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Sunday Morning Coming Down: How to Watch the Preseason

Matt Harmon dishes on his approach for watching players in the preseason based on Footballguys' philosophy. 

It’s that time of year again: football is back. Well, it’s almost back.

The early signs of an impending storm appear on the horizon. The whispering winds from training camp hype are beginning to pick up speed. Thunderous applause from fantasy analysts crash through the interwebs as GIFs of their favorite sleeper creep down the Twitter timelines. Most important of all, the preparatory response drill for the NFL season is upon us, as the preseason games will begin in full this coming week.

Just like fire drills in school, it’s easy to walk through the preseason at half speed with your eyes fully rolling throughout. It’s not real meaningful football with consequential scores on the line, even if it looks quite close. However, just like there was something to learn through the monotony and seemingly pointless endeavor of those preparation drills, you better believe there’s something of value to glean from the preseason.

The key in finding the value is not only knowing what to look for, but how to place it in context.

I’m lucky to come from the Footballguys family in launching my career as an NFL writer. The coaching tree here is littered with analysts who pioneer thoughts and approaches that go well beyond setting a good lineup on Sunday. It’s what sets this place apart. I’ve taken so many of the lessons I learned from fellow Footballguys, even well before the day of my hiring, and applied them to my style in the hopes they permeate to any other outlet my work takes me.

Through it all, no pillar of thought is more impactful or repeated as often as the concept of “the steady drumbeat of the offseason.” Pioneered by Cecil Lammey and Sigmund Bloom on their year-round The Audible podcast, the concept is central in how to decipher which news during the wave that hits in the offseason that we ought to believe and therefore take action on in our fantasy drafts, and what we file away as just noise. In fact, Sigmund and Bob Harris touched a bit on “the drumbeat” in the latest episode of On The Couch:

The stories we want to believe and turn into actionable fantasy decisions are those that have progressed throughout the offseason, not those that just randomly pop up at any one point of the process. The drumbeat quietly starts to build with praise from the coaching staff in minicamps and OTAs, perhaps after a move in the offseason that motivates or validates a player’s opportunity, then it crescendos with more buzz from training camps as the player builds momentum with reps and strong reports, and finally the drumbeat become a reality with strong observable performances in the preseason.

It’s almost a form of triple-checking your work, if not just a simple approach to keep you honest. One hype blip on the radar, or one magical run in the preseason (Ameer Abdullah 2015 still lives in infamy) can tend to lead us astray. Yet, it’s these multiple-act plays that unfold throughout the offseason in the form of the drumbeat that can lead us to a true story to buy in on.

We’ve seen examples of this play out over the last two seasons. Doug Martin in 2015 was retained with priority by then offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter, garnered a helping of offseason praise and then revealed it all to be true when he looked like a different player in the preseason than the one we saw plod through the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Terrance West was a less impactful case, but a situation where the drumbeat played out and one we covered in a previous Sunday Morning Coming Down post. While others chased Kenneth Dixon or Buck Allen based on their talent evaluations, West was the one the coaching staff routinely pointed out as an improved player and ran with authority in the preseason. West finished last year as the RB24 in fantasy.

Of course, it’s inadvisable to overreact to camp hype, or adjust your draft board based on a sweet one-handed catch video from a practice session. However, it’s just as dangerous to completely disregard the preseason. As the venerable Cecil and Sigmund once instilled in me, there’s value to be gained from viewing the preseason and what happens in it as long as it’s in the proper occurrence. We’re not advocating chasing the players who rack up statistics in the exhibition games or even the flashy new names that emerge there. We’re preaching that a little detective work and piecing together the preseason with the rest of the offseason storylines can help you make better fantasy decisions come draft time.

The 2017 campaign has seen its fair share of hype players emerge from the OTA and training camp portion of the offseason. Among others, I’ll have my eye on these seven players in the exhibition games to ascertain the true validity of their drumbeats.

Dalvin Cook

A few months ago, Cook seemed like a questionable top-five round redraft pick, at best. However, the reality of the situation has changed. With Latavius Murray sidelined since the ink dried on his Vikings contract, Dalvin Cook owned all the chances possible to begin and strengthen his drumbeat. He capitalized. Cook ran as the starter throughout the early portion of training camp and most importantly, earned praise for his pass protection among other rave reviews. Cook has the talent to completely usurp this backfield from Murray and holdover Jerick McKinnon and he’s building the momentum to do so. All that remains is to pass the test with a few strong showings in the preseason.

DeVante Parker

No one’s drumbeat has grown louder and stronger than DeVante Parker’s since the turn of the new year. The coaching staff has been effusive in their praise of his work habits and new professional approach. Those were the main items that held back the gifted Parker in his first two seasons and contributed to his injury issues. Adam Gase and company hope that’s all in the rearview mirror, and seem to believe it so far. For my money, even if he’s turned around his game as an individual, it’s hard to project Parker for the requisite targets needed for a true fantasy breakout, as he plays in an offense with foundation back Jay Ajayi as the identity and Jarvis Landry as the 130-plus target hog. Yet, if Parker continues banging the drum to such a loud degree in the preseason, it might be worth reconsidering whether he can change the projected construction of this offense.

Ty Montgomery

The most likely Packers feature back, Ty Montgomery is nearly irresistible in fantasy circles. Most reporting on the converted wide receiver were positive this offseason. He rocked up to 220-plus pounds to remodel his physique into that of a true running back and Mike McCarthy called him a “full threat” not long ago. Green Bay drafted three Day 3 backs, but otherwise left the barren position alone. It appears that all that stands in the way of Montgomery’s path to the feature back spot is pass protection, where Rob Demovsky believes fourth-rounder Jamaal Williams is pushing the veteran. Montgomery’s performance in that aspect of the game, in addition to all others, will be paramount to observe in the preseason. It’ll be shame if the drumbeat stops in the coming weeks, as Montgomery offers at worst a rich man’s version of Theo Riddick with a poor man’s David Johnson-type ceiling.

Corey Davis and Titans as a whole

The Titans started Corey Davis’ drumbeat with authority by selecting him fifth-overall in May’s collegiate selection, despite a quiet draft process. Davis answered the call by jumping right into the starting X-receiver spot in his first practice after a minor contract delay. The rookie receiver is just one piece of evidence that the Titans offense could begin to morph out of an ultra run-heavy approach. Yet, Davis needs to be on the field to sustain the momentum that he is that transformative figure, and he is set to miss at least a week with a hamstring ailment. Davis could easily outpace all other rookie receivers if he establishes himself as the alpha in a new Marcus Mariota-centric offense. Whether we should believe any of that will become reality early in 2017 will hinge on preseason momentum.

Tyreek Hill

The Chiefs did what few other organizations have done for players placed in the “gadget receiver” archetype; they signaled they were confident in Tyreek Hill’s ability to be their No. 1 receiver. Releasing Jeremy Maclin showed that Andy Reid and company were filled with faith that Hill could satisfy their need for a top wideout. After investing in his route-running growth in the offseason, Hill looks to be paying off their belief with a stellar training camp. Numerous observers, including Chiefs sage B.J. Kissel, note that Hill took his game to another level this offseason. Allocation of resources as much as buzz started the drumbeat for Hill, which frankly, is even more valuable. We’ll want Hill to show this new route-running force and ball-tracking prowess in full in a few preseason appearances, just as much as we’ll want to note his deployment.

John Brown

Honestly, we just need to see John Brown out there. The buzz was positive all through the offseason for the fourth-year Cardinals receiver. After health issues, including a cist in his spine and a sickle-cell trait, robbed him of the clear upward trajectory he was on during the 2016 season, it appeared Brown turned a corner over the last few months. The team was confident concerns were in the past, he rocked up to 185 pounds and beat writers were upfront with their praise. Now, Brown is set to miss multiple days with a quad injury. It’s simple: if we see Brown fully taking part in preseason action we are all systems go on his bounceback and his destined smashing of a WR43 ADP (Fantasy Football Calculator). If we don’t, we’re back to square one.

Nelson Agholor

Many were willing to ignore the crescendo of this drumbeat, and given the way Nelson Agholor performed in his first two seasons, it’s understandable, but it does not change the reality that the third-year USC receiver is building momentum in Philadelphia. Since moving into the slot this summer in replacing of an injured Jordan Matthews, Agholor drew praise from coaches and beat writers alike. The Philadelphia media can be harsh, and Agholor definitely took his turn going through the meat grinder during his time with the organization, but nearly every team writer was in lockstep praising his work in camps. That’s another sign you want to see with the drumbeat; observers all getting on the same page. His rebirth is now reaching a fever pitch with national media members like NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah, a former Eagles front office employee, getting on board by saying, “[Agholor is] going to be their slot receiver. I’ll be shocked if he’s not. I don’t know what that means for Jordan Matthews,” on the Move The Sticks Podcast. Agholor’s issue was never a lack of dynamism or technique in his route-running, rather he was betrayed by a lack of confidence among layers of drop issues. Both those negative aspects of receiver play can be salvaged, and the offseason drumbeat appears to carry the tune that they were for this young receiver. The last test will come in the preseason for Nelson Agholor. Should he pass it, we need to be wide open to the reality we have a career rebirth on our hands in an offense with receiving opportunity.