Predictions for the NFL's Hottest Training Camp Battles

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistJuly 7, 2014

Predictions for the NFL's Hottest Training Camp Battles

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    We might be in the doldrums of the NFL right now, but that only means training camp is around the corner.

    With it comes a plethora of intrigue, exultation and heartbreak for players. Plenty of roster battles will be fought in the coming weeks, with many starting jobs on the line.

    Which will be some of the hottest camp battles this summer, and who will win them?

    Click through to find out.

Zac Stacy vs. Tre Mason

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    Tre Mason
    Tre MasonAssociated Press

    Zac Stacy's rookie season was fantastic—at least, relative to expectations.

    The St. Louis Rams running back was drafted in the fifth round, after all, and there were several higher-drafted backs ahead of him on the depth chart this time last year. Injuries and off-field issues gave him a chance, and he seized the opportunity.

    Stacy ran for 973 yards and seven touchdowns in just 12 starts, although he averaged just 3.9 yards per carry in the process.

    That good season notwithstanding, he is going to get a challenge from another rookie this year: Tre Mason.

    The former Auburn Tiger was selected in the third round by the Rams and is one of the top running backs in the draft class, despite his mid-round selection. Presumably, this means he will be given a shot to start right away.

    Stacy will have to prove his rookie season wasn't a fluke if he's going to hold off Mason.

     

    Prediction

    Zac Stacy remains the starter by a hair, while Tre Mason wins a big share of the workload.

Geno Smith vs. Michael Vick

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Michael Vick said he wasn't in a quarterback competition after joining the New York Jets. Really, though, it's never that simple with Vick.

    Geno Smith had a roller coaster of a rookie season with the Jets last season, one that got him ranked as the worst starting quarterback in the league, according to league executives and talent evaluators (subscription required). He was close to being the worst-rated quarterback in the league, per the metrics of Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    Hence, his job wasn't exactly carved in stone heading into the offseason.

    Granted, Vick is no Randall Cunningham, despite his best efforts to claim he "revolutionized" the game. He has been plagued by inconsistency and injury throughout his career, flashes of brilliance notwithstanding.

    If he does shine during the preseason, however—combined with subpar performances from Smith—the Jets will have a difficult decision to make. Put the offense in the hands—or, more accurately, on the legs—of a 34-year-old wild card or throw their second-year prodigy to the wolves?

     

    Prediction

    Geno Smith surprises with a great preseason and locks down the starting job.

Ben Tate vs. Terrance West vs. Isaiah Crowell vs. Dion Lewis

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    Terrance West
    Terrance WestAssociated Press

    The backfield in Cleveland was a mess last season, and that was before the Browns traded Trent Richardson away.

    Cleveland wound up relying on guys like Chris Ogbonnaya and Edwin Baker en route to a shabby team rushing performance for the season. Offseason improvement at the position was clearly a priority. 

    The Browns did just that, signing free agent Ben Tate to a two-year deal, drafting Terrance West and snagging Isaiah Crowell as an undrafted free agent. Tate was the de facto starter and lead back as soon as he was signed, but the Browns threw a wrench into that notion when the NFL draft rolled around. 

    Cleveland selected record-breaking West out of Towson in the third round. He might have broken those records in the Football Championship Subdivision, but he is a great fit in offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan's zone-blocking scheme.

    For his part, Tate isn't worried, per The Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot:

    Honestly I'm not worried about that, because I know when I'm on my game -- no disrespect to any other running back here -- but there's no one that can touch me or that's close to what I do. I battled in and out every day with what some people consider the best running back in the league in Arian Foster. I've seen the best. I went against him every day. I battled it, so this around here to me is really not anything.

    Crowell was a highly regarded prospect in terms of talent, but his off-field issues tanked his draft stock. Lewis may not seem exciting, but he is just 23 and provides a change of pace that could push West and Crowell behind him on the depth chart.

     

    Prediction

    Ben Tate wins the starting job handily, with Terrance West named his primary backup. Dion Lewis is named the third-down back.

Teddy Bridgewater vs. Christian Ponder vs. Matt Cassel

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    Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    The Minnesota Vikings haven't exactly been the picture of stability at the quarterback position in recent years.

    They drafted Christian Ponder to remedy that situation in 2011, but he has been an oft-injured disappointment. Matt Cassel provided a bit of a lift last season, but he hasn't proved to be the long-term answer at any of his stations in the NFL.

    That's why general manager Rick Spielman moved back into the first round of this year's draft to take Louisville signal-caller Teddy Bridgewater, hitting the reset button yet again at quarterback. 

    Having Cassel and Ponder gives Mike Zimmer a bit of flexibility in his inaugural season. Ponder seems resigned to a backup role, recognizing the Vikings are grooming Bridgewater while Cassel is the current starter, per Charley Walters of the Pioneer Press.

    Conceding this early makes for a less intriguing camp battle, but Cassel and Bridgewater are sure to duke it out in the coming weeks.

    Despite what his detractors say, Bridgewater was the most NFL-ready quarterback coming out of college this year. Thanks to his polish, Bridgewater's chances to start as a rookie are higher than those of his peers.

     

    Prediction

    None of the quarterbacks have a great preseason, leading Mike Zimmer to roll the dice with Bridgewater.

Knowshon Moreno vs. Lamar Miller

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Running back Lamar Miller was a huge disappointment in 2013, though the blame hardly falls on his shoulders alone.

    Miller was scarcely provided an opportunity to succeed, given his erratic playing time and an offensive line that resembled a tackling sled. Still, the Dolphins saw fit to add Knowshon Moreno in free agency, presumably signing him to start.

    Well, Moreno got off to a sluggish start thanks to, perhaps, one too many celebratory cannoli, per The Miami Herald's Barry Jackson, and now he is sidelined after arthroscopic knee surgery. Miller, meanwhile, has had a strong offseason thus far, per ESPN.com's James Walker, and enters training camp with a legitimate shot to start.

    If Moreno sheds the weight he reportedly gained, picks up the offense and gets back on the field after surgery soon, he should win the job. But if Miller continues to shine, the Dolphins are going to have a dilemma in that backfield.

     

    Prediction

    Moreno catches Miller thanks to superior pass-blocking and pass-catching skills, but Miller wins a big role as a backup.

Aaron Donald vs. Kendall Langford vs. Michael Brockers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    The St. Louis Rams have a stacked defensive line, so much so that first-round pick Aaron Donald is going to have to fight for playing time right out of the gate.

    Donald is a talented defensive tackle, but he joins a team populated by starters Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers in the middle of that front.

    Brockers is a bigger name than Langford after being drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft, but as Scott Kacsmar of Football Outsiders notes, Langford arguably had just as big of an impact last year.

    Neither played lights-out last season, but Langford is a solid run defender and Brockers is entering a pivotal third season. The three will have a nice camp battle to determine the starters, though they will certainly be rotated into the lineup as circumstances dictate.

     

    Prediction

    Langford and Brockers remain starters, but Donald becomes a big part of the rotation right away.

Mike Glennon vs. Josh McCown

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Quarterback Mike Glennon did a surprisingly good job as a rookie when he was thrown into the fire for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last season. He threw for 2,608 yards and 19 touchdowns against just nine interceptions in 13 games. Not bad for a mid-round pick who was expected to do little early.

    The job was his to lose heading into the offseason, but the regime change altered his course at starter. New head coach Lovie Smith brought his former backup quarterback in Chicago, Josh McCown, over in free agency and promptly named him the starter.

    The question is whether McCown's breakout season was a fluke. At first and second blush, it certainly seems that way.

    McCown was playing under noted quarterback guru Marc Trestman last season, and he had some fantastic weapons at his disposal. The Buccaneers have a pretty good arsenal too, but Smith is no Trestman.

    Of course, if offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford can regain the form that garnered him a reputation as an offensive mastermind with the California Golden Bears, then all is well. But can McCown hold Glennon off for the job?

    Glennon is going to have to show his rookie season wasn't a mirage, either. If he proves himself this preseason, it stands to reason he will make a strong case to start in Week 1.

     

    Prediction

    Josh McCown ekes by as the Week 1 starter after lackluster preseasons from both quarterbacks.

Keenan Lewis vs. Champ Bailey vs. Corey White vs. Patrick Robinson

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints have an impending melee at cornerback this preseason, a good problem for a secondary in need of some dramatic change.

    Cornerback Corey White was pressed into action as a starter last season, and he performed admirably. That is not to say that his pass defense was great, but Lewis held his own and figures to at least compete for the starting job this season.

    Keenan Lewis was signed last year to start, and he did his job well opposite White. Patrick Robinson hopes to come back from a torn patellar tendon to compete for a starting job as well.

    Joining them this offseason is veteran Champ Bailey, who brings 15 years of NFL experience to the table. He has also lost a step or two, which means he shouldn't be guaranteed a starting job based on his past.

    Rookie corner Stanley Jean-Baptiste might even join the fray if he can develop quickly.

    A dearth of talent has turned into an embarrassment of riches, so to speak. The Saints don't have an elite cornerback, but a healthy depth chart makes for intrigue this preseason. 

    Will Bailey come back from injury and buck his detractors? Can Robinson recover from his awful injury to make an impact? Was White's 2013 performance a taste of what's to come, or was he playing over his head?

    All those questions and more will be answered this year.

     

    Prediction

    Lewis and Bailey are named starters with White and Jean-Baptiste third and fourth on the depth chart, respectively.

Malcolm Smith vs. Bruce Irvin vs. K.J. Wright

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    It was a bit of a surprise when the Seattle Seahawks used a first-round pick on Bruce Irvin, an outside linebacker whom many had pegged as a mid-round prospect. 

    Provocative moves during the draft are nothing new for the Seahawks, who have made some ho-hum or head-scratching picks over the years that have panned out rather nicely. To wit, Irvin had a promising rookie season, albeit at defensive end.

    Seattle moved him to the strong side last year, where he thrived for the most part.

    Malcolm Smith may have been the Super Bowl MVP with Irvin back at defensive end for the finale, but that doesn't mean he will be starting come Week 1 of the 2014 season. Irvin is on the mend from injury, and K.J. Wright has been solid on the weak side for the Seahawks.

    Smith is recovering from his own injury, meaning both are behind the eight ball heading into camp. But if they catch up quickly and perform up to expectations, will Wright be the odd man out?

     

    Prediction

    Smith and Wright are named the starters, with Irvin being utilized all over the field.

Johnny Manziel vs. Brian Hoyer

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    Assuming Johnny Manziel doesn't torpedo his own career with off-field shenanigans, this is going to be a fun preseason in Cleveland.

    Yes, that sentence is real.

    The Browns drafted college football's most electrifying quarterback and player last season in Johnny Manziel. They didn't hand him the job, though, instead placing him third on the depth chart to start off his career. 

    He quickly surpassed Tyler Thigpen and now has a bead on the currently anointed starter, Brian Hoyer.

    The latter played well for the Browns in limited duty last season before tearing his ACL during a gutsy Thursday night performance. He has the seasoning Manziel doesn't, and giving Manziel some time to develop isn't the worst idea in the world.

    Of course, what do the Browns do when Manziel is tearing chunks out of second- and third-team defenses during preseason games? They will be hard pressed to hold off the masses calling for him to start after he throws for two touchdowns and rushes for 150 yards against the St. Louis Rams on August 23.

    Okay, so that might be far-fetched, but Manziel has risen to the occasion in the past. It's easy to see him challenging Hoyer in a big way this preseason.

     

    Prediction

    Manziel runs roughshod over subpar preseason defenses and wins the starting job.