I have played in a 10-team keeper league for a decade, with essentially the same corps of buddies since the league's inception. For better or worse, we have always drafted in late July-early August, prior to the preseason getting into what many would consider the relevant games before the regular season kicks off. I had never given much thought to the timing of our draft, barring major injuries, as my guys in late July were often my guys in late August. However, much of that changed after a deal I made prior to the kickoff to the 2008 regular season. It was a four-player deal, but for all intents and purposes there were only two relevant players. I was giving up Thomas Jones in order to obtain DeAngelo Williams . Jones was coming off a relatively successful year in 2007, 22nd amongst all RBs despite only scoring 2 TDs. Williams, despite massive success in college at Memphis, had yet to take over what many considered to be a rather weak backfield in Carolina. Saving the specifics of my thinking in offering the deal, my league-mates were flabbergasted that not only had the deal been accepted, but also that I was the one who made the offer in the first place. Why would anyone deal a high-end RB3, borderline RB2 for a guy who had never proven he was good enough at the NFL level to win a RB competition involving the likes of DeShaun Foster? Not only had Williams not been able to win the job, but the Panther offense had been abysmal in Williams' first 2 seasons, averaging 13 points a game in both 2006 and 2007. As we all know, Williams finished 2008 as the top RB, scoring 18 TDs along the way and even though Jones was no slouch either finishing 6th overall, I had clearly won the deal. Again, barring any lengthy specifics, I targeted Williams after watching his performance in the preseason. However, given most saw it as a stroke of luck, is there anything that can consistently be panned from the preseason? What, if anything, should owners be paying attention to as 2nd and 3rd stringers battle on national television for two and sometimes 3 quarters?
Perhaps the most tangible, objective measure to warrant owners' attention in the preseason, injuries tops the list of things to take note of during the preseason. The 2011 preseason saw the end to both fantasy relevant hopefuls Mikel Leshoure and Ryan Williams. Leshoure looked to be the battering ram on a high-octane offense that had struggled finding a closer at the goal line. However, Leshoure never made it to the field in 2011 after he tore his Achilles in early August. Unlike Leshoure, Ryan Williams actually did make it into preseason action, but a ruptured patellar tendon on his first carry led to the end to his 2011 season. The impact injuries will have on a season are not always so easy to discern, however, as Leshoure's and Williams' were. In 2008, proverbial top 3 QB Peyton Manning had two surgeries on his left knee stemming from an infected bursa sac. Manning still finished 7th overall for QBs in 2008, but after finishing in the top three every season since 2003, it was an unexpected drop for most Manning owners. Never a poster child for health, then Falcons QB Michael Vick suffered a fractured fibula in an early preseason game in 2003, forcing him to miss the season's first 10 games. Injuries are obviously impossible to predict, but owners can do themselves a favor keeping an eye on the injury report as teams play their way through the preseason.
For me, offensive role is the biggest predicator for continued success in the regular season. With veterans there is some obvious leeway, but in places with new faces, the preseason is a great spot to get an idea where a team is leaning. I saw a drastic shift for DeAngelo Williams from 2007 to 2008. Williams wasn't playing with the first team in 2007, nor did he obtain the same amount of carries. The Panthers were unhappy with their backfield, as they drafted Jonathan Stewart in the first round, but rookies rarely stepped in day one and took the starting reins. The role was there for Williams with Foster gone and the preseason numbers backed up my feelings about his potential going in to the regular season. Arian Foster is another case of offensive role being defined through preseason play. Foster had ended the 2009 season as the team's starting back and did a great job taking over that starter role in the Texans' final two games, posting 200+ yards and three TDs. If there was any question going into 2010, Foster ran rampant on the Cowboys in the 3rd preseason game. Like the Panthers, Houston had spent an early pick on a RB in the 2010 draft, but the Ben Tate season ending injury early in the preseason left the Texans with little more than Foster to rely on. When looking at offensive role, RB may be the most telling position about what players' roles in the regular season may be.
While production has the potential to back up gut feelings about certain players, I think it is important to take numbers with a grain of salt. If your targeted player is healthy and has a clear, defined role then the production can be an added bonus. Having drafted Cam Newton last season, I didn't like what I saw out of Newton as a passer and looked to deal/drop him. In no way did his preseason production as a passer (42% passer, with 300 yards and one TD) translate to the regular season (almost 900 yards in his 1st two games). No way did I, nor anyone else, expect Newton to produce like he did, but I let the façade of the preseason production cloud my judgment going into the regular season. C.J. Spiller is another player I was hypnotized by in 2010. With both Marshawn Lynch and Fred Jackson injured, Spiller exploded in the preseason, rushing for 122 yards and three explosive TDs. Spiller's role was, at best, part of a three-way RBBC but more than likely 3rd on a depth chart with two uber-talented RBs ahead of him. Again, my judgment was clouded by production, forgetting to take role into account and found myself reaching for the rookie RB out of Clemson. Another highly productive player during the preseason in 2010, Victor Cruz never had the role in that offense until injuries forced him on the field in 2011. Cruz showed tremendous big play ability, scoring four TDs and accumulating nearly 300 yards receiving in the 2010 preseason, but failed to record a single catch in the 2010 regular season. While the production was certainly there for Cruz, the role was not.
So, does the preseason matter for fantasy football purposes? Well, yes and no. It is important to note, ironically, that a game which revolves entirely around stats and production demands those same things be mostly ignored when watching preseason football. Take the preseason games for what they are, football on television after months of baseball and basketball. Take the stats you hold so dear during the regular season and push them aside, but pay attention to who is getting time with the starters and any injuries, serious and nagging alike. There is much to be learned in these supposed meaningless games; owners just have to know what they are looking for.