Believe the buzz on Saquon Barkley, Brandon Aiyuk, George Pickens?


Nobody has a more stacked lineup of fantasy football analysts and NFL team reporters than ESPN. It’s the rare “backfield by committee” that is actually a good thing for fantasy football managers.

Every Tuesday this preseason, Mike Triplett will ask our NFL Nation reporters a series of questions about the week’s biggest stories to help with your draft prep. This week’s roundup focuses heavily on breakout candidates such as Brandon Aiyuk, George Pickens, Romeo Doubs and Dameon Pierce. But we also gauge the confidence level in stars returning from injuries, like Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley.

Atlanta Falcons

Will Kyle Pitts be worth the 33rd overall pick (where he went in ESPN’s latest mock draft)? Or should we be worried about his floor with the lack of talent around him?

Pitts should absolutely be in consideration for that range. Marcus Mariota is going to be the starting quarterback, at least in the short term. But whether it’s Mariota or Desmond Ridder, the possibility for quarterback runs is there, which in theory could help Pitts if it sucks in a defender while he’s on a short or intermediate route. And I wouldn’t worry too much about the talent level at the other skill positions. Rookie receiver Drake London will command attention during games, as will running back Cordarrelle Patterson, who can line up anywhere in the formation. Also, don’t forget that coach/playcaller Arthur Smith can use Pitts in a multitude of places. There’s going to be enough questions and intrigue with other players to avoid a triple-team situation. And if it ever did get to that, it probably means Pitts is in the midst of a special season. — Michael Rothstein

Carolina Panthers

How confident should fantasy managers be that Christian McCaffrey will return to form and maintain a heavy workload this season? Enough to make him the first or second overall pick in drafts?

This could be a big year if McCaffrey delivers on the training advice he got from Marshall Faulk — whose sixth and seventh seasons were some of his most productive. Remember, McCaffrey’s injuries the past two seasons have all been of the soft-tissue variety, so nothing with a long-term impact. The Panthers also plan to be smarter on how they rest McCaffrey during the week and use him in games. If he can play 14-17 games, he should again be one of the most productive backs in the league. Just in case, though, put D’Onta Foreman on your roster for insurance. — David Newton

Denver Broncos

You wrote last week that Courtland Sutton is emerging as a go-to target for Russell Wilson in pressure situations. Should Sutton definitely be a higher fantasy priority than Jerry Jeudy? (They were drafted as WR18 and WR19 in the latest mock)

With Tim Patrick’s season-ending knee injury, Sutton’s and Jeudy’s roles will only be more prominent, especially in the red zone. Wilson has shown in training camp he’s going to move the ball around to find the matchups he likes. But he’s also shown in practices and the joint workouts with the Dallas Cowboys that when he really needs a completion or has been moved off his spot by the pass rush, he’s going to look for Sutton. There is always the question of whether those tendencies will hold up in games. Jeudy is too good a route-runner — and Wilson has spent plenty of time working with him — to not be a factor (Jeudy often attends the quarterback meetings). Think of it as early Peyton Manning with the Broncos in 2012 when Demaryius Thomas was clearly Manning’s go-to guy, but Eric Decker led the team in touchdowns. Or in 2014 when Thomas was again the go-to option and Julius Thomas led the team in touchdowns. If both are healthy all the way through the season, they’re both going to likely have their best years. — Jeff Legwold

Green Bay Packers

Romeo Doubs has been generating as much fantasy buzz as any rookie in the NFL this summer. How big of a role do you think he could play, and where does he fit in alongside Allen Lazard and the now-healthy Christian Watson, among others?

Doubs already seems to have developed some chemistry with Aaron Rodgers, who hasn’t hesitated to throw his way in practice. At this point, it’s hard to imagine him being any lower than No. 4 on the depth chart. And depending on the packages, he could be WR2 or WR3. Lazard has been in the WR1 spot most of the time, while Sammy Watkins has gotten a solid amount of reps with the starters as well. Randall Cobb lines up almost exclusively the slot, as always, in three-receiver sets. Doubs is well ahead of Watson at this point, but there’s plenty of time for Watson to make up ground. Gone are the days of the Packers having a star No. 1, but they might have more options than ever. — Rob Demovsky

Houston Texans

You wrote that rookie Dameon Pierce looked like the Texans’ best running back, even before his impressive preseason debut. How big do you think his role could be this season — and how soon could he emerge as RB1?

By the first month of the season, Pierce could take over the starting job. Former Colt Marlon Mack has the most production of the group, which also features Rex Burkhead, but Pierce has the most explosiveness, and it’s only a matter of time until Texans offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton makes Pierce the lead back. — DJ Bien-Aime

Indianapolis Colts

You wrote last week about why the Colts are (gasp) prioritizing their Super Bowl hopes over fantasy football by planning to reduce Jonathan Taylor’s workload. Do you still think he should be the No. 1 overall pick in most fantasy drafts? And should Nyheim Hines be on more fantasy radars?

There is still good reason to pick Taylor No. 1 overall because of his propensity for big plays. Even with fewer touches — and I do expect his touches to be lower — Taylor has the potential to make the most of those opportunities. He recorded explosive plays (10-plus yards) on 15.1% of his runs last season. Among 1,000-yard rushers, only Nick Chubb had a higher rate (18%). And, don’t forget, Taylor was 12th among running backs with 9 yards per catch, so he can do damage in the passing game, too. — Stephen Holder

New York Giants

Saquon Barkley has drawn some impressive reviews early in camp, but some fantasy managers will be understandably hesitant to buy in. How confident should they be that he can return to form?

Barkley has looked the best he has in years. Both quarterback Daniel Jones and coach Brian Daboll used the word “explosive” to describe what they’ve seen. And it matches what is out there on the field every day. In addition, the strength of the Giants’ offensive line appears to be its run-blocking, Barkley should be more involved in the passing game this season, and there isn’t much depth behind him. So his workload will be huge … as long as he’s healthy. That’s the question: Can you trust him to stay healthy? — Jordan Raanan

New York Jets

Breece Hall and Elijah Moore have both drawn a lot of buzz early in camp. How big of a role do you expect each to play this season? And does Zach Wilson’s injury affect either player’s value?

Hall and Moore have the ability to be RB1 and WR1, respectively, by the end of the season. Moore showed signs of becoming that last season from Weeks 8 to 12. In that span, he ranked eighth in the NFL in receptions (28), sixth in receiving yards (382) and tied for fourth in TD catches (four). Then he got hurt and missed the remainder of the season. Most of that came with other QBs, not Wilson. That’s the question: Will Wilson, who had problems putting the ball in the end zone, hurt Moore’s fantasy value? It’s a possibility. Hall is splitting carries with Michael Carter, and that figures to continue. But Hall’s outside speed intrigues the coaches and could result in a bigger role as the season progresses. — Rich Cimini

Pittsburgh Steelers

George Pickens continued his impressive summer with the catch of the weekend. How fantasy-relevant could he be in his rookie season, either early on or as a potential stash-for-later option?

No matter who wins the starting quarterback job, it’s safe to assume Pickens will be a significant factor in the offense. It’s a crowded receiving room with Diontae Johnson and Chase Claypool, but Pickens has carved out a role with his impressive footwork and contested-catch skills. He’s been a favorite target of both Mitch Trubisky and Mason Rudolph in practice, making him a draft-and-stash candidate at the very least. But his fantasy ceiling is high with the Steelers likely to push the ball down the field more often than in recent years. He could have a Claypool-like rookie season (nine TD catches) … or better. — Brooke Pryor

San Francisco 49ers

Brandon Aiyuk has probably generated as much buzz as any player in NFL camps this summer — and quarterback Trey Lance generated as much buzz as any player this past weekend. How high should expectations be for both?

The Aiyuk buzz has been building, for good reason. He has been the team’s most consistent offensive performer in camp and the rapport he built with Lance through an offseason spent together in southern California is no small thing. It’s worth noting that Aiyuk had a similar start to camp last year and then tapered off when he had a hamstring injury late in the preseason. It took a while to get back on track. But short of another injury, it’s not outrageous to think he could lead the team in receptions and receiving yards. Alas, it’s still worth remaining at least a little cautious because this is a team that still pays WR Deebo Samuel and TE George Kittle handsomely.

As for Lance, the Niners have made it clear they aren’t going to ask him to carry the freight for this team. They have a strong defense and the aforementioned talent to go with a good running game. Lance’s camp has come with the ups and downs that will probably be evident this season, especially early on. The upside is hard to deny, especially because he brings a running element that can offset whatever accuracy issues he has. Overall, expectations for Lance should be kept in check. But he’s not a bad stash for later in the season, because the team expects he will get better with every start he makes. — Nick Wagoner

Seattle Seahawks

You wrote that rookie Ken Walker III will have a big role in Seattle’s backfield. How much do you expect him to be used when Rashaad Penny is healthy? And could he develop into an every-down back if Penny misses time?

Walker is going to be a bigger part of Seattle’s backfield than people may realize. I could see the Seahawks giving him about as much of the load as Penny, even when both are healthy. Remember, Penny has carried the ball 20-plus times in a game only twice in his career. That’s, in part, because he’s missed so many games due to injury, but also because he’s just not built to handle a Derrick Henry/Marshawn Lynch-like workload. The Seahawks are going to run the ball a lot and they’re not just going to rely on Penny to do it.

Pete Carroll had a telling comment on Walker last week when he raved about how Walker has “turned the page” from his well-documented struggles with pass protection in college. Walker has also shown much better receiving skills out of the backfield than you might assume for someone who had just 19 catches in three college seasons.

“He could play all three downs and we’d feel comfortable with it,” Carroll said. — Brady Henderson

Tennessee Titans

The brakes got slammed a bit on rookie receiver Treylon Burks’ fantasy hype after his quiet preseason debut. Should veteran Robert Woods be the higher priority in drafts?

Woods should be a high priority because he’ll get plenty of targets. Before his injury last season, Woods averaged 132 targets per season. The Titans aren’t likely to pass the ball nearly as much as the Rams did, but Woods’ 1.3% drop rate over the last five years (tied for sixth lowest among WRs with at least 200 targets) and precise route-running will make him one of Ryan Tannehill‘s favorite pass-catchers. Woods has taken part in full-team practice drills and is on track to play in the season-opener against the Giants. Burks, meanwhile, has also started to earn Tannehill’s trust because of his ability to win on contested catches. The Titans will give Burks plenty of opportunities to get yards after the catch on quick passes off of play-action, especially when opposing defenses stack the box. — Turron Davenport

Washington Commanders

How secure is Antonio Gibson’s role after he coughed up a fumble and gained just 2 yards on four carries in the preseason opener? And should rookie backup Brian Robinson be higher on fantasy radars?

The difference for Gibson this season is that Washington has options if he does continue to fumble. They can use more four-receiver sets with Curtis Samuel healthy and the addition of rookie Jahan Dotson. In that situation, J.D. McKissic can be the running back. They also drafted Robinson, who shows some promise.

They do like Gibson a lot, and he can provide big plays. But they want him to be more consistent in the way he runs — more “one-cut and go.” The coaches say Gibson gets himself in trouble when he becomes indecisive about when or where to cut — and that leads to the ball swinging away from his body, which leads to fumbles. So the running style is more the issue. Bottom line: It’s a big year for Ron Rivera and his program here, and they do have choices. They can’t wait for someone to work out issues. So Robinson could be a solid pick late in fantasy drafts just because it’s possible he’ll more work in the red zone. He runs with more power and he protects the ball. — John Keim

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