Six months after the Seahawks dismantled the Broncos in the Super Bowl, we finally have games. Yes, they may be of the preseason variety, but they’re sweet, beautiful games nonetheless. Although the exhibition season can be wholly meaningless for some — Adrian Peterson can spend August waxing his Maserati — it means everything for others. It may not count in the standings, but the preseason can help prove you’re over an injury-ruined campaign, or ready to climb the next rung of the depth chart. Going team by team, here are 32 players worth keeping an extra eye on this summer.
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Eagles, Zach Ertz: We know Ertz is going to be a bigger part of the offense as a sophomore. The only question is, how much bigger? Coach Chip Kelly is on the record as expecting a second-year leap, but Ertz’s blocking could be a key factor. If he can prove it’s improved in August, he’ll rarely come off the field in September.
Cowboys, Gavin Escobar: A second-round dud as a rookie, Escobar spent the offseason bulking up in a bid to become a better blocker. A 6-foot-6 mismatch with soft hands, the Cowboys are determined to get Escobar more involved, and have been splitting him out wide in training camp. At the very least, a strong preseason could earn Escobar early-season looks in the red zone.
Giants, Andre Williams: Operating as the Giants’ goal-line back since the early days of camp, Williams should secure the role for the regular season as long as he can build on his impressive performance in the Hall-of-Fame game (7/48/1). Williams has serious vulture upside behind 29-year-old starter Rashad Jennings.
Redskins, Robert Griffin III: The “eye test” has (rightfully) lost its luster in sports evaluation, but it will be all important for RGIII this August. Will he look like the lightning bolt he was as a rookie, or the tentative nightmare he was as he rushed back from injury as a sophomore? The answer should go a long way toward forecasting his fantasy value.
Packers, Davante Adams: The No. 53 pick of May’s draft begins his rookie year at No. 4 on the depth chart, but could put serious heat on Jarrett Boykin for No. 3 duties with an impressive preseason. Adams offers PPR upside as a possession receiver with big-time YAC ability. He’s already worth a flier in 14-team leagues.
Bears, Ka'Deem Carey: Matt Forte has been durable throughout his six-year career, but missed four games with a knee injury in 2011, and one with an ankle ailment in 2012. Now 28, Forte is coming off his biggest workload since his rookie year. In other words, he’s a player who might need some spelling this season. Carey will be the one to do it provided he makes his expected pass of Shaun Draughn and Michael Ford on the depth chart.
Lions, Theo Riddick: Buzzed about all offseason, Riddick nevertheless opened camp behind Mikel Leshoure on the depth chart. No one expects that to hold, but the implication is clear: Riddick has to prove his pad-less practice wizardry translates to the playing field. If it does, he’ll be a player worth aggressively targeting in Dynasty leagues.
Vikings, Teddy Bridgewater: With Bridgewater, it’s simple: Show the coaches what they’re looking for in August, and he’ll be starting in September. What OC Norv Turner is looking for is decisiveness. No one wants to start Matt Cassel if they don’t have to.
Saints, Nick Toon: Toon spent the offseason running past defenders in shorts and T-shirts. That’s good, because he didn’t do much of anything in pads as a sophomore. The No. 122 pick of the 2012 draft, Toon missed his entire rookie year with a foot injury. Toon is in the driver’s seat for No. 4 duties behind Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills, but won’t have the job handed to him. He has to earn it on the exhibition field.
Panthers, Kelvin Benjamin: Benjamin’s practice reports have been breathless, with one even declaring he hasn’t dropped a ball all camp. That’s great, but won’t mean anything if he starts muffing passes in the preseason the way he did as a redshirt sophomore at Florida State. Benjamin is ticketed for a big role regardless, but it could be massive if he lights up exhibition action.
Falcons, Devonta Freeman: Ideally, Freeman would open the year as part of a committee, doing a Shane Vereen or Darren Sproles impression (emphasis on impression). But with Steven Jackson battling yet another leg injury, Freeman has a shot at a much bigger role. It’s one the Falcons will feel more comfortable with if Freeman shows well in August, particularly as a pass protector (he was an able one at Florida State). Jacquizz Rodgers is in a failed state, while Antone Smith is a change-of-pace back. Touches are there for the taking for Freeman.
Bucs, Doug Martin: You could argue the answer is actually Charles Sims, but Sims’ role as a pass protector and catcher already seems set in stone. The question is how firm Martin’s grip is on early downs. The answer should be “very” provided he impresses his new coaching staff in exhibition action.
Seahawks, Christine Michael: Michael has been a practice darling for so long that it can be hard to remember this is only his second season. Although most signs point toward an expanded role for Michael as a sophomore, Marshawn Lynch’s recent $1.5 million raise is an indication he’s going to remain among the league leaders in carries. Michael’s preseason prowess could directly affect how many touches he’s allowed to siphon from Beast Mode’s tank. Deep leaguers also need to keep an eye on TE Luke Willson, who could earn a weekly role in the offense by building on last year’s strong finish.
49ers, Carlos Hyde: This is an obvious answer, but there aren’t many other question marks for San Francisco’s offense. Injuries to Hyde’s would-be competition have left him as Frank Gore’s de facto No. 2, but the size of his early-year role could still be determined by the preseason. A bowling ball August could earn Hyde battering-ram duties in short-yardage situations, which would mean immediate fantasy value, not just handcuff status.
Cardinals, John Brown: Brown has been un-coverable in training camp. Those aren’t the words of a Cardinals blogger, but GM Steve Keim. A 5-foot-10, 179-pound lid lifter in the mold of past Bruce Arians receivers T.Y. Hilton and Antonio Brown, Brown has the opportunity to force his way into a big-time rookie role if his preseason performances are anything like his practices.
Rams, Kenny Britt: Going on 26, Britt caught 11 passes in 12 games last season. He was a healthy scratch two of the final three weeks. Not the résumé of a No. 5 receiver, let alone a No. 1. And yet, here we are. Looking like a “changed man” in Rams camp, Britt inexplicably has the opportunity to follow through on his December boast that he’d be somebody’s No. 1 in 2014. A gifted player before his 2011 knee injury, Britt could become the living embodiment of the “stranger things have happened” principle with a strong August.
Patriots, James White: The star of Patriots camp, White could carve out a goal-line role if his preseason progress matches his practice prowess. That’s his floor. A star turn could have him eating into Stevan Ridley’s early-down work, and perhaps even some of Shane Vereen’s passing-game targets. So is life in New England, where no one could blame coach Bill Belichick for growing impatient with Ridley’s fumbling and Vereen’s fragility.
Jets, Stephen Hill: What, you were expecting somebody else? A charter member of the T-shirt and shorts Hall-of-Fame, Hill is again drawing praise for his practice work. The question, as always, is if he can translate it to games. You may already feel you’ve gone to the Hill well one too many times, but it will be worth one final visit if he nails down No. 2 duties opposite Eric Decker.
Dolphins, Brandon Gibson: Returning from a torn patellar tendon, Gibson is penciled in as the Dolphins’ No. 3 receiver, but that’s it. For his role to be written in permanent ink, he’ll have to prove he’s over one of the more serious injuries a receiver can suffer. Nipping at his heels is second-rounder Jarvis Landry.
Bills, Bryce Brown: There’s not a single Bills skill player who isn’t heading into a pivotal preseason. E.J. Manuel needs to show progress, C.J. Spiller needs to prove he’s over his injury-marred 2013, Sammy Watkins needs to justify his draft price, so on and so forth. But we’ll focus on Brown, an explosive but raw playmaker. There are carries to be had in a backfield where Fred Jackson is aging and Spiller has proven hard to trust. Brown can seize them with a strong summer.
Bengals, Jeremy Hill: Some of the players on this list have to play out of their minds to solidify their roles this preseason. Hill just needs to avoid a faceplant. So long as he does, he’ll open the season as the Bengals’ goal-line back, and be a threat for 150 or more carries. He could be a fantasy difference maker.
Ravens, Bernard Pierce: Pierce’s true audition will come in Weeks 1 and 2, when he runs as the Ravens’ unquestioned starter during Ray Rice’s suspension. But Pierce can give himself a head start on stealing Rice’s job with a strong preseason. He’ll need it after being every bit as bad as Rice in 2013. A shaky August will have Pierce veering toward “rental” territory in fantasy leagues.
Steelers, Markus Wheaton: Wheaton is in a similar boat to Hill and Pierce, as his role is pretty much set in stone. His fantasy value is not, however, as he could prove anything from upside WR3 to barely playable WR5. Wheaton flashed his big-play ability last August. He needs to do so again in 2014.
Browns, Miles Austin: You laugh, but depending on the outcome of Josh Gordon’s suspension appeal, Austin is in position to make a Britt-ian rise No. 1 duties. All he needs to do is keep his hamstrings healthy, an admittedly tall task. If Austin can eke out a nice August, he’ll be a dirt cheap WR5 who provides occasional WR2/3 value between leg issues.
Colts, Hakeem Nicks: Nicks’ preseason tasks are the heaviest on this list. Not only does he need to prove that he can still play, but that he even cares if he can still play. This is a player in severe decline, but it’s been a decline aided by Nicks’ indifference. A rough summer could put Nicks on shaky ground as the No. 3 option in the Colts’ young receiver corps.
Texans, Tom Savage: Savage is not going to win the Texans’ starting job in camp. But he can plant a seed, one that suggests he won’t be a total trainwreck if/when the Texans decide to bench Ryan Fitzpatrick. The early reports suggest Savage won’t be up to the challenge, but he can change the narrative in a hurry with a strong preseason.
Jaguars, Blake Bortles: Like Savage, Bortles isn’t going to win the Jaguars’ job this summer. Unlike Savage, he has a much more realistic shot at convincing his team he’ll be ready to make starts in 2014. The Jags have been adamant about their desire to “redshirt” the No. 3 pick of May’s draft, but if he shows well in August and Chad Henne struggles in September, it’s going to be the future sooner rather than later in Jacksonville.
Titans, Bishop Sankey: Like Devonta Freeman, Sankey profiles as a space/change-of-pace back on paper. Like Freeman, circumstance figures to cast Sankey into a bigger role. Although the Titans’ initial depth chart lists Shonn Greene as the starter, it’s a job Sankey is going to get every opportunity to win. The Nashville Tennessean guessed in May that Greene’s roster spot wasn’t even safe. That was a full two months before Greene reported to camp 5-10 pounds overweight. Sankey should earn chairman status of the Titans’ committee with a strong August.
Broncos, Ronnie Hillman: This time last year, Hillman was losing what little he had left of Peyton Manning’s trust by fumbling in a resounding preseason loss to the Seahawks. A year of healthy scratches later, Hillman is getting a second chance to establish himself as the Broncos’ No. 2/change-of-pace back. Hillman has always been error-prone — even in exhibition action — but is still only 22. He has the raw ability to climb out of the doghouse, and back into fantasy relevance.
Chargers, Ladarius Green: It’s not a question of talent or hype. Green has both in spades. It’s a question of how he’ll be utilized by a team that has a future Hall-of-Famer ahead of him on the depth chart. That HOFer, Antonio Gates, is in the twilight of his career, and coming off an extremely slow finish to 2013. Although the Bolts are unlikely to formally bench Gates, Green can continue his push to cut into his snaps whenever he takes the field, exhibition or not.
Chiefs, Travis Kelce: Returning from microfracture surgery, Kelce can nail down a role as one of the Chiefs’ top three pass catchers with a healthy preseason. Essentially a rookie, Kelce is little more than a TE2 flier from a fantasy perspective, but could provide play-making ability the Chiefs sorely lacked outside of Jamaal Charles last season.
Raiders, Andre Holmes: One of the game’s most intriguing under-the-radar talents, Holmes has reportedly been Matt Schaub's "most consistent downfield threat since the team began practicing." He’s already passed Denarius Moore on the depth chart, and could snipe Rod Streater if he pops in the preseason the way he did down the stretch in 2013 (22/366/1 across his final five games).