NFL Training Camp Battles: August 26
Brett Talley has updated some of the more notable training camp battles as we near the end of the preseason.
Before training camp started, we looked at the key battles to watch throughout the preseason on each team. Today we’ll come full circle as we wrap up the Training Camp Battles series now that the meaningful portion of preseason action is over.
Robert Foster was the big loser of camp for the Bills. Buffalo brought in John Brown and Cole Beasley as free agents, and they look to be the top two receivers. The second outside receiver slot was up for grabs, but Foster isn’t going to grab it as he got essentially no work with Buffalo’s first team in preseason games. Zay Jones played with the ones throughout the preseason but saw few looks and played additional snaps with the second team. The bottom line is that Brown is the only Buffalo receiver viable in standard leagues, and Beasley could have some use in PPR.
The battle at quarterback between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen continues but given that this is one of the only unsettled QB situations in the league, the “winner” of the battle isn’t going to be all that relevant in fantasy. The real battle developed at running back between Kenyan Drake and Kalen Ballage when Ballage started running with the first team early in camp. Drake seemingly had the RB1 designation in early preseason games, but a foot injury had him in a walking boot until recently. Drake likely has the bigger share of the backfield workload when healthy, but this may be a fluid situation into the season.
New England Patriots
Josh Gordon ’s reinstatement makes an uncertain WR situation behind Julian Edelman even more uncertain. It’s a crowded WR group with Phillip Dorsett , Demaryius Thomas , N’Keal Harry, and Jakobi Meyers also on the roster. Moreover, the Pats went big late last season, and they used two tight ends on eight of 17 snaps with the first-team offense in preseason game 3. If there’s a receiver past Edelman and Gordon that could have some value, it was Dorsett that had the best camp.
New York Jets
This is one of the most settled depth charts in the league. The only real question is who will start at tight end until Chris Herndon returns from suspension. Ryan Griffin appears to have that job, but he doesn’t have a ton of value. Herndon’s early-season absence should serve as more of a benefit to the receivers, Robby Anderson , Quincy Enunwa and Jamison Crowder .
Quite honestly, questions remain here. There’s no clear standout at receiver. If Willie Snead is WR1, that’s one of the weakest top receivers in the league. How much will rookies Miles Boykin and Marquise Brown be able to contribute? At tight end, the Ravens have a three-headed monster. Mark Andrews is unquestionably the best receiver of the group and potentially a TE1 in fantasy if he gets enough snaps. However, he didn’t see the kind of snap volume fantasy owners would like him to see in the preseason.
Tyler Eifert has missed significant time in multiple seasons with injuries, but he’s healthy this preseason and CJ Uzomah is still running ahead of him. In week 2 of the preseason, Uzomah played 94-percent of the snaps with the first-team offense. Uzomah cracked double-digit fantasy points in half-PPR scoring just once last season.
The WR3 spot was the battle highlighted in our pre-camp piece, and Rashard Higgins has that job with Antonio Callaway suspended for four games. Higgins has had much more success with Baker Mayfield at quarterback relative to other QBs he has played with, so he could easily keep that job even after Callaway returns.
With Antonio Brown ’s 169 targets no longer on the team, the battle for the second receiver position in Pittsburgh was one of the most important of the preseason. Pittsburgh’s first-team offense played three series on Sunday night, and other than JuJu Smith-Schuster and James Conner the targets from Ben Roethlisberger went to Donte Moncrief (2), Ryan Switzer (1), Eli Rogers (1) and Vance McDonald (2). James Washington caught a 41-yard TD pass, but it was thrown by second-stringer Mason Rudolph .
The only non-skill position players discussed in the pre-camp piece were Houston’s offensive lineman. Their line remains in flux, and that may still be a weakness for the Texans this season. Obviously, the loss of Lamar Miller is a huge one, and it’s not unrelated to the O-Line struggles as Miller is good in pass protection. It’s unclear if the Texans will now trade for another running back or if they’ll roll with Duke Johnson as their primary back. If they do, Keke Coutee could benefit as his role in the offense has some overlap with what Johnson would do as a receiving back. If Johnson has to carry more of the load, Coutee could help take some of the burden of Johnson.
Every skill position player for the Colts will take a hit with Andrew Luck retiring, but Jack Doyle might not take as much of a hit as Eric Ebron . When Jacoby Brissett was playing in 2017, Doyle tied for the team lead in target share with T.Y. Hilton at 23-percent.
T.J. Yeldon caught 55 passes last season, which was second on the team. With Yeldon no longer in Jacksonville, the pass-catching back role is up for grabs. The first team offense faced a third down four times in their third preseason game, and Leonard Fournette was on the field for all four. It would seem Fournette may be a true, three-down option and no other back is going to steal significant passing down work.
There has been some speculation that Ryan Tannehill could win the QB job over Marcus Mariota , but the Titans beat writer for The Athletic shut that down last week. However, that speculation will presumably continue after Mariota went 0-for-3 while taking a safety in two series’ worth of work on Sunday night. Tannehill is in his age 31 season and owns a career yards-per-attempt mark of 7.0. Mariota is 26 and has a career YPA of 7.5. If there’s any speculation, there shouldn’t be. Mariota may not be the answer, but neither is Tannehill.
Neither Phillip Lindsay nor Royce Freeman played in the third preseason game. In Week 2, it was Lindsay barely out snapping Freeman with the first-team offense, 42-percent to 37-percent. While Freeman has surprisingly been in serious competition with Lindsay this preseason, it seems hard to envision Lindsay not being the primary option. He had over 1,000 total yards in his rookie season with 10 touchdowns. He averaged 5.4 yards per carry, which was 1.4 more than Freeman’s average.
Kansas City Chiefs
Before camp, there were quotes coming out of Kansas City that Damien Williams was going to be a “featured” back in Kansas City, but fears of a committee developed as camp went on. We’re now back to Williams seeming like he may be a pretty clear starter with Darwin Thompson as the backup, Darrel Williams as the third-stringer and Carlos Hyde a possible cut.
Los Angeles Chargers
Philip Rivers did not play in the third preseason game, and Austin Ekeler out-snapped Justin Jackson 25-13 on first-team snaps in the first two weeks. With no indication that Melvin Gordon is close to signing, Ekeler is lined up for significant usage.
Josh Jacobs played every single snap with the first-team offense in the second preseason game, and the Raiders just placed Doug Martin on IR. Jacobs is going to see heavy usage and history gives him a legit shot of being a fantasy RB1, but he’s going 20th on average among back per our ADP report.
It’s obvious what the big question in camp was for Dallas. Will Ezekiel Elliott sign a contract and who plays if he doesn’t? The first part of that question is still very much up in the air, but it’s going to be Tony Pollard starting at running back if Zeke’s holdout extends into the regular season. Pollard played with the first-team offense in the first three preseason games and had 18 touches for 103 total yards along with a touchdown.
New York Giants
Eli Manning is apparently going to be the starter Week 1, but Daniel Jones is going to be pressing him immediately. Jones has gone 25-for-30 in the preseason averaging 12.3 yards per attempt with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Whether it made sense to draft Jones where the Giants did or not, it makes little sense not to start him over Manning right away.
Carson Wentz did not play in the third preseason game, nor did Jordan Howard and Miles Sanders. This is excellent news for Sanders as it makes clear the rookie has surpassed Darren Sproles , Corey Clement and Wendell Smallwood on the depth chart and at the least should be part of a 1-2 punch with Howard.
Derrius Guice took longer than expected to be game-ready this preseason, but he got 12 carries in the third preseason game. Mark Bullock of The Athletic provides an extensive breakdown of Guice’s performance in that game, and it appears Guice’s knee is healthy and his confidence in it intact. That being the case, Guice should receive a bigger share of the backfield work over Adrian Peterson . Case Keenum is going to start Week 1 over Dwayne Haskins, but that is not nearly as significant for fantasy purposes.
The only thing in doubt in Chicago is how their three backs, David Montgomery , Tarik Cohen , and Mike Davis , split the work. Cohen and Davis are both good in the passing game, so it’s hard to see Montgomery getting three-down work, but it’s hard to see him not getting early-down and goal-line work. The addition of Davis may hurt Cohen as Cohen’s touches could be more limited.
The most important battle in Detroit is between Kerryon Johnson and C.J. Anderson . Johnson is going to get the bigger share of the work, but how big that share is, remains to be seen. The key will be Johnson getting more work on third down with Theo Riddick out of town. We should also note T.J. Hockenson has impressed. He caught 47 yards worth of passes from Matthew Stafford in the third preseason game and scored a touchdown.
Green Bay Packers
There’s not much to discuss here. Aaron Jones is the clear lead back, Davante Adams , Geronimo Allison , and Marquez Valdes-Scantling have been locked into the top three receiver spots for a while, and Jimmy Graham is the tight end. Perhaps rookie Jace Sternberger could earn some work at tight end as the season goes on, but the skill positions are relatively set heading into Week 1.
The Vikes are pretty set as well but given that Dalvin Cook has played 14 games combined in his first two seasons, his backup is relevant. Mike Boone has 177 yards on 35 carries for an average of 5.1 yards per carry in the preseason. However, the Vikings used a third-round pick on Alexander Mattison, and he has played ahead of Boone in the preseason.
This is another almost completely set situation. Matt Ryan , Devonta Freeman with Ito Smith backing him up, Julio Jones , Mohamed Sanu , and Calvin Ridley as the receivers and Austin Hooper as the tight end. Sanu got four more targets than Ridley last season, and the gap was wider in Sanu’s favor toward the end of the season. Perhaps Ridley takes on a larger role in his second season, but that’s the extent of the uncertainty.
Devin Funchess barely edged out Jarius Wright and Curtis Samuel for the second-most receptions among Carolina receivers last season. Funchess is gone, and Samuel has clearly stepped into the second receiver role. Just search Samuel’s name on Twitter and read the linked articles. D.J. Moore is likely to be more productive, but it’s possible two Carolina receivers could be useful so long as Cam Newton is healthy.
New Orleans Saints
No Saint other than Michael Thomas and Alvin Kamara caught more than 35 passes last season. Third on the team was tight end Benjamin Watson with 35 catches. Watson is gone and has been replaced by Jared Cook . Cook could be a viable tight end fantasy option, but if he is, no other New Orleans pass-catcher like Tre’Quan Smith or Ted Ginn is going to be relevant given how run-heavy the Saints offense is now. There’s also been a lot of talk about Latavius Murray getting Mark Ingram ’s workload or close to it, but there’s a non-zero chance Alvin Kamara sees a much larger role. In eight snaps with Drew Brees on the field in the third preseason game, five plays gave or attempted to give the ball to Kamara, and he made two pickups in pass protection on the other three snaps.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
We’ve been debating whether Ronald Jones can get it together and overtake Peyton Barber , but there has been no indication that’s going to be the case. In fact, Dare Ogunbowale got as much work with the first-team offense in the third preseason game as Jones and Barber. Given how awful that RB situation was last season, it might be wise to just take a flier on Ogunbowale or avoid the situation altogether.
Arizona signed Michael Crabtree to a one-year deal, which only muddies the third receiver spot there. Larry Fitzgerald and Christian Kirk will be the 1-2 options, but it’s unclear whether Crabtree, Andy Isabella or KeeSean Johnson will be the third option. Most likely, none of them end up getting enough looks to produce consistently. With David Johnson also an option in the passing game, we’re really talking about the fourth receiving option, anyway.
Los Angeles Rams
Given how 2018 ended for Todd Gurley , the backup running back spot in LA is important. Best case scenario for Gurley is that his workload is managed so that overuse doesn’t result in serious injury. Worst case scenario is a serious injury. Either way, they guy(s) behind him is/are going to have some value. Darrell Henderson was a third-round pick this season, but Malcolm Brown is the primary backup with Henderson expected to have a specific role as a change-of-pace back. It makes little sense that Henderson is going more than 100 picks before Brown on average. Hell, Henderson is going before Austin Ekeler on average. Bizarre.
San Francisco 49ers
Tight end and quarterback are set, but the backs and receivers have been all over the map throughout the preseason. The only clarity we have is that Jerick McKinnon isn’t too much of a factor. He’ll either be placed on IR before the 53-man cutdown and thus finished for the year, or he’ll be placed on the 53-man roster then moved to IR so he can be eligible to return later in the season. Matt Breida and Tevin Coleman will split most of the backfield work, although the distribution is uncertain. At receiver, there have been reports at times that Dante Pettis could be in danger of not making the roster, then reports that the previous reports were just an attempt to light a fire under Pettis’ ass. He’s starting preseason games with the first team but then playing into the fourth quarter with the scrubs. If you feel confident about any 49ers wide receiver, Pettis or otherwise, you’re probably crazy.
With Seattle being such a run-heavy offense, their depth at running back matters. Chris Carson is the clear #1 as Rashaad Penny has struggled throughout the preseason. Penny had 13 yards on 12 carries in the first two preseason games and only 22 yards on eight carries in the third game. C.J. Prosise had 32 yards and five carries and could possibly end up pushing Penny for more work if Penny’s struggles continue. If you’re a Carson owner, the preseason has gone as well as you could have hoped.