A lot of people will tell you that the preseason means nothing. I’d tell you they’re not looking hard enough. Of course we don’t need to see anything from stars like Drew Brees, Jamaal Charles or Calvin Johnson. But the clues we can pick up on lesser-known guys can be the difference between winning and losing.
This Preseason Winners list is based on three factors: Reports from camp, usage in exhibition games and performance in both camp and exhibition games.
1. Jay Cutler, QB, Bears
By now, we should all know the numbers. In Marc Trestman’s first year in charge of the Bears, Jay Cutler and Josh McCown combined for 4,450 passing yards, 32 touchdowns and 19 interceptions. That would have been good enough for a QB5 fantasy ranking. We know the Trestman system will work – it’s just a question if Cutler can be consistent enough and healthy enough to realize its potential.
Well, the preseason has shown that the rocket-armed Cutler is in full command of this offense. Reports from camp have been glowing, and the exhibition performances have been flawless. Through two games (four possessions), Cutler has gone 16-of-22 for 160 yards with two touchdowns and zero interceptions while taking zero sacks. Touchdown scorers Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, Martellus Bennett and Matt Forte are all intact. The only argument the Cutler haters have at this point is health as he’s missed 13 of his team’s last 64 regular-season games. But these aren’t lingering injuries that are of the recurring nature, so I don’t see it as a predictive stat. Cutler is my No. 1 later-round target at quarterback this year, just ahead of Matt Ryan and Tony Romo.
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2. Travis Kelce, TE, Chiefs
A favorite of the draftnink community, Travis Kelce is coming from off the radar because microfracture surgery cost him his entire rookie year. He’s wasting no time making his mark as an NFL sophomore. Our Evan Silva has called Kelce the most impressive player in preseason and a review of his catches show why. In the preseason opener, Kelce’s first catch was a quick out in which he banged his way through literally four tackles to pick up four yards. His second catch came straight up the seam as he flashed unique speed while outrunning the entire Bengals defense for a 69-yard touchdown. The second preseason game against the Panthers was more of the same. He scored a 43-yard touchdown while lined up with his hand on the ground but split off the line, going up the seam again and dragging Panthers defenders into the end zone.
In all, Kelce has six catches for 136 yards and two touchdowns on his 47 preseason snaps. Yes, they’ve come exclusively with the second- and third-team behind Anthony Fasano. But it only takes two eyes to see that this literally looks like Rob Gronkowski with more long speed out there. Kelce is earning his first-string spot as we speak and the Chiefs desperately need him. With Dwayne Bowe suspended for Week 1, their top-five wideouts project as Donnie Avery, A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams, Junior Hemingway and Albert Wilson. Kelce is an ideal TE2 target than can be had in the 13th round of fantasy drafts.
3. Fred Jackson, RB, Bills
Nothing has changed in terms of the way this Doug Marrone regime is wasting the unique talents of C.J. Spiller. He’s not playing on third downs, he’s not playing in the red zone and he’s not being schemed into space. Through two preseason games, Spiller has been slammed between the tackles on first- and second-down exclusively, just like he was last season. It’s time to stop hoping Spiller can reach Chan Gailey levels under Marrone.
The obvious beneficiary of this continued boneheaded usage is Fred Jackson. In the second preseason game, F-Jax started, played on 26-of-47 first-team snaps and received 13 touches. Spiller played on 12 snaps and got six touches, and Anthony Dixon came on late in the second quarter for nine snaps. Jackson is soaking up all those third-down reps, which leads to a ton of check downs as evidenced by his seven catches on Saturday night. He’s also the no-doubt red-zone back, which obviously leads to touchdowns. Don’t be surprised if Jackson gets near the nine rushing scores and 47 catches he posted last year.
4. Zach Ertz, TE, Eagles
Since last season ended, we’ve had 16 player news blurbs on Zach Ertz. Virtually everyone covering the Eagles in addition to those inside the organization are calling for a Year 2 breakout, and it’s easy to see why. Ertz is a walking mismatch at 6’5/250, a likely red-zone priority who will also help some of the production that left with DeSean Jackson.
The preseason has done nothing to slow the Ertz hype train. He left the Patriots defenders wagging their tongues after joint practices and has posted a 6-86-1 line on seven targets through just 36 exhibition game snaps. As I mentioned in this Roundtable, one of the reasons I’ve been shying away from Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski and Julius Thomas early in drafts is because I want all the Ertz at his ninth-round ADP. Pairing him with someone like Jordan Reed or Dennis Pitta will give us both a high floor and high ceiling.
Editor’s Note: For updated rankings, projections, tiers, exclusive columns and tons more, check out our Draft Guide! It’s available as an iPhone app too. Also, be sure you’re following Rotoworld Football and Adam Levitan on Twitter for all the latest news from camp.
5. Giovani Bernard, RB, Bengals
Andy Dalton has played 25 snaps this preseason, and Giovani Bernard has been out there for every single one of them -- Jeremy Hill and BenJarvus Green-Ellis have garnered zero first-team reps so far. Obviously, Bernard isn’t going to play every snap of every game once the season starts. But this usage suggests that former RBs coach and new OC Hue Jackson at least wants to see if his 208-pounder can be a workhorse. Bernard has shown well as a pass protector, is playing on third downs, is playing in the red zone and was effective in his goal-line chance.
Last year, Bernard was a rookie playing for a pass-oriented offensive coordinator in Jay Gruden. He still racked up 226 touches and finished as fantasy’s RB16. Now he’s the clear-cut No. 1 guy and Jackson (a maximizer of running back talent) is installing a ball-control scheme. Given what we’ve seen, I think 300 touches and a share of the goal-line work is in the cards for Gio.