Each week this preseason, fantasy football analyst Matt Harmon will be sifting through all the training camp noise to uncover relevant signal — key information that fantasy drafters can use to their advantage this year.
Josh Jacobs played in the Hall of Fame game
Yes, a starting NFL running back playing in the pre-preseason game is newsworthy.
The Raiders didn’t have other big-name starters trot out on the field for that game. Former first-rounder Josh Jacobs was an exception, as he rolled out for the first series and continued to work deeper into the first quarter.
We knew there was a lack of investment and enthusiasm for Jacobs from this new staff. The Dave Zeigler/Josh McDaniels brain trust isn’t the group that drafted Jacobs and they declined his fifth-year option earlier this year.
Still, if this is any indication of how they view Jacobs in the larger context of the offensive ecosystem, it’s not a good sign — and it’s more extreme than we thought.
My colleague Charles Robinson reported this team would deploy their running backs as a “situational committee” and went as far as to say, “If you hate how the Patriots use backs, look away. It will be similar.”
At the very least, we start to imagine the gap between Jacobs and his backfield teammates closing. Throw out his draft status or any prior statistical achievements — which have been moderate anyway — as it’s clear McDaniels and this staff is doing so. It’s worth monitoring this running backs corps the rest of the way in case someone like rookie Zamir White begins to take over the lead role.
Jacobs has been a completely red light pick at his RB20-22 ADP and that will continue to be the case.
Brandon Aiyuk is balling out
“Here we go again.”
Yes, that’s right. We are getting excited about a supremely talented player once again.
Coaches, beat reporters and 49ers defenders have been in lockstep stating Brandon Aiyuk has been outstanding in training camp.
This shouldn’t be surprising. Aiyuk has been a productive player in the NFL for two seasons and is still just scratching the surface of his immense potential. If you toss Weeks 1-7 when Aiyuk was clearly in the doghouse, he was the player you drafted him to be last year. He was a top-20 fantasy receiver from Weeks 8-18.
So it’s not like this is just camp hype. This is building on a foundation.
Aiyuk’s skill set as a vertical, athletic outside X-receiver perfectly fits what Trey Lance will bring to this offense. Aiyuk’s routes aren’t great for Jimmy Garoppolo’s preferred throwing lanes. Lance is just a totally different passer.
Aiyuk remains a great value where he's going in drafts. The gap between him and Deebo Samuel is closing.
Elijah Moore "seems to have firmly established himself" as the No. 1 receiver.
The Jets have built a beautiful ecosystem for Zach Wilson after he struggled as a rookie.
New York added to its offensive line, traded up for a running back in Round 2, took a wide receiver with the 10th overall pick and added two veterans to an empty tight end room. It was a doubling-down effort after adding multiple blocking and receiving options last year.
And yet it appears one stands above the rest. The Athletic's Zack Rosenblatt writes, “If it was in question, Moore seems to have firmly established himself as this team’s No. 1 receiver. He’s in line for a big year,” after observing Elijah Moore’s deployment and play in training camp.
Moore looked like an exceptional player when watching him in isolation last year. Pigeon-holed as a slot-only player coming into the draft, Moore blew those incorrect evaluations out of the water by winning on a consistent route-by-route basis as the Jets’ X-receiver.
Moore comes with all the talent and traits of a legitimate No.1 wide receiver. Considering this is a crowded pass-catching corps and Wilson is still a question mark, taking Moore near his WR33 ADP is a bit of a “bet on talent” proposition. But his talent is so overwhelming that this is a wager I’m willing to make in every draft.
Matthew Stafford’s “tricky” elbow situation
The following Matthew Stafford note will be the first in a series of Rams updates in this post. The reigning Super Bowl champs never leave us with a dull moment.
This Stafford situation is by far the trickiest, so it’s hard to know what to say about it. However, there’s been a steady trickle of concern or at least awareness about an ongoing elbow issue in Stafford’s throwing arm.
It is worth noting that this is not actually a new situation, at least not to Sean McVay and those in the building. Stafford was dealing with this pain last season but the team is just managing it differently now.
Again, it’s just tough to know what to do with this right now. Hearing a coach say an injury is “unusual for a quarterback,” doesn’t exactly give you comfort. However, I don’t think we’re at a point where we’re adjusting expectations for Stafford, any of his pass-catchers or the Rams as a whole because of this deal. It is a virtual lock we’ll be getting updates about this all year long and if you’re going to be invested in the Rams in any form, you’ll likely be tilting your face off at every Stafford arm news alert.
Edwin Porras says it well in his post above: “If the Rams are monitoring this, so should you.”
The Athletic's Jourdan Rodrigue reports "it’s realistic to believe" Van Jefferson will be ready for Week 1.
The Rams receiver underwent a “clean-up” procedure on the same knee he had surgery on this offseason. Van Jefferson played through pain in that knee to end 2021 so if he can operate at 100 percent that would be better for him and the Rams in the long run. I like Jefferson as a player and thought he was going to be a quietly underrated piece of the Rams’ offense.
It’s still a bit troubling that he’ll be cutting it close into the start of the season.
The Rams have a top duo of star receivers in Cooper Kupp and Allen Robinson but the depth behind them is questionable without Jefferson in the mix. If Jefferson misses time the Rams will have to run out Ben Skowronek and Tutu Atwell at WR3. Remember, this is a team that wants to play a lot of three-receiver sets.
Neither of these guys should be full-time players. Skowronek is a limited blocking receiver while Atwell is too small to be an every-down third receiver.
The Rams' primary ace in the hole at receiver has been a reunion with Odell Beckham Jr. but he’s not an early season option. So LA has to hope Jefferson can get ramped back up soon. For the time being, I’m projecting this to be a funnel passing tree between Kupp and Robinson.
Rams coach Sean McVay said, “I look at it as we’ve got two starting backs."
What we have here is a classic “not sure what to do with this one,” type of preseason coach-speak.
It could mean something. It could mean nothing. But a quote like this from Sean McVay does give you some pause if you’re interested in clicking Cam Akers at his reasonable RB18 ADP and makes you wonder if Darrell Henderson might be going too late at RB42.
Jourdan Rodrigue noted that both backs were splitting time “pretty evenly” with the first team offense and that McVay said, “I think it’s healthy for them to be able to supplement one another.”
The Rams treated Akers like a pure feature back during most of the postseason with not much rushing production to show for it. Henderson certainly gave them a spark in the passing game when he returned for the Super Bowl.
I’m not ready to fully adjust the Rams’ rankings based on this just yet but I’m willing to leave my mind open to doing it soon. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a severe gap in their talent — if one exists at all.
The Athletic's Nate Taylor reports that RB Isiah Pacheco "will start the preseason as the primary kickoff returner."
While kick return duties might not seem like a big deal, this is a big piece of news. NFL Draft Day 3 rookie Isiah Pacheco has been taking limited reps with the first team in training camp. The Chiefs’ backfield depth is pretty wide open behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has been a shaky starter at best. Ronald Jones was given a minimal deal in free agency and Jerick McKinnon was a late re-signing.
Pacheco has a chance to matter at some point during this season.
If he holds the primary kick return gig, he’ll be guaranteed to make the roster. These kinds of things matter when we’re talking about late-round rookies.
Additionally, he’ll have extra chances to wow coaches. And if something were to happen to CEH during a game, Pacheco would be a lock to be active and perhaps get the first crack at early down work.
All of this gives him an edge over Jones if he pushes the veteran enough as a runner come roster cutdown day. That’s no lock but this is a situation to monitor.
Kenny Pickett doesn’t sound like he’s close to starting
Every report out of Steelers camp indicates that the Steelers intended to give Mitchell Trubisky the early runway to start Week 1 and that rookie Kenny Pickett hasn’t done much to change their minds.
The rookie is taking third-team snaps and isn’t playing at a level to push the Steelers to elevate him. In fairness, camp observers have noted while Trubisky has been the lone guy to take first-team reps, he hasn’t been great either.
I’ve maintained that it can’t get much worse than what Ben Roethlisberger did for this team the last two years. The future Hall of Fame passer was a shell of himself and was such a limiting factor because he outright refused to go under center or embrace Matt Canada’s favored concepts like motion or play action. Moving the offense in a more modern direction is going to make everyone’s life easier.
The offense is going to look different with Trubisky under center. Whether it’s better or not remains to be seen. The summer is still early for quarterback competitions and perhaps the actual preseason games will move the needle for the Steelers’ quarterbacks.
Diontae Johnson signs a contract extension
Whoever does get the starting gig in Pittsburgh doesn’t have to worry about any more missed practice reps with the team’s No. 1 receiver. Despite some concern about his status with the team from some beat reporters, Diontae Johnson and the Steelers agreed on a compromise two-year extension that comes in at a lower average annual salary than some of the other 2019 drafted receivers but allows Johnson to hit free agency earlier.
Johnson said all along he wanted to stay in Pittsburgh and new GM Omar Khan indicated that the team felt the same. In the end, this one was pretty simple.
In my view, Diontae Johnson remains the NFL’s most underrated top receiver. He gets open at will and the folks way too obsessed with quarterback-influenced metrics like average depth of target or yards per target are going to be surprised when he doesn’t get a bunch of popgun targets this year. Johnson gets open on downfield routes and will now play with quarterbacks able to push it further than Ben Roethlisberger has the last two seasons. How efficient that volume is, however, remains to be seen.
NFL appealed Deshaun Watson's six-game suspension
I wrote about how to approach the Browns' offense with Deshaun Watson missing six games this season. Now that we know the league has elected to appeal Judge Sue Robinson’s recommendation (keyword) of six games, it’s a lock Watson is getting more than six.
The league collectively bargained with the NFLPA for the power to appeal the discipline recommendations of the independent arbiter but not her findings. And remember that Judge Robinson’s findings called Watson’s conduct “egregious” and “predatory.” So the league is well within its rights to take this next step.
I can’t shake the feeling that Rodger Goodell and the NFL wanted a minimum year-long suspension and now that the ball is essentially back in their court, that’s what Watson is expected to get.