Fantasy football drafts are starting to pick up even as teams are still figuring out their rosters. In the next few weeks there will be some rookies that steal starting spots and veterans that underperform their draft position. Doug Moore looks at some of the most notable fantasy football training camp battles that fantasy players should keep an eye on.
As we are now just a few weeks away from the start of NFL training camp, football fans and fantasy players alike will be treated to the annual tradition of camp battles for starting spots. As it pertains to fantasy football, not all battles will be worth watching. But for those that are, we will discuss a few of them below and offer insight into who will come out on top.
1) Thomas Rawls vs. C.J. Prosise vs. Alex Collins (RB, Seahawks): The Seahawks were expected to have a big drop-off in production from the running back position after Marshawn Lynch required sports hernia surgery following Week 10 of last season. But undrafted rookie Thomas Rawls had other plans. After previously rushing for 100+ yards in two games (Week 3 vs. Bears and Week 5 vs. Bengals), Rawls stepped up for the Seahawks following Lynch’s injury. Over the next four weeks, Rawls had 76 carries for 435 yards (5.72 yards per carry) and three touchdowns before breaking his ankle against the Ravens.
Fast forward to 2016: Marshawn Lynch is retired, Rawls is nearly 100% after his injury, and the team has drafted two rookie running backs in C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins. Prosise is a wide receiver turned running back with one year of experience as a tailback at Notre Dame. Prosise finished with 1,032 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on just 156 carries along with 26 receptions for 308 yards and a touchdown. Collins was Arkansas’s starting running back in 2015 when starter Jonathan Williams missed the season because of injury. Collins was highly productive, finishing the season with 271 carries for 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns.
Over the past several seasons, Seattle has become known for its prolific running game and will look to keep that trend going with a new regime at the running back position. The team finished with both the 3rd most rushing attempts and rushing yards in 2015. So this potential battle has huge fantasy implications. Rawls is a much more talented runner than receiver (only nine receptions in 13 games last year), Prosise is still learning how to be a running back, but showed a lot of talent in both the running and receiving game, and Collins is a solid runner but contributes very little in the passing game.
Assuming Rawls is 100% for training camp, it’s possible we see Rawls command the most first-team reps while both Collins and Prosise mix in with the second-team. While talented, Prosise is a raw prospect who may need more time to develop. The expectation will be that Rawls will be the workhorse for the Seahawks in 2016 with Collins possibly stealing some carries on early downs and in the red zone. Prosise will have a role as a receiving back who will function as a change-of-pace runner. Piecing this data together, I would posit that Rawls would have low-end RB1 appeal, with Collins being a mid-tier RB4 with a lot of handcuff appeal while Prosise might be a solid RB4 at least in PPR leagues.
2) Ty Montgomery vs. Jeff Janis vs. Davante Adams (WR, Packers): After Jordy Nelson went down with a knee injury prior to the 2015 season, Davante Adams was thrown into the #2 wide receiver role for the Packers. In this new role, Adams had a lot of expectations but in the end floundered. He finished with 50 receptions on 93 targets for 483 yards (9.7 yards per reception) and only one touchdown to go with six drops. Rookie Ty Montgomery showed some promise in 2015 but only appeared in six games (15 receptions, 135 yards, and two touchdowns) and is coming off ankle surgery from the injury that caused him to miss 10 games in 2015.
Jeff Janis is a favorite of the fantasy football community despite having done very little up to this point with only four receptions for 95 yards and no touchdowns through his first two regular seasons. He did have a spectacular fourth quarter performance in the playoffs last year as he secured two Hail Mary passes. The coaching staff and quarterback Aaron Rodgers have given positive feedback on Janis, but head coach Mike McCarthy said last month that he needs to, “hone fundamentals,” and Rodgers recently said that Janis is trying to master, “the mental side of the game.” The talent is definitely there for Janis, but it seems that he still has some growing to do.
The three wide receivers are fighting for the team’s #3 WR role, which can be valuable in fantasy football given that the Packers are usually near the top of the league in terms of snaps run while using three receivers. Looking into the battle itself, Adams may seem to be the favorite given his role in 2015, but he may actually be on the roster bubble as the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Tom Silverstein wrote back in May that Adams is a receiver who could be fighting for his life to stay on the roster. While Janis has a lot of athletic ability on his side, the comments above prove that he still has a lot to learn about the position.
That leaves Montgomery, who did show promise in 2015, but missed ten games because of the ankle injury previously mentioned. If Montgomery is healthy and ready for training camp, expect him to win the #3 wide receiver role behind Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb. If that were the case, Montgomery would have low-end WR3 appeal who could see his role increase if either Nelson or Cobb dealt with an injury. Outside of deep dynasty leagues, neither Janis nor Adams are worth rostering at the moment.
3) Justin Forsett vs. Javorius Allen vs. Kenneth Dixon (RB, Ravens): After finishing with more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage and eight touchdowns in 2014, Justin Forsett was primed for another strong campaign in 2015. In fact, he was on his way to another 1,000-yard season before he went down with a broken forearm and missed the final six games of the season. While Forsett was injured, rookie Javorius “Buck” Allen stepped in and performed pretty well: 137 rushes for 514 yards and a touchdown to go along with 45 receptions for 353 yards and two touchdowns.
Now with Forsett entering training camp healthy, Allen entering his sophomore season, and fourth-round rookie Kenneth Dixon in the fold as well, this has the makings of a very interesting battle. Despite missing two games in 2015, Dixon finished with more than 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 26 total touchdowns at Louisiana Tech. Read Matthew Brown’s breakdown of why Dixon is a great pick for the Ravens. All three running backs are expected to get first-team reps in training camp and to be able to compete for the top role for the team. As it stands right now, Forsett would most likely have the edge as he was the starter for the team in 2015 before his injury. But both Allen and Dixon are highly talented and will have roles in 2016.
Even if one running back does pull away and earn the starting role, they most likely would not be a bell-cow for the team. Ravens.com reporter Ryan Mink wrote last week that he believes Forsett will open training camp as the “clear lead dog”. Regardless, it is clear that the Ravens do have an interesting situation and will have a solid competition on their hands. Offensive coordinator Marc Trestman has historically run very pass-happy offenses, which is worth keeping in mind when it comes to expectations.
If Forsett does indeed secure the lead role as is expected, he would have mid-tier RB2 appeal in standard leagues and high-end RB2 in PPR leagues. Both Allen and Dixon have ability in the run and receiving games, so the true battle may be between Allen and Dixon for who would be Forsett’s backup. While Allen has proven success at the NFL level and is more familiar with the playbook, Dixon may be the more talented running back. I expect Dixon to be 2nd on the depth chart for the Ravens in 2016, giving him a decent amount of handcuff appeal as a mid-tier RB4 while Allen will be a RB5 that could be worth stashing in the event of an injury to either Dixon or Forsett.
4) Sterling Shepard vs. Victor Cruz (WR, Giants): From 2011 to 2013, Victor Cruz accumulated 241 receptions, 3,626 yards, and 23 touchdowns. That averages out to 80 receptions, 1,207 yards, and 7.66 touchdowns per season. In 2014 though, Cruz went down early in the year with a torn patella tendon in his knee, which is an extremely tough injury to rehabilitate. He ended up missing the rest of the 2014 season and all of the 2015 season after he dealt with setbacks with his recovery along with a calf injury. Cruz is now healthy and fully expected to be ready for training camp. But he most likely will never be able to offer the type of play he did pre-injury.
Enter Sterling Shepard, whom the team drafted in the 2nd round this past May and is carrying a lot of hype. He has received very positive feedback from ESPN’s Dan Graziano, Giants.com writer Michael Eisen, the New York Daily News, NJ.com, and even QB Eli Manning. The expectation is that Shepard will have an immediate impact in 2016 – and it may even be as the team’s #2 wide receiver. When you consider he steps into a pass-friendly offense like the Giants (finished tied for 6th in passing attempts, 7th in passing yards and tied for 1st in passing touchdowns), that role could mean instant fantasy production even as a rookie.
Cruz does have experience on his side and many years of rapport with Manning but, as mentioned before, injuries may have left Cruz a shell of what he used to be as a wide receiver. Shepard is an extremely precise route runner who has the ability to play both on the outside and in the slot, and who will be a very welcome addition alongside superstar Odell Beckham Jr.. While Cruz may indeed have a role in 2016 as the Giants likely #3 receiver, there is little doubt that Shepard will win the #2 receiver role for the Giants. Finally, consider that defenses will likely use safety help over Beckham, freeing up space for Shepard to work against single coverage.
In that role and environment, Shepard could have high-end WR3 production as he would be the team’s #2 target behind Beckham. Cruz on the other hand, carries little fantasy value at the moment, as we haven’t seen him on the field for the most part in a year and a half. I’m all in on Shepard in 2016 and I’d recommend all of you to be as well.
5) Chris Ivory vs. T.J. Yeldon (RB, Jaguars): As a 2nd round pick last season, T.J. Yeldon performed well for a rookie with more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage (740 rushing, 279 receiving) and three total touchdowns on 218 touches. However, he went down in Week 14 and did not play the rest of the season because of a sprained MCL in his knee. He did not require surgery and will be 100% for the start of training camp. But it may not be as the starting running back for the Jaguars.
The team signed Chris Ivory this offseason to a five-year, $32.5-million contract, which puts him in the top 10 of all running backs in average salary. To put it bluntly: They gave him a ton of money. Ivory comes over after having a career year in 2015 with the Jets as he finished with 1,070 yards rushing and seven touchdowns. Per Florida Times-Union’s Ryan O’Halloran, he expects Ivory to be the “initial starter”.
The Jaguars are paying Ivory like a starting running back and it would not be surprising to see him function in the early-down role and be the main runner on goal-line carries. Yeldon showed promise in both the running and receiving game in 2015 as he secured 36 receptions in 12 games, so it would not be a surprise at all to see him as the third-down back. Yeldon will still get touches in the running game, as Jaguars GM Dave Caldwell said shortly after signing Ivory that both running backs “will probably split carries” in 2016.
Both Ivory and Yeldon will be valuable in fantasy football in 2016. In fact, they both might project to be high-end to mid-tier RB3s who would jump to high-end RB2 value if either went down with injury. Yeldon perhaps offers more value in PPR leagues because of his projected pass-catching role, while Ivory may have more value in standard leagues if he gets first crack at the goal-line touches.
6) Austin Seferian-Jenkins vs. Cameron Brate (TE, Buccaneers): A competition that probably wasn’t much of one a few months ago has suddenly become intensified and carries a solid amount of fantasy football value for 2016. Austin Seferian-Jenkins is coming into his third season after being a 2nd round pick in 2014. Despite that, he has only played in 16 games over his first two seasons. ASJ has clearly dealt with some injuries in his young NFL career but hopes to stay on the field more in 2016. But the main reason why we now have a competition for the Buccaneers #1 tight end is because of his temper/attitude issues.
Seferian-Jenkins was removed from organized team activities (OTAs) last month after head coach Dirk Koetter said he “didn’t know what he was doing.” The young tight end then went on a cryptic Twitter rant before eventually apologizing for his issues both in OTAs and his behavior on social media. There is no doubting his talent, but ASJ’s inability to stay healthy combined with his worrisome behavior could be enough to take him out of the starting tight end role; Koetter went as far as to say that someone else would be in the mix to start over ASJ.
Enter Cameron Brate, a 3rd year undrafted free agent out of Harvard (Did you know he went to Harvard?). Brate had a solid 2015 when ASJ was dealing with a shoulder injury, catching 23 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns on 30 targets. While he is extremely limited athletically, the Buccaneers coaching staff has talked up Brate and he has a real shot at being the team’s starting tight end in 2016. And that role carries fantasy value as the Buccaneers will look to keep improving their passing game under 2nd year quarterback Jameis Winston.
While ASJ is much more talented than Brate, his issues with health and perhaps even the coaching staff could take him out of the starting role, a thought echoed by Today’s Pigskin writer Roy Cummings late last month. Whoever is the starting TE for the team will most likely be the 4th option in the passing game behind Mike Evans, Vincent Jackson, and Charles Sims. Because of ASJ’s vast athletic talent and Brate’s uncanny ability to find himself open in the end-zone, this role could have high-end TE2 value. As of right now, it seems that Brate may have the inside edge as well. But the loser of this camp battle likely poses no fantasy value.
7) Blaine Gabbert vs. Colin Kaepernick (QB, 49ers): Let’s end things with a quarterback battle. I thought about putting Paxton Lynch vs. Mark Sanchez here, but this situation in San Francisco seems to be all-out open competition. Colin Kaepernick seemed poised to be the 49ers long-term starting quarterback after emerging in 2012 because of his cannon of an arm and his rushing ability. But during the 2015 season, Kaepernick was benched because of poor play for former Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert. Kaepernick then went on injured reserve weeks later to have surgery on his throwing shoulder, knee, and thumb. Gabbert, despite being a massive bust with Jacksonville, did pretty well when he was named the starter; he finished the season with a 63.1% completion percentage, 2,031 passing yards, and 10 touchdowns to go with seven interceptions.
Fast forward to OTAs and Kaepernick has resumed practicing but, per the Sacramento Bee’s Matt Barrows, he looked “a bit rusty.” It is a good sign that Kaepernick took part in practice, but he likely will be behind Gabbert to start training camp, as Barrows also expects. But if Kaepernick is able to progress in training camp and show off his strong arm and running ability to new head coach Chip Kelly, that could change when the regular season hits.
The quarterback in Kelly’s offense has proven to be a reliable fantasy quarterback in the past, as we saw with Michael Vick, Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, and even Sam Bradford (at times) during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles. Kelly is known for running a very fast-tempo offense that ranked at or near the top of the NFL in plays from scrimmage over the past two seasons (1st in 2014, 2nd in 2015). This would give whoever starts at quarterback a chance to throw the ball a lot and have the potential to rack up a lot of fantasy points.
As it stands right now, Gabbert appears to have the lead going into training camp as the team’s starting quarterback, but it’s not a sure thing that he will be the starter come Week 1. Kaepernick would provide more fantasy value as the starting quarterback due to his ability to run the ball, but it’s clear he will have to fight for the role. I expect Gabbert to maintain the role through training camp and even into the preseason, but it will be a true competition until the end. I would say the edge for the starting quarterback role in Week 1 goes to Gabbert, but a lot will depend on how well Kaepernick can perform after recovering from his multiple surgeries. If Kaepernick does indeed become the starter, he could have high-end QB2 value if he regains his pre-2015 ability. If Gabbert is the starter, he will have mid-tier QB2 value.