That sound you hear in the distance is the building excitement of NFL fans as the start of training camps inches closer and closer. It's also an exciting time in the world of fantasy football, as owners start the process of researching for the upcoming season. A major part of that process is following camp battles that will affect player values. It's in these depth-chart competitions where possible sleepers and breakout candidates can be found.
Here's a look at some of the names and battles you should watch in the weeks to come.
The offseason trade that sent Anquan Boldin to the Ravens leaves Steve Breaston to start opposite Larry Fitzgerald. He won't be handed the role, though, as Early Doucet is also in line for a more prominent role in the offense. In fact, he could push Breaston for a starting role with a solid performance during camp. Breaston has more value and is worth a middle-round look in most leagues, but Doucet is someone to take a chance on in the late rounds.
The team decided against re-signing Terrell Owens, so Steve Johnson and James Hardy will compete for the right to start opposite Lee Evans. This certainly isn't the sexiest competition from a fantasy perspective due to the Bills' weak pass attack, but someone other than Evans has to catch the football for coach Chan Gailey. Johnson, who was the No. 2 wideout during offseason minicamp, looks like the favorite and is worth a look in larger formats.
The Panthers won't have an explosive pass attack, but there is some new blood in the offense. Muhsin Muhammad is out of the mix, so Dwayne Jarrett and Brandon LaFell will battle for a starting spot opposite Steve Smith. Jarrett has been a disappointment at the NFL level, so look for LaFell to emerge. The rookie could have some late-round value in larger leagues. Fellow rookie Armanti Edwards figures to become the slot receiver for coach John Fox.
It sure is amazing what the presence of Mike Martz can do to the fantasy value of a wide receiver. Devin Hester is a lock to start, but keep an eye on Johnny Knox and Devin Aromashodu. Knox is expected to start opposite Hester and is a solid sleeper candidate, while Aromashodu emerged as a favorite of Jay Cutler at the end of last season. In fact, Cutler named Aromashodu when asked in an interview which Bears wideout was ready to break out.
Jerome Harrison might have been a fantasy star at the end of last season, but he's no lock to open the 2010 campaign atop the depth chart. In fact, most reports out of the Cleveland area suggest that Montario Hardesty will earn the role. A definite fantasy sleeper to watch, the rookie drew rave reviews from coach Eric Mangini during minicamp. If you decide to take a Browns running back on draft day, Hardesty should be seen as the better pick.
Marion Barber appears set to retain the top spot on the depth chart ahead of Felix Jones, but this is still a battle to watch. A committee seems imminent, but Jones would have more value if he earns the role. The second Big D battle to watch is between Roy Williams and Dez Bryant. Most experts have written Williams off, leading to Bryant being taken much higher in fantasy drafts. The rookie is worth a middle-round look across the board.
The trade that sent Brandon Marshall to the Dolphins left an opening for Demaryius Thomas, Jabar Gaffney and Eddie Royal to become fantasy relevant. The rookie has the most upside, but he'll need time to develop after missing offseason work with a foot injury. Royal looks destined to be a slot receiver and is worth a look, but Gaffney could be the darkhorse in this battle based on his in-depth knowledge of coach Josh McDaniels' offense.
Reggie Wayne are entrenched as the starters, so Anthony Gonzalez will battle Austin Collie for the slot receiver's spot. With Peyton Manning at the helm, any Colts wideout can become valuable in fantasy circles. As a result, look for Collie and Gonzalez to both be drafted in the late rounds of most leagues.
Hakeen Nicks will compete with Mario Manningham for the right to start opposite Steve Smith, but the North Carolina product already has the upper hand. He showed some real flashes of potential as a rookie and is a major sleeper candidate in 2010. In fact, Smith told the Newark Star-Ledger that he thinks Nicks is ready to have a breakout season similar to the one he produced in 2009. Nicks should be seen as a viable middle-round selection.
The release of Justin Fargas creates a chance for Darren McFadden and Michael Bush to see a greater role in the Raiders offense. McFadden is the favorite to start, but Bush has proven to be the better back at the NFL level. In fact, the Louisville product has some real sleeper value in fantasy leagues. A committee is likely, but this is still a battle to watch. The eventual winner will work against a very favorable schedule in 2010.
The Seahawks don't have a running back who'll make a Shaun Alexander-level impact, but Justin Forsett is someone who has definite sleeper appeal. Julius Jones and Leon Washington are also in the mix, but Forsett has the most promise in fantasy land. Despite his lack of size, he still averaged 5.4 yards per carry and caught 41 passes out of the backfield last season. Forsett also has a very attractive schedule and could become a nice flex starter.
Devin Thomas appears to have the inside track on a starting job for the Redskins after the release of Antwaan Randle El, so he's a viable low-end sleeper. His downfall, though, is what has been a questionable work ethic and a proneness to injuries. If he can't fulfill the role, Malcolm Kelly could become fantasy relevant with coach Mike Shanahan and Donovan McNabb leading the offense. At this point, only Thomas is worth a late-round look in drafts.
Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on NFL.com. Have a burning question for Michael on anything fantasy football related? Leave it in our comments section or send it to AskFabiano@nfl.com!