Predicting the Hardest Roster Decision for Every NFL Team This Preseason
The preseason is often seen as useless and boring to most NFL fans. However, it’s an important phase in the roster-building process. Players are fighting for starting jobs, special team roles and even roster spots.
This competition often creates some tough decisions for coaches and general managers.
The Arizona Cardinals face a crowded situation at the outside linebacker position. Lorenzo Alexander and Sam Acho are the projected starters, but there’s plenty of young depth capable of pushing them for playing time.
Unfortunately, the Cardinals won’t be able to keep everyone on the roster. O’Brien Schofield, Tim Fugger and Dan Giordano might all be fighting for a roster spot.
Schofield has the early edge because of his experience. However, his 10-career sacks show that he has yet to find consistency. Both Giordano and Fugger are hard workers who feature good quickness off the edge.
Brian Banks’ resilience makes for a great storyline, but the truth is he’s a very raw talent. He has no college-level experience and spent most of his 20’s in a prison cell. The Atlanta Falcons are in a unique and tough situation.
Because of his situation, many are rooting for Banks to make the roster. Atlanta needs to make sure they don’t get caught up in the media coverage. They should only give Banks a roster spot if he earns it.
This situation is a little more complicated because Atlanta has some depth issues at linebacker. If Banks makes the roster he’ll need to quickly adjust to the NFL game. Atlanta doesn’t have the luxury of slowly bringing him along.
Matt Birk’s decision to retire opens a big hole in the middle of the Baltimore Ravens’ offensive line. They are looking for one of three youngsters to step up and seize the starting job: Gino Gradkowski, Ryan Jensen and AQ Shipley, who all have an opportunity to secure the role.
These three aren’t only fighting for a starting job, they are also fighting for a roster spot. The Ravens won’t have the slots available to keep all three players in the mix.
Gradkowski has the inside track because he’s been with the team for two years. However, Shipley showed promise last year with the Indianapolis Colts.
The Buffalo Bills drafted E.J. Manuel in the first round to be their quarterback for the future. However, that doesn’t mean he won’t have an opportunity to earn the starting job in training camp. Manuel will battle Kevin Kolb for the right to open the season as the starter.
Deciding whether or not to throw Manuel into the mix will have a major impact on his development. If he isn't ready to handle the pressure his confidence could be compromised.
Giving Kolb the opening-day start would be the safe way to go, but he doesn't bring any upside to the table.
The Carolina Panthers’ offense will continue to run through Cam Newton, but they also need to figure out the running back situation. Carolina has Jonathan Stewart, DeAngelo Williams, Kenjon Barner and Mike Tolbert, who are all capable of picking up yards on the ground.
This is a lot of players to have to work into the rotation, not to mention that Newton topped the 125-carry mark in each of his first two seasons.
The biggest issue here revolves around money. Stewart, Williams and Tolbert are all owed a good chunk of change. Carolina needs to find a way to work all these players into the game plan to ensure they’re not wasting money.
The Chicago Bears need to decide if they want to go with youth or middle-of-the-road veterans at the linebacker position. James Anderson and D.J. Williams have had their share of success in the league, but they don’t bring a ton of upside.
However, this year’s draft picks Jon Bostic and Khaseem Greene are explosive athletes capable of adding some youth to an aging defense.
Because of their lack of experience, Bostic and Greene will have their share of mistakes. However, the best way to learn and develop is by getting on the field.
The Cincinnati Bengals have a good mix of youth and experience in the defensive backfield. This gives them some flexibility with last year’s first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick. Because of his combination of size and athleticism, Kirkpatrick could fit at either cornerback or safety.
Cincinnati needs to consider plugging him in at safety. Terence Newman and Pacman Jones can hold down the cornerback spot opposite Leon Hall. The biggest weakness in the secondary is Taylor Mays at the safety position.
Replacing Mays with Kirkpatrick would strengthen the entire secondary.
Hiring Ray Horton to take over as defensive coordinator was a good move by the Cleveland Browns. However, it forced them to change their defensive alignment from a 4-3 to a 3-4 attack. This also meant that Cleveland would have to add pieces to fit this scheme.
The position to keep an eye on this preseason is outside linebacker. Cleveland signed Paul Kruger, drafted Barkevious Mingo and have Jabaal Sheard from last season. These three players will be working to ensure they see the bulk of the playing time.
Horton is creative enough to make use of all three players, but someone is going to be the odd man out and the preseason will go a long way in determining the outcome.
DeMarco Murray has proven to be both a talented and injury-prone player. So far, he has missed a total of nine games in just two seasons. This instability at the running back position creates a big question mark for the Dallas Cowboys’ offense.
Dallas must identify a backup running back capable of coming in and taking over for Murray should he suffer an injury.
Last year, they used Phillip Tanner and Lance Dunbar with little success. This likely played a role in the team’s decision to draft Joseph Randle. The preseason is going to be an important stretch for these three running backs.
The Denver Broncos have a lot of depth and talent at the running back position. It’s tough to imagine a scenario where they can keep Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball and Lance Ball on the roster.
There has been talk about McGahee and Moreno as possible offseason cuts, but up to this point, no decision has been made. This could be because the other running backs are mostly unproven. Denver is looking to make a Super Bowl run, and is likely playing it cautious with how they handle this position.
Montee Ball was a second-pick this year and will likely get every chance to earn the starting job. If he’s able to seize that role, both McGahee and Moreno will become more expendable.
*Update: According to ESPN.com, the Broncos released McGahee today.
Titus Young’s lack of maturity hasn’t only hurt himself, it also hurt the Detroit Lions. They were counting on Young to provide them team with another option to draw attention away from Calvin Johnson.
With Young out of the mix, the Lions need another player to emerge at the wide receiver position. This group includes Mike Thomas, Ryan Broyles, Brian Robiskie and Kris Durham.
Broyles has the most upside of this group, but he’s recovering from his second ACL injury in two seasons. Detroit will use the preseason to decide who deserves the first shot at getting more playing time.
Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers used this offseason to upgrade their talent at the running back position. Both Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin were drafted to be a major part of this rebuilt ground game. However, there’s no guarantee that either player will be able to make an instant impact.
Green Bay will likely use the preseason to sort out the depth chart. DuJuan Harris, Alex Green, James Starks and Angelo Pease are among the other running backs in the mix. Pease might be the most interesting of the group, as he has turned heads so far this offseason.
Ultimately, the biggest decision Green Bay faces is how to properly use Lacy and Franklin. They are very different running backs who will increase the versatility of the ground attack.
The Houston Texans addressed their biggest problem area when they drafted DeAndre Hopkins in the first round. They’re counting on Hopkins to quickly pick up the playbook and help take some pressure off of Andre Johnson.
Even if Hopkins is able to meet expectations, the Texans still need at least one more wide receiver to emerge. DeVier Posey, Lestar Jean and Keshawn Martin are the three top candidates for the job. The preseason will be their best chance to make a case.
The Texans really need some luck, as they’re putting a lot on unproven players.
After a surprise playoff appearance last year, the Indianapolis Colts made several offseason moves in an attempt to ensure they make a return trip. They addressed several areas, including offensive line, the secondary and defensive line.
The Colts’ 3-4 attack requires a space-eating nose tackle to completely succeed. Indianapolis will need to use the summer months to decide the best player to fill that role.
Josh Chapman, Aubrayo Franklin and Brandon McKinney are the top candidates. Franklin brings a veteran presence as someone who has plenty of experience playing the nose tackle spot. Chapman might be the sleeper of the group. His rookie season was a bit of a wash because he was recovering from an injury. However, he absolutely has the talent to win the starting job.
The Jacksonville Jaguars didn’t draft Luke Joeckel No. 2 overall to have him play the right tackle position. His combination of athleticism, length and sound technique gives him the skills needed to develop into a top-notch left tackle.
There’s a small issue because Jacksonville already has Eugene Monroe in place at that position. It’s possible that Monroe opens the season at the left tackle spot and Joeckel is transitioned there later in his career.
However, Jacksonville might be better served to let Joeckel go through his growing pains during the Jaguars’ rebuilding phase.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs are in a similar situation as the Jacksonville Jaguars. They have a veteran left tackle in Branden Albert, but used the No. 1 pick in the draft to bring in Eric Fisher. The difference with the Chiefs situation is that Albert has been outspoken about his unwillingness to play right tackle.
Fisher features all the tools needed to play left tackle in the NFL from day one. However, he has also stated the he’s willing to start his career on the right side.
Kansas City shouldn’t allow Albert to dictate how they handle Fisher. It’ll be interesting to see if head coach Andy Reid ignores Albert’s complaints and allows Fisher to open the season on the left side.
The Miami Dolphins had a chance to bring Reggie Bush back this offseason as their starting running back. However, they decided to go with a more youthful group. The competition will be between Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas and Mike Gillislee.
Miller showed flashes last season as a rookie and Thomas is the more experienced of the group, but has been inconsistent. Gillislee is talented enough to win the starting job as a rookie.
Whoever wins the starting job will play an important role within the offense. Miami needs one of these running backs to help take pressure off of second-year quarterback Ryan Tannehill.
This season might be a make-or-break year for Christian Ponder. He needs to take a step forward in his development, but also needs for his wide receivers to provide some help. The Minnesota Vikings' decision to trade Percy Harvin has the potential to be a road block for Ponder.
Minnesota’s hope is that the combination of Greg Jennings, Jerome Simpson, Cordarrelle Patterson and Jarius Wright can get the job done.
Figuring out how to best use this group should be the main focus of the preseason. Look for the Vikings to move these players around the field in order to find out where each receiver fits. Patterson is the real wildcard here, as he is as explosive as he is raw.
New England Patriots
Bill Belichick and company took a big risk by allowing Wes Welker to sign with the Denver Broncos this offseason. This decision took Tom Brady’s one reliable target out of the mix. The New England Patriots now need to find two starting receivers out of a group of players including Michael Jenkins, Danny Amendola, Aaron Dobson, Donald Jones, Josh Boyce and Julian Edelman.
Amendola is the key name on this list, as he’s expected to fill the hole left by Welker. However, Amendola has missed 20 games in the past two seasons due to injuries. His injury issues are exacerbated by the string of issues Rob Gronkowski has had this offseason.
There’s a ton of uncertainty in the Patriots’’ passing game. They need things to get straightened out during the summer months.
New Orleans Saints
Losing Jermon Bushrod to the Chicago Bears opens a major hole at the left tackle position for the New Orleans Saints. Charles Brown and Terron Armstead appear to be the top candidates to compete for the job. Neither player has a ton of experience and may take time to round into form.
After the struggles of last year, New Orleans can’t afford start off the year on a negative note. Drew Brees is an elite quarterback, but every quarterback is less effective when faced with increased pressure.
It’s also important to note that the Saints also lost long-time offensive line coach Aaron Kromer to the Bears. There are a lot of new faces at important spots for the Saints this season.
New York Giants
The New York Giants might have a tough time carving out enough playing time for all their defensive tackles this preseason. They have Linval Joseph, Cullen Jenkins, Shaun Rogers, Johnathan Hankins, Marvin Austin and Mike Patterson all looking to earn playing time.
Joseph and Jenkins are the most likely to open the season as the starters. However, youngsters Hankins and Austin are two players to keep an eye on. The Giants selected both in the second round with the expectation that they’ll develop into key contributors.
After some injuries and inconsistent play, Austin might be looking at his last chance to work his way into the Giants’ defensive line rotation.
New York Jets
Mark Sanchez is in a very tough position, as the New York Jets no longer see him as the quarterback of the future, but are also looking for him to fight for the starting job. His play during the preseason will determine what path the Jets take at the quarterback spot.
If he really struggles the Jets will likely give rookie Geno Smith a chance to establish himself. However, if Sanchez looks average they might give him the starting nod to allow Smith time to get more comfortable.
How the Jets handle this situation will play a major role in the franchise’s long-term success. Rushing Smith into the lineup when he’s not ready could potentially crush his confidence and stunt his development.
The Oakland Raiders decision to trade for Matt Flynn made a ton of sense for both parties. Flynn was looking for an opportunity to earn a starting job and the Raiders needed a veteran at the quarterback position.
Because the Raiders are going through a rebuilding process, they have the ability to take a chance on an unproven player like Flynn.
The uncertainty at the position comes stems from the strong play of rookie Tyler Wilson so far this offseason. Oakland is in a situation where they must go with the player they feel gives them the brightest future.
The safety position has been an issue for the Philadelphia Eagles since they moved on from Brian Dawkins and Quintin Mikell. This offseason, they brought in veterans Kenny Phillips and Patrick Chung with the hope that they can provide some immediate help.
Issues remaining healthy are the biggest obstacles facing Phillips and Chung. They won’t be able to help the team if they can't stay on the field. Phillips was already held out of some offseason work with an injury.
Those will two battle Nate Allen, Kurt Coleman and Earl Wolff to see who’ll earn the starting job. Keep an eye on Wolff, as he’s a talented rookie who could surprise some people during training camp.
Losing Mike Wallace this offseason creates a hole at the wide receiver position for the Pittsburgh Steelers. They now need to find someone to work alongside Antonio Brown and stretch the field. Emmanuel Sanders is the primary candidate to take Wallace’s spot, but Pittsburgh also needs to identify a No. 3 receiver.
The Steelers selected Markus Wheaton in the third round of this year’s draft and may give him a shot to earn early playing time. Wheaton possesses the quickness and sound route-running ability needed to work out of the slot.
They could also turn to veteran Jerricho Cotchery to fill that role, but he isn’t as explosive as Wheaton.
St. Louis Rams
Seeing Steven Jackson suit up for a team other than the St. Louis Rams will be an interesting site. His decision to sign with the Atlanta Falcons means that St. Louis must find someone to take over as the primary ball carrier.
Last year’s seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson showed promise and is likely to get the first shot at replacing Jackson. However, St. Louis also has last year’s second-round pick Isaiah Pead in the mix.
The Rams added depth to the position when they drafted Zac Stacy in the fifth round of this year’s draft. Stacey has a good shot to earn some carries because of his toughness and ability to pick up yards between the tackles.
San Diego Chargers
Much has been made about the recent struggles of Philip Rivers. However, a lot of his issues can be traced back to problems along the offensive line. The San Diego Chargers made a point to upgrade the offensive line talent this offseason.
San Diego’s most significant move was drafting Alabama’s D.J. Fluker in the first round. He has the talent to work his way into the starting lineup from day one. However, the Chargers need to decide what position he’ll play.
The left tackle position is the biggest question mark on the offensive line. They will have to decide if Fluker, Max Starks or King Dunlap is the right man for the job.
San Francisco 49ers
The San Francisco 49ers’ decision to add Nnamdi Asomugha to the mix added depth and also clouded the cornerback situation. Asomugha comes with a good reputation, but the truth is his play slipped over the past few years.
He’s going to need to earn playing time with the 49ers. San Francisco already has Chris Culliver, Perrish Cox, Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown in the mix.
The 49ers are a team in win-now mode, but they have to decide if it’s worth stunting the development of a younger player to get Asomugha on the field.
The Seattle Seahawks put a lot on Marshawn Lynch’s shoulders. They ask him to carry the load and set the tone for the offense. However, the amount of hits he takes generates a lot of wear and tear on his body.
Seattle needs either Robert Turbin or Christine Michael to emerge as someone to lighten Lynch’s load.
Turbin showed promise as a rookie, but the word out of Seattle is that the Seahawks love Michael’s potential. The preseason is going to be a great measuring tool for both of these players and could determine who is in the team’s long-term plans.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are counting on Darrelle Revis to recover from his ACL injury in time for the start of the season. His presence increases the overall talent and depth at the cornerback position.
However, it also creates an intriguing battle between rookie Johnthan Banks and veteran Eric Wright.
This preseason is more important to Wright’s career than it is for Banks. Wright is trying to wash away his inconsistent play from last season. A poor preseason could easily cost him a roster spot. However, don’t expect the Buccaneers to hand him a starting job.
Banks is talented and savvy enough to make a quick transition into the NFL.
Ensuring Jake Locker is surrounded by reliable and explosive targets needs to be the Tennessee Titans’ main objective this preseason. The roster features playmakers like Kenny Britt, Kendall Wright, Nate Washington and Justin Hunter.
This group has a ton of potential, but they lack consistency. Britt’s off-field issues and injury problems make it tough to project what he’ll contribute this season. It’s possible the Titans will look to cut him lose if he has a tough preseason.
In only his second season, Wright might be the most reliable wide receiver on the roster. It’ll be interesting to see what direction the Titans go in after seeing the rest of the wide receivers perform during the preseason.
The Washington Redskins used two draft picks this April to upgrade the talent at the safety position. Both Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas have the potential to push for early playing time. However, they’ll have to unseat veterans Brandon Merriweather and Reed Dougherty.
After a promising start to his career with the New England Patriots, Merriweather has struggled to play consistent football. His biggest issues come in the form of penalties and missed tackles.
Merriweather needs a strong training camp in order to convince the Redskins to keep him in the starting lineup. Otherwise, they’ll be more than happy to give Rambo or Thomas a shot.