The sights, smells and sounds of beer, NFL Redzone and tortured Cowboy fans are just around the corner. Week one of the NFL season starts in just six Sundays, and the pro teams are hitting their respective fields again for the first time in earnest since the Seahawks throttled the Broncos back in February.
Similarly, fantasy football owners are again firing up their mock draft machines and plotting how they can turn their 2014-15 NFL season into a championship showcase that would make Vince Lombardi jealous. Training camps are a crucial part of the fantasy football season, as it allows owners to get their first peek at who’s taking first team reps. The following are 10 critical training camp battles fantasy football owners should keep their eyes on.
Brian Hoyer’s 2013 star resembled a white dwarf, spiraling and hot it looked as though Hoyer’s connection with Jordan Cameron would be wildly successful, but before it even became fully realized, Hoyer’s season was snuffed out by an ACL tear.
Johnny Manziel knows all about star power. The collegian supernova is often followed by ESPN studio lights and TMZ camera flashes. Manziel proclaimed he is ready to set the NFL on fire, and he’ll certainly have a chance to do that to fantasy teams’ scoreboards.
Manziel is an extremely gifted runner and is best known for his Russell Wilson-esque ability to scramble past oncoming defensive linemen and extend plays. Johnny Football zig, zagged and sped his way to 2,169 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns during his 26 games as an A&M starter. Whether Manziel is capable of reproducing this magic on the pro-level, as well as keeping his focus on the field, has yet to be seen, but Johnny Football certainly has the upside to become a fantasy football sensation.
If Manziel is able to win the starting gig over the incumbent Hoyer, look for his draft stock to significantly rise as the season draws near and owners scour the later rounds for home run picks.
Bishop Sankey vs. Shonn Greene
Shonn Greene was once a promising fantasy option. As a Jets rookie, Green exploded for 304 yards and two touchdowns on 54 carries during the 2009 playoffs. But since that initial success, Green has largely been a fantasy letdown.
Greene is a plodding running back with solid power and a little wiggle, but as Chris Johnson’s backup last season, Greene only managed to accumulate 295 yards on 3.8 yards per carry.
With the offseason departure of Chris Johnson, the Titans spent their 54th pick of the 2014 NFL draft on Bishop Sankey. The former Washington Husky was the first running back selected in the draft, but he also represented the latest a draft has ever gone without selecting a running back. Sankey possesses tremendous agility and solid vision, but lacks the top end speed or raw power of star running backs.
Should Sankey win the starting job, expect him to go in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts. He’ll likely be looking to replicate the success that Giovani Bernard experienced last season, but without Bernard’s blazing speed or elite pass catching ability, Sankey could be a trap pick.
Ben Tate vs. Terrance West
Terrance West enjoyed one of the most successful seasons D1 football has ever seen. West ran for a ridiculous 41 touchdowns his junior season, which set the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision single season record.
West should nicely fit into Kyle Shanahan’s Zone Run offense, as he has a nice combination of strength plus slashing ability. Shanahan’s most recent venture with the Redskins saw him turn NFL 7th round draftee Alfred Morris into a fantasy football star. However, while West was tremendously productive at Towson, he’ll face a huge jump in competition coming into the NFL.
Meanwhile, Ben Tate is all too familiar with a version of the Zone Run offense from his time with the Houston Texans. An explosive power runner, Tate should have every opportunity to prove his worth to the Browns during training camp. The biggest question mark that has followed Tate during his NFL tenure has been durability. Tate only played in 62.5 percent of his regular season games since being drafted by the Texans in 2010.
The winner of this training camp battle should have sleeper fantasy value. Even though the Browns were terrible at running the ball last year, their coaching staff has stated they will be committed to that style in 2014. Actually, they’ll likely have little choice, as their leading receiver, Josh Gordon, continues to find ways to get himself into off-field misconduct issues.
Teddy Bridgewater vs. Matt Cassel
Teddy Bridgewater was, for a longtime, considered the favorite to go #1 in the NFL draft. But after an average showing at his pro day and mounting concerns about his ability to withstand NFL hits, Bridgewater saw his draft stock tumble down to the last pick of the first round.
Bridgewater is an exceptionally gifted short and mid-level passer. He connected on an astonishing 68.4 percent of his passes as a three-year starter at Louisville. Additionally, Bridgewater was phenomenal in his bowl games, throwing for five touchdowns against one interception in games against Florida and Miami (FL).
Cassel was the source of cautious optimism for the Kansas City chiefs back in 2009. Cassel was coming off a very productive season that saw him lead a Tom Brady-less Patriots team to an 11-5 record. In 2010, Cassel threw for 27 touchdowns and only seven interceptions. However, Cassel has since thrown 27 touchdowns and 30 interceptions between the Chiefs and the Vikings.
Cassel will likely win the starting job based off his experience and veteran status. Also, the Vikings might be cautious about throwing the keys to the franchise to Bridgewater after they saw their 2011 first round pick Christian Ponder quickly flameout. Nonetheless, training camp will be a very good time to keep an eye on Bridgewater’s progression. He has one of the greatest running backs of all time on his team in Adrian Peterson and a very talented youngster wideout in Cordarrelle Patterson, so the opportunity for a Rookie of the Year season might not be entirely far-fetched for Bridgewater.
The Oakland Raiders have a promising collection of talented running backs and a heady, stable quarterback at their helm… Wait, wait – it isn’t 2009 anymore. Maurice Jones-Drew led the NFL in rushing in 2011 and hasn’t really been heard from since he suffered a foot injury the subsequent season. Of course, playing with Blaine Gabbert can definitely have that kind of effect on one’s career.
Meanwhile, things aren’t looking much better with the broken down, both physically and mentally, Matt Schuab. The 33-year old quarterback was a shell of himself last season, throwing pick-six after pick-six to opposing defenses.
Darren McFadden’s career has similarly come to a screeching halt due to a combination of injuries, run scheme designs and playing on the Raiders for far too long. McFadden might have the highest percentage of scorned fantasy owners who have promised never to draft him again.
But it’s not all gloom and doom for the silver and black. MJD did play in 15 games last season and somehow managed to accumulate 1,117 yards of total offense and 5 rushing touchdowns for the inept Jaguars. If he can avoid splitting carries with McFadden and show some of that old school Pocket Hercules burst, Jones-Drew could be a nice value pick in 8th or 9th round of drafts.
Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Tom Savage
The Houston Texans waited until the 4th round of the 2014 NFL draft to select a quarterback, Tom Savage, after their offense was plagued by interceptions and blotched plays the previous season. Savage is a huge 6-5 quarterback who is blessed with a very strong arm and beautiful throwing motion. However, Savage has a tendency to lock in on receivers, throw into tough windows and spent as much time transferring schools as he did playing during his collegian years.
The Texans’ other primary quarterback option is journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick. For a few brief weeks in Buffalo, Fitzpatrick rode the fantasy football roller coaster of leading the Bills to a 3-0 start during the 2011 season. But this celebration of ‘Fitzmagic’ was short lived, as Fitzpatrick has proven to be an inconsistent decision maker. Fitzpatrick has a mediocre 59.8 percent career completion percentage and has thrown 106 touchdowns to 93 interceptions.
The real impact of the quarterback battle in Houston is on the fantasy values of Arian Foster, DeAndre Hopkins and a disgruntled Andre Johnson. Any competent quarterback performance will raise the value of these potential fantasy stars significantly. But whether H-town can find that competent navigator could be season long endeavor that might well eat into the value of Johnson, Foster and Hopkins.
For the brave owners who are willing to risk their picks with Houston’s core fantasy producers, the quarterback battle in Houston will be of supreme importance come draft day.
Markus Wheaton vs. Martavis Bryant
The Pittsburgh Steelers ran the ball the 25th most times in the NFL last season. Long gone are the ground and pound Steelers of yesteryear. The new Steelers like to throw and throw deep. However, since the departure of Mike Wallace, Pittsburgh has been looking to replace the type of receiver who can take a proverbial top off a defense.
With Emmanuel Sanders joining the Broncos in free agency, the door is wide open for the job of ‘X’ receiver, the receiver who often lines up furtherest away from the tight end.
Markus Wheaton is a second year wideout from Oregon State who caught six balls last season. His 10.7 yards per reception isn’t impressive or indicative of a game breaking receiver. However, Wheaton did run a 4.45 forty-yard dash during his pro day, and the Steelers third round selection of him suggests his talent is greater than what was shown in 2013.
Martavis Bryant is a huge 6-4 rookie receiver. At Clemson, Bryant played second fiddle to superstar receiver Sammy Watkins. Bryant was an excellent deep receiver during his time with the Tigers as he averaged 22.2 yards per reception and returned 14 kicks an average of 20.8 yards. His size hints at a big time red zone target, something the smallish Steelers’ receiving core desperately desires.
The winner of this training camp battle could very well be a fantasy gem. Currently, ESPN Fantasy ranks Wheaton as the 59th receiver and Bryant as the 97th receiver.
Trent Richardson vs. Ahmad Bradshaw
3.3. That’s Trent Richardson’s career yards per carry average. It’s a horrific, abominable number for the former #3 overall NFL draft selection. The Cleveland Browns shed themselves of Richardson early last season in exchange for the Indianapolis Colts’ 2014 first round pick. Apparently, the Colts’ game plan is to surround Andrew Luck with as little offensive talent as possible, because Richardson is the favorite to win the starting running back job.
But it might be too early to completely discredit Richardson. After all, he has only played two years in the NFL and no one would describe the Colts’ offensive line as dominant. Nonetheless, Richardson’s clock is ticking and if he can’t quickly put together a positive outlook to his training camp and preseason, Indy is going to need to look at their other options.
Ahmad Bradshaw wasn’t a bad option until a neck injury ended his 2013 season. Bradshaw is an effective slice-and-dice running back with good hands and a very good 4.6 yards per carry career average. Also, Bradshaw is still only 28 years old, more than young enough to be considered a viable starting running back in the NFL.
Andrew Luck is one of the great up-and-coming quarterbacks in the NFL, and he really needs someone to hand the ball off to. It’s quite possible that whomever wins the Colts’ starting job will see their value inflated by Luck’s brilliance.
Knowshon Moreno vs. Lamar Miller
Knowshon Moreno appeared to revitalize his football career last season under the direction of Peyton Manning. Moreno became one of the fantasy surprise standouts, accumulating 1,586 total yards and 13 total touchdowns.
Moreno signed a one year deal with the Miami Dolphins during the offseason and the reports about him have not been positive. Since leaving the tutelage of Manning, Moreno has allegedly become out of shape, injuried his knee and on the verge of being cut.
Lamar Miller’s rookie season showed promise, as he was able to tote the rock at 4.9 yards per carry. However, when given an expanded role in his second season, Miller struggled and saw his yards per carry drop to 4.0. Miller spent much of last season splitting carries with Daniel Thomas, and the results saw the Dolphins finish 26th in rushing yards.
Miller is a straight line speedster who has the ability to produce game breaking runs. However, for him to truly accumulate fantasy value, he’s going to need more carries and a greater ability to get to the second level. It could be tough to find fantasy value in a backfield that hasn’t experienced much success since the days of Ronnie Brown — and even those were short lived. Nonetheless, Moreno and Miller have flashed the ability to be productive fantasy backs, now they need the health and opportunity.
Yes, yes the Jacksonville Jaguars’ offense has been atrocious the past few years. In fact, between MJD’s injury, Justin Blackmon’s suspensions and Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville has a barren fantasy wasteland. But there’s a least some room for optimism this season. Luke Joeckel is expected to be back at full health after an October injury sidelined him for the majority of his rookie season. The Jags spent their first four picks of the 2014 NFL draft on offense, and it’s difficult to imagine Blake Bortles been the same level of awful as his predecessor.
The Jaguars are very likely to run, run, run the ball as their rookie quarterback acclimates himself to the big leagues. Toby Gerhart was quietly very good in Minnesota. A power runner who also possesses soft hands, Gerhart was never able to find enough carries behind All Day Adrian Peterson. Gerhart has a career average of 4.7 yards per carry, and while that number might drop going from the imposing front line of Minnesota to Jacksonville, it’s still indicative of his talents.
Jordan Todman has been along for Jacksonville train wreck for the past two seasons. He hasn’t given Jags fans much to be optimistic about when carrying the ball, as he only possesses a career 3.3 yards per carry average, but he has shown some upside with his pass catching. Last season, Todman caught 14 balls for 116 yards and six first downs.
This is a golden opportunity for Gerhart to receive a ton of carries. If he can put on a show in training camp and seal the job, Gerhart has excellent fantasy upside. Gerhart’s current Average Draft Position amongst ESPN drafters is 79th, and this number will likely shoot up the charts if he performs well throughout the preseason.