Top 15 Offensive Position Battles to Watch in NFL Training Camps

Eric MackFantasy Football Lead WriterJuly 21, 2014

Top 15 Offensive Position Battles to Watch in NFL Training Camps

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Fantasy analysts have spent months surveying the NFL landscape, projecting 2014 numbers and ranking players. Get ready for things to start to jumble up all over again as training camps get underway.

    Injuries, media hype and winners of position battles do that every summer across the league.

    We have targeted 15 must-watch position battles that relate to offense and fantasy football. We care most about the skill positions of quarterback, running back, wide receiver and tight end. Those are the positions we examine in this slideshow.

    These 15 battles will be decided in the coming weeks before your drafts, and we predict they are the ones that will most impact the analysts' rankings, mock-draft results and projections. We rank them here from 15 to 1 in terms of how much they can potentially change draft-day opinions.

    Fantasy owners tend to overreact to sudden changes to the fantasy landscape, especially at running back, so join us in hyping these top 15 offensive position battles to watch in NFL training camps.

No. 15: Cincinnati Bengals Tight End

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    Al Behrman/Associated Press

    Jermaine Gresham has to see the writing on the wall. The team has left him in a contract year this season. That's after drafting a tight end, Tyler Eifert, in the first round in 2013. It certainly doesn't look good for Gresham's future in Cincy.

    But we care about the here and now, and Gresham is still the in-line starter for the Cincinnati Bengals, a team that figures to start with a power-running game under new offensive coordinator Hue Jackson. Eifert is the pass-catching change of pace.

    If there is a significant amount of time and targets to be given to Eifert, fantasy football is going to have a nice sleeper on its hands. Training camp will show just how much Eifert cuts into Gresham's snaps, if not starts, this season.

No. 14: New York Jets Quarterback

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    This is not a true position battle. Geno Smith is supposed to be the unquestioned starting quarterback for the New York Jets.

    Then you realize Smith didn't do much to convince anyone of that a year ago. Plus, Michael Vick is now in town. The Jets quarterback circus will roll on.

    Vick has experience with Marty Mornhinweg's offense and is a veteran quarterback players will gravitate to. He can still be the Week 1 starter. There is still plenty of justifiable hype between Smith or Vick as the Jets starting quarterback, no matter how much head coach Rex Ryan tries to dispel it.

No. 13: St. Louis Rams Wide Receivers

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    Jeff Roberson/Associated Press

    If strength in numbers is a thing, the St. Louis Rams wide receiving corps is going to surprise people this season. Sure, Jeff Fisher is still going to focus on the run, but if Sam Bradford is going to have a breakthrough as an NFL quarterback, there are some Rams wideouts to take fliers on in fantasy.

    Tavon Austin, Kenny Britt, Chris Givens, Brian Quick, Austin Pettis and Stedman Bailey combine to be a six-headed monster for fantasy owners, if only because we cannot quite be sure who is going to start and get the targets.

    Austin is an easy answer because he was drafted with the eighth pick in 2013, but he looks more like a slot or third receiver to us. Givens is a probable starter on the outside, and Britt has been one in this league, too.

    Assuming you don't want to reach for Austin on hype, Britt is a solid late-round pick if he winds up a starter. Hopefully, the preseason gives us and the Rams some answers in their mangled mess of a receiving corps.

No. 12: New Orleans Saints Running Back

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    As long as Drew Brees is upright and under center for the New Orleans Saints, this is going to be a pass-first team. That doesn't mean we should ignore the running backs here.

    The Saints always have a productive offense, and the running back can be heavily involved not only in moving the ball during drives, but finishing them, too.

    Pierre Thomas is turning 30 this season, so the Saints are going to need to get more out of first-round bust Mark Ingram and emerging second-year big back Khiry Robinson. Also, with Darren Sproles now with the Philadelphia Eagles, there will be more passes targeted to one of these backs in head coach Sean Peyton's pass-happy offense.

    Training camp will show just how much Thomas has left, how much Ingram has in him and how much Robinson can give us. This camp duel doesn't look like much now, but this is the sleeper of position battles.

No. 11: New York Giants Running Back

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    The Giants needed to overhaul the running back position after finishing 29th in the NFL in rushing offense, per NFL.com. They did it by adding bruising journeyman runner Rashad Jennings and drafting a 2,000-yard college back in Andre Williams. Oh, they also hope former first-round pick David Wilson can return from a career-threatening neck injury.

    If the Giants have anything at running back now, it is options, even if questions remain.

    This battle will come down to just how much Jennings (oft-injured in his career) and Wilson (still hoping he can have a career) can play. Jennings is the between-the-tackles guy out of the gate. Wilson is the game-breaker.

    Expect the Giants to open with the bruiser, but if Jennings proves to be as injury-prone as he has been in his career, this position battle will rage on throughout camp and the regular season. All three of Jennings, Wilson and Williams will be stepping forward at various times.

No. 10: Philadelphia Eagles Tight End

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    Michael Perez/Associated Press

    The Philadelphia Eagles project to run more plays than anyone in a given game or season under head coach Chip Kelly and his pants-on-fire attack, but a question remains about which tight end is going to be in on more of those plays. If it is second-year man Zach Ertz, look out fantasy football.

    Brent Celek is the incumbent starter and the better blocker, so expect him to garner most of the early-down snaps, but Ertz is a potential seam-splitter who can also start in double-tight sets.

    The Eagles uptempo offense will still be mostly about the run and LeSean McCoy, but the tight end can be a huge factor off play-action pass in the red zone. If Ertz earns more time—be it in lieu of Celek or on the field at the same time—fantasy football is going to have one more impact tight end to pick from in drafts.

    It won't be Celek, regardless of whether he starts. Ertz is the potential fantasy game-changer.

    Watch this closely in camp.

No. 9: Oakland Raiders Running Back

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    Between the always banged-up Darren McFadden and the oft-injured Maurice Jones-Drew, you might not see the Oakland Raiders running back position mattering much in the grand scheme of things. After all, this team will lose a lot of games and struggle to stay close in most of them—especially in the AFC West.

    But the Raiders will start and finish with the run, particularly with where they stand at the quarterback position. New left tackle Donald Penn said on Sirius/XM NFL Radio (per SiriusXM NFL Radio on Twitter): "We're gonna run the ball, run the ball, then run it again, until the defense stops us."

    Establishing the running game might be a strategy that is thrown out the window a lot, but you have to figure the Raiders are going to give McFadden and MJD a lot of chances to prove they can be the players they once were.

    Whichever one starts here will have sleeper value out of the gate (until he is injured and has to give way to the other guy).

No. 8: Minnesota Vikings Quarterback

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    The Minnesota Vikings failed with Christian Ponder as the quarterback of the future and Matt Cassel (or the released Josh Freeman) as the reclamation project, so they turn to draft-day slider Teddy Bridgewater as the developmental guy. The question is how soon do they hand the reins to the rookie?

    Offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who once helped turn Troy Aikman into a Hall of Famer, likes the early progress Bridgewater made in OTAs, according to Mike Wobschall of the Vikings' official website.

    "Teddy's been really, really impressive and a lot further along than I expected him to be," Turner said on Paul Allen's radio show on KFAN FM 100.3, per Wobschall's report.

    Cassel will likely hold the reins of the Adrian Peterson-led offense, but only until Turner deems Bridgewater ready to take over. Some weapons are in this offense, namely second-year receiver Cordarrelle Patterson, so this position battle is a lot more significant for fantasy purposes than you might think.

No. 7: Indianapolis Colts Running Back

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    There is an old-school coaching mantra that players should not lose their job due to injury. This is a lot more complex than that with the Indianapolis Colts.

    Vick Ballard was going to be a full-season starter before he suffered an ACL tear that knocked him out almost all of 2013. He returns this preseason, but he is sitting third on the depth chart now behind Trent Richardson, who was acquired for a first-round pick after Ballard's injury, and veteran Ahmad Bradshaw, who is far more accomplished than either of those guys.

    The Colts are still going to be all about Andrew Luck in his potential breakthrough third season, but they want to start with the run to make this Colts offense a well-balanced attack. Richardson will need to prove to be more than the plodder he looked like a year ago, Bradshaw needs to prove capable of staying healthy (he won't), and Ballard is lying in the weeds to prove he can still become a fantasy star.

    Richardson is an early first-round pick who was also traded for a first-round pick. He has to get the first crack at being the feature back for those reasons. A healthy Ballard can make this a big-time battle in training camp, though, especially as it relates to the fantasy values of these two.

No. 6: Philadelphia Eagles Wide Receivers

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    Matt Rourke/Associated Press

    No matter how much you see the Philadelphia Eagles' release of DeSean Jackson this winter as an indictment of Jackson's off-the-field activities or his contract terms, we see it more as a vote of confidence of what the Eagles have at wide receiver.

    They wouldn't have allowed Jackson to go sign with a division rival if they didn't like what they have.

    Nick Foles instilled a lot of confidence in his fantasy owners last season. Now, he needs to do the same with his receivers.

    Jeremy Maclin is a starter if he completes his recovery from reconstructive knee surgery. That is one 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown, injury-risk sleeper right there. Riley Cooper is the probable starter on the other side, while rookies Jordan Matthews and Josh Huff will battle returning burner Damaris Johnson for the third spot.

    The Eagles will have an explosive offense and, if Foles is truly going to be the top-eight fantasy quarterback he will be drafted to be, late-round value will be unearthed among the aforementioned wideouts.

No. 5: Carolina Panthers Wide Receivers

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    If this slideshow was about the size of the question marks at a position, the Carolina Panthers wide receivers position battle would be No. 1. The Panthers underwent a huge turnover at the position, leaving them with a bunch of has-beens, never-will-bes and big first-round rookie Kelvin Benjamin.

    There is going to be some fantasy value to be had here, we just cannot see it yet. Cam Newton is the type of quarterback talent that makes everyone better around him.

    Training camp will decide who is around him most often and at the start of games. Figure Benjamin, even if he is raw, will be among the first to step forward here. After him, journeymen Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King, Kealoha Pilares and Marvin McNutt are his options.

    McWho? Exactly.

    Someone here is going to emerge, so this an important position to watch in training camp. Just don't place a whole lot of fantasy stock in any of these guys in drafts.

No. 4: Cleveland Browns Quarterback

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    Before you spew your breakfast cereal, you have to admit Johnny Football hype is a potential train wreck we all cannot keep from watching. This might not be our No. 1 position battle, but it will be the most scrutinized by the media, whether we all like it or not.

    Rookie Johnny Manziel has some work to do to catch incumbent quarterback Brian Hoyer, who has proved healthy enough coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Hoyer is the starter going in and likely will be coming out—of training camp, at least—according to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.

    This is not a decision that has been made, though. Manziel can earn a starting job out of training camp. Pass or fail, it is sure to be entertaining. It always seems to be with Johnny Football.

No. 3: St. Louis Rams Running Back

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    The significance of the St. Louis Rams running back position battle is a matter of whether you like a volume-based guy like Zac Stacy or a college football playmaker like Auburn's Tre Mason. This is going to be a run-heavy team in a run-heavy division, but Mason's presence drags Stacy's value out of early rounds of fantasy football.

    We will see if that can turn around in training camp. If Stacy projects to get 20 touches per game like he did in the second half of last year, he is going to prove to be a solid value around the turn between Rounds 2 and 3 in fantasy drafts.

    Mason, a third-round pick, is the monkey wrench. The Rams declared this an open battle, even if many see Stacy doing the early-down and goal-line work at the outset. Mason can steal the show in the end. Right now he is little more than a mere drag on Stacy's value.

    Training camp will decide just where this all winds up.

No. 2: Miami Dolphins Running Back

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    The Miami Dolphins running back position battle really heated up in OTAs. Lamar Miller has earned praise as he heads into his pivotal third season, while Knowshon Moreno was added as a free agent coming off a career year. One of them will wind up a feature back behind a rebuilt offensive line.

    Moreno, 27, needed a knee 'scope that will keep him out for at least the start of training camp, so give the early edge to Miller, who might be improved. But he still wasn't intriguing enough to keep the Dolphins from seeking help via free agency this winter. Moreno should be ready by the time the action starts to matter, though, so don't go drafting Miller in the early rounds of fantasy football just yet.

    Fantasy has tended to bury Moreno in drafts, but he proved to be a first-round-caliber producer a year ago. With left tackle Branden Albert leading a line overhaul in Miami, the Dolphins are more equipped to feature a fantasy-worthy running back starter.

    We will have to wait until late in the preseason to see where Moreno's health is, so consider this one of the most important position battles to be decided before fantasy drafts.

No. 1: New England Patriots Running Back

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Since Tom Brady is now entering the twilight of his career—he turns 37 in August—the New England Patriots are placing more of an emphasis on the running game. As the games clicked down a year ago, it was LeGarrette Blount leading the way. Blount is now a backup in Pittsburgh, so someone has to step forward here for the Pats.

    Between Stevan Ridley and receiving back Shane Vereen, the Pats should be in good hands. The question is, who will get more touches?

    Ridley has proved capable of being a 1,200-yard, 12-touchdown producer, while Vereen has rarely shown he can play even 12 games, averaging under nine games a season in his three-year career. It comes down to ball security for Ridley and whether he can get out of head coach Bill Belichick's doghouse.

    Both backs are in a contract year, so they will be motivated to make a big impact for a team that really needs its running game now more than ever. Training camp will decide which back earns big-time sleeper status in fantasy football drafts before September.

     

    Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.