6 Training Camp Battles With Fantasy Football Implications
We’ve made it, everyone. Football is here -- at least the beginning of it.
Some teams have already opened up training camps and every team will open up camp by July 29th. Training camps can be for getting acquainted with new teammates and learning the playbook, but they’re also the start of position battles that will result in a starter for the regular season.
There’s always more than enough of these to keep any observer busy, but here is a list of six fantasy-relevant position battles to watch.
Quarterback: Denver Broncos
The Denver Broncos have a great defense and two talented wide receivers. Neither of those things really mattered last season because the quarterback situation wasn’t great. Not much has changed there -- unless you’re someone who believes in the talent of Chad Kelly -- but there’s a hope that a second straight training camp battle between Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch will go better than round one.
Siemian won the job last season, but was a below-average starter by Net Expected Points (NEP). His 0.06 Passing NEP per drop back was ranked 26th among 39 quarterbacks who dropped back at least 100 times and was below the 0.09 average among that group. Lynch was worse. In a small sample of just 92 drop backs, Lynch had a Passing NEP per drop back of 0.02.
While both took a hit in yards, Thomas’ numbers were mostly similar with both quarterbacks, while Sanders was much better with Siemian under center. Per the RotoViz Splits tool, Sanders had a 236-point PPR pace with Siemian but just 170 with Lynch, while Thomas was at 229 and 224, respectively. It's a small sample with Lynch in his rookie year, but still perhaps for that reason Thomas (3.09) is going four rounds ahead of Sanders (7.10) in standard 12-team leagues, per Fantasy Football Calculator.
Running Back: Seattle Seahawks
Lacy was heavily scrutinized with the Green Bay Packers last season, but he also finished 10th in Rushing NEP per attempt among 60 running backs with at least 70 carries. Rawls was second behind only David Johnson in Rushing NEP per attempt among backs with 100 or more carries in 2015, but injuries derailed his 2016 season. In Prosise’s brief rookie stint, he looked like a potential gamebreaker.
Seattle did little to improve a bad offensive line that helped produce the 23rd-best running team by Adjusted Rushing NEP per play last year. A healthier Russell Wilson could also help, but the back who sees the most time -- by ADP that’s projected to be Lacy (5.09), followed by Rawls (9.07), then Prosise (11.04) -- might have to create on his own more often than not.
Guard: New York Giants and Los Angeles Chargers
Most of the focus for a running game in fantasy typically comes from the running backs, but there are many cases where the offense line should be looked at more closely. These are two of those cases.
Struggles from the New York Giants running the ball last season came from a mixture of the running backs -- Rashad Jennings and Paul Perkins -- and the offensive line. The key for the Giants, though, is to improve the middle of the line, though two spots are already set with Justin Pugh at left guard and Weston Richburg at center. The starter at right guard will be important because New York had the second-highest percentage of runs last season between the guards (68 percent). Only the Oakland Raiders had more (75 percent) and they’re pretty set at guard. This isn’t new for head coach Ben McAdoo and the Giants, either. They were third (66 percent) in 2015.
The Los Angeles Chargers drafted guards in the second and third round of April’s draft, but they’ll have to beat out veterans Matt Slauson and Kenny Wiggins. The Chargers were also a run-heavy team up the middle in 2016 (67 percent, third in the league), but Melvin Gordon didn’t see too much success with that strategy -- he finished 14th in Rushing NEP per attempt among 19 backs with 200 or more carries and 17th in Success Rate.
Just having enough depth could be a big improvement along the Chargers' offensive line after the injuries they’ve seen over the past few seasons.
Wide Receiver: Buffalo Bills
For the Buffalo Bills' passing game, there’s Sammy Watkins and not much else. Watkins is a big question mark himself with an injury-riddled career thus far, and rookie Zay Jones looks to be the leader for the second spot on the depth chart, but the thing about that spot is the pass catcher occupying it has frequently had to move up top.
Robert Woods had been that number-two receiver and while he had a 91-target full-season pace in games in which Watkins played, that was bumped up to a 117-target pace in 10 games without Watkins. Players behind Jones on the Buffalo depth chart include Andre Holmes, Philly Brown, and Rod Streater. Whoever emerges from that role could see time as the third receiver, though last season Buffalo had the third-fewest plays with three or more receivers on the field.
More importantly, though, that player could immediately become a cheap second receiver if Watkins gets hurt again. If no one steps up, Jones, who racked up 221 targets for East Carolina last season, could become a one-man show.
Running Back: New England Patriots
There’s probably never going to be a “winner” in the backfield for the New England Patriots, but hopefully, training camp can start to give hints about how each player will be used. Both new additions, Mike Gillislee and Rex Burkhead, were super efficient in 2016. Gillislee led all backs with 100-plus carries in Rushing NEP per attempt, and if you bump that threshold down to 70, Burkhead was third.
In fantasy drafts right now, Gillislee is going well before the rest of the New England backfield (4.10). James White (11.12) is currently going ahead of Burkhead (13.09), who is just ahead of Dion Lewis (13.11).
Trying to figure out head coach Bill Belichick’s running back usage on a week-to-week basis can be a fool’s errand, and trying to figure out the entire upcoming season would be impossible. There’s a chance, though, with this being the most talented Patriots backfield in quite some time, maybe some roles will be better defined.
Maybe, just maybe, we start to see that in training camps this month.