The lockout and the disruption it poses to trades, free agency and training camp makes it more difficult than in past years to foresee potential positional battles, but despite that uncertainty, we'll take an early look at some position battles around the league.
Although the team selected A.J. Green fourth overall in the draft, wide receiver was actually one of Cincinnati's most crowded positions at the time. Jerome Simpson and Andre Caldwell are both former second-round picks, while Jordan Shipley was a third-round selection last year. Green has the most talent among the four by far, but both Simpson and Caldwell showed starting potential late last year, and Shipley was productive as a slot wideout for the majority of the year. It seems like Shipley's role in the slot is relatively safe, so most of the competition should occur between Green, Simpson and Caldwell on the outside.
The Broncos claim to be uncommitted to either Tim Tebow or Kyle Orton at quarterback, despite Tebow's strong late-season showing as a starter. Both players were productive fantasy options in Denver, but the loss of Josh McDaniels and arrival of coach John Fox means a new, likely more run-heavy offense will be installed. Tebow might have more fantasy potential between the two thanks to his rare running ability, but he evidently will need to earn the spot in training camp.
Knowshon Moreno is generally unchallenged as Denver's top runner for the time being, but it seems likely that the Broncos will add at least one more runner before the season starts. Coach John Fox favored a run-heavy offense in Carolina, where he utilized Stephen Davis, Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams over the years. Williams, in fact, could be the perfect target for Denver. It might take a trade to get him in the event that he's considered a restricted free agent, however. Either way, Moreno hasn't shown enough at this point in his career to indicate that he'd be a good feature back for Fox, so some movement is bound to occur here.
Peyton Hillis and Montario Hardesty aren't likely to be in a competition as much as they're likely to be in a predetermined rotation. The team didn't take Hardesty in the second round of the 2010 draft to sit on the bench, but Hillis' breakout performance last year obviously dictates that Cleveland makes him the starter heading into this year. Hardesty has troubling knee issues, but if he's healthy, he probably has the talent to steal carries from Hillis' workload.
Chris Wells is definitely a great athletic talent, but injuries and unproductive play compelled the team to select Virginia Tech running back Ryan Williams in the second round of the draft. Although he's smaller, slower and less powerful than Wells, Williams is a much more fluid runner and can navigate through traffic more quickly. Unfortunately, Williams is a bit of an injury worry himself after dealing with hamstring trouble most of last year. In any case, both runners are talented enough to be productive when healthy.
Mike Tolbert made a fine enough showing last year while Ryan Mathews struggled with ankle injuries, but the latter is still likely to emerge as the team's top runner sooner than later. Tolbert, however, could retain a role as a goal-line specialist, which would obviously limit Mathews' fantasy potential. Still, San Diego traded up to the 12th pick in the 2010 draft to select a feature back, not a role player. Mathews should, health permitting, get enough work to put up at least RB2 numbers in 2011.
Thomas Jones just wasn't very effective last year, averaging 3.7 yards per carry while Jamaal Charles averaged 6.4 yards per carry. It isn't very fair to Jones to compare him to someone as elite as Charles, but the talent differential still dictates a more Charles-heavy Chiefs offense in 2011. Coach Todd Haley has all but stated that Charles will get more work than last year, and if that proves to be true, Charles should definitely be a top-five pick in most leagues.
Free-agent Joseph Addai is generally expected to re-sign with the team. Besides Addai, there's former first-round pick Donald Brown and 2011 fourth-round pick Delone Carter. Addai has shown the ability to be a fantasy asset when healthy, but injuries have been a problem. Brown has shown next to nothing at this point, on the other hand, so between Brown's unproductive play and Addai's injury concerns, Carter could play a significant role in 2011.
Felix Jones emerged as Dallas' top back last year, but Tashard Choice remains a threat to get on the field, and the team added Oklahoma runner DeMarco Murray in the third round of the 2011 draft. Murray makes things blurry because, like Jones, he's a fast runner who is a skilled receiver. It's tough to tell how work will be split up between the three, because they're all fairly well-rounded players.
Health permitting, Dez Bryant is in for a much bigger workload in 2011 than last year. Talented as he is, though, it's unlikely that Bryant will usurp Miles Austin as the team's top receiver. Roy Williams, though he could stay on the roster another year, is bound to fade further into obscurity, and isn't even necessarily safe from sixth-round pick Dwayne Harris for the third-wideout role.
Heading out of the draft, the Dolphins have next to no experience at running back. Outside of Lex Hilliard and Kory Sheets, the only notable player in the organization is Daniel Thomas, the team's second-round pick in the 2011 draft. Given how obscure Hilliard and Sheets are, the competition for the Miami running back spot would potentially involve a back not currently with the team. It seems like a free-agent addition at the spot is somewhat likely, and it could even be in the form of re-signing Ronnie Brown or Ricky Williams. The best-case scenario for fantasy owners would probably be if Thomas could emerge as the feature back and avoid a running back committee.
The lockout leaves Ahmad Bradshaw's status in limbo, making the same true about the Giants' running game. While Jacobs could earn more carries after averaging 5.6 yards per rush while running for 823 yards and nine touchdowns last year, Bradshaw would probably be the top fantasy target between the two after totaling 1,549 yards and eight touchdowns from scrimmage. At this point, it might be a surprise if both aren't back in 2011.
Blaine Gabbert unexpectedly fell to the 10th pick in the 2011 draft, and the Jaguars traded up to get him. For 2011, however, it doesn't seem likely that Gabbert will be starting in Jacksonville. David Garrard is coming off a generally impressive season that saw him average two touchdowns per game, and it isn't often that teams bench a quarterback after he had the team in the race for the playoffs the year prior. Neither player has great targets to throw to in Jacksonville, but at least the team has a solid running game thanks to Maurice Jones-Drew.
Shonn Greene was underwhelming last year and consequently allowed LaDainian Tomlinson to take a large portion of his workload, but the team is nonetheless hyping up Greene this offseason. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer said that Greene is ready to take a workload of 18-to-20 carries per game. Such a scenario would badly limit Tomlinson's value, while giving Greene a good shot to emerge as an RB2.
It's hard to see how Jahvid Best will be feature back for the Lions this season, as the team claims. While a turf toe injury probably had something to do with it, Best averaged an unbearable 3.2 yards per carry last year, and injuries have been a constant problem for him over the years. Second-round pick Mikel Leshoure, on the other hand, is pushing 230 pounds and dominated with a huge workload at Illinois last year (299 touches for 1,902 yards and 20 touchdowns). It seems like a rotation is likely to occur between the two, with Best retaining passing-down work while Leshoure serves as the clock-eater.
James Starks is generating a lot of hype, but Ryan Grant should still be considered the favorite to lead the Green Bay rushing attack in 2011. The picture is blurred a bit by the arrival of third-round pick Alex Green, however, who averaged more than eight yards per carry in his final year at Hawaii. Still, it isn't often that coaches turn from reliable veterans like Grant to unproven runners like Starks and Green.
Jordy Nelson's Super Bowl performance no doubt earned him a bigger role heading into 2011, particularly with James Jones generally expected to leave in free agency. Donald Driver is too respected to not get snaps, but if Nelson plays like he did against the Steelers, he'll get a big bump in the rankings. The arrival of second-round pick Randall Cobb, however, makes things a bit more unclear. He's unlikely to break into the top three at the position, but Cobb is too good of a player to not show up one way or another.
Jimmy Clausen might be the starter by default after getting thrown into the fire as a rookie. It's no secret that Cam Newton will own the spot eventually, though how soon the transition occurs likely will be determined by Carolina's pain tolerance – Clausen was a trainwreck as a rookie and figures to be similarly unproductive in 2011. It remains a possibility, however, that Carolina could add a veteran quarterback before the start of the year. If that happens, such a veteran would likely start.
There might not be a team in the league with a more crowded backfield than New England. BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead made a good showing last year, but the Patriots still selected Shane Vereen (second round) and Stevan Ridley (third round) in the draft. A rotation seems somewhat definite here, with Green-Ellis and Ridley having the skill set of clock eaters and short-yardage runners while Woodhead and Vereen fit better as pass catchers.
Rams receivers aren't highly regarded by most, but there's no disputing that the team is extremely deep at the position. While star power is not especially evident, Mark Clayton (technically a free agent, but expected to re-sign), Danny Amendola, Donnie Avery, Austin Pettis, Greg Salas, Mardy Gilyard and Brandon Gibson are promising in their own ways. Due to the crowding, one of those players likely won't make the team.
While Ryan Torain and Keiland Williams showed fairly well last year, the team still added Roy Helu and Evan Royster in the draft. Torain and Helu almost definitely have the most talent of the four, but both have durability issues, particularly Torain. That makes Helu the favorite heading into fall. The Nebraska product runs a bit high, but he has rare explosiveness and could be a big, though perhaps short-term, hit in Mike Shanahan's offense.
Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory have generally been productive in New Orleans, but both are likely to be pushed further and further out of the picture by first-round pick Mark Ingram. The team traded its 2012 first-round pick to move up for Ingram, and you don't do that unless you have big plans for the player in question. Thomas and Ivory could hold on a bit longer while Ingram gets broken in, but it seems like it's a matter of time before Ingram starts for the Saints.
Jake Locker is the future for Tennessee after he was selected eighth overall in the 2011 draft. The Titans, though, likely will sign a veteran who will enter camp as the favorite to start this season. Kerry Collins would make perfect sense given his tolerable 2010 performance. Unfortunately, whoever ultimately gets added isn't likely to be much of a fantasy factor. Thanks to his running ability, Locker likely would be the most useful fantasy quarterback in Tennessee.
Christian Ponder will have his day as a starter eventually, but the 12th overall pick could face veteran competition this fall. Whoever ultimately wins the spot likely will have a favorable supporting cast, as Adrian Peterson always keeps defenses scared, and Sidney Rice and Percy Harvin could ultimately prove to be as good of a one-two punch as any in the league. Due to this, Ponder would be an interesting player to monitor if he should start. It also doesn't hurt that Ponder should be able to run a bit in the NFL.