NFL Training Camp Battles with the Biggest Fantasy Implications

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 21, 2018

NFL Training Camp Battles with the Biggest Fantasy Implications

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Despite the positive assessments we hear following spring practices, NFL training camps ramp up the competition as players put on their pads. At that point, position battles come into focus as coaching staffs pin down roles for their roster personnel. Meanwhile, fantasy owners begin to accumulate notes in order to construct their draft boards.    

    It's important to stay up to date on who's competing for a prominent role. An outdated view could seal your fate before the final draft-selection results.

    Every year, you can count on the usual top fantasy producers such as wide receiver Antonio Brown and quarterback Tom Brady, who will remain secure in their starting spots until they decide to hang up their cleats. 

    However, JuJu Smith-Schuster made a huge splash with the most receiving yards among rookies in 2017, while Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing in his first year. In his second season with the Detroit Lions, Marvin Jones Jr. put his name on the fantasy football radar with 1,101 yards and nine touchdowns.

    More often than not, the buzz starts during the summer. Who's pushing for a starting spot? Perhaps there's more to the depth-chart order than labels such as starter and backup. We'll take a look at eight position battles, list the individuals involved and break down what fantasy owners should keep an eye on heading into 2018 training camps.   

        

Arizona Cardinals: No. 1 QB Job

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    Matt York/Associated Press

    Sam Bradford vs. Josh Rosen

    Despite all the flak Sam Bradford gets through the media—Baltimore Ravens safety Eric Weddle took a recent shot via Twitter—he's a serviceable passer when healthy. The 30-year-old quarterback threw 23 touchdown passes and only five interceptions over the past two seasons with the Minnesota Vikings. 

    You may think he's just a dink-and-dunk signal-caller, but he averaged 9.8 yards per completion during the 2016 campaign through 15 starts. That rate went up to 11.9 in two appearances last year. 

    After the retirement of Carson Palmer, the Arizona Cardinals signed Bradford as a place holder before April's draft, but his knee, which cost him 14 contests in the past term, causes some concern.

    And No. 10 overall pick Josh Rosen could win the starting job. Patrick Peterson spoke glowingly about the rookie's command of the offense on Bickley and Marotta of 98.7 FM Arizona's Sports Station.

    "It completely blew my mind to be running hurry-up offenses and two-minute offense like week one, week two with a rookie quarterback that just got drafted—that just left UCLA, and he's able to orchestrate the offense in the proper manner," he said earlier this month.

    It's a strong endorsement from a cornerback who's played against the best.

    Furthermore, among all the rookie quarterbacks, Rosen landed in the best spot as far as supporting casts. On the perimeter, he'll see a future Hall of Famer in wideout Larry Fitzgerald. The UCLA product can also hand off or toss a short pass to an All-Pro running back in David Johnson. 

    Whoever starts under center in Arizona deserves a look in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts because of those two elite talents.

Cleveland Browns: No. 1 RB Job

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Carlos Hyde vs. Nick Chubb vs. Duke Johnson Jr.

    All of a sudden, the Cleveland Browns have a loaded offense. There's some buzz around the wide receiver position, but the backfield will feature three running backs who bring varying skill sets to the field. 

    The Browns inked Duke Johnson Jr. to a three-year extension. He's averaged fewer than seven carries per game through three seasons but racked up 1,741 receiving yards in that span. The 24-year-old pays dividends in the passing game, and Cleveland.com reporter Mary Kay Cabot suggests his role as a third-down pass-catcher won't change for the upcoming season.

    Carlos Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb will battle for early-down touches and looks near the goal line. Like Johnson, the fifth-year veteran can catch out of the backfield. He nabbed 59 passes for 350 yards with the San Francisco 49ers last season. Chubb logged five receptions or fewer in each of the previous three terms at Georgia, but it doesn't mean he's incapable of performing as a receiver in the flat.

    The Browns will likely ride the hot hand, which makes the argument for the starter less important, but fantasy owners should pay close attention to who's handling the bulk of the work leading up to Week 1. Behind the offensive line's solid interior, the volume runner should rack up enough points for RB2 numbers.

Dallas Cowboys: No. 1 WR Job

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    Allen Hurns and Michael Gallup
    Allen Hurns and Michael GallupAssociated Press

    Allen Hurns vs. Terrance Williams vs. Michael Gallup vs. Cole Beasley

    What will the passing game look like without wideout Dez Bryant? The Dallas Cowboys signed Allen Hurns to a two-year contract and selected Michael Gallup in the third round of April's draft to help fill the void. Cole Beasley and Terrance Williams remain as prominent holdovers. Don't forget Deonte Thompson, who inked a one-year deal in March. 

    Offensive coordinator Scott Linehan's assessment of the position left the door wide-open for an emerging playmaker.

    "It's a pretty unique competition because there's really nobody established," he said last month, per Rob Phillips of the Cowboys' official website. "[Beasley] is pretty much the established guy because of playing that slot position—we all know that. But we're moving him around more." 

    According to Phillips, seven receivers took first-team reps through minicamp—a number that doesn't include Williams, who's recovering from a broken right foot. 

    We know the top four names at the position, but training camp and the preseason will determine the pecking order. The pass-catcher with the strongest rapport with quarterback Dak Prescott becomes a solid fantasy asset.

Denver Broncos: No. 1 RB Job

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Devontae Booker vs. Royce Freeman

    Running back C.J. Anderson's departure opens the door for Devontae Booker or third-rounder Royce Freeman. Head coach Vance Joseph said in June that the rookie has a chance at the starting job, per ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold.

    The Oregon product must outperform Booker, who took a backseat to Anderson for most of the past two seasons. The third-year pro made six starts when his counterpart underwent surgery to repair a meniscus during the 2016 campaign. 

    Booker possesses the physicality to handle volume in rushing attempts, but he lacks explosiveness when hitting running lanes. Nonetheless, the Broncos' revamped offensive line could help boost his 3.6 yards-per-carry average. 

    Booker and Freeman will handle a portion of the workload, but the better tailback through the preseason should open the year as the starter with an opportunity to reach 1,000 rushing yards, as Anderson did in 2017.

Green Bay Packers: No. 1 RB Job

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    Jamaal Williams
    Jamaal WilliamsAssociated Press

    Fantasy owners, reach for a handcuff running back in Green Bay's diluted backfield. After Eddie Lacy led the Packers on the ground between 2013-15, a different ball-carrier led them with fewer than 600 rushing yards over the past two terms.

    Ty Montgomery converted from wide receiver to running back for the 2016 campaign, but he couldn't stay on the field last year because of broken ribs and a wrist injury that required surgery. Rookies Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones took over the backfield workload and combined for 1,004 yards and eight touchdowns.

    According to head coach Mike McCarthy, the Packers will utilize all three backs and feed the hot hand.

    "The fact of the matter is we're going to go running back by committee," he said, per Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. "But if one of them would emerge as that full-time guy then you have to have that ability to ... adjust to that."

    It's not the answer that fantasy owners want to hear as they put together their draft boards. However, keep in mind that Montgomery and Williams have flashed the ability to catch out of the backfield. The starting back will likely offer versatility as a receiver on early downs, which gives quarterback Aaron Rodgers more play options at the line of scrimmage.

Indianapolis Colts: No. 1 RB Job

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Marlon Mack vs. Nyheim Hines vs. Jordan Wilkins

    Marlon Mack served in a backup role to Frank Gore last season. The veteran running back signed with the Miami Dolphins, leaving the second-year ball-carrier as the default starter, right? Maybe.

    The Indianapolis Colts selected two running backs in April: Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins in the fourth and fifth rounds, respectively. With a new coaching staff, Mack shouldn't feel too comfortable about seamlessly sliding into the lead back role. Coming off shoulder surgery, he must earn it. 

    Hines impressed head coach Frank Reich at minicamp, per 1070 The Fan, but he's 5'9", 198 pounds. The North Carolina State product will likely supplement a wide receiver corps with question marks behind T.Y. Hilton, appear on special teams as a returner and handle limited carries as a change-of-pace back.

    Seventh-year veteran Robert Turbin will serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, which takes him out of the competition for now.

    Wilkins, who carries a bigger frame (6'1", 216 lbs) than Hines, could legitimately push Mack for the bulk of the work during training camp. Bear in mind, Reich served as the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator and utilized a physical tandem featuring LeGarrette Blount and Jay Ajayi to close the 2017 season en route to a Super Bowl victory. 

    The top two running backs in touches will hold value in a probable committee, but fantasy owners can pick up an RB2 in the Colts' lead ball-carrier.

New York Jets: No. 1 QB Job

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    Mark Lennihan/Associated Press

    Josh McCown vs. Teddy Bridgewater vs. Sam Darnold

    Assuming the wide receiver group remains healthy, the New York Jets' starting quarterback will have perimeter assets to put up respectable fantasy numbers in 2018.

    Consider Josh McCown the least likely to start the season. If No. 3 overall pick Sam Darnold looks ready or Teddy Bridgewater continues to impress through August, there's no reason to trot out a 39-year-old quarterback.

    Bridgewater could give the league flashbacks of the budding signal-caller who led the Vikings to the playoffs during the 2015 campaign. If so, he's a tradable asset. Unless Darnold looks raw, a deal involving the Pro Bowler would lead to the USC product taking over.

    If neither Bridgewater nor Darnold looks promising through the preseason, McCown would start Week 1. In that scenario, the rookie would probably take the reins later in the season if playoff hopes slip away.

    Without a doubt, fantasy owners should pick up Darnold in the late rounds. He's likely to start at some point in 2018. With the wide receiver corps in place, the rookie could put up decent season numbers.

    Wide receivers coach Karl Dorrell expects Robby Anderson to develop more levels to his game beyond a deep threat, per Dillon Coyne of the team's official website. Jermaine Kearse is coming off a career-high 810 yards in the past season. Lastly, Quincy Enunwa, a big target (6'2" 225 lbs), is returning from a neck injury as a potential red-zone threat. 

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB No. 1 Job

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    Ronald Jones vs. Peyton Barber vs. Jacquizz Rodgers

    Rookie Ronald Jones isn't walking into a starting role in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers backfield. Peyton Barber logged 50-plus rushing yards in five consecutive outings to finish the 2017 campaign, and that included a 102-yard performance in Week 13. However, the coaching staff isn't going to push a second-rounder to the background for a 2016 undrafted ball-carrier who found his spark late in the previous season. 

    At USC, Jones displayed the ability to handle the majority workload. If he's able to claim the starting spot, the 20-year-old would hold borderline RB1 upside, especially with quarterback Jameis Winston serving a three-game suspension for violating the league's personal conduct policy

    Jacquizz Rodgers comes up in this competition, but he's spent seven seasons in the league as a career backup with 14 starts. Expect him to handle receiving responsibilities similar to his role under Dirk Koetter in 2012-13, when the current Tampa Bay head coach was the coordinator of the Atlanta Falcons offense. In that period, the Oregon State product caught 105 passes for 743 yards and three touchdowns. 

    At the least, Jones will be splitting the workload with 12-15 carries per contest and some looks in the short passing game. On the other hand, a strong training camp would push his stock through the roof.