Predicting the NFL's Most Heated Training Camp Battles After the Draft
The 2016 NFL draft is over, and all 32 franchises have shiny new collections of talent on their rosters. This makes for a fun and exciting time for teams and their fans, as these incoming players bring hope for better teams in 2016.
As we move toward rookie camps, OTAs and eventually training camps, the anticipation surrounding the incoming rookies is palpable.
For many veteran players around the league, though, this time of the year is far from fun. In fact, it downright stinks. These first-year players are coming to earn playing time, take jobs and send their older counterparts to the unemployment line.
This is exactly why offseason position battles tend to be even more intense when rookies are involved—especially those drafted in the early rounds. Those first-, second- and third-rounders are generally gifted roster spots in Year 1, which means veteran holdovers have to claw their way into jobs with even more ferocity.
Today, we're going to take a look at some of this year's looming camp battles, specifically ones that are likely to bring increased intensity due to the presence of incoming players. We'll be focusing on competitions for starting jobs and for roster spots alike—and of course, battles involving rookies.
Tennessee Titans: Running Backs
The Tennessee Titans' running back room is going to look a lot different this season, and for the first time in a while, it's going to be stocked full of talent.
It would seem that the battle for the starting job will be between offseason acquisition DeMarco Murray and rookie second-round pick Derrick Henry. Murray led the NFL with 1,845 yards rushing two seasons ago. Henry rushed for 2,219 yards last season with Alabama while taking home a national title and the Heisman Trophy.
The initial word out of Tennessee is that Murray is open to sharing the spotlight with his new rookie running mate.
“First of all, he loved the pick,’’ Titan's head coach Mike Mularkey said of Murray, via the team's official website. “And he said, 'He’s going to make me better and I am going to do the same for him.' He said, 'I’m going to do whatever I can to make him a great player.'”
While we're sure both Murray and Henry are fine with sharing the backfield, we have to be realistic here. Both of these guys are competitors and will want to be "the guy" in Tennessee's backfield. The battle for playing time this summer is going to be intense.
Henry and Murray won't be alone in the competition, either. The Titans made Bishop Sankey a second-round draft pick just two years ago and added David Cobb in the 2015 draft. These two will likely be battling just to keep their job, yet their presence will still ramp up the heat.
Based on the talent Tennessee is sending into this camp battle, the only real certainty is that the Titans will be pleased with the end result.
Cleveland Browns: Quarterbacks
The last time we saw quarterback Robert Griffin III, he was being benched and eventually exiled by the Washington Redskins.
Now, Griffin has resurfaced with the Cleveland Browns and has a chance to revive his NFL career under new head coach Hue Jackson. However, the Browns have made it clear that Griffin won't just be handed the job. He will have to compete with journeyman Josh McCown during camp.
According to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com, Griffin and McCown split first-team reps in minicamp earlier this offseason.
The battle between Griffin and McCown will actually be a tough one. Griffin has a lot to prove, and McCown is coming off an injury-plagued, but fairly impressive season. McCown completed 63.7 percent of his passes in 2015 and finished with a passer rating of 93.3.
Of course, Griffin and McCown won't be the only players competing for the starting quarterback job. Browns executive vice president Sashi Brown made it clear after the draft that rookie third-round pick Cody Kessler of USC will be in on the competition.
"I do think Cody is a guy that I would not want to sleep on at all if I wanted to be the starting quarterback of the Browns," Brown said, per Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.
Quarterbacks Austin Davis and Connor Shaw are also on the roster.
While the idea of Griffin possibly resurrecting his career in Cleveland makes for a great story, the former Baylor star is going to have to battle to even earn the opportunity. The addition of Kessler adds another layer to the competition, and the whole offseason process is likely to be a wild one.
Washington Redskins: Wide Receivers
Despite having standout receivers Pierre Garcon and DeSean Jackson already on the roster, the Washington Redskins pulled the trigger on former TCU wideout Josh Doctson in Round 1. Many experts considered Doctson among the best, if not the best receiver in the entire draft.
"Josh Doctson is the top wide receiver in the draft for me, and the Redskins got him at No. 22," analyst Mel Kiper recently wrote in an insider piece on ESPN.com. "An absolute steal."
The addition of Doctson makes for an upcoming receiver competition that is going to be very interesting. In addition to Jackson and Garcon, the Redskins also return Andre Roberts, receiver and return specialist Rashad Ross and 2015 fourth-round pick Jamison Crowder.
This battle is interesting because Doctson is likely to have an immediate fight with Crowder for the No. 3 receiver role, and he could quickly push himself into the starting conversation from there. If Doctson finds himself in a battle with Garcon for the No. 2 role, it could get very heated very quickly.
Garcon is entering the final year of his current contract and is due to make $7.6 million in base salary this season. Not only will Garcon have to prove something in order to increase his chances of future employment, he might realistically be battling for his job.
According to Liz Clarke of the Washington Post, Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan has made it known that Garcon is "not going anywhere." However, we're not completely convinced that Washington would hold onto Garcon at his current salary if he slips down the depth chart in the third- or fourth-receiver role.
Regardless of Garcon's true job security, we expect him to bring his best into the wide receiver competition. We also expect the battle for the top few spots on the depth chart to be steaming.
Cincinnati Bengals: Cornerbacks
The Cincinnati Bengals have made it a mission over the past few years to slowly work their young cornerbacks into the starting rotation. Former first-round pick Dre Kirkpatrick finally earned an opportunity last season. Former first-round pick Darqueze Dennard might get his shot this year, now that the team has parted ways with longtime veteran Leon Hall.
Standing in Dennard's way, though, is Kirkpatrick and nine-year veteran Adam Jones. Jones started 14 games for the Bengals last year and was re-signed to a three-year, $22 million contract this offseason. Dennard will also have to compete with rookie first-round pick William Jackson III out of Houston.
CBS Sports' Pete Prisco called Jackson his "top corner" in the draft.
When you count Jones, who was a first-round pick of the Tennessee Titans back in 2005, the Bengals have four former first-round picks at cornerback. Other corners on the roster include Josh Shaw and Chris Lewis-Harris.
Regardless of how the rotation shakes out at camp's end, Cincinnati should feel good about the potential it has at the cornerback position. However, that potential has to become production at some point and the battle for playing time should be an offseason highlight.
Of the bunch, Jones is the only corner who has proven his worth as a starter. Pro Football Focus rates him 13th overall among cornerbacks for the 2015 season. Dennard is rated 55th overall while Kirkpatrick is rated third worst among the 218 cornerbacks who took the field last season.
Jones is likely to hold off the younger players for another season, but the rest of the field should be wide open. For Cincinnati, this will be an incredibly important camp battle.
Green Bay Packers: Wide Receivers
Thanks primarily to a season-long injury to wideout Jordy Nelson, the Green Bay Packers had to rely on several different options during the 2015 campaign. As a result, the team headed into this offseason with a number of different pass-catchers.
Then-rookie Ty Montgomery missed 10 games due to injury, as well.
With Montgomery and Nelson returning, the Packers have a group that also includes Randall Cobb, Davante Adams, Jeff Janis, Jared Abbrederis, Ed Williams and Jamel Johnson. Those aren't the only guys, though, as the Packers picked up former Cal receiver Trevor Davis in the fifth round of this year's draft.
According to NFL Media's Gil Brandt, Green Bay also added Utah State's Devonte Robinson and Illinois' Geronimo Allison as undrafted free agents.
A few of these guys will be out of Green Bay once roster cuts roll around, and the departure list could include some familiar names. It would be naive to think that veteran status will be a deciding factor—the Packers are going to put their best squad on the field, regardless of tenure.
This means third-year receivers Adams and Janis could be among those released.
Nelson and Cobb will presumably be safe for the 2016 season, but the rest of this group will probably be competing for four roster spots, five at most. Watching this group of guys battle it out for those remaining spots and for playing time will be one of the highlights of the offseason.
Baltimore Ravens: Running Backs
The upcoming running back battle for the Baltimore Ravens is going to be one chock full of intriguing storylines.
We'll have veteran back Justin Forsett trying to return from last year's season-ending broken arm to reclaim the starting job. Javorius Allen will try to build on a promising rookie campaign. Third-year back Lorenzo Taliaferro will try to prove that he can be more than just a role player.
Meanwhile, Terrance West will be trying to prove the Cleveland Browns wrong for disposing of him just over a year after drafting him in the third round. Rookie fourth-round pick Kenneth Dixon from Louisiana Tech will try to show why he can be the future. Former North Alabama running back Lamonte Thompson will just be trying to make the team. According to the University of North Alabama's official athletics site, Thompson has signed with Baltimore as an undrafted free agent.
Oh, and for some reason, the Ravens have decided to give Trent Richardson an opportunity to revive his disappointing NFL career.
This giant cluster of backs will be competing for the starting job and for playing time. Because of his past production in Baltimore, Forsett should have a strong chance of being one of the primary ball-carriers. Dixon will likely earn a significant role as well, and could vie for the starting job.
"Dixon is a perfect fit in Marc Trestman's offense," NFL Media's Mark Dulgerian said after Dixon was drafted. "He is the best pass-catching back in this class and possesses the toughness and instincts to pick up yards between the tackles. He should be an instant-impact player in this offense."
After Forsett and Dixon, though, it's anyone's guess as to how the competition will play out. There will probably a handful of roles and roster spots up for grabs, and the competition for them is going to be fierce.
Cleveland Browns: Wide Receivers
If you love position battles that involve rookies, you're going to love this year's wide receiver competition for the Cleveland Browns.
The Browns drafted a total of five wide receivers during draft weekend, though fourth-round pick and former Princeton receiver Seth Devalve will be considered a tight end.
Cleveland used its first-round selection, No. 15 overall, on former Baylor wideout Corey Coleman. A fourth-round pick was spent on Auburn's Ricardo Louis. The Browns then spent fifth-round picks on UCLA's Jordan Payton and Rashard Higgins of Colorado State.
This influx of rookie talent shouldn't be surprising. Cleveland's group of receivers was among the most lackluster in the entire NFL last season. Pro Football Focus actually rates the Browns 30th in receiving for the 2015 season.
Still, the draft haul leaves Cleveland suddenly crowded at the position. Veteran receivers still on the roster include Brian Hartline, Andrew Hawkins, Taylor Gabriel, Terrelle Pryor and Marlon Moore. The group could get even bigger by the time preseason rolls around.
Suspended receiver Josh Gordon had his petition for reinstatement denied earlier this offseason. According to NFL Media's Albert Breer, however, Gordon can reapply on August 1.
This is a lot of bodies for a receiver group that might not yield more than a half dozen roster spots. This is going to be one ferocious competition and an interesting one. We're not sure we've ever seen this many rookie fighting to make a roster at the same position.
Philadelphia Eagles: Quarterbacks
The Philadelphia Eagles were likely looking at a heated quarterback competition this offseason even before the team traded up to grab North Dakota State's Carson Wentz with the second overall pick in the draft.
Before the start of free agency, the Eagles gave quarterback Sam Bradford a new two-year, $35 million deal with $22 million guaranteed. The team then signed Chase Daniel to a three-year, $21 million deal with $12 million guaranteed after the start of free agency.
Based on the money these two veterans received this offseason—and the fact that Daniel previously played under new head coach Doug Pederson with the Kansas City Chiefs—we can assume a quarterback battle was already in the works for the Eagles in 2016.
Now that Wentz has been added to the mix, there's no question that competition will determine Philadelphia's opening-day starter.
Wentz is obviously the future for the Eagles, but he shouldn't be rushed into action before he is ready. Still, we have to expect he'll be battling his tail off trying to prove that he is ready, while Bradford and Daniel should be fighting to get on the field and to show other teams that they can be starting material. This should be a fiery three-man competition come camp.
However, it would seem that Bradford isn't particularly interested in competing now that he knows his long-term future in Philadelphia isn't secure. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Bradford has told the Eagles he wants a trade and that he "will not be showing up for their off-season program any longer."
Bradford looks more than a little foolish after taking the Eagles' money and then deciding weeks later that he doesn't want to participate. However, he's really only hurting himself in the process. We fully expect Daniel and Wentz to duke it out for the starting job this offseason. If Bradford decides to join the fun, this battle will get even hotter.