The NFL training camp and preseason portion of the year is long and full of terrors. Player value is set as we head into August fantasy drafts but often, nothing is as it seems. It’s important to follow what I refer to as “The Drumbeat” on possible draft ascenders.
Here in this weekly notebook, we’ll check in on the drumbeats building or fading for a handful of players the fantasy community is excited about. These players will be ones with a shot to shoot up draft boards, but the ones we’ll need to track closely.
In Drumbeats Notebook 6.0, we’re going to heavily focus on what we saw in the third week of the preseason. In the past, it was common for teams to approach the early portion of this slate as a tester for the regular season. Starters normally played well into the contest. Things have changed a bit this year, as teams appear to be playing things closer to the vest than ever before with their top players in preseason. Nevertheless, this is still a crucial week to analyze what took place during game action.
Sony Michel, New England Patriots
For months it seemed like Sony Michel was destined to be a stay-away pick in the early rounds. His health was something of a mystery and he missed the majority of spring practices. The public’s eyes went to other members of this backfield.
The tide has officially turned for Michel, who drew positive reports on both his health and pass-catching ability once he got rolling in training camp. The former is far more consequential but the latter is a lovely icing on the cake.
Michel did exactly what you want out of a drumbeat player; taking the tempo we’re hearing from training camp and turning the volume up in the preseason. The 2018 first-round draft pick went out exclusively with the first-team offense against the Panthers and produced. He carried the ball 10 times for 36 yards but there was more to the story. Michel had multiple big runs called back by penalty where he weaved and created at the second level. The Patriots also used him in goal-line situations before fullback James Develin ultimately plunged in for six.
On Thursday night, Michel looked like the Patriots feature back and preferred scoring-area runner. His injury history means that we haven’t heard the last of other intriguing runners like Damien Harris this season, but for the time being it looks like Michel’s show. That makes him a screaming value in the middle of the fourth round.
Kalen Ballage, Miami Dolphins
For all the rave reviews out of Dolphins training camp, Kalen Ballage didn’t shine much in the preseason. He took his 12 carries against the Jaguars Thursday night for a mere 17 yards, bringing his exhibition season total to 40 yards on 18 attempts. The second-year back also corralled two of his three targets for -3 yards, one of which he had to make a few attempts to haul in. Not pretty.
Of course, the preseason is more for evaluating usage than performance. And the fact that Ballage was out there as the clear top back with the first-team unit while Kenyan Drake is out was a good sign. However, this was a reminder of how much of a slog this Miami offense could face this season.
The offensive line in Miami was a constant source of trouble against Jacksonville. Not only did Ballage find little room on the ground but Jaguars first-round rookie pass rusher Josh Allen completely dismantled the unit in pass protection. Allen was consistently in Fitzpatrick’s face during his stretch of play. Not only could this be one of the worst lines in the league, but it also has the potential to be a group that sinks the entire offensive side of the ball.
We’ve spoken positively of Ballage in multiple renditions of this notebook. Much of those conclusions remain to this day. However, tonight was a reminder that there’s a very real chance that even if Ballage ends up leading this backfield in touches, the answer to the question of “Who is the right Dolphins running back?” may very well be “None of the above.”
Terry McLaurin, Washington Redskins
We looked at Terry McLaurin in Drumbeats Notebook 4.0 as he was starting to gain momentum from observers. Beat writers were noticing his technical skills in practice. The coaching staff was eager to offer steady praise.
To this point, we haven’t seen the type of progress we’d need to consider him a draftable asset, even in a deep best ball format. The drumbeat stayed at one note, never offering the crescendo. McLaurin didn’t take his strong practice reps to preseason, failing to catch a single pass in an exhibition game. He’s also still behind Paul Richardson and Josh Doctson on the outside receiver depth chart.
Washington’s entire offense looks like a hard avoid right now, especially with Jordan Reed getting checked for a concussion Thursday night. A rookie receiver who still needs to climb the depth chart is far from the radar.
Darwin Thompson, Kansas City Chiefs
Allow me to be the 30th fantasy writer to put Darwin Thompson on your radar. He’s the classic example of a crescendoing drumbeat player.
Not only did he get good feedback and the “exceeded expectations” praise from head coach Andy Reid in training camp, he followed it up with strong showings in the preseason. Thompson did exactly what an exciting rookie needs to; leapfrog a weaker veteran. Multiple beat writers are reporting that Thompson has indeed sailed over the uninspiring Carlos Hyde. The veteran back is no longer a lock to make the team. Thompson should be considered the clear No. 2 back on the Chiefs, at this time.
Thompson still has time in the make more noise in the preseason. Doing so would only make the drumbeat louder. The question is how high can he go. Damien Williams should be considered the smart money to lead the Chiefs in backfield work this season. He’s the starter and has been all along. Make no mistake, however, Thompson is the second in line for Kansas City and that’s proven to be a key figure in fantasy over the last few years. This backfield has churned out productive players late in the season after starters faltered like Charcandrick West, Spencer Ware and even Williams himself. Now, the unit is operated by a deity-like figure at quarterback. We should all fawn over any back attached to this offense.
If chaos occurs, and it always does, that player will be Thompson. Draft accordingly.
Daniel Jones, New York Giants
Yes, we must. It’s come to this. We have to talk about it.
Many of us reacted in horror as the Giants turned in the card for Daniel Jones at the sixth overall pick back in April. Yet, we’ve all watched in shock as he’s dominated this preseason. The Giants are ready to serve up a heaping of crow ... but are they ready to do the right thing?
By all accounts, there is no true competition for the Week 1 starting job. You wouldn’t know it based on the surprising drumbeat that’s been building for Daniel Jones this summer. While he didn’t take a single first-team rep in camp (mind-numbing), Jones drew steady praise from beat writers for his ability with his legs and how his arm stretched the field more than Eli Manning’s. More importantly, Pat Shurmur has seemed taken with his rookie quarterback and how he exceeded expectations. While owner John Mara has said he hopes Eli has a great year and Jones never sees the field, the head coach sounds like he’d like the option of tossing Jones out there sooner than later.
Let’s be clear, we have been deceived by preseason quarterback stars before. The great Blake Bortles once looked like the next top-of-the-line passer in his rookie exhibition campaign. So Jones completing 19 of his 24 throws with a sterling 11.0 yards per attempt, compared to 6.6 for Eli Manning, doesn’t cement him as an actually good player. But at the bare minimum, he’s given the Giants a lot to think about.
Anyone who has watched Manning over the last three years sees a quarterback in painful decline. He’s unable to create off-script with an arm withering to the point he can only navigate a small box over the middle of the field. Jones may not be the next great NFL quarterback — there’s a reason so many had questions about him as a prospect — yet, his preseason showing mixed with strong camp reports has to at least leave us wondering if he couldn’t unlock more of this Giants offense.
New York has a quality trio of young weapons in Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard and of course, Saquon Barkley. Manning is clearly an anchor in this offense. It might not be pretty with Jones as a rookie, or perhaps ever, but similarly to Josh Allen in 2018, his youthful vigor might give this offense a shot in the arm.