What we learned for fantasy in the preseason: NFC
With the preseason now behind us, it’s time to check in on all 32 teams and see what fantasy lessons we’ve gleaned from the season before the season. We’ll start our tour with the NFC, and conclude with the AFC Tuesday.
Dallas Cowboys: Ezekiel Elliott’s ADP has dropped from the top of the first round to the middle of the second round as uncertainty continues to surround the exact duration and timing of his six-game suspension, pending appeals. Fantasy drafters have since been flocking to Darren McFadden, whose average draft position has shot up a full eight rounds since July, according to Fantasy Football Calculator. However, Alfred Morris has actually graded out better overall while averaging 5.3 yards on 30 preseason carries, and his 110.0 elusive rating was second-best out of 36 qualifiers. McFadden averaged 5.1 YPC on 20 totes with a middle-of-the-pack 54.5 elusive rating. McFadden still has a leg up on the depth chart, but the career numbers favor Morris, who provides better value with an ADP seven rounds later.
New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr.’s sprained ankle has been the hot topic here, with reports ranging from Beckham likely being ready for Week 1, to possibly missing a week or two of the regular season. It’s a situation that will bear monitoring right up to the Giants’ Sunday night opener against Dallas. Elsewhere, Paul Perkins has become a polarizing figure in fantasy circles. Perkins was the nation’s most elusive runner his final year at UCLA, and that shiftiness was evident during the Giants’ preseason dress rehearsal when the O-line provided even just a smidgen of daylight. The Giants haven’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ahmad Bradshaw in 2010, but if the blocking continues to progress into the regular season (and that’s a big if), Perkins could wind up a steal at his seventh-round ADP as the RB34.
Washington Redskins: Newcomer Terrelle Pryor generated some buzz while making highlight-reel one-handed grabs early in training camp. But through three preseason games with Washington, Pryor caught only 2-of-7 targets for 28 yards, including two drops. Last year in Cleveland, he ranked 54th in drop rate and needed 132 targets to post 1,007 yards. Even with Jordan Reed and Josh Doctson again battling to stay healthy, Pryor’s current ADP as the WR13 is a bit rich given the other options on the board in that range. Meanwhile, Rob Kelley continues to be undervalued with his seventh-round ADP as the RB32 in drafts. Last year’s fourth-most elusive RB (61.5 rating), Kelley solidified his lead back role with 57 yards on 10 carries in the Redskins’ third preseason game.
Philadelphia Eagles: Carson Wentz appears poised for a sophomore leap. Other than tossing early touchdowns to new additions Torrey Smith and Alshon Jeffery in the third preseason game, Wentz has shown improvement in one of his problem areas from his rookie season. Last year, Wentz posted a 32.8 QB rating under pressure and an 80.5 QB rating against the blitz. This preseason, he sported a 95.8 QB rating under pressure and a 128.8 mark vs. the blitz. In addition to Jeffery and Smith, the Eagles are counting on revived third-year WR Nelson Agholor to replace Jordan Matthews in the slot. However, one of the new offensive pieces, LeGarrette Blount, has failed to stand out in practice or in games (2.8 YPC on 13 rushes), while second-year back Wendell Smallwood looked sharp in his only preseason action, logging 28 yards on four carries as he continues to state his case for an early-down role.
Green Bay Packers: Ty Montgomery has been on my overvalued list of fantasy players all summer due to his spotty usage and concern about his sickle cell trait, plus the fact that Green Bay drafted three running backs. Montgomery may not have necessarily needed a strong showing in the Packers’ third preseason game, although he certainly helped his case by rushing three times for 31 yards and a score to go with one catch for three yards. Still, rookie Jamaal Williams is not going away, and at times has rotated in with the first-team offense. Williams also flashed some receiving skills by catching 3-of-3 targets for 46 yards in the Packers’ dress rehearsal. As for Green Bay’s passing game, it’s been business as usual with Jordy Nelson back in the fold.
Detroit Lions: The Lions’ front office recently pushed their chips behind Matthew Stafford with a record-setting contract extension to be the face of the franchise for the next five years. With Marvin Jones underwhelming last season and Anquan Boldin retiring, Stafford could certainly benefit from another weapon or two stepping up. Perennial tease Eric Ebron has once again struggled to stay healthy, missing virtually all of August with a hamstring injury. However, impressive rookie wideout Kenny Golladay has worked himself into a role with a strong camp and two-touchdown debut in the Lions’ preseason opener. In the backfield, Ameer Abdullah (one of my favorite undervalued picks) has looked solid in his return from an Achilles injury, rushing for 78 yards on 18 carries while averaging 3.2 yards after contact.
Minnesota Vikings: It wasn’t that long ago that Minnesota’s backfield looked like one to avoid in fantasy, following the signing of Latavius Murray and the second-round selection of Dalvin Cook to join Jerick McKinnon. But the cream eventually rises to the top, as they say, and injuries to Murray and McKinnon opened the door for Cook to rise to the top of the depth chart, and he does not appear willing to cede that spot. Cook has out-graded all other Vikings’ halfbacks this preseason, logging 70 yards on 17 carries and forcing four missed tackles. With Michael Floyd suspended the first four games, second-year pro Laquon Treadwell made the most of his first preseason action, working with the first team and hauling in all three targets for 36 yards (and a 116.7 WR rating). Coach Mike Zimmer has a history of essentially “redshirting” rookies which, if the case here, could make Treadwell a potential late-round steal in fantasy drafts.
Chicago Bears: Following the unfortunate season-ending injury to Cameron Meredith, it’s now or never for former No. 7 overall pick Kevin White to step up as he enters his third year coming off two lost seasons. Some observers feel that White has lost his explosion after two leg surgeries, while others remain hopeful. As our Pat Thorman has pointed out, the Bears now have a league-high 247 WR targets unaccounted for from 2016, and, well, they have to go somewhere. For what it’s worth, White did make a few plays in Chicago’s dress rehearsal, and through four games last season he averaged nine targets while dropping only one catchable ball. Kendall Wright also gets a bump in value. All indications are that Mike Glennon has won the starting QB gig, but it wouldn’t be a surprise for rookie Mitch Trubisky to end up making some starts this year. Whoever is under center, Jordan Howard can expect to see more stacked boxes, although that certainly didn’t stop him from averaging 5.2 YPC as a rookie and finishing second in the league in rushing.
Atlanta Falcons: If we take away nothing else from the Falcons’ offensive performance in the preseason, it’s that life after Kyle Shanahan might not be all peaches and cream, after all. No NFC offense graded out worse than Atlanta after three exhibitions. Of course, it’s a mostly veteran offense and we’ve seen how good the main cogs can be. On the flip side, it remains to be seen what Steve Sarkisian can do as a coordinator at the pro level. Also of note, Matt Ryan had a 150.2 passer rating last season when targeting Austin Hooper, who was instrumental in the Falcons’ Super Bowl run and figures to benefit from the departure of Jacob Tamme. But with Hooper limited to 31 snaps and three catches (on three targets) in preseason action, we’ll have to wait and see if he can pick up where he left off when the real games start.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: With Doug Martin suspended for the first three games, the Bucs are counting on Jacquizz Rodgers – and to a lesser extent, Charles Sims – to pick up the slack in the early going. While he hasn’t exactly blown anyone away this preseason, fantasy owners can at least take solace that Rodgers carried the mail with the first-team offense throughout the first half of the third preseason game. Elsewhere, we’ve only gotten glimpses of DeSean Jackson in game action, while Chris Godwin has outshined fellow rookie O.J. Howard thus far. Godwin has drawn rave reviews all camp and turned 11 preseason targets into seven catches for 100 yards, while Howard’s contributions have mostly come as a blocker. That Cameron Brate is being drafted a round or so later in redraft leagues is a headscratcher. Much like last season, Jameis Winston has mixed very good play with some very erratic play.
New Orleans Saints: Brandin Cooks’ trade to New England opens up an opportunity for Willie Snead – as well as Ted Ginn and Brandon Coleman – but with Drew Brees getting the obligatory veteran treatment, we’re left leaning more on practice reports to gauge the Saints’ WR corps. Coleman, for what it’s worth, has “stood out,” according to coach Sean Payton. At tight end, it’s been a quiet preseason for Coby Fleener, who has given little indication of a major breakout entering his second year in an offense that has historically been among the most generous to tight ends. Similarly, preseason usage has done little to clear up the increasingly cloudy mess that is the Saints’ backfield. Rookie Alvin Kamara has been awfully impressive, turning one catch into 22 yards and nine carries into 96 yards plus a score, earning PFF’s top elusive rating (286.7) in the process.
Carolina Panthers: There are no shortage of fantasy storylines surrounding the Panthers’ new-look offense. One of the old guard, Jonathan Stewart, has somewhat pumped the brakes on the Christian McCaffrey hype machine. In preseason games, Stewart averaged 3.82 yards after contact and ranked fourth league-wide with a 159.1 elusive rating. Meanwhile, McCaffrey forced zero missed tackles on 20 touches, for a 0.0 elusive score (and 1.71 yards after contact per attempt). Kelvin Benjamin shed a bunch of weight this summer, and then caught 4-of-4 targets for 36 yards and a score in the third preseason game as he looks to put 2016 behind him. Devin Funchess, on the other hand, has won the No. 2 WR job seemingly by default.
Seattle Seahawks: Thomas Rawls and Eddie Lacy are co-starters, according to Pete Carroll, who also said the backfield is “wide open” and that he’d have no problem going with C.J. Prosise or exciting rookie Chris Carson or whoever gets the hot hand. What, you were expecting clarity? Rawls (ankle) and Prosise (groin) sat out the Seahawks’ third preseason tilt, but both are expected to be ready for Week 1. In their absence, Lacy got the start but Carson came in on the second play and the two rotated in and out. Lacy hasn’t looked particularly explosive, though he did run for 21 yards on four carries against Kansas City and has averaged 3.21 yards after contact this preseason while forcing four missed tackles on 14 rushes. Carson has put up 156 yards on 25 touches to earn himself a roster spot. If there’s a takeaway here, it is not to bank on any one of these RBs as more than a possible flex play here and there.
Arizona Cardinals: Just when it was starting to look like John Brown’s continued soft tissue injury woes might sap his remaining draft stock, he goes and scores two TDs in the Cardinals’ final preseason tuneup after missing the first three games with a lingering quad injury. Brown remains about as boom-or-bust as they come (and a solid best-ball buy), but for every game like this latest, the possibility will always remain that his sickle cell trait could pop up at any time and leave him sidelined for prolonged stretches. His availability also impacts where J.J. Nelson and Jaron Brown sit in the Cardinals’ WR pecking order. Beyond that, it’s been business as usual for David Johnson, Carson Palmer, and Larry Fitzgerald.
Los Angeles Rams: The new-look Rams not only have a new city and a new coaching staff, but also the arrival of a legit (and badly needed) playmaker on the perimeter in Sammy Watkins. Watkins is back to full health and playing for a new contract, but the concerns about his fantasy stock in Los Angeles have so far proven very real. In two games (and 52 snaps), Watkins had just two catches (on five targets) for eight yards, including an interception thrown his direction. A third-round pick in fantasy drafts earlier this summer, Watkins can now be had in the sixth in many leagues. Second-year QB Jared Goff started out promising but came back down to earth with a dreadful third preseason game, turning the ball over and wilting under pressure. One encouraging development has been his connection with rookie WR Cooper Kupp, who has run 64 percent of his routes from the slot and amassed eight catches (on 10 targets) for 105 yards and a score. Todd Gurley was given off for the season’s dress rehearsal and has averaged a 2016-like 3.3 yards on 12 carries.
San Francisco 49ers: New starter Brian Hoyer had his best performance in the 49ers’ third preseason game, completing 12-of-17 passes for 176 yards, two TDs and a 143.3 passer rating. The only real wart was his 47.9 rating on four dropbacks under pressure, as he completed 1-of-3 passes and took a sack. The ground game has been slow to come around under new coach Kyle Shanahan, with San Francisco sitting 19th in PFF run grade and 21st in run-blocking grade after three preseason games. Despite some early-summer buzz surrounding rookie Joe Williams, UDFA and SPARQ darling Matt Breida appears to have staked claim to the No. 2 RB gig, especially with Williams hitting injured reserve over the weekend. That leaves Carlos Hyde standing as the presumed three-down back, and while Hyde failed to force any missed tackles on 21 touches, he did catch 3-of-3 targets for 45 yards and a score in the third preseason game.