Every year there are players who go undrafted in Fantasy drafts and have a huge impact on the Fantasy season. Last year it was veterans like Geno Smith, Taysom Hill, and Jerick McKinnon. In 2021 it was rookies like Amon-Ra St Brown and Pat Freiermuth who emerged. Seemingly every year there is a running back who becomes a starter too late in the preseason for ADP to fully adjust, whether it be Isiah Pacheco or Elijah Mitchell or James Robinson.
Whatever the reason, and whatever the archetype, these are the guys you need to know about in deeper drafts and the guys you need to be ready to pounce on in late August or early September. I have broken them down into three distinct groups you should be most aware of: rookies who could surprise us, QBs who could actually start (most useful for two-QB or Superflex leagues), and backup running backs we may be overlooking. There is also an overflow section at the end with the pass catchers who didn’t fit the other categories.
None of these players are ranked in our consensus top 200 and none of the quarterbacks crack our top 32. These are not your typical sleepers, who we expect to surprise people. This is deeper than that. These players can’t disappoint you in 2023 because they have no expectations. Their cost is close to zero and their success will be all profit. There may even be a league-winner in the bunch.
Rookies who could surprise
Levis could obviously fit in the next section. The problem with that is that if Ryan Tannehill is himself, it doesn’t seem likely Levis sees the field in 2023. If he does, his Fantasy upside is undeniable. He has the build of a punishing red-zone runner that he showed off with nine rushing touchdowns his junior year at Kentucky and the physical traits to succeed in a low-volume passing attack.
Like all the players in this section, Levis is more valuable in Dynasty leagues, and if he is ever going to start, it should be next year. We view him as a top-30 Dynasty QB right now, but he would vault into the top 24 if he becomes the starter. In rookie drafts he is worthy of a Round 2 pick in Superflex leagues, Round 3 otherwise.
The departure of DeAndre Hopkins may just make Wilson the closest thing the Cardinals have to a true X receiver. Wilson is an older prospect who struggled to stay healthy at Stanford, but he did lead the Cardinal in receiving as a 19-year-old sophomore. He may fit as well in the “if he can stay healthy” category, but if he can beat out Greg Dortch (or Rondale Moore misses more time), the door would be open to targets on a team that should be playing from behind all season.
As long as the Vikings don’t bring in a veteran, McBride will battle Ty Chandler and Kene Nwangwu for the No. 2 job behind Alexander Mattison. Mattison hasn’t had more than 166 touches in a season since college, so it is certainly possible the Vikings want to chop up the work more than they did when Dalvin Cook was there. McBride scored 32 touchdowns in his final two seasons at UAB while averaging 7 yards per carry.
Nacua has earned rave reviews already this offseason. Teammate Cooper Kupp said he was “pretty special,” and coach Sean McVay said the Rams were expecting him to “contribute and compete.” Kupp is the only wide receiver on the roster who has proven irreplaceable, and several guys Nacua will need to pass may be below replacement level. If Matthew Stafford is healthy and the rookie continues to impress, he could be Robin to Kupp’s Batman by the season’s end.
As of the time we published, Saquon Barkley was still undecided about playing this year. If that is still the case in August, we are going to be scrambling to figure out who the RB2 in New York is. Matt Breida will have the veteran’s edge, and even Gary Brightwell will open camp ahead of Gray, but few things are as important at running back as young legs. Gray showed he can do it all in his final season at Oklahoma, rushing for 1,366 yards and catching 33 passes. He may get a chance to prove it in the pros if Barkley is unavailable.
Honorable mention: Rashee Rice; Cedric Tillman; Evan Hull; Tiyon Evans; Dontayvion Wicks; Sean Tucker
QBs who might start
We are all very excited about drafting Anthony Richardson and believe he has top-five upside as a Fantasy QB. Still, the rookie only threw 393 passes in college and only completed 54.7% of those passes. It is quite possible the Colts deem him too far away to start Week 1. It’s also possible Richardson suffers an injury on one of the many rush attempts we expect from him this year. In either case, that would mean Minshew is QB1.
In the last 17 games that Minshew has started and finished he has thrown for 4,286 yards and 29 touchdowns while rushing for another 290 yards and three TDs. He’s averaged 20.8 FPPG in those 17 games. He has familiarity with Shane Steichen’s offense and should be expected to produce high-end QB2 numbers if he gets a shot in Indianapolis.
Of the quarterbacks on this list, McCoy is the most likely to see game action this year as Kyler Murray recovers from his torn ACL. Still, even in a two-quarterback league, you’re going to hope you can do better until we get to the byes. McCoy only threw one touchdown pass on 132 passes in 2022. The playing time alone makes McCoy a must-draft QB in a league where you can start more than one, at least as long as he beats Clayton Tune out and Murray doesn’t beat our expectations getting back.
Those of you who watched Baker Mayfield in Carolina last year may actually believe it is Trask who has the best chance of playing this season. Trask and Mayfield will compete for the starting role and it would be somewhat surprising if we didn’t see both at some point this year. The upside for Trask comes from the fact that he would be throwing to Chris Godwin and Mike Evans. If he wins the job, expect him to outproduce McCoy, but not perform as well as Minshew has.
We are pretty excited about Sam Howell’s potential throwing to Terry McLaurin and Jahan Dotson in Eric Bienemy’s offense. But Ron Rivera has been quite clear that Howell will have to earn the job, and Brissett is being told he has a chance to compete for it in camp even if Howell enters with the advantage. Brissett topped 20 Fantasy points in three of 11 starts for the Browns last year.
Darnold may be both the least likely guy on this list to see the field and the most interesting if he does. That has less to do with him and more to do with Kyle Shanahan’s system and the incredible array of weapons in San Francisco. Mr. Irrelevant Brock Purdy produced like a Fantasy starter in these circumstances and Jimmy Garoppolo has produced elite efficiency whenever he has been healthy. It seems likely the 49ers will go with Trey Lance if Purdy is not ready for the start of the season, but if Darnold gets a shot he will be worth a speculative roster spot.
Honorable mention: Carson Wentz; Taylor Heinicke
Backup RBs we may be overlooking
The Cardinals’ depth chart behind James Conner is razor thin, which is interesting considering that Conner is a 28-year-old running back who has missed 15 games over the past four seasons and has only played more than 13 games in a season once since his rookie year. At this point, Ingram looks to be the guy who would benefit if Conner misses time.
Ingram was bad as a rookie but did score 11 PPR Fantasy points in the only game where he had double-digit touches. So much of a running back’s value in Fantasy Football is opportunity, and there are few running backs as close to opportunity as Ingram is who simply aren’t getting drafted. If you can’t stomach Ingram’s rookie year inefficiency, pick one of Corey Clement, Ty’Son Williams, or Emari Demercado to beat him out.
If the Cowboys have not added a veteran running back by the time you are reading this, then Davis is battling Ronald Jones and rookie Deuce Vaughn for the RB2 role in Dallas. Pollard has never had a 250-touch season in college or the pros, so that job figures to be more of a 1B than a true backup. Davis was efficient in the few opportunities he got in 2022 and could even slide into the short-yardage role that kept Ezekiel Elliott afloat last year.
Carter will battle Israel Abanikanda and Zonovan Knight to be RB2 behind Breece Hall. But Hall is coming back from a torn ACL and was not ready for OTAs, so it is still possible one of these guys starts a game or two. We prefer Abanikanda, but Carter has the veteran’s advantage and did some special things in his rookie season.
You have probably given up on Vaughn, and that is understandable, but there is not a player on Tampa Bay’s roster who has proven himself as a workhorse back. Those are the types of situations where surprises emerge, especially if there is an injury.
I hate to even say this one because Murray is approaching Frank Gore territory, but he has at least 160 touches in seven of his last eight seasons and he’s landed on a great offense behind one back who missed most of last year due to an injury (Damien Harris) and another who has never been a volume rusher, even in college (James Cook). We prefer the younger deep sleepers, but don’t be surprised if Murray emerges from the dust once again.
Honorable mention: Jordan Mason, Zack Moss, Trayveon Williams
The best of the rest
I guess this is turning into a bit of a Cardinals love fest. Dortch feasted in the slot whenever he was given the opportunity last year. He played at least 70% of the snaps in six games and scored 15.5 FPPG in those outings. This will be a different offense and Dortch may need an injury to see that type of participation, but neither Rondale Moore nor Michael Wilson have had much luck staying healthy in their careers.
Dortch commanded a target on 18.4% of his routes last year, which is pretty good for a guy who bounced around on four different rosters from 2019 through 2020 without playing an offensive snap.
Patrick is recovering from an ACL that cost him the 2022 season, but he should be right in the mix if he is able to get healthy. Patrick averaged an elite 9.0 yards per target on 164 targets in 2020 and 2021. If Russell Wilson bounces back and Patrick earns the WR2 role, we will be rushing to the waiver wire to add him.
Insert your favorite unranked Giants WR here. Behind Darren Waller, there is no sure thing in this passing attack. But questions about Shepard only involve his health. Shepard earned 24 targets in the three games he played in 2022, which is right in line with what he’s done whenever he and Daniel Jones have been healthy. It’s a long shot, but if Shepard is 100% Week 1, I would bet on him being Jones’ WR1 again.
This is another guy who has struggled mightily with injuries. Thomas has missed 14 games over the last two seasons and is already 32 years old. I wouldn’t bet on him lasting all season, but I would bet on Eric Bienemy having a role for him for as long as he can stay healthy. As bad as the tight end position is, Thomas could be a low-end starter early in the year.
We don’t usually put true backup tight ends on the list, and I don’t expect the Ravens to run as many two-tight end sets now that they have added Odell Beckham and Zay Flowers, but I would expect Likely to be a must-start tight end if Mark Andrews misses time. Last year Likely played more than half of the offensive snaps in three games. He scored a touchdown or totaled 100 yards in all three.
Honorable mention: Mecole Hardman; Khalil Shakir; DeVante Parker; Mack Hollins; Danny Gray; Curtis Samuel; Ty Montgomery; Darius Slayton
This article appears in the CBS Sports/Beckett Sports 2023 Fantasy Football Magazine. Pick up your copy at newsstands in mid-August.