AFC Position Battles to Monitor (2020 Fantasy Football)
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Now that the NFL draft and free agency are in the rear-view mirror, we get to look forward to training camp and the preseason. The current pandemic may result in a shortened offseason, but there will still be a lot of position battles that will determine the fantasy viability of multiple players for the 2020 season. Aging veterans will battle incoming rookies, free-agent acquisitions will battle the incumbent starters, and players at the bottom of the roster will fight for a meaningful role.
It’s extremely important to be aware of these camp battles and how they will affect a player’s fantasy value. We’ve seen in the past how players can win the starting job in training camp and go on to have an incredible fantasy season. Just last season, Darren Waller won the starting tight end job in camp following his six-catch season in 2018; he finished as the TE5 in PPR and became a steal in the draft at his TE25 ADP.
So, let’s take a look at several teams from the AFC and see what position battles are worth monitoring.
Mark Ingram vs. J.K. Dobbins
While many believe rookie J.K. Dobbins will jump right into a lead role in the Ravens backfield following his selection in the second round of the NFL draft, this notion is premature. Mark Ingram has always had a significant role despite who his backfield mate happened to be.
Even when Alvin Kamara burst onto the scene for the Saints in 2017, Ingram was still fantasy relevant and saw a meaningful share in the backfield. From Weeks 6-16 of the 2017 season, after New Orleans traded away Adrian Peterson, Ingram out-touched Kamara 214 to 151; the two running backs finished as the PPR RB3 and RB4 respectively in that span. After his four-week suspension in 2018, it was much of the same. Kamara only out-touched Ingram by 32 total touches, despite there being an expectation that he would see a larger share of the workload.
I find it hard to believe Ingram will be a non-factor in the Ravens backfield as he’s been incredibly reliable throughout his career. However, the question remains: what is the exact workload each running back will carry this season? The camp reports regarding who works with the first team will be crucial in making a decision regarding these players’ ceiling next season.
Kareem Hunt will not overtake Nick Chubb as the starting running back for this team. However, we never really got a full picture of what Hunt’s workload would actually look like over the course of a full season. Last year, Hunt missed nearly half of the season due to suspension and re-joined a team that was already spiraling out of control.
In his eight appearances in 2019, Hunt saw 90 total touches, 37 of which were receptions. During the span in which Hunt and Chubb played together, Hunt finished as the RB15 while Chubb finished as the RB14. Hunt may have limited Chubb’s upside, but they were both fantasy viable for this offense.
With Kevin Stefanski coming over from Minnesota, one has to wonder how Hunt will fit in. Stefanski utilized multiple running back sets 33% of the time in 2019, compared to Cleveland’s 28% upon Hunt’s return. However, Minnesota’s two-back sets mainly featured fullback CJ Ham, not second-string running back Alexander Mattison.
While many will say Hunt is more talented than Mattison and will receive playing time because of it, I am not so sure. Mattison was extremely effective last season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and ranking second among all running backs in breakaway run rate. Still, he only saw 110 touches and an RB59 fantasy finish. It will be extremely important to see how these Cleveland backs are utilized in training camp and the preseason, especially given Chubb and Hunt’s redraft ADPs are in the second and sixth rounds respectively.
Zack Moss vs. Devin Singletary
The Buffalo backfield was always an interesting case. It was clear to anyone who wasn’t Frank Gore that Devin Singletary was by far the best option in that backfield. Singletary ranked fifth in true yards per carry, third in breakaway run rate, and third in juke rate among all running backs last season; he finished as the RB18 once he returned from injury in Week 7, despite averaging less than 50 percent of the snaps. He was hyper-efficient and looked as though he could be a potential fantasy contributor should he see more playing time.
After a free agency period in which the Bills did not sign any running backs, Buffalo spent their third-round pick on Zack Moss, a bruiser back out of Utah. Buffalo’s GM Brandon Beane was quoted regarding Moss’ role, “So, you know I think more of the goal line and things like that as we did with Frank last year, you’ll see Zack do.”
With Moss being younger and overall more talented than the ageless Frank Gore, it will be important to note how large the split will be in regards to touches. If Singletary remains capped at his 50 percent of the snaps, it is doubtful he’ll be anything more than a mid-RB2. If Moss sees more time, he could be an underrated add this fantasy season, as Frank Gore was given 18 carries inside the 10-yard line last season (only converting two of them). Determining how exactly these running backs will split reps will be critical to whether they are draftable at their ADPs this coming season.
Jordan Howard vs. Matt Breida
After failing to draft one of the top-rated rookie running backs in this past NFL draft, Jordan Howard and Matt Breida will battle it out for a lead role in the Miami running back room. While this backfield will in all likelihood become a committee, determining who will see a greater share of first and second down work will be key to understanding the fantasy viability of each player.
Howard has already shown he can excel in a committee, averaging 12.4 PPR points per game and finishing as the RB16 in the ten weeks before his season-ending injury. Breida also showed, in spurts, that he could be a dominant fantasy asset; in the eight games in which Breida saw double-digit touches, he averaged 11.2 PPR points per game.
With Chan Gailey reuniting with Ryan Fitzpatrick in Miami, this offense is sure to be high-flying and provides many opportunities for production. Deciphering the camp battle could be the key to finding a viable week-in and week-out FLEX piece.
Jonathan Taylor vs. Marlon Mack
Another rookie runner versus aging veteran battle will occur in the Indianapolis backfield this offseason. After a solid 2019 season in which Marlon Mack finished PPR RB19, the Colts elected to trade up in the second round of the NFL draft to select standout Wisconsin running back Jonathan Taylor, despite having capable running backs on the roster.
While many are ready to crown Taylor as the next Saquon Barkley, I am going to need to see how the Colts handle his workload in training camp before I commit to him at his high redraft ADP. Let’s not forget, even though Mack had the “lead role” last year, he wasn’t extensively used. Mack only played above 50 percent of the snaps in seven of his fourteen healthy starts.
It is yet to be seen whether Taylor will completely take over the workload or share duties with Mack. There’s also the consideration that Nyhiem Hines and Jordan Wilkins are still in this backfield and have very defined roles. It will be worth keeping an eye on the Colts’ offseason activities to see if Taylor will truly get the work to make him an RB1.
David Johnson vs. Duke Johnson
Bill O’Brien may have spent a lot to acquire David Johnson, but there’s another D. Johnson in the backfield that may push the former Cardinal for playing time. The Texans acquired Duke Johnson last offseason for a third-round pick, only to have him submit most of the rushing duties to Carlos Hyde. There’s a precedent that draft capital and price tag do not correlate to workload in Houston, so David Johnson may not be given a major share of the touches just yet.
This offense appears to be moving to more of a spread system in 2020. The Texans employ Brandin Cooks, Will Fuller, and Kenny Stills as their starting wideouts; all three receivers run under 4.4 40-yard dash and have the ability to stretch the field. So it looks as though much of the rush attempts will come from the shotgun formation, where both running backs thrive. We’ve also seen David Johnson become prone to injury, missing multiple games in each of the past several seasons. Could O’Brien give his recent acquisition more time off because of this?
Both of these players won’t be particularly high draft picks, but they have the ability to boom given their pass-catching upside and tremendous speed. If David Johnson is able to secure a sizable workload, I’ll feel more confident taking a shot on him in the middle rounds. However, if it looks like he’s going to split work with Duke Johnson, I may be out altogether.
Kansas City Chiefs
Clyde Edwards-Helaire vs. Damien Williams
The last rookie against veteran battle we need to keep an eye on is probably the most important on this list. Many fantasy owners rejoiced to see the Chiefs finally place a heavy investment in the running back position, as LeSean McCoy and Damien Williams thoroughly disappointed last season. However, Clyde Edwards-Helaire may not immediately take over for his predecessors in the Chiefs backfield.
Williams is still under contract for one more season and showed his potential during the playoffs. In the postseason, Williams accumulated 73 touches for 444 total yards and scored eight touchdowns; his production would have translated to 26.85 PPR points per game. While it’s certainly possible Williams takes a back seat immediately, the general manager has recently said otherwise. According to Chiefs GM Brett Veach, Williams will be the starting running back entering this season.
Personally, I am taking this statement with a huge grain of salt. Edwards-Helaire was handpicked by Patrick Mahomes and Andy Reid has historically preferred using one workhorse running back (see: Kareem Hunt, LeSean McCoy in Philadelphia). However, it is worth monitoring the splits in the preseason before spending a high pick on the rookie runner or writing Williams off completely.
Melvin Gordon vs. Phillip Lindsay
The Broncos front office went all-in on adding weapons for second-year quarterback Drew Lock. While the receiving weapons are certainly worth a look, the pecking order for that unit is pretty much set. What is more intriguing, however, is the split among a suddenly stacked backfield.
After Phillip Lindsay pulled off his second consecutive 1,000-yard rushing season, the Denver front office made a surprising decision to sign former Charger Melvin Gordon in free agency. Gordon just came off of a season where he accumulated 900 total yards and nine touchdowns in only 12 games; he finished as the PPR RB12 in that span. Now, we will have to determine how exactly Denver handles the touch count between Gordon, Lindsay, and former third-round pick Royce Freeman.
My expectation is they will run a similar timeshare to what the Chargers ran last season with Gordon and Austin Ekeler. Still, it will be worthwhile to see who exactly gets work on passing downs and long-yardage situations, as both backs have been viable in the receiving game. This committee can certainly become a successful one, as the Broncos’ weapons on the outside will take men out of the box and free up room over the middle of the field. Still, if I am going to invest in one of these backs on draft day, I need to see who looks to be favored in training camp.