NFL Position Battles That Won't Be Decided Until the End of Training Camp

Russell S. BaxterContributor IJuly 24, 2014

NFL Position Battles That Won't Be Decided Until the End of Training Camp

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    Hmm. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel (16) may want to look over his shoulder.
    Hmm. Minnesota Vikings quarterback Matt Cassel (16) may want to look over his shoulder.Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

    For each of the 32 teams in the NFL, it’s about time to get down to business.

    Hence here is a look at some key position battles that we anticipate will go the distance when it comes to training camp.

    We not only decided to focus on eight duels for jobs, we made it a little more interesting by selecting one from each division in the league.

    Some of these clashes have been brought on by injuries, while others are simply a case of a team looking to get better at a particular position. You could make the case that there are anywhere from three to five training camp competitions for starting jobs per team.

    Why these choices? When it’s all said and done the winner of each battle figures to play a major role in a team’s fortunes this season.

    So as the NFL preseason closes in on us, let the game within the game begin.

AFC East: Buffalo Bills, Right Outside Linebacker

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Let’s do a little quick math, shall we? Let's also ask a vital question at the same time.

    The numbers 52 and 53 add up to 105. The Buffalo Bills are somehow hoping to turn that into 159.

    A year ago, then-rookie middle linebacker Kiko Alonso (No. 50) finished the season leading the team with 159 tackles. This season, he was slated to move to the team’s weak-side linebacking spot as the Bills added middle linebacker Brandon Spikes via free agency.

    A few weeks ago, Alonso tore his left ACL and is likely lost for the season. Joe Buscaglia of WGR 550 Sports Radio states that Nigel Bradham will get first crack at filling the vacancy, and that’s hardly a surprise. A fourth-round pick in 2012, the Florida State product made 11 starts as a rookie and three more this past season, totaling 57 and 51 tackles, respectively, in his two campaigns.

    However, keep an eye on 2014 third-rounder Preston Brown, who figures to make this a competition this summer.

    Losing Alonso is a big blow for a team that hasn’t had success in some time. How big of a blow depends on the play of the winner here.

AFC North: Cleveland Browns, Running Back

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    Mark Duncan/Associated Press

    You were expecting another Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel installment?

    Yes, there is a quarterback battle involving the Cleveland Browns, and as new head coach Mike Pettine has already stated via Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, the job is “definitely still up in the air.”

    Pettine also stated that he expected to make that decision before the third preseason game.

    But there are other jobs to be decided in the next month or so, and one may be a bit of a surprise. Take note of what Pettine said earlier this week to Mary Kay Cabot of the Akron Beacon Journal when discussing the quarterback duel:

    It’s just like a lot of other positions where you have guys competing whether it’s Justin Gilbert and Buster Skrine competing for that (starting cornerback) spot, ... We weren’t going to hand Justin that spot…And the best competition might be Ben Tate and our guy Terrance West from Towson, who I really like.

    Tate, a free-agent pickup from the Houston Texans this offseason, was thought to be the main man in terms of a running game that finished tied for 27th in the NFL in 2013. West, a third-round pick in May, was just placed on the non-football injury list (again, according to Ulrich) but is expected to be ready soon.

    It’s safe to say that any team that averages just 86.4 yards per game on the ground and runs for only four touchdowns in 16 games can use all the competition it can get.

AFC South: Jacksonville Jaguars, Wide Receiver

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    Associated Press

    Suddenly, the Jacksonville Jaguars have an opening at wide receiver opposite Cecil Shorts.

    According to Ryan O’Halloran of The Florida Times-Union, Ace Sanders will miss the first four regular-season games of 2014 after being suspended by the NFL for violation of the league’s substance abuse policy.

    “I’ve decided to go seek help, get [the] attention that I need—hopefully somebody can help me out,” said Sanders, who on Tuesday also revealed news of his suspension. “I should be OK; I just want to get better and come back and be ready to play…Sometimes life hits, and it’s hard.”

    Back in May, the Jaguars addressed the wide receiver position twice in the second round by selecting Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson from Southern Cal and Penn State, respectively. The pair figures as the front-runners to start opposite Shorts, who led the team with 66 receptions a year ago.

    As for Sanders’ future, that’s a story for another time. In any case, head coach Gus Bradley is looking to improve a passing game that produced just 16 scores in 2013.

    For now, the Jaguars will have to do that a little differently than originally planned.

AFC West: San Diego Chargers, Outside Linebackers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Don’t blink.

    Earlier this month, Bleacher Report's Christopher Hansen laid out the training camp battles in line for the San Diego Chargers at outside linebacker.

    Just over two weeks later, the landscape at the position(s) has changed. On Tuesday, Ricky Henne of Chargers.com announced that the club had parted ways with five-year pro Larry English, a first-round pick in 2009. The team website announced on Wednesday that the Chargers had waived Jonas Mouton after he failed a physical. His very brief career was plagued by injuries.

    According to the fine folks at Ourlads, the team’s starters at outside linebacker are Jarret Johnson and Dwight Freeney, the latter barely seeing the field in 2013. Obviously, Melvin Ingram is in the mix, as is 2014 second-round pick Jeremiah Attaochu. And remember that Thomas Keiser finished third on the team with 4.5 sacks a year ago.

    It will be interesting to see how it all plays out for coach Mike McCoy’s team. The Chargers totaled only 35 sacks and finished 29th in pass defense this past season. Those numbers must get better if the Bolts plan on making a second straight trip to the playoffs.

NFC East: New York Giants, Tight End

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    Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    We have been over this time and time again.

    The New York Giants currently have five tight ends on the roster, and third-year pro Adrien Robinson—a fourth-round pick in 2012—appears to be the starter.

    But are appearances deceiving? On Wednesday, Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger reported that there were plenty of faces taking first-team reps with the offense.

    Besides Robinson, coach Tom Coughlin’s depth chart includes free-agent pickup Kellen Davis (late of the Seattle Seahawks), along with Larry Donnell (six receptions in 2013), Daniel Fells (did not play in 2013) and rookie free-agent pickup Xavier Grimble.

    Keep in mind that a year ago, quarterback Eli Manning did have his issues thanks to an NFL-high 27 interceptions. But he also had veteran tight end Brandon Myers, who finished third on the team with 47 receptions, good for 522 yards and four touchdowns.

    This continues to be an intriguing situation.

NFC North: Minnesota Vikings, Quarterback

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    USA TODAY Sports

    When your team finished last in the division, and you hired a first-time NFL head coach and added a celebrated offensive coordinator, it must be hard not to want to overhaul everything from top to bottom.

    But could rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater, the team's second first-round pick in 2014, put the Minnesota Vikings in position to go from bottom to top?

    Per NFL.com's Chris Wesseling, the 32nd overall selection in this year's draft has drawn praise from offensive coordinator Norv Turner, who knows a thing or two about quarterbacks. But is the organization, now featuring new head coach Mike Zimmer, ready to put the rookie at the helm?

    The Vikings had plenty of problems during their 5-10-1 season of a year ago. They started three different quarterbacks but wound up settling in with veteran Matt Cassel. He re-signed with the team this offseason and is the front-runner to be behind center when the Vikings take the field in Week 1 versus the St. Louis Rams.

    This past season, Cassel was 3-3 as a starter, and in nine games, he threw 11 touchdown passes and nine interceptions. Former first-round pick Christian Ponder remains on the roster and is coming off a rough season in which he threw for seven scores, ran for four touchdowns and committed 13 turnovers.

    Speaking of turnover, we will soon see if the Vikings are to make it four different starting quarterbacks in their last 17 games.

NFC South: New Orleans Saints, Center

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    Associated Press

    Continuity on the offensive line is vital to any team.

    For the most part, the New Orleans Saints have enjoyed that under head coach Sean Payton and quarterback Drew Brees.

    For each of the past two seasons and a dozen games in 2011, the prolific signal-caller got the football on a snap-to-snap basis from Brian de la Puente. But the unrestricted free agent was not re-signed and eventually inked a deal with the Chicago Bears.

    Enter Tim Lelito, a two-game starter at right guard for the Saints this past season. But as Rachel Whittaker of The Times-Picayune speculates, there may be a little battle in the Big Easy. The team added veteran Jonathan Goodwin, late of the San Francisco 49ers but a player who was Brees’ center prior to De la Puente. Dating back to November of 2008, Goodwin has started 86 consecutive regular-season games.

    We will soon find out if it will be 87.

NFC West: Seattle Seahawks, Right Tackle

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    Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    Speaking of continuity (which we just did in the matter of the New Orleans Saints), we segue to the defending Super Bowl champions.

    With all of their excellence, the one problem area for the Seattle Seahawks in 2013 was an offensive line that couldn’t stay together. It was a unit that had its share of issues in 2013, due mainly to injuries that sidelined tackles Russell Okung (eight games) and Breno Giacomini (seven), and center Max Unger (three) for a combined 18 regular-season contests.

    There was then-rookie Michael Bowie, who started seven games in Giacomini’s right tackle spot. The seventh-round pick from 2013 also saw action at left tackle. He started at both right and left guard during the regular season (Week 16) and playoffs (versus the Saints), respectively.

    Now enter 2014 second-round pick Justin Britt. The University of Missouri product is certainly in the mix for the right tackle spot. It could be a win-win for the Seahawks, who could groom two young players. And in the case that Britt prevails, Bowie becomes a swingman who has already seen action at four of the five offensive line spots in his very brief career.

    The rich just keep getting richer, don’t they?

     

    Some statistical support for this piece was provided by Pro-Football-Reference, NFL.com and ESPN.com, while depth charts are provided by Ourlads.