Predicting Every NFL Team's Most Heated Camp Battle
The 90-man rosters that NFL teams will bring into their training camps, which begin in less than two months, are largely set. Questions remain, however, in regard to who will comprise each team’s starting lineup and 53-man roster for the regular season.
Established veterans might not have any reason to worry about their standing during offseason workouts, training camp and the preseason, but most NFL players have to compete to be on top of the depth chart and/or make the regular-season roster.
Watching those competitions play out is what makes training camp an intriguing part of the season. Position battles that take place in July and August will have a formative effect on how each NFL team looks when the games begin to count in September.
There will be many sets of players jostling for position on all 32 NFL teams this summer, but the following clashes could be among the most prominent for their respective teams.
Arizona Cardinals: Paul Fanaika vs. Earl Watford, Right Guard
The Arizona Cardinals could end up having a star left guard as 2013 first-round pick Jonathan Cooper returns from a broken left leg that cost him his entire rookie season, but the right guard position remains an area of concern.
Arizona could have used Cooper’s return as an opportunity to move incumbent starting left guard Daryn Colledge to solidify the right guard spot, but the team released Colledge instead. That leaves incumbent starter Paul Fanaika, who had the sixth-worst Pro Football Focus (subscription required) rating among all NFL guards this past season, to battle second-year player Earl Watford at the position.
This is a battle could get ugly, not so much in the sense of figurative bloodshed but rather in the possibility that neither Fanaika nor Watford will prove to be a capable starter for the 2014 season.
The more promising option of the duo, however, is Watford. A fourth-round pick from James Madison in last year’s draft, Watford did not see any playing time as a rookie but has more developmental upside than Fanaika, who proved himself not to be starting-caliber in his first year in the lineup.
According to Kyle Odegard of AZCardinals.com, Cardinals offensive coordinator Harold Goodwin “sees the untapped potential, and believes Watford is fast enough, strong enough and agile enough to handle defensive fronts in the NFL,” but was “not yet sold on Watford’s mental progress” as of April 4.
Atlanta Falcons: Dwight Lowery vs. Dezmen Southward, Free Safety
Thomas DeCoud, who had started all but two games at safety for the Atlanta Falcons in the past five seasons, was released by the team this offseason. That pushes veteran free-agent addition Dwight Lowery and rookie Dezmen Southward into an immediate competition for the team’s starting spot at the position.
The safer option might be Lowery, a versatile veteran who has started 41 games in his six-year NFL career. That said, he has never established himself as a long-term starter and was a midseason cut by the Jacksonville Jaguars this past season.
The Falcons wouldn’t have used a third-round pick on Southward, who Bleacher Report featured columnist Scott Carasik projects to win this battle, if they didn’t think he had enough talent to ultimately be the team’s next starting free safety. Whether he becomes the starter in 2014, however, will depend on how impressive the Wisconsin product performs in training camp and the preseason.
A 6’0”, 211-pound safety—who recorded a 4.38-second 40-yard dash and 42-inch vertical jump at Wisconsin’s pro day, according to NFLDraftScout.com—Southward has all the physical tools to be a playmaker in an NFL secondary. To take on a starting role right away, he has to become a more technically sound and mentally acute player.
Lowery has played very well at points in his NFL career and could legitimately win this competition, but the result will likely be determined primarily by Southward’s development or lack thereof.
Baltimore Ravens: Ricky Wagner vs. Ryan Jensen, Right Tackle
After not using any of their picks in this year’s NFL draft on an offensive tackle, it appears the Baltimore Ravens are prepared to rely upon one of their Day 3 draft selections from last year to main a bookend position on the right side of the offensive line.
2013 fifth-round pick Ricky Wagner is set to duke it out with Ryan Jensen, a sixth-round pick from the same draft, to start at right tackle.
Wagner, a Wisconsin product who started two games at right guard last season, is considered the favorite to win the job by ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley. But there’s no reason for this not to be an open competition, which means that Jensen, a former Colorado State-Pueblo standout who didn’t see any playing time as a rookie, should have a real shot at winning the job.
If neither Wagner nor Jensen establishes himself as a quality starting option, the Ravens could bring other linemen into the mix.
It’s unlikely Baltimore would turn to an undrafted rookie to start right off the bat, but James Hurst, a UDFA signing out of North Carolina, has a game well-rounded enough that he could eventually emerge as the starter. As suggested by Ryan Mink of BaltimoreRavens.com, the team could even consider adding a veteran free agent like Eric Winston, who has started at right tackle for three other teams in his NFL career, to the mix.
Buffalo Bills: Da’Norris Searcy vs. Duke Williams, Free Safety
The Buffalo Bills have a big hole to fill in their secondary following the free-agent departure of one of the NFL’s best free safeties, Jairus Byrd, this offseason.
Da’Norris Searcy, who filled Byrd’s shoes when the outgoing safety missed the first five games of last season with plantar fasciitis, should get the first shot of winning the job. Searcy had a productive season last year, totaling 71 tackles and seven pass deflections.
However, despite his impressive season as a spot starter, Searcy is better suited for a situational role as an in-the-box run defender than he is as a three-down safety with deep coverage responsibilities. That should give Duke Williams, a 2013 fourth-round pick out of Nevada, a great shot to win the job in training camp.
The athletic, hard-hitting defensive back didn’t see much playing time as a rookie but should be in for a more significant role in his second NFL season. Joe Marino of BuffaloBillsDraft.com believes that Williams has the “most upside to replace Byrd” in the starting lineup.
Another 2013 draft pick, fifth-round selection Jonathan Meeks from Clemson, could also get a crack at winning the starting free safety job. Veteran cornerback Corey Graham, signed by the team as a free agent this spring, will also get a look at safety, according to Tim Graham of The Buffalo News.
Carolina Panthers: Roman Harper vs. Robert Lester, Strong Safety
It might be expected that Roman Harper, who started 104 games over the course of the past eight seasons for the New Orleans Saints, will start at strong safety for the Carolina Panthers over Robert Lester, who went unselected in last year’s draft.
Based on how the two players performed last season, however, the second-year Alabama product could easily beat out the veteran free-agent addition in training camp.
Despite being an undrafted rookie in 2013, Lester started four games, had three interceptions and was rated by Pro Football Focus (subscription required) as the 15th-best safety to play at least 25 percent of his team’s snaps this past year.
Harper started five games for the Saints last year but is a player in decline who has always been subpar in coverage. At this point in his career, he’s best suited to play in a situational capacity as an in-the-box run defender.
If Lester is going to start ahead of Harper, who was signed to a two-year, $4.5 million contract this offseason, he’s going to have to earn it. Regardless of who wins the competition, this should be a legitimate battle worth watching this summer.
Chicago Bears: Chris Conte vs. Brock Vereen, Free Safety
Chris Conte and Major Wright formed arguably the NFL’s worst tandem of safeties this past season, but while the Chicago Bears did not retain Wright as an unrestricted free agent, it’s unclear whether they have added anyone capable of being better than Conte at free safety.
That’s saying something, considering the low bar that Conte set with his play in 2013. His overall rating by Pro Football Focus was the fifth-worst among all NFL safeties last year.
That should leave the competition at the position wide open, but while free-agent addition Ryan Mundy is expected to start at strong safety, the other safeties signed by the team this spring—M.D. Jennings and Danny McCray—have proven with previous teams that they too are not starting-caliber players at the position.
Jennings and McCray should still get their shot in a crowded but weak competition, but the player who could end up stealing the job from all the veterans is Brock Vereen, a fourth-round pick in this year’s draft from Minnesota.
The athletic rookie is a bit of a project and is probably best suited to be worked in gradually, but he has the most athleticism and coverage upside of any safety on the Chicago roster. If he is impressive in training camp and in the preseason, watch out for Vereen—who Bleacher Report’s Matt Eurich believes can take the job from Conte—to earn his way into the lineup by Week 1.
Cincinnati Bengals: Newman vs. Jones vs. Dennard vs. Kirkpatrick, Cornerback
Terence Newman and Adam Jones weren't bad as the Cincinnati Bengals’ starting cornerbacks in 2013, but the team acknowledged its room for upgrade at the position when it selected Michigan State’s Darqueze Dennard with the No. 24 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Assuming Leon Hall is fully recovered from his torn Achilles in time to start in Week 1, Newman and Jones were already slated to be competing for one starting spot. Now it’s possible the rookie could see both incumbents, who each started 13 games for Cincinnati last season, to the bench.
The Bengals shouldn't hesitate to get Dennard into the starting lineup if he is ready, and there’s reason to believe he will be. Although he is not as physically gifted as the cornerbacks who were selected ahead of him in this year’s draft, he has the technical polish, instincts and ball skills to make an impact from Day 1.
Ultimately, this battle should be decided by Dennard’s performance in training camp and the preseason. Cincinnati wouldn't have drafted him in Round 1 if it didn't expect him to overtake 35-year-old Newman and 30-year-old Jones on the depth chart sooner than later.
Newman and Jones are savvy veterans who will make the competition to start—or be the team’s No. 3 cornerback, which means playing outside when Leon Hall kicks inside to the slot in nickel packages—interesting to watch.
Dre Kirkpatrick, a 2012 first-round pick who started the final three games last season after Newman went down with a knee injury, could also factor into the competition despite a disappointing start to his NFL career.
Cleveland Browns: Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel, Quarterback
Wide receiver, linebacker, slot cornerback and even running back are positions that could feature intense competitions for the Cleveland Browns this summer, but no camp battle in the entire league will be covered in more painstaking detail than the quarterback competition between Brian Hoyer and Johnny Manziel.
Hoyer, who was impressive in three starts this past season before tearing his ACL, has a legitimate shot to hold onto the starting job. But if he’s going to do so, he’s going to have to hold off the always exciting Manziel, a dynamic playmaker selected by the Browns with the No. 22 overall pick in this year’s draft.
Thus far, the company line has been that Hoyer will have every opportunity to keep his spot atop the depth chart. Browns general manager Ray Farmer told 92.3 The Fan’s Bull & Fox on May 21 that Hoyer is currently better than Manziel “by a substantial margin.”
That doesn’t mean, however, that Hoyer will even start one game for the Browns this year. There is likely to be a great deal of pressure on the team, both internal and external, to insert Manziel into the lineup as quickly as possible.
Cleveland wouldn’t have drafted Manziel in Round 1 if it didn’t believe the 2012 Heisman Trophy winner can translate his playmaking ability into becoming a special player for an NFL offense. Johnny Football is a polarizing figure, both on and off the field, but he immediately offers big-play ability that will make the Browns offense more difficult to game-plan against than if Hoyer is the starter.
Manziel has to prove that he can grasp Cleveland’s offensive concepts and excel as a pocket passer, but if he can make enough progress in training camp to do so, it’s likely he’ll be on the field in Week 1.
Dallas Cowboys: Anthony Hitchens vs. DeVonte Holloman, Linebacker
The Dallas Cowboys weren’t supposed to have a big hole in their linebacker lineup in June. Incumbent starters Sean Lee, Bruce Carter and Justin Durant are all back on the Cowboys roster for the upcoming season and were expected to retain their roles on the defense for 2014.
Unfortunately for Dallas, the best player in that group is already down for the season. Lee tore his ACL on the Cowboys’ first day of organized team activities in May. That should open the door to a starting spot for one of two young linebackers, 2013 sixth-round pick DeVonte Holloman or 2014 fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens.
Which spot that will be remains unclear to this point.
Hitchens has received some first-team work at middle linebacker in Lee’s place during OTAs, according to David Helman of DallasCowboys.com. But so has Durant, according to Calvin Watkins of ESPN.com, which could lead the team to move Durant from strong-side linebacker to the middle.
Should the strong-side linebacker job open up, that would be a more natural spot for Holloman, a converted safety whose athleticism gives him great range on the outside. Hitchens, depending upon how well he comes along in training camp, could be a potential starter at either linebacker position.
Denver Broncos: Nate Irving vs. Jamar Chaney vs. Lamin Barrow, Middle Linebacker
The Denver Broncos filled most of their team needs this year with an aggressive free-agency campaign, but the one starting spot they left in real doubt, even after the draft, is at middle linebacker, where there is no clear-cut choice to lead the depth chart.
Nate Irving, a 2011 third-round pick who started four games at strong-side linebacker in place of Von Miller this past season, is likely the favorite to win the job. While his failure to establish himself as a full-time starter through three seasons has made him somewhat of a disappointment, he’s shown enough potential in situational work to emerge at the position in 2014.
That said, Irving seems to be more naturally suited to play outside than inside, and when he had a shot to win the starting job in the middle last summer, he failed to take advantage. Therefore, he’s going to have to prove himself once again in training camp if he’s going to take control of the competition.
While the Broncos didn’t add a sure starter at the position this offseason, they added players to the competition in veteran free-agent signing Jamar Chaney and rookie fifth-round pick Lamin Barrow. Chaney failed to stick on an NFL roster last season, however, while Barrow might also be better suited to line up outside.
If none of those players rise to the occasion, the Broncos could even give Steven Johnson, free-agent addition L.J. Fort and/or seventh-round pick Corey Nelson a shot to factor into the competition.
Detroit Lions: Brandon Pettigrew vs. Eric Ebron, Tight End
Sixth-year tight end Brandon Pettigrew and rookie Eric Ebron should both play significant roles in the Detroit Lions offense in 2014. While Pettigrew is a bigger player and stronger blocker than Ebron, the first-round draft pick out of North Carolina is a better athlete and more dynamic receiving playmaker.
With that in mind, the Lions shouldn’t view Pettigrew versus Ebron as a true battle, as the two players shouldn’t be used in the same role. They could be competing for a starting spot, however, depending upon how the Lions plan to roll out their offensive lineup under new head coach Jim Caldwell and offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi.
The Lions’ decision to select Ebron with the No. 10 overall pick, and to subsequently not select a wide receiver until Notre Dame’s T.J. Jones in the sixth round, suggests that the team will utilize two-tight end sets frequently with Pettigrew, Ebron and Joseph Fauria.
The team will have a tough decision, however, if it wants to choose one of the tight ends to be a starter and play in packages without multiple tight ends on the field. Will the team consider moving Pettigrew, who has started 66 games in the past five years, down the depth chart to get Ebron on the field as quickly and as consistently as possible?
That’s likely to depend on how progressively Ebron develops in training camp, especially as a blocker. With his downfield speed and ability to extend plays in the open field, Ebron will be a tougher matchup for NFL defenses, but it’s unlikely the Lions will take Pettigrew out of the lineup as the in-line tight end unless Ebron becomes a stronger, more effective blocker right away.
Green Bay Packers: JC Tretter vs. Corey Linsley, Center
It’s expected that whoever starts at center for the Green Bay Packers this season will also be playing in his first NFL game when the 2014 season begins.
JC Tretter, a 2013 fourth-round pick from Cornell who missed his entire rookie season with a broken ankle, and Corey Linsley, a fifth-round selection this year from Ohio State, are set to go head-to-head in competition to replace Evan Dietrich-Smith, who signed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this offseason after starting all 16 games at center for Green Bay last year.
With no experienced center on the roster, this competition really should be open to whoever performs the best in training camp and the preseason.
Dating back to college, Linsley has more experience playing center, as he was a two-year starter at the position for the Buckeyes while Tretter spent his career in the Ivy League as a tight end and offensive tackle.
Tretter (6’4”, 307 lbs) is a bit bigger than Linsley (6’3”, 296 lbs), while Linsley has more pound-for-pound strength, but both players are agile, technically sound offensive linemen with the skill sets to emerge as starting-caliber blockers.
This competition could truly go either way—Garth Gerhart, a 2013 undrafted free agent from Arizona State, could also factor in—but Bleacher Report’s Michelle Noyer-Granacki believes the job is “Tretter’s to lose.”
Houston Texans: Fitzpatrick vs. Keenum vs. Yates vs. Savage, Quarterback
Two-way quarterback competitions are common occurrences in NFL training camps, and there’s usually one or two three-way battles each year, but the Houston Texans’ opening at signal-caller could legitimately have four contenders.
Having a multitude of options at the most important position of the field is not a bad situation. Having quantity over quality, which appears to be the case in Houston, could be.
After passing up the top quarterback prospects in this year’s draft class, head coach Bill O’Brien and the Texans staff are banking on free-agent addition Ryan Fitzpatrick, fourth-round draft pick Tom Savage or one of two roster holdovers, Case Keenum and T.J. Yates, to emerge as a capable starter for their offense.
O’Brien has referred to the competition as “wide open,” according to ESPN.com’s Tania Ganguli, and there’s no reason all four quarterbacks shouldn’t get a shot to start as long as each of them is still on the roster.
Fitzpatrick is best suited to be a spot starter or backup than a full-time leader of the offense, but he deserves to be considered the favorite. He has 77 career starts, 16,790 passing yards and 106 touchdowns under his belt.
Savage has the most potential among the quartet, but the fourth-round pick out of Pittsburgh is a raw talent who completed just 61.2 percent of his passes against collegiate competition last year and is unlikely to be a viable starting option for at least two years.
Keenum had his moments in eight starts for the Texans this past season, but his weak arm and 54.2 completion percentage didn’t make him look like someone who should continue to be leading the Houston offense. Yates has also struggled in his 13 career appearances, throwing six interceptions and only three touchdowns.
Indianapolis Colts: Richardson vs. Bradshaw vs. Ballard, Running Back
The Indianapolis Colts wouldn’t have traded a first-round pick for Trent Richardson in September if they didn’t think the 2012 No. 3 overall pick could make good on the promise he showed during his collegiate career at Alabama. In his first season with the Colts, however, he looked like a shell of the player he was expected to be.
Despite averaging only 2.9 yards per carry in his sophomore season, Richardson remained in the Colts lineup for much of last year because fellow running backs Ahmad Bradshaw and Vick Ballard were out for the season with injuries. Richardson’s going to have to prove himself in training camp this year if he wants to avoid being surpassed by those backs on the depth chart.
The 22-year-old Richardson has the most potential of the trio, but Ballard and Bradshaw might both be better running backs if they are healthy. Ballard, who started 12 games and ran for 814 yards as a rookie, missed all but one game last season with a torn ACL. Bradshaw, who had two 1,000-yard seasons in his six-year tenure with the New York Giants, is trying to bounce back from neck surgery.
With Bradshaw’s best years behind him, Ballard coming off an injury and Richardson seemingly on the fast track to being a bust, the Colts don’t have any great options at running back, but any of them could come out on top in this competition.
Neither Bradshaw nor Ballard have been participating in OTAs for the Colts, according to Phillip B. Wilson of The Indianapolis Star. If Bradshaw is healthy, however, Bleacher Report’s Kyle Rodriguez believes the elder statesman of the battle will win the job.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Marqise Lee vs. Allen Robinson, Wide Receiver
Jacksonville Jaguars first-round pick Blake Bortles will be among the top rookies to watch in training camps this year as he battles incumbent starter Chad Henne for the chance to be the team’s quarterback in 2014. But as Jaguars coach Gus Bradley has already told NFL Network’s NFL Total Access that the team wants to give Bortles “a year to develop,” the better competition to watch might actually be between Jacksonville’s two second-round draft picks.
Regardless of whether Henne or Bortles ends up taking the snaps under center this season, the quarterback is going to need to wide receivers to throw the ball to, and that’s where second-rounders Marqise Lee, from USC, and Allen Robinson, of Penn State, factor in.
With Justin Blackmon suspended for the entire 2014 season, the Jaguars have an opening for a wideout in their starting lineup opposite Cecil Shorts. Ace Sanders showed promise as a rookie, but he’s best suited to play in the slot, while Mike Brown is unlikely to seriously contend with the two top-64 draft choices.
As one might expect from their draft positions, No. 39 overall pick Lee seems to have the early edge over No. 61 selection Robinson. Lee has received work as the “Z” receiver—the spot opposite Shorts—in OTAs, according to Eric Edholm of Yahoo! Sports.
Both players, however, are currently sidelined with an injury, which could allow Brown back into the competition. Marqise Lee missed practice with a walking boot on his right leg Tuesday, according to Hays Carlyon of the Florida Times-Union. Robinson, meanwhile, is out several weeks with a hamstring injury, according to ESPN.com’s Michael DiRocco.
Kansas City Chiefs: Abdullah vs. Commings vs. Bronson vs. Sorensen, Free Safety
It made sense for the Kansas City Chiefs to let Kendrick Lewis, the weak link of their defensive starting lineup this past season, walk as an unrestricted free agent. Problematically, however, the Chiefs don’t have anyone close to a clear-cut answer to replace him at free safety.
A wide-open competition to be the starter alongside Eric Berry should give Husain Abdullah, Sanders Commings and Malcolm Bronson all a chance to emerge on Kansas City’s first-team defense for the 2014 season.
Abdullah, who had two starts in the Kansas City secondary this past season, should go into the competition with the first shot to win the job. He’s not widely considered to be a starting-caliber player, but that hasn’t kept him from starting 26 NFL games over the past three years.
Neither Commings nor Bronson has started an NFL game. Bronson, a 2013 undrafted free-agent signing from McNeese State, is very much an underdog in the competition. Commings, on the other hand, was a 2013 fifth-round pick who might have been drafted to play safety all along despite playing cornerback at Georgia, but missed his entire rookie season with a shoulder injury.
Among the trio, Commings has the most upside and playmaking ability and should be the player to watch in this battle as training camp progresses. If he and the other candidates fail to progress as hoped, it’s possible that Daniel Sorensen, an undrafted rookie from Brigham Young, might even work his way into the competition.
Miami Dolphins: Knowshon Moreno vs. Lamar Miller, Running Back
After Lamar Miller came up short of putting together the breakout season he was expected to as a second-year running back in 2013, the Miami Dolphins went to the free-agent market and signed veteran Knowshon Moreno to a one-year deal this offseason.
Moreno is coming off a career year with the Denver Broncos, in which he rushed for 1,038 yards and 10 touchdowns and added 548 yards and three touchdowns as a receiver. Miller rushed for 709 yards and two touchdowns and had 170 receiving yards this past season.
The new addition to the Miami backfield clearly had a more productive year than Miller last season, but that doesn’t mean Miller won’t retain his starting job. A younger, more explosive runner with less tread on his tires, Miller has reportedly been working as the Dolphins starter ahead of Moreno in OTAs, according to Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel.
Moreno, according to ESPN’s James Walker, apparently “looks a little thicker than usual” in offseason workouts.
If the sixth-year tailback can improve upon his conditioning for training camp, he could easily end up winning the starting job many expect him to take. He’s still going to have to beat out Miller, who is looking to prove that he can be a legitimate feature back in the NFL.
Daniel Thomas and Mike Gillislee could also compete for carries, but neither is expected to pose a serious threat to the standings of either of the top two running backs on the depth chart.
Minnesota Vikings: Ponder vs. Cassel vs. Bridgewater, Quarterback
There might not be a better quarterback competition in the NFL this summer than the one that will take place in Minnesota, where returning Vikings passers Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel will contend with rookie first-round pick Teddy Bridgewater for the starting job.
Ponder, the No. 12 overall pick in the 2011 draft, has started the majority of Minnesota’s games in each of the past three seasons but has failed to legitimize himself as a starting quarterback. The 2014 season is expected to be his last with the Vikings, who did not pick up his option for 2015.
If the Vikings opt for a veteran as their Week 1 starting signal-caller, the more likely choice is Cassel, who outperformed Ponder in six starts this past season and was signed to a two-year, $10.5 million contract this offseason.
Nonetheless, the Vikings should give Bridgewater, a Louisville product who they traded back up into the first round to select at No. 32 overall in this year’s draft, every opportunity to win the starting job. Possibly the most polished and skilled quarterback in this year’s rookie class, Bridgewater has better tools than his competition and should be able to quickly prove himself as the best starting option of the trio.
Whether or not Bridgewater is under center when the season begins should be determined by the rookie’s readiness to take control of the Minnesota offense. The field awareness and mechanical consistency he showed at Louisville suggests he should be able to progress quickly enough to win the job, but if he doesn’t come along as quickly as hoped in training camp, Cassel should begin the season as the starting quarterback.
New England Patriots: Alfonzo Dennard vs. Logan Ryan, Cornerback
There’s no doubt that Darrelle Revis will be the New England Patriots’ No. 1 cornerback this season, but there are two young, starting-caliber players at the position who will be competing to start across from him, at least for the beginning of the season.
Alfonzo Dennard has started 16 games for the Patriots in his first two NFL seasons and has established himself as a skilled, physical cornerback who can make plays on the ball. But as Dennard bounced in and out of New England’s lineup this past season due to legal issues and injuries, rookie Ryan ended up starting seven games and played very well, finishing the season with five interceptions.
With a cleaner record off the field and impressive play on it, Ryan would seemingly be the favorite to win the job. Pro Football Focus rated Ryan as the NFL’s 30th-best cornerback last season, while Dennard finished the year with a rating that ranked him 70th.
Another free-agent addition, Brandon Browner, could also factor into the competition to be New England’s No. 2 outside cornerback. He won’t for the first four games of the 2014 season, however, while he serves a suspension for a substance-abuse policy violation.
Some have suggested that Ryan could shift to safety, but the second-year player recently told NESN’s Doug Kyed that he has not been taking snaps at that position. There’s no reason he can’t be the starting cornerback, however, if he continues to look as good this summer as he did playing in his rookie season.
New Orleans Saints: Bailey vs. Jean-Baptiste vs. White, Cornerback
The New Orleans Saints solidified one side of their secondary by signing cornerback Keenan Lewis to a five-year contract last offseason. Having locked up their No. 1 cornerback on a long-term deal, the Saints looked to add a better starter opposite him this offseason by signing veteran Champ Bailey and drafting Stanley Jean-Baptiste with a second-round pick.
While Lewis was already burgeoning as one of the NFL’s top young cornerbacks when the Saints signed him, this year’s additions are less certain to work.
Bailey is one of the best cornerbacks of his generation, but the 35-year-old is a shell of the player he once was. Jean-Baptiste is a converted wide receiver from Nebraska with tremendous size for the position (6’3”, 218 lbs), but he is a raw talent who needs to become more technically sound to make up for subpar long speed.
Despite one being well on the back end of his career and the other just getting started, both should get an immediate shot to win a starting job in New Orleans. Incumbent cornerback Corey White has been a coverage liability too often for the Saints secondary.
That said, it shouldn’t be a huge surprise if White ends up holding onto his starting job. Bailey is best suited for a situational slot cornerback position at this point in his career, while Jean-Baptiste would be best served by being gradually worked into the Saints’ defensive lineup.
White need to improve to be the long-term answer for New Orleans’ secondary, and the team’s decision to draft Jean-Baptiste suggests the Saints aren’t confident White can be the answer, but White still might be the best option for 2014. Patrick Robinson, a 2010 first-round pick whose career has been a big disappointment thus far, could also factor into the competition.
New York Giants: J.D. Walton vs. Weston Richburg, Center
The New York Giants have new blood at the center position this season. The team signed veteran free agent J.D. Walton this offseason, then added competition for him by selecting Colorado State’s Weston Richburg as the first center off the board as a second-round pick in this year’s NFL draft.
Walton has the talent to be a solid starter, but he has played just four games between the past two seasons due to ankle issues. The fifth-year player has opened OTAs as the starter in the middle of New York’s offensive line, according to Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger.
That could change, however, as Richburg gains experience and learns the ins and outs of New York’s protection schemes. The most polished, ready-to-play center in this year’s rookie class, the Giants wouldn't have selected him in the second round if they didn't expect him to immediately compete for a job.
Bleacher Report’s Patricia Traina thinks Walton “makes the most sense at center,” and believes Richburg could end up battling another injury-riddled veteran, Chris Snee, for the Giants’ starting right guard job.
Ultimately, however, Richburg belongs at center and should end up being New York’s starter at the position. Whether that happens in 2014 is uncertain, but it might depend not only on how quickly Richburg masters the Giants offense but also how healthy Walton is when the season begins.
New York Jets: Dimitri Patterson vs. Darrin Walls, Cornerback
Having let go of Darrelle Revis and Antonio Cromartie in consecutive years, the New York Jets have far more uncertainty at the cornerback position than they had two years ago. 2013 first-round pick Dee Milliner is slated to start on one end of the secondary, but multiple players could end up competing for the No. 2 cornerback job.
The favorite to win the job appears to be Dimitri Patterson. Jets head coach Rex Ryan told WFAN’s Mike Francesa, according to Dom Cosentino of NJ.com, that the team expects Patterson to be a starter this year.
That shouldn’t be taken as a certainty that Patterson will start, especially considering Ryan has also been claiming the Jets have a quarterback competition, according to NFL Media’s Dan Hanzus, when the quarterback who would be challenging Geno Smith for his starting job, Michael Vick, has said himself that he does not see there being a competition, according to Darryl Slater of The Star-Ledger.
Patterson is a solid player who has started 18 games in the past five seasons—but never more than nine contests in a single year. It would be a surprise if Patterson, who played just 241 snaps this past season, according to Pro Football Focus, doesn't at least see some competition from Darrin Walls.
Walls, a fourth-year cornerback who started three games in 2013, held his own when he was called into duty this past year. It’s unlikely he will dethrone Patterson for the starting job, but he at least deserves a legitimate shot to compete for it.
Dexter McDougle, a third-round selection from Maryland in this year’s draft, could also factor into the cornerback competition, though, it is more likely he will be used situationally in dime packages as a rookie. Kyle Wilson should continue to play inside as the Jets’ primary slot cornerback.
Oakland Raiders: Khalif Barnes vs. Gabe Jackson, Left Guard
The Oakland Raiders could have four new starters on their offensive line this season. Whether they do will be determined by third-round pick Gabe Jackson’s quest to unseat incumbent starter Khalif Barnes at left guard.
Jackson, a Mississippi State product who was the No. 81 overall pick in this year’s draft, is a massive, overpowering guard who excels at interior run blocking and is also a solid pass-protector. Should he pick up the Raiders’ offensive system quickly, he would seemingly be an immediate upgrade over Barnes, who was shaky as both a tackle and guard this past season.
Per Raiders beat writer Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times, Barnes currently projects as Oakland’s starter at the position. But another Raiders beat writer, Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, wrote that he expects Jackson to “have every opportunity” to win the starting job.
Tony Bergstrom, who missed the entire 2013 season with a foot injury, and Kevin Boothe, a free-agent signing this offseason, could also factor into the competition. Another free-agent addition, former New York Jets right tackle Austin Howard, projects as the starting guard, per Corkran.
Of all the guards in the competition to play on the left side, Jackson easily has the most power and potential. Should he perform up to his ability in training camp and the preseason, he should get the opportunity to start right away for the Oakland offense.
Philadelphia Eagles: Earl Wolff vs. Nate Allen, Strong Safety
The Philadelphia Eagles upgraded at free safety by signing veteran free agent Malcolm Jenkins this offseason, which leaves Earl Wolff and Nate Allen to compete for the starting job alongside him at strong safety.
Wolff, a 2013 fifth-round pick out of North Carolina State, showed significant promise as a rookie despite a knee injury that cost him five games. A physical tackler who has enough skill to hold his own in coverage, Wolff deserves the opportunity to earn a spot in the Philadelphia defensive lineup.
Allen has been running ahead of Wolff as the first-team strong safety thus far in OTAs, however, according to CSNPhilly.com’s Geoff Mosher. A fifth-year player with the team, Allen has already started 54 games in his NFL career but has battled through up-and-down play throughout his first four seasons.
It would seem that Allen, who was re-signed to a one-year contract this offseason, is the early favorite to earn the job. The competition between the two, however, should extend through training camp and into the preseason.
Ed Reynolds, a fifth-round pick in this year’s draft from Stanford, could also factor into the competition, but it would be a surprise if the Eagles turned to the rookie to start over the returning players at the position.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Brad Wing vs. Adam Podlesh, Punter
A punting competition won’t be the key to drumming up interest around the Pittsburgh Steelers' training camp, but the battle that takes place there could be an important factor in the team’s success this upcoming season.
Behind Mat McBriar and Zoltan Mesko—neither of whom has landed with another NFL team this offseason—the Steelers had the second-lowest punting average in the league this past season.
Problematic for Pittsburgh, however, is that the team doesn’t have a clear upgrade in either of its new punting options. Adam Podlesh comes to the Steelers from the Chicago Bears, the only team to have a worse punting average than Pittsburgh this past season, while Brad Wing failed to make it to the regular season as a rookie last year.
While Wing has a booming leg but is inconsistent with his control, Podlesh’s punts are accurate but lack distance. Winning the job should come down to whether Wing can be more consistent, as Podlesh’s punt power is unlikely to improve at this point in his career.
The Steelers don’t have a great deal of position battles that look set to go down to the wire, but this one should.
San Diego Chargers: Wright vs. Marshall vs. Williams, Cornerback
Selected in the first round to a team whose cornerbacks were arguably the worst in the NFL this past season, No. 25 overall pick Jason Verrett should become an immediate starter for the San Diego Chargers out of TCU. That should still leave San Diego’s other starting cornerback job up for grabs.
Shareece Wright started 13 games for the Chargers last season but proved to be a liability in coverage. Richard Marshall started six games in his first year in San Diego and has a total of 51 starts over the past five NFL seasons, but he wasn't any better than Wright. The two players were rated as the league’s 101st and 102nd overall cornerbacks, respectively, this past season by Pro Football Focus.
Even so, it’s likely that one of them will retain a starting job, as the Chargers don’t have many other options.
If there’s anyone who could steal a starting job away, it’s probably 2013 fifth-round pick Steve Williams. After missing his entire rookie year with a torn pectoral muscle, however, the 5’10”, 185-pound sophomore out of California will have to consistently impress in training camp to earn a spot in the lineup.
With Wright and Marshall both playing on expiring contracts, the Chargers might want to see Williams seize the job, but it’s more likely that he’ll begin the season as a nickel or dime cornerback with Wright being the favorite to keep a job on the outside.
San Francisco 49ers: Michael Wilhoite vs. Chris Borland, Inside Linebacker
Possessing two of the NFL’s elite inside linebackers in Patrick Willis and NaVorro Bowman, the only competition the San Francisco 49ers have had to worry about at the position in recent years has been for depth. There’s a starting opportunity to the table this season, however, as Bowman is expected to miss at least the first six weeks of the season while recovering from his torn ACL and MCL, according to CSNBayArea.com’s Matt Maiocco.
Chris Borland, a third-round pick who had fantastic production at Wisconsin and is a polished all-around player, should get an immediate shot at filling Bowman’s shoes in the lineup as a rookie. A shoulder injury and lack of size seemed to cause Borland’s fall in this year’s draft, but he’s a great run-stopper and capable three-down player who should be ready to start immediately if needed.
To win the job, however, the No. 77 overall pick will have to beat out Michael Wilhoite, who has worked in Bowman’s place with the first-team defense at OTAs, according to Eric Branch of SFGate.com.
Wilhoite might never be more than a backup in a long-term role, but the 49ers started him in two games last season. His experience within the defense could prompt San Francisco to use him as the main stopgap while Bowman recovers from injury.
Borland has more upside than Wilhoite, and it could be said that 2013 sixth-round pick Nick Moody and undrafted rookie Shayne Skov do as well. Moody and Skov are long shots to factor into the competition to start, but Borland should make a strong push toward getting by Wilhoite on the depth chart.
Seattle Seahawks: James Carpenter vs. Alvin Bailey, Left Guard
In three seasons since he was a first-round pick in the 2011 draft, Seattle Seahawks guard James Carpenter has done little to prove his worth and has been frequently injured. The Seahawks should be looking to seriously push him for his starting job this season, and that’s where Alvin Bailey could factor in.
Bailey only played 84 snaps as an undrafted rookie last year, according to Pro Football Focus, but his play was promising when he had opportunities to get on the field.
Bailey could be kept outside as a swing backup at tackle, but moving him inside to guard—the position he played throughout his collegiate career at Arkansas—gives him the best chance of emerging as a top-five blocker for Seattle and getting on the field.
Carpenter has started 26 games for the Seahawks in three years, but the team made it evident they don’t see him as a long-term answer by declining to pick up his option for 2015. At the very least, they should be looking to have someone push him for his starting job, and the more athletic Bailey seems like the team’s best candidate to do so.
The loser of the right tackle battle between Michael Bowie and Justin Britt, another competition to watch in Seattle as profiled by Bleacher Report’s Dilan Ames, could also get a shot to play at left guard.
Correction: A previous version of this slide stated that Alvin Bailey played tackle, not guard, at Arkansas.
St. Louis Rams: Austin Pettis vs. Brian Quick, Wide Receiver
The St. Louis Rams used five picks in the first four rounds of the 2011-13 NFL drafts to select wide receivers, but none of their young wideouts have panned out to expectations yet. That should leave the competition at the position wide open heading into this year’s training camp.
The Rams didn’t start OTAs until Tuesday, so it’s unclear how the coaches envision the depth chart going into offseason workouts, but there’s no reason why every young wideout shouldn’t have a chance to earn a spot with the first-team offense.
2013 first-round pick Tavon Austin should certainly be the Rams’ slot receiver in his sophomore season, but the two starting spots on the outside are likely to come down to a three-way battle between fourth-year wide receiver Austin Pettis and third-year targets Chris Givens and Brian Quick.
Givens, who led Rams wideouts with 569 receiving yards and 13 catches of 20 yards or more this past season, has the most deep receiving ability of the group and is the favorite to win the team’s “X” receiver job. Still, he should have to prove himself in camp just as much as Pettis, who has looked to be a solid possession receiver but little more, and Quick, who has outright failed to live up to expectations in his first two years in the league.
Stedman Bailey, a third-round pick in last year’s draft, could also end up emerging as a starter on the Rams offense at some point this season, but his four-game suspension for a performance-enhancing drug violation severely hurts his chances.
Another wild card in the equation could be veteran Kenny Britt. Known more for his off-field mishaps than anything he’s done on the gridiron, Britt caught just 11 passes for 96 yards for the Tennessee Titans last season, but he might still be the most talented wideout in the group if he can play up to his ability.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Robert Herron vs. Many Others, Slot Receiver
It’s not usual for a sixth-round pick to immediately stand out as the likely best option at his position on his team, but on a Tampa Bay Buccaneers wide receiver depth chart that falls off a cliff outside its top two, that just might be the case for Wyoming product Robert Herron.
The Buccaneers have two big pass-catching playmakers on the outside in Vincent Jackson and first-round pick Mike Evans, while they upgraded at tight end by adding Brandon Myers as a free agent and drafting Washington’s Austin Seferian-Jenkins in Round 2.
That could be an indicator that Tampa Bay plans to use more two-tight end sets than three-wide receiver formations this season, but the Buccaneers are still going to need to find a capable slot receiver for many offensive packages. Thus far, that competition looks wide open.
According to ESPN.com’s Pat Yasinskas, Tampa Bay is “hoping the speedy Herron can emerge as the slot receiver.” Herron is a small wideout who fell in a deep draft class of receivers, but he has the agility and route-running ability to be a dangerous threat from inside.
That hope is a necessity because of the lack of other options the team has at the position.
Outside of Jackson, Chris Owusu’s 13 catches and 114 yards last season were the most for any wide receiver who is still on the team.
Owusu is the most likely player to contend with Herron for the slot receiver position, but returning players Eric Page, Skye Dawson and Jeff Demps could factor in along with free-agent additions Louis Murphy, Lavelle Hawkins and Russell Shepard.
Tennessee Titans: Michael Oher vs. Taylor Lewan, Right Tackle
Assuming the Tennessee Titans keep veteran left tackle Michael Roos for his final season under contract with the team, the Titans could have two offseason additions, both of whom they made significant investments in, battling for one spot on the team’s offensive line.
When the Titans signed Michael Oher to a four-year, $20 million contract this offseason, he seemed to be the team’s clear-cut choice to play right tackle. Tennessee added major competition for Oher, however, when it drafted Michigan offensive tackle Taylor Lewan with the No. 11 overall pick in this year’s draft.
With Roos’ contract set to expire at the end of 2014, the Titans should groom Lewan to be their left tackle of the future, but that doesn’t mean he can’t win the right tackle job this year. According to John Glennon of The Tennessean, Lewan has been working on both sides of the line in offseason workouts.
Regardless of who the Titans end up playing where, this competition is going to be one of the most interesting in the league this summer.
Whether it results in a first-round pick or a significantly paid free agent riding the bench, or even in the team deciding to move on from one of the league’s most consistently reliable left tackles, someone worthy of maintaining a starting role is going to get the short end of the stick.
Washington Redskins: Sharpton vs. Jordan vs. Robinson, Inside Linebacker
For the first time since 1997, an NFL season will be played without London Fletcher taking the field in a uniform. That’s most significant to the Washington Redskins, who need someone to step up and fill the role Fletcher adequately and often tremendously played for them over the past seven seasons without missing a single game.
Washington has one returning starter at inside linebacker, Perry Riley, who is expected to start despite a subpar 2013 season after he signed a three-year, $13 million contract this offseason. Alongside him, Washington will have to turn to one of two free-agent additions or a player who missed all of last season with injury.
Neither Akeem Jordan nor Darryl Sharpton has played well enough to establish himself as a full-time starter with any team either has played for, but Jordan started 10 games for the Kansas City Chiefs while Sharpton got eight starts for the Houston Texans this past season.
Those two players, whose contracts are each for one year only, should factor immediately into the competition to start along with Keenan Robinson, a talented 2012 fourth-round pick who missed his sophomore year with a torn pectoral muscle.
Robinson, who has just 11 tackles thus far in his NFL career, seems to be getting the first shot to win the job as he has been lining up alongside Riley on the first-team defense in OTAs, according to Mike Jones of The Washington Post.
That said, Jordan and Sharpton should both get their opportunities to work with the starters as well, assuming they show they can grasp Washington's defensive system quickly. Bleacher Report’s Marcel Davis believes Sharpton has the most three-down potential of the three linebackers, while Davis considers Jordan to be the team’s “fail-safe option” at inside linebacker.
All measurables and stats courtesy of NFL.com unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.