2014 Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: How to Utilize Key Preseason Storylines

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2014

New York Jets running back Chris Johnson (21) runs against the Cincinnati Bengals in the first half of an NFL preseason football game, Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014, in Cincinnati. (AP Photo/Tony Tribble)
Tony Tribble/Associated Press

For games that don't count, the NFL preseason can sure teach owners a lot in regards to fantasy football draft strategy.

While starters are in for a brief amount of time (sans Week 3) and the play calls themselves are rather vanilla, particular usages and roles within units are a dead giveaway as to how a staff plans to act during the regular season. 

More often than not, how things unfold on a field for each team are not an attempt to fool future opponents, but an effort to place players in their future roles or try them out in new ones.

So yes, the preseason is rather important for owners. Below, let's look at a few of the biggest storylines and how just a few weeks of exhibitions has already flipped conventional wisdom about them on its head.

The First Rookie Wideout Off the Board is...

Vincent Pugliese/Associated Press

Not Sammy Watkins.

It seems to happen every year at this point, as owners buy into the hype of a big-name rookie before that first-year player goes on to hold back their rosters. Remember Tavon Austin last year en route to a horrific output?

That is not to suggest Watkins will flop in such a major way, but being the first rookie wideout off the board does not guarantee production. Watkins has been a flop so far this preseason, although he did leave Buffalo's latest preseason game with a minor injury.

But his production? Three catches for 21 yards in three games.

Thankfully, owners have already caught on to this issue and made the necessary adjustments. Watkins has an average draft position of 7.08, while New Orleans' Brandin Cooks comes in at 6.09. For good reason, too—Cooks has lined up all over the field in a pass-happy offense led by Drew Brees and in the team's first game recorded 55 yards and a score.

To be fair to Watkins, he is arguably the most talked about rookie, as NFL Network's Albert Breer notes:

The lesson in this particular storyline is quite clear, though. Watkins may have been first in the real draft at his position, but the players around him and overall situation might hurt his production. Situation plays a massive role in rookie analysis, a criteria he fails from a fantasy standpoint in Buffalo.

Cam Newton Has a Weapon Owners Should Grab

Bob Leverone/Associated Press

Plenty of owners are right to shy away from all offensive players that the Carolina Panthers field, sans Cam Newton.

But the tide seems to be changing when it comes to rookie wideout Kelvin Benjamin, who stands at 6'5" and 240 pounds. The biggest stigma surrounding the former Florida State star was that he struggled to catch the ball at a steady clip.

His preseason performances, though, have helped to change that stigma and his ADP has ballooned to 8.09 in recent weeks. Part of it has to do with practice catches such as this:

It helps that Benjamin is already essentially the No. 1 receiver in Carolina, especially with how well he has connected with Newton off the field, per The Associated Press:

Newton has forged a close relationship on and off the field with wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers' first-round draft pick from Florida State.

Together the duo has been lighting it up in practice, connecting regularly on crossing routes and deep balls. When they're not playing pitch and catch, they've been practically inseparable, even spending time together recently boating on Lake Lanier outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

Newton said from the moment he first talked to Benjamin 'there was a connection.'

The results have already shown on the field. In the Panthers' first preseason game, Benjamin ran exclusively with the first team and brought in a 29-yard touchdown. In the second game he caught two passes for 41 yards.

So much for the narrative that Benjamin will struggle and that the Panthers will remain so much of a run-first team that he will not be a viable fantasy option. As it stands, he is very much a superb sleeper given his current stock.

The RB Situation in Cincinnati is...

Ed Zurga/Associated Press

Not that difficult to figure out. 

Many owners were right to guess that since Cincinnati drafted running back Jeremy Hill in the second round, starter Giovani Bernard's usage would go down and hurt his value.

If the first two preseason games are any quality indication, that will certainly not be the case. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), both Bernard and quarterback Andy Dalton have been inseparable—both have played 27 snaps thus far.

Even better, Bernard got all of the red-zone touches in the second contest. Considering veteran between-the-tackles bruiser BenJarvus Green-Ellis is still on the roster and Hill is a very similar back, this is nothing but good news for Bernard's value.

Bernard is well on his way to 300 touches this year, so it makes sense that owners have hit him with an ADP of 2.04.

There is no question that Bernard is absolutely worth his high ADP, although those tabbing Hill at 10.05 before players such as Mark Ingram, Ahmad Bradshaw and others may be very disappointed indeed.

It just goes to show that the arrival of a rookie has a differing level of impact by team. It also highlights the fact that, while the league is going to a committee approach, the "C" word can never just be some all-encompassing blanket that applies to each team.

CJ2K's Role

Tom Uhlman/Associated Press

Chris Johnson may be the perfect example of what a change of scenery can do to a player's fantasy value and how many owners perceive a player, which in turn creates opportunities for others.

Over the course of his six-year career, Johnson has handled more than 250 carries each season:


Despite a "down" year last season, he still registered as the eighth-highest scorer at the position.

Cause for concern was created, though, when Johnson signed with the New York Jets, a team that seems committed to a, well, committee thanks to the presence of Chris Ivory.

But preseason contests so far have reminded owners—who have demoted Johnson to an ADP of 5.10, behind the likes of Ben Tate, Toby Gerhart, Bishop Sankey, Shane Vereen and Joique Bell—just what CJ2K can do.

In the first preseason game, Johnson ran for a touchdown in a goal-line situation, showing off the fact the staff has no fear of using him in such a manner. As if to show off his versatility, he ran 10 times for 63 yards and caught two passes in the second game.

Where was Ivory? Injured, obviously. Ivory is the oft-injured guy who, while being entrenched in a committee with the Saints that was literally four deep, still missed 24 games in three seasons before somehow getting on the field for 15 last year.

So Johnson is one heck of a steal. It also goes to show that conventional wisdom is not always that wise.

All average draft positions courtesy of FantasyFootballCalculator.com. All scoring info courtesy of ESPN standard leagues. Statistics courtesy of ESPN. 

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