As training camps open, here are the depth chart battles to keep an eye on:
BEARS – Starting QB: Rex Grossman vs. Kyle Orton. Grossman and Orton began camp completely even, but Grossman will get every opportunity to win the job, as Orton is more suited to a backup role. Grossman "led" the Bears to the Super Bowl just 18 months ago, and he has shown flashes of talent throughout his injury-plagued career. However, until he learns how to take better care of the ball, Chicago will always be on the lookout for another signal caller.
Starting RB: Matt Forte vs. Adrian Peterson. He may play the same position and have the same name as Minnesota's star back, but the comparisons end there. Peterson averaged just 3.4 YPC last season and will start camp behind Forte on the depth chart. Forte was drafted in the second round out of Tulane after rushing for over 2,127 yards last year. The Bears did just sign Kevin Jones to provide a little more competition for Forte, but he probably won't be ready at the start of the season due to a torn ACL last December.
No. 1 and No. 2 WR: Marty Booker vs. Mark Bradley vs. Brandon Lloyd vs. Devin Hester. With Bradley hurt and Hester still learning the position, the starting jobs could fall to new acquisitions Booker and Lloyd. Booker returns to the team where he had his greatest success, but he's just a possession receiver now. Lloyd has never lived up to his potential and may struggle for fantasy relevance in the Chicago offense. One name to tuck away: rookie Earl Bennett. With the mediocrities above him on the depth chart, Bennett could emerge as a starter sometime this season.
Starting TE: Greg Olsen vs. Desmond Clark. Olsen and Clark split duties evenly last year, with each being targeted 66 times. The Bears like using both tight ends, and while that's good for them, it doesn't really make either a great fantasy option.
BENGALS – Backup RB: Kenny Watson vs. Chris Perry. Rudi Johnson figures to start again this year despite his disastrous 2007. Watson stepped in and performed well during Johnson's injury-plagued campaign, and should get the call should Johnson falter again this year. Perry, a former first-round pick, has injury problems of his own (he missed all of last season with an ankle injury), but he has more upside than Watson, particularly as a receiver out of the backfield.
BRONCOS – Starting and backup RB: Selvin Young vs. Ryan Torain vs. Michael Pittman vs. Andre Hall. The release of Travis Henry gives Young the inside track for the starting job, but you never know who coach Mike Shanahan will pick. Because of Shanahan's unpredictability at this position, Hall and the rookie Torain can't be dismissed. Pittman's experience should keep him in the loop as well.
No. 2 WR: Darrell Jackson vs. Brandon Stokley vs. Keary Colbert. Forget about last year in San Francisco: if Jackson can stay healthy, he could put up numbers reminiscent of his Seattle days now that Brandon Marshall's facing a possible suspension. Stokley may push him for the job, but he's already 32 and has seen better days. Colbert has an outside shot of beating them both, but he's more of a possession receiver than a downfield threat.
BUCCANEERS – Starting and backup RB: Earnest Graham vs. Warrick Dunn. Graham was pressed into duty last season and took advantage of the opportunity, rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns. For that alone, he sits atop of the RB depth chart. However, the veteran Dunn wasn't signed to sit on the bench, so it's possible that Graham and Dunn – as well as Michael Bennett – could form a fantasy unfriendly rushing committee. That said, Dunn is 33, ancient for a running back, and Bennett's a journeyman, so Graham, who has impressed early in camp, is the clear favorite.
No. 2 WR: Ike Hilliard vs. Michael Clayton vs. Maurice Stovall vs. Dexter Jackson vs. Antonio Bryant. The Bucs have a deep receiving corps, but it's anyone's guess which one of this bunch wins the competition. Hilliard led Tampa Bay in receptions last year, and seems to have the early edge. Despite their ability to stretch the field, Clayton and Stovall didn't do much with their opportunities last year. The rookie Jackson could be a No. 1 receiver someday, but he's probably slated for special teams this season. Bryant was suspended last year, but he had a 1,000-yard season just three years ago.
CARDINALS – starting QB: Matt Leinart vs. Kurt Warner. Leinart goes into camp at the top of the depth chart, and head coach Ken Whisenhunt has already stated that Warner will probably not be able to pass him until after Week 1. Still, with last year's broken collarbone in the back of his mind, not to mention being outplayed by Warner when he was healthy, Leinart will need to impress early to hold off Warner.
Goal-line carries: Edgerrin James vs. Marcel Shipp vs. Tim Hightower. The Cardinals drafted Hightower with a thought of using him on the goal-line, but he'll likely be inactive frequently throughout 2008. James is clearly the top back on the team, but the Cardinals are leery of getting him banged up when they have other options. Expect Shipp to vulture a few TDs from James this year, with Hightower occasionally getting the shot from in close.
CHARGERS – Backup RB: Darren Sproles vs. Jacob Hester. Michael Turner had been called the best backup running back in the league by more than one expert, but now that he's gone, Sproles and Hester will get the chance to back up LaDainian Tomlinson. Hester, a third round draft pick in April, might already have the edge, as the Chargers love his versatility. Don't count out Sproles however – he averaged 4.4 YPC in limited duty and was one of the best return men in the league last year. Both players have looked sharp early in camp.
CHIEFS – Backup RB: Kolby Smith vs. Jamaal Charles. Smith wasn't horrible filling in for Larry Johnson last season, but if Johnson struggles to remain healthy again, the Chiefs could turn to the rookie Charles. Charles is speedy and shifty and is an intriguing late-round flyer.
No. 2 WR: Devard Darling vs. Jeff Webb vs. Will Franklin. The Chiefs passing offense is not expected to produce many fantasy stars this season, but the receiver playing opposite Dwayne Bowe should see more than a few balls thrown his way. Darling is playing with the first team already, but Webb has a little more upside, and Franklin is an explosive rookie out of Missouri.
COLTS – backup RB: Dominic Rhodes vs. Kenton Keith vs. Mike Hart. Rhodes returns after an unpleasant experience in Oakland, and appears to have the inside track to be Joseph Addai's caddy. Keith performed the role adequately last season, while Hart comes fresh off a nice career at the University of Michigan.
No. 2 WR: Marvin Harrison vs. Anthony Gonzalez. Future Hall-of-Famer Harrison had his most forgettable season as a pro last year, missing 11 games with knee injuries and only finding the end zone once. He had surgery in January and is supposedly healthy, but if he falters, expect Gonzalez, who caught 37 passes as a rookie last year, to step in nicely.
DOLPHINS – Starting QB: Josh McCown vs. John Beck vs. Chad Henne. Beck got thrown into a tough situation in Miami last year and threw only one touchdown in five games. He'll compete with the journeyman McCown for the starting job as Henne is likely a year away from making a major impact.
Starting RB: Ronnie Brown vs. Ricky Williams. Brown was in the midst of a huge breakout season before tearing his ACL last year. The enigmatic Williams returned from a two-year absence in November and tore a chest muscle in his first game back. With Brown not quite at full strength yet, Williams – who has reportedly looked very strong in camp so far – is a nice sleeper.
FALCONS – starting QB: Matt Ryan vs. Chris Redman vs. Joey Harrington. The absence of Michael Vick gave Harrington and Redman opportunities to claim the quarterback job in Atlanta. While Redman wasn't bad, it was clear that the Falcons had to draft a QB this year. Enter Ryan, who is expected to be the savior of the franchise and possibly step in right away. Our money is on Redman to start the season, but expect Ryan to become the starter sooner rather than later.
No. 2 WR: Laurent Robinson vs. Joe Horn. Once upon a time, Horn was a stud fantasy receiver, averaging 87 catches/year from 2000-2004. That was a long time ago, and with the Atlanta QB situation so unsettled and his attitude in question, it's time to pass on Horn for the much younger Robinson. Robinson caught 35 passes last year and looks to join starter Roddy White to form an exciting young receiving tandem.
Starting TE: Ben Hartsock vs. Martrez Milner. Alge Crumpler is gone, giving Hartsock a shot at a starting job. He's more of a blocker than a pass catcher though, so even though he'll likely beat out Milner, Milner is a better fantasy option.
49ERS – Starting QB: Alex Smith vs. Shaun Hill vs. J.T. O'Sullivan. Smith's shoulder is getting better, but his arm strength had been in question even before the injury he suffered last season. Hill isn't anything special either, but he played well for stretches last season, and O'Sullivan is a 28-year old former MVP of NFL Europe, hoping to catch on in the league. The former No. 1 overall pick Smith probably has the most upside if he ever gets it together, but all three are major questions marks at this point. The winner will benefit from playing in Mike Martz's system, however.
No. 1 and No. 2 WRs: Bryant Johnson vs. Isaac Bruce vs. Arnaz Battle vs. Ashley Lelie. Bruce has had a fine career and showed some signs of life last year, but he'll turn 36 this season, and the coaching staff is already talking about holding him out of the preseason to keep him fresh. With Lelie already out with a calf injury, the starting jobs are Johnson's and Battle's to lose.
GIANTS – Starting and backup RB: Brandon Jacobs vs. Derrick Ward vs. Ahmad Bradshaw. All three backs showed flashes last year, and the defending champs have a nice problem. The bruising Jacobs looks like the leader right now, but the Giants like Bradshaw's speed and versatility, too, and Ward is effective around the goal line. If Jacobs has another injury-filled season, the New York offense probably won't skip a beat.
No. 2 WR: Amani Toomer vs. Steven Smith. Toomer has the seniority, and he outplayed Smith last year, but he'll turn 34 in September. Smith was a disappointment during the regular season, but with Jeremy Shockey out with a broken fibula, Smith came on in the playoffs. With Shockey now in New Orleans, Smith could be a productive target even if he doesn't beat out Toomer.
JAGUARS – Starting RB: Fred Taylor vs. Maurice Jones-Drew. Seems like we were here last year. Jones-Drew was an exciting rookie in 2006, but Taylor was steady once again last year, preventing Jones-Drew from being the breakout star that many predicted. Still, 1175 total yards and nine touchdowns isn't bad for a backup. Sooner or later, Taylor will break down and Jones-Drew will get his chance. In the meantime, they make an excellent handcuff.
No. 1 and No. 2 WRs: Jerry Porter vs. Reggie Williams vs. Troy Williamson vs. Dennis Northcutt vs. Matt Jones. Porter, who was acquired in the offseason, was primed to be the No. 1 receiver before a hamstring injury sidelined him. He had surgery on July 18 and will probably miss all of camp. His absence opens up the competition. Williamson looked like a can't-miss star when he was drafted, but he's had problems holding onto the ball during his brief career. Williams caught 10 touchdowns for the Jags last year, but is currently dealing with a sprained knee. Northcutt and Jones are also holdovers from Jacksonville's mediocre 2007 receiving corps, but with the question marks ahead of them on the depth chart, either of them could get another chance to impress this season - assuming Jones keeps his nose clean.
JETS – Starting QB: Chad Pennington vs. Kellen Clemens. This battle has seemingly been going on forever. Clemens supposedly had the leg up entering training camp, but Pennington is playing with the first team so far and certainly has the veteran bona fides to lead an improved Jets squad this year.
LIONS – Starting RB: Tatum Bell vs. Kevin Smith vs. Brian Calhoun. Bell's experience seemingly gives him the edge, but the Lions traded up to draft Smith, who happened to rush for 2,567 yards for Central Florida last year. Many are excited about Smith, who clearly has upside, but a word of warning: he rushed an astounding 450 times last season. Calhoun has been limited to just 14 carries in his injury-plagued career, but the new zone-blocking offense fits his skills, and he's finally healthy. He may be the real sleeper in Detroit.
PACKERS – Starting QB: Aaron Rodgers vs. The Ghost of Brett Favre. Too much ink has already been spilled about this one. If Favre and the Packers kiss and make up, he might supplant Rodgers as the starting QB. Otherwise, Rodgers only needs to hold off Brian Brohm to win the job.
PANTHERS – Starting RB: DeAngelo Williams vs. Jonathan Stewart. When DeShaun Foster signed with San Francisco in February, Williams was probably overjoyed at finally getting his biggest rival for carries out of town. That joy was short-lived when Carolina selected Stewart as the 13th pick in the draft. Stewart, fully recovered with his March toe surgery, is expected to win the starting job, but there could be a timeshare if Stewart isn't quite ready for the rigors of the NFL.
No. 2 WR: D.J. Hackett vs. Muhsin Muhammad. Apart from Steve Smith, the Carolina receivers weren't much to write home about last season. In the offseason, the Panthers upgraded by signing Hackett and Muhammad. Hackett probably has the edge in pure talent, but his inability to stay healthy could give Muhammad the opportunity to win the job. Expect this battle to last all camp.
PATRIOTS – Third WR: Jabar Gaffney vs. Chad Jackson vs. Kelley Washington. Normally, a team's third wide receiver is not on anyone's fantasy radar, but this is the Patriots we're talking about. Jackson, who has good size and excellent speed, missed last season with a torn ACL, but has looked strong so far in camp and could push Gaffney for the starting job. Washington also figures into the equation, but as most of his experience is on special teams, he has an uphill battle.
RAIDERS – Starting RB: Darren McFadden vs. Justin Fargas. Multiple injuries opened the door for Fargas last season, and he responded well to the challenge. Unfortunately for Fargas, Oakland drafted McFadden, arguably the incoming class's most exciting player. We'd be surprised if McFadden didn't get at least half the carries off the bat, but beyond that, his role isn't entirely clear.
RAMS – Second WR: Drew Bennett vs. Donnie Avery. The speedy Avery was the first wide receiver drafted this year, but a cracked bone in his pelvis will make it difficult for him to beat out Bennett for a starting job. Bennett has had one good season in his seven-year career – and that was back in 2004.
RAVENS – Starting QB: Kyle Boller vs. Joe Flacco vs. Troy Smith. The Ravens moved up in the draft to nab Flacco at No. 18. He's big and has a nice arm, but is still a bit of a project. Despite Smith's two productive starts at the end of last season, expect Boller – the most experienced QB of the trio vying for the starting job – to get the nod in September.
SAINTS – Backup RB: Deuce McAllister vs. Pierre Thomas. The Reggie Bush coronation didn't go as planned last year, even after McAllister tore his ACL in September. Bush is clearly the starter this year, but can't handle a full workload. McAllister will get plenty of playing time, but is he healthy? He's coming along slowly from offseason knee surgeries, which opens the door for Thomas, who rushed for 105 yards and caught a whopping 12 passes for 121 yards in the season finale last year.
No. 2 WR: David Patten vs. Devery Henderson vs. Robert Meachem. The Saints have one of the best passing offenses in the league, yet strangely have only one reliable wide receiver in Marques Colston. That could change this year, as Robert Meachem – a 2007 first-round pick who missed all of last season – is now healthy. Patten could hold onto a starting job if Meachem doesn't win it, while Henderson could be a home run threat. The addition of Jeremy Shockey means that whoever the No. 2 is, he'll usually draw one-on-one coverage. Meachem, who has good size and speed, has the most upside.
SEAHAWKS – Starting and backup RB: Julius Jones vs. Maurice Morris vs. T.J. Duckett. Coach Mike Holmgren hopes to use Jones and Morris as co-starters, and it's unclear just how they will split carries. One thing's for sure: Duckett has them both beat in size, and could get the bulk of goal-line carries.
STEELERS – Starting RB: Willie Parker vs. Rashard Mendenhall. Parker has averaged 329 carries per season over the last two years, and Pittsburgh would love to give some of those to the rookie Mendenhall. Parker will still be the primary ball carrier, and his yardage statistics may not suffer much if he stays fresh. Still, the Steelers are excited about Mendenhall, and the rookie is a far better option at the goal line.
TEXANS – Starting and backup RB: Ahman Green vs. Chris Brown vs. Chris Taylor vs. Darius Walker. Green is the unquestioned starter when healthy, but he was rarely healthy (or good) last season. Taylor missed all of last season but may be the Texan with the brightest future. Brown started last season with a bang: 175 yards in week one, and finished it with four touchdowns in the last five weeks, mostly backing up Walker. Add rookie Steve Slaton as a third-down back, and you've got quite the mess in Houston. If everyone's healthy, expect Green and Brown to top the depth chart, but that's a big if.
TITANS – Backup RB: Chris Johnson vs. Chris Henry. This one could be over soon. Johnson, who was drafted in the first round out of East Carolina, has even starter LenDale White excited. If Johnson is as good as advertised, Henry won't even have a shot to win this job.
No. 2 WR: Roydell Williams vs. Justin McCareins. After four lackluster seasons with the Jets,. McCareins is now back with the team for which he had his best season. Williams' broken ankle has landed him on the PUP list, essentially thrusting McCareins onto the first team.
Article first appeared 8/12/08