Every NFL Team's Most Positive Training Camp Dilemma
Not every dilemma NFL teams face this summer should be reason for concern.
The training camp season of July and August is a time when all 32 franchises assess the state of their teams, diagnose problems and determine their best available situations.
Some issues will fail to be resolved in an adequate manner, linger into the season and lead to derailment. But some uncertainties will prove not to be so problematic as they are opportunities for players to emerge in competitions that could actually make their teams better.
The latter is what we’ll focus on in the next 32 slides. With training camps just beginning to get going and a full slate of preseason games still to be played, we can’t yet be sure how these individual situations will play out, but each of them presents as much reason for excitement as they do worry.
Arizona Cardinals: Deone Bucannon vs. Tony Jefferson
The Arizona Cardinals secondary is looking like one of the NFL’s most impressive. Defensive backs Patrick Peterson and Tyrann Mathieu have already emerged as stars of the league; at strong safety, Arizona has two more young guys with the potential to become impact players.
If the Cardinals didn’t see Deone Bucannon as an eventual starter at the strong safety position, they wouldn’t have selected him with a first-round pick (No. 27 overall selection) in this year’s draft.
At 6’1” and 211 pounds with exceptional athleticism, including a 4.49-second 40-yard dash at this year’s NFL Scouting Combine, Bucannon has ideal measurables for his position. He’s a hard hitter and has great ball skills. He has star potential, but he battled inconsistency at Washington State and must progress rapidly to be ready to start in Week 1.
Fortunately for the Cardinals, they have another starting-caliber option at the position if Bucannon is not ready. Tony Jefferson went unselected in the 2013 draft but performed well as his playing time increased down the stretch of his rookie season.
Jefferson’s not nearly as explosive an athlete as Bucannon is, and he had some mishaps in coverage last season, as Bleacher Report’s Tyson Langland explained in April. Even so, Langland is among many who believes Jefferson, an instinctive player with a nose for the ball and sound tackling, could be a viable answer for the Cardinals at strong safety.
Bucannon took second-team reps behind Jefferson in spring workouts, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com. That could change in training camp as Bucannon gains experience, but either way, Arizona should feel good about two strong safeties, both of whom will be just 22 years old this season.
Atlanta Falcons: Where Will Ra’Shede Hageman Fit In Defensive Line Rotation?
Before the start of the 2014 NFL offseason, it seemed as though an early-round pick on the interior defensive line would be a clear-cut year-one starter for the Atlanta Falcons. A unit that was already limited in personnel was set to be hit by free-agent losses, leaving it in need of an influx of talent.
However, the Falcons rebuilt their defensive line before the draft even came around. In addition to re-signing defensive tackles Jonathan Babineaux, Corey Peters and Peria Jerry, they also made key free-agent additions in nose tackle Paul Soliai and defensive end Tyson Jackson.
Those five players will lead the competition for three starting spots up front as the Falcons’ hybrid defense shifts to a 3-4 base alignment this year. But that didn’t stop Atlanta—and rightfully so—from selecting Ra’Shede Hageman, an interior defensive lineman from Minnesota, with its second-round pick (No. 37 overall) in this year’s draft.
An explosive disruptor who possesses a rare combination of size, quickness and strength, Hageman has star potential. But despite his upside and draft position, Hageman won’t necessarily see the field much as a rookie.
Soliai is expected to start at nose tackle, while Jackson should be one of two starters at defensive end. Babineaux, Peters and Jerry, who were all starters in 2013, should be in the mix for the other starting defensive end spot or to be key rotational players up front.
That could leave Hageman, who “hardly worked with the first-team defense” during offseason workouts, according to John Manasso of Fox Sports, as the sixth defensive lineman on Atlanta’s depth chart.
Atlanta will want to get Hageman involved nonetheless, but if the veterans in front of him play well enough to limit his playing time in 2014, that’s good news for the Falcons. It also could be beneficial to Hageman, who has the versatility to play all three spots up front and the upside to be great, but is a boom-or-bust talent who needs to refine his technique.
Baltimore Ravens: Arthur Brown vs. C.J. Mosley
“If you liked Arthur Brown in the 2013 NFL draft, then you're going to love C.J. Mosley in the 2014 NFL draft.” I tweeted that in May 2013 while evaluating Mosley’s game tape prior to his senior season at Alabama. The Baltimore Ravens agreed with that assessment and decided to add Mosley with the No. 17 overall pick in this year’s draft after using a second-round selection on Brown one year earlier.
Being on the same team isn’t ideal for either of them, as it means they are competing for the same spot in Baltimore’s starting lineup. It could work out well for the Ravens, however, who now have two athletically gifted young linebackers who can push one another to improve through competition.
Mosley and Brown will be competing to start at weak-side inside linebacker alongside Daryl Smith, who is back with the team as the starting strong-side inside linebacker following an impressive 2013 campaign.
Mosley and Brown demonstrated impressive range and fluidity as both run defenders and dropping back into coverage during their collegiate careers. Neither player has ideal size for an inside linebacker, but both are sound tacklers in space.
Brown didn’t play much as a rookie but has been working with the first-team defense over Mosley thus far in training camp, according to Jon Meoli of The Baltimore Sun.
The year of experience under Brown’s belt gives him the early edge in winning the job. That said, Mosley showed somewhat better instincts and more strength against the run during his career at Alabama than Brown did at Kansas State, so it should surprise no one if he ends up overtaking Brown by the end of the summer.
Regardless, 24-year-old Brown and 22-year-old Mosley should both see playing time in 2014 and be key components of the Baltimore defense for years to come, even if that means sharing time in the lineup.
Buffalo Bills: Deep Stable of Running Backs
The Buffalo Bills already had one of the league’s stronger one-two running back punches in C.J. Spiller and Fred Jackson, but they added more bulk to that group this offseason by trading for Philadelphia Eagles runner Bryce Brown and signing Anthony Dixon as a free agent.
It leaves the Bills with a decision to make. Do they continue to give the vast majority of touches out of the backfield to Spiller and Jackson, who combined for 2,395 yards on 488 touches in 2013, or do they open up opportunities for Brown and Dixon?
Jackson remains the team’s most qualified between-the-tackles runner, while Spiller is still Buffalo’s most dynamic playmaker in space, but it doesn’t hurt to have insurance and competition.
Brown only had 83 offensive touches in 2013, but he has a combination of size and speed that makes him effective both inside and outside. Dixon spent most of his four years with the San Francisco 49ers buried on their depth chart, but he’s a big, powerful runner with goal-line and short-yardage ability.
Both backs were impressive at the start of Bills training camp, according to a report from Glenn Gifford for BuffaloBillsDraft.com. If they continue to stand out the rest of the summer, the Bills have reason to work them into the backfield rotation.
While carries for other backs could limit the statistical production of Spiller and Jackson, more load-splitting could be advantageous for their on-field play. Spiller is at his best when he has fresh legs and is far more effective on outside runs and swing passes than he is trying to power through inside. Jackson has been a consistently reliable back for Buffalo, but at 33 years old, his window of being able to handle a heavy workload could be nearing its end.
Spiller and Jackson could both hit free agency in 2015, so the trade for Brown might have more to do with the future than it does the present, but there’s nothing wrong with having more options for 2014.
Carolina Panthers: Determining Kawann Short’s Role at Defensive Tackle
The Carolina Panthers fixed a lingering weakness on their roster last offseason when they selected defensive tackles Star Lotulelei and Kawann Short in the first two rounds of the 2013 draft. Both players became first-year stars of the Carolina defensive line rotation and were among the most impressive rookies in the NFL this past season.
Lotulelei, a massive yet athletically gifted nose tackle, started all 16 games for the Panthers, was dominant against the run and drew regular double-teams. Short, a quick interior penetrator who also has great strength, did not start any games in 2013 but was also consistently impactful, and he actually finished the season with a higher rating from Pro Football Focus (subscription required) than Lotulelei.
In one draft, the Panthers added two players who should be stars in the middle of their defensive line for years to come.
But despite Short’s success last season, he still might be coming off the bench this year. Colin Cole worked with the first-team defense ahead of Short in offseason workouts, according to Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer.
Ultimately, becoming a starter is more of a formality for Short than a meaningful indicator of his playing time at this point. He played the second-most snaps among Panthers defensive tackles behind Lotulelei last season, and that should continue to be the case whether he plays on first downs or not.
While Cole is a space-eating run-stuffer in the middle, he doesn’t have nearly as much athleticism or overall skill as Short. Still, Cole's first-team reps show that the Panthers believe he can be a factor in their defensive line rotation this season.
That rotation of Lotulelei, Short, Cole and Dwan Edwards, all back this year from last year, is far stronger than the 2012 group that featured Ron Edwards, Sione Fua and Andre Neblett alongside Dwan Edwards.
The defensive tackle position has quickly gone from a weakness of Carolina’s defense to a strength, and the group is most likely to be effective if those four players all continue to rotate with one another in 2014.
Chicago Bears: Kyle Fuller Might Not Start, but He’ll Still Play
It’s often said that you can never have too many good cornerbacks. That was apparently the Chicago Bears’ modus operandi in the first round of this year’s draft when they used the No. 14 overall pick on Virginia Tech’s Kyle Fuller.
Top-15 picks are typically drafted to start right off the bat, but that might not be the case here. Although Fuller is a physically gifted, technically sound cornerback who had four years of starting experience for the Hokies, the Bears already have two well-established veteran starters in Tim Jennings and Charles Tillman.
While that presents a roadblock to the starting lineup for Fuller, it’s no problem for Chicago. He’s still expected to play in all defensive sub-packages as the team’s third cornerback.
During spring workouts and to start training camp, Fuller has been playing outside while Jennings has kicked inside to play slot cornerback, according to Jeff Dickerson of ESPNChicago.com. That should be beneficial for both players, as Fuller’s size and physicality helps him most on the outside whereas Jennings is a small but speedy cornerback who can take advantage of playmaking opportunities inside.
That said, the Bears are already considering using Fuller inside in some situations as well, according to Michael C. Wright of ESPN.com. He has experience playing in both alignments and should be able to handle the responsibilities of either.
Assuming Fuller performs well in 2014, he’s likely to take over Tillman’s starting job in 2015, but for now he could allow Chicago to have one of the NFL’s top trio of cornerbacks. Furthermore, Kelvin Hayden could also be one of the league’s best dime cornerbacks, as the ascension of Fuller pushes Hayden down the depth chart.
Cincinnati Bengals: Who Will Be the Starting Cornerbacks?
While the aforementioned Chicago Bears have four cornerbacks who could all be called upon to start if necessary, the Cincinnati Bengals have five who all have a legitimate shot to end up in the team’s Week 1 starting lineup even if there are no injuries at the position.
Cincinnati has three first-round picks of its own—Leon Hall (2007), Dre Kirkpatrick (2012) and Darqueze Dennard (2014)—at cornerback. The Bengals also have two former top-six overall picks from other teams, Terence Newman and Adam Jones, who each started 13 games for Cincinnati last season.
The most important development at the position is that Hall, who is the team’s most talented outside cornerback but also excels when kicking inside to the slot in defensive sub-packages, is back practicing after suffering a torn Achilles last season. As long as he proves to be healthy, he should continue to top the cornerback depth chart and play in all packages.
Behind Hall, the depth chart is far less certain.
Newman and Jones were both solid as starters last year. Both were rated among the league’s top 20 cornerbacks by Pro Football Focus. Given their consistency in 2013, they are the favorites to win the No. 2 job for 2014.
The younger candidates, however, have a real shot to surpass them on the depth chart. Kirkpatrick’s first two seasons in Cincinnati have been disappointing, but he performed well enough in three end-of-season starts last year that he could win the job if he continues to show improvement. Dennard is a rookie at a tough position, but he is an instinctive, skilled playmaker who might be the most well-prepared cornerback in this year’s class to play right away.
According to Cincy Jungle’s Brennen Warner, Newman has worked with the starters to open training camp, while Kirkpatrick and Jones have been the second-team cornerbacks. Regardless, Cincinnati has no shortage of cornerback options and guys who can step into increased roles if necessary.
Cleveland Browns: Running Back Additions Create Positional Logjam
The Cleveland Browns added two potential feature backs this offseason.
After three impressive seasons despite playing second fiddle to Arian Foster in Houston, free-agent addition Ben Tate should get his shot to be a feature back in Cleveland. But third-round pick Terrance West, a physical between-the-tackles runner who set FCS records with 2,509 yards and 41 touchdowns at Towson last year, should also make an immediate push for playing time.
Numerous analysts expect West to receive carries from the get-go and possibly even dethrone Tate at some point in his rookie season. Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com wrote that West will “certainly push Tate to the brink, if both are on their A-games,” while Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal thinks both will “play prominent roles throughout the 2014 season.”
They’re not the only running backs with the potential to make impacts in their first playing seasons in Cleveland. Dion Lewis was emerging as a dynamic change-of-pace option before suffering a broken leg last preseason. Even Isaiah Crowell, a talented but troubled undrafted rookie from Alabama State, could make a push for immediate playing time with an impressive summer.
The depth chart can’t stack up the way all of them want it to—Tate and West both want to start this season, while Lewis and Crowell might be fighting each other for a roster spot—but the Browns should be thrilled at having a wealth of quality running backs who could be difference-makers from their backfield in 2014.
Regardless of who gets the most carries, the Browns’ ground game should be far more effective than it was last season. Willis McGahee was the team’s leading rusher with just 377 yards; Cleveland might have four backs on the current roster who are capable of being better than any of the team’s 2013 runners.
Dallas Cowboys: The Competition to Replace DeMarcus Ware
There’s little doubt that the Dallas Cowboys would love to still have DeMarcus Ware in his prime to lead their pass rush. Following a nine-year run in Dallas that included seven consecutive seasons of double-digit sacks and Pro Bowl berths, Ware will go down as one of Dallas’ all-time great defenders (and that’s saying something).
Even so, the team’s decision to cut Ware this offseason was an expected move, as he was owed $16 million and will be 32 years old coming off an injury-plagued, down season. Fortunately for the Cowboys, they have a number of potential options to replace him.
George Selvie should be set to start at left defensive end as he comes off a breakout season. There are four other defensive ends in Dallas—Anthony Spencer, Jeremy Mincey, Tyrone Crawford and Demarcus Lawrence—who could end up emerging as the starter on the other side and being productive.
Spencer is a gifted pass-rusher himself, having made the Pro Bowl in 2012, but his future is cloudy as he continues to recover from microfracture knee surgery. If he is healthy and can return to form, he could give the Cowboys an impact player off the edge.
Mincey is coming off a disappointing 2013 season in which he was actually released late in the year by the Jacksonville Jaguars, but he showed flashes of brilliance at earlier points in his career there. He started training camp with the first-team defense, while Crawford and Lawrence have lined up with the second unit, according to Brandon George of The Dallas Morning News.
Crawford and Lawrence, both from Boise State, are unproven. Crawford, a third-year player, has intriguing size and strength but missed the entire 2013 season with a torn Achilles. Lawrence has an explosive burst and could be an impactful edge-rusher, but he needs to bulk up to hold his own against the run.
There’s no great option to start in Ware’s place in 2014, so he will be missed. With that said, the three-way competition, which could become a four-man battle if Spencer comes off the physically unable to perform list, should promote improvement for each of its participants and give the Cowboys a decent rotation this year.
Denver Broncos: Early-Round Draft Choices May Not Be Needed in 2014
With an offense that plays at least three wide receivers more often than not and a defense that will have at least three cornerbacks on the field for most plays, it’s easy to see the logic behind the Denver Broncos selecting a corner in the first round and a wideout in Round 2 of this year’s draft. But the Broncos might have a tough time getting either of them on the field.
While Denver lost key players at both positions with the departures of receiver Eric Decker and defensive backs Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Champ Bailey, it added strong veteran replacements in Emmanuel Sanders and Aqib Talib. It will be those players, not former Ohio State cornerback Bradley Roby and former Indiana wideout Cody Latimer, who take on the roles of vacated starters.
An opportunity could open up to start for Roby if star cornerback Chris Harris, who tore his ACL in a playoff game in January, is not ready to go by Week 1. But it’s also possible that if Harris is ready, Roby could end up being the No. 4 cornerback on the depth chart. He is currently working behind Kayvon Webster at practice, according to Chad Jensen of Predominantly Orange.
Latimer projects as Denver’s fourth or fifth wideout, barring injuries in front of him, for 2014. While Demaryius Thomas, Sanders and Wes Welker should be locked in as the team’s top three receivers, Latimer will push Andre Caldwell for the first spot behind them on the depth chart.
On arguably the NFL’s most talent-heavy roster, playing time will be tough to come by for all rookies.
Waiting and developing might be beneficial to both Roby and Latimer in the long run. Both players have exceptional physical gifts, but Roby is coming off a roller-coaster 2013 in which his play lacked discipline, while Latimer hasn’t proved that he can play up to his timed speed on the field.
Most teams are forced to rely on their rookies right away; it’s never a bad situation to be able to work them into the lineup gradually. Although both will be expected to make bigger impacts in the future than the present, Roby and Latimer could be dangerous playmaking threats when called upon to play.
Detroit Lions: Which Linebacker Leaves The Field in Nickel Packages?
The Detroit Lions had a clear hierarchy at the linebacker position in 2013.
Middle linebacker Stephen Tulloch and weak-side linebacker DeAndre Levy were each on the field for more than 98 percent of the team’s total defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Starting strong-side linebacker Ashlee Palmer played only in base defensive sets, and only one other linebacker (Rocky McIntosh) saw playing time all year.
Detroit could be pressed to reconsider that strategy this year. Kyle Van Noy, a second-round pick in this year’s draft who is expected to beat out Palmer for his starting job, is a skilled coverage linebacker who belongs on the field in defensive sub-packages.
It’s not as though the Lions have a need for change; Levy has emerged as one of the best coverage linebackers in the NFL, while Tulloch was also consistently in position in pass defense in 2013. Even so, one would expect the team’s new defensive coordinator, Teryl Austin, to give the talented Van Noy an immediate chance to earn playing time in all aspects of the defense.
A versatile playmaker with Defensive Rookie of the Year potential, Van Noy could also be used as a pass-rusher opposite Ezekiel Ansah in sub-packages. It’s also possible that the Lions could keep three linebackers on the field more consistently in Austin’s scheme, especially considering their lack of depth in the secondary.
No matter how it plays out, Detroit’s problem at the second level of the defense is a good one to have. While many teams will struggle to find two linebackers they can be comfortable playing regularly in pass-coverage situations, the Lions should have three excellent options.
Green Bay Packers: Limited Opportunities for 3 Rookie Wide Receivers
Apparently, the Green Bay Packers felt reinforcing their crop of pass-catchers was a big need in this year’s NFL draft, as they used three selections on wide receivers.
Each of the receivers chosen by Green Bay were good values at their draft slots.
Second-round pick Davante Adams is a physical vertical threat who had more than 3,000 receiving yards in just two playing seasons at Fresno State. Jared Abbrederis, a fifth-round pick from Wisconsin, is a smooth route-runner who attacks the ball and can play both inside and outside. Seventh-round pick Jeff Janis is a raw talent from Saginaw Valley State but has an intriguing size-speed combination.
That doesn’t mean any of them will get much opportunity to play in 2014.
Jordy Nelson is Green Bay’s star wideout on the outside, Randall Cobb can make big plays from any spot on the field and Jarrett Boykin is a big receiver coming off a breakout year. Those should be the Packers’ top three wideouts this season, which leaves Adams, Abbrederis and Janis to compete for the fourth and fifth spots on the depth chart.
It’s a favorable position for Green Bay to be in, as it will force the team’s rookie receivers to prove their worth throughout training camp.
The Packers have often used four-receiver sets, so the window of opportunity is open for any of the first-year players to work his way into playing time with a strong summer. The new depth at the position also gives Green Bay the potential for a breakout star, much like Boykin took advantage of his opportunity when Cobb missed 10 games with a broken fibula last year.
Houston Texans: How To Best Utilize No. 1 Overall Pick Jadeveon Clowney
Just about everything needs to be better for the Houston Texans to be contenders in 2014 after they lost the final 14 games of their 2013 season. One of their most important steps will be ensuring they put their No. 1 overall draft selection, Jadeveon Clowney, in position to be an impact player for their defense.
That’s not necessarily a dilemma for the Texans, but the answer’s not as obvious as it would be for most defenses. As Houston already possesses the league’s best defensive player, J.J. Watt, it must determine how it can align Clowney to play alongside, behind or opposite Watt to get the most out of both of their skill sets.
A rare physical specimen who achieved superstardom as a defensive end at South Carolina, Clowney is expected to see most of his playing time as an outside linebacker in Houston’s 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel.
The Texans could play Clowney on the same side of the defense as Watt and use them together on stunts in efforts to overwhelm one side of opposing offensive lines. Alternately, playing Clowney opposite Watt gives Houston potential to have elite pass-rushers barreling toward the quarterback from both directions.
As Bleacher Report’s Cian Fahey explained in his breakdown of how the Texans can maximize the combined talent of Watt and Clowney, Houston has many options. That could also include playing Clowney at defensive end in some situations.
No matter how it positions them, Houston should reap the benefits from playing the pair together. Watt is dominant as a pass-rusher both outside and inside, while he is also a force versus the run. There are few players who even have the potential to make the level of impact Watt does in a defensive front seven, but Clowney is one of them.
Indianapolis Colts: Can Donte Moncrief Contribute as a Rookie?
Donte Moncrief has made an early impression on those who have been onlookers at Indianapolis Colts practices. According to Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star, he proved during spring workouts that “he can run by defenders with ease.”
If the big, fast wideout can continue to stand out throughout the summer, the Colts will want to find ways to get him on the field. That might not be for Moncrief to obtain as a rookie, however, as the Colts have considerable talent at the position around him.
With Reggie Wayne cleared for training camp after tearing his ACL last season, the Colts should have a set starting trio, barring further injuries, in Wayne, Hakeem Nicks and T.Y. Hilton. Wayne and Nicks are established veterans with impressive playmaking histories as outside receivers, while Hilton is a dynamic big-play threat from the slot.
That leaves Moncrief in competition with Da’Rick Rogers and Griff Whalen to be the Colts’ fourth receiver. Yet even if he wins that battle, the Colts will have to decide whether to grant him significant playing time, as the return of tight end Dwayne Allen opposite Coby Fleener is likely to limit the number of four-receiver formations Indianapolis uses in 2014.
Moncrief has as much playmaking potential as any receiver on the team, but it ultimately might benefit both player and team if he is only used sparingly on offense this season. Though the 6’2”, 221-pound receiver has fantastic speed for his size, he needs to become a more diversified route-runner and consistent catcher. He is likely to be more ready for a major role in 2015.
One way the Colts could also utilize Moncrief is on special teams. He has been among the players fielding punts early in training camp, according to Stampede Blue’s Josh Wilson.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Will There Be a Role for Denard Robinson in 2014?
In Denard Robinson’s first season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, there wasn’t much to show for the team’s effort to convert the former Michigan quarterback into an offensive weapon. He gained just 66 yards on 20 carries and fumbled the ball three times.
During Robinson’s career for the Wolverines, in which he set the NCAA record for a quarterback with 4,495 rushing yards, he displayed the qualities needed to succeed as an NFL running back. In addition to his explosive speed, Robinson demonstrated that he could cut into holes and attack downhill between the tackles.
That said, his rookie struggles leave Jacksonville with a tough assessment for 2014. While he has more big-play potential than any other offensive playmaker on the team’s roster, the Jaguars could be hesitant to give him an opportunity at significant playing time.
The good news for the Jaguars is that they shouldn’t need to rely on Robinson for production in his sophomore season. They signed veteran free agent Toby Gerhart to be their feature running back, drafted Storm Johnson to provide additional depth at the position and added quality wide receivers with second-round draft choices Marqise Lee and Allen Robinson.
Nonetheless, the upside that Denard Robinson brings makes him worth giving a chance, at least while the depth chart is still taking shape in training camp. Because of his dangerous open-field running ability, he is a player who opposing defenses must account for whenever he is on the field, even if the Jaguars were to use him primarily as a decoy.
To see a real share of the touches, Robinson must improve upon his ball-security issues and be a legitimate option to catch passes. For what it’s worth, Jaguars radio analyst Jeff Lageman said the second-year player “had the best offseason of anyone," according to Jim Corbett of USA Today.
Kansas City Chiefs: Dee Ford Stuck Behind 2 Pro Bowl Pass-Rushers
By drafting Dee Ford with the No. 23 overall pick in this year’s draft, the Kansas City Chiefs selected a player with the potential to make an immediate impact on the edge of their defense The problem with that selection, however, is that Ford could be hard-pressed for playing time at a position where Justin Houston and Tamba Hali are entrenched as starters.
Ford was a defensive end at Auburn, but he is moving to outside linebacker in Kansas City’s 3-4 defense. That transition should be beneficial to long-term success, as he is undersized for playing on a defensive line but has outstanding athleticism and natural ability to turn the corner.
In the short term, Kansas City defensive coordinator Bob Sutton must be creative for the franchise to get a significant contribution for its first-round rookie.
Ford made a big impression in spring workouts—enough so to draw comparisons to Denver Broncos star Von Miller and Hall of Fame outside linebacker Derrick Thomas, according to NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling. Ford has the combination of burst and hand skills to be a difference-maker in pass-rushing situations.
Even so, any playing time Ford gets shouldn’t come at the expense of Hali, who has made four consecutive Pro Bowls, or Houston, who has been chosen for the last two. Both of them rank among the league’s elite players at their position and should continue to play on a vast majority of downs in 2014.
The dilemma is not ideal for Ford, but it should have multiple advantages for the Chiefs. It allows the team to experiment with moving Houston and/or Hali around the formation to make plays from different spots. It could also enable them to avoid a massive drop-off in their defensive front seven if either Houston or Hali gets injured, while it also allows them to develop Ford gradually if he struggles in his transition to standing up from playing with his hand in the dirt.
Miami Dolphins: Dallas Thomas vs. Billy Turner
There was virtually nothing positive to be said about the Miami Dolphins offensive line last season; the entire unit was implicated in the Jonathan Martin-Richie Incognito scandal, and a decimated group allowed a league-high 58 sacks to opposing defenses.
Another long year could be ahead for that unit. With center Mike Pouncey expected to miss the first half of the season following hip surgery, according to Adam H. Beasley of the Miami Herald, the Dolphins appear set to roll out five new starters up front to begin the season.
Uncertainty seems to be the feeling over Miami’s 2014 season at the moment, but there’s reason to be optimistic that its offensive line will make strides this year, even with the loss of Pouncey. One beacon for hope are the young guards, Dallas Thomas and Billy Turner, who the Dolphins have taken with third-round picks in the past two drafts.
Thomas saw no meaningful playing time in his rookie season, but his strength, athleticism, length and left tackle experience make the second-year blocker an expected upgrade, at least in pass protection, on the interior. He has started training camp with Miami’s first-team offense at right guard, according to The Phinsider’s Kevin Nogle.
Pushing him to be his best will be another converted left tackle in Turner, a rookie out of North Dakota State. Like Thomas, Turner lacks the lateral agility to play on the edge but projects very well inside. If he acclimates quickly and performs well in training camp opportunities, Turner’s power could stand out enough this summer to forge ahead of Thomas and earn a spot in the lineup.
Both young linemen have to learn how to play right guard, where they are unproven commodities, but the growth potential is high for each of them. The Dolphins should feel good about having two potentially starting-caliber players at the position, knowing that they can call upon the other for a chance if the winner of the starting job fails in regular-season action.
Minnesota Vikings: Finding a Role for Jerick McKinnon
In selecting Georgia Southern running back/all-purpose athlete Jerick McKinnon with the No. 96 overall pick in this year’s draft, the Minnesota Vikings added an X-factor to their offense.
Not that they needed one. The Vikings already had Adrian Peterson, arguably the NFL’s best running back, and Cordarrelle Patterson, a standout kickoff returner and promising wide receiver with the ability to take the ball all the way any time it’s in his possession.
The presence of Peterson as a true featured back, and of Patterson as a player who can move all over the formation and end up with big gains from any spot, will limit McKinnon’s opportunities to touch the ball in 2014.
Even so, it made sense for the Vikings to draft him. If offensive coordinator Norv Turner uses his well-established creativity to get Peterson, Patterson and McKinnon all on the field at the same time, Minnesota will be presenting a three-headed monster of big-play threats to opposing defenses.
The opportunity for McKinnon to be a game-changer without carrying a heavy workload right away could make him the league’s most dynamic offensive rookie in 2014.
McKinnon, a 5’9”, 209-pound player who runs a 4.41-second 40-yard dash and has exceptional overall athleticism, could be utilized in a Darren Sproles-like role as a change-of-pace back and slot receiver. He must prove, however, that he has the pass-catching ability to handle that capacity.
If he doesn’t, he might not play much at all in his first year. But if the Vikings can even set McKinnon up for just a few big plays in 2014, they’ll be glad they went through the trouble of finding a spot for him on the field.
New England Patriots: How Do Logan Ryan, Alfonzo Dennard Remain Factors at CB?
Alfonzo Dennard exceeded all expectations in 2012 when the seventh-round pick established himself as a quality starting cornerback on the outside of New England’s secondary. 2013 third-round pick Logan Ryan did the same last year, initially filling in for an injured Aqib Talib, then for an injured Dennard and eventually taking Dennard’s starting job altogether.
Despite the early success of both young cornerbacks, the Patriots might not have much playing time to offer either of them upon the fifth week of the 2014 season. Dennard and Ryan should compete for the starting job opposite Darrelle Revis to begin the year, but they could be relegated down to the fourth and fifth spots of the team’s cornerback depth chart when Brandon Browner returns from a four-game suspension.
Dennard is a gritty, physical defensive back, while Ryan is fluid in coverage with great ball skills. Both have earned the right to compete for significant playing time. But it’s still unlikely either of them will steal that from Revis, one of the NFL’s elite cornerbacks; Browner, a massive defensive back who can shut down receivers with his size and strength; or Kyle Arrington, who might be best known for his struggles as an outside cornerback but is regularly effective in slot coverage.
Ryan and Dennard both have the capability to be long-term starters for the Patriots, but New England made significant investments in Revis and Browner for them to play major roles in the team’s defense this year. Revis and Browner worked opposite each other on the first-team defense at the start of training camp, according to Austin Piela of ChowderAndChampions.com.
For the Patriots, it means having five cornerbacks who are capable of taking on major roles when needed. And considering they were knocked out of last year’s playoffs by the Denver Broncos, who have the NFL’s No. 1 passing attack and utilize four-receiver packages, New England should use dime formations at times that give Ryan and/or Dennard chances to play.
New Orleans Saints: How Should the Wide Receiver Depth Chart Stack Up?
Jimmy Graham wanted to be a New Orleans Saints wide receiver this offseason. But even though he is now back to considering himself to be an “All-Pro tight end,” according to Jim Corbett of USA Today, the Saints have plenty of depth among the players they primarily utilize as wideouts.
Marques Colston, who has been one of the NFL’s most consistently productive pass-catchers over the past eight years, will continue to be New Orleans’ No. 1 receiver. Kenny Stills, who led the NFL with 20 yards per catch in an impressive rookie season, should be the second starter at the position.
Behind them, the hierarchy is less clear. Where does Brandin Cooks, New Orleans’ first-round pick (No. 20 overall) out of Oregon State, fit in? He’s likely to be in the lineup right away, primarily from the slot as the team’s No. 3 receiver, but the competition at his position will be deep with Robert Meachem, Nick Toon, Joe Morgan and undrafted rookie Brandon Coleman all expected to factor in.
Cooks, who ran the fastest 40-yard dash among receivers at this year’s combine (4.33 seconds) and also has great lateral agility, has too much big-play ability for the Saints to keep him off the field. They wouldn’t have traded up in Round 1 to select him if they didn’t have high expectations for him to contribute in 2014.
His addition could force the Saints to make tough decisions when they cut their receiver depth chart down to size.
Meachem played ahead of Toon as New Orleans’ fourth wideout last season and caught 16 passes for 324 yards. Yet Toon has “had a consistently impressive summer,” notes ESPN.com’s Mike Triplett, and according to NFL Media’s Albert Breer, “coaches want to find snaps for him.”
Morgan missed all of last season with a torn ACL, but he has given the Saints another dynamic playmaker from the slot in past years. Coleman is in a tough spot of likely having to beat out two veterans to earn a spot, but according to Larry Holder of NOLA.com, Coleman “improved steadily through the organized team activities and minicamps” and “it appears he'll be given every opportunity to land a spot on the roster.”
The good news for the Saints is that having to make tough cuts means they have great depth at the position. For an offense that regularly uses four receivers at one time in spread formations, it’s important to have at least four or five players at the position who can be counted on to make plays.
New York Giants: Where Does David Wilson Factor in at Running Back?
An NFL team should never be reliant on a player coming back from a neck injury to play a significant role. With that in mind this offseason, it was no surprise that the New York Giants, then uncertain whether David Wilson would be cleared to play this season, signed veteran running back Rashad Jennings and used a fourth-round pick (No. 113 overall) to select Andre Williams from Boston College.
Jennings, who is coming off a career-best year in his lone season with the Oakland Raiders, is currently listed as the No. 1 running back on the Giants depth chart. He should take over the team’s feature-back responsibility and be an upgrade over Andre Brown, who is now the backup tailback for the Houston Texans.
Having caught 36 passes in 2013, Jennings has proved he is capable of being a three-down load-carrier out of the backfield. Meanwhile, Williams is coming off a 2,177-yard senior season and is “already a mainstay in the team's goal-line formations,” according to Conor Orr of The Star-Ledger.
That leaves it unclear how Wilson, the Giants’ first-round pick in 2012, will fit into their backfield rotation this year. He is an explosive athlete who is dangerous in open space but was having a rough year even before his injury last season, gaining just 154 yards on 46 offensive touches.
The good news for the Giants is that Wilson has been practicing at training camp and looking ready to contribute. As there was once concern that his career was in jeopardy, it’s a positive for the team to get any production from the Virginia Tech product this year.
Should the trio stay healthy, New York could end up having a strong trio of runners with Jennings as the workhorse, Wilson as a change-of-pace back and Williams pounding between the tackles in goal-line and short-yardage scenarios.
New York Jets: Should Michael Vick Get a Chance to Start?
The New York Jets are looking for quarterback stability rather than controversy, but they invited a push for a signal-caller change when they signed high-profile veteran Michael Vick to a one-year contract this offseason.
As Geno Smith comes off a tough rookie year in which he had the worst passer rating among NFL starting quarterbacks, some see Vick as the better option to play under center in 2014. Among Vick’s supporters has been Hall of Fame quarterback Joe Namath, who said in May that Vick is “the better player at this point” if he is healthy, according to Seth Walder of the New York Daily News.
Realistically, however, the Jets’ dilemma is not to decide who should be their Week 1 starting quarterback, but to manage external pressure to play Vick and set Smith up for success. Vick could certainly end up starting at some point in 2014 if Smith struggles early in the year, but the veteran quarterback himself has acknowledged that he was brought in to back up Smith.
“I think that’s already been addressed as far as who the starter is,” Vick said earlier this week, according to Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. “There’s no more speculation about that.”
While Jets coaches might continue to stress competition throughout training camp, they would be best to end the charade. Despite his first-year struggles, Smith had some promising moments in his rookie year and displays the tools to be a quality starter with development and consistency in his sophomore campaign.
And while Vick probably shouldn’t be considered a starter at this point in his career, the athletic, strong-armed former No. 1 overall pick is a great player to have in tow as a backup. His experience and playmaking ability should give the Jets some confidence in calling upon him if needed, but they shouldn’t hand him the reins to the offense as he is 34 years old, still has accuracy issues and is only signed for 2014.
Vick’s presence might create unnecessary drama thanks to media coverage and fan perception, but it also gives the Jets one of the NFL’s most talented backup quarterbacks, which can be reassuring while their starter still must prove himself.
Oakland Raiders: Many Wide Receivers Jockeying for Position
There’s no wide receiver on the Oakland Raiders roster who is likely to be classified as a No. 1 wideout, but their crop of pass-catchers is an underrated group that should push one another to be better in competition for starting spots.
Oakland’s three leading receivers from last season—Rod Streater, Denarius Moore and Andre Holmes—are all promising although unheralded wideouts who have demonstrated the ability to beat defensive backs deep and make plays downfield.
Juron Criner has made little impact in his first two seasons in Oakland but “looked like the best receiver on the field” in OTAs, according to Steve Corkran of Bay Area News Group. And the Raiders also added James Jones, who had more than 1,600 receiving yards over the course of his last two seasons with the Green Bay Packers, to the fold as a free-agent signing this offseason.
Even if it means the Raiders have no superstar at the position, the uncertainty does not seem to be a problem for Oakland at receiver, as the team has five wideouts with a legitimate chance of emerging as starters. And that’s not even counting on Greg Little, who was a three-year starter for the Cleveland Browns but performed disappointingly enough to be released this offseason.
According to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, Jones and Streater have opened camp at the top of Oakland’s receiver depth chart, followed by Holmes, Moore, Little and Criner. With young sleepers Brice Butler, Greg Jenkins and Mike Davis also candidates to fight for roster spots, the top six receivers might not only be competing for playing time but also for their spots on the roster.
Philadelphia Eagles: Can Brandon Graham, Marcus Smith Be Factors at OLB?
The Philadelphia Eagles have a solid pair of starting outside linebackers in Connor Barwin and Trent Cole, but their backups are also deserving of playing time.
2010 first-round pick Brandon Graham has never had a consistent opportunity to start, but when he has been on the field, he’s played with quality both as a pass-rusher and setting the edge versus the run. His chances to play could be cut even further this year as the Eagles selected Louisville edge defender Marcus Smith with their first-round pick (No. 26 overall pick).
In Philadelphia’s first year running a 3-4 defense with head coach Chip Kelly and defensive coordinator Bill Davis, Barwin played nearly 94 percent of the team’s defensive snaps, while Cole was in for more than 73 percent, according to Pro Football Focus.
It’s likely that both players will take on similar roles in 2014: Barwin as an every-down player at the “Jack” linebacker spot who is a mainstay versus the run and also drops into coverage, while Cole works as the primary pass-rusher. Should that be the case, the Eagles might only have room to give one rotational outside linebacker a meaningful opportunity to play.
Back in May, Jimmy Kempski of The Philadelphia Inquirer projected that Graham would “probably be traded” this offseason. That’s possible, but it’s more likely at this point they will keep Graham in a similar role to last year as the third outside linebacker.
While one would think the Eagles want their first-round pick to make an on-field impact as quickly as possible, they could be prepared to work him through the system slowly. According to NFL Media’s Daniel Jeremiah, Smith is currently working with Philadelphia’s third-team defense and has had some issues getting up to speed thus far in training camp.
If Smith makes significant progress this summer and looks ready to take on a significant role if necessary, the Eagles might be inclined to explore the return value of a potential Graham trade. If that doesn’t become a possibility, they should be glad to have three ready-to-play outside linebackers, while Smith should be ready in 2015 to take on a more prominent role as Graham will be expected to head elsewhere in free agency.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Markus Wheaton vs. Martavis Bryant
With the departures of Emmanuel Sanders and Jerricho Cotchery this offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers are left with the task of replacing two wide receivers who combined for 113 receptions, 1,342 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013.
Lance Moore, a veteran free-agent addition from the New Orleans Saints, is likely to fill Cotchery’s shoes at slot receiver. That still leaves the Steelers with two speedy young wideouts with the potential to emerge as standouts in Sanders’ former capacity as the No. 2 outside receiver.
Markus Wheaton and Martavis Bryant are both unproven. Wheaton, a second-year pass-catcher from Oregon State, caught just six passes for 64 yards in his first regular season. Bryant is a rookie, selected in the fourth round of this year’s draft (No. 118 overall pick) from Clemson.
Both of them have untapped potential from intriguing physical traits. Wheaton is just 5’11” and 182 pounds, but he plays bigger than his size, as he attacks the ball in the air, holds up well through contact and consistently plays full-speed. Bryant is an unrefined route-runner with consistency issues, but he has rare measurables at 6’4” and 211 pounds with a 4.42-second 40 time.
The experience of Wheaton, a third-round pick in 2013, gives him the upper hand in the competition to start. The sophomore has begun camp as a first-team wide receiver, according to ESPN.com’s Scott Brown.
Pittsburgh probably won’t rely heavily on Bryant in 2014, but he could make an impact nonetheless if he becomes a more well-rounded player. Steelers wide receivers coach Richard Mann told the team’s official website that they think they “can utilize his talents in the red zone.”
San Diego Chargers: Grooming 2 New Starters at Cornerback
Few position groups in the entire league were worse than the San Diego Chargers cornerbacks last season. All four to start games for San Diego in 2013—Derek Cox, Shareece Wright, Richard Marshall and Johnny Patrick—were rated by Pro Football Focus as being among the league’s 20 worst cornerbacks for the year.
None of those players belong in starting roles this season, so San Diego needs to find two more capable defensive backs this summer to line up on the outside of its secondary. The good news for the Chargers is that a pair of offseason acquisitions could bring them exactly the help they needed.
Despite missing part of San Diego’s organized team activities while recovering from a torn labrum in his shoulder, No. 25 overall pick Jason Verrett is already working with San Diego’s starters in training camp, according to Eric D. Williams of ESPN.com. According to NFL Media’s Gil Brandt, the TCU product has been impressive.
“Chargers look like they have a player in Jason Verrett,” Brandt tweeted. “Can really cover at spot they need help.”
It’s a great sign for the Chargers that Verrett, who is as fast and fluid as any cornerback in this year’s rookie class, has already proved himself worthy of being in the lineup.
The same should soon happen with Brandon Flowers, a six-year NFL veteran picked up by the Chargers after his release from the Kansas City Chiefs earlier this offseason. A physical, tough defender who plays bigger than he is, he has demonstrated much more coverage ability—even during a down year in 2013—than any returning cornerback on San Diego’s roster.
Flowers has started out camp with the second-team defense behind Marshall, according to Williams. Marshall, however, is best suited to play inside as a nickel or dime cornerback. It would be a surprise if Flowers, who started at least 13 games in each of his six years in Kansas City, doesn’t quickly surpass him upon his acclimation to San Diego’s defensive scheme.
San Francisco 49ers: Carlos Hyde vs. Marcus Lattimore vs. LaMichael James
The San Francisco 49ers suffered a significant loss Saturday when No. 2 running back Kendall Hunter went down with a torn ACL, via the team's Twitter account. But it’s not as though the team isn’t well-equipped to make up for losing him.
Dating back to their 2011 fourth-round selection of Hunter, the 49ers have used a pick within the first four rounds on a running back in each of their past four drafts. The most recent three—LaMichael James (61st pick in 2012), Marcus Lattimore (131st in 2013) and Carlos Hyde (57th this year)—will compete to take over Hunter’s role as Frank Gore’s primary backup.
The lead horse in that race, Hyde, might have overtaken Hunter by the end of training camp anyway. A big, bruising between-the-tackles runner with impressive burst and pass-catching ability for a back of his size, Hyde “shined out of the backfield as a runner and as receiver” during the offseason program and was expected to “get a chance at playing time right away,” according to ESPN.com’s Bill Williamson.
Lattimore is arguably just as talented if not more so than Hyde, but it’s uncertain whether Lattimore will ever return to form after suffering a severe knee injury at South Carolina in 2012. He missed the entire 2013 season in recovery and remains on San Francisco’s non-football injury list.
James’ first two seasons have been a disappointment, but he could be the most direct replacement to Hunter as a change-of-pace back. While Hyde, Gore and Lattimore are all bigger, more powerful runners, the diminutive James can be a dangerous runner and receiver out of the backfield if he can capitalize upon his acceleration and agility.
Hunter had only 80 touches last season, touches that should be easily replaceable between Hyde, James and possibly Lattimore. It gives the 49ers a full opportunity to see what each of those three tailbacks are capable of in 2014, which will be important as the end of 31-year-old Gore’s career approaches.
Seattle Seahawks: Christine Michael vs. Robert Turbin
The Seattle Seahawks will have a clear feature running back if Marshawn Lynch, who has 901 carries for 4,051 yards and 35 touchdowns over the past three years, is playing for them in 2014. His current holdout from training camp, however, leaves the team potentially in a position to start Christine Michael or Robert Turbin in its backfield.
An absence of Lynch from the active roster, considering his production as a workhorse runner over the past three seasons, certainly would not be a positive for the defending Super Bowl champions. They are fortunate, however, in having two backups with the skill sets to potentially emerge as quality starters.
Michael has been among the league’s most hyped potential breakout stars this offseason. His hype has been largely a product of his superman measurables—the 5’11”, 220-pound back ran a 4.54-second 40-yard dash, bench-pressed 27 repetitions of 225 pounds and posted a 43-inch vertical jump at the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine—but he also received frequent praise from Seahawks brass during spring workouts.
"Christine had a great offseason," head coach Pete Carroll said earlier this week, according to ESPN.com’s Terry Blount. "It looks like he's absolutely ready and he's really tuned in. Christine has done everything we asked of him and I'm really proud of the progress he's made."
He’s seemingly the favorite to start if Lynch’s holdout continues, but Turbin shouldn’t be ruled out either. Like Michael, Turbin is a big, powerful runner with great measurables for his size; he posted a 4.50-second 40-yard dash and 28 bench-press reps at the 2012 combine.
It’s likely that Lynch’s holdout will end up working in the Seahawks’ favor more than it helps Beast Mode.
The time he is away from practice will give Michael and Turbin opportunities to gain experience with the first-team offense and establish their abilities to take on meaningful playing time. Should they do so, Lynch will lose his leverage to convince the Seahawks to give him a contract extension, while it could also lead to Lynch losing a share of his carries even if he returns before the start of the season.
St. Louis Rams: Getting Tre Mason Involved Behind Zac Stacy
Just one year into his NFL career, Zac Stacy already looks to be a steal from the 2013 NFL draft. The No. 160 overall selection last April, Stacy immediately rewarded the St. Louis Rams’ faith in him by running for 973 yards and seven touchdowns on 250 carries.
The Vanderbilt product used his strength and vision to emerge as a consistent workhorse out of the St. Louis backfield last season. He should reprise his role as the team’s feature back in 2014. But the Rams will also be looking to get Tre Mason, selected from Auburn with the No. 75 overall pick in this year’s draft, involved in the offense.
In June, Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer suggested that Mason would compete for the starting job, according to ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner.
It would be a surprise if Mason actually overtakes Stacy as a rookie, but he is a strong and athletic back coming off a highly productive season. Wagoner later projected that Mason could see eight to 10 carries per game as a handcuff to Stacy.
Stacy played well enough in his first season and has enough potential to improve that no one would blame the Rams for going forward with Stacy carrying the bulk of the load again this year. But if Mason proves in training camp and the preseason that he is ready to contribute, he could give St. Louis a strong one-two punch out of the backfield that increases the effectiveness of its offense.
Benny Cunningham, who ran for 261 yards on just 47 carries last season, and 2012 second-round pick Isaiah Pead could also provide competition to Stacy and Mason.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Josh McCown vs. Mike Glennon
Of all the teams that could end up having quarterback competitions carry over into the preseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have the most comfortable situation.
When the Buccaneers signed Josh McCown earlier this offseason, head coach Lovie Smith indicated that the 35-year-old journeyman, fresh off an impressive run of spot-starts for the Chicago Bears in which he threw 13 touchdowns and just one interception, was signed to be the starter.
"We'll have a starting rotation at every position, and you have to have a certain level of play to stay there," McCown said, according to Gary Shelton of the Tampa Bay Times. "But there has to be a starting spot, a starting point, a starting person to go out there first. And that will be Josh."
If McCown can play as well for a full season as he did in five 2013 starts for the Bears while Jay Cutler was injured, the Buccaneers will have a great starting quarterback. But considering he has never established himself as a long-term starter in 11 NFL seasons, it’s reasonable to expect him to take a step back.
Even if he doesn’t, second-year quarterback Mike Glennon shouldn’t go down without a fight. He was the best of the NFL’s rookie passers in 2013; he completed 59.6 percent of his throws for 2,608 yards and 19 touchdowns with just nine interceptions. He showed the tools to emerge, with the expected development of a player to year two from year one, as Tampa Bay’s franchise signal-caller.
Despite Glennon’s promising first season, the way the Buccaneers have structured their quarterback competition should get the best out of both quarterbacks.
Had they kept Glennon at the top of the depth chart, all the pressure would be on his shoulders to perform, with McCown viewed only as a solution if Glennon faltered. Instead, the Buccaneers have shifted the pressure to perform on McCown, who should certainly expect this to be his final chance to establish himself as a starting quarterback, while putting Glennon in a position to continue his development in order to push McCown for the job.
While some teams might prove to have no viable starting quarterback, the Buccaneers appear to have two, and the competition between them should make each better.
Tennessee Titans: Taylor Lewan vs. Michael Roos and Michael Oher
One would expect the Tennessee Titans to want to get Taylor Lewan on the field right off the bat, as they invested the No. 11 overall pick on him in this year’s draft, but there might not be a way to do so.
A four-year starter at Michigan, Lewan is an outstanding physical specimen who has experience at left tackle but could also project well to right tackle. That doesn’t mean he should start at either position, however, as the Titans have solid starters at each in Michael Roos and Michael Oher.
Should Lewan impress throughout training camp, the Titans could have incentive to release Roos, who is owed $6.625 million this year, according to Spotrac. That would be a risky move, however, putting a rookie at the premier position of the offensive line in place of a veteran who has been one of the league’s most reliable blockers at the position for nine years.
Lewan could also supplant Oher on the right side, but that seems more unlikely as Tennessee made a four-year, $20 million investment in the former Baltimore Ravens tackle this offseason.
That makes it likely that Lewan will not play in 2014. However, the Titans could have one of the NFL’s most talented swing tackles and a player who could step in on either side of the line if Roos or Oher goes down with injury.
A year to brush up on his technique and learn the intricacies of Tennessee’s offensive scheme could serve Lewan well. Even if he doesn’t play this year, he’ll almost certainly be expected to take over at left tackle in 2015, when then-to-be 32-year-old Roos will hit unrestricted free agency.
Washington Redskins: More Talented Receivers Than Roster Spots
The Washington Redskins are expecting third-year quarterback Robert Griffin III to bounce back in a big way from a disappointing sophomore season, and they certainly made an effort to help him with an improved crop of pass-catchers.
DeSean Jackson, added by the Redskins after his much-discussed release from the Philadelphia Eagles, should give Washington an X-factor in its starting lineup opposite Pierre Garcon. Free-agent addition Andre Roberts and fifth-round draft pick Ryan Grant are skilled intermediate receivers who should be solid contributors when they get opportunities to play.
For every receiver not named Garcon or Jackson, those opportunities won’t necessarily be easy to come by. While it’s likely Washington will spread its offense out frequently and use many three- and four-receiver sets, Roberts and Grant will have to compete with Aldrick Robinson, Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss for playing time.
Robinson has flashed big-play ability at times over the past two years but hasn’t had enough consistent production for his roster spot to be safe. Hankerson is coming back from a knee injury but has had some production as a downfield catcher on the outside over the past two seasons. Moss has had a tremendous career—he surpassed 700 catches and 10,000 receiving yards this past season—but the 35-year-old will have to prove himself this summer to stay employed.
According to Paul Conner of Hogs Haven, Roberts has been working as the first-team slot receiver thus far in camp. He has also been working as one of the team’s kickoff and punt returners, according to Tarik El-Bashir of CSNWashington.com, so he appears to be in for a significant role in 2014 despite the addition of Jackson.
It’s all more up in the air, however, for the rest of the team’s wideouts. Grant should have the upper hand on one roster spot, but it’s likely that either Robinson, Hankerson or Moss will be the team’s No. 4 target, with the other two veterans being candidates for release.
The good news for the Redskins, and certainly for RG3, is that they have no shortage of pass-catchers who can make plays with the ball. They have players who can step up into bigger roles if injuries strike, while the competition among the group will force the guys in roster jeopardy to be at their best.
All measurables courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.
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