By Kenn Ruby
It's still early, but now that every team has played at least one exhibition game, some of the more interesting battles are starting to shake out.
Adrian Peterson carried the ball 11 times in the preseason opener while Chester Taylor only carried once. While Taylor's playing time is standard for a vet in the first game, Peterson's 11 carries may have put any injury concerns to rest. Taylor's lead in this race is disappearing by the day.
Tennessee has been encouraged by LenDale White's progress in camp and have indicated that they're expecting big things from him this season. Although he had only six carries for 12 yards Saturday, he's expected to start game two. White and Chris Brown appear to be running neck-and neck. Chris Henry is running a distant third despite carrying the ball well during garbage time. It should be noted, however, that White has been limited in practice with a swollen ankle. This battle could come down to the health of two players who can't seem to stay healthy.
Even though Julius Jones got the start and is reportedly very comfortable with the new offense, Marion Barber looked like the favored RB in the preseason opener, with 12 carries for 48 yards and three receptions. Jones had 22 yards on six carries and only caught one pass. Barber and Jones shared the workload fairly evenly last season, but Barber was was the goal-line back and scored 14 touchdowns. If the first game is any indication, Barber will continue to be the more valuable fantasy back in 2007.
Everyone's raving about the new Carolina offense, so this battle has interesting fantasy implications. DeShaun Foster had five carries for 62 yards in the opener, while DeAngelo Williams missed the game with minor ankle stiffness. Williams' injury appears to be lingering - he was held out of practice Monday before returning Tuesday. If Foster keeps playing like this while Williams rests his ankle, he'll win the job. Just keep in mind that Williams is the player with the long-term upside, even if he doesn't win the job out of camp.
Kevin Jones has been making cuts in practice and still is trying to be ready for the opener. Detroit denied that he'd start the season on the PUP List (and miss the first six games), but it remains a possibilty. Tatum Bell looks like a better bet right now, but both Jones and Bell think they'll be starting all year.
Mike Alstott was placed on the IR with a sore neck, opening up the Tampa Bay fullback job for Michael Pittman, Earnest Graham, and B.J. Askew. Pittman, already the backup to Cadillac Williams, is the early front-runner. More importantly, all those goal-line carries that Alstott has been taking for years are now up for grabs. If Pittman wins the job, he'd be a great late-round sleeper.
Brandon Jackson had 16 carries for 57 yards Saturday, which is a lot for a first-team RB in a preseason opener. With Vernand Morency out at least two more weeks due to a knee injury, Jackson's hold on the job is getting even more secure. Experienced third stringer Noah Herron could step in if Jackson struggles out of the gate and Morency's knee continues to bother him.
Lamont Jordan should be the starter on day one, despite missing the first game with a sore back. Dominic Rhodes had a couple of good plays Saturday, but he's facing a four-game suspension at the start of the regular season. Saturday's real find, Adimchinobe Echemandu, had 17 rushes for 75 yards. He could make a dent in the Oakland running back corps thanks to injuries, especially if Michael Bush is placed on the IR, which still remains a possibility.
Brandon Jacobs only had four carries in the opener, but Giants coaches are expecting him to carry the ball 20-25 times a game this season. Reuben Droughns (five carries for 17 yards) needs to step it up to take anything significant away from him. The coaching staff is spouting all the usual cliches about the competition, but it's looking more and more like Jacobs will be the man in New York this year.
Cecil Sapp remains ahead of Mike Bell on the depth chart, but Bell seems to be getting more snaps in practice. On Monday, Bell had 51 yards on 10 carries, and Sapp carried the ball 11 times for 50 yards. Travis Henry (27 yards, one touchdown) is firmly entrenched as the starter, but coach Mike Shanahan loves giving fantasy owners headaches with his management of the running game, and the Sapp vs. Bell winner could find himself starting at some point this year.
Clinton Portis continues to be bothered by swelling in his knee. The injury is still considered minor, but he's missed more time than expected and even visited the infamous Dr. James Andrews. Ladell Betts would be the direct beneficiary of any injury to Portis, but he jammed his neck last week and only carried four times in the pre-season opener. Derrick Blaylock carried nine times and Rock Cartwright seven - both are battling for the third string job.
Jerious Norwood had eight carries and a touchdown last Friday. So far, he looks up to the challenge of carrying the load in Atlanta with Warrick Dunn expected to miss a big chunk of the preseason after back surgery. Dunn has returned to the practice field, and hopes to play in the team's last preseason game.
Others of note: Neither Fred Taylor nor Maurice Jones-Drew saw the field much in Jacksonville's pre-season opener. Taylor remains atop the depth chart, with Jones-Drew expected to get goal-line carries and be a more valuable all-around fantasy back. ... Deuce McAllister got the start at for the Saints last Friday, but Reggie Bush played as both a running back and wide receiver, like last year. Bush looks great right now, and the Saints are committed to getting both players as many touches as possible. ... Correll Buckhalter was held out of contact drills because of a sore knee last week, but on the day he returned to practice, Tony Hunt aggravated an ankle sprain, giving Buckhalter hope at getting the Eagles backup job and the goal-line carries that go with it. ... With starter Laurence Maroney out with a shoulder injury, Sammy Morris carried nine times last Friday. The Pats are likely just being cautious with Maroney. ... Kevan Barlow has looked so bad in camp that the Steelers might cut him. He's firmly behind Najeh Davenport for the chance to be Willie Parker's caddy. ... Michael Bennett started for the Chiefs and had 28 yards on three carries. However, with Larry Johnson close to ending his holdout, Bennett's stock is likely to fall precipitously. ... There have been rumblings that Buffalo may go to the dreaded "running back by committee," but it's still unlikely that Anthony Thomas can unseat rookie Marshawn Lynch. Lynch, who carried only twice in the opener, should see a lot more action in the second game. ... Kenny Irons is out for the year with a torn ACL, making Kenny Watson the backup in Cincinnati. Watson may be pushed by Quincy Wilson, or the Bengals could decide to pick up another back until Chris Perry is able to return from injury. ... Although Ahman Green is clearly the feature back in Houston, Ron Dayne carried three times in the red zone in the opener. He looks very likely to steal goal-line carries from Green this year. ... Thomas Jones suffered a strained calf Sunday and is day-to-day. If the injury is serious at all, Leon Washington's value would see a big boost. The Jets like Washington's versatility, and he'll receive a lot of touches as the backup RB and as a receiver even if Jones is fine.
Charlie Frye started Saturday and was 12-for-15 with 122 yards. Before reading too much into the decision, keep in mind that he earned the start by winning a coin flip and that Derek Anderson will start game two. Anderson was 7-for-16 with 76 yards and was X-rayed for an undisclosed injury after the game, but he's fine. Brady Quinn didn't play, but should make his debut in the second half of the Browns' second game. Expect Frye to get the nod on September 9, but a lot can happen in the next three weeks.
Jim Gruden called Bruce Gradkowski "marginal" last Friday night, but was impressed with Luke McCown. McCown has been very sharp in camp and now looks like he's clearly the first backup behind Jeff Garcia. Chris Simms, who missed last Friday's game due to various injuries, is falling farther and farther out of the race. It would not be a surprise if the Bucs were to cut ties with him.
Josh McCown started the opener, and may have emerged as the leader in the crowded Raider quarterback competition. If he continues to play well, the job is his to lose. Daunte Culpepper fumbled twice in his Oakland debut and was outplayed by McCown and incumbent Andrew Walter. He needs to make up time in a hurry. Walter was horrible last year, but with holdout JaMarcus Russell waiting in the wings, a healthy Walter might be a better short-term backup alternative than a questionable Culpepper. None of the Raider quarterback hopefuls look like a good fantasy bet right now.
The Chiefs expect to name a starter after two preseason games, and all indications are that Brodie Croyle will win the job by default. The Chiefs like his arm, but his decision-making is still holding him back. Croyle started last Saturday and was 5-of-8 for 49 yards, but forced an interception instead of throwing the ball away. His only competition, Damon Huard, wasn't much better.
David Garrard was 12-for-16 for 153 yards in the opener. He's looked very strong in practice and is getting closer and closer to catching Byron Leftwich. Leftwich also played well and is still atop the depth chart, but Garrard is making up ground quickly.
Other notes: Denver starter Jay Cutler has wrist tendinitis. It's not expected to be serious (he started and played one series Monday), but keep an eye on backup Patrick Ramsey just in case. ... J.T. O'Sullivan has been getting the majority of the snaps as the backup in Detroit, and it looks like he's pushed Dan Orlovsky down to No. 3. O'Sullivan and Orlovsky both piled up big numbers in relief of Jon Kitna in the preseason opener. ... Trent Edwards and Craig Nall, competing for the backup QB spot in Buffalo, both played well Friday. Should anything happen to J.P. Losman, Edwards could jump in despite his lack of experience. The Bills thought he was a steal in the third round this year.
San Diego coaches are convinced that Vincent Jackson will become an NFL star. Everyone's raving about his size, skills and intelligence. Everyone seems to like Craig Davis too, who has picked up the offense fast. Jackson and Davis look to be starters with Eric Parker out for awhile, but Malcolm Floyd, who could emerge as a nice deep threat as the third receiver, is developing a good rapport with Phillip Rivers. Floyd had five catches for 65 yards and a touchdown and dropped another long one in Sunday's game.
With expected No. 1 David Givens still recovering from a torn ACL, Brandon Jones and Eric Moulds started last Saturday. Jones caught three passes and looks like a real sleeper should he win a starting role. Moulds was held without a catch, but his experience and strong camp should be enough to get him in the starting lineup come Septmeber. Justin Gage and Roydell Williams might still have something to say about the competion as well.
Michael Stovall has pulled ahead of Michael Clayton on the depth chart, but the real name to watch is David Boston. He's been impressive and does have more experience than the others, so he could win a starting job alongside fellow Buckeye Joey Galloway. Clayton's injuries are starting to stack up. He's missed time with back and hamstring injuries, and he's struggling holding onto the ball at practice, though to be fair, Boston and Stovall could both use a little stickum as well.
Devery Henderson, who caught three passes for 52 yards Friday, left the game with a pulled hamstring. He'll miss the next two weeks, which could open things up for Terrance Copper to win the starting job opposite Marques Colston. Copper caught four passes Friday and is now practicing with the first team. Robert Meachem appears to have fallen behind Copper despite catching a touchdown pass Friday. David Patten, who missed Friday's game with turf toe, is probably now out of the running for a significant spot on the depth chart.
Although he did not catch any passes Friday, Keary Colbert is now practicing with the first-team offense and has moved past Drew Carter to No. 2 on the depth chart. Dwayne Jarrett may still end up ahead of both, but has been limited by a tweaked hamstring. Taye Biddle, who caught two touchdowns (including an 85-yarder), could also get into the act, but he's still behind Colbert and Carter.
Dennis Northcutt has moved to the top of the Jaguars depth chart and could be poised for a career year. Ernest Wilford is the leader to start opposite Northcutt, but there is no shortage of candidates. Charles Sharon and Mike Walker have had strong camps and may form an underrated second unit. One person the Jags may not be counting on is Matt Jones. He caught 41 passes last year but has a sore hamstring, and his stock is tumbling.
Right now Kevin Walter is expected to start opposite Andre Johnson, but he could very easily lose the job to Keenan McCardell or sleeper Jacoby Jones. Jones caught four passes Saturday and is an impressive kick returner, while McCardell, who missed over a week of practice with a hamstring injury, could win the job on experience alone. Walter started in the opener but was shut out and dropped a third down pass.
Other notes: Ashley Lelie looks buried at No. 5 on the 49ers depth chart. His reputation as a malcontent has preceded him, and he has an uphill battle to carve out a significant role. ... Santonio Holmes made a beautiful 49-yard catch for the Steelers Saturday, and his top competition for the starting job, Cedrick Wilson, did nothing. ... Although Sam Hurd has played a little with the Dallas first-team offense, he's probably the fourth receiver. Still, Terrell Owens and Terry Glenn aren't getting any younger, and Patrick Crayton (currently No. 3) is no great shakes. ... Rookie Dwayne Bowe is challenging Samie Parker for a spot opposite Eddie Kennison in Kansas City. Bowe may take some time to adjust even if he starts, and KC's quarterback situation is a little dicey, so he's not highly recommended for the first half of the season. ... Derek Hagan could unseat Marty Booker for the No. 2 receiver job in Miami. He had three catches for 47 yards and has been improving by leaps and bounds during camp while Booker sat out last Saturday. We still think Booker should win the job, but Hagan and rookie Ted Ginn could push him for playing time this year. ... Troy Williamson is third on the Minnesota depth chart, but seems to be developing a rapport with Tarvaris Jackson. Williamson and Bobby Wade are competing with Billy McMullen for the two starting jobs. McMullen missed a lot of practice with a strained calf muscle, so he could fall behind the others. ... Jabar Gaffney played well last Friday and has a good shot of sticking around in New England, but he's still behind Wes Welker and possibly Reche Caldwell. With Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth both nursing injuries, the opportunity is there for one lucky Patriot. ... Brandon Lloyd has fallen behind Antwaan Randle-El for the starting Redskins job. Lloyd has missed plenty of time with shin splints, while Randle-El missed a couple of practices this week with a sore quad. Both should be available for game two…James Jones caught six passes for 58 yards in the pre-season opener, and may be pushing Greg Jennings for the No. 2 job in Green Bay. Jennings has been limited by a hip flexor and was held without a catch.
Alge Crumpler sat out last Friday's opener with a sore knee. It may be more serious than Atlanta is letting on. Dwayne Blakely is taking snaps with the first team and figures to be the starter if Crumpler is out awhile. ... Rookie Greg Olsen has been pushing Desmond Clark for the starting job in Chicago. He could be the starter by the middle of the season, but the presence of Clark hinders his potential to be a fantasy starter right away. ... Bubba Franks has a scratched cornea and has fallen behind Donald Lee for the Packers tight end job. ... Brent Celek has been running with the first team in Philly because of L.J. Smith's hernia. With Smith recovering slowly, Celek could be a nice sleeper. ... Alex Smith is listed ahead of Jerramy Stevens on the Buccaneers depth chart, but the battle is far from over.