The NFL preseason kicks off tonight with the annual Hall of Fame Game. I know, I know. Preseason football is like eating a salad before the main course. It provides some nourishment but isn’t filling, and most people would rather just avoid it altogether. But that would be a mistake for fantasy owners.
Remember Melvin Gordon’s strong preseason performance last year? What about Dak Prescott’s? Those guys went on to have killer seasons, and owners who watched them in the preseason had an advantage over their competition. It’s important to avoid getting too caught up in preseason hype, but the games can provide useful fantasy insight if you know what to look for.
So, in an effort to give you a sort of “preseason viewing guide,” here’s one situation to watch for every NFL team:
All stats are from Pro Football Reference unless otherwise noted.
Arizona Cardinals: How does Carson Palmer’s arm look?
After posting career highs in touchdowns, yards, and yards per attempt in 2015, Palmer significantly regressed in all three categories last season. Believing that Palmer’s arm was overworked, Head Coach Bruce Arians is giving him more rest this year. If Palmer can avoid wearing out his arm, he could channel his 2015 self and return to QB1 status. A return to form for Palmer could also launch Larry Fitzgerald back into WR1 territory and return John Brown to fantasy relevance.
Atlanta Falcons: Will TE Austin Hooper make a second-year leap?
The Falcons are bringing back almost all their offensive starters from their near-championship team. That’s a good sign for the likes of Matt Ryan and Julio Jones, but it’s second-year TE Austin Hooper who offers the most sleeper potential. Per Football Outsiders, the 6-foot-4 Stanford product had the second-highest DVOA among all tight ends last year, although he missed two games with a knee injury and mostly played behind Levine Toilolo and Jacob Tamme. Hooper worked out with Ryan during the offseason and is expected to receive more playing time this year, so fantasy owners should pay attention to how he performs in the preseason.
With the retirement of WR Steve Smith Sr., the departure of WR Kamar Aiken, the release of TE Dennis Pitta, and season-ending surgery for TE Crockett Gilmore, there are a lot of targets up for grabs in Baltimore. Maclin is likely to soak up his fair share, but Joe Flacco’s back injury could limit the amount of preseason action that Maclin sees with his starting quarterback. If Flacco can return before the end of the preseason, you’ll want to keep an eye on how the two play together.
Buffalo Bills: Will rookie Zay Jones be the No. 2 receiver?
Sammy Watkins is the clear No. 1, but the rookie out of East Carolina could compete with veterans Andre Holmes and Corey Brown for the No. 2 spot. Drafted in the second round, Jones has been lining up in multiple places on the field in training camp. Given Watkins’ injury history, it’s not too crazy to think that Jones could be the Bills’ No. 1 receiver at some point in the season. But to cement a starting role, he’ll first need to prove himself in preseason action.
Carolina Panthers: How is Cam Newton’s shoulder?
After undergoing surgery on his throwing shoulder in March, Newton is still limited at practice with some soreness. The Panthers are taking a cautious approach with their star quarterback, but at some point we hope he can get healthy and get more practice reps with rookies Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel. We don’t know at this point if Newton will see much preseason action, but you’ll want to pay close attention when he does hit the field.
Chicago Bears: Who will fill the void left by Alshon Jeffery?
After finishing last season with 888 receiving yards in 14 games, Cameron Meredith seems like the likeliest candidate to take over the No. 1 role. Former first-round pick Kevin White and former Titans receiver Kendall Wright are in the mix, but White’s confidence issues and Wright’s probable role as the slot man make them less likely candidates. Still, you’ll want to see how each of them plays this preseason, particularly with new starting quarterback Mike Glennon.
Cincinnati Bengals: Will Joe Mixon lead the running back rotation?
The second-round rookie has received rave reviews in training camp, but he’ll be sharing the load with Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Hill has scored a whopping 30 touchdowns over his three-year career, but he has only averaged 3.7 yards per carry over the last two seasons. Bernard has been an effective third-down back for the Bengals, but he averaged just 3.7 yards per carry last season and is coming off a torn ACL. Depending on what happens in the preseason, this backfield could be Mixon’s for the taking — or it could be an ugly three-headed monster.
Cleveland Browns: Who’s going to be the starting quarterback?
It’s the age-old question the Browns have been asking themselves for years, but it’s worth monitoring. WR Corey Coleman is an interesting breakout candidate, while Kenny Britt quietly accumulated 1,000 receiving yards with the stagnant Rams offense last year. While Cleveland’s quarterbacks probably won’t be fantasy relevant, even decent play could push either Britt or Coleman into FLEX territory.