2022 Fantasy Football Draft Prep: Biggest winners from preseason Week 1 include George Pickens, Travis Etienne

When looking at preseason games to figure out whether I need to make changes to my rankings, I generally don’t care too much about how a player performs, and that’s especially true in the first preseason game. So many teams are barely playing their starters, if at all, that you just can’t take much out of any highlights, no matter how impressive.

Of course, that’s not to say it doesn’t matter at all when a player provides a spark in the preseason. It just mostly matters because coaches are using these games to help decide position battles, so a player who shines in Week 1 may get an extended look with the starters in Week 2. That’s what we’re hoping Dameon Pierce earned with his impressive play Saturday against the Saints.

Pierce led the Texans with 49 yards on five carries, but he only appeared in the game in the second quarter, after Davis Mills had already left the game, per ProFootballFocus.com. Marlon Mack got the start and predictably didn’t do much, rushing for 6 yards on three carries, while Rex Burkhead was inactive. Neither Pierce nor Mack got many chances, but Pierce was impressive enough that you have to hope he did enough to garner a longer look.

I’m not necessarily moving Pierce up in my rankings because of five carries, but that’s mostly because he was already the highest-ranked Texans running back — and I don’t think there’s much upside in this offense anyway. But if he gets more first-team reps in practice and pops in preseason Week 2, he seemingly has a chance to lock in a significant role, and he’ll definitely start moving into the top-100 in drafts in the final weeks before the season starts.

Here are some players whose stock is certainly pointing up after one week of preseason games.

George Pickens

I know I said we don’t want to focus too much on performance, but given the buzz Pickens is drawing in camp, you can’t ignore the impressive catches Pickens made in his preseason debut. He was out there for every one of the first 16 snaps for the Steelers on offense, and although that was with both Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool inactive, Pickens has been running with the first-team in practice with both out there too, so it looks like he’s pretty much locked up a starting spot at this point. Pickens had just five catches for 107 yards in four games last season, but that was coming back from a torn ACL, and it looks like the Steelers may have gotten a steal with their second-round pick. This offense could struggle – it has at times in camp – so you don’t want to go over the top in moving Pickens up, but I suspect we’ll start to see him push into the first 10 rounds in drafts, possibly even eclipsing Chase Claypool. I’m not ready to go there yet, but he’s definitely on the radar. As Dave Richard wrote for CBSSports.com, the secret is out on Pickens.

Travis Etienne

The Jaguars threw Etienne right into the fire, as he played 22 out of 25 snaps in his first game back from missing his entire rookie season with a foot injury. They gave him a chance on all three downs, and while he did have one crucial drop on a third down that would have given the Jaguars a first-and-goal, you have to be happy with nine carries and three targets. I don’t think he’ll be able to keep up anything like that kind of snap share when James Robinson is active, but Etienne is clearly going to be a big part of this offense – and, given that Robinson is coming off an injury that few running backs ever return to full speed from, he could end up dominating touches here.

Jahan Dotson

Carson Wentz played 22 snaps Saturday and Dotson was out there for every single one of them, so they aren’t easing the 16th overall pick in at all. He played primarily on the outside and was out there for every two-receiver set, a good sign for his immediate role. Dotson hasn’t had the kind of hype in Fantasy circles as some of his rookie peers – his ADP of 151.91 is behind Christian Watson, who went after him in the NFL Draft and who has yet to practice! – but he might have as clear a path to an every-down role as anyone from Week 1. I’m not saying Dotson needs to be drafted in the eighth round like Drake London, but he should be drafted in all 12-team leagues .

Isaiah McKenzie

Maybe Jamison Crowder just needed reps after missing some time in camp, but it was surprising to see McKenzie joining Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis on the sidelines for the opener. It seems like a clear indicator that McKenzie is in the lead for the slot role, and that’s been a valuable role in this offense. Davis has all the hype, but McKenzie is an intriguing late-round sleeper.

Alec Pierce

The Colts played their starters 19 snaps, and Pierce was out there for 13 of them. Parris Campbell was on the field for two-wide sets alongside Michael Pittman, and he’s a viable late-round target, but Pierce is big (6-foot-3) and fast (4.41 40-yard dash) and deserves some late-round love of his own.

David Njoku

The Browns utilize their tight ends frequently, and Njoku is the clear top option with the offseason trade of Austin Hooper, as he showed by playing all nine of the snaps with Deshaun Watson at QB. Njoku stayed healthy last season and averaged 9.0 yards per target while showing he still has outstanding athleticism despite some injuries, so if he can take on a bigger role while sustaining that efficiency, he could absolutely be a starting caliber option at tight end, even with Watson facing a long suspension.

Marcus Mariota

I have no idea if Mariota is going to remain the starter for the Falcons all season or if they’ll eventually turn things over to Desmond Ridder to see if he can be the future of the position. However, Mariota reminded us in the preseason opener that he still has a viable Fantasy skill set as he rushed for 23 yards and a touchdown in his lone drive. Mariota barely played the past two seasons as Derek Carr’s backup, but he did have one game where he played 86% of the snaps, and he had 226 passing yards with a touchdown plus 88 rushing yards and an additional score – a 27.8 point effort in six-point per pass touchdown leagues. I’m not saying Mariota is likely to do that as a full-time starter or anything, but he’s probably been better in his career than you remember – 7.5 yards per attempt, 4.3% touchdown rate, 6.0 yards per carry. His mobility is a real asset and could make him a viable streamer or especially a good No. 2 Fantasy QBs this season. Don’t forget about him.

Khalil Herbert

With David Montgomery out, Herbert played every single snap with the first-team offense, so there doesn’t seem to be any question about who the backup to Montgomery is. Not that there necessarily was. The Bears have given Montgomery some pretty massive snap shares over the past few years, and I don’t expect Herbert to matter much if Montgomery is healthy. But he seems to have a clear, valuable role if something were to happen to Montgomery, making him one of the more obvious handcuffs out there.

Isiah Pacheco

The training camp hype is real, as Pacheco was the second back on the field for the Chiefs, playing three snaps out of 11 with Patrick Mahomes. Clyde Edwards-Helaire is still the back to roster here and his role seems secure, but Pacheco seems to have climbed up to second on the depth chart, and there have been opportunities for that spot on the depth chart to make an impact the past few seasons — remember, Darrel Williams averaged 17.5 PPR points in seven starts for Edwards-Helaire last season. Pacheco’s production at Rutgers left a lot to be desired – 3.9 yards per carry as a senior is pretty bad, though the line surely didn’t give him much help – he’s got the size and athleticism (4.37 40-yard dash) and could be one injury away from being the lead back in an elite offense.

Zamir White

White wasn’t as impressive in the second game as he was in the opener, but he did get the start with Josh Jacobs and Ameer Abdullah inactive. It seems like the battle for the No. 3 spot is between White and Drake, and White actually got the start and had more carries and ran more routes with Jarrett Stidham piloting the first team. Drake’s spot on the roster looks like it might be at risk, and with Jacobs on an expiring deal, the Raiders have no long-term commitment to him, there’s a path to White emerging as a factor for the Raiders. You’ll need to be patient, but he’s worth a late-round dart throw.

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