The 5 biggest fantasy football lessons from 2023

Each year, without fail, we are forced to rewrite a few previously inviolable laws of fantasy football.

If you’ve been drafting and managing teams for a decade or more, then you already understand how quickly and dramatically our guiding principles can shift. The NFL itself has changed substantially during the fantasy era, dragging our game-within-a-game along with it.

Today, our task is to discuss the five essential lessons of the 2023 season, the first of which upends fantasy dogma at a traditionally messy roster spot …

Young tight ends are thriving

Back in the day, everyone generally accepted the notion that first and second-year tight ends were unlikely to make any sort of serious fantasy splash. The learning curve for young tight ends was too great. It was a multi-season developmental position. In many cases, tight ends didn’t break out until year three (Ben Coates), or four (Shannon Sharpe) or five (Dallas Clark). Jared Cook didn’t crack the top 10 at his position until his 10th pro season.

In 2023, however, the leading scorer among all tight ends was 22-year-old Sam LaPorta.

Sam LaPorta headshot
Sam LaPorta
TE - DET - #87
2023 - 2024 season

He was one of two rookies to finish inside the position’s top 12 (Dalton Kincaid being the other). Trey McBride and Jake Ferguson, a pair of second-year players, ranked as TE8 and TE9, respectively. Isaiah Likely, also in his second season, was the game’s TE2 over the final five weeks.

It’s not as if the veterans at this spot let us down, either. Evan Engram, Travis Kelce and George Kittle finished second, third and fifth in year-end scoring, respectively. We’ve simply arrived at a moment in which tight ends of all ages and experience levels are booming.

Next summer, while we’re debating LaPorta vs. McBride as the overall TE1, we’re also gonna have to wrestle with the Brock Bowers dilemma — because rookies at this position no longer feel like such a trap.

Injury-prone is a concept we can just launch into the sun

This is truly the Rasputin of bad fantasy ideas. It’s been shot, battered, poisoned, stabbed and drowned in the river, but inevitably it returns to attach itself to a new collection of players.

It’s an outright lie. Eliminate it from your process.

If you entered your 2023 draft determined to avoid even the healthy players who had, at some point, acquired an injury-prone red flag, then you conned yourself into passing on both Christian McCaffrey and Raheem Mostert. Those two, of course, were decisive players in fantasy — they carried teams to the postseason almost single-handedly. McCaffrey was rostered by 23.5% of Yahoo league winners.

Plenty of you also attempted to limit injury risk by veering away from Tua Tagovailoa, the guy who led the league in passing yards. And you rolled your eyes when you saw Matthew Stafford’s name among the recommended weekly waiver adds. And you probably weren’t interested in drafting Lamar Jackson, who’s now headed for his second MVP.

So, um … great work, everyone. An absolute triumph of injury avoidance. And while we’re on this general subject …

Dual-threat quarterbacks crushed again

At some point in the deep past, some crusty old football curmudgeon declared that mobile quarterbacks were doomed to short careers and high injury rates, and … well, that was that. It became a widely accepted truth about life in the NFL. Rushing quarterbacks were fun, but they had short shelf lives.

The only problem with this notion is that it was never actually supported by evidence or data. It’s just a thing that was said repeatedly until it was believed. Yes, we can all name specific rushing QBs who suffered injuries during their careers, but that’s simply the nature of the sport. The game itself is injury-prone. In time, pretty much everyone gets hurt. Plenty of analysts have examined the injury rates of mobile QBs and found no reason to avoid them in fantasy or place them in a distinct risk category.

Let the record show that in 2023 (not unlike 2022), the quarterbacks who finished at the top of the fantasy scoring leaderboard all derived a significant percentage of their value via rushing stats. Josh Allen and Jalen Hurts ranked first and second, while Jackson was the QB4. Those three combined for only one missed game this season, and it was related to the Ravens sitting Lamar in Week 18 after clinching home-field advantage in the AFC. All things considered, the dual-threat QBs had a pretty fair year.

We should also note that several of the season’s most significant injuries hit prototypical pocket passers: Kirk Cousins, Joe Burrow, Justin Herbert, Aaron Rodgers, et al. Their lack of rushing attempts didn’t make them any less susceptible to injury.

Bottom line: if you steered clear of the dual-threat quarterbacks over perceived reliability and health concerns, all you managed to avoid was upside.

However, if you were chasing upside in KC, you came away a bit disappointed …

Apparently, there are limits to the wizardry of Patrick Mahomes

By any reasonable standard for quarterback performance, Mahomes is coming off a perfectly fine season: 4,183 yards, 27 TDs, 10 wins, Pro Bowl, completion percentage of 67.2. It was a very solid year that would fit perfectly into the career stats of, say, Carson Palmer or Matt Schaub.

Patrick Mahomes headshot
Patrick Mahomes
QB - KC - #15
2023 - 2024 season
Comp Pct

But the people who reached for Mahomes in the second round of fantasy drafts were obviously looking for something more than a Schaubian stat line. Ultimately, Mahomes was a regrettable pick at his ADP in 2023, because he didn’t seriously challenge for QB1 status.

It’s tough to pin the blame specifically on him, of course. His receivers were mostly dreadful. Just look at the passer-rating-when-targeted of this sketchy collection of Chiefs wideouts:

  • Justin Watson, 76.0

  • Marquez Valdes-Scantling, 73.0

  • Kadarius Toney, 66.7

  • Skyy Moore, 50.8

It can be reasonably argued that the worst play in the NFL in 2023 was a pass to Skyy Moore — and the second-worst play was a pass to Toney. It’s almost inconceivable that any receiver tied to Mahomes could finish a season at those levels, yet here we are. The four players above saw a combined 171 targets this past season, most of which were obviously wasted.

Kelce remained effective at age 34, despite limping through much of the season, and developmental rookie Rashee Rice exceeded pretty much all expectations. But this team’s failure to acquire a bankable No. 1 receiver has finally put a dent in Mahomes’ fantasy profile. He’s clearly still as inventive and talented as ever, but there’s only so much he can do with a rogues-gallery receiving corps.

Before we reflexively slot Mahomes in the top tier at QB for 2024, it would be nice to see KC go shopping in this spring’s free-agent market.

In 2023, the best way to spend your FAB was to burn it immediately

Some of you traditionally prefer to keep your FAB powder dry until December, so as to have your choice of waiver adds entering the fantasy playoffs. And sure, there’s no doubt you’ve had a few notable hits over the years. If Jerome Harrison’s legendary three-game binge led you to a title back in 2009, you are probably never gonna reach the closing weeks without a few bucks remaining in the strategic reserve.

Puka Nacua headshot
Puka Nacua
WR - LAR - #17
2023 - 2024 season

But this season — as is often the case — the essential waiver pickups were made in early September. Everything you needed to win your 2023 fantasy league was available on the wire entering Week 2. That’s the week in which we added Kyren Williams, Puka Nacua, Jordan Love, Rashee Rice, Cleveland’s defense and various other delights. It was a fantasy gold mine. Williams and Nacua were legit league-winners.

Kyren Williams headshot
Kyren Williams
RB - LAR - #23
2023 - 2024 season

As a general rule (applicable to any fantasy game), the adds you make at the beginning of a season are by far the most valuable, because you’ll benefit over the full year. The best time to get aggressive with your FAB is immediately, at the first hint of anyone’s breakout. The next best time is the following week. If you want to save a fake dollar or two for the endgame, fine. But no one who emptied the wallet for Williams or Nacua regretted that decision in Championship Week.