What To Watch For: Saturday 8/16
Pat Thorman checks out fantasy-relevant story lines on tap for Saturday's preseason action.
What To Watch For: Saturday 8/16
Now that we’re into the second preseason games, or third for the Giants and Bills, the available fantasy football takeaways are increasing. Starters will play into the second quarter in most cases. We can glean more information from personnel groups and which players are involved in them. The second halves of contests are more instructive as well, as players who flash will secure backup roles and become fantasy-relevant during the season when injury attrition inevitably sets in.
And with any luck the officials will dial back penalty calls, as they search for their own midseason form. Although we probably shouldn’t hold our breath.
Packers at Rams (4:00 pm; NFL Network)
The tight end battle between Brandon Bostick, rookie Richard Rodgers, and fantasy non-entity Andrew Quarless, has the look of a year-long value trap. None will be any higher than fourth on the targets totem pole. Beyond the starting wideouts, it appears that Jarrett Boykin isn’t having a strong enough camp to hold off rookie Davante Adams for long. Yet Adams has had his own hiccups, which athletic freak Jeff Janis has not. Quite the opposite, to be honest. The backup quarterback battle is less sexy, but that role has been fantasy-relevant recently. Scott Tolzien appears poised to surpass veteran Matt Flynn. By now we know Flynn, and Tolzien’s the Devil we don’t. Either would be interesting in very deep or 2QB leagues they had to start.
With Brian Quick and Kenny Britt the starters, it will be interesting to see how St. Louis attempts to get Tavon Austin more involved. He needs to start fast because Stedman Bailey will return after a four game suspension and he’s better at football. Austin will be working with starter Sam Bradford, who will play at least a full quarter in his first action since tearing an ACL. Thus far his play in camp has received positive reviews. Rookie running back Tre Mason has shown promise as a pass blocker, which was a major question about his game. He still profiles as more of a passing downs back, with Benny Cunningham acting as Zac Stacy’s direct backup. Pay attention to how the trio performs behind a potentially dominant Rams offensive line.
Giants at Colts
We’re getting close to last call for Adrien Robinson to show…anything. New York’s tight end depth chart is the weakest in the NFL and he’s finally getting snaps with the first team offense. Wideout Corey Washington has excellent size and speed, is a small school undrafted rookie, and has been opening eyes. He’ll get another chance with first-round rookie Odell Beckham sitting again with a hamstring strain, and Mario Manningham a shell of his former self. Washington is battling Marcus Harris for one of the last spots in a crowded receiving corps. It may not matter who’s (not) catching passes if Eli Manning can’t make strides in Ben McAdoo’s offense at a quicker pace. Luckily the running game and offensive line have shown signs of progress. Even luckier for New York is they have five preseason games this year to get their act together.
Andrew Luck will play an entire quarter and take snaps from rookie center Jonotthan Harrison, who is replacing injured starter Khaled Holmes. Holmes should be ready for the opener, but along with the loss of guard Donald Thomas, his absence is a setback for an offensive line that’s weak in the middle. How Luck distributes his targets is of great interest, as is how often tight end Dwayne Allen releases into pass routes. Trent Richardson, who’s supposedly looked excellent in practice, should have more success running against the Giants front than he did against the Jets. Indianapolis will wisely save most of Ahmad Bradshaw’s dwindling bullets for the regular season and give touches to Dan Herron – who’s reportedly may be part of a backfield rotation. While that’s doubtful, it’s a story line worth watching since the Colts backfield depth chart isn’t exactly Mount Everest these days.
Jets at Bengals
New York’s starters are scheduled to play the entire first half according to head coach Rex Ryan. That includes Chris Ivory, although don’t count on seeing too much of him as he deals with a rib injury. That should give Chris Johnson more work than the five touches he got in the opener. He’ll need more than what the Jets offensive line gave in the first game, as will quarterback Geno Smith – who was pressured on half of his six dropbacks. Speaking of drops, Smith has been dealing with a couple of his young pass-catchers consistently flubbing his throws. Jace Amaro and Stephen Hill are not to be trusted at this point, despite their otherwise impressive physical traits. Michael Vick should also get a few snaps with the starters, even if it’s in a change-of-pace capacity.
Keep as close an eye on Cincinnati’s starting defense as on their fantasy-relevant players. If Hue Jackson’s bunch are going to run as much as advertised, it will have to be in conjunction with a strong defense. Pay particular attention to Margus Hunt, who might be able to mitigate the free agent loss of defensive end Michael Johnson. On the offensive side of the ball, we should get our first look at Jeremy Hill running with the starters, a couple of series with Andy Dalton behind center, and potentially some clues as to how they’ll deal with the absence of wideout Marvin Jones. Watch for any single-wideout looks with two tight ends and H-back Ryan Hewitt paired with another runner in the backfield.
Ravens at Cowboys (7:00 pm; NFL Network)
Bernard Pierce’s ADP will likely skyrocket after the Ravens gash the Cowboys’ run defense tonight, as will Ray Rice’s. Baltimore’s rebuilt offensive line looked much improved last week, albeit primarily against 49ers’ backups. Still, watch for signs of cohesion as the line continues its transition to Gary Kubiak’s zone blocking scheme. Joe Flacco also was sharp in limited snaps during the opener, as was wideout Steve Smith and tight end Dennis Pitta, on their single target each. Watch for Flacco to try to connect with Torrey Smith downfield before the starters are ushered off the field before halftime. When the backups come on, see if rookie running back Lorenzo Taliaferro can build on his strong first outing (5.5 yards per carry on 13 attempts).
The seemingly underrated Ravens’ defense will be a stern test for quarterback Tony Romo during his first live snaps of 2014. The offensive line, a potential top-five unit, got off to a great start last week, and after receiving the bubble-wrap treatment during the opener, running backs DeMarco Murray and Lance Dunbar should see a handful of chances behind the starting big uglies. Keep an eye on the backup running back battle, as Joseph Randle showed surprising shiftiness in the first preseason game. Ryan Williams, if healthy, has the higher ceiling. The battle for depth chart positioning behind number two wideout Terrance Williams also bears watching, with Devin Street and Chris Boyd names to know. By then Brandon Weeden will be behind center, improbably attempting to build off of his strong first outing as a Cowboy.
Bills at Steelers
E.J. Manuel looked better during Buffalo’s second preseason game and actually completed nearly 70 percent of his passes – three of them to rookie wideout Sammy Watkins. With Mike Williams seemingly entrenched as the other starting wideout, take note of the battle for the third receiver spot between incumbent Robert Woods and feisty fourth-year undrafted free agent Chris Hogan. The backfield touch distribution will once again be dissected, although not many concrete conclusions can be drawn just yet. Unless C.J. Spiller gets a carry inside the five yard line – in which case you should immediately high-five the person next to you. Pay particular attention to how Bryce Brown looks because if he were heavily involved in the running back rotation it would create quite the fantasy quagmire. Of course not much of the above will matter if Buffalo’s offensive line doesn’t begin playing better than they have to this point.
When it comes to the Steelers, the question on everyone’s mind is how much work, exactly, LeGarrette Blount will steal away from Le’Veon Bell? For a running back as dependent on volume as Bell was last year (3.5 yards per carry; 40th in Elusive Rating), losing more than a small handful of carries each game is a big deal. It remains to be seen whether Blount is shifty enough to deal with the Steelers’ inconsistent run blocking, or if rookie Dri Archer will steal away an appreciable amount of Bell’s 62 passing targets. Continue to monitor number two wideout Markus Wheaton’s developing connection with Ben Roethlisberger. Rookie wideout Martavis Bryant was abysmal in his Steelers debut, although growing pains were expected. Another raw but toolsy rookie, newly-signed running back Stephen Houston, will attempt to show Patriots coach Bill Belichick that he made a mistake by cutting him after a preseason fumble.
Dolphins at Buccaneers
After a very encouraging 10-play opening touchdown drive last week against the Falcons, the fantasy football buzz around Ryan Tannehill is starting to grow – with some naming him a poor man’s Nick Foles. We’ll know a bit more about how closely offensive coordinator Bill Lazor’s offense mirrors that of Chip Kelly’s after tonight. Tampa Bay’s starting defense is much improved and will offer more resistance than Atlanta’s did. Both starting wideouts, Mike Wallace and Brian Hartline, are expected to play after missing the preseason opener. It’s still unclear whether Knowshon Moreno will be active for the game, but perhaps he’s better off sitting out another week until the offensive line has more time to get their run blocking shored up. The unit pass protected well, but was mostly abysmal during handoffs. That’s rough news for Lamar Miller as he attempts to hold off Moreno for the starting job.
Speaking of poor play from the starting offensive line, no unit was as bad as the Bucs were last week. The rest of the offense, including both quarterbacks, didn’t have much of a chance to show what they could do, and things might not be any better this week against their other in-state rivals. The battle for the number two running back is down to Mike James and Bobby Rainey, but both will get touches while rookie Charles Sims recovers from ankle surgery. Look for signs of increased consistency from rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, as well as more action for rookie wideout Mike Evans (2 targets, 0 catches last week), and starting running back Doug Martin (3 carries, six yards). Tight end Tim Wright also should continue to be monitored, as he is rumored to be getting snaps in the slot.
Falcons at Texans
Julio Jones is scheduled to see some work for the first time since his foot surgery. It’s been a while since both he and Roddy White, who caught all four targets in the opener, shared the field while both were completely healthy. Pay attention to who else is on the field at the same time. Third wideout Harry Douglas holds appeal as a handcuff for both starting pass-catchers, but if he also plays significant snaps at the same time as his fellow wideouts, his fantasy value increases. More snaps for Douglas means fewer targets for tight end Levine Toilolo, whose sleeper status has faded despite no real competition for the starting role. Rookie tackle Jake Matthews struggled in his first start and it gets no easier. J.J. Watt is on tap for the first round pick. Good luck to him, and to Matt Ryan. Another rookie, running back Devonta Freeman, is looking to build on a strong first outing – including in pass protection.
To say that nothing went well for the Texans’ offense in their opener against the Cardinals would be exaggerating. At least their flight didn’t crash in the desert. Other than that, their performance did closely resemble a plane wreck – but at least there’s nowhere to go but up. While Andre Johnson and Arian Foster are practicing this week, it’d be a surprise if they played much, if at all. At least it gives us a look at Foster’s new backup, Jonathan Grimes. With a rebooted depth chart behind him, Grimes’ value has risen considerably as the next man up behind a runner who’s been prone to injury of late. Of course he has to perform. New staring quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick also needs to perform, and a hell of a lot better than he did in the opener. Still, Bill O’Brien runs a complicated offense and the first time out is probably not the best sample to judge Fitzpatrick on.
Cardinals at Vikings
There’s a lot to watch for with the Cardinals, including whether Carson Palmer can keep the momentum going that began halfway through last season. Also trying to build off of a strong start will be rookie slot receiver John Brown, who was targeted 10 times in the opener and drew an odd, if complementary, comparison to former Cardinal Anquan Boldin. He started because Michael Floyd missed the game, but the third-year stud should see his first live snaps of the year against the Vikings. Keep an eye on Arizona’s offensive line, as it’s the one thing that can derail the offensive explosion that many are betting on this year. Along those lines, redshirt-rookie first rounder Jonathan Cooper probably won’t suit up due to a toe injury. Rumor has it the guard’s starting role is in jeopardy, and Earl Watford is the man set to take it – so pay particular attention to the work he does tonight.
Polarizing as a fantasy asset, Cordarrelle Patterson caught all three of his targets while playing 20 snaps during the opener. Watch for more clues as to if he will offer reliably consistent production. Rookie passer Teddy Bridgewater had an up-and-down debut, followed up by a rough week of practice. It looks like Matt Cassel will get the nod to start the season, which isn’t a bad thing for wideout Greg Jennings. Keep an eye on their connection to be sure it isn’t small sample noise. With Adrian Peterson wisely saving his strength, rookie runner Jerick McKinnon gets another shot to claim the number two role. He didn’t overwhelm during the opener, but his talent is evident. The rebuilding Vikings are well on their way, with a starting lineup that doesn’t look bad on paper. The problem is their roster is paper-thin, and a run of injuries would quickly sink their party boat. Look for signs of unheralded reinforcements making strides among their backups.
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