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Cullen: NFL position battles to monitor

Scott Cullen
8/22/2013 3:11:09 PM
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When NFL training camps begin there are always battles being waged for playing time. Some of those battles have been more or less decided -- Michael Vick is the starting quarterback in Philadelphia, Daryl Richardson is set to start at running back for St. Louis, Blaine Gabbert is starting at quarterback for Jacksonville -- but there are other situations that are still to be sorted out over the final couple weeks.

Here are some of the more intriguing position battles for fantasy owners to watch:

Montee Ball vs. Ronnie Hillman, Denver RB

With an offence focused on passing, the Broncos may not place high priority on which of their backs is running more often. Hillman has the early edge, working with the first team, but the second-year back only had 327 rushing yards (3.9 per carry) as a rookie, so he's not anywhere close to secure in that position. Ball was a thundering force at Wisconsin, scoring 61 touchdowns in his last two seasons.

The big concern with Ball has to do with pass protection, but he'll have to be more effective all around if he's going to knock Hillman from the role. If neither one of these young backs takes hold of the job, Knowshon Moreno could sneak past them into more playing time.

Kevin Kolb vs. E.J. Manuel, Buffalo QB

The Bills seemed set to make the rookie Manuel their starter, but then he suffered a knee injury and will miss the rest of the preseason, opening the door for Kolb, who had missed time in camp with his own knee injury, to take the starting job.

Kolb has 21 career starts and figures to get the starting job for Week One, when the Bills host New England. Even if the expectation is that Manuel will take over the starting job, it will be harder to make the change if Kolb is productive in that starting role.

Dallas Clark vs. Ed Dickson vs. Visanthe Shiancoe, Baltimore TE

Considering that the Ravens had big plans for Dennis Pitta in their offence this season, prior to suffering his season-ending hip injury, there is an opportunity for at least one of the Ravens' tight ends to fill that void.

Clark has the track record and a history with offensive co-ordinator Jim Caldwell; Dickson, who is hurt right now, had a 54-catch season with the Ravens and QB Joe Flacco in 2011, and Shiancoe is 34, but did have 18 touchdowns in the 2008 and 2009 seasons with Minnesota.

DeAngelo Williams vs. Jonathan Stewart, Carolina RB

Ankle problems continue to plague Stewart, which gives Williams the opportunity to not only be the Week One starter, but a chance to get significant touches in that role.

It's been three years since Williams last rushed for more than 1,000 yards, but he's averaged 4.9 yards per carry throughout his career, so if he could get 200 carries, a 1,000-yard season could be achievable. Of course, if Stewart gets healthy, he's sure to get his share of carries too, effectively sabotaging the fantasy value of both backs.

Demaryius Thomas vs. Wes Welker vs. Eric Decker, Denver WR

There isn't really a battle for position so much as competition for targets from QB Peyton Manning. Thomas and Decker had tremendous seasons for the Broncos last year, with Thomas racking up 1,434 receiving yards and 10 touchdowns, while Decker added 1,064 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns. How will those numbers shake out with the addition of Welker, who has at least 100 catches and 1,000 yards in five of the last six seasons?

Sure, Welker in the slot can take some touches away from the tight ends in the Broncos' offence, and maybe they will pass a bit more with a suspect running game, but don't some of the targets have to get pulled away from Thomas and Decker? That's my suspicion, but we'll have to see how Manning chooses to distribute the football.

Nate Burleson vs. Ryan Broyles, Detroit WR

Coming off injuries, the pair of Lions wideouts are competing for the job across from superstar Calvin Johnson. Burleson hasn't put up big numbers (under 50 yards per game) in three seasons with Detroit, but is a reliable complementary receiver.

Broyles is the up-and-comer who had six catches for 126 yards against Houston in Week 11 last season, only to suffer a torn ACL the following week. If Broyles can become the viable second receiver for the Lions, he has a chance to be a productive part of an offence with a quarterback, Matthew Stafford, that has passed for more than 10,000 yards in the last two seasons.

Eddie Lacy vs. Johnathan Franklin vs. DuJuan Harris, Green Bay RB

When the Packers were bounced from the playoffs by San Francisco last season, without a potent rushing attack, it was a position to address in the offseason. Drafting Eddie Lacy, out of Alabama, in the second round and Johnathan Franklin, out of UCLA, in the fourth round was a clear effort to upgrade the running game and while Franklin hasn't impressed in camp, Lacy looks like he can be the kind of physical runner that the Packers seek.

If Lacy isn't up to the job, though, a trio of holdover vets are still pushing for time. DuJuan Harris is a smaller, quicker option, who could be a change-of-pace back if Franklin doesn't improve. Alex Green rushed for 464 yards last season, but only 3.4 yards per carry, while James Starks has run for 934 yards in 22 games for the Packers over the last three seasons. With this cast of characters, Lacy should emerge as the most valuable of Green Bay's ball carriers.

Lamar Miller vs. Daniel Thomas. Miami RB

In some circles, Lamar Miller is getting pub as a breakthrough candidate, following a rookie season in which he rushed for 250 yards (4.9 per carry), but the latest reports suggest that both backs will be getting carries. Since Thomas has averaged only 3.5 yards per carry in his first two seasons, he doesn't seem like a great challenger to Miller but even if Thomas only turns out to be the short yardage and goalline back, that will negatively affect Miller's value.

Jerome Simpson vs. Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota WR

Simpson struggled through an injury-marred season last year, his first with the Vikings after showing promise in Cincinnati, but he's currently ahead of the Vikings' first-round pick, Patterson, for the starting spot opposite veteran Greg Jennings. There may not be much appeal for the Vikings' No. 2 wide receiver, given their focus on RB Arian Peterson, a still-developing quarterback, Christian Ponder, and an improving young tight end, Kyle Rudolph, who can play a bigger role in the passing game.

Nonetheless, it appears that Simpson's lead isn't by a large margin, so Patterson should be expected to challenge for the role throughout the season and it's likely just a matter of time before Patterson is in the starting lineup.

Darren Sproles vs. Pierre Thomas vs. Mark Ingram, New Orleans RB

Having three backs consistently involved in the Saints' offence effectively ruins the fantasy value for all three. Ingram has some upside, if the Saints were to ever make him their primary everydown back, but he's averaged 3.9 yards per carry through his first two seasons, so he's not exactly breaking down the door.

Thomas is a steady contributor who has at least 800 yards from scrimmage in four of the last five seasons. So long as he's getting touches, that limits Ingram's appeal. Sproles is a different animal, more targeted as a receiver than a runner out of the backfield, but in two seasons with the Saints, Sproles has gained 2,224 yards and scored 17 touchdowns, so he's not going to get pushed aside and that means shared duty in the New Orleans backfield.

Chris Ivory vs. Bilal Powell vs. Mike Goodson, N.Y. Jets RB

Ivory comes from New Orleans, where he was struggling to find playing time with the other three backs on the roster, and he still has a chance to earn a significant role, but Powell, who has 458 rushing yards (3.7 yards per carry) in his first two seasons, appears to be the leading candidate to start. Goodson is reportedly expected to arrive in Jets camp soon, but weapons charges have derailed Goodon's offseason, so now he's more of a player to watch during the season rather than an actual threat to open as the starter.

Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith, N.Y. Jets QB

Not only do the Jets have questions in the running game, there is still the possibility that rookie Geno Smith can unseat Mark Sanchez as the starting quarterback. He is Mark Sanchez, after all. At the same time, Smith actually has to do something to push Sanchez aside and Smith will get a good opportunity to do so when he starts against the Giants this week.

David Wilson vs. Andre Brown, N.Y. Giants RB

Second-year runner David Wilson may get more carries in the Giants' backfield, thanks to higher upside, but the job appears to be a timeshare at this point, which hinders the value of both and even if Wilson gets more carries, Brown could get the short-yardage and goalline work.

Jonathan Dwyer vs. Isaac Redman, Pittsburgh RB

Rookie RB Le'Veon Bell was likely to emerge as the starter for the Steelers, but a foot injury has sidelined him for six-to-eight weeks, leaving Dwyer, who rushed for 623 yards last season, in the lead for carries in the Pittsburgh backfield. Redman rushed for 410 yards last season, with a similarly powerful running style, while LaRod Stephens-Howling could offer a different look as a smaller and quicker option.

Scott Cullen can be reached at Scott.Cullen@bellmedia.ca and followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/tsnscottcullen. For more, check out TSN Fantasy on Facebook.




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