Posted August 15, 2013

Preseason Fantasy Challenge: Under-the-radar players we’re watching in Week 2

NFL Preseason
(Mark Zaleski/AP)

Roy Helu got the start in the Redskins preseason opener and is making a strong case to be Alfred Morris’ backup.  (Mark Zaleski/AP)

The opening week of our Preseason Fantasy Challenge was a nail-biter, at least so far as preseason fantasy football nail-biters go … which is not far.

The winner: Chris Burke, by a 32-31 count, thanks to a 14-point showing from Bengals quarterback Josh Johnson.

Week 2 of our competition again takes us beyond teams’ listed starting lineups to the backups, rookies and players hoping to win roster spots. On to the draft:

Round 1

Burke: Kenjon Barner, RB, Panthers.

The Panthers continue to wait on the Artist Formerly Known as Jonathan Stewart to get back from an ankle injury, so Barner should keep on seeing carries — possibly on into the regular season. He fumbled his first touch in the Panthers’ preseason opener but bounced back nicely to compile 54 total yards and a touchdown. He’s a home-run threat every time he touches the ball, and I’ll bank on him finding some room against the Eagles’ ghastly run defense.

Farrar: Roy Helu, RB, Redskins.

Helu gained 57 rushing yards in the preseason opener against the Tennessee Titans, and had another 18-yard run called back by a penalty. Helu has been bedeviled by injuries since he came into the league, but he’s pretty dynamic when healthy, and he always looks good behind Washington’s expert zone-blocking schemes.

Round 2

Burke: Case Keenum, QB, Texans.

The backup QB race is on in Houston, where Keenum and T.J. Yates are fighting tooth and nail for a spot behind Matt Schaub. Given that Schaub missed six regular-season games and the playoffs just two seasons ago, this is a significant duel. Keenum, an undersized QB with an average arm and a record-setting college resume, opened 13-of-18 for 125 yards and a TD last week. He’s playing with confidence right now.

Farrar: Marquess Wilson, WR, Bears.

Wilson dropped to the seventh round in the 2013 draft after falling hard into Mike Leach’s doghouse and leaving his Washington State team, but there’s no question about his ability to get open vertically. He nearly busted a long touchdown reception against the Panthers last week, and grabbed four passes in five targets for 82 yards overall. The Bears need a reliable deep target in Marc Trestman’s offense, and Wilson may very well be that guy.

Round 3

Burke: Clyde Gates, WR, Jets.

Reportedly one of the stars of Jets camp so far, Gates turned in a strong performance against the Lions last Friday. He certainly looked improved in almost every imaginable way from the player who was bumped from the Dolphins’ roster in 2011 and struggled to secure playing time in New York last season. The Jets’ receiver depth chart is unsettled, at best, meaning Gates has a chance to win a spot.

Farrar: Tarvaris Jackson, QB, Seahawks.

Do the Seahawks have the best backup quarterback in the NFL? Sure looked like it when Jackson came in for Russell Wilson against the Chargers last Thursday. Now back in Seattle after a lost year in Buffalo, Jackson took an offense with which he is very familiar and lit up San Diego’s second-teamers for two touchdown passes (including a long gainer to Stephen Williams, a guy worth watching through the preseason), eight of nine passes completed, and a perfect 158.3 quarterback rating.

Round 4

Burke: Denard Robinson, RB, Jaguars.

I took Jordan Todman last week, with little success. Going to try a different Jacksonville RB this week. Robinson picked up 32 yards on nine carries in his NFL debut, and in a video the Jaguars released he talked on the sideline about how he just needs to get more comfortable in the backfield. As that starts to happen, he should continue to carve his way into the rotation, because the home-run potential remains.

Farrar: Zach Sudfeld, TE, Patriots.

The Pats are obviously looking for new blood at this position, and so far, the undrafted rookie from Nevada has surprised everyone by rolling with the starters in practice, and drawing kind words from Bill Belichick and Tom Brady. Sudfield missed nearly two full seasons at Nevada due to injury, but he could make up for lost time with a strong preseason.

Round 5

Burke: Matt Willis, WR, Lions.

Willis may have taken the lead in the race for Detroit’s No. 5 WR job with a three-catch, 51-yard performance against the Jets. Two of those catches — a sprawling grab on the sidelines and a leaping TD snag — were of the highlight-reel variety. Willis may not have enough to push Nate Burleson, Ryan Broyles or even Patrick Edwards for playing time in the regular season, but he’s fighting hard for a roster spot right now.

Farrar: Cierre Wood, RB, Texans.

Thought by some to be a mid-round prospect, the Notre Dame star slipped through the draft cracks and signed on with the Texans as a free agent. He impressed with his first chance against NFL competition, amassing 59 yards on 10 carries and catching a 14-yard pass against the Vikings. Right now, Wood has a good shot of taking the third-string running back slot behind Arian Foster and Ben Tate. “He exceeded expectations,” Texans head coach Gary Kubiak said of Wood. “He has talent and he has opportunity, and when those two things come together, good things happen.”

Round 6

Burke: Virgil Green, TE, Broncos.

Green had a couple of grabs for 20 yards last week. He’s another guy, like Willis, who is scratching tooth and nail for a spot on the 53-man, regular-season roster. The competition may come down to Green and Julius Thomas for the third TE spot in Denver, behind Joel Dreessen and Jacob Tamme. Thomas got a leg up in the statistical battle last week; Green will close the gap in Week 2.

Farrar: Marcus Easley, WR, Bills.

Easley impressed enough on Buffalo’s scout team to earn a few looks in the regular season last year, and he led all of the Bills’ receivers in targets and catches (seven each) last week against the Colts. Easley is a willing receiver in traffic, and he has just enough speed to be a downfield threat against the Vikings this Friday. He also has potential as a return man.

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