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 players coming back from injuries, as well as 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.
Adrian Peterson's return from ACL surgery: A fantasy star in his career at the NFL level, Peterson's value has never been more of a question mark than it is heading into 2012. Coming off a late-season ACL injury, there are no guarantees that he'll even be ready to start training camp. In fact, reports have surfaced that suggest Toby Gerhart could see a heavier workload in the first few weeks of the regular season. Even if you think Peterson is a freak of nature, which he is, I'm still not drafting him until the third or fourth round. Coming off a major knee reconstruction, it's tough to consider him a top-10 fantasy runner.
Peyton Manning's return from neck surgery: In the past, drafting Manning meant a guaranteed 4,000-plus passing yards and 30-plus total touchdowns. But coming off of a missed season and multiple neck surgeries, there's now some risk in drafting the future Hall of Famer. At 36 and breaking in a new cast of offensive characters, Manning could have a slow start to 2012. If he shows flashes of that signature arm strength and accuracy in camp and the preseason, however, it would certainly squash at least some of the concern for fantasy leagues. Still, I wouldn't reach for Manning in drafts -- instead, wait until at least until Round 5.
Maurice Jones-Drew's contract situation: Jones-Drew, who drafted himself with the No. 1 overall pick in the recent SiriusXM Celebrity League, is coming off one of the best fantasy seasons of his career. While I'm concerned that he won't duplicate his 1,600-plus rushing yards, I still see MJD as a first-round pick as long as he doesn't hold out of camp. If he does take a hard stand in his desire for a new contract, though, I'll be moving Jones-Drew down a few notches in my running back rankings. That's because of the trend of runners getting hurt or having a poor season after lengthy holdouts -- just ask Chris Johnson owners in 2011.
Jamaal Charles' return from ACL surgery: A recent report in the Kansas City Star suggests the Chiefs are aiming for Charles and Peyton Hillis to touch the football a combined 500 times. Of course, this assumes the former is back at 100 percent in his return from major knee reconstruction. The good news is that Charles suffered his ACL in the earlier weeks of 2011, so he should be better off than Peterson or Mendenhall. The bad news is that he is almost guaranteed to lose at least some short-yardage and goal-line work to Hillis. Be sure to watch Charles in the preseason to see if some of his explosion has been left on the operating table.
The backfield competition in Buffalo: Fred Jackson was one of the best running backs in fantasy football last season, but a leg injury ended his statistical run and opened the door for C.J. Spiller. The Clemson product thrived in what became a featured role, which now creates a potential backfield committee this season. In fact, Bills coach Chan Gailey has already hinted that Jackson and Spiller could share the workload. I'm projecting Jackson to start and see more touches than Spiller, but this is a situation to watch in camp and the preseason. If Jackson dominates the work, he could turn into quite a nice draft bargain.
The backfield competition in Tampa Bay: Who will be the top runner for coach Greg Schiano in Week 1, Doug Martin or LeGarrette Blount? My money is on the rookie, who is more of an all-around back than Blount. He's a solid runner, can catch the ball out of the backfield and is more than capable of picking up the blitz. With that said, this is a battle that fantasy owners need to watch in the weeks to come. If Blount somehow retains his starting role, he'll be worth far more than his 14th-round ADP on NFL.com. On the flip side, Martin's seventh-round ADP would make him a steal if he were to emerge as Schiano's No. 1 runner.
Tim Tebow's new role in the Jets offense: It's Tebow Time in Gotham! The versatile quarterback will open the season second on the depth chart behind Mark Sanchez, but will he remain there? Good question. Still, it's going to be tough to draft Tebow in most standard leagues. Where he figures to make the most impact is in the value of others players, most notably Sanchez and Shonn Greene. If Tebow is used in the red zone as recent reports suggest, he'll put a real dent into Sanchez's snaps and Greene's overall potential in what is a contract year. I'll be sure to keep close tabs on how Tebow is used before drafting any Jets.
The backfield competition in Pittsburgh: Fantasy owners need to find out a lot of information in what could be a difficult backfield to decipher. First, is Rashard Mendenhall (ACL surgery) even going to be ready for the start of the season? If he is, how effective will he be? Also, what happens if Mendenhall lands on the PUP list? To me, that scenario opens the door for Isaac Redman to come in and start for coach Mike Tomlin. Keep in mind, though, that the Steelers also have Jonathan Dwyer and Baron Batch on the roster. Right now Redman is the Steelers back to draft, with Mendenhall being worth a late-round flier in most formats.
The NFL's punishment for Kenny Britt: Britt was on pace to post enormous fantasy numbers last season, but a torn ACL in Week 3 ended his rise to stardom. Since then, the talented receiver has had three knee surgeries (two on his right, one on his left) and has been arrested for DUI. That would make the eighth time he's been arrested since joining the Titans in 2009, so a league-imposed suspension is almost certainly on the horizon. Depending on the length of his punishment, Britt could go from being a potential middle-round value to a late-round flier. In a worst-case scenario, Nate Washington and Kendall Wright will see more work.
The Packers offense in the preseason: We all know the Packers are going to throw the football a ton, but this offense wants to be less one-dimensional according to Greg Jennings. In fact, the veteran wideout thinks the Packers "will run the ball a lot better this year" and predicts that James Starks will score eight touchdowns. If Jennings is on the right path with his thinking, Starks could turn into a tremendous draft bargain at his current ADP of Round 11. Such a change in offensive philosophies shouldn't affect Rodgers, though, as Jennings still predicts him to score somewhere around 40 total touchdowns this season.