Eric Mack
Monday August 29th, 2011

Preseason Week 3 tends to be the time we learn the most about the players we care about in fantasy, because that is the week teams let the starters go the longest. We wound up realizing we know everything we need to know about the players we care about.

It wasn't entirely worthless weekend to look back at the numbers: Larry Fitzgerald, Brandon Marshall, Reggie Wayne, Wes Welker and even Lee Evans showed they are capable of being better than they were a year ago. They are not washed up.

It was a week for passing and receivers -- unless you're a 49er, of course -- and less heavy on the running games. Perhaps teams are just saving their backs' legs for the start of the regular season.

Early first-rounder Arian Foster (hamstring) needs to save his legs in the coming weeks. And the emergence of Ben Tate -- last preseason's big loss -- should afford him the chance to do that. Montario Hardesty also proved healthy for the Browns after a lost rookie season, giving another 2010 breakthrough, Peyton Hillis, hope for some rest.

We take our weekly Monday morning look at all the developments in the NFL game by game:

• You would like to think Andy Dalton's solid game makes him a viable NFL starter and a potential late-round pick in two-quarterback leagues. It probably still doesn't. It does far more for the values of Cedric Benson, rookie A.J. Green and tight end Jermaine Gresham. Those offensive pieces can make an impart and outperform their draft position if Dalton is merely not terrible like the Panthers QBs were a season ago.

• Cam Newton was unimpressive again. He has more value than most rookie quarterbacks, because he can run, but if he's not a threat in the pocket, defenses just won't respect him.

• Newton and the Panthers offense looks to be built around the tight end. Greg Olsen and Jeremy Shockey just might be their leading receivers. That doesn't bode well for Steve Smith's prospects for a rebound season.

• Jonathan Stewart got an extended look, but he was underwhelming. It is clear now, if it hasn't been already, D'Angelo Williams is the better of the two.

• Colt McCoy's sterling preseason couldn't carry over into Game 3, albeit against a very good Eagles secondary. His receiving corps was a bit exposed as incapable this week. Brian Robiskie and Greg Little look like the receivers of choice, at least until Mohamed Massaquoi. Someone is going to break through. Little is the choice right now, but he is the rookie and rookie receivers rarely develop as the primary target (although see Bengals and Green).

• Vick was better, but it was still all the backs and tight ends. It shows how important DeSean Jackson and Jeremy Maclin really are to him. Neither receiver is in full form going into the season. It could be a slow start for Vick, yet another reason to pass on him in the first two rounds.

• Ronnie Brown is looking like a strong backup to LeSean McCoy. Heck, he looks like he could be a starter, although he won't. Consider him a solid mid-to-late pick, especially handcuffing McCoy.

• Tim Hightower is clearly the Redskins starter, but Roy Helu has at least positioned himself as the backup. Hightower hasn't been a full-season feature back in his career, so Helu is going to impact fantasy. He is a solid late-round pick.

• Rex Grossman and John Beck are neck and neck in the quarterback duel. Grossman might be the better option for Santana Moss owners. Moss continues to be an underdrafted fantasy receiver.

• All the principals in the Ravens offense clicked after a slow start. Joe Flacco had a strong game after the first quarter interception went for a touchdown. Ray Rice ran well, Anquan Boldin led in receiving and super sleeper Lee Evans scored a 35-yard TD. Evans' value to the Ravens should not be understated. He is going to be a very productive option for fantasy owners.

• Jermichael Finley (knee surgery) needs a 100 percent stamp of approval now. He looks full go and is going to be a nice prize after the first three fantasy tight ends are off the board. Heck, if Peyton Manning cannot play for the first few weeks of the season, Finley might even be a better pick than Dallas Clark at the position.

• Ryan Grant did not look good, though. The Packers won't be about running the ball, but Grant was supposed to pick up slack in that department. James Starks wasn't utilized in this one, but he is climbing back closer to Grant in the depth chart race and on draft boards. Be wary of Grant before Round 6.

• I think we go a look at how important Joseph Addai is to the Colts offense, especially with the Manning question mark. He outplayed rookie Delone Carter and backup Donald Brown significantly. Addai looks like he is going to be a good value for his draft position.

• Curtis Painter might not have done enough to start over Kerry Collins if Manning cannot go, but Painter did do a wise thing in developing something with Reggie Wayne. Wayne looked great and just might be a top five receiver no matter who throws passes for the Colts. A healthy Manning should keep Wayne among the top five receivers in fantasy.

• We haven't gotten to see much for the Chiefs offense this preseason, but Dexter McCluster is become more of a target as a third-down back. It might be yet another reason to avoid selecting Jamaal Charles in the top three picks. Charles' receptions are one of the ways he can make up for his lack of touchdowns. If McCluster is the third-down back, it could a take a chunk out of Charles -- albeit not as much as starter and goal-line back Thomas Jones does.

• The Rams running game looks strong. Steven Jackson will like having a running mate the caliber of Cadillac Williams this go around. This could be Jackson's best year since his 2006 breakthrough. A more productive offense all around will make Jackson a 10-touchdown candidate. He is the clear finisher for this team and Williams is only here to give Jackson rest and keep him fresh.

• Donnie Avery (knee surgery) made a healthy return. He is going to be on the team. It will be just too much for seven wideouts to make the team, though. Avery is in. Danny Amendola, Brandon Gibson and Mike Sims-Walker likely are starters. Danario Alexander, Mardy Gilyard and Greg Salas are in danger of not making the team. The fact there is no clear-cut star -- trust us, Sims-Walker isn't -- make all of them viable late-round sleepers as Sam Bradford takes another step into prominence.

• Rookie tight end Lance Kendricks has to rise the fantasy charts. He could start and might even be productive enough to draft as a backup tight end. He has more value now than fellow Vikings rookie tight end Kyle Rudolph, who has to deal with contract-year tight end Visanthe Shiancoe.

• Well, Ryan Fitzpatrick scorched in this one, albeit against one of the worst seconardies in the NFL. In fact, let's call the Jags secondary the worst in the NFL. The AFC South teams of the Colts, Texans and even Titans are going to love playing them twice. Fitzpatrick's viability legitimizes last year's breakout Steve Johnson as a fantasy pick among the top 25 receivers, maybe even the top 15.

• Neither Jags quarterback was impressive, but clearly David Garrard stars over Blaine Gabbert. Gabbert might not be capable of playing at all in this first season, unless the Jags really fall apart at the seams. That is not entirely unlikely, which doesn't bode well for the likes of Maurice Jones-Drew.

• Mike Thomas was productive in this one, making him a nice third-year wide receiver sleeper. A better quarterback would have made Thomas far more intriguing, but Marcedes Lewis -- their go-to target -- is a tight end. Thomas will clearly be the choice on the outside.

• Fred Jackson played well enough to hold off C.J. Spiller, who unfortunately has looked far better as a change-of-pace backup. Neither is really all that exciting that Bills offensive line.

• Ben Roethlisberger was about as good as anyone has been this preseason. A strong running team famously uses the pass to hit the home runs and Antonio Brown surely did that. Brown has been the talk of Steelers camp and he showed went with a pair of long touchdowns. Brown could be this year's out-of-nowhere Mike Wallace. The only problem in fantasy is Wallace is still himself -- if not better -- and Hines Ward is still the possession guy.

• If Roethlisberger wasn't on a defensive-mind team that focuses on running the game and controlling the clock, he would be a top five fantasy quarterback -- no question. The Steelers are one of the few teams that can win without a QB, but Big Ben is a good one.

• Byron Leftwich (broken arm) might not be out for the season, but Charlie Batch will clearly have be the backup to start the season. See the previous note, the Steelers don't need a quarterback -- as long as Rashard Mendenhall stays healthy. The way the Steelers play the game makes Mendenhall a rock-solid top 10 pick in fantasy, particularly without a intriguing backup running back. Isaac Redman is the best of the mediocre handcuffs here.

• Matt Ryan had a busy day, drawing a clear line on whom the targets will be in this offense. Roddy White, Tony Gonzalez and then Julio Jones. Heck, Jones just might be more productive than Gonzalez. That makes Jones a great sleeper in fantasy. Ryan is a 4,000-yard passer even on a running team and someone needs to keep up with White here. It will be hard for Gonzalez to do that at age 35.

• The running game wasn't impressive against the Steel Curtain, but Jacquizz Rodgers showed a nice burst. He is going to be an in-season sleeper when Michael Turner gets banged up. Turner is a sturdy back even at an advanced age, but those hits he takes will take a toll. Jason Snelling and Rodgers are going to have to take charge at points this season.

• Chad Henne had another promising performance -- thanks most to the long Brandon Marshall touchdown. It is good news because the Dolphins' running game was non existent. Daniel Thomas showed little again and Reggie Bush went backward (-1 yard on five carries). Larry Johnson made his Dolphins debut, but it is unlikely he will be worth drafting. A Bush injury changes Johnson's fantasy value, though.

• The backs did their best work receiving. It tends to be that way for Bush, but Thomas rattled off a 19-yarder, too. Henne is going to like the mix of targets he has. All he is missing is a deep threat, although Marshall can be that, too. If Henne plays even serviceably, this Dolphins passing game won't be half bad.

• Josh Freeman was very underwhelming. If not for LeGarrette Blount's 52 run after the catch, Freeman's numbers would have looked real bad. Freeman is going to be hard-pressed to duplicate his 2010 numbers and this performance -- at home, mind you -- doesn't look good before you draft. You have to consider him a fantasy backup going into the season.

• As good as Tom Brady and the Pats offense had looked this preseason, Matthew Stafford looked even better in this one. The Lions torched the Pats through the air. Wow! Stafford doesn't have much to work with behind Calvin Johnson, but he can spread it around and use the backs and tight ends to move the chains when Megtron is tied up in coverage. Johnson sits behind the Falcons' White and Andre Johnson in most rankings, but all three are equally solo aerial acts.

• Aaron Hernandez had another very productive game. Everyone is looking at Rob Gronkowski at tight end because of the touchdowns, but Hernandez looks like a real seam-ripper.

• Wes Welker looked great and his neck injury shouldn't be a significant concern for fantasy owners. The Pats have done well, developing mojo with Hernandez and Chad Ochocinco this preseason and reaffirming Welker as the go-to possession guy. Welker is going to be far closer to his pre-injury form of 2009 than his 2010 numbers.

• Neither running game looked any good in his aerial display. The important note is Stevan Ridley's absence was noteworthy as the Patriots featured BenJarvus Green-Ellis and changed pace with Danny Woodhead. Those two are going to tote the load out of the gate. Ridley and Shane Vereen, the promising rookies, are hardly draftable with so few touches on tap.

• Tony Romo looked very sharp. It Dez Bryant looks this good, Romo is going to be the 4,000-yard, 30-touchdown fantasy ace so many thought he would for a few years now. Romo is more likely to be drafted earlier than later, but if slips past the top half of the fantasy starters, you are likely getting a good value. This flies in the face of this writer calling him a bust, but he is only a bust if you're counting on making him a pick in the first four rounds on draft day.

• Rookie DeMarco Murray made his debut and had a consistent performance, but he didn't do enough to unseat breakout candidate Felix Jones as the go-to guy. Jones had a pair of nice runs, including a finisher, bowling over a defensive back for a score. Murray is merely a handcuff pick, but he at least proved healthy for the first time.

• Donovan McNabb had a productive half, but most of his work came in the short passing game and Percy Harvin wasn't able to break one. Bernard Berrian, who used to be a home-run hitter, did get one deep one for a score, though. The Vikings offense is mostly Adrian Peterson, but McNabb showed enough to be able to keep defenses honest -- something Brett Favre couldn't do a year ago.

• Rookie Christian Ponder racked up some yardage on his three completions, but he didn't have much to work with in his last-minute drive. It is a good thing for the Vikings, and Peterson owners, Ponder doesn't have to start.

• Ben Tate looked good and that's a great sign because Arian Foster (hamstring) might not be 100 percent to start the season. The hammy issue is not enough to consider changing your opinion of Foster, but it should allow you to like Tate more in the first few weeks. If Tate develops something early, he could take a significant chunk out of Foster's touches.

• Owen Daniels was impressive in this one, making his second half resurgence a year ago more eye-opening. Daniel was hung up by a knee issue earlier last season but he came on late. This could be a good year to buy back into the tight end, especially at such a notoriously weak position in fantasy.

• The 49ers looked pitiful at home, particularly in the quarterback play. They don't have a true starter in the lot there. Alex Smith will be it, but only because rookie Colin Kaepernick isn't ready to do anything either.

• Kendall Hunter thorough outproduced Anthony Dixon. The rookie is a nice sleeper behind Frank Gore. Hunter might start the season as the third back on the depth chart, but it won't take long for him to move up. Heck, if the season goes south for the 49ers -- it will -- might they consider dealing Gore? Gore is saying now he won't demand a trade, but who really wants to play for this 49ers offense?

• Remember the talk about a Roy Williams breakthrough? Forget it. He likely isn't even one of the Bears' top three receivers right now. Jay Cutler loves Earl Bennett and Devin Hester starts and Johnny Knox might, too. Forget about drafting Williams now. Knox, Hester and Bennett -- in that order -- are the Cutler targets.

• Marion Barber hasn't had a great camp and he looks pretty useless in fantasy now. Matt Forte is the clear go-to back and Chester Taylor might be the backup of choice. Barber is merely a short-yardage back -- and he might not even be the goal-line option over Forte, who scored from three yards out.

• Matt Hasselbeck didn't have a good game, but he did develop something with Nate Washington. Washington will be the Titans wideout of choice when Kenny Britt (injury or possible suspension) isn't available.

• Rookie Jamie Harper was intriguing again. He still is behind Javon Ringer and, eventually, Chris Johnson on the depth chart. Johnson's holdout is getting dangerously close to the season, but you still have to figure it is in his best interests to be ready for Week 1.

• Kyle Orton had a productive night, looking more like the version from the first half of last season. He won't be that way under John Fox, but he is at least a viable fantasy backup. Tim Tebow looked unworthy of being drafted.

• Orton made Eddie Royal and Eric Decker look like capable late-round picks. Brandon Lloyd is Orton's man still and he is going to be a lot closer to his 2010 form if Orton continues to play this well.

• Willis McGahee is clearly the goal-line back, which is a good thing: He doesn't look capable of running more than a few yards. Knowshon Moreno is better than many give him credit for, but not having the touchdowns makes him a marginal pick if you're looking at home as a starter. Fox loves to run the ball, though.

• The Seahawks quarterback situation looked pitiful again. Perhaps the 49ers, Bengals and Panthers -- maybe the Raiders and Redskins, too -- are the only teams with worse quarterbacks. Tarvaris Jackson and Charlie Whitehurst are undraftable outside of two-quarterback leagues. That doesn't bode well for Sidney Rice, Mike Williams and Golden Tate.

• Ryan Mathews broke a long run, which is how his fantasy value will have to come. It is very strange they haven't used him as pass-catcher. That could have been a way to bridge the gap of losing the goal-line scores -- a la Charles. Alas, Mathews is intriguing but only for rushing yards. He did put the ball on the ground, but he at least didn't lose possession for his team.

• This one went mostly according to plan for the quarterbacks are receivers. The most promising of those was the health of Antonio Gates. He is plenty healthy enough to be the No. 1 tight end to target on draft day, as early as the late third round.

• Have you heard us say Larry Fitzgerald is back? He could be in the discussion with Johnson, White and Johnson among the top three receivers to target on draft day. Heck, he might be better than anyone at the position now that he has a quarterback again.

• Beanie Wells was solid and should move up drafts because Ryan Williams is out of the picture with a season-ending injury. LaRod Stephen-Howlings backs him up and is a viable handcuff now.

• Mark Ingram might not be a solo act on the goal line. Pierre Thomas did come in for a goal-line score after Ingram opened the scoring with one. Ingram will still be the top rookie picked on draft day, but Thomas' presence will keep Ingram from being a viable fantasy starter out of the gate.

• Drew Brees looked great, as usually, using Marques Colston (finally healthy) and Robert Meachem (maybe ready to break through). Jimmy Graham was busy, having his best showing to date. His production late last season sets him up for a huge breakthrough. He should be drafted as a fantasy starter now.

• Derek Hagan does what most of the Raiders' speedy receivers can't do: catch. He is a viable sleeper in deeper leagues as a possession receiver. He looked great in this one.

• Taiwan Jones is rail thin, but he sure looked like the next Marcus Allen or Eric Dickerson -- if a player can look like those Hall of Famers in the preseason. The rookie won't take significant carries from Darren McFadden or Michael Bush, but he could be used as a third-down back and be a great sleeper if McFadden's injury woes return this season.

Eric Mack writes fantasy for SI.com and will outline all the news and nuggets game-by-game every week of the NFL season in his Fantasy Football Fast Forward. You can mock him, rip him and (doubtful) praise him before asking him for fantasy advice on Twitter @EricMackFantasy.

ON SALE: Sports Illustrated's Fantasy Football 2011 issue tells you where all the free agents landed and what their fantasy impact will be, along with the critical draft strategy and stats analysis you need to win your league. Order one now.

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