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Football is almost back!
Sure, it might only resemble NFL football for about four plays before the backups come in, but at the very least we'll see real NFL uniforms and logos when the Cardinals and Cowboys kick off the 2017 preseason in the Hall of Fame game Thursday. That counts for something, right?
If nothing else, it's another milestone on the way to the season. We might not learn much from the first game of the preseason, because the Cardinals and Cowboys might not even play their starters at all Thursday. They've got four more preseason games to figure out any position battles, and there aren't necessarily any interesting ones to sift through on those teams anyway.
However, there's still plenty to be gleaned from the preseason. You can't take everything you see at face value – and statistics might be nearly useless – but you can't just ignore the preseason as you prepare for your Fantasy draft. Preseason, along with training camp, is where position battles are won, league-shaping injuries go down, and breakout stars emerge.
Of course, you need to know what you're watching for. Last week, we ran down all of the, and a lot of those are still very much in play. With an eye on the preseason itself, here are some simple rules to keep in mind to help you get the most out of the upcoming exhibition schedule.
Don't worry about stats
You know who led the NFL in rushing yards last preseason? Mack Brown. No, not the former Texas coach. Brown capped off the preseason with a 149-yard performance (punctuated by a 60-yard touchdown), only to end up on the Redskins practice squad. Washington did eventually bench their starter, but it wasn't Brown who was the beneficiary.
Tajae Sharpe was another player who impressed last year. He worked often with the first team, as he would in the regular season, but his nine catches for 163 yards ultimately didn't turn into what we were hoping to see in the regular season.
The preseason isn't totally meaningless, but it's important to remember we're talking about tiny sample sizes here. Typically, starters may only play three quarters' worth of actually football spread over four games, and that just isn't enough to go on. One big play against someone about to get cut could totally skew the numbers.
Do worry about who plays, and where and when
What made Sharpe a favorite sleeper wasn't really his production, but the fact he worked so often with the first team. That may not have led to much production, but Sharpe did actually end up leading Titans wide receivers in snaps last season. It predicted something, at the very least.
Because first-team reps are so rare, teams aren't going to give them out to just anyone in the preseason. They might mix in a reserve here and there to see what they can do, but by the time the third game rolls around, the starting lineup should start to take shape.
If the third week of the preseason comes around and Kenny Stills is still playing more than DeVante Parker, or Samaje Perine is getting as much work with Kirk Cousins under center as Rob Kelley, those could be clues as to how their respective breakout seasons might go.
Don't ignore even "minor" injuries
We'll hear a lot about injuries over the next few weeks, and even seemingly minor ones shouldn't be written off. When it comes to established players, missing some time in training camp or preseason isn't a big deal, because they won't need much time to get acclimated to their systems, but we're already seeing Andrew Luck's value fall due to questions about his status. It's easy to be optimistic in the preseason, but pay attention to timelines, and don't just assume every player will hit their most optimistic schedule. Just because Andrew Luck could be back in time for Week 1 doesn't mean you should assume he'll be 100-percent ready to go by then. Rushing back from injuries in Week 1 is an easy way to ruin a whole season.
The stakes are even higher for young players who get hurt in the preseason. Will Fuller may be back in time for the start of the regular season from his broken collarbone, but he's a second-year player working with a new quarterback. He needs all the reps he can get to earn his coach and quarterback's trust, and it's only natural to think it may take him some time to get his feet under him whenever he is healthy.
A preseason injury can completely derail a young player's development, as we saw with Josh Doctson in 2016. He was healthy enough to play in the team's first two games after missing the preseason with an Achilles injury, but he didn't see the field again after Week 2. Don't be afraid to downgrade a young player who misses the whole preseason, even if they claim to be healthy by the time the games count.
Don't ignore the offensive lines
Those big fellas down low don't get a lot of love, but they'll see more of the field in the preseason together than anyone else in the starting lineup on offense. That makes sense. Offensive line success isn't all about continuity – talent obviously matters – but you need all five guys working on the same page.
Those guys get as many reps as they need in the preseason, so keep an eye on injuries to lines. They don't make headlines, but just ask the Vikings how important those offensive linemen are. Their running game simply couldn't get anything going after losing a starting tackle and guard in the offseason and releasing their incumbent starter at center. That much turnover without time to gel can ruin a season, as it did for Adrian Peterson, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Asiata.
Don't fall into the "WOW" trap
It's easy to fall for the allure of a highlight play, and it's even more of a risk in the preseason. Let's face it: You're not going to watch entire preseason games, the way you will during the season. One flashy play can make a players' name stick in your head, especially at a time when we're starved for anything resembling football.