Biggest NFL Position Battles Developing This Offseason
The steadiest offseason cliche from every NFL head coach is something about competition. Coaches always want more competition, as they believe it makes a team better.
While competitions for spots arise across every roster each offseason, a handful stand out with the potential to shape a character of a team. Those often involve quarterbacks, the most important position in football.
There's no shortage of quarterbacks trying to out-throw each other in spring practices, and that will carry on into the summer. The headlining battle for the 2017 offseason is in Denver, where Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch are dueling for a Broncos team still only one year removed from a championship season.
There's also an undercard of battles at other positions. Will Joe Mixon be the Week 1 starter at running back for the Cincinnati Bengals? Can rookie tackle Ryan Ramczyk unseat veteran Zach Strief in New Orleans?
Let's explore those questions and more while breaking down some of the most notable ongoing position battles across the NFL.
Cody Kessler vs. DeShone Kizer vs. Brock Osweiler
DeShone Kizer will eventually be the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback. That could mean a few months from now, or it could mean a year from now.
The smart money is on Kizer taking regular-season snaps at some point in 2017, as the second-rounder has the highest ceiling of the Browns' top three quarterbacks. The 6'4", 233-pounder averaged 8.4 yards per pass attempt during his Notre Dame career while also rushing for 997 yards.
Kizer has already benefited from working with Browns head coach Hue Jackson, a known quarterback whisperer. Jackson gave him perhaps the best compliment a rookie quarterback can hear, telling Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com he's a quick learner.
"There's a lot thrown at him now, but he's doing a good job," said Jackson. "He's been better than some guys I have been around [while working against] our defense and all of the different things our defense does, which is only going to make our guys better."
Will that quick progress cause the Browns to start Kizer immediately and risk hurting his confidence? It's more likely Cody Kessler keeps the seat warm for at least a handful of games. Kessler has limited arm strength, but he's comfortable in Jackson's system after completing a solid 65.6 percent of his pass attempts during his nine appearances in 2016.
What about Brock Osweiler? Seeing as he threw more interceptions (16) than touchdown passes (15) in 2016, he's facing an uphill battle in this competition. Hue Jackson may have described Osweiler as a pleasant surprise to the media, but we've seen enough tape and heard enough coachspeak to have reasonable doubt.
Deshaun Watson vs. Tom Savage
- The Texans are otherwise talented.
- They drafted Deshaun Watson much earlier, and they gave up valuable future capital to do it.
The Houston Texans have more urgency with their young quarterback than the Browns for two reasons:
The Texans gave up their 2018 first-round pick in a trade with Cleveland to jump to No. 12 and secure Watson.
The Texans' aggression toward an underwhelming quarterback draft class may have come as a surprise, but head coach Bill O'Brien had to be growing restless while seeing otherwise promising seasons derailed by drain-circling quarterback play. Houston has two straight division titles, but it won a playoff game over that span only because Oakland Raiders quarterback Derek Carr broke his leg on Christmas Eve this past year.
As a result, the Texans likely won't wait long before pushing Watson into the spotlight. It's unclear how long they'll keep pumping Tom Savage's tires and sheltering Watson, though.
Shortly after the draft, O'Brien said Savage is still Houston's starter, per ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop, which indicated a clear desire to let Watson come along slowly. However, that stance may be shifting after O'Brien recently heaped praise on Watson.
"Deshaun has come in and been impressive," O'Brien said during an appearance on NFL Total Access, via NFL.com's Chris Wesseling. "He's come in here and done a really good job of putting the time in, learning the basics of our offense, going out on the field. ... He's really gotten better every day. He's gotten a lot of reps."
Watson completed 67.4 percent of his pass attempts over three seasons with Clemson, and he guided the Tigers to a last-second comeback victory over Alabama in this year's national title game. Meanwhile, the oft-injured Savage has a career per-attempt passing average of only 6.4 yards.
He'll serve his purpose as a bridge to Watson, and nothing more.
Ty Montgomery vs. Jamaal Williams
Ty Montgomery might be the Green Bay Packers' future at running back.
He has a compact but strong build, and he now weighs 220 pounds after adding some bulk during the offseason, according to USA Today's Ryan Wood. He runs with power and was able to churn through tackles on instinct alone while making his transition from playing wide receiver last year.
Upon making the switch to running back, Montgomery churned out an efficient per-carry average of 5.9 yards. His elusiveness and breakaway speed in the open field also translated to five carries for 20-plus yards. It all left the Packers wondering what Montgomery could grow into after properly learning the running back position for an entire offseason. They're going to get that answer in 2017.
That question also comes with uncertainty about Montgomery's ability to handle the physical abuse of a large workload. Including the playoffs, he logged only three games with double-digit carries in 2016, and he still has yet to hit the 20-carry mark.
That's why the Packers showed confidence in Montgomery by not selecting a running back until the fourth round of the 2017 draft. But they still added three rookie running backs in Philadelphia, with fourth-rounder Jamaal Williams leading the group.
The 6'0", 212-pound Williams accumulated 1,375 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns during his final season at BYU in 2016. He's the most likely of the three rookies to eat into Montgomery's snaps.
Jonathan Stewart vs. Christian McCaffrey
This may be a battle only in the sense that it'll show how the Carolina Panthers intend to use running back Christian McCaffrey. Or rather, whether they plan to use him properly.
McCaffrey can do a bit of everything, and he does it all well. He finished his career at Stanford with 5,128 yards from scrimmage, 1,206 of which came through the air. He's the ultimate multipurpose weapon, which is why the Panthers selected him with the eighth overall pick.
But there's still a place and role for Jonathan Stewart in Carolina's backfield. The 30-year-old may be aging and slowing, having averaged only 3.8 yards per carry in 2016, but he's fresh off a season with nine rushing touchdowns. Regardless of how the Panthers use McCaffrey, Stewart should remain valuable as a short-yardage and goal-line power runner.
The rest of the offseason will be centered around how many early-down carries Stewart can earn and whether Carolina has confidence in McCaffrey's ability to be a high-volume inside runner.
Joe Mixon vs. Giovani Bernard vs. Jeremy Hill
By drafting running back Joe Mixon in the second round, the Cincinnati Bengals showed they don't care about the public scrutiny that will hover around him.
They should care far more about starting him, though, as it shouldn't take long for Mixon to separate himself on their running back depth chart.
His primary competition will be Jeremy Hill, who's had 29 rushing touchdowns over his first three seasons in the NFL. But when it comes to chunk gains, Hill is a near-zero. He plodded through 2016 while averaging only 3.8 yards per carry.
Mixon, meanwhile, is a dynamic threat who can pile up yards as both a runner and pass-catcher. He did that throughout his time at Oklahoma, finishing with 2,027 rushing yards and 894 receiving yards.
He'll have to steal that pass-catching role away from Giovani Bernard, who should be fully recovered from an ACL tear in time for training camp. He's had four straight seasons with 300-plus receiving yards.
Josh McCown vs. Bryce Petty vs. Christian Hackenberg
This quarterback competition will likely be won by default. The New York Jets will name Josh McCown their starting quarterback because he's the only qualified candidate.
McCown has been effective for short stretches in his career, most notably when he averaged 8.2 yards per attempt and threw 13 touchdown passes over eight games with the Chicago Bears in 2013. He was also serviceable for a handful of games with the Cleveland Browns in 2015, throwing 12 touchdowns and four interceptions over eight starts. However, both of those periods are now far in the rearview mirror.
Even if McCown wins this battle and is adequate for a stretch, an injury almost feels inevitable. He broke both his left and right collarbones over the past two seasons, and he also missed time due to a concussion. Additionally, McCown broke "a couple" of ribs in 2015, according to Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com.
Either way, McCown will likely be a temporary solution in 2017 for the Jets. The other options behind him are bad and worse.
Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg don't deserve serious consideration for an NFL starting job, but the Jets have reached that point mostly because the laws of supply and demand aren't working in their favor. There aren't enough average quarterbacks to go around the league, which inevitably leaves a few teams grasping.
Petty needed only four starts and 133 pass attempts to throw seven interceptions in 2016. Hackenberg, meanwhile, completed just 36.2 percent of his 47 pass attempts against second- and third-team preseason scrubs last summer.
Marlon Humphrey vs. Brandon Carr
Baltimore Ravens rookie cornerback Marlon Humphrey can't legally consume an alcoholic beverage until early July. When he does, perhaps fellow cornerback Brandon Carr will join him, graciously congratulating the rookie for earning a starting job right away. On the other hand, Humphrey winning a starting job likely means Carr has been displaced and bumped down the depth chart.
The Ravens signed Carr as a free agent after a bounce-back season, at least by his recent standards. But his 101.0 passer rating in coverage and five touchdowns allowed in 2016, per PFF, were still mediocre at best. Those numbers look better next to his 2015 campaign, when he gave up a 69.0 completion percentage.
The 31-year-old's newly signed contract doesn't secure him a roster spot due to its structure. The deal is essentially a series of one-year contracts, and Carr is guaranteed only $4 million.
Given that contract framework and his recent play, the Ravens likely won't hesitate to give Carr a lesser role if needed. That means his battle with Humphrey should emerge as a classic training camp showdown between the sliding veteran and the rising kid.
The Ravens need that competition in their secondary as they try to progressively overhaul the unit. They made great strides in 2016 while ranking ninth in passing yards allowed (232.8), but they still gave up 28 passing touchdowns (24th). That's why general manager Ozzie Newsome used the 16th overall pick on Humphrey, who allowed only half the throws into his coverage to be completed in 2016, per PFF.
Ryan Ramczyk vs. Zach Strief
Protecting the quarterback is always a fundamental task for any team. It's especially important when your quarterback is 38-year-old Drew Brees.
That's why the New Orleans Saints never have enough offensive line depth. It's also why the Saints selected tackle Ryan Ramczyk with their 32nd overall pick.
The need to add another tackle goes beyond piling up quality depth, though. Ramczyk will now be competing at right tackle against Zach Strief, a veteran who's still highly effective and among the best in the league. But Strief will turn 34 years old in September, putting him in dangerous age territory where an abrupt decline is always possible.
There aren't any signs of that doomsday coming for now, as Strief allowed just two sacks and 31 total pressures in 2016, per PFF. However, he's also only one year removed from giving up six sacks. Meanwhile, Ramczyk shined as the anchor of Wisconsin's offensive line in 2016, allowing just one sack, three hits and eight hurries, per PFF.
Martavis Bryant vs. Juju Smith-Schuster
The Pittsburgh Steelers added two receivers with similar body types this offseason, both of whom excel in similar areas.
First, the Steelers will welcome Martavis Bryant back from his one-year suspension. At the still-young age of 25, the 6'4" and now 225-pound receiver should be able to slide back in as a dominant deep threat and red-zone target. The towering wideout caught 14 touchdown passes over his first 21 regular-season games while averaging 17.3 yards per reception.
His challenger for snaps is 2017 second-round pick Juju Smith-Schuster. Much like Bryant, he's a large-bodied presence at 6'2" and 220 pounds. And much like Bryant, Smith-Schuster is a red-zone magnet, with 20 touchdown catches over his final two years at USC.
Bryant has the edge because of his established history with the Steelers and quarterback Ben Roethlisberger. Even if Smith-Schuster can't climb past Bryant on the depth chart, he's has the route-running ability to thrive in the slot as well. He's been getting snaps there during OTAs, according to Jacob Klinger of PennLive.com.
Trevor Siemian vs. Paxton Lynch
In 2017, the Denver Broncos defense will likely need to float a quarterback who can best be described as a game manager. That will be true regardless of whether Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch wins the job.
Based on draft pedigree, Lynch would appear to have the higher ceiling of the two. He's a strong-armed towering presence at 6'7" and 244 pounds. It's easy to daydream about his physical abilities, especially since he's only one year removed from throwing 28 touchdown passes and four interceptions for Memphis.
However, the NFL seemed far too fast for the first-round rookie during his three appearances in 2016. Lynch completed only 59.0 percent of his passes while averaging 6.0 yards per attempt, and he took six sacks during his Week 5 start against the Atlanta Falcons.
With another offseason to develop mentally, perhaps Lynch will be ready to play like one of the highest-drafted quarterbacks in his class. Conversely, the Broncos could go with the devil they know and stick with Siemian. The 2015 seventh-round pick had a solid beginning to his first season as a starter last year before stumbling in December.
Siemian averaged eight-plus yards per attempt in three of his first four starts. Over the Broncos' final four games, however—three of which were losses that dropped them out of playoff contention—Siemian averaged only 6.2 yards per throw.