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Seven Essential Tips for Watching Pre-Season Football
Paul Sandy
August 7, 2008
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Here we go again.

Another NFL preseason is about to kick into full gear. It’s a dangerous time of the year for fantasy owners. Put too much stock in a player’s performance during the preseason and you’re likely to make a mistake come draft day. Ignore it completely and you won’t be prepared to make informed draft-day decisions.

How to measure the value of preseason games is a subject of great debate among fantasy enthusiasts. Many swear that preseason games are a waste of time and nothing valuable can be gleaned. Others over-think the preseason and do more harm than good to their fantasy draft. 

Personally, my biggest annoyance about preseason football is when an NFL player displays impressive talent in a preseason game and fantasy football owners completely write off the performance because it’s a meaningless game. Yeah, the explosive TD run or the acrobatic catch might have come against a second-string defense. I get it. But anyone who tries to tell you that preseason games are worthless when it comes to judging fantasy talent is more full of it than a Biffy on the third day of a Lollapalooza festival.

Let’s not forget during the 2007 preseason, a guy name Adrian Peterson foreshadowed what was to come with a dominant 103-yard performance against the Jets, including a 43-yard run punctuated with a violent forearm shiver on a defensive back. Or consider Earnest Graham, who finished the preseason last year ranked 14th in rushing yards. He totaled 126 yards on 27 carries, averaging 6.8 yards per carry. While Graham’s preseason effort wouldn’t have been enough to merit a pick in your fantasy draft, it might’ve made you more likely to snatch him up when Tampa’s RBs started dropping like rocks during the middle of the season.

So if you’re not supposed to trust preseason stats wholeheartedly and you’re not supposed to ignore them completely, what exactly are you supposed to do? Here are seven tips to help you navigate the preseason minefield. Follow these guidelines and you’ll be on your way to watching the preseason the “right way”. 

1. Give Established Veterans the Benefit of the Doubt.
Veterans aren’t dumb. Most of them have already earned their roster spot. If a player is as deeply entrenched in their starting role as Pat Williams in a hammock, that player doesn’t have much incentive to go full speed during the preseason, does he? Said player won’t lay it all on the line and risk injury before the season even begins. So it shouldn’t concern you if Terrell Owens finishes the preseason with four catches and zero touchdowns. Don’t think twice if Matt Hasselbeck has a QB rating under 85.0 when draft day arrives. For established vets like these guys, you probably should avoid even making a minor shift up or down your player rankings based on preseason performance.

2. Focus Your Attention on Rookies and Veterans Who are Competing for Playing Time.
While established vets generally have little to play for during the preseason, rookies and other youngsters play their butts off and typically give 100% on every play. The same can be true for veterans who have found themselves in a competition for a roster spot and/or playing time. If there are any segments of players who you can judge based on preseason performance, these are the two categories. Tune in to see them play live. Watch them on replays on NFL network. Observe them on ESPN highlights. Study how they did in box scores.

3. Look for Men Among Boys.
As you’re observing rookies and young players, look for guys who seem to be performing at an entirely different level than the competition. Some guys just have “it.” Exactly what “it” is can be hard to wrap your head around. But every once in awhile you’ll see a game or a highlight reel in which a player just wows you with pure unadulterated talent and stands out as a “man among boys.” Those are the plays worth noting. Those are the players worth keeping an eye on. I keep hearkening back to Peterson during the 2007 preseason, when he absolutely destroyed the Jets defense. Did much of his playing time come against second-stringers? Yes, but against those second-stringers he stood out so much that it was clear Peterson had something special. It won’t always be this obvious. Players will sometimes show a flash of greatness during a single play—like a punishing run, an acrobatic catch in traffic, a juke move, or a pass route in which a WR catches a slant an outruns the entire secondary.

4. Learn to Recognize Fluke Performances.
Is it cool when, during a preseason game, a RB squirts through the line untouched and sprints 71 yards for a touchdown? Is it exciting when a WR gets 15 yards behind the coverage, catches a bomb, and coasts in for a 65-yard score? Absolutely. Preseason games are usually mind-numbingly dull. Plays like that give you something to cheer for. However, in the grand scheme of things, big gainers of this nature can most likely be attributed to a busted coverage by the defense. They would rarely happen during the regular season. The preseason is filled with all sorts of fluke plays that turn into ESPN highlights. It’s a product of many inexperienced players on the field all at once. Learning to recognize what’s a fluke and what’s for real is critical.

5. Monitor All Injuries Like a Hawk.
If you pay attention to nothing else during the preseason, pay attention to injuries. Tweaked hamstrings. Pulled groins. Ankle sprains. Turf toe. Hang nails. They all matter. Many of these bumps and bruises have a way of lingering into the regular season and can absolutely derail a player’s fantasy value. If a WR or RB pulls a groin or suffers a high ankle sprain and gets the “day-to-day” tag . . . buyer beware. Given the misinformation about injuries that gets spewed about by head coaches these days (I’m looking at you Belichick), it’s a risk taking a player who has suffered an injury that has the potential to linger or be re-aggravated. The last thing you need is to spend a pick on a guy who has a sprain or pulled muscle that will denigrate his stats for several weeks into the season.

6. Ignore Wins/Losses and a Team’s Overall Offensive Productivity.
The preseason is not a good time to make grandiose judgments about an offense’s ability to move the football and score points. Take the Indianapolis Colts for example. Over their last 13 preseason games, Peyton Manning and company have just three wins and they’ve averaged only 16 points per game. Last year, if you had made the decision that Joseph Addai was going to be a rookie bust because the Colts couldn’t move the ball effectively during the preseason, you would’ve been badly mistaken. Addai and the Colts offense followed up a mediocre preseason with a tremendously productive regular season, just as they have done time and time again. Don’t use the preseason as a measuring stick for how a team is going to perform come September. It’s better to concentrate on the performance of individual players.

7. Beware of “Coach Speak”.
Head coaches have all sorts of agendas during the preseason. When a coach raves about a player’s performance during training camp, it could simply mean that player is genuinely having a heck of a training camp. However, coaches also pump up one player to light a fire under another guy—sending a signal that he’d better step up or risk losing playing time. On other occasions, a coach gives props to a player right before he releases him, a tip of the hat to the player that says to other teams “this guy still has a future in the NFL”. Don’t take a coach’s statements at face value. More often than not there’s hidden meaning or alternative agenda.

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