Fantasy Football: 3 Things We Learned in the NFL Offseason

To say that this was a unique preseason for the NFL would be an understatement the size of AT&T Stadium. While the NFL has cancelled preseason games before for unsafe playing conditions, most recently in 2001 and 2016, the sweeping cancellation of all preseason games due to concerns surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented step in the history of the league.

The calls for shortening the preseason have been ringing out for years, citing the fact that the games don't provide any value to fans, players, or teams beyond determining who might fill a team's last couple roster spots. But for the hardcore fantasy player or DFS grinder, the preseason provides valuable intel into depth charts, offensive tendencies, and preferred targets from quarterbacks.

With no preseason games, we are left to digest practice reports, coach interviews, and roster moves to make educated guesses as to how team offenses will work and what roles certain players will have. Even in the absence of game film, however, this offseason taught us plenty that can help fantasy players prepare for the grind ahead.

New and Shiny Things are Fun, but Experience Matters in 2020

Remember when Ke'Shawn Vaughn was drafted in the third round by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in April? There was unending hype talking up Vaughn as an outstanding pass-catching back, and he had fantasy owners salivating at the thought of acquiring his services for the annual shootout that is the NFC South schedule. Well, that was fun while it lasted.

Since that time, Bruce Arians and the Bucs have brought in running backs Leonard Fournette and LeSean McCoy to compete with Ronald Jones, crowding up that backfield to the point where none of them may be useful in 2020.

It doesn't stop there, as the Detroit Lions, New England Patriots, Baltimore Ravens, and Indianapolis Colts have all brought in veteran backs or given votes of confidence to veterans ahead of Week 1, much to the dismay of dynasty drafters everywhere. Similarly with pass-catchers, teams like the Dallas Cowboys and the Washington Football Team have buried promising rookie receivers on their initial depth charts in favor of more experienced players.

With no preseason games to develop rapport, get game-speed reps, and see rookies up against elite defensive talent, veteran quarterbacks and coaches are simply going to need more time to evaluate these promising first-year players once pads are on and the games begin.

Savvy fantasy managers will look at teams like the Las Vegas Raiders, Denver Broncos and the San Francisco 49ers as teams who must be impressed by their rookie receivers, as they have them listed as starters in initial reported depth charts. Even in a normal year, this would be unusual, so these rookies who come out of the gate in the starting lineup must have had tremendous camps and have already developed the trust of their coaches and players.

Of course none of this applies to Clyde Edwards-Helaire. He will be the best rookie since Barry Sanders (all fantasy analysts are obligated to say this).

We Must be Prepared for Unpredictable Line Play

In recent years, more and more of fantasy football has become about looking into the trenches. Specifically, which running backs are better correlated to success because they are tied to strong offensive lines, or which fantasy D/ST options are more valuable because their line creates more pressures on a quarterback.

Some quarterbacks might see a slight uptick in value because their offensive lines are elite at pass protection and giving their signal-caller more time to operate. If we have a tough start/sit decision to make at running back, we might look at a team's run-stuff percentage and how much penetration their opponents' defensive line allows.

This year, because of the nature of the position, those trends might be harder to analyze, particularly in the early going. Out of the 66 players who opted out of the season due to COVID concerns, 30 of them were offensive or defensive linemen. A number of those who opted out cited the fact that linemen are almost literally breathing down each other's necks every time they line up. Many thought the risk was too high.

This creates massive holes in key aspects of a team. Squads like the Patriots and the Cleveland Browns will be especially affected by this. and the overall impact is still to be determined.

We will be tracking the impact of these unknowns all season long on our power-rankings page. This page, which is updated daily, will track the overall offensive and defensive production for each team -- for both rushing and passing -- via our Net Expected Points metric.

Betting Line Movement Says Load up on Cowboys, Colts, and Lions

Looking at some of the Vegas line movement since win totals were first released after the NFL draft, bettors are expecting big things for the Dallas Cowboys, Indianapolis Colts, and Detroit Lions. These teams (along with the Buccaneers) represent the largest increase in projected win totals over the last few months.

With the Cowboys, it's no surprise people are loading up on the over for America's Team. The Cowboys possess perhaps the most intimidating offense in the NFC, adding dynamic wide receiver CeeDee Lamb to a core of Dak Prescott, Ezekiel Elliott, Amari Cooper, and Michael Gallup.

Jason Witten's 83 targets from 2019 are also gone, allowing tight end Blake Jarwin to step into the role. Jarwin ranked fifth among all tight ends last year in fantasy points per pass route.

With so many weapons and the Cowboys staring down the ninth-easiest strength of schedule in 2020, points should be aplenty in Dallas this year.

While adding Philip Rivers as quarterback moved the Cols' line somewhat, drafting Jonathan Taylor to run behind one of the league's top offensive lines may have been what sent bettors running to pound the over on the Colts. Taylor's missed tackle percentage at Wisconsin was far and away the best in his draft class, and he should soon supplant Marlon Mack as the primary back for Indianapolis.

Facing the league's second-easiest schedule, including nine of their 16 games against teams ranked in the bottom-third of team defenses, the Colts very well may have an explosive offensive unit this year with Taylor added to the likes of T.Y. Hilton and Parris Campbell.

For Detroit, it's all about the health of Matthew Stafford and him getting back the touch on his deep ball. We know the weapons are there. They have the smooth tones of Kenny Golladay, Marvin Jones, T.J. Hockenson, and Detroit also drafted D'Andre Swift, an electric back.

In his nine healthy weeks in 2019, Stafford ranked second in adjusted yards per attempt and fourth in fantasy points per game. When Stafford is healthy and the play-calling is in tune with his strengths and not some ineffective running scheme, this Lions' attack is one of the top offenses in the league and worth getting exposure to.

The Lions also have a top-five easiest schedule, with only their matchups against the Chicago Bears projected to be games against top-10 defenses.