The phrase "league winner" gets thrown around in fantasy football all the time. But what is a league winner? To me, it's a player who changes the outlook for your team. Often, it's a player greatly outliving his draft cost -- say a late-round pick breaking out to become an every-week starter. It is also possible for a first-round pick to be a league winner, but such a player must be historically good. Think 2021 Cooper Kupp, 2019 Lamar Jackson or 2018 Christian McCaffrey.
Every year, there are players who take their games to the next level and completely change fantasy leagues. Don't you wish you knew about these guys before they broke out? I've got you. Here are my top league winner candidates heading into 2023.
If any QB goes video game mode this season, it’ll likely be one (or all) of Josh Allen/Jalen Hurts/Patrick Mahomes. While I have them ranked in that order, they really form a single tier. Mahomes broke the record for most fantasy points ever scored by a quarterback last season, while the other two were even better on a per-game basis. Hurts led the way in scoring with 25.2 fantasy points per game, followed by Allen at 24.7 and Mahomes at 24.6. Joe Burrow was the only other QB to average more than 20 fantasy PPG, and 17 points per game was enough to crack the top 12. There has never been such an advantage to having one of the NFL's top signal-callers. This trio brings the highest combination of floor and ceiling at the position, maybe ever.
Justin Herbert is a year removed from being fantasy football's QB2. He struggled to match that last season, as he played through a rib injury and his top pass catchers missed time. However, that group is even deeper this year and new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore should lead to a more aggressive Herbert, making more downfield throws. Add in that he's an underrated runner and Herbert brings league-winning upside despite his average draft position being outside the top-five QBs.
Anthony Richardson has so much upside because of what he can do with his legs. Last season, Justin Fields threw for just 2,242 yards with 17 passing touchdowns and a league-worst pass EPA, but it didn’t matter for fantasy because the Bears QB rushed for 1,143 yards and eight scores. Richardson could have a similar type of season, yet he is also extremely toolsy, which means outperforming expectations as a passer is in the range of outcomes, too. Every quarterback who has run for at least 700 yards in a season since 2010 has averaged more than 18 fantasy PPG -- which was good enough to be top eight at the position last season.
Dallas' Tony Pollard was the RB8 last season on just 193 carries and 55 targets. Ezekiel Elliott's release leaves 231 carries and 23 targets up for the taking, and don't worry about Pollard breaking down. Last season, he rushed for 10+ yards on a career-high 16 percent of runs and topped 15 miles per hour on 22 percent of runs, despite having a career-high 232 touches. Give him more volume this year and he has a direct path to being the league's RB1 -- all while being available in the second round of drafts!
Jahmyr Gibbs brings explosiveness for days. He is always a threat to take it the distance as a runner and really shines as a receiver. The Lions took him 12th overall in the 2023 NFL Draft despite having a running back room full of proven vets, including David Montgomery -- showing they have big, big plans for the Alabama product. Gibbs is an RB1 for me, but many will be able to nab him as an RB2 in drafts. Take the value and run! At this time next year, we might be talking about Gibbs as a first-round pick.
James Cook gets drafted as an RB3 -- largely because that’s what Devin Singletary was in Buffalo for years -- but he brings much more upside. Singletary topped 175 carries in consecutive years and had 50 targets in three straight seasons. Give that volume to Cook, who is far more explosive and led the league in explosive run rate last season; 12 percent of his runs went for at least 15 yards, per Fantasy Points Data (Singletary was at 7 percent). Cook has real potential to be a top-20 back in 2023 ... if not higher.
Rashaad Penny is a very talented running back who has struggled to stay on the field. He has missed 19 games over the last two seasons but has averaged more than 6 yards per carry. Now he joins an Eagles team that had the third-most carries league-wide last season. Miles Sanders had a career year, rushing for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns in this system with dual-threat QB Jalen Hurts at the helm, and you can make the argument that Penny is a better runner than the ex-Eagle. Injuries are the lone worry, but you already get the injury concern baked into his ADP.
Chris Olave is my top breakout pick of the season. As a rookie, he ranked seventh in yards per route run and fourth in air yards per target among NFL receivers with at least 50 targets, per Next Gen Stats. Yet according to Pro Football Focus, he left the second-most unrealized air yards on the field (660) in the league. Derek Carr is not only an overall upgrade for New Orleans at the QB position, he has specifically put up better numbers on deep passes than any of Olave’s 2022 passers. If the two can build chemistry, Mr. Air Yards is set for stardom and a breakout WR1 season.
Calvin Ridley is one of my guys in 2023. Last season, Christian Kirk finished as the WR12 overall and WR18 in PPG (14.2) as the top target in the Jags' offense. Ridley, who already has a top five WR finish under his belt, has three seasons with a higher NGS rating than Kirk’s 96.8 in 2022. More importantly, he is both a better field-stretcher and red-zone weapon than Kirk. Ridley should remind the world just how good he is with a WR1 season in Duval.
Last season, Amari Cooper finished as the WR10 overall and WR17 in PPG (14.5). He has topped 1,000 yards in six of his eight pro campaigns, with at least seven touchdowns in five of his last six. He is one of just three receivers with more than 100 targets in five straight seasons and his 16 end-zone targets tied for third-most among NFL receivers in 2022, per NFL Research. He has proven to be a very consistent WR2, but brings WR1 upside if Deshaun Watson returns to form. Cooper’s ceiling might be higher in 2023 than it’s ever been before. (By the way, a league-winning case can also be made for Watson, if he can play like he did between 2018 and 2020.)
Kadarius Toney has drawn a target on 29.7 percent of his routes in the NFL, which ranks fifth among wide receivers behind only Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, Drake London and Cooper Kupp since 2021. His 2.3 yards per route run ranks 13th in the NFL in that span, as it got a boost after being traded to Kansas City last fall. His 3.0 yards per route run with the Chiefs in Weeks 9-17 is on par with Hill, who led the league with 3.3 last season. Toney is extremely explosive and is constantly praised by both Andy Reid and Patrick Mahomes. Playing with the best play-caller and QB on the planet, on a team in need of WR production, Toney offers far too much upside to pass up in fantasy drafts. And yes, he is banged up, but that only lowers his ADP (into the double-digit rounds) and raises his value.
Jameson Williams is another one of my favorites this season despite him being suspended for the first six games for violating the NFL's gambling policy. He is extremely explosive and continues to receive praise from Lions camp. Williams had a significantly shortened rookie season due to a torn ACL suffered at Alabama, and if he had been healthy, he might have been the first receiver drafted in a loaded 2022 class. With well over a year to heal and time to work with Jared Goff and Co., Williams looks poised for a big sophomore campaign. He's estimated to be drafted in double-digit rounds because of that six-week suspension, but it should be relatively easy to cover for his absence early in the season. He brings league-winning upside once he returns.
Travis Kelce scored the second-most fantasy points ever by a tight end last season with over 100 fantasy points more than the guy in second (T.J. Hockenson). There was no bigger advantage than having Kelce at tight end last season … or maybe ever. He has averaged 15+ fantasy PPG in five straight seasons, while only one other tight end (George Kittle) averaged more than 13 last year. Kelce is the biggest positional advantage in fantasy and can still be a league winner, even if you have to use a first-round pick to draft him.
Darren Waller showed last year he can still play, putting up comparable yards per route run as some other top tight ends. However, he did so while playing a different (and reduced) role in Las Vegas. Waller was targeted just 43 times last season (his lowest since 2018) but ranked second among tight ends in targets of 20-plus air yards with 11, per Next Gen Stats. Now in New York, he should be the unquestioned top target for Daniel Jones. Head coach Brian Daboll has a reputation for putting players in positions to succeed, and the word out of Giants camp is that no one can guard Waller. He is a top-three tight end for me (despite being TE7 in ADP), and, if he can stay healthy, Waller seems like a lock to see the second-most volume at the position behind Kelce.
Kyle Pitts is a player I just cannot quit. Last year, he lined up all over the field and was utilized downfield -- like we all hoped. However, a little under 60 percent of his targets were deemed catchable, per PFF. I don’t care if we're talking about Jerry Rice in his prime -- it’s hard to succeed in that kind of environment. Every reason we had to be excited about Pitts last year remains -- just at a decreased cost. That’s a shot worth taking.
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