As the first round of preseason games get underway, we start to see visible separation in some of the hottest camp battles of the summer.
Preseason games will reveal much more as to how close each battle is, but we have learned a lot from rep counts players are getting with the first and second teams.
Here is an update on some of the top battles in NFL training camps.
Current Leader: EJ Manuel
EJ Manuel’s road to becoming a starting quarterback is getting easier by the day.
Manuel is doing enough to win the job outright with his own play. Peter King of Sports Illustrated noted that Manuel has “been good in all regards” through his first week of camp. Coach Doug Marrone told the media that Manuel was “coming along nicely,” according to the team’s website.
Meanwhile, Kevin Kolb has done everything in his power to make Marrone’s decision as easy as possible.
Kolb was already off to a slow start after struggling in the first few days of camp, The Buffalo News reports. Now, he won’t have a chance to redeem himself after suffering a knee injury from slipping on a mat in practice, Sal Maiorana of USA Today reports.
Manuel has an even bigger window to show off his potential with extra valuable first-team reps that were supposed to be for Kolb.
There is still a long way to go until the Bills have to make a final decision, but it is difficult to envision a scenario in which they open the season with anyone but Manuel as their starter.
Current Leader: Ronnie Hillman
With several young running backs on the roster, the Denver Broncos are looking for a new starting running back in the wake of Willis McGahee’s departure.
The competition is between second-round rookie Montee Ball and sophomore player Ronnie Hillman. Ball is known as a classic workhorse back from his career at Wisconsin. Hillman flashed potential when given an opportunity in place of McGahee last year, but he lacked the consistency needed to earn a more prominent role as a rookie.
While there has been no sign of a clear winner in training camp, the Broncos did release their first depth chart with Hillman listed as the starter.
The fact that Hillman is listed first makes sense, as the Broncos have a lot more trust in an experienced player to start a game in the immediate future than a rookie.
This does not mean that Hillman should get settled. There is still plenty of time for Ball to become more comfortable in the offense, particularly in the protection schemes where most rookies struggle. After all, the Broncos are certainly not going to put a player on the field who could expose Peyton Manning to taking unnecessary hits.
Both players will see plenty of action this season, but it appears as if Hillman does have the slight edge over Ball so far.
Current Leader: Geno Smith
Mark Sanchez’s tenure as the starting quarterback of the New York Jets appears to be running out, as second-round pick Geno Smith has gained some separation.
Rich Cimini of ESPN New York reports Smith is outplaying Sanchez through the first week of practices, noting that he has “sparkled with his accuracy.” As a result, Smith was given three drives with the first team in Saturday’s scrimmage to Sanchez’s one, Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News notes.
Even worse for Sanchez is that he threw an ugly interception in his lone drive, while Smith managed to keep the ball away from the defense in three times as many drives.
Sanchez entered this battle with an advantage over Smith in experience, but the fact that both players are learning a new system eliminates any head start Sanchez may have had from a mental standpoint.
As a stronger and more accurate thrower than Sanchez, Smith is giving the Jets fewer and fewer reasons to revert to Sanchez before the season starts.
Current Leader: None
Lost in the Riley Cooper controversy is the fact that the Philadelphia Eagles are still without a starting quarterback over a week into training camp, and it doesn’t appear as if they are any closer to deciding on one.
Eliot Shorr-Parks of NJ.com reports Michael Vick and Nick Foles remain neck and neck after Sunday’s practice. Foles was given five more reps with the first team, but “he didn’t do much more with them,” spending more time checking down than trying to make plays down the field.
A tie would likely favor Vick, who has an advantage over Foles in experience and overall talent, combined with the fact that he makes a lot more money than the second-year Foles.
Either way, it is obvious that Chip Kelly is in no hurry to pick a quarterback and will let preseason games play a role in the decision.
Current Leader: James Starks
Much has been made about Eddie Lacy’s conditioning after a rather unflattering photo of him hit the Twitterverse, but he appears to be right in the thick of a heated running back competition in Green Bay. Bob McGinn of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reports that while Starks started the Packers' scrimmage, Lacy was the most impressive as the second back. His power was on display near the goal line, and he is improving in pass protection.
Maybe Lacy is just not a photogenic guy after all.
The Packers will likely use a committee approach to the running back position this year, using Lacy in short-yardage situations and the veteran Starks in pass protection to keep Aaron Rodgers upright.
Over the next month, this battle should continue to heat up now that Lacy is firmly in the mix and has something to prove.
Current Leader: Desmond Trufant
The Atlanta Falcons clearly made the cornerback position a high priority in the draft, using their first two picks on Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, respectively, to address the position.
Now, defensive coordinator Mike Nolan is allowing the spirit of competition, not draft position, decide which player lines up opposite Asante Samuel on opening day.
Trufant is the more athletically gifted player with fluid hips and great ball skills, but he is known for taking too many chances. Alford, a Southeastern Louisiana product, may not be as fluid of a mover as Trufant, but he makes up for it with his physicality and competitive nature.
Trufant has been penciled in as the starter according to the depth chart the team released before their scrimmage over the weekend, via D. Orlando Ledbetter of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The Falcons would obviously prefer to see their first-round pick in the job to justify their selection, so a tie would likely make Trufant the starter by default.
No matter who wins the job, both players will see plenty of action this year as teams continue to use their third and fourth cornerbacks on first and second downs.
Current Leader: Matt Flynn
Despite early speculation that he could unseat Matt Flynn for the starting quarterback job in Oakland, Tyler Wilson should be more worried about securing the backup job than knocking off Flynn.
Jerry McDonald of InsideBayArea.com reports Flynn has been “consistent” and “error-free.” Meanwhile, Wilson has “had some rough moments.” McDonald later noted that Wilson was getting fewer and fewer snaps in favor of undrafted rookie Matt McGloin.
Wilson has always had a talented arm and flashes greatness when throwing without pressure in his face (which explains why he was so impressive in spring practices), but his game takes a turn for the worse when the bullets start flying.
Barring a miraculous shift in his game, Flynn, armed with the backing of his general manager and coach, appears locked in as the starter for the Raiders.
In a way, this could be a blessing in disguise for Wilson, who clearly needs some time to develop before he could ever start a regular-season game.
Current Leader: T.Y. Hilton
For T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey, the battle for the right to start opposite Reggie Wayne is less about the position on the depth chart as it is proving their worth in their unique roles.
Heyward-Bey has the ideal build of a deep, big-play receiver with his combination of size and speed. Hilton, on the other hand, is a more versatile player who has been seen lining up at a variety of spots in the formation—including in the slot—George Bremer of CNHI News reports.
Hilton does have an edge over Heyward-Bey because he has already developed a chemistry with Andrew Luck as a rookie. The fact that Heyward-Bey will miss valuable time because of a sprained knee, via Mike Chappell of the Indianapolis Star, puts Hilton on the fast track to start.
Both players will play their own unique role in the Indianapolis Colts offense this year, but Hilton’s versatility, health and chemistry with his starting quarterback gives him the slight edge over Heyward-Bey.