Training camp officially begins in four weeks. So close … and yet, so far. Because while we're not far from the return of the daily deluge of news that camp brings, we're also currently stuck in the absolute slowest part of the year.
With minicamps done, everyone is preparing for the real competitions to come. That means we're left with beat writers either taking their last time off until January or trying to fill column inches with leftovers from camp. We'll have a ton of news to talk about soon, but for the next four weeks, don't expect to see much news in your inbox.
But the Fantasy Football Today team is still here. We're still doing five episodes of the podcast every week, plus a stream on our YouTube page every Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. And I'll still be here to bring you the latest analysis from our team as we get you ready for the 2021 Fantasy season.
Today, that means a look at the biggest backfield battles to keep an eye on in training camp and a breakdown of whether 2020 marked the end of streaming quarterbacks as a winning strategy.
But first, here's what you may have missed from the FFT team lately:
- Dynasty mailbag on Tua Tagovailoa's upside, buy-low RBs and more by Heath Cummings
- FFT: An early-round road map
- Team Previews: Raiders | Chargers | Rams | Dolphins | Vikings
- The State of TE for 2021 by Jamey Eisenberg
- Scott Fish Bowl Mock Draft by Jamey Eisenberg
- Complete guide to the 2021 rookie class by Dave Richard
We break down late-round wideout options like Corey Davis, Rondale Moore, Sterling Shepard, Henry Ruggs and Mike Williams on the Fantasy Football Today in 5 podcast. Listen below and follow at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts:
Top RB battles to watch
On Tuesday's episode of FFT, Adam Aizer, Dave Richard, and I talked about the biggest running back battles to watch out for in training camp. What separates the RB battles you need to know about from the ones that aren't particularly interesting? Well, it comes down to two factors:
- Is it an actual battle?
- Is it a competition we actually care about?
On the first part, I would say Buffalo has a real position battle on its hands -- coaches refused to name a lead back during minicamp -- and Miami doesn't, to name just two examples. The Bills may know internally who they want to be the lead back, but by all indications, they're going to give Devin Singletary and Zack Moss a chance to win the job. Whereas in Miami, I don't see any reason to think Myles Gaskin won't be the lead back for as long as he can stay healthy. He played at least 61% of the snaps in every game he played in 2020, while backup Salvon Ahmed played 61% or more in each of the three games he started without Gaskin as well. Miami seems to want to use one back as the lead, and I haven't seen any reason to think Malcolm Brown will meaningfully push him for playing time.
And for the second part … well, let's talk about the Bills again. Sure, it's a competition. But I don't really care much about who wins it. The Bills scored the third-fewest Fantasy points by running backs last season, and they're bottom three in the league every season Josh Allen has been the starter. Allen's mobility makes dumping off to his backs something of an afterthought, and his goal-line dominance limits opportunities for those valuable in-close touches. Singletary or Moss could be valuable if they get the lead role, but it's hard to see either being a must-start option in this offense, which means it's not a competition I'm all that interested in.
Here are five I really am interested in:
- 49ers -- The 49ers created the third-most Fantasy points for running backs last season, and that's not out of line with what they did in 2019. Raheem Mostert should be the lead back, so I don't think this is a true competition, especially because we know Kyle Shanahan wants to use multiple backs even when he does have a lead option. There is plenty of room for both Mostert and Trey Sermon to be Fantasy relevant, but if Sermon could earn that 1a role in camp, he could shoot into the third or fourth-round range of drafts.
- Lions -- The Lions were, rather stunningly, fifth in PPR points for running backs in 2020. They did have a coaching change, but in this case, the addition of Anthony Lynn probably doesn't change the calculus much -- Lynn's offense created plenty of value for Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler in the past. D'Andre Swift figures to be the lead back, but Lynn has talked about using Jamaal Williams as his primary rusher, with Swift in more of an Ekeler role. Swift has top-five potential if he's the primary runner and pass catcher, but Williams could be a sneaky mid-round pick if he ends up getting 12-15 carries per week.
- Cardinals -- The Cardinals were more middle of the pack in RB production in 2020, Kenyan Drake and Chase Edmonds still combined for 15 touchdowns and 78 receptions, so it's a plenty valuable spot. Edmonds is still here, and the question is whether James Conner steps into Drake's role -- 15.9 carries, 2.1 targets per game -- or if Edmonds takes on more of a lead role. If he does, his current sixth-round ADP could be a steal.
- Jaguars -- This is another one where I'm not sure there's actually a competition between James Robinson and Travis Etienne, though we also have the added complication of not knowing exactly how Urban Meyer's offense will operate. In college he was a run-first guy, and his public comments indicate it'll be similar here. That should benefit Robinson, assuming he remains the lead back with Etienne perhaps taking on more of an Alvin Kamara role. As I noted in my Jaguars team preview, Meyer admitted he would have taken WR Kadarius Toney if he had been there when they picked instead of Etienne, which indicates they may view Etienne more as an all-around playmaker rather than true competition for Robinson as the lead back.
- Buccaneers -- If either Leonard Fournette or Ronald Jones ended up truly winning a competition here, it would be very easy to get excited about the winner for Fantasy. We saw exactly why for stretches last season, like when Fournette averaged 21.7 PPR points in four playoff games or when Jones had three 100-yard games in a row from Weeks 4 through 6, averaging 20.1 points in that span. My concern here is it's going to be like last year, however, when more often than not, there was no real difference between the two of them, rendering both as just low-end starting options at best. Oh, and the Buccaneers have Giovani Bernard, who could be the first real James White analogue they'd had since they got Tom Brady.
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QB streaming still possible?
We've always stressed not paying up for the elite quarterbacks in Fantasy, because they just didn't give you a big enough edge to justify the cost. Streaming quarterbacks has always been a viable strategy -- there are usually enough options each week that you can string together a top-10 QB season that way.
However, in 2020, that wasn't the case. While 24 quarterbacks managed to average 20 points per game for the season, there was a definite gap between the top tier and the middle class -- 11 QB averaged 25.6 points per game, two more were at 23.4, and then QB14 through QB24 were all between 22.1 and 20.0. It was easier than ever to find a decent QB, but with the high end of the position playing better, just getting decent production was leaving you in a big hole.
Because those elite quarterbacks made up more of the high-end games than usual, too. According to TJ Hernandez of 4 for 4 Fantasy Football -- whose tweets inspired this analysis -- just 43.8% of top 12 weekly finishes by quarterbacks in 2020 came from quarterbacks who finished outside of the top 12 in total Fantasy points; in 2019, 50.5% did. At the higher end, it was even more pronounced -- 66.7% of top-six weekly finishes came from QBs who finished outside the top six, compared to just 55% in 2020.
Aaron Rodgers, Kyler Murray, Deshaun Watson, Josh Allen, Lamar Jackson, Tom Brady, Kirk Cousins, and Patrick Mahomes all had at least 10 top-12 finishes, and Russell Wilson, Justin Herbert, and Ryan Tannehill all had at least eight; Matt Ryan and Derek Carr had seven each. That's your top 13 in QB scoring for the season, and while that doesn't come as much of a surprise, they were also the only QBs with more than five top-12 finishes. Drew Brees, Gardner Minshew, and Ryan Fitzpatrick were the only QBs outside of that top 13 to finish in the top 12 in more than 40% of their games, though Taysom Hill and Jalen Hurts both did manage it in three of four starts -- if you had a good time streaming in 2020, they were probably a pretty big part of that.
Hill and Hurts also, of course, share traits with many of the high-end quarterbacks, given their rushing abilities. While nearly all quarterbacks get a majority of their production from their passing, the ability to rack up rushing yards and to find the end zone raises any quarterback's floor and ceiling. Among the players who racked up eight or more top-12 finishes, Rodgers, Brady, and Cousins were the only ones who didn't consistently contribute with their legs.
And that wasn't normal. 10 QBs rushed for at least 300 yards this season and nine had at least five rushing touchdowns, the most in at least the past five seasons in each:
- 2020: 10 had at least 300 yards; nine had at least five rushing touchdowns
- 2019: Six had at least 300 yards; three had at least five rushing touchdowns
- 2018: Nine had at least 300 yards; four had at least five rushing touchdowns
- 2017: Eight had at least 300 yards; five had at least five rushing touchdowns
- 2016: Seven had at least 300 yards; four had at least five rushing touchdowns
The question with all of this, of course, is whether this was just a one-year thing, or is this the start of a new normal? While stalwarts like Rodgers, Brady, Mahomes, Watson, Wilson, Mahomes, and Jackson counted themselves among that elite tier, so did 2020 breakouts like Allen, Murray, Herbert and Tannehill. It's not hard to believe Wilson, Mahomes, and Jackson can all be in that elite tier again, but Brady and Rodgers took huge steps forward in 2020 late in their careers, while Allen, Murray, and Tannehill played at higher levels than we've seen from them before; Herbert, heading into just his second season, has a smaller track record than the others and faded down the stretch; Watson may not even play due to the legal issues swirling around him following accusations of sexual assault.
Which brings us to another reason why this may have just been a one-season thing: A lot of these quarterbacks way exceeded expectations. Rodgers, Allen, Brady, Tannehill, and Herbert were all drafted outside of the top 90 in overall ADP last season, so is 2020 really evidence that you have to spend an early pick on a quarterback? Those five may have all begun the season as streamers, or at least parts of a QB tandem on many Fantasy teams. That they emerged as must-start players doesn't necessarily mean they'll be that again. And, it's probably a good reason to think that, like every season, there will be some high-end QBs who emerge from the late-round pack.
One of the biggest mistakes you can make playing Fantasy is to try to fight last year's battles this year. Apparent trends often turn out to have been one-year blips, and reacting to the most recent season while ignoring years of data is often a mistake.
If we do see a repeat of 2020 at the quarterback position, it very well may be difficult to compete if you are streaming the position. If that makes you want to pay up for QB even more than usual in 2021, that's not an unreasonable position to take. Just know you're going to be paying even more than usual for quarterbacks if that's the path you want to take, with six being drafted inside of the top 50 and 13 going inside of the first 90 picks in NFC ADP right now; only two went inside the top 50 and 10 went inside the top 100.
Mahomes, Allen, Murray, Jackson, and Dak Prescott are probably worth their top-50 pick status given their collective all-around excellence, and I'll throw Wilson in as one of the better values at 57.9 overall. And I like Hurts at 81.3, too. But otherwise, I'm still content to wait a little while. You can snag two of Ben Roethlisberger, Tua Tagovailoa, Jameis Winston, and Cam Newton with one of the last picks and feel pretty good about your QB position. Or, you could snag one of those guys and add Hill, Justin Fields or Trey Lance and really lock in some significant upside.
As good as the top of the QB position was last season, I'm still happy to wait.