I put very little stock in preseason performances. The minuscule 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 by not following what they say, but instead tracking how they use players. By charting the first-string usage, we can quietly learn a ton as we continue to get set for Week 1. Meanwhile, the “preseason is meaningless” crowd will fall behind.
1. Kareem Hunt Takes Over in KC
Spencer Ware was already in a fight for his job this preseason as he was getting heavy heat from impressive rookie Kareem Hunt. Then Ware went down with a scary knee injury Friday night, and it appears he’ll miss the rest of the season. Following Ware’s injury, the Chiefs’ first-half RB snap count was Hunt 16 and Charcandrick West five. On Saturday, coach Andy Reid confirmed Hunt will be his feature back going forward, and that’s big news in fantasy land. Not only is Hunt #good as shown by earning PFF’s No. 1 RB grade in all of college football last year, but Reid’s offenses are also extremely fantasy friendly. As noted by Graham Barfield, Reid’s backfields have finished inside the top-10 in team RB PPR points seven times in the last 10 years. West and C.J. Spiller are underwhelming threats to a potentially massive workload for Hunt.
2. Chris Hogan Stock Firing Up
Patriots starters logged 29 snaps following Julian Edelman’s ACL tear Friday night. Wideout snaps were Chris Hogan 27, Brandin Cooks 26, Danny Amendola 14 and everyone else zero. Malcolm Mitchell (knee) didn’t play, but he’s not a threat to the soaring stock of Hogan. Whereas Hogan was previously ticketed to only play in 3-WR sets, he’s now locked into a nearly every-down role with Tom Brady. The duo showed some serious chemistry against the Lions as Hogan racked up a 4-70-2 line on five targets.
3. Martavis Bryant is All the Way Back
Ben Roethlisberger got 15 snaps on Saturday and Martavis Bryant was on the field for all 15 of them. He caught his only target for nine yards, but the production isn’t important. Bryant has been cleared by the NFL, is back in the good graces of his teammates/coaches and is going to be an every-down player opposite Antonio Brown on a team with very little weaponry beyond Brown/Le’Veon. Martavis has played at least 50 percent of the snaps 15 times in his career (including playoffs), almost a full season’s worth. His total receiving line in those games is 73 catches, 1,209 yards and 10 TDs.
4. Willie Snead’s Role is Unchanged from Last Year
When Brandin Cooks was shipped to New England, it was widely assumed that Willie Snead would step into a more prominent role. It doesn’t appear that will be the case. Snead was only in on 13 of Drew Brees’ 26 snaps Saturday, playing exclusively in three-WR sets. The other WR counts were Michael Thomas 26, Ted Ginn Jr. 18 and Brandon Coleman 9. It was similar usage to the Week 1 preseason game when Snead was in on zero two-WR sets and got just 6-of-12 first-team reps. In other words, the Saints are set to use Snead just as they did last year – a No. 3 wideout who will play between 60 and 70 percent of the snaps weekly. Meanwhile, Ginn is filling the No. 2 role and is grossly undervalued at an ADP of 126. The Saints have ranked 1st, 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 1st in raw pass yards over the last five years.
5. Eagles Shaping a Pass-Centric Offense
Carson Wentz has been on the field for 36 snaps over the last two preseason games, and the Eagles have been in a 3-WR set (Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, Nelson Agholor) on 28 of them. Meanwhile, their best running back (Darren Sproles) is a pass-catcher and Carson Wentz is ready for a natural progression in Year 2. It adds up to a lot of pass-centric game plans for the Eagles, starting in Week 1 against the Redskins. Wentz ($5,300) and Zach Ertz ($3,500) stand out as underpriced on DraftKings – note Ertz got a big boost when the Eagles downgraded from Jordan Matthews to Nelson Agholor in the slot. Ertz was in on 16-of-19 first-team reps on Thursday night and showed his athletic ability here.
6. Jamison Crowder in 2-WR Sets
In the second preseason game, Crowder did not play in a majority of the 2-WR sets. Instead, it was Terrelle Pryor and Ryan Grant (subbing for Josh Doctson). But in the real dress rehearsal on Sunday, Crowder was in all 2-WR sets opposite Pryor. The WR snap count on Kirk Cousins’ 39 snaps was Pryor 37, Crowder 34, Grant 21. Note that Doctson, who has been injured for the better part of the last 2.5 years, sat out once again. At this point it would be a surprise if he’s able to get ahead of Crowder, meaning we will see the slot man play that position in 3-WR sets but also play outside in 2-WR sets against the Eagles’ shaky CBs Week 1. I still think Doctson becomes productive if he can sustain health, but that’s a massive if at this point.
7. Carlos Hyde Dominates Backfield Again
Carlos Hyde was in on 20-of-26 first-team snaps Sunday, continuing his domination of the 49ers running back “competition.” Through three preseason games, Hyde has been in on 48-of-57 first-string snaps, while Matt Breida has gotten six, Tim Hightower three and everyone else zero. So we have a talented workhorse playing a three-down plus goal-line role for noted run-game schemer Kyle Shanahan. Hyde is too cheap at $4,600 on DraftKings in Week 1 against the Panthers.
8. Vikings Move Stefon Diggs Out of the Slot
Last year, Stefon Diggs ran 62 percent of his routes from the slot. That was important, as offensive line woes combined with Sam Bradford’s lack of aggression resulted in 6.46 catches per game. Only Antonio Brown, Larry Fitzgerald and A.J. Green averaged more. But the Vikings have decided to change up their alignment this year, moving Diggs to the outside. On Sunday, the first-string slot WR snaps were Adam Thielen 20, Laquon Treadwell two and Diggs 0. It creates a bit of a conundrum when trying to project Diggs’ volume. Last year, Bradford ranked 36th out of 36 qualifying QBs in average depth of target. But will Diggs’ presence on the outside combined with (hopefully) improved offensive line play allow Bradford to push the ball downfield more? I’m a bit skeptical, so I’ve ticked down Diggs’ target projection.
9. Jay Ajayi Getting the Third-Down Work
Dolphins coaches spent a lot of the offseason hyping up Jay Ajayi. Not only as their feature back but also about his progress in the passing game. It looks like they’re going to follow through on their word as Ajayi was in on 19-of-19 first-string snaps Thursday. Most importantly, he stayed on the field for all three 3rd-and-long plays. With only sub-NFL talent behind Ajayi on the depth chart, we can expect major volume right away at the rare early-down, pass-down, goal-line level.
10. Devin Funchess Will Be On the Field
For the third straight game, Devin Funchess was in for all of Carolina’s 2-WR sets. He’s been in on 65-of-67 first-string snaps this preseason. Funchess has only produced four catches, 33 yards and zero TDs during that time, but note that Cam Newton has only seen 10 snaps all month. Yes, Funchess has talent concerns and is certainly behind Kelvin Benjamin, Greg Olsen and Christian McCaffery for targets. But he’s still going to be on the field every snap and will be getting a lot of single coverage.
11. Ameer Abdullah Continues to be Featured
Theo Riddick (wrist) made his preseason debut Friday night, but Ameer Abdullah continued to do work. He out-snapped Riddick 20-8 in the first half, showed his pass-catching ability while split wide here and also converted a third-and-inches. It’s worth noting Zach Zenner didn’t play, but the knocks on Abdullah’s role have gone overboard. He’s still going to catch passes even if he’s not the third-down back, and I’m not at all convinced he’ll lose goal-line work to Zenner. The matchup vs. ARZ in Week 1 isn’t great, but the price on DraftKings ($4,300) is.
12. Paul Richardson Ahead of Jermaine Kearse
In recent years, the Seahawks have used inept Jermaine Kearse as a primary receiver, giving him around 80 percent of the snaps weekly. That stunted Tyler Lockett last year, even before Lockett’s knee issue and eventual season-ending leg fracture. But it looks like the Seahawks have finally come around, as Kearse has fallen behind this preseason. On Friday night, the first-half WR snap count was Doug Baldwin 27, Paul Richardson 25, Jermaine Kearse 14, Tanner McEvoy four, Kasean Williams four, JD McKissic three, Kenny Lawler three, Amara Darboh one (via PFF’s Nathan Jahnke). Note that playmaking talent Tyler Lockett (leg) is practicing fully but sat out this game. Richardson is certainly on my GPP radar for a plus Week 1 matchup at Green Bay at $3,700 – especially if Lockett isn’t quite ready.
13. Jets Take a Long Look at Matt Forte
Forte, the 31-year-old veteran playing on the least talented team in the NFL, didn’t suit up for either of the first two preseason games due to a hamstring injury. The Jets took a long look at him Saturday though, as he was on the field for each of the first 25 snaps. Forte produced 10 carries for 43 yards and two catches for one yard. It’s a reminder that Forte isn’t going away, and he’s going to share the work with Bilal Powell for a team which projects to score the fewest points in the NFL. It’s tough to find a high ceiling in either one for Week 1 at prices of $4,800 (Forte) and $4,900 (Powell).
14. Austin Hooper’s Usage Takes a Step Back
Matt Ryan played 18 snaps on Saturday and Austin Hooper got out-snapped 12-11 by Levine Toilolo during that span. It wasn’t a pass-down only situation, as Hooper was on the sideline for four of Ryan’s 11 dropbacks. So while I remain high on Hooper’s weekly ceiling as an athletic player in one of the league’s best offenses, we have to remember he’s far from a featured player here. Volume is going to be a concern, even at just $3,000 on DraftKings in Week 1.
15. Mark Ingram, Adrian Peterson Rotating
Adrian Peterson made his preseason debut Saturday and was in on 12 of Drew Brees’ 26 snaps. Mark Ingram started the game and got 14 of the first-team snaps as the duo rotated. Note flashy rookie Alvin Kamara (rest) didn’t play at all. I’d expect similar usage during the regular season, with Ingram acting as the “starter” but sharing early-down work. The key for Ingram is his underrated pass-catching chops – he’s capable of playing the Pierre Thomas/Darren Sproles role in this offense if the coaching staff is reluctant to give it to Kamara. Ingram is quietly averaging 3.4 catches per game over the last two seasons.
16. Ty Montgomery Looking Healthy
The only concern I have with Ty Montgomery this season is complications from the sickle-cell trait. He missed a game because of it last year and was limited in a couple others. So when he was sidelined by a mysterious soft-tissue lower-leg injury earlier this month, it was a reminder that there’s added risk here. The good news is Montgomery looked extremely healthy on Saturday, playing on eight of Aaron Rodgers’ 10 snaps and recording a 3-31-1 rushing line. Rookie backup Jamaal Williams got the other two snaps.
17. Tarik Cohen Not a Threat to Howard
If Jordan Howard busts this year, it will be because of his supporting cast and difficult schedule. It won’t be because of Tarik Cohen. Despite beat writer speculation that Cohen would siphon 10-20 snaps per game from Howard, that was never realistic for a small-school rookie who stands 5’6/179. Via PFF’s Nathan Jahnke, first-string RB snaps for the Bears Sunday was Jordan Howard 25, Benny Cunningham eight, Jeremy Langford three and Cohen one.
18. Cam Meredith’s Injury Leaves Bears Short
The Bears already had one of the weakest WR corps in the league. Then they lost their No. 1 Cam Meredith for the season to an ACL tear. Following Meredith’s injury Sunday, the first-team WR snaps were Kevin White 18, Deonte Thompson 18, Kendall Wright 12, Victor Cruz two (via PFF’s Nathan Jahnke). Note that Markus Wheaton (appendectomy, finger surgery) didn’t play. I’m still treating White as a hands-off player until he proves he can win at the NFL level. He’s played in four regular season games, fractured his leg twice and been atrocious when healthy in preseasons.
19. Joe Mixon Fades Further as Gio Bernard Debuts
Andy Dalton played 30 snaps on Sunday and here is the RB count: Giovani Bernard 15, Jeremy Hill nine, Joe Mixon six. Note that Hill left early with what appeared to be a minor ankle injury. The big news here is that Bernard – just eight months removed from an ACL tear – is healthy and pushing for a passing-down plus more role. We also have the wildly talented Mixon going through some growing pains, as evidenced by his botched handoff fumble with Andy Dalton Sunday. Mixon is going to eventually pass Hill for a big share of the work; the question is when? It almost certainly won’t be in Week 1 against the Ravens, making Mixon an easy fade for me at $5,500 on DraftKings.
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.