The 2023 NFL preseason is officially a wrap, folks! Though the preseason is generally a convoluted mess from which we can derive little meaningful analysis, it has its perks — the first of which is … football is back!
The second is that fantasy football managers can now enter their drafts with even just a touch more insight than they had prior.
Based on these insights, here are seven players projected for slow starts in the 2023 fantasy football season.
Aaron Rodgers, QB, Jets
Weeks 1-4: vs. Bills, at Cowboys, vs. Patriots, vs. Chiefs
New York Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers played all of two drives before throwing a 14-yard touchdown to WR Garrett Wilson and calling it a day. Though Rodgers has been flowing through training camp with plenty of highlights (often involving the 2022 Offensive Rookie of the Year, Wilson himself), he’ll have a tough start to the season against several of the league’s top defenses.
Consider the following. Rodgers will make his regular-season debut as a New York Jet against the Bills, who, despite a myriad of injuries to the secondary, allowed the second-fewest points per game (17.9) in the 2022 season. This secondary is healthier heading into 2023 and ready to cause some problems in coverage for opposing quarterbacks. Then, he’ll face the Cowboys, who allowed the eighth fewest passing yards (3,415) and led the league with a 25.6% pressure rate.
In Week 3, he’ll face the Patriots, who ranked third in the league with 19 interceptions last season, allowing 5.7 net yards per pass attempt (eighth-lowest in the league). He caps all of that off with the Chiefs, who ranked second in the NFL with 55 sacks, generating pressure on 24.9% of snaps (fifth).
To summarize, three of Rodgers’ first four regular season opponents (Cowboys, Chiefs, Patriots) ranked top-five in total sacks in the 2022 season. Three of those four opponents (Patriots, Bills, Cowboys) also ranked bottom eight in scoring percentage allowed while ranking top-six in turnover percentage.
You get the picture. It’s a rough start, even for one of the league’s best.
Javonte Williams, RB, Denver Broncos
Weeks 1-4: vs. Raiders, vs. Commanders, at Dolphins, at Bears
Javonte Williams had an incredibly promising rookie season in 2021 that had fantasy managers drooling at his upside in Year 2. Unfortunately, he suffered a torn ACL in Week 4, complicated further by tears to other ligaments, including the PCL and LCL. The severity of the injury had many concerned that Williams wouldn’t be ready for the start of the season, but some of those concerns were eased by his appearance in the preseason, as he totaled 12 rushing yards on three carries with a long of eight yards.
Even if Williams is technically back, fantasy managers should expect him to be eased back into a full workload slowly in his return, especially with the trust the coaching staff appears to have in teammate Samaje Perine. For comparison, Giants RB Saquon Barkley averaged 13.6 touches per game over his first five games returning from a torn ACL, compared to his career average of 20 touches per game.
Jets RB Dalvin Cook averaged 14.2 touches per game over his first five games returning, compared to his career average of 20.6 touches per game.
Though he’s likely to be off to a slow start, he is still worth a look given his current Yahoo ADP of RB26 given his upside, particularly later in the season. Just don’t expect too much right off the bat.
Cam Akers, RB, Los Angeles Rams
Weeks 1-4: at Seahawks, vs. 49ers, at Bengals, at Colts
Rams running back Cam Akers is heading into his fourth NFL season with the backfield to himself, more or less. The opportunity to lead the team in carries has had fantasy managers excited about his potential in fantasy football on volume alone. Some concerns remain, however, about efficiency behind the offensive line, as well as how much run he’ll actually get given the Rams might have one of the worst defenses in the league on paper. Ahead of the team’s final roster cuts, the Rams have 43 defenders rostered, with a whopping 19 of them being rookies — 13 of whom went undrafted out of the 2023 class.
Further perpetuating concerns about a potential slow start for Akers are a couple of tough opponents to start the season, with matchups against the 49ers, Bengals and Colts in the first four weeks. Outside of a potential strong start against the Seahawks, who struggled against the run in 2022, Akers is set to face three of the ten defenses that allowed 4.2 yards per carry or less last season, as well as two defenses ranked bottom-seven in fantasy points allowed to opposing running backs.
Terry McLaurin, WR, Washington Commanders
Weeks 1-4: vs. Cardinals, at Broncos, vs. Bills, at Eagles
The Washington Commanders have looked red-hot this preseason under second-year quarterback Sam Howell. Unfortunately, veteran wideout Terry McLaurin looks likely to get off to a slow start despite the team’s success on the back of a turf toe injury suffered in Week 2 of the preseason. As it stands, McLaurin’s status for Week 1 is up in the air as he continues to rehab his injury. As Matthew Betz, injury analyst for the Fantasy Footballers notes, turf toe injuries can be particularly problematic for a wide receiver’s efficiency given the need to use their big toe for an effective push-off as they begin to run their routes.
Aside from the concerns regarding McLaurin’s health are the challenging defenses he’ll face. In the first four weeks, the Commanders will face the Cardinals, Broncos, Bills and Eagles, three of which were among the bottom 10 in fantasy points allowed to opposing wide receivers in 2022. The Bills were middle of the pack against the pass last season but will see safety Micah Hyde make a return after missing 15 games with a neck injury. They'll also have a fully healthy Tre’Davious White back, who missed time last season in his recovery from a torn ACL suffered back in 2021.
Even if 100% healthy, McLaurin might be off to a slow start with this difficult start to his schedule.
George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
Weeks 1-4: vs. 49ers, vs. Browns, at Raiders, at Texans
Entering his second NFL season, there might not be a single player receiving more hype on social media than George Pickens. After all, he is a walking highlight reel, whether making plays in a meaningless training camp drill or making circus catches in live game action. However, that circus act might not hold up against the stiff competition Pittsburgh is set to face opening the 2023 season.
The Steelers are set to face the 49ers, Browns, Raiders and Texans, three of four teams that rank among the league’s top coverage units. Where San Francisco may be able to generate turnovers (doing so at a 15.3% clip last season), Cleveland and Houston may limit scoring potential, having both ranked inside the top five for the fewest passing touchdowns allowed to opposing offenses.
Dating back to the 2022 preseason, Pickens has averaged just 2.4 yards of separation on targets, which is part of what puts him in position to make contested catches to begin with. Banking on splash plays against those aforementioned tough defenders will be a hard sell, with teammate Diontae Johnson more likely to sustain fantasy production despite the matchups thanks to his higher target volume.
Jaxon Smith-Njigba, WR, Seattle Seahawks
Weeks 1-4: vs. Rams, at Lions, vs. Panthers, at Giants
Just like the aforementioned Terry McLaurin, Seahawks rookie Jaxon Smith-Njigba could be in for a slow start after requiring surgery on a fractured wrist that could potentially sideline him through the start of the season. Seahawks HC Pete Carroll noted in a news conference that the surgery reportedly went well, with a projected absence of 3-4 weeks. Unfortunately for fantasy managers, however, injury updates from Carroll have historically been a bit unreliable. Even despite some positive updates, it’s difficult to glean significant meaning from them.
Smith-Njigba should be a top receiver in the league sooner rather than later, but this setback and the potential absence it could force in Weeks 1-2 paired with the already heavy competition for targets from WRs DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett are concerning for a particularly slow start as this rookie makes his transition to the NFL.
T.J. Hockenson, TE, Minnesota Vikings
Weeks 1-4: vs. Buccaneers, at Eagles, vs. Chargers, at Panthers
It’s been a particularly odd offseason for Vikings TE T.J. Hockenson. Entering the final season on his rookie contract after being traded to the Vikings last season, Hockenson’s been seeking a new, long-term deal to become one of the league’s highest-paid tight ends. The only thing is, he hasn’t been particularly active through the offseason program, missing time in training camp first due to a nagging ear infection, then due to back soreness.
Some have speculated that Hockenson might be healthier than he’s letting on, potentially limiting his participation to limit the chance of injury amid negotiations.
Well, on August 31, Hockenson got his wish, as he and the Vikings reportedly agreed to a contract that would make him the highest-paid tight end in the league. It wouldn't surprise if he reported to practice now, with a sudden clean bill of health.
Regardless, that whole situation paired with a schedule facing three of the league’s top-12 defenses against tight ends in fantasy points per game is enough for me to lower expectations for Hockenson at the start of the season.