Volume is king in fantasy football, and this report will help you understand which players are due more or according to their roles. It is a great way to know who is overperforming (sell high) and underperforming (buy low) based on historical data tied to metrics we know drive volume.

  • Overall offense: Which teams are enabling winning volume and efficiency across game scripts
  • Quarterbacks: How involved is each QB in the running game, and who is unlocking upside for their weapons
  • Running backs: Which backs are handling early downs, short-yardage and passing downs
  • Tight ends: Who is running enough routes and meeting critical targets per route thresholds
  • Receivers: Which receivers are in the most routes and operating broadly within the offense

Preseason football can be tricky to decipher, but we now have two weeks of utilization data to go along with a full offseason, including training camp. While we don’t want to overreact, we also don’t want to underreact. Last season we determined Dameon PierceDavid Njoku and Evan Engram were in for increased roles by analyzing this final piece of intel.

1. Travis Etienne’s preseason utilization screams RB1.

The concerns about Tank Bigsby taking over high-leverage touches inside the 5-yard line haven’t come to fruition this preseason. Etienne handled 67% of the short-down-distance (SDD) work and punched in a rushing TD with the starters in the game.

Etienne UR

The third-year back hasn’t lived up to his prolific collegiate receiving profile, which has followed him into 2023. The Jaguars are loaded at WR and TE, so the RBs might not see many targets, but Etienne’s 63% route participation this preseason is notable.

Even if he is a subpar target earner (14% targets per route run), that is enough if history is any indicator. Since 2012, RBs with at least 60% of rushing attempts, 60% or greater route participation and a TPRR of 15% or less have faired well. You might recognize the names:

  • 2012: Arian Foster – RB3
  • 2013: LeSean McCoy – RB3
  • 2013: Chris Johnson – RB12
  • 2019: Ezekiel Elliott – RB5

Outlook: A top-six finish is in the range of outcomes for Etienne. He can be drafted in Round 4.

2. Calvin Ridley should be a mid-to-late Round 2 fantasy pick.

The last time we saw Ridley healthy in a full NFL season, he finished as the WR4 overall with 18.8 PPR points per game. However, the skeptics were concerned about his time away from the game after missing 1.5 seasons.

Ridley erased all doubts this preseason by dominating the Jaguars passing attack in five drives with Trevor Lawrence.

Ridley UR

The Jaguars have plenty of weapons, but none of them profile as highly as Ridley in the target-earning and playmaking departments — including Christian Kirk.

Fade any narratives about Ridley being rusty due to the layoff. He is ready to win fantasy championships.

Outlook: Ridley should be a mid-to-late Round 2 pick. He is a steal in Rounds 3 and 4 on most fantasy sites like ESPN, Yahoo! and Sleeper. Enjoy.

3. Diontae Johnson has top-12 WR upside.

Diontae Johnson is just out here doing Diontae Johnson things this preseason by handily leading the Steelers with a 29% target share on drives with Kenny Pickett.

Diontae Johnson Utilization

This man is a WR1-level target earner, and nothing has changed despite more competition from up-and-comers like George Pickens and Pat Freiermuth.

While the target share isn’t surprising, his 14.0 aDOT is well above his career average (9.4) and has my attention. We don’t typically see WRs dramatically improve their aDOT — but last season we saw Johnson register a career-high (10.7) in his first season with Pickett at QB.

If this surge in aDOT is somehow attributed to Pickett's growth and a scheme adjustment, Johnson could unlock additional upside. Since 2012, WRs that accounted for 23% or more of their team’s targets with an aDOT between 11 and 12 finished as the WR13 on average.

This data point, paired with Johnson’s WR8 finish in 2021, points to positive regression for the young wideout. Fade the zero-TD 2022 season and partake in the fruits of drafting Johnson in Round 5 or later.

Outlook: If you are into drafting WR2s with WR1 upside at WR3 prices, Johnson might be your jam.

4. Is Elijah Moore set for a Deebo Samuel-type role?

Moore played five drives with Deshaun Watson this preseason, leading the team in target share (31%) and targets per route run (33%).

While he is leaving the field in two-WR sets (75% route participation), the Browns are creating a ton of looks for Moore underneath the coverage by lining him up all over the formation. He even got a rushing attempt in Week 1.

In a league that plays zone on 70% of plays, teams like the 49ers succeed by getting Deebo Samuel underneath the coverage, with Brandon Aiyuk on the backside as a man-beater.

The Browns could deploy a similar game plan with Moore and Amari Cooper. Over the last two seasons, Samuel has enjoyed a 26% target rate on routes against zone vs.18% by Aiyuk. 

Cooper is at his best as a man-beater over the last three seasons, which further fuels the idea of Moore as the zone-beater for the Browns in 2023.

Amari Cooper Splits

Making any comparison to Samuel is always dangerous — he possesses a specific set of skills maximized by the 49ers scheme. However, Moore flashed top-three WR upside over his final seven games as a rookie and offers a ton of outs in the Browns new pass-friendly attack.

Outlook: Moore offers WR2 upside with the price tag of a WR4 or WR5 in drafts.

5. Rachaad White looks like a bell-cow back.

Let’s get some things out of the way first:

  1. White was terribly inefficient on the ground as a rookie.
  2. The Buccaneers aren’t likely to score many points in 2023.
  3. That is already priced into his average draft position (ADP).

Good? Good.

The Bucs have been careful with White this preseason, sitting him in the first two games. But we saw him play three drives in Week 3, dominating the workload.

Rachaad White UR

We shouldn’t expect white to see 88% of the rushing attempts, but 65% is well within reach, given the Bucs' depth chart.

White was best known for his receiving profile from college and delivered an RB1-worthy 22% TPRR. With the Bucs expected to trail early and often in 2023, White has the trump card for RBs playing in bad offenses: receiving prowess.

The second-year back isn’t a league-winning pick but he has outs if Tampa’s offense surprises or he improves as a runner similar to how Le’Veon Bell did in Year 2.

Outlook: RB1-level workload that should deliver RB2-level production.

6. Khalil Herbert continues to distance from the pack.

Herbert enters The Utilization Report’s top 15 in consecutive weeks after another strong data point.

This preseason with Justin Fields and the starters, Herbert handled 55% of the snaps and 67% of the rushing attempts.

Bears RB Utilization

The Bears didn’t use Fields much in the designed run game this preseason, which will eat into Herbert’s role once the Week 1 lights come on. However, the third-year back has distanced from D’Onta Foreman and Roschon Johnson.

Over the last two seasons, Herbert has been one of the most explosive runners in the NFL and is now set to lead the way in a run-first offense. With defenses trembling in fear of Fields’ rushing ability, we can expect some wide-open running lanes for Herbert to exploit.

As the season progresses, we could see Johnson push for more of the passing-down work in Chicago, but those aren’t very valuable snaps anyway in an offense where the QB is more likely to scramble than check it down.

Outlook: RB3 with RB2 upside.

7. Nico Collins is the WR1 in Houston.

Collins made major strides last season as a target earner and carried that through to the 2023 preseason.

In nine drives with C.J. Stroud, Collins has been the clear-cut No. 1 WR in Houston:

  • 91% route participation
  • 30% target share
  • 34% air yards share

While projecting season-long targets off of a small preseason sample would be foolhardy. At a minimum, Collins is stacking good data points on top of good data points. That makes him worthy of a small confidence boost.

Outlook: Borderline WR3 with upside if Stroud surprises.

8. Michael Pittman Jr. could fall victim to QB accuracy issues.

Pittman registered a 29% target share on nine drives with Anthony Richardson.

Colts WR Utilization

Unfortunately, the devil is in the details.

Only 50% of Pittman’s targets have been catchable. Given Richardson’s struggles with accuracy in college, it stands to reason that Year 1 will be full of growing pains. While Pittman might pick up a few extra targets via RPOs in the new offense, it won’t likely be enough to offset the accuracy woes.

Pittman has caught over 70% of his targets in three consecutive seasons — that just isn’t happening in 2023. And while he is an underrated WR, he isn’t a big play threat, and the Colts will see plenty of dropbacks turn into scrambles with Richardson under center.

It all adds up to a season where it is really hard to see a scenario where we regret passing on Pittman in fantasy.

Outlook: Priced right as a WR4 but hard to see a pathway to league-winning upside.

9. Quentin Johnston’s takeover of the WR3 role might take time.

While Johnston has played every preseason game, Josh Palmer has rested with the starters.

Let’s not get carried away here. Palmer is a below-average target-earning WR who lacks big-play upside. He will eventually give way to Johnston. Remember when Olabise Johnson was going to relegate Justin Jefferson to WR3 status as a rookie?

However, we might not see Johnston pop in Week 1 — it could take some time. Be prepared to show patience early in the season by keeping Johnston on the bench until we see he has taken over the starting role.

Once that happens, he instantly becomes a WR3 thanks to a pass-friendly offense with a great QB in Justin Herbert.

If Mike Williams or Keenan Allen misses any time, Johnston will carry WR1 upside in those contests.

Outlook: WR4 that morphs into a WR3 with WR2 upside as playing time ramps up.

10. Kenny Pickett is dealing and offers QB1 upside.

Pickett went 13 for 15 for 199 yards and two TDs on five preseason drives. Anytime we have a young signal caller showing signs of life, we want to take notice. 

Kenny Pickett

Aug 11, 2023; Tampa, Florida, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers wide receiver George Pickens (14) celebrates with quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) after scoring a touchdown against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers during the first quarter at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement Neitzel-USA TODAY Sports

Pickett is particularly appealing because he is surrounded by ascending-quality targets that could help in unlock booming passing yardage totals. The Year 2 QB won’t be confused with the dual-threat QBs, but 18.1 yards rushing per game ranked 12th in the NFL last season.

If things align for Pickett in 2023, he could throw for 4,000-plus yards and pick up 350 yards on the ground, which would unlock top-12 upside.

Outlook: Mid-range QB2 with QB1 upside.

11. Dalton Kincaid is worthy of low-end TE1 consideration.

Kincaid registered a 70% route participation in Week 2 of the preseason, which was great to see. However, Dawson Knox didn’t play that game, which left us wondering how things might change upon his return.

In Week 3, both TEs were active, and Kincaid delivered a 71% route participation versus 57% for Knox in one drive with Josh Allen. That is a super small sample, but it appears Kincaid might be able to keep his head above the 70% participation mark, even with Knox in the fold.

Historically, 80% route participation is the threshold we want from our TEs, but in a high passing-volume offense like Buffalo, 70% should be enough to keep Kincaid in the TE1 mix.

If that number falls toward 60%, it could become tough to predict when the rookie is worthy of entering fantasy lineups.

Outlook: Boom-bust low-end TE1.

12. Luke Musgrave is THE LATE-ROUND TE sleeper.

On 37 dropbacks with Jordan Love at QB this preseason, Musgrave has been the star of the Packers’ receiving corps.

  • 84% route participation (TE1-worthy)
  • 22% target share (TE1-worthy)

Musgrave was not a high-end target earner in college, which hurt his score in the Rookie Super Model. However, that hasn’t been a challenge for Musgrave this preseason. He leads the team in target share with Love on the field.

While rookie TEs haven’t been good for fantasy historically, it has more to do with playing time than target-earning ability.

The last two rookie TEs to reach 75% route participation: Evan Engram (TE4) and Kyle Pitts (TE11).

Outlook: Mid-range TE2 with TE1 upside. I am taking Musgrave over Cole Kmet, Juwan Johnson, Greg Dulcich, Gerald Everett, Irv Smith and Jake Ferguson.

13. Don’t be surprised if we are ranking Adam Thielen as a top-36 WR by Week 2.

I have not been kind to Thielen heading into the 2023 fantasy season.

However, I am always open to adjusting my priors when a player gives me a reason to believe I was wrong. While completely abandoning my priors wouldn’t be smart on an aging WR who has fallen off over the past two seasons, Thielen has done enough this preseason to cause me to keep an open mind.

The veteran WR has dominated targets (35%) in seven drives with Bryce Young.

There is a scenario where some of the dropoff we have seen from Theilen might have been overstated by the arrival of alpha-target earner Justin Jefferson in Minnesota.

If that is the case, Thielen could start the 2023 season hot, and he pairs well with upside WRs who might start the season slow due to experience, suspension or injury. Think of names like Jerry JeudyJaxon Smith-NjigbaQuentin Johnston and Jameson Williams.

We want access to those profiles for our playoff run, but we need later options that can help us balance our roster construction.

Outlook: WR5 that could perform more like a WR2 early in the season.

14. Dameon Pierce is getting the routes he needs for an RB1 season.

Objects in the rearview mirror are not closer than they appear when it comes to Pierce and Devin Singletary. Pierce is pulling away from the veteran free agent based seven drives with Stroud this preseason.

  • 83% snaps
  • 83% rushing attempts
  • 67% route participation
  • 100% short-down-distance
  • 83% long-down-distance (passing downs)

Perhaps the most important data point here is Pierce’s 67% route participation. Historically, 65% is considered rare air, where we only find the best receiving backs in the NFL. As a rookie, Pierce earned a 19% TPRR, which is RB2-worthy based on data back to 2012.

Will Pierce suddenly transform into Austin Ekeler because he is on the field during passing downs? No.

Will Pierce gain fantasy value from playing on passing downs? Yes.

Pierce has a shot at earning 10% to 14% of the targets this season based on historical comps to his rookie season. That is significant because if the Texans offense trails often, it can be just enough to offset what we lose from Pierce in carries and rushing yards.

Outlook: RB2 with RB1 upside.

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15. James Cook is still in a GREAT position to outperform ADP.

Damien Harris sent a scare through the fantasy masses by stealing a rushing attempt inside the 5 yard-line in Week 3 of the preseason.

However, Cook still dominated the overall workload in Week 3 of the preseason despite the return of Harris.

Our position all along has been Cook giving away some rushing TDs to Harris. The bigger picture centered around his role in the passing game in a high-caliber offense, which remains intact.

In our projection model, I only have Cook projected for 38% of the Bills carries and a 57% route participation. With only 3.8 rushing TDs that still comes out to 14.7 points per game in PPR leagues. Based on preseason, Cook should safely clear those utilization thresholds.

If Cook gets 50% of the attempts and a 65% route participation his points surge to 17.9 per game, which would make him an RB1. This preseason with the starters, Cook handled 78% of the attempts and delivered a 65% route participation.

Outlook: Cook offers an RB3 floor with RB1 upside and remains a PRIORITY TARGET.

Utilization Bites

  • Chiefs RB Pecking Order: Isiah Pacheco returned to action and split snaps evenly with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Jerick McKinnon. Pacheco remains the best bet to lead the backfield, but we could see a pesky three-way committee. McKinnon is the passing-downs back but CEH would take over Pacheco’s role should he suffer an injury.
  • Tyjae Spears: Spears looks like the clear-cut No. 2 in Tennessee, especially after the team placed Hassan Haskins on injured reserve, ending his 2023 season. Spears is a priority handcuff option playing behind the aging Derrick Henry in run-first attack.
  • Keaontay Ingram: The second-year back dominated work behind James Conner this preseason and the team moved on from Corey Clement and Ty’Son Williams. Ingram is worth a late-round dart in large leagues.
  • Colts RB Pecking Order: Zack Moss was the No. 1 last season after Jonathan Taylor went down late and probably deserves the nod again if Taylor is traded. Deon Jackson and Evan Hull split first team reps this preseason with Moss and Taylor out. Hull offers the most complete profile and is worthy of a late-round dart in large formats. Kenyan Drake was released.
  • Bengals RB Pecking Order: Chris Evans played ahead of Chase Brown in Week 2 of the preseason and rested with the starters in Week 3 while Chase played. Evans looks like the passing down back to start the season and might leapfrog Trayveon Williams (injured) for the No. 2 role behind Mixon.
  • Deonte Harty: Saw a 71% route participation in the preseason finale with Allen on the field, which matches what we have heard recently from those covering the team. Harty is worth a late-round dart in larger PPR formats.
  • Josh Downs: Played more than Alec Pierce in the preseason finale with a 95% route participation. This passing offense might be hard to extract value from, but Downs goes in the last round of drafts in deep leagues.
  • Robert Woods: Delivered a 100% route participation in his two starts with Stroud. Woods might not be a high-end target earner but could provide some early-season buffer while you wait on upside options to get going.
Preseason UR
Dwain McFarland
Dwain McFarland
Dwain is the Lead Fantasy Analyst and Director of Analytics of Fantasy Life. He is best known for the Utilization Report, which led to his first full-time role in the industry at Pro Football Focus. Dwain’s experience and background have helped him craft a unique voice in the fantasy football community. He has placed highly in multiple national season-long contests, including three top-five finishes at the FFPC. Before beginning his fantasy career in 2018, Dwain led product strategy and data and analytics teams for one of the largest healthcare improvement companies in the nation.