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Dear Mr. Fantasy: Don't sweat the preseason too much

by | Senior Fantasy Writer
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If you're like most Fantasy Football owners, you've been paying close attention to the preseason.

And why not? It's actual football played by the actual players you'll be using during the regular season. A sneak peak at all they have to offer is an advantage you'd be crazy to turn down.

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That is, assuming it's actually a sneak peak.

See ... the name "preseason" implies two things:

1. It happens before the season.
2. It's not the season.

As easy as the first one is to remember, we sometimes forget the second. Yes, what you're seeing is indeed actual football with actual players, but the goal is entirely different. A departure from the win-at-all-costs mentality of regular-season play, the preseason is all about evaluation and experimentation, and that not-so-subtle difference makes it a time when misleading things can happen.

It's a time when Lance Kendricks, a rookie tight end, can look like a legitimate receiving threat by catching three touchdown passes, including a 44-yarder.

It's a time when Kendall Hunter, drafted as a change-of-pace option, can pose a threat to a perennial Pro Bowler by leading the league with 231 rushing yards.

It's a time when Cam Newton, a potential miscast at the NFL level, can end the debate before it even starts by completing just 42.1 percent of his passes for an average of 5.3 yards per attempt.

"Now, wait a minute, Scott. I've watched every snap and reviewed every box score so far, and I can say with absolute certainty that none of those things have happened this preseason."

Right. But they did last year.

Last year, when Kendricks went on to catch none of the nine touchdown passes the Rams had all season.

Last year, when Hunter went on to rush for 40 yards or less in 13 of 16 games ... and Frank Gore went on to the Pro Bowl.

Last year, when Newton went on to be the best rookie quarterback the world had ever seen.

So if last year you avoided drafting a legitimate tight end knowing Kendrick would be available later, or missed out on your chance to handcuff Michael Bush to Darren McFadden because you absolutely had to have Hunter, or passed up a waiver claim for Newton in favor of Chad Henne after Week 1, you did it because of what happened during the preseason.

And you did it to yourself.

I took Demaryius Thomas before Eric Decker in a points-per-reception league. How bad is that? -- @Weber8 (via Twitter)

SW: How bad is it? Why wouldn't you?

Oh, because Peyton Manning found Decker for two touchdowns in the Broncos' most recent preseason game, leaving Thomas out in the cold? Yeah, that happened.

But it really wasn't that big of a deal. Manning completed the same number of passes to both receivers in his one quarter of play. In fact, Thomas actually outgained Decker, 26 yards to 15. Decker's two looks just happened to come in the end zone.

Again, you're assessing the situation based on one quarter of play. With that quick peek into a game that doesn't even count, what kind of inferences can you expect make about the Broncos offense? Can you honestly deduce that Decker will be Manning's go-to guy in the red zone? Of course not. You're doing it because you want to react to something, and that's all you have to react to right now.

It's a classic case of making too much of too little. You shouldn't necessarily ignore a player's preseason performance, but of greater significance are his background and whatever chatter he generates in training camp. As wide receivers go, Thomas was the class of the 2010 draft, getting selected two spots ahead of Dez Bryant. He was a man among boys in college and remains a physical specimen even now. And Manning noticed it early on, praising Thomas' ability to pick up yards after the catch. Injuries and the emergence of Tim Tebow have held him back so far, but if any Broncos receiver stands to benefit from having a competent pass-thrower, it's Thomas.

Of course, the Broncos' receiving corps shouldn't be a case of Thomas vs. Decker anyway. A Manning-led offense should be capable of sustaining two 1,000-yard receivers, as was the case with Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne from 2004 to 2006. True, you could argue this latest version of Manning, the one in his mid-30s and coming off neck surgery, won't be as successful, but if that's the case, the whole debate is moot. A breakout for either Thomas or Decker is predicated on Manning's return to form.

Don't give yourself something to worry about before the season even begins. You'll have plenty of time for that when the bye weeks start. Just trust that Thomas was ranked ahead of Decker for a reason -- he's the more talented and greater big-play threat of the two -- and expect both to have good seasons.

In a two-quarterback league, would you prefer Andrew Luck or Russell Wilson? I also have Aaron Rodgers. -- @mikejgnad (via Twitter)

SW: Ah, Russell Wilson. Now there's a player whose Fantasy value should rise with his performance this preseason.

Granted, a starting quarterback is worth infinitely more than a backup, so a boost in value was expected with the change in role. But the greater impetus for my enthusiasm is the way Wilson won the starting job. He was barely a candidate coming into training camp, but he outperformed free-agent signee Matt Flynn by such a wide margin that he convinced the coaches he's the better option. And they're assessing him in ways us common folk never could.

He's been the best quarterback of the preseason, which wouldn't mean much in the case of a confirmed backup taking advantage of garbage time, as happened for Stephen McGee last year, but Wilson has done it against first-teamers and with a job on the line. If that's enough to make believers out of the Seahawks coaching staff, it should be enough to make believers out of us.

It's basically the route Arian Foster took to Fantasy prominence in 2010. Remember: He was supposed to be splitting carries with Ben Tate and Steve Slaton that year, but in the weeks leading up to the season, the praise out of training camp became so loud that he quickly emerged as the preferred option in Fantasy. And the rest is history.

Of course, throwing around Foster comparisons is a good way to get someone hurt. His story is far from the norm. Plus, one big advantage he had over Wilson is that he played running back, where gambles are more often rewarded. At quarterback, Wilson would have to do something Cam Newton-like to move the needle.

Still, in a two-quarterback league, he's relevant, especially since his rushing ability should help counteract any rookie mistakes. Is he on Andrew Luck's level? Again, that's probably taking it a bit too far. As a draft prospect, Luck was even more hyped than his predecessor, Peyton Manning, and his own preseason performance has hardly tempered those expectations. That's not to say Wilson is incapable of outperforming Luck this season. Rookie struggles are especially common for quarterbacks, and Luck, for all his hype, isn't immune. But by virtue of pedigree alone, Luck is the safer and more likely bet to put up big numbers.

I'll say this for Wilson: He has joined Matt Schaub, Ben Roethlisberger, Jay Cutler, Robert Griffin III, Luck, Josh Freeman, Carson Palmer, Joe Flacco and Andy Dalton as the only quarterbacks worth drafting in standard formats after the top 11 have gone off the board.

In my 10-team league, we don't have a tight end position. We draft tight ends as wide receivers. In that scenario, where would the top five tight ends rank among the wide receivers? -- Patrick Taikoki (via e-mail)

SW: The easiest way to answer this question is to rank them right here -- tight ends and wide receivers, together at last. Not only would those rankings address the oddball leagues that consider tight ends and wide receivers one and the same, but they'd also serve as flex rankings for Fantasy owners who might consider using a tight end in that spot.

Calvin Johnson is the clear No. 1. He's durable. He's in a pass-first offense. He's not losing looks to anyone else in Detroit. Every other high-end wide receiver falls short in one of those three areas, which is why I rank the tight end duo of Rob Gronkowski and Jimmy Graham second and third. Granted, they face some competition as well, but if nothing else, they'll remain the primary red-zone targets in New England and New Orleans, respectively.

Now it gets interesting. In my mind, everyone in the second tier of wide receivers (or continuation of the first tier, if you prefer) -- which includes Larry Fitzgerald, Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, Wes Welker, Roddy White, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, A.J. Green, Victor Cruz, Hakeem Nicks, Brandon Marshall, Steve Smith and Marques Colston -- is safer than the remaining tight ends. Personally, I might attempt to squeeze Antonio Gates and Aaron Hernandez just ahead of Colston because I perceive them to have greater upside.

In the third tier of wide receivers, you'll find moderate-risk, high-reward types like Demaryius Thomas, Jeremy Maclin, Dez Bryant, Eric Decker, DeSean Jackson, Brandon Lloyd, Mike Wallace, Vincent Jackson, Percy Harvin, Miles Austin, Reggie Wayne, Dwayne Bowe, Antonio Brown and Steve Johnson, and that's about where I'd slot my fifth-ranked tight end, Jason Witten. I'm dying to rank Fred Davis there instead, because I think he's just as good, but so as not to bite off more controversy than I can chew, I'll go with Witten. Really, you could draft any of Witten, Fred Davis, Vernon Davis or Jermichael Finley in this group. I'd slot them all just behind Johnson.

Of course, not everyone should draft these players in this order. That's just for the oddball leagues that combine wide receiver and tight end into one position. Standard leagues that distinguish between the two would have to account for position scarcity. Because tight end is widely considered the deeper of the positions (mostly because each team starts only one), you can afford to draft any of these tight ends (except for maybe Gronkowski and Graham) a little later than I have them ranked here.

So here's something that could potentially propel me into the Fantasy hall of fame: a pre-draft trade. I'd be giving up my first-, sixth- and eighth-round picks for the other guy's second-, third and fourth-round picks. Is there enough talent in the second, third and fourth rounds to make up for me losing a first-round pick? -- Bob Horn (via e-mail)

SW: I consider only seven players to be legitimate first-rounders this year: Arian Foster, Ray Rice, LeSean McCoy, Aaron Rodgers, Drew Brees, Tom Brady and Calvin Johnson. Because I'm feeling lucky today, I'll include Chris Johnson in that group, bringing the total to eight. The next group -- which includes Darren McFadden, DeMarco Murray, Marshawn Lynch and Matthew Stafford, among others -- are all second-rounders posing as first-rounders.

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But here's the flip side: What this year's draft class lacks in true elite players, it makes up for in near-elite types. Adding Rob Gronkowski, Jimmy Graham, Cam Newton, Matt Forte, Maurice Jones-Drew, Adrian Peterson, Ryan Mathews, Larry Fitzgerald, Steven Jackson, Andre Johnson, Julio Jones, Wes Welker, Roddy White, Greg Jennings, Jordy Nelson, Trent Richardson, Fred Jackson, Ahmad Bradshaw, A.J. Green, Hakeem Nicks, Michael Turner, Jamaal Charles, Darren Sproles and Doug Martin to the mix, the draft offers more second-rounders than can feasibly go in the second round.

In other words, this trade could be a coup for you, depending on where you're scheduled to draft. If you're in line to select one of the top seven or eight players, you have to stand pat. Two near-elites do not equal an elite in my mind. The combination of upside and security of those eight is beyond comparison.

I'm guessing the other guy realizes this and is only offering this deal because you're in line to select one of those top seven or eight. If that's the case, turn it down.

I can keep up to two players in my 12-team points-per-reception league. I'm debating between Matt Ryan with a fifth-round pick, Fred Jackson with a sixth-round pick and Jermaine Gresham with an eighth-round pick. I feel good about keeping Jackson but don't know if I'd be reaching by keeping either Ryan or Gresham. Surely, I could get someone just as good in those same rounds or later, no? What would you do? -- Stuart Yerks (via e-mail)

SW: Adjusting our draft averages for a standard 12-team league, Ryan is about a third-rounder, and Gresham is about a ninth-rounder. Of course, whether they actually deserve to go in the third and ninth rounds is a different matter.

Keep in mind those averages are for a standard league, not a PPR. Because your league awards a point per reception, Ryan -- and every other quarterback, for that matter -- loses value. Unlike running backs, wide receivers and tight ends, quarterbacks don't get receptions. Their production stays the same while every other position's increases. Thus, their influence is reduced in PPR leagues.

Enough that Ryan deserves to fall a full two rounds? Maybe not, but frankly I think the third round is too high for him in the first place. He's my favorite of the second-tier quarterbacks, sure, but I don't like him that much more than Eli Manning, Michael Vick, Philip Rivers, Peyton Manning or Tony Romo. Unless you think all of those quarterbacks will be gone by sixth round -- and you know the tendencies of your league better than I do -- keeping Ryan doesn't make much sense.

So if quarterbacks have less influence in PPR leagues, do tight ends like Gresham have greater influence? The tight end position as a whole does, but I feel like Gresham individually doesn't. Most likely, only 12 tight ends will start in a 12-team league, whether it's PPR or not, and no matter how much you value Gresham as a sleeper, he's still on the low end of the top 12 at the position. I don't see his draft position changing to account for the change in format.

Obviously, if he's going in the ninth round on average, you wouldn't want to keep him in the eighth round. And even if you had the option of keeping him in the ninth round, I'd probably throw him back. I wouldn't want to feel like I had to pass on, say, Antonio Gates or some other higher-end tight end if he fell to me in the draft.

As for Jackson, he's going in the second round on average and is even more valuable in PPR leagues as one of the few running backs who's a consistent part of his team's passing attack. I'd say he's your only keeper of the three.

Would you trade Steven Jackson and Justin Blackmon for BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Doug Martin? -- Mike Fabber (via e-mail)

SW: It's tempting -- very tempting -- and I think the Buccaneers' decision to name Martin the starter Tuesday might just be enough for me to pull the trigger.

It's mostly because I feel like Jackson is incapable of performing at an elite level at this stage of his career. He's solid, yes. He'll give you a yeoman-like 1,200 yards. But has the Rams offense improved enough for him to contribute double-digit touchdowns? Has their passing game improved enough for him to contribute significant yardage as a receiver? I say no to both.

Either seems possible for Martin, though. Granted, an unproven rookie like him could fall flat on his face and wind up in a reserve role by Week 6, but he's earned the trust of the coaching staff so far and certainly has the pedigree to start in the NFL. I don't think you could justify drafting Martin over Jackson at this point, but if I'm playing to win, I'd prefer the scenario that lands me the high-upside rookie to one that leaves me with an aging veteran who'll do nothing more than keep my head above water.

So is the upgrade from Blackmon to Green-Ellis enough for me to pull the trigger? For most people, it'd be an easy call based on where the two were drafted. But I get the feeling I'm higher on Blackmon and lower on Green-Ellis than the general population.

Still, Green-Ellis, while not a superstar in waiting, really is the only choice for carries in Cincinnati, so chances are he'll deliver the yeoman-like performance you'd be losing with Jackson. Jackson is the safer bet for consistent production, of course, but Green-Ellis has a reasonable chance of offering something similar. That's more than I can say for Blackmon, who's joining a passing attack that ranked dead last in the league last year.

I nabbed Jamaal Charles in the second round and Mike Wallace in the fifth. Any concerns about them performing like a No. 1 running back and wide receiver? -- @theonly1Avenger (via Twitter)

SW: Yeah, I have concerns. Everyone does. It's not like the rest of your league gift-wrapped Charles and Wallace for you. Both have room to fall short of those expectations.

And personally, I think both will. Charles is returning from a serious knee injury and entering what figures to be a split backfield. What role he fills in the backfield is open for debate, but considering the other half of the platoon is bruiser Peyton Hillis, you can assume he won't get the goal-line carries.

That doesn't necessarily mean he'll get everything between the 20s. Hillis is a pretty good receiver out of the backfield, let's not forget, so the Chiefs will probably want to make use of that skill. Granted, because the Chiefs lack a prolific passing attack, Charles may rush for 1,000 yards even if he loses half his carries to Hillis, but given the uncertainty of the situation, I'd prefer to own Ahmad Bradshaw, Michael Turner or even Doug Martin this year.

Wallace just rejoined the Steelers Monday after a lengthy holdout. He missed all of training camp and won't get a chance to play in the team's final preseason game. He's behind everyone else physically, yet he still needs to be able to run past them to maximize his ability. That's the perfect recipe for a hamstring injury -- the kind that could sideline him for four weeks or more.

Even if he stays healthy, he's no longer the surefire No. 1 over Antonio Brown, who Ben Roethlisberger learned to trust last year and who has a significant head start in the new offense. I'm not saying Wallace is condemned to fail -- I've seen him go too late in some leagues, in fact -- but to say he's in the same class as Marques Colston or even Eric Decker is fallacy.

I got into a big discussion with my brother-in-law about this and want to know what you think. Is there any benefit to getting a quarterback and wide receiver (or tight end) from the same team, such as Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham? -- Charles Grey (via Facebook)

SW: With those two, in that offense, it can't hurt. I can't imagine either of them bombing more than once or twice this year -- and probably not at the same time.

The downside to the approach is that if the team has a poor offensive showing, you feel the impact twice over, but that's not nearly as much of a concern for that duo as it is for, say, Andrew Luck and Reggie Wayne.

The upside to the approach is that if the two hook up for a touchdown in real life -- which, in the case of Brees and Graham, figures to happen pretty often -- your Fantasy team gets double the credit. You get two touchdowns even though only one actually occurred, which is pretty magical if you think about it -- like something you'd expect to need cloning or a parallel universe to accomplish.

But in the end, Brees' touchdowns will add up to the same number of points regardless of whether or not you own Graham, and Graham's will add up to the same number of points regardless of whether or not you own Brees. If Tom Brady contributes the same number of touchdowns as Brees and Rob Gronkowski contributes the same number of touchdowns as Graham, your Fantasy team is rewarded the same regardless of how you mix the two pairs. Though your points seem to pile up faster when you own the two from the same team, it's just a mirage.

Personally, Charles, I try not to worry about it too much. Building a winning team is hard enough without stressing over such details. I'd be a little wary of drafting Drew Brees, Jimmy Graham and Darren Sproles -- or any three players from the same team -- with my first three picks, but if I got two of them, I wouldn't consider it an especially favorable or unfavorable development.

Stay in touch with the most passionate Fantasy staff in the business by following us via Twitter @CBSFantasyFB or Facebook . You can also follow Scott via Twitter @CBSScottWhite .

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