Footballguys' Top 10: Preseason Week 2

A sneak-peek at Matt Waldman's new in-season column profiling significant insights from each week's games.

Quick Thoughts on Analyzing The preseason 

The most difficult part of analyzing preseason football is maintaining balanced judgment. We see flashes of ability, technique, and production and we can let our enthusiasm get the best of us during our fantasy drafts.

There are exceptional cases when these factors should rightfully override good decision-making and advanced technique but the more you can discern flash from substance, the less often you'll be enamored with the wrong things. Now that I've set myself up for a healthy portion of crow, here are the top 10 items from my notebook after studying this week's preseason games. 

1. WR Tajae Sharpe is For Real

The "steady drumbeat" is one of the main themes of good preseason analysis on the Audible Podcast. Does the player make a good impression in mini camp? Is he earning reps with the first-team? Is he consistent with his on-field production in practice and under the lights? 

Answer yes to all three questions and you have a Titans wide receiver Tajae Sharpe, who continues to show advanced skills for his experience level—especially on this dig route where he reacts to Marcus Mariota's adjustment to the oncoming safety. 

There are so many good things here: route awareness and understanding of the coverage, rapport with his quarterback, an effortless technique adjustment with his hand position once the angle of the target changed, and the focus and toughness to make the play within a tight spot.

Marcus Mariota says the rookie 'makes it easy' for quarterbacks. Sharpe's ADP of 257 (81st WR taken and 2) in PPR leagues will rise as we close out August.  But even if Sharpe's ADP climbs from the gutter of the 21st round to the 15th—or even the 12th—the leap won't outpace his fantasy value as a great bye-week option with every-week WR3 upside. 

2. MARVIN JONES IS THE PRIMARY RECEIVER IN DETROIT

Golden Tate will get his and Anquan Boldin will help the Lions but the top receiver in Detroit will be Jones.

 

It's all about the routes and the targets. There is not a single receiver in Detroit other than Jones who runs the full route tree remotely as well.

Tate is a good option who can win the ball in tight coverage and make plays after the catch but he will mostly earn his keep on crossing routes, screens, slants, streaks, and posts. It's a wide enough range that he should repeat as a good fantasy WR2. 

Jones is a different breed of receiver. He not only runs these routes and wins after the catch, but he also excels at the timing routes that quarterbacks lean on hard in critical situations, including fades, comebacks, outs, and targets to the opposite side of the field against tight coverage.

Jones showed all of that Friday night. He won't replace Calvin Johnson as a top-3 fantasy option but he should offer top-15 WR upside. 

3. ROBERT GRIFFIN III The Late-RouND FLYER

Cleveland's offensive line is good and Isaiah Crowell has the makings of an underrated feature back. In this play-action, big-play offense with special athletes on the perimeter, these factors alone make Griffin a worthwhile late-round, upside option.

Against the Falcons, the Browns offensive line opened holes for Crowell early and when the running back forced the Falcons defense to respect him, Griffin's vertical accuracy was the kill shot. 

 

Crowell's work between the tackles also gave Griffin easy plays outside. 

Best of all, Griffin is learning to slide to avoid punishment. Week 3's dress rehearsal will include Josh Gordon, who cornerback Joe Haden looks like the same elite player on the field. Add Corey Coleman to the mix and this preseason drumbeat could crescendo to the point that Griffin is a reasonable flyer for less risk-averse fantasy owners.

4. RB Christine Michael is Wide Awake: Prepare for a Seattle Committee

The "career near-death experience" is a real thing.

Every NFL player is a great athlete but even at this lofty plain, there is a "tier above." These are the rare prospects who are so physically talented that there are still situations in the NFL where they can win solely on the basis of their athletic ability. The curse that accompanies this blessing is that they lean too hard on those special moments to the detriment of yards, downs, possessions, points, and wins.

Many of these players don't realize until it's too late. It took Michael getting traded and cut by two teams all in the same year. Once-bitten, twice-shy is not a proportionally accurate description for fantasy owners who repeatedly took chances on Michael's talent. But the 'awakening' is for real. 

 

Michael's re-emergence on the fantasy radar seems sudden but the steady drumbeat has been there. Since returning to Seattle, Pete Carroll and Michael's teammates have praised the back for his maturation.  Carroll says that Michael has been "on-point" all spring and summer.

Two weeks ago, Carroll told the media that the Seahawks backfield will be a '1-2 punch' with Michael and Rawls as the duo. If true, this news deflates Rawls' value as a bargain RB1. But if I'm looking for a RB2, I'd still roll with Rawls at this ADP and bump Michael 1-3 rounds above his to ensure that I land him. If one falters, the other has top-12 value at the position. 

Because of Michael's ADP, he's a strong buy on my board regardless of Rawls.

5. Jadeveon Clowney is About to make Pennywise seem Gentle

Lamar Miller, Will Fuller V, and Brock Osweiler require our attention but the most compelling site on the field was a healthy and improved Clowney wreaking havoc on the Saints offense. 

Clowney entered the NFL as a one-move, athletic freak show. Battle Red blogger and NFL production assistant Brett Kollmann said that Clowney showed more pass rush moves this weekend than he's seen during the span of Clowney's young career.

 

 

In addition to the bull rush and inside release shown on the tape, Clowney also unleashed a wicked chop and he forced the left tackle to commit an egregious holding foul that the officials missed. There were at least two other plays with Brees in the lineup where Clowney forced offensive linemen to become Greco-Roman wrestlers.  

J.J. Watt may be out of commission for a while, but Clowney looks ready to hold it down for the Texans defense. When Watt returns, I'd rather read "IT" in an empty carnival funhouse at night than be an opposing quarterback.

6. KEENAN ALLEN IS READY TO BE YOUR FANTASY WR1

I've seen two versions of Keenan Allen since his college career. Former Cal defensive end Ryan Riddle enlightened me on this observation.  The Allen who entered the NFL was the possession option with a bigger build ready to rebound and break tackles. 

The Allen that Riddle and I saw as an underclassman at call was a receiver with the deer-like, first-step quickness of Desean Jackson in a tall, lithe frame. That's the Allen that showed up last summer after changing his diet but an injury ruined the reveal.

That Allen is back again this year. I saw that athletic grace and blink-of-an-eye quickness against the Cardinals that has me licking my chops at the possibility of taking him in the first half of the second round in fantasy drafts. With Travis Benjamin, Danny Woodhead, and Antonio Gates providing support, Allen could have a 100-catch season. 

7. Dak Prescott in Context

One thing is clear when you see every throw from Prescott's preseason effort: he's executing the offense as drawn up and he's poised with the gameplan. 

 

After charting this game, there is reason for cautious optimism but don't bet the house on Prescott as a franchise passer just yet:

  • Miami's defense gave Prescott blatant single coverage on one side of the field with the single safety at the opposite hash on three plays. In these three situations, Prescott went 2-for-3 and threw 2 TDs in this situation. The third play was a catch at the 1 but nullified by an offensive pass interference foul.
  • Three of Prescott's throws were from formations where only two receivers ran routes while the rest of the receivers, backs, and tight ends remained on the line to block until very late in the play.
  • 10 of Prescott's throws were first reads. 
  • One target was a concept where Prescott looked to one zone and chose one of two players working through it. 

What Prescott was asked to do, he did well. Even with clearly defined reads, it's easy for a young quarterback to feel overwhelmed at this level early on. Physically and mentally, he's a competent prospect with developmental potential for a starting role. That's a big positive.

But the bulk of Prescott's big plays were wide-open zone routes and back-shoulder fades that lean on the receiver to win the ball. While he showed great accuracy on a deep post in the third quarter, it was one play. In contrast, Chargers third-stringer Mike Bercovici showed more with timing routes, tight-window throws, and accuracy under pressure.  

When Prescott had an opportunity to target his second read, he threw an interception that a late-hit nullified. Later, he almost threw another because of poor footwork that caused the ball to sail.

Prescott's weaknesses as a collegian are things we haven't seen him encounter as a Cowboy:

  • Tight-window throws on timing routes with excellent placement in the middle of the field.
  • Timely reads beyond his first option. 
  • Sound footwork after climbing from pressure and resetting to throw that generates an accurate throw.
  • Reading hybrid coverages—a mix between man and zone—common in the NFL that fool most top prospects. 

There's reason for excitement with Prescott but if he has to start this year, the Cowboys will lean more on his ability to throw on the move. They will also cut the field into clear segments for him to target and keep reads defined.

If he improves on what he didn't do well at Mississippi State without a year or two on the bench, look out. 

8. MOHAMAD SANU WILL HELP YOUR FANTASY TEAM MORE THAN THE FALCONS OFFENSE

Falcons offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's short and intermediate passing game is built on a foundation of crossers, slants, and seams that are integrated with play action. 

It's a great fit for Julio Jones' skills. It's also a good fit for Sanu, who is a similar-styled receiver (although lesser athlete) as Jones. But this offense doesn't allow Matt Ryan to do what he does best—timing routes to precise route runners against tight man coverage. 

It's an element missing from the Atlanta passing game, which is more reliant on the run game's ability to create play-action opportunities so receivers can run through wider passing lanes and transition fast into open field runners. A side effect of this style is a less versatile, more predictable offense.

The combination of this predictability and leaning the offense towards Jones' strengths and away from Ryan's means that Sanu will earn enough catches to help your fantasy team as a WR3, but the rebound effect for Ryan won't be enough to propel him into the top 5-7 fantasy passers. Don't count on a massive rebound.

9.  Paxton Lynch has created an audition to start now, not later

The main headline from Broncos camp is Mark Sanchez or Trevor Siemian. But the "or Lynch?" tagline is a whisper that is gaining volume after the 49ers game. 

Lynch's work came against backups but he showed off excellent arm strength and timing on difficult routes. He was also poised and creative when pressured while converting third and fourth-down plays despite dealing with dropped targets.

The combination of the Broncos defense, a healthy and fit C.J. Anderson, and one of Sanchez/Siemian as the starter will keep the offense in games and create volume for the receivers to thrive as fantasy starters. But Lynch's performance may lead to an audition in Week 3 for the starting gig.

It could also lead to more production in the vertical game and with timing routes to Emmanuel Sanders. Regardless of the option, expect alot of ups and downs this year for the passing game.

10. Decoding The Patriots Fantasy Backfield With a Blount Object

Dion Lewis' second surgery leaves fantasy owners pondering the merits of James White, LeGarrette Blount, and Tyler Gaffney. With Lewis gone for at least a big portion of the season, many are looking at White as a "Lewis Clone."

There is no clone. White is a pass-catching back only. He cannot sustain a high-volume workload between the tackles. 

Gaffney can. He looks quick and strong as a tackle-breaking, pile pusher with speed in open space. But he's not as as polished a runner between the tackles as Blount, who showed this weekend what he's shown since his days at Oregon.

Blount has the footwork to setup creases, the hips to make sharp bounces outside the tackles on cutbacks, the quickness to reach the secondary, and the pad level to drive through contact for 3-5 yards after the collision. 

My advice, Blount is the biggest piece of the rushing equation. Before Lewis got hurt, he was the committee complement with big-game upside. Now he's the main cog that will earn a majority of Lewis' reps. The Lewis role will now be the complementary piece split between White and Brandon Bolden.

White has the best chance to carve out a fantasy-worthy PPR role. But I'd rather draft Blount between rounds 8-10 and Gaffney at the very end of a deep draft than rely solely on White as the next Danny Woodhead