Ameer Abdullah is the perfect cautionary tale for putting too much stock into preseason performance. Abdullah shot up draft boards in his rookie season of 2015 after turning into a fantasy darling during the preseason, largely on the strength of two highlight plays: a 45-yard run and a 21-yard reception. Put together with his impressive college career at Nebraska and the draft capital the Lions spent by making him the 54th overall pick, it was enough to turn him into a mid-round selection in all fantasy drafts. He totaled 780 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns that year, finishing outside the top 40 at his position in both standard-scoring and PPR leagues.
Yes, we need to be careful during the preseason not to overreact to the news we read or performances we see. Still, there are meaningful developments during the summer that end up paying dividends in the regular season for fantasy owners paying attention to what matters. With training camps wrapped up across the league, which players have upped their stock this summer?
Christian McCaffrey, RB, Panthers
I know it was fun to ridicule Ron Rivera and Norv Turner for their protestations that McCaffrey would be a 25-touch-per-game back this season. Believe me, I was in on it. That comes out to 400 touches, a workload reserved for 99th-percentile workhorse backs. That’s not going to happen for McCaffrey this year, no matter what Rivera and Turner say.
Still, what’s notable isn’t necessarily the exact number, but the fact that McCaffrey’s head coach and offensive coordinator clearly want him to be a focal point of the offense. He’s not going to get 25 touches per game, but could he get, say, 16 to 18, with a fair share of those coming in scoring range? Absolutely. And, as he showed with his 71-yard touchdown run in the Panthers’ second preseason game, he’s in scoring range from the moment he steps on the field. We already know McCaffrey can be a PPR monster, and the Carolina brain trust seems intent on getting him more carries this year, even with C.J. Anderson on the roster. That’s big news for a player who could break out this season.
Carlos Hyde, RB, Browns
Whatever optimism surrounded Hyde’s return to Ohio seemed to fade when the Browns used a second-round pick to grab Nick Chubb out of Georgia. With Duke Johnson locked in as the primary pass-catching back, it was only natural to assume that Hyde and Chubb would get in one another’s way, perhaps forming a valuable real-life pairing, but limiting fantasy value for both of them. That may no longer be the case.
Preseason usage can be misleading, but sometimes it tells us something worthwhile, and that appears to be the case in Cleveland’s backfield. The Browns’ first-team offense has played 32 snaps in the preseason. Hyde has been on the field for 19 of them. Chubb has been on the field for zero. Preseason is preseason, but that sort of usage speaks volumes, and it certainly doesn’t suggest two backs locked into a split workload.
If Hyde is in control of early-down work in Cleveland, his value outlook completely changes. He turned in a couple of strong seasons in ugly circumstances his last two years in San Francisco, totaling 1,926 rushing yards on 457 carries, 86 catches for 413 receiving yards, and 17 total touchdowns.
Ty Montgomery, RB, Packers
Montgomery started summer seemingly in third place in the pecking order in Green Bay’s backfield, trailing Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. Since then, Jones got suspended for the first two games of the year, and Williams suffered an ankle injury that has his status for the first few weeks of the season in doubt. Montgomery is in place to take advantage.
Montgomery got off to a strong start last year, totaling 253 yards from scrimmage and three touchdowns in Green Bay’s first three games. In Week 4, he broke multiple ribs in a win over the Bears, and never got back to 100% before going on IR in the middle of November. The Packers will have to be wise about how they use Montgomery, but there’s no doubt that he can be a weapon as both a runner and receiver in this offense. What’s more, if he gets off to a strong start while Jones and Williams are watching from the sidelines, he could lock in a meaningful role for the entire season.
Royce Freeman, RB, Broncos
I liked Freeman a lot at the start of training camp, based largely on the fact that Devontae Booker had failed to make himself a key part of Denver’s offense in his first two seasons, despite plenty of opportunity. Couple with that Freeman’s performance at Oregon, and it was clear that he was going to get an honest chance to not only start for the Broncos, but play his way into a workhorse role. We’re already seeing that unfold during the preseason.
Freeman has spent more time with the first-team offense than Booker, and he has been a more effective back, too. The rookie has scored in both of Denver’s preseason games, most recently on a four-yard plunge last weekend. That he is getting and converting looks inside the 5-yard line is the last piece to the puzzle here. Freeman looks like a potential 300-touch back this season, giving him the sort of volume ceiling you don’t typically find in his range of draft-day prices. He’s someone every fantasy owner should be aggressive in targeting this season.
Marquise Goodwin, WR, 49ers
You don’t need to believe that Jimmy Garoppolo is the next Tom Brady to see all the value in San Francisco’s offense this season. No matter what you think of Garoppolo, you certainly believe he’s a massive upgrade over Brian Hoyer and C.J. Beathard. You saw what he did last year, and what he did in his two starts for the Patriots. On top of that, you know that the 49ers essentially never played with this season’s top three pass-catchers—Pierre Garcon, Goodwin and George Kittle—all in large roles at the same time. Give Kyle Shanahan a full offseason to implement his offense with those four in key spots, and it’s easy to start getting excited about what could happen for the 49ers this year.
I’m in on all three 49ers, but there’s growing belief around the team that Goodwin could be Garoppolo’s go-to receiver. It started with multiple beat writers in San Francisco insisting that Goodwin was his quarterback’s favorite target during training camp. We then saw that in practice in the team’s preseason game when the two hooked up three times for 61 yards, including a 40-yard touchdown on the 49ers’ first possession of the game. In the five games Garoppolo started last year, Goodwin caught 29 passes for 384 yards and a touchdown, posting at least 99 yards or a score in four of the five games. Garcon was on IR for those games, and Kittle is sure to have a larger role, but Goodwin has already proved what he can do with Garoppolo under center. He should shoot up draft boards over the next few weeks.
Mike Williams, WR, Chargers
Philip Rivers has thrown at least 570 passes in all of the last four seasons, and hasn’t attempted fewer than 527 in nearly a decade. Outside of Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon, the Chargers’ usage tree is wide open. In other words, there are a lot of targets up for grabs in this offense. It only makes sense that the guy who was the seventh overall pick in the draft one year ago would be in line not only to get a lot of them, but to make the most of his opportunity.
Williams played 10 games as a rookie, but it was essentially a lost season because of back and knee injuries that plagued him all year. It’s pretty much impossible to judge him based on what we saw last year, because we effectively didn’t see what he’s capable of doing when healthy. Williams was the seventh overall pick for a reason. In his final year at Clemson, he caught 98 passes for 1,361 yards and 11 touchdowns, becoming the go-to receiver for Deshaun Watson in the Tigers’ National Championship season. Forget about last year. Williams can be a star.
He has showed off this preseason what made him such a tantalizing talent coming out of college, highlighted by this ridiculous touchdown catch in the Chargers’ second game of the summer. Give a player like that 100-plus targets in this offense, and special things are going to happen.
Trey Burton, TE Bears
There is a good chance that no player has boosted his stock more this preseason than Burton. He was one of the best players on the field for the Bears’ first-team offense in its most recent preseason game, catching four of five targets for 45 yards and a touchdown. He was also one of the most active, leading all first-teamers in targets while spending most of his time lined up in the slot. Matt Nagy is bringing a heavy dose of 12 personnel—which features two tight ends—to Chicago, and Burton is thriving as part of that package.
The optimism surrounding Chicago’s offense has been running rampant, with good reason, since the team completed its offseason makeover. Still, with Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller and Taylor Gabriel also joining holdover backs Jordan Howard and Tarik Cohen, it made sense to take a measured approach with each individual player before seeing how this offense would adopt Nagy’s scheme and attack defenses. Now that we’ve seen some of it on display, it’s clear that Burton is going to have a major role all season.