Predicting Winners and Losers for the Top 25 NFL Training Camp Battles
Organized team activities are nearing an end, but we are one week closer to NFL training camp as a result.
The anticipation grows by the day.
Find out my predictions for those outcomes and others as I take a look at the top 25 battles and how they will shake out.
South Beach Shootout
Ryan Tannehill vs. Matt Moore vs. David Garrard
The Dolphins' camp will be filled with intrigue and entertainment as they film Hard Knocks, but nothing will be more compelling than the three-way quarterback competition.
Conventional wisdom said the Dolphins would be able to bring rookie Ryan Tannehill along slowly, but he has impressed enough thus far to make Joe Philbin say the competition is too close to call.
Perhaps that's part of the plan—because it's too early to make any real evaluations—but that Tannehill knew most of the playbook coming into organized team activities (OTAs) gave him enough of a cushion to stay with the veterans.
Despite losing most of the camp battles throughout his career—the only time he won was over Jimmy Clausen in 2010, for good reason—Moore will come out on top here. He should do enough in camp to beat out Garrard, and I have a feeling the Dolphins are inclined to let Tannehill sit and learn, as Stephen Ross once mentioned.
Unfortunately, whoever wins the battle means the non-rookie loser will likely be kicked to the curb. Garrard is a 34-year-old quarterback trying to come back after an entire year off due to back surgeries.
The outlook is not good.
Buffalo Battle Royale
Stephon Gilmore vs. Terrence McGee vs. Aaron Williams vs. Leodis McKelvin
Cornerback was a position of weakness last season, but it could turn into one of strength with the arrival of rookie Stephon Gilmore and return of Terrence McGee.
Which two of this group will win the starting job?
Gilmore has been impressive thus far in OTAs, and the talented cornerback will push to start in Week 1. McGee was a starter before injuries ultimately knocked him out last year, but he is 31.
McKelvin has not lived up to his first-round draft status. The Bills benched him at one point last season. Williams performed about as well as expected as a rookie last season, stepping in to start for McKelvin and McGee at one point.
Winners: Gilmore and Williams
The rookie has a great shot to start right out of the gate, especially with a defensive line that will help take the pressure off the secondary. Williams held his own as a rookie and looks to be an easy call to start as a sophomore.
Even though he just restructured his contract, McGee's age, injury history and lack of size all spell trouble for the veteran. McKelvin could also be considered here, but there is no need to thin out the secondary that much, even if the four-year veteran has been a disappointment thus far.
Mile High Drama
Knowshon Moreno vs. Ronnie Hillman vs. Willis McGahee
Running backs must have led an expedition to the fountain of youth last year, and McGahee took perhaps the biggest swig.
Did he take some of that enchanted water home with him for the future?
The 30-year-old running back improbably revived his career last season, but there is a new sheriff in town who will dramatically change the offense. John Fox had to tailor Denver's offense to be absurdly run-heavy, and the Tim Tebow rushing threat helped defenses stay honest on McGahee. The offense also wore down opposing defenses as games continued.
Aside from McGahee, former first-rounder Moreno hopes to make a triumphant return from injury and Fox's doghouse. It will be a tall order for the disappointing running back, particularly with Hillman to contend with.
The rookie was drafted in the third round as a change-of-pace back who will play on third downs, which is Moreno's turf.
McGahee might win the starting gig because he's a traditional back and NFL veteran, but Hillman will eat into his playing time and play on third downs. With the legendary Peyton Manning manning the offense, Hillman is in for some big games catching balls out of the backfield.
This is the end of the line for Moreno in Denver. Unless he can impress during training camp and prove he can stay healthy, I expect him to lose the battle and be cut or traded shortly thereafter.
DeVier Posey vs. Kevin Walter vs. Lestar Jean
Andre Johnson has been a lonely man at the top of the Houston receiver depth chart for most of his career—Jabar Gaffney, Kevin Walter and Jacoby Jones were never very good as the No. 2 receiver for the Texans through the years.
It would be nice for Johnson to finally have a legitimate threat on the other side of the field to take some pressure off.
After letting perennial disappointment Jones go, the Texans have three real candidates for the job: incumbent Walter, second-year man Jean and rookie fourth-rounder Posey.
Who will take up this mantle? More to the point: Will he actually succeed?
The sophomore receiver is garnering rave reviews thus far in OTAs for the Texans, giving him a head start going into training camp, though he is still essentially a rookie after missing most of last year in IR with a shoulder injury. His upside will get him past Walter, and his limited experience will beat Posey's.
Though he hasn't been terrible, his lack of production over the years will spell doom if he loses to the two youngsters this preseason.
He's not likely to be cut, but his days garnering copious amounts of playing time are numbered.
Duel in the Desert
Kevin Kolb vs. John Skelton
It is déjà vu all over again in Arizona as Kolb and Skelton duke it out for the starting job at quarterback during training camp and the preseason.
While the Cardinals made an incredible capital investment when they traded for Kolb and signed him to a massive contract, his starting gig is not guaranteed—particularly if his subpar play continues. He was a major disappointment in his first year with the Cardinals, though his injury woes played a part.
Perhaps a full offseason will make a big difference for him.
Skelton, meanwhile, held his own as he continued to develop. He had better chemistry with Larry Fitzgerald and led the Cardinals on a second-half charge that saw them hit .500.
The Kolb trade was never a good one, and the Cardinals should cut their losses this offseason. Skelton has the tools to beat out Kolb in training camp and the preseason. Kolb's bonus is already paid, so Arizona might keep him around in case Skelton takes a step or three backwards.
His $7 million bonus will not save his starting job, but Arizona will not be cutting him anytime soon either.
Jerome Simpson vs. Greg Childs vs. Michael Jenkins
The No. 2 receiver has not been kind to quarterbacks in Minnesota in recent years. It is about time someone resurrects the position.
Simpson is the front-runner heading into training camp, based on the glowing reports from Vikings practice. Christian Ponder loves the addition, and Bill Musgrave called him the "juice" Minnesota needs on offense.
Of course, there's the little matter of a three-game suspension he must serve after spending 15 days in jail for a drug conviction.
That leaves Jenkins and Childs to battle it out for the temporary starting gig, with a chance to make that permanent if they perform well during the first three games.
Jenkins is the veteran here, giving him a leg up on a rookie who was disappointing last year (though injuries had a lot to do with that). Should Childs make good on his promise, he will push Jenkins during training camp.
Despite the suspension, Simpson should assume the starting role opposite Percy Harvin once he returns to action. It will help when either Jenkins or Childs underperforms through the first three weeks.
He had his chances in Atlanta alongside Roddy White but never capitalized. There is no reason to believe Jenkins will rise to the occasion in Minnesota. Even if Jenkins beats Childs out for the temporary gig, Simpson's return will put an end to it.
Running Back: Joseph Addai vs. Stevan Ridley vs. Shane Vereen
The fantasy community breathed a sigh of relief when BenJarvus Green-Ellis left New England for greener pastures in Cincinnati, but the Patriots dashed their hopes when they signed veteran Joseph Addai in May.
The former Colt has battled injuries his entire career, but he is somewhat effective when he can stay on the field. Of course, that is not exactly a given.
Ridley and Vereen have upside over Addai, and youth is on their side. They both flashed their abilities in limited playing time last season, particularly the former, who averaged 5.1 yards per carry (YPC) en route to 441 yards.
Vereen has been taking the first-team snaps in Patriots practice thus far, but we can hardly glean anything from that.
Winner: The Patriots
Serious versatility in the backfield is a big asset for Bill Belichick and the Patriots. Assuming relative health, they will be able to count on Addai as a veteran and utilize the youngsters effectively as needed.
Loser: Fantasy owners everywhere
Even if there is a clear-cut starter coming out of the preseason, Belichick's capricious nature when it comes to playing time for running backs mean trouble for anyone who ignores one of my golden rules about fantasy football: Never draft a Belichick running back.
Tim Hightower vs. Roy Helu vs. Evan Royster
Whereas Belichick really is whimsical with his running backs, Mike Shanahan can be just plain stubborn—or so it seems.
Hightower suffered a season-ending injury after plodding along as usual last year, opening the door for Helu and Royster to shine. They rose to the occasion—Helu ran well and caught 49 passes in limited duty, while Royster averaged 5.9 YPC—proving they should be just fine as Shanahan's running backs...right?
Despite sporting a career 3.9 YPC rate and a history of turnovers (though he seemed to fix those problems last year), Hightower sticks around like Kim Kardashian's fame. Shanahan thinks Hightower will be ready for camp after rehabbing from his injury, and some believe Hightower can be a starter.
Whatever Hightower has on Shanahan must be good.
This is more of a prayer than a prediction, but Shanahan has to realize Helu is the best back he has. Right?
He was highly effective in his starts last season. He has more upside. His name is not Tim Hightower. How many more positives need I mention?
While I think Royster will be in Washington's long-term plans, Hightower's presence and Shanahan's stubborn faith in him will be a bane—not a boon—for Royster.
Running Back: Pierre Thomas vs. Mark Ingram
The multi-headed rushing attack was buoyed by a surprising resurgence from Pierre Thomas last season, who had a stellar, injury-free year.
It stands to reason the Saints did not expect Thomas to be as effective and healthy as he was last season, when they traded a future first-round pick to draft Mark Ingram in 2011.
Fortunately for them, Thomas thrived despite Ingram languishing with poor play and injuries. At times it seemed like they were force-feeding the rookie, perhaps as a directive to justify paying the exorbitant price to nab him.
As disappointing as his rookie season was, his offseason has gotten worse. Ingram had yet another knee surgery—his third since 2010—which has kept him out of Saints practice thus far. He should be ready for camp, but he needs to prove he is not bust material with a strong camp and preseason.
As long as he continues to stay healthy, Thomas will thrive in this offense. He is the perfect all-around complement to scat back Darren Sproles—a bemusing reversal of NFL tradition at running back—and I do not see the Saints forcing Ingram into the lineup because of draft status if Thomas continues to be effective.
Loser: Mickey Loomis
Unfortunately for Loomis (aside from the fact he will be serving an eight-game suspension because of the bounty scandal), Thomas' emergence coupled with Ingram's injury woes makes the move to draft him seem downright awful.
The Saints might have lost the first-round pick they had traded away, but they would have likely had a second-round pick.
Hindsight is 20-20, of course, but the move to pick up Ingram was a dubious one at the time with the personnel the Saints already had in place at tailback.
Tebowmania and the Sanchize
Mark Sanchez vs. Tim Tebow
Or as longtime announcer Keith Jackson might say: Whoa, Nellie.
The circus has come to New Jersey and taken up permanent residence. As if Sanchez needed any more pressure to succeed after three less-than-stellar seasons as New York's starter, the Jets took the plunge on Tebow, taking him out of John Elway's hair in Denver.
Neither has been a particularly good passer thus far in his career, so it will be a true competition to see which quarterback has improved the most.
Winner: The New York media
Sanchez is going to begin the season as the starter—that much seems clear to me—but the media frenzy surrounding the two quarterbacks is nothing now compared to what will transpire when the season begins.
Sharks began circling the fourth-year man out of USC the instant Tebow became a Jet. Will Sanchez buckle under the pressure?
The intrigue will be great newspaper fodder in the Big Apple.
Loser: The Jets
As much intrigue as the quarterback situation will create—and as many tickets as it will sell—the goal should be to win championships. While the Jets may genuinely believe one of these quarterbacks can lead them there, the perception around the league is that neither of these quarterbacks is good enough to take a team to the next level.
I do not see how the circus can help remedy this problem.
Emmanuel Sanders vs. Antonio Brown
Brown was a nice surprise for the Steelers after they expected Sanders to ascend to the No. 2 role in the wide receiver corps. That doesn't mean Sanders can't return the favor.
Both receivers could benefit from Todd Haley's pass-friendly offense, but only one of them can start.
He should carry his momentum from a good rookie season into his second year long enough to stave off Sanders.
Loser: Opposing defenses
Even though Brown should be the starter, Sanders will not be far behind. The Steelers could do worse than having two talented receivers behind Mike Wallace, and opposing defenses will not have an easy time keeping track of all three when they are on the field together.
Apprentice Versus Master
Jake Locker vs. Matt Hasselbeck
There is an important number attached to Matt Hasselbeck here: 37.
That's how old he'll be during the season.
While he was still effective as a starter last season, his time may be up. The Titans wisely brought Locker along slowly as a rookie—inserting him later in the season when needed—but at what point do they catch up to their future?
The future will be delayed just a bit more, as Hasselbeck will retain his starting gig for the time being. As good as Locker seemed last season when he got in the game, his atrocious 51.5 completion percentage was indicative that he wasn't really ready.
Locker might lose the training camp battle for the starting job, but that doesn't make him a loser in this situation. The more seasoning he can get without having to jump into the fire, the better—for him and the Titans.
Besides, he should get in there sooner than later regardless—sooner if the Titans flounder from the get-go.
LaMichael James vs. Kendall Hunter
Jim Harbaugh knew what LaMichael James could bring to the table after facing him in the Pac-12 during his tenure with Stanford. Having to game-plan for him and witness his speed firsthand, it's difficult to blame him for liking the former Oregon Duck.
With the trend in the NFL continuing towards running-back-by-committee (RBBC), it is no wonder the 49ers wanted to bolster their backfield by drafting James, even though they already had Frank Gore, Anthony Dixon, Brandon Jacobs and Hunter.
The former Duck is too dynamic to lose here. He will be Gore's backup and play on third downs, perhaps fielding kicks and punts as well.
The longtime veteran will be the starter this year—there is no denying that—but his days of being the bell cow in San Francisco's backfield are over. This can only help prolong his career, so he's only a loser in the sense that his playing time will diminish.
Sunshine and the Robot
Quarterback: Blaine Gabbert vs. Chad Henne
Yo, Gabbert, Gabbert! Here comes Chad, the not-so-magic robot.
The second-year man out of Missouri had a rocky rookie season after getting thrown into the fire early on, and the heat is already on him this offseason after the Jaguars brought in veteran Chad Henne from Miami.
His problems stemmed from a poor receiving corps and an apparent fear of getting hit. His receiving corps really was atrocious last year, so not all of his woes can be attributed to poor play.
Gabbert looked awful at times, though. Hopefully a full offseason will help him get on track.
Despite his poor rookie season and Mike Mularkey's disturbing lack of faith, Gabbert should be able to beat out Henne for the starting job after all is said and done this preseason.
The fact Gabbert is even in a competition with Henne makes him a loser in this situation, even though he will win the starting job. The former Dolphins quarterback was not exactly good or well-loved in Miami, though he did have one nice game against New England last year.
Gabbert has one year to prove himself before the Jaguars pull the plug.
Wide Receiver: Brandon LaFell vs. David Gettis
Steve Smith is not getting any younger at 33, and the Panthers chose not to seriously address the receiver position in the draft—Joe Adams is a slot receiver, not quite the Smith of the future.
In a way, this camp battle is an audition for his long-term replacement.
LaFell has not lived up to his potential thus far in Carolina, but he goes into this season as the de facto No. 2 receiver across from Smith.
Going into a competition with support from your coach is a good thing. LaFell's talent will finally shine through with the opportunity he is being given. It helps that he has Cam Newton chucking the ball.
I do not foresee a real loser here unless Gettis has a terrible training camp and preseason. Both players should see plenty of playing time.
Weapons Upgrade, Part Deux
Wide Receiver: Devin Hester vs. Alshon Jeffery
The talented receiver only fell to them in the second round because questions about his work ethic latched onto his draft stock and dragged it through the muck.
Hester is the incumbent, however, and his experience gives him a big head start despite disappointing numbers as a receiver throughout his career.
There is little reason to believe the anti-hype that says Jeffery will be lazy as a professional. He seems to have corrected course, though cynics might have you believe he did it to make sure he would get paid.
Jeffery will be back to his 2010 form—when he had a decent quarterback throwing him the ball—and the Bears will have no choice but to start him opposite Marshall.
Hester has just never been a good receiver. Even though he is a veteran with some chemistry with the starting quarterback, Jeffery's talent will win out in the end. That should give him more time to focus on his kick returning, where he is most dangerous.
Finding Running Mates
Wide Receiver: Mohamed Sanu vs. Marvin Jones vs. Jordan Shipley vs. Armon Binns vs. Brandon Tate
Cincinnati's training camp will be a good one to watch while these receivers battle it out for the second and third receiving jobs on the offense.
A.J. Green had Jerome Simpson flanking him last season, but the grass was greener in Minnesota. Though Shipley began the season as the starter before injuring his knee early on, his position is not guaranteed, as the Bengals have stacked the deck at receiver.
Winners: Jones and Sanu
Former undrafted free agent Binns and Patriots castoff Tate are dominating the Bengals headlines right now, but the rookies should make up that ground during training camp.
Even though he is working hard to make his way back from injury, Shipley is still not ready for full practice, and the others involved in this shootout simply have more upside. He might stick over Binns or Tate, but he will have gone from starter to fifth wheel.
Cornerback: Cary Williams vs. Jimmy Smith
Baltimore tendered Williams, but that does not necessarily mean he will be starting come Week 1.
The Ravens took a chance on Smith in the first round last year despite some character concerns leading up to the draft. Thus far those concerns have not been merited—Smith has been a model citizen, as far as we know.
He is also a talented cornerback who should be eager to climb the depth chart.
His talent will be undeniable throughout camp.
Williams is only a loser in the sense that he will have lost his starting job, though I suppose that is why this article was conceived. He should still see plenty of playing time as the third cornerback in that defense.
Out with the Old, in with the Older
Colt McCoy vs. Brandon Weeden
Assuming the Browns do not trade McCoy, he will give Weeden competition during camp. Whether it will be good competition or not is debatable.
The former Texas Longhorn got the starting gig through attrition more than anything, after Brady Quinn's flameout and Jake Delhomme's career demise. He held on to it last year largely because there was simply no better choice.
Weeden was drafted in the first round this year, but lack of professional experience as a football player—his stint as a New York Yankee is the reason for his older age—might hurt him initially.
Let's be real here: The Browns did not draft a 28-year-old quarterback in the first round to have him sit behind the likes of McCoy. I would actually give Seneca Wallace a better shot at starting than McCoy at this point.
Loser: Brad McCoy
Perhaps McCoy would not be in this situation were it not for his dad's meddling. Though it is difficult to fault a father for trying to protect his son from future brain damage, he might have been better served voicing his concerns privately. Now his son may be out of a job with few openings elsewhere.
Wide Receiver: Ryan Broyles vs. Titus Young vs. Nate Burleson
The Lions went back to the well by drafting yet another receiver early in this year's draft.
Broyles is recovering from a torn ACL, but he should be ready for training camp. He will be thrust into a competition with veteran Burleson and second-year man Young, and he is a dark horse to win it.
Though Broyles brings great upside to the table, the Lions can afford to give the veteran one more year as the No. 2 receiver while Broyles continues to make his way back from ACL surgery.
He was the heir apparent to the No. 2 role, but his workout antics may have him in Jim Schwartz's doghouse. I am not sure it is enough to warrant a serious demotion or layoff, but he has to prove he's no knucklehead to make his way back.
3 Shades of Green
Wide Receiver: James Jones vs. Randall Cobb vs. Donald Driver
Driver recently restructured his contract so that he could remain a lifelong Packer, but his job may be up for grabs this summer.
Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson will be the starters again, but the wily veteran played a vital role for the Packers last year.
Jones was the third-most productive receiver for the Packers last season—not counting the tight ends—and he enters training camp as the favorite to retain that bronze crown.
Cobb is an explosive player in his second season who will look to usurp that crown.
Cobb will make a strong push, but Jones will win because he is a savvy veteran. Both should see the field plenty.
There is no shame in losing this battle for Driver—after all, he just had a successful stint on Dancing with the Stars.
His days as an effective player are numbered, but he should see the field a decent amount this season.
Matt Flynn vs. Russell Wilson vs. Tarvaris Jackson
What do you get when you cross a career backup, a starter who should not be starting and a 5'10" rookie?
Find out at Seahawks training camp this summer!
Seattle signed Flynn in a non-bidding war against the Miami Dolphins this offseason, presumably to win a competition against the incumbent Jackson. They then drafted diminutive rookie Wilson out of Wisconsin with a third-round pick and proceeded to heap praise on him during OTAs in May.
This is not the most ideal of situations, but what's wrong with healthy competition amongst three quarterbacks?
Wilson would be a nice story, but the veteran should win this battle. Flynn did not get starter money when he signed with the Seahawks, but neither does Jackson have that kind of contract. I expect Flynn to win this battle.
Much like Miami's situation, the veteran loser of this competition could be a cut casualty. That man is Jackson.
Kansas City BBQ
Wide Receiver: Jonathan Baldwin vs. Steve Breaston
The Chiefs drafted red-flagged Baldwin in the first round last season despite needs elsewhere, and he did not deliver until the end of the season—that is, unless you count the blow he delivered to Thomas Jones resulting in a wrist injury that kept him out for half of the season.
One year later (and hopefully wiser), Baldwin enters camp with a ton of upside and Breaston in his sights. Can the veteran fend off the second-year player for the starting job opposite Dwayne Bowe?
The sophomore receiver will finally live up to his draft status and surpass Breaston for the No. 2 role alongside Bowe.
This is no skin off Breaston's nose—he will be on the field a great deal regardless.
Wide Receiver: Rueben Randle vs. Jerrel Jernigan
The Giants were in a bit of a pickle with the No. 2 receiver after Mario Manningham's departure. Though Manningham was a bit of an injury problem, he worked outside, allowing salsa-dancing star Victor Cruz to operate in the slot, where he is most effective.
New York was going to have to either play Cruz on the outside or have Jernigan give it a go, but then Randle fell into their laps at the end of the second round.
Having all that extra time with the first team, while Nicks is out, will be a boon for the rookie out of LSU. He possesses the size and athleticism to make a big impact at this level, and developing alongside the team's top players will speed that along.
There is no question Nicks has durability concerns, and his latest injury could be the start of a painful re-evaluation for the talented receiver. If Randle really shines and Nicks' body continues to self-destruct, the Giants might start thinking about grooming Randle for the veteran's job.
Black Hole Contingency
Taiwan Jones vs. Mike Goodson
What is the over/under on Darren McFadden's first injury?
Hopefully the stud running back can finally have a healthy season, but the guys behind him had better be ready to step in at a moment's notice.
Those guys are Jones and Goodson, and it will be a fun battle to watch.
The Carolina import played quite well when pressed into service in 2010, and that is precisely what he will be called to do if/when McFadden goes down with an injury. He is also an ideal third-down back, and his experience will be invaluable as a backup.
Jones is not exactly the picture of health himself, having missed some time last season after injury concerns dogged him out of college. He has blazing speed, but his lack of experience compared to Goodson will make his competitor the choice.
That is no knock on the speedy Jones, but there has to be a loser here.
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