Week 1 of the 2023 NFL season is nearly upon us and your fantasy football drafting has probably kicked into high gear, hasn’t it? Home leagues, work leagues, high-stakes leagues, we’re all moving a mile a minute right now and every bit of information helps. We continue to update all aspects of the Fantasy Alarm Fantasy Football Draft Guide, including all of our fantasy football player rankings as well as the Fantasy Football Cheat Sheet. But as this process continues, I continue to receive questions regarding why I may be down on some players this year. Everyone knows who my favorites are as I shout them from the rooftops of SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio and here on the site, but people also want to know which players I am avoiding at their current fantasy football ADP and why, so, I present to you…
Howard Bender’s Fantasy Football Fades for 2023
Austin Ekeler, RB Los Angeles Chargers – ADP 6.82
This is the big one and it’s making some people VERY unhappy!
I don’t need to go back into history and tell you how many first-rounders have busted in fantasy football; you already know that. But unless you read my AFC West Coaching Systems article in the Draft Guide, you’re probably still looking at Ekeler’s numbers from the past few seasons and thinking about drafting him as a top-five running back. I’m here to tell you that I wouldn’t. Listen, you can check the rankings and see where I have Ekeler ranked in all formats. I don’t hate the guy. I just have a number of others I prefer to draft ahead of him.
It starts with the change at offensive coordinator as the Chargers said goodbye to Joe Lombardi and brought in Kellen Moore, formerly of the Dallas Cowboys. Lombardi’s scheme features a lot of passing to the running backs, as evidenced by Alvin Kamara’s numbers in New Orleans where he averaged 102 targets per year for the four seasons Lombardi was his OC and then just 72 per year when he wasn’t. Meanwhile, Ekeler averaged 111 targets during his two years with Lombardi and just 65 per season without him. Yes, he saw 108 targets in 2019, but that was more an indictment of Philip Rivers’ inability to heave the ball downfield during his twilight years. But the point to take away here is that Ekeler’s value is directly tied to his receptions. The 28-year-old has never rushed for more than 915 yards, but has finished as a top running back for his work in the passing game.
Now think about how many fantasy owners were disappointed in the way Moore used Tony Pollard in the passing attack in Dallas. We’re talking about an average of 40 targets per season. Do we genuinely believe that Moore is going to come into Los Angeles where he has Justin Herbert throwing to Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Quentin Johnston and Gerald Everett and won’t want his quarterback looking downfield instead of out in the flat? The targets are going to drop. They will. And for Ekeler to return value as a top-five running back in fantasy, he’s going to have to step it up on the rushing front.
Immediately, you have to turn back to the offensive scheme. Lombardi prefers to use an outside zone blocking scheme and under him, the majority of Ekeler’s rushing attempts, according to NFL.com’s Next Gen Stats, were outside the tackles. Moore is planning a hybrid blocking scheme that blends zone blocking and power/gap blocking, so if you understand the difference, you’ll know that we should expect to see a lot of between-the-tackles attempts which are not in Ekeler’s wheelhouse. I’m not saying Joshua Kelley will out-touch him. I’m just saying you should probably expect more of a split than you are used to seeing with the Chargers. Again, you can look at the rushing attempts for Pollard under Moore’s scheme and understand why Ezekiel Elliott saw so much work, even as an aging, injured back.
Moore understands what a player can and can’t do and he adjusts their role to cater to their strengths, but in accordance with his scheme. To me, that says we should expect fewer targets and receptions for Ekeler and, potentially, a larger share of the work for Kelley, or whomever they could potentially add to the roster. And that is why Ekeler is no longer a top-five running back for me.
Jahmyr Gibbs, RB Detroit Lions – ADP 34.80
The big question to ask yourself here is, “is the juice worth the squeeze?” I get it – Gibbs is a dynamic talent. He’s explosive. The Lions are going to line him up in the slot. They’re going to line him up on the outside and use him more like a receiver. We’ve been hearing this from the moment the Lions traded up in the draft to pick him and the whole fantasy football world double-downed on it when the team shipped D’Andre Swift off to the Eagles. My concern, however, comes with wondering if the Lions are actually going to follow through.
First and foremost, Swift’s days were numbered long before the team drafted Gibbs. We knew their backfield was being revamped when they signed former Bears running back David Montgomery and let Jamaal Williams leave for New Orleans via free agency. On the surface, it just looked like Montgomery would replace Williams as the short-yardage, between-the-tackles specialist, but the fact of the matter is, Montgomery is much more versatile. Not only can he take it between the tackles, but he can also pass-block and catch passes in the flat, as evidenced by his average of 53 targets per season over the last three years. Put Jamaal Williams on the field, you know the Lions are going to run. Put Swift out there and chances are we’re looking at a pass. Put Montgomery out there, it could go either way and that’s exactly what Dan Campbell wants. In fact, they wanted it so badly they’re paying him $6M per year for three years.
I know that in this era of a pass-happy NFL and full-point PPR scoring, most people expect Gibbs to rack up a ton of points, but I do have concerns regarding his overall usage. As a running back, I’m just not sure of how many carries he will actually get and as a receiver, it’s obviously about coverage and where Jared Goff is looking to dish off the football. It’s also about what their passing attack is going to look like. If you look at his numbers from last season, Amon-Ra St. Brown was actually more productive out of the slot than he was on the outside. If Gibbs is lining up in the slot and St. Brown is on the outside, will he see the mismatches he saw last year when teams tried to cover him with a linebacker or a small slot-corner? With no Jameson Williams as the Z-receiver, how often will opposing defenses float safety help over the top to double-cover him? By moving him primarily to the outside to accommodate Gibbs, you’re hindering the opportunities for, arguably, your best play-maker. IS that going to make this a more prolific offense? Doesn’t sound like it.
And Gibbs is not in some kind of unique situation and he is certainly not someone people should be labeling as a unicorn. To me, he is a third-down, pass-catching back who will be used in tandem with Montgomery throughout the season. Will he have his shining moments at times? Probably. And I am sure with every flashing moment of brilliance, someone from fantasy football Twitter will hit me up and tell me I’m an idiot. But for a running back being taken in the late third-round of fantasy drafts, I expect something more. I expect more snaps, more touches and greater opportunities to score. And one final thing to keep in mind – all of this hype and all of this talk of lining him up in the slot – these were some of the exact same things they said about Swift when he joined the league and how did that turn out?
Christian Watson, WR Green Bay Packers – ADP 55.81
Here’s another one where I am going against the fantasy community groupthink as people look at what Watson did last year with Aaron Rodgers and expect him to either repeat or even build off of it. Now I’m not going to turn this into a Rodgers vs Jordan Love debate because that’s not at the heart of the issue. Well, it is but it isn’t. It’s about Packers head coach Matt LaFleur’s offensive scheme. While he implemented his version of the west coast offense a few seasons ago, this is the first time we’re going to see it in its purest form as Rodgers routinely audibled at the line of scrimmage and changed the plays. With Love under center, despite a strong preseason, there will not be as much autonomy.
While Rodgers was more of the ilk that the pass sets up the run in a west coast offense, LaFleur would very much like the opposite here. We expect the Packers to lean fairly heavily on Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon and utilize the short, high-percentage passes to help move the chains. The run-heavy approach coupled with the short-passing will eventually set up play-action and the ability to take deeper shots downfield, but that is not going to be the primary like it was when Rodgers was their signal-caller.
With that being LaFleur’s approach, I believe we will see a lot more of Romeo Doubs being a receiving focal point. He is a crisp, clean route-runner and the short-passing game suits his style significantly more. Watson can stretch the field with his speed and he adds a strong element to the vertical passing game with his size, but oy wouldn’t surprise me in the least if he stayed behind Doubs in the target share this season. Is that what you want from a receiver you take in the fifth round? Seems a little high for me. I wouldn’t avoid him if he fell a little further in drafts, but at this price, I’m out.
Mike Evans, WR TB – ADP 77.89
OK, let’s do one more here because I’m seeing a lot of people out there talking about how accurate Baker Mayfield has been on deep passes and why that’s great for Evans. Yes, in 2020 and 2021, Mayfield’s accuracy numbers on passes over 20 yards was surprisingly strong. In fact, there was an article done on NFL.com in conjunction with Next Gen Stats that listed Mayfield sixth overall on deep-passing accuracy. While I don’t want to take anything away from him, I also am not going to expect to see what he did two or three seasons ago and apply it to this season.
In Cleveland, Mayfield had one of the most ideal situations a quarterback could have. His offensive line was one of the best in the league, he had the best running back in football playing behind him and he had a coach who, unfortunately, panicked in the second half and routinely threw the ball a lot more often than he should. I had very high hopes for Kevin Stefanski when he left Minnesota to coach the Browns, but he routinely abandoned what he learned from Gary Kubiak and Rick Dennison and forced the passing more than he should. That gave Mayfield significantly better opportunities. The line protected him well and play-action fakes to Chubb immediately had the defense worried about stopping the run. But take him out of that comfort zone and what do we have?
Last year, between the Panthers and Rams, Mayfield struggled to repeat his deep-passing accuracy. Neither team had the offensive line the Browns had and neither team was able to establish play-action the way they did in Cleveland. Now in Tampa Bay, what are we to believe? Dave Canales comes to town as the new offensive coordinator and with him comes a very run-heavy scheme. The guy spent the last 13 years working under Pete Carroll, so what did you expect? And while the Bucs did everything they could to build up their offensive line in order to protect Tom Brady, injuries have ravaged this group. Outside of Tristan Wirfs, who is being moved over to left tackle, there are a lot of question marks. Can rookie Cody Mauch handle the right guard position? What can we expect from second-year tackle Luke Goedeke? The line was fourth in pass-blocking last season, but was that because of their ability to pass-protect or was it because Brady had such a quick release and got rid of the football in record time? Mayfield is certainly no Brady.
The Bucs are going to try, though. They are hoping to establish the run early and utilize the short-passing game to move the chains. They are hoping that will open things up for better downfield attempts, but that style of play, obviously, favors Chris Godwin out of the slot more than it does Evans. The guy has seen over 100 targets every year since he joined the league in 2014 and I won’t say that the targets won’t be there, but we’re also looking at numbers probably closer to his 2020 targets (109) than the 149 targets average he saw between 2015 and 2018.
Mayfield is not a great quarterback. You don’t need me to pour stats all over you to prove it. You can just use your eyes. The Bucs offensive line is a problem. Sure, they’ll fall behind in the second half and ask Mayfield to bring them back by chucking the ball all over the field. But defenses are going to key in on that, coverage schemes will thwart a number of attempts and Evans is going to see his numbers suffer. With receivers like George Pickens, Jahan Dotson and Tyler Lockett going around the same ADP, I’m fading Evans for the first time in his career.
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