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Five crucial fantasy football storylines to track in NFL training camp

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What’s real in Dallas?

Television producers and editorial programmers rejoice!

There is so much to talk about with the Dallas Cowboys over the next month.

The obvious storyline to follow out of Cowboys camp is just how healthy Dak Prescott is. Everyone is all smiling right now. We need it to play out in reality with a clean, no-hiccups training camp.

We also need to decide just how real the latest “Best Shape of His Life” season is for Ezekiel Elliott:

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Seemingly every other year, Elliott comes to training camp in terrific shape, rocked up and ready to enjoy an excellent season.

Let’s just say all the other years contain ... different headlines.

It looks like we’re on a good year! As long as that’s reality, there’s really nothing holding Elliott back from contending for the RB1 overall spot.

The Tony Pollard fear is more of a manufactured hysteria on fantasy twitter than a reflection of reality. The Cowboys have never, not once, shown any inclination to cede Elliott’s work to Pollard when the former is healthy. This is the Dallas Cowboys — Zeke is getting that ball.

The only stumbling block for fantasy managers is whether Elliott, after a boatload of work to start his career, is cooked. We’re starting to get good signals out of camp that’s anything but the case. As long as the good vibes continue with Elliott and Prescott, I’ll be tempted to creep him into my top-three at the position.

Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott, right, gives directions to running back Ezekiel Elliott (21)
Ezekiel Elliott and Dak Prescott are together again. (AP Photo/LM Otero)

Lastly, I want to see some follow-through on Mike McCarthy’s desire to move these Cowboys receivers around a bit more in 2021. Amari Cooper is starting camp on the PUP list, which does complicate matters. The sooner we see him, CeeDee Lamb, and Michael Gallup all working together and taking reps at a variety of receiver positions, the more excited I’ll be.

Lamb moving out of the slot a bit more would give him the type of ceiling he’ll need to easily access the higher end of his range of outcomes. Cooper is best deployed out of the slot and in the flanker spot for more layups. Gallup not being pigeon-holed at the X-receiver position would smooth out the variance his usage brought in 2020.

Tracking how these receivers line up in camp is just another critical story during this preseason. Get ready for wall-to-wall Dallas coverage.

Darrell Henderson’s treatment

In my personal rankings post-Cam Akers fallout, I immediately felt comfortable vaulting Darrell Henderson over the dull running back range occupied by the Mike Davis' and Myles Gaskins' of the world.

The more I’ve thought about it, I’m not sure what’s stopping Henderson from having a better shot at reaching a top-10 running back finish than players like Miles Sanders, D’Andre Swift, or J.K. Dobbins. I’m itching to rank Henderson RB17 ahead of those electric young runners.

But that’s contingent on the Rams sharing my belief that Henderson isn’t just some typically overvalued backup running back, but a legitimately good rusher.

When he got starts last year, Henderson was explosive and received positive reviews. When injuries struck, the Rams were quick to turn to Cam Akers and never look back. Akers is probably a better back than Henderson, so that made sense, but we still need that move to be more of a “says something good about Akers” than “the Rams don’t really trust Henderson” type of deal.

The way Sean McVay doles out carries to Henderson and other backs on the roster in camp will speak volumes — as will their activity on the transaction wire at the position.

Ben Roethlisberger’s status

When you look at industry consensus rankings, something doesn’t add up in Pittsburgh.

Najee Harris has instantly been crowned a top-13 running back. Two of the Steelers' wide receivers are inside the top-30 and all three are in the top-40. That’s a lot of offensive optimism.

And yet, no one wants anything to do with Ben Roethlisberger, buried all the way down at QB22. That simply doesn’t make any sense.

We all know the risks with Roethlisberger individually. He limped to the finish line in 2020, then pulled a surprise by returning to the NFL after a teary playoff loss to Cleveland. All that’s true but there’s no denying we need Roethlisberger to be an average-to-slightly-above-average passer for all these skill-position guys to hit ADP.

Roethlisberger’s “no excuse/excuse” comment on his arm not being at its best after an elbow surgery does actually makes sense. It’s far from the only question about the quarterback at this stage but if you entertain the possibility he can offer one last solid season, you can get excited about Pittsburgh’s offense once more. The talent around him is real.

Of course, we’ll need to see some real evidence he’s trending in the right direction. Our first glimpse was a picture that made the rounds early this week:

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We’ll be needing a lot more than that, but, still. It’s a start.

The Steelers have surrounded Roethlisberger with enough good young players that he doesn’t need to carry them to glory anymore. He just needs to be a facilitator who meets them halfway. Tracking whether he can even be that will be crucial.

Aaron Rodgers melodrama

The most utterly exhausting storyline of the NFL offseason sadly must stay squarely on our radar.

The constant churn of Aaron Rodgers news continues to push elite players like Davante Adams and Aaron Jones down draft boards in early best ball leagues ... even if the “news” hasn’t materially changed since the NFL Draft.

Honestly, we have no idea when Rodgers will show up. Fun.

So, we wait. That’s about all there is to this one. The most likely outcome is that Rodgers angrily returns to Green Bay and takes snaps for the Packers this year. It’s far too late in the calendar to get a trade done and the Packers have no incentive to do it either way.

Rodgers’ status doesn’t just matter for the stars, however. It might be even more consequential for players on the fringes.

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A.J. Dillon is a guy that I’ve been warming to at ADP. Unlike the Tony Pollard- or Alexander Mattison-type running back insurance players, Dillon can take on some weekly usability as a “what the heck FLEX” option if he simply takes on Jamaal Williams’ old role. And of course, the possibility for a massive ceiling exists were Aaron Jones ever to miss time.

All of this only exists in a theoretical world where Rodgers is the Packers’ quarterback. So, we wait.

Odell Beckham Jr.’s re-integration

Every Odell Beckham headline out of Cleveland right now is dripping with positivity about his condition post-ACL injury.

From quarterback Baker Mayfield to BFF and wideout teammate Jarvis Landry, everyone is excited. Maybe I’m a sucker but count me among the enthused.

My review of Beckham from last season’s games showed while he’s not the same legendary type player that took the field for the Giants, he’s still an excellent No. 1 wide receiver on an individual basis. He was much better as a separator and far more explosive than he was in Year 1 with the Browns.

It’s a bummer that we have yet another injury wrench thrown into the equation here. However, the 2020 version of Beckham layered on top of an offense that was firing on all cylinders late last year would be the icing on the cake.

Don’t for a second believe all this “Beckham and Mayfield just don’t have chemistry” nonsense.

The fact that Mayfield struggled in 2019 and the first few games of 2020 (an overlap with Beckham’s tenure) is just a matter of coincidence. Other factors could be the reason for Mayfield’s issues, not Beckham. Correlation does not equal causation.

Mayfield got comfortable with a new offense late in the year after a pandemic-ruined offseason. That’s the main reason he got hot late. Adding a No. 1 wide receiver should just make that better, not ruin it. Beckham’s re-emergence as a routine difference-maker wouldn’t just be great for the player’s own fantasy outlook, but it would raise the ceiling of this entire offense.

For that reason, I’ll be closely monitoring every drip of news about his status in training camp.