prescott’s injury, it’s worth noting Gallup was on pace for 1,114 yards in the first five games of the season, and he didn’t need huge target numbers to do it. At his best, and with a healthy Prescott, Gallup is a super-efficient receiver who can do a lot with very few targets. And if you’re dinging him for perceived inconsistency, I feel like you’re missing the point — when you’re targeting a WR in the ninth round or later range, you’re looking for big weekly upside. In this offense, Gallup is going to have five or six boom weeks that could help carry you to victory. 
  • Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Dolphins — You get benched multiple times during a playoff run, people get to be skeptical of you. It’s only fair. But it’s also worth noting that the situation in Miami is so much better than it was last season following the offseason additions of Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle. This offense is going to have four big-play players on the field as Tagovailoa’s primary targets on nearly every snap, and he’s well situated to take a big step forward. Yeah, yeah, I understand why you’re excited about Joe Burrow. But Tagovailoa might be just as talented, and his situation might be nearly as good. Don’t forget about him. 
  • Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles* — *You know, for now. It seems almost assured that Ertz will be gone before the start of the season, and we’d love to see it for Dallas Goedert’s sake. But I’m not quite convinced Ertz can’t be a must-start tight end in his own right for at least one more season. He would need to land in the right spot — *cough cough* Indianapolis *cough cough* — but Ertz is just one year removed from 900 yards and six touchdowns in 15 games, and I think his struggles last season were as much about Carson Wentz and the offense as a whole as anything else. If you’re looking for a potential dead-cat bounce season, Ertz is freely available late in every draft. 

So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen’s huge season, and find out. 

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