I put very little stock in preseason performances. The miniscule sample size and vanilla scheming leads to a ton of irrelevant noise and dangerous swings in player perception.
However, I do use the preseason to get a handle on how coaches view their depth charts. The easiest way to do this is not by following what they say, but instead tracking how they use players. By charting first-string usage, we can quietly learn a ton as we continue to get set for Week 1. Below are the usage notes I found important following the third week of preseason action.
1. Tyler Lockett’s snap count remains a concern
Seattle’s first-team offense logged 35 snaps against the Cowboys on Thursday night and the top-3 WR count was: Doug Baldwin 31, Jermaine Kearse 29 and Tyler Lockett 15. It’s been that way all preseason. Through Russell Wilson’s 75 overall preseason snaps, Lockett has been on the field for just 39 of them (52.0 percent) vs. Baldwin’s 68 and Kearse’s 63. That said, Lockett is an exceptional talent who will almost certainly play his way into a bigger role as the season moves along and I’m thrilled to get him in the 8th-round of season-long drafts. The problem is he’s going in the 5th-round.
2. Jay Ajayi outplayed by Arian Foster
Jay Ajayi started on Thursday night and was on the field for the first two series. But his struggles continued and he’s now rushed 15 times for 36 yards while looking awkward in the pass game. He’s ranked 95th out of 125 qualifiers in PFF’s preseason running back grades. Meanwhile, Arian Foster impressively shed some tackles and looked healthy while one-cutting his way into the end zone, making him the favorite to operate as the lead back to open the season. Still, Foster is 30 years old and has undergone three surgeries in the last three years (ruptured Achilles, torn groin, herniated disk in back). I do not expect this run game or this Dolphins defense to be effective at all, putting a ton on the plate of Ryan Tannehill and the no-huddle pass game. Target magnet Jarvis Landry has a legit shot at 130 catches this season.
3. Christine Michael’s awakening continues
The most impressive running back this preseason has arguably been Christine Michael, who has rushed 24 times for 157 yards through three games. Even if Thomas Rawls (ankle surgery) ends up playing Week 1, C-Mike has earned a significant role. In fact, don’t be surprised if there’s a 50-50 split in early-down work between the duo in Week 1 for the dream home matchup with the Dolphins. Rookie C.J. Prosise will handle all the passing-down work.
4. Kenny Stills rides up the depth chart
Former Saint Kenny Stills was a big bust in his first year as a Dolphin. But that appears to be changing now as he’s playing ahead of more heralded 2015 first-round pick DeVante Parker. Of course, it doesn’t matter too much as the Dolphins project among the league leaders in both pace and three-wide sets. In the third preseason game, the first-team WR snap counts were: Still 45, Jarvis Landry 44 and Parker 38 (out of 46). I won’t be using Stills against the Seahawks’ elite perimeter pass defense, but he’ll be a sneaky cheap play in better spots.
5. Ted Ginn will have his chances
I’ve talked a ton this preseason about the way the Panthers are using their wide receivers. What has remained constant is the fact that they can’t quit the speed of Ted Ginn no matter how many painful drops he racks up. In the third preseason game, Ginn was in for 41-of-46 first-string snaps while Kelvin Benjamin got 34. Next up was Devin Funchess at 25, Brenton Bersin 19 and Jordan Norwood 13 (Philly Brown didn’t play). The Panthers know Funchess is a better player, but it appears they believe Ginn’s lid-lifting ability fits their offense better. He’s going to have some chances at big days just as he did last year when he scored multiple touchdowns in four different games.
6. James White’s role as expected
The Patriots’ starters logged 31 snaps on Friday and James White was in for 13 of them. That sounds low, but note he was in for all seven third-down snaps, all three 2-minute drill snaps and a 2-point attempt. It’s the role we expected as the Patriots have zero faith in White as a runner and are unlikely to hand him the ball more than 2-4 times against the Cardinals in Week 1. All his value will come from the 4-7 targets he’ll get per game.
7. Sammie Coates booted out of Steelers’ rotation
It doesn’t matter how many natural skills a wide receiver has if he can’t earn the trust of the quarterback/coaches. Ask Justin Hunter, Jeff Janis, Dorial Green-Beckham and countless others. For now, we have to add Sammie Coates to the list as his woeful inconsistency has landed him on the bench. Ben Roethlisberger played 19 snaps on Friday and the WR count was Antonio Brown 19, Markus Wheaton 18 and Eli Rogers 17. Yes, Rogers has taken over as the no-doubt slot receiver for a plus matchup with the Redskins in Week 1. Wheaton will play outside in the Steelers’ three-wide base.
8. Michael Thomas makes a move in New Orleans
The Saints will likely end up around the league average in 3-WR sets, so I thought it was notable that Brandin Cooks and Michael Thomas worked in that set during the third preseason game. The final first-team WR snap count was Cooks 24, Thomas 23, Willie Snead 17 and Brandon Coleman 0 (out of 24). Thomas and Snead are both GPP plays against the Raiders in Week 1 as I think a lot of the ownership will be on Brandin Cooks and Coby Fleener.
9. C.J. Spiller pulling us back in
There’s been a quiet yet steady drumbeat of positive news on C.J. Spiller for much of the offseason. It culminated on Friday night with him out-snapping Mark Ingram 12-10 during first-string play. Spiller, always long on explosive talent but short on production, appears to have secured a real role. At the very least, I’m now scared off using Ingram in cash Week 1.
10. Isaiah Crowell maintains slight edge on Duke
Isaiah Crowell outsnapped Duke Johnson 17-16 overall on Friday, 6-4 on third-down and 3-0 in the red-zone. He remains a value play in season-long drafts as there’s far more hype surrounding the explosive Duke. It reminds of the way Hue Jackson handled Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard in Cincy as Hill remained the early-down and red-zone back despite ineffectiveness. Crowell, a former 5-star recruit who ran into off-field troubles, will likely out-touch Duke on a week-to-week basis to open the year.
11. Time for Cookie Monster to eat
Jared Cook has annually underperformed relative to his unique athletic skill set. But the quarterbacks he’s played with during his seven-year career are Vince Young, Matt Hasselbeck, Jake Locker, Sam Bradford, Austin Davis and Nick Foles. Now he gets a truly massive upgrade to Aaron Rodgers and is playing the much-needed seam-stretching role. During Rodgers’ 25 snaps Friday, Cook was on the field for 19 of them – including 10-of-13 pass plays. Richard Rodgers was in for 12 of them, with 5-of-13 pass plays. Cook will bring serious upside to a Week 1 matchup at Jacksonville for just $2,900.
12. Kevin White’s disaster preseason continues
I had Kevin White on top of my Overvalued list back in early-July and the preseason has only cemented that assertion. He’s played 71 snaps this preseason, most of them with starting quarterback Jay Cutler. White has produced just three catches for 12 yards and is PFF’s No. 219 WR out of 225 qualifiers. In a run-first offense with target magnet Alshon Jeffery opposite, the raw White is an easy avoid for me in both season-long and on DraftKings.
13. Colts flash full three-wide base
For the first time this preseason, Andrew Luck had all three of his speedy wideouts on the field. He played 32 snaps and the WR count was Donte Moncrief 32, T.Y. Hilton 31 and Phillip Dorsett 21. No other wide receiver got on the field with Luck. It’s a reminder that the Colts will be using three-wide as a base and that Moncrief is set for an eruption. With Indy’s offensive line a disaster, Luck will be forced to get the ball out quickly. That’s better news for the bigger/stronger Moncrief vs. the deep-route running Hilton.
14. Zach Ertz’s usage back to normal
The Eagles used Zach Ertz in some strange ways during the first two preseason games, running him way behind Brent Celek and making him play a ton of snaps with 2nd/3rd-stringers. That all changed in the third preseason game as Ertz was on the field for 32 of Sam Bradford’s 34 snaps. He racked up five targets in that time and with the Eagles’ wideout corps in tatters, we can expect heavy usage. Ertz should go underowned at $4,300 against the Browns in Week 1.
15. Shane Vereen making noise for Giants
The Giants used a four-headed monster at running back for much of last year with no success. This year, it looks like it will be a two-man crew to start the season. The starters played 30 snaps Saturday and Shane Vereen led the way with 14 snaps vs. 13 for Rashad Jennings and Orleans Darkwa 3. That included 7-of-9 third-down snaps for Vereen plus all the two-minute drill work. Vereen is just $3,800 against the Cowboys in Week 1 and will rack up targets if the Giants get behind.
16. Concern for Rishard Matthews
The Titans make questionable personnel decisions on a regular basis. They traded away a raw yet high-ceiling WR in Dorial Green-Beckham for a backup offensive lineman. They paid DeMarco Murray a ton of money and then drafted Derrick Henry. They insist on giving Dexter McCluster a significant role every year even though he’s been proven to be ineffective.
The point is that it would be insane for them to play the corpse of Andre Johnson over Rishard Matthews, the man they gave a $15M contract to in March. But since it’s the Titans, we can’t rule anything out. In the third preseason game, the first-team WR snap counts were Tajae Sharpe 27, Johnson 21, Harry Douglas 13 and Rishard 11. Slot man Kendall Wright did not play. Perhaps the Titans just wanted to see if Johnson has anything left in the tank, or maybe they are disappointed in Matthews. It’s the second straight week of odd first-string usage for him and I can no longer consider him for cash games in Week 1 – even at $3,300.
Someone I can consider for Week 1 cash is Tajae Sharpe ($3,000), who is unquestionably the Titans’ No. 1 receiver now. He’s been on the field for 44 of the last 58 snaps with Marcus Mariota and has seen 10 targets during that span.
17. Dontrelle Inman makes a move on Benjamin
Philip Rivers logged 16 snaps Sunday. I thought it was interesting that Dontrelle Inman was in for 13 of them vs. Travis Benjamin’s 7. It’s possible the Chargers see Benjamin as a return man and specialist on offense rather than an every-down player. Meanwhile, Keenan Allen was in for 15 of Rivers’ 16 snaps and intriguing talent Tyrell Williams got five.
18. Laquon Treadwell still a backup for Vikings
Treadwell, the heralded first-round rookie, failed to make up ground this preseason. He remains a strict backup to outside receivers Stefon Diggs and Charles Johnson while Adam Thielen handles the slot role. In the first half on Sunday, Diggs was in for 29-of-36 snaps while Johnson got 25 and Thielen 17. Treadwell was on the field for just nine. Slow to make a move, he’s someone I’ve long been off in season-long.
19. Will Fuller’s big preseason continues
The Texans’ first-team offense has played 68 snaps so far this preseason and first-round WR Will Fuller has been on the field for 64 of them. Overall, he’s caught eight passes for 144 yards and two touchdowns on 13 targets. The Texans’ three-wide base will be DeAndre Hopkins on one side, Fuller on the other and Braxton Miller in the slot. With a dream matchup at home against the Bears in Week 1, I think Fuller is a sharp GPP play at just $3,700.
20. Jeremy Hill the no-doubt big back
The Bengals are likely to execute more of a power-based philosophy with so many of their weapons gone/injured. That’s good news for Jeremy Hill, who out-snapped Gio Bernard 16-9 on Sunday night. That included an 8-2 lead in red-zone work, which led to a 1-yard TD. In touchdown-heavy formats, Hill is a steal in the seventh round or so.
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.