At the risk of undermining the global fantasy football content complex, we'd like to share the following truths:
A) You are not going to nail every pick in your fantasy draft, despite your weeks of prep and research, but
B) It wouldn’t actually matter if you did, because
C) Winning in this game only requires that you hit big on one or two picks. That's it. The rest is noise.
Fantasy football, at least in its most common league configurations, is a strong-link game. Your teams will go exactly as far as your best players take them. Any attentive fantasy manager can sketch in their rosters with guys who semi-reliably deliver low double-digit point totals; the key to this game is finding golden ticket players. You win championships with Cooper Kupp's 2021 season, or with Lamar Jackson's 2019, or David Johnson's 2016. You win by chasing high-ceiling players up and down your draft, knowing you'll have plenty of whiffs.
If you play in a 10 or 12-team league, your many misses certainly won't define your season. Everything is correctable in a standard-sized league — everything, that is, except missing on the few decisive players who can tilt any matchup in their favor. You gotta get those guys. Risk is everywhere in the draft, so lean into it. Hitting on upside is the whole ballgame.
This is a concept as old as the oldest fantasy leagues, by the way. It requires no special insight. Ask your parents what it was like to have Randy Moss on a roster in 1998, or Priest Holmes in his prime, or Shaun Alexander in 2005, or —
Well, you get it. Upside: It's good. It wins. This has forever been the case.
In fact, we know of at least one league out there in which Walter Payton, Bob Griese and Nat Moore delivered this lesson way back in 1977.
Find just one or two key pieces on draft day and you can mangle every other pick without serious penalty. With this fact in mind, let's discuss six names with monstrous potential in the season ahead, generally available outside a draft's first round.
Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Chubb's ceiling in 2023 is an all-time season —maybe the all-time season.
OK, well, no, it’s probably not a LaDainian-Tomlinson-in-2006 sort of year, but Chubb’s best-case scenario absolutely wins your league. His ceiling is the rushing crown, Offensive Player of the Year, 2,000-plus scrimmage yards, league leader in touchdowns, unrivaled fantasy MVP. All of it.
Chubb is as good as it gets, the game's best pure rushing threat. He led the NFL in carries of 10 or more yards last season (47) and he finished third in yards after contact (1,050). If you're a missed tackle enthusiast, you already love him. Chubb ranks third all-time among running backs in yards per carry (5.2) and he's never averaged fewer than 5.0 in any season. His offensive line is elite, not that he needs it. Chubb is a true offensive centerpiece, a throwback. He's one of the only players in the league who can be reasonably projected for 300 touches.
Assuming good health in 2023, Chubb is clearly a swing-the-league player. Cleveland has never fully leaned on him as a receiver, but he's also never struggled in the role. You might recall that back in 2019 when Kareem Hunt was suspended for eight games, Chubb reached the halfway point of the season on pace for over 50 catches. No other back on the team's current roster can do anything as well as Chubb does everything, so he can definitely reemerge as a relevant pass-catcher. And if that happens, his all-format fantasy upside is outrageous.
Scott Pianowski attempted to claim Chubb for the All-Boring Team, but this is a player who's much too spicy for any such list. He's the captain of the upside squad.
Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
Pollard finished eighth in fantasy scoring among all running backs last season but only 33rd in the NFL in red-zone rush attempts. We can't tell you precisely what percentage of Ezekiel Elliott's old red-zone responsibilities Pollard will inherit, but it isn't zero. He's already dodged the biggest draft and free agency bullets, so we can reasonably assume that one of the league's most efficient and effective backs is headed for a career-high in touches this season.
Also, let's please remember that Dallas head coach Mike McCarthy has very clearly telegraphed his intent to time-of-possession opponents to death in 2023. That team is going to relentlessly run. Pollard's setup is exceptional. His talent as a ball-carrier is undeniable:
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) October 30, 2022
If Pollard manages to handle 275 touches this season — a total he hasn't yet approached — then he's going to be an unstoppable fantasy force, one of the right answers in our game.
Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans
There's plenty of helium in Pierce's ADP recently (42.5 overall on Yahoo over the past week), an overdue correction to a curious misfire by early drafters (and rankers. Apologies). In case you'd forgotten, Pierce was a revelation as a rookie before a late-season injury sidelined him over the final four weeks. Despite appearing in only 13 games, he still finished fourth in total missed tackles forced on rush attempts (62) and 12th in yards after contact (722). He often eschews elusiveness in favor of violence, a habit that could lead to trouble down the road. But wow, is he a fun watch when he's rolling.
— NFL Films (@NFLFilms) October 10, 2022
Pierce has rarely come off the field on C.J. Stroud's snaps this preseason, which suggests an expanded set of responsibilities in year two. If he's gonna stay in the game on third downs and in passing situations, emerging as a true every-down back, then his ceiling is a top-five positional finish and a ticket to the first round in 2024 drafts.
Justin Fields, Chicago Bears
You don't need any sort of expert to tell you that a quarterback coming off a 1,143-yard rushing season has significant upside. Fields is, without question, one of the game's most electric ball carriers:
— NFL (@NFL) November 6, 2022
However, you also shouldn't need an expert to explain that Fields is still very much an unfinished developmental prospect as a passer — which is fine, because he's still only 24 years old. Fields has a huge arm, but he lacked a functioning internal clock last season, taking a league-high 55 sacks despite averaging just 29.6 dropbacks per game.
Chicago put a dreadful receiving corps on the field last year, as well as a sketchy offensive line. Substantial upgrades have been made to both groups this offseason, which obviously benefits the team's quarterback. D.J. Moore is orders of magnitude better than any wide receiver who was associated with the 2022 Bears; his presence should create layup pitch-and-catch opportunities that were absent last season when every Chicago completion seemed like a small miracle. Fields averaged 9.1 air yards per attempt last season, among the highest in the league. He needs a few easy, open quick-hitters in the worst way. Moore is simply a huge boost.
Fields possesses rare big-play rushing ability, a trait that made him the overall QB6 last season. Any modest improvements as a passer have the potential to vault Fields into the position's top three, if not to the No. 1 spot overall. If he levels up dramatically with Moore in the mix, his upside is consensus fantasy MVP.
Chris Olave, New Orleans Saints
In two of the past three seasons, the undeniable right answer at wide receiver was found somewhere in the RB dead zone, outside the opening rounds in drafts. That's where Stefon Diggs landed in 2020 and it's where Kupp was typically selected in 2021. This season, Olave is the strongest possible candidate to be the game-breaking wideout who slips outside the position's top 12. His first pro season was loaded with promise.
As a rookie, Olave ranked among the NFL leaders in air yards per route (3.8) and average depth of target (14.2), so his team shoved him immediately into the deep end of the pool. He saw very few slants and other gimme opportunities, yet still delivered 72 receptions for 1,042 yards with Andy Dalton at the controls of the New Orleans offense. He arrived in the league as an exceptional separator and technician, an every-route winner.
If the Saints actually create a few additional easy chances for their best receiver in his second season, he's going to erupt. Derek Carr is going to be an upgrade to some extent, and we've obviously seen him support elite pass-catchers in the past. It's not outrageous to think that a 100-1,400 season is within the range of possible outcomes for Olave.
Calvin Ridley, Jacksonville Jaguars
In Ridley's last full NFL season, with a decline-phase Matt Ryan as his quarterback, he finished as the overall WR4. This year, with ascending star Trevor Lawrence feeding him targets, Ridley is going off the board as the WR17 in Yahoo drafts, generally selected in the fourth or fifth round. He's clearly not a sure thing, coming off a pair of lost seasons, but it's not as if the talent has vanished:
— Jacksonville Jaguars (@Jaguars) August 26, 2023
You will certainly find a variety of opinions among fantasy analysts regarding the risk/reward equation with Ridley, but everyone should at least acknowledge the possibility that he might produce like the 2020 version of himself. If that happens, he'll be a filthy steal at his ADP. With Ridley, we don't have to hope for him to reach some level of performance he's never previously achieved. If Jacksonville's offense makes yet another leap in Lawrence's third season, the team's top receiver is a near-lock to finish among the position's top 10.