Preseason games are largely meaningless. But they can provide us with clues when it comes to usage, depth chart positioning, and performance quality after we sift through the trash. Cam Newton's 2011 preseason stats were pathetic, but he stood tall in the pocket and didn't run when his first read was covered. Coming out of Auburn's read-option, run-first offense, those were hidden but promising signs. If you watched Jimmy Graham's 2011 preseason, you knew he was poised for fantasy explosion. Graham was a fixture in New Orleans' first-team offense all August, and emerged as Drew Brees' favorite target when the real games began.
At this time last year, Randall Cobb, Robert Griffin III, and Doug Martin entered the preseason unproven in fantasy land. They flashed in exhibition games, and went onto enjoy monster regular seasons.
We're making observations in August, not jumping to conclusions. But regardless of the game's significance, big-time players tend to jump off the screen. Here are ten players I plan to nudge up Rotoworld's fantasy rankings after impressive preseason openers.
Editor's Note: Rotoworld's partner FanDuel is hosting a $100,000 Fantasy Football Contest in Week 1. It's $25 to join and first prize is $15,000. Here's the link.
1. Patriots RB Stevan Ridley
Stats: 8 rushes, 92 yards, TD. No catches.
The 2012 Patriots finished second in the NFL in rushing attempts, seventh in rushing yards, and first in rushing touchdowns. But common perception still views them as a passing-focused team. Friday night's preseason opener reminded observers New England is capable of dominating in the trenches on the strength of arguably the league's premier offensive line and quick-footed power runner Ridley, who ranked tenth among standard-league fantasy backs a season ago.
The Patriots belted Philadelphia's remade front seven with six consecutive run plays to open the game. New England's first drive spanned 80 yards, capped by Ridley's one-yard scoring plunge. He did get caught from behind by Eagles CB Bradley Fletcher at the end of a 62-yard run, but Ridley has never been a long-speed back. Among Ridley's eight runs in the preseason opener were gains of 62, 5, 5, 10, and 6. He is a sustaining foundation back and one of the few top-end returning skill-position players from last year's Patriots. Expect Ridley to be leaned on heavily this season. Particularly in non-PPR drafts, I think he's a steal at his mid-second round ADP.
2. Eagles QB Michael Vick
Stats: 4-of-5 for 94 yards, TD. No rushes.
Rookie coach Chip Kelly has gone to great lengths to push upon the public a camp battle at quarterback, splitting practice reps equally between Vick and Nick Foles, and even forecasting a series-by-series rotation in the preseason opener. Vick and Foles didn't rotate as Kelly promised on Friday night, however. Vick engineered the first-team offense for two possessions and -- albeit in a small sample size -- outplayed his alleged competition in a legitimate landslide.
Vick's first throw was a beeline missile to slot receiver Jason Avant deep down the middle, gaining 22. On Vick's second attempt, a read-option fake helped ensure DeSean Jackson got one-on-one coverage versus Aqib Talib down the right sideline. Vick's throw was pinpoint for a 47-yard touchdown bomb, putting it where only D-Jax could get it. Vick's other notable play came on a bootleg right, where the veteran southpaw threw across his body to Riley Cooper for a gain of 19 yards. All five of Vick's pass attempts came from the shotgun, and two in no-huddle.
Perhaps most impressively, Vick did not run out of the pocket. He kept composed and looked very comfortable in Kelly's offense, even as defenders got close. If the exhibition opener proves predictive -- and there's still a long way to go -- Vick will win this quarterback job handily. And there won't be a QB2 with a higher fantasy ceiling. Vick's ADP is currently in the tenth round.
3. Colts WR T.Y. Hilton
Stats: 3 catches, 61 yards, TD. 15-yard punt return.
Hilton has been practicing as the Colts' third receiver since OTAs. It's a fantasy concern because new playcaller Pep Hamilton wants to run a "12 personnel" offense featuring two tight ends with a large reduction in three-receiver sets. If Hilton is going to play consistent snaps and become a consistent week-to-week fantasy scorer, he needs to overtake Darrius Heyward-Bey in the two-wide packages, starting opposite Reggie Wayne. The third receiver in this style of offense is a situational deep threat, which is an appropriate role for straight-line speedster Heyward-Bey.
Heyward-Bey started Sunday's preseason opener against Buffalo. On his lone target down the left sideline, DHB let Bills S Aaron Williams get inside position on a fly route for the easy pass breakup. Heyward-Bey had this same problem in Oakland, refusing to physically fight for positioning with the ball in the air. The tendency often got Raiders quarterbacks intercepted.
Meanwhile, Hilton looked typically electrifying on each of his four all-purpose touches. He made two defenders miss on a 15-yard punt return, and fought off CB Ron Brooks' press coverage for a nine-yard gain on a quick-hitting Andrew Luck pass. Hilton's second reception went for seven yards on an out-breaking sideline pattern in Bills top cornerback Stephen Gilmore's coverage. And Hilton's highlight was a 45-yard touchdown, where he created three yards of separation from Brooks and dove to secure Matt Hasselbeck's bomb down the left sideline.
If the Colts are philosophically interested in starting their best players, Hilton will be promoted onto the first-team offense this week.
4. Rams WR Chris Givens
Stats: 3 catches, 82 yards, TD.
Playing Z receiver in St. Louis' new wide-open spread, Givens jumpstarted the offense in the preseason opener by beating Browns top CB Joe Haden's jam for a 20-yard gain down the right sideline. Again lined up at Z, Givens ran a go route off play action down the right seam, burning Browns CB Trevin Wade. Sam Bradford's deep ball was on the money for a 59-yard connection.
On Givens' three-yard touchdown, he lined up at the top of a stacked receiver formation with Austin Pettis behind him, and found an opening in the back of the end zone for an easy score. Givens converted all three of his targets against the Browns.
Givens hasn't gotten a ton of fantasy love this spring and summer, but he possesses serious big-play wheels and appears to have gotten stronger. He's a high-upside WR3 candidate.