What To Watch For: Saturday 8/22
Preseason game number three is known as the dress rehearsal. The games are as close to the real thing as players will experience prior to Week 1, and the run-up to those contests is marked by simulated regular season structure and game plan implementation. For fantasy football it’s well timed for drawing more concrete conclusions from personnel, formations, and increased snaps for players that we will draft over the next several days.
Tampa Bay at Buffalo (4:30 pm; NFL Network)
The Bucs’ starting offensive line improved last week after wetting themselves in the opener. Doug Martin’s workload, Mike Evans’ learning curve, and Vincent Jackson’s connection with Josh McCown are all secondary story lines to the continued gelling of the O-line.
Rookie tight ends rarely produce right away, but Austin Seferian-Jenkins has a shot. Tampa has run over three times as many two-TE looks (32%) as last year (10%), and ASJ already has 72 total snaps. He’s being targeted down the field and has caught three of four passes.
So far this preseason, Fred Jackson has been targeted once every 4.9 snaps, Bryce Brown every 10, Anthony Dixon every 10.3, and “space back” C.J. Spiller once in 30 snaps. That’ll change (Spiller targeted every 9.9 snaps in 2013), but it’d be nice to see it before Week 1.
Buffalobills.com may have named Robert Woods the “MVP of Training Camp” but for now we’ll have to take their word for how he’ll click with a struggling E.J. Manuel once the lights come on. He’s played only 16 out of 55 snaps with the starters in three games. We need to see more tonight.
Dallas at Miami
Watch for signs that Dallas’ defense will be able to stop…anyone. Their offense was efficient last year and they still ran the fewest plays, capping fantasy totals. It’ll be a red flag if Tony Romo and the starters are forced to play deep into the second half due to a lack of reps.
Terrance Williams’ ADP has hovered in the late seventh-round, above wideouts much higher on the target totem pole in their offenses like Eric Decker and Kelvin Benjamin. Look for clues that he’ll be consistently involved when the first-team offense is out there.
After an encouraging opener against Atlanta, the Dolphins running game couldn’t get anything going last week against Tampa Bay. It’s time to build some self-confidence against the wettest of paper bag defenses. Look for Lamar Miller and perhaps Damien Williams to shine.
Mike Wallace made his preseason debut last week after missing the opener with a hamstring strain. He caught none of his three targets on 12 routes run, including a drop. His chemistry with Ryan Tannehill is still very much in question, especially on shots downfield, and will be a point of emphasis tonight.
Tennessee at Atlanta
The biggest knock on Jake Locker is his accuracy, but in a small preseason sample it’s improved. His Accuracy Percentage of 75 would have ranked seventh in 2013, and last week he was four-for-four on passes between 10 and 19 yards downfield. See if it continues.
Locker has been aided by a clean pocket. Just two of 15 drop-backs have come with pressure (13%), after that mark was 39 percent last year. If it keeps up, the Titans’ ascending offensive line should help more than just their running backs (4th-best run blocking in ’13).
Sam Baker is no great shakes, but now that he’s out for the season third-year tackle Lamar Holmes will again start for the Falcons. He was PFF’s 75th-graded tackle in 2013 (–38.2), and despite grading positively in 99 preseason snaps (+1.5)he is not to be trusted yet.
Look for Devonta Freeman to get more first-team reps, as it’s the last chance to test his pass protection skills against top competition. He’ll need to be adequate to surpass Jacquizz Rodgers, whose Pass Blocking Efficiency has been strong in each of his three seasons.
Washington at Baltimore
We saw Robert Griffin connect a couple of times last week with DeSean Jackson, who’s filling the “Z” role in Jay Gruden’s offense (think: A.J. Green). It’s time to we see more of Pierre Garcon. He’s got a late-third round ADP and hasn’t yet seen a preseason target.
Keep an eye on Washington’s transition from a zone-blocking to a power running scheme, as Alfred Morris has busted a couple nice runs but also has been stuffed too often. A less frenetic Griffin would be comforting to see as well. The Ravens defense will be a good test.
Speaking of offensive line transitions, Baltimore’s switch to Gary Kubiak’s zone-blocking scheme has gone well, and both Ray Rice and Bernard Pierce have looked promising. Pay particular attention to center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Ricky Wagner tonight.
Many are (smartly) predicting a breakout for Torrey Smith as he takes over the “X” role in Kubiak’s offense, and it’d be nice to see he and Joe Flacco connect a few times. Smith has only been targeted twice (one catch) in two games while running 26 pass routes.
New Orleans at Indianapolis
With Drew Brees finally making his preseason debut, we’ll get a crash course in what New Orleans has in store for defenses this year. All three running backs are campaigning for more looks in the passing game, so watch for who’s on the field when Brees throws.
Jairus Byrd will make his debut and pair with second-year stud Kenny Vaccaro to form arguably the league’s best safety tandem. Along with Cam Jordan, Junior Galette, and Keenan Lewis, among others, the unit has serious playmaking firepower and gets a stiff test tonight.
Similarly, the Colts’ passing game will have a much better idea of where it stands after facing New Orleans. There’s been increasing talk that they’re best served using the pass to set up the run (no kidding, especially with their line issues). But as we’ve found out with this offensive coaching staff, talk is cheap.
If they do unleash Andrew Luck in games before trailing by three scores, who’s on the field is an obvious story line. They seemingly want to use ‘12’ personnel, although if the question is Coby Fleener versus Hakeem Nicks (who finally showed a pulse last week), the answer may be more ’11’ looks.
St. Louis at Cleveland
In Sam Bradford’s first action since his ACL tear he completed 75 percent of his passes, including one of two downfield shots. He wasn’t blitzed once, however. Watch how he deals with a Browns defense that blitzed on 40 percent of Washington’s drop-backs last week.
Bradford looking downfield is a good sign, as his 2013 average depth of target mark was minuscule (7.1). He hooked up with breakout candidate Brian Quick 21-yards downfield (plus 20 YAC). With Kenny Britt sitting out tonight, Quick and (hopefully) Tavon Austin should flash.
Don’t expect to see Johnny Manziel’s “package” tonight, as he has enough to develop within the regular offense. Many expect him to light it up after being named the backup because, well …Browns. But his footwork, pre-snap reads, and patience in the pocket all remain major issues.
Jordan Cameron is going in the middle of the fifth round as the fourth tight end off the board, so it’d be nice to see him get into the flow of the offense. He and Brian Hoyer made sweet music in a small sample last year, but Cameron didn’t catch any of his three targets on 12 routes last week.
Minnesota at Kansas City
Worries over Cordarrelle Patterson’s role and usage are fading, as he’s played nearly all of the snaps with the starters and hasn’t only been catching dump-offs. Of his 54 receiving yards, less than half of them (22) have come after the catch. Keep an eye on both trends.
Kyle Rudolph’s ADP rose nearly a full round over the last week, from the late eighth to the late seventh. It’s tough to definitively project target volume with Adrian Peterson again sitting out, but watch for signs that his developing cohesion with Matt Cassel supports this rise.
The Chiefs lost their three highest-graded lineman in free agency, and now right tackle Donald Stephenson is suspended for four games. Stephenson’s no Willie Roaf, but with left tackle Eric Fisher regularly getting rag-dolled, their line has dumpster fire potential. Keep a close eye on them tonight.
Jamaal Charles will sit this one out, so Knile Davis will be a proxy for what the consensus top-two fantasy back will be dealing with in Week 1. Dwayne Bowe is suspended for Week 1 and won’t play tonight either, so it’ll give us a good look – if we aren’t forced to cover our eyes.
Houston at Denver
Last week Ryan Fitzpatrick bounced back from a horrible debut. He completed three of five passes 10 or more yards downfield, nine of 11 total, and had a 128.3 QB Rating while under pressure. With Arian Foster and Andre Johnson likely to play, the Amish Rifle finally has all his bullets.
With tight ends figuring prominently in Bill O’Brien’s offense watch rookie C.J. Fiedorowicz, who’s coming along faster than expected, and veteran Garrett Graham, who will be filling the Aaron Hernandez role. Graham has just one target in 22 pass routes over two games.
Take note of Denver’s linebackers tonight. They were thin already and recently lost one of their best, Danny Trevathan. Replacement Brandon M. Marshall acquitted himself well last week. Denver’s pass rush and coverage are strengths, but opponents will attack their backers.
Emmanuel Sanders (thigh) is expected to play, and it’s just in time. He wasn’t targeted on 12 routes in the opener, and rookie Cody Latimer is already opening eyes. It’s tough to envision he or Wes Welker holding Latimer back for very long – especially when Denver is in the red-zone.
Pat Thorman is a Lead Writer for PFF Fantasy and was named 2013 Newcomer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. You can follow him on Twitter at @Pat_Thorman