Nobody has a more stacked lineup of fantasy football analysts and NFL team reporters than ESPN. It’s the rare “backfield by committee” that is actually a good thing for fantasy managers.
Every Tuesday this preseason, Mike Triplett asked our NFL Nation reporters a series of questions about the week’s biggest stories to help with your draft prep. This week’s roundup kicks off with several receivers who could be hard to trust because of injury issues, overcrowded position groups or underwhelming summer performances.
Michael Gallup and Jalen Tolbert are being drafted back-to-back in average ESPN drafts this summer as late-round fliers who could pay off later in the year. With last week’s news that Gallup could be ready to play in the first month of the season, do you think either one is a better bet?
Of the two, go with Gallup over the course of the season because once he is in the swing of things, he will see more snaps and therefore more passes. It’s just a question of when he will get in the swing of things. The hope is he can play in September, but that’s not a guarantee. Tolbert has a good relationship with Dak Prescott, but he showed some issues in the preseason (drops, double catches, sideline awareness) that didn’t show up in practice. Let me put it this way: In 2018, Gallup was a third-round pick, like Tolbert, and caught 33 passes for 507 yards and two touchdowns. If Tolbert can match that, then it would be a decent season for the rookie. — Todd Archer
Do you think any Colts pass-catchers other than Michael Pittman Jr. could have fantasy relevance this season? How big of a role could rookie Alec Pierce have, in particular?
I think Pierce needs to be accounted for. First, he’s going to get some favorable matchups because Pittman is expected to draw significant attention from defenses. Further, Pierce showed some real chops in the red zone during training camp. One of his best plays was a contested acrobatic catch on a fade route in the back of the end zone during joint practices with the Detroit Lions. Finally, Pierce’s size and speed make him a big-play threat, as he’s quite comfortable in one-on-one situations on the perimeter. — Stephen Holder
Did we get any clarity this preseason on the new WR hierarchy in Kansas City? Will JuJu Smith-Schuster have the most fantasy value? And how long might it take rookie Skyy Moore to emerge in a significant role?
We didn’t learn a ton, in part because Smith-Schuster, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Mecole Hardman missed time because of injuries. But Patrick Mahomes was going a lot to Smith-Schuster in training camp before his injury. Mahomes completed 18 passes in the preseason to 10 different receivers and said he thought this was how the offense would operate this season. He also threw three touchdown passes, all to tight ends (but none to Travis Kelce). As for Moore, he will receive a considerable amount of playing time as the fourth wide receiver, so there’s a chance he could contribute immediately. — Adam Teicher
Second-year receiver Joshua Palmer generated some buzz this summer. Is there room for him to break out alongside Keenan Allen and Mike Williams?
Yes. Quarterback Justin Herbert has several go-to pass-catching targets, including Allen, Williams and running back Austin Ekeler. However, if training camp was any indication, room will be made for Palmer. A third-round pick in 2021, Palmer made several standout catches during camp and appeared to have an improved connection with his quarterback. Allen said Palmer is “a lot more polished” as he prepares for his second season. “His timing is getting better, his patience, and understanding of the progressions in the read,” Allen said. “When he’s not the first read, he can take a lot of time doing technique stuff. You can sell them a little bit more.” In a preseason game, Palmer caught a 41-yard contested pass over his shoulder, then took a short pass and went 18 yards for a touchdown. — Lindsey Thiry
So far, the Patriots are the final team to have a WR picked in average ESPN drafts, with Jakobi Meyers at No. 50. Do you think Meyers or DeVante Parker could be productive enough to exceed those expectations?
I don’t. The way the Patriots’ offense is structured, the ball should be spread around and thus production from receivers figures to fluctuate week to week depending on how opponents game-plan. Meyers still projects to lead the team in receptions — no one caught more passes from Mac Jones in training camp — but it would be a surprise if he suddenly has a high touchdown total. A run of injuries could always change this, but as of now, it’s tough to pound the table for either receiver as a worthy fantasy pick. — Mike Reiss
Michael Thomas was generating as much buzz as any NFL player in his first few weeks back after an ankle injury sustained in 2020, but now he has missed more than a week with a hamstring issue. Is he safe enough to draft among the top 25-30 fantasy receivers?
Yes. There are some reasons to temper expectations for Thomas (the severity of the injury that kept him out all of last season; the fact that we have never seen him play with new quarterback Jameis Winston; and the suddenly crowded WR room in New Orleans along with Chris Olave and Jarvis Landry). So it’s understandable if you don’t want to draft him among the top 20 receivers. But he has fallen to WR33 in current average ESPN drafts, which is too far for someone with his tremendous upside. Thomas did indeed show his trademark physicality and ball skills in Saints practices before the hamstring injury. And while the team has not specified a timetable for his return, coach Dennis Allen referred to it as a “little” hamstring injury, and Thomas has been spotted at team-related events in recent days. — Mike Triplett
Speaking of star receivers on the mend, prior to Saturday’s preseason game, ESPN’s Jenna Laine shared a positive update on receiver Chris Godwin’s recovery from the torn ACL in his right knee. However, Laine cautioned that the Buccaneers have not yet committed to Godwin playing in Week 1. Although that remains a possibility, Laine said they will wait until he’s ready.
Do we have any clarity whatsoever on the WR hierarchy with this team with so many moving parts? Who is most likely to provide fantasy value once things are sorted out?
It’s hard to make a pecking order for the Giants’ wide receivers. Kenny Golladay, Kadarius Toney, Sterling Shepard and Wan’Dale Robinson will all vulture snaps and targets. Toney, if healthy, is the most likely to be consistently fantasy relevant. He was eighth in the NFL last season in targets per route run (29.8%). So he’s their pseudo No. 1, with everyone else on an even line behind him. — Jordan Raanan
What are your expectations for Treylon Burks in both the short term and long term this season after a preseason filled with so many highs and lows?
Burks isn’t likely to begin the season as a starter, but he’ll eventually be one. The Titans will use him mostly on crossing routes in play-action to take advantage of his yards-after-the-catch ability. Burks probably won’t rack up a lot of receptions, but he has the potential to approach the 16.4 yards-per-catch mark he posted at Arkansas. — Turron Davenport
RB insurance policies
Last but not least, we reached out to a handful of NFL Nation reporters this week for some insurance advice (if you’re the type of fantasy manager who likes to secure backups like Nyheim Hines and Alexander Mattison when you draft Jonathan Taylor and Dalvin Cook in Round 1). Unfortunately, that RB2 is less clear in some backfields than others.
Arizona Cardinals: This role was actually muddied a bit during the preseason. Throughout camp, Eno Benjamin was hyped as the guy who could be James Conner’s backup, but then Jonathan Ward played very well in the preseason until he sustained a shoulder injury in Week 2. Depending on when and how Ward returns, it could be a combination of Benjamin and Darrel Williams who spell Conner. — Josh Weinfuss
Carolina Panthers: I would say D’Onta Foreman. The Panthers signed him during the offseason as insurance in case Christian McCaffrey went down again — and as a change-of-pace back who would help in goal-line and short-yardage situations. — David Newton
Cincinnati Bengals: Historically, Samaje Perine has been Joe Mixon’s backup. Perine appears to be slotted for that role again, with Chris Evans lurking as a potential option. — Ben Baby
Los Angeles Chargers: Joshua Kelley flashed, but he did not establish himself as the without-a-doubt second running back in a group that also included rookie fourth-round pick Isaiah Spiller and second-year pro Larry Rountree III. Spiller, however, suffered an ankle injury late in the preseason, leaving a chance he won’t be ready to play in Week 1, so Kelley is likely to be the backup to begin the season. — Thiry
New York Giants: Veteran Matt Breida projects as the RB2, but Raanan wrote in his 53-man roster projection that the depth chart is “a big question mark” behind Saquon Barkley: “Breida has been banged up during training camp, and Antonio Williams hasn’t done much yet in his career, even if he’s a favorite of the new regime.”
Pittsburgh Steelers: It appears Jaylen Warren jumped Benny Snell Jr. on the depth chart to take the primary backup job from the veteran. The rookie undrafted free agent has shown a good combination of speed, burst and power during the preseason. But because Warren is unproven in long stretches, it wouldn’t surprise me if the Steelers initially took a committee approach if Najee Harris got hurt. — Brooke Pryor
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Rookie Rachaad White could be the most productive companion to Leonard Fournette, but Fournette’s role is different than others’. If the Bucs had to replace him, they’d turn to a few people, including Ke’Shawn Vaughn. — Laine
Tennessee Titans: Dontrell Hilliard is the clear No. 2 behind Derrick Henry. Hilliard averaged 6.3 yards per carry last season, including a 68-yard run against the Patriots. The Titans trust him in pass protection and he runs routes like a wide receiver. He’s likely to be their primary third-down back. — Davenport