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Preseason Winners and Losers

By Jared Smola 11:56am EDT 8/30/23

Preseason matters.

If you don’t believe me, just take a peek at last year’s Preseason Winners and Losers.

Justin Fields, David Montgomery, and Dameon Pierce were winners.

The Patriots passing game, Skyy Moore, and Albert Okwuegbunam (remember him?) were losers.

Yes, there were misses too. There will be misses in any fantasy football analysis.

But there’s little doubt that we can gain an edge by closely monitoring the preseason.

You just have to know what to look for.

We watched all 48 games over the past three weeks and compiled the takeaways that matter for fantasy.

Now, here are 21 players who are trending up or down with the 2023 preseason in the books.

 

Preseason Winners

Kenny Pickett, QB, Pittsburgh Steelers

No QB was better than Pickett this preseason. At least according to Pro Football Focus. They graded Pickett as the top passer among all 103 QBs who registered a dropback.

Pickett passed our eye test, too. He was aggressive and accurate to all levels of the field, finishing with an 86.7% completion rate, 13.3 yards per attempt, 2 TDs, and 0 INTs.

He’s ready to take a second-year leap alongside an exciting group of pass catchers.

Sam Howell, QB, Washington Commanders

Howell didn’t fare quite as well as Pickett in PFF grades, ranking 28th among 93 QBs with 10+ dropbacks.

But the numbers were strong: A 75.7% completion rate, 7.2 yards per attempt, 3 TDs, and 0 INTs. 

Howell also ran four times for 25 yards on 63 preseason snaps (about a game’s worth).

He’s one of the top late-round fantasy sleepers at QB.

Brock Purdy, QB, San Francisco 49ers

Purdy is a winner just for getting on the field this preseason, less than six months after elbow surgery.

As a bonus: He looked good! Purdy completed nine of 14 passes (64.3%) for 138 yards (9.9 YPA) across two appearances.

He’s still mostly just an option for 2-QB and superflex leagues. But Purdy’s return is good news for RB Christian McCaffrey, WRs Deebo Samuel and Brandon Aiyuk, and TE George Kittle.

Baker Mayfield, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

It flew under the radar, but Mayfield had a strong preseason.

He completed 14 of 15 passes for 106 yards (7.1 YPA), 2 TDs, and 0 INTs. Only Pickett, Daniel Jones, Patrick Mahomes, and Josh Allen registered better PFF passing grades.

And Mayfield did it without WR Mike Evans.

If he can provide just average QB play, this Bucs offense can be a lot better than most are expecting.

Dameon Pierce, RB, Houston Texans

It sure looks like Pierce is in for an every-down role.

He played 14 straight snaps in his preseason debut and then was on the field for all nine of QB C.J. Stroud’s snaps in the preseason finale.

Pierce ran 10 pass routes and was even split out wide or in the slot for three plays.

More passing-game involvement would be huge for Pierce’s fantasy value, considering the Texans figure to be playing from behind often. 

Jaylen Warren, RB, Pittsburgh Steelers

He looked awesome this preseason, particularly on this 62-yard TD run.

More importantly, Najee Harris only played four more snaps than Warren, 16-12.

If Warren can maintain that level of playing time, he’ll provide some standalone fantasy value.

At minimum, he’s a strong handcuff.

Tank Bigsby, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

The rookie had a few explosive runs and finished the preseason with a big 5.7 yards per carry.

We also saw his role with the starters grow throughout exhibition season. In the finale, Bigsby played 36% of the first-team snaps.

We’ll see if he gets enough volume to be a RB3 or flex option behind a healthy Travis Etienne.

But Bigsby is at least a high-upside handcuff.

Tyjae Spears, RB, Tennessee Titans

Spears ripped off 117 yards and a TD on 22 carries this preseason – good for 5.3 yards per carry. 

Even more impressive: 104 of those yards came after contact. 

Spears ranked 11th among 104 qualifying RBs in PFF’s elusive rating, which measures a RB’s effectiveness outside of the blocking he receives.

The rookie is unlikely to be a viable fantasy play behind a healthy Derrick Henry. But he certainly looks capable of making a big impact if Henry misses time.

Our injury predictor algorithm gives Derrick Henry a 56% chance of injury this season.

Ty Chandler, RB, Minnesota Vikings

RB Alexander Mattison took the preseason off – confirmation that he’ll enter the season as Minnesota’s clear lead back.

But Chandler ran well ahead of the rest of Minnesota’s RBs and looked good as both a runner and pass-catcher.

He ranked 18th among 104 qualifying RBs in PFF rushing grade and ninth among 80 qualifiers in receiving grade.

Chandler is the clear No. 2 RB and Mattison handcuff. And it’s possible he cuts into Mattison’s volume as the season wears on.

Joshua Kelley, RB, Los Angeles Chargers

Kelley did absolutely nothing to lose the No. 2 RB job this preseason.

He started over RB Isaiah Spiller in all three exhibitions and averaged a huge 9.4 yards across 15 carries.

That was boosted by this 75-yard TD. But Kelley still averaged 4.7 yards on his other 14 totes. He finished 14th among 104 qualifying RBs in PFF rushing grade.

Kelley would be the Chargers RB to play in fantasy lineups if RB Austin Ekeler misses time.

Chris Evans, RB, Cincinnati Bengals

Evans started over RB Chase Brown in the first two preseason games and then rested in the finale.

RB Trayveon Williams (ankle) didn’t play in any of the exhibitions. But Evans is clearly ahead of Brown on the depth chart heading into Week 1.

And he might be in line to claim a passing-down role alongside RB Joe Mixon.

Deuce Vaughn, RB, Dallas Cowboys

Vaughn’s 179-pound frame wasn’t a problem this preseason.

He was shifty and explosive on his way to 4.9 yards per carry and two TDs on 13 attempts.

Vaughn beat out RB Malik Davis for a roster spot and joins RB Rico Dowdle behind starter Tony Pollard.

We’re not expecting Vaughn to have fantasy value behind a healthy Pollard. But he’d be in the mix for fantasy lineups if Pollard goes down.

Calvin Ridley, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars

We got to see Ridley on an NFL field for the first time since October 2021 … and he looked good.

Ridley caught all five of his preseason targets for 71 yards.

More importantly, he ran a route on 100% of QB Trevor Lawrence’s dropbacks and drew a 31% target share.

There are no longer concerns about Ridley being rusty coming off the long absence.

Jahan Dotson, WR, Washington Commanders

Dotson was targeted on nine of QB Sam Howell’s 37 preseason passes – a 24.3% target share.

Yeah, WR Terry McLaurin missed a little bit of that action with his toe injury. But that injury only adds to Dotson’s appeal.

He caught seven of those nine targets for 106 yards and 1 TD and looks primed to make a big second-year leap.

Darren Waller, TE, New York Giants

Waller only played in the Giants’ second preseason game – but we saw all we needed to see.

He ran a route on 80% of QB Daniel Jones’ dropbacks and drew a 44% target share.

Waller caught three of four targets for 30 yards, creating loads of separation from Panthers defenders.

Barring injury, he’s in for a big fantasy season.

See how high Waller sits in the TE rankings.

Dalton Kincaid, TE, Buffalo Bills

The rookie played plenty with the first-team offense this preseason, running a route on 68% of QB Josh Allen’s dropbacks over the final two games.

That’s a little below the threshold we look for from top-12 fantasy TEs. But it’s a good start for Kincaid, whose role should grow throughout the season.

He lined up all over the formation:

  • 45% inline
  • 43% slot
  • 10% out wide
  • 3% backfield

Kincaid caught three of four preseason targets for 45 yards.

Luke Musgrave, TE, Green Bay Packers

Musgrave might be the biggest winner of the preseason.

The rookie received truly elite usage, running a route on 89% of first-team pass plays and drawing a target on 24.2% of QB Jordan Love’s passes.

Those are top-3 TE usage levels.

No, we’re not expecting Musgrave to tally top-3 numbers this season. But if his usage stays in this vicinity, he has a good shot at a top-12 finish.

TIP

Musgrave is one of our eight 2023 Fantasy Football Sleepers.

 

Preseason Losers

C.J. Stroud, QB, Houston Texans

The rookie looked harried this preseason. He completed just 55% of his 20 passes and averaged only 4.5 yards per attempt.

Houston’s offensive line did Stroud no favors, allowing a pressure on 35% of his dropbacks. But Stroud also seemed to struggle to read the field at times. He finished 47th among 93 qualifying QBs in PFF passing grade.

We’re not panicking over Stroud’s long-term outlook, but he’s definitely not an early-season fantasy option.

Rashaad Penny, RB, Philadelphia Eagles

While RBs D’Andre Swift and Kenneth Gainwell each got one of the first two preseason games off, Penny played in both. He was the third RB to hit the field in the second exhibition, behind Gainwell and Boston Scott.

Penny remains an exciting talent in a strong offense, making him worth stashing on fantasy rosters. But based on the preseason usage, he can’t be trusted in Week 1 fantasy lineups.

De’Von Achane, RB, Miami Dolphins

The rookie played 0 snaps with the first-team offense this preseason – and suffered a shoulder injury in the second exhibition.

Achane returned to practice on Aug. 29, giving him a shot to be ready for Week 1. But he won’t be a viable fantasy play early on and has some depth-chart climbing to do.

Greg Dulcich, TE, Denver Broncos

His usage was not ideal this preseason.

Dulcich played fewer snaps and ran fewer routes than TE Adam Trautman in the opener.

Things got better in the second game, with Dulcich running a route on six of QB Russell Wilson’s eight dropbacks.

But Dulcich drew just one target on 20 preseason routes.

He’s a TE2 with upside – rather than a TE1 consideration – heading into Week 1.

Where Should You Draft These Preseason Winners and Losers?

That depends on myriad factors.

17 of them, to be exact, including:

  • your scoring system
  • positional value
  • ADP
  • and breakout potential.

Sound like a lot to keep track of? It is.

But the dynamic, customized cheat sheet on the Draft War Room does it all for you.

Create your Draft War Room now.

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