Which backfield battles matter? Where's Watkins's stock? Fantasy experts debate
- Training camp's pivotal RB and QB jobs up for grabs, the Bills' top WR back at full strength, the mystery of Martellus Bennett and more fantasy topics worth arguing over.
Every Friday until the end of fantasy draft season, SI.com fantasy football experts Michael Beller and Pat Fitzmaurice will bat around a number of questions in a quest to help you assemble the best fantasy team possible.
Sammy Watkins says he is close to 100% healthy at the start of camp. (The Bills placed him on the PUP list on Friday.) Where does he slot on your board, and what do you most want to see from him this summer?
Beller: Back in May, I tabbed Watkins as the player who would take the leap to stardom this season. The very next day, it was revealed that he had off-season foot surgery, and that his participation in training camp could be limited. Needless to say, I’m quite happy to hear the latest news on Watkins as the Bills open camp.
It should be clear to all fantasy owners that we can’t simply take a player at his word. Still, this is a great development. His charms are plain to all who watch him play. Watkins has the size, speed and ball skills to be one of the league’s truly elite receivers, which is why he was the first receiver off the board in the same class that included Odell Beckham Jr., Mike Evans, Brandin Cooks and Kelvin Benjamin. He missed three games last year, but still had 60 catches for 1,047 yards and nine touchdowns, going on a 35-catch, 679-yard, six-touchdown binge over the season’s final six games.
The one thing I really want to see from Watkins is consistency. That tripped him up as a rookie, and even the first half of last season was a bit of a roller coaster. He has stability under center in the form of Tyrod Taylor. Week-to-week consistency will turn Watkins into a rock-solid WR1.
Fitz: If Watkins hadn’t broken a bone in his foot in the spring, he’d have cracked my top 10 at receiver. Instead, he is currently WR18 on my board, No. 33 overall. It’s not a particularly aggressive ranking, but I think he’s a nice value late in the third round of a 12-team draft, and he’s a fantastic buy anywhere in the third round or beyond.
All I want to see/hear from him during camp is that his recovery is on schedule. The receiver has nothing to prove in training camp or the preseason; all that matters is the status of his foot in mid-to-late August, at the height of fantasy draft season. If Watkins is healthy, he’ll produce. He proved that during a blistering six-game stretch run last season in which he averaged 5.8 receptions, 113 yards and a touchdown. Watkins just turned 23 but has route-running savvy beyond his years. I think he’ll become a perennial first-rounder in fantasy drafts if he can stay completely healthy for just a couple of seasons.
Which running back battle do you find most interesting?
Beller: Earlier this week, I discussed the Chicago and Baltimore backfields. But for our purposes here, I want to shift my gaze to Jacksonville, where a potential competition is looming under the radar.
The fantasy community seems ready to simply hand the reins to Chris Ivory, whom the Jaguars signed in the off-season. On the surface, it makes plenty of sense. The Jaguars ranked 27th in the league in rushing last season, with T.J. Yeldon running for 740 yards on 182 carries as a rookie. The team looks ready to compete for a playoff spot, with a passing game on the ascent and a retooled defense that now includes rookies Jalen Ramsey and Myles Jack, last year’s third overall pick Dante Fowler, and former Denver defensive end Malik Jackson. A team like that needs a run game to go with it, and Ivory ran for 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns last season. The logic is unassailable.
Can we really be completely sure the Jaguars will simply give Ivory the keys, though? For one thing, this team still wants to throw the ball a lot, which makes sense when your roster includes Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns and Julius Thomas. Yeldon is the best receiver in Jacksonville’s backfield. He’s going to get a lot of work on passing downs.
Last year was Ivory’s first at the controls by himself. He proved he could handle it, but he didn’t share the backfield with a player as talented as Yeldon. Remember, Jacksonville used the 36th pick on Yeldon just one year ago. Are they really going to give up on him after a ho-hum rookie season, one in which his team was behind so often that it never really had a chance to get going on the ground? I don’t think so. I think this has a better chance to be a timeshare than most people in the fantasy community realize, with both players carrying an RB2 ceiling.
Fitz: The Jacksonville, Baltimore and Chicago RB situations are intriguing, but I’m slightly more interested in the Seattle situation. The Seahawks have been extraordinarily run-heavy in recent years, and though they might throw more now that Marshawn Lynch has retired, the ground game is still a big part of the franchise ethos.
Thomas Rawls made a memorable debut last season, but a lot of fantasy owners are wary of him as he comes back from a broken ankle. I think there’s a nice buying opportunity here, and the price might drop even further since Rawls isn’t expected to do much in training camp or the preseason. I actually wouldn’t mind a little ambiguity with regard to Rawls’s recovery, because he’s on my shopping list and I’d like to get him at a bargain price.
I’m not an avid handcuffer by any means, but I’ll probably make an exception if I draft Rawls, as long as there’s a clear No. 2 behind him. It will be interesting to see how the pecking order behind Rawls takes shape. Rookie C.J. Prosise is an obvious candidate for passing-down work because of his WR background at Notre Dame, but he’s such a raw RB prospect. Rookies Alex Collins and Zac Brooks are also in the mix, as is cryptic veteran Christine Michael. (It’s a little bizarre that Michael has been kicking around the league for four years now and we still have no idea whether he’s any good.)
I think Seattle will probably have two fantasy-relevant running backs. Rawls will be one of them if he’s healthy. We’ll soon find out who the other one will be. And obviously, if Rawls has any sort of setback with his ankle, one or two of these other guys will become tremendously valuable.
Who's the one player (non-rookie) you feel you need to see at training camp before you can appropriately slot him on your draft board?
Beller: There’s no player I’ve moved around my rankings more than Kelvin Benjamin. His rookie year sort of got swept away by Odell Beckham Jr. and Mike Evans, but he topped 1,000 yards, scored nine touchdowns and had a score or at least 90 yards in 10 games. Widely viewed as a WR2 last season, Benjamin tore his ACL in training camp, putting him on the shelf for all of 2015.
You likely read somewhere that the Carolina offense flourished in his absence. Cam Newton had the best season of his career. So did Greg Olsen. Ted Ginn Jr. caught 10 touchdowns. On its face, this is great for Benjamin. He’s undoubtedly the most talented receiver on the team and will rightly assume his place at the top of the depth chart. Put a player like that back at Newton’s disposal, and they should be able to pick up right where they left off in 2014, when it appeared they were building what could one day become one of the most lucrative quarterback-receiver relationships in the league.
Still, it’s hard to shake the idea that Carolina is one of the few run-dominant teams in the NFL. Even with Benjamin back, it’s hard to imagine Carolina fundamentally changing the formula that was so successful last season. On top of that, Benjamin still needs to prove that he can do everything he could before the injury. There’s no question that he has top-15 upside at the position. I just want to see him in practice and games before I’ll be comfortable with his placement on my draft board.
Fitz: Martellus Bennett. I’ve been confused about where to put him, and while Bill Belichick isn’t one to tip his hand, I think training camp practices and preseason games will yield some important clues about how the self-anointed “Black Unicorn” fits into the Patriots’ offense.
There’s no on-field comparison to be made between Bennett and former Pats tight end Aaron Hernandez, because Hernandez was a “move” tight end/H-back type, while Bennett is more of a classic two-way tight end. Hernandez paired well with Rob Gronkowski since they had complementary styles. I’m not sure whether that will be the case with Bennett and Gronk, but I’m inclined to bet on Belichick and Tom Brady making it work.
Still, I want to see what happens when the two tight ends get on the field together. If it looks like a good pairing, I might move Bennett into low-TE1 territory. If not, I might drop him down into the low-TE2 range.
The quarterback battles in San Francisco, Denver and Cleveland don't feature fantasy stalwarts, but which one’s result is most important for the other fantasy-relevant players on that roster?
Beller: There are good arguments for San Francisco and Cleveland here. For me, it’s six of one and a half-dozen of the other, and I know my partner is going to hit on the 49ers, so I’ll head on over the unfairly maligned, woefully underrated city of Cleveland.
Robert Griffin III starts camp as the unquestioned favorite to win the gig. You don’t acquire a 26-year-old who went through everything he did in Washington, only to have him face an uphill battle to the starting job. Having said that, the Browns aren’t simply going to hand him everything on a silver platter, and Josh McCown has proven himself, at the very least, competent over the last few seasons. The Browns could easily start the season with McCown under center.
This battle is so intriguing to me because the Browns—yes, those Browns—suddenly have a fun, fantasy-relevant stable of weapons. Josh Gordon is slated to return in Week 5. We can’t be sure what kind of player he is after missing almost all of the last two seasons, but if he’s even 75% of the receiver he was in 2013, he’s going to help this team’s bottom line. Opposite him is Corey Coleman, the first receiver off the board in this year’s draft. Coleman has big time speed, a trait he flashed time and again while racking up 1,363 yards and 20 touchdowns in his last season at Baylor. Gary Barnidge totaled 79 receptions for 1,043 yards and nine scores last year, doing everything teams ask of their pass-catching tight ends in today’s NFL. Finally, Duke Johnson appears to have the chops to be one of the best receiving backs in the league after catching 61 passes for 534 yards as a rookie. The Browns will have already played two games this season before his 23rd birthday.
In short, the winner of the quarterback battle in Cleveland is going to be a sleeper QB2 who could end up being a huge bargain in superflex and two-quarterback leagues. I’ll be paying close attention to Griffin vs. McCown battle this summer.
Fitz: The breakneck pace of Chip Kelly’s offense makes San Francisco an interesting place to mine for nuggets of fantasy gold. Thing is, I think Blaine Gabbert is a big slab of pyrite, and I’m not sure whether any of the 49ers’ pass catchers will be able to produce consistently with Gabbert as the starter. Colin Kaepernick might not be much of an improvement over Gabbert, but I’m fairly certain he’s the better option. I think there’s a good chance that Kap so clearly outplays Gabbo that Kelly makes a change before Week 1.
Gabbert had a handful of decent games last year, but there’s a paucity of evidence that he can be a functional NFL starter. In his brief time in the NFL, Kelly has managed to wring pretty good fantasy numbers out of wet dishrags such as Nick Foles and Mark Sanchez. So maybe I’m wrong, and Gabbert is about to turn in a 4,000-yard season. If it happens, please send someone over to pick up my jaw from off the floor.
But if either Gabbert or Kaepernick can provide a credible performance of quarterback, we could see a big rebound year from WR Torrey Smith, breakthrough years from WR Bruce Ellington and TE Vance McDonald, continued production from passing-down RB Shaun Draughn, and perhaps fantasy-relevant performances from other, more obscure pass catchers. A functional passing game would also help get the most out of lead running back Carlos Hyde.
What's your favorite training camp memory?
Beller: I went to training camp a few times before I was a member of the media, but the visit that really stands out was in the summer of 2007. I had just graduated from college and the Bears were coming off their first trip to the Super Bowl in 21 years. Rex Grossman threw for 3,193 yards and 23 touchdowns against 20 interceptions that year, and was basically treated like Peyton Manning 2.0 in Chicago. That was on full display at the training camp practice I attended.
Every pass Grossman completed was met with a chorus of cheers that would have made the uninitiated believe it was the Super Bowl all over again. A simple out to Muhsin Muhammad? The crowd roars. A nine-route to Bernard Berrian? The crowd roars again. A shot up the seam to first-round pick Greg Olsen? Murmurs that the offense will be unstoppable amid, of course, the roars.
And then the season started. The Bears lost three of their first four games and were never even at .500. Grossman started just seven games. He lost his job to Brian Griese after Week 3, reclaimed it when Griese suffered a shoulder injury, and then lost it again to Kyle Orton with three games left in the season. The lesson? You can learn a lot during training camp, but take all enthusiasm with a grain of salt.
Fitz: The Packers’ bicycle tradition is pretty special, and I feel lucky to have witnessed it in person.
Children line up with their bikes outside Lambeau Field, and as the players emerge from the locker room, each of them borrows a bike to pedal the quarter-mile to the practice field as the kids walk/trot alongside carrying the player’s helmet. Sometimes, kids even squeeze onto the bikes with the players. It’s a ritual that dates back to the Vince Lombardi era, though some have said it goes back even further than that. Players often “adopt” their kids for the entirety of camp and chat with their young squires every day during the short ride.
The image of massive Reggie White smiling ear-to-ear as he pedaled a children’s bicycle will forever be etched upon my memory. Some players willingly clamber onto tiny, uncomfortable-looking bikes because they don’t want the smallest children to be left out. There isn’t a more heartwarming player-fan bonding experience in football. Give me a moment, Beller—I’m getting a little verklempt.