The Most Important Spot Up for Grabs in Each NFL Training Camp

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistJuly 31, 2018

The Most Important Spot Up for Grabs in Each NFL Training Camp

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    Adrian Kraus/Associated Press

    Before clubs compete against other squads, teammates will go head-to-head for prominent roles through training camp. For some, it's the difference between a starting and backup role. For others, it's a small opportunity to make a living in the NFL.

    Every year, an unheralded gem emerges and goes on to make an impact during the regular season—take Jacksonville Jaguars wideout Keelan Cole as a prime example. He signed with the team as an undrafted free agent out of Kentucky Wesleyan and finished the 2017 campaign as the leading receiver in yards for the AFC South champions. 

    Who's going to rise through the ranks this summer? Will we see veteran incumbents lose their starting jobs? 

    At every team's training camp, there's a sizzling battle to watch through August. We'll list the top contenders and project winners for the most important spots up for grabs across the league.

Arizona Cardinals: Right Cornerback

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Brandon Williams vs. Jamar Taylor vs. Bene Benwikere vs. Christian Campbell

    Although the assumed quarterback battle between Sam Bradford and rookie Josh Rosen is making headlines, Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks made it clear the veteran will start if he's healthy.

    However, the Cardinals' search for a solid cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson continues into the 2018 offseason. Tramon Williams started nine games at the position last season and signed with the Green Bay Packers during free agency.

    If anyone possesses the credentials to discover a starter at the position, it's Wilks. He served as a defensive backs coach for nine seasons, and Josh Norman earned All-Pro honors under his watch in 2015 with the Carolina Panthers.

    Among the four contenders, Campbell, the Cardinals' 2018 sixth-round draft pick, looks like a long shot, but then again, no one saw Norman as a top cornerback when he came into the league as a fifth-rounder out of Coastal Carolina. Benwikere deserves some consideration due to his familiarity with Wilks in Carolina. Nonetheless, he's only started 14 games in his career. Williams and Taylor seem to be the top choices to start in 2018.

                            

    Projected Winner: Jamar Taylor 

    The Cardinals traded a sixth-round pick in the 2020 draft to the Cleveland Browns to acquire Taylor. He started 29 games over the past two seasons and held his own more so during the 2016 campaign, logging 13 pass breakups and three interceptions. 

    Thus far, Williams hasn't shown much, and the previous coaching staff relegated him to special teams last year.

    The veteran Taylor likely takes the spot opposite Peterson with a decent track record at the position over the past two terms.

Atlanta Falcons: Nickelback

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    Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Brian Poole vs. Isaiah Oliver vs. Ron Parker

    General manager Thomas Dimitroff added immediate competition for Poole in the slot during the offseason. The Atlanta Falcons selected Oliver in the second round of April's draft and signed Parker, who served as the Kansas City Chiefs' primary slot defender during the 2015 season.

    As a 2016 undrafted free agent, Poole has exceeded expectations as a starter in 12 games over the past two seasons. However, the coaching staff may look to utilize a defensive back who's more equipped to cover high-end slot receivers. The 25-year-old logged one interception in his two-year career and only broke up four passes in 2017.

                      

    Projected Winner: Ron Parker

    Despite Olivier's second-round draft status, there's no rush to put him on the field with two solid cornerbacks on the perimeter and multiple options in the slot. 

    As mentioned above, the Chiefs frequently utilized Parker inside because of his coverage skills. He recorded 12 pass breakups in three consecutive seasons between 2014-16 and picked off nine passes during his tenure with the team. The eighth-year veteran took training camp reps at free safety. Look for the coaching staff to field a big nickel look with the 30-year-old lining up on the inside. 

Baltimore Ravens: Left Cornerback

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Brandon Carr vs. Marlon Humphrey

    The Baltimore Ravens have a good problem at cornerback. Jimmy Smith, Carr and Humphrey all looked solid on the boundary in the previous season.

    Smith tore his Achilles tendon in December, which opened the door for Humphrey to start on the outside. The Alabama product finished with two interceptions and 11 pass breakups. 

    Carr, an 11th-year veteran, has started all 160 of his appearances and led the Ravens in interceptions (four) and pass breakups (12) in 2017. As the nickel becomes the new base in frequency, both cornerbacks will likely play two-thirds of the snaps. The Ravens also plan to slowly bring Smith along, which allows the two battling cornerbacks to see ample reps through the summer. 

          

    Projected Winner: Brandon Carr

    Beyond the 2018 season, there are two years of club options on Carr's contract, per Spotrac. This year will determine how the front office handles the feature on the deal, but expect the coaching staff to keep the status quo with the 32-year-old's starting streak intact.

Buffalo Bills: Quarterback

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    Top Contender: Nathan Peterman vs. AJ McCarron vs. Josh Allen

    The Buffalo Bills traded quarterback Tyrod Taylor to the Browns, clearing the path for new beginnings under center. The front office signed McCarron to a two-year deal and moved up to No. 7 in April's draft to select Allen out of Wyoming. The two signal-callers will join Peterman in competition for the starting spot.

    The three signal-callers have a combined five starts in the league. Regardless of who wins the job, Bills fans should expect some growing pains at the position through the upcoming season. 

               

    Projected Winner: AJ McCarron

    ESPN.com's Mike Rodak praised Peterman as a standout during spring practices, but it's only a small step in the right direction. According to general manager Brandon Beane, the first preseason game will serve as a crucial audition for all three passers (h/t Toronto Sun's John Kryk).

    The Bills lost three offensive linemen during the offseason: center Eric Wood, left guard Richie Incognito and left tackle Cordy Glenn. Dion Dawkins started 11 games in place of the latter due to injury, but the changes may affect the chemistry in pass protection. Buffalo will likely lean on McCarron's experience, even though it's only a slight advantage.

Carolina Panthers: Left Guard

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    Top Contenders: Amini Silatolu vs. Jeremiah Sirles vs. Taylor Moton vs. Tyler Larsen

    Left guard Andrew Norwell signed with the Jaguars, leaving a void on the interior of the offensive line. According to Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer, Silatolu will take first-team reps at training camp. He started 15 games as a second-round rookie out of Midwestern State in 2012.

    The Panthers signed Sirles, who started four games at left guard for the Minnesota Vikings last year. Moton took first-team reps at the position during mandatory minicamp, but the Panthers need to fill Daryl Williams' spot at right tackle after he suffered a dislocated right patella and torn MCL at practice Saturday. Larsen started 15 games at the pivot over the past two seasons. 

                 

    Projected Winner: Amini Silatolu

    Early in the offseason, during an interview on WFNZ's The Mac Attack Show, head coach Ron Rivera pegged Silatolu as the favorite to start. Carolina saw him in action through five seasons, and he's been inconsistent through 31 starts.

    Nonetheless, Moton's potential move to his natural position at offensive tackle opens up an opportunity for Silatolu to lock up a starting role on the inside again. The 29-year-old's familiarity with the Panthers system gives him the edge over Sirles coming over from Minnesota.

Chicago Bears: Left Guard

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    Top Contenders: James Daniels vs. Eric Kush

    The Chicago Bears selected Daniels to bolster the interior on the offensive line after left guard Josh Sitton signed a two-year deal with the Miami Dolphins. 

    With Cody Whitehair at the pivot, most would expect the Iowa product to line up at left guard. However, Kush poses a threat to James' pathway to a starting role. During training camp, the fifth-year veteran practiced with the first team.

    Head coach Matt Nagy acknowledged Kush's familiarity with the system and competitive nature as strong positives, per Chicago Sun-Times reporter Mark Potash. "He's doing a good job because he knows this offense. He's bigger and stronger. Mentally, the game has slowed down for him. And Kush is never going to shy away from competition, and that's the best part I like about him."

                 

    Projected Winner: James Daniels

    We'll have to pump the brakes on Daniels as a starter for now, but the rookie should overcome the challenge against a career backup. Kush started four games at left guard in 2016, but he's yet to hold a starting job for more than a quarter of the season.

Cincinnati Bengals: No. 2 Wide Receiver

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    Top Contenders: Brandon LaFell vs. John Ross vs. Tyler Boyd

    LaFell served as a solid No. 2 option at wide receiver during the 2016 season, tallying 64 receptions for 862 yards and six touchdowns, but he saw a drop-off last season. He posted a single-season low in yards per reception at 10.5 and reached pay dirt three times on 52 catches. 

    As LaFell goes into his age-32 season, he's likely headed toward the sunset of his playing career. The Bengals invested a 2016 second-round pick in Boyd and a top-10 selection in Ross last year. The offense needs to see development in one of the two young pass-catchers as the ninth-year veteran enters a contract year. 

              

    Projected Winner: Tyler Boyd

    Boyd showed promise as a rookie but took a huge step backward in the previous season. The team declared him a healthy scratch multiple times, and he suffered a sprained MCL in October. Nonetheless, he impressed during the spring, and Ross still wrestles with the label as the fastest combine guy

    It may take another season for the Washington product to put all his physical tools together as a complete receiver. Boyd has already flashed in the pros when he's completely locked into his craft. The third-year wideout bounces back as more than just a slot receiver.

Cleveland Browns: Left Tackle

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    Top Contenders: Shon Coleman vs. Austin Corbett vs. Greg Robinson

    The Browns offensive line moves on without future Hall of Famer Joe Thomas. Now, the coaching staff hopes to find a viable starter who doesn't have to play up to his predecessor's level but simply solidify an otherwise strong offensive line. 

    Ironically, Coleman replaced Robinson on the blind side at Auburn. The latter went No. 2 overall to the then-St. Louis Rams in 2014, but he's been a gross disappointment over the past four seasons. The former will have his first shot to start at his natural position. 

    In the second round of April's draft, the Browns selected Corbett, who started at left tackle for three seasons at Nevada. Nonetheless, draft analysts projected a transition inside. Thomas agrees with that assessment (h/t NFL.com's Nick Shook): "Austin, God bless him, is not a tackle. He does not have the speed that you need to be able to block edge rushers. He does [have heavy feet]." 

    Perhaps among left tackles, it takes one to know one.

               

    Projected Winner: Shon Coleman

    Coleman didn't look impressive at right tackle. He drew 10 penalties in 16 starts last year. On the flip side, it's fair to expect his comfort level to rise on the blind side where he earned second-team All-SEC honors for two seasons at Auburn.

Dallas Cowboys: No. 1 Wide Receiver

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    Top Contenders: Michael Gallup vs. Terrance Williams vs. Allen Hurns vs. Cole Beasley

    The designated No. 1 wide receiver holds minor significance compared to quarterback Dak Prescott's overall development as a pocket passer. However, it's always a positive when a young signal-caller can look toward a reliable pass-catcher in the clutch. 

    Wideout Dez Bryant led the Dallas Cowboys receivers in yards (838) and touchdowns (six) last season, but the front office didn't want any part of him beyond the 2017 campaign. The team didn't even offer a pay cut before releasing him. 

    The Cowboys drafted Gallup in the third round and signed Hurns to fill the void. As for in-house receivers expected to soak in Bryant's targets, Beasley should maintain his spot as the top slot receiver, even though he moved around the formation in the first padded practice, and Williams goes into his sixth season with the team.

               

    Projected Winner: Allen Hurns

    Every year, critics poke holes in quarterback Blake Bortles' game, but Hurns turned 105 targets into 1,031 yards and 10 touchdowns behind Allen Robinson during the 2015 term. 

    Hurns doesn't bring flair comparable to Bryant, but he's effective when seeing a high target volume. The 26-year-old has the ability to lead the Cowboys receiving corps if he can stay healthy. The fifth-year pro missed 11 games over the past two seasons with hamstring and ankle injuries.

Denver Broncos: No. 1 Running Back

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    Top Contenders: Devontae Booker vs. Royce Freeman

    In 2017, running back C.J. Anderson eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his five-year career, and then the Denver Broncos showed him the door. The predraft cut propped Booker up as a potential workhorse for the upcoming season. 

    When the Broncos selected Freeman in the third round this year, fans jumped on his bandwagon—it's hard to blame them after watching Booker struggle to break away from defenders over the past two seasons. 

    Nonetheless, beat writers still see Booker as an integral part of the ground attack moving forward. Mike Klis of 9 News expects the third-year ball-carrier to start, while Denver Post reporter Kyle Fredrickson expects a "heavy dose of Booker" for the 2018 term.

               

    Projected Winner: Devontae Booker

    Head coach Vance Joseph said he plans to use a combination of ball-carriers, per Denver Post scribe Ryan O'Halloran. "We want two or three guys to be our main core backs." 

    However, if we're pinpointing the first running back to touch the football on a handoff, go with Booker as a safe bet. He's experienced and understands the offensive scheme in place, and the rookie must show an ability to pick up pass-blocking concepts.

Detroit Lions: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Top Contenders: Nevin Lawson vs. Teez Tabor vs. DeShawn Shead

    Cornerback Darius Slay lived up to his last name against competition last season. He tied Tennessee Titans safety Kevin Byard in interceptions with eight to lead the league. However, the Detroit Lions need a playmaker to emerge on the opposite side.

    Over the past four seasons, Lawson appeared in 47 games and started 40, but he's yet to log an interception. In 2017, he only broke up four passes. Still, the front office signed the 27-year-old to a two-year extension.

    Shead put together a strong 2016 campaign with the Seattle Seahawks, recording 14 pass breakups and one interception in 15 starts. He suffered an ACL tear during the 2016-17 postseason and only appeared in two games last year.

    Tabor, the Lions' 2017 second-round pick, saw an uptick in snap count late last season, logging 132 of his 190 snaps from Week 13-16. We could see a changing of the guard at the position under new head coach Matt Patricia. 

                  

    Projected Winner: Teez Tabor 

    In practice sessions open to the media during the spring, Tabor took the field with the starters opposite Slay, but he struggled early in training camp, per Detroit News reporter Justin Rogers:

    "Cornerback Teez Tabor had some struggles in coverage. He prevented an early completion to Marvin Jones in two-on-two work, but probably would have drew a flag for holding after getting an arm around the receiver's neck out of his break. Tabor was also bested by Kenny Golladay and undrafted rookie receiver Brandon Powell on snaps."

    Rogers also reports Shead took first-team reps, but it's still early, and Tabor has time to bounce back during practices. He's a second-rounder who proclaimed himself the best cornerback in the 2017 draft. Expect Patricia and defensive coordinator Paul Pasqualoni to optimize Tabor's talent as a physical cornerback on the boundary.

Green Bay Packers: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Top Contenders: Jaire Alexander vs. Josh Jackson vs. Tramon Williams vs. Davon House

    After finishing 23rd in passing yards allowed and surrendering 30 touchdowns through the air, the Packers overhauled the cornerback spot. Alexander and Jackson join the unit as early-round draft picks, and the front office signed a familiar face in Williams, who spent eight seasons with the team between 2007-14. He started nine games for the Cardinals last year. House started 12 contests for the team in 2017.

    Cornerback Kevin King, Green Bay's 2017 second-round pick, will claim one of the starting positions on the perimeter. He started the summer with a bang, intercepting quarterback Aaron Rodgers' first pass at training camp, per Aaron Nagler of Packers News.

    Defensive coordinator Mike Pettine can certainly go young with a high-upside rookie opposite King. Both Jackson and Alexander flashed the ability to force turnovers. They combined for 15 interceptions on the collegiate level.

             

    Projected Winner: Tramon Williams

    Jackson blossomed in his final season at Iowa, snatching eight interceptions. Alexander battled leg and hand injuries, limiting his junior campaign to six games. At the NFL Scouting Combine, the Louisville product looked more fluid in his lateral movements, which may indicate a better fit in the slot. 

    Jackson struggled in one-on-one drills at training camp, while Williams lined up opposite King. The 35-year-old's experience and recent production provide a veteran security blanket for a young cornerback group buzzing with potential. He's still effective and likely starts the season on the boundary.

Houston Texans: Right Tackle

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    Top Contenders: Seantrel Henderson vs. Martinas Rankin vs. Roderick Johnson vs. Kendall Lamm

    For all intents and purposes, it seems offensive tackle Julie'n Davenport will man the blind side. He started three games at that spot in the previous season, and Rankin underwent foot surgery, which adds some uncertainty to his ability to push the 2017 fourth-rounder for the spot. Let's move to the right side, which lacks a clear-cut frontrunner for the starting role. 

    Henderson served a 10-game suspension for violating the league's substance abuse policy during the 2016 season with the Bills. He could land on his feet at a weak position in Houston. Lamm remains as a holdover who only played 159 snaps in 2017. The Texans claimed Johnson off waivers following Rankins' foot operation. 

                  

    Projected Winner: Seantrel Henderson

    It's not saying much, but Henderson likely claims the starting role due to the lack of quality competition at the position. The fifth-year pro also has 27 starts under his belt. 

    Johnson earned two-time All-ACC honors playing on the left side at Florida State. He'll likely provide depth behind Davenport. Barring a speedy recovery, Rankin will have limited time to push for a starting position at either tackle spot, leaving the 26-year-old in a winnable matchup against Lamm.

Indianapolis Colts: Middle Linebacker

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    Top Contenders: Anthony Walker vs. Antonio Morrison vs. Zaire Franklin vs. Skai Moore

    Right now, the Indianapolis Colts linebacker unit looks like a huge jigsaw puzzle with pieces scattered everywhere. Defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus put the group order in perspective following mandatory minicamp

    "I was just talking to the linebackers today and I said, 'Hey, we have 10 guys in here. One through 10 we have no idea who is one and we have no idea who is 10.' So the competition is up in the air and that's at every position."

    Let's focus on the player at the heart of the defense who's typically responsible for relaying calls. Morrison started 15 games in the middle during the previous year, but Walker took first-team reps at the position before he suffered a groin injury Sunday. Franklin, a three-year starter out of Syracuse, and Moore, who offers range in pass coverage, could also push for the spot.

          

    Projected Winner: Skai Moore 

    Indianapolis Star reporter Stephen Holder pointed out Moore's coverage ability early in the offseason. It's no surprise. The South Carolina product frequently forced turnovers on the collegiate level, logging 14 interceptions in four seasons. He brings a valuable skill set that combats spread offenses looking to pick defenses apart. 

    At 6'2", 230 pounds, the rookie lacks size, but his ability to track the ball in the air should keep him on the field in nickel packages with a shift to the weak side in base alignment. 

Jacksonville Jaguars: Wide Receiver No. 2

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    Top Contenders: Donte Moncrief vs. Keelan Cole vs. D.J. Chark vs. Dede Westbrook

    The Jaguars signed wideout Marquise Lee to a four-year extension. There's no questioning his role as the lead pass-catcher on the depth chart at the moment. Realistically, the hierarchy won't necessarily dictate target volume. 

    The Jaguars signed Moncrief to a one-year, prove-it deal before selecting Chark in the second round of April's draft. Cole led the unit in receiving yards with 748 last season. Westbrook flashed in the second half of his rookie campaign after starting the year on injured reserve with a core muscle injury. 

    Regardless of the pecking order at wide receiver, Bortles has a talented pass-catching group going into the 2018 campaign.

               

    Projected Winner: Keelan Cole

    Cole caught 16 passes for 393 yards and two touchdowns between Weeks 13 and 15 last season. However, he went quiet during the postseason, logging just three catches for 82 yards in three contests. Still, as a 2017 undrafted free-agent acquisition, he exceeded expectations. With another offseason in the system, he'll quickly earn the coaching staff's trust as the No. 2 option behind Lee.

Kansas City Chiefs: Left Guard

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    Top Candidates: Bryan Witzmann vs. Parker Ehinger vs. Ryan Hunter vs. Cameron Erving

    Aside from adding offensive weapons, the Kansas City Chiefs must protect their new starting quarterback, Patrick Mahomes. Four out of five spots across the offensive line have a clear-cut starter. The left guard spot remains undecided with an incumbent, a fill-in starter in previous years and an undrafted free agent vying for the starting role.

    According to ESPN.com's Adam Teicher, the coaching staff felt comfortable using Hunter with the starters during the spring, which speaks to the lack of competition at the position or the confidence in the Bowling Green product to hold his own in the pros. Witzmann lists as the incumbent who struggled through 13 starts last year. After tearing his ACL in November 2016, Parker appeared in one contest in 2017.

    Erving brings versatility to Kansas City's front line but prefers to line up on the perimeter. He started four contests in the previous season, three at right guard and one at left tackle. The 25-year-old took first-team reps at left guard Saturday.

            

    Projected Winner: Parker Ehinger

    Hunter looks like a popular dark horse in this competition. At 6'5", 322 pounds, he's physically equipped to handle interior duties, but the versatile offensive lineman bounced around Bowling Green's front line through four years. It may take some time to settle into one position once the Chiefs see real-time competition. 

    Last season, Ehinger racked up healthy scratches and started one game at right guard against the Broncos in Week 17, but his experience and a full offseason following an ACL tear should put him in position to start Week 1.

Los Angeles Chargers: Free Safety

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    Top Contenders: Jahleel Addae vs. Adrian Phillips vs. Rayshawn Jenkins vs. Derwin James

    The Chargers didn't re-sign free safety Tre Boston, who led the secondary in interceptions with five. He inked a deal with the Cardinals on Thursday. Fortunately, James fell into general manager Tom Telesco's lap at No. 17 in April's draft. ESPN.com's Eric Williams noticed the Florida State product taking reps at strong safety during the spring.

    Nonetheless, Chargers defensive backs coach Ron Milus spoke on the safety position as a fluid situation in terms of roles, per Ricky Henne of the team's official website.

    "We're still trying to figure out where Derwin's at mentally in our system. We kind of know what Jahleel is able to do, and he can float back to free, he can play strong. Plus, we've got AP (Phillips) and Rayshawn who can also play both positions, so the three guys we had a year ago are very flexible. All three of them can play strong safety or free safety." 

             

    Projected Winner: Jahleel Addae 

    It comes down to size. The Chargers may opt to use James' 6'3", 211-pound frame closer to the line of scrimmage and move Addae (5'10", 195 lbs) to center field, but Addae has only picked off one pass in 64 games. Gus Bradley has the luxury of moving guys around in the secondary with a deep unit at cornerback and safety. 

    Addae's versatility keeps him on the field as a starter, while the coaching staff finds out where the rookie first-rounder fits on the back end.

Los Angeles Rams: Inside Linebacker

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    Top Contenders: Cory Littleton vs. Ramik Wilson vs. Micah Kiser

    You can flip a coin between the inside linebacker spot next to Mark Barron and the outside position opposite Sam Ebukam as the most important spots up for grabs at the Los Angeles Rams training camp. Those who didn't watch Rams games didn't hear Matt Longacre's name much, but he logged 5.5 sacks last season and should start opposite Ebukam on the outside. 

    Looking at the open position next to Barron, there's some competition for Littleton. Wilson comes over from the Chiefs, and Kiser joins the unit as a fifth-round pick. The former brings starting experience to the position. As a handpicked selection, don't count out the rookie, who brought physicality to Virginia's defense over the past three seasons, logging 33.5 tackles for a loss and 19 sacks.

           

    Projected Winner: Cory Littleton

    Wilson started 17 games in the middle of the Chiefs defense between the 2015-17 seasons and provided decent coverage on the second level. Kiser profiles as a downhill defender who can wreak havoc in the backfield. 

    Littleton impressed the coaching staff during OTAs, per ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry. As a holdover at the position, the 24-year-old's familiarity with Wade Phillips' system certainly gives him an edge. There's potential in his coverage ability as well. He broke up four passes and snagged an interception in 277 snaps last year.

Miami Dolphins: Cornerback

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    Top Contenders: Cordrea Tankersley vs. Bobby McCain vs. Tony Lippett

    Opposite Xavien Howard, the Miami Dolphins have an intriguing battle at cornerback. Tankersley flashed late last season and finished with seven pass breakups in 11 starts. McCain's production helped him earn a four-year extension. After missing the 2017 campaign with a torn Achilles tendon, Lippett returns to action as the wild card in the group. 

    Before McCain's impressive development as a fifth-rounder, Lippett looked well on his way to a promising career. He logged four interceptions and 10 pass breakups during the 2016 season. The injury robbed him of momentum, but if the 26-year-old picks up where he left off, the coaching staff has a tough decision to make on the boundary.

             

    Projected Winner: Tony Lippett

    McCain served as the primary slot defender in the previous season, but he's versatile enough to hold a significant role whether outside or inside. A reserve role shouldn't hurt his value in the secondary. Tankersley's 2017 campaign didn't blow anyone away, which allows Lippett to step back into his starting spot if the two look even in their competition through the summer.

Minnesota Vikings: Right Tackle

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    Jeff Haynes/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Rashod Hill vs. Brian O'Neil

    The Vikings need to solve the final piece to their offensive line puzzle. Mike Remmers moved inside to right guard during the spring, which opens up a spot at right tackle.

    Logically, Hill would slide into that position, where he lined up for seven starts last season. The 26-year-old didn't look particularly strong on the perimeter, but offseason improvement can certainly help him solidify his place among the front five. O'Neil, a rookie second-rounder, will likely push for an early role.

            

    Projected Winner: Rashod Hill 

    We all know head coach Mike Zimmer doesn't just hand starting spots to early-round draft picks, but O'Neil has a legitimate opportunity to usurp the veteran on the depth chart. Nonetheless, the need to keep new starting quarterback Kirk Cousins upright lists as a priority No. 1 as he pairs with a new coaching staff.

    The Vikings will roll with familiarity in Hill over a rookie. A few performances could change that in a hurry, though.

New England Patriots: Left Tackle

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    Top Contenders: Isaiah Wynn vs. Trent Brown vs. LaAdrian Waddle

    The New England Patriots need a big offensive tackle capable of keeping Tom Brady, who's turning 41 years old, out of harm's way. It's a huge assignment that should attract the most attention during the summer as the five-time Super Bowl champion thumbs his nose at Father Time.

    The Patriots acquired Brown via trade with the San Francisco 49ers, where he spent most of his time on the right side. Wynn, the team's rookie first-rounder, started at guard and left tackle at Georgia. Position coach Dante Scarnecchia will give him a shot on Brady's blind side—despite his stout 6'2", 310-pound stature.

    Waddle started four games on the right side last season, but he's an under-the-radar option going into his third year with New England. 

                

    Projected Winner: Trent Brown

    Brown didn't establish himself as a high-end starter even on the right side in San Francisco. However, his solid pass blocking in 2017 makes him a decent immediate option. He also stands at a massive 6'8", 380 pounds. New England will go with the fourth-year veteran but put him on a short leash with the No. 23 overall pick in waiting.

New Orleans Saints: No. 2 Running Back

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Terrance West vs. Boston Scott vs. Jonathan Williams vs. Shane Vereen

    The New Orleans Saints fielded one of the most dynamic backfields during the previous season, ranking second in yards per carry at 4.7. Quarterback Drew Brees threw 536 passes—his lowest amount of attempts since the 2009 campaign. 

    As he goes into his age-39 term, the coaching staff should look to keep that number below 600 to preserve his arm. To put the volume in perspective, Brady led the league with 581 pass attempts last year. 

    Mark Ingram will serve a four-game suspension for violating the league's performance-enhancing drug policy, and the Saints don't plan to increase Alvin Kamara's rushing workload to fill the void.

    The front office selected Scott in the sixth round of the draft then signed West and Vereen during the offseason. Williams remains in the mix as a holdover from last year.

             

    Projected Winner: Terrance West

    West flourished in a sizeable role with the Browns in 2014 and Ravens in 2016. Between the two seasons, he logged 364 carries for 1,447 yards and nine touchdowns through 19 starts. The 27-year-old also flashed his receiving capability in his best season with Baltimore, catching 34 passes for 236 yards and a touchdown. 

    The Saints don't need a permanent replacement for Ingram, just a short-term stopgap at running back. Among the contenders, West stands out as the only ball-carrier who's handled more than 100 carries in a season. He's more than qualified to fill in for Ingram through Week 4.

New York Giants: Starting Outside Linebacker

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Kareem Martin vs. Lorenzo Carter vs. Connor Barwin

    The Giants will switch to a 3-4 base defense under James Bettcher, which prompts changes within the front seven. The front office opted to trade Jason Pierre-Paul, and linebacker Devon Kennard signed with the Lions during free agency, leaving Olivier Vernon as the only surefire pass-rusher on the roster. 

    The outside linebacker battle opposite Vernon features a veteran familiar with the Giants' defensive play-caller's system against a top-75 rookie draft pick.

    Martin played four seasons under Bettcher, who served as an outside linebackers coach and coordinator in Arizona. Carter accumulated 14 sacks as a solid pass-rusher in a 4-3 defense at Georgia. He's the future at his position. Although, Barwin could serve as a stopgap at the position.

          

    Projected Winner: Connor Barwin

    Through four seasons, Martin took the field primarily as a reserve. He started 14 out 56 contests for the Cardinals. It's easy to see the Giants signed him to help teach Bettcher's system until they've found their long-term starter.

    Barwin showed he's still effective on the wrong side of 30 years old last year, racking up five sacks in Phillips' 3-4 defensive scheme for the Rams in 2017. He'll hold down the starting spot until the former Bulldog proves he's ready to take on a prominent role. 

New York Jets: Quarterback

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    Julio Cortez/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Josh McCown vs. Teddy Bridgewater vs. Sam Darnold

    Similar to Buffalo, it's a three-man competition with a rookie in line to lead the offense in the near future. However, Gang Green has a unique situation with Bridgewater, who could draw interest on the trade market. He's not the future in New York, but the front office can sell high on him as an asset.

    At 39 years old, don't expect McCown to start unless Darnold looks absolutely raw and Bridgewater looks too hobbled to take the field or the front office trades him before Week 1.

                      

    Projected Winner: Teddy Bridgewater

    Bridgewater impressed during OTAs, which garnered some buzz about his ability to bounce back from a significant knee injury two years ago. The 25-year-old went 17-11 as a starter with the Vikings between the 2014-15 seasons. He'll have solid weapons in New York. Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enunwa have all racked up 800 yards in a season over the past two years. 

    Gang Green could play Bridgewater and monitor how far he takes them. If the team remains competitive throughout the season, he'll start throughout the year or the front office likely trades him to the highest bidder before the October 30 deadline. If he flops, Darnold, the potential franchise quarterback, would take the reins.

Oakland Raiders: Left Tackle

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    Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Donald Penn vs. Kolton Miller

    Initially, it seemed as though Penn, a three-time Pro Bowler, would reclaim his starting job at left tackle once he recovers from Lisfranc surgery. Now, it's a bit unclear. 

    According to The Athletic's Vic Tafur, Miller will take all first-team reps in Penn's absence. Every training camp practice the 35-year-old misses steadily increases the likelihood the UCLA product starts Week 1 against the Rams. 

    The Raiders could've placed Miller in position to win a wide-open spot at right tackle, but the team doesn't seem fully sold on Penn returning to Pro Bowl form.

    If they did, the first-rounder, who has experience on the right side, would've had a solid path to the starting job at the position with the Raiders. Yet, he's pushing the 12th-year veteran for his role.

             

    Projected Winner: Donald Penn

    Last year, Penn didn't report to the team until late August because of a contract holdout. Despite his late summer arrival, he still managed to put together a Pro Bowl season. Don't count him out of this competition because of the rookie's head start. Barring an injury setback, the battle-tested veteran will beat Miller for the blindside spot.

Philadelphia Eagles: Slot Cornerback

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Sidney Jones, De'Vante Bausby, Avonte Maddox

    Patrick Robinson spent the most time in the slot among Philadelphia Eagles defensive backs and led the team in interceptions with four. Thanks to the depth at the position, the front office felt comfortable allowing him to walk out during free agency. He inked a four-year deal with the Saints.

    Speaking of the assets at the position, the Eagles have a second-rounder in Jones, who opened training camp in the nickel spot, per Dave Spadaro of the team's official site. Spadaro also points out defensive backs coach Cory Undlin intends to shuffle the deck at the position.

    We could also see fourth-rounder Maddox see time inside, even though he primarily covered the boundary at Pittsburgh. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz also confirmed spectators will see a variety of players looking to replace Robinson, per The Athletic's Sheil Kapadia:

    "You'll see Jalen Mills in there at times. You'll see some other players like D.J. Killings who was here last year. Bausby's been in there. Sidney [Jones] was in there," Schwartz said. "It's sort of cross training a lot of different guys."

           

    Projected Winner: Sidney Jones

    Don't put too much stock into Jones taking the first crack at the position—pay more attention to his draft status and circumstance. Despite tearing his Achilles tendon at Washington's pro day, the Eagles still selected him 43rd overall in the 2017 draft. The second-year cover man goes into the 2018 season with high expectations, and he'll likely start Week 1.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Strong Safety

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    Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Morgan Burnett vs. Terrell Edmunds

    We'll steer away from the obvious hole at inside linebacker. ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler noted Tyler Matakevich put an early grip on the starting role over Jon Bostic, who spent 2017 with the Colts. 

    The Pittsburgh Steelers have an intriguing scenario at safety. Tim Benz of Triblive.com suggests defensive coordinator Keith Butler may opt to use a three-safety look to cover the void at inside linebacker. For now, we'll focus on the player set to play strong safety.

    The front office signed Burnett and then drafted Edmunds at No. 28 in April's draft. Both should see the field, but only one will take the spot alongside Sean Davis, who's moving to free safety.

                

    Projected Winner: Morgan Burnett

    Edmunds flashed coverage ability at Virginia Tech, snagging six interceptions over the past two seasons. He's also a versatile defender who lined up in various spots on the collegiate level. It's an attribute that should help the defense compensate for losing Ryan Shazier at linebacker in nickel packages.

    Edmunds and Burnett could see plenty of snaps in Benz's suggested three-safety look. However, expect the Steelers to use the experienced veteran as a starting strong safety in base formations. 

San Francisco 49ers: Right Guard

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Joshua Garnett vs. Jonathan Cooper vs. Mike Person

    Protect quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo at all costs.

    The San Francisco 49ers have their offensive line set at every position except right guard. There's a reason the front office signed Cooper during free agency. Garnett, the No. 28 overall pick from the 2016 draft, experienced a rough rookie season before missing his entire sophomore year with a knee injury.

    Through mandatory minicamp, Garnett split first-team reps with Person, while Cooper recovered from surgery on his left knee, per NBCSports Bay Area reporter Matt Maiocco

    Cooper, who went No. 7 overall to the Cardinals in the 2013 draft, started 13 games with the Cowboys in 2017 and poses the biggest challenge to Garnett for the starting spot.

                     

    Projected Winner: Joshua Garnett

    It's hard to kick a first-rounder to the curb, but Cooper lived that reality. The Cardinals parted ways with him via the Chandler Jones trade in his third year. He didn't find his footing in the league until last season with the Cowboys.

    The 49ers must see what they have in Garnett. He shed weight during the offseason, which suggests he's serious about winning the job. The third-year pro suffered what's deemed a minor knee injury and should return to action sooner rather than later. With only 11 starts on his NFL resume, the Stanford product will show enough upside to warrant an extended look at what he brings to the offensive line. 

Seattle Seahawks: No. 1 Running Back

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Chris Carson vs. Rashaad Penny

    It's said ad nauseam. The Seahawks haven't boasted a strong rushing attack since Marshawn Lynch. After four 100-yard rushing performances for Thomas Rawls during the 2015 term, it's looked underwhelming. Now, there's a new offensive line coach in Mike Solari and two intriguing candidates to elevate the ground attack.

    Carson ran for 93 yards on 20 carries against the 49ers in Week 2 last season before breaking his leg in a Week 4 contest with the Colts. The Seahawks opted to select Penny at No. 27 overall in April's draft, which pits the two against each other for the featured tailback role.

             

    Projected Winner: Chris Carson 

    On Mighty 1090 AM, ESPN's John Clayton projected Penny would take on a role similar to Alvin Kamara, who's a phenomenal pass-catcher and complement to Ingram in New Orleans. 

    The notion coincides with News Tribune reporter Gregg Bell, who tweeted his expectations for the backfield. "For now Carson is RB1 entering preseason. August important for Penny to get down what #Seahawks expect of RBs in pass game, esp pass pro, line audibles. If he gets that, he, Carson could be close to splitting top snaps/carries." 

    Kamara started three games in 2017. As Bell mentioned, Penny must nail down his responsibilities for a significant role, but Carson seems like the main guy for now.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: No. 1 Running Back

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    Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Peyton Barber vs. Ronald Jones vs. Jacquizz Rodgers

    Rodgers and Barber led the Buccaneers backfield in rushing yards in each of the past two seasons during Doug Martin's down years. Now, they're in the mix to lead the group following the 29-year-old's departure to the Raiders.

    Tampa Bay selected Jones in the second round of April's draft, which suggests he'll have a fair shot at claiming the starting spot. For the most part, Rodgers has served in a reserve role, logging more than 100 rush attempts in just one out of seven seasons. The real discussion comes down to the USC product and Barber.

            

    Projected Winner: Ronald Jones

    Head coach Dirk Koetter seems high on Jones, pointing out he brings something unique to the team's running back position. "You can see the guy has got juice. When he touches the ball, he's got a gear that we don't have on our team right now." 

    As a junior at USC, Jones peaked in his workload with 261 carries. It's just enough proof that he could handle the lead position in the pros. As a high draft pick, expect him to open the season as the No. 1 running back in Tampa Bay.

Tennessee Titans: Left Guard

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Quinton Spain vs. Kevin Pamphile vs. Xavier Su'a-Filo

    In a contract year, Spain will see a push for his starting spot. The front office signed Pamphile and Su'a-Filo during free agency. Both players appeared as primary starters at the position for their previous teams, the Buccaneers and Texans. 

    Despite the past struggles for the newcomers, it's clear the Titans want to push the incumbent for a strong summer performance. All three have an opportunity to put their best on display before hitting the market next offseason as unrestricted free agents. 

              

    Projected Winner: Quinton Spain 

    Spain should have enough to maintain his position. The 26-year-old will likely look over his shoulder week-to-week, but he's been an integral component of Tennessee's improved offensive line over the past couple of seasons. Despite a noticeable drop-off in his blocking from the 2016 campaign, the fourth-year veteran staves off the competition. Chemistry keeps him on the field with the starters in 2018.

Washington Redskins: No. 2 Cornerback

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Top Contenders: Orlando Scandrick vs. Fabian Moreau vs. Quinton Dunbar

    The Washington Redskins lost two cornerbacks in Bashaud Breeland via free agency and Kendall Fuller in a trade for quarterback Alex Smith. The pass defense could hold its spot within the top 10 in yards allowed with help from a former rival and high-potential assets. 

    Scandrick served as the Cowboys' primary slot defender for nine seasons, and he'll likely settle into that role barring the coaching staff's inability to develop a young talent. The spot opposite Josh Norman comes down to Moreau and Dunbar, who signed a three-year extension in the offseason. 

    Projected Winner: Quinton Dunbar

    The Redskins selected Moreau in the third round of the 2017 draft, but he earned his stay as a core special-teamer. Despite signing as an undrafted wide receiver out of Florida, Dunbar has consistently filled in as a starting cornerback over the past three seasons.

    The fourth-year veteran comes into the upcoming campaign with eight starts, three interceptions and 18 pass breakups. Don't underestimate the Redskins' decision to add three years to his contract. He lined up with the starters through mandatory minicamp and flashed multiple times during Sunday's practice. Expect the 26-year-old to hold on to the pole position en route to becoming a full-time starter in 2018.