Under-the-Radar NFL Training Camp Battles You Need to Monitor
Every summer, there are training camp battles so massive and potentially season-altering that Bruce Buffer should announce the two players scrapping for snaps.
They often involve quarterbacks, and you know them well by now for 2017. Will Deshaun Watson start immediately for the Houston Texans? Can the Broncos' Paxton Lynch fight off Trevor Siemian? Will the Cleveland Browns give DeShone Kizer the keys to their offense as a rookie?
We'll follow every pass in shorts those quarterbacks fire throughout August. But the undercard can be just as important with training camp battles.
Names that don't reach marquee status can also shape a season. Names like Justin Bethel, or whoever the Arizona Cardinals select from a group of mediocre options to be their No. 2 cornerback. And like John Simon, the Colts' outside linebacker who will have to fight off a challenge.
Let's take a look at those under-the-radar battles with training camps just days away.
While we'll mostly focus on a handful of camp battles we can really sink our teeth into, we would be remiss not to mention the following competitions.
Darren Sproles vs. Donnel Pumphrey: It's unlikely Pumphrey will unseat Sproles as the Philadelphia Eagles' main passing-down running back. But Pumphrey does have a nearly identical skill set, and it's not outlandish to think a 34-year-old running back could slam into a wall soon.
Robert Alford vs. Jalen Collins: Alford's paycheck in 2017 says the Atlanta Falcons' No. 2 cornerback job is his to lose. Late in the 2016 season, he signed a four-year contract extension that included $21 million guaranteed. But Jalen Collins shined in 2016 while filling in for an injured Desmond Trufant, posting a passer rating in coverage of 74.1, per PFF.
Damarious Randall vs. Quinten Rollins vs. Kevin King: Three men will enter the battle dome for the Green Bay Packers' starting cornerback job opposite Davon House. Rookie Kevin King is the early favorite because of his chart-topping measurables. The 6'3", 200-pound physical force ran the 40-yard dash in 4.43 seconds, and he allowed just one touchdown in coverage over his last 28 college games.
Buffalo Bills Wide Receivers: Zay Jones vs. Andre Holmes vs. Corey Brown
There's potential scattered throughout the Buffalo Bills wide receiver depth chart. But there's also uncertainty that leads to crippling anxiety.
When Robert Woods and Marquise Goodwin left as free agents, they took a combined 1,274 snaps with them from 2016. Then there's the departed Justin Hunter, a situational red-zone threat who played a more limited role but still caught four touchdown passes in 2016 on just 302 snaps.
The task ahead in Buffalo then is to support Tyrod Taylor, the Bills' at times shaky quarterback, by hoping talent can make up for the lack of continuity among his targets. Which is why a new coaching staff is also surely hoping rookie Zay Jones impresses enough to win a starting job opposite Sammy Watkins.
The second-round pick in 2017 can line up from anywhere and separate. He also has reliable hands that should earn his quarterback's trust quickly. Jones dropped only six of the 164 catchable passes thrown in his direction during his senior season, according to Pro Football Focus.
He turned those 158 catches into 1,746 yards, and his 399 receptions over a four-year NCAA career set a new FBS record. Jake Hamilton of BuffaloBills.com noted that throughout spring practices, Jones "looked the part" of a top-three receiver.
Ideally he'll be more than that, especially with health questions always hovering around Watkins. But inexperience is a factor, which is where Corey Brown and Andre Holmes come in.
Brown is entering his fourth season. He struggled in 2016 along with the rest of the Carolina Panthers offense. But he's only one season removed from setting single-year highs in touchdowns (four) and yards per catch (14.4).
Holmes is further back in the competition for the No. 2 role after a few dud seasons. But the six-year veteran still has a history of production to fall back on and possibly rekindle after his 693 receiving yards on 47 catches in 2014.
Dallas Cowboys Cornerbacks: Nolan Carroll vs. Anthony Brown vs. Chidobe Awuzie
The Dallas Cowboys defense rarely gave quarterback Dak Prescott and his offense favorable field position in 2016 by snatching an interception or creating a fumble. Which was fine, because Prescott was a rookie in title only and didn't play like one. And running back Ezekiel Elliott rumbled over the entire league.
But a gift every now and then still would have been nice. But those takeaways didn't come, and especially not the interceptions.
The Cowboys finished with just nine picks in 2016 (tied for 27th). This tale of pass-stealing woe is about to get scarier too, as the Cowboys defenders who recorded five of those interceptions are now gone.
The Cowboys' secondary was picked dry during free agency, with safeties Barry Church and J.J. Wilcox leaving, and cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr playing elsewhere now too. There's an opportunity for someone to raise the Cowboys' takeaways up from rock bottom. Three cornerbacks will likely claw for two starting jobs: Nolan Carroll, Anthony Brown and Chidobe Awuzie.
Carroll was far from spectacular though still serviceable for the Philadelphia Eagles in 2016. The 30-year-old's best selling point is his experience on a cornerback depth chart that doesn't have much of it. Carroll has recorded eight career interceptions, three or which have come over the past two years.
His primary competition will be Anthony Brown, the second-year cornerback who allowed the league's fewest yards per cover snap over final five weeks of the 2016 season, per PFF. But Awuzie could sneak up to push one of them aside if the rookie stands out during training camp.
Awuzie scorched the combine with his 4.43-second 40-yard dash time while standing 6'0" and weighing 202 pounds. He's an impressive athlete who could be tough to keep off the field after tallying 18 passes defensed over his final two years at Colorado.
Seattle Seahawks Right Guard: Oday Aboushi vs. Mark Glowinski
The Seattle Seahawks' annual mission to fill out a competent offensive line with mostly spare parts is about to begin again.
Last year, the line allowed Seattle quarterbacks (mostly Russell Wilson) to get hit 111 times. That was the league's fourth-worst total and came after a 2015 season when the Seahawks QBs were whacked 114 times (third-worst).
The most pressing area of concern is left tackle, where converted basketball player George Fant will likely hold off Luke Joeckel, who's penciled in at left guard. But an underrated though still important battle is brewing on the interior.
Oday Aboushi was signed as a free agent, and his best asset is experience. He's started 18 games over four years as a swing man while having the versatility to play both guard and tackle. The 26-year-old will probably fit in best at right guard in Seattle, where Mark Glowinski is the incumbent he needs to unseat.
Glowinski has an advantage simply because of his time working in front of Wilson and in the Seahawks' system. He's made 17 starts for the Seahawks over two seasons. Being a holdover on a unit that gave up 42 sacks in 2016 won't count for a whole lot though.
Arizona Cardinals CB: Brandon Williams vs. Harlan Miller vs. Justin Bethel
Being the cornerback who plays opposite Patrick Peterson usually isn't much fun. Opposing offensive coordinators and quarterbacks are afraid to test the six-time Pro Bowler, whose average of 8.5 coverage snaps for every target was a league low in 2016, per PFF.
The rest of the whirring footballs thrown at the Cardinals' secondary have to go somewhere, which leads to a heavy burden on the No. 2 cornerback. Marcus Cooper was roasted frequently during the 2016 season in that role. Which is why the Cardinals didn't re-sign him, and now another August of trying to find Peterson a running mate will begin.
Brandon Williams has had his chance to be the solution, and he will get another one. The converted running back came into 2016 as a raw developmental project. Head coach Bruce Arians was impressed enough to give Williams the starting job out of training camp, and the 24-year-old responded by getting napalmed for 74 yards and a touchdown in coverage during a Week 1 loss, per PFF.
The hope is that with more time and another offseason behind him, Williams will take a stride forward in his second season. If he can't, then Justin Bethel is an experienced option with his 15 passes defensed and three interceptions over the past two seasons, even while starting just eight times.
Harlan Miller, a 2016 sixth-round pick, could also take a second-year leap. He needed time to mature and add muscle to compete at the NFL level. But he showed ball skills with 11 interceptions during his time a Southeastern Louisiana.
San Francisco 49ers Tight End: Vance McDonald vs. George Kittle
The San Francisco 49ers need youthful energy to get excited about. And they've found it in tight end George Kittle.
Any holdover from a previous regime is always in danger when a team is rebuilding. And Kittle has cranked up the pressure on Vance McDonald a notch or three throughout the offseason.
The 23-year-old was a fifth-round pick in the 2017 draft, the 49ers' first with John Lynch as their general manager. That's typically not an area of the draft where we see immediate production from pass-catchers, and especially not at tight end where blocking is a required skill to stay on the field.
What separates Kittle, however, is that he's more than just a passable blocker, a status most tight ends picked in the late rounds would be overjoyed to reach in their first season. He was one of the nation's best blockers in 2016, with PFF noting Kittle allowed just one quarterback pressure over his final two seasons in Iowa.
That blocking confidence will make it difficult to keep Kittle on the sideline when combined with his red-zone presence and speed up the seam. Kittle averaged 15.4 yards per reception during his college career and scored 10 times.
He received first-team snaps throughout minicamp, as Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat observed. And more recently, Lynch told Joe Fann of 49ers.com that Kittle has "really flashed" while exceeding expectations.
McDonald, who was shopped around in trade discussions during the draft, will have to surge throughout training camp to hold off Kittle and keep a roster spot.
Detroit Lions Cornerback: Teez Tabor vs. Nevin Lawson
Nearly every week, the Detroit Lions put their fans through heart-stopping drama. They won nine games to squeak into the playoffs as a wild-card team, and five of those wins came by three points or fewer.
The Lions' inability to either get a more comfortable lead or keep one was mostly tied to their pass defense. Opposing quarterbacks averaged 7.5 yards per attempt, which ranked tied for 22nd. They gave up the second-most passing touchdowns (33) too, and the Lions pass defense also allowed a staggering completion percentage of 72.7.
Heading into the offseason they needed an infusion of talent across from cornerback Darius Slay. And they may have found it in second-round pick Teez Tabor.
Red flags were planted all over the 21-year-old after the Florida Gators product posted a glacially slow 40-yard dash time of just 4.62 seconds. Though that raised legitimate concerns about his athletic limitations, Tabor's on-field play and instincts still shined. He recorded eight interceptions and 28 passes defensed over three years with the Gators, and PFF charted him with a passer rating in coverage of just 41.2 in his college career.
His main competition for the No. 2 cornerback job in Detroit will be Nevin Lawson. Experience in defensive coordinator Teryl Austin's system is on Lawson's side after he made 16 starts in 2016. Having this impressive accomplishment on a career resume doesn't hurt either: Lawson has allowed the fewest yards per coverage snap of any cornerback from the 2014 draft class, per PFF.
Indianapolis Colts Outside Linebacker: John Simon vs. Tarell Basham
The Indianapolis Colts pass rush didn't exist for long stretches in 2016. Opposing quarterbacks felt at home in an ample and well-rounded pocket that wasn't disturbed nearly often enough.
The Colts finished with 33 sacks (tied for 19th). The secondary was exposed because of the lack of pressure, giving up 262.5 passing yards per game. Heading into the 2017 offseason, Indianapolis needed multiple pass-rushing upgrades, and preferably affordable ones too since the Colts had holes throughout their defense.
One possible solution is outside linebacker John Simon, who was signed as a free agent. He played sparingly for the Houston Texans in a rotational role (51.4 percent of their snaps in 2016) but still managed to log 8.5 sacks and 104 tackles over the past two seasons. The dot connecting here isn't tough: Simon's production could quickly soar if his snap count does the same.
However, rookie Tarell Basham will challenge Simon for those precious snaps. The powerful outside rusher thrashed his way to 38.5 tackles for a loss and 27 sacks over four years with the Ohio Bobcats.
Chicago Bears Tight End: Zach Miller vs. Adam Shaheen vs. Dion Sims
Age isn't Zach Miller's only problem in his fight to hold off Adam Shaheen and Dion Sims to remain the Chicago Bears' top tight end. Though it's one of his problems, as he's set to turn 33 years old in October, an age when football clocks start to tick loudly at his position.
But if the number on his birth certificate was Miller's main concern, keeping his job would probably still be easy. After all, he's scored nine touchdowns over the past two years with 400-plus receiving yards in each.
Frailty can come with age though, and that's what could ultimately cripple Miller in his quest to keep both his starting gig and a roster spot. He's missed 19 games over the past three seasons.
That combination of age and frequent trips to the injured reserve isn't appealing for any team, and especially not a rebuilding one like the Bears. They signed Dion Sims as a free agent after he caught four touchdown passes for the Miami Dolphins in 2016. And second-round pick Adam Shaheen is an athletic marvel who gallops downfield at 6'6" and 278 pounds. He set a Division II single-season record for a tight end in 2016 with 16 touchdown receptions for Ashland.
The future is in place behind Miller. And the future might come fast.
Washington Redskins Cornerback: Fabian Moreau vs. Bashaud Breeland
Much like playing opposite Peterson in Arizona, being Josh Norman's partner at cornerback on the other side for the Washington Redskins is a tough life, too. Although Bashaud Breeland has generally held up well in that role, he's started to crack a bit recently.
The third-year corner has recorded seven career interceptions, including a single-season-high three in 2016. But Breeland has been inconsistent, with plenty of moments when he's been a liability in coverage on the outside. He's allowed a passer rating in coverage of 101.0 when lined up as an outside cornerback, per PFF, and 13.7 yards per reception.
Breeland will try to cling to that job on the boundary. But he may be better suited to slide inside and take over in the slot if third-round rookie Fabian Moreau is ready to start immediately. Moreau finished his final season at UCLA in 2016 with two interceptions and eight passes defensed. He lit up the combine while measuring 6'0" and 206 pounds, and running the 40-yard dash in 4.35 seconds.