Fantasy Football: Who could be the biggest surprise players of the NFL season?

Throughout the month of June, we ran a series on our Yahoo Fantasy podcast called “Flip the Script.” Essentially, we took a look at last year’s biggest surprises and tried to use that framework to pinpoint who could be the 2023 version of those players/teams.

Myself and the rotation co-hosts would nominate a wide variety of candidates, narrow it down to three finalists and then land on a winner after a very serious voting process. It was a fun and challenging exercise that challenged me on several of my priors.

Here, I’ll run through a few of the episodes and try to flesh out some of our thought processes with each debate.

This Year’s Geno Smith

Andy Behrens joined me for this episode and pushed hard for Baker Mayfield. While it’s a strange hill for Andy to die on, I understand how Mayfield fits the billing.

He’s a veteran with some level of competency but one we have seen fall in and out of favor with multiple coaching staffs. Also, like Smith last year, he stands to benefit from throwing to a pair of excellent receivers who form a 1A-1B duo in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Even Russell Gage isn’t a bad third option. We’ve seen Mayfield click with slot options like Jarvis Landry in the past, and that could project good things for his connection with Godwin, who is the suped-up version of Landry in his prime.

However, one of my biggest issues with Mayfield’s game — outside of his astounding overestimation of his playmaking ability on the move — is his inability to make high-degree-of-difficulty throws on timing routes to perimeter receivers. It’s no coincidence that proven quality players like Odell Beckham Jr. and D.J. Moore have both enjoyed the worst stretches of their careers with Mayfield under center. That gives me pause when examining his potential connection with Evans, who is a star but isn’t coming off his best year.

Ultimately, I just can’t get there with Mayfield for this reason. We’ve seen him squander good situations before.

[Join or create a Yahoo Fantasy Football league for free today]

I pushed us to nominate the Washington Commanders QB1 instead, admittedly a cheating combo answer. A lot would have to break right for Sam Howell or especially Jacoby Brissett to put up Geno-like passing numbers from 2022. But the surrounding receiver corps is what gets me coming back to the Washington well on a regular basis.

Terry McLaurin is so underrated. He’s a complete receiver, a star route runner who wins high-leverage contested passes and is a top-12 player in real life at the position. Jahan Dotson was awesome as a rookie and could leapfrog some of the tier-two, second-year wideouts many are so excited about if he takes another step. Curtis Samuel is also an excellent and versatile slot receiver. Washington will be in the discussion for one of the best wide receiver trios in the league by the end of the year. The coaching staff may be under scrutiny with a new owner arriving but I love the hire of Eric Bieniemy as the offensive coordinator.

Whether it’s Brissett holding down the fort and being a high-quality distributor or Howell actually hitting on the upside some are holding out hope he brings to the table, I am weirdly confident in the Commanders' starting quarterback having a strong surprise season.

At the very least, the table is set for them to play well.

This Year’s Jaguars

Dalton Del Don joined me for this episode and was adamant the Jets were the right pick. He made a strong case and ultimately, I only voted against them because it was a little too chalky and the Jets were a little too good last year.

For all the reasons listed in the previous section about their offensive talent along with their quality defense, I went to bat for the Commanders (again) to take this award. They ended up falling out of the top spot because the NFC East looks a little too stacked at the top for Washington to go from worst to first, even if a few of their players turn in a quality fantasy campaign.

That left us with the Falcons as the winner. If you’ve been listening to the podcast, you know how excited I am for this offense given the talent they boast at the skill positions, the quality of the offensive line and the head coach they have calling plays.

Yes, that’s right: Arthur Smith is a net positive for an offense.

Smith is one of the most unfairly maligned coaches in the fantasy community; they’re looking for someone to blame for Kyle Pittspoor 2022 stats and running the ball is treated as an unforgivable sin. It’s time to move past this notion as hard evidence shows that hate is not rooted in the reality of what’s on film.

The Falcons cranked up the pass attempts a bit when Desmond Ridder took over in the final four games. Everyone also conveniently forgets the Falcons averaged 33 pass attempts per game when Matt Ryan was under center in 2021 for Smith. If Ridder is merely functional, this team can win the division and produce three high-level fantasy players in Pitts, Bijan Robinson and Drake London on a highly concentrated offense.

This Year’s Josh Jacobs

This was another Dalton Del Don episode and we found this exercise quite a challenge as Jacobs’ 2022 season was so incredible. I fought for Brian Robinson — there is just no way I don't regret being this excited about the Commanders’ offensive ecosystem — while Dalton made a compelling case for David Montgomery.

We ended up landing on Miles Sanders, who is going 45th overall in Yahoo drafts.

Leaving the Eagles' nest is a negative for Sanders. With that offensive line, overall aerial firepower and a backfield timeshare with Jalen Hurts, any running back is living on easy street there. Nevertheless, I think Sanders is a quality NFL back and there are some positives in his move to Carolina.

The Panthers' coaching staff targeted Sanders aggressively in free agency and front-loaded his deal with real guaranteed money. They wanted him. Panthers assistant head coach Duce Staley was Sanders’ running backs coach early in his career with the Eagles, when he enjoyed some of his best usage seasons as a receiver. That should return in Carolina, especially now that he won’t play alongside a rushing quarterback.

Look to the future for the player, not the past, and the Panthers intend to make Sanders their three-down back.

Just like Jacobs last year, Sanders is a proven quality back who quietly owns a backfield all to himself and is simply going too late in drafts.

This Year’s Broncos

I take no responsibility for this one. Blame Frank Schwab and the podcast producer for allowing the uber-talented 49ers squad to take home this “honor.”

Perhaps Frank is simply much less of a coward than I am. It’s worth pointing out the quarterback question with the 49ers, as well as the unknown variable of Steve Wilks taking over as the defensive coordinator. For my money, they're just too talented on offense to fail and I’m too bought-in on Kyle Shanahan as a QB-proof play-caller.

My vote went to Detroit. I like the Lions this year but have genuine questions about the offense, the side of the ball on which they’re much stronger. Amon-Ra St. Brown is a great big slot receiver and they can run the offense through him. Their likely No. 2 and 3 most talented pass-catchers in Week 1 are a pair of rookies in running back Jahmyr Gibbs and tight end Sam LaPorta. So, who is winning outside and beyond 15 yards this season? Especially when Jameson Williams (an unknown in his own right) is suspended. Marvin Jones? Josh Reynolds? Denzel Mims trying to revive his career after being traded in July? Beyond St. Brown, this is one of the most troubling receiver depth charts in the league. It’s a big enough issue that it could derail the Lions hype, even if this is a quality ecosystem under Ben Johnson.

This Year’s Amon-Ra St. Brown

Speaking of St. Brown, Drake London was my pick for this one going in; there was no way he wasn’t going to be the selection.

As mentioned, the Falcons offense may lean run-heavy but they’re a lock to throw more than they did in 2022 and Arthur Smith is a good pass-game designer. The offense London plays in is not a negative, even if Ridder is a question mark. Just like St. Brown’s excellent stretch to end his rookie season, the negative cases for London don’t hold water.

Even when London was on the field with the talented Kyle Pitts, the receiver was the best pass catcher on the 2022 Falcons. That can remain the case in 2023.

My main bull case for London is that he’s just such a talented player. He gets open at a strong level for a big wideout and wins in tight coverage on high-leverage targets. Everything about his play in isolation as a rookie doesn’t just say "buy," it screams it.

London’s situation will keep him drafted outside the top 20 receivers in fantasy drafts. At different points in 2022, St. Brown was ranked around the 25th wide receiver over the summer. We know how he played the rest of the way. London can have that type of second season.

The Rest

To get a quick recap of the other episodes, you can grab the full thread for the Flip the Script series on the Yahoo Fantasy Twitter. Even better, subscribe to the podcast wherever you get your shows and listen to each episode in the series. They’re quite evergreen, so you can get to them whenever you want.