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DBro’s Early Round Fantasy Football Draft Strategy & Top Targets (2023)

DBro’s Early Round Fantasy Football Draft Strategy & Top Targets (2023)

We have a brand new season of fantasy football peeking over the horizon for 2023. After a wild NFL offseason and draft cycle, the dust has settled, and we have a shifting NFL landscape that appears ripe for the picking for fantasy. The attack plan for fantasy titles starts with the early rounds of your drafts. These early selections will build the backbone of your teams and influence how you approach the rest of your draft. Regardless of whether you love RB heavy, Zero RB or somewhere in between, I’ve outlined my approach and targets for the first four rounds that can be tailored to fit any fantasy palate. Enjoy, and let’s have a banner year.

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Derek Brown’s Early-Round Draft Strategy & Top Targets

Here is my approach and players to target for each of the early rounds.

Approach to Round 1

Early-Round Players to Target

  • Justin Jefferson: What is there to say about Jefferson? He’s at the top of nearly every receiving production and volume metric you can find, and he’s primed to run it back in 2023 with a similar stat line. Last year Jefferson was the WR2 in fantasy points per game, leading the NFL in targets (184), red zone targets, receptions, receiving yards and YAC. With Dalvin Cook off the roster, expect Minnesota to lean even more into their passing game after ranking third in neutral script passing rate and second in red zone passing rate last season. You’ll need the 1.01 in nearly every league to secure his services in fantasy football for 2023. If he falls to 1.02 in any league, I will break my phone by pressing the draft button so swiftly.

  • Ja’Marr Chase: Chase is one of the few wide receivers that can possibly compete with Jefferson for the top spot among wide receivers. Chase could take his game to another level in 2023 after what we saw down the stretch to close out last season. Over his final five games of the season, he led all wide receivers with 11.8 targets per game, ranked fourth in target share (30.9%) and was the WR3 in fantasy points per game. Over that same span, he also led all wideouts with 1.2 end-zone targets per game. If Chase had kept up that type of blistering pace for 17 games, he would have walked away with 204 targets, 136 receptions, 1,499 receiving yards and 10 receiving scores. Chase competing for the crown of the best wide receiver in the NFL in his third season is easily in the range of possibilities for 2023.

  • Travis Kelce: Kelce is a difference-maker and worth a top-five selection in any draft. Last year Kelce showed no fall-off in production, ranking first in receptions, receiving yards and fantasy points per game at the tight end position. His skills remain razor sharp as he was also second in yards per route run and fourth in yards per route run against man coverage (per PFF). Even comparing his fantasy production to other positions, Kelce deserves high praise. He would have been the RB5 and WR6 in fantasy points per game last year. Kelce is set for another stellar season if he can continue holding Father Time off.

Mid-Round Players to Target

  • Tyreek Hill: If Tua Tagovailoa can stay healthy, Tyreek Hill could break records this season. Last year in the games in which Tagovailoa was active, Hill averaged 108.3 receiving yards to put him on an insane 17-game pace of 1,841 receiving yards. Megatron still holds the single-season receiving yardage crown with 1,964 in 2012. I don’t doubt that Hill can make a run at this lofty total entering his second season in this offensive system. Hill can still cook corners with the best in the league. Last year he ranked first in receiving grade and yards per route run (per PFF). He was also fourth in open score (per ESPN analytics). Hill will remain the tip of the spear for an offense that will remain pass-happy in 2023.

  • Cooper Kupp: After pushing their chips to the middle for years, the Rams’ house of cards finally came tumbling down last year. Injuries decimated the team, but that didn’t slow down Cooper Kupp when he was on the field. Kupp ranked third in target share, 12th in air-yard share and was the WR1 overall in fantasy points per game. He was also seventh in receiving grade and yards per route run (per PFF). With Matthew Stafford back in the huddle and the team likely to field a bottom-five defensive unit, there should be plenty of passing volume to fuel Kupp to another top-five fantasy wideout season.
  • Austin Ekeler: Last year Ekeler built upon his fantasy legend status as the RB1 in fantasy points per game. This is after he was the RB2 in the previous season. After contract worries early in the offseason, Ekeler is back in the fold and fully invested in crushing it again in 2023. Ekeler still has plenty left in the tank after ranking seventh in yards per route run and evaded tackles last season. With the team moving toward chucking it deep more this year, Ekeler’s target share (18.9%, second) could dip slightly with Justin Herbert checking it down less, but Ekeler will still be involved heavily. In 2020-2021 under Kellen Moore’s direction, the Cowboys were 13th and 10th in target volume directed to the running back position.

Late-Round Players to Targets

  • Bijan Robinson: One of the best running back prospects in recent memory landed on a team that was second in neutral script rushing rate and led the NFL in red zone rushing rate last year. Yeah. Robinson is a player I’ll have heavy exposure to in every format. Robinson should be considered a lock for 300-plus touches. With that type of volume and his talent profile, Robinson has RB1 overall upside this season. Robinson ranked 11th and 18th in yards after contact per attempt and sixth and third in elusive rating (minimum 100 carries per PFF) over the last two years. No one will be muttering Arthur Smith jokes at the end of the season if Robinson carries them to fantasy titles.

  • CeeDee Lamb: Last year in his third NFL season, Lamb finally broke out and entered the WR1 ranks in fantasy (WR7). Lamb should run it back in 2023 with another top-12 season, but the great thing is it’s possible that we still haven’t seen Lamb’s ceiling. Last year he was top six in receptions, receiving yards and touchdowns among wide receivers. Lamb is an elite target earner, ranking ninth in target share (28.7%) and seventh in target per route run rate (30.1%). He was top seven in route win rate and win rate against man coverage. With Michael Gallup hopefully rounding back into form and the addition of Brandin Cooks, opposing defenses won’t be able to key in on Lamb as much in 2023. The needle remains pointed up for Lamb.

Approach to Round 2

Early-Round Players to Targets

  • Amon-Ra St. Brown: All of the worries that his rookie season stretch run tsunami was a mirage should be buried. St. Brown immediately picked right up where he left off in 2022. He continued to draw targets at a ridiculous rate, ranking third in target per route run rate and eighth in raw target volume. He was ninth in yards per route run and eighth in red zone targets. St. Brown could enter the top-five fantasy wide receiver discussion this season if his late-season red zone use continues into this upcoming year. In Weeks 10-18, St. Brown led all wide receivers in red zone targets. He carries double-digit receiving touchdown upside this year. With Jameson Williams out of commission for the first six weeks, St. Brown could be headed for a career-defining season.

  • Tony Pollard: Pollard is on a collision course with a monstrous season. With Ezekiel Elliott out of town, this is Pollard’s backfield. While I don’t think he will be an 80% snap bell cow, he doesn’t need that type of snap share to be a fantasy dynamo in 2023. Last year Pollard authored an RB8 finish while ranking 30th in snap share (50.9%) and 34th in opportunity share (48.1%). He did this because he’s one of the most efficient running backs in the NFL. He was top-five in breakaway run rate, yards created per touch, yards per route run and yards per touch. Pollard will cede some snaps to another back this season, whether that’s Malik Davis, Rico Dowdle or another replacement level shmo. This won’t deter Pollard from his destiny as a top-three running back in fantasy in 2023.

  • A.J. Brown: The 2022 season was liberating for A.J. Brown stans like myself. Brown was freed from the run-first chains of the Tennessee offensive structure and allowed to spread his wings with the Eagles. Brown was the WR8 in fantasy as he set career marks in nearly every category. Brown ranked third in yards per route run and top 15 in route win rate. Brown remains an upper-echelon wide receiver tied to one of the league’s best young passers. He’s a WR1 that should come close to replicating last year’s fantastic stat line.

Mid-Round Players to Targets

  • Jaylen Waddle Calling Jaylen Waddle the Robin to Tyreek Hill’s Batman would be blasphemous. This tandem of South Beach dynamos is more like Batman and Superman. Each has the power to tip any game in favor of the fins. While Hill destroyed defenses deep, Waddle was the underneath threat decimating coverage schemes with his blinding speed and YAC skills. Waddle ranked 10th in YAC and fourth in yards per route run as he cruised to a WR1 season (WR12 in fantasy points per game). Waddle can put you over the top weekly as your WR2, but if you lean into other positions early, he is a viable WR1 for your team.
  • Garrett Wilson: After enduring putrid replacement-level quarterback play for most of his rookie season, Garrett Wilson should be on cloud nine with Aaron Rodgers chucking passes his way weekly now. Last season in Weeks 8-18, Wilson had a 26.9% target share, a 37% air yard share and 2.08 yards per route run. Combining these metrics and the quarterback upgrade should put Wilson on the fast track to WR1 production if everything hits. The cold water that could cap his target volume and fantasy ceiling is the snail’s pace that Nathaniel Hackett and Rodgers have run at when teamed up. Wilson’s median outcome is as a WR2 with WR1 upside.

Late-Round Players to Targets

  • Chris Olave Even if you had lofty expectations for Chris Olave in his rookie season, he likely still surpassed them. His WR25 finish might not look fantastic on the surface, but Olave’s deeper metrics point to a future alpha that could break out in his second year. Olave was 15th in target share (26.7%), third in air yard share (40.8%) and 10th in yards per route run. Michael Thomas’s return doesn’t worry me at all. Thomas isn’t the same player he was during his prime. If he can stay on the field and get open at an above-average clip, it should help Olave by keeping opposing defenses honest and reluctant to roll extra coverage Olave’s way. Olave could easily be a WR1 if Derek Carr can be a league-average passer.

Approach to Round 3

Early-Round Players to Targets

  • Rhamondre Stevenson: “Dread it, run from it…destiny arrives all the same. And now it’s here.” ‘Mondre season is upon us. Stevenson is one of the best backs in the NFL, and he will be the engine of the Patriots’ offense this year. Last year, he was first in yards after contact per attempt, eighth in breakaway run rate, 18th in yards per route run, and tenth in target per route run rate (minimum 100 carries, 20 targets per PFF). The Patriots leaned on Stevenson heavily last season, as he recorded 12 games with at least 60% of the snaps played, averaging 18.7 touches and 122.8 total yards over that timeframe. In those games, Stevenson had an outstanding 18.8% target share and a 60.1% route run rate. Bill O’Brien tends to lean on one back, and that will be ‘Mondre. During O’Brien’s last five years of leading an NFL offense, his starting running back saw at least a 58.7% opportunity share, with some backs earning up to 73.9% (ninth-best in 2016) of the backfield touches. New England will work in Ezekiel Elliott to give Stevenson a breather occasionally, but he will still be a workhorse playing 65% or more of the weekly snaps. With the size to be the goal line hammer and the soft hands to catch plenty of passes, ‘Mondre can contend for RB1 overall if everything breaks his way.
  • DeVonta Smith: The Slim Reaper put all the BMI truthers and doubters in a body bag in 2022, finishing as the WR14 in fantasy points per game. After operating as the team’s field stretcher in his rookie season, DeVonta Smith became the high-volume intermediate target hog I hoped for. Smith saw 42.2% of his targets last year within nine yards of the line of scrimmage and thrived. He was 19th in target per route run rate and seventh in YAC. He finished 14th in target share, ninth in receptions and eighth in receiving yards. In Weeks 11-17, he led the team with a 30.5% target share and a 37.3% air yard share as A.J. Brown took a slight backseat (28.2% target share, 36.2% air yard share). Smith should be considered a rock-solid WR2 with WR1 upside this season.
  • Jalen Hurts: Hurts for MVP in 2023. That has a nice ring to it. Hurts fell just short of delivering on my proclamation last year. He was the QB1 in fantasy points per game, headlining an explosive Eagles offense. As good as he was last year, Hurts can still get even better through the air this year. The efficiency numbers were there last season as he ranked fourth in passing grade, seventh in adjusted completion rate and sixth in yards per attempt (per PFF), but the passing touchdown rate didn’t follow. Hurts ranked 15th in passing touchdown rate and 14th in passing touchdowns. Those numbers are primed to improve this year. Hurts won’t come as cheap as he did last year in drafts, but he’s worth paying up for.

Mid-Round Players to Targets

  • Breece Hall: Hall was just getting warmed up when injury struck last year. When his knee failed him in Week 7, he was coming off four straight weeks with at least 50% of the snaps averaging 18.8 touches and 122 total yards. Over that span, he was the RB13, RB15, RB4 and RB6 in weekly fantasy scoring. His recovery from the ACL tear is a concern, no doubt, but the talent and situation are lining up for Hall to have a stellar sophomore season if his knee is sound. Hall ranked first in yards after contact per attempt, first in elusive rating and third in breakaway percentage (minimum 75 rushing attempts per PFF). Imagine that talent getting to run against lighter boxes this year. That’s called the Aaron Rodgers effect. Over the last three years, Aaron Jones ranked no higher than 39th in the average number of defenders in the box. That’ll be a drastic difference for Hall, who saw the sixth-highest average number of defenders in the box last year. Expect the Jets to work in other backs all year to keep Hall fresh, but losing empty calorie touches to other players won’t derail his banner season incoming.
  • Mark Andrews: Andrews has not finished lower than TE5 in fantasy points per game over the last four seasons. Despite Lamar Jackson struggling and Tyler Huntley being unable to deliver an accurate pass in 2022, Andrews was still the TE3 in fantasy. He commanded a 29.0% target share (first) and was fourth in red zone targets. Andrews was also sixth in receiving grade and third in yards per route run (per PFF). While his target share could dip with more receiving talent on the depth chart this year, the passing volume will rise to compensate. Andrews is one of the few tight ends that can give Kelce a run for his money for TE1 in 2023.
  • Calvin Ridley: My body is ready for Calvin Ridley to return to the NFL and set the stat sheets on fire. Trevor Lawrence tickled our spider senses last year by flashing elite upside at the quarterback position. Ridley should have no problem earning the alpha WR1 role in the Jacksonville Jaguars offense. The last time we saw Ridley with a set of pads on, he was seventh in target share (27.4%), fourth in air yard share (40.0%) and fifth in route win rate. No, I’m not worried even a little bit about “rust.” I don’t think Ridley forgot how to get open after time away from the game, and you shouldn’t, either. Draft the Jaguars WR1 with confidence.

Late-Round Players to Targets

  • Keenan Allen: The old man and injured slander have gone far enough with Keenan Allen. Allen didn’t show any signs of slowing down last year, and he has started at least 13 games in each of the last five seasons before 2022. Last year Allen ranked 12th in receiving grade and 13th in yards per route run (per PFF). The yards per route run mark was his highest (2.08) since the 2.32 he posted in 2018. Once healthy last season Allen was crushing souls in his usual high-volume role as the WR3 in fantasy points per game. With Kellen Moore dictating the play calling, the Chargers could lead the NFL in passing attempts and plays run. This means more volume and a higher upside for Allen in 2023.

  • Jahmyr Gibbs: This year, the Lions turned in their old sports car for a newer model that still has that new car smell. The new Corvette in the driveway is Jahmyr Gibbs. Gibbs was a big play waiting to happen at Alabama last year, ranking seventh in breakaway percentage (per PFF). Much like his predecessor D’Andre Swift, Gibbs is a pass-game weapon that ranked ninth and second in yards per route run over his final two collegiate seasons (per PFF). David Montgomery will be a thorn in Gibbs’ side, especially in the red zone, but he doesn’t have Gibbs’ upside for big plays and a heavy pass game role. Detroit ranked 13th in target share and 11th in raw target volume last season to the running back position. Expect those numbers to rise in 2023. I have concerns about his overall volume and touchdown equity, but Gibbs has RB1 upside with an RB2 price tag.

Round 4 Targets

  • Lamar Jackson: The Baltimore Ravens love fest continues. This is an offense that I will be heavily invested in for 2023. With that being the case, If I miss out on Jalen Hurts or Justin Fields in drafts, then I’ll easily and aggressively pivot to Lamar Jackson. Break out the streamers and party hats because Jackson has been liberated. In steps Todd Monken who is riding in on his valiant play volume steed. Monken will inject new life into the pace of this offense as he’s ranked inside the top 12 in neutral script pace in three of his last four seasons as an offensive coordinator. With Monken and an army of new skill player additions, Jackson can revisit the torrid pace he started with last year before the receiving depth chart fell apart. In Weeks 1-3 with Rashod Bateman on the field, Jackson was the QB1 in fantasy points per game, averaging a whopping 34.8 points. He was also on his way to a beautiful passing season ranking third in passing grade, first in big-time throw rate and third in yards per attempt (minimum 80 dropbacks per PFF). Jackson could break fantasy football this year.
  • Justin Fields: Justin Fields put his league-winning upside on display last year. Overall he was the QB5 in fantasy points per game. In Weeks 7-11, after the team committed to utilizing his legs more, he was the QB1 in fantasy points per game during this span. The rushing acumen is a known commodity, so there’s no reason to dive headlong into that area. The passing department is where many want to toss shade at Fields. To find mind-numbing reasons to fade him. Well, I don’t agree with that at all, and if you look at the right details, you shouldn’t either. In Weeks 7-16, Fields should have proved to the world that his passing prowess is on the rise. During that stretch, he was eighth in adjusted completion rate, 12th in big-time throw rate and 13th in passer rating (per PFF). Investing in Fields this year feels oddly reminiscent of going all in on Jalen Hurts last year. I’m willing to make that bet all over again.
  • Aaron Jones: Don’t let Aaron Jones’ advancing age fool you. He’s still producing as if he’s still firmly in the prime of his career. Last year Jones was the RB11 in fantasy points per game as he continued to rattle off filthy efficiency numbers. He was 11th in yards after contact per attempt, 24th in breakaway percentage and ninth in PFF’s elusive rating. The stellar numbers weren’t confined to early downs, as he was also 17th in yards per route run and ninth in target share among running backs. At age 28, I’m willing to bet Jones has at least one more RB1 season left in him before volume and time begin to catch up with him.
  • Christian Watson: I’ll never stop. I can’t stop. I won’t stop with my man crush for Christian Watson. After a slow start last year due to injuries and the need to develop a rapport with his rookie-hating pout-prone former quarterback Aaron Rodgers, Watson’s talent finally bubbled to the top. In Weeks 10-18, Watson had six games in which he played at least 80% of the snaps. In those games, he earned a 23.4% target share, 42.9% end zone target share and a 26% target per route run rate. He rolled up 3.07 yards per route run during that string of games. If Jordan Love hopes to have a successful season as the new starter in Green Bay, he’ll need to lean on Watson heavily. Watson has monster WR1 upside.

  • Drake London: If we’ve learned anything over the last few years as fantasy managers, second and third-year wide receivers that have already flashed massive upside are strong bets to make in fantasy. While London didn’t live up to lofty predictions (WR43) as a rookie, everything screams that he is an insanely talented player to double down on in 2023. London posted alpha-level usage metrics ranking fifth in target share (29.4%) and second in target per route run rate (32.4%) among wide receivers. He was also 11th in yards per route run and 16th in open score (per ESPN analytics). London already gave us a peek at his WR2 floor for 2023 during last year’s stretch run. In Weeks 13-18, he was the WR20 in fantasy, even though he failed to score a touchdown in this span. I’ll continue betting on London’s beautiful talent profile.

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*All data utilized in this article courtesy of FantasyPros, PFF, Football Outsiders, and Playerprofiler.com unless otherwise specified.*

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