Does Preseason Production Matter?

Jacob Feldman


August has arrived, which means the preseason is underway. We’re finally able to watch football on TV once again and people are getting all hyped up about the coming season. You’ll likely see more waiver wire moves over this month than the rest of the off-season combined as everyone tries to pounce on the big name for that day. Every year I watch all of this and sit back thinking, “Does the pre-season even matter?”

For years I watched the Peyton Manning-led Colts go 0-4 in the pre-season only to have double digit wins in the regular season each and every year. When you consider the starters for each team only play about four quarters worth of time over the four games and the schemes on both offense and defense are very vanilla, how much can we really tell from the preseason about a player’s dynasty future? Does it really matter if Billy Bob Smith catches seven of nine targets for 112 yards and a touchdown if he is catching passes from the third string quarterback and is being covered by a defensive back who was bagging groceries a few weeks ago (and will be back there in a few more weeks)? Yet I can promise you there will be a nice blurb somewhere about Billy Bob and he’ll be one of the top waiver adds in most leagues.

With most of the starters on the bench for the vast majority of the preseason, it gives those second and third string players a chance to see a lot of time. Granted, it is against other second and third string players, but it is still time. Can we look at the top performers and expect them to be successful in the future? I decided to take a look by going back over the last several years and checking the leaders in each of the major categories. Does preseason success translate to a bright future or is pre-season production largely meaningless?

Pass Catchers

I decided to start with the receivers and tight ends because in most cases they are the easiest position to forecast. It is probably because they are less dependent on the offensive line to create holes or to keep the pocket clean than the other skill positions. With the receivers, I went back to look at the top five players in terms of receiving yards in each of the preseasons over the past few years. Here are the names in order of their performance. Rookies during that season are underlined, because I thought it might make a difference in what it means.

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2014: Allen Hurns, Justin Hunter, Brice Butler, Robert Woods, Travis Kelce

2013: Marcus Easley, Ted Ginn, Ladarius Green, Charles Hawkins, Josh Gordon

2012: Travaris Cadet, Julio Jones, Antonio Brown, Damaris Johnson, Joseph Morgan

2011: Antonio Brown, Taj Smith, Matthew Slater, Larry Fitzgerald, Vincent Jackson

2010: Victor Cruz, Matt Willis, Adrian Arrington, Max Komar, Deon Butler

2009: Jayson Foster, Ashley Lelie, Ronald Curry, Dane Looker, Aaron Walker

2008: David Clowney, Robert Meachem, Jason Hill, DeSean Jackson, Josh Morgan

2007: Shaun McDonald, Lance Moore, Chris Henry, Paris Warren, Anquan Boldin

Overall, the list seems pretty solid in recent years and has an awful lot of “Who is that?” towards the end. To me, this is just our recency bias kicking in. It is very likely when we look back at the 2014 and 2013 lists in a few years we will think the same thing about them that we do about 2008 and 2007. Overall, if you take out the established veterans who popped up after several years in the league (like Boldin in 2007, Fitzgerald in 2011 and Jackson in 2011) as well as a few second year players refining their game (like Jones in 2012, Brown in 2012 and Gordon in 2013), the list is largely a bunch of misses.

If we look only at the rookies who excelled in the preseason, there are ten of them. Of those ten, Jackson and Cruz are obviously both very successful and some might say Hurns could be considered a success, though definitely not at the level of the others – that is at best 30 percent. Those aren’t very good chances.

Aside from the rookies mentioned above, the only player who really broke out in the preseason without doing so in the regular season first was Antonio Brown in 2011. That means we are looking at three, maybe four young players out of the entire list. The jury is still out on some of the 2014 leaders, but Hurns and Woods were the most productive last year and they weren’t even WR3s.

Running Backs

It isn’t looking like using pre-season production for the receiver position is a very good predictor of future fantasy relevance. Let’s try the running back position. Once again, I’m looking at total yards for the entire pre-season. Here are the leaders each year in order.

2014: Lorenzo Taliaferro, Henry Josey, Joe Banyard, Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams

2013: Khiry Robinson, Jordan Todman, Joseph Randle, Christine Michael, David Wilson

2012: William Powell, Rashad Jennings, Nate Eachus, Alfred Morris, Justin Forsett

2011: Kendall Hunter, Da’Rel Scott, Armond Smith, Ryan Mathews, Jonathan Dwyer

2010: Anthony Dixon, Michael Bennett, Cedric Peerman, Jonathan Dwyer, Jackie Battle

2009: Tyrell Sutton, Gartrell Johnson, Aveion Cason, Lance Ball, Dominique Dorsey

2008: Marcus Mason, Rashard Mendenhall, DeAngelo Williams, Thomas Clayton, Chris Johnson

2007: Thomas Clayton, Gary Russell, Pierre Thomas, Ahmad Bradshaw, Jason Snelling

Once again the list at the top looks better than the more distant years, but I think that is just because we still believe in most of the young backs in 2014 and 2013 and refuse to believe that almost all of them will turn out to be wasted roster spots. A few things stand out when looking at this list. First, there are a ton of rookies up there. Over half of the top players, in fact. This makes some sense, though. NFL teams often take on at least one UDFA at the position and then have any running back they drafted. Almost all of the non-rookies are players in their second year with a few players who are veterans on new teams.

If we ignore the six rookie rushers in 2014 and 2013 since it is a little too early to give a definitive answer on any of them, we are left with 17 rookies. Of those 17, at best five of them turned into solid fantasy assets for at least a limited period in their career. Once again, we are talking at best a 30 percent hit rate when it comes to pre-season production translating to fantasy relevance. The veterans are even worse. Of the 17 veterans up on the list, there are only two times where a top five pre-season finish translated to more than 700 rushing yards that year, Mathews in 2011 and Williams in 2008.


This was only a very brief look into the correlation between preseason production and fantasy relevance. Typically I would be in favor of a much more detailed analysis, but there seems to be almost no connection between the two even on the surface. If you’re someone who tends to chase preseason box scores and stat lines with your waiver adds, it might be an exercise in futility. Much like a lot of the NFL teams, success in the preseason does not seem to translate into regular season success.

My advice to you if you are watching preseason games is to ignore the production and instead pay attention to everything else. Does a player look comfortable in the offensive system? When did they come into the game? For running backs, how was their pass protection? Did the pass catchers have any drops? Items of that nature seem to be much more important than if the run went for two yards or 12.

Don’t let yourself get sucked up in the hype of pre-season production! It seems to be just another case of fool’s gold.


jacob feldman