There comes a point every summer, typically in the middle of August, when a wave of text messages pours into my phone from friends and acquaintances who are just starting to prepare for their upcoming fantasy football drafts.
Initially, it's befuddling that there are people who exist who do not comb through fantasy research during the offseason; and then I remember that my existence of perpetually thinking about fantasy football makes me the outlier in life.
This column is for those who don't have notifications on for Adam Schefter's X (formerly known as Twitter) page during free agency or those who didn't spend the months of March and April breaking down Jahmyr Gibbs' college tape. This column is for those who allocate much of their time during the offseason to more conventional priorities, such as parenting, travel, golf, watching several seasons of "Survivor" in succession -- whatever it is you love to do most.
With August now upon us, we're just a few weeks away from the busiest time of the year for fantasy football drafts, which often hover right around Labor Day weekend. If you've dedicated little time to your offseason preparation, bookmark this page and keep it handy until your draft room opens and you are on the clock. Fantasy football class in in session.
Whom should I take first?
Far and away the question I am asked the most during the offseason is, "Who should I take with the No. 1 pick in the draft?"
There are years when the answer is straightforward, and there are others when multiple players have a compelling case. This year is more the latter.
My top pick would be Minnesota Vikings WR Justin Jefferson. I feel great about his outlook (I know, I know, I'm going out on a limb with that one), and the case against Jefferson is not at all about Jefferson himself. It's just that there are other players with similarly justifiable profiles for that first pick. My take on the other top players:
Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams: Remember him? Kupp played in eight full games in 2022 and averaged more than 100 receiving yards with seven touchdowns in that span. He should pace the NFL in catches this season, and when I've asked defensive coaches who have faced Kupp about why no team seems to have an antidote for him when the Rams lack other top-level playmakers, the answer has been ... no answer. He's uncoverable.
Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers: The king of fantasy over the past two seasons with 38 total touchdowns, Ekeler should continue to thrive in 2023. One element observers around the league want to watch: Does his passing-game usage change under Kellen Moore, a coordinator with a known preference to attack downfield? Still, Ekeler is so elite.
Christian McCaffrey, RB, San Francisco 49ers: McCaffrey and Ekeler lead the charge among pass-catching running backs, with McCaffrey expected to be the focal point of a dynamic 49ers offense once again. While defensive coaches who have faced a Kyle Shanahan-led offense note how much he loves his backfield balance, McCaffrey is the outlier.
Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs: It felt silly to ask, but in an informal poll of coaches and personnel around the NFL, not one person thought Kelce's game had regressed at all at age 33. I mean, could you not tell yourself? There is no greater positional edge than Kelce's at TE. He has remained the surest bet in fantasy in recent years.
Offseason moving and shaking (non-rookie division)
While there are still moves that will take place between now and the start of the season, most of the football business is behind us. Let's run through a handful of the biggest moves of the offseason and dive into what it means for those involved.
Aaron Rodgers traded to the Jets: The four-time MVP will play for a new team for the first time in his career, and I'm convinced he'll bounce back from last season's dud (he did not score 20 fantasy points in any single game) for the simple fact that he's noticeably energized by the change. Rodgers is a borderline top-12 quarterback this season, as his upside is limited compared to the more mobile quarterbacks and those with better supporting casts. However, his top target -- Garrett Wilson -- is my favorite pick for breakout player of the year in fantasy ... and that's after he was named NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year last season! He's a borderline top-10 wideout going into the season.
For Green Bay, good luck finding anyone who knows exactly what to expect out of Jordan Love with just one start in three years, but we know he has some raw natural talent that led to him being taken in the first round. I also know that second-year wide receiver Christian Watson is too good to ignore, as he profiles as another breakthrough player despite the quarterback change. While Watson smashed last season in the touchdown department, he's a reasonable bet to see his volume of targets explode as much as any player in the league compared to last year's mark. Volume plus talent wins in fantasy, and Watson has both.
The GOAT retires for good: Tom Brady hung up his cleats after the greatest career in the history of the sport, leaving Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask to compete for the Bucs' starting job. While Brady had a frustrating final season in 2022, neither Mayfield nor Trask inspires the confidence the legend did under center. While Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have been fixtures early in fantasy drafts, the outlook is dampened this year. Though new Bucs offensive coordinator Dave Canales is calling plays for the first time and we'll learn a lot about his style this season, speaking to people around the league, they expect Tampa Bay to play a more balanced brand of football after Brady set the record for single-season pass attempts in 2022. Between less volume and a quarterback change, Godwin's and Evans' upside is lower this year. I've got Godwin rated higher because of expected volume as a top-20-or-so wideout, with Evans closer to WR30 on my board.
Lamar stays, OBJ joins him: Lamar Jackson has a chance to be a lifelong Raven after signing a massive five-year contract with the team, but just a few months ago that seemed uncertain when he revealed his request to be traded. Not only will Jackson be sticking around, but he's joined by Odell Beckham Jr. after the veteran wideout inked a one-year deal worth up to $18 million, giving Baltimore its biggest-name receiver since Jackson became the starter. The team doubled down on receiver investments by using a first-round pick on Zay Flowers, creating a potentially dynamic group that also includes 2021 first-rounder Rashod Bateman. With a new scheme under Todd Monken that promises to be more aggressive in the passing game, this offense could be among the best in the league. I'm bullish on Jackson given his health and the end of the contract dispute, while Beckham is my highest-ranked Ravens wideout as a top-35-ish consideration.
Step on up, Pollard and Mattison: Tony Pollard and Alexander Mattison were each fourth-round picks in the 2019 NFL draft, and both have their best shot to be undisputed starters this season. Ezekiel Elliott and Dalvin Cook were both released, paving the way for Pollard and Mattison to have career seasons. Pollard has shown himself as a fantasy star over a full season, as he was the eighth-highest-scoring back in 2022 and should easily surpass the 200-carry mark this season (193 is his current career high). Mattison doesn't figure to have quite the upside Cook had in Minnesota, but he's a good bet for a significant workload in a fantastic offense. Pollard is a fringe top-10 running back, and Mattison is around RB20 going into the season.
Calvin Ridley returns: The Jaguars made the shrewd move to trade for Ridley prior to last season's trade deadline, as he's now reinstated following a full-year suspension for betting. He adds to an already excellent Jacksonville offense, but knowing how much value he -- and every other Jags wideout -- will have is a bit trickier. At his best, Ridley is the most talented pass-catcher on this roster, but will he return as the same player he was? Are there enough targets for him to challenge to be a top-10 wide receiver? If so, does that mean that Christian Kirk and/or Zay Jones become just fringe players who are better served on benches? My best guess: Ridley becomes the most valuable receiver, with Kirk still a weekly top-30 consideration and Jones as elite roster insurance.
Rookies of Note
Every year, a few rookies make a legitimate impact in fantasy football and can help alter the landscape of the league. This year is no exception, as there is a rookie who might wind up first overall in some drafts. Let's dive into some of the most notable rookies, starting with Bijan Robinson.
Bijan Robinson, RB, Atlanta Falcons: Robinson is the best running back prospect and most anticipated rookie for fantasy football purposes since at least Saquon Barkley, who went second overall in the 2018 NFL draft and finished as the second-highest-scoring player in all of fantasy, trailing only Patrick Mahomes during his 50-touchdown season. The No. 8 pick out of Texas is incredible as both a runner and a receiver, opening the door to a rookie season with well over 300 total touches. I have zero doubt about his talent and capabilities, the only question to be answered is how much the Falcons will use him. Recent top investments for the team have yielded slightly better than modest returns so far (Kyle Pitts and Drake London), but getting the running back the ball is among the easiest chores for a playcaller. Robinson is a top-five running back play and a first-round pick for me this year, with the chance for him to be the runaway winner of the NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year award.
Jahmyr Gibbs, RB, Detroit Lions: The Lions snagged the best pass-catching running back in this year's draft with the 12th selection, as Gibbs now teams with David Montgomery to take over the backfield led by Jamaal Williams and D'Andre Swift last season. Presuming the Lions immediately take advantage of Gibbs' receiving acumen, it sets a high floor for him in fantasy, as every running back with more than 50 catches last season finished as a top-20 scorer for the season. Montgomery's presence mitigates Gibbs' goal line chances and overall rush total, but I have Gibbs ranked inside my top 20 this preseason.
Jordan Addison, WR, Minnesota Vikings: There was an unprecedented run on first-round wide receivers, as four straight were taken from picks 20 to 23, concluding with Addison to Minnesota. Addison steps into the lineup to replace Adam Thielen and will immediately reap the benefits of playing opposite of Justin Jefferson in a pass-happy offense (Kirk Cousins was fourth in the NFL in total attempts last season). Addison is my pick for the most valuable of those four straight picks (Jaxon Smith-Njigba, Seahawks; Quentin Johnston, Chargers; Zay Flowers, Ravens), with scouts being won over in the draft process by his pristine route-running, football IQ and solid run-after-catch skills.
Anthony Richardson, QB, Indianapolis Colts: It is not hyperbole to state Richardson has some of the best physical traits for any quarterback prospect in decades, and the Colts were swinging for the fences with the No. 4 pick in the 2023 NFL draft. What remains to be seen is whether he starts right out of the gate and whether he has enough polish as a passer (he completed just 53% of his passes in 2022 at Florida) to guide an effective offense. But Richardson's impressive tools (6-foot-4, 244 pounds and a 4.43 40-yard dash) empower him to be one of the best runners at the position right away. In 2022, there were nine quarterbacks to rush for at least 300 yards. Of those nine, only Marcus Mariota (15.1) failed to average at least 17.9 fantasy points per game. Fantasy stardom might be a season away for Richardson, but it won't surprise me if he has several boom games this season.
Let's rip through the four primary positions with a broad brush that covers a few topics per spot.
Theme: While for many years we have espoused the virtue of depth at the quarterback spot, the position seems more divided than usual this year. Given the young stardom in the league, there are seven or eight signal-callers who seem like sure things this season. In 2022, so many legendary veterans underachieved (Brady, Rodgers, Russell Wilson, Matthew Stafford, etc.) that the reverberation could include fantasy managers paying a greater premium to take a quarterback early this year. It won't surprise me if Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts all go in the first 25 picks of most drafts.
Biggest question: Can Rodgers, Deshaun Watson or Wilson reestablish themselves as elite fantasy quarterbacks? Each had modest production last season but has proven capable of being a top-five fantasy quarterback for a full season. Perhaps it's just the offseason optimism, but each seems due for a bounce-back season.
Potential regression: Tua Tagovailoa, Dolphins. I'm a Tagovailoa backer (he's my No. 11 QB right now), but his 2022 season was a bit of two tales: Tagovailoa shredded defenses prior to the team's Week 11 bye, but in his five games after the bye against stiffer competition, he had zero top-12 weekly finishes. The AFC East includes three elite defenses he'll face twice each this season.
Possible sleeper: Desmond Ridder, Falcons. Mobility is a strong trait for Ridder, who should see running opportunities this season, and Atlanta has a strong offensive line and three blue-chip-level skill players. The Falcons have been boring on offense the past two seasons, but this a potential liftoff year.
Theme: As always, the question is about the cutoff point for reliable running backs. I like to think of players in tiers (don't worry, I'll still rank them!) and after the elite tier of running backs (five or six players), there are about six or seven more I feel very confident in, and then another six or seven I view as likely starters each week. Put differently, I feel good about 20 or so running backs.
Biggest question: What happens with Jonathan Taylor? For the majority of the offseason, the questions surrounding Taylor were strictly limited to: Can he bounce back and look like his 2021 self again? In the opening days of training camp, a very public and seemingly unfriendly battle has unfolded between his camp and the Colts over a possible contract extension, leading to a trade request. While I believe a trade will be difficult to execute (and the Colts have stated they won't oblige), these are now legitimate questions: Will Taylor still be a Colt? And, if so, will he play all 17 games?
Potential regression: Josh Jacobs, Raiders. Not enough for me to move him too far down in my rankings, but Jacobs led the NFL in touches with 393 last season and for players not named Derrick Henry, such a workload has often led to regression the following year. In 2023, Jacobs could still see 75% of his workload from last season and finish with nearly 300 total touches, a number that should lead to very good fantasy production. This is about regression from the possible RB1 in all of fantasy.
Possible sleeper: Rashaad Penny, Eagles. The stars could align for the talented Penny, as he now has a chance to lead the Eagles in rushing attempts while playing behind arguably the best offensive line in football. Potential restrictions on his value are the presence of Jalen Hurts as a goal line runner and D'Andre Swift (among others) also seeing work, but there's a feasible scenario in which Penny rushes for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Theme: Star power. There is just an incredible amount of receiver talent in the NFL right now, as I could make a compelling case for seven receivers to finish as WR1 this season (Jefferson, Kupp, Ja'Marr Chase, Stefon Diggs, Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill and CeeDee Lamb). And the positional depth extends far beyond just the top of the board, as there are receivers it feels downright inequitable to not have in my top 20.
Biggest question: What happens to the Bucs' receivers in the post-Tom Brady era? While Trask and Mayfield competing for the starting position doesn't inspire major confidence, we spent last offseason fretting about the outlook for DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett with Geno Smith under center. Smith was a revelation, and Metcalf and Lockett balled out. Can the Bucs' receivers hold on to their fantasy stardom?
Potential regression: Diontae Johnson, Steelers. Remember, regression to the mean can have a positive connotation as well. Johnson made history in 2022: He had more catches (86) and targets (147) than any player in NFL history to not score a single receiving touchdown. Johnson is very talented, has an ascending quarterback in Kenny Pickett and is due in a major way.
Possible sleeper: Elijah Moore, WR, Browns: The 2021 second-round pick showed promise as a rookie when he posted 43 catches for 538 yards and five touchdowns with the Jets. Now in Cleveland, he has a chance to thrive as the Browns' WR2 behind Amari Cooper with his versatility and playmaking from the slot.
Theme: It's Kelce's world ... still. It almost seems like Travis Kelce deserves his own positional designation, as he lapped the rest of the tight end field with 100.9 points more than any other player at the position in 2022. Kelce has shown no signs of slowing down and remains by far the No. 1 target in a fantastic Chiefs offense. While there are other great options at tight end, the security and positional edge afforded via Kelce is too good to ignore. That includes a case for Kelce as the top player selected in your draft.
Biggest question: Can Darren Waller break through again? The stars have aligned for Waller to have a massive season, as he was traded to the Giants to be their No. 1 target in the passing game. The G-Men lacked a player with Waller's dynamic middle-of-the-field skill set and size, setting him up for a substantial role if he can stay healthy and Daniel Jones remains on the trajectory set last season.
Potential regression: Evan Engram, Jaguars. This one pains me to write, as Engram was just terrific in the second half of last season (32 catches in his final six games) and has so much ability, but the Jaguars are loaded with pass-catchers after the reinstatement of Ridley. Engram also had five games last season with exactly one catch, a reminder that there is only one football to go around.
Possible sleeper: Chigoziem Okonkwo, Titans. The Titans' second-year tight end flashed in 2022, as he led all TEs in yards per catch (14.1) and seven of his 32 catches resulted in big plays (defined as at least 20 yards). The athletic profile is intriguing on its own for Okonkwo, but when multiplied by his standing as the clear-cut starter for Tennessee this season (Austin Hooper played a legitimate role last season) and the Titans' thin group of pass-catchers, Okonkwo's breakout potential is easy to see.