Each week, NFL fantasy researcher Joel Smyth will identify important stats and trends to inform fantasy decisions ahead of your next matchup. These won't be your basic, elementary stats, but rather deep and unique insights to give you an edge over your friends (and enemies).
Here are eight notable nuggets ahead of Week 9 of the 2023 NFL season.
1) You don't like that ...
Not only are Kirk Cousins managers in shambles after his season-ending Achilles injury, but managers with Jordan Addison, T.J. Hockenson and Justin Jefferson are also worried. When a Pro Bowl-caliber player supporting multiple weapons goes down, it can feel like the end of the (fantasy) world. And unfortunately, the numbers back that up. Last season, DeAndre Hopkins (-6.8 PPG), Mark Andrews (-4.9), Tyreek Hill (-6.2), Michael Pittman Jr. (-4.1) and CeeDee Lamb (-1.8) all saw their fantasy production dip without their starting QBs at the helm -- by a combined 27 percent. Even when the talent is unquestioned, it’s not always enough.
Obviously, this depends heavily on how well rookie QB Jaren Hall and trade acquisition Joshua Dobbs play for Minnesota. Due to the lack of tight end options, I believe Hockenson is still a hold, while I expect Addison to fall into WR3 production similar to that of Dobbs' previous WR1, Marquise Brown. That is until Jefferson comes back and completely finishes off Addison’s fantasy value. And all of the ceilings are reduced.
2) Coming to our Aid(an)
Change is in great supply in Las Vegas right now. But will replacements at coach, coordinator and general manager translate to fantasy goodness? Josh Jacobs currently ranks dead last among RBs in fantasy points above expected (per PFF). Davante Adams ranks 181st of 184 receivers in that same metric. Largely, that means they’ve had opportunity, but their production is underwhelming or inefficient (or both). With rookie gunslinger Aidan O’Connell now named the starter, their stock could finally be back on the rise. In O’Connell’s first and only career start, Adams earned 13 targets, catching eight of them for 75 yards. In that same game, Jacobs set season-highs with 11 targets, 139 scrimmage yards and more than 27 fantasy points. (It’s important to note this came against the Chargers' defense, which has been incredibly soft). This week, in AOC’s second start, the Raiders face the Giants. Adams will likely be shadowed by rookie Deonte Banks, the 91st-ranked defensive back in PFF coverage grade, while Jacobs takes on a Big Blue front allowing the ninth-most rushing yards in the NFL. The G-Men are 31st in explosive runs allowed to running backs, which has been a weak point for Jacobs this season. This matchup could tell us a lot about the future of the Vegas fantasy aces.
3) The return of Joe Brrrrr
After another rough start to the regular season, mainly due to Joe Burrow’s calf injury, the Bengals are back to firing on all cylinders. In Weeks 5-7, Burrow averaged 80 more passing yards, 17 more rushing yards and nearly 14 more fantasy points per game than he did over the first month of the season, while throwing four times as many TDs in one fewer game. Then, an additional week of recovery through the bye provided an opportunity to balance out the offense. With a fully healthy calf, Burrow handled 13 snaps from under center against the 49ers in Week 8 after taking seven total in the first seven games, per Next Gen Stats. It’s no surprise that Joe Mixon’s best game, by far, came amidst that more balanced attack. Since Week 5, using points per game, Burrow is the QB3, Ja’Marr Chase is the WR1 and Mixon is the RB15. (And Tee Higgins' time will come soon, too.)
4) The Heinicke boost
NFL coaches don’t care about your fantasy team. Particularly Arthur Smith. As a result, for the first two months of the season, Taylor Heinicke was the NFL’s highest-paid backup, while Desmond Ridder posted the league's fourth-worst TD-INT ratio. But after Ridder threw for just 71 yards in the first half of Week 8, Smith made the move to Heinicke, who threw for 175 yards in the second half. Now Heinicke has been named the starter for Week 9, and I expect Drake London to be the main benefactor when he returns to the field (he'll miss Week 9 with a groin injury). When Heinicke took the helm in Washington during the last two seasons, Terry McLaurin saw his fantasy points per game jump from 10 to 14 -- largely as the result of a 38 percent increase to his target volume. If you gave London a 38 percent bump to his targets so far in 2023, and kept the same fantasy points per target, he would skyrocket from WR44 in points per game to WR13.
5) Rookie RB renaissance
De’Von Achane broke out early (and we miss him dearly). Jahmyr Gibbs has finally broken out over the past couple weeks. What early-round rookie running back is next? The second half of the season is here and it has historically been a treasure trove for young breakout talents at the position. Since 2017, nearly 70 percent of early-round rookie running backs (drafted in Rounds 1-3) improved in the second half (most by substantial amounts) after beginning the season with fewer than 15 fantasy points per game. Rookies often need time to breathe and adjust before the talent that earned them that draft standing starts to shine in the most important stretch of the fantasy season. Alvin Kamara (+10.5 PPG after Week 8), Nick Chubb (+11.1), Jonathan Taylor (+7.0), Miles Sanders (+5.4) and D’Andre Swift (+4.1) and others all saw massive boosts in production as rookies, with many becoming must-starts through the fantasy playoffs. This year, five of the top 12 RBs in yards per carry are early-round rookie backs (Achane, Gibbs, Bijan Robinson, Tyjae Spears and Zach Charbonnet). That’s no coincidence. Don’t be surprised if these productive youngsters follow the historical precedent.
6) "Playoffs?! Don't talk about ... playoffs?!"
In two of his first three games, Tua Tagovailoa put up more than 27 fantasy points, dominating through the air. However, it’s no coincidence that those games came against the Chargers and Broncos, two of the worst defenses against opposing quarterbacks this season. In his other six matchups, Tua is averaging 16 fantasy points, which would be QB16 on the season. Come playoff time, this could become a major factor. The Dolphins play the Jets, Cowboys and Ravens in Weeks 15-17 -- including a road trip to Baltimore in the fantasy championship (Tua’s three worst games this year have come on the road). In order, those three opponents rank 12th, third and first against fantasy quarterbacks on the season. The ceiling Tua provides is very matchup-dependent and the matchups aren’t exactly favorable down the stretch. This might be the moment to trade him for a more reliable package of assets.
7) (Young) tight end takeover
Is the fantasy tight end wasteland finally blooming? Well, let’s not get ahead of ourselves, but at the very least it’s becoming slightly more habitable with the arrival of three young breakouts. Over the last three weeks, Sam LaPorta (rookie), Dalton Kincaid (rookie) and Trey McBride (second season) hold three of the top six spots in points per game at the position. We’ve been praying for new blood in the tight end landscape, as there is only one other TE drafted since 2020 to rank top-12 in points per game (Cole Kmet). LaPorta, Kincaid and McBride may be the answers to those prayers. As they adapt to the NFL game, they will only continue to improve for fantasy, as all three are trending upward in targets and usage over the season.
8) Full of hot air (yards)
Olave has been a buy-low candidate for six weeks in a row, which should mean he isn’t a buy-low candidate anymore. After leading the NFL in unrealized air yards last season (actual receiving yards subtracted from targeted air yards), we expected improvement with better quarterback play coming into New Orleans (looking at you, Derek Carr). Eight weeks into 2023, Olave ranks last in unrealized air yards again with 542 unrealized air yards -- which would already be seventh-most through the entirety of the 2022 season. Unsurprisingly, he ranks last in fantasy points over expected among receivers this season, per Next Gen Stats. Based purely on opportunity and the laws of positive regression, there should be improvement on the horizon, even if Olave doesn’t become the top-10 receiver we hoped for on draft day. Carr has nine more deep pass attempts than any other quarterback in the NFL. If we simply give Olave his fantasy points per target from 2022 (which was already disappointingly inefficient), he would be averaging 16.1 fantasy points per game, good for WR14 on the season. We’re not asking for the world here, just slightly more than what he's doing now.