Biggest NFL Position Battles Developing This Offseason

Brad Gagnon@Brad_Gagnon NFL National ColumnistMay 24, 2018

Biggest NFL Position Battles Developing This Offseason

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    NFL teams won't be competing against each other for another three-and-a-half months, but players have already begun to battle their teammates. 

    Organized team activities have arrived for all 32 NFL franchises, which means position battles have begun anew.

    In some cases, players don't even realize they're competing for certain roles. In other cases, the whole football world is well-aware that a particular spot is up for grabs. 

    Among the dozens of battles that will transpire throughout the NFL between now and the start of September, the following 14 are worth keeping an eye on from the get-go. These will go a long way toward determining the fates of their respective teams in 2018.

       

Buffalo Bills Quarterback

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    Jeffrey T. Barnes/Associated Press

    The Tyrod Taylor era is over in Buffalo. Taylor started 43 games for the Bills over the last three years, but the team traded him to the Cleveland Browns in March, paving the way for a competition between three unproven quarterbacks this spring and summer.

          

    The contestants

    AJ McCarron: Considered one of the best young backups in the league during his four years with the Cincinnati Bengals, the former Alabama star is the Bills' most experienced and expensive quarterback. The 27-year-old, who signed a two-year, $10 million deal in March, has a 93.6 passer rating on 133 career attempts. 

    Josh Allen: The rookie No. 7 overall pick out of Wyoming is undoubtedly viewed as the quarterback of the future in Buffalo, but he'll face an uphill climb after completing only 56.2 percent of his passes at Wyoming. Allen might need time to get acclimated to the NFL. 

    Nathan Peterman: The Bills thought highly enough of Peterman to start him in place of Taylor in the midst of a playoff run last season, but the 2017 fifth-round pick threw five interceptions in one half against the Los Angeles Chargers. It'd be a huge shock if he landed the starting job, but he could steal the No. 2 spot if Allen looks overwhelmed in camp. 

          

    Prediction

    McCarron and Allen both have a lot of potential, so it wouldn't be surprising if the Bills ended up with a conundrum on their hands in a year or two. Allen might be too raw to beat out McCarron for the desperate-to-win-now Bills this summer, but McCarron could be good enough to hold down the job all year. If that happens, we'd start to hear trade chatter next year.

Arizona Cardinals Quarterback

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    In Arizona, the Carson Palmer era is over after five years. And like the Bills, the Cardinals have brought in a few options as potential replacements for their newly retired quarterback. 

         

    The contestants

    Sam Bradford: After signing a one-year, $20 million deal in March, the top pick of the 2010 NFL draft is the most expensive bridge quarterback in NFL history, if nothing else. Bradford has the ability to rock in a starting role, but he's lacked consistency and durability throughout his career. "We got Sam to be our starting quarterback, and I would still say that is the case," Cards head coach Steve Wilks said in April, per Kent Somers of AZCentral.com

    Josh Rosen: That quote came just after the team traded up to draft Rosen 10th overall, and it continued with Wilks saying that "every position is open for competition." So it's possible the polished UCLA product—he threw 1,170 passes as a three-year starter in the Pac-12—could leapfrog Bradford before the Cardinals kick off the regular season on September 9. 

             

    Prediction 

    If Bradford stays healthy, he starts the season. However, expect Rosen to take over during the first half of the year, either because Bradford doesn't stay healthy or he begins to struggle. 

Washington Redskins Running Back

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    Because so many teams have running back committees these days, true competitions at the position only exist when multiple players—usually with similar skill sets—are competing for a job that is complementary in nature. The Washington Redskins, for example, already have a change-of-pace back in Chris Thompson, which leaves a veteran, a sophomore and a rookie to duke it out for the lead role on early downs. 

          

    The contestants

    Rob Kelley: The 25-year-old followed up a strong rookie season with a dud in 2017, averaging a meager 3.1 yards per carry before a high ankle sprain sent him to injured reserve in November. He's the senior member of the group, but we might be seeing why he wasn't drafted in 2016. 

    Samaje Perine: The 22-year-old fourth-round pick put together back-to-back 100-yard games right after Kelley went on IR in November, but Perine followed that up by averaging only 2.8 yards per attempt during the final five weeks of his rookie season. 

    Derrius Guice: Widely expected to be a first-round pick in April, character concerns caused the former LSU standout to slide to the bottom of Round 2. But he's a well-built 20-year-old with top-notch vision coming off back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in the SEC. 

         

    Prediction

    Guice blows Kelley and Perine away when it comes to sheer talent. So long as he remains on track off the field, he should be ready to take the lion's share of early-down reps in September. 

Cleveland Browns Running Back

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Duke Johnson is to the Cleveland Browns what Chris Thompson is to the Redskins, leaving Cleveland with an impending offseason battle between a high-profile free-agent addition and an intriguing rookie.  

    The contestants

    Carlos Hyde: The 2014 second-round pick averaged 4.2 yards per carry and scored 17 touchdowns for the San Francisco 49ers over the last two seasons, and he leveraged that into a three-year, $15.3 million deal with the Browns. But that average dropped from 4.6 in 2016 to 3.9 last year, and the 26-year-old has yet to put together a 1,000-yard campaign. 

    Nick Chubb: The rookie second-round pick out of Georgia went over 1,100 yards in all three of his healthy seasons in the SEC. He's a powerful, polished runner with decent speed and the ability to start from the get-go. 

    Prediction

    Hyde's career is at a crossroads, which typically isn't a good thing at his position. He's expensive for a running back, but not relative to the amount of money the Browns have at their disposal to burn. Chubb has a much higher ceiling, and Cleveland likely will be inclined to give him more work as soon as he proves that this summer.  

Green Bay Packers Running Back

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    Jim Mone/Associated Press

    The brewing competition in the Green Bay Packers' backfield is slightly more complicated because it doesn't appear as though anyone is locked in as a third-down back. Any of the three players projected to compete for the top job could also wind up settling for a third-string role. 

          

    The contestants

    Ty Montgomery: The lone veteran back on the team entering the 2017 season struggled to stay healthy while averaging only 3.8 yards per carry during what was supposed to be his first full season as an NFL running back. This is a make-or-break year at that position for the converted wide receiver. The good news is Packers head coach Mike McCarthy says people will "see a bigger, stronger Ty Montgomery this year," according to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky.

    Aaron Jones: The 23-year-old fifth-round pick averaged a tremendous 5.5 yards per carry as a rookie in 2017, ranking second in the league behind only Offensive Rookie of the Year Alvin Kamara among backs with at least 50 attempts. 

    Jamaal Williams: Sure, the fourth-round pick led the team with 556 rushing yards while scoring six touchdowns as a rookie last season, but he averaged a mediocre 3.6 yards per attempt. 

          

    Prediction

    It looks as though Montgomery was a flash in the pan when he excelled down the stretch in 2016. Jones and Williams are better pure backs. Jones plays far quicker than the plodding Williams, but he's a less capable receiver. They complement each other well, which could leave Montgomery as the odd man out.  

Detroit Lions Running Back

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    Leon Halip/Getty Images

    Elsewhere in the NFC North, the Detroit Lions might have a four-way running back competition on their hands featuring an old man, a pair of veterans who have failed to live up to expectations and a flashy rookie.

                       

    The contestants

    LeGarrette Blount: He'll turn 32 this year, but the eight-year vet averaged a superb 4.4 yards per carry in a part-time role with the Philadelphia Eagles in 2017 and led the NFL with 18 rushing touchdowns the year before that. He's certainly in the mix to share early-down carries, but if he suddenly runs out of gas, his $2 million salary makes him expendable. 

    Ameer Abdullah: Widely expected to take the reins last season, the 2015 second-round pick fell on his face with an average of 3.3 yards per attempt. He might be running out of opportunities in Detroit. 

    Theo Riddick: More of a receiver than a runner, Riddick might continue to hold down a role as a third-down back. He's coming off three consecutive 50-plus-catch seasons and is also due to make $4.1 million in 2018. 

    Kerryon Johnson: After a big junior season in the SEC, you'd have to think the rookie out of Auburn will be given plenty of opportunities to take the lead role in a backfield that has underperformed for much of the Matthew Stafford era. He has all of the tools you want, but he has to prove he can stay healthy. 

    Prediction

    Johnson will be the guy on early downs, Riddick will continue to get plenty of work on passing downs, and Blount might earn the "insurance policy" role over Abdullah simply because the latter might have more trade value. 

Dallas Cowboys Wide Receiver

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    Patrick Smith/Getty Images

    With Dez Bryant gone, the top spot on the Dallas Cowboys' wide receiver depth chart is up for grabs. And it looks like that competition will come down to whether the team's longest-tenured outside receiver can hold off two newbies. On top of that, there might also be a battle in the slot, with the team's longest-tenured inside receiver trying to fend off yet another newcomer. 

                   

    The contestants outside

    Terrance Williams: The 2013 third-round pick has experienced an up-and-down career, but he's failed to reach the 600-yard mark in back-to-back years and is coming off a zero-touchdown season. It feels as though he's a decent No. 2 wideout at best.  

    Allen Hurns: Although the best season of his career—a 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown campaign—was in 2015, Hurns is just 26 and hoping that a new environment will bring out the best in him after signing a two-year, $12 million contract in March. He was primarily a slot receiver with the Jacksonville Jaguars, but that impressive 2015 performance came when he was used mainly outside. 

    Michael Gallup: Coming off two big seasons at Colorado State, the athletic 2018 third-round pick has a high ceiling but could be a little too raw to take over a top spot immediately. 

           

    Prediction

    Williams might land the top outside job by default, but Hurns is a more capable receiver. If he can stay healthy, he might wind up getting more targets over the course of the year. Gallup will need time. 

               

    The contestants in the slot

    Cole Beasley: Last year, the 29-year-old had his least productive season since he was a rookie in 2012.  

    Tavon Austin: Dallas traded for the 2013 first-round pick during the draft. Considering he's owed $7 million this season, they probably have big plans for him. 

              

    Prediction

    Dallas will probably find a way to utilize both, with Austin working often as a runner. Still, Beasley might lose more looks in 2018. 

Los Angeles Chargers Wide Receiver

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    It's a little less complicated in Los Angeles, where Keenan Allen is the Chargers' No. 1 receiver. But a young first-round pick is looking to challenge an overachieving veteran for the right to start opposite the team's high-profile Pro Bowler. 

    The contestants

    Tyrell Williams: A year after his 2016 breakout season in which he tallied more than 1,000 yards while scoring seven touchdowns, the 2015 undrafted free agent was tied for fourth in the league with an average of 16.9 yards per catch while pulling in an impressive 62.3 percent of the passes thrown his way in 2017. 

    Mike Williams: But the team's top pick in the 2017 draft has a heck of a lot more upside, despite the fact the former Clemson star had his rookie season derailed by injuries. 

    Prediction

    Williams will win the job. 

Los Angeles Rams Tight End

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    Michael Owen Baker/Associated Press

    Per statistics compiled from NFL GSIS, the Los Angeles Rams used multiple tight ends on only 14 percent of their offensive plays in 2017. That rate likely won't increase too much considering how successful that unit was, especially with wide receiver Brandin Cooks coming on board. That means the Rams are going to have to decide between a 25-year-old who started all 16 games last year and a more highly touted 23-year-old.

            

    The contestants

    Tyler Higbee: The incumbent starter caught a mere 55.6 percent of the passes thrown his way while scoring just one touchdown as a second-year fourth-round pick in 2017. 

    Gerald Everett: He was hardly a factor as a rookie second-round pick last season, but Everett is an extremely athletic matchup nightmare with higher upside than Higbee. He entered the offseason having to refine his route running and blocking, and he'll have to overcome a lack of size. 

              

    Prediction 

    No way Sean McVay doesn't at least experiment with Everett a lot more in 2018, but Higbee's trajectory is also pointed upward after an improved second season. Despite so-so rate-based numbers last season, he'll hold on to the job for now. 

New England Patriots Left Tackle

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    With longtime starting left tackle Nate Solder now with the New York Giants, the New England Patriots look as though they'll be holding auditions for the role this summer. Whoever wins will be in charge of protecting the 40-year-old reigning MVP's blind side. No pressure.

            

    The contestants

    LaAdrian Waddle: His name seems to come up the most, but it's not clear why. The 26-year-old didn't perform well in spot duty at right tackle last season, barely saw the field the year before that and was terrible as a semi-regular starter with the Lions in 2015. 

    Trent Brown: The 25-year-old started 28 games at right tackle for the San Francisco 49ers the last three years. The Patriots probably wouldn't have traded for him if they didn't think he could potentially start at left tackle. Unless...

    Marcus Cannon: ...Unless they're considering using Brown at right tackle and moving Cannon to the left side. The 30-year-old has been the team's go-to starter on the right side the last few years. An ankle injury cost him the majority of his 2017 campaign, but he was Pro Football Focus's highest-graded right tackle in 2016. 

    Isaiah Wynn: Projected as a guard ahead of the draft, Wynn was announced as a tackle when New England selected him in the first round last month. He dominated as a left tackle at Georgia last year but is only 6'3", which is far from ideal when transitioning to the NFL at that position. 

    Prediction

    The Patriots' actions indicate they can see themselves trying Cannon out on the left side and putting Brown on the right side. Waddle will be given a shot but isn't in that echelon, and Wynn might need time before he's able to handle the tackle position at the professional level (and there's a chance he's better suited as a guard altogether). 

Cleveland Browns Left Tackle

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    Hard Knocks will have a lot of fodder at Browns camp this summer. Because beyond Baker Mayfield's debut and the aforementioned hot competition at running back, it looks as though there'll be a battle for the right to replace retired left tackle Joe Thomas. 

         

    The contestants

    Shon Coleman: The 2016 third-round pick started all 16 games in the right tackle spot last year. And although he often struggled in that role, ESPN.com's Pat McManamon reports Coleman will get the first crack at Thomas' old job. 

    Austin Corbett: The top pick of the 2018 draft's second round might not have the length to start at left tackle in the NFL, but he performed well enough as a four-year starter at Nevada that Cleveland felt he was worth the No. 33 overall pick. That puts him in the conversation. 

    Chris Hubbard: The 27-year-old was a spot starter with the Pittsburgh Steelers the last couple of years. He's never been a left tackle in the NFL and is a long shot to start anywhere but the right side, but he's at least a candidate considering his $5.8 million salary.  

    Spencer Drango: The 2016 fifth-round pick took over when Thomas went down midway through the 2017 season, but he makes more sense as an insurance policy at guard. 

           

    Prediction

    Unless Corbett shocks the world this summer, look for Coleman to hold down the left side by default. The Browns might need better options than this next year. 

Houston Texans Left Tackle

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    Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

    The Houston Texans had arguably the worst offensive line in football last year, with the left tackle position once again a problem spot. The team traded stalwart Duane Brown to the Seattle Seahawks in the middle of the 2017 season and allowed Chris Clark to enter unrestricted free agency in March. Clark started the majority of last year in that spot, but it appears there will now be a battle for the role. 

        

    The contestants

    Julie'n Davenport: The fourth-round pick started four games in that spot as a rookie last year, but he was raw coming out of FCS-level Bucknell. 

    Martinas Rankin: The 2018 third-round pick out of Mississippi State brings a lot of versatility to the offensive line group, but NFL.com's Lance Zierlein warns that "the further Rankin kicks inside the better he will be." 

    Seantrel Henderson: The 6'7", 330-pounder certainly has the look of a top-notch offensive tackle, but he has very little experience playing on the left. He's also said (h/t Jeff Risdon of Texans Wire) that he prefers to be on the right side. 

              

    Prediction

    Davenport will get another shot. 

Green Bay Packers Cornerback

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    A lot was already up in the air in the Green Bay Packers secondary before they traded Damarious Randall to the Browns. Randall was their most active cornerback last season, which leaves them with several corner jobs to fill this spring and summer. 

               

    The contestants

    Tramon Williams: The longtime former Packer returns after three seasons away, the last of which was one of the best of his 11-year career. He allowed a passer rating of just 58.4 in coverage, which, according to PFF, was the sixth-lowest qualified mark among all qualified cornerbacks. Not bad for a 34-year-old. 

    Kevin King: The top pick of the second round of the 2017 draft had an up-and-down rookie season before a shoulder injury ended his campaign in early December. But at 6'3", 200 pounds with 4.4-speed, the former Washington Husky has the makeup of a potential star. 

    Jaire Alexander: The speedy first-round rookie intercepted five passes at Louisville in 2016 and should be viewed as the favorite to earn regular slot assignments from the get-go.  

    Josh Jackson: The 2018 second-round pick is a little more of a wild card considering his small body of work at Iowa, but he did lead the nation with eight interceptions as a junior last season. 

    Davon House: The veteran started 12 games in 2017 but was no better than a replacement-level corner at his best. He finished the year with just one pick and six passes defensed. 

    Quinten Rollins: The 2015 second-rounder didn't perform particularly well as a No. 4 corner before an Achilles injury ended his 2017 season in October. 

                 

    Prediction

    Williams doesn't seem to be aging, and they need his experience in the starting lineup. He and King will likely be the top guns. Alexander might be best suited for the slot, while Jackson will likely need some time to develop considering he has just one full season as a collegiate starter under his belt. In a perfect world, House and Rollins don't see the field very often, if at all. 

Kansas City Chiefs Cornerback

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    Newbie Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Kendall Fuller is expected to take another step forward after breaking out as a sophomore with the Washington Redskins last season. But because Fuller excels more as a slot cover man, the Chiefs will need two other corners to step up in 2018. Who'll replace Marcus Peters as their top outside guy? 

                             

    The contestants

    David Amerson: Another former Redskin, Amerson had a big season in 2015 with the Oakland Raiders (four interceptions and 26 passes defensed) after Washington abruptly released him earlier in the season. But he couldn't repeat that production in 2016 and struggled mightily (39.7 PFF grade,which is far below average) before going down with a foot injury in 2017. He's on a one-year prove-it deal. 

    Steven Nelson: The 2015 third-round pick has started 22 games the last two years in Kansas City, amassing a grand total of zero interceptions in the process. He's also spent most of his time in the slot, so he's got a lot to prove against X and Z receivers. 

                   

    Prediction 

    The Chiefs might have to hope that a wild card like Will Redmond, Keith Reaser or rookie sixth-round pick Tremon Smith shines in training camp, because neither Amerson nor Nelson inspire a lot of confidence. But Amerson has more experience covering top receivers out wide, so he'll likely get the job unless someone else emerges in a major way.