Initial 2023 draft thoughts
Developed from my first 30+ drafts of the year
Most of you know I live in a state with pretty archaic fantasy laws, that historically hasn’t allowed me a ton of flexibility to join in on the best ball drafting craze. What was news to me this year was that Underdog would allow me to open an account in my own name and draft, so long as the deposits were made and contests entered from a legal jurisdiction. Those of you who follow Ship Chasing know this meant driving several hours, a little more than a week ago, to enter 30 slow drafts (as well as five fast drafts while I was there) that I could then draft at my leisure from back home.
I mention all this because plugging into the 2023 drafting matrix got me pretty jazzed, and I developed some quick initial takes on how to play things while doing those first few fast drafts. But as I work my way through the 30 slow drafts — the first few of those wrapped up yesterday — I’m already sensing my thoughts being pulled by ADP and some of the correlation considerations that are necessary to building the types of final rosters you want in these contests. And while that stuff matters, there’s something to be said for documenting those initial gut takes, such that those opinions aren’t just lost to the ether as I conform to many of the same strategies the market has moved toward.
So today is rapid fire first thoughts on the 2023 drafting landscape, as defined by Underdog’s drafting atmosphere which tends to be more WR heavy than most any other you’ll see, along with a few other subtleties that impact a couple of these notes.
Quarterbacks are overpriced
There’s an ongoing shift here, one I’ve noticed just in the 10 days or so I’ve been drafting in earnest, as the market was ready for this correction and QBs are indeed dropping some. But I still wanted to mention it, specifically because I have what I think is an interesting way of thinking about it.
The elite quarterbacks are absolutely on a different level in the 2023 NFL than during most of the history of fantasy football, which is the major justification to ignore years of data showing late-round QB strategies to be successful, something that helped shift the way the position was drafted, universally moving QBs down draft boards. QB rushing is up across the entire NFL, and there is a cohort of elite dual threat QBs the likes of which the NFL has never seen. And the way rushing impacts QB scoring, this absolutely changes the expected shape of positional scoring.
I acknowledge all of that, and I would love to have any of the elite QBs on any of my fantasy teams for the potential positional advantage they offer. However, the opportunity cost to get them on these rosters has become extremely steep, and the type of elite dual-threat scoring we talk about as the ceiling for these guys is not possible for each of them in every season. Last year, injuries prevented it for a couple top options, Lamar Jackson and Kyler Murray, though neither were really on their way to elite ceilings when we look at points per game. Additionally, a late-round QB who is now an early-round QB — Justin Fields — had a truly elite rushing season but showed that with truly lackluster passing numbers, it’s more of a high floor than elite ceiling profile. Where Fields goes in drafts this year, his passing has to take a substantial step forward even if he runs for close to or more than 1,000 yards again. Depending on the QB scoring you use, he was roughly the QB6 in points per game last year, but roughly 6 or so points per game behind the top-three QBs (and thus a lot closer in scoring, per game, to the QB15 and QB16 range at the back end of the mass of QBs that tends to exist each year and is used as an explanation for the replaceability of the position).
My thought on the replaceability of QB scoring in 2023, particularly for best ball, is to think of it like Zero RB. When I was writing last year about “Frankenstein RB” groups, the point was how you’re thinking about replicating a full-season stat line that can compete with the very real upside of the early-round RBs that will hit. No one is arguing RBs don’t score points, just like the argument here is Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts, and Patrick Mahomes aren’t all going to bust. But you can still get 30-point fantasy games out of late-round QBs — that’s a known fact that’s been true for years. And in best ball, if you can stitch together a full-season QB line from late-round picks that features a few spike games and an otherwise solid floor, you ideally won’t be sacrificing too many points to the top-scoring QBs, even the ones who don’t bust (but to be clear, it’s my opinion with the collective pricing of QBs, a few will have very low win rates as clear busts, even if they don’t get injured but are just average, because the opportunity cost is just that high, and that resembles the risk inherent in early RB picks).
The opportunity cost point is very important, and dovetails with a few of the additional thoughts I have below. But those early picks are very necessary for the upside you need to build into your teams at each of the other three positions, and giving one of those up in search of QB stability looks to me like the least optimal way to build the highest-scoring roster. Again like the Zero RB discussion, it’s not to say that elite QBs won’t score; it’s to say that there are different ways to get fantasy points and the objective is to score the most points from your whole team, which can be done even if it includes fewer points from QB than you would have totaled with an elite. What’s important is what’s possible, and one of the points I made last summer with the Frankenstein RB stuff was how there is even some good fortune necessary, but that when that aligns you have these superteams, and that’s definitely the goal in massive best ball contests.
This is the thing I think many are missing — they focus solely on this idea they can’t make up the QB points, much like people who reject Zero RB without consideration focus solely on how they can’t make up the points elite RBs can score. What we’re talking about is a completely different way to build the puzzle, and it’s very much possible that a Zero QB combination of late-round options arranges to give you surprisingly strong best ball scoring for the position. The mere possibility of that makes it worth pursuing in the context of these top-heavy contests when the alternative we’re talking about is second- or third-round opportunity cost for the truly elite QBs, and elevated opportunity cost into prime WR and RB target windows for the QBs who weren’t even elite last year, which is in my opinion even more egregious than just paying for Mahomes, Allen, or Hurts. (You mean to tell me I can bypass a potential breakout star WR or RB in the single-digit rounds to get a QB that hasn’t actually ever scored in a differentiating way and for whom I have to project a significant step forward to get out of that replaceable mass of QB scoring that a late-round trio can definitely mirror? Oh, please, sign me up.)
I do want to note that in redraft leagues where you have to set a lineup, the value of an elite QB is higher, and this discussion is slightly different. Your late-round Frankenstein QB build obviously benefits in best ball from getting any unexpected ceiling weeks automatically entered into your lineups.
The WR window is narrower
One of the central points of my draft strategy pieces over the past few seasons has been how the WR window closes and upside profiles at the position really dry up by the early double-digit rounds. In my “The 7 pillars of 2022 drafts” piece from last year, I wrote that cutoff fell “somewhere around where guys like Garrett Wilson and Rondale Moore go and then within a round or two you’re in this DeVante Parker and Joshua Palmer range,” which I think does about as good of a job as you could expect at driving home the merits of the point.
Wilson and Moore were going in about Round 11 last year, but in 2023 Underdog drafts, you can be outside the WR window by your Round 8 pick. The target player with current ADP is Tyler Boyd, where I think once you get to where he’s the top name on your list, you’ve clearly transitioned from the WR window just a round or two earlier when Quentin Johnston and Rashod Bateman are a couple of the final exciting names in most drafts. There are a few transition names, like Courtland Sutton, that I have taken some and can’t totally make up my mind about, and I’ll also take Boyd and even Skyy Moore again as a guy who goes a little later still but I can justify having an upside profile, but mixed in there are names like Allen Lazard and honestly even JuJu Smith-Schuster where I just don’t see the point of the pick.
The truth about the end of the WR window is there’s always a bit of a transition, but it’s the kind of thing where it’s about a two- or three-round period where the window closes and you’re talking about going from very exciting picks that you should be making to suddenly needing to pivot away from WR and be taking on the value options at other positions (which this year is even more of a prime RB range than usual in part because the QB window that used to exist there more or less no longer exists, so that’s also not a position to be targeting at that time, which of course is how people can justify early QB picks, but the bigger issue with the early QB picks in WR avalanche draft is not having enough picks in the WR window to justify the detour).
While I said you can be outside that WR cutoff by Round 8, I already was when on the clock at 7.10 in one of my slows the other day. That means I was given just six picks before the true upside WR profiles were off the board. My contention with many of the elite QB builds that are out there is that when they also include a couple early RBs and maybe even an elite TE, they feel really solid across the board, but that the drafter doesn’t realize that his team just doesn’t have the requisite WR upside/depth and the team is probably dead as a result. It’s the whole reason people took forever to buy into targeting WR depth early in drafts; the easiest thing for a casual to miss when looking at a final roster is the importance of the strength of that WR3 and WR4, how valuable real WR depth can be over the course of a season, and how detrimental it can be when you have just a name there like an Odell Beckham that you’re convincing yourself is going to reach back to 2015 and be a star for you (and it’s not just what it means to have an Odell at WR3, but what that means about your WR4 and WR5 and the whole group, because even when you hit on a guy like Odell in this kind of build, it is still often just not enough).
[If you need to catch up on this concept of “detours,” I wrote about it extensively in the aforementioned 7 pillars article last year, including reframing some of the writing on it from the year prior.]
None of this WR lust is to say that I don’t want anything to do with early RBs, either. There are some legitimately exciting profiles being pushed down in various early ranges — I particularly like Round 3 for RB — where I love the idea of building in an anchor at that position, or perhaps even two early RBs. Those are detours that have massive potential, and to me are just so much more viable in terms of what they cost me in my pursuit of WR depth than most of the prices you have to pay for the early QB detours. I am also very much willing to pursue elite TEs, as always.
My belief is we have to be incredibly thoughtful with the detours through the first eight or so rounds of drafts right now. One last thing I want to mention here is the willingness to be looking into potential upside WR profiles in the later rounds (or even just viable pieces to a WR puzzle), because I don’t think it’s out of the question to build a viable WR room that does get somewhat buried by the WR avalanche before the WR window closes. Some of the later names I’ve used to try to make up for lost upside at WR include both Skyy and Rondale Moore again, Skyy’s KC teammate Rashee Rice as well as other rookies like Marvin Mims, and the other youngsters in second-year guys like Romeo Doubs and Tyquan Thornton. It’s difficult because the later WR picks are often used to add to team stacks, but I think in some of these builds it makes sense to forgo some of the stacking upside to be targeting real upside profiles instead of, like, Van Jefferson being a thing again because no one knows who else to add to a Cooper Kupp-Matthew Stafford stack.