August 22, 2022, 7:02 pm
The NFL preseason tends to sprout tea leaves that are often tricky to read. Fantasy managers try to distinguish between what actually matters as fantasy newsworthy and what is merely fleeting noise. You know all the preseason cliches — everybody is in the best shape of their careers, all coaches highlight someone doing “all the right things” and putting too much stock in preseason game stats. Oh, and don’t forget about the training camp thighs on social media. So, how do you make sense of it all in your approach to drafts and the fantasy season ahead? Here are five of the most fantasy-relevant headline questions from the preseason so far, and my take on each with a takeaway verdict. (Note: all preseason first-team snap data below is from FantasyPros)
Is George Pickens a dark horse for best rookie receiver?
Preseason stats: 2 games (2 started), 7 targets, 5 receptions, 49 yards receiving, 1 TD
Let’s kick things off with arguably the most hyped preseason player across the entire league, rookie Steelers wideout George Pickens. First, it’s hard to bet against Pittsburgh when it comes to homegrown mid-late round wide receiver talent – their hit rate has been incredibly high as evidenced by Hines Ward, Antonio Brown, Mike Wallace and Diontae Johnson. All four of those fantasy stalwarts were actually taken by the Steelers later (all third-round or later) than they took Pickens (late second at 52nd overall). He’s been making the Twitter rounds often this preseason with his physical blocking and impressive endzone grabs, so he passes the eye test. This shouldn’t surprise us since he led Georgia in the three core receiving categories as a freshman and was in the same prospect conversations at one point as some of the first-round wideouts even though he eventually fell to the late 2nd round. Like Jameson Williams, Pickens also came into the draft with question marks coming back from a torn ACL, except he suffered it much earlier in the spring of 2021 compared to Williams in the 2022 National Title game (against Pickens’ Bulldogs). The Lions basically selected Williams at-cost at 12th overall, but Pickens came to the Steelers at a huge discount some 40 picks later.
In redraft, there’s a bit of noise here because of the lackluster quarterback situation in Pittsburgh with embattled former second-overall pick Mitch Trubisky and rookie Kenny Pickett, who has had an uneven first preseason to say the least. Meanwhile in dynasty and keeper settings, I think there’s a lot to like about Pickens long-term. Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk recently predicted the Steelers would anticipate getting priced out of the hot wide receiver market when it comes to a contract extension for Chase Claypool (who also frustrated coaches with mental lapses) and trade him by the deadline, which would further open up opportunities for Pickens to thrive. The second Steelers preseason game against the Jags is Exhibit A: Claypool played 16 first-team snaps and ran 10 first-team routes compared to 21/17 for Pickens and 25/18 for Diontae Johnson. Also notable is that after only taking 17% of his 2021 regular season snaps from the slot, he took 87% of his 16 snaps from the slot according to PFF. Claypool taking over for JuJu Smith-Schuster and his vacated 165 slot snaps would ostensibly cement Pickens’ role out wide opposite of Johnson. Speaking of Johnson, the incumbent Steelers WR1 also didn’t get nearly the length of commitment in his two-year contract extension as fellow receivers this offseason, so the long-term wide receiver future is really wide open in Pittsburgh and Pickens has a chance to truly make a name for himself in an offense that is writing a new chapter post-Ben Roethlisberger.
Verdict: Noise in redraft, news in dynasty
Has Isiah Pacheco staked his claim in the Chiefs RB rotation?
Preseason stats: 2 games (0 started), 6 carries, 14 yards rushing, 3 targets, 3 receptions, 21 yards receiving
At the start of 2022, Chiefs running back Isiah Pacheco wasn’t widely known by the general fantasy community. The Rutgers product shares the same South Jersey birthplace as Mike Trout, but few could have predicted he’d be mentioned with MVP in headlines for his own performance. The combine told us that Pacheco has the wheels – his 4.37 forty-yard dash time was tied with Patriots rookie Pierre Strong Jr. for the fastest among running backs. However, between playing at a school that isn’t really known for developing future star fantasy running backs (outside of Ray Rice) and lacking some signature traits of a prototypical bellcow, Pacheco fell to the seventh round of the 2022 NFL Draft. The Chiefs believe they may have found a diamond in the rough, as he has not only flashed the kind of home run-hitting speed out of the backfield they haven’t had since Jamaal Charles, but he’s also shown both pass blocking and catching ability along with an impressive adjustment to the game speed of the pros.
So, the hype is real folks, and those skeptical and still waiting for Clyde Edwards-Helaire (whose red flag worries Jon Rintoul covered last month) to live up to his NFL draft capital could be missing out on the eventual true RB1 in the Kansas City running back room. Pacheco is the bigger and faster back who has simply shown the coaches more than CEH, who has honestly run uninspired in the preseason games. It’s hard not to see Pacheco as the potential 2022 version of Elijah Mitchell – a late-round rookie back from a smaller college program drafted into an elite offensive pro scheme and meritocratic depth chart. The preseason stat line is meh, but read between the lines and I think two key facts prove he’s ascended the depth chart. First, the 3 catches for 21 yards is strong and inspires confidence in his possible PPR value. Second, you want to see starters play sparsely in preseason games overall but with the first-team offense when they do — Derrick Gore got more total preseason totes and Ronald Jones ran with the non-starters in the 3rd quarter of the second preseason game (and has now played zero preseason snaps with Patrick Mahomes). Having said all that, you also have to bake the committee risk (as JP Sticco calls out in his recent mailbag episode of the Fantasy NFL Today podcast) into the price — no Chiefs back since Kareem Hunt in 2017 has topped 181 carries in a season. So, don’t reach for Pacheco, but he’s a final round lottery ticket that could pay off and save you from the potential early waiver wire rush to nab one of the budding running back breakouts of 2022.
Is Brian Robinson sucking some fantasy life out of Antonio Gibson?
Preseason stats: 2 games (1 started), 14 carries, 57 yards rushing, 1 rush TD, 2 targets, 2 receptions, 15 yards receiving
Another backfield getting a lot of preseason attention is the one in our nation’s capital. Normally when you have a running back coming off a 1,000 yard rushing season with nearly 300 yards receiving and 10 total TDs from scrimmage, he should have a pretty firm hold on the starting job. That hasn’t been the case for Antonio Gibson throughout training camp and preseason though, where ball security continues to be an issue and the coaches have sent him a clear message by sticking the third-year converted wideout from Memphis onto various special teams drills (and actually had a kick return in one preseason game). As a result, Gibson finds himself almost in the same hot seat territory as CEH. Naturally, the spotlight shines on the rest of the running back depth chart.
While it seems to be shining the brightest on rookie third-rounder Brian Robinson Jr., I think that it is noise. My hot take is that BRJ is just a plodder, reminiscent in fantasy of Peyton Hillis and BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Robinson’s draft capital was mainly a product of a very weak positional draft class, and he was an odd duck coming out of the Alabama system who was much more like Bo Scarbrough than Najee Harris, Josh Jacobs, Kenyan Drake or Derrick Henry. Many are trying to peg Robinson as a Henry-esque battering ram, but his fellow Alabama alum has 22 lbs on him and is simply a much more well-rounded back. I do believe Robinson will eat into Gibson’s goal-line carries, of which he had a dozen last year. But, he will not fully supplant Gibson’s role (even though I agree with Jon Rintoul on reasons for him as a RB fade), nor will re-signed pass catching ace J.D. McKissic, who Washington desperately reeled back in after nearly losing him to Buffalo.
My prediction is that this backfield will be a quasi-committee where everyone will get theirs, and I believe Ron Rivera and OC Scott Turner will drastically change course from being the 8th run-heaviest team in the league last year. Their passing game personnel is markedly better entering this year with a QB upgrade in Carson Wentz (and promising rookie Sam Howell impressing in preseason if Wentz falters again), versatile receiver Curtis Samuel finally healthy, a year of experience under the belt of Howell’s college teammate Dyami Brown, and a talented slot weapon in rookie Jahan Dotson from Penn State. Pair that with what Stephen Vidovich calls a Top 10 offensive line unit in his rankings and I think Wentz will get his opportunity to sling it and turn the page from Indy and Philly.
Could Treylon Burks really be at the bottom of the depth chart?
Preseason stats: 2 games (0 started), 4 targets (1 INT), 1 reception, 4 yards receiving
You’d be hard-pressed to find another skill position rookie who has seen their stock plummet much more this preseason than Titans receiver Treylon Burks. The big-bodied former Arkansas Razorback has gone from being occasionally projected as the first wideout picked in the 2022 NFL Draft to quite possibly entering the season as the WR4 on his own team. So, how did we get here? If you go back to the pre-draft process, this wasn’t totally out of the realm of possibility since many analysts pegged him as the most raw of any of the first-round receivers. At the beginning of the offseason, things got off on the wrong foot when concerns about his conditioning and asthma arose all while bad drops were reported out of minicamp. Then, he started practicing with the second- and third-string offensive units which escalated into him playing into the fourth quarter of the Titans’ first preseason contest. He was also the intended target of a Logan Woodside interception in the second game. In stark contrast, it’s been mostly sunshine and roses throughout the rest of the receiving depth chart. New WR1 Robert Woods has looked “totally back to normal” from his torn ACL according to NBC Sports and is reportedly gelling with quarterback Ryan Tannehill. Unheralded UDFA and late-season hero Nick Westbrook-Ikhine has been developing as a playmaker and a more complete receiver. Even within Burks’ own draft class, rookie slot Kyle Phillips from UCLA has gotten open repeatedly in joint practices according to the Titans’ official website to the point where head coach Mike Vrabel gave possibly the best quote of the preseason (“He goes rabbit hunting with a hammer”).
The more you look up and down that depth chart heading into the regular season, the more reasons arise to give others snaps and less reasons to trust that Burks would be productive with them if given a significant amount. He’s still a hold in dynasty – it seems silly to reshape long-term evaluations of him from his very first offseason, and this is where you can’t let a small sample size create long-term noise to cloud your dynasty big board. Having said that, investing a redraft selection in Burks seems like an extremely risky proposition given the opportunity cost of other safer options even in the later rounds. I would steer clear until there are clear signs of improvement in his adjustment to the pro game and movement up the receiving depth chart in Tennessee.
Verdict: News in redraft, Noise in dynasty
Does rookie Dameon Pierce really have the starting RB1 job locked up already?
Preseason stats: 1 game (started), 5 carries, 49 yards rushing
On the one hand, given the rest of the Texans’ running back room, it shouldn’t be a shocking notion that Pierce could already be their lead back here in August. Career committee-back Rex Burkhead, the injury-prone Marlon Mack and journeyman Royce Freeman don’t really pose much of a threat. All training camp long, Pierce has impressed with his elusiveness and explosiveness and even solid pass-protection, which is always a concern with rookies transitioning from the college to the NFL. The fourth-rounder out of Florida averaged nearly 10 yards per carry on five totes in the Texans preseason opener, then didn’t even play in the second game because new head coach Lovie Smith “wanted to get a better look at the other backs” according to a report from the Texans’ official site. I think this is absolutely legit news, particularly for drafters employing zero-RB or adjacent strategies.
Pierce reminds me a lot of Chris Carson in his running style — he runs with a sense of urgency and burst (that many would commonly describe as running “angry”) that’s complemented by great contact balance. If it feels like the Texans haven’t had an 1,100-yard rusher since Arian Foster, that’s because it’s sadly true (back in 2014!). Carlos Hyde and Lamar Miller did top 1,000 yards rushing since then, but neither hit paydirt more than six times in a season. To have anything close to an RB2 ceiling (which I believe Pierce could have), you have to pose enough of a scoring threat to go along with yards from scrimmage. As I mentioned in my recent breakout TEs article in highlighting Brevin Jordan’s potential in this up-and-coming offense, Davis Mills is better than you may think and if Houston takes a slight step forward, it could create enough of an environment for Pierce to carry an RB3 floor on volume alone in non-PPR at a potential cost of RB42. His ceiling may be more capped in PPR since he wasn’t targeted in his lone preseason game and Burkhead has at least 32 targets in four of his last five seasons.