There will be similar resurgences in 2023 -- and identifying them now is one of the biggest advantages you can gain heading into your fantasy drafts. So, I'm here to help. Here are my top candidates to bounce back this season. (Spoiler alert: Ravens!)
Since finishing as the fantasy QB1 in 2019, Lamar Jackson has repeatedly underperformed his draft price, finishing outside the top 12 at the quarterback position in each of the last two seasons. He missed 10 games and watched his touchdown rate plummet over that span. Cue the arrival of offensive coordinator Todd Monken and a cavalry of receiver reinforcements that includes Odell Beckham Jr., a (hopefully) healthy Rashod Bateman and the No. 22 overall draft selection, Zay Flowers. Jackson's supporting cast is the best it's ever been. Being the overall QB1 is in the cards again.
Russell Wilson's debacle of a 2022 season was one of the most baffling busts we've ever seen in fantasy (or real-world) football. In his first year away from Seattle, Wilson posted a career-low in passing efficiency and looked noticeably askew on Sundays, resulting in a QB16 finish on the season. Fortunately, the Broncos made one of the biggest upgrades in the NFL this offseason at head coach. Sean Payton helped orchestrate 13 consecutive top-10 fantasy seasons from Drew Brees in New Orleans. If anyone can return the "danger" to DangeRuss, he can.
Speaking of new homes, Aaron Rodgers is now the quarterback of the J-E-T-S, Jets, Jets, Jets! One season with Allen Lazard as his leading target in Green Bay was one too many for Rodgers, who threw 12 interceptions in 2022 after throwing just 15 in the prior four seasons combined. Lazard is joining Rodgers in New York, but as a distant second fiddle to 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year Garrett Wilson. Rodgers has also taken a sizable pay cut to facilitate additional roster improvement for Gang Green. There might not be many fantasy QB1 seasons left in Aa-Rod's tank, but 2023 has the makings of one of them.
Bounce not found: Kyler Murray, Arizona Cardinals. Murray is on the physically unable to perform list as he works his way back from a December ACL tear. When he does return to the field, it will likely take him even more time to be at 100 percent as a rushing threat. Plus, DeAndre Hopkins is gone, leaving Murray with Marquise Brown and Rondale Moore as his top targets. I'm staying far away from this No. 1 in 2023.
After an impressive rookie season in 2020, J.K. Dobbins missed all of 2021 and most of 2022 with a knee injury that continued to hamper his play when he was on the field. Still, Dobbins averaged an impressive 5.7 yards per carry and flashed his massive upside on several occasions last year. His average draft position (ADP) is hovering in the fourth or fifth round -- around the tail end of the top 24 running backs -- and he only needs around 150 touches to meet that value. Give Dobbins, who currently resides on the PUP list, a healthy season and 200-plus touches, and you have a screaming value on your hands.
By most standards, Najee Harris’ 1,263 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns last season were solid. By the standards of his first-round ADP and Pro Bowl rookie season, they were rather disappointing. Buying into a Harris bounce-back season really means one thing: buying into the progression of quarterback Kenny Pickett. If Pickett’s sophomore stride is bigger than his hand size (sorry, couldn’t resist), the entire Pittsburgh offense will benefit.
Surprise fantasy star Antonio Gibson posted 1,000-plus scrimmage yards and 10-plus touchdowns in each of his first two NFL seasons before falling off in 2022 (to 899 yards and five TDs, respectively). And while Brian Robinson now stands between Gibson and an RB1 ceiling, the departure of J.D. McKissic from Washington also opens up 40-plus targets. Add in the arrival of “fired-up” offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy (who helped turn Jerick McKinnon into a fantasy RB2 last season) and you have a potential value at Gibson’s deflated ADP.
Bounce not found: Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts. Last year's consensus 1.01 was a huge bust (RB31 overall) on an Indy offense where everything went wrong. Now, Taylor will either deal with a brand new system (under head coach Shane Steichen) or his recent trade request will take him to a new home (where everything becomes a question mark). Either way, the risk is immense at a still-skyscraper-high draft cost. Tread with caution.
Who is Deebo Samuel? Is he the All-Pro superstar from 2021 who finished as the WR3 overall? Or is he the inefficient, inconsistent encore we saw in 2022? The answer might hinge on his downfield usage. While many of Samuel’s metrics remained consistent from ’21 to ’22, his average depth of target nosedived, from an already low 8.7 to an incomprehensible and league-low 4.3 air yards per target. There’s no guarantee that he returns to 2021 form (especially since the Niners’ offense was still superb last season), but the risk will be well worth the reward if he does.
In 2022, Diontae Johnson garnered 147 targets and scored zero touchdowns. Since the NFL first started tracking targets more than a decade prior, the previous high-water mark for targets without a TD in a single season was 103. The average touchdown total for a player with 140-plus targets is eight. You see where this is going? Johnson has piled up 140-plus targets in three straight seasons and he will likely reach that mark again in 2023. He might be the best bet for positive regression in fantasy history.
From 2015 through 2021, Brandin Cooks was a top-20 fantasy wide receiver in six of seven seasons, with 1,000-plus receiving yards and six or more touchdowns in all six of those years. Then 2022 saw him fall all the way to WR49 on a putrid Texans offense that ranked second to last in scoring. This year, he joins Dak Prescott, CeeDee Lamb and a Cowboys offense that ranked fourth in that category last season, which means upgrades in QB play, touchdown opportunities and coverage matchups. Good Cookin’ is on the way.
Bounce not found: JuJu Smith-Schuster, New England Patriots. Smith-Schuster was decent in Kansas City last year, but he has not been able to re-bottle the lightning from his sophomore season (as the WR8). Some would suggest that a chance to be the top target in New England is the perfect recipe for a long-awaited bounce-back season. Counterpoint: Going from Patrick Mahomes to Mac Jones in an offense known for not producing WR1s is about as imperfect as a recipe can get. No offense to the chef.
“But Matt,” you might say, “Mark Andrews was the TE4 last year, so why would he need to bounce back?” It’s simple. In 2022, the Ravens tight end scored 111 fewer fantasy points than he did in his All-Pro season the year prior. Moreover, Andrews scored 60 percent of his fantasy points in the first six weeks of the season and was the TE19 from Week 7 on. At his ADP in the first few rounds, we expect more (especially in the fantasy playoffs). Given a return to health, Baltimore’s new offensive system and additional weapons to draw defensive attention, more is in store.
Kyle Pitts was a massive disappointment in 2022 after making the Pro Bowl as a rookie. Why? You could point to missed games or fewer yards per reception. But I would direct your attention to Pro Football Focus’ catchable target rate. By PFF’s metrics, just 56 percent of Pitts’ targets last season were considered catchable -- an atrocious product of Marcus Mariota’s inaccuracy. While new starter Desmond Ridder still must prove himself, it’s hard to imagine a healthy Pitts seeing fewer catchable targets (or scoring fewer touchdowns) in 2023.
After breaking out in 2019 (as the TE3) and making the Pro Bowl in 2020 (as the TE2), Darren Waller has struggled with injuries and productivity in consecutive dud seasons. Fortunately, the veteran tight end received a fresh start this offseason, when he joined the New York Giants and began establishing a top-target type of rapport with quarterback Daniel Jones. With his natural talent and Big Blue’s lack of notable pass-catchers, the ceiling for Waller is back to the top of the table (at a reduced draft price).
Bounce not found: Mike Gesicki and Hunter Henry, New England Patriots. Henry logged career highs in fantasy points (164) and touchdowns (9) in 2021, while Gesicki posted career highs in receptions (73) and receiving yards (780). Both proceeded to bust last season -- and now they're on the same team. Ignore any wishful recollections of two-tight-end sets in Foxborough -- those were different players with a different quarterback (some guy named Brady). This is an all-hands-off-deck situation.