The NFL is an ever-evolving landscape. The league changes quickly – each year is its own microcosm – but there are also trends that emerge over multiple seasons’ time. One of the trends of the 2023 offseason, for example, was the devaluing of the running back position. That’s not a new trend. Le’veon Bell held out in 2018, and the same discourse about the value of a running back swirled. Our job as analysts and fantasy gamers is to perceive how these meta-trends shape the league and teams’ roster-building tendencies ahead of the coming season. Those trends also influence how we build fantasy rosters. Here we look into the crystal ball and see which meta-trends will most affect the make-up of the NFL this season, and the impact on fantasy.
Meta-Trend: The Changing Face of the Quarterback Position
It’s no secret a rushing quarterback is a cheat code in fantasy. Lamar Jackson had the greatest points-per-game QB season in fantasy history in 2019 – on the strength of 1,213 rushing yards, 7 rushing TDs, 3,127 passing yards and 36 passing TDs. Justin Fields emerged last season as an even more powerful rushing threat than Lamar (though not as crafty). The fantasy community waits with baited breath to see if Fields can become a competent passer and take his place among the truly elite NFL QBs.
“Lamar [is hungry] after all these teams had a whole bunch to say when he got that non-exclusive tag placed on him, and said, ‘We’re not interested, not interested. ATL … some of… pic.twitter.com/4vlNHrBNZV
— Sarah Ellison (@sgellison) September 1, 2023
Then the Colts drafted super-athlete Anthony Richardson. He is a question mark in the passing game, but joins Jackson and Fields as one of a few QBs in the NFL with monster potential as rushers. Jalen Hurts and Daniel Jones also produce substantively as rushers, but Jackson, Fields and Richardson are on another level in terms of athleticism and rushing instincts. The trend to watch is the quarterbacks like Jackson and Hurts who first establish their prowess as rushers and then become effective in the passing game. 2023 will be a landmark season for these souped-up dual threat QBs.
The Future of QB: What Will Happen in 2023
Prediction: Lamar Jackson will raise the roof on fantasy scoring, again.
In a fast-paced offense and with the best receiving weapons of his career, Jackson is going to break his previous PPG record in fantasy scoring. Jackson has the highest ceiling in fantasy at the QB position, over Patrick Mahomes. Even in Mahomes’ magical 50 touchdown, 5,000-yard season, he could not outpace Jackson’s all-time fantasy season in PPG.
Jackson is capable of rushing for 1,000 yards, which puts his ceiling out of reach for predominantly passing QBs. All signs point to Jackson having a huge season passing, too, which will make him the most desirable QB in fantasy.
Prediction: There will be three 800-yard rushing quarterbacks in 2023.
We are entering an exciting season for rushing quarterbacks. Fields ended up posting the third best rushing season of all-time for a quarterback in 2022, with 1,143 yards. And that was after being heavily involved in the rushing game for only the second half of the season. It is hard to believe Anthony Richardson – who is significantly larger than both Jackson and Fields – is also faster and more athletic than those two. Richardson has also displayed superb pocket awareness and escapability. His size and spatial awareness will allow him to be a dynamic runner at the NFL level. There have been 10 800-plus yard rushing seasons by QBs in the history of the NFL. There are going to be three this season.
Draft QBs Accordingly
Jackson and Fields are going as QB4 and QB5 on Underdog. Both have the potential to break fantasy. We know Jackson’s potential. Last season, Fields rushed for more than 1,100 yards, but was a bad passer. He still came in as QB5 in PPG for the season. He threw for 2,242 yards and 17 touchdowns last season. If he throws for closer to 3,000 yards and 24 touchdowns this season, he will easily land in the top-3 at the position. That seems like the floor more than the ceiling. If Richardson rushes for 800 yards (his floor), he can also approach top-6 at the position. He is currently going as QB11. All three should be fantasy draft targets.
Meta-Trend: Running Backs Matter, To Some
The league is split on running backs. Some teams invested heavily in their backs ahead of 2023. Two teams elected to draft running backs in the first round of the 2023 draft. The Falcons selected Bijan Robinson at No. 8 overall and the Lions selected Jahmyr Gibbs at No. 12. Before that, no back had been selected in the top-12 since Saquon Barkley was taken at No. 2 in the 2018 Draft. The 49ers are in on running backs, too – trading four draft picks for Christian McCaffrey last season.
Other teams invested very little into their backfields, releasing their top running backs and pushing what appear to be mid-level talents up their depth charts. The Eagles let Miles Sanders go in free agency, the Bears let go of David Montgomery, the Cowboys released Ezekiel Elliott and the Vikings did the same with Dalvin Cook. The Chiefs are employing a committee approach led by a seventh-round draftee, Isiah Pacheco – who is playing in front of their 2020 first-round pick, Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The Eagles, Bears and Vikings are all relying on committees of mid-pedigree talent, which in some cases tells us they are planning on relying more on their passing games than their ground games.
The Future of RB: What Will Happen in 2023
Prediction: Investing in RB early will be a winning strategy.
There are a few teams identified above who spent up to acquire top talent at the RB position ahead of the coming season. Those same teams are going to utilize those backs heavily, and those are the backs fantasy gamers should target: McCaffrey, Bijan and Gibbs. All three will be league-winners in 2023. An elite receiving back is still a difficult-to-reproduce commodity in fantasy. Wide receiver production is more reproducible than an explosive back with receiving upside. Along with Tony Pollard, McCaffrey, Bijan and Gibbs are the highest-upside options we have.
My must-draft RBs for 2023:
1. Jahmyr Gibbs
It may come off as tacky to compare any RB to Christian McCaffrey.
But the last RB to be drafted as highly as Gibbs – who was as efficient of a receiver, and approximately the same size – was quite literally McCaffrey. https://t.co/krlexFIyk5
— Ryan Heath (@QBLRyan) August 31, 2023
Draft RBs Accordingly
The decision in fantasy is whether to go running back early (McCaffrey or Robinson), or spend early round picks on WR, TE and QB, and then try to find Dead Zone and/or committee backs later. That is a decision that is isomorphic to the one NFL teams are making – spend up on elite talent or stock up on lower-level RB talent later and focus on the passing game. This year, it will turn out to be a winning strategy to follow the pattern of teams who have invested significant draft capital and draft McCaffrey and Bijan (yes, a rookie RB in the first round). Gibbs can be had two rounds later – near pick 30. All three have league-winning potential.
Meta-Trend: A Rookie Tight End Uprising
Tight end is one of the most confounding positions in fantasy football. One of the best ways to identify difference-making tight ends, however, is to identify which will be top pass-catchers on their teams. NFL teams have seen Travis Kelce and Mark Andrews become the focus of their teams’ pass-catching units and have followed suit. The Giants traded for Darren Waller to shore up their pass-catching unit as opposed to stocking up on wide receivers. Waller will be the Giants’ premier pass-catcher this season. Teams also drafted tight ends highly in the 2023 Draft. The Bills drafted Dalton Kincaid at 1.25, the Lions drafted Sam LaPorta at 2.03, the Raiders drafted Michael Mayer at 2.04 and the Packers drafted Luke Musgrave at 2.11.
There were six tight ends total drafted in the first two rounds of the NFL Draft. Rookie tight ends have a lot to learn in their first season. Kincaid, LaPorta and Musgrave, however, have a clear path to being top targets on their teams. The Packers’ two rookie tight ends, Musgrave and Tucker Kraft, are at the top of the depth chart. LaPorta quickly rose to the top of the tight end depth chart in Detroit. Kincaid will be deployed primarily to run routes from the slot, as opposed to having a blocking role. Mayer will also play a significant snap share after the Raiders shipped off Waller and Foster Moreau.
The Future of TE: What Will Happen in 2023
Prediction: At least two rookie tight ends will be startable (top-12) tight ends.
The smart money is on Kincaid, LaPorta and Musgrave. All three profile as explosive play-makers who have flashed in preseason work. They also find themselves in situations where they can cement themselves as one of the go-to options in their offenses. The argument against rookie tight ends is that they are learning behind more experienced tight ends and will take some time to learn blocking schemes. LaPorta and Musgrave don’t have more experienced tight ends ahead of them. And their teams will need them to step in and make a difference in the passing game immediately. Kincaid has Dawson Knox ahead of him in experience, but all indications are the Bills intend to use Kincaid as one of their primary pass-catchers and not so much as a blocker. He and Knox will both be on the field together a fair amount.
Sam LaPorta: “It can be hard to trust rookie tight ends, especially in fantasy, but LaPorta has a clear path to playing time as Detroit’s TE1. He’s arguably been Goff’s second-favorite target behind St. Brown, and he’s made impressive plays after the catch and in the end zone. If… https://t.co/Osm3Pf7wcL
— 32BeatWriters (@32BeatWriters) August 29, 2023
My money is on LaPorta and Musgrave to land in the top-12 at the position. It won’t be a surprise if Kincaid – the highest drafted of the bunch – lands in the top-12. Mayer could also sneak into the top-12. He only has to beat out Austin Hooper on the depth chart in Vegas.
Draft TEs Accordingly
Only Kincaid is actually drafted in the top-12 at the tight end position on Underdog, and fantasy gamers can draft all four – Kincaid, LaPorta, Musgrave and Mayer – after pick 100. That means you can hedge your bets and take another tight end early and fill in with one of these high-upside rookie tight ends as a backup. The Bills and Lions are going to have high-volume passing offenses. Musgrave could be a go-to target for Jordan Love in Green Bay. It’s time to change the narrative on rookie tight ends. This rookie class is just the one to do it.
Let the Games Begin
The NFL season is about to commence. Time to test our predictions and monitor how these league meta-trends come to fruition in real live game action. Fantasy gamers will engage in all kinds of drafts this weekend. Before we know it, we’ll be looking back on another season and projecting what will happen in future seasons. But for now it’s time to see what this season holds.