Predicting Winners of the 10 Most Intriguing NFL Training-Camp Battles
The news cycle has slowed down a great deal around the National Football League since the draft ended last month. Teams are transitioning from the offseason to what many consider the start of the new league year.
This means that training-camp battles will start to heat up, roster decisions will be made prior to June cuts, rookies are going to start understanding what it means to be in the NFL, and us scribes will focus on the upcoming 2013 season.
Even though we haven't hit summer yet, the entire focus of the NFL is now on 2013.
Will Michael Vick earn his stripes under new head coach Chip Kelly in Philadelphia, or will rookie Matt Barkley endear himself to his former college rival?
Can Matt Flynn overcome another heated training-camp battle with a young quarterback to finally earn a starting gig in his sixth NFL season?
All college stats provided by Sports Reference.
Denver Broncos: Starting Running Back
The Competition: Montee Ball, Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman
Is this really a bad problem to have? The Denver Broncos have now spent three rather high picks on running backs over the past few seasons but don't seem to have a true No. 1 guy out there as of yet.
2009 first-round pick Knowshon Moreno has struggled with injuries, consistency and fumbling issues in his first four NFL seasons. He has played in less than half of Denver's games over the past two seasons and is averaging just four yards per carry during that span.
The Georgia product really struggled holding on to the ball earlier in his career, fumbling seven times in less than 500 touches in his first two seasons. While those issues seem to have been resolved, there is no guarantee that he makes the 53-man roster out of camp.
The one wild card here is 2012 draft pick Ronnie Hillman, who put up nearly 400 total yards on 94 touches as a rookie. Some view him as a true starting running back option, while others believe the San Diego State product will never live up to that billing.
According to Mike Klis of The Denver Post, Denver views Hillman as a major contributor this upcoming season:
Ideally, the Broncos would like (Montee) Ball and Hillman to become their one-two running punch in 2013. As for the No. 3 back who can fill in as starter, Moreno is younger (26 in July) and less expensive ($1.7 million) than McGahee (32 in October, $2.5 million) and is a betteer third-down option because he’s a better receiver.
Ball, a second-round pick last month, was one of the most accomplished collegiate running backs over the past few seasons and could shoulder the load. If Denver is able to go into 2013 with him and Hillman as its primary running backs, this means that either Willis McGahee or Moreno will likely be a salary cap casualty.
At this point, I would hedge my bets that Ball gets the "starting" gig out of camp with Hillman as his primary backup. Due to age and salary, McGahee is the likeliest candidate to be released.
Winner: Montee Ball
Oakland Raiders: Starting Quarterback
The Competition: Matt Flynn and Terrelle Pryor
Just how much of a competition is this? I highly doubt the Oakland Raiders will go into the 2013 season with Terrelle Pryor under center unless he dazzles the coaching staff in training camp. The sample size really isn't there as it relates to either quarterback.
Pryor started just one game this past season and played pretty well in a loss to the San Diego Chargers. He completed less than half of his passes but did run for 49 yards and score three total touchdowns.
To put that into perspective, Carson Palmer accomplished that feat just three times in 24 starts with Oakland over the past two seasons.
On the other hand, Pryor is still pretty darn raw and leaves a lot to be desired in terms of accuracy, mechanics and pocket awareness. Those are three things that Matt Flynn seems to have down pat right now.
The veteran quarterback signed with Seattle last offseason in order to compete with Russell Wilson and Tarvaris Jackson for the starting gig. We all know how that situation played out.
The 27-year-old has started just two games in five NFL seasons and is running out of opportunities to prove that he can be a reliable starter at this level.
Jerry McDonald of The Contra Costa Times reports that Flynn is currently the starter.
That being said, there is a window for Pryor to prove himself during the offseason and training camp. If he is able to grasp the offense and work with the brain trust in Oakland to refine his skills, the Ohio State product could end up being under center in Week 1.
According to Chris Mortensen over at ESPN, rookie fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson impressed the Raiders in rookie camp (h/t Rotoworld). I still don't envision a scenario where the rookie wins the starting job over Pryor or Flynn.
As it is, I am going to go with the veteran here.
Winner: Matt Flynn
Indianapolis Colts: No. 2 Wide Receiver
The Competition: T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey
Indianapolis seems to have a couple intriguing options here. Both T.Y. Hilton and Darrius Heyward-Bey have had success in the NFL but seem to be moving in opposite directions.
Heyward-Bey—a surprise top-10 selection of the Oakland Raiders back in 2009—struggled with consistency and drops early in his career before stepping up big time when Carson Palmer took over for an injured Jason Campbell midway through the 2011 season.
The Maryland product tallied 64 receptions for 975 yards and four scores that season. However, injuries caught up to him this past year. He suffered a strained neck and concussion against the Pittsburgh Steelers in September (CBS Sports).
This pretty much ended any momentum from the previous season.
For his part, Hilton had a stellar rookie campaign in Indianapolis. The 2012 third-round pick gained nearly 900 receiving yards and averaged over 17 yards a pop. He meshed extremely well with fellow rookie Andrew Luck and seems to have a bright future with the Colts.
Hilton finished second on the Colts in reception percentage, and he led the team in YAC (yards after the catch) as a rookie (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required). It's this type of ability that shows Hilton has the inside track for the No. 2 wide receiver job opposite Reggie Wayne.
Either way, the Colts have three wide receivers fully capable of hitting the 1,000-yard plateau. That's a far cry from the start of last season.
Winner: T.Y. Hilton
Jacksonville Jaguars: Starting Quarterback
The Competition: Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne
Either Jacksonville is sold on its quarterback situation or it didn't like any of the options in the 2013 NFL draft. After all, it had an opportunity to pick up Geno Smith at the top of the second round and Matt Barkley at the top of the fourth round.
I am going to work under the assumption that Jacksonville didn't like what these prospects had to offer the organization moving forward.
The in-house candidates here leave a lot to be desired. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Blaine Gabbert was the 27th-ranked quarterback in 2012. While that isn't terribly impressive, it did rank him ahead of Philip Rivers, Michael Vick and Chad Henne.
Gabbert's numbers also improved across the board, but not enough for skeptics to draw the conclusion that he took the next step as a sophomore.
Mark Long of the Associated Press filed the following report after Jaguars practice last week:
"For whatever reason, Jaguars QB Blaine Gabbert continues to struggle with short passes."
This seems to be a continuing theme for the young quarterback. If he cannot progress with something as simple as accuracy on intermediate routes in his third offseason in the NFL, some will question whether he ever will.
If Gabbert doesn't show improvement in training—which there is no reason to believe he will—Henne will back into the starting job.
As it is, Jacksonville will most likely look for a true franchise quarterback 11 months from now when the 2014 NFL draft rolls around. Neither of these quarterbacks can be considered long-term solutions.
Winner: Chad Henne
Cincinnati Bengals: Starting Running Back
The Competition: Giovani Bernard and BenJarvus Green-Ellis
Obviously, the Cincinnati Bengals aren't sold on BenJarvus Green-Ellis as their long-term solution at running back. Why else would they select another running back at the top of the second round last month?
I have been one of the strongest critics of Green-Ellis, continually indicating that he just doesn't add a whole bunch to the offense. That being said, he was a solid complement to Cincinnati's passing game in 2012.
He gained over 1,000 yards on the ground and scored six touchdowns in his first season with the Bengals. However, his 3.9 yards-per-rush average was mediocre at best.
On the other hand, Giovani Bernard was the best all-around running back in the 2013 NFL draft and provides multiple dimensions to Cincinnati's offense. This is something we couldn't say about Green-Ellis in 2012.
Bernard put up over 2,300 total yards and close to 30 touchdowns in two seasons at North Carolina. He averaged nearly six yards per attempt and caught 92 passes during that span.
These are numbers that seem to indicate Cincinnati selected him early in order to take over for Green-Ellis as a rookie.
For what it's worth, Bernard doesn't seem so confident (via NFL.com):
I think it's more so a complementary kind of thing....I think we are both going to help each other out. I definitely had a chance to talk to him, and he's the leader of that pack, he's the leader of the guys. I'm going to be following his footsteps, so I'm going to do whatever I can to help him. He's going to help me.
Way to stay humble, Mr. Bernard.
I don't envision a scenario where Bengals coaches look at the competition and come to the conclusion that Green-Ellis should get more touches than Bernard. That's simply unrealistic at this point.
Winner: Giovani Bernard
Buffalo Bills: Starting Quarterback
The Competition: Kevin Kolb, EJ Manuel and Tarvaris Jackson
This training-camp battle promises to be intriguing for multiple reasons. First, new head coach Doug Marrone may look to make his mark on the Buffalo Bills in his first season at the helm.
If so, he'll likely go with the youngster over the veteran. Second, Buffalo has an opportunity to contend for a playoff spot. If the powers to be within the Bills organization believe this to be true, they might go with the veteran.
We have seen this story repeated over and over again. The decision seems to be between going with an unproven youngster—who will assuredly have growing pains—or a marginal veteran.
While it is not sure whether former general manager Buddy Nix was highly involved in the decision to select Manuel in the first round, most experts were extremely surprised by the pick. After all, the consensus No. 1 quarterback in the draft was Geno Smith.
With that in mind, I am extremely high on Manuel. I had a first-round grade on the Florida State product, and I view him as a high-upside option at quarterback and as someone who will translate well into Buffalo's new scheme on offense.
On the other hand, Kolb was one of the most sought after quarterbacks on the market two years ago. After being traded from Philadelphia to Arizona, Kolb struggled a great deal in two years in the desert. Most of that had to do with lackluster offensive line play and an inability to stay healthy, but it's pretty obvious that Buffalo views him as a stop-gap option at best.
Expect Marrone to put the quarterback who gives him the best chance at both short-term and long-term success under center when the regular season begins.
I don't envision a scenario where Buffalo chooses the veteran over the rookie here. Franchises must have their eyes set on the larger prize down the road, and that cannot possibly be Kolb.
Winner: EJ Manuel
New York Jets: Starting Quarterback
The Competition: Mark Sanchez, Geno Smith and Greg McElroy
To say that John Idzik is off to a slow start in his first season as the New York Jets general manager would be an understatement.
Two of his initial free-agent signings, quarterback David Garrard and running back Mike Goodson, likely won't be on the 53-man roster come opening day.
Garrard, who was going to compete for the starting quarterback job, was forced into retirement last week due to continuing issues with his knee (via The New York Times).
Meanwhile, Goodson was arrested on "drug possession and weapon charges" (via ESPN).
Looking solely at the quarterback situation, this seems to mean that three players will vie for the starting gig in training camp.
It could be a similar situation to what we saw in Seattle last season, with the team giving a young quarterback an opportunity to beat out a marginal starter.
A lot has been made about Mark Sanchez's complete lack of consistency and above-average play over the past two seasons. His completion percentage, passing yards, touchdowns and quarterback rating all declined from 2011 to 2012. This is a prime example of Sanchez regressing right in front of our eyes.
Chris Mortensen over at ESPN (h/t Rotoworld) has indicated that individuals around the National Football League believe Sanchez has "regressed as a passer since his first year."
In terms of a salary cap hit, it makes little sense for New York to release Sanchez. That being said, there is no reason he won't be on the bench in lieu of Geno Smith.
A recent report by Rich Cimini over at ESPN suggests that Smith will likely be the opening day starter:
The Jets are billing it as a fair and open competition, but is it really? Make no mistake, Smith is the preferred candidate. If he proves capable of running the offense, he'll be the Week 1 starter.
Cimini goes on to question whether that would be the best decision for a fledgling Jets franchise, and I fully understand where he is coming from.
Throwing an unproven quarterback out there with a less-than-stellar supporting cast has proven to be unsuccessful in the past. One primary example of that would be Alex Smith with the San Francisco 49ers back in 2005. Smith didn't have a decent team around him, and it led to one of the most atrocious rookie seasons in modern history.
It might just be getting to the point where New York has no other option. Will head coach Rex Ryan really stake his job on Sanchez coming through and rebounding in 2013? I highly doubt it.
Instead, he will go with the unproven quarterback.
Winner: Geno Smith
Atlanta Falcons: Starting Right Tackle
The Competition: Mike Johnson and Lamar Holmes
In what had to be considered a surprise move, Atlanta released starting right tackle Tyson Clabo earlier in the offseason.
According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Clabo ranked seventh among right tackles in pass protection this past season. That type of production isn't easy to replace on the fly.
Adding more intrigue to the situation, Atlanta retained starting left tackle Sam Baker on a six-year, $40.85 million contract (via Spotrac).
Again looking at Pro Football Focus, Baker was actually weaker in pass protection than Clabo in 2012.
This leads me to believe that Atlanta will have to get above-average production from either Mike Johnson or Lamar Holmes in 2013 if it is going to have success protecting Matt Ryan.
The Atlanta Falcons official website has Holmes as the starting right tackle as of right now, but that means little in the grand scheme of things. While Holmes likely has more upside than his counterpart, both will be given an equal shot to earn the starting job.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff believes the time has come for Atlanta's set of youngsters to step up along the offensive line (via ESPN):
The one thing I think everyone needs to understand about our movement is that we have drafted young guys to learn and be schooled and learn along the way....This is the time where they need to step up. This is their time. We needed to do this. It’s time for our young guys to develop and we have faith in them.
The same report indicates that Johnson will compete with Garrett Reynolds for the right guard position while remaining in a battle with Holmes for the right tackle spot.
My prediction here is that both end up starting with Holmes and are tasked with protecting Ryan from oncoming pass-rushers from the outside.
Either way you put it, this is a huge training-camp battle for one of the top teams in the ultra-competitive NFC.
Winner: Lamar Holmes
Green Bay Packers: Starting Running Back
The Competition: Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin
Finally, the Green Bay Packers made the decision to look at running backs early and often in the 2013 NFL draft. While Aaron Rodgers is one of the best quarterbacks in the entire league, he needs to find some balance on the offensive side of the ball in order to help Green Bay return to the Super Bowl.
General manager Ted Thompson realized this last month and went all out looking for solid running back options.
Think about the following fact for a second:
According to Bleacher Report's Matt Miller, Johnathan Franklin and Eddie Lacy were the top-ranked running backs in the draft with early second-round grades.
What a mighty fine situation Green Bay finds itself in right now. It can choose between two rookie running backs with a tremendous amount of upside.
The outcome of this training-camp battle may depend on Lacy's health. He fell in the draft due to lingering concerns over hamstring and toe injuries.
For what it's worth, Lacy indicates that he is 100 percent and will be fully prepared to take part in offseason activities, including training camp (via Milwaukee Journal Sentinel).
Either way you spin it, both should play important roles in the Packers offense this upcoming season. I envision a scenario where Franklin holds down the fort as the primary running back with Lacy coming in during short-yardage and goal-line situations.
Winner: Johnathan Franklin
Philadelphia Eagles: Starting Quarterback
The Competition: Michael Vick, Nick Foles and Matt Barkley
As if the situation in Philadelphia wasn't drama-filled over the past couple seasons, it expects to get even more heated this summer.
New head coach Chip Kelly will be implementing a new offense—one that promises to have the casual NFL fan awestruck. This type of offense also requires a certain type of quarterback under center.
The intriguing aspect here is that all three of Philadelphia's options seem to possess specific skills that Kelly looks for in his quarterbacks.
Matt Barkley possesses the leadership and accuracy that is necessary in Kelly's fast-paced offense. Michael Vick has the athleticism and experience to learn a new scheme. Meanwhile, Nick Foles has the arm strength to push the ball downfield.
The problem is that none of these quarterbacks possess all the traits that Kelly looks for.
Unlike the situation I referenced with Buffalo, the Eagles are pretty much playing from a position of strength here. They didn't exhaust a first-round pick on a quarterback, and they have a veteran who has had a ton of success in the NFL as a starter.
In short, Philadelphia can afford to sit Barkley for a season or two and focus on a quarterback competition between the two holdovers from the Andy Reid era.
That's exactly what I anticipate to happen once the dust settles.
Winner: Michael Vick
Vincent Frank is an NFL featured columnist here at Bleacher Report. Vincent is the head sports editor over at eDraft, co-host of Draft Sports Radio, which airs every Monday and Wednesday from 3 to 6 p.m. ET, and a fantasy writer for Pro Football Focus.
Go ahead and give him a follow on Twitter @VincentFrankNFL.