I love the NFL. From the moment I was five years old, when I chose to go to a Bills game with my grandfather instead going to watch Star Wars (and spent the game screaming from the stands for Joe Ferguson not to hold onto the ball so long), I've always loved the NFL. For nearly as long, though, I've hated the preseason. It's boring. A tease. Almost completely irrelevant. Remember those four straight seasons the Bills made the Super Bowl? They won a total of two preseason games those four seasons. What better evidence could there be that the preseason means next to nothing?
In recent years, as fantasy football has become mainstream and fantasy football advice columns proliferate the internet, my beliefs in these regards have only increased. Every year around this time, it's the same stories. "Player X is in the best shape of his life." "Player Z lost/gained 10 pounds." Then you have the coachspeak. "We want to give Player A 8-10 touches per game." Blah, blah, blah. Does any of it really matter?
Don't get me wrong - I follow the preseason. The player updates. The reports from local beat writers. The crippling, season-ending injuries. I just don't think most of what happens this preseason will change my rankings. Sure, some things we'll see in the next 4-5 weeks will move the needle. By and large, though, I think many fantasy owners overreact to the preseason.
How do we know what matters? I suppose that's for each fantasy owner to decide. For me, though, these are the 10 stories I'll be watching this NFL preseason, in rough order of importance for fantasy purposes:
1. Injuries, injuries, injuries. Percy Harvin, Dennis Pitta and Jeremy Maclin are already down and out, leaving fantasy owners with early drafts wondering what the heck they were thinking drafting in July. More injuries seem sure to follow, changing the landscape of fantasy leagues everywhere. What's a fantasy owner to do?
Avoid overreacting to the minor injuries that get overplayed in preseason (when many star players rest anyway) - those rarely move the needle. Instead, try to stash backup running backs who may be available as late-round flyers or even FAAB pickups. LaMichael James. Ben Tate. Knile Davis. Joseph Randle. These are just a few of the players who are one injury away from being fantasy stars. At the rate NFL players are going down to injury, you need to anticipate more injuries happening this preseason - not merely react after they do.
2. Which young running backs can pass-block? Several teams have unsettled running back situations. Broncos. Giants. Steelers. Packers. These teams all have elite quarterbacks, so there's significant upside for whichever running backs can emerge. When assessing who that will be, don't just look at the rushing stats this preseason. Instead, pay close attention to reports about who can pass protect.
With young running backs, pass protection is often the difference between getting on the field and sitting on the bench - especially for teams with Aaron Rodgers or a Manning brother under center. Look at it this way - do you think Ronnie Hillman is going to see the field, regardless of how well he's running, if he can't protect Peyton Manning? Hillman, Montee Ball, Knowshown Moreno, David Wilson, LeVeon Bell, Eddie Lacy, Jonathan Franklin and Giovani Bernard are just some of the running backs whose fantasy fortunes may hinge on their ability to pass-protect this preseason.
3. Who's the running back to own in Denver? On an elite offense that will be among the league leaders in scoring, there's 10-TD potential for the Broncos starting running back, perhaps even 15-TD potential. But who's it going to be? Many fantasy analysts are speculating the Broncos will employ a running back by committee in 2013, pointing to John Fox's history of RBBCs as head coach with the Panthers. I'm not buying it. Last year, the Broncos rode a feature back all year long - Willis McGahee until he got hurt, then Knowshown Moreno until he got hurt, then Ronnie Hillman in the playoffs. A feature back makes sense in a Peyton Manning offense, where no-huddle often inhibits substitutions.
At their current ADPs, Montee Ball (43), Ronnie Hillman (199) and Knowshown Moreno (ND) all strike me as good bargains given their plausible upside. One of these guys is going to score 10 TDs and make fantasy owners very happy. Follow this situation closely this preseason to figure out who.
4. Is David Wilson the next C.J. Spiller? I typically don't target certain players in fantasy drafts/auctions, but Wilson is someone I think the fantasy industry has undervalued. So much about him reminds me of C.J. Spiller. Both run like they're shot out of a cannon. Both were first-round draft picks who struggled their rookie years. Just as Spiller had Fred Jackson battling him for carries entering last season, Wilson has to compete with a bigger, older, less explosive running back in Andre Brown. Brown has never stayed healthy, though, and if Wilson can overcome his pass protection and ball security issues, few running backs have more upside in 2013. Let's put it this way ... when the 2013 season is over, we may easily view Wilson how we view Spiller right now. Let's watch the preseason for signs of a Wilson breakout.
5. Is Rob Gronkowski healthy? Tight end suddenly feels like a thin position in our fake game. Aaron Hernandez's career is over. Dennis Pitta is out for the year. Sure, there are stopgaps, and guys like Jason Witten and Tony Gonzalez, who belong as weekly fantasy starters. For me, though, there are now just two players I'm excited about drafting at this position - just two who feel like true difference-makers - Jimmy Graham and Vernon Davis. If Rob Gronkowski gets healthy, though, he can change all of that. If anything, the lack of stars at the tight end position makes Gronkowski's ceiling even higher.
If reports are positive this preseason, I'm going to make sure I own Gronk. It's really that simple. If not, I'll pass. That's how I see Gronkowski - his health will swing fantasy titles everywhere.
6. How much better is the Cardinals offense? It's easy to assume a team like the Cardinals won't be good on offense. After all, they were terrible last year, they play in a division with two Super Bowl contenders with dominant defenses, and the changes to their offense - adding Carson Palmer and Rashard Mendenhall - hardly seem exciting. Dig deeper, though, and there's potential for improvement here.
Much of the Cardinals problem in 2012 was due to a putrid offensive line, but that unit that should be improved with first-round draft pick Jonathan Cooper and free agent signee Eric Winston. Although Palmer and Mendenhall aren't sexy, they're improvements over what Arizona had at those positions last year. Any offense that upgrades at quarterback, running back, and offensive line, adding them to a Hall of Fame receiver, has sleeper potential. At minimum, Larry Fitzgerald seems likely to return to his career norms. Let's see how all the new parts jell together this preseason.
7. Who's going to catch passes in New England? Danny Amendola is the wide receiver version of Darren McFadden, and with Rob Gronkowski out, Amendola is the only show in town. Or is he? Somebody is going to catch passes from Tom Brady, particularly if Amendola suffers his inevitable injury. The preseason should lend insight on who that's going to be. As of now, any number of guys could emerge - keep an eye on Aaron Dobson, Jake Ballard, Michael Jenkins, Julian Edelman, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins and whoever else the Patriots line up at receiver and tight end this preseason.
8. Who's the running back to own in Green Bay? Eddie Lacy was drafted before Jonathan Franklin, so you might think Lacy has a leg up on the starter's role. However, Lacy's weight has been the butt of jokes on Twitter in recent days, with a photo of him looking less than svelte. Franklin's size and style might seem like a better fit for the Packers, but if he's not getting the goal line carries, how much will it matter? The preseason will help shed light on how these running backs will be used in Green Bay.
9. Is Maurice Jones-Drew his old self, or just old? Maurice Jones-Drew was terrific most of his career on an awful offense, but the pounding finally got to him last season, as his body gave out, and he played just six games. Perhaps worse yet, MJD has been slow to recover from Lisfranc surgery despite several months of inactivity - an alarming sign for an injury that can linger. I ranked Jones-Drew at 34th overall in my last rankings. Chris Liss and Kevin Payne had him much higher, banking on a return to health. The preseason will help reveal who's right. Preseason usually doesn't matter much for most veterans like MJD, but I'm anxious to see him get back on the field.
10. Can a rookie quarterback emerge? I highly doubt E.J. Manuel or Geno Smith will continue the recent trend of rookie quarterbacks becoming fantasy darlings. Nobody had Cam Newton on their radar in 2011, though, either. Stranger things have happened. Manuel in particular has some talent around him - C.J. Spiller, Stevie Johnson, a good offensive line and several young receivers. Factor in his rushing potential and there's upside there. I'm not betting on it, but I'll be watching for signs of a breakout this preseason.