Determining which player wins skill position battles in training camp is crucial to fantasy football success. Here are the most important position battles with fantasy implications heading into the season and how they are shaping up after the first week of preseason games.
Candidates: Tom Savage, Deshaun Watson
This is one of the more interesting camp battles in terms of real football. It also has an impact on the fantasy community.
Savage got the start in the preseason opener, going 9-of-11 for 69 yards. Watson went 15-of-25 for 179 yards. He also rushed for a touchdown. Watson looked poised for a rookie, recognizing blitzes and audibling out to another play. On the other hand, he missed a couple of open receivers on seam routes when he sailed passes over their heads.
Savage has been named the early leader by coach Bill O’Brien and even earned the endorsement of star receiver DeAndre Hopkins. That’s great but the Texans didn’t move up in the draft and give up a future first-round pick to go 8-8 with Savage. If Watson continues to look good, it will be difficult for O’Brien to keep him on the bench.
Fantasy Verdict: Watson is the quarterback to own. He’ll be a sleeper fantasy option if he starts thanks to his rushing numbers and the presence of Hopkins.
Candidates: Cody Kessler, DeShone Kizer, Brock Osweiler
Cleveland has some talent at the skill positions with Isaiah Crowell, Duke Johnson, Kenny Britt and Corey Coleman. The Browns just need a quarterback. Kizer offers hope. Osweiler does not.
Kizer is still raw but he showed some of his promise in the Browns first preseason game, completing 11-of-18 passes for 184 yards and a touchdown. Osweiler and Kessler were what you would expect. Osweiler (6-of-14, 42 yards) looked like Osweiler and Kessler (5-of-10, 47 yards) looked like an NFL backup.
Kizer has a strong arm and he’s been impressive in training camp. Given the Browns other two options, Kizer seems like the obvious choice unless he self-destructs in his remaining preseason games.
Fantasy Verdict: Kizer wins the job and is a QB2/streaming option in an improved offense.
Candidates: Christian McCaffrey, Jonathan Stewart
Both McCaffrey and Stewart played sparingly in the Panthers first preseason game. Stewart started and ran for four yards on two carries. McCaffrey came in on the second series, finishing with 33 yards on seven carries.
This competition is one of the easier to predict because both backs are going to play early in the year. Stewart will get plenty of early down work, while McCaffrey is going to contribute as both a runner and receiver.
McCaffrey has a much higher ceiling for fantasy purposes because of his game-breaking ability and receiving skills. The Panthers will try to get the ball in his hands as often as possible this season. McCaffrey is being slightly over-drafted with a third round ADP but he’s the kind of player that doesn’t need 20+ touches a game to be productive.
Fantasy Verdict: McCaffrey will maximize his touches and create big plays. He’ll be a weekly RB2, while Stewart will be an inconsistent Flex play who is heavily dependent on touchdowns.
Candidates: Jeremy Hill, Joe Mixon, Giovani Bernard
Bernard returned quicker than expected from a torn ACL he suffered in November, further muddying the Bengals backfield.
Bernard looks to be fully recovered from his knee injury. If that’s the case, he’s set as the Bengals primary third-down back.
The battle is really between Hill and Mixon. Mixon is the superior talent. However, Hill is the incumbent and Marvin Lewis is painfully loyal to veterans. Even those who have struggled the last two seasons.
After rushing for 5.1 yards per carry in his rookie season, Hill has averaged 3.6 and 3.8 yards the last two years. Those numbers would be even lower if Hill didn’t get to face the Browns twice a year. Hill averaged 7.7 YPC in four games against the Browns the last two seasons. He’s a factor in the red zone; scoring 29 touchdowns in three years.
The Bengals have one of the NFL’s weakest offensive lines on paper. That plays more to Mixon, who can make defenders miss, than it does a straight-ahead runner like Hill. Mixon is a good receiver and a big-play threat every time he touches the ball. He looked good in the preseason opener; totaling 42 yards on seven touches.
Mixon is being over-drafted with a Round 4 ADP but given his talent, he’s the top fantasy option out of the three.
Fantasy Verdict: Mixon will overtake Hill and become a weekly RB2. Bernard still has Flex appeal in PPR formats. Hill’s value will be relegated to touchdown-heavy scoring leagues.
Candidates: C.J. Anderson, Devontae Booker, Jamaal Charles
The Broncos have two battles going on in theory, but in reality, they’re settled heading into the season.
Trevor Siemian will likely start at quarterback, while Anderson will remain the starting running back. Charles will have a role as well if he can stay healthy. The Broncos want to get him eight to 10 touches a game. Booker may have pushed Anderson in camp but he suffered a fractured wrist and his status for Week 1 is in doubt.
Until Charles proves he’s healthy, Anderson is the main fantasy option in Denver.
Fantasy Verdict: Anderson is the clear-cut starter and entrenched as an RB2 to start the year. Booker is a late-round flier who will get a shot if Anderson struggles or gets injured.
Kansas City Chiefs
Candidates: Spencer Ware, Kareem Hunt
Sometimes fantasy analysts get caught creating a position battle when they want a certain player to overtake another. This is a perfect example. Hunt’s ADP is Round 8, yet Ware is locked-in as the Chiefs starting running back.
Ware started the Chiefs first preseason game. He carried the ball four times for six yards and a touchdown. Ware also caught three passes for 20 yards. He got 18 snaps with the first-team offense.
Hunt only saw one snap with the first-team offense. He rushed once and caught one pass. Hunt was on the punt-block team in the third quarter when the Chiefs blocked a kick. In other words, the rookie still has a long way to go before he overtakes Ware.
Fantasy Verdict: Ware has a stranglehold on the starting job and should be drafted as an RB2. Hunt will be sprinkled in as a change-of-pace back but needs an injury to Ware to be fantasy relevant.
Candidates: Dalvin Cook, Latavius Murray, Jerick McKinnon
Cook was sensational at Florida State and he’s been a star since the first day of minicamp. He was used as the every-down back in the Vikings preseason opener. Murray and McKinnon were both sidelined with injuries. Cook rushed for 13 yards on five carries and caught all four of his targets for 30 yards.
Murray is still going to have a role in the offense. There’s a good chance he could become Minnesota’s goal line back. The departed Matt Asiata ranked second in the NFL last year with 21 carries inside the 5-yard line. Murray scored nine touchdowns from inside the 5-yard with the Raiders in 2016.
Murray will likely vulture some short touchdowns and may be used as a finisher at the end of games but Cook is a special player. It’s going to be hard for Mike Zimmer to keep him off the field, especially on a team that doesn’t generate a ton of big plays out of its passing game.
Fantasy Verdict: Cook will start and handle most of the touches. Murray will steal just enough carries and touchdowns to be a pain in the backside. Even so, Cook is a strong RB2 worthy of his fourth round ADP.
New England Patriots
Candidates: Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis, James White
There are fantasy headaches. Then there is the Patriots backfield.
Let’s state the obvious: It’s no longer 2016. This is a different Patriots team. LeGarrette Blount and his 1,161 yards and 18 touchdowns are gone. There isn’t one back on the Patriots roster that is going to replace Blount’s production.
Bill Belichick said he wants a more diverse running game. This offseason the Patriots signed Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead to help accomplish that goal. So obviously, Dion Lewis started the first preseason game.
The bottom line is all the backs are going to have a role. Lewis was never fully healthy last season. That’s one reason why Blount’s production rose. Lewis’ ADP is Round 13 but now that he’s healthy again, he’ll contribute as both a runner and receiver.
White is entrenched in his role as the Pats third-down back. The Super Bowl hero is one of the top pass-catching backs in the NFL. Gillislee has been sidelined with a hamstring injury but he should see work as the short-yardage and goal line back. Burkhead may be the most versatile of the group. Like Lewis, he can contribute as a receiver and he’s an underrated runner between the tackles.
Fantasy Verdict: In the toughest backfield battle to predict, Burkhead and Lewis will offer the most fantasy value thanks to their versatility as both runners and receivers. White is a weekly Flex option in PPR leagues. Gillislee will be a game plan specific RB3.
New Orleans Saints
Candidates: Mark Ingram, Alvin Kamara, Adrian Peterson
Ingram is coming off a season where he rushed for 1,043 yards and six touchdowns. He also caught 46 balls for 319 yards and four touchdowns.
Even though Ingram put up good numbers, the Saints signed Adrian Peterson and drafted Alvin Kamara. It’s a big hit to Ingram’s overall fantasy value.
Kamara is an excellent receiver and he was targeted in the draft specifically by Saints coach Sean Payton. The rookie started the Saints preseason opener with both Ingram and Peterson sitting. He was impressive, rushing four times for 35 yards. Kamara will be the Saints pass catching back this season. He’ll be the most dangerous player in that role since Darren Sproles left. Kamara is a steal right now at his Round 13 ADP.
Ingram and Peterson will compete for early-down carries. Peterson isn’t the back he once was but he should be more effective in New Orleans with Drew Brees preventing defenses from keying on him. Ingram is still the best all-around option of the three but he won’t come close to the 251 touches he got last year.
Fantasy Verdict: Ingram will lead the Saints in rushing yards, Peterson will lead them in touchdowns and Kamara will lead them in receptions. Kamara is the best pick in PPR leagues where he’ll be a weekly Flex option.
New York Giants
Candidates: Paul Perkins, Orleans Darkwa, Shane Vereen
Perkins was thought to have this job locked down after the Giants did little to address the position in the offseason. He’s reportedly not blown anyone away in camp though, so now there’s more doubt surrounding the Giants backfield.
Perkins struggled in New York’s first preseason game gaining just three yards on five carries. The performance even prompted Giants coach Ben McAdoo to criticize Perkins on his longest run of the night (seven yards) saying, “We have to at least get a first down on that play.”
Darkwa is splitting first-team reps with Perkins in practice. He rushed for 18 yards on three carries in the preseason opener. Darkwa has averaged 3.8 yards per carry in limited playing time the last two years.
Vereen is probably the safest bet of the three. He’s going to play on passing downs. Vereen has 70 receptions on 100 targets in 21 games with the Giants.
Fantasy Verdict: Perkins will start. He’s a low-end RB2/Flex option. Vereen is a Flex option in deeper PPR leagues.
San Francisco 49ers
Candidates: Carlos Hyde, Tim Hightower, Joe Williams
There was talk early on in camp that Hyde would be challenged by Hightower and Williams for the starting job. That talk has died down after Hyde has been one of the stars of 49ers training camp.
Hightower is a solid veteran backup but he’s not in Hyde’s class as a runner. In his last three NFL seasons, Hightower has averaged 3.8, 3.9 and 4.1 yards per carry. Hyde has been plagued by injuries during his career but last season he averaged 4.6 yards per carry. Williams (7/60) looked good in his preseason debut but his fantasy value is tied to Hyde’s health.
Hyde has a chance to put up big numbers in Kyle Shanahan’s offense if he can stay healthy. He’s looking like a bargain at his late fourth round ADP.
Fantasy Verdict: Hyde will be the feature back and have his best season under Shanahan. He’s a rock-solid RB2. Health is the only concern.
Candidates: Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise
This situation has the potential to be a real fantasy headache.
Lacy’s ADP is Round 7, which is too high considering he’s been running primarily with the second-team offense in practice. While that’s not a huge deal considering Lacy is coming off ankle surgery and learning a new offense, it does suggest Rawls is still going to be a big part of Seattle’s offense this season. He started the Seahawks first preseason game finishing with five yards on two carries.
Rawls’ ADP is currently Round 11. It looks like both backs will get carries early in the year but Rawls offers more value as a later round pick. Lacy has dealt with weight problems, ankle injuries and now he must compete for touches with two other backs.
Prosise is the most interesting of the three players. He’s locked into opening the year as Seattle’s third-down back. Prosise will take on an even bigger role if one of the other two get injured or struggle. Prosise’s ADP is a reasonable Round 9 in PPR leagues.
Fantasy Verdict: Lacy and Rawls will split early down work to start with Prosise coming in on passing downs. Prosise will lead the team in receptions. Rawls will lead the team in rushing. They’re the two to target.
Candidates: Rob Kelley, Samaje Perine
Perine was getting a lot of love from the fantasy community since he was selected in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. His ADP is Round 8. Kelley averaged 4.2 yards per carry as a rookie last season and he’s currently ahead of Perine on the depth chart. Surprisingly, Kelley has been undervalued all summer. His ADP has been hovering in the Round 9 area.
This is a good example of a situation where fantasy owners want one guy to win the job but the Redskins coaching staff simply isn’t there yet. Perine has more physical ability than Kelley and offers a higher ceiling. However, Perine still needs to work on pass protection and earn the trust of coaches though before he unseats Kelley.
Perine had a rough outing in his first preseason game. He rushed six times for 15 yards. Perine also fumbled (he recovered) then dropped a pass on the next play. Fumbling has been an issue for Perine in training camp and it’s allowed Kelley to pretty much nail down the starting job.
Fantasy Verdict: Kelley is the starter and an RB2. His ADP will start to climb. He’s one of the top value picks going in fantasy drafts right now.
Chicago Bears No. 1 Receiver
Candidates: Cameron Meredith, Kevin White
It’s hard to predict who will be the Bears No. 1 receiver when we don’t even know who will be the Bears starting quarterback. White has the physical tools but injuries have plagued him so far in the NFL. He’s missed 28 of his first 32 games. Meredith burst onto the scene last year finishing with 66 receptions, 888 yards and four touchdowns.
Mitchell Trubisky (18-of-25, 166 yards, one touchdown) had a tremendous preseason opener but Mike Glennon is still the favorite to start. Early reports out of camp say that Glennon is developing a connection with Meredith. Given the fact that White has yet to show much in the NFL, it’s enough to give Meredith an edge entering the season.
Fantasy Verdict: Meredith will be the Bears No. 1 receiver and a WR3. Until White turns his potential into production, he’s no more than a WR4/WR5.
Buffalo Bills No. 2 Receiver
Candidates: Anquan Boldin, Zay Jones, Corey Brown, Andre Holmes
Originally, this was a competition to see who gets Sammy Watkins’ scraps. Now with Watkins in Los Angeles and Jordan Matthews the Bills top target, Buffalo’s No. 2 receiver has more fantasy appeal.
This battle is going to come down to the rookie Jones and the newly signed veteran Boldin. Boldin has already been lining up in the slot with the Bills first-team offense. That’s where he’ll play most of the time during the regular season. Last year with the Lions, Boldin played in the slot 83 percent of the time. He caught a team-high eight touchdowns. Boldin has caught at least 56 passes every year since 2003.
Jones is the favorite to start on the outside opposite Matthews but he has the versatility to move into the slot. He set an FBS record with 158 receptions in 2016. Jones’ fantasy value took a hit when the Bills signed Boldin but he should still see a healthy number of targets. The Bills are desperately thin at receiver behind Matthews, Boldin and Jones.
Fantasy Verdict: Boldin will be a better real-life player than fantasy player in Buffalo’s run-first offense. Jones will emerge as a weekly WR4. He’s well worth his current Round 13 ADP.