Preseason football is here, which means it’s once again time to comb through the film and glean any shred of fantasy insight we can find. It’s becoming more and more common for head coaches to rest their starters for the bulk of the preseason, so we don’t have much to work off of, and we should also avoid overreacting. Still, if you watch closely, preseason play can raise red flags for some players while lowering red flags for others. Here’s my take on who stood out, who slipped up, and who has sleeper potential.
These are mid-to-high draft picks who looked good this week. They didn’t have huge stats since they had limited playing time, but they showed something that should make you take notice.
David Montgomery, RB, Chicago
Mike Davis got the start against Carolina, but Montgomery came in on the second drive, and he was easily Chicago’s biggest standout. In the three drives he played, he ran the ball three times for 16 yards and a touchdown, while also catching three passes for 30 yards. On his 7-yard touchdown run, he immediately recognized that there was no room up the middle, so he sidestepped the traffic and beat the remaining defenders to the edge for the score. On another run, he spun out of defensive end Vernon Butler’s tackle attempt at the line of scrimmage, which turned a seemingly hopeless play into a 5-yard gain. From a receiving standpoint, he displayed a deceptive stutter step on a 23-yard screen pass, and he showed good hands when he caught a swing pass that was thrown too far in front of him. Overall, he displayed the good vision and instincts that he was known for at Iowa State, and concerns about his speed and explosiveness seem unwarranted. Montgomery is, without a doubt, a more complete player than Jordan Howard was for Chicago last season, which makes him one of the better value picks at his current average draft position.
Baker Mayfield, QB, Cleveland
Mayfield only played the first drive of the game against Washington, but he marched the Cleveland offense down the field in a masterful two-minute drill. Even without Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry, he completed five of six passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. That touchdown pass – a 24-yard strike to Rashard Higgins up the seam – was pinpoint accurate, sailing just over the fingertips of free safety Troy Apke and straight into Higgins’ chest. Mayfield also displayed great pocket awareness, completing two passes to running back Dontrell Hilliard just as the pocket was collapsing. On another play, he felt the blindside pressure from linebacker Ryan Anderson, so he checked the ball down to Nick Chubb for a 14-yard gain. His only incompletion was a dropped pass by tight end Derrick Willies, so he was pretty much perfect for all intents and purposes. Mayfield’s talent and supporting cast make him a decent bet to put up Top 5 quarterback numbers, so he’s a solid mid-round gamble in fantasy drafts.
These are players who made mistakes or struggled this week.
Austin Ekeler, RB, Los Angeles Chargers
Ekeler actually had a productive outing against Arizona, but he made one of the worst mistakes a running back can make: he fumbled on a goal-to-go carry. On 1st-and-goal at the 2-yard line, he got stood up at the line of scrimmage, and linebacker Jordan Hicks stripped the ball right out of his arm. On the following drive, Ekeler still got plenty of work, but second-year back Justin Jackson was brought in on first-and-goal and converted a hard-fought 4-yard touchdown run. I don’t know if head coach Anthony Lynn purposefully pulled Ekeler in that situation or if it was merely coincidence, but the timeshare between Ekeler and Jackson is worth monitoring as the Chargers prepare for the possibility of playing without Melvin Gordon. In any case, I don’t expect Lynn to remove Ekeler from lead back duties if Gordon continues his holdout, and Ekeler is still the best pass-catching back on the team. That gives him phenomenal value at his current mid-round average draft position, especially in points per reception leagues.
Dwayne Haskins, QB, Washington
Haskins struggled in his preseason debut against Cleveland, completing 8-of-14 passes for 117 yards and two interceptions, both of which were egregious. For his first interception, he severely underthrew running back Byron Marshall on a wheel route, which allowed linebacker Mack Wilson to undercut the pass and get a pick-six. For his second interception, there was no receiver anywhere near the pass, and cornerback Greedy Williams picked it off. Haskins also threw a deep pass well out of bounds, sailed another pass over Brian Quick’s head, and took a third-down sack when he failed to properly read the blitz. Nevertheless, it wasn’t all bad. He converted three third-down passes, used his legs to escape trouble a few times, and nearly hit wide receiver Cam Sims for a touchdown along the sideline. Still, it’s best to temper expectations for Haskins if you’re considering drafting him in a two quarterback league, as it may take some time for him to earn the starting job. And for people in more traditional fantasy formats, it might be wise to temper expectations for the offense as a whole.
These are players who played well this week, but they should only be considered as late-round picks.
James Washington, WR, Pittsburgh
Washington is ostensibly trailing Donte Moncrief in the battle for Pittsburgh’s No. 2 wide receiver position, but he looked like a legitimate weapon in the preseason opener against Tampa Bay. With Moncrief and JuJu Smith-Schuster both sitting out, Washington caught four of five targets for 84 yards and a touchdown. On Pittsburgh’s second offensive play, he beat cornerback Vernon Hargreaves on a go route by several steps, and it would likely have been a 94-yard touchdown if backup quarterback Joshua Dobbs had hit him in stride. Unfortunately, Dobbs underthrew him, but Washington was still able to high-point the ball and secure it for a 43-yard gain as Hargreaves tackled him. For his second catch, Dobbs hit him on a dig route for 22 yards on 3rd-and-21, and Washington did well to hold onto the ball as linebacker Deone Bucannon delivered a big hit. Washington’s third and fourth receptions came from Mason Rudolph, his college quarterback, with the latter pass being a back-shoulder fade for a touchdown. However, Washington’s best play was arguably the catch he didn’t make. He ran a corner route in the end zone, where he stretched over the sideline and grabbed the ball cleanly, only for the play to be ruled incomplete because his left foot was just barely touching the paint. Overall, Washington displayed the vertical talent and ball-tracking skills that made him such an interesting prospect in last year’s draft, so a second-year breakout seems like a strong possibility.
N’Keal Harry, WR, New England
New England’s 2019 first-round pick looked the part against Detroit, as he hauled in two fantastic catches in limited playing time. His first catch was a back-shoulder pass from Brian Hoyer on 3rd-and-10, but the ball was thrown too far toward the sideline, so Harry laid out and made an impressive 11-yard diving catch. His other reception was also a back-shoulder throw, and despite being well covered by cornerback Jamal Agnew, Harry was able to use his big frame to get positioning and make the grab for a 25-yard gain. Both catches displayed the size and physicality that separates Harry from the rest of the New England receiving corps, but you’ll still want to monitor New England’s wide receiver training camp battle since Harry, Phillip Dorsett, Jakobi Meyers, Maurice Harris, and perhaps eventually Demaryius Thomas and Josh Gordon appear to be competing for two starting spots next to Julian Edelman. In addition, Harry left the preseason opener with an apparent injury, so you’ll want to keep an eye on his health, although he is expected to be ready for Week 1 according to team beat reporter Kevin Duffy. If that turns out to be true, then Harry has more upside than almost any other receiver going in double-digit rounds.