Early Predictions for NFL's Most Interesting Training Camp Battles

Eric Galko@OptimumScoutingFeatured ColumnistMay 4, 2017

Early Predictions for NFL's Most Interesting Training Camp Battles

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    For some early-round draft picks, starting jobs are assumed. For others, starting jobs are far-off projections and 2018 goals. But for these 10 rookies, they'll have opportunities to fight for starting jobs with their respective new teams.

    Each of these players, all selected in the first three rounds, enters the NFL with optimism from his front office but plenty to prove to his new coaching staff. From quarterback starting jobs to running back rotations to feature cornerback upside, these 10 rookie-focused positional battles are worth noting as we head toward training camp.

Baltimore Ravens: Marlon Humphrey vs. Brandon Carr

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    Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsmen has shown an affinity for drafting Alabama prospects, and he held firm on that trend in the 2017 draft. With Alabama cornerback Marlon Humphrey on the board, the Ravens addressed what many would consider a secondary need to grab likely one of the top players on their draft board.

    Humphrey enters training camp with no need to play immediately, but he should have the opportunity to do so if he can beat out free-agent signing Brandon Carr. The former Dallas Cowboy is in a better scheme fit in Baltimore than he has been previously in his career and should have a chance to thrive in his new stop. Cornerback is one of the harder positions to adapt from the college game, so Carr would have to struggle or Humphrey impress for this to be a Week 1 starter discussion.

Cincinnati Bengals: Joe Mixon vs. Jeremy Hill vs. Giovani Bernard

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    The Cincinnati Bengals have drafted a running back in the second round in three of the last five years, with Joe Mixon being the latest addition to their running back rotation. After letting Rex Burkhead (who was arguably their most efficient runner last year) walk in free agency, the Bengals will enter training camp with an open competition for carries.

    Giovani Bernard has already signed an extension in Cincinnati and has guaranteed money coming in 2017 and 2018. Jeremy Hill, on the other hand, is entering a contract year in which the Bengals will have a hard decision on whether to bring him back after two underwhelming campaigns since his rookie breakout. Mixon offers both lead back and receiving value, and should challenge both for their respective touches before potentially emerging as the team's 20-plus-touch-per-game runner.

Cleveland Browns: DeShone Kizer vs. Brock Osweiler vs. Cody Kessler

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    Cleveland Browns head coach Hue Jackson has already made it clear to reporters he'll give rookie second-rounder DeShone Kizer an "opportunity to compete" for the starting quarterback job. Rookies don't often earn that respect entering training camp, but with Cleveland likely not married to Kizer long term as they look ahead to a loaded 2018 quarterback class, they may want to find out what they have sooner rather than later.

    The Browns have Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler under contract at the position, and both have reason to believe they deserve a shot to start the season. With the upgrades on Cleveland's offensive line and additions of Kenny Britt and David Njoku to pair with Corey Coleman in the passing game, Cleveland has arguably its best supporting cast in recent history to allow for a quarterback to succeed. This battle should be wide open, with Kizer as the favorite to earn the starting nod Week 1.

Dallas Cowboys: Chidobe Awuzie vs. Anthony Brown vs. Nolan Carroll

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    The Dallas Cowboys clearly put a priority on defense at the 2017 NFL draft, and they arguably got two first-round targets with their first two picks. Chidobe Awuzie, made famous by Drew Pearson's legendary reading of his name in front of the Philadelphia crowd, was considered a fringe first-rounder who slipped to Dallas at the end of Round 2.

    The Cowboys want to continue to improve their defensive back unit, and cornerback seemed to be a priority this year. While Orlando Scandrick seems entrenched as one starter, the opposite side, as well as the nickel position, is up for grabs. Anthony Brown is listed as the starter, but free-agent addition Nolan Carroll has a stake in the job as well. Awuzie, if he's NFL-ready, has the best chance to earn the job, but Dallas will rely on its pass rush to make up for secondary inexperience.

Detroit Lions: Teez Tabor vs. D.J. Hayden

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    The Detroit Lions looked to free agency to find a capable partner for Darius Slay in the secondary, adding former Oakland Raiders first-rounder D.J. Hayden this off-season to assume their starting position. But when a first-round talent like Florida's Teez Tabor slipped to Detroit in Round 2, they Lions pounced on the opportunity.

    Tabor may not have a fast 40-yard-dash time, but his play as a shutdown cornerback in college was certainly respected by SEC receivers and opposing offensive coordinators. While he may need time to adjust to the NFL speed, his physicality and short-area dominance should treat him well in the Lions defensive scheme.

Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson vs. Tom Savage

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    Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien has made it clear to reporters that Tom Savage is the team's quarterback, but moving up to 12th overall and dealing two first-round picks for an experienced college winner at the position doesn't seem to imply patience at the position. Deshaun Watson was drafted to do what Texans fans and likely teammates have wanted for a while: give them a chance to compete for a Super Bowl.

    Savage has been the best of a bad situation in Houston since Matt Schaub's collapse as a capable starting signal-caller in 2013, but he's shown enough to justify the idea that he's not the long-term answer. Watson will have to adapt away from the Clemson offense and pick up O'Brien's NFL terminology, but if Watson can make ground on Savage during training camp, he could compete for an early-season starting opportunity, if not Week 1.

New York Jets: Marcus Maye vs. Marcus Gilchrist

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    The New York Jets did not pick up Calvin Pryor's fifth-year option, and he hasn’t given them a reason to assume he's worth investing in for another year. The Jets drafted Jamal Adams of LSU in Round 1 to be their long-term strong safety and give this team an identity on defense, but Marcus Maye in Round 2 was certainly a surprise.

    Ideally, Maye will pair with Adams as a safety duo for the next decade, but Maye first has to win the starting free safety job away from current starter Marcus Gilchrist. The veteran has been a strong starter for the Jets the past two seasons but ended 2016 on injured reserve with a torn patellar tendon. If Gilchrist isn't healthy, it'll be Maye's job to lose.

New Orleans Saints: Ryan Ramczyk vs. Zach Strief

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    The New Orleans Saints may have been coveting Reuben Foster with their second first-round pick as they saw the linebacker slipping, but Ryan Ramczyk may have been one of the biggest steals of the first round. Considered by most as at least the second-best offensive lineman in the 2017 draft, the Saints addressed one of their biggest needs by getting one of the draft's best players at that position with the 32nd pick.

    Ramczyk provides insurance at both tackle positions and left guard (if Andrus Peat ever has to move to left tackle) to provide much-needed depth. While Terron Amsted is entrenched at left tackle (though he hasn't been exempt from injury woes), right tackle Zach Strief will be 34 by Week 3 of the 2017 NFL season, and the Saints entered the offseason without a backup. At worst, Ramczyk is a quality understudy at three positions. At best, Ramczyk challenges and potentially replaces Strief as the team's right tackle.

New York Giants: Davis Webb vs. Geno Smith

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    There was (arguably far too much) excitement about quarterback Geno Smith signing with the New York Giants this offseason to become Eli Manning's deputy, and the hopes of reigniting his career as a short-term backup seemed promising. But the Giants clearly had other plans. After being rumored to be moving up for Patrick Mahomes but missing out, the Giants looked to Round 3 to find a developmental signal-caller.

    Davis Webb enters the Giants training camp battle in the same boat as Smith in terms of a new team, but Webb is way behind Smith in NFL speed, terminology and confidence. Webb fell to Round 3 for a reason. The Giants will likely carry three quarterbacks this season, but the backup job behind Eli should be highly coveted. If one of them has to go in the game, they'll have plenty of weapons at their disposal.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Juju Smith-Schuster vs. Sammie Coates vs. Martavis Bryant

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    The draft choice of Juju Smith-Schuster started a teammate rivalry between Martavis Bryant and Sammie Coates, who both chimed in about why the other should be more scared over the Pittsburgh Steelers' decision to select a receiver in the second round. While it turned lighthearted when head coach Mike Tomlin interjected, it's still a somewhat reasonable concern for both receivers: which one is Smith-Schuster set to replace?

    Bryant hasn't been able to stay on the field, while Coates has been substantially underwhelming thus far. In all likelihood, both receivers are safe, but Smith-Schuster will likely be replacing one of them as the No. 2 receiver in Pittsburgh. The Steelers were clearly not happy with their options opposite Antonio Brown, and the fight for reps and targets will be strong, with Smith-Schuster, Bryant, Coates, Darrius Heyward-Bey, Eli Rogers and Justin Hunter all fighting for playing time in the Pittsburgh offense.