John Paulsen's 2023 Draft Day Strategery

Aug 31, 2023
John Paulsen's 2023 Draft Day Strategery

Note: This article was updated on 8/26. All updates are shown in blue bold font.

It’s time.

The bulk of the fantasy football draft season happens in August, so by request, I've bumped this article up in my annual schedule. I've participated in a few industry and best-ball drafts and I think I have a pretty good handle on my draft strategy for 2023.

This piece is written with a 12-team half-PPR draft in mind, but Rule No. 1 of fantasy football is to know your scoring system. They cover this on the first day of Fantasy Football 101 while incoming freshmen are still trying to decorate their dorm rooms. The scoring system is going to influence positional value and there are a number of different scoring systems out there.

Drafters in standard leagues can favor running backs a bit more in the early rounds since that position gets a boost in that format.

Drafters in PPR formats can safely go WR-heavy in the early rounds if they so choose. Drafters in two-quarterback or Superflex (i.e. QB-eligible flex) leagues should ignore all the late-round quarterback talk and be sure to draft a couple of top-20 passers before they’re gone.

Managers drafting in 10-team leagues should be able to wait for an extra round or two to draft the targets I discuss below since there are fewer picks in each round.

Managers in TE-premium leagues (usually 1.5 PPR for tight ends) should bump up the position as a whole and target high-volume players like Travis Kelce, Mark Andrews, T.J. Hockenson, and Darren Waller in the first few rounds.

A great way to discover how a particular scoring system impacts the different positions is to use our Top 200 Value-Based Rankings Report, change the settings, and see how the player values change.

More Strategery: 99 Stats | 21 Deep Sleepers | 10 Bouncebacks | Draft Kit

General Strategery

Way back in the year 2015, I had an epiphany when it came to formulating my overall draft strategy. At the two onesie positions—quarterback and tight end, where managers typically only have to start one—I felt great about Carson Palmer in the 13th round and Delanie Walker in the 10th/11th. (Man, 2015 was really a long time ago.) I also advocated for the "Angry Tom" Strategy, which revolved around drafting a royally pissed-off deflator Tom Brady in the 10th/11th round and taking Palmer later as his backup. This worked out even better than expected since Brady’s suspension was lifted and he played a full season. Oh, and Walker finished as the No. 3 tight end that year.

Since then, I have been trying to identify the best values and/or options at quarterback and tight end and then build my draft plan around them, and for the most part, it’s worked.

So let’s start with the…


Is late-round quarterback dead? No, not quite, but these days there seem to be more fantasy analysts advocating for an early- or mid-round quarterback approach. I’m certainly more willing to pull the trigger on an elite passer this season, and I think it has something to do with a perceived value drop-off at other positions somewhere near the 2nd/3rd turn in 12-team drafts.

Once Chris Olave, Tony Pollard, Derrick Henry, and Mark Andrews are off the board in the second or third round, it’s a lot easier to justify drafting one of…

Option #1: The Big Three

I have this tier ranked Jalen Hurts, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen, in that order, but managers can’t really go wrong with any of these guys. Allen might run the ball less, but that should mean more pass attempts, so he should be able to offset some of the loss in rushing value.

Option #2: The Next Five

After those three are off the board, there is a group of five that are pretty similar, though they each have their own characteristics:

It does seem like there is a drop-off in consensus after the top eight quarterbacks. This is where rankings of individual fantasy analysts really start to diverge.

Option #3: Late-Round Quarterbacks (a.k.a. The Law Firm of Smith, Jones, Richardson & Rodgers)

The good news for late-round quarterback advocates is that this uncertainty in the low-end QB1 and QB2 rankings has created some serious market inefficiencies. The next 10 or so quarterbacks are projected for a similar amount of fantasy points, but there are a few I like more than the others. Managers who want to take a late-round quarterback approach should strongly consider the following players. I’ve included their Multi-Site ADP for reference.

Geno Smith (9.11) finished as the fantasy QB6 last year and was arguably the biggest surprise at the position. He didn’t fare too well as a starter in his first two seasons, and was relegated to backup duty from 2015 to 2021, but showed flashes in 2021 in spot duty for the Seahawks. After the departure of Russell Wilson, the Seahawks gave him the job and he responded with a career-high 4,282 yards and 30 touchdowns, while leading the league in completion percentage (69.8%).

At PFF, he posted the 10th-highest passing grade and had the fourth-highest adjusted completion rate on deep passes (20+ yards). Over at Reception Perception, after charting Smith for their new QB profiles, Derrick Klassen wrote that “Smith’s revival won’t be a flash in the pan.”

He also runs the ball some (366 yards, TD), which raises his weekly floor. Now the team has added the consensus top rookie receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba, yet Smith is going off the board as the QB16. It doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Smith looks like one of the biggest draft values at his position.

Daniel Jones (9.02) was a top-10 fantasy quarterback in 2022 in his first season with head coach Brian Daboll, and that was with an injury-riddled (and suspect) receiving corps. Thus far, the Giants have added an impact tight end, Darren Waller, and re-signed both Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton. Shepard has averaged at least 51 yards per game in six straight seasons and Slayton found his way out of the dog house to post 724 yards in 13 games (55.7 yards per game) in 2022. The Giants also signed the speedy Parris Campbell to a one-year “prove-it” deal. The 6-foot-4 Isaiah Hodgins is entering his third season on the heels of five touchdowns in his last seven games. He averaged 51.1 yards per game in that span. The Giants should also get Wan'Dale Robinson back at some point; he had 9-100 on 13 targets in Week 11 before tearing his ACL. Finally, the team added Jalin Hyatt via the draft. With improved weapons and his ability to run the ball, Jones has a good chance to post QB1 numbers again this season.

Anthony Richardson (9.08) is hands-down the riskiest bet in this group since we’re not even 100% sure that he’ll be starting Week 1. According to the draftniks, he’s raw and needs seasoning, but early indications are that he’ll start earlier rather than later. He throws a nice deep ball, but according to the experts he misses too many “layups” on shorter throws given his scattershot accuracy.

My rookie quarterback model projects 29.3 rushing yards per game, though it should be noted that the model underpredicted Jalen Hurts by about 17%, projecting 43.3 rushing yards to his actual 52.3 rushing yards per game in his first season as the Eagles’ starter. That’s relevant because Richardson will play for Shane Steichen, who was previously the offensive coordinator for the Eagles. If Steichen runs Richardson over projection by the same amount, he could be looking at roughly 34 yards per game. That number could rise further if Steichen elects to run Richardson as much as he did with Hurts–10.1 attempts per game from 2021-22.

Even though my model suggests less than 30 yards rushing per game, I’m projecting Richardson for roughly 53 yards per game on the assumption Steichen runs him as much as he did Hurts. Another comparison might be Justin Fields’ rookie season–191 yards and 0.78 touchdowns as a passer, 40 yards and 0.11 touchdowns as a runner–but Steichen seems better suited to get more out of Richardson than the Bears’ OC, Bill Lazor, did with Fields as a rookie starter.

I’m expecting less than 200 yards passing per game and roughly one passing touchdown per game–it might be a struggle throwing the ball. Given his rushing ability, Richardson has QB1 upside, especially if the more bullish expectations of his rushing yards come to fruition.

Aaron Rodgers (8.11) was one of my top targets at the position last season. (As my son says, “My bad, my bad.”) He should bounce back from last year’s QB15 finish (QB23 in per game average) since he’ll have a better set of weapons and is more motivated given a big change in scenery.

Last year’s struggles can be mostly attributed to the loss of Davante Adams which left Rodgers with a less talented and pretty inexperienced receiving corps. Garrett Wilson provides Rodgers with a stud No. 1 WR, Corey Davis is underrated, and Allen Lazard and Randall Cobb offer familiarity. (Mecole Hardman may become a thing now with Davis retired.) Rodgers posted the No. 11 passing grade at PFF, which is encouraging when projecting his potential 2023 production.

For those looking for quarterback value, it’s pretty clear that the ninth round is a good time to pick up a passer. Managers could draft a stud tight end, three running backs, and four receivers in the first eight rounds before drafting a quarterback with top-10 upside.

Note: I also think Russell Wilson is a good bet to bounce back with new head coach Sean Payton running the show.

Option #4: Very-Late-Round Quarterbacks

There are two passers going in the 13th round or later who I find very intriguing. Savvy managers who like to live dangerously could draft both and play the matchups until one emerges as an every-week starter.

Sam Howell (17.06) looks like arbitrage Anthony Richardson. My rookie quarterback model projects Howell for 34.6 rushing yards per game after he ran for 828 yards and 11 touchdowns in his final college season. He looked competent in one start last season, completing 11-of-19 passes for 169 yards, one touchdown, and one interception against the Cowboys in Week 18. He also added 35 yards and a touchdown as a runner in that game.

In the 2022 preseason, he went 43/69 for 547 yards (7.9 YPA), one touchdown, and one interception. He also added 94 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 13 rushing attempts in the preseason. That works out to about 45.3 fantasy points in 2-3 games of work. I have him as my QB19 even though he’s the QB27 according to ADP. My only concern is that he’s not entrenched as the Commanders’ starter after Washington added Jacoby Brissett to the mix, though head coach Ron Rivera said the team is “very comfortable” with Howell as its starter and he seems to be doing well in training camp.

The other late-round passer I’m eyeing is Brock Purdy (13.04). If his elbow is right, watch out.

Including the postseason, he played 82% of the snaps in eight games. In those games, he averaged 232 yards, 8.43 yards per attempt, 2.0 touchdowns, and 0.38 interceptions. He added 0.25 rushing touchdowns per game. The resulting 18.8 fantasy points per game would have been the seventh-highest last season. He only played an average of 94% of the snaps in those eight games—had he played the full snaps, his per-snap average prorates to about 19.9 points per game.

His passing grade was the 14th-highest at PFF. His deep-ball adjusted completion percentage was the 11th-highest (also at PFF). In short, he was really productive and graded well.

There was some doubt earlier in the offseason that he had done enough to earn the starting job, but everything coming out of the franchise indicates it’s his job if he’s healthy. And that’s the one concern–will Purdy be ready for Week 1 after undergoing UCL surgery this offseason? We got great news when he was cleared to practice and is “ready to go” at the start of training camp.

There is a lot of upside to Purdy as a QB2 or QB3 who has displayed top-seven production in an eight-game sample. He’s not much of a runner but does score the occasional rushing touchdown, and Kyle Shanahan’s passing attack is as QB-friendly as any in the league.

If I were to go with a Purdy/Howell quarterback by committee (QBBC) I’d probably target them both a round early, so Purdy in the 12th and Howell in the 15th.

Note: Keep an eye on the status of Kyler Murray. As the QB24 off the board, he could be a tremendous value if it turns out he'll be available early in the season.

Of these options, I’ll look to deploy Option #1 or Option #2 if value presents itself, but I’d have no problem building a team around one of the passers in Option #3, or even run a two-man committee with Option #4.

Related: Quarterback Sleepers, Values & Breakouts

On to the…

Tight Ends

Longtime subscribers know that unless there’s a great late-round value at the tight end position–i.e. the aforementioned Delanie Walker back in 2015–I typically subscribe to an “Stud TE” strategy.

Option #1: Travis Kelce in the 1st, Mark Andrews in the 2nd/3rd, T.J. Hockenson or Darren Waller in the 4th/5th

Like the quarterback position, there are three top players I’m targeting in the early rounds, though there is a drop off from TE1 to TE2 and from TE2 to TE3, which is why their ADPs are so different.

Travis Kelce (1.06) was far and away the TE1 last season, outscoring the TE2 (Hockenson), 254.5 to 170.3. With Tyreek Hill shipped off to Miami, Kelce set a career-high in total targets (152), receptions (110), yards (1,338), and touchdowns (12), though the 17-game season played a factor in setting those career-highs. At 33, he’s still playing at a very high level and his slight decline in 2021 did not continue into 2022 thanks to the heavy volume. The Chiefs still have a questionable and inexperienced receiver room–JuJu Smith-Schuster has moved on–so Kelce’s role isn’t likely to dry up anytime soon. There’s a reasonable argument that he should be the No. 1 overall pick in fantasy drafts given the positional advantage he provides.

Mark Andrews (3.07) was actually the TE1 back in 2021, but his production has been a bit higher (13.0 half-PPR points per game) with Lamar Jackson sidelined than he has with Jackson in the lineup (12.4) over the past two seasons. His production with Jackson still would have been good enough for top three numbers in every season going back to 2019, so drafters should be confident taking Andrews in the third round, and he’s probably worthy of a pick in the late-second round of PPR and half-PPR drafts. The Ravens added Odell Beckham via free agency, Zay Flowers in the draft, and might be getting a healthy Rashod Bateman back, so there’s some target competition this season. But there’s also a very good chance new OC Todd Monken will throw the ball a lot more than Greg Roman did in 2022.

T.J. Hockenson’s (4.05) production after arriving in Minnesota definitely puts him in the “elite tight end” conversation. His per-game fantasy production was actually higher in his first seven games in Detroit, but his targets jumped from 6.1 per game to 8.6 per game after the trade to Minnesota. That usage is hard to find at the tight end position, so Hockenson’s fourth/fifth-round ADP is more than justified. Since 2020, only two tight ends not named Kelce, Andrews, or Kittle–namely, 2022 Hockenson and 2020 Darren Waller–have averaged 10+ half-PPR points per game.

Like George Kittle, the primary hurdle for Darren Waller (5.05) seems to be his durability. After back-to-back 16-game seasons in 2019 and 2020, Waller has played only 20 games total in the last two seasons. He’ll be 31 in September so it’s fair to wonder about his health, though he’s landing in a great spot in terms of potential usage. The Giants don’t have a clear alpha at the receiver position so it’s entirely possible that Waller leads this team in targets whenever he’s healthy enough to play. We know he’s capable of big things–he posted 197 catches for 2,341 yards and 12 touchdowns in the aforementioned 2019-20 seasons.

Locking up Kelce’s positional advantage in the first round, or nabbing Andrews in the third or Hockenson/Waller in the fourth are very appealing options this year.

Option #2: The Second Tier

This tier includes George Kittle, Dallas Goedert, Kyle Pitts, and Evan Engram. Talent-wise, every player in this group could finish in the top three if things were to break their way.

In half-PPR formats, George Kittle (4.11) is just below Hockenson, but in full-PPR Hockenson pulls away. Kittle is obviously a fantastic tight end and has overall TE1 upside, but he has a usage problem when everyone is healthy in San Francisco. He averaged just 4.2 targets per game in five games with both Brock Purdy and Deebo Samuel. When Samuel sat out for three games, Kittle averaged 7.0 targets with Purdy. Basically, he’s performed at a mid-TE1 level–averaging 9.4 half-PPR points per game–with Deebo in the lineup and the overall TE1–21.4 points per game–when Samuel has missed time. So he has a reasonable floor and sky-high upside.

Dallas Goedert (5.09) is a great talent that, like Kittle, suffers from a usage problem. His usage in Philly’s run-heavy offense and target competition leaves him at a less-than-appealing 5.8 targets per game. He has to be incredibly efficient to crack the top three or four at year’s end. And he was incredibly efficient last year--he was the TE3 through Week 10 before he injured his shoulder. He was TE5 on a per-game basis last year and that’s about where I have him ranked. He’s a solid pick in the sixth round.

Kyle Pitts (5.12) and Evan Engram (7.07) round out this tier. I might take a shot on Pitts if he fell past ADP, but I just don’t have confidence about his usage in Atlanta’s offense. His yardage somehow dropped from 60.4 to 35.6 per game in his second season. Much of that had to do with Atlanta’s quarterback situation, but we don’t know if that’s really been addressed yet.

As for Engram, he had perhaps his best season as a pro after a change of scenery brought him to Jacksonville. His targets may get pinched a bit with the arrival of Calvin Ridley.

Option #3: Last Year’s Breakouts

Last year, David Njoku (8.06) was actually more productive (4.6-52-0.22) in the nine games he played with Jacoby Brissett at quarterback than he was in five games with Deshaun Watson (3.4-33-0.40), though his targets were about the same with both quarterbacks. He technically broke out last season (58-628-4) but the athletic Njoku could make another leap if Watson’s play can approach his career mean. The arrival of Elijah Moore could negatively impact Njoku’s usage. Since I have Tyler Higbee projected about the same, I probably won’t have much Njoku unless he slips past ADP.

Pat Freiermuth (8.05) could take it to another level if Kenny Pickett can figure out how to throw some touchdowns. As a team, the Steelers threw a grand total of 12 touchdowns last year and the second-year tight end had two touchdowns after catching seven as a rookie. Pittsburgh is expected to go pretty run-heavy this season so Freiermuth’s ceiling is only so high. However, as our own Connor Allen pointed out, Freiermuth played 50%+ of the snaps in nine games with Kenny Pickett last season. He averaged 7.4 targets, 5.2 receptions, and 61 receiving yards per game. He out-targeted George Pickens in 8-of-9 games. For me, he's become a middle-round target at the position in the last week or two.

Option #4: Boring Production

If I haven’t pulled the trigger on a tight end by the time Engram is off the board, I might wait and pair a breakout candidate with Tyler Higbee (11.11), who jumps out as a screaming value given his early 11th/12th-round ADP and the lack of target competition in the Rams' receiver room outside of Cooper Kupp.

Higbee saw 108 targets last season and it’s possible he will surpass that mark with Matthew Stafford back in the fold. He was fourth among tight ends in targets and finished as the fantasy TE9. This season is setting up in a similar way, though his touchdowns could spike with Stafford’s return. He'll be my primary TE2 target in every draft.

Dalton Schultz (10.06) is going a little earlier than Higbee but the same principles apply. He was the TE10 last year and the TE4 in 2021. The Houston offense is a sizable downgrade from the Cowboys’ passing attack, but Schultz is a serious threat to lead the Texans in targets and C.J. Stroud does have upside as a passer. Schultz should produce solid numbers in a consistent role.

For a while, it looked like Gerald Everett (12.03) was a potential cut for the Chargers but he remains on the team and finished as the TE14 last season, setting career-highs in targets (87), catches (58), and yards (555). New offensive coordinator Kellen Moore featured Dalton Schultz with 89, 104, and 89 targets in the last three seasons, so there’s some upside with Everett. I'm tempering my expectations since the Chargers have a deep receiving corps and Austin Ekeler soaking up targets at running back. Like Higbee and Schultz, Everett offers boring baseline production in the late rounds.

Option #5: Breakout Candidates

I’m legitimately excited about two young players who have a chance to break out as second-year tight ends.

Greg Dulcich (10.12) averaged 3.3-41-0.20 on 5.5 targets per game. The resulting 7.0 half-PPR points per game were the 10th-highest by a rookie tight end since the 2010 season, easily outscoring George Kittle, Mark Andrews, Zach Ertz, Jimmy Graham, and T.J. Hockenson in their rookie seasons.

Speaking of Graham, Dulcich’s new head coach has some experience featuring a talented pass-catching tight end. Working backward in Sean Payton’s career to 2014, Jared Cook (37-504-7, 43-705-9), Coby Fleener (50-631-3), Ben Watson (74-825-6) and, of course, Jimmy Graham (85-889-10) have all had significant fantasy seasons playing for Payton.

When asked about Dulcich, Payton said, “I think his menu is going to be lengthy in the passing game,” adding that Dulcich “can run” and has “good ball skills.”

Wheels up? Not so fast. Dulcich's playing time has been dicey in the preseason. It appears that Adam Trautman will be the full-time starter and Dulcich will be used as a "joker"-type player. This means he'll have to be very efficient to post starter numbers. He's capable, but managers shouldn't expect an 80%+ snap share, at least early in the season.

Chigoziem Okonkwo (11.09) had a really nice rookie season, turning 46 targets into 32 catches for 450 yards and three touchdowns. Since 2010, it was the 18th-most fantasy points turned in by a rookie tight end, just behind Jimmy Graham and ahead of George Kittle and Dallas Goedert. His role expanded in the second half of the season and he was the fantasy TE10 from Week 9 on. He led all tight ends with 2.61 yards per route run, which is an indicator of future success. DeAndre Hopkins is in the fold and the Titans will remain run-heavy with Derrick Henry around, but Okonwko’s role should grow with Austin Hooper out of the way.

Option #6: Late-Round Sleepers

Taysom Hill (14.03) was the fantasy TE5 last year in half-PPR formats. Hill isn’t really a tight end, which is why last season feels unsustainable. He only caught nine passes for 77 yards and two scores, but his 575 yards rushing and seven rushing scores drove his top-five finish.

If the Saints are going to continue to feed Hill six carries a game, including all that goal-line work, then he’s likely to finish as a starter-caliber fantasy tight end once again. The addition of Jamaal Williams makes Hill’s goal-line role a little dicey. As the TE19 off the board, it appears early drafters aren’t buying a repeat for Hill in 2023.

Since he barely catches the ball, Hill’s value is a lot higher in standard formats than in PPR leagues.

Hunter Henry (18.01) is shaping up to be one of the best value TE2s on the board. He finished TE20 last year playing in defensive-minded Matt Patricia’s dysfunctional offense. The Patriots were 26th in total yards, 20th in passing yards, and 19th in passing touchdowns in Mac Jones’ second season after finishing 15th, 14th, and 15th, respectively the year before. Jonnu Smith has been replaced by Mike Gesicki, which in theory should hurt Henry, but he’s reportedly playing leaner and faster, and he’s been Jones’ “go-to” player in the red zone in camp. There’s been a steady stream of positive buzz about Henry this summer.

Sam LaPorta (13.05) is already the Lions’ No. 1 TE. Rookie tight ends typically disappoint fantasy-wise, but LaPorta could be an exception given his talent, likely playing time, and the potency of the Lions’ offense. Detroit tight ends accounted for 93 targets, 784 yards, and 12 touchdowns, and both T.J. Hockenson (trade) and Shane Zylstra (injury) are out of the way.

The Cowboys let Dalton Schultz walk, and that opens the door for second-year tight end Jake Ferguson (20.09) to play starter’s snaps. His ADP is depressed since the Cowboys drafted Luke Schoonmaker in the second round, but Schoonmaker missed most of OTAs with a foot injury, which is going to put him behind the eight ball as a rookie. Ferguson posted 1.66 yards per route run, the nine-highest among tight ends with at least 20 targets. George Kittle named him (along with Sam LaPorta and Daniel Bellinger) as one of three up-and-coming tight ends who are “next” at the position.

If I’m at all worried about my tight end(s) in the closing rounds, you can bet that I’m taking a flier on Ferguson. Dalton Schultz-type numbers are not out of the question.

Related: Tight End Sleepers, Values & Breakouts

Running Backs

This is as deep as the running back position has been in a long time. There are intriguing players with sizable projected workloads going in the middle rounds, which makes it an especially good year to try a Zero-RB or Hero-RB approach.

Hero-RB/Early-Round Targets

As usual, there are seven bell-cow backs going off the board in the first two rounds, and I have them ranked in the following order (half-PPR): Austin Ekeler, Christian McCaffrey, Nick Chubb, Bijan Robinson, Derrick Henry, Tony Pollard, and Saquon Barkley.

I’m leaving Jonathan Taylor off the list for now since there seems to be a major disconnect between Taylor and his team. Josh Jacobs would also be in the mix but it appears he may hold out.

From a pure value standpoint, Nick Chubb (1.11) and Tony Pollard (2.08) are going a little later than they should be, according to my projections. I have Chubb ranked RB3 and his ADP is RB5. Likewise, I have Pollard ranked two spots ahead of his RB8 positional ADP.

Nick Chubb is arguably the best pure runner in the league. He has finished as the fantasy RB6 and RB10 (due to a few missed games) in the last two seasons, but his per-game averages have been remarkably consistent. He averaged 15.5 and 15.3 points per game (half-PPR) in 2022 and 2021, respectively. He was sixth in both yards after contact per attempt and broken tackles per attempt after finishing second and fourth, respectively, in 2021.

Since 2019, Chubb has seen 20.1 touches without Kareem Hunt in the lineup, and that has led to a bump in fantasy scoring (15.0 vs. 16.7). Specifically, I’m excited about his receiving opportunity in 2023. The Browns have a top-10 offensive line and should continue to feature Chubb as the centerpiece of the offense. He’s one of the safest picks at his position.

In 16 games, Tony Pollard finished as the fantasy RB7 and had the ninth-highest per-game average, all while playing in a timeshare with Ezekiel Elliott. Per PFF, he had the fourth-highest run grade and the ninth-highest receiving grade among running backs. Per Pro Football Reference, he led the league in yards after contact per attempt (2.6) and was 15th among running backs in rush attempts per broken tackle (17.5). In other words, he's really, really good.

All of these early-round backs offer the combination of talent and a big projected workload. Managers who want to utilize a Hero-RB approach or start their drafts RB/RB should target these players.

Jahmyr Gibbs in the Third

Even though they had D'Andre Swift on the roster, the Lions used the No. 12 overall pick on Jahmyr Gibbs (3.12) and even said they would have used the No. 6 pick, if they hadn’t traded down. GM Brad Holmes called Gibbs “a multi-purpose elite weapon” and multiple beat writers and talent evaluators believe Gibbs can be a three-down back.

Four running backs have been drafted in the No. 8 to No. 15 range since the 2010 season and they have averaged 211 touches for 1,009 yards and 6.0 touchdowns as rookies (in 13.8 games played). Gibbs figures to see a lot of receptions while sharing rushing duties with David Montgomery.

When the receiver position gets a little dicey in the third round, Gibbs is a great pivot and is even a viable Hero-RB pick, especially in full-PPR formats.

Possible Pivots: Rhamondre Stevenson (3.04) has a lot of upside, but the Patriots’ interest in veteran running backs does worry me a bit. Najee Harris (3.06) and Joe Mixon (3.11) are solid (albeit a little boring) picks in the third round as well, though Mixon does have a couple of legal issues pending. I'm no longer willing to draft Harris at ADP. It looks like he may split time with Jaylen Warren this season.

Aaron Jones in the Fourth

Aaron Jones (4.03) finished as the fantasy RB9 in each of the last two seasons, yet he’s the 16th running back off the board in early drafts. His detractors will likely point to his age (28, not a major concern) and the Packers’ offense, which is expected to take a step back after the loss of Aaron Rodgers. Yet the Packers had an off year in 2022–14th in points scored, 17th in yards from scrimmage–and Jones still posted top-10 numbers at his position.

He’s averaged 16.6 touches per game over the last four seasons and is typically a big part of the game plan whenever he’s available. And he’s usually available–he has missed just four games in the last four years. To top it off, he’s really good! Last year, he was seventh in yards after contact per attempt, 15th in broken tackles per attempt, and third in PFF’s rushing grade. He has the fifth-most receptions, the sixth-most receiving yards, and the second-most receiving touchdowns among running backs in the last two seasons.

I’d have no problem rolling with Jones as my RB1 if I were to wait until the fourth round to draft my first running back.

Possible Pivot: Kenneth Walker (4.09) is also worth a look in the fourth round. I'm adding Dameon Pierce to the list as well since it looks like they signed Devin Singletary to be a pure backup. Pierce's third-down snaps have increased in the preseason and he's a highly-efficient runner.

Alexander Mattison, Miles Sanders, or Cam Akers in the Fifth

These three backs are the clear No. 1 RBs for their respective teams and could push for 20 touches per game.

With Dalvin Cook out of the way, Alexander Mattison (5.12) has a chance to finish as a fantasy RB1. In the 14 games Mattison has seen at least 10 carries, he has averaged 18.1 touches for 88 yards and 0.57 touchdowns. The resulting 13.0 half-PPR points per game are about what Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones averaged as low-end RB1s in 2022.

Even better–in his seven starts from 2020-21, he averaged 23.3 touches for 118 yards and 0.72 touchdowns per game. That production would have beaten out Saquon Barkley and Nick Chubb last season. Mattison posted the No. 14 rushing grade at PFF in 2022.

Miles Sanders (5.04) finished as the fantasy RB11 last season after a 12-game, RB41 finish the year before. He scored 11 rushing touchdowns in 2022 after posting a goose egg in touchdowns in 2021. (Touchdown regression is a real thing, folks.)

Now he moves on to Carolina, where he should serve as the team’s lead back, if not their bell cow. The Panthers apparently want to get Sanders going again as a receiver. Remember, he caught 50 passes as a rookie but he didn’t eclipse 30 catches in any of the next three seasons. If he can stay healthy, 300 touches–250 or so touches with 50 catches–is within his range of outcomes. Rushing-wise, the Carolina offensive line was a top-10 unit last year, per Football Outsiders, and as a receiver, Sanders should provide an outlet for rookie QB Bryce Young when plays break down.

Cam Akers (5.08) is the 20th back off the board in early drafts, but he has major usage upside as the Rams’ primary back. Darrell Henderson is gone, Sony Michel retired, so it will be Kyren Williams, Zach Evans, Ronnie Rivers, and Royce Freeman competing for touches behind Akers.

From Week 11 on, Akers averaged 17.2 touches for 89 yards and 0.75 touchdowns per game. The resulting 13.8 fantasy points per game are more than what James Conner averaged (13.6) as last year’s RB10 in per-game scoring. The Achilles injury is a concern for Akers, but he averaged 4.83 yards per carry after Week 11 and finished inside the top-13 in both yards after contact per attempt and broken tackles per attempt.

They also started getting him involved as a receiver by the end of the season. He had nine catches in his final four games and surpassed 104 rushing yards in his last three games. If this sort of production carries over in what should be a bounce-back season for the Rams’ offense, Akers will have a great chance to beat his ADP.

James Conner, Rachaad White, James Cook, or Alvin Kamara in the Sixth/Seventh

It’s not often fantasy managers can nab 18-touch backs this late in the draft, but both Conner and White figure to be in that range workload-wise this season.

I am worried about the Cardinals’ 2023 season going off the rails, but from Week 10 to Week 17, James Conner (6.05) was the fantasy RB5, averaging 21.3 touches for 102 total yards and 1.0 touchdowns per game. He just turned 28 and didn’t fare particularly well in the yards after contact or tackle-breaking advanced metrics. However, he seems to have a stranglehold on the Arizona backfield and he’s always been a solid receiver.

Rachaad White (6.06) took over as the starter in Week 10, and from that point on he was the fantasy RB29. In his defense, he was still splitting time with Leonard Fournette. White averaged 15.2 touches for 65 yards and 0.25 touchdowns while playing 49% of the snaps. Fournette was still playing around 46% of the snaps once he ceded the starting role. Per Pro Football Reference, White was 38th in yards after contact per attempt and 34th in broken tackles per attempt. He was 55th out of 62 eligible running backs in PFF’s rushing grade. So it’s not like White tore it up in a limited workload. At this point, his fantasy value relies on his expected volume–his primary competition is 2022 disappointment Chase Edmonds and Ke'Shawn Vaughn–and the fact he caught 50 passes as a rookie.

White should see plenty of work as the Bucs’ No. 1 RB. He looks like a good value as the 24th back off the board in early drafts.

James Cook (7.11) is currently the RB31 off the board in the late-seventh round, but I’m guessing his ADP will rise due to the steady drumbeat of positive news coming out of camp. Per GM Ken Dorsey, the Bills are “really excited” about Cook and even said that he has “three-down back” potential.

Damien Harris and Latavius Murray are in the mix, but it sounds as if the Bills want Cook to be the lead back. Among the 52 backs with at least 80 carries, Cook was 17th in yards after contact per attempt and 39th in broken tackles per attempt. He had the No. 26 rushing grade at PFF (out of 60 qualified backs) and was 15th in yards per route run at his position.

I’m definitely worried about his touchdown upside with Josh Allen and Harris potentially vulturing goal-line opportunities, but Cook could put up big yardage totals in the Bills’ high-octane offense.

Alvin Kamara (7.07) plead no contest to a misdemeanor charge, which means his off-the-field trouble is resolved as far as the legal system is concerned. The NFL announced that he’d be suspended for three games. Most pundits thought the suspension would last 4-6 games, so it’s a bit shorter than expected. His ADP sits in the seventh round and should rise into the sixth round on this news. Fantasy managers could have an RB2 with weekly RB1 upside available for the stretch run at the cost of a middle-round pick. He was the fantasy RB19 last season and was 16th among the 52 backs who saw 80+ carries in yards after contact per attempt. There are only a handful of backs going outside the top 100 who have his level of upside.

David Montgomery (7.04) and Isiah Pacheco (7.02) are also worth a look in the sixth or seventh round. Both players should see 15+ touches per game.

Khalil Herbert in the Ninth

With David Montogmery landing in Detroit, Khalil Herbert (9.05) is the top returning rusher (129 carries for 731 yards and four touchdowns). His advanced stats are really, really good. Among the 52 backs with 80+ carries last season, he was second (to Tony Pollard) in yards after contact per attempt and 12th in broken tackles per attempt.

The Bears signed D'Onta Foreman and drafted Roschon Johnson, but early in camp, the pecking order has been Khalil Herbert, Johnson, and then Foreman, so Johnson seems to be the bigger threat. (Herbert has apparently looked impressive, however.)

Johnson has a great draft profile, but Herbert should be able to hold him off given his experience and production to date. As the RB40 off the board, he’s one of the last “penciled-in starters” available. If he’s able to improve his pass-blocking, he could be a three-down back.

“PPR Specials” Jerick McKinnon and Samaje Perine in the 10th-12th

Jerick McKinnon (10.05) re-signed with the Chiefs and should remain in a 1-2 role with Isiah Pacheco. He saw his usage pick up in Week 9, and from that point on, he was the fantasy RB7 on 9.1 touches per game. At one point he had nine touchdowns in a six-game span, and that’s a run unlikely to be repeated, but he should continue to catch a lot of passes out of the backfield given the team’s lack of depth (and proven targets) at the receiver position.

Devon Achane was redacted from this section. He hasn't made any headway in the Miami backfield and the Dolphins are possibly targeting Jonathan Taylor via trade.

After a few seasons serving as Joe Mixon’s backup, Samaje Perine (9.03) decided to move to Denver where he’ll have a chance to potentially play a lot of snaps as long as Javonte Williams is recovering from a late-season ACL tear. Perine has a career 4.0 yards per carry, but he’s a good receiver–101 catches on 122 career targets–so he’ll have a chance to post RB2/RB3 numbers if Williams is at all limited. New head coach Sean Payton does have a history of divvying up the backfield duties (a la Alvin Kamara and Mark Ingram).

Attrition Upside

The following backups are going in the 10th round or later and have RB2/RB3 upside if the starter were to get injured: Jaylen Warren, Zach Charbonnet, Devin Singletary, Elijah Mitchell, Chuba Hubbard, Damien Harris, Trayveon Williams, Roschon Johnson, Gus Edwards, Zamir White, Tyler Allgeier, Jerome Ford, Joshua Kelley, Tyjae Spears, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Tank Bigsby, Zack Moss ad Kendre Miller. Managers should stash a couple of these players provided there’s roster room.

Related: When to Draft a Running Back

Wide Receivers

Early-Round Receivers

It seems there is a bit of a drop-off at receiver once 12-team drafts get around the 2nd/3rd turn.

Justin Jefferson, Cooper Kupp, Ja'Marr Chase, Tyreek Hill, and Stefon Diggs seem to be clear first-rounders, while CeeDee Lamb and A.J. Brown are going near the 1st/2nd turn. Davante Adams, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and Garrett Wilson seem to be clear second-rounders. Jaylen Waddle, Chris Olave, DeVonta Smith, and Tee Higgins typically go near the 2nd/3rd turn, depending on the league format.

After Smith/Higgins/Olave are off the board, there’s more disparity between ADP and analyst consensus, and certainly my rankings, so it does make sense to try to grab 1-2 of these top-14 receivers if possible. Given the running back touches available in the middle rounds, it does allow managers to use their first few picks on a stud tight end or quarterback, or a stud receiver (or two).

Primary Middle-Round Targets

My WR15 in half-PPR (WR14 in full-PPR) is Terry McLaurin (5.06), but he’s the WR24 off the board, so there’s an opportunity to get him as a good value in the fourth or fifth round. I've since moved McLaurin down due to his toe injury, which might cause him to miss a game or two, but his ADP is sliding as well, so he's still a primary target.

In his last three seasons, he has posted 87-1118-4 (WR20), 77-1053-5 (WR25), and 77-1191-5 (WR18), racking up the eighth-most receiving yards in that span. He consistently fares very well in Matt Harmon’s Reception Perception charting. It’s a small sample, but Sam Howell targeted McLaurin on six of his 19 pass attempts in his lone 2022 start. That’s a 31.6% target share. McLaurin averaged 3.36 yards per route run in that game, which is outstanding.

He was 16th in yards per route run among all receivers last year. Among the 88 receivers with 30+ receptions, McLaurin posted the 14th-highest yards after contact per catch, and he had the 11th-most broken tackles per reception in the same subset.

Possible Pivots: Calvin Ridley, Amari Cooper, Keenan Allen, Deebo Samuel

My next middle-round target is Diontae Johnson (6.09), who is one of the best route-runners in the league. At Reception Perception, his success rate versus man coverage was top-seven in each of the last three years. Johnson’s “Open Score” was the best in the league in 2022, per ESPN, and top-four in every season since 2019. In other words, he’s really good at getting open.

Johnson’s disappointing 2022 season was driven solely by the fact he caught (a mind-boggling) zero touchdowns on 147 targets, but that had more to do with Kenny Pickett’s play than anything else. If we’re betting Pickett is going to improve his woeful touchdown total (7) and/or his YPA (6.2), then Johnson should be a primary beneficiary.

After all, since the 2010 season, the 50 other receivers who have seen 142-152 targets in a single year have averaged 7.26 touchdowns per season. Had Johnson caught just five, he would have finished WR22 instead of WR35. Had he maintained his career 4.9% touchdown-to-target rate, he would have caught 7.26 touchdowns–yes, the exact same number–and finished as fantasy’s WR19. As the WR28 off the board, he’s being drafted near his floor and will be one of my primary middle-round targets in the fifth or sixth round.

Possible Pivots: Christian Watson

The next standout target is Tyler Lockett (6.11). Last season, Lockett's WR41 ADP made him a screaming value and I pounded the table for him all offseason. He finished as the fantasy WR13, so naturally, he’s the WR31 off the board. What?!?

I think it’s a combination of drafters’ mistrust of Geno Smith, Lockett’s age (30), and the arrival of Jaxon Smith-Njigba. In my mind, Smith has proven himself, Lockett is still in his prime, and Smith-Njigba, while a great prospect, isn't at Lockett’s level as a rookie.

Remember, Lockett (5.3-65-0.56 on 7.3 targets) outproduced DK Metcalf (5.2-60-0.38 on 8.3 targets) in the 16 games they played together last season.

Possible Pivots: Drake London, Mike Williams, Brandon Aiyuk

I've become more bullish on London since he's basically been an every-down player while Kyle Pitts is essentially a part-time player. With no Pitts to compete for targets on a good portion of London's snaps, I feel a lot better about his floor. Matt Harmon of Reception Perception is a big fan of his route-running.

Note: Managers should check Lockett and Johnson’s ADP at their respective draft sites since they may want to target Lockett before Johnson in an attempt to get both players. Their ADPs are pretty close and ADP can influence draft decisions.

Finding WR4s With WR2 Upside

Somewhere in the WR35-WR40 range, the position starts to feel pretty dicey, but there are players with WR2 upside.

Mike Evans (6.12), Marquise Brown (7.08), and Michael Pittman (7.09) are talented players going later than usual thanks to very suspect quarterback situations. They are serviceable WR3s but are better viewed as WR4-types with upside. Evans reportedly is having a great camp.

Jahan Dotson (7.12), George Pickens (7.10), Jordan Addison (8.04), and Jaxon Smith-Njigba (8.03) are emerging players (and real-world WR2/WR3-types) with high short-term and long-term upside, but I’d like to highlight a player who I believe is a post-hype sleeper going slightly later than these four players. (I've been drafting a lot of Dotson and Addison lately.)

Gabe Davis (8.07) can still turn in WR2/WR3 numbers on a semi-consistent basis. Much-derided after failing to live up to high expectations in his third season, he still managed 836 yards and seven touchdowns on 48 catches as he battled an ankle injury for most of the season. He finished as the WR28 in half-PPR formats (WR33 in PPR) after being drafted as the WR28, so maybe he didn’t have such a bad season after all.

He posted 4-88-1 in Week 1 before suffering a high-ankle injury that forced him to miss one game, but the ankle was a factor through Week 5 at least. He’s going off the board as the WR39, and his ADP has risen a bit as he survived the DeAndre Hopkins sweepstakes. He just turned 24, he’s the WR2 in one of the best passing attacks in the league, and he has caught 17 touchdowns in his last 24 games. He isn’t going to be a consistent producer, but he might be a game-winner in any given week.

Odell Beckham (10.03) sat out the 2022 season after tearing his ACL in the Super Bowl. In his last 11 games with the Rams, he averaged 4.2 catches for 52 yards and 0.64 touchdowns per game, or 11.1 (half-PPR) fantasy points per game. That’s about what DK Metcalf and Terry McLaurin averaged last season as solid WR2-types. After charting his stint with the Rams, Matt Harmon of Reception Perception wrote last year that Beckham “still gets open at an extremely high level” and that he “didn’t lose any steam” in his time in L.A.

Both Beckham and Zay Flowers (10.02) could beat their respective ADP since Rashod Bateman still seems to be injured and the Ravens are installing a pass-friendly and fast-paced offense under new OC Todd Monken. More pass attempts and more plays mean the Ravens’ passing pie should be a lot larger this year, so perhaps it will support three fantasy starters in Mark Andrews, Beckham, and Flowers.

I’ll dive deeper into the receiver position in my forthcoming Wide Receiver Sleepers & Values article, but for now, this should serve as a good overview of how I’m building my receiving corps this season.

Related: When to Draft a Wide Receiver

I’ll be writing “Sleepers & Values” articles for each of the four major positions, but here are a few sample drafts based on early picks and draft positions:

Early-Pick Sample Draft (Late-Round QB)

QB: G. Smith (9)

RB: Pollard (2), Gibbs (3), Herbert (8), Gainwell (10)

WR: Chase (1), K. Allen (4), Lockett (6), Dotson (7)

TE: Waller (5)

Middle-Pick Sample Draft (Stud QB/TE)

QB: Mahomes (2)

RB: A. Jones (4), Herbert (8), Gainwell (10)

WR: Ridley (3), D. Johnson (5), Lockett (6), Evans (7), Flowers (10)

TE: Kelce (1)

Late-Pick Sample Draft (RB/RB)

QB: Herbert (5)

RB: Chubb (1), Pollard (2), Herbert (9)

WR: K. Allen (4), McLaurin (6), Addison (7), Davis (8), Beckham (10)

TE: Andrews (3)

Paulsen's Draft Targets By Round (2023)
1 Chubb Jefferson, Kupp, Chase, Hill, Diggs KELCE
2 Hurts, Mahomes, Allen POLLARD Lamb, AJ Brown, Adams, St. Brown, Wilson, Waddle
3 HURTS, MAHOMES, ALLEN, Jackson GIBBS, Stevenson Olave, D. Smith, Higgins ANDREWS
4 Jackson, Burrow, Fields, Herbert A. Jones, Pierce, Walker Hockenson, Waller
5 Herbert, Lawrence Mattison, Sanders, Akers D. JOHNSON, Lockett, Watson
6 KAMARA, J. Cook, Conner, White LOCKETT, MCLAURIN, M. Williams, Aiyuk, London GOEDERT
7 Montgomery, Pacheco DOTSON, Evans, M. Brown, Pittman Engram
8 ADDISON, G. Davis, Pickens, Smith-Njigba FREIERMUTH
9 G. SMITH, D. Jones, Richardson, Rodgers HERBERT
10 McKinnon, Perine Beckham, Flowers
11 Higbee, Schultz, Okonkwo
12 Purdy GAINWELL Everett
13 LaPorta
15 HOWELL H. Henry
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