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Fantasy Football’s All-Training-Camp-Hype Team

Which positive training camp reports are real? Which are just smoke? Being able to identify the difference could make or break your fantasy season.

Getty Images/AP Images/Ringer illustration

It’s easy to get too excited during NFL training camps. We’re starved for football, the anticipation for fantasy drafts is high, and it’s only natural to overreact to one-off, highlight-reel plays when they’re splashed all over Twitter―especially when those plays come from one of your favorite breakout candidates, bounce-back players, or unproven sleepers. But while training camp highlights often end up being nothing more than flashes in the fantasy pan at this time of year, there’s still a real edge to be found if you can identify the bona fide future stars who are capable of massively outplaying their ADP and helping bring you the title in your league.

By combining a player’s much-lauded highlight-reel talent with his actual opportunity and the slow, steady drumbeat of positive practice reports, I’ve picked out a few training camp standouts who have stood out among the rest over the past few weeks―and might just be the real deal in fantasy this year. Here are my 11 Training Camp Hype All-Stars.

WR Brandon Aiyuk, San Francisco 49ers

Aiyuk is a fantasy conundrum. He’s obviously talented, both as a deep threat and a yards-after-the-catch creator, but it’s been a roller-coaster ride rostering the 49ers receiver during his two seasons in the NFL. As a rookie in 2020, he started slow before coming on extremely strong in the second half, emerging as the WR6 in points per game (15.2 in half-PPR) from Week 7 on. That finish propelled Aiyuk to the WR22 spot in ADP going into last season, per Fantasy Football Calculator (well ahead of WR36 Deebo Samuel, by the way), and preceded the utter and total collapse of Aiyuk’s fantasy floor. Stuck firmly in Kyle Shanahan’s doghouse to start the year, Aiyuk didn’t register a catch in Week 1, and over the team’s first seven games ranked as the WR91 while averaging a hilarious 4.2 fantasy points per game. Just when everyone looked ready to swear Aiyuk off forever, he exploded back onto the scene for San Francisco, grabbing back his featured role while finishing the season as the WR14 in half-PPR from Week 8 on.

Heading into 2022, drafters remain leery of Aiyuk. He’s currently the WR39 by FantasyPros ADP, which also accounts for the fact he plays in a crowded skill-player group alongside Samuel and George Kittle and is set to catch passes from a wholly unproven passer in Trey Lance. But it’s getting tougher and tougher to ignore the incessant barrage of beat reporter praise coming out of 49ers camp, which has only gotten louder as we get closer to the season. While Aiyuk’s target volume remains a legitimate concern, the change in offensive style under Lance leaves plenty of uncertainty around the pecking order of the 49ers passing game going forward. Aiyuk spent the offseason working out with Lance in Southern California, and as The Athletic’s Nate Tice pointed out, the second-year quarterback is a big-play hunter who is very likely going to stretch the field at a much higher rate than Jimmy Garoppolo did over the past couple seasons. Per Tice, 8.4 percent of Garoppolo’s pass attempts traveled 20-plus air yards in 2021, which ranked 27th out of the 30 NFL qualifying quarterbacks. Lance, meanwhile, threw passes of 20-plus yards on 18.3 percent of his attempts as a rookie. His is a minuscule sample (71 total attempts on the season), of course, but extrapolate that into a full season and Lance would rank as one of the most aggressive downfield throwers in the NFL. That could be big for Aiyuk, who consistently wins deep down the field on out-breaking routes and posts. Aiyuk should be one of Lance’s favorite targets on broken “scramble drill plays” too.

It may be tough to envision after seeing what Samuel did last year, but there’s a world in which Aiyuk takes over as the 49ers’ most productive receiver in 2022―and you can get him around six rounds later than Samuel in drafts.

RB Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars

Etienne missed the entirety of his rookie season to a Lisfranc injury to his foot, but according to just about everyone who’s been at Jaguars’ practices this summer, the former first-rounder has been the star of the show. With the caveat that it’s tough to truly evaluate running backs in a sterile environment like training camp, where teams are mostly playing touch football, Etienne’s blazing speed just keeps showing up day after day. As Sports Illustrated’s John Shipley noted, the second-year back has been the team’s “standout skill player,” an explosive big-play creator who has looked “like the most dangerous potential weapon the Jaguars have on offense.” That’s worth more than just your standard training camp talk, too, considering how problematic Lisfranc injuries can be. Quarterback Trevor Lawrence went so far as to say that Etienne “looks like he’s in better shape than I thought he was in our last year at Clemson.”

Etienne’s going to have to share snaps with James Robinson, who also looks good in his return from an Achilles tear last year. But based on the consistent stream of positive reports we’ve seen from training camp practices, Etienne is poised to take over a huge role for what should be a dramatically improved offense. I’d expect Etienne to create explosive plays on the ground as he shares early-down looks with Robinson, and to be a featured playmaker in the passing game, where he’ll benefit greatly from the built-in chemistry he has with his former college quarterback. On a team that’s likely going to be playing from behind a lot this year, Etienne’s target rate could be elite. Think: D’Andre Swift’s 2021 campaign.

WR Romeo Doubs, Green Bay Packers

First off: Apparently it’s pronounced “Dobbs.” That’s pretty important, I figure, because based on the increasingly loud chorus coming out of Packers training camp, we’re going to be saying that name a lot this year. The rookie out of Nevada has made a strong case for major snaps in the wide-open Green Bay receiver corps, repeatedly creating big plays on the outside. He’s definitely caught Aaron Rodgers’s attention, as the quarterback noted recently that “Every single day … there’s been at least one kind of ‘wow’ play for him, and that’s kind of rare for a young guy like that.”

It’s rare for Rodgers to heap praise on a rookie receiver, but with Davante Adams gone to Las Vegas and the Packers’ wide receiver group headlined by over-the-hill veterans (Randall Cobb and Sammy Watkins) and role-playing up-and-comers (Allen Lazard), Doubs has a unique opportunity to quickly establish himself as a go-to guy for the back-to-back reigning MVP. After being overshadowed on draft weekend by second-rounder Christian Watson, Doubs (who the team selected in the fourth round) has taken advantage of a Watson knee injury to move up the projected depth chart. He’s already challenging for the starting punt returner job, which would guarantee him a spot on the active game-day roster, and at this rate, he could be running with the first team opposite Lazard by the time the season starts. He’s basically free in drafts right now (ADP: WR72, 227th overall) but it doesn’t feel like he’s going to stay under the radar for very long.

WR Isaiah McKenzie and RB James Cook, Buffalo Bills

Fantasy drafters should want every piece of the Bills passing game that they can get their hands on. Receivers like Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis aren’t coming cheap these days, of course, but a pair of high-upside sleepers have emerged from Buffalo’s training camp―both of whom I’m willing to reach on in drafts.

Let’s start out with McKenzie, who flashed ridiculous potential in the team’s blowout win over the Patriots in Week 16 last year. Seemingly out of nowhere, the Bills deployed the 5-foot-8, 173-pound dynamo all over the formation, running him on crossing routes, drag routes, and sweeps, where he used his rare speed to run away from New England defenders. McKenzie caught 11 passes for 125 yards and a touchdown in the game.

Though he was used sparingly for most of last year, McKenzie signed back with Buffalo on a two-year deal worth up to $8 million―and he seems to be making the most of his opportunity to earn a far bigger role as the team’s primary slot receiver in 2022. The steady drumbeat of hype has surrounded McKenzie the past few weeks, and quarterback Josh Allen noted recently that the diminutive receiver “just keeps making plays for our offense. He’s a little muscle hamster.” In a high-volume, wide-open passing game like the one the Bills run, McKenzie could be a steal in the later rounds.

Now let’s talk about James Cook, who’s especially intriguing to me because of the way the Bills approached the offseason. Buffalo agreed in principle to a two-year, $7 million deal with running back J.D. McKissic in free agency, and they were pissed when McKissic changed his mind at the last minute and signed back with Washington instead. Scorned but undeterred, Buffalo turned around used a second-round pick to select Cook, who is an undersized but explosive back with legit receiver skills as a pass catcher―or, basically, a similar but more souped-up and talented version of what they would’ve been getting in McKissic. The signals are pretty clear that the Bills want to get their running backs more involved in the passing game.

That hasn’t been a big part of the team’s offense of late, and Buffalo running backs averaged a 15 percent target rate over the past two seasons (well below the league average of 19 percent). That has been a function, at least in part, of Allen’s penchant to take off running rather than checking it down, of course―but it’d be understandable if the team wants to start weaning Allen off his rushing ways. The Bills’ subpar running back target rate is also probably related to the fact that Devin Singletary and Zack Moss have been straight-up bad in the passing game, too. That’s where Cook, who is immediately the team’s best pass-catching back, comes in. A dynamic joker piece for the national champion Georgia Bulldogs last year, Cook never got heavy volume on the ground but did flash the ability to line up anywhere in the formation and beat coverage. He brings sneaky upside in half-PPR and PPR leagues because of that receiving talent alone―which could make him a bankable flex option―but based on what we’re hearing out of camp, he could get some looks in the ground game, too. That raises his ceiling significantly.

Cook isn’t big―he weighed in at 199 pounds at the combine―but he’s not a whole lot smaller than presumptive starter Singletary, who’s a rock-solid 203 pounds. Singletary was an RB1 over the final seven weeks of last season. If Cook outright beats Singletary for the starting job, look out.

WR Skyy Moore and RB Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City Chiefs

Stop me if this sounds familiar: Fantasy drafters should want every piece of the Chiefs passing game that they can get their hands on. Like Buffalo, Kansas City sports a high-octane, pass-first offense that’s led by an all-world quarterback―and the Chiefs are particularly loaded with potential value thanks to the departure of Tyreek Hill during the offseason. Someone’s going to have to pick up the slack and catch more passes this year for Kansas City, and while drafters are most often putting their chips on JuJu Smith-Schuster (WR34 per ADP) and Marquez Valdes-Scantling (WR52), Moore is a guy I’d rather bet on a few rounds later. Per reports out of Chiefs training camp, the rookie out of Western Michigan just keeps stacking solid practice after solid practice, and Patrick Mahomes has taken note of that.

While aesthetically horrifying, the fact that Moore wears no. 24 seems somehow appropriate, too. Observers note that Kansas City has been experimenting with utilizing Moore out of the backfield, where his combination of speed and physicality shows up on run-game concepts. He’s probably going to start the season behind the trio of Smith-Schuster, Valdes-Scantling, and Mecole Hardman, but every single one of the team’s projected starters comes with major question marks. For a team that may need to work the short and intermediate areas in the passing game at a higher rate this year, I like Moore’s chances of earning reps both in the slot and on the outside. But he’s not even the most-hyped rookie in Chiefs camp right now.

That would be seventh-round running back Isiah Pacheco.

Pacheco, a walking double-take creator who inherited Hill’s old no. 10, boasts 4.3-second speed in the 40 and some chops in the passing game. He was a relative unknown prior to the draft but landed in a wide-open running back group that has collectively struggled to produce over the past couple of years. The former Rutgers standout has seemingly leapfrogged veterans like Jerick McKinnon and Ronald Jones, and has an inside track to the no. 2 role behind Clyde Edwards-Helaire. Pacheco is a hard-charging runner with good speed, but he seems to be separating himself from the rest of the group with his receiving skills. He’s even gotten looks in the slot. He’s an ideal late-round flier.

WR Elijah Moore, New York Jets

Now that we’ve talked about exciting potential stars from incredible offenses like the Bills and Chiefs, let’s switch gears and talk about, uh, the Jets. It’s never quite as fun to draft players in bad offenses, but here’s the thing: Elijah Moore is ridiculously good. And everything we’re hearing from New York’s training camp is that he might be ready for another big leap in Year 2.

The former Ole Miss star flashed incredible upside as a rookie, absolutely torching defenses during a six-game stretch last year before his season was cut short with a quad injury. From Week 8 through Week 13, Moore reeled in 34 passes for 459 yards and five scores, coming in as the WR2 in half-PPR in that short stretch (the WR2!!). It would’ve been nice if Moore had done that over a longer time period, yes, and it would’ve been even nicer if he’d been at his best when Zach Wilson was playing quarterback. (Per 4 For 4’s excellent game-splits app, Moore averaged 6.0 catches and 84 yards and a touchdown in the four games when either Joe Flacco or Mike White were behind center, and tallied an average of just 2.7 catches and 28.9 yards and a measly 0.14 touchdowns per game in the seven games Wilson was throwing passes.) But Moore just keeps making waves in training camp, and Zack Rosenblatt of the The Athletic recently noted he’s “one of the Jets’ stars of training camp, no matter who is throwing him the ball.”

Crucially, look, he’s just really good, OK? He might not look like your prototypical “no. 1” at 5-foot-10 and 178 pounds, but he showed as a rookie that he can line up anywhere on the field and win (he ran just 28 percent of his routes from the slot, per PFF). In an upgraded and improved New York offense, Moore has true eruption potential. He’s one of my favorite middle-round targets.

WR Allen Robinson, Los Angeles Rams

It’s one of the most-cited facts in fantasy football history, but I’ve got to stay it again: We’ve never seen what Robinson can do with an actually competent passer. He has that now in Matthew Stafford, and if we can take away anything from the first couple weeks of Rams training camp reports, it’s that HOLY SHIT THE RAMS LOVE THIS GUY. The veteran receiver has been lighting it up to the point that USA Today beat writer Cameron DaSilva recently posited that “It’s not really a question of whether Robinson will bounce back from a shockingly poor 2021 season with the Bears. It’s more about whether he’ll approach career-best numbers in his first season with the Rams.”

If that’s true, and I tend to believe it is, now would be a good time for me to remind you that Robinson netted top-12 finishes in half-PPR in both 2019 and 2020 before falling off the map last year. The answer to the question of whether Robinson is washed or was simply disinterested in playing for yet another terrible offense last year is being answered with his standout training camp. And it’s not just that Stafford will be throwing him passes; it’s that his fit in L.A.’s offense couldn’t be more perfect. With Cooper Kupp running tons of routes from the slot, the Rams really need a guy like Robinson who can win on the outside and dominate when isolated in coverage. Last year, that job fell to Odell Beckham Jr., particularly in the red zone, where Beckham was a focal point. After scoring a grand total of seven touchdowns in 29 games for the Browns, Beckham scored five times in eight games for the Rams—four of which came on throws from inside the 10-yard line. It won’t be surprising to me if Robinson tallies double-digit touchdowns this year for the first time since 2015. He’s still just the WR27 per FantasyPros ADP.

WR George Pickens, Pittsburgh Steelers

In the words of my Ringer Fantasy Football Show cohost Craig Horlbeck, “those sons of bitches did it again!”

The Steelers have been otherworldly good at drafting wide receivers over the past two decades, and if early returns are any indication, they’ve found themselves another gem in Pickens. The former Georgia pass catcher has been the toast of Pittsburgh’s training camp, where he’s shown off his rare combination of speed, length, and ball skills as an outside receiver. A simple Twitter search of his name will pull up about eight separate shots of him leaping up or stretching out to reel in off-target balls or contested catches. He’s the type of receiver an underwhelming former Bears quarterback could lean on in high-leverage situations and in the red zone. He’s got the size to win on deep shots down the sideline, the types of throws that a disappointing former third-round QB out of Oklahoma State loves to make. And he’s exactly the type of ball-winner a rookie signal-caller with small hands might need if he’s going to impress in Year 1.

The ceiling is capped for Pittsburgh’s pass catchers this year, most likely, with one of Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, or Kenny Pickett behind center. But honestly … I’m not sure things can get much worse than they were with Ben Roethlisberger back there the past few seasons. Last year, Diontae Johnson finished as the WR9 in half-PPR and in 2020, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Chase Claypool, and Johnson all finished inside the top 24. If Pittsburgh is forced to throw at a high rate as the Steelers fight their way through the tough AFC North, it wouldn’t be the weirdest thing in the world if Pickens ends up as the team’s no. 1 option. That makes him well worth a late-round add.

WR Parris Campbell, Indianapolis Colts

I know, I know, we’re doing this again, aren’t we? Campbell has generated plenty of training camp and preseason hype in the past, but a seemingly nonstop rash of injuries have derailed his promising starts and made us forget the high-level flashes. But for a guy who’s played in just 15 games in three pro seasons, it’s hard to completely write off what’s been a steady stream of positive reports coming out of Colts training camp. “He looks as quick and explosive as he did before all the health issues blew up the early portion of his career,” writes The Athletic’s Bob Kravitz. “It’s the Parris Campbell show right now. He’s a human zone buster,” says ESPN’s Stephen Holder. The clips of Campbell Moss’ing someone downfield or coming down with tough grabs over the middle just keep rolling in. And with about a month to go before the season opener, he has surprisingly held off rookie Alec Pierce as the the team’s no. 2 pass catcher.

The biggest question for Campbell is going to be whether he can stay healthy. But the fourth-year pro brings the size and breakaway speed to be a big-play creator opposite Michael Pittman Jr. in the otherwise wide-open Indy offense. And with Matt Ryan at quarterback and not one of Carson Wentz, Philip Rivers, or any of the other million starters who have played for the Colts since Andrew Luck retired, the ceiling for Campbell is a whole lot higher than most people probably expect.