Aaron Medvidofsky discusses which preseason position battles to watch.
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NFL rosters can change drastically from year to year and with that change comes opportunity. The preseason is when players on the cusp of a starting role get to make their case for the job. Competition is a great motivator and many smart coaches will leave these decisions up in the air for much of the preseason to see what they really have in their new and veteran players. Here are the preseason position battles worth keeping an eye on that could have a big impact on fantasy.
Miami Dolphins – Running Back
Jay Ajayi vs Arian Foster
For much of the offseason, it looked like Ajayi was going to have the Miami backfield all to himself. To say that the mid-July signing of Foster muddied the waters is a massive understatement. We are now looking at a backfield that could go to either player or end up as an ugly committee that keeps either from becoming a true asset for your fantasy team.
Both players are going to have a role in this offense, but Foster is the running back I’m targeting in drafts. Adam Gase has made it clear that he would prefer to have a three-down back, and I just didn’t see that skill set in Ajayi during his lackluster rookie season. At anything close to full effectiveness Foster would be an every-week fantasy starter as long as he can stay healthy.
Buffalo Bills – Running Back
Reggie Bush vs Mike Gillislee vs Karlos Williams
The clear-cut starter in Buffalo is LeSean McCoy, but there is quite a crowded backfield vying for the No. 2 spot behind him. The Bills will run the ball more than most teams in the NFL which will means that, even without an injury, there will be fantasy value for whoever wins that role. Had Karlos Williams not come into camp out of shape and gotten himself subsequently suspended this wouldn’t even be a debate, but that will certainly have an impact on his standing in the offense, even when he does return.
Mike Gillislee should start the season with primary backup duties and has a good shot at retaining them if he impresses in the first four weeks. If you like to handcuff your running backs or are just looking for a late-round lottery ticket you should start the season with Gillislee and keep an eye on Williams’ conditioning as his reinstatement gets closer.
Denver Broncos – Quarterback
Mark Sanchez vs Trevor Siemian vs Paxton Lynch
Gary Kubiak has been playing it close to the vest when it comes to his stable of quarterbacks this season. They have all been getting a similar amount of reps in practice and each has had their performance fluctuate over time. For fantasy purposes, this isn’t a battle to see which quarterback you will be starting, but rather one to determine who will be throwing Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders the ball.
I would be absolutely shocked if Sanchez wasn’t under center to start the season. The Broncos have a legitimate shot at a repeat Super Bowl victory, and they aren’t going to want to take chances with a rookie or an inexperienced player. While Sanchez is far from perfect he has the most experience and should function well in a game-manager role that will focus on clock management and eliminating turnovers above all else.
San Francisco 49ers – Quarterback
Blaine Gabbert vs Colin Kaepernick
The competition between Gabbert and Kaepernick doesn’t appear to have an end in sight and could play out right up to the start of the regular season. Both players have issues that they need to overcome. Gabbert has been struggling with accuracy, while Kaepernick struggles when pressured. Preseason play may be the biggest deciding factor in who starts the season in an offense that could produce fantasy numbers from even the most mediocre of quarterbacks.
Gabbert appears to be the best fit based on Chip Kelly’s offense and the deficiencies in the 49ers’ offensive line. Gabbert is far more effective in making quick decisions under pressure which will be a key component of the offensive scheme. The offensive line won’t be doing their quarterback any favors which only further solidifies Gabbert as he has one of the faster release times in the NFL. This should mean an efficient, high-volume passing game that will reap rewards not only for Gabbert but for Carlos Hyde and the wide receivers as well.
Baltimore Ravens – Running Back
Justin Forsett vs Javorius Allen vs Terrance West vs Kenneth Dixon
The four names listed above only make up two-thirds of the Ravens crowded backfield. Despite Forsett’s previous success as a starter, there is considerable buzz coming out of camp around West and Dixon. It’s also easy to forget Allen’s contributions in the receiving game when called upon last year.
Forsett should open the regular season as the starter and he will keep that role if he performs up to his previous levels of production. He doesn’t get much recognition for it, but Forsett is a capable pass catcher with at least 30 receptions in each of his previous two seasons (and one was cut very short due to injury). Forsett has an outside shot at putting up RB1 numbers with a price tag well below where it should be in most drafts.
Washington Redskins – Wide Receiver
Josh Doctson or Pierre Garcon
The Redskins used a first-round pick to grab Doctson, making it apparent that they envision a role for him in their future. Garcon’s pedestrian year in 2015 led many to believe he was on the roster bubble, and it isn’t hard to picture him getting pushed down to the third wide receiver slot. These two make up part of what could be a surprisingly potent passing offense this year.
Garcon should retain his role in two wide receiver sets, at least to start the season. The transition to the NFL can be tough for rookie wide receivers, and Dotson is going to be hampered by an Achilles injury that may keep him out of preseason action entirely. Garcon can be drafted as a safe floor, low-ceiling WR3 this year.
New Orleans Saints – Wide Receiver
Willie Snead vs Michael Thomas
There’s a lot of upside to go around in an offense that is always a threat to eclipse 5,000 yards through the air. Looking to benefit from that upside are two young players vying for the No. 2 role behind Brandin Cooks. Snead performed extremely well last year, falling just short of the 1,000-yard mark in his rookie campaign. The advantage for Thomas is his more prototypical size which could complement the smaller Cooks well.
Snead showed too much in actual NFL action for him to be usurped by the rookie right away. Both of these players will see plenty of time on the field, but Snead should retain his role and the chemistry he built with Drew Brees. Both players should be worth owning at their current ADP with Snead coming in as a WR3 with upside.
Detroit Lions – Wide Receiver
Golden Tate vs Marvin Jones
The theory is that someone (or a committee of someones) has to fill Calvin Johnson‘s shoes, with Tate and Jones being the most obvious benefactors. Tate has shown that he can produce for the Lions while Jones has measurables that would seem to give him an advantage.
Tate is my clear choice to lead the Lions’ wide receivers this year. Despite his non-prototypical size he has shown that he is simply a great football player that can generate significant yards after the catch. Expect Stafford to get the ball into his hands around 100 times this year which could put him in the 1,200-yard range.