Training camps across the league open this week, signaling the beginning in earnest of the 2016 season. The preseason will drag, as it always does, but whittled-down versions of the 32 rosters as assembled this week will be the ones that take the field for the first meaningful games of the season in early September.
The next five weeks will serve as a proving ground for players on all of those 32 rosters. Some will merely be fighting for a spot in the league, while others are angling for a starting gig with their respective teams. It’s the latter group that concerns the fantasy community.
Last year, Ryan Fitzpatrick and Tyrod Taylor emerged as starters after winning training camp battles, and then went on to post strong fantasy seasons. Dion Lewis edged out Travaris Cadet and James White to be the Patriots’ primary pass-catching back, while Joseph Randle and Tevin Coleman won position battles in Dallas and Atlanta, respectively, before ultimately ceding the job to their temporary understudies. At the outset of camp, it’s hard for us to know which battles will ultimately have the greatest effect on the coming fantasy season, but chances are they will be a few of the ones outlined here.
49ers QB: Colin Kaepernick vs. Blaine Gabbert
Kaepernick and Gabbert split San Francisco’s 16 starts right down the middle last year, and no matter how you look at it, the latter was the better quarterback. Gabbert had a better completion percentage, threw for more yards, touchdowns, and yards per attempt, and had fewer interceptions and a better quarterback rating. In that vein, Gabbert should enter this season as the favorite.
Of course, that was under the deposed Jim Tomsula, whose one-year stewardship of the 49ers was mostly a disaster. Chip Kelly is now running the show in San Francisco, and there’s a sound argument to be made that no quarterback in the league is more physically matched to run his offense than Kaepernick.
Kelly’s scheme requires a quarterback who isn’t just capable of piloting the read-option, but is dangerous as a runner. Kaepernick proved his read-option bona fides when he wrested the starting gig from Alex Smith in 2012. Even though he’s mechanically out of whack, he can get away with some of those deficiencies if he clicks in Kelly’s offense. Gabbert is more athletic than the average quarterback, but he won’t be anywhere near the weapon in the offense that Kaepernick is, assuming both are operating at their full potential.
We’ll hit on a few more quarterback battles to watch in training camp later in the column, but this is far and away the best one of the summer. Kaepernick has more upside as the starter because of the way Kelly’s offense could use him as a runner, though neither profiles as much more than a low-end QB2.
Ravens RBs: Justin Forsett vs. Javorius Allen vs. Kenneth Dixon
Forsett was unable to live up to his standout 2014 season last year, running for 641 yards and two touchdowns on 151 carries in 10 games before suffering a broken forearm that ended his season. That opened the door for the rookie Allen, who was previously a bit player, to show what he could do, but he wasn’t much better. Allen had 95 carries for 332 yards and one score over the final seven games of the season, though he did flash some ability as a receiver, hauling in 37 passes for 303 yards and a pair of touchdowns.
That pair’s overall ineffectiveness led the Ravens to grab Dixon in the fourth round of this year’s draft. The Louisiana Tech product was a touchdown machine in college, scoring 87 touchdowns in his four years, 15 of which came through the air. Dixon proved himself a real threat catching the ball, racking up 64 receptions for 852 yards in his final two college seasons.
Dixon may be the rookie of the bunch, but he has the most upside in Baltimore’s backfield. However, he still has a long way to go before earning the number of touches that would make him a worthy starter in most fantasy formats. None of the three has a high average draft position, and that’s unlikely to change no matter what happens in training camp. Unless Forsett or Allen exceeds expectations, Dixon will be the most attractive draft-day target of the three.
Saints No. 2 WR: Willie Snead vs. Michael Thomas vs. Brandon Coleman
Calling this a pure position battle is a bit of a misnomer because Snead will do a decent amount of work out of the slot. It is a legitimate battle in the fantasy realm, though, with all three of these receivers in the mix to be the second-most targeted receiver on the team behind Brandin Cooks.
Coleman is a longshot after catching 30 passes for 454 yards and two touchdowns as a rookie, so we can focus on Snead and Thomas. The former had a strong rookie campaign, pulling down 69 receptions for 984 yards and three scores even though he didn’t play 70% of the team’s snaps in a game until Week 5. He quickly earned Drew Brees’s trust, an asset that cannot be overlooked.
The Saints grabbed Thomas out of Ohio State in the second round of this year’s draft, which is an indictment of Coleman more than anyone. At 6' 3" and 209 pounds, Thomas gives Brees a big receiver in the Marques Colston mold. Last year, Coleman, who stands 6' 6", looked like he might inherit that spot, but the Saints’ selection of Thomas clearly puts the rookie in pole position.
If we know anything about a team led by Brees and Sean Payton, it’s that it will run a ton of three-receiver sets. Chances are Cooks, Snead and Thomas will be the three primary receivers in New Orleans. Coby Fleener is a popular breakout pick this year, so Snead and Thomas have some competition outside their receiver room, but both project as depth receivers with WR3 upside.
Washington's No. 2 WR: Pierre Garcon vs. Josh Doctson
The Washington offensive brain trust has already praised Jamison Crowder, saying he should remain on the field as a slot receiver in three-wide sets. That leaves Garcon and Doctson fighting for time outside the numbers opposite DeSean Jackson. Garcon had a perfectly mediocre season in 2015, totaling 72 receptions for 777 yards and six touchdowns. It was nearly a carbon copy of his 2014 season, though with three more touchdowns, a welcome sight for his owners but not exactly a predictive development.
Washington’s selection of Doctson with the 22nd overall pick in the draft should give you a good indication of how the team feels about him, no matter what it says about where he is on the depth chart. The TCU grad is coming off an excellent finish to his college career, notching 79 catches for 1,327 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. He also brings a big frame to the table, something the Washington receiving corps previously lacked. At 6' 3", Doctson will be the tallest receiver on the field for Kirk Cousins on every snap he plays. That trait cannot be dismissed, especially for a team that’s likely to be one of the most pass-reliant in the league.
This should be an excellent battle with a substantive effect on the fantasy landscape. Washington’s running game could really struggle this year, and the defense recently lost Junior Galette to a torn Achilles. Cousins is a good bet to be among the league leaders in pass attempts, which is excellent news for whoever starts opposite Jackson. Doctson’s upside is higher, and he’s essentially free in fantasy leagues at his ADP, but Garcon has to be considered the favorite at the start of training camp.
Steelers No. 2 WR: Markus Wheaton vs. Sammie Coates
This is similar to the battle between Garcon and Doctson in Washington in that there’s an obvious favorite. In this case it’s Wheaton, who will be starting opposite Antonio Brown with anything short of an electric camp from Coates. That doesn’t necessarily mean Wheaton is the better draft-day value, though, and both of these guys will be intriguing at their respective ADPs. Those, however, are discussions best saved for different columns. For now, let’s simply handicap the battle between the two.
Neither Wheaton nor Coates can provide what the suspended Martavis Bryant does for either the Steelers or the fantasy community. Bryant would have been drafted as a WR2. Wheaton and Coates are both outside the top 40 receivers on FantasyPros. We’re at a totally different stage of the draft for Pittsburgh’s second receiver than we would have been if Bryant were eligible to play this season.
We know a lot more about Wheaton, who’s entering his fourth season in the league, but he has never been more than the third option in Pittsburgh. He performed well in that role last year, catching 44 of his 79 targets for 749 yards and five touchdowns. In the five games Bryant missed last season, Wheaton had nine grabs for 228 yards and one score, so we can’t assume a Bryant-less bump. Wheaton is just 25 and was a third-round pick in 2013, but he has never showed signs that he’s more than a No. 3 receiver.
Coates, meanwhile, didn’t even play last season, for all intents and purposes. He was on the field in six games, getting two targets and one reception. The second-year player out of Auburn was also a third-round pick and is a bigger receiver than Wheaton, checking in at 6' 1" and 212 pounds. His size, and Wheaton’s versatility, could lead to both of them on the field with Brown in three-receiver sets, with either Wheaton or Brown lining up in the slot.
The explosiveness of the Steelers passing game, even with Le’Veon Bell facing a four-game suspension, makes the Wheaton-Coates battle worth watching. Remember, however, that this is a great offense in which to invest no matter which vehicle you choose. Wheaton is the favorite to open the season starting opposite Brown, but both receivers are worth a shot at their ADPs.
Browns QB: Robert Griffin III vs. Josh McCown
Griffin enters Browns camp as the overwhelming favorite to win the starting job. The team went out and signed him in the off-season, hoping to revive his once-promising career by pairing him with quarterback guru and new head coach Hue Jackson. Griffin has a lot of work to do to get back to that level—he has a lot of work to do simply to return to league average—but the Browns certainly signed him with every intention of getting him under center Week 1.
Having said that, McCown is a perfectly capable starter. In seven starts last season, McCown threw for 2,060 yards, 7.25 YPA and 12 touchdowns against four interceptions. He threw for at least 341 yards and two scores in three straight weeks, and combined for five touchdown passes in games against the mighty defenses of Denver and Arizona. Griffin might be the favorite, but McCown isn’t a pushover.
What makes this job so interesting is the collection of weapons in Cleveland, the upside of which improved significantly with Josh Gordon’s reinstatement. Gordon, Gary Barnidge, Corey Coleman and Duke Johnson are all playmakers, giving whoever starts an enviable group of pass-catchers. Whether that’s Griffin or McCown, the Cleveland quarterback is going to have some real sleeper cachet, especially in two-quarterback or superflex leagues.
Buccaneers TE: Austin Seferian-Jenkins vs. Cameron Brate
There’s no question that Seferian-Jenkins is the most talented tight end on the Buccaneers roster. The only reason this is a legitimate battle at the start of training camp is the third-year tight end’s seemingly poor relationship with the coaching staff.
Seferian-Jenkins, who had off-season surgery to repair a shoulder that cost him nine games last season, was kicked out of Tampa Bay’s final OTA session in June by head coach Dirk Koetter. The relationship had reached a boiling point, and while cooler heads have prevailed since then, with Seferian-Jenkins accepting complete responsibility and saying his coach was right to send him off, there remains a chance that the relationship is in need of some more work.
That, however, is the only argument in Brate’s favor. He played in 14 games last season, catching 23 passes for 288 yards and three touchdowns. Brate is a big target who could be a good option for the Buccaneers in a the red zone, but Seferian-Jenkins is a real weapon, especially if Jameis Winston takes the forward leap so many are expecting this season. While Brate’s best-case scenario is touchdown-driven fantasy value, thanks in part to being overlooked in an offense that includes Mike Evans, Doug Martin, Vincent Jackson and Charles Sims, Seferian-Jenkins has the ability to be a playmaker on his own merit. So long as the relationship between player and coach isn’t irreparable, bet on the third-year man out of Washington getting another chance in a quietly attractive Tampa Bay offense.
Bears RB: Jeremy Langford vs. Jordan Howard vs. Ka’Deem Carey
There’s unquestionably a competition at running back in Bears camp, but I’m not so sure it’s as open as a lot of people in the fantasy world make it out to be. Langford played in all 16 games for the Bears last season, starting the three that Matt Forte missed due to injury. Langford wasn’t exactly great, running for 537 yards and six touchdowns on 148 carries, but those numbers weren’t terribly different from what Forte did on a per-carry basis, especially when you factor in the latter’s pedigree and experience. Langford likely came close to maxing out what a fourth-round rookie could have done behind Chicago’s offensive line last season.
Langford caught 22 passes for 279 yards and one touchdown, decent numbers considering that he wasn’t asked to do much in the passing game while Forte was healthy. Now with a year under his belt and the starting gig within his sights, Langford is one of the players in the league with the most on the line at training camp this year.
The Bears selected Howard in the fifth round of this year’s draft, adding to a running back stable that appears the weak link of the offense. A college football exile after spending the first two years of his career at UAB, Howard landed at Indiana, where he ran for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns last season. One red flag for Howard, in addition to his fifth-round pedigree, is the fact that the Indiana offense doesn’t translate well to the NFL.
Then there’s Carey, who could really complicate matters for all the Howard truthers out there. With Forte gone, Carey, the third-year player out of Arizona, is the longest-tenured back with the Bears. He has zero fantasy upside, but has proven himself capable in every situation the Bears have put him in the last two seasons. Remember, this is a team coached by John Fox. Is he more likely to trust Carey, or a 21-year-old rookie who was available on the last day of the draft, especially early in the season?
Langford didn’t blow anyone away last year, but he enters this season as the likely inheritor of Forte’s throne in Chicago. It would take a series of unlikely events in camp for that to change by Week 1.
Broncos QB: Mark Sanchez vs. Trevor Siemian
It would take a lot for Sanchez to lose this competition to Siemian. The veteran is in his eighth season, has started two conference championship games and has had some genuinely impressive stretches of play in his career, though they have been few and far between. The Broncos won the Super Bowl last year on the strength of their defense and, while they lost a few key pieces from that unit, should still be competitive thanks to Von Miller and company. The Broncos need stability from the quarterback position, especially when the pieces around him—Demaryius Thomas, Emmanuel Sanders and C.J. Anderson—are capable of doing a lot of the heavy lifting. Sanchez is clearly more likely to provide that stability.
To be fair, Gary Kubiak has insisted for months that Siemian would have every chance to prove he should be the team’s starter. Whether this is truth or coachspeak remains to be seen, but for now fantasy owners have to keep an eye on the 2015 seventh-round pick out of Northwestern. While he wouldn’t have much fantasy value if he won the job, he’d curb the value of Thomas and Sanders, as well as Anderson to a lesser extent.
Rookie Paxton Lynch will likely get some first-team reps as well, but he’s probably not a realistic starting option, at least until the team has given Sanchez and Siemian a good, long look. Lynch might be the quarterback of the future in Denver, but he’s almost certainly not the team’s quarterback of 2016.