We're only two weeks into training camp and already there are a number of position competitions with fantasy implications. Let's take a look at some of the more significant battles.
Marion Barber and Julius Jones shared the workload pretty well last year, but Barber was far more valuable to his fantasy owners with his NFC-leading 14 touchdowns. Jones struggled around the goal line, giving Barber more than enough opportunities to show his worth. Jones seems more receptive to new coach Wade Phillips than he was to Bill Parcells, but his struggles down the stretch in 2006 may have pushed him behind Barber for good.
If working with the first-team offense is any indication, it looks like Chris Brown holds a slim lead over LenDale White. Brown has been working with the first team since July 30 after White held the coveted spot the first few days of practice. Although White was disappointing as a rookie, don't be surprised to see him get a real chance to win the role, as Brown fell out of favor last season. Both backs may face a challenge from rookie Chris Henry, but it's more likely that Henry's 2007 contributions will be mostly on special teams.
Vernand Morency suffered a knee injury on the first day of practice and will miss at least two weeks of training camp. Morency's injury opens the door for rookie Brandon Jackson to get reps with the first team, which is probably what the Green Bay brass prefers. Jackson only started one season at Nebraska, but he's not facing the durability questions that Morency faces. Jackson has struggled a little with the passing game so far, but he's getting more and more comfortable each day. If he impresses in camp, he could win the job outright, especially if Morency is out for longer than expected.
Last year's starter Chester Taylor suffered a minor forearm injury early in camp, opening the door for exciting rookie Adrian Peterson. Unfortunately, Peterson - whose college career ended with a broken collarbone - left practice August 2nd with a hip pointer. It wasn't serious, but Peterson's style is very physical, and he was dogged by injuries during his career at Oklahoma. It's obvious that the Vikings consider Peterson their running back of the future, so as long as he stays injury-free, he'll likely surpass Taylor sometime in August and be the starter from day one.
With Warrick Dunn expected to miss the entire pre-season after July surgery on a herniated disc in his back, Jerious Norwood will almost certainly begin the season as the starter. Dunn could be ready by the opener, but he'll clearly not be ready to make a significant contribution right off the bat. Norwood led all qualified running backs with 6.4 yards/carry last year, but it's unknown how he'll handle being the man, especially if Michael Vick's off the field.
DeShaun Foster was disappointing in 2006 - he "led" an uninspired Carolina rushing attack with just 897 yards. The exciting DeAngelo Williams may be behind Foster on the depth chart, but he'll have every opportunity in training camp to pass Foster and earn the starting role. The Panthers hope to use the screen pass this year, giving Williams the edge. Even if Foster wins the starting role coming out of camp, expect Williams to eventually overtake him and put up better numbers in 2007.
Fred Taylor came into camp as the starter, but Maurice Jones-Drew is hot on his heels thanks to his gaudy numbers in limited action in 2006. Taylor is already 31 and not the best bet when it comes to staying healthy. Jones-Drew is already the go-to back inside the red zone, and if Taylor misses any significant time in 2007, Jones-Drew has the potential to be a top-five running back.
In 2005, Lamont Jordan had 1,025 rushing yards, 70 receptions, 563 receiving yards and 11 touchdowns. Anyone who drafted him in 2006 expecting a repeat of those numbers will probably never draft him again. Fortunately for Jordan, his chief competition, Dominic Rhodes and rookie Michael Bush, have cleared the way for him to remain the No. 1 back. Rhodes is serving a four-game suspension thanks to a few legal entanglements. He's healthy though, and could get into the mix if Jordan has a poor September. Bush is still rehabbing his broken leg from last year, but he's an elite talent and likely would have been a top 10 pick if he'd been healthy. The Raiders probably won't rush him back, but don't be surprised to see him get extended playing time in the second half of the season. Jordan missed practice last week with a sore back - if it lingers, Justin Fargas is a deep deep sleeper for week one.
Kevin Jones might be a late first-rounder if he were healthy, but surgery on his foot will likely keep him on the shelf for awhile. Jones is reportedly ahead of schedule and running at full speed, but his cutting ability isn't quite ready yet, putting him in serious doubt for the beginning of the season. Meanwhile, Tatum Bell has been practicing with the first team offense. Detroit coaches have been very impressed with Bell so far, and with Jones' health up in the air, Bell could be a nice sleeper to put up good numbers in the RB-friendly offense. The only other experienced back on the roster is T.J. Duckett, who will likely only get used in short yardage situations when Bell and Jones are healthy.
Now that Tiki Barber has retired, big Brandon Jacobs is expected to get the lion's share of carries, and his size means that he'll continue to get the ball close to the goal line. However, he's never been the feature back, unlike newcomer Reuben Droughns, and with all of his upper body bulk, it remains to be seen whether his legs will hold up all season. So far though Jacobs has been impressive in camp, and Droughns looks like he'll be used as a change of pace back and third down specialist.
Mike Shanahan clearly wants new acquisition Travis Henry to be the feature back. That shouldn't be a problem, as Henry rushed for 1,211 yards last year and seems poised to do it again. The more interesting battle is for the backup position, as last year's pre-season darling Mike Bell has dropped behind Cecil Sapp on the depth chart. They'll probably be fighting for scraps behind Henry, but expect Bell eventually to move back ahead of Sapp.
Just a note to those of you who expect Reggie Bush to get 2,000 yards this season: Deuce McAllister is still on the roster. McAllister is healthy and will continue to start and get carries around the goal line, and Bush will come into the game as a change of pace back and in passing situations. Both are worthy draft picks, but as long as both are healthy, neither is going to put up first-round numbers.
Others of note: Washington's Clinton Portis will miss about a week with knee tendinitis. The longer he sits out, the bigger the bite Ladell Betts might take out of his workload in September…Rookie Tony Hunt of Philadelphia has struggled catching the ball out of the backfield so far in camp. He still has the early lead over Correll Buckhalter for the backup position, with the winner possibly getting carries at the goal line…Edgerrin James, clearly the starter in Arizona, is hoping to receive more goal line carries this season. He's struggled in short yardage situations early in camp. Marcel Shipp, who had four short-yardage TDs in the last five games last year, could get those opportunities again this year…New England's Laurence Maroney has been wearing a red non-contact jersey during practice. He had offseason shoulder surgery, but expects to be at 100% for the opener. Maroney owners worried about the injury should prepare to swoop in on backup Sammy Morris if the need arises. With Frank Gore out for most of the pre-season with a broken hand, Thomas Clayton, Maurice Hicks, and Michael Robinson are all fighting for the backup role in San Francisco. Hicks probably has a slight edge over the others, but none will see the field much once Gore is healthy…With Willie Parker out of Sunday's game with swelling in his knee, the Steelers went with Najeh Davenport as the feature back instead. Parker has missed a week of practice, so this may be something to keep an eye on…Michael Bennett has had an impressive camp, and figures to get some early-season carries if Larry Johnson can't come to an agreement with the Chiefs.
Those who felt sorry for Brady Quinn when he was dropping on draft day may not have realized that he dropped into a prime position to lead a team in his first season. Incumbent Charlie Frye still has the lead based on his NFL experience (he started 13 games last year and five in 2005), but he has never been anything special. Quinn's holdout will probably prevent him from overtaking Frye in August, but now that he's signed, expect Quinn to be pushing for a starting job by the mid-point of the season. Meanwhile Derek Anderson, who started three December games for the Browns last year, was the most impressive QB during offseason workouts. He'll have an opportunity to win the job, especially with Quinn playing catch-up.
Top draft pick JaMarcus Russell is still holding out, but many expect him to be starting in Oakland sometime in 2007. Andrew Walter was expected to keep Russell's place warm, but trade acquisition Josh McCown and recent signee Daunte Culpepper could move ahead of him on the depth chart. The Raiders had to make a move - Walter started eight games behind center for Oakland in 2006, and his numbers were atrocious. Culpepper was a fantasy stud as recently as 2004, but has fallen on hard times ever since his 2005 knee injury. Journeyman McCown has struggled protecting the ball in camp and is probably the lowest on the depth chart now. The Oakland offense is still bad, so whoever wins the job will have his work cut out for him - none of the Raider QB hopefuls look like good fantasy options this year.
An ugly battle is going on in Kansas City, and we're not talking about Larry Johnson vs. team management. Brodie Croyle and Damon Huard are fighting to lead the Chiefs to a 4-12 record. So far, Croyle has distinguished himself far more during practice and is the favorite to win the job. The Chiefs expect to name a starter after two pre-season games, and Huard, who actually played quite well last season, will probably find himself holding a clipboard in 2007.
Jeff Garcia leads a cast of thousands for the Bucs job. He had a good run last year with the Eagles, but at 37 he's well past his prime. He was nursing a sore hamstring last week, but appears to be ok. The backup job could go to Bruce Gradkowski, Chris Simms, or dark horse Luke McCown. Before Simms ruptured his spleen last season, he had 106 pass attempts in three games, but had only one touchdown to go along with seven interceptions. The Bucs hoped that he would be an experienced backup and insurance policy in 2007, but he's been so banged up in camp that it's possible that he won't make the team. McCown tore his ACL last year and is still waiting to take his first snap for the Bucs. However, he's been the sharpest QB in camp this year, and it's looking more and more like he could win the #2 job. Gradkowski wasn't terrible when he took over for Simms in 2006, but he's struggled so far in camp and probably won't win the backup job in 2007 as long as Simms and McCown are around.
Byron Leftwich claims his surgically repaired ankle feels "perfect," and that he's ready to play, but David Garrard is waiting in the wings to steal his job again. Garrard wasn't bad in relief of Leftwich in 2006, with 10 TDs, and nine interceptions in 11 games, but he's probably not the long-term answer at QB. With Jacksonville's questionable receiving corps, neither QB looks like a strong a fantasy play in 2007.
Other notes: In case you've been living under rock, Falcons star Michael Vick is not in training camp. Joey Harrington is the only QB in camp with any kind of recent experience, so the Atlanta job is his to lose. D.J. Shockley and Chris Redman will back him up…Trent Green already has the Miami QB job locked up, even though he's been occasionally taking snaps with the second team in practice. There's no reason to read anything into that - new coach Cam Cameron just wants to rotate his QBs around and see what backup Cleo Lemon can do.
Expected #1 David Givens, who had 149 receptions and 11 TDs from 2003-2005, is still recovering from a torn ACL and won't be ready for the opener. Brandon Jones, who has looked good in camp and is building a nice rapport with Vince Young, is dealing with a sore hamstring. Eric Moulds may be past his prime, but he's been even more impressive than Jones. He caught 57 passes last year, so he is still capable of being a starting receiver. Roydell Williams, Justin Gage, and Chris Davis could also see some time, but Moulds and Jones are the two you should keep an eye on.
Michael Clayton and Maurice Stovall are in a tight race to see who will start along with Joey Galloway. Both started camp strong with spectacular catches during the first practice. Unfortunately, Clayton had a bad case of the dropsies last week, and Stovall also struggled holding onto the ball during a rainy practice. Clayton, who has 145 catches in three seasons, is healthy and is probably still the favorite to win the job, but right now Stovall is listed ahead of him on the depth chart.
Devery Henderson and Robert Meachem are battling it out for the opportunity to start opposite Marques Colston. Henderson, who had five touchdowns and averaged 23.3 yard/catch in 2006, has been distancing himself from Meachem and the rest of the pack. Meachem had 644 receiving yards and four TDs last year, but had arthroscopic surgery on his knee in June. He's in camp and ready to play, but he may be too far behind Henderson already. Either way, both should have value in fantasy leagues, with the winner of the battle being worthy of a mid-to-late draft pick.
Other notes: Carolina rookie Dwayne Jarrett has been getting some reps with the first team offense and may have moved ahead of Drew Carter for the starting job opposite frequently double-teamed Stevonne Smith…Expected San Diego starting receiver Eric Parker had surgery on his big toe last week and will be out until at least late October. Everyone moves up on the depth chart, which means Vincent Jackson and rookie Craig Davis should be bumped up on your draft lists immediately. Jackson has a nice rhythm with QB Phillip Rivers, and could be a major sleeper this season…Amani Toomer is coming back from ACL surgery last November. He's slated to be starting opposite Plaxico Burress in New York, but may not be ready yet. Sinorice Moss and rookie Steve Smith will both have the opportunity to play with the first-team offense in camp, and Moss, if he can overcome his nagging injuries, looks like he has the edge for playing time…Darrell Jackson, who was sidelined in the spring by a turf toe, returned to practice last week. As the most experienced WR on the 49ers roster, he has the edge over Ashley Lelie for the starting split end job. Arnaz Battle, who missed practice last week with a sore knee, is slated to be the starting flanker, but Lelie and Jason Hill could both be pushing him sooner rather than later…Keenan McCardell has missed the last week of camp with a groin injury. He's likely fallen behind Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones in the battle to start opposite Andre Johnson for Houston…Cedrick Wilson and Santonio Holmes both caught TD passes Sunday night. Wilson is officially behind Holmes on the depth chart but is practicing with the first team in camp. Holmes admits he's not 100% healthy, but does not appear to be injured.
Article first appeared 8/8/07