Football is officially back, and whoever told you the preseason doesn’t matter clearly doesn’t play fantasy. Every year sleepers are unearthed and talent is confirmed, while poor fits and lost steps become evident. As such, The Wolf will review the tape and recap all the meaningful fantasy stock waves to start every week, before releasing an updated Big Board and Cheat Sheets. Find out who’s flashing on the tape and rising up our fantasy football rankings, or who’s struggling and falling fast.
1. Mouths will exotically be smashed by DeMarco Muray and Derrick Henry in Tennessee this season
OK, I was wrong. As seen in the 71-yard TD scamper below, DeMarco Murray either regained or never lost a step, and perhaps he truly was just a poor fit in Chip Kelly’s shotgun based offense:
Back in a purely downhill, power-based scheme & behind a line featuring copious amounts of first round talent, Murray flashed serious bounceback appeal in his limited action against San Diego. He took a sweep 15 yards on his first carry, and in general seemed to be getting upfield well and reading the holes properly, finishing the night with 6 carries, 93 yards, and a TD. Moreover, Murray confirmed reports that he’s the clear lead back, playing firmly ahead of also-impressive Derrick Henry, who didn’t see a snap until Murray’s day was officially over. Consider the 2014 rushing leader squarely on the RB2 radar, with injury concerns now his main value-drainer as opposed to actual ability.
While Murray’s TD burst stole the show, Henry did emphatically confirmed our belief in his talent. In looking at the tape below, the monstrous back proved he’s far more than solely a straight-ahead steam roller, as Henry patiently waited for holes to emerge before impressively jump cutting and bursting through the seams once lanes opened. Of course, Henry also showed his impressive power when he dragged multiple defenders into the end zone on his powerful TD run. The Alabama battering ram is a must-handcuff for DeMarco investors, and remains our favorite bet to be 2016’s David Johnson. Whereas we were banking on ineffectiveness OR injury opening his door to the starting role, Henry does now seem like he’ll be more reliant on Murray getting hurt.
In general, the line was blowing defenders off the ball, while Mularkey consistently schemed creative pulls and counter runs to open up massive lanes. This team will aim for 40+ carries a week, and if this early showing is a sign of things to come, Murray and Henry should both provide value despite a committee approach; should either go down, the other will immediately enter the RB1 conversation. Exotic Smashmouth for days.
2. Behind an ascending Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson, the Jaguars have the looks of an offensive juggernaut
On Part I of our Wide Receiver Preview podcast, The Truth attacked me for my aggressive WR5 ranking of Allen Robinson, ahead of more proven guys like A.J. Green and Dez Bryant. Admittedly, I was a bit swayed, and have had trouble selecting Robinson above those other two in my mock drafts; yet, my main case for Robinson was he and Bortles seem to be on an upward ascension together, and oftentimes the chemistry created through this shared trajectory leads to monstrous fantasy results.
Clearly, Bortles and Robinson tuned in to the Pod and wanted to prove my point. Bah God, the rapport showed on a ridiculous back shoulder throw and catch, immediately followed by a 45 yard completed heave down the field…the two were in prime mid season form:
Before the game, Jaguars.com had reported Robinson has looked like an even better, more aggressive wideout throughout his third training camp:
“But as well as he played last season, Robinson has looked like a different receiver early in training camp – and a much better one, too. His offseason focus on route-running is evident and he appears to be more aggressive to the ball. That last part is impressive because he already was one of the most-aggressive-to-the-ball wide receivers in the NFL. Robinson showed last season he was capable of being one of the NFL’s best receivers. So far during this camp he has shown he might become that this season rather than in the future.”
This appeared a bit hyperbolic considering sophomore Robinson tore down 14 TDs using his attacking jump ball skills, yet his 3 catches for 80 yards did suggest a whole other level may have been reached. He’s clearly clicking with Bortles, and should once again threaten for the league lead in receiving TDs.
Meanwhile, Bortles was electrifying. In his lone drive, the third year quarterback went 6-7 for 105 yards, with his one incompletion a dropped TD by Julius Thomas. More importantly, Bortles called three audibles at the line of scrimmage, all of which resulted in completions. This mental step and improved defensive recognition is crucial given the team’s plans to run more “no-huddle” offense this season.
Many have predicted a statistical step back for Bortles and his wideouts with an improved defense and stronger red zone running game after Chris Ivory’s addition (who capped off a scoring drive and flashed his TD upside); while these points are fair, I see an offense and a quarterback still on the rise that should put up enough points to threaten the league lead. Though Bortles QB8 ranking won’t be overly impacted, he’ll receive a bump on the overall Big Board, leaping into the High End QB1 tier. Count me a believer in all things Jags.
3. Speaking of A.J. Green… He’s a safe bet to lead the league in 2016 targets and return to elite WR1 status
A.J. Green ranked 16th in the league last season with just over 8 targets per game. In only one drive of preseason action, Green matched half of this total. Dalton attempted five passes in his brief appearance, four of which went in the direction of his star wideout, which he turned into three catches for 26 yards.
This extreme volume boost should come as no surprise –fellow wideouts Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu have departed, while Tyler Eifert remains shelved with an ankle injury. Moreover, ESPN Bengals reporter Cole Harvery noted that these two were “more in sync this spring than they have been during any other offseason workout of their career.” This aligns with CB Adam Jones’ evaluation, who lines up against Green daily and stated, “Those guys have been together for five-six years…The chemistry between those two are almost like a bolt-nut. It should go in every time.” Green himself recognized how heavily this offense will rely on him and his six-year chemstry with Dalton in 2016, stating: “Andy and I have been here long enough, this offense go as we go …We know what we have to do to get this offense to go. We know the offense run through us.”
Just how important will this increased volume be? Crucial. In fact, they give Green #1 overall scorer upside. Earlier this offseason NumberFire’s Jacob Gibbs did a fantastic job extrapolating Green’s 2016 efficiency over increased volume. Here’s the highlights:
Efficiency: Green’s 9.83 yards per target were the fourth highest among wideouts, while his 2.09 fantasy points per target was eighth among receivers with 30+ looks (third among those with over 100).
Volume Gap: With Jones, Sanu, and Eifert out, Cincinnatti returns only 54% of their targets, including only 48% of their red zone looks. The only offseason additions include drop monster Brandon Lafell and impressive, but young, rookie Tyler Boyd.
Green’s numbers with volume boost:
“If Green sees the 30.94 percent target share he saw in 2012 — certainly attainable considering Cincinnati’s current depth at receiver — he would be in line for 159 targets. He’s topped that number twice already in his career, so that’s not an outlandish amount to expect from him.
If Green were able to maintain his 9.83 yards and 2.09 fantasy points (PPR) per target from last season over a 159-target workload, the end result would be 1,566 yards and 332 fantasy points. Those numbers would have ranked third and fourth among receivers last season.
Don’t think Green can maintain that type of efficiency when given a larger workload? That makes sense theoretically, but the numbers prove it inaccurate. When he was targeted at least 10 times in a game last season, Green averaged 8 catches, 127 yards and scored 3 touchdowns in four games.
Want a larger sample size? In 32 career games with at least 10 targets a game, Green has averaged 7.4 catches, 100.9 yards, and 0.69 touchdowns, which projects out to 347 fantasy points over a 16 game season.”
I obviously like to take things to the extreme, however. Let’s say Green amasses 190 targets, which still would’ve only been fourth in the league and I don’t feel is completely outlandish. He would’ve led all 2015 fantasy scorers with 397.1 fantasty points.
The floor is already very well established: Green has topped 1,000 receiving yards in every season of his career. He’s also caught double-digit touchdowns and finished as a top-10 fantasy receiver in every season he’s played 16 games, finishing third in 2012, fourth in 2013, and ninth in 2015 according to PPR scoring.
The ceiling, created by what should be his highest volume yet, is why Green is a dead sexy Round 1 fantasy acquisition. After the Big Three of Antonio Brown, Julio Jones, and Odell Beckham are off the board, Geen might be the safest acquisition for PPR ballers.
4. David Johnson and Lamar Miller flashed glimpses of their Round 1 worth…
In only seven combined carries, both David Johnson and Lamar Miller flashed the running talent that makes them well-worth first round fantasy selections. Johnson amassed 31 yards on just three carries, including this impressive 23 yard burst where he made the defender look completely foolish and tore up the field for a strong chunk play:
— NFL (@NFL) August 13, 2016
Though questions about CJ2k’s role have lowered the sophomore back’s stock in many eyes, we feel he’s too talented to ever leave the field. Even if the CJ steals a few looks, David will do enough with his touches to maintain high-end Rb1 value. He tightens his grip on my #1 RB ranking, and slides up to #4 overall on my Big Board; in fact, Johnson is the only RB who carries a legitimate argument for #2 overall consideration at this stage.
Meanwhile, Miller averaged a robust 7.5 yards on his four carries, netting 30 total yards in his brief action. The line opened up solid holes, and Miller showed impressive burst getting immediately into the second level. Projected to be one of the few true, three-down horses in the league, Miller is set for massive volume in Bill Obrien’s run-heavy scheme and his bellcow upside among such a scarce point source makes him justifiable anywhere after the Top 7 overall.
5. …As did Eddie Lacy, LeSean McCoy, and Mark Ingram for Round 2
🚨Eddie Lacy weight alert🚨 https://t.co/jDygO4XG9c
— Roto Street Journal (@RotoStJournal) August 13, 2016
Ring the Eddie Lacy weight alarm! Not only did the massive back look noticeably slimmer (albeit with room to lose a few more), his on-field play reflected this weight loss. With Aaron Rodgers sitting, the Packers fed Lacy four straight carries to begin the game, and the former surefire RB1 looked far more spry in churning out gains of six, three, 11, and four. At this point, James Starks and a potential committee remain far more threatening to Lacy’s 2016 value than his own weight, which is a major step in the right direction for an epic bounceback.
Speaking of weight loss, LeSean McCoy looked quite fit and spry changing direction and squeezing a run to the outside on his lone carry; had he not tripped over his own feet, McCoy may have gained another 30 yards. Yes, breaking down one obsolete preseason carry is quite absurd, but seeing extra juice from a back that relies on shiftiness and changing direction like McCoy is worth noting; reports of him being in peak form are clearly accurate. I’m growing more and more comfortable with LeSean as my RB1, and think he’s a sneaky bet to challenge for 2016’s rushing title.
Meanwhile, Mark Ingram did lose a costly fumble, but also capped off two scoring drives for the Saints, reminding fantasy owners of how valuable a lead back in an explosive offense can be. Ingram might be the quietest workhorse in the entire league, as many forget that he racked up 50 catches in only 12 games last season; with health (admittedly a major risk here), Ingram truly would threaten for Top Five RB value.
In general, I was originally quite down on the RB options in Round 2, but I now leave Week 1 of the preseason more confident in the RB1 upside of these three backs. If I’ve netted a solid wideout at the top of my draft, these three would make a great follow-up selection (just keep monitoring Lacy’s committee status).
6. Rookie WRs look primed to make fantasy impacts
For years, fantasy owners harkened to the “Third Year WR” breakout theory, which was soon replaced by the “Second Year WR” theory…which will soon give way to the “Rookie WR” breakout narrative. As 2014 showed with Odell Beckham, Mike Evans, and Kelvin Benjamin, WRs are more pro-ready and capable of fantasy breakouts than ever before, and 2016’s class of pass catchers offers some serious appeal. Many have been getting rave reviews throughout training camps, and we encouragingly saw some on-field translation in Preseason Week 1.
Let’s begin in New York, where Sterling Shepard continues to build on his solid preseason hype train & cement his spot as the clear #2 WR on his team, making him a highly viable flex play in fantasy. Shepard began his NFL career with some solid blocking on a 19 yard scamper from Shane Vereen, showing the maturity that earned him a “Pro-ready” label from so many draft experts. True, blocks don’t yield fantasy points, but it’s just a reminder the impressive rookie won’t need to ever leave the field. He also flashed in his route running, burning the Dolphins #1 corner deep for what should’ve been a bomb TD if not for a Ryan Nassib overthrow. His lone catch was a diving display of beauty, and Shepard’s upside is tantalizing in an offense that’ll push the pace and score in bunches:
Meanwhile, Saints’ WR Michael Thomas also made some highly impressive catches against the Patriots, turning 4 catches into a game-high 67 yards. Just look at the body control and field awareness on the following grabs:
— Roto Street Journal (@RotoStJournal) August 12, 2016
— Roto Street Journal (@RotoStJournal) August 12, 2016
Thomas’ path to fantasy production is a bit cloudier than Shepard’s given he faces stiffer competition for Brees’ attention. Making plays like the above, however, certainly won’t hurt his chances. The hype all camp has been relentless:
- “A bonafide playmaker” that has “earned the complete trust of every quarterback on the roster and has become a go-to receiver in key situations.”
- “He has easily been the best player in camp so far.”
Now that game tape is equally impressive, the former Buckeye needs to be shooting up cheat sheets. Brees’ shot at another 5,000 yard, 35+ TD season also improves, and Thomas should see a healthy portion of this aerial feast.
Another rookie WR receiving considerable hype is Cincinnati’s Tyler Boyd. As explored in greater detail in Storyline #3, the absence Marvin Jones, Mohammed Sanu, and Tyler Eifert early on creates a massive target void. Drop King Brandon Lafell remains Boyd’s main competition for filling this gap…which really is no competition at all. This is especially true given that Boyd has reportedly made spectacular plays “seemingly every day during camp” and has exceeded his head coaches expectations. He flashed this upside in the Bengals preseason opener, hauling a 40 yard bomb over his shoulder:
While Boyd shouldn’t be relied on as a fantasy starter right out of the gate, he’s definitely emerged as a prime WR to target late, especially with how quickly the position thins out. He could become a startable option sooner than later.
Note – Vikings WR Laquon Treadwell was also impressive with some tackle breaking skills en route to 4 catches for 41 yards, yet he was clearly behind on the depth chart and this production came against third and fourth stringers. We need to see some role security before he’s a viable fantasy option.
7. Hey, what about us veterans? Dez Bryant and Demaryius Thomas primed for bounce backs.
Most people were already buying the Dez Bryant bounce back given his WR5, #11 overall price tag. Seeing a dominant TD, where Dez just destroys the 1-on-1 coverage, should help you feel even better. He’s back to vintage Dez form:
Most promising, however, was rookie QB Dak Prescott‘s highly impressive performance. Prescott went 10 for 12 with 139 yards and two TDs; should Tony Romo fall to the injury imp yet again, Dez appears to be in much better hands and not at risk of losing all motivation like last season. Don’t forget, the last time the Cowboys had a truly legitimate play action threat in 2014, Dez hauled in an absurd 16 TDs.
Meanwhile, Demaryius Thomas’ bounceback potential has gone far deeper under the radar. He’s going as the WR16 in the middle of Round 3, which could turn out to be a steal. Since 2012, no receiver has scored more fantasy points than Demaryius, who’s been truly elite in all of the past five seasons outside of 2015 with noodle-arm Peyton Manning (DT still racked up 105 catches & 1,305 yards in this down year).
Mark Sanchez is likely the factor anchoring down Thomas’ appeal, which seemed fair, but Week 1 of the preseason should’ve helped ease concerns. Sanchez went 10 for 13 for 99 yards and a TD –a 32 yard strike to none other than Thomas. Sanchez showed far more zip than Manning’s corpse last season, and he wasn’t afraid to take his shots deep:
Don’t forget: Gary Kubiak comes from the Shanahan’s coaching tree which funnels looks and facilitates serious production out of the X receiver. In 14 of 19 seasons (remember Rod Smith in Denver and Andre Johnson in Houston), Kubiak has produced monster WR1 seasons out of his alpha dogs. Sanchez’s arm strength appears more equipped to execute the deep shots needed in this play-action-sets-up-the-deep-ball scheme. Though I overlooked Thomas’ ceiling early on, Sanchez has made me reconsider.
8. Seahawks RB Christine Michael needs to be on fantasy radars
After OC Darrelle Bevelle claimed Michael “had an awakening” this offseason and Pete Carroll called him “on the money,” Michael showed this wasn’t all coach speak against the Chiefs. The talented but troubled back drew the start with Thomas Rawls and CJ Prosise sidelined, and he really shined. Michael ripped off nine yards to begin the game, and totaled 27 yards on the first series with the starters, ultimately finishing with 44 yards on 7 carries. On tape, Michael broke several tackles and showed impressive explosion in the proces:
His play was so impressive, in fact, that Carroll made the following comments following the game:
Interesting comment from Carroll on Christine Michael when Rawls comes back it'll be "a little 1-2 punch that we are really excited about.''
— Bob Condotta (@bcondotta) August 14, 2016
Rawls’ value takes a slight hit in a potential committee, and owners must continue monitoring the workload distribution here. Michael, meanwhile, continues his steady rise, and becomes one of 2016’s top late round lottery tickets with sneaky RB1 upside if Rawls were to falter or get hurt again.
9. Martellus Bennett will be used all over the field, not just the Red Zone
Yes, Martellus Bennett’s high-usage in Preseason Week 1 needs to be taken with a dash of salt given top options Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski didn’t suit up. Still, the variety of routes and production all over the field were definitely encouraging, and confirmed everything we’d been hearing in practice. Bennett was clearly the preferred option of Jimmy Garoppolo, and he hauled in three of four targets for 31 yards.
At his current price as the TE14 and 139 overall, Bennett is a must-own, whether you’re waiting on your TE or just want a huge ceiling for a cheap price. He could easily finish among the top five TEs for 2016 even alongside Gronk, and also has explosion upside if the elite TE1 were to miss any time.
10. The Ravens backfield is heavily congested, but still worth a look if the price is right
The Ravens were among our top backfields to monitor throughout the preseason, and their matchup with the Panthers did little to bring any clarity. Ravens RB Terrance West continued his strong training camp, capping off two scoring drives with TDs, including a highly impressive run where he reversed direction and beat the defense to the pylon. Nonetheless, rookie Kenneth Dixon looked far more explosive in churning 44 yards out of his nine carries, and his speed and pass catching skills make him the potential best fit for Marc Trestman’s aerial assault.
Just to keep things confusing, Buck Allen was the one to start and ripped off an impressive 19-yard receiving touchdown, but struggled to generate anything with his five carries. Trestman has historically rode one horse, especially in the passing game, so this situation should remain high interest. Nonetheless, no Ravens back can be relied on as a starter yet until we know for sure to who and how often the rock will be distributed.
- We’ve been high on Eagles RB Ryan Mathews’ upside in Doug Pederson’s historically successful run scheme, and the talented back turned his first two 2016 carries into 15 yards and a TD. Health is the obvious and glaring red flag with Mathews, but we love him as a high-end RB2 when on the field, assuming you’ve bought the entire Philly backfield as insurance.
- After a wildly disappointing, touchdown-less rookie debut, Chargers RB Melvin Gordon has finally found the NFL end zone! Gordon flashed his bounceback appeal as he ripped off a screen pass for a 44 yard TD and operated as the clear lead back with the ones. More flashes and positive reports will help Gordon regain RB2 appeal in our eyes, but for now he isn’t fully back in the circle of trust.
- Doug Baldwin, someone we are considerably higher on than most, was in mid season form in his rapport with Russell Wilson. He came down with both of his targets for 23 yards, and was hit right in stride from his breaks. Their rhythm and chemistry appears to be carrying over, making Baldwin a prime WR2 or WR3 target in Round 4.
- Rashad Jennings operated as the clear lead back for the Giants on their opening drive, and capped off their drive with an impressive burst up the middle for a TD. As discussed two weeks ago, Jennings remains an absolute steal given the explosiveness of the Giants offense. 10+ TDs are not out of the question if he maintains health and workhorse status.
- Raiders RB DeAndre Washington looked electrifying in backing up Latavius Murray, ripping off an explosive 25 yard gain in which he joked a defender out of his shoes. His late round lottery ticket appeal is gaining steam as the clear-cut #2 behind one of the best offensive lines in football.
- Chiefs RB Spencer Ware continues to look like Jamaal Charles‘ primary handcuff, as he started the game and dominated the early reps, ultimately tallying 24 yards and a TD on five carries. Charcandrick West also was impressive, outgaining Ware with 35 yards on only four carries. This will likely be a committee if/when Charles makes time.
- After making zero impact in the Rotosphere as a rookie, sophomore Jaelen Strong has been gaining plenty of offseason steam as the favorite for the #2 WR role in Houston. He continued the positive drumbeats, hauling in four of his six targets for 42 yards.
- Maybe this is the season Broncos TE Virgil Greene finally capitalizes on his frightening size / speed combination. Mark Sanchez locked in on him early, targeting him three times on the opening drive; Green was able to haul in all three looks, gaining 26 yards. With no one else in his way as competition, Greene could emerge as a viable starter. Kubiak has produced some solid TE seasons out of guys like Owen Daniels before.
- Devonta Freeman receives a slight bump down after playing well into the second and mustering only 9 yards on his five carries. As has been the expectation, Tevin Coleman worked in with the first team, and this does have the looks of a full blown committee. In positive news, Freeman was the one on the field for third down and red zone work, but he has the looks of a rich-man’s Danny Woodhead versus the #1 PPR back he was last year.
- Jay Ajayi kept the door to the Dolphins starting back wide open for Arian Foster. Ajayi looked wholly unimpressive as a runner, but was even worse as a receiver, letting a pass bounce off him that was nearly intercepted. As we have explored frequently, Gase loves do-it-all backs who don’t need to be substituted, and Ajayi isn’t showing he can do it in any phase.
- Though his preseason hype train has been strong, Sammie Coates was highly disappointing in his first 2016 game action. He remained in the game deep into the third quarter, perhaps trying to prove to the team what he has, and it wasn’t pretty. He only netted three catches for 18 yards despite the extensive time, and fumbled twice. We need to see how he looks with Big Ben before fully writing him of, but Coates did nothing to build on his positive momentum thus far.
- A favorite sleeper of ours entering preseason action, Colts RB Josh Ferguson was also unimpressive turning 8 carries into only three yards. The positive reports continue pouring out of camp, but unless the game tape starts to match, Ferguson’s sleeper appeal will start withering away.
Stay tuned for an updated Big Board that reflects all this action and the latest news tomorrow!