Preseason games are largely meaningless. But they can provide us with clues when it comes to usage, depth chart positioning, and performance quality after we sift through the trash. Cam Newton's 2011 preseason stats were pathetic, but he stood tall in the pocket and didn't run when his first read was covered. Coming out of Auburn's read-option, run-first offense, those were hidden but promising signs. If you watched Jimmy Graham's 2011 preseason, you knew he was poised for fantasy explosion. Graham was a fixture in New Orleans' first-team offense all August, and emerged as Drew Brees' favorite target when the real games began.
At this time last year, Randall Cobb, Robert Griffin III, and Doug Martin entered the preseason unproven in fantasy land. They flashed in exhibition games, and went onto enjoy monster regular seasons.
We're making observations in August, not jumping to conclusions. But regardless of the game's significance, big-time players tend to jump off the screen. Here are ten players I plan to nudge up Rotoworld's fantasy rankings after impressive preseason openers.
Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a $100,000 Fantasy Football Contest in Week 1. It's $25 to join and first prize is $15,000. Here's the link.
1. Patriots RB Stevan Ridley
Stats: 8 rushes, 92 yards, TD. No catches.
The 2012 Patriots finished second in the NFL in rushing attempts, seventh in rushing yards, and first in rushing touchdowns. But common perception still views them as a passing-focused team. Friday night's preseason opener reminded observers New England is capable of dominating in the trenches on the strength of arguably the league's premier offensive line and quick-footed power runner Ridley, who ranked tenth among standard-league fantasy backs a season ago.
The Patriots belted Philadelphia's remade front seven with six consecutive run plays to open the game. New England's first drive spanned 80 yards, capped by Ridley's one-yard scoring plunge. He did get caught from behind by Eagles CB Bradley Fletcher at the end of a 62-yard run, but Ridley has never been a long-speed back. Among Ridley's eight runs in the preseason opener were gains of 62, 5, 5, 10, and 6. He is a sustaining foundation back and one of the few top-end returning skill-position players from last year's Patriots. Expect Ridley to be leaned on heavily this season. Particularly in non-PPR drafts, I think he's a steal at his mid-second round ADP.
2. Eagles QB Michael Vick
Stats: 4-of-5 for 94 yards, TD. No rushes.
Rookie coach Chip Kelly has gone to great lengths to push upon the public a camp battle at quarterback, splitting practice reps equally between Vick and Nick Foles, and even forecasting a series-by-series rotation in the preseason opener. Vick and Foles didn't rotate as Kelly promised on Friday night, however. Vick engineered the first-team offense for two possessions and -- albeit in a small sample size -- outplayed his alleged competition in a legitimate landslide.
Vick's first throw was a beeline missile to slot receiver Jason Avant deep down the middle, gaining 22. On Vick's second attempt, a read-option fake helped ensure DeSean Jackson got one-on-one coverage versus Aqib Talib down the right sideline. Vick's throw was pinpoint for a 47-yard touchdown bomb, putting it where only D-Jax could get it. Vick's other notable play came on a bootleg right, where the veteran southpaw threw across his body to Riley Cooper for a gain of 19 yards. All five of Vick's pass attempts came from the shotgun, and two in no-huddle.
Perhaps most impressively, Vick did not run out of the pocket. He kept composed and looked very comfortable in Kelly's offense, even as defenders got close. If the exhibition opener proves predictive -- and there's still a long way to go -- Vick will win this quarterback job handily. And there won't be a QB2 with a higher fantasy ceiling. Vick's ADP is currently in the tenth round.
3. Colts WR T.Y. Hilton
Stats: 3 catches, 61 yards, TD. 15-yard punt return.
Hilton has been practicing as the Colts' third receiver since OTAs. It's a fantasy concern because new playcaller Pep Hamilton wants to run a "12 personnel" offense featuring two tight ends with a large reduction in three-receiver sets. If Hilton is going to play consistent snaps and become a consistent week-to-week fantasy scorer, he needs to overtake Darrius Heyward-Bey in the two-wide packages, starting opposite Reggie Wayne. The third receiver in this style of offense is a situational deep threat, which is an appropriate role for straight-line speedster Heyward-Bey.
Heyward-Bey started Sunday's preseason opener against Buffalo. On his lone target down the left sideline, DHB let Bills S Aaron Williams get inside position on a fly route for the easy pass breakup. Heyward-Bey had this same problem in Oakland, refusing to physically fight for positioning with the ball in the air. The tendency often got Raiders quarterbacks intercepted.
Meanwhile, Hilton looked typically electrifying on each of his four all-purpose touches. He made two defenders miss on a 15-yard punt return, and fought off CB Ron Brooks' press coverage for a nine-yard gain on a quick-hitting Andrew Luck pass. Hilton's second reception went for seven yards on an out-breaking sideline pattern in Bills top cornerback Stephen Gilmore's coverage. And Hilton's highlight was a 45-yard touchdown, where he created three yards of separation from Brooks and dove to secure Matt Hasselbeck's bomb down the left sideline.
If the Colts are philosophically interested in starting their best players, Hilton will be promoted onto the first-team offense this week.
4. Rams WR Chris Givens
Stats: 3 catches, 82 yards, TD.
Playing Z receiver in St. Louis' new wide-open spread, Givens jumpstarted the offense in the preseason opener by beating Browns top CB Joe Haden's jam for a 20-yard gain down the right sideline. Again lined up at Z, Givens ran a go route off play action down the right seam, burning Browns CB Trevin Wade. Sam Bradford's deep ball was on the money for a 59-yard connection.
On Givens' three-yard touchdown, he lined up at the top of a stacked receiver formation with Austin Pettis behind him, and found an opening in the back of the end zone for an easy score. Givens converted all three of his targets against the Browns.
Givens hasn't gotten a ton of fantasy love this spring and summer, but he possesses serious big-play wheels and appears to have gotten stronger. He's a high-upside WR3 candidate.
5. Patriots WR Kenbrell Thompkins
Stats: 4 catches, 23 yards.
Running ahead of second-round pick Aaron Dobson, Thompkins was New England's first-team X receiver in the preseason opener and had his way with Eagles CB Bradley Fletcher. His first catch gained six yards on a physical quick-hitter down the left sideline. Thompkins lined up in the slot on his second reception, gaining four. His third catch went for seven yards on a shallow cross, and reception No. 4 picked up six yards on another Tom Brady quick-hitter in Fletcher's coverage.
Thompkins already looks like a savvy route runner willing to get physical and work for catches with big, strong hands. Although he is considered an "X" receiver, Thompkins played all three wideout spots against the Eagles.
For the rest of the preseason, I'll be monitoring whether Thompkins can defeat coverage downfield. At the moment, Thompkins is worth considering in the ninth and tenth rounds of standard leagues. And he's an ideal Dynasty keeper.
6. Eagles RB Bryce Brown
Stats: 5 carries, 22 yards, TD. 2 catches, 19 yards.
With LeSean McCoy nursing a minor nick, Chris Polk got the tailback start in Philly's preseason opener. Polk has the edge on Brown in blitz pickup, but managed seven yards on four carries. It wouldn't take a football guru to notice Bryce Brown is a vastly superior talent to Polk. Just as they are at quarterback, the Eagles are pushing a faux-competition for the No. 2 running back job.
Against the Patriots, Brown got downhill and ran with toughness. He still has a tendency to bounce inside runs outside, but packs power and speed, and possesses underrated versatility. Brown secured each of his two targets in the passing game. On Brown's touchdown run, he shucked two-would be tacklers after a shotgun handoff and dove into the end zone for an eight-yard score.
The Eagles played very fast, and intend to rip off plays from scrimmage this season. No NFL offense had more snaps in their respective preseason opener. When snaps go up, offensive touches go up. Brown will have an opportunity for flex value even as McCoy's change-of-pace complement. Under run-heavy coach Chip Kelly, Philly could contend for the league lead in rushing attempts.
7. Seahawks RB Christine Michael
Stats: 16 carries, 89 yards.
Second-round pick Michael was a workhorse in Seattle's preseason opener, carrying the mail as Marshawn Lynch rested and Robert Turbin nursed a foot injury. Michael is going after Turbin's primary backup job. Turbin is a superior pass protector and receiver, but there is no doubt Michael offers more sheer running ability. It is not close.
If you are in a Dynasty league or consider yourself a forward-thinking re-draft owner interested in what Seattle's backfield might look like should Lynch suffer an injury, I'd encourage you to watch Michael's 16 carries against the Chargers. This dude is a future NFL phenom.
Highly aggressive and explosive, Michael runs with intensity and executes razor-sharp cuts. He eats up ground quickly and has power to carry piles. Michael's elusiveness was particularly devastating on a fourth-quarter open-field opportunity following a stretch run off left tackle. Michael met Chargers CB William Middleton one on one down the left sideline, made a sudden juke to his left, and dusted Middleton to tack ten extra yards onto his run.
In a Lynch-injury scenario, I think we'd see Michael as the early-down banger with Turbin playing on passing downs. That's just a guess. Turbin is an experienced, professional, versatile back, but I don't think the Seahawks could justify leaving a guy with Michael's kind of ability on the bench.
8. Vikings WR Cordarrelle Patterson
Stats: 4 catches, 54 yards. 50-yard kickoff return.
Patterson opened Minnesota's first exhibition game with a blazing 50-yard kick return, but it's not special teams prowess that makes him a tantalizing fantasy prospect. The Vikings' first-team three-wide set was comprised of Greg Jennings, Jarius Wright, and Jerome Simpson. Patterson's primary competition for offensive snaps is Simpson, who let Christian Ponder's second pass attempt glance off his fingertips and into the hands of Texans S Shiloh Keo for a pick.
Patterson played with the Matt Cassel offense. He lined up in the left slot on his first target deep in Houston territory, but Cassel's overthrow sailed out of the end zone. Aligned at X receiver on his second target, Patterson caught Cassel's pass on a deep comeback, but CB Roc Carmichael pushed him out of bounds. Patterson got hot from there, securing each of his next three targets.
Patterson's first preseason catch came on a deep in-breaking zone beater over the middle for 22. He refused to go down on contact, fighting for extra yards. Patterson was then gang tackled for a three-yard gain, before exploding on a deep seam route for 18 yards. Patterson's final catch went for 11 on another sideline comeback. I thought Patterson could've done a better job fighting for the ball in the air on his lone contested target, but otherwise he played fast and appeared to run crisp routes. Patterson was not a confident route runner at Tennessee, and has already improved.
I recall post-draft chatter about Patterson "replacing" Percy Harvin. Based on positioning, that won't be the case. Greg Jennings is playing Harvin's old Z and slot receiver positions. Patterson has dynamic playmaking ability, but he is competing with Simpson at X receiver, which is primarily a perimeter position. I like Patterson as a late-round flier because I think he will take Simpson's job, not because I think he's Harvin's replacement. Jennings will lead the Vikings in targets.
9. Patriots RB/WR Shane Vereen
Stats: 3 carries, 12 yards. 2 catches, 18 yards, TD.
It may seem ridiculous to call three Patriots skill players preseason fantasy risers, but this offense is an annual fantasy juggernaut and lost a ton of big-time producers. There are major voids to fill. Vereen will be a primary way the Patriots fill them.
Vereen made his presence felt on New England's second possession. Lined up at flanker ("Z"), Vereen beat Eagles LB Mychal Kendricks down the left sideline on a fade pattern for a 13-yard touchdown. Tom Brady's throw was pinpoint on the money, but it was impressive to see Vereen utilized in this fashion, and it's a sign of things to come. He's a versatile, mismatch-creating weapon.
For his second reception, Vereen showed nifty change-of-direction ability on a screen pass that initially appeared snuffed out nicely by Philly's defense. Instead, Vereen gained five yards.
Vereen does have faults. He dropped a swing pass into the flat on a slightly errant throw from Ryan Mallett. Strictly as a ball carrier, Vereen is more of a scatback, change-of-pace type than power runner Ridley. Vereen has impressive jets and lateral movement skills, but I don't think the Patriots would ever lean on him as a full-time runner.
Vereen's 2013 fantasy appeal is a function of his versatility. The Patriots are a matchup-based team, and Vereen can create favorable matchups. I'd liken his ceiling to Darren Sproles. As a baseline projection, Vereen is a more dynamic option in Danny Woodhead's old role.
10. Broncos TE Julius Thomas
Stats: 4 catches, 35 yards.
Thomas caught his first pass from Peyton Manning for a gain of six yards in Denver's preseason opener, beating 49ers LB Michael Wilhoite. He lined up at in-line tight end on the play. Working from the slot, Thomas' second catch was good for seven yards on a checkdown from Brock Osweiler. Thomas made a tough play down the right sideline for an 11-yard gain on his third reception, getting by LB Nathan Stupar. Grab No. 4 again went for 11 on a tight end screen, complete from Osweiler.
I wouldn't call Thomas an explosive player, but the former college basketball player came off as a smooth athlete who runs pretty well. He was used primarily as an in-line tight end against San Francisco. Thomas could give Denver a Brandon Pettigrew-type possession presence and make for a decent tight end-streamer option in re-draft leagues. I probably wouldn't draft him, but he's on the radar.
Other Notable Risers: Eagles WR DeSean Jackson, Dolphins TE Dustin Keller, Rams RB Daryl Richardson, Texans WR DeAndre Hopkins, Browns QB Brandon Weeden, Steelers WR Markus Wheaton, Texans RB Cierre Wood.
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