NFL training camps open this week, and though that phrase doesn't make my heart pitter-patter like "pitchers and catchers report," it's still an exciting juncture for fantasy players.
The football e-mails are starting to roll into my box, so I figure now is a good time to cover some questions heading into camp.
Position battles present the biggest mysteries as always. And those at the fantasy game's marquee position, running back, can make or break your season. The three most obviously important competitions will unfold in Indianapolis, Denver and Chicago.
The Colts lost one of the rocks of their offense in Edgerrin James, and rookie Joseph Addai will vie with veteran backup Dominic Rhodes to pick up his slack. I don't expect either guy to be better than a third fantasy back. That said, I bet Addai, with his greater physical tools and better blocking skills, will win more of the playing time. I've seen the rookie go in the fourth round of some mock drafts (10-team leagues), but I think I'd hold off until the sixth.
In Denver, Ron Dayne and Tatum Bell will probably share duties as a sort of Mr. Inside/Mr. Outside duo. That takes us right back to the frustration of last season, when fantasy owners could never figure which Denver runner was due for a big week. I love Bell's big-play ability, but he seems to lack the stamina to be a lead back. Dayne has been disappointing throughout his career, though he played well in limited time last season. Again, trust neither guy as more than a third back (though I'd draft Dayne higher). And watch Cedric Cobbs, who could flash by both and become a star in Denver's great running system.
Thomas Jones would seem to be a strong incumbent in Chicago after rushing for 1,335 yards and scoring nine touchdowns last season. But Jones is in a contract squabble with the Bears and could be traded. The team drafted Cedric Benson to be its star runner so he might get his shot. Watch where Jones goes because if he lands with a team in need of a feature back, he could vault into second-round consideration. Benson is a wild card. He didn't show anything great in nine games last season, but I think he'll be a solid mid-round pick and third fantasy runner.
The other runners to watch are the backups who might succeed crumbling veterans. Cedric Houston of the New York Jets and rookie Laurence Maroney of the New England Patriots are obvious candidates, though neither is likely to pull a Larry Johnson. I expect Curtis Martin and Corey Dillon to continue their slides, so stow Houston and Maroney away in hopes of getting some second-half production. Rookie DeAngelo Williams could also be a nice mid-round pick behind injury-prone DeShaun Foster in Carolina.
Beyond obvious breakout candidates such as Ronnie Brown, I really like San Francisco's Frank Gore. He posted a stellar 4.8 yards a carry last season and should be able to push Kevan Barlow aside. I wouldn't be shocked to see Gore rush for 1,200 yards and score eight or nine touchdowns, which would make him a real steal as your third back.
Reggie Bush remains the most popular subject of reader questions. I love the rookie, but he's holding out, and his role is sketchy enough that I wouldn't pick him above excellent receivers such as Larry Fitzgerald, Torry Holt or even Randy Moss. His upside is greater, but he's not a feature back and we really don't know how often the Saints will get him the ball. I'd prefer a more known quantity in the second round, where I've seen Bush going in mock drafts.
Look for Bush's old teammate, LenDale White, to be a useful touchdown maker in Tennessee.
I don't see as many interesting receiver situations. We're all still trying to figure out what will come of those three first-round picks in Detroit. I think Roy Williams could bust out big time this season. But his teammate, Mike Williams, just seems like a bust. The Lions are happier with Charles Rogers, but I'm ready to give up on him as well. He just hasn't shown enough in three seasons.
Former college quarterback Matt Jones is intriguing as the new go-to guy in Jacksonville. You have to love a 6-foot-6, 242-pound guy who can run 40 yards in 4.4 seconds. He'll be on my mind in the later middle rounds.
As for quarterbacks, if they're involved in position battles, you probably don't want them for fantasy purposes. But I like Aaron Brooks in Oakland, Jon Kitna in Detroit and Billy Volek in Tennessee as backups. Avoid rookies at that position.