Fantasy Football 2018: Must-Haves Emerging This Preseason

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2018

Fantasy Football 2018: Must-Haves Emerging This Preseason

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    Preseason action gives fantasy football owners an initial glimpse at rookies, developing players and familiar faces in new situations. Don't read too far into one or two games with backups taking the majority of the snaps, but several names have emerged as must-have pickups on draft day.

    For most of the players with rising stocks, an impressive performance preceded the surge in fantasy value, though it's fair to factor injuries and absences into the equation. 

    The 10 players listed below didn't necessarily start the offseason program as hot-ticket acquisitions in fantasy leagues, but they gained steam once teams took the field for exhibition games.

    Furthermore, each talent comes into the preseason with a workload that isn't quite certain because of a running back committee, their role as a secondary pass-catcher in the offense during the last term, their rookie status or, in one case, a major injury last season. However, with a strong preseason showing, their stocks should rise to must-have status for draft day. 

    Which players elevated their draft statuses, and what makes them attractive fantasy targets?

        

QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts

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    In recent seasons, drafting Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck in the early rounds was a no-brainer, but skeptics had to see him throw in a game to believe he's back.

    Luck took the field against the Seattle Seahawks in Week 1 of the preseason. He completed six of nine pass attempts for 64 yards, putting the offense in position to attempt two field goals. The three-time Pro Bowler's performance didn't blow away anyone, but we all remember what's he capable of when healthy.

    In 2016, before his shoulder injury, Luck threw for 4,240 yards, 31 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. The 28-year-old isn't up to speed yet, but he'll have time to catch up through the exhibition period.

    Luck spent a year away from football, so there are doubts about his ability to bounce back. But he's paired with new head coach Frank Reich, who led a top-three scoring offense in Philadelphia to a Super Bowl LII victory over the New England Patriots in February. His body of work suggests he'll fare well with good health behind a revamped offensive line featuring rookie guard Quenton Nelson, a healthy Ryan Kelly at center and veteran Austin Howard at right tackle for the 2018 season.

RB Kerryon Johnson, Detroit Lions

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    The Detroit Lions have a crowded backfield, which includes LeGarrette Blount, Kerryon Johnson, Ameer Abdullah and Theo Riddick as potential key contributors. Nonetheless, the rookie second-rounder flashed during the team's preseason opener against the Oakland Raiders on Aug. 10 at the O.co Coliseum. Johnson finished with 34 rushing yards and 33 receiving yards.

    His receiving ability adds a spark to his fantasy value. In his best year as a pass-catcher at Auburn, he logged 24 catches for 194 yards and two touchdowns. Johnson could see steady targets in the short passing game in an offense that typically relies on the arm of quarterback Matthew Stafford

    At 31 years old, don't expect Blount to handle a high volume of touches. He averaged 10.8 carries per game in the Eagles' backfield committee in 2017. Abdullah has underwhelmed over the last three seasons, which probably led to the front office's decision to draft Johnson at No. 43.

    The Lions' commitment to establishing the ground attack would further boost Johnson's fantasy stock, but he's at least headed for a sizable workload based on his draft status and his early showing in preseason action.

RB Lamar Miller, Houston Texans

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    Houston Texans running back Lamar Miller has disappointed fantasy football owners over the last two terms. After logging a single-season high 19.1 rushing attempts per contest in 2016, his volume dropped to 14.9 last year. Between the two terms, he only reached paydirt on the ground eight times.

    Nonetheless, D'Onta Foreman's uncertain timetable to return from an Achilles injury boosts Miller's value in the Texans backfield. The second-year ball-carrier remains on the physically unable to perform list, and Alfred Blue's workload consistently trended downward after the 2015 campaign.

    Miller could jump off to a quick start, especially if Foreman's rehab process lingers into September. The seventh-year veteran looked regular-season ready with four carries for 29 yards against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 1 of the preseason.

    Quarterback Deshaun Watson's presence as a viable passer could also open lanes in the ground attack. For now, the lead ball-carrier in Houston's backfield has his arrow pointing up. 

RB James White, New England Patriots

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    Despite the New England Patriots' propensity to lean on running back by committee, James White could experience somewhat of a breakout season similar to Dion Lewis last year. In Week 2 of the preseason, he led in receptions (six) and receiving yards (61) and had a touchdown through the air while quarterback Tom Brady was on the field for the first half.

    It's White's fifth year with the team. Lewis' departure to the Tennessee Titans and first-rounder Sony Michel's knee injury, which will sideline him for a short period, significantly increase the 26-year-old's value. Whenever a rookie misses time during the offseason program, it's a small setback, especially at a veteran-laden position.

    The Patriots opted to hold Rex Burkhead out of Thursday's preseason action because of a slight tear in his knee, per The Athletic's Jeff Howe. He only logged 64 carries and missed six games because of rib and knee injuries in 2017. Jeremy Hill and Mike Gillislee will likely battle for one spot on the depth chart. 

    At the moment, the backfield doesn't have a clear No. 1 option. Nonetheless, White's 10 touches against the Philadelphia Eagles on Thursday, with Brady in the huddle, suggest he's likely headed for an expanded role for the 2018 season. Take him as an RB2 or flex option for your starting lineup.

RB Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

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    The Seahawks selected running back Rashaad Penny with the No. 27 overall pick in April's draft, but Chris Carson has been the lead ball-carrier through practices, per Brady Henderson of ESPN. He took the first handoff in Week 1 of the preseason and advanced the ball 18 yards downfield on the opening drive.

    Even though Carson finished the game with four carries—fewer than Penny (eight) and Mike Davis (six)—the 23-year-old recorded the longest gain of the group with his 12-yard run. He led the backfield with 34 rushing yards Saturday against the Los Angeles Chargers. At the moment, the starting job is likely his to lose. 

    Penny broke his left index finger during Monday's practice, and NFL Network's Ian Rapoport cited Carson as the bell-cow running back in the Seahawks backfield. 

    Penny could return to action before the end of the preseason, but Carson should see a heavy workload as teams give their starters more reps in the latter exhibition games. As the lead ball-carrier, with a solid start, the Oklahoma State product should see a rise in his average draft position.

WR JuJu Smith-Schuster, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    In case you thought wideout JuJu Smith-Schuster's rookie season seemed fluky, he came out of the gate with a 71-yard touchdown reception during the Pittsburgh Steelers' Week 1 contest against the Eagles. He followed up with a four-yard grab for a score against the Green Bay Packers on Thursday at Lambeau Field.

    Under standard Yahoo league settings, the USC product finished as a top-15 wide receiver in points with 139.70. He's coming into the 2018 season as a starter, which likely equals an increase in production.

    The Steelers selected James Washington in the second round of April's draft, and he recorded five receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns against the Packers. Nonetheless, quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's familiarity with Smith-Schuster should allow him to see more than his 79 targets last year.

    Assuming the Steelers cover Roethlisberger in bubble wrap after he took a hit during practice, Smith-Schuster belongs in starting lineups this year.

WR Chris Hogan, New England Patriots

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    In the New England Patriots' first preseason game against the Washington Redskins, Chris Hogan didn't record a catch, and Brian Hoyer was taking the majority of the reps under center. Brady suited up for the second preseason outing with the Eagles and targeted the 29-year-old receiver seven times in the first half. Hogan finished with five catches for 25 yards and a score.

    Wideout Julian Edelman—who will serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy—was in action, and fantasy owners could see where Brady looked comfortable throwing the football. Hogan and Cordarrelle Patterson led the team with seven targets apiece.

    The Patriots waived wideout Malcolm Mitchell earlier this month after he suffered an injury. Eric Decker joined the group on a one-year deal, but he's struggled to reel in catches during training camp, per Doug Kyed of NESN.com.

    "WR Eric Decker is still having a pretty hard time in Patriots camp," he tweeted. "He pushed off on Patrick Chung to make a catch in 1-on-1s and dropped his second target."

    Decker doesn't have a single catch two weeks into the preseason. Clearly, he's not a lock to make the roster. Even if the ninth-year veteran makes the cut, expect Brady to look for his familiar targets on the perimeter in tight end Rob Gronkowski and Hogan. As a starter, the latter should see a surge in his average draft position.

WR Stefon Diggs, Minnesota Vikings

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    Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins may have found a new favorite target in wideout Stefon Diggs. He connected with the 24-year-old pass-catcher three times for 35 yards and a touchdown in the team's first preseason outing against the Denver Broncos.

    While it is just the preseason, Cousins (4-of-4 with 42 yards and one score) showed confidence behind an offensive line with question marks at left guard and right tackle. Adam Thielen didn't have a catch, so it's important to note Cousins' strong rapport with Diggs.

    And the fourth-year receiver feels there's room for growth, per Chris Tomasson of the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

    "It's still a growing process," Diggs said. "We're growing as we're going. I wouldn't say it's not done, so developing that chemistry is really key to just making the plays when they're called."

    Fantasy owners should heed those words and pick up the Vikings wide receiver as a high-end WR2 asset. Diggs grabbed eight touchdowns through the air last season. As an early favorite in the passing game, he could carry some momentum into the regular season and eclipse 1,000 yards for the first time in his career.

WR D.J. Moore, Carolina Panthers

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    Wideout Devin Funchess' offensive holding penalty negated a seven-yard pass from quarterback Cam Newton to DJ Moore, but the rookie receiver caught passes from backups Garrett Gilbert and Taylor Heinicke to finish with four receptions for 75 yards in the team's first preseason matchup against the Buffalo Bills. 

    Moore impressed early in the offseason program and translated the hype to in-game action. Even though his production occurred with the backups, the coaching staff clearly wants to involve him in the passing game. During the opener, the Maryland product led the team with six targets. 

    As the No. 24 overall pick and the first wide receiver selected in the draft, Moore shouldn't surprise anyone with his early activity. Despite Newton's accuracy concerns, fantasy owners should take the rookie pass-catcher, who should see plenty of targets.

    His ability to stretch the field should be enticing. He averaged 13.9 yards per reception through three collegiate seasons, and his catches could equal chunk yardage in the aerial attack.

TE David Njoku, Cleveland Browns

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    Cleveland Browns tight end David Njoku experienced a case of the dropsies during training camp practices, per Steve Doerschuk of the Akron Beacon Journal, but quickly recovered in Week 1 of the preseason against the New York Giants. He caught two passes for touchdowns.

    Wide receiver Corey Coleman's departure to Buffalo doesn't just benefit Antonio Callaway on the depth chart; Njoku should see an uptick in targets as well.

    As Buffalo's signal-caller over the last three seasons, Tyrod Taylor frequently connected with Charles Clay. The tight end recorded at least 49 catches in each season. Njoku reached paydirt on four occasions with ineffective passers at the helm in 2017, and the tight end-friendly upgrade under center boosts the 22-year-old's fantasy value for the 2018 campaign.

    It's worth noting, wideout Josh Gordon reported to training camp, but he's not allowed to participate in practices as he goes through conditions of the league's substance abuse program, per Brian McCarthy of the NFL league office (h/t NFL Network's Tom Pelissero).

    According to Cleveland Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot, there's still a possibility the 27-year-old pass-catcher suits up for Week 1, but in his absence, Njoku will have more opportunities to flash in the passing game as he builds chemistry with Taylor.