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"A Waldman Favorite"
I've seen and heard this phrase a lot in recent years: Footballguys News analysis, Footballguys podcasts, and social media. I first heard Sigmund Bloom use it.
Since then, I've seen "a Waldman Favorite," attached to a variety of names — some of them not even "Waldman Favorite." I think this happens when I've shared scouting analysis publicly that few could find elsewhere, so the assumption was made that they're a favorite.
For example, Deneric Prince is not one of my favorites, but I saw him labeled as such last month. I understand the label because, as my RB17 in the 2023 Rookie Scouting Portfolio Pre-Draft publication, there's potential to emerge from UDFA anonymity. Here's the quick summary of Prince:
The Elevator Pitch: Prince is a promising gap runner with juice and finishing power. He attacks small creases effectively and makes mature decisions that you don't always see from a runner with his speed.
Although there are runs where Prince tries to lean too much on his agility instead of his power, Prince knows how to use his size and contact balance to finish plays.
His pass protection is promising enough to project a role for him in an offense during the next 2-3 seasons and potentially, a productive committee spot if he can improve his pass catching.
It wouldn't be surprising if Prince earns a package of touches in each during his rookie year or at least earns 1-3 touches per game as relief for a current starter. If asked to contribute significant volume as an injury substitute, he can become a viable producer this year—even if he's not a complete player in every aspect of the position at this time.
Prince is absolutely a capable NFL prospect with the potential to develop into a contributor with fantasy value based heavily on opportunity. He's not a favorite of mine.
Miami's UDFA RB Chris Brooks is a much better example of a Waldman Favorite:
Elevator Pitch: A skilled cutback runner with light feet and balance for his 235-pound frame, Brooks can negotiate heavy traffic for chain-moving gains. When he earns an open runway into the secondary, he's capable of forcing defensive backs into considering business decisions that won't go over well with coaches during Monday's film sessions.
Brooks can bounce off hits from all three levels of defenders and he's a violent finisher. If you don't wrap low, you probably don't tackle him on your own.
He has surprising mobility for his frame as a pass receiver and combined with his hand-eye coordination, Brooks can make plays away from his frame on vertical routes. His routes have nuance you often don't see from good wide-receiver prospects. If he shores up his techniques at the catch point, he can become a reliable option out of the backfield.
A durable option who played in 29 of 30 eligible games at Cal before transferring to BYU, Brooks has all the tools to become a contributor in an NFL backfield. The talent and current skill sets are there to stick to an NFL roster and contribute. The potential to refine those skill sets could lead to him becoming a productive committee option -- even a lead back in a system that wants to pound it down smaller opponents' throats.
The potential I see for Brooks to not only become a committee option like Prince but also emerge as a lead back. Obviously, the odds of this happening are low, but it's that difference with ceiling that usually defines a Waldman Favorite.
"Is This Just a New Name for the All-Gut-Check Team?"
No. The All-Gut Check squad is comprised mostly of deep sleepers — overlooked and written-off players who are more talented than the fantasy public gives credit. I'll be sharing my 2023 All-Gut-Check Team before the season begins.
I'll also be sharing a draft plan next week. Today, it's Waldman Favorites — directly from the source — 20 rounds worth, plus a short free agent list. These are players I love this year and find myself drafting a lot.
ADPs are based on UnderDog's reports. The list is made for 12-team PPR formats with one-quarterback lineups. Still, most of what I share applies to most other formats.
Although I've constructed this team so you can conceivably draft it, I'm not taking a majority of these players in every draft. They are favorites who are worth consideration where they are reasonably available. Some I'm valuing higher than their ADP to help you expand your boundaries beyond the ADP box in the way that I've had success with building teams through the draft.
Round 1: Common Sense...Most Of Them
Do you really need a first-round favorite? When you think about it, it's ridiculous to pinpoint one.
If we're taking a historical stance, 9 of the 12 players with a first-round ADP were Waldman Pre-Draft Favorites — Justin Jefferson, Ja'Marr Chase, Christian McCaffrey, Cooper Kupp, Travis Kelce, Bijan Robinson, A.J. Brown, CeeDee Lamb, and we'll make Nick Chubb the 10th of the first 13. Tyreek Hill, Austin Ekeler, and Stefon Diggs have become everyone's fantasy favorites as well.
If I'm being honest, it's probably better to note my least-favorite value than pick one favorite. That potentially over-valued player is Robinson. There are two others with a little baked-in risk. Hill's pattern of behavior off the field could cost him a game or two, but not enough to knock him out of the first round. Kupp's hamstring injury will lead to an ADP dip, reflecting some caution.
If I had to pick an early-round favorite, it would be Jefferson based on his skill, track record, surrounding talent, and upside. If I were to pick a player based solely on upside, it would be McCaffrey and the potential for usage that could lead to record-breaking production.
If I were to select a runner-up, it would be Chase. He's a great route runner who creates several avenues for fantasy points before and after the catch.
My gut feeling on Travis Kelce is that Kansas City has enough weapons this year to ease some of Patrick Mahomes II' reliance on his elite tight end. This could lead to value that's commensurate with a second- or third-round pick, but I'd hate betting against Kelce, even if it's a bet on a modest decline.
If I'm not drafting in the early part of the round, Brown and Chubb are my targets. Brown is the most versatile receiver on the Eagles' high-powered offense. He's the closest thing to Terrell Owens in this era of the NFL, which means he can beat you with any route and win against zone and man-to-man. He can win with physicality and agility.
Randy Moss noted DeVonta Smith's physicality to deal with contact, and while that's admirable, it's only half of the physicality equation because you must also have the ability to impose your physicality on an opponent. Brown can do this against most opponents. When it comes to production, without the Eagles' receiver room at full strength, Smith would miss Brown more than Brown would miss Smith.
Give me Brown heading into Year Two with Jalen Hurts, who continues to improve as a passer.
If you need me to expound on Chubb, you are new to my work. Here's all you will ever need to see, anywhere, on Chubb's game:
- Nick Chubb Is Incredible
- The Scouting Academy Film Session on Nick Chubb with Matt Waldman
- RSP Sample Pre-Draft Scouting Report on Nick Chubb
I'm more skeptical than my peers about the potential for Jerome Ford to earn enough of Kareem Hunt's past volume to limit Chubb's ceiling. Still, I have been saying for years that if there is an NFL running back with the ability to deliver a 2,000-yard rushing campaign, Chubb is that man. Even if Ford reprises Hunt's production, Chubb remains a safe pick with a non-injury-related fantasy floor that's higher than most player's ceilings.
Round 2: Derrick Henry
With Chubb's ADP at 13, you'll have to consider him in the first round in at least half of your fantasy drafts, so listing him as my Round 2 favorite seems unrealistic, especially in the real world of drafting, where much of the general public still values running backs more than the fantasy industry. If you're entering fantasy drafts with a flexible approach and not dead-set on a singular strategy, an RB-RB opening with Chubb and Henry is appealing to me.
Quick tangent: Every year, I see a handful of fantasy analysts telling the public that "this year" feels like a good year for Zero RB. It's been called Upside-Down Drafting (UDD) at this column well before it was called Zero RB, and before it was either, it was Do the Opposite. Even the Hero RB variant was originally called the First-Round Exception. Personally, I think Zero RB is the best name for it, but the point is that the strategy has been around for a lot longer than the name. The fact that fantasy analysts and individual GMs in their own space discover the approach and give it their own name is a testament to the soundness of the strategy, by whatever name you call it.
As one of the original proponents of the strategy, I used it most often at the back turn of serpentine drafts because I could see the opening picks of my competition and decide whether I'd get the optimal opening for the approach. Still, I've always entered drafts with a flexible approach because if two elite backs are available at the late turn, I'm not turning them away for wide receivers or Travis Kelce.
Henry's ADP is victim to the fantasy community's concerns about his age, the Titans' offensive line, and perhaps, even the addition of rookie Tyjae Spears and the potential for him to cap the elite ceiling of potential Henry has delivered over the years.
The scariest factor is Tennessee's offensive line, but the unit was among the league's worst last year, and Henry still managed a 1,900-yard season with 15 touchdowns as the overall RB4.
You're always going to have competition chirping that too much is working against Henry's potential for success, but if the only variables about this offense that are changing from last year are an upgrade at receiver and 4-5 more games of Ryan Tannehill, then I'm taking my chances.
Henry's rushing yardage and TD totals were the third-highest of his career. The underlying fear from the bean counters is his reduced yards per carry efficiency of 4.4, which was the second consecutive year he was in this range and well below the five yards per carry he managed during a two-year peak during 2019-2020.
Some running back efficiencies are misleading because they count so much on the production of 5-7 teammates. Adam Harstad has told us for years to be very wary of yards per carry. Henry still managed excellent outputs as a runner and receiver.
Henry's receiving totals last year were career highs, which is something we should expect Spears to cut into this year. Even so, Henry's annual receiving output has always been half (at most) of what he delivered last year, so he's not losing a significant chunk of what makes him a viable starter with a high ceiling of production.
You're also drafting Henry as your RB2 with the expectation that he'll at least deliver as a high-end RB2. I'm confident he will. After all, the football public outside of the South has always doubted Henry as an NFL prospect. He was too big, ran too upright, his efficiencies were only good because he could fall forward for five yards in college football, his footwork wasn't good, and he's so big that he'll wear down fast in the league.
Henry's career has proven all of these arguments wrong. At some point, the public realized that he's an elite football player, and elite players with longstanding track records of high-ceiling outputs are exceptions to the rule.
Chubb-Henry is a great presidential ticket in the fantasy football world. Get on board.
Round 3: Lamar Jackson
Rhamondre Stevenson has an early round three ADP, so I can't logically recommend him as THE player here because he's really on the cusp of the second and third round like Chubb at the 1-2 turn. If, for some reason, he falls to the middle or late part of the third round, I'd roll with a Chubb-Henry-Stevenson opening in a heartbeat.
Stevenson has lost ADP value because the Patriots called most of the prominent free agent runners this month. The calls have to do with New England lacking proven depth behind Stevenson that can deliver what Stevenson did last year. It has nothing to do with a lack of confidence in Stevenson as the lead back. If Kevin Harris continues performing the way he has in camp, the Patriots may not sign one of those top names if their top back gets hurt.
A runner-up choice for the RB-RB-RB opening is Jahmyr Gibbs. I love the idea that he's an aspiring Marshall Faulk in role, but I'm not confident he's ready to deliver that value this year. The data may say David Montgomery's touchdown production isn't great, but his skills on film and a much better offensive line in Detroit indicate it's wiser to expect Gibbs to lose TD upside to Montgomery.
Neither of these scenarios is a realistic choice in many formats, so I'm rolling with Jackson, an old favorite whose successful contract negotiation without representation was a massive statement to the football world and its fans that he's a ton smarter and wiser than most have given him credit. Agent Joel Corry wrote at CBS that Jackson "acquitted himself quite nicely," as his own representative.
On the field, Jackson has lacked healthy supporting talent for the past two years. Odell Beckham and Rashod Bateman have the upside to help Jackson reach career-highs as a passer, but their injury histories might as well be gas-soaked kindling for the fire that has been raging in the offensive depth chart.
Jackson still has old-reliable Mark Andrews, and Devin Duvernay has shown steady improvement every year. Rookie Zay Flowers may be the team's best receiver by year's end — even if Beckham and/or Bateman stay healthy. Flowers is a skilled contested-catch option and one of the 2-3 best open-field runners in this class. Long-term, Flowers' talents are an upgrade to Marquise Brown.
If Bateman and Beckham stay healthy, Jackson has top-two fantasy value at his position. If they don't, he still has top-five value. If injuries strike at the rate they did the past two years, Jackson will still produce a starter-level points-per-game average even if he can't stay healthy all year because of the breakdowns around him.
As is the case every year, although some like to make it sound like an annual revelation, there's enough value at receiver and tight end that I'll take my shot on Jackson's upside.
Round 4: Christian Kirk/Brandon Aiyuk
I am higher on Kirk than most because most have gone Cuckoo for Coco Puffs over Calvin Ridley. That's cool, Ridley has shown he can deliver top-five production, and we've seen receivers deliver fantasy WR1 value during their first year with new teams — see A.J. Brown.
What I can't recall is a receiver who has returned to this level of play in the first season after missing nearly two years due to a suspension. I'd rather bet on Kirk. He plays multiple positions in the receiving corps, he's underrated at the catch point, and he has a year of built-in rapport with Trevor Lawrence. Ridley's presence will make Kirk's life easier than last year.
Kirk isn't a fantasy WR1 with sizzle, but there's a point in your fantasy GM career where you realize that you're not always going to be drafting in order of WR1-WR2-WR3 for your roster as much as you're drafting for the best producers available in each round. I have Kirk projected for 1,100 yards and 8 scores, which is a repeat of what he delivered last year as fantasy football's 11th-ranked receiver.
I have similar totals for Ridley, who is leaving boards nearly two rounds earlier. Trevor Lawrence has the skills to support 3-4 fantasy starters in the passing game. Kirk will be no worse than the second-most productive option for a quarterback who could take his game to an elite level this year.
Aiyuk's value, like Kirk's, is technically an early fifth-round ADP, but it means he's taken in the fourth round a large percentage of the time. While there's reason for concern that Brock Purdy could be exposed in Year 2 and the passing game suffers, Purdy only delivered one game over 250 yards. The highlight of his rookie year was the consistency as a touchdown-scorer and being smart with the ball for a first-year starter.
Aiyuk delivered top-15 production at his position, and while he had three games with Purdy that weren't particularly strong, the targets were consistently there. All reports out of camp indicate Aiyuk expects to build on his career year. So does the team. Aiyuk is the most well-rounded receiver of the depth chart who can win against press coverage — something Deebo Samuel hasn't done well.
Like Kirk, Aiyuk has a WR1 ceiling, and his floor is not much lower.
Round 5: Tyler Lockett/Jaxon Smith-Njigba
If you took receivers rather than the Chubb-Henry opening, J.K. Dobbins and Cam Akers are favorites of mine. Although the hold-in for Dobbins has the media stirred up, he's meeting daily with Todd Monken, so I'm not overly concerned. Akers did wonders with a bad Rams offensive line and a reserve-level quarterback down the stretch of 2022. Either back suits me. In fact, I'd be open to taking one of them here and Aaron Jones in the fourth round if you waited on runners.
If you're seeking a receiver in this range, look to Seattle. Lockett is my first choice. He should have another strong year, even with Smith-Njigba in the mix. Expect them to alternate their alignments and earn plum matchups that lead to big plays. When also considering DK Metcalf, Lockett may have a slightly lower flower, but Lockett also has a higher ceiling due to the versatility of his skillset and the potential ways the Seahawks could use him.
Smith-Njigba has been as advertised in camp. He'll have the Cooper Kupp role in Seattle's offense that wanted to run more 11 personnel in recent years, but injuries prevented them from doing so. This could lead to a high volume of targets, occasional mismatches in the vertical game, and red-zone value.
After 20 years of analysis in this industry, it's still fascinating to see people cite "too many receivers" to earn fantasy value as a reason to be down on a prospect. Don't buy into it.
With a combination of Kirk/Ayiuk and Lockett/Smith-Njigba, you may not have a true WR1, but you'll have two strong WR2s or, as a worst-case (non-injury), a high-end WR2 with a player on the WR2/WR3 cusp in Smith-Njigba.
I'm ok with it because of who is available later.
ROUND 6: Trevor Lawrence
When you take some risks on draft day, such as an RB-RB-RB opening or target players a round earlier than their ADP, it's worth building in opportunities to shore up roster holes later on. Many fantasy GMs make the mistake of trying to avoid roster holes by drafting for positional needs as the draft unfolds rather than drafting for talent.
The benefit of drafting for talent is that you can generate a surplus of value at one position that you'll later sell for what you need at another — and with the added benefit of specifically targeting players you truly value.
Although quarterback isn't always an easy position to trade away in many leagues, it's easier to do before midseason and when you have a pair of top-five options who your competition won't perceive as fluke producers. Lawrence is a great hedge for Jackson as one of the last of the quarterbacks available with a non-injury floor of a mid-range QB1 and top-three ceiling of production at his position.
The addition of Ridley is an upgrade to the aging Marvin Jones. Evan Engram's contract-year performance is rooted in work he did with receiver coach Drew Lieberman that he learned to apply daily to improve his hands, and this will be Lawrence's second year in the Doug Peterson offense. Expecting another statistical jump isn't unrealistic. And if you hate the idea of taking Jackson so early, roll with Lawrence as your first QB, and I'll give you 1-2 options you can get later.
ROUND 7: Treylon Burks
Last year, I was in no way ready to ride this ride, but the approach he has taken since his rough start in rookie mini-camp has me doing a 180 on him. The addition of DeAndre Hopkins as a viable distraction for opposing defenses is another compelling reason.
If you want milquetoast safer with less upside, Brandin Cooks is solid, but I'd rather reach down from Round 8's ADP and take Alvin Kamara or Kadarius Toney. Yes, I'm still taking the chance on Toney because I'm comfortable with missing due to injury. He should be ready early in the year, and the upside he offers remains compelling.
That said, Burks is my WR18, and I can win with three strong WR2s with Chubb-Henry as my starting RB rotation.
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