Preseason edition of fantasy care/don't care: What did we actually learn in August?

So much happens in August. It’s hard to keep track of it all. More importantly, it’s quite a lot to decide what we should value as signal and what we should just ignore as noise. In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned in the preseason and give you the three things I care about heading into Week 1, along with three things I can’t muster up the emotional energy to care for. Good news for you: We’re going to do this exercise in emotional turmoil every Sunday during the regular season, too.

Three things I care about:

Emerging young running backs

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Every fantasy season, we thirst after running backs that can alter the course of a fantasy team’s destiny. We want fresh, exciting backs tethered to good offenses.

The 2019 preseason has been generous in offering us options. The holdout of Ezekiel Elliott brought us Tony Pollard in Dallas. The woebegone nature of Carlos Hyde’s play brought us Darwin Thompson in Kansas City. The flush potential of the Ravens running game brought us Justice Hill. The lack of inspiring names or games in Tampa Bay brought us Dare Ogunbowale.

All four of these offenses were already scoring units we bought into. Dallas and Baltimore have proven run games that should churn out fantasy production. Kansas City is the best offense in the league. Tampa Bay is due for a shot in the arm with Bruce Arians installing an aggressive offense. Talent at running back is a fine icing on the cake but it may never matter if your player is forced to operate in a sluggish attack. All four of these intriguing young runners won’t have to worry about that.

Thompson and Hill are the favorites for longterm value. The former could find himself on the throne of this juicy backfield before too long while sitting behind a starter with a paper-thin resume. The latter — while not outright supplanting Mark Ingram — should see the field with his explosive potential. Hill has a tantalizing ceiling in the event of injury, as well. Pollard is intriguing but Elliott could return and render this storyline moot. Ogunbowale has a hill to climb to relevancy but could end up looking quite underrated if he completely casts aside the mediocre Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones.

Darwin Thompson could see his role increase as the season moves along. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Darwin Thompson could see his role increase as the season moves along. (Photo by Scott Winters/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Frankly, if you don’t care about these four players to some degree, you may not be in the right headspace for fantasy football. Searching for players of this ilk is what it’s all about.

Quick-shot draft priority list:

  • Darwin Thompson

  • Justice Hill

  • Tony Pollard

  • Dare Ogunbowale

Josh Gordon’s and Sony Michel’s return

Josh Gordon’s return finally gives us an answer to the “Who else will the Patriots throw to?” question. His return is indeed a massive event in the fantasy space.
It was easy to pencil Gordon in for 90-plus targets given the dearth of outside options in New England’s receiver corps. The Tom Brady-to-Flash connection registered in at north of 10 yards per attempt last year. Gordon still has it, no question. Gordon fits in as a Top-30 receiver and slides in with other high-volume but volatile receivers in the WR3 range like Allen Robinson, Christian Kirk, and Alshon Jeffery.

Sony Michel also made noise in the preseason, even if this is a different kind of “return” than Gordon’s latest revival. After being in bubble wrap all spring, Michel drew rave reviews from camp for his health. He went on to tear it up in the third week of the preseason. The second-year back looks like the clear-cut lead rusher due for a slight receiving work bump in a strong offense. That screams fantasy buy, even with the injury risk, in the fourth round.

Hey, even Demaryius Thomas was out there with Josh Gordon in preseason Week 4, partying like it was 2013. Don’t rule him out as a starter in three-wide sets.

Duke Johnson’s trade

When the Browns shipped Duke Johnson off to Houston in exchange for a conditional third-round pick, it felt like a strong “don’t care” trade. An ancillary pass-catching back on a team with an entrenched starter? Whatever.

Since the trade went down, times have changed. Lamar Miller went down with a torn ACL and will miss the entire 2019 season. Duke Johnson now sits atop the depth chart with mere vagabonds behind him. The Texans may well add someone to the rotation but at this stage, it’s unlikely to be anyone of consequence. Johnson looks like he’s finally got his wish with a shot to prove he’s a No. 1 back.

Johnson’s new place in the running back hierarchy certainly matters. The Texans have finished outside the Top 10 in plays run per game just once since the 2014 season. It’s a voluminous offense manned by one of the best quarterbacks in the game. You want horses hitched to this wagon. Johnson is a Top-32 back now in any format that rewards even a fraction of points for receptions.

It also should not go overlooked what Johnson’s exit leaves behind in Cleveland: An equally unchallenged Nick Chubb. The Georgia product showed flashes of pass-catching ability as a rookie and will now assume those duties entirely with Johnson gone. He’s a true workhorse back on an offense expected to push for a Top-10 finish, at worst. He’s a huge winner.

Three things I don’t care about:

How the Cardinals offense looked

The Arizona Cardinals offense did not tear it up this preseason. After looking like an outright train wreck against Oakland, every anti-Kyler Murray and/or Kliff Kingsbury takes-man took to Twitter for a good preseason victory lap. You hate to see it. While it was hardly an act of full redemption, the unit at least looked stable against Minnesota in Week 3 of the preseason.

Here’s the deal: It doesn’t matter.

The chances are at a firm 0.0 percent that the Cardinals have thus far shown anything that will resemble the offense that they’ll roll out in Week 1. Larry Fitzgerald has praised the pace of this unit over the course of the offseason, noting they’ve snapped the ball in practice with 25 seconds left on the clock. That’s not the unit we’ve seen in the preseason.

We’ve been here before. From RGIII’s vanilla 2012 debut, Cam Newton’s slow 2011 exhibition, to Deshaun Watson’s hideous preseason showing, the examples of dynamic offenses built around athletic quarterbacks keeping their cards close to the vest are plentiful.

If you’re skeptical about the Kyler/Kingsbury experience, that’s more than fine. It’s a massive projection. However, if you think preseason brought you a victory lap, maybe relax. We know the script will look entirely different come Week 1 against the Lions, even if the results still don’t meet the most blistering expectations.

The Dolphins running back battle

There were times when tracking the Kalen Ballage drumbeats seemed like a worthy endeavor. A ghastly preseason showing slowed that roll. It’s not that Ballage failing to rack up major production in the exhibition portion was all that bothersome, but the hideous effort of the Dolphins first-string offense, especially the offensive line, proved a sobering reminder. The answer in this backfield may very well be “none of the above.”

Kenyan Drake also returned to practice and looks like he’ll be out there Week 1. Ballage looks like he’s done enough this offseason to be a factor. That splits a likely unproductive backfield at a possible 65/35 rate. No thanks.

Derrius Guice’s return

Perhaps this goes down as a case of stubbornness and take-lock, but Derrius Guice’s return to the preseason field didn’t move the fantasy needle. Let’s be clear, it’s awesome to see Guice make his return to the field, as he seems like a character worth rooting for in the great fable of the National Football League. Unfairly maligned during the 2018 NFL Draft process and cruelly swept away before his rookie campaign ever began, Guice is a player we should want to see succeed.

However, I’ve been firmly fading Guice all summer. Nothing about his 11-carry, 44-yard preseason performance against Atlanta did much to change that.

Guice looked fine but not wildly explosive last week. That’s not shocking considering all the maladies he’s coming back from. This was his first true football action in a full calendar year. It would be a lot to ask for him to look especially dynamic right from the jump. Even more importantly, not a single thing has changed about the situation.

Adrian Peterson is still there; he won’t be interested in just sitting on the sideline to scratch his backside while Guice handles all the early down work. Chris Thompson maintains a place on the roster and will dominate the passing down reps, a crucial note on this team likely to be trailing often in 2019. The entire offense is a ship lost at sea at present time, heading into Week 1 with Case Keenum under center and their franchise left tackle not interested in taking another snap for the organization.

Even with the new information we got last week, the only reason you’d be interested in spending a pick higher than a 10th rounder on Guice is that you loved his college film. That is just not a good enough reason.

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