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NFC Position Battles to Monitor (2019 Fantasy Football)

May 4, 2019

When will the Giants fully move on from Eli Manning?

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 NFC position battles and the other one will be on the AFC position battles. Here are the battles to watch that could have major ramifications for fantasy owners this fall in the NFC.

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1) New York Giants QB – Eli Manning vs. Daniel Jones
Even though they used the sixth overall pick on Jones, the Giants still seem to think Manning is part of their future. New York Giants GM Dave Gettleman made a comment after the NFL Draft that the Giants may wait as long as three years to replace Manning with Jones, similar to what the Green Bay Packers did in the 2005-2007 seasons with Aaron Rodgers when they still had Brett Favre. Manning has a record as the starting quarterback of 8-23 over the last two seasons and his Giants have qualified for the postseason only once in the last seven seasons, when they lost to the Green Bay Packers in the Wild Card Round in the 2016 postseason. Manning’s ESPN Total QBR the last three years is 45.7 in 2016, 47.5 in 2017, and 51.6 in 2018, placing him outside of the top-20 all three seasons in a league with only 32 teams.

The Giants can compare this to the Packers from 2005-2007 all they want, but Favre was an elite quarterback with great arm talent stuck on a bad roster. Manning is a quarterback holding back the Giants’ roster because he does not have the arm talent to be a quality quarterback anymore. Rodgers was also the 24th pick in that draft that fell to Green Bay unexpectedly and required a two-year process of reworking his throwing motion. Jones was the sixth pick in the NFL Draft and he should not need three years to beat out one of the bottom-tier quarterbacks in the NFL if he was worth that selection.

Every snap that Manning takes this year is robbing them of their future and the only way Manning should start the season is if Jones is not ready to take over as the starter. The Giants need to just cut the cord and move on from Manning rather than this awkward dance they are doing of trying to rebuild their franchise while still refusing to move on from a veteran quarterback that is not good enough to make them a Super Bowl contender. Jones should win this position battle, but the Giants may not be willing to move in that direction after training camp.

I am fascinated to watch how stubborn the Giants will be in the preseason to move on from Manning. Jones as the starter would still be an uncertainty, but he would give a lot more upside to WR Sterling Shepard, WR Golden Tate, and TE Evan Engram. We have seen what Manning has done to this offense the last few years and it has not been pretty to watch.

2) Washington Redskins QB – Case Keenum vs. Dwayne Haskins
Unlike Manning, Keenum is not a two-time Super Bowl MVP that has spent his entire career with Washington and is one of the best quarterbacks in their franchise history. He was not even on their roster last year and he is now on his fifth franchise of his career and his third franchise in the last three years. While he did help lead the Minnesota Vikings to the NFC Championship Game in 2017, they were so impressed with him that they allowed him to sign in free agency with Denver in 2018. Denver had seen enough after one year to trade down in the 2020 draft to have Washington take over his contract. Washington did not even need to see Keenum play a single game to know they needed to use their 15th pick on Haskins.

The only reason Washington traded for Keenum is that QB Alex Smith is likely going to miss the entire 2020 season with a broken leg and backup QB Colt McCoy has undergone three surgeries on his broken leg and he may not play this season. Keenum is a veteran insurance policy in case nobody else in the building can play quarterback. Washington has nothing invested in this veteran beyond this season and they do not have any reason to make him the starter if he does not significantly outperform in training camp.

Unless Haskins is unable to read defenses or his mechanics need work from the backup position, this is Haskins’ job to lose. Haskins had 4,831 yards passing, 50 passing touchdowns, and only eight interceptions for Ohio State last year. If he can bring that consistency to the position at the NFL level and impress in training camp, he should emerge as the starter and he should be a huge fantasy boost for his teammates. Keenum would be an anchor on Washington’s other fantasy players. Haskins is the one that needs to win this job for the offense to reach its potential.

3) Chicago Bears RB – Mike Davis vs. David Montgomery
Similar to 2018, I still believe that RB Tarik Cohen is going to be the most productive fantasy running back on the Bears roster in the 2019 season. Cohen had only 99 rushing attempts last year, but he was the 13th-ranked running back in half-point PPR leagues. Cohen only had 444 rushing yards, but the reason he was the 13th-ranked running back is he had 71 receptions for 725 yards. He also scored eight total touchdowns. Cohen is still going to see a significant role in their passing game and he is the Bears’ running back to own as their most explosive and exciting offensive player.

The question is who will be the Bears’ second running back. Last year, RB Jordan Howard had 250 rushing attempts for 935 yards and nine rushing touchdowns. He was the 20th-ranked running back in half-point PPR, so there is going to be enough touches to make the Bears’ leader in rushing attempts a viable fantasy option. The two backs that have been pegged to replace Howard are Davis and Montgomery. Davis had 728 yards from scrimmage and five touchdowns while playing in an RBBC in Seattle. Montgomery had 257 rushing attempts for 1,216 yards and 13 touchdowns in college with Iowa State.

Montgomery should be the favorite to earn this starting role, as the Bears traded up in the third round to take him and the Bears head coach Matt Nagy embraced the comparisons to Cleveland Browns RB Kareem Hunt. However, Davis has been in the league for four years and will probably understand NFL pass protection better at this point in his career and he is coming off his best season in Seattle. This is a position battle to watch, the winner could have RB3 value with RB2 upside.

I would tend to favor the rookie in this position battle, as the Bears did not have many draft picks this year and they traded up to take Montgomery. That is an early sign that they want him to win this job this year, but pass protection ability can be a big factor in teams feeling comfortable going with a rookie running back. Montgomery needs to excel in that area if he wants to carve out a big role with the Bears in 2019.

4) Philadelphia Eagles RB – Jordan Howard vs. Miles Sanders
I thought Howard would have a chance to be a productive player this year in Philadelphia. However, I also understand that NFL teams do not take a running back with the 53rd overall pick in the NFL Draft and have him automatically sit behind the starting running back that they traded a 2020 sixth-round pick to acquire. Howard was brought into to give them a reliable veteran option, but his contract is paying him only $2,025,000 this year and the Eagles have no obligation to pay him any future money, as he is a free agent at the end of the year. The Eagles just do not have enough invested in Howard to automatically make Sanders a spectator this year.

The problem with the Eagles in fantasy football is they have a very crowded backfield. Their leading running back last year was RB Josh Adams and he had only 511 yards rushing and they had four running backs make starts last year. That trend could continue this year. Sanders could just be another player in a frustrating RBBC that allows any running back to have a big game and any running back to be held to just two carries and no role in that particular game.

Sanders is a tremendous physical talent. He ran his 40-yard dash in 4.49 seconds and he had a 36″ vertical jump and he benched 225 lb. 20 times. He is a great blend of speed and power that was stuck behind RB Saquon Barkley at Penn State until the 2018 season. He responded with 1,413 yards from scrimmage and nine touchdowns last year.

While he clearly is not as good as Barkley, Sanders has a ton of talent and a second-round selection means the Eagles plan on using him in their offense this year if he is up to the task. Howard has to be the favorite to earn the starting job at this point, but a lot can change in training camp. This is definitely a position battle to monitor for fantasy owners.

5) San Francisco 49ers Running Backs and Wide Receivers
I do not think there is another roster in the NFL that requires as much monitoring as the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers had a lost season when their two stars on offense were lost for the 2018 season. It started when free agent RB Jerick McKinnon tore his ACL in practice right before the start of the regular season. The season imploded in Week 3 when QB Jimmy Garoppolo was lost for the season with an ACL tear against the Kansas City Chiefs. What followed were 13 games of wide receivers trying to prove themselves with backup quarterbacks and backup running backs trying to fight for a chance to lead the RBBC in San Francisco.

That has created a lot of intrigue at both their running back and wide receiver positions. McKinnon no longer is the undisputed lead back. Matt BreidaRaheem Mostert, and Jeff Wilson all showed flashes while filling in for him last year and they also signed RB Tevin Coleman as a free agent. The smart money is on Breida and Coleman splitting the early down work and McKinnon being their third-down running back, but there will be no way to know that until training camp answers some of those questions. This is a very fluid running back situation.

There is also some uncertainty at receiver. WR Dante Pettis looked to be their featured receiver last year with 27 receptions for 467 yards and five touchdowns. However, that is selling WR Marquise Goodwin short, who had no quarterback on the roster to hit him with the deep pass and he finished with 23 receptions for 395 yards and four touchdowns. They also drafted Deebo Samuel in the second round and WR Jalen Hurd in the third round. The 49ers cannot be totally sold on the wide receiver position if they spent the 36th pick and the 67th pick on wide receiver help.

The 49ers were not good on offense last year, finishing 21st in points scored and 16th in yards gained. They have a great scheme and Garoppolo has shown in limited starts to be a productive quarterback when healthy. One of these receivers should be a candidate to gain 1,000 yards and I think the smart money is on Pettis. However, until these players compete in training camp and the depth chart is finalized, we really will not know the pecking order in the passing game. We know that TE George Kittle will be a very productive player in this offense, but what receivers and running backs join him remains a mystery in May.

Other NFC Battles to Watch

Green Bay Packers TE – Jimmy Graham vs. Jace Sternberger
Graham appears to have the job at this point, but he had only two touchdowns and is in the final year of his contract in a year in which he will turn 33 years old. Sternberger could make things interesting in Green Bay with a strong training camp and solid play early in the regular season.

Dallas Cowboys WR – Michael Gallup vs. Randall Cobb
Cobb has not been an elite fantasy option since 2014 and his play has declined significantly since the 2016 season, but Gallup was not very good in his rookie season and should not be guaranteed a starting job in his second year. Dallas runs the ball a ton, so I am not sure I would own any receivers other than WR Amari Cooper, but the second spot should be up for grabs in training camp with Gallup as the early favorite to win that job.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers RB – Peyton Barber vs. Ronald Jones
Barber averaged only 3.7 yards per carry last year and Jones gained just 77 yards in a lost rookie season, so the fact that the Buccaneers drafted zero running backs indicates they think their starting running back is already on their roster. Early reports are that Jones has been impressive in the spring and this should be a position to monitor on an offense that will have a new look with new head coach Bruce Arians.

Minnesota Vikings RB – Alexander Mattison vs. Ameer Abdullah: This is not the sexiest position battle, because RB Dalvin Cook is the starter and the bell cow back. Cook has had injury issues in the past, so the Vikings backup running back could have value this year. Mattison is the early favorite to earn the role as a third-round pick, but Abdullah is only 25 years old and he was claimed midseason from Detroit last year and resigned with the Vikings for the 2019 season. No backup will have value in Minnesota unless Cook goes down with an injury, but identifying handcuffs is part of doing your fantasy homework.

Washington Redskins Backfield
I talked about the quarterback battle, but the running back position currently features veteran RB Adrian Peterson, second-year RB Derrius Guice, third-down RB Chris Thompson, and fourth-round pick Bryce Love. Peterson is the returning starter and he had 1,042 yards rushing last year. He also turned 34 years old in March, so there is room for someone to overtake him.  Guice did not play a down last year due to an ACL tear and he may not be ready for training camp. Also, Thompson battled injuries last year and finished with 446 yards from scrimmage.

Peterson is the favorite followed by whoever is healthy enough to contribute in training camp.  This could be a backfield dominated by Peterson for another season, Guice could emerge as the bell cow back later in the season or it could just stay an RBBC where nobody sees enough touches to be consistent in fantasy football.  Throw in an uncertain quarterback situation and there are more questions in Washington than answers this off-season.

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Derek Lofland is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Derek, check out his archive and follow him @DerekLofland.

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