Fantasy Football: 5 players to fade in 2023

2K0GRPJ Cincinnati, Ohio, USA. Paycor Stadium. 11th Sep, 2022. Tee Higgins #85 during the Pittsburgh Steelers vs Cincinnati Bengals game in Cincinnati, Ohio at Paycor Stadium. Jason Pohuski/CSM/Alamy Live News

  • Cincinnati Bengals WR Tee Higgins (78.6 PFF offense grade): His 2022 performance, growing injury history and target competition make him a risky fantasy football draft pick.
  • Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris (73.5 PFF offense grade): His inefficient play and talented backup create unignorable problems for 2023. 
  • Los Angeles Rams RB Cam Akers (80.7 PFF offense grade): His late-season production was inflated by easily-winnable matchups. 
Estimated reading time: 9 minutes



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Each season, the fantasy football drafting community falls prey to a handful of ostensibly productive player profiles, only to realize that a mistake has been made come Week 1. Age, in-house competition, waning efficiency and shaky health can all functions as harbingers of an impending dropoff in performance. 

This piece aims to identify five early-to-mid-round NFL players who carry outsized risks entering 2023. It is imperative for fantasy football drafters to fade away from these players at their current average draft position (ADP).


WR TEE HIGGINS, CINCINNATI BENGALS

Higgins (78.6 PFF offense grade) boasts high-end route running technique and contested-catch ability, but his 2022 NFL season yielded career-lows in seven notable receiving metrics. Higgins’ worsening injury history compounds his below-average athleticism. Higgins’ WR13, 3.09 ADP in ESPN’s points-per-reception (PPR) is entirely untenable. 

Higgins’ receiving data among 62 NFL wide receivers with at least 65 targets (his prior career-low numbers are listed where a new low was set or tied):

Stat Tee Higgins 2022 Prior Career-Low (Year)
PFF Receiving Grade 79.0 (No. 21) 79.0 (2020)
TPRR – YPRR 19.1% (No. 41) – 1.80 (No. 27) 21.1% (2021) – 1.83 (2020)
Catch % – Contested Catch % 69.6% (No. 22) – 57.6% (No. 11) N/A – N/A
aDot – Yds/Rec 12.0 (No. 26) – 13.5 (No. 20) 12.2 (2021) – 13.6 (2020)
Missed Tackles Forced Rec 9 (T-No. 18) N/A
MTF/Rec 0.10 (No. 21) N/A
YAC/Rec 3.6 (No. 35) 4.5 (2020)
15+ Yd Rec’s – 15+ Yd Rec % 28 (No. 15) – 32.2% (No. 26) N/A – 32.8% (2020)

Higgins (6-foot-4, 219 pounds) failed to register a 5.00 relative athletic score (RAS) in a timed workout event at Clemson’s pro day. Both his 1.66-second 10-yard split and 4.53-second short shuttle earned sub-2.00 RAS marks. 

Over the last five years, Higgins has suffered three ankle sprains, four hamstring strains, one shoulder sprain and one concussion. The hamstring strains are particularly concerning. Doctor of Physical Therapy Edwin Porras notes that the injury carries a 22.0% year-to-year recurrence rate, though a majority occur within the same season. 

Higgins known target competition is well documented, but the team also drafted Princeton’s Andrei Iosivas (86.3 PFF receiving grade) and Purdue’s Charlie Jones (83.8 PFF receiving grade) in the 2023 NFL Draft. Iosivas (6-foot-3, 212 pounds) produced exceptional athletic marks at the NFL Combine and ranks top-two in targets (85), explosive 15-plus-yard pass plays (22) and yards after the catch per reception (6.7) among 25 Ivy League wide receivers with at least 25 targets. Jones operated as a top-five, Power-Five lid lifter with 30 explosive 15-plus-yard pass plays among 73 wide receivers with at least 75 targets.

Given Higgins’ 2022 step back and complicated injury history, fantasy managers should avoid Higgins’ at his current WR13, 3.09 ADP.


RB NAJEE HARRIS, PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Harris (73.5 PFF offense grade) begins his third season with an ADP equal to his second-season point total; as the PPR RB14. Fantasy managers are drafting Harris at the 4.01 pick, but Harris is unlikely to repeat his 2022 performance with spark-plug sophomore Jaylen Warren (73.8 PFF offense grade) nipping at his heels. 

Harris struggles to generate explosive plays due to his poor athleticism.

Harris and Warren’s rushing data among 55 NFL running backs with at least 75 rushing attempts:
Stat Najee Harris Jaylen Warren
PFF Rushing Grade 75.2 (No. 38) 73.0 (No. 43)
YPC 3.8 (T-No. 49) 4.9 (T-No. 14)
Missed Tackles Forced – MTF/Rush Att. 55 (No. 6) – 0.20 (T-No. 20) 19 (T-No. 41) – 0.25 (T-No. 6)
YAC/Rush Att. 2.7 (T-No. 41) 3.1 (T-No. 21)
10+ Yd Rushes – 10+ Yd Rush % 20 (T-No. 24) – 7.4% (T-No. 49) 11 (T-No. 43) – 14.3 (T-No. 9)
1st Dwn+TD % 16.5% (No. 55) 24.7% (No. 13)
Harris and Warren’s receiving data among 44 NFL running backs with at least 30 targets:
Stat Najee Harris Jaylen Warren
PFF Receiving Grade 61.9 (T-No. 27) 79.8 (T-No. 4)
TPRR – YPRR 17.8% (No. 28) – 0.78 (No. 36) 18.6% (No. 23) – 1.24 (T-No. 17)
Catch % – Contested Catch % 77.4% (No. 36) – 12.5% (No. 27) 87.5% (No. 4) – 100.0% (T-No. 1)
aDot – Yds/Rec 1.7 (No. 7) – 5.7 (No. 40) -0.9 (No. 39) – 7.6 (No. 18)
Missed Tackles Forced Rec 13 (T-No. 7) 10 (T-No. 17)
MTF/Rec 0.32 (No. 10) 0.36 (No. 6)
YAC/Rec 5.0 (No. 44) 8.4 (No. 9)
15+ Yd Rec’s – 15+ Yd Rec % 2 (T-No. 32) – 4.9% (No. 37) 2 (T-No. 32) – 7.1% (T-No. 30)

Harris ranked top two among 2021 NFL running backs in both targets (96) and receptions (76) playing alongside retired quarterback Ben Roethlisberger (52.8 PFF passing grade), yet Warren quickly stole the third- and fourth-and-long role as a 2022 rookie. 

Harris’ inability to generate explosive yardage both after contact and after the catch, coupled with the young Warren’s rise, makes Harris a must-fade in 2023.


RB CAM AKERS, LOS ANGELES RAMS

Akers’ (80.7 PFF offense grade) late-season rushing sums led to an RB24, 7.07 ESPN ADP, but a close examination of Akers’ performance reveals middling rushing efficiency despite subpar run-defense opposition, forecasting a fade-worthy 2023. 

Head coach Sean McVay sparingly deployed Akers early in 2022 after Akers held a marginal role in Los Angeles’ Super Bowl LVI following his July 2021 Achilles rupture. The scant usage ignited a midseason trade request by Akers before McVay issued a multi-week benching. Following NFL’s November 1st trade deadline, Akers returned to the field in Week 9, where he gained steam for a stretch run that saw him take the No. 2 rushing spot with 345 yards in Weeks 16-18. While Akers’ rushing totals painted a fantasy football RB1 picture, the efficiency rates reveal a back-end RB2 aided by league-worst opposition. For example, Akers’ season-high 123 rushing yards occurred against a Denver defensive front playing with six defenders either absent or injured. 

Akers’ rushing totals and rushing rates among 45 NFL running backs with at least 50 rushing attempts in Week 9-18:
NFL RB Rushing Weeks 9-18 Cam Akers
PFF Rushing Grade 85.4 (No. 3)
Rush Att. 137 (No. 11)
Rush Yards – YPC 635 (No. 9)  – 4.6 (No. 15)
TD – 1st Downs+TD – 1st Dwn+TD % 6 (T-No. 4) – 31 (T-No. 11) – 22.6% (No. 19)
Missed Tackles Forced – MTF/Rush Att. 29 (T-No. 7) – 0.21 (T-No. 10)
Yards After Contact – YAC/Rush Att. 394 (No. 12) – 2.9 (No. 22)
10+ Yd Rushes – 10+ Yd Rush % 13 (T-No. 14) – 9.5% (No. 23)
Los Angeles opponents’ season-long run-defense data among NFL teams in Weeks 9-18:
NFL Team Run Defense PFF Run-Defense Grade – Avg Tackle Depth
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – Week 9 57.8 (No. 23) – 4.21 (No. 16)
Arizona Cardinals – Week 10 50.0 (No. 27) – 4.22 (T-No. 17)
New Orleans Saints – Week 11 65.6 (No. 15) – 4.30 (No. 20)
Kansas City Chiefs – Week 12 63.6 (No. 18) – 4.35 (No. 22)
Seattle Seahawks – Weeks 13 & 18 62.0 (No. 19) – 4.56 (No. 25)
Las Vegas Raiders – Week 14 58.2 (No. 22) – 4.24 (No. 19)
Green Bay Packers – Week 15 53.1 (No. 26) – 4.73 (No. 26)
Denver Broncos – Week 16 71.5 (No. 9) – 4.22 (T-No. 17)
Los Angeles Chargers – Week 17 36.5 (No. 30) – 4.92 (No. 31)

In 2023, Los Angeles is scheduled to face eight of Zoltán Buday’s top 12-ranked defensive lines, and Los Angeles’ offensive line worryingly received a 59.8 PFF run-blocking grade in 2022, before tumbling to the No. 28 spot in PFF lead NFL analyst Sam Monson’s offensive line rankings.

The fourth-year running back adds little as a receiver (61.5 PFF receiving grade), ranking outside the top 40 running backs (minimum 10 targets) in both targets per route run (10.5%) and yards per route run (0.80) rates during his Weeks 9-18 offensive showing. 

Akers cannot be counted on as a back-end RB2 in 2023.


TE T.J. HOCKENSON, MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Minnesota traded for the Detroit LionsHockenson (76.4 PFF receiving grade) in Week 9 and the then-fourth-year player erupted for 127.3 PPR points (No. 2 overall). ESPN PRR fantasy managers are aggressively selecting Hockenson with a TE3, 4.08 ADP but should discontinue doing so thanks to increased target competition and a string of quality tight ends available via lower ADPs.

Hockenson was the TE4 after eight weeks (85.5 PPR points scored), operating in a crowded Detroit pass-catching corps, but upon his arrival in Minnesota, Hockenson soundly out-earned the washed-up Adam Thielen (66.3 PFF receiving grade) and the never-was K.J. Osborn (65.3 PFF receiving grade). 

Hockenson’s Weeks 1-8 and Weeks 9-NFL Playoffs Wildcard round target-earning production.
T.J. Hockenson Detroit Lions: Weeks 1-8  Minnesota Vikings: Weeks 9-WC
Targets/Game 5.9 8.4
TPRR 19.4% 23.4%
aDot 8.2 7.5
20+-Yd aDot Tgt % 4.9% 8.7%

Minnesota drafted former USC and Pittsburgh wide receiver, and 2021 Biletnikoff award winner, Jordan Addison (82.4 PFF receiving grade) with the No. 24 overall pick. He makes for a worthy sidekick to 2022 NFL Offensive Player of the Year and first-team All-Pro wide receiver Justin Jefferson (90.2 PFF receiving grade). 

Addison’s 2022 receiving data among 73 Power-5 wide receivers with at least 75 targets:
Stat Jordan Addison
PFF Receiving Grade 82.4 (No. 12)
TPRR – YPRR 25.1% (No. 33) – 2.78 (No. 10)
Catch % 74.7% (No. 7)
aDot 10.7 (No. 41)
20+-Yd aDot Tgt % 21.5% (T-No. 25)
15+ Yd Pass Plays 23 (T-No. 21)

Hockenson’s blurred situation is made more concerning by the talented tight end group available after him.

Hockenson’s ADP among the following four tight ends by ADP:
Player ESPN PPR ADP PFF Receiving Grade
T.J. Hockenson, Minnesota Vikings TE3, 4.08 76.4
George Kittle, San Francisco 49ers TE4, 5.01 87.8
Darren Waller, New York Giants TE5, 5.03 74.5
Kyle Pitts, Atlanta Falcons TE6, 6.12 76.6 
Dallas Goedert, Philadelphia Eagles TE7, 7.01 83.5 

Hockenson’s upgraded target competition and early-round ADP makes for a high-risk/moderate-reward fantasy football draft pick in 2023.


RB MILES SANDERS, CAROLINA PANTHERS

Sanders (71.1 PFF offense grade) joins a quietly crowded Panthers backfield that threatens to infringe upon Sanders’ high-value touches. Teammates Chuba Hubbard (76.6 PFF offense grade) and Raheem Blackshear (70.3 PFF offense grade) offer new head coach Frank Reich impressive passing-game and scoring-position abilities, whereas Sanders’ four-year performance catalog shows billowing red flags in both facets. Sanders is unlikely to return value at his RB19, 5.12 ADP. 

In the three seasons since Sanders’ 53-catch rookie campaign, the former Eagle fails to rank inside the top 25 running backs (with at least 25 seasonal targets), in receptions, receiving yards, targets per route run and yards per route run. His 2022 results were catastrophic. 

Sanders’ 2022 receiving data among 49 NFL running backs with at least 25 targets and Sanders’ 2022 pass-blocking grade among 61 NFL running backs with at least 25 pass-blocking snaps (Hubbard and Blackshear’s data is included for comparison): 
Stat Miles Sanders  Chuba Hubbard Raheem Blackshear
PFF Receiving Grade 35.4 (No. 49) 59.6 71.4
PFF Pass-Blocking Grade 37.7 (No. 49) 45.9 68.8
Targets 28 (T-No. 45) 16 12
TPRR – YPRR  9.5% (No. 49) – 0.28 (No. 49) 14.5% – 1.55 25.5% – 1.98
Catch % 75.0% (T-No. 40) 87.5% 83.3%
aDot – Yds/Rec 0.8 (No. 18) – 3.9 (No. 49) 0.4 – 12.2 -1.4 – 9.3
YAC/Rec 4.9 (No. 48) 12.0 11.1
MTF/Rec 0.24 (No. 20) 0.21 0.4
15+-Yd Pass Plays % 4.8% (T-No. 42) 28.6% 20.0%

As a Rutgers junior, Blackshear averaged 3.30 yards per route run, ranking No. 2 among 47 Power-5 running backs with at least 25 targets.

Sanders scored 13 touchdowns in 2022 after logging just 12 in three seasons prior, famously failing to score completely in 2021. Running behind Philadelphia’s No. 2-ranked offensive line (81.6 PFF run-blocking grade), Sanders gained a first down or scored a touchdown rushing at a 32.1% rate, ranking No. 24 among 40 NFL running backs with at least 10 green zone rushing attempts. Running behind a far less capable Carolina offensive line (59.1 PFF run-blocking grade, No. 21), Blackshear produced a 75.0% rate, while Hubbard trailed at 20.0%. Sanders must now adjust to Monson’s No. 16-ranked blocking unit while fending off the electric Blackshear. 

Sanders is a poor bet to return value at his current RB19, 5.12 ADP.

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