With the preseason kicking off, real football is finally back on our television screens. And that means teams are forced (grudgingly) to provide us with way too early depth charts. While many of the positions on these charts are often symbolic, with rookies still needing to "earn" their spot, there is also some valuable information for fantasy fans to glean. Who is in contention for more reps? Which position battles must we watch more closely in the preseason? And so on.
Below I break have listed each AFC depth chart and provide brief analysis for each team. For the NFC, hit the link above. And feel free to hit me up with additional questions on Twitter @AlexGelhar.
Note: Many players on the Physically Unable to Perform (PUP) list aren't featured on current depth charts. So when you don't see a name like Steve Smith below, don't be alarmed. It wasn't a mistake, just the nature of this period of the preseason.
The Ravens own the distinct honor of having two of the most confusing position groups in all of fantasy. The backfield has the look of a four-headed monster, with Justin Forsett returning from injury to join sophomore Buck Allen, rookie Kenneth Dixon, and Terrance West on a career-saving comeback attempt. With Forsett on the shelf for the first preseason game, West led the way with 10 touches, while Dixon had nine and Allen had seven. This committee is far from settled, and could be providing fantasy headaches well into the season. It will need to be monitored closely in the preseason, as will the coach speak between and after games.
While Steve Smith and Breshad Perriman are working their way back from injuries, the wide receiving situation in Baltimore isn't as dire as it looks. Mike Wallace is back in a role that suits his playing style, serving as Joe Flacco's deep threat. The two are already showing off a solid rapport which bodes well for Wallace's potential this season. Aiken, on the other hand, should slot in as the main chain mover and possession receiver. Aiken posted the 11th-most receiving yards over the final eight weeks of the season in 2015 with the likes of Ryan Mallett, Jimmy Clausen, and Matt Schaub delivering him the football. A full season with Flacco could help Aiken quietly produce in fantasy and turn into a PPR stud. If Smith and Perriman return to full health quickly, they'll undoubtedly cloud this picture. But for now, it's clear that both Aiken and Wallace present big opportunities at a relatively low draft cost.
Ben Watson came to Baltimore this offseason after a career year in New Orleans, but his odds of repeating that stat line (110 targets, 74 catches, 825 yards, six touchdowns) are slim to none. He'll be the top option but has to fend off Flacco's old BFF Dennis Pitta, frontiersman Crockett Gillmore, and last year's second-round pick Maxx Williams. Watson might be worth a late-round stab, but there are a lot of mouths to feed here and fantasy owners could be left looking for scraps.
The Bengals might have the clearest fantasy picture in the league, and for that we thank them. Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill are the least frightening committee in the league because they're also the most productive. Both have defined roles and can be drafted in the Round 5-7 range with confidence.
A.J. Green is the only wide receiver to consider from this squad in 10-team standard and PPR redraft leagues, and he should be a first-round pick in both. His targets should, at worst, climb back into the 150-160 range, but could soar into the 180-plus echelon. He's also attached to an improving quarterback in Andy Dalton, who is at the very top of the QB2 tier.
Tyler Eifert is one of the most dominant red zone weapons in the league, but deciding when to draft him is a tough proposition as he's going to miss an undetermined amount of time to start the season. Matt Harmon suggested Round 8 on our latest podcast, and that feels about right. Tyler Kroft isn't enough of a receiving threat to warrant consideration even while Eifert is on the shelf.
Much like with the Bengals, the Browns have a pretty clear backfield split that fantasy owners can mine for solid production. Duke Johnson is the more tantalizing player that is climbing up draft boards for his pass-catching ability, but the return of Josh Gordon could cut into his receiving ceiling. Crowell looks like the better value, and there are some close to the organization who believe he could surpass 1,000 rushing yards this year in Hue Jackson's run-first approach. For a full breakdown, check out Matt Franciscovich's in-depth look at this backfield here.
Serving a four-game suspension, Josh Gordon is best left as a mid-round pick, but only if you draft appropriately before taking him. Matt Harmon breaks it down very well here. As for the rest of this bunch, Coleman is the only other name worth drafting as the rounds approach double digits. He's a big-play threat any time he's on the field and should see solid volume in this passing attack.
Don't expect Gary Barndige to repeat last year's magical season, but don't expect him to fall off a cliff either. He's a solid bet to finish as a low-end TE1, which considering his draft price of Round 11 (per fantasyfootballcalculator.com) is pretty solid.
The Steelers entered this offseason looking like the most loaded offense in the NFL, but things have been trending downward for months. Le'Veon Bell is facing a four-game suspension, which is why DeAngelo Williams' ADP has climbed up to the fifth round at times. That's a rich price to pay, but owners are hoping to get RB1 production out of Williams for those four weeks. Bell currently goes in Round 2 on average, which given his ridiculous ceiling seems logical. Still, both of those ADPs are steep given the uncertainty around this backfield on a season-long level.
Outside of Antonio Brown, the pass-catching options in Pittsburgh are a little scary. Sammie Coates has received mountains of hype and positive vibes from the coaching staff since pretty much the end of the Super Bowl and is a solid double-digit round flier to take. Ladarius Green's injury situation has gone from bad to worse as he's now being held out for recurring headaches. We hope he has a speedy recovery, but this is a situation that cannot be looked at lightly. Reports are he could miss even more time or potentially retire.
With so many of his top weapons on the shelf, Ben Roethlisberger now sinks to the fringe of the QB1 discussion. He's historically been a volatile fantasy player anyway (with surprisingly poor home-road splits ), and with no Martavis Bryant, a limited Le'Veon Bell, and potentially no Ladarius Green, his outlook isn't as bright as it was back in the spring.
The Houston offense might be one of the most top-heavy in fantasy, in that there are a few truly elite players to target, but the depth (for the most part) is not worth investing in. Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins are both in the discussion to be first-round fantasy selections but are great adds in the second round if they fall there.
Jaelen Strong's impressive offseason landed him as the top No. 2 wide receiver on the depth chart at this juncture. He's a name to watch as the preseason progresses, as he could fall into a sneaky amount of volume and production in a more stable Houston offense.
It's a bit disappointing to see Josh Ferguson (who has received glowing reports so far) as the fourth running back on the depth chart. This could just be a sign of veteran deference, though, which is often the case in these early editions. Still, he's a player to watch in the preseason as he could be used on third downs to help keep the aging Frank Gore fresh.
Word out of Indianapolis is that the team has been employing more three wide receiver sets to get the combination of T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief, and Phillip Dorsett on the field as much as possible. Hilton and Moncrief are priced appropriately in drafts currently, while Dorsett is certainly worthy of a late-round flier in case this offense returns to the heights it achieved in 2014. As for Dwayne Allen, he's one of our favorite late-round tight end targets. The depth behind him isn't great though, so if he were to go down with any sort of injury his replacement wouldn't be worth our time in fantasy. The leftover targets would likely transition to the wide receivers.
There's no reason to overreact to Chris Ivory being listed at the bottom of this depth chart. They have a clear plan for him and it is at the very least to be their red zone back. The Jags were atrocious running the ball in the red zone in 2015, but Ivory immediately found paydirt in the team's first preseason game. Yeldon got the start, but Ivory was also mixed in between the 20s. It looks like this is a clear committee, but potentially one that fantasy owners should be less scared of.
After a breakout season in 2015, it was mildly surprising to see so much additional hype building around Allen Robinson. Yet, he seemed committed to improving his craft, and that bore out on the field in the preseason. Robinson looked incredible, and should make owners feel even better about taking him early in the second round. Allen Hurns remains the No. 2 option but will be hard pressed to hit double-digit touchdowns again. Julius Thomas is a great late-round tight end option as well, as he looks to bounce back after an injury-riddled 2015 season. Keep an eye on Rashad Greene if Robinson or Hurns suffer any sort of injury. The second-year receiver could be ready to jump Marqise Lee if the Jags call his number.
It'd be easier to solve a Rubik's Cube with your feet while blindfolded than it currently is to figure out what the hell is happening with the Titans wide receivers. Free agent acquisition Rishard Matthews and fifth-round rookie Tajae Sharp currently sit as the top options for a position group that is best described by the shrug emoji. While these players could have some value in daily fantasy, this is a position group that players in redraft leagues should probably avoid unless the outlook becomes much clearer prior to the season.
In the backfield, DeMarco Murray will be the starter, but how long he can fend off Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry is anyone's guess. Henry makes for an intriguing bench stash in standard leagues, as he could usurp control of this backfield and currently comes off the board in Round 12 in NFL.com leagues.
It's interesting to see the team list Williams as the No. 2 back, despite the fact that he'll be suspended for the first four games of the season. Reggie Bush was a nice depth add for the team, but this will be LeSean McCoy's backfield if he can stay healthy all season. Early reports are that McCoy is looking phenomenal, too. He's currently looking like a bargain at his mid-Round 3 draft price.
Outside of Sammy Watkins, this is a poor pass-catching corps to dive into for fantasy production. It's encouraging that the team locked up Tyrod Taylor to an extension, as he helped lift this offense to new heights last season. But on a run-first team, secondary and tertiary options (even ones as talented as Robert Woods and Charles Clay) are too volatile to rely on regularly in fantasy.
Jay Ajayi might be first on the depth chart, but Arian Foster is making a push to claim this as his backfield. Right now, neither can be truly trusted as more than a mid-round pick, but there will be fantasy points to be had from this backfield. Foster, if healthy, could be a steal at around a seventh-round asking price.
At the wide receiver position, sure, DeVante Parker showed well late last season, but even during his "breakout" Jarvis Landry was still Ryan Tannehill's No. 1 target -- he had more catches (47) than Parker had targets (42) over the final six weeks. Parker is once again battling injuries and is trying to learn all of the wide receiver positions, meanwhile, Landry will be there as Tannehill's security blanket and consistent chain mover each and every week. Landry is a PPR stud and a solid WR2-3 in standard leagues, while Parker is worth a late-round shot, but feels over-valued if he goes before Round 10.
New England Patriots
It's encouraging that the Patriots have Dion Lewis listed as their starting running back, even though he's currently on the PUP. This should revert back to a 1-2 punch of Lewis and LeGarrette Blount once Lewis is cleared for action, but there are no guarantees when we're dealing with #Belitricks. Watch James White finish as a top-20 back and make us all look like idiots.
As far as the pass-catchers in New England, the pecking order likely goes Rob Gronkowski, Julian Edelman, Dion Lewis, Martellus Bennett, (insert wide receiver here). Names like Danny Amendola, Chris Hogan, or even Malcolm Mitchell might seem enticing and trendy on draft day, but this is a relatively concentrated offense at the top and once Tom Brady returns in Week 5 he will be going to his mainstays early and often to keep the Patriots offense humming. Bennett could be the best bargain of the bunch and likely should be viewed more highly among tight ends than he currently is.
New York Jets
The Jets feature another relatively top-heavy offense, with the true big hitters lacking any serious competition or threat for touches. Last season Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker commanded just shy of 51 percent of the total team targets, and that doesn't really figure to change in 2016. Matt Forte will lead the backfield, but don't be surprised to see Bilal Powell eat into his touches and potentially turn in a season not unlike Charles Sims' 2015 campaign. The team has repeatedly stressed that they don't want to overwork Forte (currently over-valued in Round 4), which leads the way to Powell putting up some usable fantasy weeks. Ryan Fitzpatrick is a solid late-round or streaming option at quarterback, but tight end and the backup wide receivers here should largely be ignored on draft day.
Kudos to Denver for putting out the peak preseason depth chart. They are true to their word about positional competitions, putting both Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian as the first-string quarterback, Jeff Heuerman and Virgil Green as the first-string tight end and Ronnie Hillman and Devontae Booker as the second-string running back. At least this helps assuage any concerns about C.J. Anderson's workload. All signs point to Denver being a run-first offense, with Anderson getting the majority of the opportunities. Whichever tight end emerges as the No. 1 option could have some late-round or at the very least streaming appeal in standard leagues. Gary Kubiak and Owen Daniels made some sweet fantasy music together over the years, and a younger, more athletic tight end could see an expanded role in the Denver offense this year. The wide receivers behind Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders aren't worthy of rostering except in dynasty formats.
Kansas City Chiefs
The AFC has really made my job easy with the number of concentrated offenses in this conference. While Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware showed well replacing Jamaal Charles last year after his ACL tear, this is Charles' backfield. He's a historically great running back, and one of the truly elite players at the position. As long as he doesn't suffer any setbacks in his return from this injury, he'll once again be an RB1 in fantasy. While West is listed ahead of Ware on the depth chart, we like Ware's odds of being the better handcuff. As a bigger power back he figures to, at worst, vulture all of the goal-line opportunities if Charles goes down, but could also do damage as a between-the-tackles hammer in the rest of the field too.
San Diego Chargers
One of the deepest, best-looking wide receiving corps in the league took a big blow when Stevie Johnson was lost for the season with a torn meniscus. Keenan Allen should be a target vacuum, while Travis Benjamin could be a sneaky late-round add with his home-run potential. However, while Tyrell Williams is a fantastic athlete and Dontrelle Inman proved himself in the CFL, neither merits fantasy consideration at this time.
Melvin Gordon's reclamation season is finally underway, and the team seems intent on having him turn into a true featured back. He should see plenty of volume once again, and the return of Ken Whisenhunt as offensive coordinator could help Gordon emerge as a more efficient back in Year 2. Danny Woodhead remains one of the most underrated players in both the league and fantasy. He has a well-defined role in this offense and is one of the team's top red zone threats (he led the team in targets and carries near the end zone last year). Both Gordon and Woodhead should be drafted in the middle rounds.
Antonio Gates looks like a great value among tight ends considering he's being drafted in the 10th round on average on NFL.com. In the 11 games Gates played last season, he led the team in targets (85), receiving yards (630), and receiving touchdowns (five). Of course, many of those games were sans Allen, but the fact remains the old man can still play and will be targeted heavily by Philip Rivers. Hunter Henry is probably a year away from taking over the tight end throne in San Diego from Gates.
Latavius Murray finished as the RB11 last year, but that was on the back of tremendous volume. Case in point, 70 percent of the backfield opportunities (carries and targets) ran through Murray last year, one of the highest numbers in the league. This year, DeAndre Washington figures to get into the mix more, especially in passing situations, which in turn could keep Murray fresher and give him back some of the explosiveness he flashed earlier in his career. As it stands, Murray is a solid RB2 pick, with RB1 upside as the Raiders' improved defense could put him in more positive game scripts to grind out yards and fantasy points. Washington is a late-round flier, with added upside in PPR formats.
Not unlike the Jets, the Raiders featured a relatively concentrated passing attack, as Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree accounted for 46 percent of the passing volume last year. No one else on the team at any position had more than 55 targets. That could slow the roll for Clive Walford, who has been a trendy sleeper pick this offseason, but starts the preseason second on the depth chart. Even if he does emerge as the No. 1 tight end, this offense might need to endure a philosophical shift for him to have the weekly volume necessary to merit being a starter on fantasy squads in standard leagues.