It's been an unusual offseason in the National Football League and fantasy football, to say the least. But with a potential light at the end of the tunnel in sight on CBA negotiations, it's time for owners to start ramping up their draft-day preparations. Sure, it's close to impossible to determine the value of several players due to the lack of player movement up to this point. But there are a number of positions that we do know require our attention once the lockout is over. Here's a look at 12 such positions that will require your utmost attention in the NFC once we get back to football.
Vikings quarterbacks: Right now, it looks like Christian Ponder is the favorite to open the season as the team's main man atop the depth chart. While he has long-term potential, the rookie's presence under center is not going to help the value of any of his offensive teammates. That includes wideouts Sidney Rice, Percy Harvin and even superstar running back Adrian Peterson (to a lesser degree). Fantasy leaguers should hope to see the Vikings add a veteran like Donovan McNabb, who could be a nice temporary solution while Ponder learns on the sidelines.
Cardinals running backs: The addition of rookie runner Ryan Williams in April's draft made an already crowded backfield even more confusing for fantasy owners. Tim Hightower was the top option in the team's running game last season, but Beanie Wells is also in the mix and has already predicted that this will be his breakout year. Whether or not the brittle back can accomplish that goal remains to be seen, but this competition is one to watch during training camp. At this point, I'd side with Williams as the best option.
Cowboys running backs:Felix Jones is the clear favorite to open the season atop the depth chart, and he'll be the first Cowboys runner off the board in drafts. But can he stay healthy, and who will he compete with for carries? Tashard Choice is in the mix, as is rookie DeMarco Murray. The big question here is Marion Barber, who could be released once the lockout is lifted. The real competition could be between Choice and Murray, with the eventual winner having some draft value -- especially when you consider that Jones hasn't been overly durable during his time at the pro level.
Giants running backs: Brandon Jacobs is under contract and expected to remain with the Giants, but the status of Ahmad Bradshaw isn't so certain. The versatile running back is coming off a breakout season, which means he's likely to at least test the free-agent market. If he remains with the G-Men, Bradshaw will continue to see the lead role in the backfield and have early- to middle-round fantasy appeal. But if another team offers him a "Godfather" deal and Bradshaw leaves the Big Apple, the Giants backfield is going to have some major question marks for 2011.
Packers running backs: Ryan Grant, who missed most of last season with an injured ankle, fully expects to be the starter in 2011. While that scenario seems likely, he's going to see a lot of competition from James Starks. In fact, it's hard to see Grant seeing more than 200-225 carries while losing third-down work to his talented teammate. If the Packers decide to retain Brandon Jackson, a free agent, that would cloud this backfield even further. Oh, and remember that the Packers also took Alex Green with the No. 96 overall pick in April's draft, so this is a crowded spot.
Panthers running backs: This backfield situation is simple to predict -- if the Panthers retain the services of DeAngelo Williams, then we're looking at the same sort of committee situation with Jonathan Stewart. But if Williams is no longer in the mix, Stewart is going to become one of the most coveted running backs in fantasy football. In fact, I'd argue that he could be worth as much as a late-round selection. Mike Goodson, who would back up Stewart if he's the starter, could also have some draft value -- especially as a possible handcuff for Stewart and in fantasy PPR leagues.
Redskins running backs: The days of Clinton Portis dominating the carries in Washington are over, leaving fantasy owners to contemplate the value of the talented but injury-prone Ryan Torain. If he can stay on the field, the Arizona State product could be a valuable No. 2 fantasy back. But if his past continues into the future, the name Roy Helu could become one to remember in drafts. The rookie out of Nebraska is a perfect fit for the team's zone-blocking scheme and has the tools to become a valuable sleeper in the offense of coach Mike Shanahan, so look for him in the late rounds.
Saints running backs: The popular opinion with this backfield is that Mark Ingram will emerge into the top option for coach Sean Payton, but much depends on what the team does with Reggie Bush. If he is released, Ingram would be the clear favorite for early-down carries while Pierre Thomas would slide into more of a third-down role. But if the Saints retain Bush, it would be tougher for Ingram to make a significant impact while sharing more of the workload with Thomas. Chris Ivory is also in the team's backfield mix, but his stock is falling fast from a fantasy perspective.
Packers wide receivers: No one will question the impact of Greg Jennings, but who will see the most targets behind him on the depth chart? Donald Driver, 36, is coming off one of the worst seasons of his career, and James Jones is a free agent. Though Driver might still be the favorite to start opposite Jennings, Jordy Nelson is the Packers wideout to target in the middle to late rounds. If Jones is no longer on the roster, the Super Bowl XLV hero would become an even more attractive sleeper -- especially with superstar quarterback Aaron Rodgers throwing him the football.
Rams wide receivers: In the offense of new coordinator Josh McDaniels, there's a good chance that one of the Rams wideouts is going to have his best statistical season. But who will it be -- Donnie Avery? Danny Amendola? Danario Alexander? A free agent that isn't with the team yet? That's exactly why fantasy owners need to keep very close tabs on what the Rams do once player movement starts, and who earns the most prominent roles in the pass attack. Chances are, there's going to be a nice draft bargain that emerges from this depth chart.
Redskins wide receivers: The 'Skins will be big buyers once free agency begins, so their depth chart could have a very different look in the near future. Will Santana Moss be back in the mix, or will the team pursue Santonio Holmes, Braylon Edwards or another veteran? As it stands, deep sleeper Anthony Armstrong and rookie Leonard Hankerson are the two most valuable wideouts on the roster. That figures to change, so owners need to keep tabs on the situation. With John Beck under center, though, no Redskins wideout will be a sure bet for success either on the field or in fantasy land.
Vikings wide receivers: Aside from the team's quarterback situation, the wide receiver spot is also unsettled. Rice, a free agent, is no lock to be back with the team. The same holds true of Bernard Berrian, who has been a major disappointment and is a candidate to be released. That leaves Percy Harvin and not much else in terms of receiving options for a team that is currently projected to lean far more on the run in 2011. If Rice leaves, Harvin's value would rise -- but only so much if the Vikings go into the season with Ponder (and not a veteran signal-caller) under center.