The NFL preseason rolls into Week 2. Unlike in Week 1, all 32 teams will be in action. It starts with a two-game slate on Thursday, featuring the Steelers vs. the Eagles and the Washington Football Team vs. the Patriots.
There are some key differences between the preseason and the regular season from a DFS perspective. For starters, the rosters are substantially larger. Each team currently has 90 players on its roster, but that number will be trimmed to 53 before the regular season. Most teams use the preseason to try and evaluate their entire roster, so expect nearly every player to see the field.
Volume is everything in the preseason. If the starters only play one or two drives before ceding to the backups, the backups will inherently carry more fantasy value. Talent is simply not that important. Maybe the starters can score a touchdown in their limited playing time, but chasing volume is a more sustainable strategy in the long term.
Luckily, FantasyLabs now has preseason projections in our NFL Models to help you build your lineups. Let’s dive into Thursday’s two-game slate.
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The QB position has some intriguing options on Thursday, but Mac Jones stands out as my preferred target. The Patriots’ depth chart at quarterback is pretty thin. They currently have four players on the roster, but Jarrett Stidham will miss the next three months after back surgery. That leaves Cam Newton, Jones and Brian Hoyer.
Newton is the starter, and there has been no report on how much he will play in the preseason opener. That said, it seems unlikely that the Patriots would push him too hard. Newton has an extensive injury history, so putting him at risk during an exhibition doesn’t make much sense. Hoyer is the third-string quarterback, but this will be his 13th NFL season. He doesn’t necessarily need many reps during the preseason, especially since he already spent last year in the Patriots’ system.
That leaves Jones, who is the future of the quarterback position in New England. He was selected with the No. 15 pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, and the expectation is that he will take the job from Newton at some point. Getting him as many reps as possible during the preseason will only expedite that process. He could very easily play an entire half in this contest, which would be a lot of playing time for a preseason QB.
Jalen Hurts will serve as the Eagles’ starting quarterback this season, barring a trade for someone like Deshaun Watson. It’s unclear how much he’ll play in the first preseason game, but head coach Nick Sirianni has indicated that he wants the first-string offense to get some reps. Hurts will always be a viable fantasy option because of his legs, and he can do some damage if he plays a few drives.
Taylor Heinicke is the guy to consider for Washington. Kyle Allen is unlikely to play, while Ryan Fitzpatrick is barely expected to break a sweat. That leaves Heinicke to play upwards of a full half, and he was excellent in his playoff start vs. the Buccaneers last season.
The Steelers are expected to use a similar QB rotation as they did in the Hall of Fame Game, making their QB situation the least valuable. Mason Rudolph led their QBs in passing yards vs. the Cowboys, Dwayne Haskins had the most attempts, and Joshua Dobbs threw the only touchdown. Chasing the volume with Haskins seems like the best choice, and he’s projected for the most fantasy points out of the trio in our NFL Models.
The Steelers used their first-round pick on running back Najee Harris, and he profiles as an excellent NFL running back. He was a five-star recruit out of high school, and he did nothing at Alabama to diminish his ranking. He racked up at least 1,224 rushing yards in his final two collegiate seasons, and he also displayed impressive receiving skills out of the backfield. Harris also tested well athletically, ranking in the 91st percentile for Speed Score per PlayerProfiler. He’s not exactly the fastest running back in the league – he ran a 4.48 40-yard dash at his pro day – but that’s more than acceptable considering his size.
Harris was good but not great in his preseason debut. He finished with seven carries for 22, and he also added a reception. Head coach Mike Tomlin told reporters he has “no plans of holding Harris back” in their second preseason game, so expect a better performance vs. the Eagles. The fact that Benny Snell Jr. and Kalen Ballage were both held out of practice on Tuesday also bodes well for Harris on Thursday.
Rhamondre Stevenson is another rookie running back who could get some extensive work on Thursday. Patriots running backs coach Ivan Fears has comped him to LeGarrette Blount, and he reportedly displayed some pass-catching chops during OTAs. He grades out as a subpar athlete, but that didn’t stop him from averaging 7.3 yards per carry during two years at Oklahoma. I’m expecting the Patriots to give the fourth-round pick a long look during the preseason.
Let’s stick with the rookie RBs. The Eagles used a fifth-round pick on Kenneth Gainwell, and he leads their RBs in projected fantasy points on Thursday. We don’t know how they plan to utilize their RBs vs. the Steelers, but betting on rookies to get the most work is typically a smart strategy.
Washington’s running back rotation figures to be the least valuable on Thursday. They have six RBs on their active roster, and it wouldn’t be surprising if all six players saw some work vs. the Patriots. Avoiding the established players and focusing on Lamar Miller, Jonathan Williams, and Jaret Patterson makes the most sense if you want to target this situation. Williams and Patterson were undrafted free agents over the past two seasons, while Miller will be looking to revive his career in his first year with Washington.
Receiver is the toughest position to project during the preseason. Most teams will play a large rotation at the position, and the production will likely be spread out.
To put that in perspective, the Steelers had 18 players receive at least one target in the Hall of Fame Game, while the Cowboys had 24. However, none of those players had more than five targets, and only five saw at least four. In other words, there’s a lot of variance at the position, so using a large player pool makes the most sense.
One thing to keep in mind is that stacking quarterbacks and wide receivers is still a viable strategy. If you’re going to play the starting quarterback, pairing him with the starting receivers is more viable. Even if those players may not see as much playing time as the backups, at least their scoring will be correlated. The same goes for the second and third stringers.
Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t dive into the rosters for each team and try to identify some of the stronger options.
The Steelers wide receiver corps could be somewhat thin. JuJu Smith-Schuster didn’t play in the Hall of Fame Game, while Chase Claypool has been banged up recently. James Washington and Ray-Ray McCloud also did not practice on Tuesday. Make sure to monitor what the beat reporters are saying about those four players leading up to kick-off.
Anthony Johnson is someone who stands out for the Steelers. His three targets were tied for the second-highest mark on the team vs. the Cowboys, and that was with Claypool seeing four targets. He was extremely productive in college, ranking in at least the 82nd percentile in Dominator Rating, yards per reception, and target share.
Since I’m focusing on Hurts for the Eagles, I will probably keep my exposure to their top pass catchers. Devonta Smith is currently out with an injury, so that means Jalen Reagor and Travis Fulgham make the most sense as stacking partners.
If you’re looking for someone further down the depth chart. J.J. Arcega-Whiteside is an interesting option. He has struggled to make an impact after being drafted in the second round in 2019, but he has NFL-caliber athleticism. He also dominated in his final college season at Stanford. John Hightower and Quez Watkins are other viable options.
Washington’s top receivers on the depth chart are Terry McLaurin and Curtis Samuel, but I’m not expecting much from either. Samuel is currently on the PUP list, while McLaurin has nothing to prove in the preseason.
I’m focusing on two of their more recent draft picks at the position. Dyami Brown was selected in the third round of the 2021 draft, and he averaged at least 20.0 yards per reception in his final two collegiate seasons. Antonio Gandy-Golden was a 2020 fourth-rounder, and he was a favorite of the dynasty community. He was quiet in his rookie season, but he’s a big, physical target who dominated in his final year at Liberty.
The Patriots have one of the deepest position groups on the slate. They have 11 players currently at the position, although Nelson Agholor was held out of practice on Tuesday. Agholor figures to start at the position alongside Kendrick Bourne and Jacobi Meyers, but it remains to be seen if he’ll suit up on Thursday.
N’Keal Harry is the most intriguing name here. He’s a former first-round pick, but he has struggled to make an impact in the pros. The Patriots were reportedly looking to trade him, but he has drawn rave reviews at camp. Expect them to give him every opportunity to prove his worth during the preseason.
Tight end is an absolute dumpster fire during Week 1 of the preseason, with no position historically providing less fantasy production. Avoiding the position altogether makes sense in the single-game format, but you have to use one in classic contests.
I’m most interested in Pat Freiermuth on Thursday’s slate. He’s another rookie for the Steelers – he was selected in the second round of the draft – and he recently returned to practice after missing the Hall of Fame game. He is expected to see a lot of playing time vs. the Eagles per The Athletic’s Mark Kaboly, which is enough to make him the strongest option at a weak position.
If you’re looking to go in a different direction, Zach Ertz could make some sense. Hurts has reportedly been leaning on the tight end position during training camp practices, while Dallas Goedert has reportedly struggled after failing his conditioning test at the start of camp. Goedert will eventually emerge as the starting TE in Philly, but Ertz might be more up to speed at the moment.