The NFL preseason is halfway over, which also means we’re halfway to regular-season football. It’s still early to make the final call on any one player who has shown up and/or shown out over the last two weeks, but it’s undeniable that a few guys have boosted their stock with a pair of strong performances in the opening two weeks of the preseason. This is especially true in regards to fantasy, as the preseason provides a valuable opportunity to sniff out true sleepers, whether they be rookies or vets in a new uniform looking to make an impact.
Here are four players who have increased their fantasy stock halfway through the preseason.
Justice Hill, RB, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens did bring in Mark Ingram from free agency on a three-year deal worth $15 million, but Ingram’s value is at its highest when he’s one part of a two-headed monster. Lamar Jackson is a dangerous runner, but it’s reasonable to assume the Ravens will want to limit designed run plays for their franchise QB, especially in comparison to last year. So who will be Ingram’s partner? So far, it looks like Justice Hill.
Hill has looked excellent in the two games he’s appeared in thus far. He forced nine missed tackles on merely 12 touches this past week, and in general has looked like an electric presence coming out of the backfield. Hill seems to have fantasy value in a similar vein of Tarik Cohen as a dangerous pass-catching back with a lot of value in PPR leagues. Ingram may end up with more total touchdowns, but Hill looks to be a big part of their offense for a rookie.
James Washington, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
I had James Washington pegged as a sleeper before the preseason started, but with the way he’s played, the term no longer applies. Someone has to step up as the No. 2 option for Ben Roethlisberger this year, and so far Washington has seized the opportunity. He led the team with four catches for 84 yards and a touchdown in the opener against the Buccaneers, then followed it up this week with another four catches for 79 yards.
Averaging nearly 20 yards/catch seems unlikely to hold when the games start to matter come September, but he’s establishing himself as a reliable target with upside for yardage gained in chunks. Defenses will zero in on Juju Smith-Schuster and James Conner isn’t quite the receiving threat Le'Veon Bell was as a Steeler, so the targets will absolutely be there for Washington. So far, he’s shown he’s primed to take advantage of them.
Tony Pollard, RB, Dallas Cowboys
No, Tony Pollard will not be receiving the majority of snaps next season barring an injury. Ezekiel Elliott will be suiting up for the season, extension signed or otherwise. That should be our presumption until proven different. But Pollard has taken advantage of Zeke’s absence and has proven, at the very least, he’s an NFL-caliber player of some type. He’s explosive and has shown out in every facet of the game as a running back.
When Elliott does come back, the Cowboys should be happy to give Pollard plenty of touches. Elliott is far better, no doubt about it, but the smart teams in the NFL recognize they have to play the long game when they can as far as it comes to the regular season. Pollard’s ability catching passes out of the backfield opens up some dual-running back sets, and there won’t be a substantial drop-off when Elliott sits like in years past. Pollard isn’t anything more than a fringe flex option as it stands, but he’s proven to the coaching staff that good things happen when he has the ball, and that should be enough to give him some value late in your draft.
Irv Smith Jr., TE, Minnesota Vikings
Not much was expected from the Vikings’ second-round pick in his rookie season — as a whole, Minnesota’s offense wasn’t great last year, and Kyle Rudolph just signed an extension to continue his tenure as incumbent tight end in the Twin Cities. But through two preseason games, Irv Smith Jr. is looking like he’ll play a major part in Minnesota’s newly-revamped offense. Smith has garnered double-digit targets over the last two weeks, and has caught eight passes for 49 yards and a touchdown in that same span.
While the numbers aren’t big, the reason for optimism is twofold. First, Smith’s high target numbers won’t carry over to the regular season, but the fact they’re this high right now means the Vikings intend to give him a lot of snaps starting in September. Secondly, new offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski has preached all offseason about how opposing defenses will see a heavy dose of play-action. The offense as a whole will benefit, but Smith should especially feed off a lot of play-action sets, and the preseason has only granted more possibilities for Smith to rack up big fantasy stats.