• Indianapolis Colts RB Nyheim Hines posted a 100% snap rate with the offense’s starters in Week 1, which bodes well for the idea that he could work as the team’s workhorse if Jonathan Taylor were forced out of action.
• Washington Commanders RB Antonio Gibson has a newfound role … as a special teamer. Take quarterbacks, wide receivers and even the occasional tight end in rounds 5-8 before considering Gibson — he’s the definition of a dead-zone running back at this point.
• Drake London (knee), Chris Olave, and Jahan Dotson will be featured and start from day one in their respective offenses, but Garrett Wilson and Treylon Burks failed to crack their team’s initial three-WR sets in Week 1.
Preseason football is objectively better than no football at all. This is a fact, and the PFF Fantasy crew has made it a priority to keep you covered with actionable takeaways at every step of the way.
Here are 10 key preseason takeaways that actually matter ahead of fantasy drafts. The goal is to focus more on projected usage than individual performance — a player resting with the starters is obviously better than a player making plays with the backups.
Zach Wilson suffered a bone bruise and meniscus tear
Week 1 wasn't exactly a best-case start for a young gunslinger who usually requires a decent level of mobility to succeed. Wilson, like every other rookie quarterback not named Mac Jones, was objectively bad last season, but the Jets deserve credit for surrounding him with capable skill-position players and PFF’s 13th-ranked offensive line ahead of 2022. Week 1 is still in play, but note that a limited version of Wilson could make it tough for all parties to truly thrive in fantasy land.
Some potential every-down handcuff running backs have emerged
I wrote a handcuff running back guide earlier this offseason in an effort to identify late-round gems with the potential to boom up draft boards with just one injury.
While it’s important to remember that Week 1 of the preseason is just one data point, the following three backup running backs played 100% of their offense’s snaps with the “starters:”
• Nyheim Hines: Has always been a talented pass-catcher, and there was reason to believe he could hold PPR-standalone value, given Frank Reich’s offseason praise alongside the upgrade from Carson Wentz to Matt Ryan. However, the reality that Hines posted a 100% snap rate with the offense’s starters in Week 1 bodes well for the idea that he could actually work as the team’s workhorse if Jonathan Taylor were forced out of action. He’s arguably an 11th-round version of Tony Pollard with this sort of range of outcomes.
• Alexander Mattison: Stellar on-field performances from Kene Nwangwu and Ty Chandler should be monitored, but Mattison’s 100% snap rate with the starters reinforces the belief that he’ll keep his Dalvin Cook injury-induced workhorse role when forced into action. This wasn’t a given under a new coaching staff. Mattison has the sort of best-case scenario upside to warrant plenty of consideration on the RB3 borderline, though standalone value remains a bit of a pipe dream.
• Khalil Herbert: Similar to Mattison, Herbert handled an every-down role when thrust into action last season, but we couldn’t assume this would still be the case under a new coaching staff. Unlike Mattison, Herbert still might have a decent chance of eating into the workload of his team’s starter. The rising second-year talent has a sneaky-solid ceiling/floor combo worth investing in during the double-digit rounds in drafts of all shapes and sizes.
Antonio Gibson in the dead zone?
From ace PFF analyst Dwain McFarland’s excellent preseason takeaway column:
“Gibson was in on the first two drives but fumbled on the second. He played into the second quarter, mixing with J.D. McKissic and Brian Robinson Jr. McKissic handled 100% of the long down and distance snaps and split short-down snaps with Robinson 50/50.
The fear of a three-way rotation has built throughout the offseason. The first preseason game confirms those fears, making Gibson a player to fade unless he slides well past ADP. FFPC drafters have already pushed him down to Round 7.”
Further complicating matters are practice reports that Gibson has a newfound role … as a special teamer. I’m happily taking quarterbacks, wide receivers and even the occasional tight end in rounds 5-8 before considering Gibson — he’s the definition of a dead-zone running back at this point.
Key running backs are already hurt
Several depth charts are suddenly in question due to early-season running back injuries.
• San Francisco 49ers RB Elijah Mitchell (hamstring) is tentatively expected to be ready for the start of the regular season, but the issue will prevent him from getting action in the preseason. While Mitchell remains expected to work as the lead back whenever healthy enough to suit up, there’s a better chance than ever for a committee to play out if he’s banged up AND each of Jeff Wilson, Trey Sermon and Tyrion Davis-Price are healthy.
• The Seattle Seahawks already had Chris Carson (neck) retire, and now Rashaad Penny (groin) and Kenneth Walker (hernia) are banged up enough to leave Week 1 in question. It’s possible, if not likely, that they would split early-down work when each is healthy enough to suit up. The big problem is the likelihood that DeeJay Dallas and/or Travis Homer will also be plenty involved in pass-first situations inside of an offense that sure looks like a bottom-10 unit on paper.
Rookie running backs have some depth charts to climb
Each of the first 12 running backs selected in the 2022 NFL draft has some work to do in terms of climbing their backfield’s depth chart:
• Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB Rachaad White: Appears to be slotted as the No. 4 back at the moment. Things could change — keep an eye on Giovani Bernard’s ankle injury — but standalone value next to Leonard Fournette sure seems like wishful thinking.
• San Francisco 49ers RB Tyrion Davis-Price: Worked after Trey Sermon with Elijah Mitchell and Jeff Wilson not playing. We never quite know what to expect from Kyle Shanahan’s running backs, but this data point isn’t a great start for TDP.
• Washington Commanders RB Brian Robinson: Certainly seems to be ready to push Antonio Gibson for some early-down work; just realize J.D. McKissic lowers the upside of both, and this remains a three-back committee in a potentially bad offense.
• Houston Texans RB Dameon Pierce: Impressed with his opportunities, although Pierce still projects as the No. 4 back at the moment behind Rex Burkhead (rested), Marlon Mack (handled early-down work with starters) and Dare Ogunbowale (pass-down specialist).
• Las Vegas Raiders RB Zamir White: Profiles as Josh Jacobs’ primary backup, although the presence of Ameer Abdullah and/or Kenyan Drake on passing downs could make the answer to which Raiders’ running back to draft a simple “No.”
• Los Angeles Chargers RB Isaiah Spiller: Behind Joshua Kelley in the competition to work as Austin Ekeler’s primary backup. Standalone value is increasingly unlikely for all backups involved without more separation.
• Tennessee Titans RB Hassan Haskins: Rotated with Julius Chestnut. Pass-down work is already going to Dontrell Hilliard; Chestnut and Haskins will struggle to provide viable handcuff value without a clear leader.
The early returns from Day 1 and Day 2 rookie wide receivers were a bit of a mixed bag
• It sure looks like Drake London (knee), Chris Olave, and Jahan Dotson will be featured and start from day one in their respective offenses, but Garrett Wilson and Treylon Burks failed to crack their team’s initial three-WR sets.
• The likes of Wan’Dale Robinson, Alec Pierce, Jalen Tolbert and Skyy Moore (especially if Mecole Hardman’s 8/17 injury winds up being serious) look to be in three-WR sets but behind two starters in two-RB/TE formations.
• Injuries have prevented Jameson Williams (knee) and Christian Watson (knee) from finding the field; Romeo Doubs continues to make the most out of his opportunities during the latter talent’s absence.
Isaiah McKenzie looks a lot like the Bills’ starting slot receiver
The Bills rested their starters — including McKenzie. Down the stretch of 2021, neither Cole Beasley nor McKenzie played more than 51% of the offense's snaps in a single game from Week 17 through the divisional round. Still, the potential for either McKenzie (the favorite) or Jamison Crowder to seize the sort of starting role that Cole Beasley had for most of 2019-2021 is an awfully tantalizing prospect. Consider this: Beasley is one of just 10 players with at least 100 targets in each of the past three seasons. It’s not a guarantee that McKenzie fully locks down this same volume-heavy role, but he sure looks like the favorite at the moment.
There’s some clarity in the Kansas City running back and wide receiver rooms
PFF rankings expert Nathan Jahnke always does an excellent job providing actionable snap count data and analysis immediately following every preseason and regular season slate. The Chiefs posted the following running back and wide receiver usage in 11 snaps with Patrick Mahomes under center last week:
• WR: JuJu Smith-Schuster (11 snaps, 7 routes, 0 targets), Marquez Valdes-Scantling (9 snaps, 7 routes, 2 targets), Mecole Hardman (4 snaps, 3 routes, 1 target), Justin Watson (1 snap, 0 routes, 0 targets)
CEH sure looks a lot like the offense’s bell-cow back, but Pachecho suddenly appears to be firmly ahead of Ronald Jones as the early-down complement. McKinnon is still a threat to steal obvious pass-down work from everyone involved. Ultimately, 1.) CEH is a quality middle-round option, 2.) Pacheco and McKinnon are late-round darts worth throwing, and 3.) RoJo might not be on this roster by Week 1.
Rookie Skyy Moore could struggle to fully displace Hardman from three-WR sets to start the season, but his upside at cost remains worth chasing. Of course, Moore will be cemented as a starter if Hardman’s 8/17 injury winds up being serious. Regardless, JuJu and MVS are locked in as Mahomes’ top-two receivers and each profile as likely top-three options in this likely prolific passing attack.
It’s tough for tight ends to score fantasy points when they aren’t on the field
The muddled TE2 range is always tough to nail in fantasy land. The following four tight ends have their stock falling just a bit after the first week of preseason action:
• Seattle Seahawks TE Noah Fant: Rotating with Colby Parkinson while high-priced TE Will Dissly rested isn’t a great start in an offense not expected to flirt with anything resembling good passing efficiency.
• Miami Dolphins TE Mike Gesicki: I’m less concerned with Gesicki’s enhanced inline usage than the dropoff in route rate (63%). Honestly, Gesicki lining up against linebackers and safeties inline is probably better than cornerbacks in the slot or out wide. Either way, he’ll need this usage to increase once we see him alongside the rest of the offense’s starters.
• Denver Broncos TE Albert Okwuegbunam: The 30% route rate was incredibly disappointing in a game that didn’t even feature third-rounder Greg Dulcich. Block-first Eric Tomlinson was featured in 21 personnel; Albert O remains the favorite to lead all Denver tight ends in targets, but that total could be far closer to 50 than 100.
Meanwhile, three tight ends had the sort of usage that could make them quality later-round options in the right league.
• Cleveland Browns TE David Njoku: 100% snap rate with the starters makes sense given his offseason payday, but this wasn’t guaranteed with Harrison Bryant being a plenty viable option in his own right. With a full-time role seemingly in hand, Njoku’s next hurdle is a potentially extended stretch of the Jacoby Brissett experience.
• Jacksonville Jaguars TE Evan Engram: 64% snap rate is outweighed by a rather robust 77% route rate. Efficiency concerns remain fair, but Engram has a better ceiling than most tight ends being drafted outside of the top-20 options.
• New York Giants TE Daniel Bellinger: Played 100% of the snaps with the starters in a game that didn’t feature Ricky Seals-Jones. A committee is still possible, but if not Bellinger will be tough to ignore as a streamer option with a true every-down role.