NFL offenses that could surprisingly decline in 2023
It’s August 25, 2022. You settle down to a fantasy football draft in a home league. Faced with a decision in the third round, you can’t find a single reason to not love Mike Evans. Tom Brady is still on the team. Chris Godwin‘s injury could keep him out of the lineup in some early games and force more targets to Evans. Byron Leftwich is now OC, sure, but Brady is the OC in name, right? And Leftwich was there last season, so surely it’s fine?
Unless you’re Pat Kerrane and all you cared about was what happened in Week 17, where Evans exploded for 10/207/3 against the Panthers, that did not work out very well for you. Evans did not catch a touchdown from Oct. 2 to Jan. 1. Outside of a few spike weeks, he was consistently in the 40-70 yard range with about 2-5 catches. Fast forward to today and, with Todd Bowles still here and Baker Mayfield now at quarterback, Evans can’t be given away in drafts. I played in a salary-cap draft format in which he went for less than Kadarius Toney, and I’d know that because I was begging to get Toney instead of Evans.
This was not the lone casualty of the 2022 Things We Knew For Sure. I’m not going to count injuries in this as a way to bury Jonathan Taylor, but the Colts were expected to have a good passing offense and they sunk into the sea. Michael Pittman‘s ADP in the 30s did not turn out to be a great buy. We all knew that D’Andre Swift would ascend in the Detroit backfield, but it turns out that the Lions staff didn’t like what they saw and, in fact, disliked it so much they spent a first-round pick to be done with it. Najee Harris was a top-10 consensus pick for some reason. Fantasy consensus was split on Courtland Sutton and Jerry Jeudy when the answer should have been “neither.”
This is not a list of teams that I am saying “will fall into a fantasy black hole this season,” but it is a list of teams I have my eye on when it comes to that sort of thing. One forewarning about that is: ADP matters. These picks have to feel at least a little bold, right? Maybe Green Bay’s offense will flop -- I actually take the opposite tact, but let’s be open to the possibility -- Jordan Love is still going in the early 20s in ADP among quarterbacks. The idea of him busting is priced in. Let’s talk about teams that would actually cause a shock to the fantasy culture if they collapsed somehow.
My favorite in the clubhouse: Dallas Cowboys
The biggest reason that the Buccaneers fell apart last season was probably coaching and an obsession with the running game. Let’s see what new playcaller Mike McCarthy has to say about that:
Let’s play out the logical consequences of running the ball more with a top defense and shortening the games: Is this good for fantasy value? I can tell you it is not. It might be that Tony Pollard garners enough carries and breaks enough runs to maintain his fantasy value anyway, but specifically for the pass catchers I am worried about what this augurs for them. Rather than reinforcing McCarthy with a pass-happy alternate, the Cowboys made an OC out of Brian Schottenheimer. All you need to know about Schottenheimer is that despite everyone in Seattle getting to victory lap Russell Wilson falling apart when he threw more, nobody has tried to lionize Schottenheimer for his three years as offensive coordinator.
So, it falls on McCarthy, and the last time we saw McCarthy call plays, all he did was turn a Hall of Fame quarterback into an implied disaster with slant/flat calls over and over again. He has a history of calling good offense, but the NFL he did it in no longer exists. James Starks isn’t walking through that door.
I have had little appetite so far to take Cowboys against similarly ranked players by ADP. I’ll probably wind up with some Lamb shares if he settles into being one of the bottom-tier WR1s, and I’m buying Pollard’s role rather than what I believe the offense will be. But Prescott and Cooks are passes all day for me.
Another compelling contender: Pittsburgh Steelers
Last season this team had WR28 in PPR scoring (Johnson) despite zero touchdown catches. Pickens was WR40. This year they carry top-100 ADPs, and what has changed is ... nothing. Kenny Pickett is still the quarterback. Matt Canada is still the OC. I say none of this to slander Pickens, who looked incredible in his best flashes last season, but this offense barely seemed capable of fielding a second fantasy-relevant WR at times last year. It feels like a lot of the hope that both Pickens and Pickett will take a step forward is already priced into their ADPs. I’m going to have to see that play out before I believe it. Johnson’s history is beyond reproach and I understand betting on him on target volume, but there wasn’t really even an “a-ha” moment on the field to buy into. Pickett had one 300-yard game all season and it came in a 38-3 loss in Week 5. He had zero multiple-touchdown games.
Now is this all to say that Pickett can’t take a step forward this season? No. He’s too young to count it out entirely and the Josh Allen situation showed us that things can turn on a dime. But I’m not a big fan of buying the goods before we see them, and when I say that, I’m saying I’d have liked to see any trace of Pickett QB1 upside on display last season beyond “here is one highlight against the Browns.” If he had a new OC, I’d be willing to give him some benefit of the doubt, but he doesn’t.
Without a better pass offense, is Harris going to be more than a solid RB2? I like Freiermuth at cost because he’s simply too good to ignore at a position that is bereft. But other than that, I’m not itching to push the “Draft” button when these other three players hit the top of my queue.
Outside chances: Cleveland Browns, Baltimore Ravens, San Francisco 49ers, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Indianapolis Colts
Potentially affected players: Deshaun Watson, Nick Chubb, Amari Cooper, David Njoku, Mark Andrews, Lamar Jackson, J.K. Dobbins, Christian McCaffrey, Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, Brandon Aiyuk, Tyreek Hill, Jaylen Waddle, Tua Tagovailoa, Aaron Rodgers, Breece Hall, Garrett Wilson, Anthony Richardson, Jonathan Taylor, Michael Pittman
The fantasy industry, I think, has taken a reasonable yes/no tact on Deshaun Watson by putting him as a low-end QB1. If he bounces back to the player he was in Houston, he’ll be a league-winner. If he does not, he takes a lot of people down with him, including probably the coach and general manager. While both struggled through injury last year, it’s hard to square Watson’s numbers with Cooper and Njoku as reasons to pound the table for drafting them. You are buying the situation. I still love drafting Chubb either way with Kareem Hunt gone. ... This year’s Ravens remind me a lot of the Broncos’ situation last year. Let’s put a quarterback who has traditionally been part of a run-heavier offense in a pass-first thing and let them thrive? Yeah, I think the pieces are a better fit in Baltimore and I don’t think Todd Monken is as insulated as Nathaniel Hackett has been, but I would be lying if I said I was full-force excited about winding up with the main Ravens outside of Mark Andrews. I find myself with a lot of Zay Flowers and Odell Beckham, somehow. ... Are we sure that Brock Purdy is a good, healthy quarterback? He certainly did not look like a superstar against the Cowboys in the playoffs, and my guess is the Eagles would have continued to pound him in the NFC Championship Game had he not gotten hurt when he did. Are we sure that Trey Lance is a good quarterback? Are we sure that Sam Darnold hype is made out of anything but pure hope? The 49ers will probably be able to continue to be a good/solid offense with Kyle Shanahan heading the charge regardless of how good the quarterback is, but I do think there are reasonable scenarios where they can’t carry three top-100 ADP pass-catchers and Christian McCaffrey.
Miami’s listing here is all about Tua’s health. Mike White very well may be a more acceptable backup quarterback than the Dolphins had last year, but the fantasy resume to date has been hit-or-miss. I don’t love having to bet on players who admit they were considering retirement this past offseason. I haven’t let it stop me from drafting the top two Dolphins wideouts early, but it probably does belong in the conversation. ... When it comes to the Jets, the guy who coached last year’s biggest fantasy flop is now the offensive leader under a defensive coach with a quarterback who turns 40 in December. I want the Jets to do well, and I don’t think they’re outrageously ranked for ADP purposes. (Maybe Breece Hall because of the injury concerns while rehabbing his ACL tear.) But I can’t look at those two facts and say with certainty that there is no possible downside. ... There is not a single thing more fun in the fantasy universe than hyping someone up before they become a superstar. It very well could happen with Anthony Richardson, and the Shane Steichen offense feels like a good fit. It is still a first-time head coach with a rookie quarterback, and a rookie quarterback who completed barely 60 percent of his college passes. I think there are absolutely good reasons to believe that his completion percentage does not define who Richardson is as a prospect, and of course we’re all chasing rushing upside at quarterback, but would it be completely stunning if an offense that was not good last year was also not good this year?