Projecting Which NFL Starters Will Lose Their Starting Jobs in Training Camp
Over the next week, every NFL team will have reported to training camp, meaning preseason and the regular season are right around the corner. And before starting lineups for Week 1 can be set, position battles will be waged, and it's time to project which starters will lose their jobs during training camp.
While there are a number of high-profile battles on the horizon, the only ones that qualified for this list are those in which I foresee the starter hitting the bench. So while you might believe Michael Vick will overtake Geno Smith as the Jets’ starting quarterback, I don’t share that opinion, so that particular competition didn’t make the cut.
In this column, I’ll tell you which two rookie quarterbacks will usurp starting roles from their veteran peers, the running back to watch in New Orleans, who will man the middle linebacker spot in Denver and more.
Here is my projection of which NFL starters will lose their jobs in training camp.
Cleveland Browns QB Brian Hoyer
When it comes to Brian Hoyer and the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback job, remember the famous song from Public Enemy and don't believe the hype.
That's because first-round pick Johnny Manziel will be under center for the Browns in Week 1.
Up until this point, the Browns have pumped up Hoyer at every turn, with head coach Mike Pettine recently saying, per Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today:
Brian is securely ahead of (Manziel) right now. But we will compete, and we'll decide. The issue for us as a staff will be finding the right time to name a starter. If you wait too late, then no one is ready for the opener. If you do it too soon, was it a true competition?
That's pure conjecture from Pettine, who is trying to downplay the expectations for Manziel. While it's possible that Hoyer currently holds a lead in the competition, that won't last once the pads come on and preseason games start.
Why? Because Manziel is more talented. Period, end of story.
There's a reason why Hoyer has played for three teams in five NFL seasons: He's not that good. Yes, he played well last year prior to tearing his ACL, and he definitely belongs on an NFL roster, but to compare him to Manziel is pure folly.
Logic and reason dictate that the former Heisman Trophy winner, first-round pick and darling of the fanbase will be given every opportunity to start. Expect Manziel to wrestle the job away from Hoyer and be named the Browns' starting quarterback heading into Week 1.
Minnesota Vikings QB Matt Cassel
Last season, the Minnesota Vikings trotted out the three-headed quarterbacking monster of Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman, and damn, was that monster ineffective in the worst of ways.
In a related story, the Vikings went 5-10-1 and finished in last place in the NFC North.
Out of the three passers, Matt Cassel performed the best, and he was re-signed this offseason. The prevailing thought process was that the 32-year-old would be under center for the Vikings in Week 1 after holding off whichever young passer the team would draft.
Well, the Vikings traded back into the bottom of the first round to select Teddy Bridgewater, and after minicamps and OTAs, it would rank as a surprise if Bridgewater didn't end up as the team's starter heading into the season.
One of the things that has been the most impressive to me is, I knew (Teddy would be) be very accurate, I knew he'd make great decisions, quick decisions, but he's been outstanding throwing the ball deep, which some people thought that was going to be an issue. I think in the six or eight weeks we've had him on the field, I think he's been put in a position where he's had to make most of the throws he would have to make and I think he can make all the throws he needs to make.
Right after the draft, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune that Bridgewater "will play when we feel like he’s ready, if he’s the best guy, which we hope that he will be. We always want to have competition."
The writing is on the wall for Cassel, who has failed to sparkle for the vast majority of his NFL career. In fact, he was recently named by ESPN's Ron Jaworski as the worst (presumed) starting signal-caller in the league, via Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk.
Look for Bridgewater to win the job in convincing fashion. It would be both an upset and a negative commentary on Bridgewater if Cassel were to claim the role.
New Orleans Saints RB's Pierre Thomas/Mark Ingram
The New Orleans Saints possess a loaded backfield, with presumed starter Pierre Thomas joined by Mark Ingram, Travaris Cadet and Khiry Robinson.
And while Thomas is the veteran of the group and Ingram carries the first-round pedigree, the guy to watch is Robinson. He'll earn the lion's share of the carries heading into September.
Robinson dominated down the stretch of the season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry in the playoffs and running with power, grit and determination. With the Saints looking to add a more physical dimension to their already-explosive offense, Robinson profiles as the perfect back to bring it.
Coach Sean Payton has been enthused by Robinson's progress, as he said in his first press conference of OTAs, per Mike Triplett of ESPN.com:
(Khiry) is someone obviously that has more confidence now. You see him, just from an assignment standpoint, understanding the protections much quicker. That took a while for him last year. I think (with) a year under his belt, the overall understanding of all the things he needs to do at the running back position is a lot better.
Triplett also mentioned Robinson as a 2014 breakout candidate in that same piece.
If Robinson has truly mastered the intricacies and nuances of the position, there's no reason why he won't be in line for a massive workload. He's perhaps the most talented pure rusher on the team, and cream rises to the top.
While the other backs will certainly see work, Robinson will end up as the team's bell cow.
Buffalo Bills WR Mike Williams
Earlier this offseason, the Buffalo Bills consummated a trade with the Buccaneers for mercurial receiver Mike Williams, and the belief was that Williams would be slotted right into the starting lineup.
But to paraphrase Charles Dickens, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry, and Williams has been a major bust thus far in Western New York.
Consider this from ESPN.com's Mike Rodak, who wrote that Williams "didn't stand out" at OTAs and even speculated that Williams isn't a lock to make the 53-man roster.
While Williams' stock is falling, that of second-year receiver Robert Woods continues to rise.
Joe Buscaglia of WGR550.com predicts that Woods is "one of EJ Manuel's most trust targets" and gives the Bills flexibility on offense. Woods could very well end up starting on the outside alongside rookie Sammy Watkins and then moved inside to the slot on passing downs.
Woods is the superior talent, and he has earned the confidence of his quarterback. Williams will likely make the team, but he won't be a starter. That distinction will belong to Woods.
Jacksonville Jaguars WR Ace Sanders
Jacksonville Jaguars receiver Ace Sanders flashed as a neophyte, hauling in 51 passes for 484 yards and a touchdown reception. He evolved into a security blanket for quarterback Chad Henne and is currently locked into a starting spot opposite Cecil Shorts.
But you don’t have to look further than the second round of this past May’s draft to determine that Sanders will face heavy competition for the job, as the Jaguars tabbed a pair of receivers there: USC’s Marqise Lee and Penn State’s Allen Robinson.
While Lee and Robinson are expected to evolve into go-to targets for quarterback-of-the-future Blake Bortles, the smart money is on one (or both) being major cogs in the team’s aerial machine this year. Sanders did impress last year, but he doesn’t possess the natural talent of either Lee or Robinson.
Sanders will enter training camp with a starting job, but either Lee or Robinson will be alongside Shorts.
San Francisco 49ers C Daniel Kilgore
The San Francisco 49ers allowed their starting center over the past three seasons, Jonathan Goodwin, to depart via free agency, leaving an opening in the middle of their offensive line.
And while veteran Daniel Kilgore is the presumptive starter, it’s going to be third-round rookie Marcus Martin who eventually claims the job.
Kilgore has yet to start a game in three seasons in the Bay Area, while Martin was an accomplished player at the collegiate level at USC, claiming first-team All-Pac 12 honors in 2013.
The only thing that could prevent Martin from logging snaps at center is the impending holdout of right guard Alex Boone. Martin also played guard at USC, and if Boone’s holdout lingers longer than expected, Martin might end up manning his spot on the line.
But if the Boone situation resolves itself, count on Martin beating out Kilgore for the starting job.
Denver Broncos LB Nate Irving
As of right now, Nate Irving is perched atop the Denver Broncos' depth chart at middle linebacker.
But don't expect him to remain there for much longer. By the time the season rolls around, fifth-round draft pick Lamin Barrow will assume the reins.
Barrow starred at the collegiate level at LSU, where he played on the weak side. The Broncos believe his skill set can and will transfer over to the middle, where his exceptional coverage skills can be put to good use.
Irving is currently the more accomplished run defender, but Barrow possesses higher upside. With the Broncos focused toward a run at the Super Bowl and the defense having been improved with a spate of free-agent signings (linebacker DeMarcus Ware, cornerback Aqib Talib and safety T.J. Ward), it would behoove coach John Fox to roll the dice with Barrow and hope he comes up aces.
This battle will rage throughout camp, and Barrow will emerge and end up starting in the middle of the Broncos defense in Week 1.
San Diego Chargers LB Jarret Johnson
The San Diego Chargers currently boast Jarret Johnson and Dwight Freeney as their starting outside linebackers, and with Freeney extremely likely to hold onto one job, that leaves Johnson as a prime candidate to hit the bench.
And that’s because of the emergence of third-year linebacker Melvin Ingram.
Last season, Ingram was limited to only six games (including postseason) after suffering a torn ACL in the offseason, but came on like a gangbuster and played extremely well down the stretch of the regular season and in the playoffs. He is poised to break out in a major way.
Johnson is a nice player, but at 32, he’s nearing the end of his career, while Ingram, 25, has only begun to scratch the surface. Provided he stays healthy, Ingram is almost certain to end up wresting the job away from Johnson.
Green Bay Packers S Morgan Burnett
For what has seemed like an eternity, the safety position has been an eyesore of the Green Bay Packers defense, the albatross slung around the unit’s collective neck.
But with the team selecting former Alabama safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round of May’s draft and last year’s rookie sensation at cornerback, Micah Hyde, taking snaps at the position, it looks like the play at the back end will be much improved this season in Titletown.
And the player likely to be removed from the starting lineup as a result is Morgan Burnett. He finished 2013 ranked as Pro Football Focus’ (subscription required) 63rd-best safety, so the Packers can definitely do better, and Hyde and Clinton-Dix should fit the bill.