Highlighting the Best Rookie vs. Vet Battles in NFL Training Camps
Training camp is the perfect opportunity for rookies to snatch jobs away from vested veterans.
Even though some draft picks walk directly into starting jobs when their team lacks talent at their position, most rookies will have to win a training camp battle with a veteran teammate to see the field at the beginning of the season.
Every NFL team has these types of battles during training camp, yet some of the competitions look more intense and interesting than others.
As we make our way through the slides, we will try and highlight the 10 best rookie vs. veteran battles in NFL training camps. We will also examine which rookies have the best chance of climbing their way up their respective team's depth chart.
For the purpose of this discussion, we won't hit on every team or every rookie vs. veteran battle. We will only hit on the battles that could heavily impact each of these teams' performances in 2014. With that being said, let's take a look.
Arizona Cardinals: Troy Niklas vs. John Carlson, Tight End
When the Arizona Cardinals drafted tight end Rob Housler out of Florida Atlantic in 2011, the organization was hoping the athletic pass-catcher could give the Cardinals offense a dimension it never had before.
Unfortunately for Arizona, Housler has been a huge disappointment. Over the course of his three-year career in the desert, the big-bodied tight end has amassed 96 receptions, 1,004 yards receiving and one measly touchdown.
Not to mention, he has dropped 14 passes on 145 targets, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Based on those numbers, it’s safe to say Arizona did the right thing when it drafted Troy Niklas out of Notre Dame and signed John Carlson to a two-year deal.
Why? Because Niklas and Carlson are better schematic fits for head coach Bruce Arians’ offense. Here’s what Nolan Nawrocki of NFL.com had to say about Niklas prior to the 2014 draft:
Outstanding size with a well-proportioned, muscular build. Big target over the middle and in the red zone. Athletic with flexible hips and knees to run the full tight end route tree. Bursts into routes and stretches the seam. Good hands. Has playmaking ability. Lined up flexed and in-line. Good potential as a blocker. Bends his knees, shuffles and fans rushers wide. Works well in tandem and can combo block effectively. Takes care of his body and maintains low body fat. Has NFL bloodlines.
Carlson has a lot of the same qualities as Niklas. He has good hands, blocks well, runs precise routes and stretches opposing defenses vertically.
As it stands right now, Carlson has the upper hand because of Niklas’ surgery to his hand. Yet things could change in a hurry considering Niklas was recently medically cleared.
One should expect Arizona’s tight end battle to go down to the wire before the start of the 2014 season.
Baltimore Ravens: C.J. Mosley vs. Arthur Brown, Inside Linebacker
Drafting inside linebacker Arthur Brown was supposed to be a phenomenal move for the Baltimore Ravens. At Kansas State, he was a first-team All-American and won Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
However, his rookie season in 2013 was less than impressive. Brown didn’t make a single start at inside linebacker. He only logged 211 snaps total and was buried on the depth chart for a majority of the year behind Jameel McClain.
In turn, Brown’s subpar rookie campaign forced the Ravens to spend a first-round pick on Alabama inside linebacker C.J. Mosley. On paper, Mosley had an incredible career in the SEC, yet that doesn’t mean he will be handed one of the two starting inside linebacker jobs.
Despite Brown’s ineffective rookie season, Mosley will be forced to compete with him throughout training camp. Garrett Downing of the team’s official website believes Mosley is the favorite to land the job because of his lofty draft status, but let’s not forget Brown has received rave reviews about his development over the last year.
The road for Brown to knock off Mosley will be a long one, but his potential as a player will give Mosley a run for his money deep into training camp.
Carolina Panthers: Kelvin Benjamin vs. Jason Avant, Wide Receiver
It’s hard not to feel bad for Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. In one short offseason, his wide receiving corps was torn down and replaced with a cast of inconsistent pass-catchers who are young, aging or often injured.
The good news is the new unit has potential thanks in large part to Kelvin Benjamin, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood. Underwood isn’t seen as starting material, but he will see plenty of snaps when the Panthers deploy their four- and five-wide receiver sets.
As far as Benjamin and Avant go, they will battle for the team’s No. 2 wide receiver job since Jerricho Cotchery appears to be locked in as the No. 1.
Pundits have been quick to anoint Benjamin a starter, yet Avant flashed during his time with the Philadelphia Eagles. In eight seasons with the Eagles, he tallied 3,646 yards receiving, averaged 12.3 yards per reception and scored 12 touchdowns.
No, those numbers aren’t earth-shattering by any means, but it’s important to remember he was never a starting wideout for Philadelphia. He was always the third or fourth option in the offense.
Now that Avant has the chance to showcase his skill set in a full-time capacity, Benjamin will have to show that he is more than just a red-zone threat who can score touchdowns. He will have to progress quickly by learning the playbook, running cleaner routes and hanging onto the ball.
Chicago Bears: Brock Vereen vs. Chris Conte, Free Safety
After an atrocious season of safety play in 2013, the Chicago Bears needed to overhaul the safety position in the worst way this past offseason.
So, what did they do? They signed Ryan Mundy, M.D. Jennings and Adrian Wilson and drafted Brock Vereen in the fourth round of this year’s draft.
Even though Vereen wasn’t taken until No. 131 in the draft, he was by far the most notable addition of the four mentioned above. In addition to being athletic, intelligent and rangy, Vereen recorded 59 tackles, one forced fumble, one interception and six pass breakups in his senior season at the University of Minnesota.
He was also a first-team All-Big Ten selection, and his numbers at the NFL scouting combine were some of the best among this year’s safety class.
Nevertheless, Vereen won’t be handed the starting free safety job. He will have to earn it. As training camp presses on, he will have to beat out fourth-year veteran Chris Conte.
On the surface, that may not seem like a daunting task since Conte had a rough season last year and is currently on the PUP list, but he is still very young (25). And he managed to put together a couple of solid games toward the end of last season.
Does that mean Conte’s finish to the season in 2013 will carry over into 2014? No, but it wouldn’t be wise to write him off. Per PFF, he has flashed in coverage at various moments throughout his career. In 2012, he garnered two interceptions and nine passes defended; in 2013, he garnered three interceptions and seven passes defended.
Yet, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Conte was a part of the Bears’ problems on defense in 2013, which could ultimately help Vereen’s cause.
Cleveland Browns: Terrance West vs. Ben Tate, Running Back
The Cleveland Browns finished with the 27th-ranked rushing attack last year, so it came as no surprise when they inked running back Ben Tate to a two-year deal and selected Terrance West with the 94th pick in the draft.
That said, Tate was seen as the Browns’ Day 1 starter. But according to head coach Mike Pettine, West has turned heads in training camp.
“I was a little shocked with Terrance today,” Pettine said, via Kevin Jones of ClevelandBrowns.com. “I had to double check my roster card to make sure I was looking at the right number. He did some nice things in the one-on-one period. That’s always a bonus when you have a running back that’s not just one-dimensional.”
Obviously, West’s head-turning plays need to happen on a regular basis before he moves ahead of Tate on the depth chart, yet a strong start to camp can do wonders for a player’s confidence.
Nonetheless, Tate isn’t dead in the water. There’s a reason the Browns paid him $2.5 million in guaranteed money. The 25-year old tailback had his fair share of success behind Arian Foster in Houston.
For his career, Tate has averaged 4.7 yards per carry, registered 1,992 yards on 421 carries and scored 10 touchdowns. Yes, the Texans were known for the dominant offensive line during Tate’s tenure, but that shouldn’t take away from his vision and quick first step.
Whether West likes it or not, Tate will be a handful in training camp as long as he can stay healthy. Health is the one thing that has hampered Tate through the years. The second-round pick out of Auburn hasn’t ever appeared in all 16 games during his four-year career.
Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater vs. Matt Cassel, Quarterback
After a 5-10-1 season in 2013, the Minnesota Vikings needed to go into the 2014 season with a breath of fresh air at the quarterback position.
The team could no longer put its long-term trust in Christian Ponder and Matt Cassel. So, head coach Mike Zimmer and general manager Rick Spielman showed some aggression on draft day and traded back into the first round for Teddy Bridgewater.
Like others, the Vikings were shocked that Bridgewater was available with the last pick in the first round. Still, his draft status and the organization’s trade up for him didn’t automatically signal he would be handed the keys to offensive coordinator Norv Turner’s offense.
Minnesota wants Bridgewater to earn his stripes and beat out Cassel in training camp. The task sounds easy from an outsider's perspective, yet Cassel has nine years of experience and 2,298 throws under his belt. Moreover, Cassel was 3-3 as the Vikings' starter in 2013.
As I mentioned, Cassel may not be Minnesota’s long-term answer at the quarterback position, but he could possibly be its best shot at winning on a weekly basis in 2014.
And it’s not like Bridgewater is running away with the starting job right now. Even with huge optimism, the Vikings won’t rush him and are content playing Cassel until Bridgewater is ready.
Clearly, Bridgewater wants to be the Week 1 starter, which is why you should expect him to increase his level of play as training camp moves forward.
Right now, Bridgewater and Cassel are splitting first-team reps, according to Jay Glazer of Fox Sports, but that could change once the Vikings’ first-round pick gets more comfortable with the playbook. The kid is a natural and has a higher ceiling than Cassel.
Honestly, it’s only a matter of time before Bridgewater shows the Vikings and the rest of the NFL why he should have been the first signal-caller off the board.
Oakland Raiders: Gabe Jackson vs. Khalif Barnes, Offensive Guard
When the Oakland Raiders selected Gabe Jackson in the third round, people immediately thought he would be the starter at left guard. Sure, Khalif Barnes has struggled as a member of the Raiders, but the adjustment period for rookies is often times rocky.
For whatever reason, the transition for rookie offensive linemen seems to be a bit smoother, but even this time of the year, rookie linemen are struggling to outplay their veteran counterparts.
Coincidentally enough, that’s exactly what is happening with Jackson and Barnes. Jackson has been said to be making strides and getting better every day, yet Barnes’ strong finish to the 2013 season has given him a slight edge over Jackson.
Per PFF, Barnes made five starts at left guard last year and finished with a plus-4.9 pass-block grade. In those five starts, he surrendered four quarterback pressures total.
All things considered, Jackson has to be able to match Barnes as a pass protector and overtake him as a run-blocker. Overtaking Barnes as a pass-blocker won’t be easy, but Jackson could easily blow him out of the water in the run game.
Barnes struggles at the point of attack and fails to get underneath a defensive lineman’s pads to drive him back off the ball. Look for Jackson to pass Barnes on the depth chart toward the end of the preseason, as he will show that he is the more balanced lineman of the two.
San Diego Chargers: Jason Verrett vs. Brandon Flowers, Cornerback
Prior to signing cornerback Brandon Flowers, the San Diego Chargers were tentatively planning to start rookie Jason Verrett opposite of left cornerback Shareece Wright. It’s not like San Diego wanted to hand Verrett the starting job on Day 1, but limited options outside of Verrett and Wright played into the decision heavily.
This is why the Chargers pounced on Flowers when the Kansas City Chiefs cut ties with him. San Diego needed more talent in its secondary and wanted to be able to ease Verrett along.
Despite the best intentions, the cornerback battle in San Diego appears to be getting heated. On the first day of training camp, Eric Williams of ESPN.com noted that Verrett showed grit and Flowers flashed.
Here’s what head coach Mike McCoy had to say about his group of corners on that day, via Williams: “They're all competing. Right now there's a depth chart, but that's the starting point for the season. [Flowers] lined up with the first group today. But we'll play the best guys.”
By the sounds of it, Flowers won’t be handed a thing and will have a bit of competition at the right cornerback position. Even though it’s way too early to name the winner at right corner, Verrett is in a good position to make a strong case.
He has elite quickness, can play physical press coverage and may have the ability to stay healthy. Kudos to McCoy for vowing to play the two best players at left and right cornerback regardless of status and prior accolades.
St. Louis Rams: Aaron Donald vs. Kendall Langford, Defensive Tackle
Since acquiring defensive tackle Kendall Langford in 2012, the St. Louis Rams have built one of the most potent defensive lines in the entire league. Even if defensive end Robert Quinn gets a lot of the credit due to his pass-rushing ability, the rest of St. Louis’ defensive linemen know they are pulling their weight as well.
Without the other three guys, the Rams line wouldn’t be what it is today. It also wouldn’t be what it is today without defensive line coach Mike Waufle.
Waufle deserves a lot of the praise for the team’s success up front. Fortunately for him, general manager Les Snead and head coach Jeff Fisher gave him another toy to play with by drafting defensive tackle Aaron Donald.
As good as Langford has been for the Rams, his days as one the team’s starting defensive tackles may be long gone. According to 101Sports.com, the hype surrounding Donald certainly has foundation:
Yes, I always say that you can’t really assess linemen until the pads are on. Donald is decidedly different. His quickness has made him unblockable so far. The same things we saw in his college games (and I advise you to check “Aaron Donald highlights” on YouTube), we’re seeing on the practice field in Earth City. Donald has uncommon burst and quickness, along with an amazing ability to innately shed blocks, which allow him to blow past offensive linemen. Plus, he’s remarkably strong.
Donald is remarkably strong and quick, which is why it will be hard not to start him over Langford. Fisher will give both players a fair shot at winning the job, but the younger, more talented player will prevail.
The only way Langford can win is by dramatically improving his pass-rushing skills, and I don’t see that happening for two reasons. First, Langford hasn’t found a consistent, non-sporadic way to get after the quarterback. Second, he fails to burst like he used to off the line of scrimmage.
Tennessee Titans: Taylor Lewan vs. Michael Oher/Andy Levitre, OT/OG
Selecting right tackle Taylor Lewan in the first round of the draft was a luxury pick for the Tennessee Titans. They didn’t necessarily need a right tackle since they signed Michael Oher to a four-year deal in free agency, and Michael Roos has been manning the left side of the line for years.
Nonetheless, head coach Ken Whisenhunt knows you can never have too many good offensive linemen. Despite the fact this means there are going to be some good linemen on the sidelines, injuries can strike at any time.
Furthermore, having too many good linemen can breed a fiery competition at multiple spots. And that’s exactly what is happening in training camp right now between Lewan, Oher and left guard Chris Spencer.
Unsurprisingly, with both tackle positions mainly set, the Titans are trying Lewan out at left guard, via John Glennon of The Leaf-Chronicle. The move doesn’t appear to be a permanent one since Andy Levitre is set to return from his appendectomy. However, Whisenhunt has already stressed versatility to Lewan.
And Lewan is reportedly receptive of all this versatility talk, as only seven offensive linemen are suited up on game days. Yet, that’s also not to say Lewan doesn’t have the skill to outwork Oher and current left guard Chris Spencer—he certainly does—but it will be a long road to follow from now until the start of the season.
As it stands right now, it’s apparent that the Titans are content with Oher at right tackle and Levitre at left guard.
The one way I could see Lewan starting is if Levitre is out for an extended period of time. Some of you are probably wondering about Spencer at left guard, but he’s no match for Lewan. So the job would be Lewan's in a moment's notice.