Every NFL Team's Biggest Training Camp Revelation Thus Far
After months of offseason speculation, the start of NFL training camps finally starts to bring legitimate clarity to unanswered questions surrounding each team.
Training camps have already provided some telling glimpses into how new additions will factor into their team’s lineup this season, how coaches will implement new schemes and which players are leading notable position battles.
In the following slides, we take a look at one revelation that has come out of each NFL team’s training camp thus far, providing a closer look at how each team could look when they take the field this preseason and looking forward, of course, to the regular season.
Teams are listed in alphabetical order by city/region name.
Arizona Cardinals: Patrick Peterson Playing Wide Receiver
If the era of the two-way player is dead in the NFL, new Arizona Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians either didn’t get the memo or is ready to revive it. Cardinals third-year cornerback Patrick Peterson, arguably the team’s best defensive player, has been taking snaps at wide receiver in training camp.
Arians said Saturday that the offensive package including Peterson has already expanded to about 15 plays, according to Kent Somers of The Arizona Republic. Arians also said he believes Peterson could be “one of the top five receivers in the league.”
Michael Lev of the Orange County Register tweeted Tuesday that Peterson “appears to legitimately be the Cardinals’ No. 4 receiver.”
It’s not hard to see what Arians sees in Peterson as an offensive weapon. He is a fantastic athlete who has already proven to be dynamic with the ball in his hands.
Peterson has been among the NFL’s elite punt returners in his first two seasons. As a rookie in 2011, he tied the NFL single-season record with four punt return touchdowns. He has also played occasionally on offense out of the Wildcat formation, though not with the regularity he is expected to play on offense in 2013.
Atlanta Falcons: Rookie Robert Alford Ready to Contribute
The Atlanta Falcons drafted cornerbacks in each of the first two rounds of the 2013 NFL draft. First-round pick Desmond Trufant was viewed as the more NFL-ready cornerback of the two and expected to start, but it appears that second-round pick Robert Alford could challenge him for a starting position.
An athletic cornerback with great ball skills, Alford has huge upside but was viewed as a small-school project coming out of Southeastern Louisiana. He has changed that notion by reportedly coming along quickly in training camp.
Peter King of "The Monday Morning Quarterback" called Alford “one of the fastest risers around the league in the first week or so of camp play.” Alford has shown “clinging coverage ability” early in training camp, according to King (who is likely getting that information that sources around the Falcons organization, as he has not yet attended Falcons training camp this summer).
With a thin cornerback group behind Asante Samuel, the Falcons need both of their rookie cornerbacks to contribute early. But Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said Alford is providing legitimate competition with Trufant for the starting spot opposite Samuel, according to D. Orlando Ledbetter of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Baltimore Ravens: Deonte Thompson Moving Up Depth Chart
The Baltimore Ravens inked championship-winning quarterback Joe Flacco to a six-year, $120.6 million contract this offseason, but the group of pass-catchers he has to throw to has dwindled significantly since.
Starting wide receiver Anquan Boldin was traded away to the San Francisco 49ers in March, and tight end Dennis Pitta is out for the season after fracturing his hip in the first week of training camp.
This leaves the Ravens with a serious lack of talent outside of deep-threat wide receiver Torrey Smith. Wide receiver Jacoby Jones and tight end Ed Dickson (who is currently dealing with a slightly torn hamstring) are expected to play significant roles, but the Ravens still need more receivers to step up and make plays this season.
The pass-catcher most likely to make the necessary leap appears to be second-year receiver Deonte Thompson.
He only caught five passes in his rookie season, but he is an explosive athlete with the speed to burn defenses deep. He has gotten “a lot of reps” with the first-team offense and has been getting open in “a variety of ways” in training camp, according to Matt Vensel of the Baltimore Sun.
The Ravens desperately need a receiving playmaker to step up and at least partially fill the void opened up by the losses of Boldin and Pitta. They are counting on Thompson to be that guy.
Buffalo Bills: EJ Manuel Making Immediate Push for Starting QB Job
10 of the last 15 quarterbacks to be selected in the first round of an NFL draft have been Week 1 starters for their teams. Early indications from training camp are that Buffalo Bills rookie quarterback EJ Manuel, this year’s No. 16 overall draft pick, is likely to continue that trend.
Manuel has reportedly been making quick progress in training camp. Bills head coach Doug Marrone said Monday that the coaching staff has been “very, very pleased with (Manuel’s) development,” according to Tim Graham of the Buffalo News.
Manuel has impressed many observers including Peter King, who said Manuel looked “comfortable, confident, strong-armed and accurate” when King attended Bills practice last week. He is competing to start at quarterback with veteran free-agent addition Kevin Kolb, but has been the better of the two quarterbacks on the field according to WGR’s Joe Buscaglia.
The battle has continued to swing in Manuel’s favor since Kolb slipped on a wet rubber mat and injured his knee Saturday. Kolb has not practiced with the team since.
If the young quarterback can continue to impress, the Bills will likely make their future the present and make Manuel their starting quarterback from the first week of the regular season. For the Bills to make a serious push at playoff contention, they need to have a franchise quarterback on the field.
The hope is that the strong-armed, athletic Manuel can develop quickly and become that quarterback.
Carolina Panthers: Mike Mitchell To Start at Strong Safety?
The Oakland Raiders made one of the most surprising picks of the 2009 NFL draft when they selected strong safety Mike Mitchell with the No. 47 overall pick, much higher than he was projected to be selected by media draft analysts.
He never lived up to the expectations of a second-round pick during his four-year career in Oakland, however, instead being a role player who never made a big impact on the field.
It appears that Mitchell will have a second chance of becoming an impact player for the Carolina Panthers this season. In one of the NFL’s least talented secondaries, Mitchell appears to be the leading candidate to start at strong safety.
He has taken the “bulk of reps” at strong safety with the first-team defense in training camp, according to Jonathan Jones and Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer.
Mitchell should continue to face competition throughout the preseason from second-year safety D.J. Campbell, but the early indications favor Mitchell. Mitchell has great measurables for a strong safety and has flashed the ability to be a playmaker, but has not made plays with consistency.
The Panthers will hope that Mitchell, who started two games but did not record a single pass defense last season, can step up his game and play at the level typically expected of a mid-second-round pick.
Chicago Bears: James Brown Pushing for Starting Job
The Chicago Bears made two clear additions to rebuild at the guard position this offseason.
They signed veteran free agent Matt Slauson to man the left guard position, while first-round draft pick Kyle Long is expected to be an immediate starter at right guard. Those two players could have competition on their hands, however, from a second-year player who joined the team last season as an undrafted rookie.
It came as a surprise when James Brown, a projected mid-round draft pick, went unselected in the 2012 NFL draft. He is making the most of his opportunity nonetheless.
Brown has been working as the first-team right guard in training camp according to Brad Biggs of the Chicago Tribune, and he is currently listed as a co-starter at the position alongside Long on the team’s preseason depth chart.
The Bears didn’t draft Long with the No. 20 overall pick to sit on the bench, so the expectation remains that Long will eventually overtake Brown and win that competition. That said, it is significant that the Bears are continuing to give Brown first-team reps in place of Long, a rookie who could certainly use every repetition he can get.
If Long wins the job outright, Brown could work as the team’s swing guard and step in if needed. He could possibly even provide competition to Slauson, who was signed by the team as a temporary fix on a one-year deal, for the starting left guard job.
Cincinnati Bengals: Tyler Eifert to Be an Immediate Key to Offense
With a number of young, talented offensive weapons including a solid starting tight end in Jermaine Gresham, the Cincinnati Bengals certainly didn’t need a player like Notre Dame tight end Tyler Eifert when they selected him with the No. 21 overall pick in this year’s draft.
That isn’t going to stop the Bengals from immediately making Eifert a key player in their offense.
With superstar wide receiver A.J. Green sidelined due to a knee bruise, Eifert has been Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton’s “favorite target” in training camp, according to Joe Reedy of The Cincinnati Enquirer. According to an Associated Press report, Eifert has been “getting the ball more than many others with a lot more experience.”
Eifert is a terrific athlete with good size for the tight end position and he is very good at making plays on the ball in the air and through traffic. The Bengals will be able to use Eifert not only as an in-line tight end, but also as a flex/move tight end and split out as a wide receiver.
It appears that the Bengals plan to get Eifert on the field consistently, and will take advantage of the ability to line him up in many different spots on the line of scrimmage. On an offense that has many skilled pass-catchers including Green, Gresham and second-year wideouts Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, it is significant for Eifert to be working his way into a crucial role during his rookie training camp.
Cleveland Browns: Dion Lewis Stepping Up at Running Back
Trent Richardson has been sidelined by an injured right shin, which has opened a window of opportunity for other Cleveland Browns running backs to perform. According to reports, Dion Lewis has been the running back to take advantage of that opportunity.
Acquired in exchange for linebacker Emmanuel Acho in an April trade, Lewis has “awed everyone with his speed, moves, and catching ability” in training camp according to ESPN Cleveland’s Will Burge. With Richardson being held out of the first preseason game, Lewis was named the starter for that game by Browns head coach Rob Chudzinski, according to an Associated Press report.
Fourth-year running back Montario Hardesty was expected to be the Browns’ No. 2 running back, but the oft-injured back is out once again with a hamstring injury. According to Mary Kay Cabot of The Plain Dealer, Hardesty’s roster spot could be in jeopardy due to his inability to consistently stay on the field.
Hardesty has not been able to step up in Richardson’s training camp absence, but the quick, shifty Lewis has. At the very least, Lewis seems to be carving out a role for himself going forward as a change-of-pace back and spot starter should Richardson’s injury woes continued.
Dallas Cowboys: Offensive Line Still a Problem Area
Outside of standout left tackle, the Dallas Cowboys had one of the NFL’s shakiest offensive lines last season. Although the Cowboys have made efforts to improve their offensive line this offseason, it continues to be a cause for concern as training camp progresses.
The addition of first-round pick Travis Frederick should provide some stability at center, but the Cowboys still have issues on the right side of their offensive line.
The Cowboys attempted to seal their biggest hole at right guard by agreeing to a deal with veteran Brandon Moore earlier this week, but Moore decided to retire rather than sign with the Cowboys. The Cowboys still have a position of uncertainty at right guard, while Doug Free is a shaky right tackle and Frederick will have to develop quickly as a rookie.
The Cowboys kept starting quarterback Tony Romo out of the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game on Sunday, and according to Carlos Mendez of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, that decision was made in part due to the team’s continued concern with the offensive line.
If the Cowboys are concerned about Romo playing behind their offensive line for a series or two in the preseason, they will certainly be concerned about the pressure that offensive line might allow consistently in the regular season.
Whether or not the offensive line can improve is likely to be the difference between the Cowboys being serious playoff contenders or falling behind in the NFC East.
Denver Broncos: Ronnie Hillman Not Backing Down to Montee Ball
The Denver Broncos selected Wisconsin running back Montee Ball in the second round of this year’s NFL draft, and subsequently released incumbent veteran starter Willis McGahee.
Many believed that would allow Ball to ascend to the starting running back job right away as a rookie, but he is instead competing for the job with second-year running back Ronnie Hillman.
At this point, it appears that Ball may be fighting the uphill battle to a starting spot versus a favored Hillman. Hillman holds the top running back spot on the team’s first preseason depth chart, and he had his “arm wrapped tightly around the starting running back spot” early in training camp according to Mike Klis of The Denver Post.
Hillman only gained 330 yards and one touchdown on 85 carries last season, but he at least has a year of NFL experience under his belt, which Ball does not. He has more receiving ability out of the backfield than Ball and has more ability to make defenders miss.
That’s not to say that Ball, however, won’t end up winning the job eventually. Broncos coach John Fox said the running back competition will be determined by performance and not set until after the team’s preseason games, according to Christopher Dempsey of The Denver Post.
Ball is going to have to take the job away from Hillman, but he has the talent to do so. He has been splitting first-team repetitions with Hillman according to Caitlin Swieca of The Denver Post, and he is considered “a No. 1B to Ronnie Hillman's No. 1A status” by ESPN.com Broncos reporter Jeff Legwold.
Ball is a strong, physical between-the-tackles runner whose great vision, good quickness and ability to run through contact give him the potential to be a great NFL running back.
Detroit Lions: Mikel Leshoure Being Phased Out of Running Back Rotation?
In his first playing NFL season last year, Mikel Leshoure showed some impressive flashes as a between-the-tackles runner, but possibly not enough to continue being a focal point of the Detroit Lions’ offense.
Coming off of a torn Achilles in 2011, Leshoure gained 798 yards and nine touchdowns on 215 carries last season. He “still has to prove he can be the same player he looked like he was going to be” before his injury, however, according to Tim Twentyman of DetroitLions.com.
The Lions signed Reggie Bush this offseason to be their No. 1 running back, but Leshoure might not even be in line for the No. 2 spot on the running back depth chart. Fellow third-year running back Joique Bell, who offers more than Leshoure as a receiver out of the backfield, has worked ahead of Leshoure early in training camp according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
The Lions certainly drafted Leshoure to be a focal piece of their ground game, but Bell was a very pleasant surprise in limited action last season. Leshoure should at least have a role as the team’s strongest and most physical between-the-tackles runner, but his carries could come sparingly if he cannot beat out Bell to be Bush’s primary backup.
Green Bay Packers: David Bakhtiari Stepping in to Protect Aaron Rodgers
The Green Bay Packers suffered one of the toughest injury losses thus far in training camp when Bryan Bulaga, who was making the move to left tackle to be Aaron Rodgers’ blindside pass protector this season, tore his ACL on Saturday.
In Bulaga’s absence, the pressure-filled job of protecting one of the NFL’s elite quarterbacks appears to be falling to David Bakhtiari, a rookie selected in the fourth round of this year’s draft. Bakhtiari has been working as the Packers’ first-team offensive tackle this week, according to ESPN.com Packers reporter Rob Demovsky.
Bakhtiari is a talented offensive tackle with solid pass-blocking technique and good feet, but having to step in immediately to the task of protecting Rodgers would be daunting for any rookie.
He will have to handle the bright spotlight for a team considered to be one of the NFC’s top Super Bowl contenders because poor play from him could doom an already weak offensive line.
Marshall Newhouse was the Packers’ left tackle last season, but he is currently in line to start at right tackle. In truth, however, it does not make a big difference which side of the line Newhouse starts on. Bakhtiari is set to become a starter either way, and the Packers need him to be an adequate fill-in for Bulaga, who was arguably their best offensive lineman prior to his injury.
Houston Texans: Rookies Stepping Up Immediately in Training Camp
The Houston Texans have made two consecutive postseason appearances, but have only managed one win in each of those playoff runs. To take a step further and potentially make it to the Super Bowl this season, the Texans need some of their new additions to come in and make an immediate impact.
Fortunately for the Texans, that appears to be the case with at least their first two selections in this year’s NFL draft. Wide receiver DeAndre Hopkins and safety D.J. Swearinger have both made early impressions in training camp and are expected to earn significant playing time immediately.
Hopkins has received rave reviews throughout the offseason, and he “just keeps getting better” according to Dave Zangaro of Comcast Sports Net Houston. He is in line to start immediately as the Texans’ No. 2 receiver opposite Andre Johnson and is expected to be a key weapon in the Houston passing offense even as a rookie.
Swearinger may not be an expected starter, but he could end up in the lineup if veteran free safety Ed Reed, who is currently out with a hip injury, is not ready to play in Week 1. According to an Associated Press report, Swearinger has “wowed the Texans in the early days of training camp” and “already behaving like a seasoned veteran.”
Either way, both Hopkins and Swearinger are being worked in quickly and expected to contribute consistently as rookies.
Hopkins is a very skilled receiver who should do a great job getting open and consistently making catches across from Johnson, while Swearinger is a big, athletic safety who has great coverage range and hitting ability. They could provide the spark on their sides of the ball that the Texans need to take the next step this season.
Indianapolis Colts: Coby Fleener Ready to Make Second-Year Leap
The Indianapolis Colts drafted Stanford tight end Coby Fleener with their second-round pick in the 2012 NFL draft. That said, he was not only overshadowed last season by his college teammate and No. 1 overall pick in quarterback Andrew Luck, but also by fellow rookie tight end Dwayne Allen, even though Allen was selected one round later than Fleener.
That’s not to say Fleener didn’t make some plays last season, but he will be expected to improve upon last season’s output of 281 yards and two touchdowns on 26 receptions. The Colts seem to have no shortage of confidence that he is ready to step up his game and become a key piece of the Luck-led offense in 2013.
Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton, who was also Fleener’s offensive coordinator at Stanford, said Fleener is “a lot more explosive and confident” and “making plays that big-time NFL players tend to make” in training camp, according to Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star.
Meanwhile, Colts general manager Ryan Grigson told Pro Football Talk that he expects Fleener to be a breakout player in 2013, and said it has “really come across like he’s ready to have a great year.”
If Fleener backs up the endorsements that the Colts’ coaching staff and front office are giving him, he will take the leap into the NFL’s upper echelon of tight ends in his second season. He has a long way to go from his rookie season, but he has the downfield receiving ability and measurables to excel if he puts it all together.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Ace Sanders, Mike Brown Stepping Up at Wide Receiver
Both of the Jacksonville Jaguars’ starting wide receivers, Justin Blackmon (groin injury) and Cecil Shorts (strained calf muscle), are currently out of training camp and expected to miss the team’s preseason opener due to injury.
This has opened the door for every other receiver on the Jaguars roster to step up, and at least two young wideouts have answered the call. One of those players stepping up is rookie fourth-round pick Ace Sanders, who is expected to be the team’s top slot receiver.
He has had a “sensational camp” according to Hays Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union, and could be in line for significant playing time especially early in the season, as Blackmon will sit out the first four games due to a league suspension.
A bigger surprise than Sanders, however, has been second-year wide receiver Mike Brown. Brown was on the roster for two games last season and did not make a single catch, but he has been “one of the surprises of training camp” and receiving work with the first-team offense, according to Vito Stellino of the Florida Times-Union.
The Jaguars have a very little depth at wide receiver behind Blackmon and Shorts, so they are going to need some of their young wideouts to step up and contribute. Early in training camp, it appears that those necessary contributions could come from the shifty, dynamic slot receiver in Sanders and the unheralded small-school surprise in Brown.
Kansas City Chiefs: Dontari Poe at Defensive End?
At 6’3” and 335 pounds, Kansas City Chiefs defensive lineman Dontari Poe has ideal size for the nose tackle position he typically mans in the middle of the Chiefs’ 3-4 defensive front.
That said, Poe is an explosive athlete with rare quickness for a man of his size. His versatility could be increasing. He has lost weight this offseason according to Randy Covitz of the Kansas City Star.
The Chiefs have been experimenting with new defensive looks in training camp, and in one interesting wrinkle, the Chiefs have reportedly been experimenting with playing Poe as a defensive end.
Jason Madson of KCChiefsDraft.com said he has been “seeing more and more of Dontari Poe at the end position” and said it is “evident that Poe can do some serious damage from the end position.”
This could be a dynamic alignment for the Chiefs’ defensive front if they use it during the regular season.
Even with his unusual size for the position, his combination of length and quickness make him a good fit to play 5-technique defensive end. He has the movement skills to be a run-stopper on the edge of the line, while he also has legitimate potential as a pass-rusher.
Poe’s rookie season was a bit of a disappointment, but an innovative defensive scheme that takes advantage of Poe’s rare measurables and versatility could be exactly why he needs. By having the flexibility to move him along the line in a Haloti Ngata-esque role, he could also make the Chiefs’ defensive line much more dangerous and tough at the line of scrimmage.
Miami Dolphins: Olivier Vernon Breaking Out as Pass-Rusher?
The Miami Dolphins are trying to establish another dynamic pass-rushing defensive end to line up opposite Cameron Wake and increase the pressure their defense puts on opposing quarterbacks.
The Dolphins drafted Dion Jordan with the No. 3 overall pick to fill this role, but as Jordan gains experience, it appears that the Dolphins could have another option in second-year defensive end Olivier Vernon.
Vernon never reached his full on-field potential at the University of Miami, but he is an explosive athlete with intriguing pass-rushing skills off the edge. He only managed 3.5 sacks in his rookie season, but there is reason to believe he is primed for a second-year leap.
Vernon has “pretty much dominated (Dolphins left tackle Jonathan) Martin so far in training camp,” according to Armando Salguero of the Miami Herald.
“We’re not talking about a sack some days but not others. We’re talking sack followed by sack followed by other sacks,” Salguero added.
Vernon has reportedly been one of the stars of Dolphins training camp, but the question is whether Vernon is truly stepping up his game or whether he is taking advantage of his competition.
Martin was very shaky last season at right tackle and he has struggled preparing to take over at left tackle, including the limited action he saw in the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game. The Dolphins’ other potential left tackle option, rookie Dallas Thomas, was even worse in the Hall of Fame Game, giving up consistent pressure in pass protection.
Minnesota Vikings: Erin Henderson at Middle Linebacker to Stay
The Minnesota Vikings only needed a middle linebacker to shore up an otherwise strong linebacker corps led by strong-side linebacker Chad Greenway and weak-side linebacker Erin Henderson. When the Vikings signed Desmond Bishop in June, it appeared they had found their middle linebacker.
That hasn’t been the case, however, in training camp. The Vikings moved Henderson to middle linebacker prior to signing Bishop, and they haven’t moved him back.
Henderson has been the Vikings’ first-team middle linebacker in training camp, and Vikings head coach Leslie Frazier said a switch is unlikely, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press. According to the Pioneer Press, Frazier also said that Henderson is “thriving” at middle linebacker and becoming a defensive leader.
Bishop, on the other hand, hasn’t even locked up a starting job for the Vikings. He began camp as the second-team weak-side linebacker according to ESPN.com’s Kevin Seifert, and he is currently sidelined with a groin injury. He is a very talented linebacker who should be a definite upgrade over Marvin Mitchell if healthy, but he must prove his health to take over the starting weak-side linebacker job.
New England Patriots: Undrafted Rookie Pass-Catchers Stepping Up
The New England Patriots are replacing four of their five leading receivers from last year, and the last of the five, tight end Rob Gronkowski, is currently out while recovering from back surgery. As a result, the Patriots need their rookie pass-catchers to step up and make an immediate impact.
The two players expected to step up immediately are their two drafted wide receivers, second-round pick Aaron Dobson and fourth-round pick Josh Boyce. The training camp spotlight has been stolen, however, by two undrafted rookies making a name for themselves.
Undrafted wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins has been stealing first-team repetitions away from Dobson and Boyce and “has continued to stand out as a solid possession receiver with vertical skills” according to Jeff Howe of the Boston Herald.
Thompkins did not have considerable production as a collegiate player at Cincinnati, but he has the physical tools to be a much-needed playmaker in the Patriots offense.
Another rookie standout has been undrafted tight end Zach Sudfeld, who could be in line to start immediately if Gronkowski is unable to return in time for Week 1.
He has been “running exclusively with the first unit” according to Ben Volin of the Boston Globe. Volin said Sudfeld has been “catching everything thrown his way and looks potentially like the best tight end on the field.”
I have attended three Patriots training camp practices this offseason and based upon my observations, I would echo everything that Howe and Volin have said about the two undrafted rookies.
Thompkins has displayed the combination of size and athleticism to be a deep threat while also being able to get open and catch the ball well as an intermediate receiver. Sudfeld has terrific size for a tight end, but he is also a very good athlete who has good speed and quickness, runs crisp routes and displays natural hands.
New Orleans Saints: Wide Receiver Competition Opening Up
The New Orleans Saints have consistently had one of the NFL’s most prolific passing offenses since Drew Brees became the team’s quarterback in 2006, but they have a thinner stock of pass-catchers than usual this season.
This is especially true at wide receiver, where the Saints have no proven depth behind starters Marques Colston and Lance Moore. After slot receiver Joe Morgan tore his ACL earlier this week, the competition to be the Saints’ No. 3 receiver is wide open.
The contenders for the spot appear to be second-year wideout Nick Toon, who missed last season following foot surgery, and rookie Kenny Stills. Stills has been running with the first team in place of Morgan according to Larry Holder of The Times-Picayune, but Toon has also “stood out” in training camp according to Mike Triplett of The Times-Picayune.
Either way, the Saints need Stills and/or Toon to step up immediately in their first playing seasons. The Saints still have a number of strong receiving weapons in Colston, Moore, tight end Jimmy Graham and running back Darren Sproles, but they will be looking for Stills or Toon to bring some new production to the passing offense out of the slot.
New York Giants: Andre Brown Challenging to Start at RB
When the New York Giants cut Ahmad Bradshaw in February, the presumption was that intriguing second-year back David Wilson would quickly ascend to the starting job. But while the fast, shifty Wilson should certainly have an increased role for his big-play ability, he is receiving legitimate competition for the starting job in training camp.
That competition is coming from Andre Brown, who showed his scoring ability last season with eight touchdowns in just 73 carries. Brown is currently listed as a co-starter with Wilson at running back, according to Newsday’s Tom Rock, and are expected to split the load of carries this season.
With the ability to run by defenders and make them miss in the open field, Wilson has star potential, but he has to improve in pass protection to be on the field consistently. ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano said it is “clear” that whichever of the two backs “shows the most as a pass-blocker will get the bulk of the carries.”
Either way, Brown is a bigger, more physical back who appears to carving out a steady role for himself already. Whether the Giants’ running game will become the David Wilson show remains to be seen, but Brown appears set to at least be a supporting act.
New York Jets: Bilal Powell Standing in Chris Ivory's Path to Feature Back Role
Another presumptive anointing of a feature back happened for the other New York team this offseason. When the New York Jets acquired Chris Ivory in a trade this April, it was expected that Ivory would immediately take over the team’s feature back role.
Thus far, however, that hasn’t been the case. Ivory has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, which has left Jets head coach Rex Ryan “kind of frustrated” according to Brian Costello of the New York Post. Bilal Powell, on the other hand, has been “really taking the reins” as the team’s running back according to the Louisville Courier-Journal.
As a result, Powell is currently listed as the first-team running back on the Jets’ preseason depth chart. Powell ran for 437 yards and four touchdowns on 110 carries last season as Shonn Greene’s backup, but if Ivory continues to be sidelined or struggles upon his return, Powell could be ready to run with the opportunity to be the team’s lead back this season.
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez, who is at risk himself of losing his starting job, called Powell “one of the most underrated players in the league” according to Costello. Sanchez called Powell “a hell of a player” who is “just coming into his own” and “really lighting this camp on fire.”
Oakland Raiders: Tyler Wilson Not Even Close to Challenging for Starting QB Job
In early June, I predicted on Bleacher Report that Oakland Raiders fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson could challenge Matt Flynn to be the Raiders’ starting quarterback in his rookie season. That has been far from the case thus far in training camp.
Instead of passing people on the depth chart, Wilson has been the one getting passed. He has fallen to fourth on the team’s initial preseason depth chart, which is surprising given that he is not only behind Flynn and Terrelle Pryor, but also behind undrafted rookie Matt McGloin.
Wilson may be the future quarterback of the Raiders, but that future seems distant from the present thus far. According to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, Wilson has received few practice repetitions behind the top three quarterbacks.
Raiders head coach Dennis Allen told the San Francisco Chronicle that Wilson has the physical tools to succeed at quarterback, but is “behind from a mental part of the game, and that’s where he’s got to continue to work to improve.”
Flynn, who was named the Raiders’ starting quarterback in May, appears to be solidifying that status in training camp. He remains the No. 1 quarterback on the team’s depth chart. If anyone is going to challenge him to start it will be Pryor, not Wilson.
Philadelphia Eagles: Michael Vick Taking Control of QB Competition
The Philadelphia Eagles were expected to have a close starting quarterback competition throughout training camp between Michael Vick and Nick Foles, but according to reports, Vick may already be seizing control of that competition.
Vick is expected to start the Eagles’ first preseason game versus the New England Patriots on Friday, according to ESPN’s Sal Paolantonio (via Adam Schefter). Fox Sports’ Jay Glazer said that there does not seem to be any question at all that Vick will be the team’s starting quarterback, while Vick has been “tremendous” and has “gapped” Foles according to Comcast Sports Net’s Reuben Frank.
The Eagles themselves haven’t acknowledged any separation in the competition, listing Vick and Foles as co-starters on their initial preseason depth chart. That said, Vick has better physical tools than Foles, and if he can continue to impress throughout the preseason, he appears to be in line to win the starting quarterback job.
The Eagles need a playmaker under center to lead new head coach Chip Kelly’s fast-paced offense, and thus far in training camp, Vick seems likely to be that guy.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Le’Veon Bell on Track to Start at RB
The Pittsburgh Steelers are notorious for working rookies in slowly, but that may not be the case for running back Le’Veon Bell.
Bell has taken the majority of first-team practice repetitions early in training camp, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Steelers running back Kirby Wilson told the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review he is looking for a running back who can play “first down through third down,” and Bell is the only running back on their roster with the talent to legitimately be that guy.
Peter King of "The Monday Morning Quarterback," who is touring many training camps this offseason, tweeted that Bell was the second-best rookie he had seen thus far as of Saturday.
Bell has to prove himself in pass protection and show some receiving ability out of the backfield to be a three-down back, but he has a great combination of size and athleticism and showed the ability to take on a load of carries at Michigan State. He is making an immediate impression in Pittsburgh and is likely to ascend the depth chart quickly if he continues to perform well.
San Diego Chargers: Running Backs to Be Used Rotationally
In Norv Turner’s three years as head coach, the San Diego Chargers used or at least to attempted to use Ryan Mathews as a feature running back, although injuries often got in the way of doing so. This year, however, it appears that new Chargers head coach Mike McCoy plans to use his running backs rotationally.
The Chargers are “more than hinting at the switch to a multi-back system that’s not so totally reliant on Ryan Mathews,” according to Chris Jenkins of the Union-Tribune San Diego.
The Chargers made a step in that direction when they signed Danny Woodhead earlier this offseason. Woodhead is a very skilled pass protector and receiver out of the backfield who is likely to take on third-down duties at running back, while Mathews and Ronnie Brown will likely compete for the bulk of carries on early downs.
The Chargers needed to bolster their running game after three subpar seasons to start Mathews’ career, and moving to a two- or three-way rotation may be what they need.
San Francisco 49ers: Anquan Boldin Stepping Up in Michael Crabtree’s Absence
With wide receiver Michael Crabtree expected to be out for most if not all of the 2013 season due to a torn Achilles tendon, the San Francisco 49ers will be relying heavily upon Anquan Boldin, who they acquired in a trade this offseason, to step up and fill the void. Early reports have indicated that Boldin is doing just that in training camp.
Boldin is the clear-cut No. 1 receiver on the depth chart with Crabtree out, so the 49ers need him to be a reliable and playmaking reception for young quarterback Colin Kaepernick. According to Matt Maiocco of Comcast Sports Net Bay Area, Boldin is already “definitely Kaepernick's go-to guy in training camp.”
Boldin coming on quickly may not be a big surprise for the 49ers, who experienced Boldin’s ability first-hand last season when he caught six passes for 104 yards and a touchdown in the Baltimore Ravens’ Super Bowl victory over San Francisco. The bigger concern, which remains unsolved at this point, is whether another receiver will step up opposite Boldin as the team’s No. 2 wideout.
Kyle Williams is listed as the starter opposite Boldin on the team’s initial preseason depth chart, but he has competed in just one full-squad training camp practice thus far due to injuries, according to Maiocco.
The hope is that A.J. Jenkins will step up into a starting role, but after not recording a single catch last season as a rookie, he must make a big impression in the preseason.
Seattle Seahawks: Stephen Williams Making a Name For Himself
What looked to be a very talented receiving corps for the Seattle Seahawks is already looking shaky leading up to the season. New acquisition Percy Harvin is expected to be out until late in the season following hip surgery, while fellow wideout Sidney Rice is recovering from knee treatment (although he is back with the team).
The Seahawks still have two solid starting-caliber receivers healthy in Golden Tate and Doug Baldwin, but the depth behind them is shaky with Harvin out and Rice’s status uncertain. One player who could ascend up the depth chart as a result, however, is Stephen Williams.
Williams has been in the league since 2010 and only has nine career catches, but he has made a big impression on training camp onlookers. His career has been somewhat derailed by injuries, but Doug Farrar wrote for Yahoo! Sports in July that Williams has been an impressive playmaker early in camp.
Williams has terrific size (6’5”, 208 lbs.) and complements his size with intriguing athleticism. Farrar added that Williams beat Richard Sherman for a one-handed red zone catch early in training camp and has been a standout.
For a team who could need another weapon to come off the bench and relieve some pressure off Tate, Baldwin and Rice, Williams has the potential to be that player if he can stay healthy, especially as a red-zone threat given his size.
St. Louis Rams: Daryl Richardson Taking The Lead at Running Back
Steven Jackson has run for at least 1,000 rushing yards in each of the last eight NFL seasons, giving the St. Louis Rams as much stability at the running back position as any team in the league.
Jackson is no longer with the team this season, however, forcing the team to instead turn to a trio of young running backs to fill the void.
The Rams drafted Isaiah Pead in the second round and Daryl Richardson in the seventh round of the 2012 NFL draft, then selected Zac Stacy in the fifth round of this year’s draft. While all three running backs have high upside and are each likely to contribute this season, it appears the one they invested the lowest draft pick in could be in for the biggest role.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher named Richardson as the team’s starting running back earlier this week, according to the team’s official Twitter account. Richardson was a relative unknown coming out of Abilene Christian last year, but he is a talented all-around back with the most receiving ability and open-field running ability of the three backs.
Pead was drafted to be Jackson’s long-term replacement, but he only carried the ball 10 times as a rookie. Stacy is a well-rounded back who is a strong runner with good vision, but he is currently third on the team’s running back depth chart, though it certainly seems possible he could move ahead of Pead if Pead does not step up his game.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Leonard Johnson Could Be Eric Wright’s Replacement
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers released starting cornerback Eric Wright, it seemed second-round draft pick Johnthan Banks was in line to start immediately as a rookie. Second-year cornerback Leonard Johnson, however, may end up holding off Banks and starting opposite Darrelle Revis in the secondary.
Johnson was listed as the team’s second starting cornerback on the team’s initial preseason depth chart, while Banks was listed on the second-team defense. Though undrafted in 2012, Johnson performed decently in six starts as a rookie. He does not have very good measurables for an NFL cornerback, but he is a physical cornerback with the ball skills to be a playmaker in the Buccaneers’ secondary.
Banks has more upside and is expected to eventually start in the Tampa Bay secondary, but if Johnson can continue to impress in training camp, Banks could be set for a situational role in 2013. Johnson was named Pro Football Focus’ Secret Superstar for the Buccaneers last season, and his experience could give him the early edge as this competition continues into the preseason.
Another surprising factor into the competition could be Rashaan Melvin. Melvin is an undrafted rookie this season, but he has made enough of an impression to earn “a lot of action” with the first- and second-team defenses early in training camp, according to the Buccaneers’ official Twitter account.
Tennessee Titans: Incorporating the Pistol Formation into Offense
The pistol offense gained some serious traction in the NFL last season, with dual-threat quarterbacks Colin Kaepernick (San Francisco 49ers), Russell Wilson (Seattle Seahawks) and Robert Griffin III (Washington Redskins) making big plays out of the formation with their big arms and running ability.
Seeing this, Titans offensive coordinator Dowell Loggains is reportedly incorporating the formation into the Tennessee offense.
Like the aforementioned teams, the Titans have a quarterback with a strong arm and running ability in Jake Locker. Locker has not been nearly as impressive in his first NFL seasons as the aforementioned trio of quarterbacks was last season, but he has the physical tools to excel if he can put it all together.
According to ESPN.com’s Paul Kuharsky, the Titans have experimented with the pistol formation in training camp. Kuharsky said Locker ran well out of the formation, while Titans head coach Mike Munchak told Kuharsky that the formation “doesn't quite tip off what runs you can do.”
The Titans need to find a way to spark the production of Locker and their offense as a whole, and the pistol is an experiment well worth trying.
Washington Redskins: Bacarri Rambo In Line to Start Immediately
It is very rare for a sixth-round draft pick to walk right into an NFL starting job, but Washington Redskins head coach Mike Shanahan clearly isn’t opposed to the concept. Last season, Alfred Morris started all 16 games for the Redskins as a rookie, and he ended running for the second-most rushing yards in the NFL.
The Redskins are hoping for similar success from free safety Bacarri Rambo this season. The Redskins are clearly preparing the sixth-round pick to take on the starting job immediately, as he had taken every first-team free safety repetition of training camp as of Saturday, according to Mike Jones of the Washington Post.
Rambo needs more discipline in his game, but he is an athletic safety with great ball skills and hitting ability. He has the potential to be a playmaker at the free safety position, which is desperately needed on a team whose best returning safety is Brandon Meriweather.
The Redskins are already listing Rambo as a starter on their depth chart, with DeJon Gomes listed as the second-team free safety. Most rookies have to compete throughout training camp to earn a job, but it appears the Redskins have already decided on Rambo being the best option over Gomes, Reed Doughty and Phillip Thomas.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.