Fantasy News & Analysis

Fantasy Football: Rookie risers after the 2023 NFL preseason

2RGRAGA August 10, 2023; Foxborough, MA, USA; Houston Texans wide receiver Tank Dell (13) runs with the ball during the NFL pre-season game between Houston Texans and New England Patriots at Gillette Stadium. Anthony Nesmith/CSM

Tank Bigsby is looking to make his mark: The third-round rookie running back has the chance to carve out a significant role in the Jaguars offense.

• Is Tyjae Spears the perfect handcuff? Spears was impressive this preseason and could be the ideal insurance policy for Derrick Henry.

• Dominate your fantasy league in 2023: Check out PFF's fantasy rankings tool for up-to-date fantasy draft rankings and projections!

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

The final weekend of the preseason is beyond us, and now the march to the regular season begins. That, of course, means it’s peak fantasy draft season.

One of the most challenging aspects of drafting is knowing which rookies to take a chance on. Their roles are more projections than assurances, so preseason performances can often give us actionable insights into how teams view their young talent.

We’ve seen some rookies put on strong preseason performances to boost their fantasy draft stock, but which players have risen up the boards?

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Trey Palmer, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The 2023 season could be an exercise in patience for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and there’s at least a chance this team finishes the year with one of the worst records in the league.

The news that Ryan Jensen’s season — and potentially his career — is over is a tough break for an offensive line already in flux. There’s talent on the roster, but is it enough to get past the deficiencies? It’s unlikely.

The small and moral wins for the Buccaneers might be the ones worth the most this season, and Trey Palmer‘s progression is worth watching. A sixth-round pick in the draft with blazing 4.33 speed, Palmer impressed during preseason. He played in all three preseason games, catching seven of his eight targets for 91 yards and two touchdowns, earning a 69.2 receiving grade in the process. He projects best as an intermediate to deep threat who can take the top off defenses, and that has a place in this Buccaneers offense. Even if Mayfield isn’t the most consistent quarterback, he has the arm to push the ball downfield.

Palmer’s performances have seen him rise, but his position in the depth chart has also benefitted from an injury Russell Gage suffered earlier in the preseason. Gage was projected to fill that vertical role in the offense alongside Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but his injury left a void that needed to be filled.

Right now, it looks like Palmer has grabbed the brass ring. His current ADP has him as the WR130, and there probably isn’t much value outside of drafting him in best ball format or as a taxi squad stash in dynasty leagues. But if the Buccaneers suffer more injuries or — and this is outside-the-box thinking — if Godwin or Evans become available as potential trade candidates later in the season, Palmer can carve out a bigger role in an offense that needs some hope.

Tyjae Spears, Tennessee Titans

Tyjae Spears is defeating the long-held belief that you need two ACLs to play football. The former third-round pick was dropped into an environment where there was little to no pressure to perform in his rookie season, but his impressive performances in the preseason have elevated his standing.

Spears is a nice complementary back with a polished skill set, but he won’t cut into Derrick Henry’s workload in early-down situations. There might be some work on third down coming his way, though.

The Tulane product rushed for 117 yards on 22 carries and added a touchdown to boot, earning a respectable 63.0 rushing grade. He finished third in yards after contact per attempt among all running backs with 10-plus preseason carries and tied for third with the most rushes of 15-plus yards. Throughout the preseason, Spears has shown that he can make plays and is worthy of the backup role in Tennessee.

There’s a lot of miles on Henry's tires, too. The two-time rushing champion is now in his age-29 season and isn’t long removed from having a metal rod inserted into his foot. Even though he continues to carry defenders to the deepest depths of hell, he’s only human. At some point, the rigors of such a physical style of football could take its toll.

Of course, Spears has his own injury concerns, but he’s the perfect handcuff for Henry in fantasy. He can handle the passing downs, has real explosiveness and doesn’t look like he’ll need volume to equal efficiency.

Tank Dell, Houston Texans

It might take a few years, but the Houston Texans are finally on the right track. They’ve got an excellent young head coach, their quarterback of the future and some nice young pieces on defense.

However, the Texans are lacking depth and talent at the skill positions. There’s quiet confidence in Nico Collins and his ability to be a solid X receiver, and Robert Woods adds a nice slot presence, but this is a weak spot on the Texans roster. Impact roles are up for grabs.

Tank Dell looks like someone who can benefit. The 5-foot-10, 165-pound receiver lit up the preseason, earning an 80.3 receiving grade, the third-highest among all rookies. He caught five of his nine targets for 65 yards and one touchdown.

Dell runs faster than his 4.49 40-yard dash suggests. He’s explosive, can seamlessly create separation and has good hands — highlighted by his touchdown catch against the Patriots.

His size-weight combination makes him a total anomaly at the receiver position, and that brings up concerns about Dell’s durability, but the talent is there. If the preseason has taught us anything, it’s that the Texans like Dell, which matters a lot.

Where he’ll line up is intriguing, though. The rookie pass-catcher lined up on the outside for 75% of his snaps in the preseason but spent most of his time in the slot in college. That’s where Dell looks the most comfortable and could do the most damage. His natural ability to separate means he can run wild in the slot and build a solid connection with C.J. Stroud.

Dell might not be the top target for the Texans, but he can be an important piece of the offense and is already being drafted as the WR71, just 11 spots lower than Collins.

Tank Bigsby, Jacksonville Jaguars

Despite his lofty first-round draft status and 1,120 rushing yards last season, Travis Etienne’s position as the Jacksonville Jaguars lead back feels tentative. That’s not to say he will fall down the depth chart, but Tank Bigsby is making a real case to eat into his workload in 2023.

The Jaguars didn’t draft Bigsby in the third round by accident. They saw the talent — Bigsby earned a 90.7 rushing grade in his final season at Auburn — and believed the talent could translate to the next level.

If preseason is any indication, there’s a good chance it will. Bigsby looked fantastic across three games, rushing for 159 yards on 28 carries at 5.7 yards per attempt. He demonstrated his ability to get to the edge and show off his burst with two runs of 15 or more yards, the fourth-most in the preseason.

Etienne, with his build and injury history, doesn’t project as a bell cow and even gave up snaps to JaMycal Hasty in 2022. Bigsby is more talented than Hasty as a runner and looks destined to cut into Etienne’s workload this season. He’s currently being drafted as the RB49, but there’s value in drafting him over other running backs like Devin Singletary and Elijah Mitchell, whose roles don’t seem as secure in their offenses. If Etienne misses time, there’s potential for Bigsby to be a weekly flex option.

Zay Flowers, Baltimore Ravens

The numbers didn’t pop in volume for Zay Flowers this preseason, but his involvement was limited for a reason: The Ravens love him.

Flowers played only 16 total snaps across two games but caught two passes for 37 yards and a touchdown. Those two catches showed what he’s all about. It’s shifty route-running, the ability to create with the ball in his hands and just a lot of juice. Flowers popped in college as a guy who could win at all three receiving spots and earned a 76.6 receiving grade in 2022.

Flowers’ versatility means he’ll likely lineup as the Ravens’ starting slot receiver, and with a lot of uncertainty in the receiver room outside of tight end Mark Andrews, there’s room for him to hit the ground running. Odell Beckham Jr. and Rashod Bateman are both talented receivers, but injuries have plagued them for the last few seasons. On top of that, QB Lamar Jackson and this Ravens offense have been crying out for a WR1 over the last few years.

The offense will be geared more toward passing the ball in 2023 with Todd Monken installed as the new offensive coordinator. He’ll need a receiver to emerge from the pack, though, and it could be Flowers. He’s currently being drafted higher than Bateman as the WR46 and could be a nice flex option out of the gate.


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