NFL Training Camp Notes: Panning For Receiving Gold

With the weekend’s preseason games in the books, and Antonio Brown’s tenure in Oakland beset with problems from head to toe, it’s maybe time to look for some other options at wideout. Fortunately, Sunday brings a wealth of news regarding some of the more interesting, and potentially lucrative from a fantasy perspective, passing games in the league. Let’s take a look:

  • the Falcons got some good news when Calvin Ridley made his return to practice Sunday. The 2018 first-round pick is coming off an impressive rookie campaign, but a strained hamstring cost him Atlanta’s first two preseason contests. Given the chemistry he’s already shown with Matt Ryan, Ridley shouldn’t need too much time to get up to speed and be ready for Week 1. With Julio Jones still commanding plenty of defensive attention, the second-year receiver should be gunning for his first career 1,000-yard season.
  • with Nick Foles replacing Blake Bortles and John DeFilippo — the guy who got chased out of Minnesota for not calling enough running plays — in charge of the offense, the Jaguars’ passing game could be sneakily productive this year. Unfortunately, Dede Westbrook‘s absence from Thursday’s preseason opener seems to be due to a groin strain rather than a coaching decision to look at less established options on the outside. Westbrook had a solid season in 2018 under tough circumstances and could well be headed for a true breakout in his third campaign, but he’ll need to stay healthy to do it — something he couldn’t do as a rookie. The more time he misses in camp, the more time second-year WR D.J. Chark will have to build a rapport with Foles and establish himself as the team’s top target.
  • it’s never a good idea to read too much into preseason numbers, especially in the first preseason game when many first-teamers don’t even suit up, but based on comments by Kyle Shanahan after Saturday’s 49ers game, the team’s WR depth chart may be a lot more uncertain than anyone thought. With neither Marquise Goodwin nor Trent Taylor in the lineup, Dante Pettis was mostly invisible while rookies Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd both made a splash, and Shanahan hinted afterwards that Pettis wasn’t assured of a starting job despite the flashes of upside he showed in 2018. Hurd, a converted college running back, could end up as the Niners’ version of the Steelers’ Jaylen Samuels as an H-back/tight end/slot receiver, making him more of a threat to Taylor’s spot, but Deebo’s physical nature and ability to gain real estate after the catch could make him an excellent complement to a field-stretcher like Goodwin — at Pettis’ expense. Whichever of them gain significant snaps in this offense could be a fantasy factor, so this is a situation to watch right up until your draft day and beyond, and with only George Kittle going in the early rounds, hitting on the right San Francisco receiver with a late pick could pay huge dividends.
  • the Chicago passing game is another one potentially on the upswing as Matt Magy and My My My My Mitchell Trubisky get another year older and wiser, but a big improvement for the Bears will likely depend on a Year Two breakout from Anthony Miller. After battling through shoulder issues that eventually required offseason surgery as a rookie, though, Miller sprained his ankle Saturday and could be sidelined for a couple of weeks. The organization has already had one early-round pick go to waste because Kevin White couldn’t stay healthy, although it’s not yet a fair comparison — Miller played more games in his one NFL season than White has managed in three, and he still has time to recover from the ankle injury and get ready for Week 1. Still, if Miller continues to accumulate bumps and bruises, the Bears don’t have a lot of apparent depth behind him and Allen Robinson.
  • moving away from the wideouts, Tony Pollard got the start for the Cowboys in their preseason opener and may be cementing the No. 2 RB spot behind Ezekiel Elliott — or in place of him, if his contract holdout extends into the regular season. Pollard didn’t actually make much of an impact, but neither did fellow rookie Mike Weber or holdover depth option Darius Jackson, and Pollard’s 4.0 YPC was the best of the trio in the game. Alfred Morris didn’t play at all, but whether that was because the coaching staff know what they’re going to get from him and wanted to take a look at the new guys, or whether Morris is simply around as a camp body and insurance in case one of the rookies completely flops, isn’t yet clear. In all likelihood, Elliott gets a new deal or reports before Week 1, relegating whichever of them make the 53-man roster to bench roles, but even in that case Pollard’s versatility could give him some value in deeper formats if new OC Kellen Moore finds some creative ways to use him.
  • Theo Riddick‘s tough offseason got worse this weekend when he was diagnosed with a fracture in his shoulder that will sideline him for 6-8 weeks. Cut by the Lions, the scatback quickly landed in Denver and seemed poised to bump Devontae Booker aside as a passing-down specialist, but now his status for the entire first month of the season is in jeopardy. Booker, on the other hand, might get a new lease on life — although he’ll still have to hold off namesake rookie Devontae Jackson, as well as Khalfani Muhammad, over the rest of the preseason to keep his roster spot.
  • finally, second-year tight end sleeper Ian Thomas suffered a rib injury in Thursday’s preseason game that has kept him out of practice since, on the heels of dealing with a leg injury earlier in camp. With Greg Olsen no longer the player he once was due to multiple injuries of his own, it was easy to envision the Panthers transitioning to Thomas as their top pass-catching option at the position — and his 25-246-2 line over the final five games of 2018 prorates out to production that would put him firmly in the second tier of TEs below the Ertz/Kittle/Kelce trio — but if Thomas can’t stay healthy either, he becomes a very risky player even as a late-round dart.