Fantasy football drafts are all about collecting the best possible values, but we all know those special players exist who we want badly on our squad.
Whether it's the young, up-and-coming wide receiver on our favorite team, a sleeper running back no one is talking about or this year's big breakout at tight end, these players add an extra level of excitement to the roster construction process.
This round-by-round analysis will give you an idea of what's going through my head on draft day, headlined by those players I have circled on my cheat sheet.
For a more philosophical look at the 2023 fantasy football landscape, including strategies for drafting, trading and working waivers in all types of formats, be sure to check out the 2023 fantasy football playbook.
Here it is, my personal recipe for a 2023 fantasy football championship:
When I'm making my selections in fantasy football, I often ask myself a question: "Am I drafting this player at his ceiling?" If the answer is yes, I generally aim for someone with more upside. Of course, all of the players available in the first round or so are likely at or near their ceiling, so this is an opportunity to not overthink it and simply take the best available player on the board.
Round 1: Justin Jefferson ... or best available player
Most years, the top running backs stand out at the top of drafts and it's easy to grab one or two of them and feel good about ourselves. This is not one of those years.
Consider: Over the past five seasons, there have been only three instances of an RB age 28 or older finishing top 15 in fantasy points. That's a hit rate of 4%. Austin Ekeler (28), Derrick Henry (29), Aaron Jones (28), James Conner (28), Dalvin Cook (28) and Alvin Kamara (28) are all 28 or older entering the season, with Christian McCaffrey (27), Nick Chubb (27) and Joe Mixon (27) also in the danger zone. That scares me a bit and has me leaning into a) star wide receivers early; and b) fading top veteran RBs and instead targeting younger backs undervalued in drafts.
That being said, this exercise is always tricky for Round 1 because draft slot will determine who is available. If I land the No. 1 pick, I'm rolling with Jefferson. If I pick second, I'd have a hard time passing on Ekeler despite my age concerns, but I'd also be content sticking with the WR theme and snagging Ja'Marr Chase. I'm simply going to take the top player on my board, knowing that while I'll feel more comfortable leaning wide receiver, I can still come away with a strong lineup if I go RB (Ekeler and McCaffrey being the top options).
In fact, perhaps the most fun (fantasy is supposed to be fun, right?) first-round investment this season is rookie RB Bijan Robinson. Is it logical to select a dude who has never played a single NFL snap with your first pick? I think so, especially considering that all six RBs drafted in the top 10 since 2011 have finished top-10 in fantasy points as rookies (Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliott were top-two). I'm pumped any time I can land Robinson in the mid-to-late stages of the first round.
By the way, if I can't get Jefferson or Chase at wide receiver, Tyreek Hill, Cooper Kupp, Stefon Diggs, CeeDee Lamb and Davante Adams (who can often be had early in Round 2) are on my radar, especially if I'm picking closer to the turn.
Round 2: Garrett Wilson
Wilson is the player I don't want to miss out on in 2023 drafts and he's certainly attainable if we're picking in the early-to-middle portion of the second round. That may seem high for a player yet to deliver a top-20 fantasy campaign, but Wilson was extremely impressive as a rookie, ranking sixth among receivers in targets, albeit underwhelming in the TD and catch rate departments due to some of the league's worst QB play. With Aaron Rodgers in-house, the 2022 first-round draft pick of the Jets is primed for a massive leap -- perhaps to the elite tier -- in his second season.
Along with Wilson, the aforementioned Adams, as well as Amon-Ra St. Brown and Jaylen Waddle are terrific second-round WR targets. At RB, Henry feels like a solid value in the middle of the round. The big three at QB (Patrick Mahomes, Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts) will often cost a second-round pick this year and that's a tough draft price to justify considering the terrific options we have at RB and WR.
Round 3: Travis Etienne Jr.
The third round is loaded with talent across running back and wide receiver, as well as Mark Andrews at tight end. The path we take here will likely depend on our choices in the first two rounds, but the good news is that we have plenty of viable options.
One of my favorite targets is Etienne, who can generally be had near the Round 3/4 turn. The Clemson product carried over his elite collegiate efficiency to the pros and produced fringe RB1 production last season despite horrific touchdown luck (five actual TDs, 9.2 expected). Even with third-round rookie Tank Bigsby in the fold, the 24-year-old Etienne is positioned for another leap in an ascending Jaguars offense.
Not feeling Etienne? Josh Jacobs (monitor his holdout), Rhamondre Stevenson, Najee Harris, Mixon and rookie Jahmyr Gibbs are the other available RBs in this range. As noted, WR is strong here as well, with Chris Olave, Tee Higgins, DK Metcalf, Keenan Allen and Deebo Samuel the highlights.
Round 4: Lamar Jackson (or another QB in this tier)
Our options at running back and wide receiver start to lose appeal in this range, so it's not a bad time to consider pouncing on a very intriguing tier of quarterbacks. Jackson is my top choice here, especially with Baltimore expected to lean more on the pass after adding Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers. Durability has been an issue for Jackson, but he has remained a top fantasy QB when healthy, ranking fifth in PPG prior to his Week 13 injury in 2022. He's on the short list of QBs with a real chance to lead the position in fantasy points this season.
In years past, the fourth round has been a great area to attack wide receiver, but with receivers being selected earlier than ever, this area of the draft is pretty even in terms of RB and WR options. If I decide to wait on QB, Breece Hall (assuming he remains on track for an early-season return) is my favorite target. Aaron Jones is another RB on my radar, as are WRs Amari Cooper, Calvin Ridley and Jerry Jeudy. T.J. Hockenson is the only tight end I'd consider, but as I'll get to shortly, I have my eyes on a much better value at that position.
Round 5: Christian Watson
Watson is one of my favorite breakout players this season and his name is permanently circled on my cheat sheet. The 2022 second-round pick for Green Bay barely played early in his rookie campaign but was 10th among receivers in fantasy points once he was handed every-down snaps in Week 10. Yes, Aaron Rodgers is gone, but Watson should be force-fed touches considering how young and inexperienced the team's options are behind him.
Round 6: Rachaad White or Dameon Pierce
The only reason I might pass on Watson occasionally is so I can make sure I get White, another one of my favorite 2023 breakout players. The 2022 third-round pick for Tampa Bay has replaced the departed Leonard Fournette as the team's lead back (with little competition for work) after a solid rookie season in which he ranked 11th among RBs in receptions.
If I miss on White, I'll pivot to an even more overlooked option in Pierce. Also entering his second season, Pierce was 14th among RBs in fantasy points prior to a season-ending injury suffered late in 2022. Houston's offense is ascending (especially the O-line) and will surely rely plenty on the run game with rookie QB C.J. Stroud learning the ropes.
I also like James Cook in this range, though his rising ADP is a concern considering his ceiling might be limited a bit by the presence of Damien Harris and an offense that doesn't throw to the RB position much.
If I don't pick an RB, I want to get my hands on WR Diontae Johnson and I'm also monitoring top TE options selected in this range, including George Kittle, Dallas Goedert and one of my favorite post-hype targets in Kyle Pitts. I'd be more aggressive in my pursuit of Pitts if not for the TE value I'll get to in the next round.
Mike Clay discusses why he could see a breakout season for Tampa Bay RB Rachaad White.
The middle rounds
OK, so the core of my team is in place. It's time to start filling gaps and adding depth. I obviously want players with upside, but I also want guys I feel comfortable placing in my Week 1 lineup. We'll save the high-risk fliers for later.
Round 7: Darren Waller
The seventh round is weirdly one of my favorite hot spots in 2023 drafts and that's especially the case at quarterback and tight end, with Deshaun Watson and Waller both popping as major values. Waller is the heavy favorite to lead the Giants in targets this season and it's surprising he's so much cheaper than the likes of Kittle, Goedert and Pitts. Waller has produced two career top-three fantasy campaigns, whereas that trio has three of them combined (all via Kittle). Similarly, Watson -- who was a top-five fantasy QB in three straight seasons prior to missing 2021 and most of 2022 -- has elite upside, but can be had several rounds later than players with similar outlooks.
RBs Conner and Alexander Mattison are fine options in this range if you're looking for a flex option. At wide receiver, perpetually underrated Marquise Brown is an excellent target, as are breakout candidates George Pickens and Jahan Dotson, both of whom I'm definitely trying to get plenty of exposure to this season.
Round 8: Treylon Burks
The eighth round is an interesting one, with a mix of breakout players and solid/underrated veterans. I'm highlighting Burks here, even with DeAndre Hopkins in the fold, as the 2022 first-round pick remains positioned for a solid target share and has the raw talent to make a big leap to "weekly starter" territory. I'm also hoping one or both of Pickens and Dotson are here, but I also could look to other young WRs like Jordan Addison and Skyy Moore, though the latter's ADP is rising quickly as he locks down a starting job.
In terms of veterans, WRs Courtland Sutton (on the rise with Tim Patrick officially out for the season) and underrated Brandin Cooks (perhaps Dak Prescott's No. 2 target in a good Dallas offense) are on my radar.
An interesting wild card in this range is Alvin Kamara. The veteran RB's ADP took a big hit due to the uncertainty of a suspension throughout the offseason, but it ended up at three games -- a bit shorter than most anticipated. Kamara's ADP now figures to rise, but if the receiving specialist remains available in this range, he's a player I'll pounce on.
Round 9: Antonio Gibson
We're officially in dart throw territory and the analysis here is similar to last round: I'll be picking my favorite solid/underrated veteran or taking a shot on a breakout candidate.
I choose to highlight Gibson here because, well, I can't quit him and because, based on my picks thus far, I'm in need of some RB depth. Gibson is expected to form a two-man committee with Brian Robinson Jr. and while that may limit Gibson's carry total and goal line work, he's expected to be a featured player, especially in the passing game, in new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy's offense.
Round 10: Wild card
No one really jumps out to me in this range, so in an ideal world, someone we discussed in the earlier rounds will fall this far. If not, this is a good time to fill a lineup void or grab another breakout player.
I often consider Michael Thomas in this area. While he's missed most of the past three seasons, he's healthy now and was very productive in three games last season (16-171-3 receiving line). This is a small price to play considering his upside. Samaje Perine is a name to monitor, as his ADP is falling with Javonte Williams trending closer to a Week 1 return. Zach Charbonnet is also on my radar, as he's arguably the most valuable insurance RB in fantasy.
The late-round fliers
At this point, our starting lineup is likely full, which means it's time to look for values and upside for our bench.
Round 11: Jakobi Meyers or Odell Beckham Jr.
Recent ADP shows that, at this point in the draft, a lot of the most appealing, young breakout players are already off the board. Some intriguing late-round dart throws remain, but we can get them a bit later.
In the meantime, there are a few underrated veterans available in this range. Meyers has stood out like a sore thumb all offseason as a player who projects much higher than his ADP. Yes, Adams is the No. 1 receiver in Las Vegas, but there will be plenty of volume available in an offense that figures to throw often considering its shaky defense. Meyers has posted back-to-back top-30 fantasy campaigns and made a big leap in scoring last season (six TDs). Beckham may not be available every week -- he's played two full seasons in his career and was out all of 2022 -- but odds are he'll, at least, be a top-30 weekly option (and perhaps Lamar Jackson's top target) when healthy. That makes the 31-year-old well worth a pick in the double-digit rounds. They say money talks, and both Meyers and Beckham are among the top-30 highest-paid wide receivers in the league.
Round 12: Kenny Pickett
Don't mind me as I repeat the same thing I wrote in this area of the 2022 version of this article as the case to draft Trevor Lawrence: Over the past five seasons, we've seen a barrage of high-pedigree QBs make the leap to fantasy QB1 status (some to elite status) in their second season. That list includes Carson Wentz in 2017, Patrick Mahomes and Deshaun Watson in 2018, Lamar Jackson and Josh Allen in 2019, Kyler Murray in 2020, Joe Burrow and Jalen Hurts in 2021 and, of course, Lawrence in 2022. Many of these quarterbacks were available in the late rounds of drafts, which in hindsight, doesn't make much sense. Pickett was the only QB selected in the first round of the 2022 draft, he adds value with his legs and he'll have the benefit of an improved supporting cast. A sure thing? No. Worth the flier? Of course.
If I don't need a QB, I'm looking to recently paid TE Cole Kmet, who has top-10 upside but is available shockingly late in drafts. At wide receiver, Rondale Moore has a path to a hefty target share with only Marquise Brown ahead of him on the depth chart.
Mike Clay breaks down why he sees a big season for Kenny Pickett in his second year.
Rounds 13-14: High-ceiling insurance and breakout candidates
ADP starts to go out the window late in the draft, so now is the time to get our favorite late-round sleepers and breakout candidates.
Here are the players I will be considering with my final few picks:
Quarterback fliers: I generally select one quarterback, especially since a lot of solid QB2 options will go undrafted in most formats. The aforementioned Pickett aside, I'm not super interested in many late-round flier QBs this season. I'll be keeping an eye on Kyler Murray, however. If he's able to return early in the season, he'll prove to be a major value.
Running back insurance: I won't go too in depth here as I already ranked the top 10 insurance RBs, but the headliners available this late include Devin Singletary, Kendre Miller, Jaylen Warren, Tank Bigsby, Tyjae Spears and Jerome Ford. I'm also monitoring Roschon Johnson's progression in a seemingly wide-open Chicago backfield.
Wide receiver veterans: With teams using more wide receivers than ever before, there are always notable, high-floor veteran wideouts available late. DJ Chark Jr. is easily my favorite player in this category, as he's perhaps Carolina's No. 1 wide receiver and can be had with one of our final picks. Also on my radar are Michael Gallup, K.J. Osborn, Chase Claypool and Parris Campbell.
Young wide receiver fliers: Despite the comfort of a safe veteran receiver, I'm typically aiming for more upside here. That said, rookies Jonathan Mingo, Jayden Reed, Rashee Rice, Marvin Mims and Michael Wilson, as well as Jameson Williams, Tyquan Thornton, Alec Pierce, Isaiah Hodgins, John Metchie III, Wan'Dale Robinson (keep an eye on his ACL recovery) and Rashid Shaheed are among the youngsters I'm happy to stash on the end of my bench. I could expand this list even further, but as a simple rule, we should have our eyes on first- and second-year receivers who were Day 1 or 2 NFL draft selections.
Tight end options: There are always a few interesting late-round TE fliers of note. The best available this year are rookie Dalton Kincaid, Jelani Woods and -- should Zach Ertz miss time to open the season -- Trey McBride.
Rounds 15-16: Kicker and D/ST ... or more breakout candidates!
We're assuming a 16-round draft here, so this is the point where league rules come into play. If you're drafting here at ESPN, you'll be forced to select both a defense and a kicker (I'll cover my favorite targets at those spots later).
However, if there's flexibility, this is a spot where we can gain a leg up on the competition. Most of our leaguemates are going to select at least one kicker and defense and let them rot on their roster until Week 1.
Why? I have no idea. Don't do that.
In lieu of those positions, I will gather up insurance policies at other positions (especially running back) and wait for injuries to strike during the preseason. If I have the Ravens defense rostered and Derrick Henry goes down for the season, I have the Ravens defense. If I have Tyjae Spears rostered and Henry goes down, I have a potential RB2/flex. Oh, and I can always drop two players and pick up a defense with a good matchup and a decent kicker just prior to Week 1. By the way, if your league is hosted here at ESPN (why wouldn't it be?), one way around the draft room restrictions is to cut your kicker and defense after the draft in favor of adding more of the high-upside stashes mentioned in Rounds 13 and 14.
History has taught us over and over again we should never reach on D/STs. In fact, five of the past six top-scoring fantasy D/STs finished ninth or worse the following season. That includes the 2016 Vikings, 2017 Jaguars, 2018 Bears, 2019 Patriots and 2020 Rams (the 2021 Cowboys finished fourth in 2022). Be smart. Just don't do it.
The 49ers, Bills, Dolphins and Steelers top my D/ST rankings, but since I like to stream, I'll also be looking at the Ravens, Commanders, Jaguars and Falcons, as each has a relatively light Week 1 opponent (all four could be facing a rookie QB).
This is as simple as picking the top guy left on the board. Justin Tucker, Daniel Carlson, Evan McPherson, Graham Gano and Harrison Butker are the best five options, but don't reach on any of them. Prior to Carlson repeating last season, the last No. 1-scoring kicker to finish in the top 10 the following season was Matt Bryant in 2017.
So, there you have it. My game plan for a 2023 fantasy football championship. Remember, this piece should not serve as your only draft board. It's simply the players I've found myself targeting and, with ADP in mind, that I would love to have on my squad this year.