5 Position Battles That Will Define the 2022 NFL Preseason
Preparations for the 2022 NFL season have begun in earnest with the start of training camp this past week.
Part of this process is determining starting jobs, many of which are up for grabs as teams try to identify the best player to fill the role.
Some of these positional battles will define the upcoming preseason. These high-profile jobs are being contested by veterans and rookies alike as they vie to prove their worth to coaching staffs.
With that in mind, here’s a look at five can’t-miss position battles to keep an eye on during the 2022 NFL preseason.
Steelers QB: Kenny Pickett vs. Mason Rudolph vs. Mitch Trubisky
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the unenviable task of replacing a future Hall of Famer at the most important position following longtime quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s retirement.
It will be a three-man race between incumbent backup Mason Rudolph, free-agent addition Mitch Trubisky and rookie first-rounder Kenny Pickett for the QB1 job.
Head coach Mike Tomlin opened training camp by saying he won’t be “micromanaging” the competition and plans to reward the job to the best performer during the preseason.
Trubisky is coming off a year with the Buffalo Bills in which he spent time learning behind rising star Josh Allen under the tutelage of then-offensive coordinator and current New York Giants head coach Brian Daboll. The Steelers are hopeful that experience will help Trubisky—the No. 2 overall pick in 2017—rehabilitate a career that went off the rails with the Chicago Bears.
Pickett has the most upside of any QB on the Pittsburgh roster right now. The 24-year-old spent the last four seasons honing his craft for the local Panthers before becoming the only signal-caller selected within the first 73 picks of the 2022 draft. Pickett is looking like the long-term future of the position but may not be ready to go from Week 1 of his rookie season.
Rudolph—once considered a trade candidate—has held firm to the No. 2 spot but could earn some first-string work after an impressive showing. He made one of the best throws of the day to help lead the offense to a win over the defense in a Seven Shots matchup.
All eyes will be on this battle over the next few weeks. It’s one of the most defining positional battles of the 2022 preseason and could determine Pittsburgh’s fate for years to come.
Bills RB: James Cook vs. Zack Moss vs. Devin Singletary
The Buffalo Bills have one of the most dynamic offenses in football, but their running back position hasn’t produced any stars in recent years.
While the lack of a bell-cow running back hasn’t held the team back too much thanks to the emergence of quarterback Josh Allen, the team could be getting better production from the position.
The Bills averaged 129.9 yards per game on the ground in 2021—the sixth-most in the league—but only had one back put up more than 345 rushing yards during the campaign. Allen was the team’s second-leading rusher with 763 yards last year, putting him only slightly behind Devin Singletary (870 rushing yards) for the team high.
Singletary’s performance was his best yet since entering the league in 2019, but he failed to establish himself as a true lead back. He had just three games with 19 or more carries in 2021, all of which came against weak foes at the tail end of the season.
Zack Moss had an underwhelming sophomore campaign, one in which he only notched 345 yards on 96 totes. This was a notable regression from the 112 carries for 481 yards he logged as a rookie in 2020.
James Cook could take control of the backfield with a strong training camp. The rookie is a dynamic talent who can contribute as both as runner and pass-catcher out of the backfield. He also has a stronger pedigree than any other Buffalo running back, coming into the league as the No. 63 overall pick this year.
These three players are almost certain to split almost all the touches at the RB position in 2022. Training camp will now determine how those are divvied up and who goes into the campaign as the starter.
Cowboys WR: Jalen Tolbert vs. James Washington
The Dallas Cowboys went from boasting one of the league’s most talented wide receiving corps last year to one of the most uncertain as they head into the 2022 campaign.
With the departure of Amari Cooper via trade early in the offseason, the Cowboys will need to lean heavily on CeeDee Lamb as their only true No. 1 option.
The depth behind Lamb is also questionable following the free-agency loss of Cedrick Wilson Jr. Dallas did retain Michael Gallup on the open market, but the veteran is still working his way back from a torn ACL suffered late in the season and has already confirmed he will not be ready for the opener.
Gallup’s absence makes the training camp battle between rookie Jalen Tolbert and free-agent acquisition James Washington even more important. Both will play key roles early in the campaign and are fighting for a shot to remain one of the team’s top-three wideouts for the long haul.
A change of scenery could help Washington realize his potential. After entering the league as a second-round pick in 2018, the 26-year-old failed to establish himself as a key part of the Pittsburgh Steelers’ receiving corps and only caught 114 passes for 1,629 yards and 11 touchdowns over the last four seasons.
Tolbert is an intriguing first-year talent who oozes upside. At 6’1”, 194 pounds with smooth athleticism, blazing quickness and good route-running abilities, the No. 88 overall pick has the potential to be a standout performer for this club from the jump.
While Tolbert didn’t face off with top-flight corners on a regular basis during his collegiate career at South Alabama, he burned Tennessee for 143 yards and a score on seven catches last November.
If he can quickly adapt to the speed and strength of NFL defenders, Tolbert may just have a leg up for the WR2 job to open the season.
Colts LT: Matt Pryor vs. Bernhard Raimann
It’s rather surprising that an offensive line that blocked for the league’s leading rusher last year has had such difficulty finding a steady left tackle.
The Indianapolis Colts have been attempting to find a long-term solution at the position since the retirement of Anthony Castonzo following the 2020 campaign. The club brought in Eric Fisher to man the role last year, and while he provided stable run-blocking abilities when healthy, his availability and pass protection left much to be desired.
With Indianapolis electing not to retain the veteran after his contract expired, it appears the starting job will be primarily contested by veteran swing tackle Matt Pryor and rookie Bernhard Raimann.
Pryor has opened training camp as the first-string left tackle. According to 107.5 The Fan, the 27-year-old has taken every snap at the position over the first two practices.
While Pryor has been in the league longer than his rookie counterpart, he’s only logged 1,294 snaps over the past three seasons.
Many of those came at the guard spot during his tenure with the Philadelphia Eagles, giving the 6’7”, 332-pound Pryor limited exposure to the left tackle position leading up to this training camp battle.
Raimann may have slipped down the board on draft day before the Colts stopped his fall at No. 77 overall, but the Central Michigan product still has immense potential to be a franchise left tackle. The 6’6”, 303-pound lineman is still a tad raw, but he has all the physical tools a team could want at the position.
The results of this battle will be of extreme importance for Indianapolis as the team attempts to reach the playoffs with veteran Matt Ryan now under center and Jonathan Taylor back to defend his rushing crown.
Panthers QB: Matt Corral vs. Sam Darnold vs. Baker Mayfield
The Carolina Panthers opted against using a first-round pick to take a potential franchise quarterback this year, but they now have two players with strong draft pedigrees competing for the starting job.
Baker Mayfield—the No. 1 overall pick in 2018—and Sam Darnold, the No. 3 overall selection that same year, have both landed in Carolina with a chance to turn their respective careers around.
These two will be pushed by a rookie in Matt Corral, the Ole Miss product the Panthers landed at No. 94 in the third round back in April. While Corral isn’t likely to seriously contest for the QB1 role in year one, he’ll gain valuable experience working behind a pair of veterans desperate to show they still belong in the league.
The competition is already shaping up to be one of the most intense of any training camp battle. Ellis L. Williams and Varun Shankar of the Charlotte Observer noted that both Mayfield and Darnold each led a two-minute drill during Friday’s 11-on-11 practice.
Darnold, who worked with the first team, reportedly went 10-of-18 on his throws, while Mayfield performed slightly better with the twos, completing 12 of 20 passing attempts and scoring a touchdown.
Williams and Shankar gave the day to Darnold, who has now been the objectively better performer in two of the first three practices.
There are still plenty of practices and preseason games left before a starter can truly be determined, making this the training camp battle to watch heading into the 2022 campaign.