Are there really any eye-opening preseason learnings? No.
Chip Kelly’s Eagles look explosive on offense? Shocker. Indy’s defense could be what holds the team back from a Super Bowl? Happens every preseason. All right, so I suppose there is the New England thing. But are you sick of that story also? Are you going to make any assumptions from the preseason when coaches rarely open up their playbooks; locked-in starters barely play; and most of the competition is against those that won’t even be on NFL rosters in two weeks? The point is you need to be careful what to take away from the preseason games.
So allow me to be your “expert” tour guide, providing my preseason learnings of what positions should be ignored and what others shouldn’t:
Kicker: Paradigm Shift?
Yes, I’m starting with kicker. There has been some speculation that teams might be more likely to go for the two point conversion this year and we are seeing that in the preseason as well (12 all of last preseason vs 24 already this preseason). Last year’s Top 25 kickers hit 97 percent of their PATs in the preseason. This preseason they hit a combined 95 percent. The sample size and difference is small, but those of you who grab kickers for the guaranteed PATs might want to rethink that strategy and focus on those who will kick field goals.
With so much homogeneity with kickers, I also like to look for kickers whose preseason raises eyebrows one way or another. No kicker has really impressed me this offseason, but others have done the opposite. While Blair Walsh has been a frequent member of my past teams, given that he has made only four of nine kicks under 50 yards this preseason, I’ll be looking elsewhere this year. Speaking of looking elsewhere…
Defense/Special Teams: Curtains for You
It is not just those horrible bumble bee uniforms, but I would looks elsewhere for a DST than Pittsburgh this season. The Steelers might have their worst defense ever. They’ve given up over 330 yards in penalties as well as the most points this preseason. They look absolutely terrible, and the worst might have been the 43 points they gave up against the explosive Rex-Ryan coached Buffalo Bills. I’m sure a Rex Ryan team has put up 40+ points, but not against a good defense.
The Steelers probably won’t be the worst defense this year, but I would stay far, far away from them. Well, unless I am looking at whom my offensive players play this season. For context, the Saints gave up the most yards per game during the preseason last year and ended up allowing the third-most Fantasy points last year. By the way, you know who has given up the second-most points this preseason? The Baltimore Ravens. I’ll think they’ll be stouter than that (going against the high-octane Eagles, who they don’t play this season surely hurt), but Jeremy Hill and other AFC North players definitely look a little more attractive!
Tight End: Hill and Back
Before the preseason started, I had Josh Hill in my Top 10 tight ends based on Jimmy Graham’s departure and all I heard this offseason. I’ve learned that was probably a little aggressive as Ben Watson appears to be the “every-down TE.” Hill still has upside as a red zone threat, but seems limited to sub-packages.
The only other TE preseason learning I would mention is that I accepted Julius Thomas as a severe injury risk, but I’m not Captain Obvious. This brings us to quarterback, where I learned long ago that nothing is obvious and the preseason might be the most misleading when it comes to QBs.
Quarterback: Brock and Captain Kirk?
First off, veteran QBs barely play and it’s often in a very vanilla offense. It’s the players we don’t know, however, that we want to see, but often the preseason can be extremely misleading. Consider the preseason stats of these two young signal callers in their rookie preseason:
Tommy Terrible: 24 of 57 with an average yard per pass of less than six; i.e. not even within the Top 75 QB performances.
Sam Studly: 32 of 51 with an average yard per pass of 12.8
I’ll also tell you that the stats were a true reflection as the eye test said similarly. Tommy Terrible looked awful, often overthrowing his open receivers while Sam Studly looked poised and strong armed, explaining why he was a first round pick.
I’ll end the suspense. Sam Studly is actually Blake Bortles last year. His 2014 season? Not so good. Tommy Terrible? He went on to throw for over 4,000 yards that season; you know him as Cam Newton.
But there’s got to be something at QB, right?
Okay, one thing I look at is how does a QB’s offensive line look, especially if there are questions about the quarterback’s health. I know Trent Williams didn’t play, but that Washington OL makes every play look like a jail break. I would not expect anything from Kirk Cousins or RGIII or whatever tortured soul plays QB in Washington this year.
I also think people are underestimating the loss of Ryan Clady in Denver this year. Peyton Manning, not exactly known for his mobility, is going to see a lot of defensive lineman in his face this season, similar to what happened versus San Francisco. Manning’s current ADP is 3.4; I know I’m not taking that risk.
Wide Receiver: “Don’t Call it a Comeback” and “More Evidence than a Simpson trial”
Whether it was injury, poor team fit, or just general poor play, preseason is often the best time to look for likely comeback players of the year. There are few comeback candidates at quarterback and unless Ray Rice signs, I think the comeback players will be at WR. An older veteran like Larry Fitzgerald is a great candidate for a bounce-back season. Or given a new QB and new coordinator, I can see Mike Wallace bouncing back this year. But neither is my favorite.
Fantasy Football players too often struggle from recency bias, and it’s the only reason that I can see a player like Vincent Jackson and his previous 2-TD (but over 1,000 yard) season falling down the rankings. VJax has a new quarterback who has targeted him more than any other player this preseason and the big-armed Jameis Winston has enabled VJax to post a solid 23.5 yards per catch in limited action. We should expect to see the same thing this upcoming season.
However, I would caution you again not to look at preseason stats too much as Cody Latimer had a similar 23.2 yards per catch last year, and Justin Hunter had a monster preseason in 2014, racking up 10 catches for 217 yards and two TDs.
I’m not going to be high on a player because of his “offseason workout” or because of one great game or because of a roster change or because of some quote from his coach or teammates. However, when you start adding all of those up, the “preponderance of evidence” as they say in the legal world, begins to lean heavily in favor of that player. A perfect example of that type of player is Jarvis Landry.
Landry is coming off a not spectacular but strong rookie year. However, I had my reasons to doubt he could improve on last year’s numbers. He had one of the lowest depths of target and an unsustainable red zone rate for example. But let’s see what has happened since last season:
-News came out that Landry was working on his speed and looked faster.
-Kenny Stills signed with Miami, meaning he should open up some lanes for Landry.
-The Dolphins upgraded their OL.
-Landry had 13 targets and 11 catches for 115 yards through three games, making him Tannehill’s favorite receiver.
When we start adding up the parts, the sum of Landry’s upside is tremendous.
Is there someone else that it adds up? Of course, fellow second-year WR Brandin Cooks is another example whose situation has changed, they’re saying all the right things about, and seven catches for 164 yards and two TDs is a preview of what is to come this season. Of course I feel the same way about my deeeeeep sleeper Justin Hardy who has nine catches for 114 yards and a solid 12.7 yards per catch. But Hardy comes with little risk. Your typical RB however presents far more risk…
Running Back: It’s a Trap!
Admiral Ackbar aside, I’ve highlighted Matt Jones before, who has rushed 20 times for 139 yards, but I won’t belabor the point that the Redskins seem to be moving backwards and the OL is a mess. However, over the years I’ve learned that making assumptions at RB based on what I see in the preseason is foolhardy. Injuries and off-field activity (too many examples to list, you know what I’m talking about) are just too hard to predict.
The Denard Robinson/ T.J. Yeldon situation has received a lot of hype very recently, but Jacksonville preseason player performance and misleading are always synonymous. Also, beware of the hype train that is off the rails for Ameer Abdullah. You might get run over like last year’s Montee Ball owners (Speaking of Ball, despite very similar ADPs, Ronnie Hillman is the handcuff you want in Denver, definitely not Ball. Hillman is second in yards this preseason and currently running ahead of Juwan Thompson. But you knew that, right?) Between Joique Bell and Zack Zenner plus Theo Riddick, there is just too much to like in that Detroit backfield.
Detroit, Denver and Jacksonville highlight however what I often take away at RB from the preseason: there are a bunch of backfields to plan to avoid if possible. Sure, this player or that player could pay dividends, but it’s not worth the risk or the headache. Two backfields I’ve avoided on every one of my teams so far:
Dallas: Some experts are anointing Darren McFadden the real deal, while others are saying Joseph Randle is still the RB you want. Bottom line: It’s going to be a RBBC—unless of course Dallas signs someone else. Unless your State Farm agent can offer you insurance for picking a Cowboy RB, my advice is simple: stay away.
Tennessee. Bishop Sankey looks bad and his sub-4 YPC attests to that. David Cobb, however, has not looked much better and is currently in a walking boot. He’ll be the goal line back at some point this season probably, but offers little else at this time. Dexter McCluster is still in the mix, but my friends and I have had a name for him for some time now—it rhymes with sock peas. Don’t get lured in, every part of you will regret it.
The Titans are trying to figure it out, just as much as you are. They’re hoping to be ready for the season, just as you are. Maybe they figure it out; maybe not. Hopefully you keep in mind some of my preseason learnings—they might lead you to a postseason diploma.
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