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The first sizeable NFL Preseason slate of games is here and with that comes an end to the dreadful fantasy football-less weeks of the summer. Both DraftKings and FanDuel have included all 12 games on the posted main slates kicking off on Thursday, August 9th at 7 PM EST.
NFL Preseason DFS Strategy & Research
The most important data points for the preseason are drastically different from the regular season. While things like matchups, betting market data, and other more advanced metrics are the focal point of regular season DFS research, during the preseason there is one main data point that trumps almost everything else, at least early in the preseason: snap counts.
Snap counts will be projected based on two main factors: coaching tendencies and beat writer reports (this will be a common trend in preseason DFS.) Coaching tendencies from previous years give a solid foundation for conclusions regarding a coach’s approach to each preseason game. For example, some coaches want to see each unit play a bit in their initial preseason bout (see: Dirk Koetter in Tampa Bay), while others prefer to ensure the health of their first team and play them for just a single series (see: Mike McCarthy in Green Bay).
Beat writers for each team will also provide invaluable insight regarding which players are making the most of their opportunities in training camp. These training camp standouts catch the eye of their respective coaches and this can lead to increased playing time along with a more reliable connection with others, boosting their fantasy value dramatically.
During the preseason, the focus should be pointed towards GPPs. Nothing is guaranteed in the preseason, as with sports in general, but the NFL preseason is a time for evaluation. The final score is far from the top of a coach’s list of priorities, which leads to inconsistent playing time for players and vague guidelines for how much each unit and player will play. Due to the inconsistencies in playing time, the inability to accurately project full-game matchups, and a lack of solid information available, the risk associated with NFL preseason DFS is high enough to warrant a GPP focus rather than a cash-game focus.
Breaking Down the Slate (12 games)
- Carolina Panthers @ Buffalo Bills
- New Orleans Saints @ Jacksonville Jaguars
- Cleveland Browns @ New York Giants
- Chicago Bears @ Cincinnati Bengals
- Pittsburgh Steelers @ Philadelphia Eagles
- Tampa Bay Buccaneers @ Miami Dolphins
- Los Angeles Rams @ Baltimore Ravens
- Washington Redskins @ New England Patriots
- Tennessee Titans @ Green Bay Packers
- Houston Texans @ Kansas City Chiefs
- Indianapolis Colts @ Seattle Seahawks
- Dallas Cowboys @ San Francisco 49ers
It comes as no surprise that the quarterbacks who see the highest volume of snaps in the preseason are the ones with the least competition for those snaps. Most teams are carrying four quarterbacks through training camp, however, there are some with just three. Along with that, there are teams with quarterbacks that will be unavailable due to injury for this week’s opener.
Nate Sudfeld- If Philadelphia does indeed rest Carson Wentz and Nick Foles for their opener at home against Pittsburgh, Sudfeld instantly becomes one of the players projected to play the most on the entire slate. Last year, Doug Pederson was dealt a very similar situation in week one: Nick Foles was unavailable and putting Carson Wentz on the field for a lengthy period of time was a high-risk/no-reward endeavor. The result was just 13 snaps for Carson Wentz (1st string on the depth chart), 56 snaps for Matt McGloin (3rd string on the depth chart), and 10 snaps for Dane Evans (4th string on the depth chart). This season Nate Sudfeld slots into McGloin’s spot on the depth chart and Joe Callahan steps in for Dane Evans. The snap count for Sudfeld will project as one of the highest on the slate if all holds true to form in Philly on Thursday night.
Baker Mayfield- ESPN’s Dianna Russini has reported that the number one overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft is slated to play about two quarters in their preseason opener against the New York Giants. This is the dream clash of talent and opportunity. Getting approximately two full quarters of production and opportunity for any quarterback is the type of opportunity to target in the preseason. Mayfield is amongst the most talented players poised to get extended playing time under center on Thursday. Subsequently, he will likely be amongst the most rostered players in GPPs because of the name recognition and this report, but that is for good reason. A fade of Mayfield on this first full slate is not for the faint of heart.
Josh Allen- Sticking to the rookie quarterback theme, Josh Allen is poised to play a large chunk of the game for Buffalo. According to The Athletic’s Matthew Fairburn, Allen has solidified himself as the number three option under center for the Bills right now. Nathan Peterman is reportedly closing in on A.J. McCarron for the starting spot, making his health all the more important. In the initial preseason contest for Buffalo, neither McCarron nor Peterman are likely to see the extended playing time that is so critical for preseason production. That means Allen, the 7th overall pick in the 2018 NFL Draft, is left with the lion’s share of the snaps come Thursday night.
Most teams will carry between five and seven running backs throughout the preseason, meaning the opportunities will be spread thinly across the bunch in most cases. The playing time and snap counts for each running back on a roster will pale in comparison to that of the quarterbacks. The name of the game here is, once again, finding players on the most comparatively thin depth charts who have excelled during training camp.
Mark Walton- The University of Miami product is coming off an injury that forced him to miss all but four games in his final collegiate season. He subsequently fell to the 4th round in the 2018 NFL Draft, much lower than many draft experts thought a player of his talent would have been drafted if healthy. Walton currently sits 4th on the Cincinnati Bengals depth chart behind Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard, and Brian Hill. Mixon and Bernard are unlikely to see much action in this first preseason contest, and Hill is a practice squad signee from Atlanta. Beat writers in Cincinnati have raved about Walton’s performance thus far in camp, and ESPN’s Katherine Terrell said she expects Walton to get a lot of playing time in his debut.
Mike Gillislee- After a rather disappointing season in Foxborough under his belt, Gillislee is fighting an uphill battle to make the New England Patriots’ regular season roster. Jeff Howe, of The Athletic, noted that he is taking reps with the 3rd team during camp which could signal a good amount of second-half work in store for the former Florida Gator. There is little mystery regarding what Gillislee brings to the table, and his primary role for the Pats this season would likely be goalline and other short yardage work. Belichick and company will likely want to see him convert in those exact situations, meaning snaps for Gillislee with bunches of TD fantasy points possibly hanging in the balance via goal-to-go reps.
Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines- The Colts head into Thursday with a very young group of running backs on their roster. Their listed starter, Marlon Mack, is headed into his second NFL season, but his first as a projected starter. While he thrived with the ball in his hands last year, Mack was unable to find consistent playing time due to deficiencies in pass protection, amongst other things. This year, the Colts invested 4th and 5th round picks into running backs as well. Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines have been regulars in beat writers’ reports regarding training camp standouts for Indianapolis to this point in training camp. While stacking the both of these players will limit the ceiling of a GPP lineup, they both have earned heavy consideration in separate lineups.
Shaun Wilson- The undrafted rookie out of Duke has been the most impressive rookie at Tampa Bay’s training camp through two weeks, according to writer Scott Smith. The undersized Wilson (just 5’9”) has been explosive and is making a strong case for a spot on the final 53-man roster throughout camp. Coach Dirk Koetter just recently said in a press conference that he is looking forward to seeing what Wilson can do in their first preseason game. Now, could that just be a little bit of “coach-speak” from Koetter to avoid tipping his hand too much? Sure. But, when he and almost every beat writer in Tampa Bay are all on the same page, it seems to be legit. Every player competing with Wilson for a roster spot, less Ronald Jones, has been in the NFL since at least 2016. The Bucs have had ample evaluation time for those players, and this Thursday should be Wilson’s time to shine.
Update #1 (3:50 PM EST): Wilson, according to a recent report from Greg Auman, may not be available tonight due to an "undisclosed injury." Keep an eye out for reports from Buccaneers beat writers regarding his availability tonight.
Update #2 (5:48 PM EST): Shaun Wilson is officially inactive for tonight's game against the Dolphins, per Rick Stroud.
Now, to take it a step further, each team will carry double-digit wide receivers on their roster heading into the start of the preseason. Many of these players are fighting over spots on special teams for their respective teams, but those special teams tackles do nothing to help in DFS. With so many possible options, players who have developed a solid rapport with the quarterbacks on their rosters tend to thrive. Without playing a game together to this point, many quarterback-wide receiver pairings have already developed a certain level of trust in and around the red-zone. Luckily, beat writers LOVE to write about this, so there is no shortage of information here.
Antonio Callaway- In the headlines for all the wrong reasons (Callaway was cited for marijuana possession on Sunday night), Callaway has actually been a true standout in training camp. The way he has surged up the depth chart likely played a significant role in the Browns deciding to part ways with Corey Coleman in exchange for just a 7th round pick. The rookie, drafted in the 4th round, has been out of football for over a year, but there is no doubt the talent is there. Callaway may have some rust to shake off come game time, with this being his first live action since January of 2017, and that should mean a high snap count when Callaway takes the field for the first time in a Cleveland Browns jersey. Stacking Callaway with quarterback Baker Mayfield is a viable strategy in all formats on this first preseason slate of the season.
Bobo Wilson- Bobo Wilson, headed into his 2nd year with Tampa Bay, is making a real push to secure one of the final roster spots available. Coach Dirk Koetter has said that Bobo has been one of the most improved players in all of camp this year, which certainly bodes well for his fantasy status this week. Wilson played his college football at Florida State with none other than Jameis Winston, which is important given the looming suspension of Winston. Jameis Winston will be unavailable for the first three games of the regular season, and Ryan Fitzpatrick will have to prepare as the starter during that time. For that reason, Fitzpatrick’s snaps will be limited, as the Bucs will surely want to be cautious with their regular-season starter this early in the preseason. Winston, instead of playing with the starters, as usual, will likely find himself playing alongside the 2nd and 3rd string players, like Bobo Wilson. The chemistry between Wilson and Winston rooted in their Florida State days will give Wilson a leg up in the competition for targets.
Tyreek Hill- A name like this showing up in this group of guys may come as a bit of a surprise, but head coach Andy Reid has said that each of the first, second, and third units will all play one quarter on Thursday. Tyreek Hill, obviously playing with the first team, is entering his first season alongside young gunslinger Patrick Mahomes II II. Hill recently said that Mahomes is the first guy he has ever played with who has the arm strength to hit him in stride. In the first glimpse of this potentially dynamic duo, Reid may want to see the two get going early and often. One full quarter from a starter of Tyreek Hill’s caliber is worth as much as the lengthy playing time for a player fighting to make the roster.
Jake Kumerow- The three-year practice squad veteran out of Wisconsin-Whitewater has come out of nowhere this year in Packers camp and shined. Kumerow has impressed to the point that Aaron Rodgers has name-dropped him in interviews on multiple occasions without being prompted to do so. After letting Jordy Nelson walk in free agency, Green Bay was already thinning out at wide receiver. Unfortunately, Randall Cobb recently suffered a small injury to his surgically repaired ankle, which may be cause for some concern. The Packers are going to need to fill out their depth chart with some relatively unknown players in the wake of these injuries and departures, which is where players like Jake Kumerow come into play. Beat writers across the board have noticed Kumerow as one of the biggest standouts from all of camp, and he is making a strong push to secure one of those final roster spots. He has been scoring all camp for the Pack, and it would come as no surprise if he found the end zone once more in the opener.
Javon Wims- Arguably the most impressive player on the offensive side of the ball during the Hall of Fame Game a week ago, Wims has strung together multiple impressive practices in the last week to keep the buzz going. Playing with the third unit, Wims seems to have developed a strong connection with backups Chase Daniel and Tyler Bray. The 7 catches he tallied in the Hall of Fame game with Baltimore is much more than anyone can reasonably project during the preseason. He was looked to on critical third downs and when plays broke down, encapsulating the confidence the Bears’ backups have throwing to him. This is the type of confidence that will lead to continual targets and opportunities throughout the preseason and against Cincinnati on Thursday night.
Tight ends in preseason (with the exception of Jacob Hollister last year) see much less work throughout the course of a game compared to a running back or wide receiver. They do, however, see a significant usage increase in and around the goal line. Much like a wide receiver, the quarterback-tight end trust is critical because the brunt of their targets will come in high-risk/high-reward areas. In the red zone, the big bodies of the tight ends prove to be some of the safest and best options, meaning a large chunk of their fantasy value will be derived from these potential scoring plays.
Ian Thomas- In Carolina, there is a clear-cut number one option in Greg Olsen, but the fourth-round pick out of Indiana is doing his best to stake his claim to the number two spot. Thomas has been an absolute beast in red zone work for the Panthers throughout camp to the point where beat writer Joseph Person went as far as to say he will probably score in their preseason opener. While it is a tall task to predict who will score in any given week, especially a preseason game, this comment represents something bigger: Thomas is clearly a preferred option in the red zone of the quarterbacks currently on Carolina’s roster. This may be due to sheer physicality and his ability to win a jump ball, or maybe Thomas just has a knack for getting separation in these situations. Either way, he has proven himself throughout training camp to both the team and the reporters, and his red zone prowess is exactly what is needed from a tight end during preseason DFS.
Anthony Firkser- Firkser, an undrafted free agent out of Harvard, has been solid all throughout camp and has continually earned positive reviews from various Tennessee Titans beat writers. Jim Wyatt, a beat writer for Titans Online, said, “Keep an eye out for him in preseason games. I have a feeling he’s going to be busy” following their final practice before the opener. Solidly behind Delanie Walker and Jonnu Smith on the depth chart, Firkser is fighting for the final tight end spot(s) on the Tennessee depth chart. The first preseason game will be Firkser’s first live-action opportunity to lay claim to his spot on the 53-man roster.
Dallas Goedert- Dallas Goedert, the second round draft pick of the Philadelphia Eagles, will see significant time for the birds this year in two tight end sets as he fills in for the newly departed Trey Burton. Goedert has been outstanding throughout training camp, and when Nick Foles was asked who he thought would stand out in the preseason opener, he pointed to Goedert. Goedert has looked “unstoppable” in the red zone according to Brandon Lee Gowton, which certainly fits the bill for a preseason tight end producer. In the Hall of Fame Game, fellow rookie Hayden Hurst found the end zone from 8 yards out. These physically imposing players with superior talent thrive in the preseason when they are going up against linebackers and safeties who will ultimately end up on the practice squad more often than not.
In the betting markets, every single over under opened within 2 points of one another. After a little bit of line movement, the highest total (via Pinnacle) currently sits at 37.5 in the Redskins @ Patriots matchup, and the lowest is 33.5 in the Steelers @ Eagles matchup. The low totals are an obvious testament to the lack of skill in the first week of the preseason compared to the rest of the year. The small range of totals is also a testament to how each game essentially projects the same, with three to four units of players all getting significant playing time, it is tough to project how long and how well each individual unit will perform.
The best strategy for analyzing defenses is to break down the opposing quarterback room and find the weakest groups.
The Indianapolis Colts face off with the Seattle Seahawks in their preseason opener, and while their defense has struggled mightily in years past during the regular season, the preseason is a different beast. The Seahawks options under center are Russell Wilson, Austin Davis, and Alex McGough. Wilson will see limited action in this meaningless preseason matchup, so he can essentially be disregarded. Going down the depth chart, Pete Carroll has spoken time and time again about rookie Alex McGough’s struggles throughout camp. With Davis and McGough primed to play most, if not all, of the opening preseason matchup, seeing the Seahawks offense struggle to move the ball and turn the ball over with McGough at the helm would not surprise.
Down south, the New Orleans Saints face off against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The Jags are settled on Blake Bortles being their quarterback for the foreseeable future. Behind him, Cody Kessler and Tanner Lee are supposed to be “battling” for the backup spot. Needless to say, it has not been much of a battle at all. Tanner Lee has been referred to by some beat writers for the team as the worst draft pick in recent memory. Lee was less than impressive at Nebraska and his spot on a training camp roster seems to be rooted in the simple fact that he played in a pro-style college offense. Bortles, similarly to Wilson, should be protected in this first preseason matchup and see limited action followed by heavy doses of Kessler and Lee. Once Lee takes over, the wheels on the bus look like they will come falling off. An already anemic offense when operating at full-strength will have a quarterback plugged in that struggled in college and appears to be totally overmatched by the speed of an NFL defense.