The NFL's Biggest Position Battles as Teams Enter OTAs
In a matter of days, every NFL franchise will have started organized team activities for the 2017 offseason. In less than four months' time, those teams will be ready to battle each other in the quest for the Lombardi Trophy.
But between now and then, all of the battles will be internal as rookies and veterans fight for various roles.
Only 704 starting spots are technically available to position players, but right now more than 2,800 guys reside on NFL rosters. Dozens of competitions will take place in every camp, with most of them getting underway this month.
Here are 12 that really stand out.
Are the Browns Ready for No. 27?
The Cleveland Browns have used an NFL-high 26 starting quarterbacks since 1999, and only one of those 26—second-year third-round pick Cody Kessler—is on the current roster.
Kessler has a chance to win the starting job again this summer, but the Browns lost all eight of his starts last season. They've set up quite the competition between Kessler, offseason trade acquisition Brock Osweiler, enticing second-round rookie DeShone Kizer and 2016 fifth-rounder Kevin Hogan.
Still, Kessler is the favorite for now.
"Cody has done a great job," Browns head coach Hue Jackson said recently, per Patrick Maks of ClevelandBrowns.com. "That's really why I brought his name up first. He has really improved. He has worked his tail off. He deserves the right and the opportunity to walk into this building and walk out there first. They have to take it from him."
He did post a solid 92.3 passer rating while throwing six touchdowns to only two interceptions as a rookie, and the other three guys have issues.
It sure looked like Osweiler was only acquired for salary-cap reasons when the Houston Texans bribed Cleveland with a 2018 second-round pick in order to unload that big contract. He was a complete mess last season after signing a four-year, $72 million deal with Houston as a high-profile free agent.
And Kizer is probably a bit of a project coming out of Notre Dame. He'll be the first to tell you that.
"There's so much I need to learn before I can even consider thinking about competition and trying to play," he said during rookie camp, according to Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer. "Right now, I'm at step one. I need to get to level 500 before I can even consider stepping on an NFL field."
Meanwhile, Hogan was bad in his one meaningful performance as a rookie, completing 12 of 24 passes for 100 yards while throwing two picks and posting a 26.4 passer rating in a loss to the Cincinnati Bengals.
Osweiler still has the physical tools and is only 26 years old. Kizer is also a physical marvel with a big arm and higher ceiling than the rest of the quarterbacks on the roster. Hogan's size and mobility make him an intriguing option.
May the best man become No. 27.
McCown vs. Hackenberg vs. Petty for Gang Green
The New York Jets might also have a multi-quarterback position battle on their hands this offseason. They surprised a lot of folks by not drafting a signal-caller in April, but they took Christian Hackenberg in the second round last year, they took Bryce Petty in the fourth round the year before that and they signed veteran journeyman Josh McCown to a $6 million deal in March.
Try to contain your excitement, Jets fans.
McCown, who turns 38 in July, is obviously a stopgap at best. He's lost 20 of his last 22 starts, dating back to when he was a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 2014. During that span, he has a sub-60 completion percentage and a passer rating of 79.3.
So the Jets and their fans presumably would like to see Hackenberg or Petty take the reins this offseason.
For what it's worth, Hackenberg says he feels "a lot more comfortable" entering his second year, according to Rich Cimini of ESPN.com. And Petty recently told Brian Costello of the New York Post that he's 100 percent recovered from January shoulder surgery. The former didn't even play as a rookie, and the latter put up abysmal numbers in four starts as a sophomore, but we'll see if either can get on track under new offensive coordinator John Morton.
Otherwise, it's McCown time.
Deshaun Watson vs. Tom Savage in Houston
The Texans essentially spent two first-round picks on reigning national champion Deshaun Watson, but they insist that Tom Savage remains the starter.
"I don't know if people believe us," general manager Rick Smith said soon after drafting Watson 12th overall, per ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop, "but we're comfortable with Tom Savage as our quarterback."
That'll eventually change, because—again—two first-round picks! And Savage isn't special. He's a 27-year-old former fourth-round pick with a career 74.9 passer rating and zero touchdown passes on 92 attempts.
It's not a question of if, but when. When will Watson prove he's ready? When will Savage slip up?
The Texans have shown us the last two offseasons just how desperate they are for a franchise quarterback. They had the league's top-rated defense last season, and they should only be better on that side of the ball with the return of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Unless Savage explodes or Watson really struggles, they'll eventually make the switch.
Trevor Siemian vs. Paxton Lynch in Denver
After all that talk about Tony Romo, the Denver Broncos are indeed sticking with the status quo under center. And we shouldn't be surprised, because general manager John Elway insisted even before Romo retired the team was confident in youngsters Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
"We really feel good about the two young ones that we have," Elway said in March, per Nicki Jhabvala of the Denver Post.
The question now is, which young one will emerge as the starter?
Lynch has more potential as a big, athletic first-round pick entering his second season. But Siemian had a solid 18-to-10 touchdown-to-interception ratio while posting a winning record in 14 starts as a sophomore in 2016.
The 2015 seventh-round pick isn't the long-term answer, but he's the default starter until we get a feel for how both adjust to new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy's system.
Who Will Protect the Winner's Blind Side?
But that isn't the only interesting position battle brewing in Denver, because the Broncos are holding auditions at left tackle after losing Russell Okung in free agency.
Okung didn't have a good 2016 season and Siemian took a lot of big hits, so the hope is that rookie No. 20 overall pick Garett Bolles can win the job on his or Lynch's blind side and provide an upgrade over Okung.
But although Bolles looks and feels like a future cornerstone left tackle, he's raw with just one year of Division I football under his belt. His technique needs work, especially as a pass-blocker, and the Broncos might not have the patience for that while trying to compete for a championship in 2017.
Other options include Donald Stephenson, Menelik Watson and Ty Sambrailo.
Stephenson is a 28-year-old veteran with starting experience at left tackle, but he started on the right side last year and was graded by Pro Football Focus as the worst player in the NFL at that position. Watson has better pedigree but is also more of a right tackle, and he was mediocre at best for much of his first four seasons in Oakland. Sambrailo might be the top challenger, even though the 2015 second-round pick struggled as a spot starter during his first two seasons in the league.
ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold reports the Broncos "like Ty Sambrailo’s progress this offseason" and that the 25-year-old "could make it interesting."
Denver might wind up with competitive battles at both tackle spots.
On the Patriots' Running Back Hierarchy
We know better than to trust the New England Patriots when it comes to running back usage. Whoever "wins" the starting job this offseason won't necessarily remain the lead dog for long. And this year, there are more candidates than usual. Here's a breakdown.
James White: The Super Bowl LI hero carried the ball just 39 times while catching 60 passes last season. They'll use him plenty as a receiver, but with LeGarrette Blount gone they could even give White a chance to carry the ball a little more. The 25-year-old did average 4.3 yards per carry on limited attempts in 2016.
Mike Gillislee: Signed away from the division-rival Buffalo Bills as a restricted free agent, Gillislee might have the makings of a lead back. The 26-year-old averaged an NFL-high 5.7 yards per carry last season. After signing a two-year, $6.4 million contract, he could fill Blount's role.
Rex Burkhead: But don't count out Burkhead, who will also make a $3.2 million salary in 2017. The 26-year-old hardly saw the field for most of his first four seasons with the Cincinnati Bengals, but he still averaged 4.6 yards per carry while contributing to the passing game during that stretch. In his first career start at the end of last season, he picked up 144 yards from scrimmage while scoring twice against the Baltimore Ravens' top-10 defense.
Dion Lewis: The Pats are 17-0 with Lewis in the lineup the last two years, and he averaged a solid 4.6 yards per carry while contributing nicely to the passing game in both 2015 and 2016. If he can stay healthy, the 26-year-old playmaker will almost certainly make the team. A strong spring and summer could give him a shot to play a large role as part of Bill Belichick's meritocracy.
One takeaway: You might not want to touch any of those guys early in your fantasy draft.
Who Will Emerge in the Eagles Backfield?
Lewis' former team is also trying to figure out its running back pecking order.
Veteran Ryan Mathews, who led the Philadelphia Eagles with 661 rushing yards and eight touchdowns last season, is coming off neck surgery and is "almost certain to be released," according to Jimmy Kempski of Philly Voice. Pro Bowler Darren Sproles had a team-high 865 yards from scrimmage, but he'll be 34 in June and isn't a double-digit-carry type of player.
That could open the door for second-year fifth-round pick Wendell Smallwood and/or rookie fourth-rounder Donnel Pumphrey, both of whom are on the small side but have plenty of upside.
Smallwood tore it up with a 6.4 yards-per-attempt average and over 1,500 rushing yards at West Virginia in 2015 before averaging a solid 4.1 yards per carry as a rookie, while Pumphrey is coming off a college career in which he compiled at least 2,000 yards from scrimmage and scored at least 15 touchdowns in three consecutive seasons in the Mountain West Conference.
Of course, it's possible they aren't done tweaking the running back depth chart. Not only might Mathews stick around despite expectations, and not only is there room for Sproles, Smallwood and Pumphrey to move up and down, but don't be surprised if they add another back between now and the start of training camp.
UPDATE: They indeed added another back. The Eagles signed veteran LeGarrette Blount to a one-year deal just hours after this was published, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter. Blount is 30 and he averaged a mere 3.9 yards per carry last season, but he did score 18 touchdowns for the Super Bowl champion Patriots. He should becomes the only bona fide workhorse back on the roster, and even if he doesn't earn an every-down job he'll likely be used often in short-yardage situations.
Same Deal in D.C.
The Eagles aren't the only NFC East team looking at a potential fight for their starting running back job.
In fact, the Washington Redskins depth chart became significantly more complicated when they drafted Samaje Perine in the fourth round last month. Perine averaged 6.0 yards per carry as a three-year starter at Oklahoma, and, according to Nora Princiotti of the Washington Times, he impressed Redskins head coach Jay Gruden at rookie minicamp.
Rob Kelley averaged 4.2 yards per carry and went over 700 yards while starting nine games last season, but ESPN.com's John Keim believes the second-year undrafted free agent will "be a complementary piece to Perine" in 2017.
Kelley shouldn't have been viewed as a lock to start even before Perine joined the fray.
They also have Chris Thompson, who led the team with a 5.2 yards-per-attempt average while catching 49 passes for 349 yards as a passing-down back last season. And don't forget about Matt Jones, a third-round pick in 2015 who averaged 4.6 yards per carry in seven early-season starts last year
Jones' stock plummeted as he became a regular healthy scratch as the 2016 campaign wore on. They might have been shopping him of late, according to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, but he also might have had a chance to redeem himself this spring and summer.
It could take some time before we get clarity here.
Christian McCaffrey vs. Jonathan Stewart in Carolina
A classic backfield battle between a rookie and an old man could be emerging in Carolina Panthers camp.
That's because the Panthers used a top-10 draft pick on versatile former Stanford superstar Christian McCaffrey, who should be ready to play a major role immediately after averaging 6.2 yards per carry the last three years in the Pac-12. But they also gave a one-year contract extension this offseason to 30-year-old incumbent starter Jonathan Stewart, who was a Pro Bowler just a year ago.
Unfortunately for McCaffrey, he won't be allowed to hit the field with teammates until the current semester at Stanford wraps up in mid-June. So Stewart is still the man for now, but his yards-per-attempt average has sunk dramatically in back-to-back seasons, and McCaffrey should make quite a push when he's able to join the team.
The Battle Among Chargers Receivers Not Named Keenan Allen
The battle for the No. 2 wide receiver job is critical for the Los Angeles Chargers, because No. 1 receiver Keenan Allen missed the majority of the last two seasons due to injury and is still getting back from a torn ACL.
If at any point Allen can't be relied upon, one of three potential complementary starters will suddenly become quarterback Philip Rivers' top target. Here's a breakdown.
Mike Williams: The rookie No. 7 overall pick caught 98 passes and scored 11 touchdowns in 2016 and has the ideal combination of size (6'4", 218 lbs), speed (he ran a 4.51-second 40-yard dash at Clemson's pro day) and experience to contribute from the get-go.
Tyrell Williams: The Western Oregon product emerged as a deep threat with a 1,059-yard, seven-touchdown sophomore season in 2016. He was also tied for the NFL lead with six catches of 40-plus yards.
Travis Benjamin: The five-year veteran had 677 yards in an inconsistent, injury-marred maiden season with the Bolts, but his speed can't be ignored.
It's a crowd. They could move either Williams into the slot. Tyrell ran nearly a quarter of his routes from that spot last season, according to PFF, but Dontrelle Inman is also back after an 810-yard season as the primary slot receiver in San Diego.
If all five of those guys stay healthy, the Chargers will have a good problem on their hands during OTAs and training camp.
The Packers Have a Lot of Corners
The Green Bay Packers are entering offseason work with a handful of talented cornerbacks, and it's an eclectic group.
There's the young gun, rookie No. 33 overall pick Kevin King. At 6'3", 200 pounds, King immediately becomes one of the biggest corners in the NFL. He has the size, speed and measurables to make an impact right away after starting the last three years in the Pac-12
There are also two youngsters—Damarious Randall and Quinten Rollins—seeking redemption after ineffective, injury-plagued sophomore campaigns. Both 24, Randall and Rollins were Green Bay's top two draft picks in 2015, and both had solid rookie seasons. This is a make-or-break year for both, but it's not a given that either will earn a key role.
And then there are two wild cards in 2011 fourth-round pick Davon House and third-year undrafted free agent Ladarius Gunter. House performed well as an occasional starter in Green Bay early in his career before jumping to the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency, but he was terrible before getting benched by the Jags last season. Gunter is a former star at Miami (FL) who played more snaps than any other Green Bay corner last season, per PFF.
If Randall and House grab jobs on the outside, King could battle Rollins for snaps in the slot. But either of those guys could just as easily land starting jobs on the perimeter, and Gunter is a dark horse.
Battle on the Edge in Cincinnati
Another cool battle between a rookie and an aging veteran might play out this offseason in Cincinnati, where the Bengals need more from their No. 2 edge-rusher, Michael Johnson.
Despite a $5 million salary, the 30-year-old had just 3.5 sacks and forced zero fumbles in 16 starts last season. Rookie defensive end Jordan Willis might have been a steal in the third round after registering 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss as a senior at Kansas State.
Johnson is still probably a better run defender, but a strong offseason from Willis could give him a chance to steal third-down reps right off the bat from a longtime Bengal.
ESPN's Mel Kiper can see it. He thinks Willis will "join the rotation immediately."