News & Analysis

What we learned for fantasy in the preseason: AFC

By Mike Castiglione
Sep 5, 2017

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HOUSTON, TX - AUGUST 19: Tom Savage #3 of the Houston Texans i congratulated by Deshaun Watson #4 after throwin a touchdown pass in the first quarter at NRG Stadium on August 19, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)

While it’s wise not to put too much stock in preseason results, as fantasy players we also don’t want to miss the boat on key developments that could, or should, alter our early-season lineups. After all, things tend to change in a hurry as position battles are won and lost, transactions are made, and we get a first-hand look at new systems and teammates.

Earlier this week, we went through the key fantasy lessons learned from every NFC team. Today, let’s finish up with the AFC.

AFC East

New England Patriots: Julian Edelman’s season-ending injury leaves the Patriots with just under 10 targets per game to replace from 2016. Newcomer Brandin Cooks figures to be the primary beneficiary and is the WR12 in our latest PPR rankings, while his average draft position has since climbed from the third to the second round in fantasy drafts. Chris Hogan and Danny Amendola also get a bump in value. The Patriots recently traded third-string quarterback Jacoby Brissett to the Colts for former first-round wideout Phillip Dorsett, in a move that adds needed depth for both teams. Neither player warrants ownership at this point, but Dorsett did average 3.57 yards per route run this preseason. It will be interesting to see if Bill Belichick and Tom Brady can unlock his potential. New England’s backfield rotation remains a question mark – as always – and Mike Gillislee’s stock has faded due to a hamstring injury that kept him out of all but one preseason game, although he did produce 38 yards and a score on eight carries (13 snaps).

Miami Dolphins: The Dolphins were one of our worst-graded offenses this preseason, as there were blocking issues both on the ground and in protection. No team had a lower percentage of their rushing yards come before contact last year than the Dolphins (30.9 percent), and Jay Ajayi will have his work cut out for him once again. Of course, last season’s most elusive rusher (76.0 elusive rating) did run for 53 yards and a pair of touchdowns on nine carries in the Dolphins’ regular-season dress rehearsal. Meanwhile, DeVante Parker’s stellar offseason continued through the preseason, including this 72-yard catch and run, as the breakout buzz certainly looks real. Jay Cutler may not be an upgrade over Ryan Tannehill, but it should be an upgrade for Parker, whom Cutler described as “a faster Alshon (Jeffery).” For what it’s worth, Jeffery averaged nine targets per game over the past four seasons in Chicago, and Parker has topped Jeffery in average depth of target in each of his two pro seasons.

Buffalo Bills: It’s been a quiet preseason for the Bills’ offense. That is, unless you count trading away Sammy Watkins, trading for Jordan Matthews, and releasing No. 2 RB Jonathan Williams during final cuts. Let’s start with Williams. His release is a bit of a headscratcher, given that he ran for 121 yards and a score on 21 preseason carries (5.8 YPC), while averaging 3.6 yards after contact and forcing five missed tackles. LeSean McCoy enters his age-29 season with 2,327 career touches under his belt, leaving Mike Tolbert and Joe Banyard atop what would be a RB committee in the event of an injury. At wideout, Matthews will face less competition for targets than he did in Philadelphia alongside Alshon Jeffery, Torrey Smith, and others. The Bills are also counting on Zay Jones, the all-time FBS leader in receptions (399), to step up as a rookie. Both players are outside the top-40 WRs in our rankings.

New York Jets: From what we’ve seen this preseason, the Jets look every bit like the fantasy wasteland they are expected to be. Josh McCown is the 38-year-old starting QB, and he’ll lean on third-round rookie wideout ArDarius Stewart from Alabama and late-preseason trade acquisition Jermaine Kearse. Stewart will get his fair share of opportunities, and his performance in the third preseason game was awfully encouraging as he hauled in all five targets for 82 yards and two TDs. The Jets were unable to find a trade partner for 31-year-old Matt Forte and his $4 million guaranteed salary, so the veteran will once again split time with Bilal Powell, who remains a solid mid-round value in fantasy drafts. Powell trailed only Le’Veon Bell among running backs in fantasy scoring over the final four weeks of the 2016 season when Forte got hurt. Powell has averaged 53 catches in shared duty over the last two seasons, and he caught four passes for 101 yards and a TD in the third preseason game.

AFC North

Pittsburgh Steelers: As expected, Le’Veon Bell signed his franchise tender once the preseason ended and says he’s ready for a “full load” in the opener. His fresh legs will be a problem for the Browns, PFF’s No. 25-graded run defense a year ago. The Steelers parted ways with Knile Davis and Fitzgerald Toussaint, leaving rookie James Conner (24 preseason carries, 124 yards) standing as the No. 2 RB behind Bell, a potentially fruitful role. Now fully reinstated, Martavis Bryant also returns from his year off after finishing top-three among WRs in fantasy points per snap in each of his first two seasons. Bryant logged 60 snaps in two preseason games and caught 7-of-9 targets. Ben Roethlisberger was ninth in the league in passing in 2016 but led the league in yards per game in both of Bryant’s two seasons. Also in the mix are rookie Juju Smith-Schuster and Justin Hunter, who was second among WRs in fantasy points per opportunity this preseason (0.96).

Baltimore Ravens: Already facing a four-game suspension to start the season, Kenneth Dixon’s 2017 season was officially lost in late-July with a meniscus tear. It’s a big blow for Dixon, who was miles ahead of the field in missed tackle rate as a rookie (once every 3.37 rushes). His absence puts Terrance West into RB3 range, while Danny Woodhead remains a solid RB2 in PPR when healthy. Of course, injuries have derailed two of the last three seasons for the now-32-year-old Woodhead. Joe Flacco (back) returned to practice on Saturday and is expected to be a full go for Week 1. With an ADP as the WR35, free agent acquisition Jeremy Maclin is being drafted at his floor, while Mike Wallace (WR52) is an even bigger bargain after quietly finishing as the WR24 his first year in Baltimore. It was a quiet preseason for both.

Cincinnati Bengals: Second-round pick Joe Mixon has gotten some work with the starters, although he’s been the third man through the Bengals’ running back rotation. Still, it’s tough not to see him running away with the lead role at some point this season. A top-four-graded runner and receiver in the nation while at Oklahoma, Mixon out-gained teammate Jeremy Hill after contact (2.4 to 1.6), while Giovani Bernard saw limited preseason action in his return from a torn ACL. A.J. Green looks to be back to his usual dominant self, ranking fifth out of 68 qualifiers with 3.2 YPRR this preseason. Through 10 games in 2016, Green was on pace for 106 catches and a league-high 1,542 yards. His return, along with that of tight end Tyler Eifert, is good news for Andy Dalton. First-round pick John Ross has flashed, but he’s also been banged up and is out for perhaps the first week or two of the season with a knee injury.

Cleveland Browns: It won’t be pretty some weeks, but there is some fantasy appeal on the Browns’ offense. Rookie DeShone Kizer won the starting QB job and will have a long leash, with coach Hue Jackson saying he thinks Kizer “has the right stuff.” Kizer came back down to earth after a hot debut, and somewhat curiously, he actually performed worse with no pressure (66.7 QB rating) than under heat (84.2). Corey Coleman had some big moments in an injury-shortened rookie campaign, and he ranked ninth among WRs with 2.68 YPRR this preseason. Newcomer Kenny Britt only saw six targets to Coleman’s 13, although Britt has the 1,000-yard season under his belt. Recent acquisition Sammie Coates and rookie tight end David Njoku both have some work to do to climb the depth chart.

AFC South

Houston Texans: DeAndre Hopkins’ owners need Tom Savage to be a much better quarterback than Brock Osweiler, one of the league’s least efficient deep-ball passers since entering the league. Savage was sharp in the second preseason game, completing 8-of-9 passes for 98 yards and a TD. But with Deshaun Watson looming, his leash won’t be very long. The Texans drafted D’Onta Foreman, a big-bodied 2,000-yard rusher from Texas last season, to help lighten Lamar Miller’s load. Foreman has looked the part, carrying 16 times for 93 yards (5.8 YPC) in two preseason games and averaging 3.9 yards after contact, but he is looking iffy at best for Week 1 due to a groin injury. Still, his involvement moving forward warrants monitoring.

Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota has some new toys, as the Titans drafted Corey Davis and Taywan Taylor in addition to signing Eric Decker. Mariota had some shaky moments but did post a 110.0 passer rating on 38 dropbacks this preseason and showed no lingering effects from his broken fibula, averaging 6.8 yards on four carries. We didn’t get much of a look at Decker (ankle) or Davis (hamstring) in action with Mariota, although practice reports have been encouraging. At the end of the day, only two teams ran the ball more frequently than the Titans last season (45.9 percent), and they’ll continue to butter their bread with DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry. Henry forced eight missed tackles on 40 preseason touches (including seven receptions) and found the end zone three times.

Indianapolis Colts: The Andrew Luck saga has brought on more questions than answers, although we know Luck has at least been ruled out for Week 1 and has been removed from the PUP list, which would have kept him from playing or practicing for the first six weeks. The team also recently traded for Jacoby Brissett, who dazzled with 342 yards and five total touchdowns in the preseason finale. At this point, we have to expect some Scott Tolzien (and/or Brissett) for the first few weeks until the Colts provide a timeline for Luck. Obviously, the situation creates a downgrade for T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Jack Doyle (Erik Swoope was recently placed on IR). The Colts did rank among the league leaders in yards before contact last season, and Frank Gore should be plenty busy in the early going. That is, until Marlon Mack is unleashed.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles beat out Chad Henne to retain the starting QB gig, but let’s face it, the hook could be pulled at any time. In any case, the Jaguars will ride rookie running back Leonard Fournette on offense. An ankle injury limited Fournette to just 12 preseason snaps, and he went for 31 yards and a TD on eight carries but did not break any tackles. Rookie wideout Dede Westbrook, the reigning Biletnikoff Award winner, was the Jags’ biggest preseason headliner until being slowed by an injury (he has since been cleared). Westbrook earned a spot on PFF’s All-Preseason squad, as he led all WRs in yards per route (6.4) and fantasy points per opportunity (1.2) and was second with a 157.1 rating when targeted.

AFC West

Kansas City Chiefs: Rookie Kareem Hunt, PFF’s top-graded RB of the 2017 draft class, was already a trendy pick to supplant starter Spencer Ware in the Chiefs’ backfield at some point this season. And with Ware now lost for the season, Hunt’s ADP has shot up to the second round as a legitimate RB1. Back in May, I got him in the seventh round of our staff mock, which feels like a lifetime ago. History has shown us that Andy Reid likes to lean on his RB1. Another exciting Chiefs’ rookie, Texas Tech’s Patrick Mahomes, earned a spot on PFF’s All-Preseason team as he showed uncanny elusiveness in the pocket, accuracy, and of course, his vintage arm strength.

Oakland Raiders: We caught only a few glimpses of Marshawn Lynch in actual preseason action (four carries, 16 yards) as the Raiders eased in the 31-year-old running back they coaxed out of retirement. The Lynch we saw for seven games with Seattle in 2015 looked like a broken-down shell of himself, but nevertheless, he’s been drafted as a top-20 fantasy RB this summer. Jalen Richard, PFF’s most elusive RB out of 53 qualifiers last season, also remains in the mix. Derek Carr started to find a rhythm in the third preseason game, completing 13-of-17 passes for 144 yards, including a 48-yard scoring strike to Amari Cooper. Cooper ranked second among WRs in YPRR (4.43) this preseason.

Denver Broncos: Broncos first-year coach Vance Joseph confirmed on Monday that Trevor Siemian will enter 2017 as the starting quarterback. In 14 starts last season, Siemian ranked just 28th in fantasy points per dropback and was middle of the pack in virtually every one of PFF’s signature passing stats. Still, he gives Denver a better chance than Paxton Lynch. Mike McCoy, in his second stint as Broncos’ offensive coordinator, will draw up plenty of looks for Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, although that duo combined to catch only 6-of-14 targets for 53 yards this preseason. Devontae Booker is expected to miss the first 2-3 weeks with a wrist injury, while C.J. Anderson averaged just 3.6 YPC in the preseason but did score twice. Jamaal Charles made a case for himself in his only preseason action, catching a couple of passes, picking up a blitz, and carrying four times for 27 yards while averaging 3.3 yards after contact.

Los Angeles Chargers: If there was any doubt that Keenan Allen is still a playmaker coming off another knee injury, he quieted those doubts in the third preseason game. Allen played just 17 snaps in that one and ran only eight routes, yet he caught all five balls thrown his way for 45 yards. He worked mostly underneath, as has been his forte since entering the league. Even amid his 2015 breakout, Allen was targeted at an average depth of only 8.0 yards and averaged 8.4 yards per target. For comparison, last year as a rookie, Tyrell Williams had an average depth of target of 12.8 yards and averaged 9.5 yards per target, with six catches going for 40-plus yards. They complement each other well and can both be fantasy factors, particularly with rookie wideout Mike Williams missing all of the offseason and training camp with a back injury.

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