This time of year, fantasy football owners are preparing their draft boards and tiers. While the top backs and targets for NFL teams are almost all solidified, there are plenty of roles that are up for grabs. These are the fantasy-relevant training camp battles for the NFC East. In this series, I am omitting players who are obvious starters; players like Michael Crabtree, Andy Dalton, Jarvis Landry and Le’Veon Bell.
QB – Joe Flacco, Robert Griffin III, Lamar Jackson
Unlike other training camp battles, this one may already be decided. Joe Flacco has gotten most first-team reps and started the team’s most recent preseason game. He is getting a lot of work with the top three WRs, newcomers John Brown, Michael Crabtree and Willie Snead. Most likely, this is an effort to create chemistry between the QB and these weapons for the 2018 season.
At this point, the real battle is for the role of backup QB. Robert Griffin III got the first shot to lead the offense during their opening preseason game. How things change in a week, as it was Lamar Jackson and not RG3 who took over for Flacco early in the second preseason game. Both Griffin and Jackson led TD drives in these games and have been performing well during training camp. Even while showing that he could command the two-minute drill, it appears that RG3 will not be the backup.
The Ravens are designing plays specifically for Jackson, and they involve Flacco being on the field. These plays could be implemented this season, meaning that Jackson might actually hold limited fantasy value in 2018. However, until things change, Flacco is the Ravens QB that is worth rostering right now.
TE – Mark Andrews, Nick Boyle, Hayden Hurst, Maxx Williams
Unlike the QB situation, figuring out the Ravens TEs is not so straightforward. The most recent Ravens depth chart has Nick Boyle on the first-team while former second round pick Maxx Williams is listed as the primary backup. During the Hall of Fame Game, this held true, as both Boyle and Williams played in the first two series; Williams even caught a TD pass from RG3.
However, this is one of many training camp battles where several players are getting first-team reps. During the team’s second preseason game, it was first-round rookie Hayden Hurst who was playing on the opening drive. Now, this might not mean too much, as neither Boyle nor Williams played. Williams appeared to hurt himself two days before the game, but Boyle’s absence is interesting considering most of the starters played. Perhaps it is a sign of things to come, but there is still so much uncertainty surrounding this positional group. While Hurst and Mark Andrews were likely drafted highly in order to contribute in 2018, rookie TEs rarely have immediate success. This is probably a group of players not worth drafting, but certainly worth keeping an eye on, as the Ravens and Joe Flacco will use the tight end.
WR2 – Tyler Boyd, Cody Core, Josh Malone, John Ross
A.J. Green is Cincinnati’s best and most talented receiver. However, the second-best and second-most talented may be two different players. There is no denying John Ross’s speed, as he broke the NFL combine’s 40-yard dash record. That type of talent cannot be taught and the Bengals certainly agreed when they made Ross a top-10 pick, much like his teammate Green. While Ross has the talent, third-year man Tyler Boyd has arguably been the best WR in training camp, outside of Green. Even though he is naturally a slot receiver, Boyd is listed as a starter on the outside in two WR sets. He certainly showed his skills in the Bengals preseason opener when he scored a TD versus the Chicago Bears starters on defense.
Both Ross and Cody Core have had inconsistent camps so far. Core has made some nice one-handed catches, but also had an end-zone target tip off of his hands leading to an interception. Notably, Ross slipped when he was targeted during last week’s preseason game, and it lead to an easy pick-six for the Bears defense. Even so, Ross is listed as one of the main backups, alongside fellow 2017 rookie Josh Malone, on the Bengals depth chart.
Boyd’s success so far this offseason and his ability to line up inside and outside will probably put him on the field more often than Core, Malone and Ross. Tyler Boyd is the late round Bengals WR that I would target, and not the flashy John Ross.
QB – Baker Mayfield, Tyrod Taylor
Similarly to the Ravens situation, the Browns have an incoming rookie paired with a veteran. Head Coach Hue Jackson has repeatedly said that Tyrod Taylor is the starter and he certainly followed up on that by starting him in week 1 of the preseason. Baker Mayfield, meanwhile, played in seven offensive series and led the team on two TD drives. Granted, most of Mayfield’s playing time was against second-string defensive players. Nonetheless, it must be encouraging to see the first overall pick have success as a rookie. It must also make it tempting to play him at some point this season.
While we can expect Taylor to be the starter for most, if not all of the season, there is still some risk involved. Taylor’s skills running the ball give him added value in fantasy leagues, where a rushing or a receiving yard is worth more than a passing yard. However, nothing would be worse than for your productive QB to be benched and rendered useless in fantasy. I would be willing to draft Taylor in Superflex league (where you can flex a QB), as long as I took two other QBs. However, in formats where you can only start one QB, there is enough depth at the position that I would avoid a risky player like Taylor.
RB – Nick Chubb, Carlos Hyde, Duke Johnson
When you have a three horse race, you have no workhorse, at least when it comes to RBs. The Browns brought in a couple of guys and now have complete opposites on the team. Rookie Nick Chubb comes to the NFL with a strong athletic profile, but not much of a pedigree for catching the ball. Duke Johnson, meanwhile, excels in that capacity, even leading the entire Browns team in targets and receptions last season. Carlos Hyde offers a best of both worlds, a good inside runner who can catch the ball well.
In 2018, who will lead the backfield in Cleveland? If Johnson repeats his workload from last year (82 carries, 93 targets) that leaves 206 carries now that Isaiah Crowell has departed for the Big Apple (and no, not to make Macs and iPads). Hyde has proven himself capable of such a workload (217 and 240 carries in 2017 and 2018 respectively). The Browns certainly think so, as he currently sits atop the Browns depth chart, with Johnson second and Chubb third. The latter had a horrible performance in the Brows preseason opener, as he carried the ball 15 times for 11 yards. Add to the fact that he played primarily against second string defenders, and Chubb did not do himself any favors. To be fair, the running game didn’t work for anyone, as the offensive line didn’t get much push.
Who to trust in fantasy football this year? I believe that it all depends on the scoring settings. In PPR (point per reception) the obvious answer is Duke Johnson, even with the risk of losing targets to Carlos Hyde. When catches are taken out of the equation, TDs become even more valuable to fantasy points. Therefore, in Standard settings, I would consider Hyde as long as he gets the majority of the goal-line carries. While Chubb is certainly capable, he risks being among other rookies losing in training camp battles, unless he improves upon his preseason performances.
WR3 – C.J. Board, Antonio Callaway, Rashard Higgins, Jeff Janis, Damion Ratley
I am writing this assuming that Josh Gordon will return to play for the Browns this season. In that case, he and Jarvis Landry will lock down the top two WR spots. Until Gordon returns, however, there is a possibility that two players from this group end up as starters. The early favorites are rookie Antonio Callaway and a 2017 starter for the Browns, Rashard Higgins. It has been those two and Jarvis Landry operating with the first-team offense in three WR sets.
As for the depth chart released by the team last week, Callaway stands opposite Landry as a starter. Higgins and newly signed Jeff Janis are the primary backups while rookies C.J. Board and Damion Ratley occupy the third-team spots. As Packers fans know, Jeff Janis excels on special teams, which makes his place on the team a virtual lock. With Gordon presumably returning, Board and Ratley are probably fighting for the last roster spot at WR. Board has a slight edge, as he made some plays against the first-team defense (Jamie Collins in particular), but it is still too early to call.
Fantasy owners will need to keep an eye out for both Callaway and Higgins, especially if Gordon does not play in 2018. Callaway offers a stronger athletic profile for a late upside pick. As a veteran, Higgins may be a safer pick, but late in the draft is not when I like to make safe picks. I would go with Callaway.
However, this analysis may all be rendered useless if the Browns sign a free agent, such as Dez Bryant, who is scheduled to visit Cleveland this week.
TE – Xavier Grimble, Jesse James, Vance McDonald, Jaylen Samuels
Funny how things repeat themselves. In 2017, the Steelers traded for Vance McDonald, who subsequently missed six games during the season. Jesse James filled in admirably as the de facto top TE. Considering McDonald was targeted 16 times in the Divisional Round loss to the Jaguars, (compared to one target for James) I get the sense that McDonald is the player the Steelers want in that role. It is McDonald who is listed atop the Steelers depth chart, while James is the second TE. However, McDonald was injured in day 2 of training camp and has slowly been working his way back. It was James who got the first-team reps in the Steelers first preseason game. Funny how things repeat themselves. Wait, I already said that… see what I mean?
As long as McDonald returns to the field before the start of the regular season, I would draft him with confidence. However, if McDonald has to sit out regular season games, James would hold a certain amount of value. I do not believe that Xavier Grimble (who is dealing with his own injury) or Jaylen Samuels (who is technically an RB) will see more than a few targets now and again.
I used reports from beat writers working for the various teams as a primary source of information. Thank you to the following reporters:
Baltimore Ravens – Garrett Downing, John Eisenberg and Ryan Mink
Cincinnati Bengals – Geoff Hobson
Clevland Browns – Andrew Gribble and Patrick Maks
Pittsburgh Steelers – Mike Prisuta