“Preseason doesn’t matter,” the dolts say. Quite frankly, they’re wrong.
Well, they’re right if we’re focused on player performance due to the tiny sample sizes and vanilla scheming. But if we’re focused on usage, preseason matters very much. By usage, I mean who is running with the first-stringers, who is forced to play when the rest of the starters sit and where on the field players are being used.
Just last August, casual fantasy players thought Christian McCaffrey would be in a timeshare with CJ Anderson. Careful observers of the preseason noticed that McCaffrey was in on 59-of-66 first-team reps, allowing them to steal CMC in season-long drafts and confidently roster him in Week 1 DFS formats.
Similarly, no one gave Phillip Lindsay a shot to win the starting running back in Denver a year ago. But in the preseason, Lindsay stole significant first-team work from Freeman and put himself on meticulous drafters radar. Taywan Taylor’s alleged “sleeper” status proved to be fraudulent when he ran as the No. 4 receiver last preseason, Rashaad Penny’s Round 1 status was exposed as irrelevant, Peyton Barber separated massively from Ronald Jones – the list goes on and on.
These were the most important usage takeaways I saw in Week 2 of preseason action. For the Week 1 takeaways, click here.
Editor’s Note: The regular season is less than three weeks away. Our In-Season Package will include Evan Silva’s Matchups column, Friday night show with Adam Levitan and Silva, Sunday morning show with Levitan and Silva, Pat Thorman’s weekly rankings, Josh Hermsmeyer’s Buy-Low Model and lots more. Act now before the current prices go up, click here to find out more.
1. Tony Pollard Steps Into Zeke role
As the Ezekiel Elliott holdout intensifies, the chances of him missing Week 1 increases. There’s been speculation the Cowboys will go to a committee without Zeke, that no one can replicate his skills. I’m don’t think the Cowboys feel that way as they’ve found a serious talent in fourth-round rookie Tony Pollard.
Dak Prescott played 13 snaps on Saturday night and Pollard was on the field for every single one of them. During that time, he shredded the Rams second-stringers for 5-42-1 rushing and a 9-yard reception. Alf Morris, Mike Weber, Jordan Chunn and Darius Jackson didn’t even sniff the field. If Elliott and the Cowboys don’t come to terms before the Week 1 home game against the Giants, Pollard will be difficult to ignore on DraftKings at just $4500.
2. DK Metcalf Gives Way To Jaron Brown, David Moore
Russ Wilson played 17 snaps on Sunday. Tyler Lockett was in on all 17 of them, Jaron Brown 13, David Moore 11 and Malik Turner 5. After the game, Pete Carroll revealed that second-round rookie DK Metcalf – who was reportedly in line to play in a lot of 2-WR sets right away – will miss some time due to “minor” knee surgery. It sounds like a scope of some kind, which will put Metcalf behind the curve with the regular season less than three weeks away.
Note that Moore was actually in on 11 of the first 12 snaps with Russ and then Turner played the last five. It’s possible when the Seahawks take on the Bengals, Moore will be a near every-down player. He’s always been an intriguing prospect at 6’1/219 with an 89th-percentile size-adjusted speed score from PlayerProfiler.com. Evan Silva removed Metcalf from his Top 150 and added Moore in his latest sweep. Moore is $3500 on DraftKings ($500 over minimum) in Week 1 at home against the Bengals. Jaron Brown is $3100.
3. Worry On Christian Kirk?
Kyler Murray has played 28 snaps so far this preseason and Christian Kirk has shockingly only been in on 13 of them. This does not jive with what we’ve heard all offseason – that Kirk was going to be Kyler’s top target and that he’d play both inside and outside. Note that in the preseason, Kirk has lined up in the slot a massive 77% of the time. If the Cardinals really do use a 4-WR, double-slot formation as a base that’s fine. But if they run a lot of 3-WR sets instead, things will get tricky. In an absolute worst-case scenario, the new Kliff Kingsbury regime only views Kirk as a slot and also runs 4-WR at a league-high but still small rate.
I don’t think that worst-case scenario is likely – the Cardinals have been very careful not to show their full scheme this preseason. And playing the likes of Damiere Byrd and Trent Sherfield over Kirk would be insane. But it’s at least a situation I’m monitoring. ESPN Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss recently took the under on 867 receiving yards for Kirk and added that there’s no clear wideout pecking order behind Larry Fitz.
4. OJ Howard’s Time Is Here
For the first two years of OJ Howard’s career, he was a rotational player logging roughly 65% of the snaps alongside Cam Brate. That’s about to change. Jameis Winston has played 22 snaps this preseason and Howard has been on the field for 21 of them – Brate has only come on for 2-TE sets. Of course, the narrative that Bruce Arians doesn’t throw to his tight end is silly. He’s never had a truly special talent like Howard and I’d also note that current President of the 2019 #TeamPreseason Tanner Hudson has drawn 16 targets in two games. Howard was one of the players I identified in this article about mid-round guys with a possible path to first-round status in 2020.
5. Vance Will Make You Dance
Antonio Brown’s 26% target share is gone, Jesse James’ clogging blocker role is gone and the Steelers ranked second in passing play percentage last season. Juju Smith-Schuster already had 24% target share last season, it can’t go too much higher. While Donte Moncrief and James Washington are candidates to soak up a lot of that work, Vance McDonald is somewhat quietly set up beautifully. The Steelers starters played 14 snaps in Week 2 and McDonald was on the field for every single one.
In other Steelers news, offseason rumors that they’d turn their backfield into a committee appear unfounded. James Conner was in for all 14 first-team snaps and Jaylen Samuels ran strictly with the second-stringers. This is how the Steelers prefer it under Mike Tomlin.
And lastly, Donte Moncrief was in on 9-of-14 first-team snaps while James Washington got just one. Washington has been a star while playing with college teammate and No. 2 QB Mason Rudolph, but it appears he has work to do to get with the Ben Roethlisberger group. We still think the Steelers best 3-WR set is Washington and Moncrief outside, Juju in the slot.
6. Phillip Lindsay Sinking
The offseason was littered with reports that the new Vic Fangio regime wanted to use more Royce Freeman. And in a lot of sticky metrics like tackle-breaking, Freeman was actually better than Lindsay as a rookie. The best argument for Lindsay was that his pass-game role would expand in Year 2. Unfortunately for him, that doesn’t appear to be the case.
Joe Flacco played 19 snaps on Monday night and Lindsay was only in on eight of them. The Broncos also faced six third-down snaps and Lindsay was in for zero of those. Overall, Royce Freeman got seven snaps (two third-down snaps) and Devontae Booker was in on four snaps (all third-downs). Lindsay getting only a share of early-down work and none of the pass-down work is a recipe for fantasy disaster.
Elsewhere in Denver, it’s hard to believe but 32-year-old Emmanuel Sanders is back despite tearing his Achilles’ tendon eight months ago. Not only is he back, but he looked fantastic on Monday night. He played on 14-of-19 first-team snaps, had a 19-yard rush on an end-around, had a 45-yard catch negated by holding, and had a 5-yard reception on a hitch. I’m still bearish overall, but it’s hard to ignore Sanders right now.
7. 49ers Go With Even Split at RB
Jimmy Garoppolo played 11 snaps on Monday night. Tevin Coleman started and was in on six of them while Matt Breida got five. Both backs got chances on third-downs. The talent gap here is not very wide, so we can project something around a 60-40 split to open the year. The big benefit Tevin and Breida have over Phillip Lindsay and Royce Freeman is the Jerick McKinnon knee injury. Their weekly floor/ceiling projection is enhanced massively by the path to playing on passing downs.
8. Latavius Murray Not Going Away
As I noted last week, the Latavius Murray usage in the preseason is looking eerily familiar to the way Sean Payton used Mark Ingram. That jives with the late-night Combine encounter we discussed on Episode 1 of the podcast. Through two weeks, the first-team snap count is Alvin Kamara 21, Latavius 13. Of course Kamara will be in for the high-leverage pass downs, two-minute and a good portion of the red-zone work. He also projects in the 16-19 touch per game role. But Latavius is not going away.
9. Marlon Mack Asserts Control
Andrew Luck’s injury remains the story of Colts camp, but the first-stringers trudged on and played 19 snaps. Marlon Mack was in on 18 of them and Nyheim Hines was in for just one. It’s encouraging for Mack as a lack of pass-game role is the biggest knock on him. We know that he has one of the league’s best offensive lines and operates in one of the best offensive environments. We’ll have to see more third-down and 2-minute drill snaps to be sure, but Mack even getting a bit of the pass-down work would be huge.
Also in Indy, the tight end usage was as expected now that Jack Doyle is back healthy. Doyle was the primary in-line tight end, playing on 14-of-19 first-team snaps. Eric Ebron mostly lined up detached from the line as the “F” tight end, only playing on 8-of-19 first-team snaps. Ebron’s snaps are certainly valuable as they come on pass downs and in the red zone, but we have to be aware that his role from when Doyle was hurt last year is gone. The Colts have also added Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell as big upgrades behind TY Hilton.