While getting star talent is important in fantasy football, the real key is selecting the right guys in the late rounds of the draft. But picking those players can be difficult, especially when they’re in a position battle with other talented teammates. While some situations allow success for multiple players on the same team, such as Mike Evans and Chris Godwin on the Bucs, other situations will really come down to who earns the job. The difference between being the third receiver on a team and the fourth receiver can be the difference in being irrelevant in fantasy and being a top-30 producer.
So, when you head in to your fantasy football drafts, it’s important to know which players are fighting for fantasy relevance and playing time. Below, we’ll break down some of the more notable position battles as it relates to fantasy football. Some of these battles are more important than others, but they’ll each make an impact on your fantasy draft this season.
While there’s a lot of attention in real-life NFL circles placed on who will earn the last roster spot on a team at the end of training camp, this list isn’t about that. We’ll be focusing on who will win individual jobs such as the starting position, backup running back or even the No. 3 wideout on a team. All of these roles are important and can make a big difference throughout the course of the season. We’ll also be keeping this list updated based on who wins certain position battles, or if new ones emerge due to a signing, release, or emergence in the preseason.
You probably won’t want to draft either Mitchell Trubisky or Nick Foles in fantasy this season, but whoever wins this job could have a big impact on the supporting cast around them. Allen Robinson was the No. 11 scoring receiver in fantasy last year (half-PPR) with Trubisky throwing him the ball. But if you add Foles in, there’s always a potential that a new quarterback won’t find the same success.
The real impact here, though, will be on the running backs and tight ends. According to PFF research, Trubisky had the third-lowest checkdown rates of the past two seasons (3.5 percent). Meanwhile, Foles was 10th on the highest checkdown rates on third down over the past two seasons (6.5 percent). More checkdowns means more passes, typically, to running backs and tight ends. The Bears added two big-name tight ends this year in Cole Kmet (second-round draft pick) and Jimmy Graham (free agency), and their stocks could rise if Foles gets named the starter.
Even if Trubisky ends up winning the job, he’ll have to play extremely well for the Bears not to at least consider putting Foles under center. With these two at quarterback, it almost seems like a guarantee we’ll see both play at some point this season.
The Patriots made a big splash in free agency when they signed Cam Newton, but he wasn’t named the guaranteed starter. He signed a cheap contract, which indicates he’ll have to fight for the starting job. He’ll be competing with Jarrett Stidham for that role. Stidham was a fourth-round draft pick by the Patriots in 2019 who saw extremely limited action as a rookie (four pass attempts, one of which was an interception). New England seemed set as having Stidham as the starter, and that seem even more solidified when the team didn’t draft a quarterback in 2020.
But Newton is a former league MVP and seemingly offers more upside than Stidham. Many fantasy owners would view Newton as a high-upside QB2, but they wouldn’t want Stidham on their teams if he’s starting Week 1. Newton offers so much more as a fantasy player with his rushing ability, even if he’s getting older and has injury concerns.
Also, Newton winning the QB job would decrease the value of New England’s running backs, as the quarterback is a goal-line threat for touchdowns. We saw repeatedly in Carolina where Newton would vulture touchdowns away from inside the 10-yard line.
Washington already had an interesting rotation of running backs, but it got even more intriguing with the release of Derrius Guice. The team retained veteran Adrian Peterson, who has surprisingly had 2,290 scrimmage yards over the past two seasons. Washington also drafted the much-hyped Antonio Gibson in the third round of this year’s draft. But that’s not all.
Peterson and Gibson should get most of the attention in fantasy, but it’s worth noting the rest of the players in this backfield. Washington also added Peyton Barber and J.D. McKissic in free agency, both players who had fantasy relevance in 2019. The team also kept Bryce Love, a fourth-round pick from 2019, who was a Heisman finalist in ’17. Injuries kept Love off the field for Washington as a rookie.
Those are five names in Washington’s backfield that most fantasy players will recognize. Gibson offers the most upside as head coach Ron Rivera compared him to Christian McCaffrey at one point this offseason. Gibson played a mix of receiver and running back in college, making him a bigger threat in PPR formats.
The Bucs got rid of Peyton Barber this offseason but added Ke’Shawn Vaughn through the draft in the third round. Late in the offseason, the Bucs also added veteran LeSean McCoy into the mix. Dare Ogunbowale is also still in Tampa, and his presence shouldn’t be completely dismissed, as he played the second-highest amount of offensive snaps out of Tampa’s backs last season.
We’d expect Jones to get the first shot at the starting role, as he played the most snaps in Tampa’s backfield in 2019, but he has pass blocking issues, which is something coach Bruce Arians is very strict about. Jones was benched at one point last season because of a blown blocking assignment. Jones was also the 120th-graded pass-blocking running back last year, per PFF.
Jones is the best bet out of anyone in this backfield, but the McCoy signing really makes this a backfield to avoid for the most part. It’s hard to see any one of these three backs being able to produce consistently with so many people getting touches, but if one guy emerges, he could have legit value in Tampa’s high-upside offense. Ogunbowale, in particular, might have value no matter in PPR leagues.
Aaron Jones is the clear starter for the Packers, but the backup job is important. Jamaal Williams was the No. 34 running back (PPR) last year despite essentially missing three games (inactive for two and only played one snap in one). That made him a solid flex play in PPR formats, but now that role may be gone in 2020.
Green Bay added A.J. Dillon with a second-round pick this year, and it fits into the narrative that Green Bay will focus more on the run in 2020. The Packers didn’t select in a single receiver in the draft, and their big-name free agent wideout, Devin Funchess, has opted out of the 2020 season. If the Packers do run more, then we could see the bulky Dillon get more backup snaps as a power runner.
Williams might have some small value as a pass-catching back in PPR leagues, but Dillon is the back you’ll likely want as a handcuff to Jones.
Todd Gurley is gone, and now the Rams have a logjam at running back. Returning will be Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown, who each saw playing time in 2019, although neither was overly productive. Los Angeles added in Cam Akers as a second-round draft pick this year, giving this team a true three-man backfield. When asked about how the team will go about splitting carries, coach Sean McVay wasn’t entirely sure.
“We feel we’ve got three really good backs,” McVay said earlier this offseason. “What does that mean in terms of the distribution of carries? I think that’s to be determined based on how things play themselves out and when we get a chance to actually compete in practice and in those live opportunities.”
Since the Rams spent a second-round pick on Akers, it seems likely the rookie will be the primary focus moving forward. His usage could start off somewhat slow and increase as the season progresses. If the Rams were comfortable with Henderson or Brown, there’d be no need to spend a draft pick on Akers.
Melvin Gordon has left the Chargers, leaving Austin Ekeler as the clear No. 1 in Los Angeles. But the battle for the No. 2 job will be an interesting one between the returning Justin Jackson and the fourth-round rookie Joshua Kelley. Jackson showed promise last year as the No. 2 guy in the first two weeks, totaling 116 yards on 13 carries (8.9 ypc). He got injured in Week 3 and didn’t play much after due to Gordon’s return. He was also utilized late in 2018, scoring a total of four touchdowns that season.
Kelley, however, shouldn’t be overlooked. He offers promise coming off strong back-to-back seasons at UCLA. However, being a rookie in this abbreviated offseason could make things slightly more challenging, which might give Jackson that slight edge he needs for the role. No matter what, expect to see all three guys on the field at some point this season.
JuJu Smith-Schuster has a firm grasp on the WR1 job in Pittsburgh, but there’s talent behind him. James Washington showed promise last season, finishing 44-735-3 on 80 targets, but rookie Diontae Johnson was also productive, finishing 59-680-5 on a team-high 92 targets. So, which one is better to own in 2020? Washington finished with more yards than Johnson in nine of the 15 games the two played together, but Johnson finished with more targets, receptions, and touchdowns throughout the course of the season.
At the end of the day, though, we’d expect both wideouts to see the field often this season. The Steelers ran with three-WR sets near the end of the 2019 season when all three wideouts were healthy. Johnson offers some more upside because of his versatility, as he finished the season with some rushing attempts and punt returns (including a punt return touchdown). He also finished with a higher catch percentage (64.1) than Washington (55.0) last season.
The return of Ben Roethlisberger will give whoever wins the WR2 job in Pittsburgh legit value.
The Colts have T.Y. Hilton as their No. 1, but then there’s a bit of a logjam for the No. 2 role. Indianapolis retains Zach Pascal, who finished as the team’s top receiver last year with a 41-607-5 season. The Colts also keep Parris Campbell, who was a second-round draft pick a year ago but battled injuries as a rookie, limiting his playing time. And as if that wasn’t enough, the team spent another second-round pick on Michael Pittman Jr. in this year’s draft.
While Pascal led the team in receiving yards last year, he just doesn’t offer up much promise. And with a new quarterback (Philip Rivers), there’s not much stock in him being a veteran player on the team. If Campbell can stay healthy, he offers some upside as a speed threat. Pittman has some potential as well. Colts owner Jim Irsay said in early August that Pittman has shown some “Reggie Wayne qualities,” which is extremely high praise.
Look for Campbell to be more of a big-play option with Pittman being a red-zone threat as a big bodied wideout. Pascal will likely not have as much relevance this year.
Brandin Cooks has once again changed teams, which frees up some playing time for another wideout in L.A. Cooper Kupp and Robert Woods have the Rams’ top two spots locked up, which leaves veteran Josh Reynolds and second-round rookie Van Jefferson to battle it out for the No. 3 spot. We’ve seen a third option in this Rams offense have success over the past two seasons, so whoever earns this role will likely have fantasy relevance.
Reynolds has finished with productive games over the past two years as he routinely fills in for injured receivers. He especially played well down the stretch in 2018, averaging 3.7-50.7-0.5 over the final five games of the season. In the three games in ’19 where he played at least 70 percent of the snaps, Reynolds averaged over 50 yards and scored a touchdown.
But Jefferson will be tough to beat out. The Rams spent a second-round pick on him for a reason, and while Reynolds has played well in some games, he hasn’t really stood out. The more likely case is Jefferson wins this job, and Reynolds plays in his typical WR4 role this season.
The Giants receiving corps battled injuries and suspensions throughout 2019, leaving them without a true No. 1 receiver. New York brought in Golden Tate, who played in 11 games and led the team in targets (85), finishing with a 49-676-6 season. Sterling Shepard, a second-round draft pick in ’16, led the team in receptions (57) despite only playing in 10 games, and fifth-round rookie Darius Slayton was the real star, leading the team in receiving yards (740) and receiving touchdowns (8).
However, all three receivers struggled to stay on the field as none of them played more than 70 percent of the offensive snaps throughout the season. Tate and Shepard offer the most upside among the three, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see them all finish around the same numbers, similar to what they did last year.
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