NFL Reactions: Preseason Week 1 Snap Analysis
NFL Reactions: Preseason Week 1 Snap Analysis

This article is part of our NFL Reactions series.

My rule for the preseason is simple: I care about usage more than results. We're working with samples that are even smaller than those from single games in the regular season, and there's no consistency in how each team treats its exhibitions. Even if a player is lined up with his own team's starters, he may be facing scrubs on the other side, or perhaps a first-team defense using the same coverage every snap.

It's tempting to interpret a strong debut from Deebo Samuel (75 scrimmage yards) as early evidence that I'm correct about him being the best wide receiver from the 2019 draft. But would I ever use a lackluster performance from preseason Week 1 to shift my opinion the other way? Probably not. And that means I'd be hypocritical, or at least inconsistent. 

In this case, a second-round pick is merely doing what he should be doing when he looks good against defensive backs that are clawing for back-end spots on a 53-man roster. The same logic applies to Samuel's teammate Jalen Hurd, who scored his first touchdown against Dallas on a busted zone coverage and his second on a fade route over someone named Tyvis Powell.

Call it skepticism or perhaps indifference. But I promise I'm not just here to be a buzzkill and tell you that everything happening in August is meaningless. There's actionable information to be gained from the preseason once we evaluate the allotment and context of snaps.

My favorite example comes from 2017 when the Rams' new coaching staff kept Todd Gurley on the field for passing downs — including 3rd-and-longs — with the first-team offense throughout the preseason. This may seem like common sense looking back, but remember that Gurley once was known as a classic size/speed downhill bruiser, more in the mold of Adrian Peterson than Le'Veon Bell

Gurley's preseason usage hinted at an every-down role, which then came to fruition Week 1 of the regular season with 20 carries and five targets on 59 snaps. Nobody predicted how efficient he would be with his touches that year, but if you look back at Rotowire's player notes on Gurley from August 2017 you'll see that we were expecting the massive usage.

One of my main goals for the 2019 preseason is to figure out if Leonard Fournette is headed for a somewhat similar fate. The lack of talent behind him in Jacksonville hints at the possibility of three-down usage, especially after the recent release of scatback Benny Cunningham. The 2017 first-round pick isn't someone we think of as a particularly talented pass catcher, but he might be the best option on third downs when the other choices are Alfred Blue, Ryquell Armstead (concussion), Thomas Rawls (hamstring) and Devante Mays.

Coach Doug Marrone said he probably won't use all his starters until the third week of the preseason, so we'll need to wait until Aug. 22 to see if the Jags leave Fournette on the field for obvious passing situations. If they do, I'll move him up a few spots in my redraft rankings and add him to the list of top DFS option for Week 1 ($6,100 on DraftKings).

As for what we've already seen, let's look at a few snap situations that stand out from the first week of preseason games:

O.J. Howard

Howard played the same number of snaps (12) as Jameis Winston, Chris Godwin and the starting offensive linemen Friday in Pittsburgh, while Cameron Brate's first-team work was limited to multi-TE formations. Maybe this seems obvious, but it isn't what Dirk Koetter did the past two seasons. Bruce Arians is a better coach, and now we have our first on-field hint about Howard taking an every-down role. 

Arians has a history of using his tight ends as blockers on pass plays, but those lost routes become less of an issue if Howard rarely/never leaves the field. My love for Travis Kelce and George Kittle in earlier rounds is the only thing stopping me from loading up on Howard shares.

Robert Foster

The offseason addition of fellow deep threat John Brown was our first sign about the Bills lacking confidence in Foster. I didn't think much of it at the time, figuring they'd use Brown and Foster on the outside while Zay Jones manned the slot. Then the Bills signed Cole Beasley to a contract that leaves no doubt about his regular role inside. 

Reports from training camp put Jones well ahead of Foster for the final top-three spot, and it now seems the second-year pro isn't even locked in as a part-time deep threat from the No. 4 position. I do think Foster will end up ahead of Andre Roberts, but the fact we're even having this conversation tells you all you need to know about his redraft value. The Bills are giving us every possible signal that they believe Foster's late-season explosion was a fluke.

Jamison Crowder

The Jets used the same players for all seven first-team snaps last Thursday against the Giants, surrounding Sam Darnold with Crowder, Robby Anderson, Quincy Enunwa, Chris Herndon (suspension) and Ty Montgomery. The team obviously will mix up its formations to some extent during the regular season, but this nonetheless serves as a useful reminder that Crowder's role in the slot shouldn't cost him many snaps.

Coach Adam Gase was known for heavy usage of 11 personnel in Miami, including 74 percent of snaps last season (fourth most) and 73 percent in 2017 (third most). The Jets don't have a true fullback on their roster, and the TE group is weak behind its suspended starter. Given the strong likelihood of heavy 11 usage, Crowder can pile up routes and targets even if he doesn't have a spot in two-wide formations.

I'm actually annoyed that he put up 2-31-1 on two targets in the preseason opener, as it seems to be creating buzz that could lead to a correction of his too-low ADP. The media hype about Crowder pushing for 100 catches is the type of August fluff I'm all too happy to ignore, but he only needs about 60 receptions to be a good fantasy pick relative to ADP.

Remember that Crowder isn't your typical slot guy — he owns career averages of 11.9 yards per catch and 8.0 per target. Gase hinted at this back in March, referring to his new weapon as a "downfield threat" and saying he expects Crowder to catch 70-to-90 passes. Again, we need to take this with a grain of salt, but there is a valid point to be had about the 26-year-old being more explosive than other slot specialists around the league. A Jamison Crowder reception, on average, is worth a lot more to fantasy owners than a Willie Snead or Danny Amendola catch.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jerry Donabedian
Jerry was a 2018 finalist for the FSWA's Player Notes Writer of the Year and DFS Writer of the Year awards. A Baltimore native, Jerry roots for the Ravens and watches "The Wire" in his spare time.
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