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Fantasy Football Training Camp: Five Position Player Battles to Watch

With training camp underway, we look at five battles that you should be monitoring for your fantasy team.
Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

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It's here.

Well, it's not here. What we all really want is the second week in September, when the NFL regular season begins and we can stop paying attention to every fart and whistle emanating from a pro football player, coach, GM, owner and ball-boy. But it's been a long damn summer, and we'll take whatever NFL news we can get.


So the "here" that's here is NFL training camps. And they're all underway! Fire up the misinformation echo chamber! Get ready for the kind of fluff pieces that'll make Bloody Bill Belichick sound like the voice of reason!

Amid all the ex-jocks clamoring for basic-cable attention and all the national football reporters with player agents' hands up their bums and all the beat-reporter hearsay breathlessly repeated as fact, there will actually be some important decisions rendered in camps this year. Depending how things play out in practices and meeting rooms and the exhibition season, your fantasy strategy may change pretty dramatically.

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I'm talking position battles. And yes, of course, some of the league's most important position battles—Seattle's offensive line! Much of Pittsburgh's back seven!—will take place among non-skill-position players. But what we fantasy drafters care about most are the skill guys, and not just any skill guys. Like, sure, we're all interested whether Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick wins the 49ers' starting job, in whether Mark Sanchez can hold off a procession of unknown QBs in Denver, and in who winds up being the third receiver in Green Bay. But those aren't the big ones.

No, the red meat this August will be devoured in offenses with real potential, among players with clear potential paths to starter-hood in all fantasy leagues. And so I give you the five most important camp battles for fantasy in 2016.


Martavis Bryant's suspension leaves the Steelers looking for a No. 2 receiver. Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

1. Pittsburgh No. 2 receiver. Martavis Bryant has been suspended for the entire year for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, which leaves a vacancy opposite the NFL best WR, Antonio Brown. It should be a valuable role. The Steelers feature an aggressive, varied attack that afforded Bryant 92 targets in 11 games last year. Whoever can snatch this job by his lonesome during camp has clear fantasy starter potential. The prime candidates are fourth-year man Markus Wheaton and sophomore Sammie Coates, though Darrius Heyward-Bey is also hanging around to gum up the works. Wheaton should be the obvious choice: he's quick as hell—kind of a cut-rate Brown—and has been through enough NFL battles to have acquired some polish. But that's what we said about Wheaton last year, when Bryant was suspended for the season's first four games, and he responded with a grand total of eight catches in those games. Yes, his '15 production looks pretty good overall, but nine of his 44 grabs and 201 of his 749 yards came in one miraculous night in a Seattle shootout, and Wheaton didn't evince much explosiveness otherwise. Meanwhile, Coates is all potential and athletic explosiveness: a great leaper, a strongman, and someone who could be dangerous if he learns how to run routes. The winner here (provided it's not DHB) is a top-36 fantasy WR.

2. Baltimore pass catchers. Joe Flacco expects to return from his torn ACL in time for Week 1. Who'll be his receiving targets? I'd love to believe Steve Smith can return from his torn Achilles' and surprise for the third straight year; in the first half of '15 he was in the NFL's top 10 in targets, catches and receiving yards. But at 37, it's sensible to have reservations about how much explosiveness he'll recapture. How about last year's first-rounder, Breshad Perriman, who's yet to play a down in the NFL and who underwent another knee surgery in June? Or maybe free-agent signee Mike Wallace—last seen spending the last three seasons tormenting fantasy owners—who joins the Ravens as a deep threat in an organization that could never figure out how to make Torrey Smith a week-to-week weapon? Or Kamar Aiken, who was okay as a possession receiver as the last man standing toward the end of '15? There are literally probably between 300 and 400 WR targets to distribute here, and some legit talent among this group. But who'll be healthy enough to take advantage?


And that's to say nothing of the mess at tight end, where Ben Watson joins a crew that already includes Maxx Williams, Crockett Gillmore and Dennis Pitta. You probably can't draft any of these TEs, but it would be interesting of one of them becomes a clear-cut winner in camp.

3. Baltimore running backs. Hi, did I mention the Ravens are in flux? They've got three RBs, and so far as I can ascertain, the NFL still only allows one football in play at any given time. (Note: the Patriots may look into circumventing this.) Justin Forsett is teeny, and predictably got hurt after a 279-touch season in '14. But as the veteran in this group it wouldn't be a shock to see the Ravens defer to him early. Buck Allen is the biggest player in this trio, but perhaps runs with the least physicality; he was a good replacement for Forsett as a pass-catcher last year but not particularly powerful, and more of a scat-back in a 220-pound body. Plus this April, Baltimore drafted Kenneth Dixon out of Louisiana Tech, who was my No. 3 favorite back in the draft, but who shares a running with Forsett and Allen: shiftiness and elusiveness are his prime qualities, while his physicality is debatable. (He hasn't played against NFL defenses yet and he faced few elite defensive players while running roughshod over Conference USA.) But I'll be honest: if you lined up these three guys and asked me to pick, my guess is that I'd select Dixon. He's not a long-speed guy but his 0-to-60 acceleration stands apart. It'll be a big camp for him, to see how fast he can learn his NFL duties.

Matt Forte's departure leaves the Bears looking for a starting running back. Photo by Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

4. Chicago running backs. If you search around the web, you'll read all kinds of negative numbers about Jeremy Langford's rookie year, but my sense is that most of the folks who tout yards-per-carry and average-yards-after-contact haven't watched Langford actually play much. He was pretty okay in '15. You give him a crease, he'll take advantage with legit acceleration. Some folks will point to his dropped passes, but while he did have a few national-TV concentration lapses, he also made a few grabs that registered 10-out-of-10 on the difficulty scale, which means he's got the skills to be a good receiver. But I'd be whistling past the graveyard if I said Langford is elite: he runs upright and takes a lot of hits, and doesn't have that legendary one-cut ability Bears fans are used to seeing from Matt Forte. So it wouldn't be a shock to see someone like rookie Jordan Howard or even veteran Ka'Deem Carey come out of camp with a bigger role than expected. To me, Howard's college tape shows a tough kid who took many big hits himself, but did produce at Indiana without elite blocking (and without elite athleticism); I think he'll max out as an NFL plugger who could steal some goal-line work but probably not a starting job. And Carey is similar but smaller: someone who won't wow you with moves or speed. I think Langford emerges at the 70% end of a platoon here, but that's not guaranteed.

5. Washington No. 2 receiver. Some luster was removed from first-round rookie Josh Doctson when he suffered an Achilles' injury in minicamp back in May, and he's apparently still feeling the effects. He began camp on the PUP list, and when first-year receivers miss time practicing with the first-teamers they often don't get up to speed fast enough to help your fantasy squad right away. For as long as he's healthy, DeSean Jackson is pretty much locked in as Washington's speed guy and clear-out threat, but Doctson has big skill overlap with Pierre Garcon; both are possession types who can make plays in traffic, though Doctson has the advantage of being the kind of leaper Garcon isn't. The winner here accrues some fantasy allure because Kirk Cousins produced great numbers from Week 7 forward last year: 23 TDs and 3 INTs. Realize, however, that you should view those numbers skeptically; having watched his film I believe Cousins should've thrown several more picks, and in that same span he had four straight games with only one TD. Still, if I'm wrong about Cousins suffering a big regression this year, someone other than Jackson and tight end Jordan Reed will benefit.