Two rookie running backs have generated some of the loudest buzz during the first two weeks of NFL training camp.
ESPN Bears reporter Jeff Dickerson was slightly more optimistic that Montgomery could break out of the pack by season’s end, and he suggested that the third-round pick from Iowa State “has real fantasy value.”
“It’s a stacked Bears backfield with Tarik Cohen and Mike Davis, but Montgomery is the only one that [someday soon] projects as a true three-down back,” Dickerson said of the 5-foot-10, 222-pounder, who boosted his stock with an impressive stutter-stepping 7-yard touchdown run in his preseason debut while also catching three passes for 30 yards.
“Montgomery is known for his tackle-breaking ability, but he’s also displayed good hands out of the backfield -- a must for any running back in Matt Nagy’s offense,” Dickerson said. “Montgomery might not break out early in the regular season, but he’s a good player to stash on your fantasy roster for future use.”
ESPN reporter Dan Graziano also got the sense during his visit to Bears camp that the team would like Montgomery to develop into an every-down back.
Graziano pointed out how much respect Montgomery is earning from veteran teammates such as safety Eddie Jackson, who said, “He’s a dog. He’s got it early. A lot of guys don't have it early, but he's got it early. … He's the truth. He's going to be something special."
If that sounds familiar, well, maybe you read Eagles reporter Tim McManus’ piece on the early impression Sanders is making in Philly.
“That boy is a beast, man. You’re going to see. Oooh, I like him,” defensive end Brandon Graham said of the 5-foot-11, 211-pounder from Penn State, who was drafted in the second round. “I don’t want to give out too much. I’m going to let him be a surprise to some.”
Sadly for fantasy owners, it would be a surprise if any Eagles back emerges as a leading man, given that the team generally treats the backfield like a hockey line change.
“Fantasy owners will meet similar frustration when it comes to the Eagles' backfield rotation,” McManus said. “Sanders’ ability stands out even among a talented group that includes Jordan Howard, Darren Sproles and Corey Clement. You watch him jump-cut and accelerate upfield, finish off a wheel route with an over-the-shoulder catch or slice through a small hole for a goal-line TD, and you can see the lead-back potential. But there have been no signs thus far that Doug Pederson and running backs coach Duce Staley will stray from their committee approach. And it’s certainly possible that Howard [18 TDs the past two seasons] gobbles up a lot of red-zone carries.
“Sanders’ role will almost certainly grow as the year goes on, assuming he can hold on to the ball. It may be worth stashing him early to ride him late, but go into the fantasy relationship with eyes wide open.”
As for the only running back taken in Round 1 of this year's draft, the Oakland Raiders’ Josh Jacobs still looks like the best bet to be a true feature back right out of the gate, as ESPN Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez has noted. However, coach Jon Gruden said fans "will have to wait and see most” of Jacobs’ skill set in Week 1, rather than seeing a heavy preseason workload.
Now let’s tour the league for fantasy insight from ESPN’s NFL Nation reporters:
Buffalo Bills: Running back LeSean McCoy said he knows fans and fantasy team owners can be fickle. But as Marcel Louis-Jacques wrote, McCoy still thinks it’s “kind of weird” how much skepticism there is around him.
Dallas Cowboys: Todd Archer explained why Ezekiel Elliott isn’t likely to pull a Le’Veon Bell and skip the entire season (Elliott’s contract would carry into next year, but Bell became a free agent). However, that doesn’t guarantee that Elliott will be back by Week 1 -- or even Week 10. If you draft Elliott, you might want to snag both veteran Alfred Morris and rookie Tony Pollard as handcuffs. Cowboys owner Jerry Jones praised Pollard after the preseason opener, saying he could, “if he really needs to, carry the whole load.” Archer said Morris has looked good in camp, and he would expect them to split work.
Green Bay Packers: Jimmy Graham has drawn praise for the way he looks in his second year with Green Bay after battling injuries last season. As Rob Demovsky wrote, maybe the 32-year-old tight end doesn’t look like the Graham of New Orleans, but at the very least, he's the Graham of Seattle in 2016-17.
Houston Texans: Newly acquired RB Duke Johnson Jr. could be a great fit in Houston, Sarah Barshop wrote. She suggested that Johnson could be second on the team in receptions -- and that was before receiver Keke Coutee suffered an ankle injury in the preseason opener.
Indianapolis Colts: Scan through Mike Wells’ daily updates on Andrew Luck's health status for lots of good details. So far, the Colts don’t seem too worried about the fact that Luck has practiced three times since April. Can fantasy owners be equally optimistic?
Los Angeles Chargers: If you need Melvin Gordon insurance, running back Austin Ekeler is an obvious handcuff who brings value even when Gordon plays. But as Eric Williams wrote, even Ekeler thinks fellow RB Justin Jackson adds some “razzle-dazzle.”
Miami Dolphins: Yet another RB time-share! But this one offers some potential value. Kenyan Drake is being drafted 80th in average ESPN fantasy drafts, and Kalen Ballage is all the way down at 156. Cameron Wolfe wrote about how Ballage has emerged as an X factor in Miami, and he predicts something like 45% of the touches for Drake and 40% for Ballage. “Drake will still be the better fantasy player due to his receiving prowess and likely status as at least 1A in the backfield duo,” Wolfe said. “But I see Ballage as the better value, given his current ADP, and he has weekly touchdown upside as the Dolphins’ goal-line back.”
New England Patriots: The Patriots could have two rookie receivers making an impact: first-round pick N'Keal Harry and undrafted Jakobi Meyers. As Mike Reiss wrote, Meyers is still a little raw. But he took his strong performance from the practice field to the preseason opener, with six catches for 69 yards and two touchdowns.
New Orleans Saints: As ESPN’s Saints reporter, I’m trying to temper my enthusiasm for tight end Jared Cook, knowing he hasn’t always lived up to expectations (and knowing that Coby Fleener recently proved free-agent tight ends don’t automatically thrive in New Orleans). But so far, the 32-year-old has exceeded the Saints’ expectations. And it’s hard to ignore how good he looks on the practice field.
Meanwhile, don't expect Alvin Kamara's workload to dramatically increase now that former running mate Mark Ingram is in Baltimore. The Saints pounced on veteran Latavius Murray early in free agency to help replace Ingram. Sean Payton has stressed that he likes Kamara’s “pitch count" and added that Kamara's usage will be "similar to what we've been seeing."
Seattle Seahawks: Chris Carson should split some time with 2018 first-round pick Rashaad Penny. But there should be plenty of carries to go around in Seattle’s run-heavy offense, which no longer includes Mike Davis. Coach Pete Carroll and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer both insisted that they plan to throw the ball more to Carson, as Brady Henderson noted.
Washington Redskins: John Keim knows he needs to brace for fantasy blowback every time he mentions how good 29-year-old Jordan Reed looks in practice, given that injuries have repeatedly derailed the tight end's promising career. But there is no doubting Reed’s value when healthy. So far, both Reed and injury-plagued Redskins running back Chris Thompson have looked like their old selves.
“The passing game still centers around [Reed], and he does look really good. This is the first time in a few years he has been healthy in camp,” Keim said. “The danger of course is, ‘How long will that last?’ But if nothing else, he’s probably a real good pick late in fantasy drafts.”