Top preseason position battles to watch


Those who do not participate in fantasy football can reasonably disagree, but in our world, the most important position battles tend to take place among running backs. There is nothing like a cool quarterback challenge in the real world, but it might not matter -- for our purposes -- what happens under center with the Denver Broncos, Miami Dolphins or Washington Redskins. Or it might. It will not matter much for draft day. At running back, everything could potentially matter, based on the scarcity of sure things at the position, the upside of certain combatants and the inherent craziness we have seen with surprise contributors.

I could make a case that perhaps one-third of NFL teams have some relevant competition going on at running back, something that could greatly affect a fantasy league and/or our rankings. In some cases, this would be with the backup position, as with the Los Angeles Rams. I happen to think Todd Gurley II, while being a fantastic, productive player, is not going to be able to play 16 games at a top level through obvious knee arthritis, so I want to know who is next in line. It does not mean that whoever is next in line becomes a star, just as if whoever wins a starting job elsewhere might struggle. There is risk everywhere.

Still -- and in most cases the job battle manifests because the starter is a bit underwhelming or returning from an injury and the newcomer is some hotshot rookie seemingly ready to play -- let us focus on the potential starting situations. Plus, when it comes to the Rams, I think rookie Darrell Henderson is going to be a star, and star right away in 2019, but we will get no clarity on Gurley until September, probably. And even then, it might just be a pain tolerance thing. Just get Henderson. He will be great.

So -- and I will get to a few other relevant fantasy job battles at other positions later -- what am I watching at running back? Glad you asked.

Running back job battles

1. Denver Broncos: Yep, here we have a situation with a pair of second-year options. Few knew about rookie Phillip Lindsay at this time last year -- they will say they did, but c'mon -- because Royce Freeman was the well-regarded third-round draft pick from Oregon and the eighth running back chosen. Lindsay went undrafted out of Colorado. Shows how much that matters. Lindsay won the starting job and rushed for more than 1,000 yards and scored 10 touchdowns. That does not mean Freeman is a bust. Be patient. Freeman is bigger and Lindsay is coming off wrist surgery. The upside in this offense, even with statuesque Joe Flacco at quarterback, is certainly relevant in fantasy. Draft Lindsay first, but not by much.

2. Chicago Bears: Here it is ... a good, old-fashioned battle with the fourth rookie runner chosen in the draft, third-rounder David Montgomery from Iowa State, taking on grizzled veteran Mike Davis, but really, he is not so grizzled at all. In theory, this seems like no contest. Montgomery produced big numbers in college, but Davis, 26, is entering his fifth season and has rushed for 862 yards in his pro career. Do not write Davis off; late bloomers are all the rage at this spot and few would call Davis overworked in his career. I did not forget Tarik Cohen, but his pass-catching role seems secure regardless. I like Montgomery, but the Bears offer no promises to him, and yes, even with Cohen catching myriad passes, both can matter. Jordan Howard, rather slow and one-dimensional, is Philadelphia's problem now.

3. Philadelphia Eagles: Speaking of ... Howard has to fight off Penn State rookie Miles Sanders, and again, it hardly seems a fair fight. Sanders is better, but alas, he is a raw rookie and Howard is a bigger man and, at the least, a short-yardage threat. In fact, Howard scored nine touchdowns last season, and most came from inside the 5-yard line. The Eagles won a Super Bowl recently while sharing the backfield among more than a few bodies, and this could work like that with Corey Clement and others in play, or Sanders could emerge initially as a star. I draft Sanders before Howard for sure.

4. San Francisco 49ers: This one seems more messy than most because veterans Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida can all make a good case for playing time and could be ranked in any order. Coleman is the new fellow from the Atlanta Falcons, having averaged 4.4 yards per tote in four seasons and having caught 90 passes the past three seasons. He has size and speed and reminds people of ... McKinnon, who was the big running back acquisition last summer before wrecking a knee late in the preseason. Breida was not supposed to break out last season, but he did, averaging 5.3 yards per rush. Someone will not be happy and perhaps all three of them, but we cannot ignore the upside each brings for PPR formats. For now, and I have already drafted so many times, I seem to be ignoring this awkward situation, but I would draft Coleman first. Breida will be the best value late, though.

5. Buffalo Bills: Yes, you should care, even though no Bills running backs helped fantasy managers so much last season. Frank Gore and LeSean McCoy rank first and third among active players in rushing yards -- second is Adrian Peterson, in his own battle in Washington -- and joining them are pass-catching vet T.J. Yeldon and rookie Devin Singletary. In this scenario, assuming nobody moves on, the Florida Atlantic rookie who rushed for 54 scores the past two seasons might have to wait a bit. Perhaps the rushing leader for the Bills is also the quarterback. Myriad things can happen here, but do not fully ignore the Bills. I have been, but McCoy should be the No. 1 option, and I think he has something left in the proverbial tank.

Other running back job battles

Peterson surpassed 1,000 rushing yards last season, though he was a bit all-or-nothing for fantasy, and that is annoying. Rookie Derrius Guice should have been the feature back in Washington last season, but his knee shredded. Now, presumably, he is healthy, but I presume nothing at this position. ... Each of the Florida teams could have a battle, in theory. Jacksonville's Leonard Fournettehas had issues with health, and rookie Ryquell Armstead, who runs a bit like the veteran, lurks. Tampa Bay could give sophomore Ronald Jones II a legit shot at veteran Peyton Barber, or Jameis Winston could simply throw the ball 50 times per game. The Dolphins could go with Kenyan Drake or give Kalen Ballage and rookie Myles Gaskin a chance. ... The Seattle Seahawks could be much like the Broncos, too, with Rashaad Penny, the second running back chosen in the 2018 draft, pushing veteran Chris Carson. Investing in Penny for the middle rounds seems a wise move. ... Finally, we should all pay close attention to the Los Angeles Chargers if a certain top-10 overall fantasy selection decides to hold out over contact stipulations, which is, to be clear, Melvin Gordon's right. Stay tuned.

As for as some backup situations to keep an eye on, because every running back seems in constant danger of injury and next in line is critical, watch the Falcons, Browns, Cowboys, Packers, Steelers, Colts, Ravens and Texans, among others.

Quarterback job battles

Depth abounds at this fantasy position, so we simply do not care as much about whether Josh Rosen or Ryan Fitzpatrick wins the starting job, though with more leagues moving to a multi-QB or best-ball format, every starting job is important.

Look, rookie quarterbacks do not get years to watch and learn as Aaron Rodgersonce did. Rosen is not a rookie, but Dwayne Haskins (Redskins), Drew Lock(Broncos) and Daniel Jones (Giants) are. We think Arizona goes with Kyler Murray right away, as they should. I think Haskins is a star right away, assuming the team lets him.

Wide receiver job battles

Concentrate on elite offenses/quarterbacks because they have the most upside. Who will Tom Brady throw to? Perhaps it is a committee approach with his tight end having retired, perhaps not. Chiefs star Patrick Mahomesretained his tight end, but the wide receivers are a jumbled mess, and off-field repercussions still await. Perhaps a rookie like Mecole Hardman stands out in training camp. I am paying attention to, for the top quarterbacks, the depth chart for the Packers and Colts as well, and think much of Geronimo Allison, for example. For lesser offenses, watch what shakes out with the Bills, Cardinals, Jets and Jaguars. Bad teams throw too. Some throw a lot. Someone like Dede Westbrook or Jamison Crowder could be a lot better than you realize.

Tight end job battles

I would not call the Colts' situation a battle, because both Eric Ebron and Jack Doyle will play quite a bit together. Doyle played ahead of Ebron when healthy last season, but clearly he was not the same downfield threat, and few would suggest he is. It seems unlikely that both will end up top-10 fantasy scorers at the position, making each a bit overrated in drafts so far, but each possesses mad upside with Andrew Luck slingin' it.

As for the aforementioned Patriots, Benjamin Watson is neither young -- for football -- nor eligible to play the first four games (suspension). Matt LaCosse, anyone? Someone else? Nobody else? This is tight end, not running back. Some teams simply will not have relevant options here. As for situations I watch this summer, there are ones involving rookies (Broncos, Lions), veterans (Ravens, Raiders, Cardinals) and injured/unretired folks (Titans, Panthers, Cowboys, Redskins).