Every season, there is value to be found in the late rounds of a fantasy draft due to the uncertainty surrounding positional battles. This usually centers around the running back position and the workload assigned to each player during the regular season. Certain players are granted more helium than others due to being a rookie or having flashy upside, but all that really matters in the end is talent and opportunity.
Knowing where the positional battles will take place and how they are likely to turn out can give you an edge in fantasy football. A player going in the ninth round today can easily go in the fourth round tomorrow, and vice versa. That is why it is important to follow along with how teams are implementing their running backs in training camp and how they intend to use them when the games count.
Let’s take a look at the top-10 positional battles among NFL backfields to watch out for this summer.
Fantasy Football Position Battles 2021: Top 10 RB Groups To Watch In NFL Training Camp
10. New York Jets
Tevin Coleman vs. Michael Carter
Most fantasy managers will look at the Jets backfield and see newly acquired Tevin Coleman as the starter. This is a dangerous assumption. While Coleman may have been the obvious choice back when his competition for touches only included La’Mical Perine and Ty Johnson, but the Jets added a versatile back in the NFL draft. Fourth-round rookie Michael Carter is a talented weapon with superior agility, and, more importantly, has seen extended first-team reps in OTAs.
In PPR, Carter should have added value due to his receiving ability but may be held back on early downs due to being undersized. Coleman seems to be a safe bet as the starter for the time being, but Carter will certainly be involved. The question is, how much? It would be wise to invest in the 22-year-old in best-ball formats and a late addition in PPR.
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9. Houston Texans
David Johnson vs. Phillip Lindsay vs. Mark Ingram
The Texans have an intriguing trio competing for touches in the backfield. Phillip Lindsay enters as the “baby" at 27 years old, with Mark Ingram (31) and David Johnson (29) rounding out the veteran group. However, the most likely conclusion you should draw is that this is a terrible team with a massive question mark at quarterback that clouds the identity of the offense.
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Johnson is likely to open the season atop the depth chart, but this situation has the ability to produce a different lead back each week, with the production being lackluster at best. If you wanted to invest in the Texans backfield, it might be worth waiting out training camp for a bit of clarity, but overall this is a running back committee to avoid. The smart choice, if desperate, would be to take a shot at Linsday. The former Bronco posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2018-19 and could end up as the starter in Houston.
8. Detroit Lions
D’Andre Swift vs. Jamaal Williams
Did you know that the Lions generated the fifth-most points in PPR formats in 2020? Of course, this could be a moot point with Anthony Lynn being brought in as the new offensive coordinator, but if anything, that is an exciting development considering the success Lynn has had with Austin Ekeler and Melvin Gordon in Los Angeles.
D’Andre Swift would seem like the de facto choice to take over as “the man" in Detroit following the release of Kerryon Johnson, but the addition of former Packer Jamaal Williams should not go unnoticed. Lynn has already stated that Williams could be installed as the primary early-down back in the offense, with Swift being used more in the Ekeler-type role. This would certainly cause fantasy managers to pull their hair out, just as it did for Aaron Jones shareholders in the past.
There is no argument that Swift is the superior weapon on offense, but it’s his receiving ability that makes the 22-year-old standout. Only Alvin Kamara, James White, Myles Gaskin, Nyhiem Hines, and Ekeler carried a higher average in yards per route run last season. The issue was Swift’s middling production on the ground, generating lower-third ranks in missed tackles and yards after contact.
This is not saying Swift will not improve in those areas, as he most likely will. However, the Detroit backfield production, like many others, will come down to roles. Traning camp and early season looks may determine the long-term value for both Swift and Williams.
Swift has the ability to be a talented three-down back in the NFL, but the presence of Williams will likely bar that from happening this season. In PPR formats, Swift will have an opportunity to produce at a very high level in Lynn’s offense, even in an old-school Ekeler role, but Williams should see plenty of work and be a nice value in standard formats.
Be sure not to reach too early in fantasy drafts for Swift, as his talent may exceed his opportunity this season, but his current ADP is very appealing.
7. Las Vegas Raiders
Josh Jacobs vs. Kenyan Drake
This situation is all about how the Raiders view Josh Jacobs. Since being drafted, the 23-year-old has caught just 53 passes and been used primarily as a ground attack running back. If that is the case, Kenyan Drake may have been brought in simply to fill that void and not be a threat to Jacobs’ early-down duties.
The bad news for Jacobs and his fantasy shareholders is that his role has little chance of expanding this season while carrying the possibility of slipping. Drake may very well have been brought in as a complementary piece as a polished receiving back, but he has also proven that he can handle early-down work. If anything, there is one running back on the Raiders that has the ability to be the every-down lead back, and that isn’t Jacobs.
All signs point to this being a committee for 2021, but the fantasy value for both will be determined by how much Jon Gruden plans to use Drake.
6. Arizona Cardinals
Chase Edmonds vs. James Conner
Fantasy players will want a piece of the Cardinals offense due to the number of plays the offense runs, but last season Deandre Hopkins and Kenyan Drake accounted for 42% of the team’s overall fantasy production from their skill players. If you add in the mobile nature of quarterback Kyler Murray, there are three primary players that account for the skill position points in Arizona.
So what does this mean for Chase Edmonds and James Conner?
First, Drake is gone. This season will be a battle between fourth-year running back Edmonds and the newly-acquired Conner. The pre-camp favorite to land the job is Edmonds, but we have seen this movie before. The Cardinals have planned to give the reigns to Edmonds in the past, only to turn around and place him in the backseat. It is worth noting that head coach Kliff Kingsbury referred to Edmonds as Arizona’s potential “bell-cow," so for now, that certainly indicates a willingness to let him get his shot.
Conner signed a one-year, $1.75 million contract over the offseason, so there is no obligation to give the former Steelers back a featured role. However, 70% of the Cardinals’ carries within the five-yard line are up for grabs, and Edmonds has just one goal-line carry over the past two seasons. On the other hand, Conner is an accomplished runner inside the five, and there are reports that Murray is unlikely to run as often this season.
As of now, it looks like Edmonds is in line to be the featured back to start the season. However, it’s unlikely he will see many touchdown opportunities unless he creates his own from inside the 20. If Conner can carve out a large enough role in the offense, he could end up being the superior fantasy option in standard leagues, even with fewer carries. However, no running back saw more snaps from the slot than Edmonds in 2020, with only Kamara generating more receptions within the 20-yard line. As a result, Edmonds should receive a boost in PPR formats, and his receiving ability may be his ticket to breaking out this season after he and Drake combine for 78 receptions and 15 touchdowns last season.
Both running back options present an opportunity for value in fantasy drafts, but Edmonds is certainly in line to take on a strong workload and could be a steal at his current ADP. This is a situation to monitor.
5. Buffalo Bills
Zach Moss vs. Devin Singletary vs. Matt Breida
The issue in Buffalo is that in the 13 games Zach Moss and Devin Singletary played together, they were completely useless fantasy assets. In that time span, Moss finished as the RB34 while Singletary fell as the RB40. A lot of this has to do with the fact that the Bills’ best running back is the quarterback, Josh Allen.
Singletary led the Bills in both rushing attempts and yards last season, but was unable to reach double-digits in carries once Moss became a stronger part of the rotation after Week 13. If it were just the two of them entering the 2021 campaign, Moss would seem to be the back with more upside, as he is far more explosive while having the ability to make catches out of the backfield. However, the Bills seem to favor Singletary more as a third-down option, and incoming veteran Matt Breida clouds matters further — not that he’s likely to be a factor in fantasy leagues.
The bottom line is that even though the Bills have an outstanding offense, they have yet to give a reason to suggest that Singletary or Moss will be a large part of their production. Allen, aside from his rushing ability, has the lowest check-down rate in the NFL among quarterbacks with at least 250 pass attempts. So not only will the Bills backfield take a backseat to Allen on the ground, but they are unlikely to see much from him through the air, either.
This is a situation to avoid, but if you wanted to speculate, do so with Moss. The Bills have a top-five offense, and Moss seems to have a leg up on possibly taking over the lead role. If Buffalo ever decides to remove some of the weight from Allen’s shoulders, there could be a monster workload waiting in the wings. Should you expect this to happen? Nope. Should you draft Moss with the expectations that he can be an every-week back for you? Nope. However, at an ADP currently in the eighth round, why not take a shot?
4. Denver Broncos
Melvin Gordon vs. Javonte Williams
Phillip Lindsay is now part of the three-headed veteran group of backs in Houston, leaving Melvin Gordon to finally have a backfield to himself. No more Ekeler. No more Lindsay. Right?
The Broncos decided to invest a second-round pick into Javonte Williams in this year’s draft, and they did not do it for him to ride the bench. The North Carolina back was an analytics darling in college and is widely expected to be the franchise back in Denver.
Gordon will undoubtedly open the season as the backfield leader, but it may not take long for that to change. Williams generated over 1,000 yards last season with the Tar Heels due to his phenomenal 7.3 yards per carry and found the end zone 22 times on 182 touches.
ADP will go a long way in determining who is the better value in Denver, but training camp will certainly be interesting to watch.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Leonard Fournette vs. Ronald Jones
The Tampa Bay backfield is both exciting and a nightmare. If either Leonard Fournette or Ronald Jones were to win the job outright, the fantasy implications would be tremendous. Unfortunately, the Buccaneers seem hell-bent on sticking with a two-man rotation. At least it appears that way.
Fournette seemed to be in the driver’s seat during the postseason, averaging 21.7 FPPG in the playoffs. However, Jones also showed flashes during the regular season, generating 100-plus-yard games in Weeks 4-6. If Fournette carries momentum from the postseason into 2021, he would be the clear choice in fantasy drafts, but Bruce Arians is far more likely to stick with a committee while both backs are healthy.
The situation was made even more timid with the offseason addition of Giovani Bernard, who has caught at least 30 passes out of the backfield in every season of his career.
Tampa Bay may pick a favorite to lead the charge out of the backfield. After all, Jones was only pulled back from the lead role due to hampering injures (finger/calf) and being placed on the COVID list. Fournette may have had a successful run in the postseason, but Jones is the superior runner.
If you are a zero-RB fanatic, the Tampa Bay backfield may be for you. The offense is stacked and should put plenty of points on the board. If either Fournette or Jones (preferred option) cement themselves in a lead role, you will be drafting them at their floor with nothing but ceiling above it. Just be sure to buy some aspirin.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars
James Robinson vs. Travis Etienne
James Robinson had a tremendous season in 2020, rushing for 1,070 yards on 240 carries with seven touchdowns on the ground (344 yards and 3 TD through the air). However, this was not enough to stop Urban Meyer and the Jaguars from selecting Travis Etienne in the first round of the draft.
It’s entirely possible that Etienne starts as a third-down back with Robinson controlling the early-down work, but it’s hard to imagine Jacksonville would spend such draft capital on a passing-down back. There have been rumors that Etienne could also be used as a receiver, but that seems hard to believe. The former Clemson Tiger is a special three-down talent who could easily take over as the Jaguars lead back, but it is far from a certainty as Robinson will still be featured heavily with veteran Carlos Hyde coming in for the occasional vulture touchdown.
The Jacksonville backfield should make for one of the more interesting situations to follow in training camp, considering the massive workload available for anyone who calls the lead role. Meyer certainly had a plan in mind when he drafted Etienne. Now we just have to sit back and see what that plan is.
1. San Francisco 49ers
Raheem Mostert vs. Trey Sermon vs. Jeff Wilson vs. Wayne Gallman
We know one thing for certain: The 49ers are going to run the ball. However, that is where the certainty ends in San Francisco.
Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson flashed major fantasy upside last season, but they also showed an inability to stay on the field. Add in the third-round selection of Trey Sermon and you have a very interesting backfield with no clear leader, although Mostert will likely be given that opportunity.
Wilson led the 49ers with 10 touchdowns last season, while Mostert was the default leader before being sidelined with an injury. Either has the ability to capture the lead job and produce at a high level in this offense. However, if neither can stay on the field (like last season), Sermon will be waiting to swoop in and take advantage with his excellent burst speed. Especially with Wilson starting the season on the PUP list, which could open up an opportunity for Wayne Gallman to get involved.
The smart money is on a full-blown committee led by Mostert, who could end up being a tremendous value in drafts, but Sermon has a chance to be a difference-maker in San Francisco as well and should be considered in mid-to-late rounds.