Positional Battles, Fantasy Football Leverage And Upside Drafting
Projecting playing time in fantasy football is by far the most important element of creating winning teams and good overall projections. In June and July, not all of the positional battles are even close to decided for NFL teams. As such, there is some variability in projecting these situations out for fantasy football. We can handicap them to the best of our abilities, or make educated guesses past on past performance and historical coaching choices but some situations don’t have a clear answer this early in the fantasy football drafting process. A few of these in-flux positional battles will actually have a massive ramification on seasonal fantasy football titles in 2019 and with early information, RotoExperts subscribers can push those edges. The following positional battles’ winners are likely to be a fantasy football starter and we’ll attempt to handicap these battles in this space.
2019 Fantasy Football Positional Battles
Pittsburgh Steelers Wide Receivers Behind JuJu Smith-Shuster: James Washington vs. Donte Moncrief vs. Ryan Switzer
While most of the discussion about how the Pittsburgh Steelers passing game will shake out has centered on Vance McDonald’s expanded role, whether Jaylen Samuels will play passing downs and who will win the boundary job between James Washington and Donte Moncrief, we shouldn’t forget about Ryan Switzer. Switzer was a college stud with way above average kick returning production (a precursor of NFL success) who performed well in spot duty for the Steelers last year. With Antonio Brown out of town, it is likely that Smith-Shuster will play less “big slot” and more on the outside. The most likely outcome, for me, is that the Steelers base personnel is actually Smith-Shuster, Switzer, Moncrief, McDonald and James Conner. The team paid Moncrief real money to play on the boundary so the real battle actually seems to be between Switzer and Washington. Switzer played in more games and had more targets than both Eli Rogers and Washington did last year and reports from Steelers OTA’s are that Switzer played well and seems like the favorite for slot duties in 2019. Handicapping the Steelers targets behind Smith-Shuster should break down like this: winner between Washington/Moncrief, McDonald, James Conner, Ryan Switzer with the loser of the Washington/Moncrief battle falling somewhere between Conner and McDonald as a rotational fourth wide receiver. The winner of those starting wide receivers jobs in Pittsburgh is a real fantasy asset worth drafting and holding, even if the battle takes some time in the regular season to shake out.
Philadelphia Eagles Backfield: Miles Sanders vs Jordan Howard
The Eagles project to have one of the better offenses in the NFL but their backfield is far from clear. In 2018, five running backs received more than 29 carries (including Darren Sproles who was mostly a passing down back) and all of Jay Ayjai, Corey Clement, Wendall Smallwood, and Josh Adams started a game as the primary running back. To muddy the waters more, the team let Jay Ayjai go while trading a sixth-round pick for Jordan Howard and then drafting Penn State’s Mile Sanders. It is relatively safe to assume that if they make the team, Clement/Adams/Smallwood would be used in only complementary roles to Howard and/or Sanders. Reporting from Philadelphia OTA’s seems to suggest the team plans on using both Howard and Sanders’ in complementary roles, at least to start the season. I have been treating both as pretty volatile commodities in fantasy football drafts but acknowledge the ceiling for both. We are not far removed from the Wentz/Pederson Eagles finishing third in the NFL in points and seventh in yards in 2017. In that scenario, both Sanders and Howard have decent potential value but would cannibalize each others’ ceilings if they both were playing roughly the same amount. Sanders is my preferred target between the two because he would project for more passing down work (though Howard has talked up his pass-catching abilities throughout the OTA period).
New England Patriots Tight End: Ben Watson vs. Stephen Anderson vs. Matt LaCosse
We analyzed what might happen to the New England Patriots tight end position in our Five Legitimate Sleepers At Tight End piece but that was before the revelation that Austin Sefarin-Jenkins would not be on the team. As it stands now, the Patriots tight end depth chart is the suspended Ben Watson and newly acquired Stephen Anderson (from the Texans) and Matt LaCosee (from the Broncos). One thing I am fairly certain of is that the Patriots are still going to target their tight end, even if it isn’t Rob Gronkowski. Last year, New England dedicated only 165 of their targets to boundary wide receivers (and one of those guys was Josh Gordon; he’s pretty good). In 2017, Brandin Cooks lead the team in targets as a semi-boundary wide receiver and in 2016, the most boundary targets any player had was Chris Hogan with 58. Tom Brady has reached a stage of his career where his deep ball is unreliable and he would rather target running backs, slot wide receivers and tight ends closer to the line of scrimmage. Reading the tea leaves from what little information we get from Patriots OTA’s, it sort of seems like Stephen Anderson is leading this fairly mediocre pack of players. That would make intuitive sense to me, as Anderson is the best athlete of the bunch and had a few flashes of difference-making in Houston last year. LaCosse is the sort of diaper-waddling backup tight end that the NFL is full of but as a capable blocker and acceptable route-runner, he could have a role in this offense as well. The Patriots are notoriously tight-lipped and protective of playing time information but there is a fairly decent chance these players become hot waiver wire adds after we see New England hit the field in the regular season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Backfield: Ronald Jones vs. Peyton Barber vs. Bruce Anderson
Figuring out who is going to lead this backfield in touches is really important for the overall picture of fantasy football in 2019. Our projections are very high on the Buccaneers 2019 offense, with Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, O.J Howard and even Cameron Brate projected as values at their ADP. However, the playing time situation at running back is very muddy. Ronald Jones managed only 23 carries last season with nine targets in the passing game. The departed Jacquizz Rodgers lead the backfield in targets with 45 while Peyton Barber had 234 rushing attempts and five rushing touchdowns. Right now, Tampa Bay tentatively expects Ronald Jones to be their lead back and new head coach Bruce Arians has even espoused some #RunningBacksDoNotMatter rhetoric which should actually be inspiring for Jones’ backers. My hope is that Jones does win this job outright and plays in a role somewhat similar to what Arians lead backs have done in the past (David Johnson, Rashard Mendenhall, Willie Parker). The most likely scenario is some sort of un-profitable split between Jones and Barber with Bruce Anderson/Andre Ellington playing minimal snaps on passing downs as the third running back on the roster. However, with how highly we have the Tampa Bay offense projected overall, there is enough of a chance that Jones wins the job outright that I am willing to keep drafting him at this current ADP in the eighth round.
Jacksonville Wide Receivers: D.J Chark vs. Marquise Lee vs. Dede Westbrook
I have to begrudgingly admit that DeDe Westbrook is not an utter shoe-in for the most targets in the Jacksonville passing game. The team actually spent more draft capital acquiring D.J Chark with a 2018 NFL Draft second-rounder used to get him on the team. Marquise Lee was the teams’ top wide receiver before missing 2018 entirely with a knee injury, and apparently, he is ahead of schedule with his rehab. Westbrook lead the team in targets last year but Lee was gone, Chark was a rookie and Donte Moncrief (now in Pittsburgh) was actually the leader in Air Yards for the team. I’m fairly confident that Nick Foles is better for offensive efficiency than Blake Bortles and that the Jaguars will lean more pass-heavy with John DeFilippo as their offensive coordinator than in years past. DeFilippo has been an OC twice and finished 11th and sixth in the NFL in pass attempts in those seasons, so the winner of this positional battle definitely matters for fantasy. Westbrook does seem like a lock for the important slot work but there is unexplored upside with Chark while Lee lead the team in targets the last time we saw him healthy. All three are worth drafting at their ADP but we might see the ADP’s of Chark and Lee rise throughout the preseason.
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