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2023 fantasy season: Hype train or smokescreen? Making sense of NFL preseason news

Here it is. The final week of the preseason. It's the last call for wild roster-move speculation based on cryptic social media posts. It's closing time for taking definitive stands on players based on one rep caught on cell phone video. And it's the finale of this preseason's run of the Hype Train-Smokescreen column.

So let's cycle through another round of headlines and see what we can divine from the tea leaves. After all, you probably have a lot of drafts coming up. How much will the final preseason days of news and notes sway your mid- and late-round decisions? That's up to you. All we can do is try to read between the lines to give our best CoachSpeak (and PlayerSpeak) translations.

Final hype trains of August are leaving the station. Time to get on board.

Hype train

News of the Browns' offense this offseason has been a roller coaster: They're going to be more pass-heavy this year? Yay! But maybe things aren’t looking so good? Oh no! This week, we get a ray of sunshine about Elijah Moore from head coach Kevin Stefanski.

"It's no secret, Elijah's a big part of what we want to do and a big part of who we are," Stefanski said on Sunday. "So, it's our job as coaches to find ways to get him the ball."

I thought Moore would have a big role this year. It's still reassuring to hear it from the man in charge. The former second-round pick showed promise as a rookie with the Jets. He took a step back in his second year. Ultimately, Moore's discontent with his role led to a trade to Cleveland. Deshaun Watson proved in 2020 with Houston that he could support two top-30 receivers. If the quarterback can return to form, Moore has a chance for big things in 2023.

Who would have thought the Browns would be such a fount of fantasy speculation?

It's a well-worn talking point that Nick Chubb is the best pure running back in the NFL. Over the past five seasons, no running back has a better yards per carry average (min. 500 attempts). Only Derrick Henry has more total rushing yards. If there's one thing Chubb has been missing, it's the pass-catching aspect. That lack of pass game work could change in 2023, to keep defenses more honest.

"Last year I was just mostly (playing) first, second down, so I kind of gave them an idea of what we're going to do," Chubb told reporters after Tuesday's practice. "But hopefully this year will be different with me doing more things."

Chubb isn't unfamiliar with being a pass-catcher. In the first half of 2019, he had a 12 percent target share, per Next Gen Stats. It was cut in half after Week 10 when Kareem Hunt joined the club off suspension. With Hunt no longer on the roster after four seasons in Cleveland, Chubb could again be a notable part of a more pass-happy offense.

Call this another case of confirming prior biases. Brandin Cooks was an easy call as Dallas' WR2 from the moment he was acquired. That assumption is backed up by The Athletic's Jon Machota and Saad Yousuf:

There has been no acclimation period for the offense's biggest offseason acquisition. Cooks hit the ground running from Day 1. He should be the favorite to be No. 2 behind (CeeDee) Lamb on the team in targets, receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.

Cooks has been a productive receiver his entire career. He's topped 1,000 yards and scored at least five touchdowns in six of the past eight seasons. It's a wonder that he's never been able to stick with one team -- but that's a discussion for another time. Cooks is in a better offense than last year, and that's enough to believe in a bounce-back season in 2023. Considering that and the fact he's already meshed with the offense, a top-20 finish isn't hard to envision.

I can hear it now: "Improvement as a blocker? So what? I don't get fantasy points for that."

You are correct. You don't get fantasy points for blocking. Otherwise, Trent Williams would be a first-round pick. But being an effective blocker can be a path to greater fantasy production. We want skill position players who can be on the field for as many plays as possible. For running backs, being proficient in pass protection means they don't have to come off the field in obvious passing situations.

James Cook looks like Buffalo's RB1. He's separated himself from Damien Harris, especially with Cook's skill in the passing game. If he earns the coaches' trust as a pass protector, it gets him one step closer to being a three-down back. That's a sure way to help him outperform his Round 7 ADP.


Two things can be true. The Eagles have a great offense. The Eagles have a mess in their backfield. That second sentence is proving to be a headache for fantasy managers. After letting Miles Sanders walk in free agency, Philly traded for D’Andre Swift and signed Rashaad Penny. Returning is Kenneth Gainwell, who played a significant role last season. How can we make sense of it?

"I think what's going to happen is that in the end Kenny Gainwell is going to play the most of these guys because he's the most reliable and he doesn't get injured," beat writer Bo Wulf said on a recent episode of The Athletic Football Show.

Uh ... wut? Wulf's speculation was that the Eagles would love to have Swift lead the way. The trouble is that Swift and Penny have been hard to bank on during their careers. It's not that Philly sees Gainwell as Mr. Right, but maybe he's Mr. Right Now. Nonetheless, it seems like the team brought Swift in to lead the backfield. That's how we should be drafting. Gainwell will have a role, but he's not the back you should target in drafts.

Something else to note: Wulf hypothesized that Penny could be cut before the season. A substantial injury history and relatively little guaranteed money means his spot isn't secure. Just something to think about if you're considering him in drafts.

Most of Football Twitter scoffed when the Jaguars signed Christian Kirk to a big contract last offseason. He responded by having a career year. This year, Jacksonville adds Calvin Ridley to an already intriguing wide receiver room. That has Kirk dreaming big. 

"I've been in the room with a couple Hall of Famers. We have the potential," Kirk said on Tuesday, per the Jaguars’ official website. "I wouldn't say we're there yet, but we have the potential top to bottom, not only production-wise, but just from a professionalism and character standpoint." 

I would agree that this Jaguars receiver group could do big things. So why is it a smokescreen? There's only one football and a lot of mouths to feed. The Jaguars threw the ball nearly 60 percent of the time last year. They also spent a lot of time either tied or trailing in games. If Jacksonville is winning more often, as expected this year, will it throw the ball as much? If the number of pass attempts come down, so do the targets across the board. Ridley and Kirk should be heavily targeted. That leaves Zay Jones, Evan Engram and the running backs to divide the rest of the pie. This group could be very good for real football but frustrating week-to-week in the fantasy game.

3) Randall Cobb's role for the Jets to be larger than expected?

What do Aaron Rodgers and Adam Sandler have in common? Both make sure they keep their friends working. When Rodgers landed in New York in April, former Packers teammate Randall Cobb signed with Gang Green to complement young star receiver Garrett Wilson and former Green Bay wideout Allen Lazard, who signed with the team in March.

It seems like Corey Davis (who recently announced that he was leaving football) and Mecole Hardman were lost in the shuffle a bit. Perhaps their biggest sin is not having a prior relationship with Rodgers. How else do you explain this recent post from The Athletic's Zack Rosenblatt?

"I'm starting to get the feeling that Randall Cobb will play a bigger role in this offense than expected. He's been getting more reps with Aaron Rodgers than Mecole Hardman recently."

OK, maybe it's because Cobb is outplaying Hardman. But that's not a fun narrative. Either way, this is a reminder to fantasy managers not to get too excited here. Cobb is familiar with the Jets' new quarterback and could provide some utility for the offense. But he hasn't really been fantasy-relevant since 2015, when he finished as the WR29. Don't let the smoke fool you into thinking it's a hype train revving up.

Marcas Grant is a fantasy analyst for and a man who is on a never-ending quest to descale his coffee machine. Send him your kitchen appliance quests or fantasy football questions @MarcasG or TikTok at marcasgrant.

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