What we learned in the preseason for fantasy, AFC edition
There’s not a whole lot of new information to glean after the fourth week of the NFL’s preseason that we didn’t already learn after Week 3. At least that’s how it’s been historically. Regardless, plenty of position battles and storylines have taken shape since camps began a few weeks ago. Below are the key fantasy takeaways for each team in the AFC.
We’ll run through the NFC tomorrow.
Chris Hogan and Phillip Dorsett headline the Patriots’ new-look pared-down receiving corps. Hogan is slated to be Tom Brady’s No. 1 as he’s lined up all across the formation and played the most snaps with Brady this preseason. Dorsett, the former first-round pick, has emerged as the No. 2 option (at least until Julian Edelman returns in Week 5) and showed well in the regular-season dress rehearsal, hauling in all four of his targets. Whether or not that duo pans out, Rob Gronkowski sure looks ready for a monster year. First-round rookie Sony Michel came with fumbling concerns, then was sidelined throughout the preseason while recovering from a knee procedure. Subsequently, Swiss Army Knife Rex Burkhead enters the season as the Patriots’ running back to own in redraft leagues.
After Josh Allen effectively face-planted in his biggest start, Nathan Peterman appears most likely to open the season as the Bills’ signal-caller. Peterman went 33-of-41 for 431 yards with three touchdowns and an interception that wasn’t his fault, although his 70.6 PFF passing grade reveals the trouble behind reading just the box score. Kelvin Benjamin is the de facto No. 1 receiving option, but he is a longshot to see the kind of volume he received in Carolina when he averaged about 1,000 yards and eight touchdowns on 124 targets per season.
The biggest fantasy storyline in Miami revolves around the backfield distribution between Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore. Unfortunately for Drake owners, head coach Adam Gase has remained steadfast in his plans to rely on both backs, thus sapping Drake’s fantasy ceiling. Save for the occasional Evan Engram or Rob Gronkowski, we all know the drill by now with fantasy expectations for rookie tight ends. If nothing else, Mike Gesicki’s lackluster preseason (one catch on four targets) steered away overzealous drafters.
The Jets selected Sam Darnold with the No. 3 overall pick to be the team’s present and future. However, the resurgent Teddy Bridgewater has given the team something to think about as he’s gone 28-of-38 for 316 yards with two touchdowns and a pick this preseason. A best-case scenario would probably be for Bridgewater to land with a QB-needy team via trade at some point. As is often the case with the Jets, the skill positions are virtually an afterthought for fantasy purposes.
Schematically, not a whole lot figures to change with former longtime quarterbacks coach Randy Fichtner taking over for Todd Haley as offensive coordinator. While JuJu Smith-Schuster is primed to step forward as a fantasy WR2 in his sophomore season (he’s still just 21 years old), the Steelers look like they struck gold with yet another rookie wideout, James Washington, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner from last year. Washington’s knack for coming down with 50-50 balls was on full display this preseason, and he’ll open the year with a steady role in three-receiver sets which, for the Steelers, is a base package. In the backfield, James Conner boasts a three-down skillset and has been running with purpose throughout camp. All indications are that Le’Veon Bell will once again report to the team just in time for the season opener, but perhaps Conner sees the field a bit more than usual in the early going. Bell was far and away the league’s snap leader among running backs last season.
It’s still Joe Flacco’s show, at least for now. After struggling early in the preseason, rookie Lamar Jackson came on strong in Week 3, completing 7-of-10 passes for 98 yards and a touchdown to go with another 39 yards and a score on the ground. The former Heisman Trophy winner is the top-ranked rookie quarterback in our staff’s consensus rankings. The player who consistently generated the most buzz in Ravens’ camp this summer is newcomer John Brown, who has developed an instant rapport with Flacco. Keep in mind that when healthy in 2015, Brown needed only 99 targets to go over 1,000 yards with seven touchdowns. In the backfield, there was a Kenneth Dixon sighting in the third preseason game, as he turned nine touches into 56 yards, and looked quick doing it.
Those willing to give John Ross a mulligan for his rookie season may just be in store for a nice return on investment in the late rounds of fantasy drafts. Ross has looked the part of a first-round pick this summer, highlighted by a 57-yard touchdown on the first pass play of the Bengals’ dress rehearsal. The week-to-week production may be volatile, but if there’s another WR to own besides A.J. Green in Cincinnati, it’s Ross. Head coach Marvin Lewis wants to limit Tyler Eifert to 50 snaps per game, but rest assured that a player who scored 18 touchdowns in a span of 21 games will be utilized heavily in the red zone. It’s easy to forget that until recently, Eifert carried a higher pedigree than fellow 2013 draftee Zach Ertz.
Todd Haley has no shortage of new toys to play with in Cleveland. Carlos Hyde finished as the No. 8 fantasy running back in PPR last season, then went out and signed a three-year deal to spearhead Cleveland’s run game. Yes, Nick Chubb will be involved in early downs and Duke Johnson will still get his on passing downs (Johnson was the RB11 in PPR last season). However, Hyde has been the league’s most elusive back this preseason and offers nice draft-day value with an ADP as a flex option. Baker Mayfield has shown well, but so, too, has Tyrod Taylor, who figures to hold down the starting job for the foreseeable future. A recent hamstring injury may limit Josh Gordon in the early going and open up more looks for Jarvis Landry and David Njoku.
Even with the season-ending knee injury to Marqise Lee, the Jaguars’ WR corps remains something of a jumbled mess. Keelan Cole and Dede Westbrook have impressed, as has rookie D.J. Chark. But perhaps the biggest beneficiary is free-agent pickup Donte Moncrief, who seemingly awoke from his preseason slumber to catch three passes for 62 yards after Lee exited the team’s third preseason game. Meanwhile, Leonard Fournette is slated for a three-down workload, which could push him into the elite fantasy running back conversation after he hauled in 36-of-43 targets a year ago.
The Titans’ may have ditched the exotic smashmouth offense, but the unit hasn’t exactly lit it up this preseason. Marcus Mariota has produced QB1 numbers in the past, although his QB17 ADP offers appealing ROI potential. For that to happen, he can’t force bad interceptions or overthrow Corey Davis on multiple big-gain opportunities, as he did in the Titans’ third preseason game. Speaking of Davis, he’s widely drawn rave reviews from beat writers throughout camp and appears primed for a big step forward. Interestingly, Jonnu Smith is listed as a co-starter at tight end on the latest depth chart, while Derrick Henry is the “1A” to Dion Lewis’ “1B” at running back.
Texans head coach Bill O’Brien wants you to know that Lamar Miller is a three-down back, and that’s good to know considering D’Onta Foreman is not yet ready to come off the PUP list. Miller apparently slimmed down this offseason, and it’s worth noting that he was on pace for 1,417 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns during the seven games Deshaun Watson was under center last season. As for Watson, he has ditched the knee brace, although he ended the preseason on an uninspiring note with a 16.7 passer rating in Week 3.
The good news is that it’s all systems go for Andrew Luck, who has never finished outside the top-eight fantasy quarterbacks when healthy. That puts T.Y. Hilton back in the fantasy WR1 conversation, while “Mr. Consistent” Ryan Grant has settled in as the team’s No. 2, a historically fantasy-relevant position with Luck at the helm. The bad news is Luck’s been sacked on 10 percent of his dropbacks behind a Colts’ supposedly improved offensive line that last year allowed Jacoby Brissett to be sacked at a league-high 10.31 percent. Marlon Mack has missed time with a hamstring injury, although none of the other backs have done anything to supplant him. New tight end Eric Ebron caught a touchdown in the third preseason game, but he’ll be touchdown-dependent given that he’s been heavily out snapped by Jack Doyle.
It’s been a bumpy ride at times, but the Patrick Mahomes hype machine enters the season with a full head of steam. The second-year pro tossed a 69-yard bomb to Tyreek Hill in the Chiefs’ second preseason game, then went 18-of-24 for 196 yards and a score in Week 3. Sammy Watkins has been moved all around the formation throughout camp, but most telling is that he’s managed only one catch on seven targets this preseason despite playing equal first-team snaps as Hill, who has 14 catches on 16 targets. In other words, there’s not a new sheriff in town. Last, and probably least, is the Chiefs’ defense, which sure looks like one to target for fantasy matchups on a weekly basis.
Mike Williams might not see the kind of target share to be a weekly starter in redraft leagues, although his red-zone role will keep him on DFS radars. Williams said he’s been heavily involved near the goal line, which is to be expected in the wake of Hunter Henry’s season-ending injury. Williams went up and got a 25-yard touchdown on a fade in the Chargers’ second preseason game.
Given how the game has evolved in the 10 years since Jon Gruden last coached, we simply don’t know what to expect from the Raiders offense when the lights go on. Granted, the Raiders offense finished in the bottom half of the league in yards and points in two of the three seasons under Jack Del Rio. Still, the preseason slate has left plenty of questions with the team putting up 16, 15, and 13 points. Offseason trade acquisition Martavis “White Tiger” Bryant drew Gruden’s ire for not picking up the playbook, while fellow newcomer Jordy Nelson has reportedly been moving like he’s 28.
Case Keenum was 12-of-18 for 148 yards in the Broncos’ dress rehearsal, engineering scoring drives in three of the team’s first four possessions. A safe-floor weekly streaming option, Keenum represents a significant upgrade for the Broncos’ pass-catchers. Rookie Courtland Sutton has impressed throughout camp and is in line to begin the season as Denver’s No. 3 WR. Elsewhere, head coach Vance Joseph continues to proclaim Devontae Booker as his starting running back despite getting outplayed by rookie Royce Freeman in virtually every metric. Freeman ranks fifth in elusive rating this preseason (min. 15 attempts), having forced a missed tackle on 33 percent of his rushes while averaging 4.0 yards after contact.