After six long months, the NFL is back. Nothing says preseason more than stammering rookies, grumpy coaches and botched hand-offs. Trying to glean useful information now is like forecasting a NASCAR race based on just the pit crews. Week one of the regular season is the first time you can truly know about each player. Unfortunately, you will have already drafted your fantasy team.
Following the preseason is very useful but only if viewed with a discerning eye. Some things are real. Many things are not.
There are 37 players on every team that will be cut. The preseason roster limit is 90 players until after week three. The cut-down to 75 players occurs on September 1st. The first two weeks of the NFL preseason are mostly about determining which players will make the final roster. There is little new on display in preseason games. Teams use the practice field for learning the offense and defense. Preseason games are for trying out players. There are 90 players who are trying to grab one of those 53 spots. That is almost like an entire second NFL that will be out of work before the first game of the season.
Quarterbacks do not matter. The better the quarterback, the less you will see of him. Of the top 13 preseason quarterbacks of 2014, the only actual starters were Blake Bortles and EJ Manuel. Quarterbacks cannot truly distinguish themselves in any game since each opposing defense is full of pending roster cuts anyway. They can legitimately look bad though if they throw a lot of interceptions and incompletions but even those may be on the receivers. Elite quarterbacks rarely play. No NFL team ever reached the Super Bowl and said “Good thing we had that QB competition last summer.” The only exceptions are rookies or veteran starters on a new team who need the work.
Week one is about the cut list and the backfield. Expect to see camp battles for backfield starters to play out in the first week as well as the first glimpse of any player who is new to the team. Last year had Ryan Jennings and Mark Ingram as the two best backs in week one. Tre Mason, Bishop Sankey, Terrance West, Devonta Freeman and others were getting action in that week for evaluation purposes. Almost no primary backs will play more than a token few carries since teams use this week to evaluate the unknowns in their backfield. Almost all wideouts with much work are just being reviewed for the final roster. Week one is mainly just football to watch while all your favorite TV shows are on summer hiatus.
Week two focuses more on wide receivers and back-up running backs. The second game will have more primary receivers playing and with more catches. Unlike week one, the best wideouts last year for this week included Justin Hunter, Jordan Matthews, Antonio Brown, A.J. Green and Dez Bryant. There will also be a number of back-up running backs who get 10+ carries. No need to jeopardize the starting rushers. And if any of the back-ups look good, take it with a grain of salt since both the offensive and defensive lines will also be trying out players. This week doesn’t tend to uncover much and is more about running the offense through scripted plays designed to better evaluate certain players and positions. This is often the week that some unknown running back posts big stats in the second half of the game. Almost everything that happens in the second half doesn’t matter to your fantasy team and will only make them appear far better than they really are.
Week three offers the most valuable view. Traditionally the only time that the first team gets significant playing time is in the first half of their third preseason game. Last year this week produced four quarterbacks with more than 200 passing yards – Peyton Manning, Matt Ryan, Tom Brady and Russell Wilson. The primary running backs are still limited to token carries but once again this week helps cement the depth chart for the backfield. Now is especially important to look at the players new to the team – whether veterans or rookies. This is the game you want to see an offense march down the field two or three times with points on every drive. This is not the time to see struggles in the passing offense because the opposing secondaries are even tougher when the season opens.
The week three game is the best time to feel good – or not – about your favorite sleepers. It may only be an abbreviated look for many players but at least it will be first team versus first team even if the offense uses basic plays. If you want to rely on anything you see all summer, let it be the first half of the week three game.
Week four is meaningless for fantasy purposes. After their third game, teams must cut 15 players down to a roster of 75 as of Tuesday, September 1st. After the week four games complete on the next Friday, the final cut down to 53 players is Saturday, September 5th.The final preseason game is almost exclusively used to determine which 22 final players must be released. The final roster spots are still critical for an NFL team to supply depth and conduct practices. But it won’t matter much to fantasy football.
Most players have little to prove in the preseason. Training camp and practices are where players learn the offense and get back into playing shape. But preseason games will be revealing for select individual players.
BEST PLAYERS TO TRACK IN PRESEASON GAMES
Quarterbacks: Josh McCown (Browns), Brian Hoyer (Texans), Sam Bradford (Eagles), Jameis Winston (Buccaneers) and Marcus Mariota (Titans)
Running Backs: David Johnson (Cardinals), Tevin Coleman (Falcons), LeSean McCoy (Bills), Ameer Abdullah (Lions), T.J. Yeldon (Jaguars), C.J. Spiller (Saints), Roy Helu (Raiders), Melvin Gordon (Chargers), David Cobb (Titans) and the entire backfields for the Cowboys, Giants, Texans and Jets
Wide Receivers: Breshad Perriman (Ravens), Devin Funchess (Panthers), Eddie Royal (Bears), Andre Johnson and Phillip Dorsett (Colts), Jeremy Maclin (Chiefs), Brandon Marshall (Jets), Nelson Agholor (Eagles), Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree (Raiders), Torrey Smith (49ers) and any wideouts for the Browns, Dolphins and Texans
Tight Ends : Maxx Williams (Ravens), Charles Clay (Bills), Julius Thomas (Jaguars) and Jordan Cameron (Dolphins)
In any preseason game that you watch, think about which players are new to their team or new to a starting role. These games allow players to get used to their new offense before the points count and the depth chart gets finalized. And before some eye-popping performance from a no-name player makes you rethink your cheat sheet, remember this one stat – on August 14th in Cincinnati, Odell Beckham will record the first preseason catch of his career. He missed them all in 2014 nursing a hamstring injury.