Fantasy Football 2014: Previewing NFL Offseason's Biggest Position Battles

Gary DavenportNFL AnalystMay 18, 2014

Fantasy Football 2014: Previewing NFL Offseason's Biggest Position Battles

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    Don Ryan/Associated Press

    The NFL draft may be in the books, but for fantasy football fanatics far and wide, the "d" word is only just beginning to get a workout.

    That's because as May turns to June, fantasy draft season will get underway, with many dynasty leagues (and some redraft ones that are filled with impatient owners) sitting down to assemble their squads for the 2014 campaign.

    The first step in dominating any fantasy draft, of course, lies with doing your homework. A good jumping-off place in that regard (especially in dynasties) is to take a look at this year's rookie class, where they fit on their new teams and which first-year players could be in line for big roles in 2014.

    With that in mind, here's a look at some looming training camp battles involving this year's rookies, the veterans who will try to stave them off and which players have the edge.

Tennessee Titans Running Back

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    The Combatants: Shonn Greene, Bishop Sankey

    With Chris Johnson now in New York, for the first time since he joined the team in 2008, there will be a new lead back in Nashville in 2014.

    Before the draft, the leading candidate was Shonn Greene, who made the reverse trip a year ago after topping 1,000 yards on the ground for the Jets in both 2011 and 2012.

    However, there's a new back in town. The Titans were the first team to select a running back this year, drafting Washington's Bishop Sankey at No. 54.

    The 5'9", 209-pounder, who topped 1,800 yards on the ground for the Huskies in 2013, is a versatile ball-carrier. Titans general manager Ruston Webster lauded that versatility after the draft, per ESPN.com:

    Really what he brings to us is a great deal of versatility, vision, feet, ability to catch the football, which is what we're looking for. The important thing for us in picking one of these backs was to get the right fit for coach's offense and versatility, the ability to play on three downs was really one of the main criteria.

    Granted, Greene has that pair of 1,000-yard seasons on his resume. The 28-year-old also has a 3.8 yards-per-carry average over his career and all the explosiveness of a wet firecracker.

    The NFL Network's Charles Davis told "Path to the Draft" (via colleague Bryan Fischer) that he doesn't see this as much of a battle:

    CJ2K has left the building. Bishop Sankey was drafted to be the featured guy. With that offensive line they've put together, then adding Taylor Lewan, that team has a real chance at establishing a solid run-first base. Sankey will get plenty of carries and he'll catch the ball out of the backfield as well.

    Frankly, neither do we. Barring an injury, Sankey should open the season atop the depth chart for the Titans, making him this year's top rookie running back and a potential fantasy RB2 right out of the gate.

    Projected Winner: Sankey

New York Jets Running Back

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    The Combatants: Chris Johnson, Chris Ivory

    We might as well get the flip side of the battle at running back in Tennessee out of the way.

    As we said, after six seasons with the Titans, Chris Johnson was released by the team in a cost-cutting move, landing shortly thereafter with a New York Jets team that was incredibly aggressive in free agency on offense this year.

    Since Johnson joined the NFL in 2008, only Adrian Peterson of the Minnesota Vikings has gained more yardage on the ground. In each of his six seasons Johnson has topped 1,000 rushing yards. His lowest fantasy finish in leagues that award a point per reception over that stretch was 12th among running backs.

    However, those numbers don't tell the whole story. Since scoring 25 times on the ground in 2009 and 2010, he has managed only 16 scores the past three seasons combined. His 3.9 yards per carry in 2013 was a career low.

    As Andy Benoit of The MMQB recently pointed out, the blazing speed that shot Johnson to stardom in the NFL appears to have fizzled in recent seasons: "Johnson has posted just eight 40-yard runs since leading the NFL with seven in 2009. Last season he had zero such runs. His breakaway jets didn’t fire and he showed little ability to make defenders miss. That’s a major problem in today’s NFL."

    There's another problem where his fantasy prospects are concerned.

    Johnson didn't exactly join a backfield that is bereft of talent. Chris Ivory, who joined the Jets in a draft-day trade with the New Orleans Saints last year, stayed relatively healthy in his first year with New York. The result was a career year, with the 26-year-old averaging a very respectable 4.6 yards per carry.

    Throw in a capable third-down back in Bilal Powell, and the Jets backfield has all the makings of a committee attack.

    According to Darryl Slater of NJ.com though, Johnson is going to do everything in his power to change that: "I have never been a big fan of the two-back system. I know the type of player I am. I don’t feel like I fell off, (but) last year, that was last year. This year, it’s about winning."

    Johnson may be in denial about his decline, but even in a committee, it's not unreasonable to expect a season from him similar to what an aging LaDainian Tomlinson accomplished as the nominal "lead" back for the Jets in 2010.

    That season, when Tomlinson and Greene split carries nearly evenly, ended with "LT2" gaining just less than 1,300 total yards and finishing 15th among fantasy backs in PPR scoring.

    Projected Winner: Johnson, although Ivory is a good bet for 150-plus carries and could serve as a viable RB3 or "flex" option.

Denver Broncos Wide Receiver

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    Doug McSchooler/Associated Press

    The Combatants: Emmanuel Sanders, Cody Latimer

    One of the players that the Jets acquired during their free-agent spending spree came at the expense of the defending AFC champions, as wide receiver Eric Decker signed a fat free-agent deal to join Gang Green.

    The Broncos didn't waste any time in replacing fantasy's ninth-ranked wide receiver from a season ago, signing fifth-year pro Emmanuel Sanders of the Pittsburgh Steelers.

    The team was just getting started.

    In the second round of the 2014 NFL draft, they selected Indiana wideout Cody Latimer. He's a lanky 6'3" receiver who wowed scouts with a 4.44-second 40-yard dash at the Hoosiers' pro day, per NFL.com, despite undergoing foot surgery just a few months ago.

    According to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, Latimer's injured foot will likely keep him sidelined until training camp begins, and that loss of OTA and minicamp reps would appear to offer Sanders a clear edge in the competition to start opposite Demaryius Thomas.

    Not so fast, according to Vic Lombardi of CBS4 in Denver:

    I'm told Cody Latimer will compete for a starting job this year. Not next year. Like now.

    — Vic Lombardi (@VicLombardi) May 12, 2014

    It goes without saying that a starting wide receiver for the Denver Broncos has just a little fantasy value. Something to do with that Peyton Manning dude under center.

    Latimer's injury may make it hard for him to unseat Sanders before Week 1, and it may well be Sanders who is first off fantasy draft boards in most redraft leagues.

    However, Latimer is a bigger target. He's arguably faster than Sanders as well. He's a great fit outside for the Broncos opposite Thomas and has the potential to make fans forget all about Decker.

    By the end of the season, he will outpoint Sanders. He's the guy you want.

    Projected Winner: Latimer, although it may not happen right away.

Cincinnati Bengals Running Back

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    Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    The Combatants: Jeremy Hill, BenJarvus-Green Ellis

    The Cincinnati Bengals made the playoffs for the third straight season in 2014, being propelled to the AFC North title in part by a solid ground game spearheaded by the "thunder and lightning" duo of BenJarvus Green-Ellis and electrifying rookie Giovani Bernard.

    Given the success the Bengals had on the ground last year, it was a little surprising to see the team use a second-round pick on LSU tailback Jeremy Hill.

    That is, until you consider that Green-Ellis averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per carry in 2013.

    Hill, on the other hand, averaged 6.9 yards per pop en route to piling up more than 1,400 yards on the ground for the Tigers.

    As coaches are wont to do, offensive coordinator Hue Jackson insisted to Coley Harvey of ESPN.com after the draft that there's room for all three backs in the Queen City:

    Right now there is. My biggest thing is, again, whoever we put on this team, my job is to coach. At the end of the day, we have some very competitive guys in that group. Nobody's going to shy away from anything. That's what you want. At the end of the day, we have to line up and we're going to play the best players. That's the name of this business.

    Granted, Bernard's role as the change-of-pace back should be safe. It makes sense to try to get the ball to players who can do things like this in the open field.

    With that said, the hope that Bernard might be in for a big jump in touches in 2014 appears to be wishful thinking.

    It may also be wishful thinking to look for a big fantasy impact from Hill in 2014. Yes, the 6'1", 233-pounder should have little trouble beating out Green-Ellis for early-down work.

    Still, for all his plodding, "Law Firm" also never puts the ball on the ground, so it wouldn't be even a little bit surprising if the Bengals continued to turn to the veteran to close out games.

    From a fantasy perspective, it's something of a mess.

    Projected Winner: Hill, but Green-Ellis could poach more carries than many think.

Cleveland Browns Quarterback

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The Combatants: Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel

    Stop laughing!

    Sure, the quarterback situation under center in Cleveland has been a raging dumpster fire the past 15 years—a parade of has-beens, never-weres and "are you kidding me's?"

    Spergon Wynn? What is that? A fish?

    Still, Jordan Cameron is considered a top-three fantasy tight end in most circles. Josh Gordon led the NFL in receiving yards last year.

    In other words, it's worth knowing who the quarterback for the Browns is.

    And make no mistake, that quarterback is going to be Johnny Manziel.

    Yes, Cleveland owner Jimmy Haslam has already gone on record as saying that "Brian Hoyer is the starting quarterback," according to Mary Kay Cabot of The Northeast Ohio Media Group. "We were frank with [Manziel] on Friday that's the expectation, you're the backup quarterback," Haslam added. "This is a hard-working, blue-collar town, this isn't Hollywood. We want you to come in and go to work."

    Last I checked, Haslam doesn't make that call. If he does, the Browns are even more screwed than usual.

    It's also no indictment of Hoyer, the hometown boy who came from nowhere to play well in three starts last year before tearing his ACL.

    However, the simple fact is that the pressure to start Johnny Football is going to be off the chain.

    This isn't to say that head coach Mike Pettine should bow to that pressure, but let's be frank.

    What about Johnny Manziel gives you the impression that he's the type of quarterback who's going to get better by watching? How exactly are the Browns going to figure out how his unorthodox style translates to the NFL if he's holding a clipboard?

    Also, it's worth noting that his legs could be a huge boost to his fantasy value. There's a reason why fantasy owners like mobile quarterbacks.

    It might have something to do with rushing yards being worth twice as much as (if not more than) passing yards.

    If Manziel performs anywhere near as well in camp as Hoyer, the rookie will start.

    Now stop talking, Jimmy. Owners are to be seen and not heard.

    Projected Winner: Manziel

New York Giants Running Back

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    Nick Lisi/Associated Press

    The Combatants: Rashad Jennings, Andre Williams, David Wilson

    Fantasy owners probably don't want to talk about the New York Giants backfield in 2013.

    David Wilson was one of the trendiest fantasy breakout picks at any position last year, but between the fumbles, two-yard losses and a serious neck injury, he wound up as one of fantasy football's biggest busts.

    Then came the parade of pitiful. Brandon Jacobs. Andre Brown. Peyton Hillis. Some guy named "Joe" they got from the parking lot.

    There was a good game here and there, but overall it was a steaming pile of no thanks.

    That uncertainty has extended into 2014.

    Besides Wilson (who may not play at all this season or ever again for that matter), there is a new cast of characters. The Giants added Rashad Jennings in free agency and then went on to select Andre Williams of Boston College in the fourth round of the NFL draft.

    How this battle shakes out will depend in large part on which Jennings the Giants get.

    If the team gets the back who averaged 4.5 yards per carry and caught 36 passes for the Oakland Raiders a year ago, then Jennings will likely open the season as the lead back.

    However, if they get the player who averaged 2.8 yards per pop the year before in Jacksonville, not so much.

    If that's the case, the door will open for Williams, who gained an eye-popping 2,177 yards for the Eagles last year.

    Head coach Tom Coughlin lauded the 230-pound's bruiser's power while speaking with Dan Graziano of ESPN.com:

    This is a big, powerful guy -- basically a first- and second-down runner, can run the zone scheme. Boston College this year, they would come out sometimes with two or three tight ends, which would bring the entire defense down and have the offensive formation contained almost hash-mark to hash-mark. And yet this kid still rushed for 2,100-plus yards.

    However, Coughlin's words are telling. Williams doesn't offer much in the passing game, either as a blocker or a receiver.

    On the other hand, Jennings told Dave Hutchinson of The Star-Ledger he prides himself on being a "complete" back:

    Something I always pride myself on is being a complete back, that (means) never having to come off the field. First down, second down, third down, fourth-and-short, goal line, pass protection … just molding and perfecting my craft of becoming a complete back is something that I’m going to continue to strive for as long as I’m in the NFL. What I bring to the table is completion.

    Williams is going to get some carries, and if he prove to be a capable short-yardage back at the NFL level, those touches could equate to fantasy value as a bye-week replacement type.

    With that said, while the hope may be that Williams is the back of the future for Big Blue, his limitations on passing downs will probably leave Jennings as the running back of the present and a decent "flex" option for fantasy owners in 2014.

    Projected Winner: Jennings, although Williams' workload could grow as the season progresses.

New York Giants Wide Receiver

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    The Combatants: Rueben Randle, Odell Beckham Jr.

    Two position battles of interest to fantasy owners? From the NFL's 28th-ranked offense last year?

    What manner of sorcery is this?

    After last year's disaster of a season, the Giants decided to let wideout Hakeem Nicks leave in free agency. Some speculated that would open the door for a much bigger role in 2014 for third-year pro Rueben Randle.

    And you know how much fantasy owners love third-year receivers.

    However, there were grumblings soon after Nicks' departure that the New York coaching staff wasn't happy with Randle's inconsistent play.

    Those rumblings appeared to be borne out when the Giants used their first pick in 2014 on another LSU wideout.

    The Giants settled on Odell Beckham Jr., a 5'11", 198-pounder whom Dane Brugler of CBS Sports compared to Cecil Shorts of the Jacksonville Jaguars. "Beckham and Shorts are both exciting players with the ball in their hands," Brugler wrote, "and have shown steady improvements catching the ball over the years."

    It was a pick that met with the approval of the Giants' top receiver, according to Jordan Ranaan of NJ.com: "Somebody's listening up there," Victor Cruz said. "That's all that means. The drafting of Beckham is good. It's good for our team. The more weapons the better. Odell is a good player and a good person as well."

    Of course, Randle may not share that excitement, especially when Week 1 rolls around and Beckham is starting ahead of him.

    Randle will still get his, but it's going to be in the same third wideout role he had last year, while Beckham should see enough targets to at least merit a look as a low-end fantasy WR3.

    Projected Winner: Beckham

Jacksonville Jaguars Running Back

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    The Combatants: Toby Gerhart, Storm Johnson

    Some big changes are underway in Jacksonville. A new quarterback in Blake Bortles. A pair of new wide receivers in Allen Robinson and Marqise Lee. Two new running backs in Toby Gerhart and Storm Johnson.

    Given that Johnson, who, like Bortles, attended Central Florida, wasn't selected until the draft's final round, the first assumption might be that he poses little real threat to Gerhart's status as the replacement for Maurice Jones-Drew in the backfield.

    Well, you know what they say about assumptions.

    Yes, the 6'0", 209-pound Johnson was a seventh-round pick. But we're talking about a player who gained more than 1,100 yards on the ground for the Knights last year. Rob Rang of CBS Sports writes that Johnson possesses a nice blend of "length, power and surprising acceleration." Bleacher Report's Ryan Riddle went so far as to rank Johnson as the top prospect at his position in 2014.

    Also, it's not as if Gerhart is a world-beater of a back with a long and accomplished resume.

    This isn't to say that he is untalented, but in four years in the NFL (as Adrian Peterson's understudy with the Minnesota Vikings), Gerhart's career high in rushing is a whopping 531 yards in 2012.

    Prior to the draft, Jacksonville head coach Gus Bradley told Ken Hornack of Fox Sports Florida that Gerhart would open the year as the starter but that nothing was guaranteed.

    "Toby comes in, and he'll be No. 1 on the depth chart," Bradley said. "But he also knows that there's competition, and they're competing to see how that all plays out. We want to keep that open."

    The addition of Johnson only muddied the waters more.

    Of all the backfield battles included here, this one is probably the most "open," and regardless of who comes out on top, the "loser" is going to see plenty of carries.

    Two similar players sharing carries may be fine for the Jags, but fantasy owners are left with a pair of low-upside fantasy backs who at first glance appear so-so "flex" options at best.

    Projected Winner: Gerhart, but the carries split is going to be close.

Minnesota Vikings Quarterback

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    The Combatants: Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel, Teddy Bridgewater

    This will come as no surprise to anyone who watched a Vikings game last year, but heading into the 2014 NFL draft, the quarterback position was an area of need for Minnesota.

    The Vikings tried any number of players as the starter last year, and whether it was Christian Ponder, Matt Cassel or Josh Freeman, the names may have been different but the results were the same.

    As in not very good.

    It was no shock, then, when the Vikings traded up to select Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater with the last pick in the first round, and while the Jaguars and Browns have downplayed the idea of their rookie quarterbacks starting right away, the Vikings appear much more open to the idea.

    While speaking with Matt Vensel of The Minneapolis Star-Tribune, Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer said of Bridgewater playing early, “Teddy will play when we feel like he’s ready, if he’s the best guy, which we hope that he will be. We always want to have competition.”

    That should come as music to the ears of fantasy owners. Not because of Bridgewater's fantasy value necessarily, but because of the impact he could have on the rest of the Vikings.

    After all, they have some receiving talent. Greg Jennings may not be the wideout he once was, but the veteran is better than last year's numbers. Second-year pro Cordarrelle Patterson showed flashes of dominance as a rookie. Kyle Rudolph has the makings of a high-end weekly fantasy starter at tight end.

    That is, if there is a quarterback in town who can get them the ball.

    Bridgewater is an accurate and savvy passer who could fill that need.

    Never mind what something resembling an actual passing attack could do for stud running back Adrian Peterson.

    It would be nice if he didn't face 12-man fronts on every...single...play.

    Projected Winner: Bridgewater. Please let it be Bridgewater.

St. Louis Rams Running Back

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    Tom Gannam/Associated Press

    The Combatants: Zac Stacy, Tre Mason

    All the way back in June of last year, I mentioned St. Louis Rams running back Zac Stacy as a candidate to be the "Alfred Morris" of 2013, a late-round rookie back who goes on to big things in his first NFL season.

    Well, it took Stacy awhile to make me look good but better late than never.

    He rushed for 973 yards as a rookie. That's not an awe-inspiring number by any stretch, but given that it essentially came in 12 games, we're talking about a back who would have approached 1,300 yards on the ground over a full 16-game slate.

    That performance has labeled him as a low-end fantasy RB1 on many early fantasy draft boards this season, but the 2014 NFL draft raised concerns that that ranking may be overly optimistic.

    The Rams went the running back route in the third round of the draft, selecting Auburn's Tre Mason. The 5'9", 207-pounder was the top prospect at his position on some draft boards, and Dane Brugler of CBS Sports compared the Tigers star to Ray Rice of the Baltimore Ravens: "Mason's compact build, vision and ability to cut and go with underrated power is reminiscent of a young Rice. Much of Rice's success at Rutgers and since with the Ravens has come from a traditional I-formation attack."

    This isn't to say that Stacy's dynasty owners should bail on the youngster. It's unlikely that Mason will unseat Stacy atop the depth chart in the short term, especially if Ian Rapoport's claim that Mason needs wrist surgery turns out to be accurate—though Mason disputed this on Twitter (h/t Pro Football Talk's Mike Wilkening).

    However, fantasy owners would be foolish to dismiss the idea out of hand. After all, for all Stacy's production last year, he averaged a pedestrian 3.9 yards per carry. He ranked 31st among running backs last year at Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    Stacy remains a solid draft-day choice as a fantasy RB2, but owners who are investing an early pick in him would be well-served to hedge their bets by picking Mason up as well.

    Projected Winner: Stacy...for now.