The days of flag planting, hot takes, and mock drafts are finally giving way to the time of year when football games matter. Getting players cheap and ahead of the hype is key to winning your league, so below are five players you should know and target now for future value, including one re-visit. They don’t require top-end capital; they can be acquired from waivers or trade as a throw-in. They may not produce this year but pathways to opportunity and increased value exist.
Kyle Philips- WR, Tennessee Titans
Heading into the 2023 NFL Draft, most thought the Tennessee Titans were heading into rebuild. They shocked everyone when they passed on a quarterback in the first round and instead took a top offensive lineman in Peter Skoronski with the 11th overall pick. The Titans were then able to get their possible quarterback of the future with Will Levis in the second round.
There were rumors that the Titans might ship out powerhouse running back Derrick Henry and veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill post-draft, especially since they drafted rusher Tyjae Spears. Instead, the Titans brass went out and signed one of the best wide receivers in the game in DeAndre Hopkins, and seem pot-committed to making at least one more run at a Super Bowl with the team they have in place and under contract.
The Titans now have a more potent offense with Henry, Hopkins, and second-year tight end Chigoziem “Chig” Okonkwo. With Tannehill under center, Chig is a steady and efficient passing option who provides value to others in that offense. A ton of buzz surrounds second-year wide receiver Treylon Burks after his disappointing rookie season, but there is another sophomore receiver that dynasty managers should keep their eyes on: Kyle Philips, the third wide receiver who should man the slot role.
The Titans might be in complete rebuild mode after this season. Hopkins should be gone after this year; his cap hit is neither inconsequential nor cost-prohibitive at just under $8 million. If Burks continues to underperform, his first-round draft capital will keep him on the field in Nashville. However, Nick Westbrook-Ikhine will be a free agent, so his targets will be up for grabs after this season. With Tannehill and Henry also set to be free agents, the Titans could have an entirely new cast in 2024. If the team doesn’t fare well this year we could also see a new coaching staff in place to oversee the rebuild.
Kyle Philips burst onto the scene last year in Week 1 with nine targets, catching six of them for 66 yards. Unfortunately, that game accounted for the majority of his rookie-year production as he struggled with injuries and didn’t get on the field much. He will probably start this year as the main slot guy after beating out Westbrook-Ikhine for a role.
Burks is already dealing with an injury, and while he should be ready to go, another nagging injury is a definite red flag. Philips was a four-year player at UCLA where he had 59 receptions for 739 yards and 10 touchdowns in his final year. He fell into the fifth round in part because of his size. At 5’11 177 lbs, he projected as a pure slot player with limited versatility.
He has since bulked up to 190 lbs and provides upside in the return game, where he can utilize his speed and quickness. A decent route runner who uses his footwork to get open in the middle of the field, he will need to improve on his separation on deeper routes and not get bullied on the line by bigger corners and safeties. He should get ample practice time not only with the first team, but also with Levis and Malik Willis, who enter the picture if Tannehill falters this season or is replaced in the offseason. Having chemistry with the quarterback is important, especially in an overhaul. Philips should be a bye-week fill-in this year offering a few spike weeks in which he receives a large number of targets. His future looks good if winds of change come to Tennessee as I expect; Philips could be a solid and cheap piece during an upcoming rebuild.
Andrei Iosivas- WR, Cincinnati Bengals
I’ve been putting off tapping into the 2023 rookie class but Andrei Iosivas (AWN‐dray yoh‐she‐VOSS) a three-year player for the Princeton Tigers, deserves some attention. Ivy league schools are known for academics, not athletics, but Iosivas saw 66 targets his final year, netting 943 yards and seven touchdowns. He got better every year and ran a 4.42 at the Combine, making those in attendance including myself take notice. He looked crisp and clean in passing drills and had most of us searching for more information about him.
What we found out: he is a decorated track star with great speed and jumping ability. His speed combined with his 6’3 205 lb frame allows him to win contested balls. His quick movement allows him to get open and run smooth routes. His track competition siphoned some time away from football, so he’s still raw from a skill perspective. On tape, he often catches with his body and doesn’t always utilize his size to box out defenders. He ended up falling to the 6th round of the draft where he was selected by the Cincinnati Bengals, where he’ll continue to learn and grow while working with one of the best quarterbacks in the NFL.
The Bengals are one of the top offenses in the league thanks to a trio of top wide receivers, Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. On top of that, the Bengals threw the ball over 600 times last season in only 16 games. It might be tough for Iosivas to crack the lineup now but that’s not a bad thing: he gets time to learn from the coaching staff and watch those three receivers prepare and work day in and day out.
Higgins and Boyd are scheduled to be free agents after this season. The Bengals have said they want to sign Higgins to a long-term deal but there has been no news on that front. Given that they will also have multiple players from their offensive line also looking for contracts there might not be enough money to go around. This could pave a pathway for Isoivas to see playing time in 2024 and going forward.
Additionally, that starting trio has missed 16 games combined over their careers. With Joe Burrow slinging the ball there are plenty of targets to divide up. If either or both of Higgins or Boyd leave, a ton of vacated targets would be ripe for the picking. Given Iosivas’ size, he could easily fill in across the field from Chase in two wide receiver sets and become a massive red zone threat. As a rookie who is probably on your waiver wire, you can scoop him up and stash him on your taxi squad and play the long game.
Isaiah Spiller- RB, Los Angeles Chargers
Let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that Austin Ekeler is anything other than a top 5 running back. The Los Angeles Chargers have given him the keys to the backfield since they let Melvin Gordon leave after the 2019 season. Ekeler has been the main and often only guy rosterable in that backfield. In three years as the prohibitive starter on the team,only once has a second running back earned more than 100 carries; that was in 2020 when Ekeler only played 10 games.
The Chargers have been looking for that second guy for some time. They had Justin Jackson who didn’t pan out. They drafted Larry Rountree in 2021 and he is already on his second team. They drafted Joshua Kelley back in 2020 and while he has been the backup he is quickly losing ground to Isaiah Spiller.
Kelley has been underwhelming: 2022 was the only season in which he averaged over 4.0 yards per carry. We expect to see a higher efficiency from limited carriers. He is also playing on an expiring contract, and while he won’t command the price that Ekeler or other top names will on the open market, he’s going to be 26 years old. Spiller will be 23 and under contract till after the 2025 season with a very very low cap hit
Meanwhile, Spiller was a 4th round pick last year who saw very limited work. The Chargers offense is headed for some changes and Spiller could play a large part in that process. First, we know that Ekeler is not happy in the last year of his contract. The Chargers have other big names looking to get contracts as well, including Kelley. They also have to make decisions on Gerald Everett, Alohi Gilman, Kenneth Murray, and Austin Johnson. All will be starters this season.
The Chargers just brought in a new offensive coordinator and signed Justin Herbert to a massive extension; they’ll need to save money somewhere. They are good enough that they won’t have a great draft pick so landing a big-money prospect is probably out of the question.
Spiller was a three-year player for Texas A&M who declared after his junior year. He was a consistent player averaging right around 5.5 yards per carry every season. He saw at least 170 carries in each of those seasons. He endured a slight down year in his final season but totaled 25 touchdowns in his college career. His college stats were hindered by inconsistent blocking and play-calling, but we saw enough on tape to believe in Spiller.
He is a bigger back at 6’1′ 220 lbs which should help him this season as a potential goal line back poised to vulture some touchdowns. He has good vision when running north and south. He might lack the necessary burst to get outside and turn the corner, but his ability to find holes and break tackles will keep him on the team and on the field for important plays.
Looking past this season, he doesn’t have the pass-catching experience or expertise that Ekeler has: Spiller only caught 74 passes while at Texas A&M and scored only one receiving touchdown. Reports this year coming out of camp were backed up by what we saw in preseason games: Spiller is playing well and in the mix for the handcuff role. Spillers is currently drafted outside of the top handcuffs as he doesn’t hold much stand-alone value, despite what he offers as a two-down bruiser.
If Spiller can get more work this year and prove to be an efficient rusher, he could be a future feature of the Chargers backfield. They just brought in Kellen Moore to be the offensive coordinator, and he utilized both Ezekiel Elliot and Tony Pollard. Both finished as Top 24 running backs in fantasy football. I’m not saying that Spiller possesses the talent of a Zeke or Pollard, but opportunity plus a history of utilizing two running backs could equal more work for Spiller. His outlook is bright and he could end up becoming a sleeper for a lot of analysts by this time next year.
Jeremy Ruckert- TE, New York Jets
We all love a sleeper tight end and the Jets have one on their roster in Jeremy Ruckert. Ruckert played four years for the Ohio State Buckeyes racking up 615 yards and 12 touchdowns. It’s not massive production but the Buckeyes don’t run a tightened-centric offense. Ruckert is 6’5 252 lbs which is protypical NFL tight end size. He didn’t go to the combine but on his pro day ran a 4.76 40 time. He has a ton of speed a quickness for his size.
Coming from a football powerhouse like Ohio State gives Ruckert some experience and theoretically helps him adapt to the NFL more quickly. He was a Round 3 pick by the Jets in 2022 who struggled to get on the field during his rookie season as slid in behind C.J. Uzomah and Ty Conklin on the depth chart. Ruckert is a good blocker but can also find space in the middle of the field to present a large target for his quarterback. He needs work on creating separation when lined up outside but can get off blocks and sneak out on late-developing routes.
The Jets are going all in right now. They traded for future hall-of-famer Aaron Rodgers to be the leader. They signed running back Dalvin Cook to be the counterpart to Breece Hall. They brought in all of Rodgers’s friends to the wide receiver room with Randall Cobb and Allen Lazard complimenting Garrett Wilson.
The Jets have Super Bowl aspirations this year but after this season things could be drastically different. Cobb was rumored to be considering retirement so this could be his last hurrah. Rodgers himself seemed torn between lacing them up and hanging them up. Wilson is a stud, but while Lazard is a capable tow in an offense he could be gone: Lazard projects to be on the 2024 Jets roster but his contract was front-loaded and carries a dead cap hit of only $6.5 million in 2025, half of what he’ll make if on the roster.
At the tight end position, Uzomah is 30 years old and hasn’t had a stand-out season aside from one with Joe Burrow and the Bengals. Conklin is two years younger, yet despite seeing over 80 targets each of the last two seasons, hasn’t been able to top 600 yards or reel in more than 3 touchdowns. With both less than efficient, plenty of opportunity opens up for Ruckert. Rodgers isn’t known for targeting tight ends on a regular basis but he did deliver 11 touchdowns for Robert Tonyan back in 2020, so precedent exists. If Rodgers isn’t the Jets starter, even more opportunity could present itself for Ruckert to bond and build chemistry with a new signal caller.
Chris Evans- RB, Cincinnati Bengals
Below is from December of 2021. Chris Evans failed to get on the field last year due to the presence of Samje Perine, who is now in Denver. Evans has earned a leg up on the third down role for the Bengals this preseason thanks to his effectiveness as a receiver and proficiency in pass protection, an important skill set. Last season, Perine flourished in that role, seeing 51 targets en route to an RB34 finish.
The Bengals still have a powerhouse offense. Joe Mixon is still there despite off-the-field issues. As discussed earlier, the Bengals have some decisions to make in terms of contract; Mixon could be a cap casualty at age 28. He would only cost $2.75 million in dead cap compared to his $8.5 million cap hit. He will also be heading into the last year of his deal in 2024.
With Chris Evans in the Perine role this season, he should set himself up to see an expanded role in the future. He could provide some flex week plays this season and be a fantasy role player going forward. The Bengals did draft Chase Brown in the 5th round of the 2023 draft to give them extra depth and youth, but his lower draft capital and lack of familiarity with the system should yield more opportunities.
I’m not saying that the Captain America namesake is going to take over for Joe Mixon but he should be the primary handcuff and have value over the next 3+ years. Chris Evans is a player that had such promise in college at Michigan but it never truly materialized. He came out the gate with a 112-yard, 2-score game in 2016 against Hawaii but then only had over 75 yards in 8 of his next 41 games. He was suspended for Michigan’s 2019 season due to academic issues and had a very disappointing 2020 college outing. He was a 6th-round pick by the Bengals in the 2021 draft and made the active 53-man roster his first year. Like college, he has had flashes of brilliance. Week 6 against the Lion he got 4 carries which he turned into 18 yards. He also caught 3 passes for 49 yards and a score. In week 12 he got 5 carries and produced 23 yards. In both outings where he got rushing work, he averaged 4.5 yards per carry. For reference, Joe Mixon is averaging 4.23 on the year.
Mixon will continue to be the starter and in 2021 Samaje Perine will be the primary backup. Perine is signed for the 2022 season but there is an opt-out that would save the Bengals 1.5 million in cap space. I’m not saying this will happen but there is also an opt-out for Mixon but I expect him to play out his full contract which runs till the end of the 2024 season. Mixon does have some injury history, however. He missed the last 10 games of the 2020 season with a foot injury. I wouldn’t go as far as saying Mixon is injury prone but he has had 2 other injuries prior to that foot. He hasn’t missed too much time in the NFL outside of 2020 and is still young, as he will be 26 heading into the 2022 season. He is also on pace to have 321 carries this season which will be a career-high beating, his old number of 278 which he set in 2019 the year before his injury. The Bengals also project to make the playoffs so that could add more wear and tear on his body as well as all the pass-catching work he has seen so far.
With Evans showing a good yards-per-carry average on limited work, he would be a solid handcuff if and when he becomes the primary backup to Mixon. He is similar in size to Perine at 5’11” 219 pounds to Perine’s 5’11” 240 pounds. Not as big but faster. Evans ran a 4.50, 40. Perine and Mixon were at 4.60 and 4.43 respectively. Even with Joe Burrow having three good receivers in Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Boyd, and Tee Higgins the Bengals are still running the ball, and their running back will remain valuable.
Daniel Bellinger -TE, New York Giants
Played well last year; Waller has an injury history
Dawson Knox – TE, Buffalo Bills
Chemistry with Allen; rookie tight ends take time to develop
Kenneth Gainwell – RB, Philadelphia Eagles
Positive camp news; solid production last year
Malik Willis – QB, Tennessee Titans
Had a solid camp; young enough to get a second chance
Danny Gray – WR, San Fransico 49ers
Team is cursed with injuries; young and fast
Dalton Keene – TE, Houston Texans
Currently on his 3rd team and never plays
Michael Woods – WR, Cleveland Browns
He’s on the PUP and the team brought in more wide receivers
Montrell Washington – WR, Denver Broncos
Despite multiple injuries on the team, no buzz whatsoever
Tylan Wallace – WR, Baltimore Ravens
On the roster bubble; has never produced
Lynn Bowden Jr – WR, New Orleans Saints
On his 3rd team in 4 years; it just isn’t happening at the NFL level