2014 Fantasy Football - NFL Training Camp battles
JUL 29, 2014 4:03p ET
Training camps have commenced around the NFL, meaning these six storylines will be shoved down our throats in some capacity for the next six weeks:
Player X shows up severely overweight
Prime material for local hacks, giving them a platform to wave a finger at the “indifferent, lethargic” athlete. Bonus points because this narrative is guaranteed to whip up fans in delirium on comment sections and call-in shows. Although it’s hard to defend unfit players – after all, their sole responsibility from February to July is to stay in shape – this talking crux always seems hypocritical to me, as the person lobbing complaints about a competitor’s diet issues on the radio is usually housing doughnuts between commercial breaks.
The Holdout/Contract Dispute
The advent of built-in deals based on draft position in the new CBA has mostly eliminated rookie protests. As one who lived in Cincinnati under the tyrannical reign of Mike Brown and his parsimonious ways, this was particularly agonizing, as the neophyte in question was so far behind when he eventually signed that his entire freshman season was a wash. Nowadays, this culminates with veterans seeking a trade (i.e. Andre Johnson) or those outperforming their deals (like San Fran’s Alex Boone). I don’t blame players for going this route, mainly due to non-guaranteed contracts and the overall ferocity of the game. Plus, if I’ve learned anything from rap music, it’s that you got to get paid before the man brings you down…or something like that.
The scrappy undrafted free-agent who’s fighting for a roster spot
Especially intensified on whatever club is featured on Hard Knocks. The amount of time and energy discussing this topic is comical; even if little Rudy makes the team, it’s hardly in a contributing role.
Coach’s transition from college to the pros
In truth, the only development that’s worth following. In that mindset, here are the camp bouts to keep an eye on in the upcoming weeks:
Cleveland – Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel
Breakdown: Manziel might be leading the league in jersey sales, but he is far from the forgone starter in Cleveland. New head coach Mike Pettine has been vocal in his support of Hoyer, who was impressive in abbreviated appearances for the team last season before succumbing to a knee injury. Whether that conviction is genuine or simply a matter of lighting a fire under Manziel - rarely are first-year arms bequeathed the Opening Day job before August, if only to provide the illusion that the rookie has to earn his stripes during camp – should be apparent quickly.
Verdict: Don’t be surprised if Hoyer is under center in Week 1. Nevertheless, with the Browns’ Bye in Week 4 providing a perfect juncture for change, any stumbles from the 28-year-old will bequeath the starting spot to Johnny Football.
Minnesota Vikings – Matt Cassel vs. Teddy Bridgewater
Breakdown: By all accounts, Cassel will be the starter in Week 1 unless he pulls a total no-show at camp. Considering this is Cassel we’re discussing, a distinct possibility.
Bridgewater received a bad rap for his lack of arm strength, but that should evolve as the quarterback adds weight and muscle (weighing less than two bills at Louisville, Bridgewater is targeting a figure closer to 220 pounds). Moreover, his accuracy and game management is unparalleled for a player his age, tools that should translate to instant success.
What’s that you say about Christian Ponder? If that name enters the conversation, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong for Minnesota.
Verdict: Adrian Peterson has over 2,000 attempts on his odometer in just seven years in the league, and, frankly, he might not have much gas left in the tank. While Cassel is an adequate field general, he’s not taking a team to the Promised Land. The Vikings don’t want to rush Bridgewater, but in that same cadence, if he’s anywhere near ready, expect to see the first-round pick starting sooner rather than later.
New York Jets – Geno Smith vs. Michael Vick
Breakdown: In the liberal sense this qualifies as a competition, but in actuality, Smith has a stranglehold on first-team duties. This could strike as an oddity to those that remember Smith’s performance last fall (12 touchdowns, 21 interceptions). However, Vick’s displays in offseason workouts were described as apathetic, while teammates and coaches have gone out of their way to compliment Smith’s improved work ethic and grasp of the offense. Throw in the investment the team has made in Geno, it’s hard to see Vick suiting up as the starting field general.
Verdict: So why is this listed as a battle? Easy – it’s the Jets. Nothing ever goes right for these cats. Rex Ryan’s impatience could also quick-trigger a change if Gang Green falters in the opening weeks. I do like Smith as a backup target in drafts. Simply be aware of his tight operating leash in the first month.
St. Louis – Zac Stacy vs. Tre Mason
Breakdown: Raise an eyebrow? Understandable. Stacy was remarkable in his first tour of duty in St. Louis, averaging 87 yards per contest in an 11-game span. Alas, the ceiling is somewhat limited for the fifth-round pick out of Vanderbilt. He isn’t of much use in the receiving arena, and his yardage output was more a byproduct of volume than efficiency, seen in a mark of 3.9 yards per carry (31st in the league). Hence the arrival of Mason, a more speedy, adaptable back out of Auburn. Rookie rushers tend to be an erratic bunch, yet the Rams’ employment of a third-round selection on Mason shows a) the team’s belief in his abilities and b) the club’s not totally convinced or satisfied with Stacy as the lone back.
Verdict: Earmuff it fantasy owners, because you’re going to be none too pleased: look for the Rams to go the committee route, with Stacy taking 65 percent of the ground attempts and Mason siphoning just enough carries to be a nuisance while contributing as a receiving option.
Perhaps that tag toward Jones-Drew is unfair. True, MJD is coming off a season in which he averaged a career-low 3.4 yards per attempt. Conversely, I don’t think 1989 Christian Okoye would have mustered much behind that dreadful Jacksonville offensive line. Though Oakland’s protection will not be confused for The Hogs anytime soon, it does serve as an upgrade, giving hope that Jones-Drew can find some rejuvenation in the Bay Area.
As for McFadden…eh. He’s made just 26 starts in the past three seasons due to injury. When he has been on the gridiron, the production has been nothing to write home about, finding the end zone only 11 times in that span. Turning 27 in August, McFadden could already be dried up.
Verdict: Don’t buy the reports that McFadden is projected as the Raiders’ starter, a cosmos that’s simply an upshot of familiarity and tenure. Both players will see plenty of work in Oakland’s run-run-RUN offense, but Jones-Drew will be the primary backfield recipient. (Also, I’d like to congratulate myself on refraining from any Walk-DMC jokes. Big day in the maturation process of Joel Beall. )
New Orleans Saints – Pierre Thomas vs. Mark Ingram vs. Khiry Robinson
Breakdown: The trade of Darren Sproles barely made a blip on the offseason radar, but the diminutive back’s exodus leaves a void in the New Orleans backfield, evidenced in 232 receptions from Sproles over the past three seasons.
Thomas is the likely favorite to step into the spotlight, hauling in 77 receptions last year, nearly double his intake from 2012. Unfortunately, the extra touches seemed to take a bite out of his competency in the rushing attack, turning in a feeble 3.7 yards per attempt (versus a 4.8 figure the previous two seasons). He’s entering just his fourth professional campaign, but good luck finding anyone putting conviction into Ingram. The 2009 Heisman winner has failed to live up to his first-round selection, tallying up 1,462 yards in his three years with New Orleans. And though Robinson showed promise in his rookie spell, he remains a raw talent.
Verdict: Thomas should see 80-plus targets in his direction, but his chances at amplified rushing usage are limited. The best bet is on Robinson getting an opportunity to prove his merit, with Ingram likely seeing looks inside the red zone.
New York Giants – Rashad Jennings vs. Andre Williams vs. David Wilson
Breakdown: Oh, and Peyton Hillis. Can’t forget that dude. By the way, which cover of Madden will history frown upon more: the 2008 iteration with Vince Young or the Hillis edition of 2012? My vote goes to Hillis. Before strip club fights and Cheesecake Factory binges became his calling card, Young was a fledging superstar, capturing a National Championship at Texas and a Rookie of the Year award in a 13-month span. Now he’s getting cut by the Browns. Dark days.
Jennings has been circled as the principal transporter for the G-Men, curious as the 29-year-old has never excelled in the featured-back role. The flashy name of this contingent belongs to Williams, the All-American from Boston College. While he did put up some astounding numbers in college, he’s extremely limited, posting a whopping goose egg in the reception column last season against 355 rushing attempts. Theoretically, a healthy Wilson could make for a dynamic backfield. Yet, even when he’s been on the field, Wilson has done little of fanfare (21 games, 546 yards from scrimmage).
Verdict: Heading into August, I would say this is the most cluttered of backfield depth charts. My tenuous – and I cannot emphasize that enough – forecast has Jennings running with the starters, Wilson seeing action on third-down packages and Williams answering the bell around the goal line. Make roto decisions at your own peril with this trio.
Pittsburgh Steelers – Markus Wheaton vs. Martavis Bryant
Breakdown: The assessment that Pittsburgh is a ground-first team is an antiquated notion. As a team, the Steelers had the seventh-most completions in the NFL. Whether this is a consequence of an aerial-focused scheme or due to a weak running game and porous defense can be debated. On our end, it means the pigskin is flying through the skies early and often, and although Antonio Brown will be the bull’s-eye on a majority of those throws, there’s still plenty of love to disperse.
Which transitions us to Wheaton and Bryant. Newcomer Lance Moore is slotted for the, ahem, slot role, leaving the role of Brown’s counterpart to this duo. Wheaton seems to have the inside track after imposing his will during offseason drills, and has carried this dexterity to the first week of camp. However, like Brown, Wheaton is small in stature, measuring in at 5’11”. It’s the group’s Lilliputian physique that helps Bryant’s odds, as the Clemson star stands in at 6’4”, an ideal focal point in the red zone.
Verdict: Bryant will head into the first preseason game behind Wheaton on the receiver hierarchy, but a few August scores could turn enough heads to earn Bryant a promotion. For now, view Wheaton as the safer bet, with Bryant worth a late-round selection.
Buffalo Bills – Robert Woods vs. Mike Williams vs. Marquise Goodwin
Breakdown: Traditionally I refrain from deifying rookie wideouts until, you know, they actually play a game. But, judging by the reports from the #BillsMafia, Sammy Watkins will break Calvin Johnson’s record in 2014 while simultaneously curing cancer, resolving the conflict in the Middle East and stabilizing the world’s economy, so let’s focus on the other Buffalo receivers.
Williams has the clout and name recognition; in that same vein, he’s also been a fantasy roller coaster ride in his four years in the league, posting two commendable seasons in 2010 and 2012, a disappointing outing in 2011 and a complete no-show in 2013. If he’s your third option, you’re in good hands as a team. As a complementary target…no thanks. The same sentiment can be applied to Goodwin, a speedster who turns heads but remains an unpolished product.
Such a circumstance opens the door for Woods, a second-year man out of USC, to snag an elevated role in the offense. Woods gave an above-satisfactory effort in his first patrol with the Bills, finishing with 587 yards in 2013. In reality, Woods could have possessed some eye-popping numbers had the Buffalo quarterbacks been competent: out of 86 targets, Woods brought in just 40 balls. (It’s at this point we should note that Thaddeus Lewis and Jeff Tuel took meaningful snaps for Buffalo last season, a reminder that just made every Bills fan squirm.)
Verdict: I think Williams is a viable resource for a quarterback, just not necessarily a property you want as its own recognition. Goodwin is more of a novelty at this point than someone who can be trusted every week, leaving Woods as the de facto winner of the group. In PPR leagues, he’s worth the stash.
- A rookie at a position that has historically been unkind to first-year players
- The perennially underwhelming Avant, who’s failed to cross the 700-yard barrier in a season despite capturing “sleeper” status every summer
- Cotchery. Fun fact: his last 1,000-yard season came in 2007
- Underwood, coming off a career-high 440 yards last year
On the bright side, at least Carolina didn’t release its franchise’s most celebrated player in the offseason.
Verdict: There are no winners here. Only a loser. And that pour soul is Cam Newton.
St. Louis Rams – Brian Quick vs. Kenny Britt vs. Chris Givens
Breakdown: Not completely sold on Tavon Austin, but he will be the featured receiver of the bunch, leaving the scraps to this trio. While Givens was assumed to be the No. 2 guy entering camp, Britt has been working with the first team. (Remember, Britt’s former coach Jeff Fisher is now the head man in St. Louie). Quick is earning rave reviews, but we should be quick to point out that he received similar accolades the previous two summers.
Verdict: In a bit of a shocker, look for a revival from Britt. If he can keep his act together, the talented-but-troubled wideout could finally realize his potential.
Philadelphia Eagles – Brent Celek vs. Zach Ertz
Breakdown: Ertz was expected to seize the starting role by now, and it’s not that he’s failed to live up to his hype. It’s more that the incumbent Celek has flourished in a blocking-oriented role with the Eagles, and Chip Kelly’s attack is predicated on two tight-end sets. Combining for over 970 yards and 10 touchdowns last year, look for both to be major parts in the upcoming campaign.
Verdict: With DeSean Jackson gone, the Eagles lack a proven commodity in the receiving corps. As a consequence, don’t be surprised if Celek and Ertz see an uptick in looks, with Ertz’s speed making him a slight favorite for fantasy relevance.
Joel Beall is a writer for FOXSports.com and WhatIfSports.com. He lives with a Golden Tee machine and a jump shot that’s broken. Reach Joel on Twitter @JoelMBeall