Projecting the NFL's Best Position Battles as Training Camp Looms
Competition drives the NFL. Training camp is when competition is at its fiercest as 90 men battle for 53 spots.
Actually, a few dozen compete for the handful of available openings beyond the established veterans, high-priced free-agent additions and draft picks the team already acquired.
Then there are those found within the former groups trying to overcome others who may have an edge on paper. Every year, someone surprises. But the most interesting training-camp battles take place at positions with excess talent or those where question marks still exist.
A lasting impression can be made during the sweltering summer months when no one is ready to relinquish his dream of being an NFL star. Even the least likely to make a team will give everything to prove he's worthy of being in the league.
New York Jets: Quarterback
Let's work under the assumption that all of this year's first-round quarterbacks won't open the season as starters since their respective teams have viable veteran options in place. This isn't much of a stretch as the incoming crop is a young group and the organizations seem willing to slow-play their development.
The New York Jets, however, have two candidates to keep Sam Darnold off the field. Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater will be more of a competition than originally believed.
Head coach Todd Bowles already named McCown the starter even though the team is looking for a long-term solution.
"You want a long-term answer at every position, not just quarterback," Bowles told reporters in March. "So we're trying to find guys and Josh, again, he played well last year, and we got the addition of Teddy and we'll see what he can do and the young guys are still practicing. But you want a guy that has stability at the position for a long time."
McCown may have posted career highs in completion percentage, passing yards and touchdowns last season, but Bridgewater could be more than a short-term answer.
A "legitimate buzz" built within the organization regarding the 2014 first-round pick due to his performance during initial practice sessions, according to ESPN.com's Rich Cimini. Bridgewater is only 25 years old even after missing the bulk of two seasons because of a knee injury. His ascension may be enough to keep this year's third overall pick on the bench for longer than expected.
Denver Broncos: Running Back
NFL teams lean toward the running-back-by-committee approach as they rotate their backfield based on a particular situation. The Denver Broncos aren't averse to finding a workhorse between Devontae Booker and rookie Royce Freeman, though.
Head coach Vance Joseph already stated Freeman "absolutely" has a chance to become the offense's lead back, according to ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold. Booker is the team's top returning rusher, with 911 yards over his first two seasons, whereas this year's third-round pick brings a different skill set.
"I think I showed durability and the ability to be there game in, game out," Freeman said. "I think I showed at Oregon I can deliver the blow as a runner. I'm excited to compete, and we have a good environment in the running back room. I think we do want to see each other do well."
The first-year runner is 10 pounds heavier and has a nose for the end zone, leaving Oregon as the Pac-12's all-time leader with 60 rushing touchdowns.
"He's a big banger that we haven't had for a while, so we're excited to have him," general manager John Elway said after drafting Freeman.
Booker, meanwhile, is a slashing runner and a better receiver out of the backfield. The two form a nice complementary duo even though one will emerge as the primary ball-carrier.
Washington Redskins: Running Back
The Washington Redskins have four starting-caliber running backs on the roster in Rob Kelley, Samaje Perine, Chris Thompson and second-round pick Derrius Guice. Head coach Jay Gruden expects to use all four this season, though Guice's addition changes the backfield's dynamic.
"He can catch the football fine, but really, our role for him is quite easy to see," Gruden told reporters after the draft. "It's first, second down."
The coach's comment intimates Guice is the team's starting back over Kelley and Perine, with Thompson to return to his third-down role after suffering a season-ending fractured fibula in November. However, Kelley continued to run with the first-team offense through minicamp, according to Stephen Czarda of Washington's official site.
"When a new guy comes in and you see him do things a little better so there's always motivation," Kelley said. "I think Guice is a great talent. I feel like the other first-round guys are great, but where they got him, that tells me the organization did a great job."
Guice's advantage is his power between the tackles and explosiveness through the hole. He could eat into Thompson's snaps too. According to NBC Sports Washington's JP Finlay, Gruden said "it's been very exciting" watching the rookie as a pass-catcher during practice sessions.
Washington may have the NFL's deepest running back stable, but Guice could develop into a true workhorse.
Dallas Cowboys: Wide Receiver
The Dallas Cowboys lack a true No. 1 wide receiver.
"Depending on what offense we're in, a lot of people could be No. 1," Cole Beasley said, per Pro Football Talk's Charean Williams. "It just depends on what you're doing. You spread the ball around. It really doesn't matter. Even with a No. 1, I feel like the balls should be spread anyway."
Someone reliable needs to take charge, though. Dez Bryant may not have been the receiver he once was, but his presence helped dictate coverages. Prescott can't rely on Jason Witten either after the tight end's retirement.
Of course, the scheme will help create space for the receivers to operate. It also falls on the individuals to win one-on-one matchups. Whoever does so on a consistent basis will demand the most targets.
Right now, Allen Hurns is expected to be the offense's primary option. Hurns, who managed 2,669 receiving yards with the Jacksonville Jaguars in his first four seasons, has experience playing each of the different receiver roles. He'll be joined by Beasley and Terrance Williams.
Rookies Michael Gallup, Cedrick Wilson and Noah Brown will push the veterans. Gallup, selected by the Cowboys in the third round, finished top five overall at the FBS level with 100 receptions for 1,413 yards at Colorado State.
A lot of moving parts exist in Dallas' wide receiver corps, with few certainties found among the group.
Cleveland Browns: Left Tackle
Joe Thomas isn't coming back, and the Cleveland Browns can't truly replace the future Hall of Fame left tackle. Instead, the organization will lean on former right tackle Shon Coleman or rookie Austin Corbett to man Tyrod Taylor and/or Baker Mayfield's blind side.
Coleman will have the first opportunity to secure the spot after starting 16 games opposite Thomas last season.
"Shon is a true freak of a man," guard Kevin Zeitler said, per Cleveland.com's Dan Labbe. "He's that type of guy that can pick up a D-lineman and take him 10 yards and throw him. They always say O-linemen should be able to do that, but there's only a couple of guys who really can do that play after play."
However, the Browns used the 33rd overall pick to secure Corbett's services. The Nevada product started 48 games at left tackle, yet his professional position has yet to be determined.
"We're not concerned about him the player. We're just concerned about which one is his best spot," offensive line coach Bob Wylie said. "Very few missed assignments early. We moved him all around, but where is he gonna be best?"
Neither Coleman nor Corbett will provide the same steady presence as Thomas, but each has the talent to excel in his stead.
New England Patriots: Left Tackle
The New England Patriots failed in achieving their primary offseason goal: re-signing left tackle Nate Solder. The organization had to change course to fill the position and undertook two non-traditional means to address Tom Brady's blind side.
First, the team drafted Isaiah Wynn. Many projected the 6'3", 313-pound first-team All-SEC performer to play guard at the professional level.
"What's the mold? So somebody tell me what the mold looks like and if you only draft that mold, I'm not sure that's the smartest thing to do," New England offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia told reporters when asked about Wynn's stature. "... We're going to give specifically Isaiah a chance to play left tackle. We're going to give him a chance to play guard."
Bill Belichick also traded for Trent Brown, who started 28 games over the last three seasons at tackle (26 at right, two at left) for the San Francisco 49ers. At 6'8" and 355 pounds, the 25-year-old blocker is nearly impossible for pass-rushers to circumnavigate.
"He's the best pass-protection tackle I've ever seen in my life," 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan said in March, per Joe Fann of the team's official site.
San Franciso completed the trade less than two months later because Brown isn't an ideal fit in Shanahan's preferred zone-blocking scheme.
Two completely different body types who may or may not be able to handle left tackle are what separate a 40-year-old Brady from taking hits.
New York Giants: Center
Saquon Barkley may be stealing all the headlines since being drafted second overall by the New York Giants, but the standout running back prospect needs a stable offensive line to run behind if he wants to realize his full potential.
The organization already made the offensive line a priority with Nate Solder's signing and the drafting of guard Will Hernandez. As the left side takes shape, center becomes the biggest concern, with starter Brett Jones and four-year veteran Jon Halapio competing to snap the ball to quarterback Eli Manning.
Jones is used to the competition after spending two years in the CFL. He signed with the Giants in 2015 and waited two more seasons before starting 13 games last year.
"Each and every year has always been a competition to be on the team," the native Canadian told NJ.com's Matt Lombardo. "It's no different this year."
Halapio is more naturally gifted with the skill set to play multiple positions. His progression depends on his understanding of the position to usurp Jones' spot.
Four-fifths of the line appears set with Solder, Hernandez, Patrick Omameh and Ereck Flowers. Center sets the tone in the middle, though, and it's far from resolved.
Cincinnati Bengals: Defensive End
The Cincinnati Bengals coaching staff has to get Carl Lawson on the field more, it and plans to do so.
"I think in [Teryl Austin's] vision, he sees the opportunity to utilize Carl more in the base defense than what we did with Paul [Guenther]," head coach Marvin Lewis told reporters. "It goes back to where I was in Baltimore. Those are the things we feel good about. That involves Carl's abilities in the base defense."
Guenther converted Lawson into a strong-side linebacker after he played defensive end at the collegiate level. As a result, Lawson became a part-time player who excelled in sub-packages, especially when he could rush the passer. The Bengals defender led all rookies last season with 8.5 official sacks. According to Pro Football Focus' Gordon McGuinness, the 2017 fourth-round pick became one of 16 players to register double-digit sacks (10 per PFF), quarterback hits (11) and hurries (38).
In order for Lawson to be better utilized, he must be used primarily as a defensive end. The Bengals are deep at the position, with Carlos Dunlap, Michael Johnson, Jordan Willis and 2018 third-round pick Sam Hubbard. Who plays will be determined by how much pressure they can create.
"We have to apply pressure and we have guys who can do that, and we have guys on the back end who ought to be able to cover and give us that opportunity," Lewis said.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Inside Linebacker
Three different players could end up replacing Ryan Shazier in the middle of the Pittsburgh Steelers defense.
Tyler Matakevich is the first in line to start alongside Vince Williams.
"Tyler is a very intelligent person. He doesn't make mistakes. He plays the game really, really hard," Williams told reporters in May. "Everybody respects that, how he goes about playing the game."
Of course, Shazier's athleticism and all-around skill set will be missed, but the team's options can't be held to those standards. Instead, the coaching staff could turn toward a more experienced option.
Matakevich has yet to start an NFL game in two seasons, whereas general manager Kevin Colbert signed five-year veteran Jon Bostic as a potential Shazier replacement. Bostic finished third on the Indianapolis Colts last season with 97 total tackles.
"From day one, I said I'd come in and work hard," the 2013 second-round pick said, per the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Joe Rutter. "When my number is called upon, I'll see what I can do then."
A third option exists, at least in sub-packages. The Steelers drafted safety Terrell Edmunds with this year's first-round pick. Edmunds stands 6'1", weighs 217 pounds and runs a 4.47-second 40-yard dash. His ability to play near the line of scrimmage may have the Steelers faithful envisioning a new-age Troy Polamalu. This may be the exact role for him to flourish in, including some time at nickel linebacker.
Philadelphia Eagles: Nickel Corner
The Philadelphia Eagles roster isn't perfect coming off the franchise's first Super Bowl victory. Cornerback, in particular, needs to be reworked after Patrick Robinson, Corey Graham and Jaylen Watkins left. Each helped cover the slot.
De'Vante Bausby, who spent last season on the practice squad, seems to be the leading contender as the primary nickel corner.
"He's a competitive player. He's a very, very competitive player," defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz told reporters. "He's got good size, but his competitiveness stands out. You guys will see that. I'm excited about him."
The Eagles have other options to consider in Sidney Jones and Jalen Mills. Jones spent the majority of last season recovering from an Achilles rupture. Last year's second-round pick "turned heads" during minicamp, according to SI.com's Albert Breer. Jones will compete as an inside and outside corner. If he claims the spot opposite Ronald Darby, Mills could move inside.
"As far as coverage goes, everybody knows that Sid can cover," Mills told reporters. "He was projected first round coming out. That is not an issue in our minds. As far as going from outside to inside, just knowing his scheme and knowing your role."
The Eagles are six deep at cornerback, including Rasul Douglas and rookie Avonte Maddox, and the staff must figure out how to best utilize each.