First Down: Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit must-watch backfield battles

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Disclaimer: The article below first published July 9. With training camps opening next week, the piece has been updated and repurposed per editorial's request. Please continue spewing your vitriol in the comments below. 

In a little over a week, gridiron warriors from across the country will trade in leisure attire for spikes, pads and helmets. Eye black will adorn faces. A motivation for greatness will consume minds.

Battles are about to begin.

Gamers are itching to watch it all unfold. 

Though toe-to-toe clashes will occur at all positions, none are more titillating to the fantasy community than what transpires at running back. In such 'exotic' locales as Berea, Oxnard and Flowery Branch, rushing hopefuls will lay it all on the line in an attempt to secure a spot atop the depth chart. Succeed, and chances of achieving statistical acclamation increase significantly. Fail, and they will be relegated to an irrelevant initial role, handcuff-only duty.

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This year, several backfields are up for grabs making August performances vitally important. Who will fizzle? Who will sizzle? Here are my top-five RB tilts, victors predicted, slated to hit the small screen later this summer:

1. Atlanta FalconsTevin Coleman (88.8 Yahoo ADP) vs. Devonta Freeman (126.5) vs. Antone Smith (NA)

Of all the camp scrabbles at running back, most would say Dallas houses the most intrigue. However, whoever emerges from the fray in Atlanta will likely be the true fantasy Jewel of the South. Much of last year's eighth-best pass-blocking unit is back, consistency in the trenches vital to build a strong ground attack. New offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan, who called '"run" 47.2 percent of the time last year in Cleveland, is sure to lean on the bacon up front, a balanced approach Roddy White confirmed in mid-June. The ineptitude exhibited by Steven Jackson and Jacquizz Rodgers last year will not be repeated. Rookie Coleman, an explosive three-down back who prospered in a similarly styled zone-blocking system at Indiana, enters camp nipping at the heels of 'starter' Freeman. Smith, a bottle rocket out of the backfield, is also in the mix, but appears slated for another light load. The incumbent plays bigger than his pint-sized frame (5-foot-8, 206 pounds) and is an adept receiver, but it's only a matter of time before the primary challenger overtakes him. Given the Falcons' potentially stout offensive line, prolific passing attack and friendly division, whichever rusher takes the cake is sure to make a statement. 

Fearless Forecast: Coleman forces a 60-40 split by Week 5 and finishes with fringe top-20 numbers in 12-team leagues. 

2. Dallas CowboysJoseph Randle (86.9) vs. Darren McFadden (105.8) vs. Lance Dunbar (NA) vs. Ryan Williams vs. ‘Rowdy’ the Mascot

Similar to what nearby starlets wear to fancy premieres, what unfolds at Cowobys camp in SoCal will be immensely scrutinized. Though it finished second to Philadelphia in run-blocking last year, Dallas' offensive line is sure to move mountains. Its depth, versatility, talent and overall execution could elevate it to legendary levels come year's end. It's that good. Throw in arguably the game's best receiver (Dez Bryant) along with a highly productive and now healthy QB (Tony Romo), and the situation is ripe for lush numbers between the hashmarks. After the 'Boys lost DeMarco Murray to the rival Eagles, many are still perplexed as to why Jerry Jones didn't invest in a young running back in May's Draft. Deflecting criticism, the owner/GM has maintained his 'satisfied' stance. Most believe Randle, who's ADP has soared over five rounds the past month according to Fantasy Football Calculator, is in the driver's seat. His 61.3 yards-after-contact percentage in '14 was outstanding, but the small sample size (53 carries) and his off-the-field transgressions leave many questions. McFadden, however, may conjure more. The ex-Raider has shown flashes of dominance when healthy, but would likely suffer a catastrophic injury wading peacefully on a pool inner tube (10 games missed since '08). Dunbar, meanwhile, is limited to pass-down duty. As for Williams, he recently experienced knee swelling (AGAIN!), which places him firmly on the roster bubble. Unless Jones adds a back post-cuts (Christine Michael anyone?), Randle, DMC and Dunbar should enter the season involved in a frustrating timeshare. 

Fearless Forecast: Randle registers 14-16 touches per game out of the gate with McFadden adding 8-12 and Dunbar 6-8. The projected starter finishes in the RB21-RB24 range come January.  

3. Detroit Lions – Joique Bell (89.5) vs. Ameer Abdullah (107.5) vs. Theo Riddick (NA)

Entering camp, the separation between Jim Caldwell's RBs is razor-blade slim. Yes, Joique, presumably under the influence of reality-altering hallucinogens, recently proclaimed he will rush for 1,200-plus yards, but he could soon take a back seat to Abdullah. Bell, though useful in spurts, averaged an unexciting 3.88 yards per carry the past two seasons. After undergoing knee and Achilles surgeries this offseason and reportedly dealing with conditioning issues in June, he's not exactly a cover model for Men's Health. Abdullah, whose worth ethic, quick feet and sure hands impressed the coaching staff in minicamp, is a strong contender to unseat Bell. In his storied career at Nebraska, he racked 5.64 yards per carry and over 4,500 career yards. He could play a hybrid role seeing occasional action on early and third downs, possibly earning the lion's share by midseason. Elsewhere, Riddick will likely be used in a similar capacity as Reggie Bush, enticing targets out of the slot. In a screen-heavy offense, he and Abdullah present considerable PPR upside. Recall in Joe Lombardi's Saints-styled offense, Lions RBs totaled 93 receptions in '14. All will be rotated in to start, but smart money says the former Husker asserts himself in short order. 

Fearless Forecast: Abdullah crushes in preseason play, earns the starting gig Week 1 and nets 14-17 touches per game over the rest of the season. He teeters on the top-20 line in PPR. Bell and Riddick, meanwhile, split the leftover 10-12 grips per game. 

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4. Cleveland Browns – Isaiah Crowell (108.3) vs. Terrance West (127.3) vs. Duke Johnson (126.2)

When Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel are your quarterbacks and Dwayne Bowe is your presumed top receiving option, only one plausible conclusion can be drawn: run, run and run some more. Kyle Shanahan is no longer calling the shots on offense, but a nearly identical script under new OC John DeFilipo will be followed. The Browns' strength is unquestionably their offensive line, a group, despite numerous injuries, that ranked just outside the top-10 last season in run-blocking per Pro Football Focus. Though stacked boxes will be commonplace, McCown is sure to hand the ball off some 30 times per game. Crowell was sporadically spectacular last year, as evidenced against Baltimore, Pittsburgh and Atlanta. He ranked No. 5 in breakaway percentage but dead last in elusive rating among eligible backs. Equally concerning, he gained just 45.6 percent of his yards after contact. For all the love he's received, he's a fleet-footed runner with only marginal creativity and break-tackle ability. West owns more wiggle and power (56.3 YAC%), but looked overly timid at times, struggling to to find creases at the point of attack. Enter Duke. The 5-foot-9, 207-pound rookie has the speed, shiftiness and versatility needed to be a three-down workhorse. He shined in OTAs and minicamp outplaying both Crowell and West. Originally tabbed for a Gio Bernard-type role, he could dominate snaps with a noteworthy preseason. His 126.5 Yahoo ADP is sure to climb. 

Fearless Forecast: Duke delivers on the hype and enters Week 1 as the committee head tallying 13-15 touches per game. The rookie lands inside the RB top-24 in PPR leagues when the dust settles. Crowell serves as his primary complement on early downs toting the rock 8-12 times per game. West backs up both totaling just a handful of touches per week. 

5. Tennessee Titans – Bishop Sankey (127.1) vs. David Cobb (126.9)

A face-to-face encounter with a ticked off grizzly may be more attractive than owning a Titans RB, but there's hope someone, anyone will provide serviceability in 12-team and deeper leagues. Indisputably, Tennessee was a fantasy wasteland last year. Though the offensive line ranked middle-of-the-pack, vertical inadequacies combined with a substandard ground game created a sense of resentment for those invested. Ken Whisenhunt will feature more spread and read-option elements for rookie Marcus Mariota. If the former Duck performs, even adequately, he should spark the rushing attack. Sankey was indeed stanky in his first year. He averaged a dismal 3.74 yards per carry and ranked second-to-last in breakaway percentage. However, other underlying stats lend promise. He was No. 10 in elusive rating and gained 66.4 percent of his yards after contact. If the lessons learned in '14 soak in, he could surprise in a hybrid role. According to The Tennessean he's the "odds-on favorite" to start Week 1. Cobb is a burly, powerful runner who is a better-than-advertised screen receiver and pass protector. He's sure to establish himself on early downs and at the goal-line, especially with Shonn Greene no longer on roster. The rookie has 7 TD appeal, provided the offense under Mariota registers a pulse.  

Fearless Forecast: Sankey and Cobb begin the season locked in a full-blown 50-50 timeshare. The former earns irregular work on early downs, but logs ample touches in passing situations. The latter is deployed in the red zone and occasionally on third down. Initially, each totals roughly 10-13 touches per game with Cobb tilting the scale in his favor by midseason. 


New York Giants (Rashad Jennings vs. Shane Vereen vs. Andre Williams), Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Doug Martin vs. Charles Sims), New York Jets (Chris Ivory vs. Stevan Ridley), New England Patriots (Pass-down clash: James White vs. Travaris Cadet), St. Louis Rams (Todd Gurley vs. Knee), Arizona Cardinals (Andre Ellington vs. David Johnson)

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