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 ones we’ll need to track closely.
Here are five players whose buzz caught my attention during the initial openings of training camps across the NFL landscape.
Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions
Kerryon Johnson was legitimately good as a rookie. His 22 percent broken tackle rate ranked eighth-best among running backs who saw 100-plus carries in 2018. Injuries were an issue but he looked every bit the part of a quality starting running back for a team that remade its identity, right or wrong, to a run-first squad in Matt Patricia’s first year at the helm.
Truly becoming a feature back for the conservative Lions would be a big win for Johnson. His running backs coach came out and said, "Kerryon’s as tough as any of them, so I don’t foresee any problems with anything coming about," when speaking about an artificial touch-limit for the sophomore back. New offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell confirmed the team will remain in the stone ages and lean on the ground-game, stating, "We’ll always be about running the football. We want to be a tough, hard-nosed, physical football team.”
Again, it’s a questionable approach but it’s a statement of intent that would benefit Johnson’s volume projections. In more positive news, several team beat writers have theorized that Johnson could clear 50 to 60 catches in 2019. Johnson already showed chops as a receiver in 2018, averaging 3.9 targets per game (62 full season pace).
One note of warning: Most of this workload-projection hype runs counter to head-man Matt Patricia’s March declaration that the team may look to limit Johnson’s work. The team’s moves also spoke to this desire, as they added C.J. Anderson after failing to lure the Rams backup, Malcolm Brown, on an offer sheet. The drumbeat for Johnson isn’t quite steady yet; we have two sides of the same coin here. That makes Johnson’s third-round ADP at RB19 palatable but not yet a must-smash.
What we need to see:
Theo Riddick could be on the roster bubble. The veteran back is a fine catcher of the football but at this point rarely adds value to his touches. If he gets axed during final cuts, Johnson could fulfill some of those hopes for his receiving upside.
C.J. Anderson is coming off a fun playoff ride but if you’re sinking hopes into a breakthrough season for Johnson, you’re not trying to have any of that this summer. Johnson needs to put Anderson way in the rearview mirror when it comes to camp buzz and exhibition usage.
We should similarly view Johnson to how we thought of Christian McCaffrey last year. Yes, Carolina made additions in the backfield heading into 2018 but McCaffrey’s preseason usage made it plain as day he was a feature back for his team.
Kalen Ballage, Miami Dolphins
We got a bit of a surprise Thursday morning when the Miami Herald’s Dolphins Insider, Armando Salguero, reported that Kalen Ballage took first-team reps at running back. Even Salguero wondered what this development for the second-year back would mean for Kenyan Drake.
Drake was a popular pick as a breakout running back last year. While he finished with 1,000 yards from scrimmage and scored nine times, there was little consistency with his week-to-week deployment or production. Fantasy drafters appear ready to forgive Drake, by and large. He’s going off the board in the fifth-round, right at the start of a miserable run at his position. He goes off the board as RB26, which is almost 10 full spots below where he finished in 2018.
The news of Ballage digging into first-team reps is troubling for Drake’s outlook. He wouldn’t even need to lose the starting gig to the second-year back to be in hot water. A simple-split committee situation would be enough to sink his stock on a team that projects to have one of the smallest offensive pies in the league.
What we need to see:
Tracking Ballage’s practice reports will now be of the utmost importance. Ballage said earlier this summer that he planned to compete for the Dolphins starting running back job and said, “It doesn’t really matter who had the most playing time in the past," noting the whole team’s fresh start under a new staff.
Going forward we need to hear more reports of Ballage running with the first team. It would also be of importance to see him worked in as a pass-catcher in the preseason, since the Dolphins are likely to be in negative game scripts often this year. Drake is a proven receiver and that role will be valuable in Miami. Either way, Ballage is worth a strike at his dirt-cheap 155.3 overall ADP (RB56).
Vance McDonald, Pittsburgh Steelers
We took a look at the Steelers No. 2 wide receiver battle in the first edition of The Drumbeats Notebook. The duel between Donte Moncrief and James Washington remains ongoing. However, as camps open, don’t forget to cast an eye toward their tight end room.
Vance McDonald is coming off a career-high in targets, catches, and yards in 2018 after playing 15 games with the Steelers. He hasn’t popped up on the mainstream radar much this offseason, despite the obvious holes in the Pittsburgh passing game. Yet, this week, ESPN’s Steelers writer Jeremy Fowler opined that McDonald “is poised for a monster season if healthy.” The Steelers might take the air out of the ball a bit with Antonio Brown out of the picture but should remain a high-scoring unit. McDonald absorbing triple-digit targets in this passing game would be a major development.
The tight end position dries up quickly after the young, athletic tier of O.J. Howard, Hunter Henry, and Evan Engram. McDonald falls in the next tier of veterans with Jared Cook and Eric Ebron. Despite having the least name recognition of the bunch, he could easily have the most appeal.
What we need to see:
With nary another intriguing tight end on the roster, McDonald all but has his workload locked up. The most important task for McDonald will be making it out of camp and preseason healthy. It would also be a boost to his own drumbeat if the duo of Washington and Moncrief remain quiet in practice and the exhibition contests. If McDonald is the No. 2 option in Pittsburgh behind JuJu Smith-Schuster, his breakout season will be tough to miss.
Qadree Ollison, Atlanta Falcons
Quite far off the radar, fifth-round rookie runner Qadree Ollison popped up on the newswire this week. Will McFadden of the Atlanta Falcons’ official website wrote that “Qadree Ollison, who is 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, is expected to help pick up some of the slack in [short-yardage situations].
Devonta Freeman looks like a screaming buy at his RB17 ADP and if healthy should resume near-feature-back-level duties with Tevin Coleman now out the door. But the No. 2 back gig is still up in the air. Atlanta was a poor rushing team without Freeman last year, posting a below-league-average 46% success rate while being the third-most pass-happy team in the NFL. McFadden reminded us that they were particularly weak in short-yardage situations, as they “ran the ball 26 times on a third or fourth down with 2 or fewer yards needed to convert the first down, and the Falcons gained a first down on 15 of those attempts, a 57.7 conversion percentage.”
If Ollison is able to stand out in this area, it could go a long way to earning the top spot on the depth chart after Devonta Freeman. That would make him the RB2 on a good offense behind a starter coming off an injury-riddled season. He’s currently going undrafted but would become a priority waiver add if he’s the true backup should Freeman suffer another malady.
What we need to see:
The reports out of Falcons camp will be worth monitoring. 2018 rookie Ito Smith received playing time last year. Even if he wasn’t spectacular, Smith likely enters camp with a leg-up on the Pittsburgh product. Ollison would have to dispel him to truly be on the radar.
Tevin Coleman, San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers backfield has seemingly been cast as a stay-away situation for fantasy managers due to the crowded and possibly unpredictable nature of its stable. With 2018 revelation Matt Breida and once-prized free agent Jerick McKinnon returning in 2019 to join new addition Tevin Coleman, it sure looks like a packed house.
All the while, the drumbeat has been building for Tevin Coleman to lead this group across the board. The Athletic's Matt Barrows listed Coleman at the top of the backfield and pegged him as the lead runner because he "knows Kyle Shanahan’s offense, and is dangerous as both a runner and pass catcher," perhaps combining the best traits of both Breida and McKinnon. He does go on to admit that the backfield could be cycled throughout the year.
However, this piece follows up other beats on the drum. NBC Sports' Matt Maiocco wrote that since he was the most healthy back in the offseason, “Coleman is the odds-on favorite to be the closest thing the 49ers have to a lead back.” Tevin Coleman and Kyle Shanahan both gave us clues to a versatile role, with the running back sharing he was lining up at wide receiver in practice and the coach suggesting he was a candidate for short-yardage duties.
San Francisco may well be a tough backfield to predict all season but right now, the drumbeat is building for Coleman — and Coleman alone. Round 5 through 8 feel as queasy a spot as ever to try and invest a running back pick. Coleman at his 65 overall ADP (RB30) appears to be one of the lone tolerable selections in this range with non-injury access to top dog duties on an ascending offense.
What we need to see:
We need to observe Tevin Coleman with a commanding lead in this backfield duel. He has to be the one taking the vast majority of first-team reps. You ought to hope he’s the one that trots out with the first-team offense during crucial preseason drives.
Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida didn’t practice during OTAs but their roles will bear monitoring in this story. Receiving explosion is part of Coleman’s appeal but that’s also the strength of McKinnon’s game. As a pure runner in Shanahan’s scheme, you could argue Breida is coming off a season better than any Coleman’s had at the pro-level. A situation worth keeping a close eye on, indeed.