As I do every year, allow me to reluctantly engage in a bit of a
humble brag before we get into the heart of what I believe is the
best draft-day tool around. (Yes, I am biased.) I have been playing
in money leagues for more than 20 years and in high-stakes leagues
($1,000-plus entry) for about 15 years. I have played in those high-stakes
leagues during the leanest of times, and I did so in part because
I knew I had an advantage over my competition. Does it always result
in a championship? Of course not. However, I win roughly one of
every six leagues I enter and have never had a season in which I
lost money. Does that mean it cannot happen? Of course not. With
that said, I will stack my success (and the success of many of my
readers) against anyone else's in the industry.
Football is simple at its very core but a very complex game to
evaluate and analyze because 11 men try to work in harmony roughly
60 times per game, while 11 other men make it their job to disrupt
that harmony. Pro football is not pro basketball in that a team
can clear out one side of the court when things break down and
the offense can still score. Pro football is also not pro baseball
in that one player can defeat a pitcher and eight fielders by
timing his swing just right. Even as great as Barry Sanders was,
he never beat a defense all by himself. In football, every player
needs some help to accomplish his goal. That is part of what makes
football so great and part of what makes it so highly unpredictable.
The violence of the game - even by the tamer standards now - adds
another element to the equation that is difficult to quantify.
Regardless, it does not mean we should not try. Over the last
month, I have evaluated the weekly matchups for 500-plus players.
Analyzing matchups alone requires me to make more than 8,000 "decisions".
Each year, my goal is to give those who put their faith in my
evaluations the confidence they have the best draft-day tool at
their disposal. Even if my grading process is only 70 percent
accurate, that is still a significant advantage over any analyst
that does not consider it at all.
Fantasy football is a stock market game, and the job of an analyst
is to identify when stocks are poised to skyrocket or ready to
tank. While last year's results help fantasy managers/analysts
set the table for the following season, they are merely a starting
point. Fantasy rankings and drafting need to be predictive, not
reactive. I have taken this approach for more than 15 years. While
some of the processes have changed in that time, the main goal
The Success Score Index (SSI) below is powered
in large part by my target and carry predictions. As always, the
matchup grades are included in the algorithm. SSI allows me to
compare apples to oranges across positions. Perhaps just as importantly,
I have been able to eliminate most of the guesswork across different
scoring systems (PPR, standard, etc.).
For all of those unfamiliar with my Big Boards, allow me to explain
the color-coding system before we start:
Red – For lower-level players, a red matchup
is the most difficult one a player can face. For a second- or
third-tier player, drop your expectations for them at
least one grade that week (i.e. from WR2 to WR3). For
elite players, expect them to perform one level lower than their
usual status (i.e. RB1 performs like an RB2).
Yellow – For lower-level players, he is a borderline
start at best. For a second- or third-tier player, the slight
edge goes to the defense in what is essentially a toss-up. For
the elite players, expect slightly better than average production.
White – This one can go either way, but I favor
the player over the matchup. Generally speaking, these matchups
are winnable for all levels of players.
Green – For non-elite players, the stage is
set for a player to have a productive day. For the elite player,
this matchup could produce special numbers.
Note: Players with a
next to their name have some degree of injury/character/holdout
concern. In addition, I have added distinct tiers for this round
of Big Boards (represented by the different colors in the "FPos"
New this year is a "Vol" column, which reflects the
volatility of my ranking. In short, the confidence I have in the
player to move into the next tier - be it good or bad.
Over the next two weeks, I will release my second and final
round of Big Boards for Half-PPR, Non-PPR, FFPC and Superflex
leagues. I will rank at least 225 players for each one and present
my final rankings for kickers and defense/special teams as well.
Here is the scoring
system that I used to rank the players in the PPR format:
Note: I stopped at 27 quarterbacks and 26 tight ends because
so few leagues roster more than that at either position. This also
allows the Big Board to provide more running back and receiver options.
Tier 1 (dark blue)
Assuming Tyreek Hill can avoid any further off-field trouble,
the top five players on the board are rock-solid foundation pieces
for a fantasy football team. The four receivers in this tier all
have a realistic shot of topping 1,500 receiving yards, scoring
at least 10 touchdowns or both. As far as Christian McCaffrey
is concerned, any worry about his durability - or a loss of important
touches to Elijah Mitchell - pales in comparison to what his upside
is as the most complete running back in the game who enters the
season with a firm grasp of HC Kyle Shanahan's offense. While
Shanahan is unlikely to run McCaffrey into the ground, we can
still dream of what might be possible if CMC handled a steady
dose of 25 touches in an offense designed by one of the best play-callers
in the game.
It is not as if the top tier lacks question marks, but they don't
have many. While Justin
Jefferson could theoretically lose some targets to rookie
and T.J. Hockenson,
a case can also be made that their presence only increases his
Chase needs Joe
Burrow (calf) to be healthy all year to realize his immense
upside. Only time will tell if that happens, but Cincinnati's
Super Bowl window is open right now and the team knows it. The
Bengals will do everything in their power to make sure Burrow
stays on the field.
Cooper Kupp comes with the most risk of the top three wideouts
as a 30-year-old receiver - who is recovering from a recent hamstring
injury no less - tied to an aging quarterback in Matthew Stafford.
With that said, he is averaging well over 10 targets per game
since Stafford joined the Rams before the 2021 season. Even though
camp reports have been positive on rookie Puka Nacua, Tutu Atwell
and Van Jefferson, the Rams could lean on Kupp more than ever
this year. No one should be surprised if he leads the league in
targets for the second time in three seasons. If he plays all
17 games, he stands a great chance of finishing as the overall
Tier 2 (yellow)
There was a time that picking in the middle to late part of the
first round felt like fantasy managers were constantly working
from behind because of the incredible advantage players like Marshall
Faulk, LaDainian Tomlinson or even Priest Holmes gave their managers.
Such is not the case anymore, as a late first-round pick often
means managers can create an early advantage on their league-mates
by pairing a top-five running back with a top-eight receiver.
In fact, I chose the No. 11 pick in the 14-team King's Classic
on Aug. 12 specifically because I was guaranteed to land two players
inside my first two tiers. (I have 18 players in my first two
Austin Ekeler, Nick Chubb, Bijan Robinson and Tony Pollard can
all make strong cases for being the overall RB1 in fantasy this
year. Chubb and Robinson - along with Derrick Henry - are probably
the best bets to exceed 300 touches. While Ekeler will almost
certainly not score at least 18 touchdowns for a third straight
season or come anywhere close to repeating last year's 107 receptions,
his TD and catch upside remains very high in what figures to be
one of the best offenses in the league. Pollard is a projection
to be sure, especially since he is widely expected to have his
touches managed more than Ezekiel Elliott in his prime. Pollard's
ability to maintain his efficiency will be key, although the Cowboys
could help him out in that regard by bumping up his usage in the
passing game (101 targets over the last two seasons combined).
It will be a disappointing season for his managers if Pollard
hovers around the 39-catch mark for a third straight year.
For the sake of maintaining balance as long as possible throughout
the draft, however, it is recommended that managers only take
one of the aforementioned running backs in the first two rounds
and use the other pick to select the best receiver on the board.
(That does not mean reaching for someone like Keenan Allen in
the second round if there is a massive receiver run, however.)
Elite running backs possess the most upside in fantasy year after
year, but all but a handful are no longer stable assets anymore.
Elite receivers are more stable, more durable as a whole and nearly
impossible to acquire via trade during the season. (Perhaps it
helps to think of running backs as volatile tech stocks and receivers
as mutual funds.) A RB-WR or WR-RB start allows drafters to keep
their options open over the next few rounds. A WR-WR start is
also advisable in leagues that start three receivers because it
enables managers to create an early positional advantage and reduces
the risk that comes along with relying so heavily on running backs.
The only way I will start RB-RB for the foreseeable future is
if I am certain both backs are getting 300 touches.
The positional advantage alone that Travis Kelce offers makes
him worth a mid-first round pick, although I tend to believe the
wide gap that existed between him and the rest of the tight ends
last season will shrink considerably in 2023. At least in my mind,
drafting Kelce would almost lock me into three straight receiver
picks after that - assuming a workhorse runner does not slide
- to increase the advantage over teams drafting multiple running
backs in the first four rounds. The running back position falls
off considerably after about the top seven, so it makes sense
to push the risk that comes with drafting them back into the middle
rounds at that point.
Six of the seven wideouts in this tier are their team's unquestioned
alpha receiver, while the seventh (Jaylen
Waddle) could draw even with Hill in the next year. Waddle
is without question the one receiver from this group that concerns
me the most, in part because of how much opportunity he loses
to Hill and how dependent he is on Tua
Tagovailoa staying healthy. He is a prime example of one of
the idioms I repeat in some form every year about backs and receivers:
just because all 12 teams in your league need one does not mean
there are 12 of them who deserve the title. Waddle could join
that surefire WR1 group this year, but he profiles much more as
a solid WR2.
Tier 3 (green)
For the risk-taking fantasy manager, this might be the juiciest
Tier 3 group we have had in a while. Perpetual first-round draft
choice Derrick Henry tends to go in the mid-to-late second round
due to age and offensive line concerns, but it should surprise
no one if he adds another 300-plus carries to his resume in 2023.
Jonathan Taylor, who was granted permission to seek a trade Monday
(Aug. 21), may not possess overall RB1 upside, but it is a reasonable
bet he would be going in the late first round if he were a happy
camper. He can be had in the early-to-mid third round now. New
England's addition of Ezekiel Elliott has some managers backing
away from Rhamondre Stevenson, but the argument for him is that
he was electric last year in a horrible offense. He is now the
centerpiece of what should be a much better offense this season.
I will go so far as to say Stevenson lasting in the third round
is one very good reason why fantasy managers should almost embrace
a WR-WR or even a TE-WR start.
Calvin Ridley and Chris Olave are probably deserving of being
Tier 2 receivers, although both enter this season with enough
question marks - namely the amount of talent that exists on their
NFL team - to leave them in this tier. Ridley should be the unquestioned
top receiver in Jacksonville in 2023, but is he so much better
than Christian Kirk that he will command a 25-28 percent target
share? Will he make Evan Engram irrelevant in the red zone? I
have my doubts, even though I expect Ridley to be a stud. As far
as Olave is concerned, will Derek Carr rely on him as heavily
as Jameis Winston and Andy Dalton did? Does he get enough easy
short targets? Michael Thomas is back (for now) to earn targets
and Juwan Johnson appears to be a favorite of Carr's this summer.
Much like every other receiver in this tier, Ridley and Olave
are passable fantasy WR1 options but much better WR2s.
This tier features the first two elite options at quarterbacks.
Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen offer massive upside and are among
the handful of quarterbacks fantasy managers want in their lineup
when they are staring at a 30-point deficit. My only concern with
investing a third-round selection at quarterback is how it affects
the team-building process for the rest of the draft. It is not
hard to make a case that nine or 10 quarterbacks have elite upside
- albeit not as often as Hurts and Allen reach their ceiling.
That makes it difficult for me to take a quarterback with a third-
or fourth-round pick. I do not question Derrick Henry's ability
to give me a positional advantage or Mark Andrews' ability to
give Kelce a run for his money. However, if the main difference
between Allen or Hurts and my QB10 (Geno Smith) is the former
enjoying two more blow-up games, it becomes hard to justify the
cost of taking Allen six to eight rounds earlier.
Tier 4 (red)
This tier is full of running backs whose biggest shortcoming
might be perceived workload, although most of them may not have
much reason to worry. No two years are ever the same, but the
Lions found a way to give their running backs 509 touches during
a season in which they started 1-6. Detroit will play with a lead
much more often this year and there is little question the team
believes it upgraded its backfield. So what, the Lions will use
their running backs less now? Jahmyr Gibbs will see plenty of
high-value touches (i.e. targets) and is more than explosive enough
to be efficient with them, but he is not a workhorse by any stretch.
David Montgomery may be in line for the heaviest workload of his
career and is being drafted as though he is a decent handcuff.
The point here is simple: there will be enough work for Gibbs
Fantasy enthusiasts seem to believe if they say Jaylen Warren's
name often enough that Pittsburgh will give him a chance to overtake
Najee Harris. Can you remember a time when the Steelers had a
physical back and did not feature him? (Maybe "Fast"
Willie Parker near the end of Jerome Bettis' career?) My best
guess on the Jets' backfield is that New York will use the first
six pre-bye games to ramp up Breece Hall's workload and make him
the clear top option after the Week 7 bye. He may be the perfect
RB1 for a fantasy team that spends its first three picks at receiver
because he should be serviceable during the first half of the
season - assuming he is as healthy. If he can be as efficient
on limited touches early as he was last year, he could easily
put receiver-heavy fantasy teams on his back in November and December.
The receivers in this tier also are largely underappreciated.
DeVonta Smith, Keenan Allen, DK Metcalf, Tee Higgins, Tyler Lockett,
D.J. Moore, Brandon Aiyuk and Deebo Samuel may not excite the masses
in the same way the 15 receivers ranked above them do, but we
have already seen top-10 upside from several of them. Put another
way; think about any one of them being the WR3 on an opposing
fantasy team. It will happen in many leagues this year and it
will not be fun competing against that fantasy team when it does.
Patrick Mahomes may belong at the top of this tier and not the
bottom. The most compelling case for him to be ahead of Lamar
Jackson (at the very least) is that Mahomes has been more durable.
It is a fair point. My mind may change over the next two weeks,
but my stance on the two players now is that Jackson will finally
be in an offense that embraces his jaw-dropping talent. Mahomes
has had that for several years. Jackson has not.
Tier 5 (orange)
Another reason to invest in receivers early is the receivers
in this group. Amari
Williams and Christian
Watson are among a group of wideouts that scare me. Cooper,
Jeudy and Watson have legit competition for top receiver duties
on their own team. Hopkins' efficiency metrics in 2022 in addition
to his age (31) are concerning. London's overall situation is
an issue for him, while Williams seemingly plays at about 70 percent
health for about a half of every season. Although it is a collection
of receivers I would feel fine about playing as my WR3 if my team
is set at every other position, it is a group that comes with
plenty of concern relative to where they are drafted. Considering
how much later Gabriel
Sutton and Elijah
Moore come off the board, I would rather wait a round or two
to grab them and use my fourth-, fifth- or sixth-round pick to
address other positions.
If there is such a thing as a "dead zone" for running
backs this year, I think it starts in this tier. While Miles Sanders
is in line for a heavy workload, it is fair to wonder if Carolina
has enough to support him. What he gains in perceived volume,
he loses in supporting cast (Jalen Hurts' run threat and the Eagles'
offensive line). There have been reports Josh Jacobs will report
before the end of the preseason, but he is a player I probably
will not have any shares of in 2023. Running backs who report
late to camp typically do not fare well, nor do players coming
off seasons where they logged nearly 400 touches. Can James Cook
handle 200-plus touches? If he can, he is a top-18 running back
at worst. Over his last five seasons (four college, one pro),
however, he has yet to exceed 140. The odds of a 190-pound back
holding up all season is another red mark against him. It would
be one thing if he was a Jamaal Charles clone, but he is not.
Last but not least, we have Cam Akers and James Conner. I have
zero questions about either one being their team's best back or
the volume they should expect, but we should not lose sight of
the fact both are running behind porous offensive lines. At least
to this point of his NFL career, Akers has not been used much
in the passing game (no more than four targets in 29 regular-season
games and no more than 13 catches in any of his three seasons).
If the Rams struggle to reach seven wins, will Akers not disappoint
more often than he impresses? Furthermore, a schedule that begins
with the Seahawks, 49ers, Bengals, Colts and Eagles does not bode
well for him starting fast. At the very least, it may be difficult
for him to save his fantasy week in some of those weeks with a
Game script and volume are not concerns for Conner, but it seems
as though fantasy managers are assuming Arizona's offense will
be good enough to give him red zone chances every week. This is
a team that could be relying on Colt McCoy or Clayton Tune at
quarterback early and will not feature the pace or wide-open offensive
attack it had under former HC Kliff Kingsbury. The Cardinals could
legitimately struggle to score more than one touchdown in each
of their first five games (Commanders, Giants, Cowboys, 49ers
and Bengals). Factor in Conner's history of missing at least two
games in each of his six seasons and it should be enough to push
him into RB3 range.
Tier 6 (gray)
After the first five tiers, which should cover the bulk of the
first six rounds in most drafts, we want to look for players who
stand a realistic chance of blowing their ADP out of the water.
Several players in this tier can make a strong case for doing
just that. Rachaad White and Alexander Mattison enter the season
as the clear top options in their respective backfields, which
gives them a significant leg up on the competition. White lacks
a great offensive line and does not break enough tackles to suggest
he will remain the featured back all season.
Mattison has already proven he is capable of performing like
a top back, but a closer look at his big games over his NFL career
reveals almost all of his big games coincidentally came against
perpetually bad run defenses (Lions, Bears and Seahawks). The
Vikings also are not nearly as committed to the running game as
they used to be when Mattison first entered the league, so it
is not as if he is guaranteed 15-18 touches every week like Dalvin
Cook once was. Were it not for his season-opening three-game
Kamara would likely be in the previous tier. His biggest problem
outside of a late start to the season is how many high-value looks
he will lose. Kamara was already getting vultured by Taysom
Hill last year, but the addition of Jamaal
Williams further reduces his touchdown upside.
Whereas I am not crazy about the previous tier of receivers returning
great value as WR3s, I love the WR4 upside of this tier. Most
will likely say Marquise
Brown should not be in this tier, but I will repeat the same
thing I just said about Conner: Arizona will likely be relying
on Colt McCoy
or Clayton Tune
at quarterback early and will not feature the pace or wide-open
offensive attack it has in previous years. Expectations for Brown
should be tempered, as they need to be tempered for the entire
offense. With that said, he is a very capable receiver and should
be expected to return occasional WR3 value.
The receivers I am most excited about from this group are Jaxon Smith-Njigba and (you guessed it) Kadarius Toney. While Smith-Njigba
will not be locked solely into slot duties, he will almost certainly
be Seattle's primary option inside. DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett
were already creating enough issues for defenses by themselves,
so the thought of putting a player as good after the catch as
JSN is going to create real problems. The Seahawks are not going
to sneak up on anyone this year, but it still feels as though
their offense is being underrated for fantasy purposes. This offense
has immense upside now and should be able to support three fantasy-relevant
receivers. Those that believe Geno Smith's 2022 season was a fluke
likely did not see him play very often. Smith-Njigba should feast
against the heavy dose of nickel linebackers and cornerbacks he
figures to face this year.
Fantasy football does not always have to be hard. Sometimes,
teams give us the answers to the questions on the test. The Chiefs
have already told us they believe Toney is their top receiver.
While his detractors will almost certainly counter with an appeal
that centers on his ability to stay on the field, his durability
at a WR4 price tag is far less important than the upside he possesses
in a Patrick Mahomes-led offense. It is not hard to find another
WR4 option later in the draft or on the waiver wire during the
season. It is substantially more difficult to find players who
have his kind of upside. While I am concerned about his knee long-term,
I think it is far more likely than not that he plays at least
10 games this season. I do not care if that is a low bar because
if he is who I (and the Chiefs, for that matter) believe he is,
he could easily be the deciding factor in multiple fantasy wins
and losses for your team.
I am prepared to be loud wrong about Samaje Perine, but he seems
like one of the most obvious safe mid-round running backs with
significant upside. Regardless of how good Javonte Williams looks
now, look no further than J.K. Dobbins' initial return to action
last year as a cautionary tale. Scar tissue will almost certainly
become an issue for Williams at some point this season. At that
point, either his effectiveness will likely fall off or he will
be forced to miss some time. Even if that does not happen, Perine
is probably looking at no worse than a near-even snap and touch
split with Williams. Yes, we should expect a healthy Williams
to be more productive in that setup, but what are the odds his
knee will feel good all year?
There is a reasonably good chance Romeo Doubs outperforms Christian Watson this season. Do I expect it to happen? No, but I refuse
to discount the possibility. There are countless examples throughout
the history of the NFL of a receiver who operated as a clear secondary
option with one quarterback and moved into a lead role due to
a change at quarterback. Don't get me wrong: Watson is an athletic
freak and a very good player, but how different would the narrative
about him be this summer if he did not score a touchdown once
every 5.5 touches last year? At some point, fantasy managers have
to ask themselves if it is mere coincidence that Jordan Love leans
so heavily on Doubs when the two play together. Doubs is the best
bet of the receivers in Tier 8 (light green) to outperform his
ranking on the Big Board significantly.
Tier 10 (medium orange) boasts a handful of WR5/6 types that
have WR3/4 upside and truly shows off how deep the receiver position
is. Parris Campbell, Puka Nacua, Rashod Bateman, Hunter Renfrow
and Jameson Williams are among a handful of players who could
emerge as every-week flex options at some point. Some of the best
running back handcuffs in the league appear here as well. Jaylen Warren, Tyler Allgeier and Elijah Mitchell only need one thing
to happen to be VERY relevant. If Josh Jacobs does not report
soon, Zamir White is likely two or three tiers lower than he should
be. Even if Jacobs does report, White is worth prioritizing. The
odds he plays all season are slim- be it due to injury, his contract
or general dissatisfaction with the direction of the team.
I would be remiss if I did not at least mention three more running
backs near the end of my Big Board. It should be a matter of when
- not if - Sean Tucker emerges as Rachaad White's partner in crime.
Not only is White likely miscast as a potential feature back in
Tampa Bay in my opinion, but Tucker is also the kind of back more
likely to succeed with the Bucs' offensive line in the state it
is right now.
Kendre Miller deserves better than the RB57 spot above, but it
is hard to find a path to regular work for him once Alvin Kamara
returns from his suspension. If Miller gets a fair shot to overtake
Jamaal Williams, he should do it. Considering how much New Orleans
paid to get Williams, however, it seems unlikely to happen in
Rico Dowdle appears to be the frontrunner to replace Ezekiel Elliott as the thunder to Tony Pollard's lightning in Dallas.
The reason he is not any higher is simple: he has been plagued
by injury during his short NFL career. The presence of Deuce Vaughn
also complicates matters for Dowdle, as the Kansas State product
should handle his fair share of work in the passing game and steal
a few breather-back reps from him. Regardless, Dallas would be
wise to give Dowdle most of the "hammer" carries Elliott
handled in recent years. Assuming good health, Dowdle could easily
finish in the RB4 range.
Doug Orth has written for FF Today since 2006 and been featured
in USA TODAY's Fantasy Football Preview magazine since 2010. He
is also a high-stakes player who often appears as a guest analyst
on a number of national sports radio shows, such as Sirius XM's
"Fantasy Drive." Doug is also a member of the Fantasy
Sports Writers Association.