Six players to avoid in fantasy football in 2023

Summer is upon us, and that means fantasy football season is fast approaching. As you prepare for your ESPN Fantasy drafts, we encourage you to dig into our many content offerings to help you make the best possible choices on draft day.

While it's common to see preseason discussion that centers around sleepers and breakouts, it's also good to have a list of players you should be wary of. Field Yates and Mike Clay put their heads together to come up with such a list.

Field: Mike, I decided to start this piece off with an absolute scorcher of a take: There isn't a single player currently in the ESPN Fantasy database I would not consider drafting or rostering in my league this season.

OK, so there might be some players in our database I can't envision having on my roster (Matthew Slater is a total legend and a potential future Hall of Famer who qualifies as a wide receiver in our game, though his one career catch in 223 games doesn't exactly scream fantasy star!), but that's not the category of players that people are talking about when they ponder a "do not draft" list.

As you well know, Mike, here's the reality about the list of players to "avoid" that you and I are about to get into: It is all about the cost of acquiring said players.

I'm saying that now because I am assuming many of the people reading this article are either jealous of our pen pal dynamic or -- more likely -- were directed here by an alert on their phone or saw a headline that read something to the effect of "Clay and Yates say avoid [insert star player] in fantasy."

I'm here to tell you that every player we'll discuss here is a player I will consider drafting, it's just less likely they will land on my roster given the current price to acquire those players based off their average draft positions.

That was a lengthy caveat, but, Mike, it felt good to get that off my chest. Anything else to add, or do you want to dive in?

Mike: I think your first task needs to be a trip to The Home Depot* so you can grab a trimmer to handle all that hedging. Every single player?! Seems excessive ...

Do I realize you're exaggerating?

Of course.

Is it a fair point that this is more of a "players who will likely be drafted earlier than we're comfortable taking them" list than an "absolutely never consider drafting them under any circumstance, even if life or death" list?


Do I care right now?

No. ... As our resident joker, comedian and expert on all things music, I'll take any opportunity to take an axe to a mended fence.

That said, my picks are all players you MUST avoid at all costs, as they are 100% guaranteed to fall short of expectations. And if I get burned, at least we were electrified.

I'll give you a chance to redeem yourself by allowing you the first pick. The floor is yours.

Field: Your generosity is unparalleled. Also, can our next column cover just how rad Home Depot is? I love that place**.

Let's get to it, Mike!

Because I know you would never speak negatively about a man who shares your first name, I'll kick things off with Mike Evans. Evans' career track record is one of the most consistent in the NFL, and I do believe he has a résumé that could land him in the Hall of Fame one day, but this column is about the present and not the future.

Evans is currently being drafted as the 25th wide receiver off the board and in the middle of the seventh round, ahead of fellow wideouts Jerry Jeudy, Tyler Lockett and Drake London. What I fear for Evans is that his quarterback play might catch up to him this season, as Tampa Bay is currently conducting a competition between Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask, neither of which inspires a significant amount of confidence. On top of that, Evans has spent virtually his entire career playing in an offense that is either aggressive down the field, high volume in passing attempts or both. I'm not sure either will be the case this year, which leaves me skeptical of his ceiling.

And while I don't think Evans has reached the proverbial cliff that often haunts players around this point in his career (10th season), it's worth noting Evans has had a bit of an up-and-down nature to his game in recent seasons. Last season might have been less about Evans and more about the state of the entire offense, but even in 2021 when Tom Brady was playing at an elite level, Evans had six games with three or fewer catches and six games with 50 or fewer yards.

Put differently: I think there are players in his draft range with more upside and a similar or even superior floor.

You're up now. Who are we taking?

Mike: Well, this is awkward. I agree with you on concerns about Evans ... but I disagree that I'd never speak negatively about a man who shares my first name. After all, I'm the best Michael/Mike and all the other Michaels/Mikes are sus (hello, fellow kids!). And that especially goes for Michael/Mike Jr.

My pick should now be clear: Michael Pittman Jr. Last season, Pittman ranked top 10 among wide receivers in snaps, routes and targets, while also posting career-high marks in receptions and end zone targets. That sort of usage will generally allow high-end fantasy production. Instead, Pittman was limited to two top-12 fantasy weeks (both of which came prior to Week 7) and finished outside the top 20 in fantasy PPG for the third consecutive season.

The counter to that analysis is fairly obvious: "The Colts' QB play was terrible!" It sure was, but it's hard to imagine a massive uptick in the team's passing efficiency with first-round rookie Anthony Richardson under center this season.

Consider that last season, Colts QBs completed 65% of their passes, averaged 6.4 yards per attempt and totaled 17 pass TDs. Over the past decade, rookie QBs selected in the first round completed 61% of their passes and averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, with only eight exceeding 17 pass TDs (only one of those eight cleared 250 rush yards).

Do we really expect Richardson to greatly exceed these pass efficiency and TD numbers considering his inexperience (393 pass attempts), major accuracy woes (54.7% completion rate) and propensity for running the ball at Florida? I do not, at least not in Year 1.

Even if Richardson is solid as a passer, the Colts ranked eighth in the league with 604 pass attempts last season, a number that could dip by more than 100 because of his scrambling ability and in what figures to be a run-first offense. In fact, I have Indianapolis projected for 502 pass attempts this season.

I like Pittman as a player, but even if he enjoys a hefty target share, the lack of overall pass volume in an offense led by a rookie QB is a massive concern. Pittman is my 32nd-ranked WR, which is easily lowest in our consensus rankings, whereas some fella named "Yates" is highest on him at 17th. That sounds like the kind of guy who hates Taylor Swift and shops at [redacted Home Depot competitor]***. No cap.

Field: Ok, NOW you've crossed the line. No one suggests anything negative about Taylor Swift in this space. No one! When you made your Pittman case in a recent episode of "Fantasy Focus," it did get me thinking and my optimism waned. He's on my "I plan to readjust his ranking" list that needs to be tended to soon.

The conceit of this piece is to identify players whose case to avoid is pertinent to this season, but I'm going to turn to a player whose career body of work makes the case more pointedly. There are very obvious things to be drawn to about Mike Williams, as he's the No. 1 perimeter option in an offense quarterbacked by Justin Herbert and has a rare ability to win contested catches in the end zone.

Wait ... is this the third straight Mike we've chosen? Yes! I'm both impressed by this streak and now stressed thinking about the reaction we'll receive when we don't pick a player named Mike.

The counter to Williams' skill set is he has far too frequently profiled as the kind of player who frustrates fantasy managers: a boom-or-bust player.

Let's break this down by top-40 weekly finishes by Williams over the past four seasons:

2022: seven top-40 finishes in 13 games (54.8%)
2021: eight in 16 games (50%)
2020: six in 15 games (40%)
2019: seven in 15 games (46.7%)

He's consistently inconsistent! If you knew going into a week the wide receiver you were starting had just as much of a chance to be a bust as a star, you'd hesitate. That is the Mike Williams fantasy football story.

And while I don't think Williams is a threat to lose substantial snaps to rookie wide receiver Quentin Johnston, the team now has its most talented third wide receiver since Williams joined Keenan Allen and the Chargers in 2017.

Some players are late bloomers who eventually become the more full-formed version we long envisioned. I am hopeful new offensive coordinator Kellen Moore can extract more out of Williams on a consistent basis, but like I mentioned with Evans earlier, the cluster of receivers around Williams offers some different value that I am drawn to. Specifically, if you were patient at wide receiver because you took a pair of running backs or an elite tight end early, I do think there are second wideout options in the Williams range who offer more predictable weekly output.

All right Mike, you're up with thoughts on Michael Thomas!

Mike: Thomas is definitely a strong candidate for this exercise, but I'm going to pivot from one popular name to another and express my concerns on Josh Jacobs. Last year around this time, many were worried Jacobs would succumb to a committee role in Josh McDaniels' offense (in our defense, we didn't subscribe to that line of thinking and touted him as a value pick. All you're ever gonna be is mean, haters!).

Jacobs proved us right. Clearly the Raiders' best back, he led all NFL running backs in rushing yards, touches and scrimmage yards en route to a third-place finish in fantasy points. He has now finished top 12 in fantasy points in each of the past three seasons and, believe it or not, sits seventh among backs with 107 receptions over the past two seasons.

Jacobs is again positioned for a feature back role in Las Vegas, but here's the concern: He had 340 carries (393 touches) last season. That is a massive number, and history suggests he's a long shot to (A) repeat that usage, (B) appear in every game again and (C) post as good of a fantasy season.

Consider: Since 2011, 20 RBs carried the ball 300-plus times in a single season and played the following season. Those 20 backs averaged 15.9 games played, 325.9 carries, 1,559.7 rushing yards, 11.9 rush TDs and 19.1 fantasy PPG during their 300-plus-carry seasons. Those numbers fell to 12.5 games played, 226.7 carries, 982.1 rushing yards, 6.9 rush TDs and 15.3 fantasy PPG the following season. All 20 RBs finished top 12 in fantasy points in the first season (17 were top five), but only eight finished top 12 the second season (four were top five). In total, the 20 RBs scored 6,040 fantasy points the first season but 3,830 the following year.

That barrage of numbers in no way guarantees Jacobs will bust this season, but it should give you pause that he'll be able to post consecutive top-five fantasy campaigns. I still view him as a back-end RB1, though I'll be a lot more comfortable going another direction with my second-round pick on draft day. After all, I've seen this film before, and I didn't like the ending.

Field: Safe to say your Jacobs pick will generate some conversation, Mike, but I understand your logic and want to remind people to READ THE INTRO to this piece, because I fully expect that you will have some exposure to Jacobs on your squads this year. You're just more reticent to pay the price than others.

I'll wrap up my picks here with a player who for about three quarters of last season I was just flat wrong on: Cam Akers. I was bullish on Akers coming into the season, forecasting him to continue in the role we saw in the playoffs of the Rams' Super Bowl-winning season, when -- just five months after an Achilles tear -- he returned to the lineup and became THE guy in their backfield (volume-wise, as he showed poor efficiency). It was a Herculean effort that earned him plenty of praise, it just didn't lead to the breakout I had in mind.

That actually isn't the reason I'm off of Akers this year, even at his reduced draft position (compared to last preseason). It's that Akers played so well down the stretch in 2022 but didn't check a central box that is so important to me in fantasy football: pass-catching. While Akers' 104 carries for 512 yards and six touchdowns during the final six games of the season were extremely impressive, he tallied just 11 catches in that time and did so when the Rams' backfield depth was a mess. It's not that the team made major investments this offseason, but it did add Zach Evans in the draft, and it's hard for me to overlook that last preseason the Rams thought they had discovered a possible diamond in the rough in Kyren Williams, whose rookie season was marred by an ankle injury in Week 1.

My feeling is that Los Angeles will go into the season with the intention (the operative word here) of using more of a committee approach to its backfield, particularly if the Williams buzz from last year carries over to 2023. Moreover, with Akers' limited passing game usage so far in his (admittedly young) career, the upside he reached at the end of last season will be hard to duplicate consistently.

All right, Mike, we've made it to the point of the piece where you get to tell everyone why they need to avoid Justin Jefferson and Austin Ekeler. Have at it!

Mike: You're right. Jefferson and Ekeler are best avoided, and the reason is simple: You don't want to draft players at their ceiling. Jefferson and Ekeler are coming off massive seasons, and it will be tough to eclipse those numbers, so definitely don't draft them (this is a joke -- you should absolutely draft them. I'm just hoping Field doesn't read things in parentheses so these two superstars fall to me when we draft together).

OK, back to the real world. I'm going to wrap up this exercise with a look at a rookie wide receiver I'm simply not going to have any exposure to this year unless his ADP falls: Jaxon Smith-Njigba.

Look, I love hunting for the next best thing as much as the next guy/gal and, in fact, I invested a ton of picks in the underrated rookie WR class last season. The problem here is that, while at least three WRs were selected prior to pick 20 in each NFL draft from 2020 to 2022, none were picked in the top 20 in 2023. History tells us to be wary of this, as of the 17 WRs drafted in the 15-to-25 range since 2011, only three reached 800 yards and only four played in every game (12.2 average games played). Only two of the 17 finished better than 35th in fantasy points (CeeDee Lamb 22nd, Jefferson sixth).

Smith-Njigba was the first WR selected in April's draft and is an intriguing prospect, but his ADP has generally been in the fifth-to-seventh-round range. That might be more palatable if he was first -- or perhaps even second -- on his team's depth chart. Instead, he's a clear third behind target hogs DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, not to mention the team's heavy usage of tight ends (Noah Fant and Will Dissly return) and running backs (Zach Charbonnet and Kenneth Walker III were Round 2 investments the past two years) during the Pete Carroll era.

Everyone loves the shiny new toy, but similar to when the newest grill loaded with the latest, innovative technology drops at Home Depot****, sometimes you need to wait for the price to drop before it becomes a worthwhile investment.

* This is NOT a sponsored ad for Home Depot
** I swear, it's really not!
*** Seriously, though, we're just dads being dads
**** OK, by now you're like, "They're definitely paying them for this," but I assure you they are not. Maybe they should be, though? I mean, neither of us is kicking a free, new grill out of the backyard. These burgers aren't going to flip themselves ...