Adam Levitan

Position Battles

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Separation Time

Monday, August 22, 2011


We are deep into the heart of training camp now. I know this because Michael Crabtree is watching from the sideline, the Bengals are the laughing stock of the league and reporters are staking out Brett Favre's house.

I also know it because position battles are underway. Certain showdowns, like Cam Newton vs. Jimmy Clausen and Rex Grossman vs. John Beck, don't have a huge impact on fantasy. We would not adjust player values very much based on who wins out there. But sometimes, gems can emerge from these battles.

Just last year, Arian Foster beat out Steve Slaton and we all know how that turned out. Hakeem Nicks blew Mario Manningham out of the water. Darren McFadden came on strong to win the starting gig over Michael Bush and Mike Williams established himself as a star. In other words, it's worth monitoring these battles.

We will be doing just that around 120 hours per week on the Rotoworld News Page while simultaneously updating the 2011 Draft Guide to reflect depth chart changes.

As we enter the preseason's third week, starting roles will begin to solidify. Here are my top-8 battles to keep an eye on over the next two weeks as Week 1 rapidly approaches:

1. Mark Ingram vs. Pierre Thomas, Saints No. 1 RB
Thomas landed in coach Sean Payton's doghouse last year, struggling with injury once again and losing his status as the Saints' back of the future. That demotion was confirmed when the Saints traded up to draft Mark Ingram in the first round of April's draft.

As soon as training camp opened, Ingram was the talk of New Orleans. But Thomas has started the first two preseason games and does fit the Saints' offense nicely as an excellent receiver out of the backfield and explosive player in space.

Bottom line: This battle could be waged into the regular season as the two share the load to start. Ingram is still the one to target as the clear goal-line back and more durable player.

2. Brandon Gibson vs. Mike Sims-Walker vs. Danario Alexander vs. Donnie Avery, Rams No. 2/3 WR
With pass-happy Josh McDaniels in town as the offensive coordinator, any receiver starting for the Rams deserves attention. It wasn't a coincidence that Brandon Lloyd broke out at age 29 under McDaniels.

We know that Danny Amendola is having a big camp and will play on almost every down, but the rest of the spots are wide open. Gibson has run as the No. 2 receiver all month, but doesn't have the same talent that Sims-Walker or Alexander has. This battle rages on daily at practices.

Bottom line: For now, none of these candidates can be considered anything more than a flier. That will change as soon as one nails down the starting job. As the man with starting pedigree and potentially difference-making skills, Sims-Walker has the most fantasy upside. Alexander's knees continue to be a concern.

3. Reggie Bush vs. Daniel Thomas, Dolphins No. 1 RB
When Thomas was first drafted, he looked like a bell cow that would fill the hole left by Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams. But then the Dolphins added Bush and surprisingly promised the ex-Saint a major role.

That promise has been solidified in the preseason. While Thomas has struggled, Bush has started both exhibition games. He is being used all over the field and that 15 touches per game he wanted appears within reach.

Bottom line: The luster Thomas had back in May has worn off quickly. Bush is the likely winner of this job and figures to get plenty of touches until he wears down. As we have seen in the past with Bush, that shouldn't take too long.

4. Tim Hightower vs. Ryan Torain vs. Roy Helu, Redskins No. 1 RB
Torain likely would have had the lead at this point if he did not get injured. Then again, the fact that Torain is one of the most injury-prone players in the league is a big reason why Hightower is in town in the first place.

Hightower has been one of the stars of the preseason so far, rushing 16 times for 114 yards with a touchdown in two games. He is also a guy the coaching staff trusts to protect the quarterback in third downs. While Torain (hand) is expected back before the opener, he missed out on a chance to compete.

Bottom line: Hightower's inability to make people miss and the Redskins' shaky offensive line caps his upside, but the ex-Cardinal is well out in front of this position battle. It would be a surprise if he isn't the man come Week 1.


Editor's Note: For constantly updating rankings, projections, exclusive columns, mock drafts, ADP reports, sleepers, busts and much more, check out our award-winning Draft Guide!


5. Emmanuel Sanders vs. Antonio Brown, Steelers No. 3 WR
Here is another battle that has been impacted by injury. Sanders' foot woes cropped up again at the outset of camp and it's unclear if he will be able to play in the preseason at all. Meanwhile, Brown has caught five passes for 93 yards with a touchdown in the two exhibition games. Sanders has gone from one of our favorite deep sleepers to a major risk.

Bottom line: The reason this battle is intriguing is because of Hines Ward's continuing decline. Whoever wins out is in for increased snaps as Ward's role decreases. Sanders is the more appealing option as the more explosive player.

6. Ryan Grant vs. James Starks, Packers No. 1 RB
Starks was the back that carried the load during the Packers' Super Bowl run, but it's rare that a respected veteran like Grant loses his job to injury. So far, that has played out as Grant has run with the first team throughout camp and started both preseason games.

However, Starks has been rotating in on a possession-by-possession basis so far. It's possible that the Packers are looking to go to a committee, with John Kuhn serving as the third-down back.

Bottom line: Usage in the third preseason game will be vital to watch. Grant is going to have to prove that he is the better back if he wants all the early-down work.

7. C.J. Spiller vs. Fred Jackson, Bills No. 1 RB
This one comes out of left field. Jackson was widely expected to be the "man" this season, but Spiller suddenly closed the gap. In fact, the job now looks like Spiller's to lose after the 2010 No. 9 overall pick started the second preseason game.

Bottom line: The Bills' offensive line is so poor that this situation was unappealing to begin with. Now that some kind of committee appears to be taking shape, we are heading toward "hands off" territory.

8. Rob Gronkowski vs. Aaron Hernandez, Patriots No. 1 TE
Starting late last season, Gronkowski has seized control over his fellow second-year teammate. Gronk has generated tons of positive buzz at training camp with his blocking and his receiving. Of course, Gronkowski is the one fantasy owners lean toward anyway thanks to his red-zone prowess. Out of his 42 catches a year ago, 10 went for touchdowns.

Bottom line: It's unlikely that either tight end will separate in New England's often situational scheme. But Gronkowski's blocking and big camp should give him an edge in snap count. For now, we would lean toward him as the borderline TE1.


OTHER BATTLES TO WATCH

Ray Rice vs. Ricky Williams for the goal-line job: Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron says Rice will get short-yardage looks. Can Rice keep the gig?

Ben Tate vs. Derrick Ward: Finally healthy, Tate burst out of the gate this weekend. Solid handcuff to Arian Foster if he can separate from Ward.

Darrius Heyward-Bey vs. Denarius Moore: Everyone knows that Moore is the better player except for the Raiders. Has the look of an in-season waiver add for redraft owners.

Maurice Morris vs. Jerome Harrison: Who will be Jahvid Best's handcuff? Harrison could have major upside in Detroit's offense.

Arrelious Benn vs. Dezmon Briscoe: Benn isn't even nine months removed from his ACL tear and still sidelined. Meanwhile, Briscoe has been a camp darling and is the heavy favorite.

Andre Roberts vs. Early Doucet vs. Stephen Williams: Although Roberts figures to start, an in-game rotation opposite Larry Fitzgerald seems likely.

James Jones vs. Jordy Nelson: Just like last year, these two figure to alternate productive games. Barring injury, it will be difficult to trust either one.


BATTLES THAT AREN'T REALLY BATTLES

Mike Tolbert vs. Ryan Mathews: Mathews certainly helped himself on Sunday night, but Tolbert isn't going anywhere. These two are going to share the load, period.

Knowshon Moreno vs. Willis McGahee: Moreno is the starter and McGahee is the goal-line back. With Moreno and McGahee on opposite ends of the career spectrum, this one was over before it started.

Follow Adam Levitan on Twitter.


Adam Levitan is in his sixth season covering football and basketball for Rotoworld. He won the Fantasy Sports Writers Association award for Best Series in 2011 and 2009, and ESPN's overall fantasy football title in 2000. Find him on Twitter.
Email :Adam Levitan



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