Top fantasy training camp battles: Who Dak Prescott targets, Patriots backfield and more

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Is <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/players/27658/" data-ylk="slk:James White">James White</a> ready to assume a bigger role in the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nfl/teams/nwe" data-ylk="slk:Patriots">Patriots</a>’ offense? (AP Photo/Steven Senne)
Is James White ready to assume a bigger role in the Patriots’ offense? (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Training camp is always an essential building block to a successful year. There are new additions acquired through free agency, trade or the NFL draft that must get accustomed. There are new coaches in place and new schemes to fit. And determining who will fill those schemes is always a major question. As with every year, there are position battles and questions aplenty coming into the 2018 season. Here are some that will have the biggest impact on the fantasy landscape:

1. Who emerges as Dak Prescott’s favorite target(s)?

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For the past decade or so, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten have been cornerstones of the Dallas Cowboys franchise. They helped Tony Romo become the team’s all-time leading passer. They eased the transition from Romo to Dak Prescott. They’ve been the top two most-targeted Cowboys since Bryant broke into the league in 2010. It will be strange to see neither on the field, but if the Cowboys want to take advantage of their promising young quarterback, terrific young running back and outstanding offensive line, they need someone to step up out wide.

Slot man Cole Beasley is the only sure thing, but he needs others around him so he can work underneath. Terrance Williams is the other wideout with a long tenure with the team, but he broke his foot this offseason. Williams never really emerged as a strong No. 2 opposite Bryant, and he didn’t reach the end zone once in 2017.

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The “clear No. 1” this offseason has been former Jaguar Allen Hurns, according to Marcus Mosher. Hurns is a long, strong red zone weapon who caught 10 touchdowns back in 2015. But he’s missed 11 games over the past two seasons and only thrived in 2015 thanks to the exploits of Allen Robinson on the other side of the formation. Can he thrive as the true top target? The team also has third-round pick Michael Gallup, who earned high praise from Jerry Jones, and 6-foot-5 sixth-round pick Cedrick Wilson. Tavon Austin’s also in the mix hoping to resurrect his career.

As for tight end, it’s a huge question mark. Witten was targeted at least 87 times every season except his rookie campaign. His absence leaves a gaping hole. Geoff Swaim and Blake Jarwin (who?) are in line to get most of the work, per Bryan Broaddus.

2. Who’s with Tom Brady in the Patriots’ backfield?

Surprise! We enter another training camp with practically every spot on the New England running back depth chart completely up for grabs. This year’s candidates are James White, Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Brandon Bolden, Jeremy Hill, Sony Michel and Ralph Webb. Yes, that’s every running back on the roster and yes, any of them could be a legitimate contributor.

White figures to be the safest bet after a solid Super Bowl (66 total yards and a score), and Burkhead is under a big (for Patriots’ standards) contract and also offers value as a pass catcher. Beyond that, though, it’s tough to say. Michel, a first-round pick, should fit in somewhere with his well-rounded skill set, and he’s used to splitting time after doing so with Nick Chubb at Georgia last year. Jeremy Hill, Brandon Bolden and Mike Gillislee all seem to offer the same thing: a big bruising presence near the goal line. And Webb’s the all-time leading rusher at Vanderbilt.

Figuring out the Patriots backfield — or at least attempting to — can be a major boom or major bust. The team has had a top-20 PPR back in three of the past four seasons, but each time it’s been a different player: Shane Vereen in 2014, LeGarrette Blount in 2016 and Dion Lewis in 2017. None of those three are even on the team any more. There could be surprise cuts, and there will certainly be some frustrating weeks. Last year, Gillislee scored three times in Week 1, fantasy owners scrambled to get him, and then he scored just twice more the rest of the year.

3. Are Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis really 1A and 1B?

The Titans brought in Lewis this offseason as a do-it-all back who will pair nicely with Marcus Mariota as a reliable option. And in Matt LaFleur’s offense, a pass-catching back is key. The Titans already have Derrick Henry in place, though, and he has impressed too. LaFleur described his two backs as “1A and 1B” in OTAs but also admitted that could change as the season approaches. In all likelihood, training camp will show whether this is a true time share in the Tennessee backfield or whether one surges ahead of the other.

4. Is Derrius Guice ready for a starter’s workload in Washington?

Guice was regarded as one of the best running back prospects in the draft, but he plummeted to Washington at the end of the second round due to character concerns. No more details have emerged about said concerns in the months after the draft, and expectations are high for Guice. Washington hasn’t had a 1,000-yard rusher since Alfred Morris in 2014.

Opinions are split among our experts on Guice’s fantasy impact in his debut campaign. Guice runs with violence and speed, can make people miss at the second level and seems to be a legitimate early down back for a team that has lacked exactly that. On the other hand, Guice was at his best as a sophomore at LSU, when he backed up Leonard Fournette, and while he was still very good as a junior, he was banged up throughout and not quite the same. Furthermore, the Redskins already have pass-catching dynamo Chris Thomspon (11th in PPR points per game last year) in place, and he should get almost all of the snaps on third down. Guice currently has an ADP inside the top 50, but monitor his usage throughout the preseason.

Derrius Guice has been all smiles so far, and the Redskins need him to produce as a rookie. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Derrius Guice has been all smiles so far, and the Redskins need him to produce as a rookie. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

5. How do the Browns divide running back workloads?

For the first time in a while, there’s legitimate intrigue in Cleveland’s fantasy prospects, and running back offers plenty of promise. First, there’s the holdover, Duke Johnson. He was 11th among running backs in PPR scoring last year, and given Tyrod Taylor’s penchant for checking the ball down, he seems to be a good bet for another strong campaign. Johnson finished inside the top four among running backs in targets, receptions, yards per touch and juke rate last year, per Player Profiler.

Then there’s Carlos Hyde, a signing this offseason that somehow went pretty much completely under-the-radar. Hyde, at only 27, accumulated over 1,000 total yards each of the past two seasons and caught 59 passes last year, even though that’s not exactly his strong suit. He was the No. 8 RB in PPR scoring last year. He’s a very solid player overall, and when the Browns signed him to go alongside Johnson, they seemed to be set at the position. Then they went out and drafted Georgia’s Nick Chubb. How all three work together — and if they work together — is certainly a storyline to follow.

Other training camp questions to keep an eye on:

  • Speaking of the Browns, when does Josh Gordon return? The 2013 receiving yardage leader will miss at least the opening of training camp as he continues his comeback from past drug-related problems. In the meantime, the Browns are reportedly considering bringing in Dez Bryant.

  • Frank Gore just keeps chugging along, and Adam Gase doesn’t see that changing, but Kenyan Drake (ADP 34.8) provides more speed and is a significant upgrade catching the ball. Will Gore gobble up 250-plus carries again, as he’s done the last seven years in a row, or will Drake show his impressive finish to last year is a sign of things to come?

  • Mohamed Sanu has put up very solid numbers opposite Julio Jones in Atlanta, but the Falcons took Calvin Ridley as the first receiver off the board this year. Is Ridley ready to become a legitimate contributor for a team expecting to contend for a championship? Brad Evans and Liz Loza aren’t so sure.

  • The Packers need someone to step up opposite Davante Adams, just like the Saints need someone to step up opposite Michael Thomas. We already know both teams have terrific quarterbacks and therefore appealing fantasy situations, but does either have an answer at WR2?

  • After a legendary 15 years, the Chargers decided to part ways with Antonio Gates, only for rising star Hunter Henry to tear his ACL. Can Los Angeles coax their eight-time Pro Bowler back, or does another option, such as big-bodied 2017 first-round wide receiver Mike Williams emerge?

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