Fantasy Marathon mailbag: High hopes for Ezekiel Elliott, Najee Harris, J.K. Dobbins

ESPN's Fantasy Football Marathon returns Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET, so consider this your annual reminder that nobody has you covered with a more loaded roster of fantasy analysts or team reporters. Don't forget to use both as go-to resources to prepare for your fantasy football drafts.

To kick things off, here are some of your best Twitter mailbag submissions for our 32 NFL Nation reporters:

Good news! ESPN Dallas Cowboys reporter Todd Archer agrees that Ezekiel Elliott should be trusted in that elite tier again.

"I'd take Zeke," Archer said. "He looks as good as he's ever looked. The offensive line is healthy with the return of Tyron Smith and La'el Collins at tackle, and Zack Martin back at guard. Dak Prescott was asked about throwing for 6,000 yards, and he said he doesn't want to throw for that much because that means they're not running the ball as effectively as they need to. I don't think this offense goes back to Zeke getting 350 carries necessarily, but he should be able to rush for 1,200-1,300 yards if everything stays balanced."

One counterargument to choosing Zeke at No. 5 is that maybe you'd rather swing for the fences with Saquon Barkley, who returned to practice last week after tearing his ACL last September.

"The upside on Barkley is still too good to pass up late in the first round," New York Giants reporter Jordan Raanan said. "It's not hard to imagine him being in the top-five RB conversation by October. Remember, Barkley is 24 years old, he has looked good running and cutting early in camp, and this injury is no longer always a career-changer given the advances in modern medicine. I'd take a crack at Barkley around the Round 1-2 turn and not even blink."

Check out last week's roundtable for more on the varying levels of confidence in Barkley.

ESPN's expert rankings give a slight edge to Antonio Gibson over Najee Harris. Still, you should have confidence in both young RBs based on early camp returns.

"I'm a big fan of Harris, so it's hard for me to not think he'll do well," Washington Football Team reporter John Keim said. "But here's what I know about Antonio Gibson: He's a better runner than he was last season and he should be used more in the passing game.

"Gibson's first four games last season were more or less like the preseason," Keim said of the college receiver who switched positions in the NFL and needed time to learn the nuances of the position. "He's more advanced now.

"The toe is a minor concern for me because he hasn't shown ill-effects this summer. He has yet to sit out a practice."

Keim said it's fair to question how Washington's QB/WR additions will affect the run-pass balance and how two new tackles will affect Washington's run blocking. However, he added, "Gibson finished well in 2020, averaging 5.05 yards per carry in his last six games. I have a hard time believing he won't improve this season."

As for Harris, the No. 24 pick in this year's draft, Pittsburgh Steelers reporter Brooke Pryor said the team is "planning to use him like a veteran."

"Mike Tomlin prefers to use true lead backs, and he'll be very involved in the offense as both a runner and pass-catcher," Pryor said. "Yes, the offensive line is a problem -- at least early. But throughout the preseason, Harris has shown an ability to pick up positive yards in situations where it looks like he should be going the other way. He's great after contact and has the kind of poise not often seen in rookies. He's the real deal and should be treated like it in fantasy drafts."

(That Pittsburgh offensive line is a popular subject after last year's struggles.)

"It's a work in progress," Pryor said. "The group projected to be the starting line has yet to take a single rep together during training camp. Limited by injuries, the group has been slow to fully form. There have been a few bright spots, but the longer it takes the Steelers to settle on a consistent group, the greater the learning curve will be in season -- something a team blocking for a first-round running back and protecting a 39-year-old quarterback can hardly afford."

That probably comes down to which position's scarcity scares you more. Personally, I went with J.K. Dobbins in our latest ESPN mock draft because I agree with Baltimore Ravens reporter Jamison Hensley that Dobbins has the potential for "a monster season." But that's the right range for all four, depending on D'Andre Swift's health.

Las Vegas Raiders reporter Paul Gutierrez notes, "At worst, Darren Waller is the third-best tight end in the NFL. At best, well, you get the picture. And with the trust Raiders coach Jon Gruden and quarterback Derek Carr have in Waller, who last season eclipsed Hall of Famer Tim Brown's franchise single-season receptions record with 107 catches for 1,196 yards and 9 TDs, another big season is in the offing. 'We've got to continue to build around him,' Gruden said. 'We are going to be a lot more demanding of Waller going forward.'"

Detroit Lions reporter Eric Woodyard says, "Swift has been in practice for training camp but has missed a significant amount of 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 action while nursing a groin injury. However, it doesn't appear to be serious, as the second-year RB is ready to be 'The Guy' in Detroit. The Lions haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since 2013, the league's longest drought. That could end with the extra game and Swift's overall improvement this offseason."

Kansas City Chiefs reporter Adam Teicher adds, "The Chiefs believe their extensive offensive line upgrade will benefit not just Patrick Mahomes but the running game as well, and I tend to agree. But a couple of factors are holding me back from recommending Clyde Edwards-Helaire as a strong fantasy play. First, he's struggled in pass protection at times during camp -- which could and probably will cost him some playing time, particularly on third downs. The Chiefs also like their two other backs, Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon, and I see both getting significant playing time and cutting into Edwards-Helaire's snaps."

Hensley also comments that "Dobbins is a top-10 running back when you look at how he finished last season. During his final six regular-season games (when the Ravens were in a must-win stretch), he averaged 82.5 rushing yards with seven TD runs -- which would put him on pace for 1,403 and 20 in 17 games. The biggest concern is that Baltimore split red-zone carries between Dobbins and backup Gus Edwards. However, Dobbins' value could increase if his production increases in the passing game, which has been a major emphasis this offseason."

Despite the upside of those second-year RBs, there is a reason ESPN's fantasy experts still lean toward veteran Joe Mixon ahead of all of them.

"Yes, Mixon comes with the usual preseason hype. But this year it's warranted (eye-rolling at this point in the sentence is understandable, but not appreciated)," joked Cincinnati Bengals reporter Ben Baby, who is well aware of how much Mixon has frustrated fantasy managers in recent seasons. "Mixon is fully healthy and appears to be in tremendous shape. But more importantly, the Bengals definitely seem committed to using Mixon as a receiver. And with Giovani Bernard gone, Mixon should be on the field for more third downs."

The real reason I selected this question, however, was to get an update on one of this year's greatest fantasy unknowns: rookie TE Kyle Pitts.

"It's still tough to get a read on Pitts since we haven't seen him in game action yet, but he's going to be a massive part of Atlanta's offense this fall," Atlanta Falcons reporter Michael Rothstein said. "The Falcons will move him all over Arthur Smith's scheme to try and exploit mismatches. He didn't play in the preseason opener because Smith said he is on schedule for what Atlanta wants.

"As far as Pitts or Mark Andrews, I would lean Andrews only because tight ends historically don't have massive numbers as rookies -- although Pitts is unlike most tight ends due to his speed and hands, along with what should be a large target share. If you're in a dynasty league, Pitts should be the first non-quarterback taken."

A popular question for the second straight year.

"The opportunity is always there for Zack Moss, Devin Singletary or Matt Breida to emerge as a lead back if any of the others' play falters -- but I wouldn't count on it," Buffalo Bills reporter Marcel Louis-Jacques said. "We've heard from Bills coaches that the team's backfield will look more like a committee than a dictatorship, so draft any of the three with caution.

"As of right now, Singletary will be the first running back out there, but there is no 'lead' back. The tricky part of Buffalo's backfield situation is all three backs can catch passes, too, so it's difficult to truly differentiate their skill sets from a fantasy perspective."

This is the kind of question you might find yourself wrestling with if you go with a TE like Waller in Round 2. Unfortunately, it doesn't sound like either Johnson or James Conner are very safe bets.

"It was just one preseason series, but the usage of David Johnson and Phillip Lindsay reflected what we've seen during training camp: Lindsay will be Houston's RB1," Houston Texans reporter Sarah Barshop said. "Johnson is expected to be the Texans' third down back, taking over the role Duke Johnson had last season."

Likewise, Arizona Cardinals reporter Josh Weinfuss said bluntly that Conner is "not going to be the Cardinals' primary ball carrier."

"He'll be splitting the reps with Chase Edmonds, so 65 percent of the carries isn't likely for either," Weinfuss reported. "If the Cardinals spend most of their time this season between the 20s, then Edmonds will likely be the more productive of the two. But Conner will likely be the guy inside the red zone and in short-yardage situations.

"Edmonds spent a lot of time this offseason working on his receiving, and it's been showing throughout camp. He'll have an integral part in the Cardinals' passing game, which may be as high-powered as any in Kliff Kingsbury's three seasons as head coach. It's probably safe to say Edmonds will be the starter in the regular season and Conner will enter in certain packages. Edmonds would be a safe bet to draft in keeper leagues in later rounds because of how much faith and trust the franchise has in him."

A case could be made for all three. I'd lean toward Los Angeles Rams RB Darrell Henderson Jr., who has a good chance to be the leading man after Cam Akers' injury. But Rothstein said Mike Davis has a pretty good grip on the lead role in Atlanta for now, too.

"There is no one really there to push him at this point," Rothstein said. "Don't expect this to mean a Derrick Henry-like workload, though. He'll still be part of a committee of sorts with another back or two (possibly Cordarrelle Patterson and Qadree Ollison, although undrafted rookies Caleb Huntley and Javian Hawkins have potential). And Atlanta's personnel is equipped to be a passing attack."

We've come full circle from the fifth overall pick to filling out that final roster spot.

"Boy, oh boy. This is a good one," Woodyard said. "If you're a betting man, yes. Somebody has to step up. There's definitely a ton of risk, though. Only one receiver even had a catch for the team last season.

"So far through training camp, Kalif Raymond has made some noise with his speed, as has rookie Amon-Ra St. Brown with his toughness and work ethic. They're the guys I would keep my eye on. Veteran Tyrell Williams will likely assume the No. 1 receiver role because he has been a 1,000-yard receiver in his career, even if it was back in 2016 -- but he has to stay healthy. Honestly, I would hold off for at least a couple of weeks to see how they produce. The Lions have a really tough schedule to start the year, too."

Speaking of scheduling, let's take a look at the final question of our mailbag:

I prefer drafting as late as possible. However, it's worth pointing out that because of the reduced preseason, we now have nearly two full weeks between the final exhibition game and the regular-season opener. It's like the NFL was specifically trying to increase your draft window!