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Training Camp Duels -- Draw! Or Die
Joe Levit
August 25, 2006

In the Wild West of yesteryear, the law of the fast draw ruled the rugged landscape. Showdowns pitted men against each other in a battle of quick reflexes and nerves of steel. Inherent in this form of resolution was the understanding that someone might die in the encounter.

While the west is not so very wild these days, and quite a bit more lawful, that bygone display is played out every summer in pro football training camps. Men vie for a few coveted starting positions on NFL teams. They sweat, bleed and sometimes even cry out in the agony of the effort it takes to come out on top.

Players must come fully armed with skill, and remain fit enough to perform with consistency at a high level. If they don’t, other players who are healthier and hungrier will pass them on the depth chart. Fantasy owners want to know who will come out ahead and who will end up dead well ahead of time, so they can draft players at a value. Below are some of the most important fantasy showdowns happening right now in the preseason. Grab some stand-up men, and see how many of your league owners you can shoot down on your way to the top this year.

Showcase Showdowns

Denver Broncos Starting RB – Mike Bell, Tatum Bell, Ron Dayne

Early this off-season, Dayne was touted as the new starter for the Broncos. Most owners thought surely this was a ruse, as Dayne has done nothing at the pro level after running for the most yards ever in the college game. For a short time, Tatum looked the part of the heir apparent. Then suddenly an undrafted rookie running back from Arizona, Mike Bell, was penciled in atop the depth chart. So like Mike Shanahan to find some guy no one else was looking at and put him into the system in Denver.

Bell isn’t a total unknown. He was listed in pre-draft guides as approximately the 15th-rated back available. Although he fumbled in his first preseason game this year, the team stuck with him as the starter the next week versus the Tennessee Titans. He responded to the vote of confidence with two short touchdowns and 73 yards rushing on 10 carries. It seems clear that Mike is a good fit in the Denver rushing scheme. He has the size (6’, 218 lbs) to absorb the weekly punishment that the team is reluctant to trust to Tatum, and he is much younger and more driven than Dayne. With a good outing in the critical third preseason game, Mike should seal the deal on the starting gig.

Last Man Standing: Mike Bell

Chicago Bears Starting RB – Thomas Jones, Cedric Benson, Adrian Peterson

In Chicago the last two years, Thomas Jones finally hit his stride as a NFL running back. Cedric Benson was drafted fourth overall last year by the Bears, and expected to come in and be a big contributor on offense. He held out and never got going. During that time Jones gained 1,335 yards rushing and nine touchdowns.

This year Jones was different. Due to a short spat and holdout from Jones, in addition to his own injury, Benson gained key reps with the first-team offense. Now, Benson is injured, and Jones is coming back healthy just in time to start the decisive third preseason game.

Jones will play well enough to retain the starting job. His teammates like him better than Benson, and his offensive coordinator explained that the team knows that Jones is a warrior, and knows what he can accomplish on the field. Jones himself proclaimed the offense “his”. Look for Benson to share some carries once he is healthy again. Even backup Adrian Peterson deserves a few touches, but the Bear’s share of the work will fall to Jones, and the carries he gives up to others will only work to keep him fresh in games.

Last Man Standing: Thomas Jones

Indianapolis Colts Starting RB – Dominic Rhodes, Joseph Addai

The Colts drafted Joseph Addai in the first round of the draft this year in hopes of replacing Edgerrin James in the starting lineup. While Addai does offer youth, some speed, and receiving skills, he does not have experience.

Dominic Rhodes on the other hand has been apprenticing under James for four years after replacing him in the lineup as a rookie when James was injured. At that time, Rhodes ran for 1,104 yards and nine scores. His 4.7-yard average was terrific. Neither back has stood out in the preseason, so look for Rhodes to get the early starts, with the possibility that Addai comes on strong as the season progresses. Draft Rhodes for use out of the gates, and Addai as a late-season prospect.

Last Man Standing: Dominic Rhodes

Green Bay Packers Starting RB – Ahman Green, Sam Gado, Najeh Davenport

This battle has been all about who can remain healthy. Samkon Gado and Davenport have each been the top man at some points this preseason, but both have also been hurt. Gado was a great story last year, yet is still very green as a player. Davenport is gifted at injuring himself. Green is the only one who has not received carries. He has been recovering from a nasty torn tendon in his thigh.

Recently, offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski said Green looked smooth and powerful, so when Green is completely healed, it will be his show to run. He is currently an afterthought in drafts, and you can pick him up right now for a fifth, sixth or even seventh-round selection. Should he start, no matter how well he does he will be more valuable than where you draft him. Every-down backs are worth their weight in gold in fantasy football – period.

Last Man Standing: Ahman Green

Jacksonville Jaguars First WR – Ernest Wilford, Matt Jones, Reggie Williams

The retirement of star receiver Jimmy Smith leaves a fantasy void on this offense. Three young wideouts are eager to fill it. Ernest Wilford has been quietly improving each year he is in the league, and has a fierce determination to excel. Matt Jones has fully converted to wide receiver and is a tall and large player who makes an excellent red-zone target. Reggie Williams is a former first round pick and really needs to show something soon to avoid becoming labeled a bust.

Quarterback Byron Leftwich has given Jones the ringing endorsement. To grab Jones in a draft you’ll need to take him a little higher than you would expect. Clearly, people are on to this good thing.

Last Man Standing: Matt Jones

Pittsburgh Steelers Second WR – Cedrick Wilson, Santonio Holmes

The Steelers moved up in the draft to take Holmes as the first wideout selected. He has been in trouble with the law and generally unimpressive so far for the defending champions. In fact, former undrafted rookie Nate Washington will probably be slotted as the third receiver to begin the season. This development means Wilson will get a number of looks once Ben Roethlisberger checks down on Hines Ward and Heath Miller. The Steelers will pass a lot more this year without Bettis in the backfield, so Wilson could prove a surprising third receiver or flex player.

Last Man Standing: Cedrick Wilson

Detroit Lions Second WR – Corey Bradford, Charles Rogers, Mike Williams, Scottie Vines, Glenn Martinez, Mike Furrey

Sadly, only Roy Williams has been a success among the wide receivers that this team drafted in succession for three years high in the first round. Bradford is currently listed as the starter opposite Williams, but he has never been a consistent threat. His modus operandi is to have an intermittent big game when he is able to catch a 70-yard pass for a score. But usually that doesn’t happen. Rogers has been a major disappointment, and has attitude problems. Vines, Martinez and Furrey have healthy attitudes, but less talent.

That leaves Mike Williams, who is finally beginning to get his act together. This offense does have the capability of restoring a roar in Motown, so the second receiver here can be important in fantasy circles. Look for Williams to grow into the role, especially as a red-zone target because of his size and ability to use his body to shield defenders.

Last Man Standing: Mike Williams

Oakland Raiders Second WR – Jerry Porter, Doug Gabriel, Ronald Curry
           
In order for the Raiders to have much of an offense, the team needs a second receiver to perform consistently opposite Randy Moss. Jerry Porter was supposed to be that guy. He has tremendous natural talent, and comes up huge on occasion. But consistent he is not, and he has barked his way into the doghouse this preseason. Doug Gabriel is currently listed as the other starter. Gabriel works hard and makes some plays, but honestly is not much of an offensive threat, and the Raiders know that. Curry has played very well when he’s been hale, but injuries have been his Achilles heel. The thing about Curry is that he has something to prove. He is a former BMOC and wants the recognition back. Watch Curry turn up the heat with some health.

Last Man Standing: Ronald Curry
 

Seattle Seahawks Second WR – Nate Burleson, Bobby Engram

Engram is getting on in years, but he works hard and is a dependable short-range target. Nate Burleson has a lot to prove after a poor year with his former team. Though Engram is preparing for the season with passion, Burleson is much younger, and likely eager to get his career back on track.

Last Man Standing: Nate Burleson

Showdowns in the Making

New York Jets Starting RB – Kevan Barlow, Derrick Blaylock, Cedric Houston, Leon Washington, Curtis Martin

Assuming that Martin continues to hobble into the season, the Jets will have to figure out upon whom to lean in the running game. The team just traded for former Niners underachiever Kevan Barlow, after voiding the trade with Cleveland for Lee Suggs, claiming he failed their physical. Barlow has the most starting experience of the guys in this backfield. Blaylock is the other possible play here. Second-year player Cedric Houston and rookie Leon Washington will need to stand out soon to become a household name.

Last Man Standing: Kevan Barlow, but with his mediocrity, for how long?

Houston Texans Starting RB – Domanick Davis, Vernand Morency, Wali Lundy, Antowain Smith

Domanick Davis can be an impressive fantasy force for short stretches at a time between lingering and sometimes serious maladies. He is not healthy now, with a knee that is quite troublesome. It is entirely possible that he will not be in the lineup to begin the season. In his stead would likely be either rookie Wali Lundy, who gained 40 yards on seven carries and 26 yards on two receptions against the St. Louis Rams starters last weekend, or second-year running back Vernand Morency, who seemed to impress head coach Gary Kubiak by scoring twice and running for 99 yards on 11 carries in the same game, although much of his production was against inferior players. This could easily become a committee circumstance.

Last Man Standing: Wali Lundy

Tennessee Titans Starting RB – Chris Brown, Travis Henry, LenDale White

Brown is the recognized starter… for now. But, he will get hurt. He always does at some point. Jeff Fisher is purposefully going to give Henry and White repetitions with the first-team offense during the next preseason game.

Here is what you can actually expect: Brown will play well at first, then get nicked up, sustain a more major injury and turn over the rushing duties to Travis Henry, who apparently has performed well in camp. Henry will get nicked up himself, and the production will eventually fall to LenDale White, who will begin to take all the fantasy statistics by first becoming the designated scorer.

Last Man Standing: LenDale White