Facts vs. Feelings: the year-end reckoning
Fantasy football is a passion for many. Sometimes that passion causes fantasy managers to make emotional decisions even when the data suggests otherwise. Each week during the 2023 NFL season Liz Loza will attempt to strike a balance between what the data states and what the heart wants. This is called Facts vs. Feelings.
And it’s done. Another fantasy season in the books. I’m not going to say it flew by because there were weeks in late November/early December that took years off of my life. But it does feel weird knowing that I won’t be setting a lineup this weekend. Not even for a consolation bracket.
It was a thrilling year, for me, at least. I got to travel to Bristol a whole bunch. While Central Connecticut is not a hotbed of activity, it is where most of my colleagues reside. And I’ve grown close to each of them over the past five months. It’s an amazing thing to truly adore and respect and want to spend time with all (yes, really, all) of the people you work with, especially given the chaotic (and, if we’re being honest, abrupt) way I joined the team.
In the same way that I’m grateful to be taking a break from my personal fantasy researching routine, I am also pleased to place a momentary pause on cross-country travel. And yet, I’m already missing both things. There’s that duality, again. It’s a theme we’ve touched on throughout most of 2023.
Nothing is simple, right? And yet that’s exactly how we like most things. And, perhaps, so many people are drawn to sports (and their virtual counterparts) because, at the end of however many quarters/periods, there is a definite winner and loser. That’s comforting. The black and white of it all. It’s why we hate ties.
However, the journey to the result is never just one thing. I bet, for example, the Lions (and their fans) have mixed feelings about the process that led to their eventual loss in Week 17. Patrick Mahomes certainly didn’t appreciate the gray surrounding Kadarius Toney’s alignment in Week 14. And I’m still negotiating the space between James Cook’s fantasy rise and the dip in Stefon Diggs’ production as a result of Joe Brady’s playingcalling. Both things can be true. But, at the end of the day, a dub is a win and an L is something we take on the chin.
While the score is unchangeable, our habits and the decisions we make on our way to a final record can be tweaked. Not much in this league is static. Everything — even CeeDee Lamb’s stat lines — ebb and flow. It’s that taking away and reviewing that I want to focus on in this exit column. The facts are clear. But the feelings with which we interpret them remain unique.
Trevor Lawrence, QB, Jaguars: I had big, optimistic feels surrounding a Trevor Lawrence breakout heading into 2023. After all, Lawrence had shown such promise down the stretch of his sophomore campaign, closing out the year as fantasy’s QB7 overall (and putting together a stunning comeback victory in the wild-card round). Surely another season gaining comfort in Doug Pederson’s system, as well as the field-stretching talents of Calvin Ridley, would allow the former first-overall selection to pick up where he left off, vaulting his production to galactic levels.
While there were flashes (Weeks 11-13), Lawrence’s star turn never took full shape, as he managed just six top-10 fantasy weeks. A series of injuries beginning in the double-digit weeks certainly derailed hopes of a late-season surge, but Lawrence visibly struggled for the first half, passing for just 19 scores (QB17) while registering 12 picks (over 15 starts). The 24-year-old appeared reluctant to push the ball downfield (7.2 YPA, QB15), preferring instead to lean on Christian Kirk and Evan Engram in the short-to-intermediate levels of the field. This reticence resulted in a series of mistakes and depressed production.
To be fair, Jacksonville’s offensive line didn’t do him many favors (41 sacks given up, leading to the first missed game of his career in Week 17). However, with only two games of 300-plus passing yards and just one outing with three TDs (that also included three INTs), Lawrence’s fantasy investors have every right to feel robbed. The offseason (particularly Ridley’s future with the team) will, of course, provide clues as to Lawrence’s ability to progress in 2024. At this juncture, though, it appears as though the megalaunch is on pause.
Puka Nacua, WR, Rams: Full disclosure, I have a tendency to get up in my head and overthink things. The amount I mull a situation is directly proportional to how much I care about said circumstance(s). The more I care, the more my brain churns. I’ve found, however, that I am most successful (and happy) when I trust my initial decision. And this is how I learned a massive fantasy lesson from Puka Nacua in 2023.
I was not among the 1.6% of ESPN fantasy drafters who had secured Nacua’s services ahead of opening night. And, regrettably, I was not among the much larger percentage of virtual game users to spend FAAB or waiver priority on the rookie after his 10-catch, 119-yard performance in Week 1. I was too preoccupied with saving my resources and not wanting to be duped (a la Kevin Ogletree) so early in the season. As we all know now … that was a mistake. A big one.
Nacua averaged 13 targets, 9.75 receptions, and 125.25 yards over the final four games. He finished inside the top 15 fantasy players at the position in three of the four weeks in which Cooper Kupp was sidelined in September. His nearly 24 fantasy points per game average provided numerous FF squads with a fantastic boost over that span of time. And while his production waned here and there as Kupp acclimated back into the offense, Nacaua continued to generate numbers for managers, managing eight double-digit fantasy-point outings over the following 12 contests. In fact, Nacua finished the fantasy season fourth in yards and as the only player with six or more targets in all 16 games.
The moral of the story? Don’t play scared. If it doesn’t work out then trust in well-honed managerial skills and instincts to right the ship. Because there’s nothing worse than saving all your FAAB for your sixth-place team in Week 10. That’s like waiting until midnight to open the first bottle of champagne. Cheers!
DJ Moore, WR, Bears: Talk about ups and downs. No receiver in the league has had to endure a quarterback carousel as frenetic as the one Moore has ridden since 2018. And, yet, the former Maryland player has remained fantasy relevant regardless, because his talent demands the investment. Curiously, it seems as though the Bears added Moore as a grant to Justin Fields and, yet, it was the young passer who finally unlocked a new level of the receiver’s potential. Go ahead and call me a Fields apologist (I won’t deny it), but there are cold-hard facts to support these feelings.
Moore, 26, averaged 22.2 fantasy points per game (behind only Tyreek Hill and CeeDee Lamb) in the 10 games in which both he and Fields were healthy. Additionally, Moore averaged 102 receiving yards per game (again the WR3, behind only Hill and Lamb) over that same span of time. He also (for a second straight year) broke his long-discussed touchdown curse, recording a career-high eight spikes over 10 efforts.
He put together a career effort, quieting the naysayers and closing out the year as fantasy’s WR6 overall. What Chicago does under center will, obviously, reveal plenty. There’s no way, however, Moore doesn’t command top-14 fantasy WR consideration in 2024.
(Oh, and Terry McLaurin stans… perhaps consider Moore’s year a bit of dynasty inspo.)
Jaylen Warren, RB, Steelers: This probably won’t come as a surprise, but I can be stubborn. While that works to my advantage during times of negotiation, it can function as a detriment, particularly while developing preseason takes. I’m a big drumbeat believer, particularly over the summer. If I’m being honest, however, I refused to hear the rup-a-pum-pum surrounding Jaylen Warren and, instead, fixated on Najee Harris’ seemingly unshakeable role as the Steelers’ primary ball carrier. What a whiff.
Pittsburgh’s whole season is a lesson in remaining facile. The Black and Gold braved numerous implosions (Matt Canada) and stalemates (Kenny Pickett) on their way to a 10-7 season (and Mike Tomlin’s eventual outing as a part-time professor at Hogwarts). One of the team’s more successful swerves included promoting Warren and moving to a RBBC. The second-year back played 49% of the team’s snaps (Harris ended with 52%).
Perhaps more importantly, Warren outsnapped Harris in all three weeks of the fantasy playoffs, averaging 14 fantasy points and emerging as the postseason’s more consistent producer. He was also the more effective (and often utilized) pass-catcher, registering 70 targets (RB6) and 56 receptions (RB5). While the two backs closed out the year as fantasy’s RB22 (Warren) and RB23 (Harris) respectively, Warren has emerged as the front-runner for fantasy purposes heading into next season. He’s likely to offer low-end RB2 potential while Harris figures to fall outside of the top 25 fantasy players at the position.
Kyren Williams, RB, Rams: On the topic of dismissing buzz surrounding a player, the low-hum following Kyren Williams into the fall was overlooked by nearly the whole of the fantasy community. The second-year player was rostered in just 11.1% of leagues on opening night.
Various Rams insiders regularly reported the team’s excitement about Williams, especially heading into last season, after he was selected in the fifth round of the 2022 NFL draft. Unfortunately, injuries derailed much of the rookie from Notre Dame’s effort, leading virtual game enthusiasts to believe the concerns over his size (along with the lingering mirage that was Cam Akers) were enough to squash a potential sophomore surge.
Instead, the 23-year-old bucked all the narratives, leading all running backs in touches per game at 21.7. But he didn’t stop there. Williams also registered 19 carries per game (RB13), which he turned into 95.2 rushing yards per effort (RB3). That output was good enough to make him the RB2 in fantasy points per game (21.3), behind only Christian McCaffrey. The fact that Williams ended the year as fantasy’s RB7 overall — despite going on IR from Weeks 7 through 11 — is a testament to his talent (patience, hands, pass-pro) and the Rams’ resourcefulness. His breakout figures to make him a first round selection next fall.
Sam LaPorta, TE, Lions: On the topic of trope busting, LaPorta turned one of fantasy’s most adored axiom’s right on its head. As it turns out, drafting a rookie tight end can prove fruitful for virtual game managers. LaPorta immediately slotted into the T.J. Hockenson’s role, logging 7.1 looks (TE5), 5.1 catches (TE4), and 53.8 yards (TE5) per game.
While those numbers are impressive, the former Hawkeye shined the brightest in the red zone, recording nine TDs from Weeks 1 through 17 (TE1). As a result, LaPorta registered a whopping 14.1 fantasy points per game, which happens to be the second-highest FPTS/gm average of all time for a first-year player, behind only Mike Ditka (yes, I found a way to make this about the Bears).
Kudos have to be given to Iowa’s Kirk Ferentz, who has created a pipeline of pro-ready TEs that includes Dallas Clark, George Kittle, T.J. Hockenson, Noah Fant and LaPorta. It looks as though Miami’s time as TE-U has come to end. Just as Travis Kelce’s time as fantasy’s top selection at the position has similarly come to a halt. Assuming there is no further damage to the young Lion’s knee (reports all indicate that he suffered a hyperextension in Week 18), the facts suggest LaPorta will fly off draft boards in the third round of next year’s draft, claiming the virtual game’s TE1 crown (and all the ensuing feels).
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