Battles in an NFL training camp are everywhere. Sometimes they are for starting positions and sometimes for depth on a roster. And in the case of all three Florida pro teams, there are question marks in the backfield.
Let’s start in Jacksonville, where the Jags obviously drafted Leonard Fournette to be the main ball carrier for the foreseeable future. He got off to a good start in the role in their first preseason game at New England. However, he came out of that game with what’s been described as a “sore foot,” hasn’t practiced in the important team vs. team practices with the Bucs and won’t play in Thursday’s night’s game.
So, clearly there is serious opportunity for either veteran Chris Ivory (above) or third year player T.J. Yeldon to showcase themselves, not only in this preseason game, but for the remainder of camp to not only begin the year in the mix, but maybe get some key carries, themselves. Our Roy Cummings wrote earlier in the year that Ivory in particular may be the guy who starts at the beginning of the season or at the minimum rotate in and out with Fournette during first halves.
If Ivory looks impressive Thursday, that will solidify his role. Obviously, for Yeldon he must be better than what we saw last year and out of the gate against the Pats, where he was barely getting any yardage. Still, the Jaguars are likely to give to Fournette 18-20 times no matter what.
Meanwhile, the Bucs have issues of their own, as star running back Doug Martin is suspended by the NFL for the first three games of the season. Martin has been taking a lot of the first team reps in camp and was the first running back on the field during Tampa Bay’s opening possession last Friday night in Cincinnati. But, Jacquizz Rodgers replaced him on that drive and the subsequent drive as a “1A” in coach Dirk Koetter’s rotation.
Despite being under sized, Rodgers was very effective last season while Martin nursed a hamstring injury and then did not play in the Buccaneers final two games of the season, while the suspension was sorted out. So, if he’s healthy, he will be the guy out with the first team on opening day.
The Buccaneers have fourth year veteran Charles Sims to the mix, but he’s battled injuries his first three seasons and is clearly more of a pass catching back than an every down guy to carry the load for a run game. They also have second year player Peyton Barber, who shined in limited opportunities in 2016 and knows the offense. And the Bucs drafted rookie Jeremy McNichols out of Boise State, who has pass catching skills and is a good special teams player. However, he’s not going to be an every down back at least to begin this year, if at all.
So, the Bucs, who get a roster exemption while Martin sits, will likely keep all five guys as camp begins.
Finally, in Miami, it’s obvious that the Dolphins want to ride “The J-Train” some more. Jay Ajayi’s breakout season in his second year has fantasy football drafters salivating. The problem is, he’s already suffered a mild concussion that kept him out a week and in the Fins first preseason game with Atlanta last week. Ajayi is back at practice this week and slated to be the 20+ carry back that the Dolphins need.
However, as his absence early in camp has shown, the Dolphins must establish the rotation. We have written previously this off season about who the other backs are and which one will emerge behind Ajayi. Last Thursday they used both Damien Williams and Kenyan Drake for some first half carries. Drake was slightly more effective with 21 yards on just four carries. Wililams did carry it six times, himself.
Drake also is a pass catcher and kick returner, too. But, then, he left practice earlier this week with a slight concussion. So, it would appear that Williams has the upper hand in the battle for playing time behind Ajayi.
Also keep an eye on undrafted rookie De’Veon Smith out of Michigan who carried it seven times in preseason game #1. He will have a shot to make the roster for Adam Gase’s backfield and can also go on the practice squad, too.
All in all, there are some talented backs among the state’s NFL tams. But who starts week one, how much they carry it, and who backs them up in what order? That’s still up for grabs in all three spots.