2023 Fantasy Football: Mid-round draft picks who could pay off in a big way

Everyone talks about how you can't win your fantasy football league in the first round of drafts, but you can certainly lose it. They also talk about how hitting a home run in the late rounds is key to a successful fantasy year.

But what about the middle rounds, where the meat of your roster is built?

Fantasy analyst Antonio Losada reveals his favorite mid-round draft picks of 2023.

Justin Herbert, QB, Los Angeles Chargers (Current Yahoo ADP: 54.1)

Herbert fell just four pass completions from connecting 400 times with his teammates as a rookie back in 2020. Even lowering the bar and looking at quarterbacks reaching 350+ completions in each of his first three seasons as a pro, he is the only man in possession of a perfect three-for-three in the history of the NFL.

Herbert is getting better on a yearly basis, yet his ADP is getting cheaper. Time to pounce, folks, as the QB8 off the board entering peak draft season is most probably going to outscore all projections and demolish the “low” expectations of GMs out there drafting him outside the top 50 overall positions, which effectively translates to a fifth-round pick in 12-team leagues.

After putting up back-to-back top-10 finishes in his rookie and sophomore seasons, Herbert regressed a bit last year and failed to make the top-10 cut. It’s virtually impossible he fails to accomplish the feat once more this season, let alone in future years.

Herbert is throwing for higher volume, completing more passes at better clips, and even though he “only” threw for 25 touchdowns last year he’s now at 94 total touchdown passes in his three years as a pro combined. The only thing keeping Herbert out of last year’s top 10 was his zero rushing touchdowns after scoring five and three in his first two seasons, respectively.

Even the slightest of bounce-backs should have Herbert hitting top-10 marks with a Top 5 finish not out of his realm of possibilities.

Lamar Jackson, QB, Baltimore Ravens (Current Yahoo ADP: 37.2)

Drafting Jackson with an early fourth-round pick in 12-team leagues as the QB4 off the board (after Patrick Mahomes, Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen) is nothing crazy, unreasonable, flashy or innovative on its own.

That is, it is definitely what you should do if you want the best QB out there outside of the consensus top three.

Baltimore is debuting a new offensive coordinator in Todd Monken, who comes from the NCAA ranks after helping the Georgia Bulldogs to back-to-back championships, with a much more varied and pass-friendly offense than the one used by former Ravens OC Greg Roman.

This team has built a solid playbook over the years and still has one of the best backfields in the NFL. Things won’t go from black to white in a weekend, but the signs are there and the receiving corps built by the Ravens brass this offseason is the only thing you need to know about to ... realize something’s about to change.

Rookie WR Zay Flowers has looked like the next Rookie of the Year. Odell Beckham Jr. has been out for more than a year but he’s looked like his old (Giants) self. Tight end Mark Andrews is Lamar’s No. 1 weapon and safety valve and he comes packed full of reliability and experience. I haven’t even mentioned Rashod Bateman and Nelson Agholor, the former projected as the WR1 in the depth chart and the latter a seasoned vet.

Oh, wait, this was about Jackson, whose ADP is probably “low” because of injury concerns, his playing style, etc. Don’t buy the narrative — buy the man and trust his past performances going forward. No quarterback has rushed for 700+ yards more times than Lamar (four) and he did it in the last two seasons playing only 12 games each time. Now add the ultra-boosted passing of the Ravens and Jackson’s own prowess and you are looking at a bargain pick.

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens (Current Yahoo ADP: 46.1)

The Ravens played hardball in their negotiations with Jackson and they found themselves in a similar (although not so pressing) position when it came to dealing with Dobbins’ hold-in through the summer. After a few weeks of sitting in the PUP with a rather dubious injury, Dobbins finally returned in time to close training camp with the rest of his teammates.

The question mark and the main thing depressing Dobbins’ ADP is simply his health at this point. If he wants a new deal (he’s entering a contract year this season) he will need to prove his worth on the field both producing and staying active for more games than he’s not. And when fully fit, not many rushers can do more than JKD.

Dobbins put up almost 400 yards and two touchdowns in the final four games of last season. In the postseason loss against the Cincinnati Bengals, Dobbins racked up 62 yards on 13 carries for an average of 4.8 — which can be considered bad in Dobbins' context.

The rusher returned to the field in Week 14 after not playing from Week 7-Week 13 and rushed the rock for 120 and 125 yards in that game and the next one, averaging 8.0 and 9.6 YPC respectively and scoring one touchdown.

It’s unreasonable to think Dobbins can keep putting up those averages on a weekly basis, of course, but looking at all NFL running backs since 2020, Dobbins is tied for the sixth-most games with 6.0+ YPC while carrying the ball at least 10 times since then and that’s while missing more games than he’s appeared.

A lot of fantasy GMs would buy too much into the new, presumably more pass-focused Ravens offense led by OC Todd Monken, but Baltimore won’t just throw away everything they’ve been working on (and succeeding at) for years overnight, especially when they have such a talented RB1 leading an extraordinary backfield that's already boosted by the scrambling prowess of Jackson.

Miles Sanders, RB, Carolina Panthers (Current Yahoo ADP: 53.6)

Sanders spent the first four years of his pro career in Philly putting up numbers and earning his way toward a hefty new deal following the end of his rookie contract. Those papers weren’t signed in Philadelphia, but Sanders still inked a humongous pact with Carolina this offseason that will probably be well worth the money spent for the Panthers.

The fifth-year rusher has been at the very least an RB2-level rusher in three of his four seasons of experience. The only time he fell short was in 2021 when he played just 12 games and couldn’t do a lot on the scoring front, failing (somehow) to score a single touchdown even though he logged 163 touches.

Other than that little blemish, Sanders has averaged 12.0+ FPPG in his first two seasons of NFL play as well as last year, when he finally broke the 200-FP barrier thanks to rushing the rock 259 times for 1,269 yards and scoring 11 rushing touchdowns.

Sanders has moved to Carolina and the Panthers are 1) going to deploy a rookie QB from Week 1 and 2) not boasting any other RB capable of eating from Sanders’ touch-pie in 2023, even with the former Eagles running back entering Week 1 not fully fit; he suffered an injury through training camp and the preseason.

The ADP around 54th overall (RB18) feels low for Sanders. While Yahoo projects him to hit 177.16 FP in 2023 and a borderline RB2 finish in 12-team leagues (which could be negatively impacting his perception) that is far too low of a projection in my book for Sanders.

Just looking at historical data from the past five seasons, running backs finishing those campaigns with 245+ carries and 35+ targets (Yahoo projects Sanders to get 246 and 37 respectively) scored an average of 261 FP and averaged 16.8 FPPG. Only two of them failed to crack 200 total points (both missed time) while still scoring 182+ fantasy points each.

James Conner, RB, Arizona Cardinals (Current Yahoo ADP: 57.4)

The Arizona Cardinals announced Monday that QB1 Kyler Murray will start the year sitting on the Physically Unable to Perform list, which means he will miss (at least) the first four weeks of the regular season. Murray will miss time for the third season in a row, but even then he logged a combined 155 carries in the last two years through 25 games played.

The Cards acquired Conner ahead of the 2021 season and in the last two years (sharing the locker room with Murray) he’s racked up 202 and 183 rushing attempts, respectively. He should have no trouble getting past 200 once more this season, especially without Murray scrambling the rock for the first month of the season.

Conner is getting drafted at an ADP of 57th overall (RB24) yet he projects to break the 200-FP barrier easily in half-PPR leagues next season. That is, in one simple word, a steal.

The veteran rusher might be about to lose his appeal in the real and fantasy realms as he’ll be playing his age-28 season in 2023, but there is still a lot to like in his profile. The context cannot be better as Arizona won’t have Murray and the Cardinals also decided to pass on bolstering the backfield this offseason. Conner is probably not going to score 10+ touchdowns as he did two years ago, but he should be good for six-plus (he scored seven last year) to go with 850+ yards.

Most interestingly, even for those in half-PPR leagues, Conner adds a lot on pass plays, and with DeAndre Hopkins also out of 'Zona this season odds are Conner logs more than 50 targets for the second time in his career after he did it all the way back in 2018.

In the last five seasons, the RB22 in half-PPR leagues has averaged 168 fantasy points. Conner’s projection in such leagues for the 2023 season is 60 points above that, and he’s the 22nd rusher off draft boards.

Let me repeat the magic word: steal.

Amari Cooper, WR, Cleveland Browns (Current Yahoo ADP: 41.5)

Cooper suffered an undisclosed injury in late July later revealed to be a “minor tweak” as the Browns called it. Cooper missed the first two preseason games but he’s been practicing since he suffered the injury. Considering he’s a veteran that approach is reasonable.

The ADP here is a bit depressed following a subpar season playing under Deshaun Watson quarterbacking in 2022. The rapport wasn’t quite there, but it’s fair to bet on a bounce back from both players as the two of them have done it separately and individually in the past and a WR-QB combination so talented should find a way to make things work.

Struggles or not, Cooper still played all 17 games, averaged more than 12 FPPG and topped 200+ FP for the second time in four years in his first season playing for the Browns. Cooper’s ADP has bounced back up to make him a bit more expensive than he was the last two summers (ADP around 70th overall).

Cooper is getting drafted as the WR17 but is projected by Yahoo to finish WR13. On average, that’s been the difference between having a 185-ish FP wideout and one on the verge of breaking the 200-FP barrier, which Brown should do easily by having Watson tossing him the rock for the full 2023 season after they first played together last year.

Mike Williams, WR, Los Angeles Chargers (Current Yahoo ADP: 80.5)

The Chargers only have one player getting drafted inside the top 48 players in half-PPR Yahoo leagues. However, Los Angeles has three players crammed inside the 48-to-82 ADP clip and two getting drafted in the 48-54 span.

Neither of those latter two is named Mike Williams.

Williams’ ADP of 80.5 and WR32 is borderline asinine if compared to the figures of teammate Keenan Allen (ADP 48.0, WR20) and the projections both wideouts are boasting just days before the start of the season, which are separated by a measly seven fantasy points.

Looking at five years of data (2018-22), the 30th-best wide receiver has averaged around 150 fantasy points per season, which Williams’ projection of 190+ simply demolishes. Allen’s borderline projection of 200 FP also beats the average of the 20th-best WR (around 180 FP) but comes much closer.

Not only that but Williams has beaten his teammate in points-per-opportunity (that is, fantasy points scored per every target plus carry) in the five seasons — including 2022, when Allen nearly missed most of the first half of the year nursing a hamstring injury.

Darren Waller, TE, New York Giants (Current Yahoo ADP: 61.1)

Only three members of Big Blue are entering peak draft fantasy season with an ADP of 100 or higher and only two of them are skill-position players. Those two: RB Saquon Barkley and TE Darren Waller.

Daniel Jones is the third member of that select club and his ADP of QB9 and 94th overall isn’t great, but even worse is the one of the next-most-expensive Giant: rookie WR Jalin Hyatt. This context tells you all you need to know about Waller’s upside and chances of having a great season in New York and becoming the No. 1 pass catcher of the Giants.

Waller’s ADP of 61 and TE7 falls short of the draft price historically paid for tight ends scoring the near-150 FP Yahoo is projecting him to reach next season. In the last five seasons, the average TE7 has scored around 130 FP or 20 FP below Yahoo’s projection for Waller.

Not only that, but I also consider Waller’s projection to be actually short of what the veteran tight end can do in his new team after the Las Vegas Raiders traded him away earlier this offseason. Honestly, the only thing that can stop Waller is aging, but I don’t think he’s so incredibly old (he'll turn 31 in Week 2) as to fall entirely off the picture all of a sudden.

Waller can easily put up 12+ FPPG in New York next season while topping 100 targets and 70 receptions for 850+ yards on his way to beating his current ADP. Waller probably has the least-flashy name among TEs in the mid-round ADP clip, but he’s also the one boasting the cheapest ADP while carrying the biggest upside.