It’s August, which means NFL training camps are in full swing and important depth chart battles are underway. With the fantasy football draft season here, you need the 411 on which camp battles are the most important to monitor in the coming weeks.
To help educate you, the fantasy football fanatic, I'll be researching the most important camp competitions at each of the four major offensive skill positions ahead of 2021 fantasy drafts: quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers, and tight ends.
I’ve already looked at the quarterbacks, so now it’s time for the running backs.
D’Andre Swift vs. Jamaal Williams (Detroit Lions)
This training camp competition is probably not going to determine which running back is most valuable on a week-to-week basis, as Swift and Williams will get a lot of work. Head coach Dan Campbell has called the duo a "one-two punch" and suggested using the “hot hand” approach. That’s not the best news for Swift, who many folks in the fantasy world believed would be a breakout candidate in 2021.
Fantasy fans looking for a better bargain should target Williams, who is being drafted more than 70 spots behind Swift based on draft position data from the Fantasy Football World Championships. That’s a massive gap, especially when Lions OC Anthony Lynn has called Williams, not Swift, a "classic A back." For those who draft Swift, I'd target him as a No. 2 runner in the third or fourth round. But beware, his ceiling isn't great.
Also, keep in mind that the Lions could be one of the worst teams in the NFL, so game script could be unfavorable for the ground attack. Defenses are also unlikely to respect Jared Goff and his receivers, meaning Swift and Williams could see stacked fronts.
James Robinson vs. Travis Etienne (Jacksonville Jaguars)
The battle between Robinson and Etienne could wind up being somewhat similar to Detroit's, as we are unlikely to get a true "winner" in a potential committee. Etienne has been the more popular of the two in fantasy drafts, but the gap in terms of average draft position could get closer as we inch nearer to the start of the regular season.
Robinson was the top rookie running back last year, finishing as the RB7 in 14 games. He saw a true featured role as well, gobbling up a near 40 percent touch share in the offense. Unfortunately, that total is going to decrease significantly with Etienne in the mix. Robinson is guaranteed to see a lesser role in the passing attack, where he saw 60 targets and absorbed 49 of them for 344 yards and three touchdowns in 2020.
With that said, the Jaguars could lean on the run quite a lot with rookie Trevor Lawrence under center. Our Conor Orr points out that head coach Urban Meyer liked to run the ball at Ohio State, and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell made it a point to establish the run during Russell Wilson’s rookie season in Seattle. So, there could be enough work for Robinson and Etienne to have flex starter value during the season.
At this point, I like Etienne slightly more in PPR formats since he's the better of the two pass catchers. However, it wouldn't surprise me if it's Robinson who opens the season atop the depth chart and is the early-down grinder and potential goal-line choice. We’ll learn more as we get deeper into training camp and see the preseason rotation.
Melvin Gordon vs. Javonte Williams (Denver Broncos)
The backfield competition in Denver could end up in a committee situation between the incumbent Gordon and the rookie Williams. Gordon is coming off a disappointing year based on his previous standards in Los Angeles, averaging just 13.2 points per game. That was his lowest total since his rookie season. On a positive note, he did average 4.6 yards per rush and still finished 14th in fantasy points among all running backs.
He'll struggle to reach those totals this season as his 32.5% touch share will experience a decrease with the addition of Williams. Some Broncos beat writers believe Williams will either be the Week 1 starter or lead the team in carries at the season's end. The rookie is also the favorite in the fantasy world, going about two rounds ahead of Gordon in redraft leagues. That's a pretty notable factoid, folks.
Gordon isn't old at 28, and he's told me on my SiriusXM show "Fantasy Dirt" that the addition of Williams will be a motivating factor in 2021. He will compete hard to keep his starting job, but a decline in touches is obvious and inevitable with Williams in the mix. Neither back should be seen as more than a No. 3 fantasy runner in drafts.
Michael Carter vs. Tevin Coleman (New York Jets)
Carter, a rookie out of North Carolina, is one of the most popular sleepers in fantasy drafts. He was bananas good in his final collegiate season, rushing for 1,245 yards and nine touchdowns while averaging eight yards a tote. He did share the touches with his former teammate, Javonte Williams, and Carter isn’t big at 5-foot-8 and 201 pounds.
As I mentioned in my Fantasy Case Against series, rookie running backs at that size have not fared all that well in the past. Still, Carter opened Jets camp running with the first-team offense. That's notable, folks, but it doesn't mean he's going to be a featured back. I would project this to be more of a committee with Carter leading the way.
The UNC product’s versatile skill set makes him attractive in PPR formats, and the fact that he has lesser competition than Etienne or Williams will push him into the flex starter conversation. I have him ranked closely with both of those backs at this point. I do think Coleman is still worth a late-round flier as a No. 5 fantasy back, as he knows the offense and will no doubt compete for the top spot (or at least a secondary role).
Raheem Mostert vs. Trey Sermon (San Francisco 49ers)
The Niners backfield is likely to be led by Mostert to open the season, but there is plenty of hype around the rookie, Sermon. Mostert has shown some flashes of brilliance over the last two seasons, but he did miss half of 2020 due to injuries. He's 100 percent back as we head into the preseason, and his touch share should be enough to keep him in the flex starter conversation while Jeffery Wilson Jr. (knee) is held out of action.
Mostert will ultimately need to avoid the trainer’s room to hold of Sermon, who is the favorite to be second on the depth chart ahead of Wayne Gallman. One of the top collegiate backs in 2020, Sermon rushed for 870 yards and four touchdowns in eight games for Ohio State. He's a popular mid to late-round pick in high-stakes leagues.
Niners coach Kyle Shanahan hasn't put a running back into a true featured role since 2017 when Carlos Hyde had a 39 percent touch share. Since then, the top backs per season have been Matt Breida (24 percent), Tevin Coleman (19.1 percent), and Wilson (17.2 percent). With Mostert, Sermon, Gallman, and Wilson (at some point in the year) all in the mix, that committee outlook is likely once again unless injuries occur.
If you're looking for the best back in this committee, it's Mostert. He'll be on the radar as a flex starter. Sermon would be the Niners back to target if you're looking for an upside option in the middle to late rounds. I would temper expectations for both.
Chase Edmonds vs. James Conner (Arizona Cardinals)
Edmonds has been receiving almost all of the hype out of the Cardinals backfield. Some beat writers believe he's the favorite to be the team's top back heading into the regular season. That makes Edmonds the Cardinals runner to target in drafts.
Or does it?
Edmonds is coming off the board around 30 spots ahead of Conner, who will undoubtedly see enough work to be in the flex starter conversation if a committee emerges. In 2020, coach Kliff Kingsbury gave Kenyan Drake around 31 percent of the touches, with Edmonds getting 17.3 percent. While I’d expect Edmonds’ share to rise maybe into the mid to high 20s, Kingsbury could also use Conner to fill the Drake role this season. In that scenario, if he’s able to avoid injuries, Conner could become the better bargain.
Edmonds has a higher ceiling in an offense that should be one of the league’s most explosive. Of course, he’s also never had more than 100 carries in a single season in his career. We should learn a lot about this backfield in the preseason.
Damien Harris vs. Sony Michel (New England Patriots)
I'm not sure there's a competition here for the top spot on the depth chart, as Harris is the odds-on favorite when we look at ADP data. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has also said Harris "has an opportunity to really compete for the lead spot." So as long as he doesn't falter in camp or the preseason, Harris figures to be the early-down option.
With James White already locked in as the backfield's lead pass-catcher once again this season, Michel and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson will be battling for the second spot in the rotation. There's been some chatter that Michel is no lock even to make the team’s final roster, making him worth no more than a late-round flier at best this summer.
If Michel does miss the final cuts, Stevenson will have late-round appeal in redraft leagues. That scenario would also be great for Harris, who could push for RB2 value.
Ronald Jones vs. Leonard Fournette (Tampa Bay Buccaneers)
Fournette's spectacular performance in the Buccaneers postseason run and eventual Super Bowl win could make some fantasy managers expect more of the same in 2021. However, I don't think that will be the case as coach Bruce Arians has already said he'll split the workload with Ronald Jones.
Last season, RoJo earned a 28.2 percent touch share while Fournette was around 17 percent. We could see more of the same, but the addition of Giovani Bernard means fewer targets for both Fournette and Jones in 2021.
This backfield is one to avoid unless you’re able to land Jones as a fourth runner. In that scenario, he could bring back some standalone flex value. But outside of one of these two backs missing time due to injuries, neither will be a reliable, starting option.
"The Fantasy Case Against" Series
Justin Herbert | Jalen Hurts | Zach Wilson (Dynasty) | Alvin Kamara | Darrell Henderson | Derrick Henry | Michael Carter | David Montgomery | Saquon Barkley | D’Andre Swift | Brandon Aiyuk | Ja'Marr Chase | Julio Jones | Justin Jefferson | Kenny Golladay | Kyle Pitts | Travis Kelce
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!