While mid-July is best known in the sports world for the MLB All-Star game, it’s also a sign that training camp in the NFL is just a few weeks away.
Camp starts July 26-30 for the majority of the teams as they embark on the long season that awaits them. Before we get to the regular season, teams will spend the next month and a half deciding which players give them the best opportunity to win a Super Bowl in February.
For fantasy owners, this is an important time of year, as we need to know as much as we can about each team’s depth charts before we do our fantasy drafts. While we all know the Tom Brady’s and Antonio Brown’s of the world have a secure spot at the top of the depth chart, not every player’s role in camp is as clearly defined.
Below, I’ll discuss a few position battles I’ll be keeping an eye on throughout training camp and preseason. The winner of the battles could factor how early – or late – you decide to draft a player as we make our projections for the season.
Brandon LaFell vs. Tyler Boyd
This offseason, the Bengals lost Marvin Jones and Mohammed Sanu in free agency, leaving the WR room bare behind stud A.J. Green. The Bengals brought in some replacements when they signed veteran Brandon LaFell and drafted Tyler Boyd out of the University of Pittsburgh in the 2nd round.
LaFell’s career to this point has been a series of ups-and-downs but he's only two years removed from a 74-catch-953-yard-seven-touchdown season in 2014 with the Patriots. Boyd posted 254 catches 3,361 yards and 21 touchdowns in his three-year career at Pittsburgh.
Most reports from the team indicate that Boyd will stick in the slot, leaving the outside starting position to LaFell. While this could end up being true, it doesn’t necessarily mean LaFell is the better bet for fantasy production.
After being sidelined with a foot injury that caused him to miss the beginning of the season, LaFell struggled last season finishing with just 37 catches, 513 yards, while having the sixth-most drops in the league on only 74 targets. While for Boyd, we’ve seen plenty of WRs – like Julian Edelman and Jarvis Landry – make a living out of the slot and still post big numbers.
This is a situation to monitor through camp and preseason because this player could receive a lot of attention early in the season. Jones and Sanu departure leaves 152 targets, 98 receptions available and TE Tyler Eifert is nursing an ankle injury that may cause him to miss a couple games to start the year.
Prediction: Tyler Boyd has a solid preseason to become Dalton’s safety net throughout the year behind Green and Eifert.
DeMarco Murray vs. Derrick Henry
In an effort to improving their 25th-ranked rushing offense from a season ago, the Tennessee Titans brought in two new RBs when they traded for DeMarco Murray and then drafted Heisman Trophy winner, Derrick Henry, in the 2nd round. While many expect Murray to be the guy to own in the Titans backfield, a team doesn’t draft a RB in the 2nd round – 45th overall – to not see the field.
Murray is coming off a miserable season in Philadelphia where he rushed for a putrid, 702 yards and 6 TDs after being the NFL's leading rusher in 2014. The change of scenery and a new offensive scheme that better fits his running style, could rejuvenate Murray to his previous form. However, there is a thought out there that Murray’s legs are done and he’ll never regain his prime ability. If that is the case, Derrick Henry could be in line to be the primary runner for the Titans as early as this season.
Henry rushed for 2,219 and 28 TDs in his final season at Alabama and ran a 4.54 40 while being listed at 247 lbs – not bad. While there are questions about Henry’s ability to play 3rd downs, there’s no question that he’ll be given every opportunity to succeed if Murray shows any signs of the diminishing skill set he flashed last season.
I’m fine with taking a chance on DeMarco Murray in the 4th-5th round in hopes he bounces back but if you do, I would make sure to draft Henry as well. Keep an eye out on the situation throughout camp. If Henry shows enough early, it could lead to a committee approach in the backfield that will give us all headaches.
Prediction: Murray will be the starter but Henry’s carries increase as the season progresses.
Cleveland Browns WRs
New Browns’ Head Coach Hue Jackson takes over a team that is lacking explosiveness on the offensive side of the ball. Not only do they bring in RGIII to be his QB, but they also drafted five WRs in hopes to jump-starting this offense.
With Josh Gordon still suspended – and uncertainty on if he’ll ever play in the league again – this is a wide-open race to be the top pass catcher in Cleveland. Most expect – including myself – that Corey Coleman will be the guy who is the #1 for the Browns after being chosen with the 15th overall pick in the draft. Other guys who will be in the mix for the top of the depth chart will be Andrew Hawkins, Jordan Payton, Rashad Higgins, Taylor Gabriel, and QB-turned-WR Terrelle Pryor.
If I’m banking on any of the WRs to emerge as a fantasy asset, it’s Corey Coleman. Coleman flashed big play potential at Baylor with 74 catches, 1,363 yards and 20 TDs which lead to him being chosen 15th overall. His current ADP is 85.1 and I like him as upside WR3 going into 2016.
Prediction: Coleman will be the #1 WR. Keep an eye on Terrelle Pryor in camp as potential sleeper.
Mark Sanchez vs. Paxton Lynch
The Denver Broncos find themselves in a unique position after winning the Super Bowl back in February. Following the victory, the Broncos lost their top-2 QBs, Peyton Manning (retirement) and Brock Osweiler (signed w/Texans), leaving them to start over at the position. They responded by trading for veteran Mark Sanchez and drafting Paxton Lynch in the 1st round. The team now has to decide whether to start the unproven rookie or the much-maligned veteran.
Mark Sanchez’s issues are well documented but in 2014, Sanchez showed he can be productive. In nine games (eight starts), Sanchez threw for 2,418 yards, 14 touchdowns and 11 interceptions while completing 64.1% of his passes.
Paxton Lynch led the Memphis Tigers last year to a 9-3 record while totaling 3,778 yards, 28 touchdowns and four interceptions. Through the draft process, he drew comparisons to Joe Flacco – and former Bronco Brock Osweiler – when lead to the Broncos trading up to #26 pick to select Lynch to be their QB of the future.
Regardless who starts, this team has weapons at the skill positions – Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders, C.J. Anderson, Ronnie Hillman – to create value for the QB. While neither project to be prime Peyton Manning, last season Osweiler had success in his limited time – he averaged 14.4 FPG in seven starts – showing whoever wins the job can be a bye-week/matchup based starter in this offense.
Prediction: Mark Sanchez wins the job for this season. Lynch starts in 2017.
Ezekiel Elliott is expected to be the top rusher for the Cowboys but keep an eye on who wins the backup job. Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden have both shown in the past they can be productive given the opportunity. If Elliott were to miss any time, Morris or McFadden will find themselves in RB1 territory behind that offensive line
It’s not a sexy competition but in new Head Coach Chip Kelly’s up-tempo system, Blaine Gabbert or Colin Kaepernick could find value with their ability to use their legs in addition to their arms.
Laquon Treadwell was drafted in the 1st round to be the future #1 target for Teddy Bridgewater. However, Stefon Diggs showed he can be productive in spots last season. Whoever wins the competition would be in WR3 territory throughout the season.