Emergence of Ball, Vick's status among lessons learned in preseason
We've made it through another version of the yearly annoyance/tease that is the preseason. As Richard Sherman said over at The MMQB last week, it's a necessary evil for the players and coaches. The same can be said for fantasy owners. There's plenty that we don't know about teams at the start of the preseason. By time September rolls around, jobs have been won and lost and roles cemented. We've gotten our first look at rookies and new coaches. New sleepers have come on the scene, and some guys who looked like sure things back when we were watching the NBA Finals have fallen down draft boards. With the season upon us, let's take a look at some of the most important lessons learned during the 2013 preseason.
• Montee Ball will get his chance to prove he can be the man in Denver: I've spent a lot of time talking about Ball this preseason, but he's one of the most interesting players in fantasy leagues given his wide range of potential outcomes. Though many in the industry were on Ball the moment he was drafted by the Broncos, there wasn't a guarantee he'd enter Week 1 of the season as the primary back. There was a great deal of uncertainty all preseason, especially after Ronnie Hillman started the first two preseason games and topped the depth chart while Ball was struggling in pass protection. After Hillman's continued issues with fumbling, though, it looks like Ball will have an opportunity to prove this should be less of a timeshare than John Fox has said it will be. No matter what happens, Hillman, and potentially Knowshon Moreno, will have a presence in the offense, but Ball is in a great position to earn what would be a very lucrative role. Basically, after traveling a long, twisted road this preseason, Ball ended up in the exact same place he started the summer.
• David Wilson approaching fantasy stardom: If you were in a draft two months ago, there's a chance you could have grabbed Wilson late in the fourth round. Drafting today, he'll likely be gone within the first 25 picks. Few players' stock have risen as significantly as Wilson's, and he got a real boost last week after Andre Brown went down with a broken leg. He'll miss four-to-six weeks, meaning Wilson will have a chance to show he can be a workhorse back. We already know he's an electric player who can take it to the house any time he touches the ball. If he proves to Tom Coughlin and Kevin Gilbride that he can also be a reliable short-yardage back and astute blocker, he may squeeze Brown's playing time when the latter returns. There always seems to be a player who elevates from the mid-20s one year to a first rounder the next. After the preseason he has had, Wilson is a prime candidate to be that guy.
• Michael Vick starting, potentially back: Just three short months ago, Vick was on the cusp of beginning a competition with Nick Foles to be the starter in Philadelphia. He was just five months removed from a disastrous 2012 season in which he missed six games, got just 6.73 yards per attempt, completed 58.1 percent of his passes, threw only two more touchdowns (12) than interceptions (10), and lost three fumbles while scoring just one rushing touchdown. After what might have been the best preseason from any player in a pressure spot, he has already turned himself into a fringe fantasy starter, and could end up going down as one of the biggest steals during draft season. In three games, he went 28-of-38 for 383 yards with two touchdowns and two interceptions. He picked up an eye-popping 10.1 YPA (it's the preseason, but still), and racked up 73 yards on the ground on nine carries. In other words, he looked like his former self most of the time. At 33, he might just be headed for another monster season.
• Vernon Davis, the tight end who plays wide receiver: When Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles in May, the 49ers looked to be in serious trouble. They signed Anquan Boldin during the offseason, but Crabtree and Colin Kaepernick had developed a profitable bond, connecting for eight touchdowns during Kaepernick's 10 starts (including the playoffs). Instead of just handing all of Crabtree's snaps to another receiver, Jim Harbaugh turned Davis into a tight end/wide receiver hybrid. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound veteran has always been a ridiculous athlete. However, he has never really had a chance to show his ability to play more like a traditional receiver, lining up outside the numbers. This year, he won't just be playing like a wide receiver, he'll be playing as a wide receiver. He'll likely be the target on more deep passes than at any other time in his career, giving him a legitimate shot at being the No. 2 tight end behind Jimmy Graham.
• Daryl Richardson nabs the starting job, sets his sights on fantasy owners' hearts: Richardson projected as a nice sleeper during the early stages of the summer, though even a best-case scenario seemed to have him in a relatively equal timeshare with Isaiah Pead, while Zac Stacy claimed goal-line duties. Stacy may still be the goal-line back, but Richardson won the starting gig and heads into Week 1 as a likely flex option for the entire season. In limited duty last year, he posted 4.8 yards per carry, running for 475 yards on 98 totes. He added 24 catches for 163 yards, proving to be a reliable target for Sam Bradford. Pead and Stacy warrant no more than cursory fantasy attention, as Richardson really won over Jeff Fisher and Brian Schottenheimer. He's potentially the biggest winner of the preseason.
• E.J. Manuel will start as a rookie, making him the top deep sleeper among quarterbacks: When you're a rebuilding franchise who drafts a quarterback in the first round and brings in only Kevin Kolb as veteran competition, chances are you're going to make that rookie your starter. If there were any doubt, Manuel eliminated all suspense with a strong showing in two preseason games. He went 26-of-33 for 199 yards and two touchdowns. He looked especially good in his second game, connecting on 10 of his 12 pass attempts for 92 yards -- good for a 7.7 YPA -- and a score. Buffalo may still be mired in what feels like an interminable reboot, but they have weapons in C.J. Spiller, Steve Johnson and Scott Chandler. If you're looking for a lottery ticket at the quarterback position, place your money here. He doubles as one of my favorite targets as a backup in two-QB leagues.
The most important injury statuses to consider as we count down the remaining days until the start of the season:
• Le'Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers -- Bell's foot injury isn't nearly as severe as first thought, with the rookie already out of the walking boot he sported for about 10 days. The Steelers do not have a timetable for his return, but that they felt comfortable letting Jonathan Dwyer go (though they did sign Felix Jones) may suggest they're confident he won't miss too much time. Late drafters would do well to remember he was considered in the Eddie Lacy/Montee Ball zone before he suffered the injury.
• Victor Cruz, New York Giants -- Cruz remains on target to play in the Giants' season opener against the Cowboys on Sunday night, but a heel injury suffered in the second game of the preseason could keep him on the sideline. Still, the injury isn't serious. Even if he missed Sunday's game, which appears unlikely, it would probably be the only game he lost to the heel.
• Ahmad Bradshaw, Indianapolis Colts -- As long as Bradshaw continues to play football, he'll likely have the appellation "(foot)" following his name at all times. And you know what? It doesn't really matter. Bradshaw has been dealing with foot issues for years, and while they may keep him out of practice, they never seem to slow him down once it counts. Vick Ballard is a worthwhile player whether or not Bradshaw is injured, and his role would certainly increase if this is the year the foot finally gets the better of Bradshaw, but don't count on it.
• Malcom Floyd, San Diego Chargers -- Just days after losing Danario Alexander to a torn ACL, the Chargers thought they might also be without Floyd's services because of a torn ligament in his knee. However, a second set of tests revealed it was just a strain, and Floyd was able to return to the practice field last week. He shouldn't miss more than a game or two, and could potentially suit up this week against the Texans.