The Cutting Floor: Preseason Position Battles

by John Doylemason

Week 3 in the preseason is a hallowed time for many fantasy football leagues. Given that the final game of the preseason is often more of a toe-dipping experience for the rookies, many fantasy owners simply turn off or ignore the game. It is crucial in the third game for starters to make themselves standout to maintain a roster spot. With this in mind, several position battles across the NFL are still being waged into Week 4. It is an exciting time to be a fantasy fan, as a normally meaningless week of games takes on new value. Below are a few key fantasy battles that can have serious fantasy implications.

Quarterbacks

Buffalo Bills – The battle between E.J. Manuel and Kevin Kolb has subsided somewhat with Manuel going down with a knee injury that will sideline him for the remainder of the preseason. Kolb did not win any hearts in his limited play, tossing an interception and looking overwhelmed in his allotted snaps. On the other hand, Manuel was 26-of-33 passing for 199 yards and 2 TD’s in his two games and displayed an athletic command of the pocket that can cover for the inadequacies of the Bills O-line in pass protection. In addition, Kolb has now suffered what appears to be a career-ending concussion, and Manuel’s only competition now appears to be undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel. With Manuel getting his knee drained, so go the Bills receiving corps down the drain until his return.

Fantasy Impact – Ignore Kolb and retain Manuel on your big board. Despite the supposed look of a battle, Manuel looks impeccable as a rookie and could provide major impact in dynasty leagues. He’s #24 in our QB staff rankings.

New York Jets – I am so tired of the New York parade of mediocrity dominating the news. At least Tebow is gone. This position battle has incumbent Mark Sanchez battling rookie Geno Smith. It’s the “Butt Fumble” versus the “Bad Leader” and its everything you’d expect it to be. Pick 6’s into linemen’s hands, turf monsters eating ankles, and poor passes galore. It seems Mark Sanchez has made a concerted effort to improve and he looks to have a strong grasp of the offense but he continues to make boneheaded decisions, and you can see the skill is not completely there on a consistent enough basis to clearly differentiate himself from Smith. Smith on the other hand is working back from a nasty ankle injury on a play he blew up himself. The raw talent is there but it needs to be focused and the Jets do not have time to align Smith before the season starts. The ground between Sanchez and Smith is too great for the rookie to make up, but it seems given Sanchez’s preseason performance and recent injury, its only a matter of time before the boo birds in New York demand Smith starts.

Fantasy Impact – If healthy, I believe Mark Sanchez will get the start and should hold onto it for a few games. If he performs well, Geno will remain on the bench. The situation is still too volatile to draft either with the hopes of value unless you grab Geno late in dynasty leagues. Neither QB makes our top 25 staff rankings.

 

Running Backs

Pittsburgh SteelersRookie Le’Veon Bell seemed to be the bell cow this year. Many were projecting 300+ carries that would harken back to the days of yore, with curtains of steel and ground-and-pound running backs. The days of “The Bus” are long gone in Pittsburgh, though, and this year they are not returning. Bell is now out 6+ weeks with a Lisfranc injury and a major position battle has risen with three candidates leading the way. Incumbent Isaac Redman is a massive powerback that can always fall forward and is great in short yardage. LaRod Stephens-Howling, the scat back with surprising quickness and burst, could be a PPR machine as the offense checks down to protect Brittle Ben. Lastly is Jonathan Dwyer. He has incredible running experience being used in a triple option attack at Georgia Tech and has found holes in an eroding Pittsburgh line and still produces quality runs. While he lacks the breakaway speed of LaRod, he can break off a scamper of 20+ via the run or pass. He has gotten more and more play time over the past two preseason games and will certainly be the odds on favorite to battle veteran Isaac Redman for the starting gig.

Fantasy Impact – The Steelers just traded for Felix Jones, so it’s anyone’s game until Bell gets back. My money is on Dwyer due to production, but Redman has experience. Check out our staff Rb rankings to see how each player is valued.

Arizona CardinalsStepfan Taylor and Alfonso Smith are currently leading the Cardinals’ backs in carries this preseason, but incumbent Rashard Mendenhall is still getting the nod to start the season, assuming he is able to suit up (knee). While no back beyond Mendenhall has surpassed 3.2 YPC, its not from a lack of trying. The coaching staff is continually feeding former Stanford back Taylor. This is definitely a battle to watch as he has gone relatively undrafted, whereas Mendenhall is rising past the tail end of the 6th round in most drafts. Fragile Ryan Williams is also making a push to return from injury and be the starting back, but he is losing ground quickly. If you can’t stay on the field, you can’t play. Right now it seems to be Mendenhall’s position to lose, but keep an eye on Stepfan Taylor to possibly supplant the brittle Mendenhall or at least secure the #2 spot away from Ryan Williams.

Fantasy Impact – Mendenhall is the guy to own, but I would shy away from this battle unless you grab Stepfan very late in dynasty leagues. Mendenhall’s injury issues and lack of offensive line in Arizona will make him a tough guy to play most weeks. Rashad Mendenhall comes in at 31st in our staff rankings.

 

Wide Receivers

Vincent Brown: New #1 in San Diego.

San Diego Chargers - I got blindsided by the Danario Alexander ACL tear, as did many other fantasy owners that drafted early. Cue the surge of Malcolm Floyd and then the subsequent plunge of Floyd following an knee strain that sent fantasy owners into a frenzy. While Floyd is nursing his knee, a major position battle is stirring between Vincent Brown, a rising up and comer that the coaching staff is very high on, and 3rd round NFL draft pick Keenan Allen. Allen was the one-stop-shop receiving threat for Cal throughout his duration in college. He has an incredible catch range and although he is recovering from his own knee ailments, he has made waves in camp for his ability over the middle. The winner will be the WR1 until Floyd returns which could be sometime into the season. Certainly it will be a point of emphasis in the game to showcase the two talented stars. Philip Rivers is very much a chemistry oriented quarterback so whoever is able to make the consistent sideline throws Rivers is famous for will be a fantasy threat. While Brown is rising into the 10th round, Allen is still undrafted. It will certainly be something to watch this weekend.

Fantasy Impact – Draft Vincent Brown. He is the heir this year and could make waves later on. Even with Floyd coming back possibly by Week 1, Brown should be a solid investment. Brown (#43) and Floyd (#51) both are ranked in our top 60 WR staff rankings.

Baltimore Ravens - Torrey Smith ascends to the WR1 position and this leaves the WR2 position wide open. With TE Dennis Pitta injured and Anquan Boldin traded, Joe Flacco lost two of his leading targets over the middle and the team is desperately searching for a WR2 to fill. Jacoby Jones and Brandon Stokley now lead the race but it is looking like the two will be a 2A-2B grouping. A few young receivers do exist on the team, including rookie free agent Marlon Brown who had a coming out game against Carolina, but it looks to be the above duo that will split duties, depending on the situation.

Fantasy Impact – Jacoby Jones could be a valuable addition as a late round flier if your league settings gives special teams bonuses. He has the potential to be a stretch playmaker and has excellent athleticism. I would not invest in Stokely until the TE situation solidifies.

 

Tight End

Dennis Pitta’s injury leave a hole at TE

Baltimore Ravens - When Pitta went down with a hip dislocation, the team anointed Ed Dickson to take over and he leapt up fantasy draft boards from undrafted to 9th round. Baltimore also picked up Visanthe Shiancoe to compete with Dickson for the role, but following Dickson’s knee injury (which will potentially sideline him into the season), the team signed Dallas Clark. Shiancoe looks to be the most polished and will be the inline blocking TE to replace Dickson while Clark serves as the motion receiving TE to be used in Pitta’s role. However, Clark has looked a bit lost in his first few weeks. Rookie Matt Furstenburg reminds me of a vintage Todd Heap in size and ability and is a dark horse in this position battle but he may not even make the team unless Pitta is placed on full IR.

Fantasy Impact – Far too volatile to invest in any of them. It looks to be a mix of old vets until Dickson returns, but even then his snaps may be divvied up with the others. The Ravens only kept 3 TE’s on the squad last year, so it would be a dangerous investment to lean on any of these guys as your starter. Ed Dickson (#21) is the only Baltimore TE to make our top 25 staff rankings.

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