Never fear, football junkies: NFL preseason action is nearly here! Thursday will kick off the 2016 exhibition slate, letting us get our first looks at a lot of new faces (and older ones) looking to make an impact and win premier roles this season. Most teams won't let their first-teamers on offense see much (if any) action, but who we don't see can sometimes be as illuminating as the product on the field.
For the sake of avoiding repetition, the depth-chart situations below are largely limited to new developments. For a more exhaustive list of offseason changes and battles to watch, check out the early summer edition of this column.
Monday morning brought with it the official announcement that Robert Griffin III will be the Browns' starting quarterback, surprising exactly no one. The 37-year-old Josh McCown acquitted himself well when called upon last year, but is still no one's idea of a starting quarterback. With intriguing weapons available to him – impressive rookie wideout Corey Coleman, suspended-but-returning superstar receiver Josh Gordon and 2015 breakout tight end Gary Barnidge – Griffin could be in for a return to his glory days. Remember, he's still only 26.
Los Angeles Rams
Case Keenum remains the leading candidate to start in Week 1, as 2016 No. 1 pick Jared Goff is still working with the second-teamers. The Rams are surely eager to put Goff out there in front of their new home fans, but they clearly want to be at least reasonably sure he's ready first. For now, that means they're keeping the pressure low and letting Keenum hold the job as long as he can show some shreds of competence. Jury's out on that one.
Although Jeremy Langford is trying to become a three-down back and the rightful inheritor to Matt Forte, he's facing stiff competition at least for short-yardage situations (and maybe more) from bullish rookie rusher Jordan Howard. That's big in fantasy, as Howard could end up swiping a lot of touchdowns. Ka'Deem Carey is in the mix for some touches as well, but despite the Bears' insistence that they're going to roll things by committee, it seems likely that Langford will get his chances to dominate the early downs.
The early word out of Miami is that Arian Foster has been far better than Jay Ajayi in camp, which should have fantasy owners feeling bullish about the oft-injured veteran's fantasy prospects. Foster's still listed below Ajayi on the depth chart, but that could be a mere technicality at this point. If you're looking for a lottery ticket, Foster could dramatically outperform his ADP and end up among the most valuable running backs – but the 29-year-old could just as easily end up getting hurt again and playing single-digit games. At least Ajayi (who's been dealing with a knee issue, but shouldn't be out long) would be a clear handcuff.
Thomas Rawls (ankle) came off the PUP list Sunday, reinforcing his status as the top back in Seattle heading into the season. We'll need to see him in some preseason action, but the injury no longer appears to be cause for concern. Christine Michael has received positive reviews in camp during Rawls' absence, but with rookie C.J. Prosise (hamstring) expected back in time for the Seahawks' second preseason game, there's still an open competition for the No. 2 role. Either way, it looks like Prosise will enjoy a good chunk of third-down action, though he'll have to definitively beat out Alex Collins in camp.
Sammy Watkins (foot) is expected back at practice Monday after being activated from the PUP list, putting the oft-injured (but ultra-talented) receiver on track for the start of the regular season. He'll likely be treated with kid gloves in exhibition action, though, meaning the Bills' other receivers should see plenty of first-team action in camp. Unfortunately, the depth chart behind Watkins is not exciting; Robert Woods is No. 2, while Greg Little seems to be No. 3 – for what it's worth, he saw a lot of first-unit time and drew positive reviews while Watkins was out.
New England Patriots
Julian Edelman came off the PUP list surprisingly early over the weekend, bringing some stability to a wideout corps that could really use it. Danny Amendola (knee) remains on the sidelines; once we get past those two on the depth chart, we're left with a bunch of journeymen and nobodies, though rookie Malcolm Mitchell does at least offer some intrigue. That's partly (maybe mostly) because we just haven't yet seen him be mediocre in the NFL, unlike like the rest of the guys from No. 3 to No. 7 in this pecking order. Here's your token reminder that Tom Brady won't be out there throwing the ball to these guys for the first four weeks.
Although 2016 first-rounder Laquon Treadwell has been doing some work with the first-team offense, there have been indications that the Vikings will ease him into action while initially deploying Charles Johnson as a starter opposite Stefon Diggs. That's worth monitoring, as a No. 3 gig under a far-from-elite quarterback like Teddy Bridgewater could do harsh things to Treadwell's fantasy value. Speaking of Diggs, the coaches seem to be in love with him, so a lot of what Minnesota does through the air could be designed around getting him the ball.
This offseason, the Bears brought back Zach Miller – not the one who won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks – with the intent of him stepping in and replacing Martellus Bennett. That's a tough task in the first place for a 31-year-old whose career high in catches (set last year) is 34, but it's especially hard to accomplish when you have a concussion, which Miller suffered about a week ago. There's no word on his prognosis, nor is there a clear inheritor if the oft-injured veteran fails to come along quickly. Khari Lee, Rob Housler and Tony Moeaki would be the top contenders for increased snaps.
Tyler Eifert (ankle) is out of his walking boot, but his status for Week 1 remains highly questionable. With No. 2 man Tyler Kroft (knee) out 4-6 weeks, second-year man C.J. Uzomah finds himself with a golden opportunity to get noticed. Huge even for a tight end at 6-foot-6, 271, Uzomah incredibly complements that size with 4.6 speed and good hands, so he' has a chance to make the coaches remember his name and maybe even make a fantasy impact in the first game of the year. Monitor the situation.
Eric Ebron suffered a leg injury in practice over the weekend; it was reported as a possible Achilles issue, but may end up not being so major, as Monday morning's practice brought news that he's walking with only a slight limp already. That's a positive sign, but speculating fantasy owners may want to keep an eye on undrafted rookie Cole Wick, who's turned heads in camp and already seems to have settled into the role of No. 2 pass-catching big man.
There have been glowing reports coming out about C.J. Fiedorowicz's improvement as a receiver, putting him in good position to earn the role of Houston's main tight end (at least for passing situations). However, his main competition, Ryan Griffin, has fully recovered from an Achilles injury and is earning plaudits of his own in camp. Their fantasy value seems likely to hinge on how the workload gets split.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Both Cameron Brate and Austin Seferian-Jenkins have impressed with their receiving skills in camp, so there's a pretty heated competition between the undrafted Harvard man and the 2014 second-round pick. That might be good for both as they continue their development, but fantasy owners can't stand that "who gets the ball this week?" dilemma, which will ultimately limit the value of both players unless one can emerge as a can't-bench option. Brate's leading the competition, but it wouldn't be incredibly surprising for the Bucs to end up going with the pedigree guy, Seferian-Jenkins.