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Fantasy Football 2016: Lessons from Preseason Week 3

It’s only the preseason, but Dak Prescott has been impressive. Now with Tony Romo out, what will the Cowboys offense look like in terms of your fantasy team? Plus, we examine if Jameis Winston is ready to take the next step in his career and the strength of the Derek Carr/Amari Cooper duo. 

The most viable week of fake football is in the books. Week 3 of the preseason gave the fantasy community some of its most actionable lessons of the summer. The most important of those are spelled out below in this week’s preseason fantasy takeaways.

Ushering in the Dak Prescott Era

Jason Garrett and Tony Romo put on good faces and said all the right things after the quarterback hurt his back in the team’s third preseason game, but all the platitudes in the world can’t change what an X-ray finds. Romo suffered a broken bone in his back and will be out until at least the middle of the season. Romo missed nearly the entire 2015 campaign, and we saw how that unfolded—for both the Cowboys in real life and every individual player’s fantasy stock. Whether or not you think the same fate is in store this year depends on your belief level in Prescott, the rookie out of Mississippi State.

To his credit, Prescott has looked great in the preseason. He’s 38-for-50 (78%) for 454 yards, 9.08 yards per attempt, five touchdowns and zero interceptions. He has also rushed seven times for 53 yards and a pair of scores. That’s a stat line that should have the Cowboys—not to mention fantasy owners who have already invested in Dez Bryant, Ezekiel Elliott and Jason Witten—feeling some measure of relief. Defenses are, of course, a bit watered down in the preseason, but Prescott did more than just handle his business while playing against Seattle’s first-string defense on Thursday. He looked like the sort of quarterback who could guarantee that the Cowboys don’t miss a beat without Romo.

Having said that, everyone on this team loses some value. The biggest hit goes against Bryant. He was my No. 6 receiver before Romo’s injury, but I slid him down to No. 13 when the team announced the veteran quarterback’s status. With all the rock-solid options at the position, I likely wouldn’t be thinking about Bryant until the third round of a typical draft. Witten was already cheap, so it’s not like he can fall much further. While his ceiling does come down some, he remains a worthwhile late-round target at tight end. He can still provide low-end TE1 production. As for Elliott, the rookie deserves a section of his own.

Ezekiel Elliott looks the part in his first NFL game action

Before Romo’s injury, the story of Thursday for the Cowboys was Elliott’s preseason debut. He did not disappoint, picking up 48 yards on seven carries. Elliott brought the physical style of running that was so successful for him at Ohio State right to the pros, twice creating huge collisions with Seattle safety Kam Chancellor. If the team could have drawn up an ideal debut for Elliott, it likely would have been exactly as it unfolded in real life, though maybe with a touchdown for added effect. Still, the Cowboys had to be feeling awfully good about the fourth overall pick on Thursday night.

Elliott has had his backers in the fantasy community all summer, and he made them look good on Thursday. Everything in his arsenal showed up. He ran with purpose and confidence. He set up his blocks well, and showed a keen understanding of what the team wants to do offensively. He protected his quarterback, picking up a blitz on the same play in which Romo was injured. In short, he flashed the ability and all-around game that gives him a No. 1 overall ceiling this year.

Of course, Romo’s injury complicates matters for Elliott, as well. He’s likely the least affected of the fantasy-relevant players in Dallas. For him, it’s all contextual. Prescott under center means the ceiling of the Dallas offense as a whole isn’t as high going into the season as it was before Cliff Avril crunched Romo’s back. Last year, however, the Dallas line opened enough holes for Darren McFadden to run for 1,089 yards with a menagerie of starting quarterbacks that included Matt Cassel, Kellen Moore and Brandon Weeden. Elliott is better than McFadden, and Prescott might be better than all three of those quarterbacks. He almost certainly cannot be worse. This shouldn’t impact your valuation on Elliott too much, negatively or positively.

One more ride on the Christine Michael Hype Express

We all thought we were done with this last season. We all believed that the “Michael Hype Express” was finally out of business after he spent time with the Seahawks and Cowboys last year, running for a total of 243 yards on 54 carries. There’s still some fuel in the CMHE, however, and there’s reason to believe it will actually stay on the tracks this year.

It all started when Pete Carroll said Michael could end up splitting backfield duties with Thomas Rawls, at least for the early part of the season as the incumbent continues to make his way back from a broken ankle suffered late last year. Michael has done his part by looking excellent in game action this preseason, most recently by running for 58 yards on seven carries against the Cowboys on Thursday. Even Michael’s detractors would always admit that talent wasn’t his issue. Understanding the concepts to carve out a significant role has always been his problem, and there’s a chance he finally has that figured out this year.

While Michael is intriguing as a late-round target, the biggest fantasy lesson here concerns Rawls. He has been on my avoid list all summer, and this is just the icing on the cake. We’re now looking at a guy with six games worth of a track record who will be splitting carries early on, and possibly all season. That’s someone fantasy owners should take as one of the first 20 backs off the board? I don’t have any Rawls shares yet, and that’s not going to change in the final weeks of the preseason.


Don’t say we didn’t warn you about the Browns

We’ve been insisting for weeks that the Browns are going to be a fun fantasy team this year. They made it into my Offenses to Target column last week, and Robert Griffin had a prime spot in this column a week ago. The first-team offense was on display again this week, this time against the Buccaneers.

Griffin threw for 119 yards, 8.5 YPA and one touchdown, hooking up with Josh Gordon for a 43-yard scoring strike. Gordon’s other catch went for 44 yards, giving him 14.7 fantasy points on two receptions. Last week, it was Terrelle Pryor and Gary Barnidge doing most of the work in the receiving game, and that drives home the point. Griffin has a lot of weapons at his disposal. In fact, this is likely the greatest collection of offensive talent the Browns have had since the franchise’s rebirth in 1999. Add to the mix a defense that isn’t likely to be very good, and the Browns could give the fantasy community a great year from a number of players, similar to the way the Jaguars did last season.

Jameis Winston ready for the leap, Mike Evans is a fantasy star

In my estimation, the Buccaneers are fringe contenders for the NFC playoffs this year, and much of that is due to their second-year quarterback, who’s ready to take the next step in his professional maturation.

Winston looked great against the Browns on Friday, completing 16 of his 25 passes for 259 yards, 10.36 yards per attempt and two touchdowns. Winston flashed the various ways he can attack a defense on the two scores. The first, a three-yard pass to Charles Sims, was a broken play on which Winston scrambled for more time, keeping the play alive long enough for Sims to break free from coverage for an easy six. The second was a 34-yard hookup with Evans, who put his star bona fides on display, as well.

That touchdown was just one of five receptions for Evans, who finished with 115 yards. He caught all of his targets and had a long play of 47 yards. Evans has been a deadly deep ball receiver since entering the league in 2014, and at 6’5” is lethal in the red zone. He’s going to make everyone forget that his WR1 legitimacy was ever in doubt this summer.

We’re running out of ways to say Eddie Lacy is back

The Lacy Rejuvenation Machine has been up and running all summer. From his slimmed-down look to the return of Jordy Nelson, every box that had nothing to do with his play has been checked. Lacy has taken care of the rest on the field.

In Green Bay’s latest preseason game, Lacy ran for 45 yards on seven carries. This was after he picked up 45 yards and a score on nine totes a week ago. Simply put, Lacy looks like the player he was during his first two years in the league. His burst is back and he’s making tacklers miss, and with Green Bay welcoming back Nelson, the entire offense should be clicking at a level it just couldn’t find last year. Lacy’s ADP is climbing, but he’s still attainable late in the second round. He should be back in the RB1 crowd this season.


Kenneth Dixon injured, Terrance West impresses

Dixon, the rookie out of Louisiana Tech, was making a strong case to be the lead back in what could be a headache of a backfield for fantasy owners all year. He had six carries for 41 yards and caught one of his two targets for nine yards. His night ended there for an unfortunate reason.

Dixon had to leave the game with a leg injury suffered in the third quarter. The severity still isn’t known, but there is some concern that it is serious. Terrance West, meanwhile, took advantage of Dixon’s absence, finishing the game with 43 yards on seven carries. The Baltimore native has impressed the coaching staff all season, and would likely be the best draft target in the backfield when taking cost into account.

As for the other running backs in the mix, Justin Forsett carried the ball twice of zero yards and caught two passes for 14 yards. Buck Allen had eight carries for 15 yards and reeled in all four of his targets for 17 yards. Allen, too, is an attractive late-round target in all fantasy formats, especially if Dixon has to miss time. That would leave the second-year player out of USC as the only receiving threat out of the backfield for an offensive coordinator in Marc Trestman, who loves to throw the ball to his backs.

Derek Carr and Amari Cooper put on a show

The Raiders are getting a lot of attention as a playoff contender, an eventuality that, if reached, would be the franchise’s first trip to the postseason since the 2002 season. The defense, led by Khalil Mack, could be among the best in the league, but the offense stole the show on Saturday.

Carr completed two-thirds of his 18 pass attempts for 169 yards, 9.38 YPA and two touchdowns against zero interceptions. Cooper hauled in three of those passes for 52 yards and one of Carr’s touchdowns on a standout catch in the back of the end zone. The Carr-Cooper connection is the key to Oakland’s offensive production, and we saw on Saturday what happens when both players show up. Behind one of the best offensive lines in the league, Carr had plenty of time to throw and made good use of all his weapons. DeAndre Washington led the team with 55 yards on eight carries, but Latavius Murray owners shouldn’t be concerned. His role atop the depth chart is unassailable, and the Raiders likely used the game to see what Washington could do if forced into a larger role.

As for Carr and Cooper, the fantasy community should be pleased with what they’ve shown this preseason. Carr has QB1 ability, and is an ideal guy to pair in a quarterback platoon in one-quarterback leagues, or target as a QB2 in superflex formats. Cooper, meanwhile, can make the jump to WR1 status this season. He’s a safe bet to finish as a top-20 receiver.

The Tennessee run game is at it again

If there are still only holdouts milling about, it’s time for them to convert. The Tennessee run game needs to be taken seriously this season.

In the same game in which Carr and Cooper made their presence felt on one side, the Titans rushing attack did the same on the other. DeMarco Murray picked up 40 yards and a touchdown on eight carries, while Derrick Henry rumbled for 49 and a score of his own on 12 rushes. Marcus Mariota got in on the fun, as well, carrying the ball three times for 20 yards. He was sharp as a passer yet again, racking up 170 yards and 10.63 YPA.

Delanie Walker left the game early due to shortness of breath, and the team is still awaiting the results of a blood test taken after the game. Outside of that scare, the offense impressed against what’s expected to be a stout Oakland defense. I was one of Murray’s most vocal critics at the start of the summer, but he and the Tennessee offense have turned me around. The scheme fits his running style perfectly, and even though he’s going to cede some of the duties in the backfield to the rookie Henry, he can turn a huge profit at his ADP. As is the case in Cleveland, the Tennessee offense has a number of affordable, obtainable pieces that makes investment in the unit a worthwhile endeavor.


The Melvin Gordon correction continues

Look, I’m an unabashed Gordon supporter. I loved him last year, and it burned me in certain leagues. I wrote his profile this summer with alacrity. It was the first time I predicted a significant bounceback campaign. My confidence has only grown since then, largely because of what Gordon has done this preseason. He kept on rolling on Sunday.

Gordon was the highlight of the first half for the Chargers in their loss to the Vikings, running for a 39-yard touchdown on one of his four carries. Gordon showed the burst and breakaway ability that made him a star during his time at Wisconsin, and convinced the Chargers that he was worth being the 15th overall pick in last year’s draft. All told, Gordon finished the game with 51 rushing yards, five receiving yards on one target, and the touchdown.

Last year is in the past. Gordon knows that, and his rising ADP suggests fantasy owners understand that, as well. Those who land him this year will not be disappointed.

Brock Osweiler plays his best game of the preseason

The third preseason game is roundly seen as the most important, given that starters generally play an entire half. After Osweiler’s performance on Sunday, the Texans have to feel good going into the season as the defending AFC South champions.

Osweiler more than handled himself against the stout Arizona defense, throwing for 146 yards, 11.23 YPA and one touchdown, leading scoring drives on three of the four possessions he played. He hooked up with six different pass-catchers, and dropped in a beautiful ball on a 26-yard touchdown to Will Fuller. Houston features a lot of weapons around Osweiler—it’s the only team with two players (Lamar Miller and DeAndre Hopkins) with top-10 ADPs—but it’s up to the quarterback to make it all go. He seems to be getting acclimated to Bill O’Brien’s offense, and that has him in position to make major strides this season. He’s not going to be drafted in traditional formats, but those of you in superflex and two-QB leagues should have him on your radar in the late rounds.

Cincinnati’s backfield clicks again

Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard played an entire half against the Jaguars on Sunday. Hill picked up 21 yards on the ground, 28 through the air, and hit paydirt. Bernard, meanwhile, ran for 27 yards, caught two passes for 25 yards, and also found the end zone. For two years running, the Bengals have found a way to get productive seasons out of both of them, and it would take a set of completely unforeseen circumstances for that to change this year.

Hill and Bernard have mostly different skill sets, which makes it easier to fit both players into significant roles in the offense. Hill isn’t only a runner, while Bernard can do more than catch the ball out of the backfield, and that gives Cincinnati the flexibility to use both at the same time, or feature one or the other in single-back sets. Remember, Bernard is coming off the best season of his career, while Hill’s down year included 11 touchdowns. You’re going to see both of them in the RB2 class or better this season.

Photos: Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images (Prescott), Phelan M. Ebenhack/AP (Browns), Nick Wass/AP (West), Adam Bettcher/Getty Images (Gordon)