Fantasy football draft strategy: What did we learn from 2023 that we can apply to 2024?

AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Perhaps we should have seen it coming when Aaron Rodgers suffered a season-ending Achilles tendon tear an agonizing four snaps into the season. The much-publicized, future Hall of Fame quarterback projected to be the New York Jets' savior and a fringe QB1 in fantasy football ended up scoring nary a fantasy point for the season, and his injury became a painful harbinger of a season-long theme for fantasy football managers, especially in the AFC.

Rodgers' plight was the first of myriad serious injuries to notable and previously durable quarterbacks -- more than a few who were expected to contribute for fantasy managers in standard leagues -- and it wreaked modest havoc for those unprepared. Then again, who could properly prepare for such an onslaught of missed games? Many of us subscribed to the popular theory that even rostering a backup quarterback in a 10- or 12-team league was unnecessary until the bye weeks.

Then came the 2023 season, and one excellent, reliable quarterback after another left the fantasy world prematurely.

As we look back at what we learned from another remarkably unpredictable fantasy football season, one in which journeyman Joshua Dobbs surpassed 200 fantasy points between two teams, and seemingly retired Joe Flacco topped 100 points in only five games, outscoring the likes of Deshaun Watson, Anthony Richardson, Daniel Jones and (of course) Rodgers, we must look forward and ask if draft day and/or team construction strategy alters for future seasons based on the historic results of this just-completed season.

Sure, football players get hurt. It is part of the violent game. Still, how could fantasy managers better prepare for this moving forward? Or should they simply view this past season as aberrant?

Rodgers missed one start over his final five seasons with the Green Bay Packers. Regardless of age, some level of durability was expected, and it was hardly different for Justin Herbert (finger), Joe Burrow (wrist) and Kirk Cousins (Achilles). This trio had missed a combined three games over the past two seasons. Cousins had missed two starts in eight years! Then came 2023, and this foursome combined to play 32 games.

To be clear, the strategy to avoid quarterbacks in the early rounds of standard (one-QB) fantasy drafts is more about excess supply versus demand, and this still holds true. There are more than 10 viable, fantasy starter-worthy quarterbacks, so load up early on typical flex-eligible options at running back and wide receiver, and then enjoy the quarterback depth later. Depth remains. Even after 2023, trying to guess which quarterbacks will get injured and miss significant time is foolish. Stuff happens. Wait on quarterbacks.

However, it does seem time to ditch the notion of avoiding quarterback depth for otherwise unremarkable running backs/wide receivers that may never play a key role for fantasy teams. Even then, there are no guarantees. Dak Prescott was a 12th-round choice in the final ESPN Fantasy preseason mock draft, as was Tua Tagovailoa. Jared Goff and Jordan Love were 16th-round selections. The Rodgers investor had earlier picked Burrow. Shrug emoji. Bad luck.

Still, fantasy managers must expect the unexpected, not only on draft day but during the hectic season. Leave your drafts with more than one quarterback, because this season showed us the value of having what you may have once believed was unnecessary depth. It was so necessary this past season. In addition, play the waiver wire in September and beyond for even more quarterback depth, whether you need it or not. Many fantasy managers who passed on Flacco may have lost playoff matchups precisely because of his stunning revival.

While many of us remain likely to ignore top quarterbacks in the opening rounds such as Josh Allen, Jalen Hurts and Patrick Mahomes, it seems paramount to leave drafts with multiple quarterbacks, just in case. Procure several safe, reliable starters, even if they are borderline QB1 options. Take a chance on a rookie, but it has to make sense. Covet opportunity -- see Baker Mayfield with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers -- along with upside.

Quarterback is the arguably the most important position in sports, and this was quite the hectic season for the position. Week 18 "resting shenanigans" aside, a precious few AFC quarterbacks made it through four months sans serious injury. Allen and likely league MVP Lamar Jackson thrived, Mahomes and Tagovailoa were a bit disappointing, and rookie C.J. Stroud, Trevor Lawrence and Denver Broncos scapegoat Russell Wilson played most of the games, and they performed competently.

In the NFC, Prescott, Love and surprising MVP candidate Brock Purdy surprised, and Mayfield exceeded any reasonable expectations, finishing 10th in quarterback scoring. Dobbs played fantasy hero for the Arizona Cardinals for a while, then in early weeks with the Vikings, then hit the bench. The Vikings couldn't figure out what they were doing without Cousins. The Giants were just as clueless without Jones. The Atlanta Falcons acted clueless with two healthy options.

Perhaps quarterbacks will have better luck staying healthy in 2024, and fantasy managers will as well, but we all must prepare a bit differently moving forward.

Here are some other lessons learned from the 2023 season:

  • Don't be so concerned with NFL draft position: Stroud worked out nicely for fantasy managers, but fellow rookie Bryce Young did not. Ignore actual NFL draft result hierarchy! Yes, Young went first overall, not Stroud. That is irrelevant for our purposes, though. Young may become a star still. Fantasy managers in redraft formats should never rely solely on a rookie, but sometimes they do outperform your top-10 option, so be open to possibilities. Fantasy managers who invest in one wide receiver over another because they went earlier in the NFL draft likely missed out on Puka Nacua (Pick 177) in favor of Quentin Johnston (21st overall). Nacua outscored him by more than 200 PPR points.

  • Ignore ADP after you select your teams: Even prior to sitting out Week 18, Mahomes was barely a QB1 option this season, averaging a modest 17.5 points per game. In fact, after a strong first two months, he topped 17.5 points in only one of his final nine games. Mayfield, a fantasy draft afterthought -- and many others, by the way -- outscored Mahomes in the final two months. Did you continually start Mahomes, Austin Ekeler, Stefon Diggs and others based on name value or because they were your top draft-day picks? You likely had better options.

  • Beware of regression: Touchdown regression hit Ekeler hard, as he fell from 38 touchdowns the prior two seasons to six scores in 2023. Jamaal Williams scored 17 touchdowns for the 2022 Lions. His lone touchdown with his new team, the New Orleans Saints, came controversially in the final minute of the season. Carolina Panthers RB Miles Sanders went from 11 touchdowns with the Eagles to one for his new franchise. OK, so Raheem Mostert scored 21 touchdowns this season. Will he get a third of that total in 2024 for overreaching managers who make him their first RB?

  • Be aggressive on the waiver wire or with FAAB spending: Those who preferred to save waiver position or free-agent dollars until later in the season may have missed out on Nacua, who broke the rookie record for receptions and receiving yards, as well as his teammate, RB Kyren Williams, who established himself as a top-three option at the position, even though he was a preseason afterthought. Dolphins rookie back De'Von Achane did little the first two weeks. He did a lot in Week 3 (51.3 PPR points) and beyond.

  • Don't avoid rookie and second-year TEs on principle: Lions rookie Sam LaPorta finished with the most PPR points among all tight ends, and he was not alone among younger, productive options at the position. Fantasy managers tend to bypass rookie and second-year tight ends, but this practice needs to end if the players earn opportunity. Kyle Pitts topped 1,000 yards in 2021, but he has struggled since, seemingly hammering home the notion. However, LaPorta, Dalton Kincaid, Trey McBride and Jake Ferguson blossomed this season.

  • Wide receivers should dominate the first round of 2024 fantasy drafts: Ultimately, while Christian McCaffrey averaged the most PPR points per game among all players, and he may be the wise choice for first overall pick in 2024 PPR drafts, the first round should be heavy on the wide receivers. Tyreek Hill, Justin Jefferson, CeeDee Lamb, Ja'Marr Chase and Amon-Ra St. Brown are each deserving of top-five-overall love, perhaps over any other running backs (like Breece Hall and the aforementioned Williams) and certainly over quarterbacks and tight ends (including Travis Kelce). McCaffrey and myriad wide receivers will be a first-round theme this fall.