Fantasy Football: Impressive rookies make their cases for 2023 drafts in Week 18

Every week of an NFL season is weird in its own way, and Sunday’s Week 18 had its share of quirkiness. Some teams were angling for a playoff spot or better seeding, a few clubs were aggressively resting starters, and some teams are already dreaming of this spring’s NFL draft. Motivations are all over the map in the final week of the schedule.

And then there were the rookie skill players around the league, who for the most part were singing a few rounds of "Don’t You Forget About Me." They’re a fascinating draft group heading into the 2023 fantasy season.

Let’s start at wide receiver, where Garrett Wilson, Chris Olave, Drake London and George Pickens have all flashed this year, despite the fact that none of them landed with an elite quarterback. Maybe these wideouts will prove to be quarterback-proof in subsequent years, or maybe they’ll elevate their teammates. Some of these pass-catchers will have new quarterbacks next year, too — and hopefully quarterback upgrades.

All four of those rookies cracked the top 15 at the wideout position in Sunday’s early window. London binged for 120 yards on six catches against Tampa Bay — albeit the Buccaneers didn’t have any on-field motivation — and Pickens caught his second touchdown in three weeks. Olave’s five-catch, 60-yard afternoon included a 25-yard scoring grab, and Wilson was a constant playmaker at Miami, finishing with an 9-89-0 afternoon on a whopping 17 targets.

It’s not easy to rank them going forward. Wilson and Olave will always be linked, given they starred together at Ohio State. Can the Saints land a better quarterback than Andy Dalton? It’s funny how Wilson did more with Mike White and Joe Flacco this year than he did with Zach Wilson; the Jets should be in the quarterback market in the spring.

Your 2023 stance on London and Pickens depends largely on how you feel about their freshman quarterback teammates, Desmond Ridder and Kenny Pickett. Ridder finally cracked double-digit fantasy points in his fourth start, posting 16.86 points in the comeback win over the distracted Buccaneers. The Falcons might draft over Ridder’s head in the spring, or perhaps they’ll bring in outside competition.

I’m probably more optimistic about Pickett going forward than the market. His pocket awareness (and sack avoidance) has improved significantly in the second half of the year, and Pickett made some clutch late-game throws against the Ravens and Raiders the two previous weeks. Pickett was inaccurate in the early stages of Sunday’s win over the Browns, but his fourth-quarter throws were vastly improved; plenty of tight-window connections.

No one is calling Pickett a sure thing going forward, but at least theres’s a case for plausible upside.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) is gaining fantasy value
Kenny Pickett has had some interesting fantasy moments this season. (Photo by Shelley Lipton/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

And give it up for Mike Tomlin, who rallied the Steelers to a 9-8 record, courtesy of a 7-2 finish. He’s yet to post a losing season over his 16-year career, winning 63.6 percent of his games. Tomlin is as valuable as any head coach in the game today.

Rookies at other positions also made their presence felt Sunday. Tyler Allgeier rumbled for 135 yards against Tampa Bay, clearing 1,000 yards for the season. He wasn’t used much in the passing game this year, though he did secure 16 of his 17 targets. Most teams add competition for their running back rooms yearly, but Allgeier probably has the No. 1 jersey in Atlanta entering next year. He was a heck of a find in the fifth round.

Not far behind Allgeier on Sunday’s yardage list was Kenneth Walker, who racked up his third straight 100-yard effort, a 29-114-0 line against Detroit. Walker didn’t score any touchdowns in his final five starts of the year, and the Seahawks didn't feature him as a pass-catcher. But he goes down as the most impactful rookie pick of the year; after Rashaad Penny got hurt in Week 5, Walker took control of Seattle’s backfield and carved out weekly real estate as a playable RB1/2.

The challenge for Walker next season is to improve his success rate; he was mostly a boom-or-bust runner in 2022, though there were plenty of home runs.

Isaiah Likely stepped up with Mark Andrews out, rocking an 8-103-0 line at Cincinnati. That makes Likely the TE3 this week as we go to press. Chigoziem Okonkwo proved handy for Tennessee in the final third of the season; he had three catches and a touchdown in the Saturday night loss at Jacksonville.

We’ll give Brock Purdy the last word — perhaps the most shocking rookie contributor of all. Nothing was expected when the Niners selected quarterback Purdy with the final pick of the 2022 Draft, but Mr. Irrelevant has turned into Mr. Relevant for San Francisco, clicking nicely with the team’s impressive skill talent. As we turn this piece over to editing, Purdy is sitting on a 15-20-178 passing line, with three touchdown passes and no turnovers. He’s turned George Kittle into a touchdown machine; they’ve connected on seven spikes over the last four games.

Obviously, the Niners still have high hopes for Trey Lance, albeit he’s hardly played any football in the last three years. But it sure seems like Purdy is going to have a long career in the NFL, and the Niners have to be viewed as one of the NFC’s primary favorites as we get ready for the playoffs. The moment never seems too big for Purdy, does it?

The kids are alright, man. The kids are alright.

I realize you would probably like projected 2023 rankings for these ascending talents, and don't worry, they're coming soon. I'll be doing the usual Exit Interviews for the four major positions starting in the coming week, and most of the names from above will figure into the first batch of ranks.

The NFL is in so many ways a young man's game, and we have a lot to look forward to.

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