Biggest NFL Position Battles Developing in OTAs

Dan Hope@Dan_HopeContributor IIIJune 12, 2015

Biggest NFL Position Battles Developing in OTAs

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    Tyrod Taylor (5), EJ Manuel (3) and Matt Cassel (16) are all competing for the opportunity to be the Buffalo Bills' starting quarterback.
    Tyrod Taylor (5), EJ Manuel (3) and Matt Cassel (16) are all competing for the opportunity to be the Buffalo Bills' starting quarterback.Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    While it might seem as though it is taking forever for the NFL season to begin, the organized team activities portion of the calendar is already almost over. By the end of next week, all teams will have finished their OTAs and/or mandatory minicamps, sending the players on vacation before they return in late July for the start of training camps.

    When those begin, position battles around the NFL will start to heat up. But with limited opportunities for teams to evaluate their players on the field, even once the preseason begins, every stage of the year—including OTAs—can have an impact on who ends up starting.

    The competitions now developing are largely related to offseason roster changes. In some cases, free-agent additions such as Houston Texans quarterback Brian Hoyer and New York Giants running back Shane Vereen are trying to establish themselves atop their new team's depth charts. In others, rookies such as Atlanta Falcons running back Tevin Coleman and Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Phillip Dorsett are pursuing immediate playing time.

    Some battles—like the Buffalo Bills’ quarterback competition—are occurring in a team’s effort to combat an existing problem that does not yet have a clear solution.

    Come July and August, there will be legitimate clashes for playing time on all 32 NFL rosters. In the following 10 slides, we look at the competitions that are already shaping up to come down to the wire.

EJ Manuel vs. Matt Cassel vs. Tyrod Taylor (Buffalo Bills)

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    Cassel (pictured) Manuel appear to be starting out ahead of Taylor in the quarterback competition.
    Cassel (pictured) Manuel appear to be starting out ahead of Taylor in the quarterback competition.Bill Wippert/Associated Press

    The Buffalo Bills hired a new head coach (Rex Ryan) and offensive coordinator (Greg Roman) this offseason, and their quarterback who started 12 games last year (Kyle Orton) retired. As such, the Bills have a wide-open truel set to take place this summer at quarterback.

    EJ Manuel, the team’s first-round pick in the 2013 NFL draft, is facing his last chance to show he's capable leader of the offense. To do so, he’ll have to beat out Matt Cassel, whom the team acquired in a trade with the Minnesota Vikings this offseason, and Tyrod Taylor, who came to the Bills as a free agent after four years backing up Joe Flacco with the Baltimore Ravens.

    To this point, the Bills have given no indication as to whom they expect to take the reins under center. According to Leo Roth of USA Today, Ryan called the competition a “three-horse race” earlier this week, acknowledging the fact that none of the quarterbacks is standing out, at least not yet.

    "It's safe to say we won't have LeBron at quarterback,'' Ryan said, alluding to the fact that the Bills don’t have a star at the position on the level of NBA superstar LeBron James.

    Taylor has seemingly generated the most buzz among Bills fans this offseason. But that’s largely because he is the unknown commodity, whereas Manuel and Cassel are both known to be subpar as starters. Even so, Taylor appears to have the longest odds in the race, as reports have indicated that Cassel and Manuel have been rotating first-team work on most days, including Wednesday, according to Roth.

    It is unlikely that any of the three will prove to be more than a leaky one-year patch, but ultimately, the job should go to whichever player shows the most consistent passing ability in practices and preseason games.

    According to Vic Carucci of the Buffalo News, the trio has not gotten off to a good start this spring.

    “After watching Wednesday's OTA practice,#Bills not only don't have "LeBron @ QB" as Rex said, but no one looks like a No. 1 ... or No. 2,” Carucci tweeted.

Ryan Mallett vs. Brian Hoyer (Houston Texans)

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    Ryan Mallett (15) and Brian Hoyer (7) are the candidates to start under center in Houston.
    Ryan Mallett (15) and Brian Hoyer (7) are the candidates to start under center in Houston.David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Houston Texans coach Bill O’Brien is looking for a new starting quarterback, and he is counting on two signal-callers he previously coached with the New England Patriots—each of whom signed two-year deals as free agents this offseason—to duke it out for the No. 1 job.

    Ryan Mallett, who is entering his fifth year in the league, came to the Texans in a trade with the Patriots last year, and he re-signed with Houston this summer. He started two games for the Texans in the middle of last season before suffering a season-ending torn pectoral muscle.

    Brian Hoyer, who is entering his seventh year in the league, is in Houston after starting 13 games for the Cleveland Browns last season. He has started 17 combined games between the Browns and Arizona Cardinals over the past three years.

    Hoyer has more experience than Mallett—and signed for more money as a result—but less physical upside. After a strong start to his 2014 campaign with the Browns, he fizzled down the stretch; he threw 11 interceptions in his final seven appearances and finished with more interceptions (13) than touchdown passes (12), with a completion percentage of just 55.3.

    Mallett has great size (6'6", 245 lbs) and a rocket arm. He actually beat out Hoyer, costing the latter his roster spot, to be Tom Brady’s backup for the Patriots in 2012. That said, he remains unproven in NFL regular-season action and needs to demonstrate improved accuracy this preseason to establish himself as a starter.

    As in Buffalo, it’s likely that neither quarterback will prove to be a long-term answer for Houston, although Mallett has more potential than Hoyer. For now, however, the Texans’ focus is on determining which quarterback can be the more reliable option for the 2015 season.

    The Texans are rotating Mallett and Hoyer with the first team on opposing days, allowing each QB to get a full shot with the unit they could be guiding when the regular season begins,” wrote Brian T. Smith of the Houston Chronicle.

    To this point, the two quarterbacks appear to be neck-and-neck. Even so, O’Brien might not be willing to wait and see how the preseason plays out before naming a starter.

    "That decision may be made before training camp," O’Brien told NFL.com’s Mike Silver this week. “They're out here competing (in OTAs and at mandatory minicamp) every single day, and it's pretty intense. So, we may pick a guy very soon. And if we don't, and the decision does go into training camp, it'll be made pretty early on. The team needs to know who the guy is, and we need to go forward."

Shane Vereen vs. Rashad Jennings vs. Andre Williams (New York Giants)

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    Shane Vereen is emerging as a likely impact player for the Giants offense.
    Shane Vereen is emerging as a likely impact player for the Giants offense.Seth Wenig/Associated Press

    With Rashad Jennings and Andre Williams, a pair of running backs added to the roster last offseason, the New York Giants appeared to be set with a solid one-two punch of ball-carriers. Instead, the Giants now have three running backs competing for touches after the addition of Shane Vereen in free agency this offseason.

    The bulk of Vereen’s work will likely come in pass-catching situations, where the New England Patriots transplant is at his best. Able to be a receiving weapon out of the backfield and line up as a wide receiver, Vereen brings a different skill set to the table than Williams, a notoriously shaky pass-catcher, and Jennings.

    Expectations that the team only brought in Vereen to be a situational player, however, could prove to be misguided, given the reports from Giants beat writers, including ESPN.com’s Dan Graziano, during OTAs thus far.

    “We're not to the point of charting individual plays in organized team activities, and hopefully we never will be. But one distinct impression I got from watching the New York Giants on their indoor practice field Monday was: A lot of work for new running back Shane Vereen,” Graziano wrote earlier this month.

    Jordan Raanan of NJ.com echoed Graziano’s sentiment earlier this week.

    “He caught pass after pass out of the backfield, in particular in the red zone. He's going to be a big part of the offense,” Raanan wrote.

    Graziano believes that the team is going to be looking for more help from the running back position in passing situations this year, and that could have New York turning an eye toward a heavy workload for Vereen ahead of the returning runners.

    “It's not that Jennings can't handle pass protection or blitz pickup duties, it's that Vereen is known to be extremely good at it,” Graziano wrote. “Add in the fact of Jennings' persistent health issues, and it's not hard to imagine the Giants wanting Vereen on the field as much as possible to aid in the success of the passing game and the survival of Eli Manning.”

Devonta Freeman vs. Tevin Coleman (Atlanta Falcons)

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    Tevin Coleman is ready to make an immediate push for playing time.
    Tevin Coleman is ready to make an immediate push for playing time.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    By releasing Steven Jackson this offseason, the Atlanta Falcons opened the door for 2014 fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman to become the starting running back. But by using their third-round selection in this year’s draft to take Tevin Coleman, they brought in another runner who could seize the starting job away from Freeman right off the bat.

    Freeman, a short (5'8", 206 lbs) but physical and agile back with good pass-catching ability, performed well in limited action as a rookie. He rushed for 248 yards and a touchdown on 65 carries and added 225 receiving yards and another touchdown on 30 receptions.

    He appears to be talented enough to be a No. 1 running back, but Coleman, who ran for 2,036 yards despite playing seven games with a fractured foot at Indiana last season, could be even better.

    Timed between 4.35 and 4.4 seconds in the 40-yard dash at his pro day, according to Aaron Wilson of the Baltimore Sun, Coleman has the breakaway speed to turn any run into a big play. He’s not the most powerful or elusive back, but he has nonetheless exhibited the ability to keep his legs churning through contact in the open field to extend gains.

    Given his physical ability and proven success as a collegiate runner, it should come as no surprise that he is getting an immediate opportunity to push for a feature back gig.

    “[Tevin] and Devonta are absolutely battling for it,” Falcons coach Dan Quinn told SiriusXM NFL Radio (h/t NFL.com’s Chris Wesseling) in regard to the team’s starting running back competition.

    Ultimately, there should be enough carries to go around for both Freeman and Coleman, so it might not matter who wins the competition to start. Nonetheless, both backs will be trying to prove this summer that they deserve the top spot on Atlanta’s depth chart.

Donte Moncrief vs. Phillip Dorsett (Indianapolis Colts)

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    As a first-round pick, Phillip Dorsett should have a shot to get on the field right away.
    As a first-round pick, Phillip Dorsett should have a shot to get on the field right away.Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports

    With the departures of Reggie Wayne and Hakeem Nicks this offseason, the stage appeared to be set for Donte Moncrief, the Indianapolis Colts’ 2014 third-round pick, to move into a starting role in his sophomore season. Instead, the offseason additions of veteran legend Andre Johnson and first-round draft pick Phillip Dorsett leave Moncrief needing to compete for playing time once again.

    Johnson, a seven-time Pro Bowl selection who signed a three-year, $21 million contract this offseason, will be one of the Colts’ starting wide receivers along with T.Y. Hilton. That leaves Moncrief, despite the flashes of big-play ability he showed last season, to compete for the snaps as a No. 3 or 4 wide receiver.

    After catching 32 passes for 444 yards and three touchdowns in his rookie year, Moncrief should have a good shot at earning the third spot on the depth chart. Still, Dorsett’s standing as a first-round pick will ensure that the Colts give him a legitimate opportunity for immediate playing time.

    “The one thing that is certain about Dorsett is that he has a lot of speed,” ESPN.com’s Mike Wells wrote last month about the No. 29 overall pick, who ran a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. “You can expect him to line up at different spots on the field because the Colts said he's too talented for them not to find a way to get snaps for him.”

    While Dorsett is expected to display that speed right away on kickoff and punt returns, Moncrief’s spot on the depth chart is also “up for grabs.” According to Wells, Duron Carter and Vincent Brown are also getting a chance to compete for No. 3 receiver snaps.

    Carter, who is coming off two impressive seasons in the Canadian Football League but has never played an NFL game, and Brown, who caught just 12 passes for 118 yards in seven games with the Oakland Raiders last season, are both long shots to vault Moncrief or Dorsett on the depth chart. The real competition between Carter and Brown should be for the No. 5 receiver spot, with the loser of that battle becoming a likely candidate for release.

    Between the two early-round draft picks, it could come down to which player shows more consistent playmaking ability in training camp and the preseason. Moncrief’s experience and size (6'2", 221 lbs) should give him the early edge, but it won’t be a surprise if Dorsett, with his over-the-top speed, ends up working his way ahead of the second-year player.

La’el Collins vs. Ronald Leary (Dallas Cowboys)

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    Ronald Leary isn't going to give up his starting spot without a fight.
    Ronald Leary isn't going to give up his starting spot without a fight.Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Truly, we could include any of the Dallas Cowboys’ high-profile rookies in this slideshow. First-round pick Byron Jones is competing for instant playing time at both cornerback and safety, and second-round pick Randy Gregory could beat out Jeremy Mincey for a chance to start at defensive end while Greg Hardy is suspended.

    That said, the most intriguing rookie-veteran battle at Valley Ranch as OTAs wind down is the one between La’el Collins, the NFL’s most high-profile undrafted free-agent signing this year, and Ronald Leary, the Cowboys’ incumbent starter at left guard.

    A three-year offensive line starter at LSU, Collins would have been a first-round pick if not for his name being connected to a murder investigation just days before the draft (he was never charged with a crime). He is a technically sound, powerful, explosive blocker who is ready to start from the beginning of his rookie season.

    Although he began OTAs at right tackle, where he would be unlikely to beat out Doug Free this season, Collins moved inside to left guard last week, where he began rotating in and out of the lineup with Leary, according to Rob Phillips of DallasCowboys.com.

    Left guard, the position Collins played as a sophomore at LSU before moving outside to left tackle, projects as his ideal position on an NFL offensive line. He has the skills to be one of the league’s best at the position as quickly as his rookie season.

    Even so, it shouldn’t be assumed that he will easily take the job from Leary. The Cowboys already had the NFL’s best offensive line last season with Leary, who graded out as the NFL’s 17th-best guard, per Pro Football Focus. He was one of the league’s best run-blocking interior linemen.

    The fact that Collins signed with the Cowboys when he could have chosen any of a multitude of other teams, would make one think that Dallas promised him a chance to compete for a starting job immediately. That said, it shouldn’t give Leary’s spot away unless Collins proves himself to be better this preseason.

    If Dallas calls upon Collins to start this year, he should be ready. But because the Cowboys already had a loaded unit up front, they could opt to bring Collins along slowly while employing him as a versatile backup who could step in at either tackle or guard spots if a starter goes down with an injury.

Barrett Jones vs. Tim Barnes vs. Demetrius Rhaney (St. Louis Rams)

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    Tim Barnes has the most playing experience of the Rams' candidates to start at center.
    Tim Barnes has the most playing experience of the Rams' candidates to start at center.Pat Lovell-USA TODAY Sports

    The St. Louis Rams are replacing the entire right side of their offensive line after moving on from center Scott Wells, right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Joe Barksdale this offseason. The Rams used their second-round pick to draft a new right tackle (Rob Havenstein) and one of their third-round picks to add a right guard (Jamon Brown). But they are counting on one of three returning players to emerge as the starting center.

    Barrett Jones, a two-time consensus All-American during his collegiate career at Alabama, projects as the favorite to win the job. He’ll have to prove that he deserves it, however, as the 2013 fourth-round pick has appeared in just 10 NFL games without a start.

    The most experienced player in the trio is Tim Barnes, who started the final four games of the 2013 season for the Rams at center after Wells went down with an injury. Undrafted out of Missouri in 2011, Barnes has been on the active roster for the past three years and has appeared in 45 games.

    Demetrius Rhaney, a 2014 seventh-round pick out of Tennessee State, is also getting a chance to compete for the job. He spent his entire rookie season on injured reserve after suffering a bone bruise on his knee.

    According to ESPN.com’s Nick Wagoner, the Rams have been rotating the three centers in practice and have not yet given any indication as to who might have a leg up.

    “One day it's Tim Barnes, another it's Barrett Jones and the next it's Demetrius Rhaney,” Wagoner wrote. “It's a three-person competition that figures to continue deep into training camp and perhaps all the way through the preseason.”

    Given that all three centers are unproven at the NFL level, this battle really does project as anyone’s to win. With minimal past work to look back upon for each player, this competition should boil down to how well each center performs this summer.

    Jones, who played all five offensive line positions over the course of his career at Alabama, projects as the surest bet to at least make the roster, even if he does not win the starting job, because of his versatility. It is likely that either Barnes or Rhaney—whoever finishes last in the competition—will end up not only not starting but also without a job.

Brent Urban vs. Chris Canty (Baltimore Ravens)

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    Chris Canty faces competition for his starting job this summer.
    Chris Canty faces competition for his starting job this summer.Duane Burleson/Associated Press

    Brent Urban missed his entire rookie season last year after suffering a torn ACL in training camp. Now that the 2014 fourth-round pick from Virginia is fully recovered, he is making a push during OTAs to start on the Baltimore Ravens defensive line.

    A solid athlete with great length at 6’7” and 295 pounds, Urban fits the prototype for a 3-4 defensive end and has the potential to be a disruptive presence on the Baltimore defensive front. Considering the Ravens traded away star defensive lineman Haloti Ngata this offseason, Urban could be in line for a key role in the rotation.

    While 2014 second-round pick Timmy Jernigan is set to take over one starting spot at defensive end, the favorite to start opposite him is Chris Canty. But even though Canty has started 24 games for the Ravens over the past two seasons, it’s possible Urban could end up knocking him out of the lineup.

    “I think he has really fought his way back,” Ravens defensive coordinator Dean Pees said of Urban, according to CSN Baltimore’s Clifton Brown. “And I really expect that barring anything else happening, that he’s going to be a contender for a starting job.”

    Urban has been working with the first-team defense at OTAs, according to ESPN.com’s Jamison Hensley. He has been filling in for Canty, who has been absent from practices. According to Pro Football Talk’s Mike Florio, Canty has been spending time with NBC Sports.

    Although OTA sessions are technically voluntary, Canty’s missed time could enable Urban to seize his playing time. As Canty contemplated retirement this past offseason and has never been particularly effective as a pass-rusher, the Ravens could be inclined to use Urban more heavily if the second-year player can exhibit an ability to generate pressure against opposing quarterbacks.

Duke Ihenacho vs. Jeron Johnson (Washington Redskins)

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    The 2015 season could be Jeron Johnson's first opportunity to start on an NFL defense.
    The 2015 season could be Jeron Johnson's first opportunity to start on an NFL defense.Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    The Washington Redskins have had a revolving door at safety for years. They have one starting safety locked in for 2015, after trading for former Tampa Bay Buccaneers free safety Dashon Goldson. But they are counting on either Duke Ihenacho or Jeron Johnson to grab a significant role at strong safety.

    Johnson, signed by the Redskins to a two-year contract this offseason after four years as a backup for the Seattle Seahawks, has been widely projected to take over the starting job. Undrafted out of Boise State in 2011, he played mostly on special teams in Seattle but has exhibited both a run-stopping presence and coverage ability in limited action.

    To get his opportunity to start, he’ll have to beat out Ihenacho. A 14-game starter for the Denver Broncos in 2013, Ihenacho played in just three games and recorded just one tackle for Washington last season before suffering a season-ending foot injury, but the team re-signed him to a one-year deal in March.

    Jake Kring-Schreifels of Redskins.com wrote, “Ihenacho said the coaches promised a fair and open competition and have held true to their word. Both he and Johnson have been rotating with the first-team and second-team defenses, alternating each day.”

    Ihenacho was an adequate starter for the Broncos in 2013, but the team released him prior to the 2014 season, and he did not see any significant playing time on defense for the Redskins, even when they had no better options available early last season.

    “The feeling remains that Johnson will emerge as the starter—it’s what I also had heard when he signed,” ESPN.com’s John Keim wrote last week.

    Johnson would be the upside play, but he remains unproven. Ultimately, given the lack of overall experience both Ihenacho and Johnson have, this should be a true competition until the end.

Dustin Hopkins vs. Zach Hocker (New Orleans Saints)

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    After losing the competition in Washington last season, Zach Hocker has another chance to win an NFL place-kicking job in New Orleans.
    After losing the competition in Washington last season, Zach Hocker has another chance to win an NFL place-kicking job in New Orleans.Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

    While most battles at offensive and defensive positions come with caveats—in most cases, one player has an advantage, even if unacknowledged, over the other in one way or another—one of the truest competitions this offseason could be that between Dustin Hopkins and Zach Hocker. Both are making a case to be the kicker for the New Orleans Saints.

    The Saints, seeking a replacement after releasing Shayne Graham in May, are relying on two kickers who have never seen action in a regular-season NFL game. On non-guaranteed minimum contracts, Hopkins and Hocker are competing to keep their careers alive.

    Both kickers had potential coming out of college: The Buffalo Bills selected Hopkins in the sixth round of the 2013 NFL draft, while the Washington Redskins took Hocker in Round 7 in 2014. The Bills cut Hopkins last season after he spent his rookie year on injured reserve with a groin injury, while Hocker failed to beat out Redskins incumbent Kai Forbath in training camp last year.

    Hopkins had a prolific collegiate career at Florida State, where he set the NCAA’s all-time scoring record for kickers in 2012. Hocker, who played his college football at Arkansas, finished his Razorbacks career having made 77.2 percent of his career field-goal attempts, including five of six from 50 or more yards out.

    The only kicks that matter now for these Saints hopefuls, however, are the ones they will make as they finish offseason workouts and go into training camp and the preseason. As a kicker battle truly can be scored by tangible results, the kicker who makes field goals with the most consistency and from the longest distances will win the job.

    As Nick Underhill of the Advocate noted, the Saints brought in Hopkins and Hocker for tryouts among four kickers last December, at which point they decided to sign Hopkins to their practice squad. At least at that point, he made a greater impression on the Saints than Hocker, whom the team didn't bring back until May.

    That said, there’s every reason to believe this competition is open. It will likely continue until the end of the preseason unless one of the kickers struggles significantly.

    Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.

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