Fantasy Football 2021: Most Pivotal Position Battles of NFL Training Camps

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2021

Fantasy Football 2021: Most Pivotal Position Battles of NFL Training Camps

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    Josie Lepe/Associated Press

    As NFL training camps open at the end of July, fantasy football managers should have their sights set on several pivotal position battles. 

    Going into fantasy drafts, make note of running backs primed to take on lead roles. They're the most valuable commodities in standard leagues.

    Though most quarterbacks have middle-to-late-round value, the difference between two potential starters can impact the ceiling of a wide receiver or tight end. For instance, a veteran with experience in a team’s system may serve as a bigger benefit to a top wideout than a rookie who's learning the offense.

    Let's take a look at roster competitions that will affect early-round draft decisions. We'll break down the top contenders for each battle. These selections are based on points-per-reception leagues.     

Buffalo Bills' No. 1 Running Back

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    Buffalo Bills running back Zack Moss
    Buffalo Bills running back Zack MossStew Milne/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Devin Singletary vs. Zack Moss

    Last season, Devin Singletary started in all 16 games, but he tied for 23rd in carries (156) and finished 31st (143.6) among running backs in fantasy points for PPR leagues. As a rookie, Zack Moss handled a significant portion of the workload, logging 112 attempts. 

    Though Singletary led the Buffalo Bills in rushing over Moss, 687-481, the latter recorded more carries through the final four games of the regular season (41-28).

    In the AFC Wild Card Round win against the Indianapolis Colts, Moss went down with an ankle injury and missed the remainder of the playoffs. He underwent a "tight rope" procedure on his ankle, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.

    The Athletic's Joe Buscaglia thinks Moss could "take over" the lead role and play "60 to 70 percent" of the offensive snaps.

    Currently, Moss has an average draft position of 8.03 in 12-team leagues, one round earlier than Singletary (9.05).

    If Moss proves that he's a reliable pass-catcher, the second-year tailback will likely see a moderate bump in his ADP before Week 1.    

Arizona Cardinals' No. 1 Running Back

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    Arizona Cardinals running back Chase Edmonds
    Arizona Cardinals running back Chase EdmondsJim McIsaac/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Chase Edmonds vs. James Conner

    The Arizona Cardinals have a significant void to fill in the backfield following Kenyan Drake's departure to the Las Vegas Raiders. In 2020, he recorded 239 rushing attempts for 955 yards and 10 touchdowns.

    According to Adam H. Beasley of Pro Football Network, Chase Edmonds is the "favorite" to take on the featured role.

    As the lead ball-carrier for three seasons with the Pittsburgh Steelers (2018-20), James Conner put together a Pro Bowl campaign and caught 124 passes for 963 yards and four touchdowns. He's an every-down 6'1", 233-pound back who can also handle goal-line touches, but the 26-year-old has battled injuries, missing 14 games in four terms.

    During his introductory press conference in April, Conner said he underwent toe surgery after an ATV accident. Because of the running back's history of injuries, the coaching staff may limit his touches.

    Edmonds could see a major spike in production with more opportunities. The 5'9", 210-pound tailback rushed for 448 yards and caught 53 passes for 402 yards and four touchdowns last season. Despite his complementary role, he ranked 25th in fantasy points (168) among running backs.

    If the Cardinals name Edmonds the Week 1 starter, which is the likely scenario, he's someone to target in the early rounds.   

Denver Broncos' No. 1 Running Back

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    Denver Broncos running back Javonte Williams
    Denver Broncos running back Javonte WilliamsDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Melvin Gordon III vs. Javonte Williams

    The Denver Broncos' quarterback battle between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater will draw headlines, though fantasy managers will likely select Pro Bowl wideout Courtland Sutton early regardless of who wins that competition.

    In the backfield, Melvin Gordon III could go from a solid RB2 to a flex option if rookie second-rounder Javonte Williams wins the job.

    For months, Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post has talked about the possibility of Williams as the Broncos' lead ball-carrier for the 2021 campaign. The beat reporter believes Gordon could see a dip in touches even if he wins the position battle. 

    "If Gordon has a productive training camp, I see a situation where he takes the first snap/series of the game and the Broncos ease Williams into a bigger role each week," O'Halloran wrote in a recent mailbag response. 

    The Broncos moved up from 40th to the 35th spot in the draft to select Williams, which indicates the team has immediate plans for him.

    Last season, Gordon accumulated 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns from scrimmage, which included 986 yards and nine scores on the ground. He fumbled four times, so the Broncos may ramp up his involvement in the passing game, increasing his target number from 44 last year, while Williams takes on an early-down role.  

    Fantasy managers should select Williams in the middle of the draft and ask questions later. He would become a hot commodity as a starter.     

Jacksonville Jaguars' No. 1 Running Back

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    Jacksonville Jaguars' James Robinson
    Jacksonville Jaguars' James RobinsonAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: James Robinson vs. Travis Etienne

    The Jacksonville Jaguars have an intriguing running back battle that will keep fantasy managers guessing up until Week 1. 

    As an undrafted free agent out of Illinois State, James Robinson had an impressive 2020 rookie campaign. He tied for fifth in rushing (1,070) and ranked seventh in fantasy points (250.4) among running backs. Despite Robinson's strong showing, the Jaguars selected Travis Etienne in the first round of this year’s draft.

    Because of Etienne's draft pedigree, he'll likely command a decent workload whether he starts or serves in a backup role. The Clemson product can play on every down. As a collegian, he caught 102 passes for 1,155 yards and eight touchdowns in addition to 4,952 yards and 70 scores on the ground. 

    During rookie minicamp, Etienne took most of his snaps at wide receiver, which further signals a three-down role for the versatile running back. 

    If fantasy managers need to pick a Jaguars tailback right now, Etienne seems like the safe choice in PPR formats. Under a new coaching staff, Robinson may have to prove himself again. Even if he does, the Jaguars will likely fit their first-round dual-threat running back into the game plan in some shape or form.     

New Orleans Saints' Starting Quarterback

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    New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis Winston
    New Orleans Saints quarterback Jameis WinstonJared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Jameis Winston vs. Taysom Hill

    Jameis Winston isn't going to surge on draft boards if he wins this battle. However, he could boost the fantasy outlook of the New Orleans Saints' pass-catching group. 

    In 2019, with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Winston threw for a league-leading 5,109 yards, 33 touchdowns and 30 interceptions. Two of his wideouts, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, eclipsed 1,100 receiving yards while averaging 17.3 and 15.5 yards per catch, respectively.

    Through his first five seasons, Winston turned the ball over at an alarming rate (3.5 percent), but he looks to stretch the field, which bodes well for wideouts Michael Thomas and Tre'Quan Smith, who could break out in his fourth season.

    According to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe, the Saints may prefer Taysom Hill in the lead role:

    " ... From what I have heard from league sources, I’m not sure it’s going to be truly open. Hill is such a unique dual threat that he's worth trying out as the starting QB to start the season. And if the experiment fails, Payton can fall back on Winston and a more traditional pocket-based offense and move Hill back to his Swiss Army Knife role.”

    As a starting quarterback, Hill would have a more direct impact on your draft plans. He's a viable ball-carrier who rushed for 457 yards and eight touchdowns in 2020.

    Last season, Hill took over the offense for four games while Drew Brees nursed rib and lung injuries. In those contests, he put his dual-threat ability on display, rushing for four touchdowns and throwing for four scores. 

    Hill's ADP isn't on the radar in 12-team leagues, but he would become a solid middle-round pick in a starting role because of his versatility.    

San Francisco 49ers' Starting Quarterback

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    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey Lance
    San Francisco 49ers quarterback Trey LanceTony Avelar/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance

    Jimmy Garoppolo isn't a viable fantasy asset. Since 2018, he's missed 23 games because of knee and ankle injuries. The eighth-year pro has one solid campaign (2019) in which he threw for 3,978 yards, 27 touchdowns and 13 interceptions. 

    Even in his best year, Garoppolo's passing numbers translated to QB14 with 260.2 fantasy points. He's not an enticing commodity, but his competitor would add another layer to the San Francisco 49ers offense.

    The 49ers selected Trey Lance with the third overall pick in this year's draft. NBC Sports' Matt Maiocco thinks the rookie will have a chance to usurp the veteran.

    "Jimmy Garoppolo remains, for now, as the 49ers' No. 1 quarterback," Maiocco wrote. "But Lance will be given every opportunity to rise up the team's depth chart. He possesses some unique physical dual-threat abilities that the 49ers envision will eventually lead to him becoming the team's long-term starter."

    In 2020, Lance only played in one game because North Dakota State canceled its 2020 season amid the COVID-19 pandemic. He'll need time to knock off some rust. However, with his opportunity to claim the starting spot, managers should keep an eye on him. 

    Lance's ball-carrying ability increases his fantasy value. In 2019, he rushed for 1,100 yards and 14 touchdowns. In a simplified offense, the 6'4", 224-pound signal-caller can make up for limited passing production with a significant number of rushing yards.   

    According to The Athletic's Matt Barrows, wideout Brandon Aiyuk has the "makings of an excellent accomplice" when Lance takes over the offense because of the potential for big plays downfield. We could see the early development of a dynamic quarterback-receiver duo if the rookie gets under center in 2021.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' No. 1 Running Back

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    Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones II
    Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones IISteve Luciano/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Ronald Jones II vs. Leonard Fournette

    In terms of ADP, Leonard Fournette (7.04) and Ronald Jones II (7.07) have a few spots between them, and this camp battle could go either way. 

    Early in the offseason, Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach Bruce Arians made a comment about his backfield situation that probably frustrated fantasy managers, per Jon Ledyard of Pewter Report:

    "Of all the positions, it's probably the one where those two guys will compete. But they're both gonna play. They're so talented and they both bring so much to the table. Hopefully, if they're both healthy, they are splitting time. I know fantasy doesn't like that, but those two guys…I mean, RoJo is one of the best runners I've been around. Lenny had that great run in the playoffs. 

    Last season, Jones led the Buccaneers in rushing with 978 yards and seven touchdowns. However, as Arians pointed out, Fournette had a strong showing throughout the postseason, accumulating 448 yards and four touchdowns from scrimmage in four outings.

    Both running backs will have decent roles, but as we saw with Jones last season, the starter could see a lot more opportunities. During the 2020 regular season, Jones had 220 touches compared to 133 for Fournette.


    Average draft position courtesy of Fantasy Football Calculator

    Fantasy points courtesy of FantasyPros