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Which preseason buzz do you buy? Which WRs can you trust? Fantasy experts debate

Should fantasy owners believe their eyes—let alone their ears—during the preseason? Plus, an explanation of the Crabtree Precipice, a usage lesson for writers everywhere and more fantasy banter.

Every Friday until the end of fantasy draft season, fantasy football experts Michael Beller and Pat Fitzmaurice will bat around a number of questions in a quest to help you assemble the best fantasy team possible.

Now that all 32 teams are knee-deep into training camp, is there one particular news tidbit that you found particularly significant?

Fitz: The glowing reports about Sammie Coates are starting to convince me that he, not Markus Wheaton, is the Pittsburgh receiver to target in the middle to late rounds of fantasy drafts. Wheaton has an average draft position in the low WR40s, while Coates’s ADP is around WR60. Wheaton hasn’t made much of an impression during his three years in Pittsburgh, and you’d think that if he was destined for a breakout, either it would have happened by now or we would have seen obvious signs that there were good things ahead. Coates is just as fast as the fleet-footed Wheaton but is two years younger, two inches taller and more than 20 pounds heavier.

Coates’s rookie year was essentially a redshirt season, but it sounds as if he’s now ready to make an impact. Steelers offensive coordinator Todd Haley told Charles Robinson of Yahoo! that there is a “night and day” difference between where Coates was last year and where he is now, and the second-year receiver has reportedly gotten himself into terrific shape. There’s been speculation from the Pittsburgh media that Coates will start opposite Antonio Brown.

The book on Coates coming out of Auburn was that he offered stopwatch-melting speed and an alluring combination of height and leaping ability, but he had questionable hands. I tend not to worry that much about drops. (Does anyone really think that Mike Evans is terrible after all the passes he dropped last year?) Coates can give the Steelers the vertical dimension to their passing game that Martavis Bryant was expected to provide before he was suspended. With such positive buzz regarding Coates, I’ll look to grab him in the middle to late rounds, and I’ll avoid Wheaton at his current cost.

Beller: I’ve been intrigued by everything I’ve heard coming out of Giants camp regarding Sterling Shepard. He entered camp as the favorite to start opposite Odell Beckham Jr. in what should be a pass-happy offense, and he has certainly done nothing over the first week of camp to open the door for anyone else.

Before camp even opened, the stars were already aligning for Shepard. The next receivers on the depth chart behind Beckham are Victor Cruz, who is still trying to make his way back to the field after missing nearly all of the last two seasons with knee and calf injuries, and Dwayne Harris, whose largest impact is likely to come as a returner. Shepard didn’t need to have a particularly strong camp to earn a starting gig, but it’s definitely encouraging that he has impressed everyone who has watched him thus far. The Giants’ running game is still a work in progress, and so long as Eli Manning and Beckham are in Giants blue, this is going to be a pass-first, pass-second and pass-third team.

Even though rookie receivers have been able to find instant success over the last few seasons—highlighted by Beckham and Mike Evans two seasons ago, and Amari Cooper last year—the position can still pose one of the hardest transitions in the game. Shepard has a leg up on some other receivers, thanks to the offense he played in at Oklahoma. Sooners coach Bob Stoops has long favored a pro-style offense, and that should help Shepard hit the ground running, not only in camp but also when the real action begins. Contrast that with Corey Coleman, the first receiver off the board in this year’s draft, who played in Baylor’s spread offense that just doesn’t translate to the NFL. Shepard should have a much easier time learning the Giants’ offense than Coleman will learning Cleveland’s.

Most importantly, Shepard has already started to earn Manning’s trust. The best thing any receiver can do is catch everything thrown his way, and that’s exactly what Shepard has done, going back to minicamp. There won’t be any hiding Shepard in your draft. The rookie is seeing to that this summer.

2016 fantasy football position primers: QB | RB | WR | TE | Defense | Kicker

Let’s talk about positional tiers. Where is your first cutoff point at running back? In other words, which guys fall into your RB1 circle of trust, and which guys are just outside of it?

Fitz: My line of trust is drawn between Jamaal Charles at RB6 and Devonta Freeman at RB7. I realize that “RB1” suggests a collection of 12 top running backs, but I find Todd Gurley, Adrian Peterson, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Lamar Miller and Charles to be the only ones worthy of that label, and the only ones I’d be willing to take in the first two rounds of a fantasy draft.

Freeman was terrific early last season, and even though he slowed down late in the year, he was still reasonably productive. But Tevin Coleman might be good enough to eat into Freeman’s rushing numbers. In a PPR league, I might be willing to take Freeman in the back end of the second round, but not in a standard league. I’ve wound up with LeSean McCoy and Eddie Lacy in quite a few early drafts, but in the third round or beyond. Doug Martin, Mark Ingram and C.J. Anderson all have their merits but are third-round values in my book—there are 15 or 16 wide receivers I’d take ahead of them. And I know Beller will roll his eyes when I say this, but I consider Le’Veon Bell to be toxic at his current asking price, not only because of his four-game suspension but also because of lingering concerns about the fitness of his knee.

Fantasy football profiles: Chris Ivory, RB, Jaguars

Beller: For me, it’s just four guys: Todd Gurley, Adrian Peterson, Lamar Miller and Jamaal Charles. Once those four are gone, every back has a red flag that, if it doesn’t completely scare me away, will at least give me pause before I put his name up on the draft board.

Let me first address the guys who don’t concern me. All Gurley did in his rookie year was run over and through every defense he played, while simultaneously being limited by one of the worst offenses in football. If he was able to overcome that obstacle as a rookie still coming off a torn ACL from his final college season, I have full confidence he can do it again this season. Peterson has unquestionably earned our trust, and I’m more than willing to bet on Charles, even though he tore his ACL for the second time last season. The guy does everything a fantasy owner wants in a star back, and the Chiefs have the horses to keep him fresh. Finally, my love for Miller has been well-chronicled in these pages. He has always had the talent, and now he has both the opportunity and environment to thrive. I think he can be the top running back this year.

The most glaring omission from my list is David Johnson. I’m sorry, but I just don’t see Bruce Arians turning the second-year player into the true workhorse so many expect him to be. Chris Johnson and Andre Ellington aren’t going to spend the entire season holding their helmets on the sideline. To me, Johnson is a major risk at his ADP. Same goes for Ezekiel Elliott, especially now that he’s dealing with a hamstring injury. That’s going to cost him valuable reps in camp and could force the Cowboys to lean more on Darren McFadden—who’s dealing with an elbow injury of his own—and Alfred Morris early in the season.

Le’Veon Bell would have been in my circle of trust had he not been suspended. I’d have him in there if he weren’t going to miss four games, or if he didn’t suffer the significant knee injury last year. I can’t have him there with both of those marks against him. I like both Eddie Lacy and LeSean McCoy at their ADPs, but neither is close to being a rock-solid RB1. I don’t even think you can begin to craft an argument supporting that notion. Same goes for Doug Martin and C.J. Anderson.

The final back in my top 12 is Devonta Freeman, and he’s another one whose omission could raise eyebrows. You do realize he didn’t run for 100 yards in a game after the calendar hit November, and finished the season with just 4.02 yards per carry, right? Add to that the fact that Tevin Coleman is unquestionably going to have enough of a role in the offense to eat into the volume Freeman had last year, and I can’t even come close to saying he’s a safe RB1.

Staying with positional tiers, what do you consider to be the most significant drop-off point at wide receiver, where confidence gives way to lack of confidence?

Fitz: We’re on terra firma with the top 30 or 31 receivers, down to Larry Fitzgerald and Emmanuel Sanders. The ground starts to get a little squishy from WR32 to WR40, a range containing guys who could either provide a big payoff or fall well short of expectations. It’s a tier that includes dudes such as DeVante Parker, Josh Gordon, Marvin Jones, DeSean Jackson and Torrey Smith.

And then we come to the Crabtree Precipice. I’ve got Tyler Lockett at WR39 in my rankings, Michael Crabtree at WR40 and Kevin White at WR41. I feel pretty good about Lockett. I feel significantly less confident in Michael Crabtree, a possession receiver who lacks big play ability and is probably due for some target regression. I have very little confidence in White, who has immense physical gifts but zero NFL experience and will be playing opposite target hog Alshon Jeffery.

There are certainly some intriguing receivers beyond the top 40, but I want to get my first four receivers from those 40 before I start firing darts. (As my wife and drinking buddies will attest, I’m lousy at darts.)

Fantasy football profiles: Delanie Walker, TE, Titans

Beller: I’m in total agreement with Fitz on the numbers. The exact players change, but there are about 30 receivers I trust either completely or mostly at their ADP, and another seven to 10 who give me pause, but whom I’m more than willing to buy. After all, they’re ranked between 32nd and 40th at their own position for a reason, right?

I love Fitz’s Crabtree Precipice, especially since I also have him right there at WR41. The guy who I have before him, where I also start to look askance at the position, might surprise some people. I’m having trouble figuring out why so many fantasy owners are willing to buy Jordan Matthews as a top-30 receiver.

Before a three-game surge to end the season in which Matthews caught 21 passes for 318 yards and four touchdowns, he had 64 grabs for 679 yards and four scores in 13 games. That comes out to 7.07 points per game. Tell me, what has improved in Philadelphia from last year to this, especially for fantasy purposes. The pace is slower, the quarterback is the same, and the running game could be a mess. Why should I buy Matthews, or, for that matter, anyone on this offense?

Anyway, that’s where things take a turn for me. That’s why, like Fitz, I’m going to have four of my top 40 receivers.

Are there any split backfields (Cincinnati, Tennessee, etc.) where you think both backs have RB2 potential?

Fitz: Cincinnati and Tampa Bay seem like the best bets. The chances of it happening are probably greatest in places where there’s a clear division of labor, and that’s the case with the Bengals and Buccaneers.

I’m really high on Giovani Bernard. A.J. Green may well be Cincinnati’s only reliable wide receiver, and TE Tyler Eifert could miss time early in the season, so Gio figures to play a major role in the passing game. He has finished no worse than 21st in fantasy scoring over his first three seasons, and he should finish squarely in RB2 territory again. Jeremy Hill could be more hit-or-miss, but Hill’s touchdown upside certainly gives him RB2 (if not RB1) potential.

Doug Martin is being considered a low-end RB1, and he should be considered a solid RB2 at worst. Charles Sims was terrific in the passing game last season and finished with 1,090 yards from scrimmage and four TDs. It’s not hard to imagine Sims playing the same sort of role for the Buccaneers that Bernard plays for the Bengals. With an ADP of around RB40, Sims is one of the best RB values out there.

The Ivory-Yeldon combo in Jacksonville is intriguing, but the Jaguars might be too pass-heavy for both of those guys to finish as RB2s. San Diego’s Danny Woodhead and Melvin Gordon are being drafted in outer RB2 territory, but I suspect that will be an either/or proposition. It’s hard to envision both of them producing RB2 value.

Fantasy football profiles: Melvin Gordon, RB, Chargers

Beller: I’m loath (it’s loath, sportswriters of the world. Not loathe. Loath means reluctant. Loathe means hate. Learn it. Know it. Live it.) to agree with Fitz again, but he’s absolutely right about the Bengals and Buccaneers. Not only can Bernard, Hill, Martin and Sims all produce at RB2 levels, I’m happy to have any of the four on my teams at their respective ADPs. Fitz and I are both high on Bernard, and I’m an unabashed Sims supporter, especially since Martin has spent a decent chunk of two of his four career seasons on the shelf.

The other spot where I could see it happening is San Diego. That’s another team that should have a clear division of labor, with Melvin Gordon the primary runner and Danny Woodhead largely just a running back in name only. That’s largely contingent on Gordon earning Philip Rivers’s trust. He didn’t do it as a rookie, and that led to him being replaced by Woodhead in situations where he’s the more natural fit, especially near the goal line. If Gordon can show last year was a fluke—and that’s something I think he will do for reasons I explained in his player profile I wrote earlier this summer—I think he and Woodhead will share the workload in much the same way that Hill and Bernard do in Cincinnati. That would make both of them potential RB2s at season’s end.

The Packers and Colts play in the Hall of Fame Game this Sunday, and the preseason begins in earnest the following weekend. How closely do you follow the preseason, and is it possible for fantasy owners to pay too much attention to the preseason?

Fitz: I record and watch every game of the preseason up until the final weekend, which I ignore completely. (The final preseason game for each team is utterly meaningless: No one risks playing their starters more than a handful of snaps, and the play-calling is two scoops of vanilla.) And of course, I’ll power-watch it all, fast-forwarding between plays so that I can squeeze in every game while avoiding much of the excruciating banter amongst the local announcing crew.

It’s great to see the rookies strut their stuff for the first time, and there are always a few young players who show that they’re ready to go from afterthoughts to meaningful contributors. It’s also good to see how recently signed free agents will be used by their new employers. NFL teams tend to be dishonest with their depth charts, showing false deference to veterans and artificially burying their rookies, but the reality of their depth charts is often revealed in preseason.

Not only is it a great scouting opportunity for fantasy purposes, but preseason games ease us back into football before we have too much of our skin invested in the outcome of games. I also tend to watch preseason games differently, focusing less on the ball and more on the trenches.

But is it possible to pay too much attention? Yeah, I think it’s possible to put too much emphasis on what we see in the preseason. Ameer Abdullah is a good example of someone who was drafted too early based on his exhibition exploits. More knowledge is always better than less knowledge, and watching preseason games is a great way to gather information. But there’s a temptation to overreact to a limited amount of information.

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Beller: I’d like to take the last part first (I’ll give a virtual hat tip to anyone who can call out that movie reference to me on Twitter). There’s absolutely a risk of information overload during the preseason. I agree with Fitz that more knowledge is generally better than less, but it can also make you more susceptible for mistaking something non-predictive for something that matters. Make sure you guard against that over the next month.

I watch a good amount of preseason football, but I’d be lying if I told you I watched every game. (Seriously Fitz, I know you’re a Brewers fan but are you that much of a glutton for punishment?) I do the same thing as Fitz, taping every game I can while also using my NFL Game Pass subscription to catch the important ones I’ve missed, but I mostly focus on the teams I’ve diagnosed beforehand as sources of fantasy bewilderment. That’s where you can learn the most during the preseason.

What I look for most in the preseason is role clarity. Let’s use Fitz’s answer to the first question in this roundtable as an example. It seems no one in Pittsburgh can say enough nice things about Coates, while there isn’t but a peep about Wheaton. That’s all well and good, especially for those of us (ahem) who have been on the Coates bandwagon since the spring. Still, we can’t be sure that what happens in the first week of training camp, let alone what is reported, will actually carry over to the regular season. You can bet, however, that what we see in preseason games has plenty of weight, however. That’s why I focus on position battles more than anything during preseason.

I want to see which rookies seem to get it, and which ones are struggling with the speed of the NFL. As Fitz said of Abdullah, that doesn’t always work out well, but that’s why you don’t take what you see in the preseason as gospel. It’s simply another data point in your draft prep. I also make sure to check out key players on new teams, and how they’re adjusting to that environment. I’m a strong Travis Benjamin supporter, for example, but I still want to check in on San Diego’s preseason activity to make sure my eyes see what my brain believes to be true.