Evaluating preseason performance
Pigskin pundits often dismiss performances in the preseason, as these non-events feature starters in sweatpants while fourth-stringers battle for a spot on the practice squad. (One exception to these exhibitions: Tim Tebow, whose outings are examined and scrutinized with more fervor than the Zapruder film.) At best, these glorified practices will facilitate a memorable highlight; on the other side of that spectrum, a team’s worst nightmare is to lose a player to injury. (Although, as Trent Green and the 1999 Rams proved, sometimes a bad break is a blessing in disguise.) Anything that transpires in-between these two concepts is mostly met with apathy.
This sentiment carries over to the fantasy world as well. Owners often pooh-pooh the preseason, waving off accolades achieved against perceived nobodies. When players like Luke McCown and Victor Cruz appear serviceable, the logic dictates, the merits from these contests come into question.
But is this necessarily the case? Kyle Orton owned a 95.4 QB rating and led the league in completion percentage during the 2010 preseason on his way to a relatively successful fantasy year. Right behind Orton was Matt Cassel, whose 64.4 completion rate propelled the Kansas City QB to a Pro Bowl season in 2010. And while Arian Foster’s eruption may have surprised many across the football landscape, anyone observing the Texan’s output in the dog days of summer (28 carries, 169 yards, two touchdowns; six receptions, 31 yards) could have sensed something special in the Houston backfield.
Upon further examination, these fake forays can often provide a forecast for the upcoming campaign. Here are a few credos to keep in mind when appraising and analyzing in August, as well as which early-preseason breakouts to keep an eye on for the 2011 NFL season.
Know thy opponent
Not so much referring to the actual team, although Jets fans should consider this conviction as they bask in their belief that a 34-year-old Plaxico Burress suddenly makes them the 2007 Patriots. (Plax torched the Bengals, Gang Green. It would be alarming if he didn’t find the end zone against the immortal Fred Bennett.) Rather, this suggests realizing what string a player in question was up against. Orton was recently named the Denver starting signal caller, but Brady Quinn has been getting some buzz for his solid showing against Buffalo this past weekend, leading some to speculate if those in need of another arm (cough cough Seattle cough) may come calling for Quinn. The Bills surrendered the third-most points in the AFC last season. Quinn was facing the backups of one of the worst defenses in the league. Maybe we should pull the reins back on Quinn as a possible savior.
One thing to be aware of when using this evaluation: don’t simply gauge a player’s success by the timeframe of his endeavors. Just because a quarterback tossed for 100 yards in the first quarter doesn’t signify he was necessarily going against an opponent’s top unit. Furthermore, many teams sideline players with even the slightest bump or soreness. Check to see which players sat out to properly weigh one’s production.
The New Guy
The assimilation of a player into a foreign scheme always provides interesting theater, exposing if the acquisition in question will serve as a catalyst for a playoff run or if the signing will live in infamy. Unfortunately, thanks to the lockout, this preseason’s barometer will have to be taken with a grain of salt, as the integration process has been confined to three weeks rather than three months. Keeping this outlook in mind, don’t be too harsh on Kevin Kolb’s uninspiring output thus far. Kolb is holding onto the ball a tad bit too long and he hasn’t grasped all the wrinkles of the Arizona offense, but most of his mistakes aren’t alarming.
Speaking of new guys...
While watching preseason games may appear to be on par in pointlessness with vegetarian burgers and bathroom attendants, August provides a platform to see if draft picks can prove their worth or if they’re going to be in over their heads. And while a learning curve is expected, there is a correlation between preseason and regular season performance. It’s why Sam Bradford flourished (possessing a 95.9 QB rating) while Jimmy Clausen was a train wreck (50.0 completion percentage, 46.8 QB rating) last season.
Don’t put all your faith into these contests, but the preseason does offer suggestions for which rookies are worthy of sleeper status, as Tampa’s Mike Williams illustrated last season. Confession: one of my guilty pleasures in life is watching highly-touted rookies falter in the preseason, causing a collective, “Uh-oh” to radiate through the crowd. Not that I’m actively rooting for these neophytes to fail, just so they get knocked down a peg or two. This disposition was always on display in Hard Knocks as well, with the rookies getting berated by position coaches a staple of the program.
Be wary of receivers
Of all the statistical analysis to be skeptical of, receiving comes to the forefront. Sam Hurd and Matt Willis were two of the higher ranking wideouts in the 2010 preseason and neither came to fruition for fantasy purposes. Moreover, many offensive coordinators will keep their play calling relatively Spartan, not wanting to show a team’s hand to the rest of the league. However, monitor second-stringers closely, especially those ranked in the 40s or higher in fantasy position rankings. If a player is seeing more targets than projected, it could prove to be a worthwhile gamble in the draft.
Top 2011 preseason performers
After an encouraging end to his rookie campaign, Colt McCoy appears poised in his sophomore season, throwing four touchdowns with a 67.9 completion percentage thus far for the Browns. McCoy may have limited weapons in his aerial arsenal, but the beauty of the West Coast offense takes the emphasis off the receivers and bases it in the quarterback. With Pat Shurmur, who’s fresh off the tutelage of Bradford in St. Louis, in his corner, McCoy could be a steal in the later rounds.
At first glance, Felix Jones has posted an impressive 7.9 yards-per-carry figure. But after subtracting an 18-yard run and 22-yard gallop, Jones has been pedestrian in his abbreviated appearances. I like Jones for the upcoming year, but this forecast is hardly predicated on his preseason. A running back who has raised some eyebrows is Ben Tate. Forecasted to be the starter last season, the Auburn product went down in the first game of the 2010 preseason, giving Foster the opportunity to blossom. Foster still has a lock on the starting gig, but Tate could alleviate some of the backfield burden and is a handcuff-must.
Steven Ridley has looked strong in two games with the Pats, but the New England backfield is too crowded to consider Ridley a reliable fantasy option at this juncture. Same goes with Roy Helu and Tim Hightower in Washington, both of whom have looked sharp this year.
As for my last preseason performer, and I can’t believe I’m saying this, but, gasp, Rex Grossman has looked like a formidable starting quarterback. By no means is this endorsement for Grossman as a fantasy starter, even in the deepest of formats. But he wasn’t horrible with Washington near the end of last season, and Mike Shanahan does have a way with field generals. Grossman is still competing for the Redskins’ starting spot, but if he ends up behind center, Grossman might be worth a flyer as a backup in some leagues.