Highlighting NFL's Most Surprising Front-Runners in OTA Positional Battles

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistJune 1, 2014

Highlighting NFL's Most Surprising Front-Runners in OTA Positional Battles

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    With offseason workouts just getting underway in the National Football League, teams clearly have a long way to go before finalizing their rosters. However, there a few surprises to be had early in the process.

    In the world of professional football, the best player at his position usually finds a way to rise to the top of the depth chart by the time the regular season rolls around. While a player's rise to the top can be cemented with an impressive training camp or strong preseason performance, the path is often paved in OTAs and minicamps.

    Over the next few pages, we will take a look at some of the more interesting positional competitions around the league that have yielded somewhat unexpected results to this young point in the working offseason.

    Players considered as surprise front-runners include relative unknowns, low-round rookies and journeyman veterans. Rookies immediately jumping ahead of established starters were also considered.

San Francisco 49ers ILB Michael Wilhoite

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    San Francisco 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has already indicated that star linebacker NaVorro Bowman won't realistically return from last season's ACL injury until "halfway through the season."

    This leaves the 49ers with a rather large hole to fill in the middle of their defense.

    While San Francisco did use a third-round pick on Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Borland, it appears third-year linebacker Michael Wilhoite has the inside track for the starting job in Bowman's absence.

    According to the San Francisco Chronicle's Eric Branch, Wilhoite is an unlikely front-runner. A collegiate safety at Washburn University, Wilhoite first landed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2011.

    The 49ers promoted Wilhoite from the practice squad in 2012, and he made his first two NFL starts last season. While his experience in San Francisco's defense clearly gives Wilhoite an edge, Borland and fellow rookie Shayne Skov will have an opportunity to make some noise as the offseason continues.

    For now, however, the job appears to be Wilhoite's to lose.

Baltimore Ravens RB Justin Forsett

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    With longtime veteran and Super Bowl champion Ray Rice on the roster, it is a little surprising that free-agent addition Justin Forsett has received the majority of first-team reps thus far.

    According to ESPN.com's Jamison Hensley, Forsett drew the most attention of the running backs observed during practice.

    However, as NFL.com's Gregg Rosenthal recently pointed out, head coach John Harbaugh may be simply trying to send a message to Rice and rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro. Both Rice and Taliaferro have been arrested this offseason, with Rice potentially facing a suspension.

    Yet there is reason to believe Forsett may actually be the best starting option for the Ravens even if all three backs are available at the start of the season.

    While he has not started a game since 2010, Forsett does boast a 4.9 yards-per-carry average and has averaged 5.9 yards per carry over the past two seasons. Rice averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in 2013.

Carolina Panthers CB Bene Benwikere

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Heading into the offseason, it seemed the Carolina Panthers had a solid plan to move former safety Charles Godfrey to the nickel cornerback position.

    However, it is starting to look like fifth-round draft pick Bene Benwikere is taking the reins at the position.

    According to ESPN.com's David Newton, Benwikere has been extremely impressive in the nickelback role while Godfey continues to recover from the Achilles tear that ended his 2013 season.

    Per Newton, head coach Ron Rivera even took the time to single out Benwikere as one of the team's biggest surprises thus far.

    Godfrey will undoubtedly have at least some opportunity to push for the nickelback role as the offseason continues. However, Benwikere may be making enough of an impression to force the six-year veteran to seek out yet another role before the start of the regular season.

Cleveland Browns QB Brian Hoyer

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns, who have long sought a competent presence under center, selected Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel with the 22nd overall pick in May's draft.

    Naturally, the Browns would be quick to hand their offensive savior the starting job, right?

    Perhaps not.

    Cleveland made it immediately known that Manziel is the backup and that journeyman signal-caller Brian Hoyer is ahead of him.

    General manager Ray Farmer even went so far as to tell Dustin Fox of 92.3 The Fan that Hoyer is currently better than Manziel "by a substantial margin."

    While it is certainly not unprecedented for teams to allow a rookie quarterback to develop from the sidelines (believe it or not, it was once a common practice), it is worth keeping in mind who the Browns are placing ahead of "Johnny Football."

    Hoyer was impressive in his two-plus games last season. However, he has primarily been a career backup, with four starts and a passer rating of 77.4 in his five NFL seasons.

Green Bay Packers S Micah Hyde

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    Associated Press

    Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rated Micah Hyde of the Green Bay Packers 40th overall among cornerbacks last season.

    Therefore, it isn't really surprising to see that Hyde has the inside track to a starting job.

    What is surprising is the fact that the Packers are giving Hyde an opportunity to keep the starting safety job from first-round draft pick Ha Ha Clinton-Dix.

    According to Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, the Packers are trying out the tandem of Hyde and Morgan Burnett on the back end of the defense. This likely leaves Clinton-Dix, Sean Richardson and Chris Banjo competing for playing time.

    Of course, it shouldn't come as too much of a shock that Green Bay wants to do everything it can to keep Hyde on the field.

    According to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky, it also shouldn't be surprising to see Hyde starting at safety, as head coach Mike McCarthy won't be handing any starting jobs to rookies this season.

Cincinnati Bengals RB Jeremy Hill

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    Associated Press

    Cincinnati Bengals running back Jeremy Hill was a second-round pick in this year's draft and isn't even the top back on Cincinnati's depth chart.

    Thus, his presence ahead of seasoned veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis this early into his pro career is a bit of a surprise.

    According to Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com, Hill has been taking the second-team snaps behind 2013 second-round pick Giovani Bernard.

    Green-Ellis has been a steady, if unspectacular, presence in the Bengals backfield since arriving as a free agent from New England two years ago. He has played a large role in helping Cincinnati reach the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and it seems a bit uncharacteristic of the Bengals to knock him down the depth chart this quickly.

    However, this could be a financial decision. According to Spotrac.com, Green-Ellis is due to earn a base salary of $2.3 million this season. If the Bengals can get comfortable with Hill and Bernard as their football-toting tandem, Green-Ellis may get a chance to seek a job elsewhere.

New York Jets QB Geno Smith

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    The New York Jets selected quarterback Geno Smith in the second round of last year's draft with the idea that he could be the team's quarterback of the future.

    Yet the decision to hand Smith the inside track for the starting job over veteran Michael Vick is a head-scratcher, especially when you examine Smith's inconsistent rookie season.

    Though he did flash a few signs of promise, Smith was also responsible for 25 turnovers and posted a passer rating of just 66.5. He rated 41st overall among quarterbacks for the year at Pro Football Focus (Vick ranked 23rd).

    But even Vick has admitted Smith is the front-runner for the starting job.

    The decision not to hold an open competition during the offseason may be a mistake because the Jets appear talented enough to compete for a postseason berth with the right quarterback under center (the team went 8-8 last season, after all).

    While there could be a risk of damaging Smith's ego by making him fight for the starting job for a second consecutive year, it could be even more damaging to his psyche if he is pulled in favor of Vick during the regular season.

    It is also hard to imagine the former West Virginia star couldn't improve by studying under Vick for a year—the length of Vick's free-agent contract.