Fantasy Football: What happened to my guys in 2023?

2T3H7B3 Denver Broncos running back Samaje Perine (25) celebrates a catch against the Green Bay Packers of an NFL football game Sunday October 22, 2023, in Denver. (AP Photo/Bart Young)

• Unable to take advantage of early opportunities: Samaje Perine was unable to earn himself a bigger role in the Denver backfield after the preseason hype.

• The sleeper tight end we wanted but not the one we got: Fantasy managers were hoping for consistency from Juwan Johnson in 2023. We’re still hoping.

• The ultimate “my guy”: Tony Pollard was projected to be the RB3 this season, but he hasn’t lived up to the billing.

Estimated reading time: 8 minutes

Hindsight. Every cliché you hear about it makes you roll your eyes. So, we’re not going to do it. Sometimes things just don’t pan out the way you want or anticipated. That doesn’t ring any more true than in fantasy football. You spend all offseason researching, falling in love with a player, and watching the hype grow into something real, and then…you’re talking about hindsight.

Every player can't hit the heights, but some of them can fall so far short of what you expected that it almost offends you. Fantasy football isn’t real. It’s all fun, but golly, it can cut you deep.

WR:CB Matchup Chart

RB Samaje Perine, Denver Broncos

Starting slow before we ramp it up, Perine was a late-round favorite for a lot of fantasy owners in preseason drafts. The former Cincinnati Bengals running back joined the Broncos in the summer and was fully pegged to be the starter while Javonte Williams recovered and rehabbed from injury. Perine has never been a special runner in the NFL, but he averaged an efficient 4.4 yards per carry in his three full seasons with Cincinnati, could be relied on in the receiving game and was more than competent in pass protection.

Even if Perine wasn’t going to be an every-down runner, he’d still get enough touches thanks to his prominence as a pass-catcher to make him at least flex-relevant in most leagues. However, as the Broncos head into a Week 9 bye, Perine’s fantasy relevance has dissipated. He’s the current RB42 with just two top-25 finishes to his name and has had just three carries in the last three games.

Perine’s stock was never going to be too high. His occupancy as the Broncos' starting running back early in the season rested on the health of Williams, who was ahead of schedule and earning double-digit touches in the season-opener. Williams would always usurp Perine eventually, but what wasn’t accounted for was the play of rookie Jaleel McLaughlin who worked himself into a valuable role in the offense from Week 3 onwards.

McLaughlin’s excellent play has pushed Perine further down the pecking order than we’d imagined, but Perine hasn’t helped himself. His 61.1 rushing grade is 57th out of 65 running backs with at least 25 carries, and his 3.4 yards per carry is 49th. Disappointing.

TE Juwan Johnson, New Orleans Saints

“This was meant to be the summer of the late-round tight end!” yells George Costanza somewhere in the distance. He wasn’t wrong — and so far, hasn’t been too far off the mark. Sleeper tight ends have been contributing across the league and in fantasy, but Juwan Johnson, one of the potential poster boys for the slogan, isn’t one of them. The Saints tight end has just eight catches for 66 yards from four games, is the TE39 in points per game and the overall TE51 in PPR. That’s 14.60 total points for Johnson.

The numbers early in the season for Johnson aren’t unforgiving. He was targeted 12 times in the first three games of the season, the same as Dalton Kincaid and Gerald Everett, but it was 20th among tight ends. He’s retained his ability to create after the catch, and he’s a terrific athlete, but he’s playing behind the eight ball. Missing four games due to injury didn’t help either, but Johnson just hasn’t been a feature of the offense.

Derek Carr just hasn’t looked towards his tight ends for help this season. Most of the targets have been funneled to Michael Thomas, Chris Olave and Alvin Kamara. The Saints' tight end unit has earned a target share of just 16.1% this season – 26th in the NFL. Johnson wasn’t going to be a top-five fantasy tight end but in a landscape where there was a lot of room to make waves as a consistent starting option, he’s struggled to make an impact so far.

RB Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans

There’s a lot to like about Pierce. He’s a powerful back who runs like he’s pissed off at the ground, he’s explosive and showed in 2022 that he was a breakout candidate in real life and fantasy football in 2023. Eight games into the season and we’re still hoping for that breakout. It might come in the second half of the season, but the forecast isn’t promising.

Pierce’s 68.4 rushing grade ranks 41st among all running backs this season, which is fine. Not great, but fine. He’s averaging just 3.0 yards per carry — 59th out of 63 qualifiable running backs. Pair it with one rushing touchdown and 327 rushing yards through eight games, and you can easily come to the conclusion that Pierce has underperformed. It was never meant to be this way.

The Texans upgraded their offensive line by adding Shaq Mason and Juice Scruggs in the offseason and, on paper at least, the offensive line was in pretty good shape. A potential top-10 unit. However, paper can’t make up for injuries, and the Texans' offensive line has been decimated by them. Kenyon Green and Scruggs are both on IR while Laremy Tunsil and Tytus Howard have both missed time already this season.

That’s hard, and the makeshift line partly explains Pierce’s inefficient performance. He’s averaging 0.6 yards before contact after all. As a running back, you can’t live like that. You need the offensive line to hold up their end of the bargain and create the lanes for you to attack.

Those of you with shares in Pierce will be all too familiar with this, but he’s reached double-digit point totals just twice in fantasy this season, and he’s the RB36 as things stand. He’s also the RB44 in points per game, averaging the same as Tyjae Spears, Jaleel McLaughlin, and Darrynton Evans. Hitting on a running back in rounds three and four was always going to be a hard task, and if you picked Pierce…you likely picked wrong this year.

 WR Tee Higgins, Cincinnati Bengals

Higgins's fantasy value is going to be capped as long as he’s paired with Ja’Marr Chase on the Bengals. It’s just a fact of life. That doesn’t take away from how excellent of a receiver Higgins is, and it shouldn’t. However, as someone who was drafted in the second and third rounds of fantasy drafts, Higgins has struggled to deliver in 2023.

He’s currently the WR58 and is averaging 8.8 fantasy points per game. On top of that, Higgins has had just one top-35 scoring week so far. Sure, he missed a game against the Arizona Cardinals due to a rib injury, and he’s a little banged up from it still. That makes sense, and there’s no argument against it, but it’s still frustrating, especially since the Bengals are still a pass-happy offense. The causation, aside from Higgins likely playing a little banged up, is pretty easy to identify too.

Through the first four weeks of the NFL season, the Bengals were 29th in EPA per play on offense, and Joe Burrow looked like a shell of himself as he worked his way back from a calf injury suffered in the offseason. That meant the Bengals never truly had a real preseason that allowed the offense to gel and it was clear that Burrow was still suffering, unable to plant his feet and drive the ball.

Higgins' overall play at the start of the season was poor too. His 59.7 receiving grade is 78th out of 100 receivers this season and suffered from three drops in the opening three weeks of the season. He was better against the 49ers, looking more like his usual self, and scored 11.90 fantasy points. But he isn’t winning contested targets at a high rate (23.1%), and will still be playing second fiddle to Chase in most games. However, if and when the talent shines through, Higgins will prove his value. He’s just started a little slow.

RB Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

The optimists in us believed that Pollard could cement himself as a top-five running back in fantasy football this season. He was often drafted as the RB3 or RB4, behind Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler, sharing the RB3 banner with Bijan Robinson. Pollard exploded in 2022, rushing for 1,000 yards for the first time in his career while adding nine touchdowns on the ground and three in the air, finishing as the RB8 in PPR. With Ezekiel Elliott out the door, the stage was set for Pollard to earn a full-time role and solidify himself as a top-five fantasy running back.

On the surface, Pollard’s numbers aren’t bad. He’s currently the RB16 in PPR scoring and has four top-15 scoring finishes to his name. However, he hasn’t hit the heights relative to what was expected of him this season. Everything was in place for him to be a true workhorse behind a strong offensive line, vacuuming touches and fantasy points like a Dyson.

Instead, Pollard’s play on the field has left a lot to be desired. That element of explosiveness that was so prominent in 2022 has evaded him. Pollard is averaging just 0.07 missed tackles forced per run, 75th out of 85 ball carriers this season, and just 2.5 yards after contact. Last season, he averaged 0.24 missed tackles per run and 3.82 yards after contact — the second-best mark in the league. What’s the difference?

Well, it’s likely the lingering effects of a high ankle sprain that required surgery in the offseason. That’s potentially sucked Pollard of his explosiveness. But that doesn’t mean it’s gone forever. It could also just be getting used to a heavy workload. However, it could also be schematic. Pollard’s explosiveness is best utilized outside of the tackles, but the Cowboys are running outside zone on just 16% of their run plays this season, compared to 23% last season.

Whatever the real cause, Pollard was a fantasy darling in the offseason. In the regular season, not so much. It doesn’t help that Pollard has scored just two touchdowns in 2023. The silver lining? There has to be some positive touchdown regression heading his way. But this isn’t the Tony Pollard fantasy managers were dreaming of.


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