Previewing the NFL's 25 Biggest Training-Camp Battles
Training camp and the preseason might seem meaningless to you, but they can make or break seasons and careers every summer. We don't take them lightly here.
From the rookie quarterbacks challenging for starter's snaps right away (Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater, Derek Carr, et al) to the running backs fighting to be the bell cows (such as rookie Tre Mason pushing Zac Stacy for the St. Louis Rams), we break down the 25 most intriguing training-camp position battles coming out of offseason workouts.
You will notice much of the 25 focuses on the offensive skill positions. That is because backup defenders wind up getting a lot of action in rotations even if they don't start. We still have a handful of intriguing defensive battles, but we break down the more prominent battles for touches and snaps on the offensive side of the ball more in-depth here.
25. Jacksonville Jaguars Quarterback
The Jacksonville Jaguars might have plans to sit Blake Bortles for a year to develop, according to ESPN.com's Mike DiRocco, but a bottom-feeder franchise needs quick fixes, not long-term projects. Chad Henne is not a starter, even if he is considered that right now.
Bortles won't have to be impressive in training camp to earn starts this season. You don't select the first quarterback nowadays and leave him in bubble wrap for a whole season.
Prediction: Henne starts Week 1, but Bortles gets action before the end of September.
24. Indianapolis Colts Running Back
It is a long-held rule of thumb a player should not lose his job due to injury, but when you are the Indianapolis Colts and you burned a first-round pick on a Trent Richardson deal last fall, you might not be so quick to hand the job back to Vick Ballard, especially as he's coming off reconstructive knee surgery.
Richardson proved to be a bust with the Cleveland Browns and was worse with the Colts last season, rushing for just 563 yards and a putrid 3.0 per-carry average in his 16 games with the two teams. The investment on him will give him the first shot at the feature-back role, though. That was Ballard's job before he tore his ACL in Week 1 last season.
Ballard has sat out of workouts this offseason as he recovers, according to ESPN.com's Mike Wells. Ahmad Bradshaw is also in the mix, but he is older, perhaps an even bigger injury risk and mostly likely to serve as the third-down back.
Prediction: The first full season of Richardson in Indy will be a lot better, especially with a greater knowledge of the Colts offense. Consider him the favorite to start Week 1, but all three backs are going to get equal time if they are all healthy at once.
23. St. Louis Rams Defensive Tackle
Defensive tackle might not be the sexiest position to debate, but first-round pick Aaron Donald is a potential game-changer for the St. Louis Rams' stacked defensive line. You can make a case the Rams have the best front four in football, with or without Donald as a starter.
Michael Sam might get a lot of headlines in training camp, but Donald battling Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers for time in the tackle rotation will have a bigger effect on the success of an underrated Rams defense.
Prediction: Langford and Brockers start on the early downs, but the smaller, quicker and more talented Donald plays on the passing downs and gets all of the crucial snaps right away.
22. Philadelphia Eagles Wide Receivers
The Philadelphia Eagles showed some serious confidence in their receiving corps by releasing DeSean Jackson, who signed with a division rival this winter. Then, they drafted Jordan Matthews in the second round and Josh Huff in Round 3.
If Jeremy Maclin wasn't coming off a lost season due to reconstructive knee surgery and two rookies hadn't been drafted, this position would be a debate...with or without Jackson. When you let that kind of talent go, you open yourself up for criticism.
Maclin, Matthews, Huff, Riley Cooper and Damaris Johnson better be ready to fill the void.
Prediction: Maclin proves healthy, while Cooper starts opposite him and the rookies move Cooper to the slot in three-receiver sets. This position has a lot of potential as a group, even if there are no certainties going into camp.
21. New York Jets Running Back
The New York Jets needed weapons for their offense, even if they project to play conservatively again. They added them this winter, but no one can make a bigger splash than Chris Johnson.
Chris Ivory and Bilal Powell won't give up the starting job easily, particularly because they are the better inside runners for head coach Rex Ryan, who wants to pound the ball between the tackles and play tough defense. Johnson is the game-changer, though.
Prediction: Johnson starts and gets all but the short-yardage work when all is said and done.
20. St. Louis Rams Wide Receiver
The St. Louis Rams have a franchise question mark looming over Sam Bradford, but the success of the quarterback is tied closely to improvement at wide receiver, which has been a mess. Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin, Chris Givens, Brian Quick and Stedman Bailey are interchangeable parts at this point.
Prediction: Still just 25, Britt can rise up to help make Bradford the Rams' answer at quarterback, while answering the question of who will be the No. 1 receiver. Givens starts on the other side, while 2013 first-round pick Austin works out of the slot.
19. New Orleans Saints Running Back
The loss of Darren Sproles figures to be a big topic in training camp for the New Orleans Saints. How are they going to replace his production?
Instead, we want to know, who is going to start at running back for the Saints. It has been a debate that has raged for years.
Mark Ingram has been a first-round bust, Pierre Thomas keeps holding off competition for his starting job and Khiry Robinson emerged a year ago as a legit threat. It is anyone's ball to take right now.
Prediction: Ingram proves healthy, spry and capable of a breakthrough season in training camp, starting over the older Thomas. Yes, we agree, we just cannot let go of Ingram's untapped potential.
18. Tampa Bay Buccaneers Quarterback
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired a defensive guru, Lovie Smith, to be their next head coach, so they should want a game manager to be their quarterback. Second-year man Mike Glennon doesn't figure to be that at this point in his career.
Free-agent acquisition Josh McCown was labeled the projected starter when he signed, but the battle will be left up to training camp.
Prediction: McCown starts, and Glennon serves a year as an apprentice.
17. New York Giants Running Back
The New York Giants added a West Coast guru, Ben McAdoo, as their offensive coordinator this winter, but the success of an expected pass-happy Eli Manning offense might fall on who shoulders the load in the running game.
The Giants hope to get former first-round pick David Wilson back from a career-threatening neck injury, but they signed Rashad Jennings to be the power back in the offseason, and they drafted 2,000-yard collegiate rusher Andre Williams to bolster what was a thin position. Any of those three could be in store for a breakthrough with the Giants, even if they employ a rhythmic passing game.
Prediction: Jennings starts, Wilson changes the pace, if healthy, and Williams emerges down the stretch of the season when both injury-riddled backs wind up lame.
16. Dallas Cowboys Middle Linebacker
The Dallas Cowboys had the worst defense in the NFL last season, and since they've lost linebacker Sean Lee (torn ACL, likely out for the season) and defensive end DeMarcus Ware (cap casualty). Ouch.
The Cowboys have a lot of work to do.
Justin Durant is the veteran penciled in to start right now, but DeVonte Holloman and fourth-round pick Anthony Hitchens can push him in training camp.
Prediction: Durant starts, but either of his backups can steal his thunder with a big preseason.
15. Carolina Panthers Wide Receiver
- Jerricho Cotchery
- Jason Avant
- Kelvin Benjamin
- Tiquan Underwood
- Kealoha Pilares
- Tavarres King
- Marvin McNutt
The Carolina Panthers turned over their entire wide receiving corps this offseason, but they enter training camp without surefire starters. Kelvin Benjamin, a raw rookie first-rounder, might be the lone true starter in the NFL scheme of things.
And Benjamin hasn't had a snap of an NFL full-contact practice yet.
The Panthers will have to declare two of the following starters, even if they would be third options at best for almost any other team in the NFL:
Carolina Panthers WR Depth Chart
Prediction: Benjamin starts because of a lack of competition, while Cotchery and Avant will both play in three-receiver sets.
14. Indianapolis Colts Tight End
When you have the likes of Andrew Luck, Reggie Wayne, Hakeem Nicks, T.Y. Hilton, Trent Richardson and Vick Ballard to stop, the last thing on your mind might be the tight end. That makes the position a really dangerous weapon for the Indianapolis Colts.
The battle here is the talented receiver Coby Fleener versus the in-line blocker Dwayne Allen. Allen was the starter before needing season-ending hip surgery, but Fleener was drafted first and is the superior pass receiver in an offense that figures to have more talent ready to be wide open as opposed to conservative on the ground.
Prediction: Allen starts, if healthy, but fantasy owners want to know who finishes. Fleener will be a red-zone threat because of his size and ability to create mismatches in the red zone. This is a big third season for both tight ends.
13. Oakland Raiders Quarterback
The Oakland Raiders weren't the first team to draft a quarterback this May, but they might be the first one to declare a rookie passer their starter this summer. Matt Schaub is the veteran placeholder until second-round pick Derek Carr is ready to take over, which might be sooner than later.
ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez tweeted this week that head coach Paul Allen expects Carr to be the No. 2 quarterback in training camp behind Schaub and ahead of Raiders incumbent Matt McGloin. Carr figures to be nipping at Schaub's heals right up until the third preseason game.
Prediction: Schaub starts Week 1, but it won't take long for Carr to get a full look in a later rebuilding year for the Raiders.
12. Cincinnati Bengals Tight End
The Cincinnati Bengals are going to use two tight ends prominently in Hue Jackson's offense, as Geoff Hobson of the Bengals' official website writes, but those hoping for a second-year breakthrough from Tyler Eifert will want to see him put Jermaine Gresham in the rearview mirror.
Don't count on that happening. Eifert is the tight end of the future for the Bengals, but Gresham is still good enough to hold off the young gun.
Prediction: Gresham starts for Jackson's power-rushing attack, but Eifert does more damage in the passing game.
11. New England Patriots Cornerback
- Darrelle Revis
- Brandon Browner
- Alfonzo Dennard
- Kyle Arrington
- Logan Ryan
The New England Patriots made a huge splash with the signing of Darrelle Revis to replace Aqib Talib, so that puts a lot of emphasis on who will start at the other cornerback position. That man figures to get a lot of action thrown his way this coming season.
The battle is pretty deep, and the fact Browner will have to serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season opens things up for a lively battle in training camp.
New England Patriots CB Depth Chart
We know it won't be Browner starting in Week 1, and Dennard could face a suspension as well for off-the-field incidents.
Prediction: Ryan starts the first game, but this will be a revolving door until Browner returns from suspension.
10. Oakland Raiders Running Back
The Oakland Raiders have waited years for Darren McFadden to emerge as the star he was drafted to be. They haven't given up yet, re-signing him this offseason, but it didn't stop them from giving McFadden some veteran competition, adding Maurice Jones-Drew in free agency.
McFadden versus MJD might not be a one-sided battle either. The injury-plagued veterans can get pushed by second-year back Latavius Murray, who missed his entire rookie year due to injury as well, and Canadian Football League star Kory Sheets.
Offensive coordinator Greg Olson told CSNBayArea.com's Scott Bair:
We're looking for big things from Latavius Murray right now, coming off the foot injury. He's shown, to me, the biggest upside right now in what we've seen thus far, if he can stay healthy.
Kory Sheets has played a lot of football coming straight to us from Canada, and he's shown some flashes. I think there's probably a role for him. He's not your big back, he's more of a back that you can move back in the slot and can help you in the passing game.
Prediction: MJD starts as the early-down runner, but the Raiders are going to wind up starting him, McFadden, Murray and perhaps even Sheets due to injuries.
9. Philadelphia Eagles Tight End
The Philadelphia Eagles figure to have one of the most productive offenses in football in the second year of Chip Kelly's system. The tight end might not be the biggest factor in a fast-paced offense, but the potential of Zach Ertz has drawn some Hall of Fame comparisons recently.
Yes, Eagles tight ends coach Ted Williams went to that level of hyperbole with the second-year tight end, telling Martin Frank of Wilmington's (Delaware) The News Journal:
He's got a lot (of tools). He's an excellent route runner. Guys that big and run that well and have the skills and tools to be precise—body control, strength, size, leverage—I think they're different. There aren't a lot of them like that. Not at his position.
You saw the Shannon Sharpes of the world, the Ozzie Newsomes of the world who can do those kinds of things. That made them premier players.
Before his position coach gets Ertz inducted in the Hall of Fame, the former Stanford star will have to unseat veteran Brent Celek as the starter at tight end. Williams continued:
We run the ball a lot, so in this offense, a good blocker (at tight end) is a necessity.
If he can't block, we can't run the ball. And if we can't run the ball, we won't throw it very well. So it's important in this offense that we understand ... that has equal importance to the other skills. The more tools you give him to put in the toolbox, the greater opportunity he should have to execute them.
Prediction: Celek starts as the better run-blocker in the NFL's No. 1 rushing offense, but Ertz gets the better receiving numbers.
8. Minnesota Vikings Quarterback
Teddy Bridgewater was arguably the favorite to be the No. 1 overall pick in May's draft at the start of the process. He nearly fell out of the first round, if not for the Minnesota Vikings trading up to pick him with the final pick of the first round.
It will be a matter of when Bridgewater starts for the Vikings, not if.
Christian Ponder has already been one failed Vikings first-round pick. He is still around, along with veteran journeyman Matt Cassel. That duo will be fighting for their roster spot, if not the starting job in training camp.
I knew he'd make great decisions, quick decisions, but he has been outstanding throwing the deep ball, which some people thought would be an issue.
I think in the six-to-eight weeks we've had him on the field, I think he's been put in a position where’s he's had to make most of the throws he would have to make. I think he can make all the throws he needs to make.
Prediction: Bridgewater forces the Vikings to start him right away, if only because Cassel and Ponder don't in camp.
7. New York Giants Middle Linebacker
The New York Giants thought they had found a long-sought answer at middle linebacker a year ago with Jon Beason's addition midseason. Beason turned the Giants defense around and re-signed to be the defensive leader in the middle.
Now, Beason is dealing with a foot injury that will impact his ability to be ready for the start of the season, according to ESPN.com's Dan Graziano. While this position figures to be a moot point if Beason is healthy, we have to consider it one of the training camp's most interesting battles right now.
The Giants will take a look at the likes of weak-side linebacker Jameel McClain, cancer survivor Mark Herzlich or rookie fifth-round pick Devon Kennard to start until Beason is ready.
Prediction: Beason is brought back conservatively, Kennard proves he's not quite ready, and McClain is slid over to lead the Giants defense initially.
6. Miami Dolphins Running Back
The Miami Dolphins were disenchanted with their running back position a year ago, as Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas and Mike Gillislee failed to take the reins and run with them. That is why 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown back Knowshon Moreno was signed via free agency.
They have damaged goods right now, though. Moreno will be out for 4-5 weeks after a knee 'scope this week, according to NFL insider Adam Schefter, but it might not keep him out for Week 1 of the NFL season, barring setbacks.
Once healthy, his status on the Dolphins' depth chart could be one of the NFL's biggest news items. We will declare the Dolphins' starting running back a position up in the air at that point.
Prediction: Miller starts Week 1, but Moreno becomes a factor when healthy.
5. New York Jets Quarterback
The New York Jets have created a circus—the embarrassing level even lower than a controversy—at quarterback. The veteran, Michael Vick, is now on the depth chart that was supposed to be Geno Smith's to own in year two.
The drama has already had an offseason to fester, with Dom Consentino of NJ.com most recently labeling Vick a "dud" of the Jets' offseason workouts.
The media are going to chronicle Smith vs. Vick every day like it is Brett Favre news. You will hate it because it is overkill, but that doesn't mean the Jets starting quarterback competition shouldn't be on our list among the biggest camp battles.
Prediction: Smith starts, but Vick won't be a backup for all 16 games.
4. New Orleans Saints Cornerback
The New Orleans Saints have had a big offseason, despite having salary-cap issues going into the winter. They added a big-time safety in Jairus Byrd and have created a position battle at cornerback opposite Keenan Lewis. Champ Bailey was signed away from the AFC champion Denver Broncos, too, giving another marquee name to defensive coordinator Rob Ryan's secondary.
Defensive position battles don't carry as much weight, because everyone gets plenty of playing time in defensive rotations, but the potential Hall of Fame cornerback starting over at age 36 with a Super Bowl contender makes this is a battle to watch.
Bailey will try to hold off the likes of Corey White, Patrick Robinson and rookie Stanley Jean-Baptiste. Those are guys with a lot less career cachet than Bailey but a lot more in the way of youth and health.
Prediction: Bailey starts, if healthy, but the second-rounder Jean-Baptiste will own the position by year's end.
3. New England Patriots Running Back
The New England Patriots have had Tom Brady for "most of this century," so it really hasn't mattered who has started at running back. Brady is turning 37 in August, though, and Bill Belichick's crew is moving more toward a power-rushing attack than they have had since Brady's early years.
Who starts at running back figures to be a question that rages on far longer than training camp, especially with the way Belichick likes to play the matchups with his personnel from week to week. This is a big battle in camp, because it is Stevan Ridley, the notorious fumbler, versus the pass-receiving back Shane Vereen.
Ridley was in the Belichick doghouse last season, but let's see how long the head coach's grudge lasts.
Prediction: Vereen starts Week 1, but Ridley winds up stealing the job back.
2. St. Louis Rams Running Back
Zac Stacy fans won't want to admit it, but third-round pick Tre Mason is a real threat to start at running back for the St. Louis Rams. Offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer told ESPN's Nick Wagoner last week:
Well right now, competition is for who's the starter. We're just going to let them all roll and see what happens. You saw some guys that worked with the young guys today. Zac's obviously a really, really good player, but we're going to create competition for all the guys.
That's a long way off, but we know we have a good stable group of backs, and they all have different skill sets, which we'll try to use throughout the course of the year.
This is a battle that will weigh the most on the minds of fantasy football fans, even if it isn't the biggest training-camp battle out there.
Prediction: Stacy starts, but Mason steals the job during the season.
1. Cleveland Browns Quarterback
Call this Johnny Football hype if you want. We are going to consider it Brian Hoyer talk. If Hoyer hadn't played so well in his brief time a year ago, there would be no Browns quarterback controversy in Cleveland.
Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel is the biggest training-camp battle to watch this summer, even if Browns GM Ray Farmer told 92.3 The Fan (via CBS Cleveland) the incumbent is well ahead of the rookie after OTAs:
I want the best quarterback to start. Who is the best quarterback right now? Brian Hoyer. ... It is a good question. I will tell you that probably by a substantial margin.
I say that because here's a guy who's a five- or six-year veteran that has been in the league, who knows the defenses, who reads it quicker. He's got an advanced calculus degree. Johnny's good at math, but I don't know if he's in the advanced calculus stages yet.
Head coach Mike Pettine squashed any notion of Hoyer as a landslide leader in this battle to Mary Kay Cabot of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer:
I think when Ray made the comment, (it was) just because of the circumstances, that Brian had been here for those seven, eight weeks before the draft even started. That was essentially a head start, and I don't think it's insurmountable. Brian is securely ahead of him right now, but we will compete and we will decide.
The issue for us as a staff is finding the right time to name a starter. If you wait too late, then nobody's ready for the opener. If you do it too soon then it wasn't a true competition. That will be part of our discussions as well as far as 'okay, here's the plan, here's a date that want to go ahead and name him.'
Hoyer, coming off reconstructive knee surgery, will try to hold off the first-round pick to start Week 1 of the season. It will be chronicled every step of the way, even if football fans say they don't want to hear about it.
Prediction: We are going to go out on a limb here and say Manziel starts Week 1.
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