A lot of people will tell you that the preseason means nothing. I’d tell you they’re not looking hard enough. Of course we don’t need to see anything from stars like Drew Brees, Jamaal Charles or Calvin Johnson. But the clues we can pick up on lesser-known guys can be the difference between winning and losing.
This Preseason Winners list is based on three factors: Reports from camp, usage in exhibition games and performance in both camp and exhibition games.
1. Jay Cutler, QB, Bears
By now, we should all know the numbers. In Marc Trestman’s first year in charge of the Bears, Jay Cutler and Josh McCown combined for 4,450 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. That would have been good enough for a QB5 fantasy ranking. We know the Trestman system will work – it’s just a question if Cutler can be consistent enough and healthy enough to realize its potential.
Well, the preseason has shown that the rocket-armed Cutler is in full command of this offense. Reports from camp have been glowing, and the exhibition performances have been flawless. Through two games (four possessions), Cutler has gone 16-of-22 for 160 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions while taking zero sacks. Touchdown scorers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte are all intact. The only argument the Cutler haters have at this point is health as he’s missed 13 of his team’s last 64 regular-season games. But these aren’t lingering injuries that are of the recurring nature, so I don’t see it as a predictive stat. Cutler is my No. 1 later-round target at quarterback this year, just ahead of Matt Ryan and Tony Romo.
2. Travis Kelce, TE, Chiefs
A favorite of the draftnink community, Travis Kelce is coming from off the radar because microfracture surgery cost him his entire rookie year. He’s wasting no time making his mark as an NFL sophomore. Our Evan Silva has called Kelce the most impressive player in preseason and a review of his catches show why. In the preseason opener, Kelce’s first catch was a quick out in which he banged his way through literally four tackles to pick up four yards. His second catch came straight up the seam as he flashed unique speed while outrunning the entire Bengals defense for a 69-yard touchdown. The second preseason game against the Panthers was more of the same. He scored a 43-yard touchdown while lined up with his hand on the ground but split off the line, going up the seam again and dragging Panthers defenders into the end zone.
In all, Kelce has six catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns on his 47 preseason snaps. Yes, they’ve come exclusively with the second- and third-team behind Anthony Fasano. But it only takes two eyes to see that this literally looks like Rob Gronkowski with more long speed out there. Kelce is earning his first-string spot as we speak and the Chiefs desperately need him. With Dwayne Bowe suspended for Week 1, their top-five wideouts project as Donnie Avery, A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams, Junior Hemingway and Albert Wilson. Kelce is an ideal TE2 target than can be had in the 13th round of fantasy drafts.
3. Fred Jackson, RB, Bills
Nothing has changed in terms of the way this Doug Marrone regime is wasting the unique talents of C.J. Spiller. He’s not playing on third downs, he’s not playing in the red zone and he’s not being schemed into space. Through two preseason games, Spiller has been slammed between the tackles on first- and second-down exclusively, just like he was last season. It’s time to stop hoping Spiller can reach Chan Gailey levels under Marrone.
The obvious beneficiary of this continued boneheaded usage is Fred Jackson. In the second preseason game, F-Jax started, played on 26-of-47 first-team snaps and received 13 touches. Spiller played on 12 snaps and got six touches, and Anthony Dixon came on late in the second quarter for nine snaps. Jackson is soaking up all those third-down reps, which leads to a ton of check downs as evidenced by his seven catches on Saturday night. He’s also the no-doubt red-zone back, which obviously leads to touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if Jackson gets near the nine rushing scores and 47 catches he posted last year.
4. Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles
Since last season ended, we’ve had 16 player news blurbs on Zach Ertz. Virtually everyone covering the Eagles in addition to those inside the organization are calling for a Year 2 breakout, and it’s easy to see why. Ertz is a walking mismatch at 6’5/250, a likely red-zone priority who will also help some of the production that left with DeSean Jackson.
The preseason has done nothing to slow the Ertz hype train. He left the Patriots defenders wagging their tongues after joint practices and has posted a 6-86-1 line on seven targets through just 36 exhibition game snaps. As I mentioned in this Roundtable, one of the reasons I’ve been shying away from Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas early in drafts is because I want all the Ertz at his ninth-round ADP. Pairing him with someone like Jordan Reed or Dennis Pitta will give us both a high floor and high ceiling.
Editor’s Note: For updated rankings, projections, tiers, exclusive columns and tons more, check out our Draft Guide! It’s available as an iPhone app too. Also, be sure you’re following Rotoworld Football and Adam Levitan on Twitter for all the latest news from camp.
5. Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals
Andy Dalton has played 25 snaps this preseason, and Giovani Bernard has been out there for every single one of them -- Jeremy Hill and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have garnered zero first-team reps so far. Obviously, Bernard isn’t going to play every snap of every game once the season starts. But this usage suggests that former RBs coach and new OC Hue Jackson at least wants to see if his 208-pounder can be a workhorse. Bernard has shown well as a pass protector, is playing on third downs, is playing in the red zone and was effective in his goal-line chance.
Last year, Bernard was a rookie playing for a pass-oriented offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden. He still racked up 226 touches and finished as fantasy’s RB16. Now he’s the clear-cut No. 1 guy and Jackson (a maximizer of running back talent) is installing a ball-control scheme. Given what we’ve seen, I think 300 touches and a share of the goal-line work is in the cards for Gio.
6. LeGarrette Blount, RB, Steelers
“Ain’t nobody going to sign me to sit me.” That was the quote from LeGarrette Blount last week when he was asked if the preseason rotation at running back is what he expected.
It’s hard to argue with Blount given how the Steelers have deployed their running backs so far. Le’Veon Bell has started both games, but he has 15 first-team snaps compared to 15 for Blount. To make matters worse, Bell has admitted that he expects the bigger Blount to get the goal-line work this season. So now we have usage concerns for Bell on top of effectiveness concerns (3.52 YPC last year). I still think Bell is the more talented player by a significant margin and will emerge as the lead dog here, but I’m not willing to bet a second-round pick on it. There’s more value in an 11th-rounder on Blount.
7. Ladarius Green, TE, Chargers
I was really encouraged by the way Ladarius Green was used in the second preseason game. He played on eight of Philip Rivers’ nine snaps even though Antonio Gates was active. On those nine snaps, Green lined up in the slot three times and was not asked to pass block at all. That’s a major distinction, as Green was turned into a blocker far too often last season even as his snap count spiked sharply at the end of the season.
The Chargers are showing that they are going to use “12” personnel as a base, and may be trusting Green as a route-runner far more this season. When this 6’6/240 freakazoid with 4.4 wheels plays on every snap and is utilized in the pass game, good things are going to happen. Ideally, we’ll get him in the flier range because we’re more hoping he’ll be unleashed than certain. I love pairing Green with another breakout tight end we snag a few rounds earlier like Zach Ertz or Jordan Reed.
8. Jonathan Grimes, RB, Texans
We started hearing whispers about Jonathan Grimes early in camp, and those whispers turned into shouts once Andre Brown was released. Grimes has started each of the first two preseason games, totaling 19 carries for 81 yards (4.26 YPC) and three catches for 25 yards. He’s locked in as Arian Foster’s backup, ahead of Alfred Blue.
That’s one of the more profitable backup spots in the league, as Foster’s body has shown serious signs of wearing down lately. Over the last two years, he has had back surgery, a calf issue and recurring hamstring woes. The analytical site Sportsinjurypredictor.com lists Foster as the running back most likely to get injured this season. It’s worth noting that Grimes’ measurables as he came out of William & Mary two years ago were impressive: 4.53 forty, 38-inch vertical, 10-foot-5 broad jump.
9. Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Panthers
The unquestioned star of Panthers camp has been the 6’5/240 first-round WR Kelvin Benjamin. He’s cleaned up the drops that plagued him at Florida State and has firmly slid in as Cam Newton’s no-doubt top target. Benjamin has played 41 preseason snaps and posted three catches for 70 yards with one touchdown, seeing four targets from Newton on just 19 snaps against the Chiefs Sunday night.
Benjamin doesn’t have the route-running polish needed to be a reliable possession receiver, but that’s why the Panthers have Jerricho Cotchery, Greg Olsen and Jason Avant. Benjamin was drafted to be their vertical playmaker and red-zone priority, and that’s exactly what we’ve seen so far. There’s plenty of value in Benjamin around the ninth round, especially in TD-heavy leagues.
10. Julian Edelman, WR, Patriots
Last year was something of a perfect storm for Edelman as the Patriots were without Rob Gronkowski, Danny Amendola, Shane Vereen and Aaron Hernandez for parts or all of the season. Therefore that 105-catch outburst won’t happen again. However, Edelman has clearly solidified himself as Tom Brady’s No. 1 wide receiver.
Edelman has been Brady’s go-to guy throughout camp, tearing up joint practices from the slot. In the second preseason game, Edelman was on the field for all 23 of Tom Brady’s snaps while Danny Amendola only played in three- and four-wide sets. Playing in every single formation and having proven he can consistently win 1-on-1 matchups, Edelman is a good bet for another 75-85 catches.
Justin Hunter –Hunter showed in the second preseason game (4-111-2) why so many sharp people are excited about him, and he’s also making highlight-reel catches on a daily basis at practice. Note that of his 30 NFL catches between the preseason and regular season, an incredible eight have gone for touchdowns. It’s a matter of when, not if, Hunter will pass up Nate Washington for No. 2 WR duties. Note that he’s near-minimum salary in Week 1 on FanDuel and gets to face the Chiefs’ brutal corner trio of Ron Parker, Marcus Cooper and Sean Smith. Sign up here and get the money.
Andre Ellington – Through two preseason games, Ellington has been treated as a true feature back. He’s run inside, stayed in on third downs and played in the red zone. He even got a carry from the 4-yard line before getting vultured at the 1 by Jonathan Dwyer on Saturday night. I still think 300 touches is very realistic.
Ronnie Hillman – It seems like I can’t read anything about the Broncos without someone calling Hillman the most improved player on the team. There’s no clear handcuff to Montee Ball, but I’m leaning Hillman over C.J. Anderson for now.
Kenny Britt – The amount of praise Britt has garnered from coaches, teammates and media this preseason is absurd. Everyone says he’s in incredible shape, has his head on straight and has been (gasp) a leader. For more of my thoughts on Sam Bradford’s new No. 1 WR, bang it here.
Brandin Cooks – Much like fellow rookie WR Kelvin Benjamin, the unquestioned star or Saints camp has been Cooks. He’s lining up all over the field, being used as Sean Payton’s movable chess piece just like we thought he would. The problem is the hype has caused Cooks’ ADP to soar into the 7th round.
Mark Ingram – I never understood why Khiry Robinson was going before Ingram in drafts. Ingram is firmly ahead on the depth chart and has shown signs of turning the corner ever since Week 16 of last season.
John Brown – This third-round rookie is making enough waves that he appears to be passing up Ted Ginn for No. 3 duties.
Mohamed Sanu – Was having a big camp even before Marvin Jones broke his foot. Now locked in every down opposite A.J. Green, and will also play in the slot. Popped a 43-yard TD vs. the Jets on Saturday night.