It’s here. With six preseason games on Thursday night, the massive puzzle that is the NFL season is starting to come together. Of course, at this point we’re really just sifting through all the pieces to find the corners, but we did get a tiny bit of insight from Thursday’s action. Let’s dive into what we saw and other news from around the league.
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Are we going to see a new and improved Joe Flacco this season? Ian Rapoport of NFL.com thinks so. After observing Ravens practice, Rapoport saw a “technical and fundamental transformation” in Flacco’s game. This is lofty praise for a player who posted last season’s No. 27 completion percentage (59.0%) and was the seventh most-frequently intercepted. While it’ll be interesting to see if Rapsheet’s observations come to fruition on the field this season, it’s no reason to move Flacco up your draft board.
Flacco saw just one series in Thursday’s preseason opener again the 49ers, completing 4-of-5 passes for 52 yards and no scores. There’s not much we can really glean from the limited action we saw him in, but we did get a more extended look at Ravens RB Bernard Pierce, who saw snaps with the ones along with Ray Rice. Pierce also stayed in with the second-team.
Not surprisingly, Pierce looked very comfortable in the Ravens’ zone-blocking scheme, rushing 10 times for 37 yards and a score. With Ray Rice suspended for the first two games of the season, Pierce will be the feature back. It won’t shock me if he takes the job and runs with it. He’s a sneaky value pick at his current ADP of 8.06.
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Ryan Tannehill isn’t getting buzz like Flacco, but he has shown an ability to make plays in Bill Lazor’s offense out of the read-option. An athletic quarterback, Tannehill has run for significant gains and made things happen outside the pocket. It may not always be pretty, but Tannehill offers intriguing fantasy upside this season. He’s a sneaky QB2 who you can often snatch up late in drafts.
Moving to New Orleans, the Saints reportedly have a package of plays designed to unleash rookie WR Brandon Cooks, who has the makings of one of the league’s most exciting players to watch. We did hear similar chatter out of St. Louis last season with Tavon Austin, but he didn’t have Drew Brees throwing him the ball. Cooks is currently the No. 36 wide receiver coming off the board with an ADP of 8.02, and that could continue to rise as the hype grows.
C.J. Spiller is looking to unleash himself after a subpar 2013 campaign where he finished as the No. 28 running back in standard leagues after being a consensus Top 5 pick. Spiller is finally past the ankle injury that hampered him most of last season, which bodes positively for his fantasy stock. He’s an ideal risk/reward Round 3 running back target.
While he’s certainly not coming off a disappointing campaign, LeSean McCoy is looking to improve on his 1,607 rushing yards from last season. The Eagles standout tweeted that he’s aiming to top 2,000 yards this season. Only seven players have accomplished this feat in league history - Eric Dickerson (2,105), Adrian Peterson (2,097), Jamal Lewis (2,066), Barry Sanders (2,053), Terrell Davis (2,008), Chris Johnson (2,006), and O.J. Simpson (2,003).
Needless to say, this is a lofty goal, but not out of the question. Regardless, McCoy is an elite back in the prime of his career who plays for one of the league’s most run-heavy offenses. It’s tough not to like him as the No. 1 overall fantasy player.
It’s also tough not to like Giovani Bernard this season. The second-year man is locked in as the primary back and could flirt with 300 touches this season. Along with Bernard, rookie Jeremy Hill is currently slotted in as a starter. Hill ran for 36 yards on six carries in Thursday’s preseason opener and was working ahead of BenJarvus Green-Ellis. He’s now fully expected to take over BJGE’s role in the offense, which means 200 carriers is well within the realm of possibility. With an ADP in the late 9th round, Hill is sounding more and more like a great value.
The same cannot be said for Arian Foster in the mid-second round. Foster is still not practicing with a mystery ailment. Apparently, Foster is being the best teammate he can be on the sideline. Draft Foster at your own peril.
Andre Johnson is also still sidelined for the Texans, though his injury isn’t a secret. He’s not going to play in Saturday’s preseason opener, but I wouldn’t be too worried. There’s no reason to push Johnson into action, so the team is easing him through rehab. Johnson is still a decent mid-range WR2, especially in PPR formats.
Just when we thought we could officially quit Kenny Britt, he’s pulling us back in. Britt has been running as a starter in Rams camp, and has impressed coaches with his athleticism and leadership. You read that second part correctly. We all know Britt has a massive ceiling, but he also has an equally cavernous floor. Still, call me crazy, but there’s something appealing here. Perhaps it’s a bug light to failure, but Britt’s cheap price tag is worth a late round flier.
For those in IDP circles, Jon Beason expects to be ready to play in Week 1 for the Giants. With Beason sidelined, Jameel McClain has been manning the middle with rookie Devon Kennard on the strong side. Beason is the superior option at the MIKE, but his recent injury history makes him a dicey IDP option.
Tyrann Mathieu is also on the mend, and anticipates being back in practice in the next 2-3 weeks. Remember that practicing and being ready play in games are two entirely different things, but this news is still a positive. The target date of early October still seems to be the expected timetable for Mathieu, making him a player you can snag at draft day discount. He went in the 22nd round of the Rotoworld IDP draft, which you can view along with my insights and observations in our draft guide.
It’s sounding like Aldon Smith will be suspended for 6-8 games following his meeting with Roger Goodell in New York on Thursday. That could mean the 49ers will be without Smith and NaVorro Bowman for half the season. With San Francisco also losing NT Glenn Dorsey likely for the entire season, the 49ers are shaping up to be a red flag fantasy team defense. It’s best to look elsewhere at the position. However, if you’re looking for IDP value in Bowman’s place, Michael Wilhoite is the guy. He notched seven total tackles (four solo) and a sack on Thursday night. He won’t be the most consistent option, but Wilhoite has a high fantasy ceiling, and will be an asset over the first half of the season.
We’re not likely to see a Luke Kuechly or Kiko Alonso out of this year’s rookie linebackers, but there are a few who will make IDP waves. Ryan Shazier sits near the top of that list, especially given the news that he’s a confirmed starter for the Steelers. While I tend to prefer C.J. Mosley in redraft leagues, Shazier isn’t far behind and makes for a high-ceiling LB3. Speaking of Mosley, he looked good in Baltimore’s preseason opener, racking up five total tackles (three solo) and a sack.
There’s also positive news out of Cleveland regarding rookie linebacker Christian Kirksey. While he was initially behind Craig Robertson, Kirskey is now seeing most of the reps with the ones. Praising Kirksey’s abilities in coverage and against the run, head coach Mike Pettine called him a “complete linebacker.” Kirskey is now a favorite to play three-downs. He offers a lot of IDP upside in the late rounds of your draft.
Thursday Night Quick Hits: Trent Richardson looked like the player we’ve come to know over the last two years, stutter stepping rushing for 2.6 yards. Buyer beware. ... Lache Seastrunk is fast. He rushed 12 times for 63 yards against the Patriots’ third teamers. ... Joseph Randle is well ahead of Ryan Williams for the Cowboys’ No. 3 running back. Randle rushed 13 times for 50 yards against the Chargers. ... UDFA Branden Oliver put ups 64 yards and a score on seven carries. He’s now solidified his place ahead of sixth-rounder Marion Grice on the Chargers depth chart. ... Travis Kelce blew up the spot with a 69-yard touchdown catch. There’s a lot of upside at TE2 this year, and Kelce may just be atop that list. ... C.J. Anderson was forced from Thursday’s game with a concussion, further increasing the chances the uninspiring Ronnie Hillman serves as Monte Ball’s backup. ... Along with Bernard Pierce, Lorenzo Taliaferro also looked good at running back for the Ravens. He rushed 13 times for 71 yards, playing an every-down role as the fourth-stringer. Dynasty owners need to take note of Taliaferro. ... Likewise, take note of Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo in deep dynasty leagues after he went 8-of-12 for 141 yards and a score against Washington’s second- and third-string defenses. ... Carlos Hyde looked strong with the San Francisco ones as Frank Gore rested. He rushed five times for 39 yards, and showed some solid chops in pass pro. He’s the unquestioned backup to Gore, and would be a major fantasy factor if Gore went down with injury.