In this space, I’ll go through all that we learned from preseason action and give you five things I care about along with five 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 of the regular season.
5 Things I care about
Getting a QB answer from the Patriots
Cam Newton has been one of the most enjoyable figures in the NFL over the last decade. With that said, the Patriots made the right move by officially closing that chapter of their story and starting the Mac Jones era.
This is especially true for fantasy purposes.
With Jones under center, we can project the Patriots to move away from the overly run-heavy offense they employed last year. They will throw the ball more — full stop.
This is good news because contrary to thoughts of the hive mind, this New England skill-position corps is not totally bereft of talent.
Jakobi Meyers is one of the most underrated receivers in the NFL. He’s consistently outproduced and outplayed a first-round pick from his same draft year in N’Keal Harry. Meyers inhaled 81 targets in nine starts last year, a not-insignificant number considering how infrequently this team threw the ball. Targets are earned and Meyers did all the right things to show his coaches and quarterbacks that he deserved them. He didn’t leave the field once he started playing last year, didn’t leave the field in the preseason, and I doubt he leaves the field once the real games start.
If the Patriots employ any bit of the RPO offense that Mac Jones operated so well in at Alabama, Meyers is going to absolutely eat on quick slants and dig routes.
We know that the tight end room was juiced up in free agency. While Hunter Henry has dealt with injuries, Jonnu Smith remains extremely underrated. The athletic red-zone specialist can easily be had outside the top-10 tight ends. That needs a bump. Smith is now in line for close to 90 targets and could easily outkick ADP.
Damien Harris should also be treated as more of a high-end RB3 than Round 8-9 fodder. He will cede pass-catching work to James White but should own most of the early-down work. He also has a much higher ceiling with Newton no longer around to hog goal-line carries.
Mac Jones got put through the wringer by the fantasy community when it appeared he was ticketed for the 49ers pick at No. 3. Well, that didn’t happen. So we shouldn’t hold him to that standard anymore. He’s a fine quarterback prospect who is going to allow this team to return to the uptempo, quick-strike passing offense they’ve always employed. As a result, he’s a boost for every fantasy player in town.
Najee Harris’ role
Najee Harris is locked in as the Steelers bell-cow back.
We’ve seen players like Le’Veon Bell, James Conner, and even De’Angelo Williams handle a snap share north of 80 percent during the last six seasons. When the Steelers feel like they have a guy, they run that player out there for almost every snap.
As if you needed any more confirmation that Harris was their new guy, preseason wrote it in pen.
Harris played on all but one of the first-team snaps with the Steelers’ first-team offense in the second preseason game. I’ve moved Harris into the Top-12 of my running back rankings and am comfortable ignoring any worries about the offensive line or what Ben Roethlisberger has left.
Chuba Hubbard is the direct Panthers RB2
If you’re into late-round upside, Chuba Hubbard is making a great case as a dart throw.
Based on his work with the first team in preseason, it looks like the rookie (and Matt Rhule favorite) is in line to be Christian McCaffrey's clear-cut backup. When healthy, we know McCaffrey is going to handle almost all of the backfield work. Hubbard is unlikely to have any standalone value. However, we already saw what can happen to a backup if elevated during a McCaffrey absence. Last year, Mike Davis was left hanging on just about every waiver wire after August.
We might not want to let that same thing happen with Hubbard.
Giants offensive struggles
If you were high on any Giants player heading into August, what you saw last weekend had to at least cause a pause.
Daniel Jones threw 22 passes against the Patriots. Those plays resulted in 135 measly yards with one touchdown and one interception. Jones was constantly under siege behind an offensive line that doesn’t look like it improved a lick from 2020.
Obviously, Saquon Barkley and Kenny Golladay didn’t play in that game but their individual outlooks are already clouded with health concerns. Playing in an inefficient, stagnant offense isn’t going to help matters.
We already had questions about how effective this team would be while captained by Jason Garrett. We didn’t get any comforting answers from preseason.
Terrace Marshall’s impact
Terrace Marshall straight-up crushed the preseason. After balling out this summer, he’s now a lock for the Panthers' No. 3 receiver job and a spot in 11-personnel packages.
Now, we need to have a conversation about how much he can produce in that role. While Marshall offers a skill set that would lend him to operating as both an inside and outside receiver, he primarily looks ticketed for the big slot role. The Panthers operated in 11-personnel on almost a fourth of their passing plays last year and threw to tight ends at the lowest rate (7.8 percent of passes). So even if Marshall doesn’t usurp DJ Moore or Robby Anderson — there's almost a zero percent chance that happens — he’s in line for a good-sized role.
Curtis Samuel drew 97 targets in that role last year and finished as the WR26 overall. Marshall won’t have the rushing work Samuel held to buoy his fantasy finish, and he might not see as many targets either with Christian McCaffrey back for 2021. Yes, Mike Davis had a passing down role. Great — McCaffrey will have a bigger one.
If someone from Moore, Anderson, CMC trio goes down, however, Marshall could moonwalk into 100 targets on a pass-heavy, three-receiver offense.
So it’s clear Marshall will have some kind of impact this year. To what degree has yet to be determined. Either way, he’s squarely on the fantasy radar. You take him for the unknown and possible injury upside late in drafts.
5 Things I don’t care about
Fretting over the Texans backfield
Phillip Lindsay ticketed for the early down role?
David Johnson limited to just a pass-catching gig?
Mark Ingram actually going to log a significant amount of touches?
Sincerely, who cares?
There are going to be inflection points in drafts where taking one of these three does make sense. But if you were proactively targeting a member of this backfield, to the point that you needed to make a huge adjustment based on the fear of this committee situation becoming reality, what were you even doing?
The Texans have a chance to push for a futility status we didn’t even know was possible this season. You don’t want a running back in that situation, especially if they’re mired in a mercurial committee.
This situation was made for the “things I don’t care about” column.
The “Bubble Wrap” theory with Justin Fields
It looks like the Bears are going to go with this approach. I still think it’s the wrong one.
Believe me, I am absolutely worried the Bears are going to field one of the most disastrous offensive lines in the NFL. In an ideal world, I’d rather not see Justin Fields operate in a situation like that. We’ve left the land of the ideal behind at this point and now must operate in this reality.
By trotting Andy Dalton out to start the season behind this line, the Bears have to be on one of two minds.
Perhaps they’ve convinced themselves that Dalton will get the ball out quicker than Fields and keep plays on schedule, therefore limiting the impact of the line’s pass-protection woes. On a more sinister train of thought, they’ve got their loyalty wires crossed and have just decided to make Dalton a sacrificial lamb before they trot out Fields when the schedule lightens around Week 4.
I’m not sure which line of thinking is worse.
It’s hard to believe having a “get-it-out-quick” style of quarterback — who isn’t on the Tom Brady or Peyton Manning tier — is going to mask a truly bottom-level offensive line. Also, what kind of message does it send if you’re rolling Dalton out there just because you don’t want to expose Fields to tough defenses early in the year?
The only thing that makes sense is that they think Andy Dalton gives them a better chance to win right now. Maybe. I just don’t agree.
Hoping for clarity in the Bucs backfield
Based on the Bucs’ preseason deployment, we can project Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones to primarily split the early downs and short-yardage work while Giovani Bernard handles third downs and obvious passing situations. What a mess!
So Fournette and Jones have their floors compromised because they won’t catch many passes and their ceilings capped because they will split carries. That’s not ideal. Bernard should clear 50 catches this year with ease but will likely need to usurp one of those two to possess a high weekly ceiling. It’s hard to see that happening. Bernard is my favorite here because he has a clear role and goes so late in drafts.
I’d love to have a piece of this Bucs backfield because the offense will be prolific. You just can’t have any confidence in the type of flavor you’re pulling out of the boxes of chocolates here.
Gus Edwards’ lack of receiving resume
Gus Edwards has caught all of 18 passes in three seasons. He probably won’t catch many passes this year. I don’t care.
The underrated back has also averaged five-plus yards per carry in every single season. Now, you can certainly make the argument that has more to do with the Ravens' unique rushing ecosystem than Edwards himself. Breaking news: Edwards will be running in that same ecosystem as the clear-cut RB1 now that J.K. Dobbins is on IR. So he’ll still get that bump.
Given that Gus Edwards ranked third in Next Gen Stats’ rushing yards over expectation metric last year, maybe some of it is indeed the player’s own ability as well. Either way, these are all great signals for Edwards’ outlook.
I expect this backfield to be a 60/30/10 type of split with Edwards leading the charge and Ty’Son Williams following him. Even 50 percent of one of the most efficient run-heavy offenses is more than enough to not worry about Edwards’ lack of targets ... as long as he stays below RB20 in last-minute ADP.
Deshaun Watson trade talk
My colleague Charles Robinson has done excellent reporting on the loopholes that could be present for Deshaun Watson to avoid the commissioner’s exempt list and the legitimate trade interest teams still have.
I just can’t wrap my head around a trade supposedly coming together when Watson is still under the cloud of 22 sexual assault allegations. It's as toxic as it gets right now. Apparently, the only way it would work is with some sort of “pick insurance” for the acquiring team, which would just make the whole endeavor fruitless. And imagine a team publicly executing this trade only to couch it with this level of a hedge.
It’s hard to say whether it feels more stupid ... or more wrong.
So, until anything happens (which it likely will not), there’s no point in offering any Watson analysis, much less advising people to take some weirdo draft discount on him. Hard pass.