WATCH: Top value quarterbacks for Week 1
I put very little stock in preseason performances. The minuscule sample size and vanilla scheming lead to a ton of irrelevant noise and dangerous swings in player perception. Exhibit A is Ameer Abdullah’s 45-yard run in August of 2015, a play that boosted his perceived value for years after it happened.
However, I do use the preseason to get a handle on how coaches view their depth charts. The easiest way to do this is by not following what they say, but instead watching how they use players. By tracking first-string usage, we quietly can learn a ton as we continue to get set for Week 1. Meanwhile, the “preseason is meaningless crowd” will fall behind.
These are the usage notes I found most important through one week of preseason action.
1. Panthers use Christian McCaffrey as true workhorse
Throughout the offseason, the Panthers’ coaches talked up the massive workload they were preparing to give the second-year RB. I didn’t believe it, especially when we consider C.J. Anderson is an upgrade over Jonathan Stewart and McCaffrey struggled so badly as a runner last year while getting fewer than 10 carries in 13-of-16 games.
But in Thursday’s preseason opener, McCaffrey was in on all 14 of Cam Newton’s snaps and was used as a true workhorse. He rushed four times, scored a 2-yard rushing touchdown and picked up two targets. Meanwhile, Anderson oddly got carries with the camp bodies in the fourth quarter. If McCaffrey can push toward 200 carries on top of his already massive pass-game role, he’s going to have a huge fantasy season.
2. Buccaneers using rotation at wide receiver
The Bucs made some waves over the past couple months by “declaring” Chris Godwin a starter. The truth is they view four of their wideouts as starters and will use them accordingly. For example, Week 1 quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick played 14 snaps Thursday and the wideout breakdown was Mike Evans 11 snaps, Adam Humphries 10, DeSean Jackson 8, Godwin 8. D-Jax did start opposite Evans, but I suspect he’ll rotate with Godwin often this season. Sadly, it doesn’t appear the Bucs are willing to get their three best wideouts on the field by using one in the slot and sticking Humphries on the bench.
3. Buck Allen still a factor for Ravens
Alex Collins earned the starting role with quietly strong play down the stretch last season. But Allen isn’t going away, especially in passing situations. In Thursday’s preseason opener, Joe Flacco logged 12 snaps and the RB snaps were Collins 6, Allen 5, empty 1. Note that Allen out-snapped Collins 3-0 on third downs, something we’ll see all season. So while Collins projects to handle a majority of the early-down work, he’ll be a scary start on DraftKings, as he’s game-flow dependent. One spot that does make sense for Collins happens to come in Week 1 when the Ravens get one of the league’s best matchups: Home vs. the Bills.
4. First look at Derrick Henry vs. Dion Lewis
One of the offseason’s biggest questions was how the Titans would split up the work between beastly athletic freak Derrick Henry and pint-sized free agent addition Dion Lewis. On Thursday, Henry started and played six first-team snaps while Lewis got three. However, Lewis was on the field for both third-down snaps. The prediction the Titans would lean toward Henry in base and lean toward Lewis in passing situations appears correct for now.
5. Rashaad Penny not far behind Chris Carson
The Seahawks relentlessly have talked up Carson all offseason even though they shamefully used the No. 27 overall pick on Penny. While many have since left Penny for dead, perhaps the Seahawks were just showing deference to a veteran who has worked hard over a rookie. Russell Wilson played 12 snaps in the preseason opener and Carson only out-snapped Penny 7-5. Penny was also in for the lone third-down play and got two snaps inside the 10-yard line. This is trending toward a committee to start the season with the better talent (Penny) likely to win out in the end.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Rashaad Penny reportedly suffered a broken finger Tuesday and is expected to miss 3-4 weeks.
6. Michael Gallup rising quickly in DallasDez Bryant, Jason Witten and Brice Butler are gone from Dallas. Left behind is a ton of opportunity for someone. Cole Beasley didn’t play in the preseason opener, but we still got a nice look at the wideout corps. On Dak Prescott’s 10 snaps, Gallup got eight, Allen Hurns got six, Terrance Williams got five and Tavon Austin got three. Gallup took advantage of the opportunity with a pretty 30-yard touchdown catch from Dak. I’d expect Williams’ role to rise somewhat through the preseason, but Gallup and Hurns are serious candidates for a lot of snaps this season.
7. Melvin Gordon healthy, dominating usagePerhaps due to nagging injuries or maybe due to fine play from Austin Ekeler, Gordon’s usage dipped a bit last season. He only played on 47 percent of 3rd-and-6+ (via Pro Football Focus) and was only in on 70 percent of the overall snaps — a bit concerning for a player who has struggled with efficiency throughout his NFL career. But a now-healthy Gordon was back in a workhorse role Saturday, playing on 12-of-14 first-team snaps and handling 2-of-3 first downs. He’s underpriced for his role and matchup (vs. KC) at $6,800 in Week 1.
8. Big gap between Peyton Barber and Ronald JonesThe Buccaneers used the No. 38 overall pick on Jones, but that hasn’t guaranteed him a starting role. In fact, he remains well behind Barber, who logged 13 first-team snaps Thursday compared to just one for Jones. On Monday, head coach Dirk Koetter said Barber is “our starter.” Jones easily could make up ground over the next month, but it’s looking like the best he can do is force an early-season timeshare. Note that Barber is just $4,100 in Week 1 against the Saints while Jones is $4,900.
9. Ricky Seals-Jones the clear-cut starterI’ve talked a lot about Seals-Jones already this offseason in Favorite Fliers and New Starters. The preseason opener confirmed those feelings, as Seals-Jones played on 8-of-10 first-string snaps and hauled in his lone target. With little competition at the tight end position and the Cardinals unsettled at the No. 2 WR role, there’s a lot of upside here.
10. Browns open eyes to David NjokuNjoku maddeningly lost playing time to Seth Devalve last season and ended up in on just 46.9 percent of the snaps. It appears they’ll wisely change that this year, making the freakishly talented Njoku a serious breakout candidate. He played on 7-of-8 snaps with the first-stringers Thursday and caught a pair of touchdowns in the game. For more on Njoku’s outlook, click here.
11. John Ross leans into No. 2 WR jobA lot of people wanted to give up on Ross after an injury-plagued rookie season that saw him log just 17 snaps all year. But this guy was the No. 9 overall pick for a reason, and he’s been the unquestioned star of Bengals camp. With Brandon LaFell cut, Ross is the clear-cut No. 2 opposite A.J. Green while Tyler Boyd mans the slot. Andy Dalton is well aware of Ross’ ability, targeting him three times on eight attempts last week. One did get pick-sixed when Ross fell down, but there’s a lot of sleeper appeal here, and Ross is just $3,900 at Indianapolis Week 1.
12. Trey Burton an oversized receiver for BearsWe often assume coaches will use players the way we envision, but it doesn’t always work out that way. So it was good to see Burton get 9-of-10 first-string snaps and be split off the line on six of those snaps. Meanwhile Adam Shaheen was in on seven first-string snaps as the Bears went with a “12” formation six times. While Shaheen is an underrated talent, the more productive pass-catching role is in the “F” spot, where Burton clearly will play. It’s the same role Travis Kelce lived and thrived in for former Chiefs coordinator — now Bears head coach — Matt Nagy.
13. Jaguars using Austin Seferian-Jenkins in every-down roleOne free agent addition who didn’t generate much buzz this offseason is Seferian-Jenkins, the mountainous 6’5″ 262-pound former second-round tight end. He’s coming off a respectable 50-catch season (in 13 games) with the Jets and now has a very clear path to the every-down role with the Jaguars. In the preseason opener, Seferian-Jenkins played on 13-of-15 first-string snaps — well ahead of Niles Paul and blocker James O’Shaughnessy. Note that Seferian-Jenkins is $3,200 in Week 1 for what has been an elite tight end matchup against the Giants.
14. Danny Amendola rules slot for DolphinsFive months ago, the Dolphins gave Albert Wilson a three-year, $24 million contract that included $14.45 million guaranteed. They since have admitted to “trying to find a role” for him, which is quite strange. In the preseason opener, Wilson got zero of the 11 first-team snaps while DeVante Parker got 11, Kenny Stills got 11 and slot man Danny Amendola got 9. Given the costs here, Stills ($4,700 Week 1 and 128.1 season-long ADP) is my favorite option. But note Parker has suffered a broken finger and his Week 1 status is in doubt. We could very well see Wilson ($3,700) line up opposite Stills against the Titans.
I am a promoter at DraftKings and am also an avid fan and user (my username is adamlevitan) and may sometimes play on my personal account in the games that I offer advice on. Although I have expressed my personal view on the games and strategies above, they do not necessarily reflect the view(s) of DraftKings and I may also deploy different players and strategies than what I recommend above. I am not an employee of DraftKings and do not have access to any non-public information.