It's the perfect storm. Not only is it the peak of the fantasy football draft season, but it's also the most important week of the exhibition slate. This is the point on the calendar for clarity and relative unknowns to emerge from the woodwork, stealing the hearts of owners everywhere. Who should you monitor closely? Here's a rundown of the most pressing questions from each Preseason Week 3 game ...
Pittsburgh-Philadelphia: The NFL's Cheech and Chong backfield of Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount are currently under intense scrutiny from both sides of the football fence - fantasy and reality. Bell and Blount both play against the Eagles on Thursday, but how will the workload be divided in the Steelers' backfield? According to most advanced metrics, Blount was the far superior runner to Bell last season. And Blount was quoted as saying recently, "Ain't nobody going to sign me to sit me." On Thursday night, Blount rushed seven times for a solid 32 yards compared to nine rushes for just 23 yards for Bell, who had trouble finding daylight behind an offensive line that, at the moment, looks like a serious problem area for the Steelers. If troubles persist up front in the trenches, look for Blount's role to expand even further as his ability to gain yardage after contact becomes of the utmost importance given the lack of running room to work with. Don't be surprised if Blount opens the season with a 10-12 touch per game role, including the all-important goal line work, a scenario that would certainly sink Bell's perceived (by some) RB1 stock. Bell is clearly the better receiving back, and he should own passing-down duties still, but a split of the rest of the work would seriously impede Bell's ability to deliver top 15 fantasy RB returns.
Jacksonville-Detroit: Whaddya got this week, Blake Bortles? Can Jacksonville's rookie quarterback force the issue with another impressive appearance? Bortles definitely looked the part of a starting-quality NFL passer in the preseason matchup at Chicago, completing 11-of-17 throws for 160 yards and protecting the football. The kid throws with plenty of zip, plus he didn't seem skittish in a cluttered pocket. Basically, he looked an awful lot like a top-of-draft QB. Fantasy owners might just learn to enjoy the Bortles-Marqise Lee relationship in future years. It seems unlikely that Bortles can do anything to put himself in the Week 1 starting discussion, but he's clearly earned his first-team reps. He won't necessarily need a redshirt year.
Carolina-New England: Can Cam Newton quell the rising tide of doubt surrounding his surgically-repaired ankle and his no-name stable of receivers? Perhaps no upper-tier quarterback has seen their stock fall further this summer than Newton, who has never finished outside the top 4 in fantasy at the QB position in his three seasons in the league. If Newton's able to show if his usual mobility while continuing to click with monolithic rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin against the Pats, it should go a long way towards pushing Newton's stock back into the middle range of the QB top 10.
New York Giants-New York Jets: After a pair of disastrous preseason games, will the Giants pass offense not resemble a dumpster fire? Eli scrunchy faces have been common throughout August. Through two preseason games, the QB is 2-of-9 for, and this isn't a typo, 6 yards. That's a comical 1.5 yards per attempt. The offensive line, which did Eli no favors last year putting him under pressure 40.3 percent of the time (Fifth-highest rate in the NFL), is stll ironing out the kinks. In a Green Bay-styled scheme predicated on quick strikes and high-percentage throws, Younger Manning needs time if he has any hopes of completing even 60-percent of his attempts. If the Giants pass offense again flops, especially against a Jets secondary down its best cover man Dee Milliner (high-ankle sprain), concerns over the WR2 legitimacy of Victor Cruz and breakout potential of Rueben Randle will only increase.
Oakland-Green Bay: What’s going to happen in the Raiders’ backfield? The plan seems like a true timeshare with Maurice Jones-Drew and Darren McFadden, who both have obvious question marks. McFadden has never played more than 13 games during his six-year career and has missed an average of 6.3 games over the past three years. And while previously being effective when on the field, McFadden has gotten just 3.3 YPC over the last two seasons. MJD is a couple of years older and has nearly 1,000 more career rushing attempts, but he’s played in at least 14 games in seven of his eight seasons in the league and reportedly got into great shape during the offseason. Let the battle begin, although the winner here doesn’t exactly offer a ton of fantasy upside.
Chicago-Seattle: Will Robert Turbin continue to shine brightest among those backing up Beast-Mode in the Seattle backfield, and will it ultimately matter? Christine Michael, with his take-your-breath-away aresenal of moves, has been one of the buzzier backs this summer, especially with Marshawn Lynch making noise for his holdout and domestic dispute situation. But under the lights of preseason action, Michael has shown an inability to secure the pigskin. Meanwhile, Turbin appears to be in the best shape he's been in since arriving in Seattle, and he stole Michael's thunder with a 12-carry, 81-yard effort, including a 47-yard run, in Week 2 of the preseason. If Turbin shines brightest in the Seahawks backfield yet again this weekend, he could carry parlay that momentum into the biggest role of his career as Seattle looks to ease Lynch's workload a bit more this season.
Tampa Bay-Buffalo: Which rookie wide receiver is most ready for prime time, Mike Evans or Sammy Watkins? We'll have to hope Watkins gets to the field in the first place, as he's battlng a nagging rib injury (temporarily stopping his summer run of YouTube highlights). Evans has the better passing setup around him in Tampa Bay, but Watkins figures to be Buffalo's featured target from the get-go. Watkins was the fourth overall pick from the spring draft, Evans the No. 7 selection - these two players might be linked for their entire careers. Evans had two catches for 52 yards in his last exhibition, including a 41-yard grab just shy of the goal line.
Tennessee-Atlanta: Will the fog lift from Tennessee's seemingly indecipherable backfield? High expectations were placed on rookie Bishop Sankey. With only a mediocre, tender-kneed Shonn Greene and pass-down only Dexter McCluster to overtake, his path to carries was, for all intents and purposes, uninhibited. However, the youngster has struggled throughout training camp and exhibition play in several key areas, most notably pass protection and ball security. Greene, who practiced earlier this week despite tweaking his knee in last week's game, may start with the first-time, but the door is ajar for Sankey. If he can't take advantage against a flimsy Atlanta front, downgrade him harshly. I'm still not buying he's a top-60 overall pick or RB2 in 12-team leagues. His effort Saturday will be very telling.
Dallas-Miami: How high is the ceiling for Miami's new-look offense? New coordinator Bill Lazor has brought a few Chip Kelly concepts with him from Philly, where he served as Nick Foles' position coach last season. The tempo of the offense should change, the formations should get inventive and quarterback Ryan Tannehill could easily double his rushing output. We don't know how much Miami will actually show in this game, but they can't ask for a friendlier defense than Dallas. Tannehill has had an outstanding preseason to date (15-for-20, 172 yards, TD), and he's looking like a breakout candidate.
Washington-Baltimore: Which Ravens runner is a better fit for Gary Kubiak's offensive scheme, Ray Rice or Bernard Pierce? Both Baltimore backs have impressed in the first two exhibitions, albeit in limited reps - Rice has 38 yards on five carries, Pierce 92 yards on 17 attempts. Pierce owners would love to see the third-year back make a quick break from the gate, as Rice will be serving his NFL suspension during the first two weeks. The Redskins don't have a complicated backfield, but we'll also be monitoring how Alfred Morris looks in their new offense (goodbye Shanahans, hello Jay Gruden). Morris struggled in Washington's previous game, losing a fumble and failing to score on four goal-line rushing attempts.
St. Louis-Cleveland: What do we make of each team’s highly volatile No. 1 wide receivers? It’s really simple with Josh Gordon, who would arguably be the No. 1 fantasy WR if there weren’t an impending suspension. He’s the real deal, so when to draft him comes down solely to your league’s specific parameters. He’ll likely be suspended for half the year at best, but if he’s able to play the final eight games, he’ll also be a real difference maker. As for Kenny Britt, all reports have been overwhelmingly positive since rejoining a team led by his former coach Jeff Fisher. He’s reportedly finally healthy over a knee injury suffered in 2011, when he had totaled 271 receiving yards and three touchdowns over two games before going down. Considering Miles Austin, Andrew Hawkins, Tavon Austin and Brian Quick are the other most prominent WRs involved in this game, there’s plenty to look at when it comes to wideouts.
New Orleans-Indianapolis: Is this the year an Alabama running back gets the job done? Indianapolis isn't sure what to make of Trent Richardson, who was an outright bust after last year's surprising in-season trade. He stumbled to 2.9 yards a carry after joining the Colts, and he's been sluggish this summer as well (14 rushes, 34 yards). But maybe the light is going on for another Crimson Tide rusher, Mark Ingram of New Orleans. He spiked his YPC to 4.9 last year, and he has 83 yards on eight totes this summer. The Saints generally prefer a backfield-by-committee, but there are more touches to go around after the departure of Darren Sproles.
Minnesota-Kansas City: Will the Travis Kelce surge continue? Minnesota has basically removed all suspense from the QB battle — it's Matt Cassel for now, Teddy Bridgewater for the next decade. So we should turn our attention to Kansas City's offense, which needs someone — anyone — to step up as a viable receiving threat. Kelce has delivered two stellar games in exhibition play, and he's shown an ability to get easy separation and score from distance. He's clearly a sleeper tight end to target. With another big game, he could emerge as one of the buzziest names at his position.
Houston-Denver: Can any of Denver's depth chart running backs take advantage of Montee Ball's absence? And will we finally catch a glimpse of Arian Foster playing football? All the news on Ball has been fairly encouraging, post-appendectomy, but he's not likely to see any in-game action until the regular season opener. Without question, the Broncos' starting running back role should be a fantasy goldmine, assuming a single player receives most of the touches. Time is running out for Ronnie Hillman or CJ Anderson or camp/preseason standout Juwan Thompson to make noise. On the Houston side, it would be awfully nice if Foster could just make a cameo appearance. He's returning from yet another hamstring malfunction, the thousandth of his six-year career. His upside and fantasy history are well-known, but there's a wide range of outcomes for 2014. He's an injury risk, no doubt.
San Diego-San Francisco: Will the 49ers open up their offense? San Francisco threw the fewest passes in the NFL last season, but with NaVorro Bowman (knee) and Aldon Smith (suspension) set to miss half the season to go along with Glenn Dorsey (biceps) out for the year, Justin Smith being 35 years old and an entirely revamped secondary, the team’s defense projects to take a step back, possibly a major one. Combine that with what looks like a difficult schedule as well as the 49ers adding a finally healthy Michael Crabtree, Stevie Johnson, Brandon Lloyd and Bruce Ellington to go along with returning Anquan Boldin and Vernon Davis, it sure looks like this team will be throwing the ball a lot more in 2014. It’s also worth noting Colin Kaepernick played through an injury that was much more serious than reported throughout last season. One other aspect to watch during this game is the Levi’s new stadium’s turf, which has been a problem.
Cincinnati-Arizona: Which perceived sophomore sensation will cement his stock as a RB1 in 12-team leagues – Gio Bernard or Andre Ellington? The former has looked marvelous in two preseason appearances, dodging tacklers, showcasing marked versatility and burrowing at the goal-line. Worries Jeremy Hill or BenJarvus Green-Ellis would reduce his rumored 300-touch workload and dominate red-zone touches are overblown. A strong effort against an Arizona first-string D reeling from the loss of leader Darnell Dockett could boost his ADP inside the overall top-12. As for Ellington, the jury is still out. Many continue to question whether the slim-framed rusher can handle an 18-20 touch workload. The concern Jonathan Dwyer or Stepfan Taylor will poach goal-line touches is also palpable. A standout effort against a stout Cincy first-team D would speak volumes about his legitimacy as a lead fantasy RB.
Check out 'The Noise' along with colleagues Andy Behrens and Brandon Funston for another season of 'Fantasy Football Live' every Tuesday-Thursday at 6 PM ET on NBC Sports Network.
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