Finally, football is almost back.
The Jacksonville Jaguars will report to training camp in just two weeks, and practices will begin July 27.
The Jaguars will look almost completely different than their 2012 incarnation. It's Gus Bradley's first training camp as the team's head coach, and he will continue to install the philosophies he's been teaching all offseason.
First-year general manager David Caldwell has completely overhauled the roster to distance the team from its franchise-worst 2-14 record from last season. Coach Bradley has preached competition, per Alfie Crow of Big Cat Country, and training camp will give the new faces a chance to make a mark on the team. Training camp will be home to intense position battles as players try to claim the precious remaining roster spots.
Here are the five most heated training camp battles for the Jaguars.
Surprising, I know.
The most heated position battle in training camp will be for who starts at the most important position on the team. GM Caldwell said the team will have a "wide-open" competition at quarterback this offseason, according to Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, and that's exactly what the Jaguars have had. The team is just one of two in the NFL carrying five quarterbacks into training camp after being awarded Mike Kafka off waivers.
Although Caldwell has said Kafka has an opportunity to win the starting role, via ESPN's Paul Kuharsky, that is most likely just lip service to light a fire under the two main players competing for the starting job: Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne. Neither were able to claim the starting role despite both receiving substantial playing time last season, and that trend has continued this offseason.
The lack of a clear-cut front-runner means the battle will continue into training camp and the preseason, according to an Associated Press (via Fox News) report. This will give the team plenty of time to see who is performing the best to be named the starter.
But who should be Jacksonville's starting quarterback?
The Florida Times-Union's Ryan O'Halloran thinks it will be Gabbert, as he said on a podcast with Cole Pepper. O'Halloran said he would be "stunned" if the third-year quarterback isn't Jacksonville's Week 1 starter against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Gabbert makes the most sense to be named the starting quarterback. He's still extremely young and has untapped potential. He showed flashes of what he could become in several games last season before being placed on injured reserve.
Giving Gabbert the starting job will also give the Jaguars one last chance to see if he can live up to being the 10th overall pick. If he plays well, it speeds up the rebuilding process and the team can focus on improving other areas of the team. If he doesn't, then the team can cut its losses and draft another quarterback in next year's draft.
The Jaguars most likely aren't going anywhere in 2013, so it would make sense for the team to give Gabbert one more to prove himself as the franchise quarterback.
The starting wide receivers seemed to be obvious heading into the offseason. Cecil Shorts III was fresh off a breakout season, while Justin Blackmon was coming off the best season in Jaguars' rookie wide receiver history.
The team's plans at wide receiver were thrown out after Blackmon was suspended for the first four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy. The troubled second-year receiver can still practice with the team during training camp, but the franchise will have to give other receivers reps to prepare them for the first quarter of the season.
The two most likely players to fill in during Blackmon's absence are Jordan Shipley and Mohamed Massaquoi. Both players have had similar career arcs to get to this point. Both Shipley and Massaquoi had promising rookie seasons before injuries derailed them. They're looking to get their careers back on track in Jacksonville and Blackmon's absence will give them the chance to do so.
Shipley has already had some success with the Jaguars during the final six games of 2012 when he caught 23 passes for 244 yards and a touchdown. He is a nice fit as the team's slot receiver, but he could play a bigger role in the opening weeks of the season.
Massaquoi inked a two-year, $1.7 million deal with Jacksonville in the offseason as depth, but he could find himself in the starting lineup Week 1. ESPN's Paul Kuharsky wrote the wide receiver "looks like an opening-day starter" for the franchise.
Massaquoi is the most likely choice to be Blackmon's replacement in the first four weeks of the season. The fifth-year player is the most experienced wide receiver on the team and has had more playing time on the outside than Shipley. His experience advantage could give him the upper hand in the battle for the early-season starting receiver role.
Jacksonville's defensive line play was among the worst in the NFL last season. They were responsible for 30th ranked rushing defense (141 yards per game allowed) and recorded the fewest sacks in the league (20).
GM Caldwell aggressively targeted defensive linemen in free agency to bolster the unit. Former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Roy Miller and ex-Tennessee Titan Sen'Derrick Marks were signed as free agents, while the team claimed Kyle Love and Brandon Deaderick off waivers after they were released by the New England Patriots.
While Marks will likely be one of Jacksonville's starting defensive tackles as a penetrating pass-rusher, Miller and Love will battle for the other starting spot.
They will compete to fill the role of the one-technique, which is a defensive tackle who is asked to eat blocks to free other defenders and hold the point of attack against the run. Miller and Love both fit this role perfectly and will battle throughout training camp and the preseason to earn the role.
Miller looks to have the advantage early in the battle as he has received "rave reviews" from the coaching staff despite being limited by knee tendinitis, according to Vito Stellino of The Florida Times-Union. He also has experience playing for defensive line coach Todd Wash, who coached the defensive tackle during his first two years in the league.
No matter who wins the starting role, the backup will still be used in heavy rotation. The interior of the defensive line has become one of the strongest points on the defense, and the Jaguars will be in good shape with two quality players in Miller and Love.
The Jaguars decided to move on without long-time outside linebacker Daryl Smith as they rebuild their roster, and it's an open competition to determine who will be his replacement.
Jacksonville signed Geno Hayes as a free agent and added him to a collection of inexperienced returning players and undrafted free agent rookies. He has previous experience playing for coach Bradley and played for defensive coordinator Todd Babich with the Chicago Bears last season. He was primarily a backup during his one year in Chicago and is looking to get his career back on track in Jacksonville.
But he won't be a shoe-in for the starting role. In fact, he's far from it. Ryan O'Halloran of The Florida Times-Union reports that the outside linebacker role is a "wide-open derby entering training camp."
Hayes faces competition from several young players looking to make a name for themselves in training camp. Second-year player Julian Stanford seems like the best option to challenge Hayes for the starting job. Stanford turned heads throughout OTAs with his athleticism, O'Halloran reports. He started six games last season and recorded 23 combined tackles.
Another player to pay attention to is undrafted free agent LaRoy Reynolds. He's a long shot to be the starter, but he could easily make the roster. He could be a special teams contributor during his rookie year but he has the potential to do more in the future.
Hayes is the leading candidate based on his experience with Bradley and Babich, but it's impossible to count Stanford and Reynolds—to a lesser extent—out of the race just yet.
GM Caldwell has completely revamped Jacksonville's secondary this offseason.
Gone are the likes of Rashean Mathis, Derek Cox and Aaron Ross. To replace them, the Jaguars signed veterans Alan Ball and Marcus Trufant as free agents and drafted Dwayne Gratz, Jeremy Harris and Demetrius McCray.
Ball and Gratz enter training camp as the leading candidates for the starting role, according to Alfie Crow of Big Cat Country. Although it's not set in stone, it's going to take a great showing from one of the other cornerbacks to unseat either Ball or Gratz as the starters.
The real battle at cornerback this training camp will be for the nickelback role. Trufant and Mike Harris are the two players competing against each other for the job.
John Oehser of Jaguars.com reports Trufant will get the opportunity to compete to be Jacksonville's nickelback. He played for coach Bradley during his time as the Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator and brings a familiarity of the first-year coach's defense. Trufant also has the experience edge by far as he's entering his 11th NFL season. That also means, however, he is entering the twilight of his career and his best days are behind him.
Harris, on the other hand, is entering his second season in the league after becoming a reliable defender in his rookie year. He played well after being thrust into a starting role last season and recorded six pass defenses and one interception.
Jaguars legend Tony Boselli said Harris will be the team's "starting nickel" this year, according to Natalie Pierre of The Tallahassee Democrat. If Boselli vouches for you, you have to be good.
Trufant should win the nickelback role only if he's noticeably better than Harris. If the competition is even remotely close, then Harris should win the job to continue the youth movement. Trufant could still be used in spot duty and will still add veteran leadership even if he's not on the field. Harris played well last season, and there's no reason to believe he won't do the same in 2013.