Highlighting the Best Rookie vs. Vet Battles in NFL Training Camps
NFL training camp is an opportunity for rookies to steal away starting jobs from veterans, who themselves are expected to show up and perform to keep their jobs.
While some early draft picks may walk directly into starting jobs if their drafting teams lack talent at their positions, most rookies will have to win a battle with at least one veteran counterpart to see the field as a starter in Week 1.
Every NFL team will have these battles during their respective training camps, but some competitions look more realistic or intriguing than others.
In the following slides, we take a look at the competitions that are most likely to come down to the wire and where rookies have the best chance of moving their way up depth charts before the season begins.
Buffalo Bills: EJ Manuel vs. Kevin Kolb, Quarterback
Starting quarterback battles are always the most anticipated competitions of training camp, and the stakes are raised when a rookie is competing for the job. That will certainly be the case in Buffalo, where No. 16 overall pick EJ Manuel will battle free-agent signing Kevin Kolb to be the Bills’ new starting quarterback.
Considering that 10 of the last 15 quarterbacks selected in the first round of the NFL draft have been Week 1 starters, the Bills didn’t draft Manuel to be a backup. Although he is a raw, inexperienced talent who needs to develop, he will have every opportunity to win the starting job.
Manuel needs to improve upon his downfield accuracy and decision-making, especially under pressure, as a pocket passer. That said, he has the physical tools at 6'5'', 237 pounds to be an excellent quarterback. He has far more upside than Kolb, whose two-year stint as a starter with the Arizona Cardinals was disappointing, even when he was healthy.
Kolb may be the more reliable and steady option for the present, but the Bills continue to be a team building toward a bright future. If Manuel shows enough progress to be ready to take on the starting job and help the team win games when the season begins, chances are good that they will get him on the field right away.
New York Jets: Geno Smith vs. Mark Sanchez, Quarterback
The other major quarterback competition to watch in training camp will also include a rookie quarterback within the AFC East. With incumbent quarterback Mark Sanchez coming off a horrible season, the New York Jets drafted Geno Smith in the second round to be the quarterback of the future and potentially of the present.
Smith is arguably the most talented quarterback from the 2013 draft class and possesses the skill set to develop into a very good starting quarterback. That said, he has to adapt to a more complex offense than the one he ran at West Virginia and become better at making plays under pressure.
While some reports have indicated that Smith has struggled to adapt, Jets offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg told the New York Daily News earlier this week that Smith is “way ahead of the pace of a normal rookie.” He has “progressed at a high level,” and if he can continue to do so throughout training camp, he will have a great shot at taking away the starting job by Week 1.
Sanchez has the advantage of experience, but he has failed to make any significant progress over the course of his four-year career and even seemed to regress last year. While Smith has some flaws that may keep him from being a great quarterback in 2013, he is a talented passer and athlete who could likely still be an upgrade over what Sanchez was last season.
Cleveland Browns: Barkevious Mingo vs. Jabaal Sheard, Outside Linebacker
The Cleveland Browns needed to overhaul their pass rush this offseason and did so with the additions of free-agent signing Paul Kruger and No. 6 overall draft selection Barkevious Mingo. Kruger should be locked into a starting job with his five-year, $40.485 million contract, but Mingo will have to beat out third-year player Jabaal Sheard to win a starting spot.
While Kruger has experience as a 3-4 outside linebacker from his time with the Baltimore Ravens, both Mingo and Sheard are making the transition from defensive end for the first time. Determining the winner of this battle will go to which player has made a smoother transition to the team’s new defensive scheme in training camp.
Top-10 draft picks are typically rookie starters, but in this battle, Mingo actually looks like the underdog. Sheard is a solid player who the team remains invested in, and he is a stronger run-defender who may be a better fit to complement Kruger.
Sheard began Browns training camp on the first-team defense with Mingo working primarily with the second-team defense, according to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer.
Mingo is an explosive athlete with enormous pass-rushing upside, but he remains a raw talent who needs to improve as a point-of-attack run-defender and learn how to drop into coverage.
Mingo will have to progress very quickly to steal the spot away from Sheard, but even if he loses the battle, he will still see the field. As a rookie, Mingo would be best suited to rotate into the lineup as a situational pass-rusher. He has more pass-rushing potential than Sheard, and he can certainly take advantage of his speed to the quarterback in a rotational role.
New Orleans Saints: Kenny Vaccaro vs. Roman Harper, Strong Safety
Pro Football Focus (subscription required for premium statistics) graded Malcolm Jenkins and Roman Harper as the NFL’s two worst safeties last season, so it came as no surprise when the New Orleans Saints used their first-round draft pick to select the 2013 draft’s highest-rated safety, Kenny Vaccaro.
That said, neither Jenkins nor Harper is going to give up their jobs easily to Vaccaro. While both are coming off career-worst seasons in a disappointing year for the Saints, Jenkins was a second-team All-Pro in 2010, and Harper is a two-time Pro Bowler.
While Vaccaro will likely see time at both safety spots, he is a more natural fit for the strong safety position, where he appears to be squarely in competition with Harper. According to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune, Harper began the first day of training camp as the starting strong safety, but Vaccaro also took some of his first-team reps in 7-on-7 drills.
This is a battle that is likely to continue on through the preseason, but if Vaccaro can impress early and make consistent progress, he should have a good shot of winning this battle.
Harper is 30 years old, and he has seemed to slow down in recent seasons. While Harper remains a very solid in-the-box strong safety, he has been a liability in coverage.
Vaccaro is both a better athlete and a coverage upgrade, and he is also a very active tackler who thumps with his hitting. Both players will see playing time throughout the season in nickel/dime packages, but the Saints drafted Vaccaro to compete for a starting job. Harper didn’t do much last season to keep a strong hold on his position.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Jarvis Jones vs. Jason Worilds, Outside Linebacker
Although he was the No. 17 overall pick, rookie outside linebacker Jarvis Jones is fighting an uphill battle versus a trend in recent Pittsburgh Steelers history. If Jones beats Jason Worilds for a starting job, he would be the Steelers’ first defensive rookie starter since 2001, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Ever since Dick LeBeau became the Steelers defensive coordinator in 2004, the Steelers have seemingly philosophized starting experience over youth on the defensive side of the ball. But as Bouchette noted, Jones has a real shot of becoming his first defensive rookie starter in Pittsburgh.
While transitioning to a 3-4 defense can be difficult for many rookies, Jones is already experienced in that defense from his time at Georgia. He is a talented, well-rounded outside linebacker who can provide an immediate spark to the Steelers pass rush, but he is also a physical and aggressive run-defender.
Worilds, meanwhile, has been somewhat of a disappointment in Pittsburgh. A second-round pick in the 2010 draft, he has not made a major impact for the Steelers and has only compiled 10 sacks in three seasons.
That said, head coach Mike Tomlin told Steelers.com earlier this week that Worilds is designated as the starting outside linebacker opposite LaMarr Woodley. Jones may be the more talented football player, but he is going to have to prove that immediately and consistently in training camp to convince Tomlin and LeBeau to go against the pattern.
Indianapolis Colts: Bjoern Werner vs. Erik Walden, Outside Linebacker
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Erik Walden as the NFL’s worst 3-4 outside linebacker last season, but the Indianapolis Colts apparently didn’t care or get that memo because they signed him to a four-year, $16 million deal. The Colts paid Walden like a starter, but he is going to have to fend off a challenge from rookie first-round pick Bjoern Werner.
Werner is an explosive, skilled pass-rusher whom the Colts got with terrific value as the No. 24 overall pick in the 2013 draft. That said, he has to make a difficult transition to the 3-4 outside linebacker position, which rookies often struggle with.
Werner is very good at pressuring opposing quarterbacks and is a skilled run-defender in space, but he lacks top-end athleticism for the outside linebacker position and is inexperienced in coverage. As he transitions during his rookie year, he may be best suited to work out of a situational pass-rushing role.
Nonetheless, Werner is too talented not to be given a legitimate crack at winning the starting job.
While Walden has the experience to step in right away at the position, he is a below-average starter at best who is unlikely to be the long-term replacement the Colts need for Dwight Freeney. Werner could be, but his performance in training camp will determine how quickly or gradually the Colts bring him along this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Johnthan Banks vs. Leonard Johnson, Cornerback
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers opened up a spot in their starting lineup when they released cornerback Eric Wright. That opening presents an immediate opportunity for second-round pick Johnthan Banks.
Banks is a big (6'2'', 185 lbs), physical and instinctive cornerback with the ball skills and tackling ability to be a very good No. 2 cornerback opposite Darrelle Revis. Banks will still have to compete for a starting job, however, with second-year cornerback Leonard Johnson.
An undrafted free agent in 2012, Johnson ascended up the Buccaneers depth chart quickly in his rookie season and ended up starting six games. He showed the potential to be a capable starter, and according to Bleacher Report’s own J.J. Rodriguez, he has been seeing significant work as a starting cornerback in practice.
Banks has more deep-coverage ability, and Johnson is a better fit to play as the nickel/slot cornerback. That said, Johnson has the advantage of NFL experience. Like Banks, Johnson is a physical cornerback who makes up for subpar speed with his other skills.
Banks was drafted to play immediately, and the window of opportunity is certainly open, but he is not going to win this battle by default.
Denver Broncos: Montee Ball vs. Ronnie Hillman, Running Back
The Denver Broncos will have a new starting running back this year following the release of Willis McGahee earlier this offseason. The leading candidates to take on that role of feature back are rookie second-round pick Montee Ball and 2012 third-round pick Ronnie Hillman.
Ball is arguably the most NFL-ready running back in this year’s rookie class, and he was drafted to be a replacement and upgrade over the aging McGahee. Ball is a strong runner between the tackles with great vision and quickness, and he proved throughout his career at Wisconsin that he can carry the load and find his way to the end zone.
Hillman offers a different skill set to the Broncos. He is a more explosive athlete but a smaller back than Ball (Hillman is 5'10'', 195 lbs, while Ball is 5'10'', 214 lbs). He is not a great between-the-tackles runner, but he can make defenders miss in the open field and is a good receiver out of the backfield.
Hillman has experience on his side, but he only gained 330 yards on 85 carries last season. Additionally, his game seems better suited for a change-of-pace role than that of a feature back. Broncos vice president of football operations John Elway even acknowledged that in his pre-draft press conference, according to Mike Klis of The Denver Post.
Hillman started out training camp as the first-team running back, according to Jeff Legwold of The Denver Post, and veteran back Knowshon Moreno could also factor into the battle. That said, Ball should get more than his fair share of opportunities throughout training camp to challenge for and quite possibly win the role of feature back.
San Francisco 49ers: Quinton Patton vs. A.J. Jenkins, Wide Receiver
When Michael Crabtree suffered a torn Achilles tendon earlier this offseason, an opportunity opened for 2012 first-round pick A.J. Jenkins to earn a starting job this season. But after not catching a single pass in his rookie season with the San Francisco 49ers, Jenkins will have to fend off competition from Quinton Patton, a talented wide receiver out of this year’s rookie class.
Patton was only a fourth-round pick, but he was expected by many to be selected much earlier. He is a skilled receiver with great route-running ability and body control.
Jenkins is an explosive athlete and a talented receiver in his own right, but his inability to push his way onto the field made his rookie season a huge disappointment. This year, however, a starting job is his to lose. Jenkins started 49ers training camp as a first-team receiver opposite Anquan Boldin, according to Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee.
But considering he barely saw the field last season, Jenkins isn’t going to be handed a starting job. Patton has reportedly been wearing a non-contact jersey in 49ers practice, according to Matt Maiocco of CSN Bay Area, but expect him to make a serious run at winning the “X” receiver job if he can get fully healthy.
St. Louis Rams: Zac Stacy vs. Daryl Richardson/Isaiah Pead, Running Back
Steven Jackson was a model of consistency as the St. Louis Rams running back for the past nine seasons, but he joined the Atlanta Falcons as a free agent this offseason. With Jackson no longer in the fold, the Rams appear to have a three-way running back competition which includes rookie fifth-round pick Zac Stacy.
Chances are high that the Rams will not have a true feature back and that all three backs will split carries throughout the season. Nonetheless, all three will be competing for their spot in the pecking order, and Stacy should have a real shot at moving to the top of the depth chart.
Stacy does not have the explosiveness or big-play ability of some of the other backs in the 2013 draft class, but he is a very solid and reliable runner. He has excellent vision and does a terrific job bouncing off contact to extend plays.
Daryl Richardson, who was listed as the team’s projected starter at running back in their pre-training camp press release, should be the favorite in this competition. The 2012 seventh-round pick is a quick, elusive runner who made a strong impression in his rookie season by gaining 475 yards on 98 carries. Richardson received most of the first-team work at running back in the Rams’ first training camp practice, according to Ryan Van Bibber of Turf Show Times.
Isaiah Pead is also a serious player in this competition, as the Rams drafted him in the second round of the 2012 draft to be Jackson’s eventual replacement. However, Pead is coming off a disappointing rookie season in which he received only 10 carries. He is also suspended for the Rams’ season opener due to a 2012 marijuana arrest.
Stacy started camp working with the second- and third-team offenses, according to Van Bibber, but he should not be ruled out of this competition quite yet. If Richardson fails to run away with the job, Stacy will get his opportunity.
Washington Redskins: Bacarri Rambo vs. Reed Doughty, Free Safety
Bacarri Rambo’s fall to the sixth round of the 2013 draft was surprising, but it may very well be a blessing in disguise for the former Georgia safety. By falling to the Washington Redskins in Round 6, he ended up on a roster with a serious lack of talent at the safety position.
Rambo now has the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of 2012 sixth-round pick Alfred Morris and earn a starting job right off the bat with the Redskins. He worked as the team’s first-team free safety next to Brandon Meriweather on the first day of training camp, according to Mike Jones of The Washington Post.
Rambo had some issues with discipline both on and off the field, but he is a physically gifted safety who has great ball skills and hitting ability. He needs to become a more consistent player on the field, but he may already be the Redskins’ best option to start at free safety.
Veteran Reed Doughty is entering his eighth year with the Redskins, but he has never been good enough to hold down a starting job for a full season in his career. That has opened the door for Rambo, who may already be the favorite to start in the secondary in Week 1.
Another rookie, Phillip Thomas, who was actually drafted ahead of Rambo (Round 4), could also factor into the competition to start. So could DeJon Gomes, another veteran who has started games for the Redskins but has been unable to prove himself a worthy long-term starting option.
Baltimore Ravens: Brandon Williams vs. Terrence Cody, Nose Tackle
With the Baltimore Ravens replacing two starters at both safety and inside linebacker, first-round pick strong safety Matt Elam and second-round pick inside linebacker Arthur Brown are both slated to be immediate starters on the Ravens defense.
They could be joined by third-round pick Brandon Williams, who should challenge Terrence Cody throughout training camp for the starting job.
Cody came out of Alabama with potential as massive as his size (6'4'', 340 lbs), but his play through his first three NFL seasons has been uninspiring. He will have to improve his performance in training camp to beat out Williams, who is huge (6'1'', 335 lbs), strong and powerful like Cody but also a more explosive athlete.
Winning the job won’t be easy for Williams, who has to make a huge leap from the Division II level of college football (Missouri Southern State) to playing for the defending Super Bowl champions. Nonetheless, he is a talented and physically gifted player who will force Cody to prove his worth to hold his spot in the lineup.
Chicago Bears: Jon Bostic vs. D.J. Williams, Inside Linebacker
Brian Urlacher’s 13-year career as Chicago Bears middle linebacker officially came to an end this offseason, leaving the famed spot in the middle of the Chicago defense open for competition. That competition should come in training camp between rookie second-round pick Jon Bostic and veteran free-agent signing D.J. Williams.
The Bears drafted Bostic surprisingly high with the No. 50 overall pick, but there is definite reason to believe he could be a starting middle linebacker. He is an athletic linebacker with good playmaking range who hits hard and drops back into coverage effectively.
The Bears seem to view Williams as a temporary starting option at best, having signed him only to a one-year, $1.75 million deal. He is a talented linebacker who was once among the NFL’s best at his position, but his best years are behind him. He is coming off the worst season of his career, one in which he was suspended for nine games, started only one and made 14 total tackles.
Williams was signed to start, according to Adam Jahns of the Chicago Sun-Times, but Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker told the Chicago Tribune in May that Bostic would have a chance to compete for the starting job. Rookie fourth-round pick Khaseem Greene could also compete for a starting spot, though he is a better fit outside than he is in the middle.
If Williams is only a temporary option, the Bears should be looking to get Bostic in the middle of their defense as soon as he is ready. If he has a strong training camp, he should have a good shot of winning this job.
Kansas City Chiefs: Travis Kelce vs. Tony Moeaki/Anthony Fasano, Tight End
The Kansas City Chiefs are going to have a tough time keeping their third-round pick off the field for long. Travis Kelce is a physically gifted tight end who is both a skilled open-field receiver and a solid blocker with great size (6'5'', 255 lbs).
The Chiefs already have two solid veteran tight ends, bringing back Tony Moaeki while having signed Anthony Fasano as a free agent this offseason. That said, Kelce is a more explosive athlete than either of them and has the potential to be an upgrade in both receiving and blocking.
In terms of both experience and consistency, Fasano may be the team’s most reliable option. Moaeki has more talent than Fasano but has struggled to stay healthy. Kelce must continue to develop and become a more consistent, disciplined player, but he has the potential to make an immediate impact, even if he is only the No. 2 or 3 tight end on the depth chart.
Depending upon how frequently the Chiefs use two-tight end sets, there is a good chance that Kelce will see the field regularly as a “move” tight end regardless of whether he wins the competition to start. Either way, he should give Fasano and Moeaki a serious push for playing time over the course of training camp.
Cincinnati Bengals: Shawn Williams vs. Taylor Mays, Strong Safety
The Cincinnati Bengals have quietly developed one of the NFL’s strongest rosters, but one spot that has been a significant issue is the strong safety position. That position will likely remain problematic this season unless rookie third-round pick Shawn Williams can develop quickly and step up into the starting role.
Williams has the potential to be a very good strong safety, but he may not be an immediate fix to the Bengals’ problems at the position. He is a physical, hard-hitting safety who excels in run support, but he struggles in pass coverage.
While Williams could likely be an upgrade in run support, lapses in coverage were the biggest problem with Taylor Mays’ play at strong safety last season. Even though Mays has proven not to be a quality starting option, Williams will have to show improvements in coverage throughout training camp to earn a spot in the lineup come Week 1.
It is unclear who has a leg up in the competition this early, but Williams is already getting first-team snaps at strong safety, according to Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer. Given Mays’ poor play before he was replaced as starter last season, the door should be wide open for Williams to continue to get more and more snaps and steal the job away.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Josh Evans vs. Dwight Lowery, Free Safety
The Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to have at least two rookie starters in their secondary in second-round strong safety Jonathan Cyprien and third-round cornerback Dwayne Gratz. Josh Evans was only a sixth-round pick, but he could potentially join them in the starting lineup with a strong training camp.
Of all positions on the Jaguars defense, free safety may actually be one of the few where they do not need a replacement from last season. Dwight Lowery has emerged as a very solid starter over the past two seasons since converting to free safety. He gives the team a steady presence in the middle of the secondary in both coverage and tackling.
Some writers who cover the team, nonetheless, believe the Jaguars are high enough on Evans to give him a serious shot at competing for the starting job. Although it would be a surprise to see him beat out the more experienced Lowery as a sixth-round pick, it is a reasonable possibility.
Evans has good measurables for a safety, and he is both fluid in coverage and a solid run-support safety. He has more playmaking upside than Lowery, and if he can pick up the defensive scheme quickly, he could add another impact player to the Jaguars’ young secondary.
It would certainly be an upset for Evans to win this battle, but it is a competition to watch nonetheless.
Oakland Raiders: Tyler Wilson vs. Matt Flynn, Quarterback
This one may not be a true battle. Oakland Raiders coach Dennis Allen named Matt Flynn as his starting quarterback back in May, via the Contra Costa Times, and Flynn has been getting most of the team’s first-team reps at quarterback thus far in training camp, according to Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times.
Nonetheless, this remains a position battle to keep an eye on in Raiders training camp, even if rookie fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson comes in as a significant underdog. Flynn is unproven as a starter, so if he begins to struggle at all in training camp, the door could open up for Wilson to steal some reps and make a push for the starting job.
Wilson is a talented passer with the skill set to develop into a quality starter, although he must become more consistently accurate downfield. He also needs to cut down on his mistakes, which have already included a stretch of three interceptions in four passes, according to Levi Damien of Silver and Black Pride.
Wilson could be the Raiders quarterback of the future, but he is going to have to turn things around for a spectacular training camp to win the job as a rookie. He could be as good if not better than any other rookie quarterback if he gets the chance to play, but the job appears to be Flynn’s to lose.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.
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