AFC Position Battles to Monitor (2019 Fantasy Football)
I view the first day of the fantasy football season to be at the end of the NFL Draft. The NFL season technically kicked off on the first day of the league year back on March 13. However, that is too early for fantasy football owners to plan for the season because even after the major free agents signed and blockbuster trades were made, there were too many unknown variables. We had no idea what the NFL schedule looked like. We found that out right before the NFL Draft.
We had no idea what draft picks were going to be added to the mix, and we know that now. We had no idea what undrafted free agents were going to be targeted after the draft, most of those players have now signed with NFL teams. We finally have an idea of what the NFL rosters are going to potentially look like in 2019.
That knowledge now allows us to make our first true projections about where players are going to fit into the fantasy landscape this year. There are some players that we know are going to be stars. They were star players last year, in the prime of their NFL career and their teams added no true competition in the NFL Draft.
There are other players that are not on as solid ground after the NFL Draft. They may be the starter in name now, but that will not matter once training camp arrives. There will be position battles that leave veteran players looking for work and unknown rookies or young players thrust into starting roles.
I am going to have two articles up this month that talk about some of the big position battles around the league. This one is on the AFC position battles and the other one will be on the NFC position battles. Here are the battles to watch that could have major ramifications for fantasy owners this fall in the AFC.
1) New England Patriots WR – Demaryius Thomas vs. N’Keal Harry
The Patriots were not a traditional passing offense last year because of all the issues they had at wide receiver. Their most targeted players were RB James White (123 targets), WR Julian Edelman (108 targets), and TE Rob Gronkowski (72 targets). They just did not have the firepower at wide receiver on the outside.
Edelman was their leading receiver from the slot position and he was suspended for four games to start the season. They appear poised to change that this year and they added two very similar players, Thomas in free agency and Harry in the first round of the NFL Draft.
Thomas is a big receiver at 6’3″ and 229 pounds. He is coming off an Achilles injury, so there is a possibility that he will not be ready in Week 1 and he could start the season off on the PUP List. He does have 688 career receptions for 9,330 yards and 62 career touchdowns, so there is no arguing with his ability when he is on the field healthy.
Harry is 6’2″ and 228 pounds. He is also a bigger receiver that can play on the outside and be a red zone threat. He topped 1,000 yards receiving each of the last two seasons at Arizona State and he scored 17 combined touchdowns in 2017 and 2018.
My bet is on Harry earning the starting job over Thomas and WR Phillip Dorsett, but New England is all about situational football. His production could be great one week and nonexistent the next. If Harry struggles with route running or drops early in the season, there could be an opening for Thomas when he is healthy.
The two receivers are of almost identical builds and skill sets. It does not seem likely that they both have a significant role in this offense in the second half of the season. The smart money is on Harry being an impact rookie and Thomas struggling to recover from that Achilles injury, but nothing is ever certain in New England. Thomas has had enough success in the NFL. If he is healthy, he could make it very hard for Harry to earn or keep that starting job for the entire season.
2) Buffalo Bills RB – LeSean McCoy vs. Devin Singletary
A lot of people were curious about what the Bills were doing this offseason about their running back situation. It was clear they needed to have a backup plan for a running back entering his age-31 season. McCoy has been one of the best running backs in the NFL over the last decade, but he had only 752 yards from scrimmage last year as he battled injuries and played on a bad roster. Another year past 30 years old is not going to make it easy for him to rebound this year. He could just be past his prime years and only be a situational player at this point.
The Bills have a number of options behind McCoy. They signed soon to be 36-year-old RB Frank Gore this offseason. He had 722 yards rushing for the Miami Dolphins last year and appears to have more left in his tank than McCoy at this point. They signed former Jacksonville RB T.J. Yeldon. He never could develop into a featured back, but he had 55 receptions for 487 yards last year and he could emerge as a third-down running back.
They still have RB Marcus Murphy on the roster coming off a career-high 250 yards rushing last year. Now they have added Singleton to the roster. He was a force in three years at Florida Atlantic, tallying 4,684 yards from scrimmage and 67 touchdowns in just 38 games.
I think it became more clear what they were doing signing all these veteran running backs when they finally added a running back in the third round to bring everything together. What this selection of Singletary in the third round tells me is that there is a real possibility that the Bills could release McCoy before Week 1 and save approximately $6.4 million this season. There is always that big name player that becomes a free agent between the end of training camp and the start of the regular season, and the Bills may decide that this is a new era and that McCoy is part of their past, not their future.
I think their comfort in making that move is going to come down to how good Singletary looks in the offseason. The stronger his performance, the more likely they move on from McCoy. The other backs are not good enough to be featured running backs, but if Singletary is the starter, they are more than capable of being a change of pace mentor (Gore) and a third-down back (Yeldon). A running back taken on day two of the NFL Draft was the final missing piece that would allow them to move on from McCoy this year, and they now have that in place with Singleton.
3) Baltimore Ravens RB – Mark Ingram vs. Gus Edwards
I think there is just an assumption that Ingram is going to walk into Baltimore and touch the ball 15 to 20 times per game and be a fantasy force on one of the most run-oriented offenses in the NFL. That very well could end up being the case, but keep in mind that Ingram is turning 30 years old this year and the Ravens only signed him to a three-year deal worth $15 million. That is similar to the deal the Minnesota Vikings gave RB Latavius Murray and he ended up being the backup that season to rookie RB Dalvin Cook. There is no guarantee Ingram wins that job and he has had some injury issues in the past. That backfield could be a fluid situation this year.
Edwards averaged 93 rushing yards per game over the final seven games of the 2018 season and his worst rushing total in that span was 67 yards. I think to just assume he is going to receive only five carries per game this year is very risky given how productive he was last year. Ingram had only 67 yards or more rushing in two of his 12 regular season games last year. There is also RB Kenneth Dixon, who averaged 55.5 yards rushing per game in six games last year and the Ravens also used their 113th pick on Oklahoma State RB Justice Hill.
Hill was a productive player that had 3,539 yards rushing in his career and he tallied the No. 2 SPARQ score among running backs at the NFL Combine, which put him in the 95th percentile. Hill was a true freshman when he beat out Chris Carson for the starting job at Oklahoma State and Carson had 1,151 rushing yards and nine rushing touchdowns last year for the Seattle Seahawks. Hill has already beaten out a quality NFL player when he was in college. To just assume Hill will amount to nothing more than a camp body and special teams player as a rookie is selling his abilities short.
I do believe that Ingram is the favorite to be the starter this year, but I think he could see closer to 12-15 carries per game as the Ravens go with a committee approach with several capable running backs on an offense that will run the ball more than any team in the league with run-oriented QB Lamar Jackson. There is no reason to give Ingram the ball 15-20 times with that many quality running backs on the roster and too many people make the assumption that established veterans will always dominate the touches over the unknown rookie. Every season we see examples of veterans being phased out by rookies and the Baltimore running back situation is one of the deepest in the NFL and deserves to be monitored this offseason.
4) Pittsburgh Steelers WR – James Washington vs. Diontae Johnson
I think there was been a premature anointing of Washington as the starting receiver in Pittsburgh opposite of WR JuJu Smith-Schuster. Washington was the 60th pick in the 2018 NFL Draft and he had 16 receptions for 217 yards and one touchdown as a rookie wide receiver. He was targeted only 38 times on a passing offense that featured WR Antonio Brown and Smith-Schuster. Now that Brown is in Oakland, there is an assumption that Washington is the next man up in Pittsburgh and he will automatically become a productive starter this year.
Washington has the inside track to the starting job, but he does not have a guaranteed role. His advantage is having a year under his belt in the NFL, a year of chemistry with QB Ben Roethlisberger, and a year of experience with the playbook. Keep in mind that Johnson was the 66th pick in this year’s draft, so he only went six picks later than Washington went last year and Johnson had 137 receptions for 2,276 yards and 24 touchdowns in two years with Toledo. He also is an electric returner, averaging 19.9 yards per punt return and scoring a pair of touchdowns on both the punt team and the kickoff return team. He is a player that can create yards and big plays in space and should not be relegated to the third or fourth receiver position before training camp even starts.
Roethlisberger had a monster season last year with 5,129 yards passing, 34 passing touchdowns, and 16 interceptions. There is plenty of room for every player in this offense to have a role. I think they want to focus on the run more this year too, they added RB Benny Snell with the 122nd pick. He should give them a change of pace behind starting RB James Conner and backup RB Jaylen Samuels. There is plenty of room for new stars to emerge with Brown now in Oakland and a Hall of Fame quarterback still on the roster. There is a lot of work to do between now and the regular season and Washington has to earn that job before he is considered a viable fantasy option.
5) Oakland Raiders RB – Doug Martin vs. Josh Jacobs
I am more worried about the timeshare than I am about Jacobs winning the job. Jacobs was a first round pick. The only real competition for the starting job was RB Isaiah Crowell and that competition ended when Crowell tore his Achilles’ on May 01. He is lost for the season and that means that an RBBC of Martin, Jalen Richard, DeAndre Washington, and Chris Warren. Martin was just added after the Crowell injury and had 172 rushing attempts for 723 yards, and four rushing touchdowns for the Raiders last year. He knows this offense and he has had success in the league, so he could carve out a role with the Raiders this year.
Jacobs played three years at Alabama and he tallied only 251 rushing attempts and 48 receptions. He had only two games with more than 15 carries and only six games with more than 10 carries. His career high in rushing yards was 100 yards and he had only six games with more than 80 yards. Conversely, he had 14 games with less than 20 yards rushing.
Jacobs was a first-round pick based on his physical ability, playing for a strong program like Alabama that had many talented running backs, and his strong 2018 SEC Championship Game and Orange Bowl performances at the end of the season. My question is can this guy really handle 15-20 carries per game as a rookie? There is a huge difference between running eight times per game on one of the best offenses in the NCAA versus running the ball 15 to 20 times at the NFL level on one of the weakest rosters in the NFL.
Keep in mind that when Dallas drafted RB Ezekiel Elliott to be their bell-cow back in 2016, he at least had shown he could handle 273 and 289 carries at Ohio State in back-to-back years. Jacobs did not have 273 carries in his entire career. Nobody really cares if Jacobs is the starter, but if he runs the ball nine times per game with Richard handling all of the third down and passing situations and the other running backs sprinkling in a few carries per game. Jacobs needs to see 15-20 carries per game to realize his fantasy football potential, not 8-10 carries.
I have no doubt Jacobs will win the starting role, but I want to see what the timeshare is going to look like coming out of training camp. I want to see if Martin still has anything left in the tank and how much of a role Richard is going to have on third down and passing situations. I would not just assume that because Jacobs was a first round pick he will be a bell cow back in his rookie season like Elliott or some of the other first round picks taken in recent years. Jacobs has not been asked to do that since high school. It might be too much of a workload for him to handle in his rookie season.
Other AFC Battles to Watch
Miami Dolphins QB – Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Josh Rosen
Neither will be a top-20 fantasy quarterback, but starting quarterback is an important position and impacts the entire roster. Expect both players to take snaps this year with the Dolphins doing everything they can to make Rosen the Week 1 starter. Him becoming a productive starter would be the best outcome for the other Miami skill position players.
Denver Broncos QB – Joe Flacco vs. Drew Lock
Lock was expected to go in the first round, but fell to day two and he was the 42nd pick. There will not be as much pressure on Lock to play this year with him having gone in the second round. Flacco should easily win this job in training camp, so the big question is whether the Broncos make a change during the season if Flacco is struggling and they are losing games. I would expect both players to take regular season snaps this year.
Kansas City Chiefs WR – Sammy Watkins vs. Mecole Hardman
There is a huge void in the Kansas City offense with the legal problems for WR Tyreek Hill. Hill is still a Chief, but that could change before the start of the season and Hill seems very unlikely to play football in the NFL this year. Watkins has an extensive injury history and was not a star with the Chiefs last year. There is an opportunity for Hardman to win the battle for the featured receiver in the explosive Chiefs passing game.
Houston Texans RB – Lamar Miller vs. D’Onta Foreman
Miller is in the final year of his contract and Foreman is now in his third year. There really is no viable third option on the roster, so I expect Miller to win the job, but Foreman to push him for carries. They could both have fantasy value this year and if Foreman outproduces Miller early in the season, the Texans could make a change with Miller in a contract year and unlikely to be back with the team in 2020.
Cleveland Browns RB – Nick Chubb vs. Kareem Hunt
There is not much mystery in who will be the lead back in the first eight games, because Hunt will be suspended and ineligible to play in games. The battle begins in Week 10 at home against the Buffalo Bills. Will Chubb handle the lead role with Hunt being the third-down running back? How many touches will Hunt vulture? Is their room for them to both be productive fantasy players?
Some of that will be answered in training camp and Chubb can seal the deal by being extremely productive in the first eight games. The Browns are unlikely to take away carries from Chubb if he is dominating the NFL. In that case, Hunt is likely to be a third-down and change-of-pace back with Chubb still seeing 15-20 carries per game and most of the goal-line work. It is a situation to monitor, as both are capable of being top-10 fantasy running backs if given the bell-cow back role.