Getting new things usually forces me to lose interest in what I have. 

It’s like during the holidays when you open a gift. Anything else you were interacting with beforehand becomes less important. The item in front of you takes precedence. And it’s not like the old stuff becomes useless, but curiosity in the unknown is alluring.

We do the same in football.

A team signs someone in free agency or uses an early pick on a player, and the veterans are dead to us, and we’ll use every bit of offseason news to justify the hype. I found a few situations across the league where there may be more fire than smoke and looked at how we can leverage the info in drafts.

Najee Harris vs. Jaylen Warren

  • Najee Harris: ADP 38.4
  • Jaylen Warren: 135.1

I’ve been a Bengals fan for over 20 years, and I always look back on the divisional matchups versus the Steelers as Big Ben and the passing game against Cincinnati. But fantasy managers have coveted Pittsburgh’s ground game for good reason:

  • 2015: DeAngelo Williams RB6
  • 2016: Le’Veon Bell RB3
  • 2017: Le’Veon Bell RB2
  • 2018: James Conner RB6
  • 2019: James Conner RB35
  • 2020: James Conner RB27
  • 2021: Najee Harris RB3

Part of the allure has been the workload. Even in Conner’s injury-riddled 2019 campaign, he handled 65.3% of the carries and 54.5% of the red-zone totes. And it’s been no different for Najee Harris.

Najee Harris

Jan 8, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) runs the ball against Cleveland Browns safety John Johnson III (43) and linebacker Deion Jones (54) during the third quarter at Acrisure Stadium. Pittsburgh won 28-14. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

After garnering a first-round selection, Harris walked into 381 touches (most in the league) in his rookie season. Mike Tomlin loves his RB1. Or at least that’s the rule. 

But some rules are meant to be broken. Harris had a sophomore slump, and Jaylen Warren (UDFA) showed out in spurts last year. And with some data-backed support, maybe it’s time for a new rule.

Who Wins?

Harris still has a stranglehold on the majority of the carries. So while Warren displayed superior efficiency, it’s hard to project him for more work in 2023.

Harris had a plate in his cleat removed after Week 7 while he continued to rehab from his Lisfranc injury. His snap rate dipped below 50% just once. Meanwhile, Warren crested a 50% snap rate the same number of times and couldn’t earn more work despite Harris’s slow start.

Jaylen Warren's usage

Warren also missed two weeks due to a quad strain, and Benny Snell had a larger role down the stretch of ’23. Regardless, the only positives we can point to are minor bumps in his carries on early downs and obvious passing situations. His role as a…role player diminished. However, there’s still a (slight) chance Warren can be a strong fantasy asset.

  • Harris: 17.8% TPRR, 0.77 YPRR, 5.0 YAC per reception
  • Warren: 18.6% TPRR, 1.24 YPRR, 8.4 YAC per reception

Warren earned more targets per route, was more efficient with those looks, and averaged larger gains on each catch. And, coincidentally, the rookie outperformed the vet on lower-quality targets.

Dump-offs behind the line of scrimmage are inefficient as they have less chance of gaining more yards. And Warren’s -0.9 aDOT put more defenders in front of him than Harris’s 1.7 aDOT. But Warren wasn’t the only rookie coming into his own last season.

EPA per attempt

Kenny Pickett’s EPA per attempt steadily rose to close out his first (partial) season. Over his final six games, Pickett was third in PFF’s passing grade with a pressure-to-sack ratio (8.5%) similar to Trevor Lawrence (8.2%). 

With a full offseason, we should expect more out of the passing game, which benefits Warren. However, Harris’s presence will keep Warren’s ceiling potential in check barring a shift in the offense.

Jaxon Smith-Njigba vs. Tyler Lockett

  • Jaxon Smith-Njigba: ADP 61.7 
  • Tyler Lockett: 63.5

The fantasy community had mixed reactions to the Seahawks’ decision to draft Smith-Njigba at 20th overall.

On the one hand, Seattle was flying high after making it to the playoffs despite trading away Russell WilsonGeno Smith had a career-changing season, and the passing game finished tenth in pass rate over expectation (PROE). So expanding their aerial attack only added confidence to the team for their 2023 campaign.

But on the other hand, the team also added an RB on Day 2. And we’ve seen the offense revert to an inefficient play style and crater down the stretch. In 2021, Seattle had a 3.0% PROE, which plummeted to -7.0% while we watched the last of the Wilson era fizzle out. Consequently, drafters can’t wholly trust the Seattle passing game.

Apparently, JSN and Lockett can’t co-exist. One will cannibalize the other’s opportunity. But honestly, it’s not that simple.

Who Wins?

Seattle will have enough volume to support both WRs. The winner? Geno Smith.

It’s taken some time, but we’re starting to see how Shane Waldron wants to run the offense. 

  • 2021 with Wilson: 22nd in pace, 32nd in plays per game
  • 2022 with Smith: 13th in pace, 22nd in plays per game

We’ve seen similar effects from Sean McVay acolytes in Minnesota and Cincinnati. And a team’s PROE remains stable if the offensive personnel (coaching and QB) remains the same. So we can expect similar tendencies with JSN on the field. 

Three-WR sets should be their primary formation, but folks may point to last season’s numbers as another reason to choose between Lockett and his heir apparent.

  • 2018: 78.1% of dropbacks with 3 WRs on the field
  • 2019: 76.4%
  • 2020: 68.4%
  • 2021: 74.3%
  • 2022: 63.4%

With Geno at the helm, Seattle hit a five-year low in their 11-personnel rate. And at first glance, it looks like a knock against Lockett and JSN meeting their ADPs. But think about Geno’s options in obvious passing situations. 

The Seahawks went from role players like Freddie Swain (6 ft., 197 lbs) and David Moore (6 ft., 219 lbs) to Marquise Goodwin (5’9”, 185 lbs) and Dee Eskridge (5’9”, 190 lbs). Unsurprisingly, we saw less out of Seattle’s ancillary WRs.

Seattle's ancillary WRs

Smith-Njigba had the fourth-highest YPRR while posting a top-20 mark in YAC per reception in his final healthy season at OSU. Goodwin, Laquon Treadwell, and Eskridge combined for as many red-zone looks as Lockett. JSN’s onfield ability blows past any of their past options, and he can capitalize on any RZ looks without biting into Lockett’s workload.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other when Seattle’s moves indicate they want the pair to succeed together.

James Cook vs. Damien Harris

  • James Cook: ADP 92.6
  • Damien Harris: 117.4

Last season, Josh Allen generated more EPA (57.6) as a runner than the Bills’ RBs combined (-18.4). Buffalo jettisoned Devin Singletary to Houston but has been in the market to bolster their RB room. And they made an early offseason move to (potentially) meet their needs.

Damien Harris bulldozed his way into fantasy relevance with 15 touchdowns during his third season in New England. He was sixth in EPA per attempt in short-yardage situations and was top 20 in success rate.

But that was two years ago.

His injury history has kept him from playing a full season. And he’s had to answer for fumbling away a possession more than once. James Cook showed promise in his rookie season, and the Bills’ offense can be productive enough for both RBs to be useful. But since you can only draft one, the newer option may not be the best one.

Who Wins?

Cook’s rushing metrics from ’22 favorably compare to Harris’s. Plus, Cook also established himself as a viable receiving option. Harris (and Allen) will vulture a short score or two, but Cook has the easier path to weekly fantasy value.

I instantly saw Harris and his 216 lb. frame as the short-yardage grinder. He’d be the goal line back and keep Allen from running it in himself. But Cook led the league in EPA per attempt on carries with three or fewer yards to go.

Sure, short-yardage runs are a specific situation. But Cook wasn’t the better rusher in just one category.

Who's the better rusher?

Harris battled thigh and hamstring issues over the back half of the season. It may explain some of his decline, but it's still noteworthy that Cook was able to showcase similar talent. At worst, he’ll have the first crack at the same situations this season. Plus, his receiving skills give him every-down potential.

Who's the better receiver?

The then-rookie earned looks at a higher rate with more targets downfield. And in an offense that ranked fifth in red-zone PROE, I’d rather target the guy who should see more touches while the Bills are in scoring position.

Harris may work in on early downs and rotate with Cook for short-yardage gains. Plus, Josh Allen will rumble through defenders for a touchdown. However, Cook’s utility as a runner and WR give him more standalone value, making him the preferred option in the Buffalo backfield.

You can start drafting Cook on Underdog Fantasy, where you can get a 100% deposit match of up to $100 when you sign up with promo code LIFE! Sign up below and start drafting today!

New vs. old