NFL training camps began opening last Saturday, meaning the start of the 2009 season has finally arrived. This time of year is extremely important for fantasy owners because with drafts just around the corner, now is the time to get a handle on the various roles players around the league will assume entering the season.
Several positional battles will get underway in the coming weeks that will have major implications in your fantasy leagues. With that in mind, here are five training camp battles that owners should keep a close eye on over the next few weeks. The NFP will be providing training camp breakdowns in our 2009 Fantasy Draft Guide.
The Hot Spot: Baltimore
The Battle: Running Back
The Contenders: Ray Rice, Le’Ron McClain, Willis McGahee
What to expect: Entering camp, it looks like second-year back Ray Rice will be the primary ball carrier in Baltimore this year.
Rice added 10 pounds of muscle this offseason and is ready to bounce back from an injury-plagued 2008 campaign that saw him gain only 454 yards on 107 carries (4.2 YPC). He gives the Ravens their best chance to break a big play via the ground game.
However, don’t get caught sleeping on bruising fullback Le’Ron McClain. While "Big Boy" will likely see a somewhat reduced role in the Ravens’ rushing attack with both Rice and McGahee healthy, he’s still going to be featured in short-yardage and goal-line situations.
McClain may not rack up the big-time yards, but he could serve as a nice flex option due to his goal-line opportunities. The Ravens definitely have a role for him.
The wild card in the group is McGahee. The key to his role in Baltimore this season will be how he looks during training camp. One of the main reasons head coach John Harbaugh has Rice working with the first unit right now is to push McGahee and see how he responds.
Remember, McGahee’s cap number this season is $3.12 million and he still has four years left on his contract, with cap numbers ranging from $6.1 million to $9 million. That’s a big investment.
Fantasy Projections: As of now, owners should rank the Baltimore backfield Rice, McClain, McGahee. If McGahee doesn’t have an impressive camp, he may not be worthy of a draft pick.
The Hot Spot: Tampa Bay
The Battle: Quarterback
The Contenders: Byron Leftwich, Luke McCown, Josh Freeman
What to expect: We projected Leftwich as the Week 1 starter in May, and it looks like that prediction is going to hold true. Michael Lombardi discussed this situation in his Sunday Post column, noting that he has heard "Leftwich has a great command and the locker room is in love with him."
This is great news for Antonio Bryant, Kellen Winslow, and Derrick Ward, all of whom get high rankings in the 2009 edition of our draft guide. Leftwich has the most experience, and his skill set is best suited to find success in this offense.
However, don’t be surprised if rookie Josh Freeman takes over the job at some point this season. Lombardi mentioned that the Tampa organization is “excited about Freeman,” meaning a good training camp and steady progress with the playbook throughout the year could lead to playing time.
The odd man out appears to be McCown. While he certainly still has an opportunity to impress the coaching staff with a strong preseason, it looks like he’s going to need a Leftwich stumble in order to crack the starting lineup.
Fantasy Projections: Leftwich is on the border of being an NFP sleeper this year, so owners should look for him as a QB2 on draft day if he eventually wins the job. McCown and Freeman aren’t draft worthy in our opinion.
The Hot Spot: New York (Jets)
The Battle: Running Back
The Contenders: Thomas Jones, Leon Washington, Shonn Greene
What to expect: First things first: Expect Leon Washington to be Leon Washington. He’s a dynamic dual-threat back that New York is going to use no matter what because he brings a change of pace to the offense. Washington’s role will be to make something happen in both phases of the offense with between 12 and 18 touches per game.
The real battle in New York will be between Jones and rookie Shonn Greene. Both are physical between-the-tackles bruisers who can lower their shoulders to pick up extra yards. As we’ve mentioned before, we aren’t too high on Jones this season. He’s upset with his contract and turns 31 in August.
Meanwhile, Greene signed his rookie contract months ago, and reports out of New York indicate that new head coach Rex Ryan is very happy with his progress to date. Remember, there’s a reason the Jets traded up to the beginning of the third round on Day Two of the draft to snag Greene. The kid can play.
Fantasy Projections: The running back we’ll learn the most about during training camp is Jones. If he’s content, in shape and focused, he should have a productive year. But don’t get caught overpaying for him based on last season’s numbers.
That won’t happen again. Washington is a flex RB with upside, and Greene is the sleeper. Target him in the mid-to-later rounds. He’ll give you the most value.
The Hot Spot: New York (Giants)
The Battle: Wide Receiver
The Contenders: Domenik Hixon, Steve Smith, Mario Manningham, Hakeem Nicks, Ramses Barden
What to expect: With a solid running game, a reliable quarterback, and one of the best offensive lines in football, the wide receiver battle in New York is going to be a good one this summer.
Word on the street is that second-year wideout Mario Manningham has been looking very impressive of late. He could be a dark horse to land a spot in the starting lineup come Week One.
If Manningham fails to win one of the top two spots, it will be because Smith and Hixon put on a better show in August. Smith caught 57 passes for 574 yards last year while Hixon hauled in 43 for 596 yards.
The Giants desperately need a receiving threat in the red zone now that Plaxico Burress is gone, and Hixon has the potential to develop into that kind of player.
Owners should also expect to see some playing time for rookies Nicks and Barden. Both are big, physical receivers who will contend for their share of red zone targets as well.
The problem here is that it may take some time for both guys to develop into capable NFL wide receivers. Those of you who have been reading our fantasy articles this summer know how we feel about rookie wide receivers.
Fantasy Projections: As far as the rookies go, Nicks is worth a late-round pick, but you should let Barden fall to waivers. He is a bit more raw in terms of route-running than Nicks.
As of the moment, no New York wide receiver is worth an early draft pick, but look for Hixon to possibly emerge as the No. 1 WR in the Big Apple. Manningham is currently the sleeper of the group.
The Hot Spot: Denver
The Battle: Running Back
The Contenders: Knowshon Moreno, Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan, Ryan Torain
What to expect: The Broncos used their first overall draft pick (No. 12) on Moreno for a reason. The key to his success will lie in his ability to pass protect.
If he can prove to be an adequate blocker, the Broncos can keep him on the field for all three downs, increasing his fantasy value. Moreno is the type of back who can make plays in both phases of the offense, so he has some good value heading into 2009.
Look for Buckhalter and Jordan to be role players on the Denver offense. Jordan’s size and strength make him an ideal candidate to handle the short-yardage and goal-line workload.
Buckhalter served as a decent complement to Brian Westbrook in Philadelphia over the past few years, so he will likely be used to spell Moreno to keep his legs fresh throughout the season. Remember, Buckhalter has had three major knee surgeries in his eight-year career.
Speaking of knee surgery, Ryan Torain is coming off a rookie campaign that saw him blow out his left knee in Week 10 against the Browns. The possibility exists that he could start the season on the PUP list, so owners are advised to keep him off of your draft boards.
Fantasy Projections: Moreno will be the top dawg in Denver this season and is likely to be drafted some time before the end of round four. If he can get the job done in pass protection, his value will increase.
Jordan should only be considered in the later rounds since he will have an opportunity to score some touchdowns, but don’t count on him for big yardage. Let Buckhalter fall to waivers unless something happens to Moreno. He won’t get enough touches.