"It's just preseason, though" is one of the more foolish phrases we can utter as both fantasy football players and observers of the sport in general. Yes, it is important to contextualize what we see in the exhibition games and be careful when discerning what will carry over and what won't when the games count. However, ruling out an occurrence as a new reality making itself apparent is how you miss a potentially season-changing story-line.
With that in mind, there are several things we can take from the 2016 NFL Preseason as new realities that should change the expectations we built over the offseason.
Listen, if you can't see that Derrick Henry is tremendous, you're not good at watching football. Every chance he got, Henry put on a show this preseason. His 216 rushing yards in the exhibition games led all AFC running backs and finished second in the NFL to Washington's Mack Brown. He also earned a whopping 15 first downs on his touches this preseason, which was the second most of any player.
While he dominated all preseason, Henry's crescendo moment was in the Titans "dress rehearsal" third preseason game against the Raiders. On a 14-play scoring drive, Henry touched the ball 10 times and was the engine of Tennessee's offense on the way to the end zone. It was also the rookie back who popped in the goal-line touchdown. He was so impressive that fellow NFL Fantasy writer "the Franchise" and I spent the better part of an hour simply gushing over his play while watching a late-night replay of that game after a weekend trip to see a Dave Matthews Concert. Yes, it was all as incredible as you could imagine.
Henry has a tremendous blend of size, power and speed. His unique frame threw off observers who just couldn't contextualize his style of play with his 6-foot-3, 247-pound body. However, it is clear he's going to be a force in the NFL, especially as a hammer late in games.
DeMarco Murray also looks good, no doubt about it. Yet, Henry looks like the type of talent that could give an offense a truly imposing identity. After, all Franchise points out, it's going to be hard to not hand over the job to a force like this:
There are still plenty of questions around this offense, and they may not be too efficient, but this unit will be a treat to watch at times. After years of ineptitude, this team has layers of intriguing weapons.
Josh Gordon made several dynamic catches over Brent Grimes in the Browns' third preseason game. He will, at worst, be a strong starting wideout for Cleveland when he returns. Terrelle Pryor might not be a refined receiver but he's successfully made the transition to the point where he can provide a legitimate big-play nightmare. The way he beat Desmond Trufant with pure size and speed in their second preseason game was something to behold. Corey Coleman didn't play much in the preseason but we know from his Baylor days he's an explosive dynamo. These three will mix in with solid passing game contributors in Gary Barnidge and Duke Johnson, along with potential power back Isaiah Crowell.
The question is obviously under center with Robert Griffin III. However, the former No. 2 overall pick did flash some excellent downfield throws, which was always the strength of his game. This scoring unit has the potential to produce a number of sleepers for fantasy if Griffin is solid and the offensive line doesn't completely collapse.
Sammie Coates played himself out of a job after failing to sustain the momentum he built in the chase for the No. 2 wide receiver job in Pittsburgh. He still showed a ton of issues as a route runner and struggled to track the ball leading to mishaps at the catch point. Those were his two biggest negatives as a prospect coming out of college. The lack of improvement from Coates solidified Markus Wheaton as the starting outside receiver and let Eli Rodgers ascend to the primary slot receiver position. He is someone to keep an eye on, especially in Week 1 against Washington.
Jaelen Strong sustained his momentum into preseason with several fine catches and solid overall outings. However, he strictly ran with the second team while Will Fuller started at flanker and Braxton Miller was the regular slot receiver. For now, Strong is just a backup to DeAndre Hopkins and has no path to immediate playing time.
The rookie out of U. Mass showed he was no minicamp fluke with multiple strong preseason outings. More importantly, he led the Titans in snaps among starting receivers playing 44 of 58 with the first team players.
Sharpe also has Mariota's trust. The second-year quarterback threw up a pass to the young receiver between two Carolina defenders in Week 2 and he came down with it. Mariota's understanding of timing-based passing fits well with Sharpe's nuanced approach to running routes. If the rookie wideout sees over 100 targets he could surprise.
Both backs struggled with efficiency as rookies but look reborn after impressive preseasons. Jeremy Langford made defenders miss and was the clear feature back against the Patriots in the Bears' second preseason game. If he's the clear lead back, the opportunity he falls into on a run-heavy team will be enough to ease worries about his low yards per carry. Langford showed big-game potential as a rookie and looks plenty capable of having several top-12 RB1 weeks this season.
Melvin Gordon looks much more like the explosive player we saw back at Wisconsin during preseason action than the struggling rookie of 2015. Gordon ripped off 81 yards on 13 carries in the exhibition games and also scored two touchdowns, including one on a long catch and run. He might be game-script dependent with Danny Woodhead still on the roster, but Gordon has a much better shot at mid-RB2 numbers after gaining some momentum in the preseason.
Those concerns bore out over the course of the offseason, as exactly zero positive buzz came out of Dolphins camp regarding Parker's status. He ran almost exclusively behind Kenny Stills as the No. 2 receiver in the preseason. Parker once again missed time with injuries in camp which prevented him from developing more in the craft of separation. New head coach Adam Gase came out and expressed his frustrations saying Parker needed to do "all the little things you have to do off the field."
DeVante Parker is still a long-term prospect that can make due on his physical gifts down the line. However, this is anything but the start to a successful sophomore season. Parker is off the redraft radar for now. It's all about asking receivers to do what they can handle, and right now, Parker is clearly behind.
After a season where he ran tentatively and publicly said he tried to do too much, Jeremy Hill looks much more like the decisive banger he was as a rookie back. Hill ran hard in his preseason attempts, was the clear red-zone back and made a dynamic 28-yard reception on a screen pass in the third exhibition contest. He looks explosive and has a hammer-head approach once again after dancing too much in his second season.
With the wave of injuries and free agent departures that hit the pass-catching corps this offseason, the Bengals could return to more of a power run-based offense as Paul Dehner of the Cincinnati Enquirer theorized. Hill saw over 220 carries last year and that could be his 2016 floor if the Bengals dial back the pass attempts. If he plays with more power and decisiveness, he is a threat to finish as a top-10 running back.
As Adam Levitan notes, Lockett was the third receiver for Seattle essentially throughout the preseason behind Jermain Kearse who the team re-signed this offseason. The Seahawks are a team that wants to set the tempo with the ground game and they value the veteran receiver's prowess as a blocker in two wide receiver sets. Lockett should still out-target Kearse, as I've heard Seattle believes he has an "elite ceiling" as a pure player. Nevertheless, it would be foolish and irresponsible to ignore Kearse's impact as an impediment to Lockett's production this season.
Lockett has all the talent in the world but as I like to say: we don't get extra fantasy points just because our players are really good, we get them through production earned by opportunity. And for right now, Lockett looks to have some pitfalls in his path to regular playing time in an offense that won't inflate their passing volume.
While this news shouldn't make us dial back optimism about Lockett's future, it should temper our hopes he explodes in fantasy this year. Lockett is still well worth a mid-round pick as a player who can make good on even a limited amount of targets, but he's more of a high-ceiling/low-floor option in the mid-rounds than a must-have early sixth-round pick.