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Time to Draft: Let's Talk Players & Rankings


Preseason Matchup Analysis

By Doug Orth | 8/29/23 |


Quarterbacks

Geno Smith

Drafters have been overlooking or completely dismissing Geno Smith, who is someone that managers need to prioritize in the second round of superflex drafts. It is one thing to assume that last year was a fluke except how often did a "fluky" quarterback lead the league in completion percentage? Or finish 10th in Pro Football Focus' passing grade under pressure? Or add the best receiver prospect in the draft (Jaxon Smith-Njigba) to a receiving corps that already had DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett? Even if Smith falls off a bit in 2023, consider the likelihood that he fails miserably in the first 10 games with zero yellow or red matchups with games against the Rams (twice), Lions, Panthers, Bengals (likely shootout) and Cardinals. The beauty of Smith's game is that he also adds plenty with his legs. After starting slow as a runner last year (15 yards through three outings), Smith averaged 25.2 yards on the ground over the remainder of the season (including playoffs). Amazingly, his 366 rushing yards ranked eighth among quarterbacks. His rushing touchdown luck was about the only thing that stunk about last year, as Smith was the only quarterback with at least 55 carries to not score at least three times as a runner. If it helps, think of him as discount Deshaun Watson. What is more: he may actually be a better fantasy quarterback than Watson this year!

Simply put, I do not buy into narratives nor do I care about them. If I were to buy into one, however, it might be the notion that "angry" Aaron Rodgers is a thing. No, he actually seems very relaxed in his first year as a Jet. With that said, I buy into the (likely) possibility that he would like nothing more than to use 2023 as a way to stick it to Green Bay. Another MVP season is probably not in the cards for the 39-year-old, but the possibility exists. Garrett Wilson may not have earned the right to be placed alongside Davante Adams or Jordy Nelson yet, but he might be well on his way to doing so. The Jets do not face an overly daunting schedule, although most of their difficult matchups come in their pre-bye weeks (Bills, Cowboys, Patriots, Chiefs, Broncos and Eagles). After that, Cleveland in Week 17 appears to be the fiercest secondary New York faces.

For the first time in my memory, the back-end QB2 market does not scare me. Most notably, fantasy managers should not hesitate to buy into Sam Howell. Most fantasy managers only know Howell as a fifth-round pick from the 2022 draft. In reality, he was considered a high first-round prospect in 2020 who fell in the eyes of scouts the following year because North Carolina could not replace Javonte Williams, Michael Carter, Dazz Newsome or Dyami Brown. Undeterred, Howell transformed his game that season and became a feared runner, compiling 828 yards and 11 touchdowns on the ground. Most people only seem to remember the 2021 version, incapable of leading a good passing attack. The Commanders also have a capable play-caller in Eric Bieniemy now, but the reason I expect Howell to surprise this year in the same way Geno Smith did last year is his supporting cast (namely Terry McLaurin, Jahan Dotson, Curtis Samuel and Antonio Gibson). Do not underestimate how eager Bieniemy is to prove himself either.

If the idea of Howell is too scary, then consider Brock Purdy. San Francisco's quarterback has arguably the best supporting cast in the league with Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, Brandon Aiyuk and George Kittle. The 49ers also boast one of the best play-callers in the league as well in HC Kyle Shanahan. The quarterback's main jobs are to merely stay healthy (something Jimmy Garoppolo could not do) and deliver the ball on time (something Trey Lance never got a chance to prove he could do). Purdy can do that and he did exactly that for the 49ers when his opportunity rose in Week 12. Regardless of your opinion of Purdy, the aforementioned quintet (including Shanahan) will not let him fail. About the only concern drafters should have with Purdy is whether his elbow can hold up for a full season.

Running Backs

Credible reports surfaced Monday (Aug. 28) that it is now more likely than not that Jonathan Taylor will be traded. It is anyone's guess at this point, but here are some thoughts on the matter: While Anthony Richardson's presence should open up running lanes for Taylor that never existed for him before in Indianapolis, it would seem unlikely that he would be able to match last year's career-low 28 receptions in an offense spearheaded by the rookie quarterback. That means Taylor would be almost entirely dependent on what he does on the ground to be viable in fantasy.

I do not question if Taylor will return to play at some point this season if the Colts hold on to him (he wants the accrued year so he can reach free agency faster). What I question is how thrilled he will be about it if he does not get the contract he wants (which Indianapolis has shown no hint of giving him). Yet, I do not know how fantasy drafters can pass on Taylor in the third round for the likes of Joe Mixon. Taylor could be traded at any time over the next two months, and I would argue any realistic landing spot would be better for him than his current situation. That is why RB8 feels like an almost perfect spot for him.

Update: Taylor remains a Colt on the PUP list and will miss at least the first four games. Doug has moved him down to RB27 in PPR leagues.

Depending on your point of view, there are roughly six or seven running backs that most fantasy managers feel good about drafting in the first two rounds of any format (maybe the first three rounds in superflex). Those players are Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler, Bijan Robinson, Nick Chubb, Tony Pollard, Saquon Barkley and Derrick Henry. After that, there seems to be a glut of maybe 20 backs who have managers divided for various reasons. Maybe for that reason alone, it is why 2023 is such a good season to grab one of the big seven running backs early and then go crazy on receivers and an elite tight end over the next 4-5 rounds (if not avoid running back entirely until Round 6).

The market is telling us that people expect Jahmyr Gibbs will be the next Alvin Kamara, but there is little doubt the rookie is being priced at his ceiling. Josh Jacobs' return has been treated as a fait accompli for months now, but have we forgotten what typically happens to backs coming off high-usage seasons? Or what typically happens to players who report late? Meanwhile, is there any question that players such as Breece Hall, Dameon Pierce, J.K. Dobbins and David Montgomery are being priced close to their floor? There was already reason to doubt Hall due to his knee and that was before the Jets added a four-time Pro Bowler in Dalvin Cook to be his backup/sidekick. One has to think that Cook was given reason to believe he would be involved all season to turn down a chance to go back home (Miami) and be a clear lead back again.

The hesitation with the other three backs boggles my mind, however. Preseason usage does not mean everything, but Houston is sending out all of the signs that Pierce will be featured. Devin Singletary was never able to secure lead-back duties in Buffalo for any length of time, so why would he serve as a major threat to one of the elite tackle-breakers from last season? I have already spoken at length in previous weeks about Montgomery, so there is no need to rehash what he can bring to the table. Let us just leave it at this: fantasy managers have a very good chance to secure three top-20 receivers, a top-five tight end, a top-five quarterback and two top-20 running backs this year if they simply allow their league-mates to follow the masses and let Pierce and Montgomery slide into the sixth-round area.

In the off-chance Montgomery flies off the board before Round 7 (I do not recall a time in one of my drafts when he does not), J.K. Dobbins is usually still there. Dobbins has his injury issues, but a bit of research reveals that 26 of the 28 games he has missed during his three-year NFL career were the product of the devastating knee injury he suffered during the 2022 preseason. To this point in his professional career, Dobbins operated in a predictable run-based offense that moved at a slow pace. Despite that, he still managed to be one of the most efficient runners in league history. Now, he enters a season in which Baltimore will open opportunities for him as a runner and a receiver. Even if his opportunities as a receiver fail to come to fruition (Justice Hill?), his rushing upside should be enough to give managers a solid RB2 return in the sixth or seventh round.

Drafts are often made by hitting on players in the late rounds, so allow me to discuss a few (RB40 or after) that I expect to come through big for their fantasy managers. In case readers missed my draft profile on Tyjae Spears, here is a quick summation: he is good. I liked my comparison to Tony Pollard this spring and I stand by it even more now. Tennessee was supposedly trying to lighten the load on Derrick Henry in recent years, but Spears gives the team a reason to do so. He is the complement to Henry that the Titans wanted Darrynton Evans and Dontrell Hilliard to be. Durability - specifically his knee issues - figures to be a concern for as long as Spears is in the NFL, but he is one of those "one-away" backs that I like to target in the double-digit rounds.

Since I have already discussed Sean Tucker and Rico Dowdle in previous columns, allow me to move on to Zamir White and Evan Hull. White was mentioned briefly in last week's article, but the return of Josh Jacobs does not change much in my mind. There is no guarantee Jacobs is a happy camper now, plus we have the aforementioned 2022 heavy workload and 2023 late-report concerns. If the season goes downhill for the Raiders as many expect it to, what will keep Las Vegas from moving away from a running back who will likely leave in free agency after the season and see what it has in White? Something else that is not being discussed nearly enough: the likelihood that White will steal some of the volume that made Jacobs such a fantasy superstar in 2022 even if he does stay healthy.

Fantasy analysts have seemingly become beholden by the almighty NFL Combine workout numbers of running backs, so allow me to do so with Evan Hull:



Courtesy of the Twitter legend Kent Lee Platte (@MathBomb), we can compare Hull to arguably the best running back prospect in recent memory in Bijan Robinson. Shocking, no? No one is comparing Hull to Robinson as an overall prospect per se, but I believe Hull has an outside chance of becoming a poor man's Austin Ekeler at some point. He will have his work cut out for him to do that in the Colts' new offense, but the upside is that if Jonathan Taylor is traded, Hull only has to compete with Deon Jackson and Zack Moss for touches. (It should not take HC Shane Steichen & Co. long to figure out which one of the three threatens defenses the most.) Even if Taylor returns, Hull's college profile suggests he should emerge as the primary passing-down back for a team that figures to be in negative game script more often than not in 2023.

Wide Receivers

A part of the fantasy population has been slow to embrace Calvin Ridley due to his time away from the game and competition for targets in Jacksonville. Take advantage. While both are valid reasons to hesitate to spend a high draft choice on a player, he is primed to return to the high-end WR1 ranks. Not only should he enjoy the best quarterback play of his career in 2023, but the foot issue that bothered him when we last saw him in 2021 has also been fixed. My fear is not that I have him ranked too high at WR12, but rather that I have him too low. If preseason usage tells us anything, Christian Kirk may end up taking the biggest hit from a fantasy perspective and Zay Jones (yes, him again) may be poised for another surprising season. I am not sure I am fully buying into that logic, but it is something to keep in mind.

As you can tell from the SSI scores, there is little separating a glut of receivers between WR21-26. Of that bunch, Diontae Johnson is the most likely to explode. First of all, we have already seen his upside. Keep in mind that Johnson has performed incredibly well for a player who played his first three years with a declining Ben Roethlisberger and his fourth season with a rookie quarterback behind a bad offensive line and mostly unimaginative play-caller. Perhaps more importantly, Kenny Pickett started showing signs of life near the end of last season and appeared much more in tune with the offense during the preseason. Johnson's ability to attract targets (at least 144 in three straight seasons) is not up for debate. Johnson's hands have betrayed him somewhat over the years, but his biggest issue has been the quality of targets and their depth (last year's average depth of target of 10.2 was a career high by a full yard). If Pickett can stretch the field even a little and Johnson enjoys some degree of positive touchdown regression, a top-15 finish is definitely in the cards.

Jahan Dotson

I have most of my drafts coming up over the next 1 1/2 weeks. I am ashamed to say I have yet to draft Jahan Dotson, Jordan Addison or Zay Flowers. That needs to change. Dotson was already a worthy WR3 option before Terry McLaurin injured his toe last week. Even though he missed five games last year, he still managed seven TDs with average-at-best quarterback play. No one is expecting Sam Howell to set the world on fire, but he should be better than anyone Dotson had throwing him the ball in 2022. McLaurin will remain the clear alpha for the foreseeable future and should prove it once again when he is 100 percent healthy, but that does not mean Dotson will not get his early and often.

It has been difficult for me to bump Addison any higher than I have had him because he will share the field with one receiver who is a virtual lock to see 150-plus targets (Justin Jefferson) and a tight end likely to see well over 100 (T.J. Hockenson). K.J. Osborn may end up playing more snaps than Addison because of his ability to stretch the field and block. Nevertheless, Addison has 100-target upside and should be able to do more with his looks than his predecessor (Adam Thielen) did. The problem with saying that is Thielen ranked 10th in the NFL last year in red zone targets despite being a shell of his former self. Do those targets now go to Hockenson? Or can Addison earn the same kind of trust from Kirk Cousins inside the 20 that Thielen had?

By virtue of his place on my Big Board, Flowers is my top-ranked Baltimore wideout. However, can Flowers really ascend to that title in the first month of the season? Perhaps he is the new Marquise Brown in the Ravens' offense, but Baltimore also never had the likes of Odell Beckham Jr. AND (a healthy) Rashod Bateman flanking Brown when he was still a Raven. Bear in mind that Mark Andrews remains the focal point of the passing game, so the question becomes how much new OC Todd Monken wants to force-feed the rookie at the expense of two more established receivers.

There are many position battles and/or camp competitions that carry into the regular season every year. One of the more notable this year is for the WR3 spot with the Chargers. At least for now, it appears Josh Palmer enters the season well ahead of Quentin Johnston. How long that will remain the case remains to be seen (remember when Bisi Johnson was holding off Justin Jefferson?), but this development should explain why Johnston is now listed in WR6 territory. Given how much of a lead Palmer seems to have over Johnston right now, there is a distinct possibility Johnston will do no better than split time with Palmer when everyone is healthy in Los Angeles. It may take an injury to Keenan Allen or Mike Williams for Johnston to be worth even a bench spot in 12-team leagues - at least early in the season.

Tight Ends

It took a while for me to come around on Dallas Goedert as a top-five tight end, but my eyes are open now. One of my biggest problems with him previously was durability (missed at least two games in each of the last three years and 12 total over that same span). Those missed games were largely responsible for his inability to break into the elite tier of the position. Perhaps more poor injury luck is in store, but what cannot be ignored is how consistent of a performer he has been with Jalen Hurts as his quarterback. Further consider Goedert was on a 17-game pace of 78 catches for 995 yards and four touchdowns last year. While Goedert may not be able to go toe-to-toe with the Travis Kelces of the world, he will more than hold his own most weeks. There is also unrealized upside with him because he comes attached to what should be one of the best offenses in the league again this year. If the Eagles throw more this season as expected), he could be primed for a career year.

It does not seem possible on a roster that has Foster Moreau, Taysom Hill and Jimmy Graham, but Juwan Johnson may be the tight end outside the top 10 most likely to emerge as a top-five option in 2023. That may not sound like a big deal since he registered a TE14 finish despite a late rise to prominence in 2022, but even the most passionate Johnson supporter would acknowledge it would be hard for him to average a touchdown every six catches again this season. The drumbeat has been steady for him all offseason, however, as beat reporters continue to echo the same thing we saw at the end of last season from him: defenses have no answer for the 6-4, 231-pound former receiver.

My interest was piqued in his 2023 prospects during the offseason when Johnson told reporters that he was studying Julian Edelman's tape. It is notable because Edelman made a living running option routes in New England. Option routes are not very common for tight ends because so few have the hip flexibility and quick feet necessary to do it. Another feather in Johnson's cap was the arrival of Derek Carr. Since Carr became a regular NFL starter in 2014, Raiders tight ends saw at least 100 targets in all but one year. The Saints probably have too many weapons for Johnson to push for that many targets this year, but there is a strong possibility he will emerge as Carr's favorite red zone weapon. After all, he tied for the team in 2022 with 11 last year.

 


Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and has appeared as a guest analyst on several national sports radio shows and podcasts, including Sirius XM's Fantasy Drive, FantasyPros and RealTime Fantasy Sports. He is also a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.





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