With training camps starting this weekend, and preseason games just around the corner, it's time to look at some key job battles to gain clarity so we can dominate our fantasy drafts.
Robert Griffin III handled most of the first-team reps throughout the offseason, but if Griffin has difficulties running new head coach Hue Jackson's offense, Josh McCown showed last season that he still has the ability to move an NFL offense well. Jackson said he'll name the starting quarterback before the team's first preseason game Aug. 12.
General manager John Elway said this week the quarterback job will be an open competition in training camp. Mark Sanchez is the No. 1 QB entering camp, but he'll share first-team reps with Trevor Siemian. First-round draft choice, Paxton Lynch, struggled during OTAs and seems unlikely to overtake his competitors during preseason.
Los Angeles Rams
Case Keenum is the incumbent but had plenty of struggles leading the Rams offense in 2015, and the team used the first pick in this year's draft to select Jared Goff. If Goff can show he's ready to make the team competitive, he could easily push Keenum into a backup role as early as Week 1. Helping the rookie's case is that coach Jeff Fisher said he was impressed with Goff's preparation this offseason.
San Franciso 49ers
Blaine Gabbert will battle Colin Kaepernick to lead Chip Kelly's fast-paced offense. Gabbert performed capably as the starter down the stretch last season, and with Kaepernick (shoulder) now healthy, both will have an opportunity to earn the starting role. Although Kaepernick's doctor has medically cleared him, the 49ers' medical staff has yet to do so.
Although Devonta Freeman broke out last season and became a top fantasy option, Tevin Coleman is expected to have an opportunity to work his way into the running back rotation as either a change-of-pace option or a candidate for early down work. Working in Coleman's favor is that the team spent a premium draft pick on him in 2015 and has a vested interest in working him into the mix. Freeman is still the heavy favorite to see the majority of touches this year. That said, Freeman's touches could decrease to keep him fresher and allow Coleman to be more involved.
This backfield is an absolute quagmire, and it's tough to think that it will be settled cleanly during training camp. Justin Forsett was the 2015 starter before going down with a broken arm, though he had struggled, especially in terms of gaining yards as a receiver when healthy. After losing Forsett, Buck Allen proved a capable receiver, but a bit of a disappointment as a runner in his late-season audition. Likely based on the performance of last year's backs, the team drafted Kenneth Dixon, who projects to be a three-down option. However, Dixon suffered a Grade 1 sprain of his MCL on Thursday, and although it appears to be a short-term injury, it could affect his ability to earn this role during camp. Otherwise, each of could earn a share of this backfield in the regular season.
LeSean McCoy will see most of the work, but with coach Rex Ryan expected to favor an extremely run-heavy offense, there should be plenty of opportunity for others to be involved. Unfortunately, Karlos Williams faces a four-game suspension and is also dealing with conditioning issues. In addition, rookie Jonathan Williams is potentially facing a suspension of his own for a DWI charge. Mike Gillislee will try to use training camp to prove last year's performance late in the year wasn't a fluke, and that he can be a strong complement to McCoy. Furthermore, the team is working to sign Reggie Bush, and if he's fully recovered from his 2015 knee injury, he could easily become a staple as a receiving option on third downs.
The coaching staff is on record as having Jeremy Langford penciled as the lead back, but he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry in 2015 and also struggled with drops as a receiver. Meanwhile, the team hopes during training camp to turn Ka'Deem Carey into a more versatile back, but the third-year RB also struggled to gain yards as a rusher in his previous opportunities. With that much uncertainty, the Bears spent a fifth-round pick to draft Indiana bruiser Jordan Howard. Coach John Fox has often used a committee at running back, and Howard would seem to fit the bill of the early down and short-yardage thumper while Langford is best suited as the receiving and change-of-pace option.
When the team had Hue Jackson has its offensive coordinator, the recipe was simple: Jeremy Hill did the chain-moving and short-yardage work while Gio Bernard was the pass-catching specialist. With Jackson gone and after Hill disappointed as a rusher last year (3.6 YPC), the door could be open for Bernard to siphon some of the early down work. Regardless, Bernard will at least retain his role as the receiving threat in the backfield. It's also difficult to see Hill removed from goal-line duty after he scored 10 touchdowns inside the 10-yard line last season.
After showing his skills as a receiver last year, Duke Johnson will be utilized heavily as a receiver this season. The battle to watch in training camp will be whether Isaiah Crowell or Johnson earns the early down and goal-line work. New head coach Hue Jackson has been effusive in his praise of each running back, though he's also issued a challenge to Crowell to be more consistent. Crowell has the edge to take over the "Jeremy Hill" role while Johnson assumes the "Gio Bernard" role based on the offense that Jackson ran in Cincinnati the last two years.
The first-round selection of Ezekiel Elliott basically ensures the team is counting on him to be a three-down workhorse behind its exceptional offensive line. But with the volume of rushing that is expected, there should be opportunity for either Alfred Morris or Darren McFadden to get a fair amount of weekly touches. McFadden has an elbow injury but is expected to be ready for Week 1, and after his solid performance in 2015, he's easily the favorite to see most of the work when Elliott is on the sidelines.
Despite an inconsistent rookie year, Ameer Abdullah averaged 4.2 yards per carry and was capable as a receiver, and after recovering from offseason shoulder surgery -- though coach Jim Caldwell was evasive when asked for an update on Abdullah's shoulder -- he'll be given every opportunity to take over the lead role in the Lions' backfield. However, Theo Riddick was an outstanding receiver last year, and he could easily retain the third-down receiving role. In addition, Zach Zenner and Stevan Ridley will have an opportunity to earn some early down and goal-line work if either can prove himself during preseason.
Although the Jaguars spent a second-round draft pick last year on T.J. Yeldon, they chose to sign Chris Ivory in free agency this offseason to give themselves a strong backfield tandem. The two will reportedly split carries, but the training camp battle will ultimately decide how the workload is shared. Ivory is best suited for early down and goal-line work while Yeldon projects to be the better receiving option.
New England Patriots
The Patriots' offense was a matchup nightmare for opponents before Dion Lewis went down with a torn ACL last year. He's expected to be ready Week 1, and it would be a bit shocking if Lewis wasn't on the field for a majority of the offensive snaps. In addition, LeGarrette Blount, who will not start camp on the preseason PUP list, is recovered from last year's hip injury, and is the favorite for goal-line work as well as the team's clock killer. Even though James White performed admirably as a receiver, he's not nearly as explosive as Lewis, making White a top backup option. Both Donald Brown and Brandon Bolden will try to carve out roles during the preseason, but each faces an uphill battle.
San Diego Chargers
The Bolts invested a first-round draft pick on Melvin Gordon last year, so despite his disappointing performance, he'll be given every chance to win the starting role. Gordon underwent offseason microfracture surgery on his knee, but he's expected to be a full participant in training camp. Meanwhile, Danny Woodhead did an outstanding job last year, especially as a receiver, and if Gordon continues to struggle, Woodhead will be ready to take advantage of any opportunity he's given. Woodhead is healthy entering camp after last year's ankle injury.
With Marshawn Lynch enjoying retirement, Thomas Rawls is expected to take over the role as the early down thumper. Rawls is expected to be ready for Week 1 after last year's broken ankle, but he'll be eased into training camp and could start on the PUP list. If he has a setback or doesn't get healthy, Christine Michael is an option to replace him. Michael put together a few solid performances down the stretch last year, and the Seahawks re-signed him in the offseason. In addition, the Seahawks spent a fifth-round draft pick on Alex Collins who also projects to be an early down runner. However, an intriguing player to watch during camp will be third-round draft pick C.J. Prosise, who is in position to earn third-down role as the pass-catching back, as long as he's able to reasonably protect Russell Wilson.
Unhappy with their running back production last year, the Titans traded for DeMarco Murray with the expectation that he would become their three-down workhorse back. However, the team then spent a second-round draft pick on Derrick Henry, and the rookie certainly has enough talent to push Murray, especially if Murray isn't playing the way he did in 2014. That said, coach Mike Mularkey told Murray that he's expected to handle most of the touches.
Questions galore abound when trying to handicap the wide receiver depth chart for the Ravens. The 37-year-old Steve Smith is coming off an Achilles' tendon injury, and if he can defy age while recovering, he'd slot in as the team's top option, though that's far from a guarantee. Meanwhile, Breshad Perriman suffered a partial tear in his ACL during the offseason, which has him on the PUP list, making it nearly impossible to gauge expectations on the second-year player who's never appeared in an NFL game. The team is optimistic, however, that Perriman will return to the field before Week 1. At least free-agent signee Mike Wallace is healthy, but after struggling with the Vikings last year, he'll look to get his career back on track as he tries to gain chemistry with strong-armed Joe Flacco in what appears to be a great pairing. The most stable option in this receiver group is Kamar Aiken, who performed admirably after injuries beset the team last year. It seems that all receiver roles are up for grabs.
While this team is clearly run-oriented, there certainly will be opportunity for a receiver besides Sammy Watkins to become a fantasy factor this year. After learning in the offseason that Robert Woods played most of 2015 with a significant groin injury, his 552 receiving yards are all the more impressive. The 24-year-old enters his fourth year in the league, and the coaching staff lauded his offseason work, claming he was the best receiver during minicamp. If Woods falters during camp, Dezmin Lewis, who was reported to be a standout player during OTAs, could seize this role. In addition, the Bills signed Leonard Hankerson, and his experience can help him push for a role.
The Bengals need someone to step up opposite A.J. Green after losing both Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu in free agency. To address the need, the team drafted Tyler Boyd in the second round, and after showing solid progression through OTAs, he's certainly in the mix to start. In addition, the Bengals signed Brandon LaFell, and although extremely inconsistent last year, the veteran brings the most experience to this positional battle. To a lesser degree, Brandon Tate has been on the team since 2011, but has yet to post more than 211 yards in a season, and he might not be a serious competitor for this role.
Now that Josh Gordon is reinstated and eligible to play Week 5 after a four-game suspension, he'll start working his way back into the mix as soon as he recovers from a quadriceps injury he suffered earlier in summer. Head of football operations Sashi Brown said Browns will give Gordon a fresh start with the franchise upon his return. The team used its first-round draft pick on Corey Coleman, an excellent, though undersized, prospect whose dynamic athleticism puts him in prime position to be an opening-day starter. In addition, holdover Andrew Hawkins is the favorite to retain slot duty. To round out the competition, fifth-round draft choice Rashard Higgins, veteran Taylor Gabriel and converted quarterback, Terrelle Pryor, will each try to carve out a role during training camp.
The No. 3 receiver likely won't see a ton of targets, but Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer and Jordan Norwood are in the mix for the role. If one of these players takes a big step forward during camp, he could find himself as a valuable backup should Demaryius Thomas or Emmanuel Sanders get injured.
Replacing Calvin Johnson is a monumental task, but the first step is moving Golden Tate to the lead role. After signing a free-agent deal, Marvin Jones appeared to be a lock to start alongside Tate, but the recent signing of Anquan Boldin has the potential to change that. If Jones holds onto the outside spot, Boldin should easily push T.J. Jones to the sideline for the slot job, despite Jones finishing the 2015 season on a high note. T.J. Jones appears to be the biggest loser in this battle after the signing of Boldin, as he played with the first-team offense during OTAs as the slot receiver.
Green Bay Packers
Jordy Nelson's knee tendinitis is considered a minor issue, so, safe to say, he and Randall Cobb should be locked into their customary roles once the season starts. The remaining battle will be for the outside receiver position opposite Nelson, and at least four players are vying for the role. After struggling mightily in an expanded role last year, Davante Adams, who was limited by an ankle injury throughout the campaign, needs to prove that his disappointing season was a fluke. Playoff hero Jeff Janis needs to be much more consistent to earn significant playing time, while Ty Montgomery will start camp on the PUP list, as he's yet to recover from an ankle injury he suffered in Week 6 last year, lowering his odds of securing a starting role. The player least likely to come out of this position battle with a starting role is Jared Abbrederis, who caught just nine passes in 2015.
Coach Bill O'Brien intends to field a run-based offense, but the team still needs a starting receiver to line up across from DeAndre Hopkins. Of those competing, Cecil Shorts easily has the most NFL experience, and has been reasonably productive when healthy, though he reportedly took a pay cut with a non-guaranteed salary. The Texans invested a first-round draft pick in Will Fuller, and if the rookie can prove he's ready for the challenge, he'll be afforded every opportunity to run with the job. In addition, 2015 third-round draft choice Jaelen Strong is apparently more committed to being in shape than he was during his rookie season, and will also compete for a starting role.
New head coach Adam Gase is looking to install a more fast-paced approach on offense, which could easily translate into a third receiver gaining relevance for the Dolphins. Jarvis Landry and DeVante Parker, who is healthy after last year's foot injury, are locks to be the most-involved options for Ryan Tannehill. However, veteran Kenny Stills is expected, along with 2016 third-round draft choice, Leonte Carroo, who had already earned some first-team reps during OTAs, to play on the outside.
With first-round draft choice Laquon Treadwell, who is finally 100 percent healthy after a severe leg injury in 2014 at Mississippi, expected to take on a prominent role and 2015 fifth-round draft choice Stefon Diggs returning as the Vikings' leading receiver, Jarius Wright, Charles Johnson and Cordarrelle Patterson will compete for the third-receiver role, though this spot is not likely to see many targets in a run-based offense.
New England Patriots
Since getting accurate injury information from the Patriots is an exercise in futility, all of the receiving spots could be considered up for grabs. Julian Edelman is on the PUP list to start camp with a foot injury he suffered last year. It's also no surprise that teammate Danny Amendola joins him on the PUP list with a knee injury. In a normal situation, these injuries may not be terribly troubling, but the Patriots signed Chris Hogan, who has a similar skillset to his two injured teammates. Assuming Edelman is ready for the regular season, Amendola and Hogan will join Nate Washington and Aaron Dobson to see regular snaps in the team's base offense.
New York Giants
After running with the first team and leading the team in catches during minicamp, second-round draft choice Sterling Shepard is in the early lead to be the No. 2 receiver. His only notable competition is Victor Cruz, who has yet to play after suffering a knee injury in October 2014. Cruz is expected to be ready for training camp, but he remains an injury risk. In a potentially high-volume passing offense, this camp battle could lead to the winner posting excellent fantasy numbers playing across from Odell Beckham Jr.
While Martavis Bryant serves his year-long suspension, 2015 third-round draft choice, Sammie Coates is expected to battle with Markus Wheaton and Darrius Heyward-Bey for two receiving spots. Unless Coates or Wheaton struggle greatly during camp, expect Coates to win the slot role while Wheaton starts across from Antonio Brown. That would leave Heyward-Bey in a reserve role. In a high-volume passing offense, whichever receiver earns a starting role could have a very productive season.
San Francisco 49ers
In what should be an extremely fast-paced offense, the 49ers need receivers to emerge around Torrey Smith to soak up targets. Quinton Patton is reported to be the early favorite to win a starting role, though he's far from a sure thing after posting 394 yards last season in his third year with the team. Meanwhile, Bruce Ellington appears best suited to play in the slot, but he's done little in his two years in the league. Whoever wins the slot role could be in for a big season in new head coach Chip Kelly's offense. It's possible that DeAndre Smelter could be the most physically gifted player in this position battle, but it's difficult to know how the 2015 fourth-round pick will recover from a knee injury that cost him his entire rookie year, but he'll primarily be battling for the role of an outside receiver. The final player likely to be in this competition is Jerome Simpson, though the 30-year-old hasn't been productive since 2013.
Coach John Harbaugh could have some difficult decisions regarding the tight end position this year. After suffering two dislocations to his right hip, Dennis Pitta will look to regain his chemistry with Joe Flacco after not playing since September 2014. It's encouraging that the Ravens' official site reports that Pitta will avoid the preseason PUP list. The team signed Ben Watson, who at 35 is coming off a career year with the Saints. The Ravens also have 2014 third-round pick Crockett Gillmore, who was productive when called upon last year. Finally, 2015 second-round pick Maxx Williams showed well as a rookie. Watson enters camp as the favorite, but this battle could easily drag on throughout the preseason.
The tight end in a Gary Kubiak offense is typically productive, and the team enters camp with three candidates for the job. In five NFL seasons, Virgil Green has never posted more than the 173 yards he registered in 2015, but he has outstanding measurables and is also an excellent blocker. Although the Broncos spent a third-round draft pick to select Jeff Heuerman, rookies tight ends often struggle. Finally, Garrett Graham posted 545 yards and five touchdowns playing for Kubiak in 2013 in Houston, but he hasn't done much the last two seasons. Green likely will have the edge entering the preseason games.