Every NFL Team's Player with the Most on the Line in Training Camp
Organized team activities and minicamps are the sizzle before the meaty competition of NFL training camps.
Right now, players are learning the playbooks and trying to remember their assignments in walkthroughs and non-padded practices. Coaches, meanwhile, are getting an initial impression of their personnel.
These spring sessions are important from a mental standpoint, but the process ratchets up multiple levels once players strap on the pads during training camps to earn roster spots.
Certain individuals have more to gain or lose than others. The majority of an NFL roster is already constructed with established veterans, offseason acquisitions and draft picks. But every organization has areas to address since no lineup is perfect.
Starting positions and roster spots are the two most precious commodities. The loss of either is devastating. As such, key contributors on each team are in precarious positions with uncertain futures as training camps in July loom. The following have the most to lose based on current circumstances.
Arizona Cardinals: DL Robert Nkemdiche
It's now or never for Arizona Cardinals defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche. Three disappointing seasons under two different coaching staffs can be offset by a fresh start from a third.
"I f--king love him," Nkemdiche said of new head coach Kliff Kingsbury, per TMZ Sports. "I think we're going to do some great things with him. I can't wait until we start with him. And, I don't care, the Cardinals are coming with some f--king attitude and fury!"
Is the feeling mutual, though?
Nkemdiche isn't just trying to shirk the label of first-round draft bust; the one-time elite high school recruit will battle for a roster spot this fall because he simply hasn't been good enough. The 24-year-old defender managed a career-high 4.5 sacks last season, but the front office added Darius Philon, Zach Allen and Michael Dogbe to possibly push him out of the lineup and off the team.
Atlanta Falcons: OG Jamon Brown
The Atlanta Falcons loaded up on offensive linemen this offseason, and at least one of the team's acquisitions will be the odd man out of the starting lineup.
Jamon Brown is the most likely candidate, even after signing a three-year, $18.75 million free-agent deal.
Brown is a natural right guard, whereas fellow free-agent acquisition James Carpenter is a natural left guard. This year's 14th overall pick, Chris Lindstrom, spent the majority of his collegiate career at right guard. The Falcons also traded up and drafted Kaleb McGary with the 31st pick to play right tackle.
It's possible the Falcons coaching staff decides to shake things up and move each of its new linemen around to find the best starting five. It won't matter because left tackle Jake Matthews and center Alex Mack are already established.
One of the team's offseason acquisitions won't be in the starting lineup when the Falcons open the 2019 campaign against the Minnesota Vikings on Sept. 8.
Baltimore Ravens: QB Lamar Jackson
How can quarterback Lamar Jackson have the most on the line when he's the Baltimore Ravens' established starter after helping the team reach the postseason in his rookie year?
A simple answer can't be provided, because the Ravens made the situation far more complicated than it needed to be. Instead of building upon last year's success, Baltimore's coaching staff decided to go in another direction.
"Coming in, I didn't know we would have a totally different offense," Jackson told reporters. "... When I got here, coach was like, 'Yea, we have a totally new system. We're going to have go through this and that.' It's been getting to me a little bit."
Owner Steve Bisciotti even said the mobile quarterback won't run as much this season. Thusly, Jackson's maturation as a passer must be expedited, which places far more pressure on the 22-year-old quarterback to correct his mechanics and become more reliable in the passing game.
Buffalo Bills: WR Zay Jones
Zay Jones was the Buffalo Bills' most productive wide receiver over the last two years. That's not saying much, though.
Jones caught 83 passes for 968 yards through his first two seasons while playing in a run-dominated offense. More importantly, he showed drastic improvement in his second year under offensive coordinator Brian Daboll's supervision.
However, Jones' status as the team's No. 1 wide receiver will be challenged.
"I want the guy that's going to put the team first and catch the ball and [who's] not looking to come here and say, 'I have to have these kinds of numbers,'" head coach Sean McDermott said at the NFL Scouting Combine, per NYup.com's Matt Parrino.
Robert Foster came on strong during the second half of his rookie season and finished first overall in average depth of target, per Pro Football Focus. The Bills also signed a pair of veterans—John Brown and Cole Beasley—in free agency.
Carolina Panthers: DT Vernon Butler
The Carolina Panthers built a fearsome defensive line with the team's recent acquisition of six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy. The 31-year-old veteran joins Kawann Short and Dontari Poe as part of the defense's new-look three-man front.
The schematic transition could be a boon or detriment for 2016 first-round pick Vernon Butler.
The soon-to-be 25-year-old defensive lineman struggled to create a defined role as part of the Panthers rotation. Butler didn't grade among the top 50 interior defenders since entering the league, according to Pro Football Focus.
The organization already turned down Butler's fifth-year rookie option. Either he flashes in the more aggressive approach or the Panthers can turn to alternatives in Kyle Love, Elijah Qualls and Destiny Vaeao.
Right now, Butler is viewed as a draft bust. He's not going to start based on the roster's current configuration. It's far more likely he won't even make the 53-man roster.
Chicago Bears: RB Mike Davis
Running back Mike Davis signed with the Chicago Bears knowing he'd have a role in the offense, but he didn't know what.
"I know my role will be bigger than what I had in Seattle," Davis said, per the Chicago Tribune's Brad Biggs. "I am just happy to come in and play. I can't wait. We're going to be all over the place."
When general manager Ryan Pace traded former starter Jordan Howard to the Philadelphia Eagles in March, a tremendous opportunity opened for Davis and the rest of the running back stable, including this year's third-round pick, David Montgomery.
Davis could claim a starting spot or serve as second fiddle to the rookie.
"They were very upfront with me what was going on in the draft," the veteran back said. "I knew 100 percent what was going on. I didn't know exactly who, but watching from the film, I can tell from practice, [Montgomery] is legit. Everything as advertised."
Once Tarik Cohen is thrown into the mix, the Bears feature three starting options.
Cincinnati Bengals: TE Tyler Eifert
The Cincinnati Bengals re-signed tight end Tyler Eifert to a one-year, $4 million contract this offseason, but the franchise is already preparing to move past the one-time Pro Bowler.
The 28-year-old target has an extensive injury history and has never played a full 16-game slate. In fact, Eifert hasn't played more than eight games in any season since the 2015 campaign.
"I've just had some freak things happen and some unfortunate injuries, but who knows, you never know what's going to happen, but I intend to stay healthy and finish out a long career," Eifert said about being injury-prone, per ESPN's Katherine Terrell (h/t Darin Gantt of Pro Football Talk).
A healthy Eifert would be a welcome addition, but he's not necessary. The Bengals signed C.J. Uzomah to a three-year, $18.3 contract this offseason and drafted another tight end, Drew Sample, with this year's second-round selection.
Cleveland Browns: OG Austin Corbett
Odell Beckham Jr.'s addition overlooks one simple fact: The Cleveland Browns offensive line is worse after including Kevin Zeitler in the deal to acquire the star receiver. Right guard is unsettled with Austin Corbett, Kyle Kalis and Eric Kush receiving first-team reps during OTAs and minicamp, according to Scott Patsko of Cleveland.com.
Corbett is the presumptive favorite after general manager John Dorsey selected the lineman with last year's 33rd overall pick.
"Yeah, I've taken plenty of reps with the ones at right guard, but I've also taken plenty with the twos at center," Corbett said, per 92.3 the Fan's Daryl Ruiter. "They need to know who the one right guard is gonna be, and they need to know who the backup center's gonna be."
According to Pro Football Focus, Zeitler earned the highest pass-blocking grade among guards last season. Whoever takes over will be a downgrade. But Corbett's draft status places far more pressure on the second-year blocker to earn the job than the other options.
Dallas Cowboys: WR Tavon Austin
What a difference a year makes. The Dallas Cowboys planned to use Tavon Austin as a focal point of the 2018 offense.
"Coaches have a great plan, whether it's getting him out of the backfield, lining him up at X, lining him up at Z, putting him in the slot," quarterback Dak Prescott said during last year's minicamp, per the Dallas Morning News' Jon Machota. "He's a guy we get the ball in his hands, he'll score some points and get a bunch of yards in this offense."
Austin fell well short of expectations with 195 yards from scrimmage and two touchdowns. Instead, Amari Cooper became Dallas' No. 1 wide receiver after the Cowboys acquired the 2015 fourth overall pick from the Oakland Raiders prior to the October trade deadline.
As a result, the 29-year-old didn't garner much interest on the free-agent market. He re-signed with Dallas on a one-year, $1.75 million prove-it deal. Only $500,000 is guaranteed. Austin is now fighting to make the roster behind Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb and Allen Hurns.
Denver Broncos: TE Jake Butt
Rich Scangarello's offense with the Denver Broncos is the ideal system for tight ends to flourish.
The offensive coordinator previously served as the San Francisco 49ers quarterback coach and watched George Kittle set a tight end record last season with 1,377 receiving yards. The entire scheme is based on Kyle Shanahan's tight end-friendly approach.
So, it came as no surprise when the Broncos used this year's first-round pick to select Noah Fant. The 20th overall selection will be featured in the offense. Plus, the scheme relies heavily on 22 personnel (two running backs and two tight ends).
Fant needs a running mate. Unfortunately, Jake Butt required two ACL surgeries in less than two years, and he's still recovering from his latest. According to Denver 7's Troy Renck, Butt is running some routes at this point in his rehabilitation plan.
If Butt can't bounce back, the Broncos can rely on Jeff Heuerman and Troy Fumagalli as their second and third tight ends.
Detroit Lions: NT Damon Harrison
Normally, the mere suggestion that Damon Harrison has anything on the line during training camp, when he's already the game's best run defender, would be ludicrous. But he's opened the door to any possibility after missing all of OTAs and mandatory minicamp.
Will his holdout for a new contract continue into training camp?
"We roll with different situations that occur all the time during the season—injuries, guys here, not here, whatever the case may be," head coach Matt Patricia told reporters at minicamp. "For us internally, it doesn’t really affect us. We have great opportunities for guys that are here, great opportunities for people to step up."
Two interesting aspects could determine which direction the Lions organization undertakes. First, Detroit's defensive line is talented with Trey Flowers, Da'Shawn Hand, Romeo Okwara and A'Shawn Robinson. Second, Harrison's release will save Detroit $3.8 million against the 2019 salary cap.
Again, Harrison is a standout performer. Training camp can serve as a solution with him on the field or not.
Green Bay Packers: WR Marquez Valdes-Scantling
Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers made himself clear about how he wants to treat the team's wide receivers.
"I'd like to throw to Davante [Adams] more," Rodgers said, per ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky. "He's that open. We've got to keep finding ways to get him the ball."
Adams caught a career-high 111 passes last season. Rodgers' comments are a challenge to every other receiver on the roster. Marquez Valdes-Scantling finished third on the team last season with 581 receiving yards. He's the most likely candidate to emerge as a reliable second option.
"I think Marquez has had a fantastic spring and really stepped up as a guy who can be an every-down player," Rodgers added.
Everything is right in front of the second-year wide receiver, but he'll be pushed by Geronimo Allison, Equanimeous St. Brown, J'Mon Moore and Trevor Davis.
Houston Texans: OT Matt Kalil
A single number defined the Houston Texans' entire offseason: 62. As in, a league-high 62 quarterback sacks.
"It's an important part of the game to protect the quarterback, and that's all of our job," quarterbacks coach Carl Smith said, per Mark Lane of USA Today's Texans Wire. "It's all of the blockers' job, it's the receivers' job and it's the quarterback's job to protect the quarterback. It's a big part of the game."
While Smith believes a holistic approach is necessary, left tackle became a glaring problem since Julie'n Davenport failed time and again as Deshaun Watson's blindside protector.
But the free-agent market wasn't filled with quality left tackle options. As a result, the Texans signed Matt Kalil, who disappointed at his previous two stops with the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers.
Kalil has one more chance to be a starting left tackle, but two talented rookies—Tytus Howard and Max Scharping—are champing at the bit to play.
Indianapolis Colts: LB Anthony Walker
Darius Leonard's All-Pro rookie campaign overshadowed another first-time starter in the Indianapolis Colts' linebacker corps. Anthony Walker finished top-30 overall with 105 combined tackles (in 14 starts).
But the Colts weren't satisfied with the makeup of their second-line defenders. The front office wanted a little more speed and length at middle linebacker.
General manager Chris Ballard chose Stanford's Bobby Okereke in this year's third round. The rookie is already getting first-team reps at "Mike."
"To be the starting Mike right off the bat, being able to handle the calls, make the calls, see everything that's going on, all the checks and everything we have to do, that's what you have to be able to do, and then you've got to beat out a real good football player," Ballard said, per the Indianapolis Star's Joel A. Erickson. "Anthony's a real good football player. It's a good problem to have."
Ballard said the goal was to create competition at the position, and Walker may find himself without a starting spot.
Jacksonville Jaguars: WR Marqise Lee
The Jacksonville Jaguars are anxiously awaiting Marqise Lee's return to the field, but he's still dealing with the aftereffects of last year's season-ending knee injury.
"He's probably a couple of weeks into training camp before he'll be back," wide receivers coach Keenan McCardell said, per the Florida Times-Union's Phillip Heilman. "But he's right on line."
Training camp will be crucial for Lee, who finished first on the team with 56 receptions during the 2017 campaign.
First, he must show he's 100 percent. Second, he'll have plenty of competition to be the offense's top target with Dede Westbrook, Chris Conley, DJ Chark and Keelan Cole in the same room. Finally, Lee must reassert himself as a team leader.
"I'm looking forward to getting him back because he is such a big leader in my room," McCardell said. "He is a tone-setter in the run game. You have to have a guy like that. He is my alpha dog in my room."
Kansas City Chiefs: LB Reggie Ragland
The Kansas City Chiefs decided last year's 31st-ranked defense required a drastic overall and rightfully so.
Eric Berry, Justin Houston, Dee Ford and Steven Nelson are gone. Enter Tyrann Mathieu, Frank Clark, Emmanuel Ogbah and Alex Okafor. The team is also switching from a 3-4 to 4-3 base (while acknowledging nickel is the NFL's true base).
But linebacker received the most significant turnover, which doesn't bode well for Reggie Ragland. Ragland is an old-school 252-pound downhill linebacker. His skill set isn't suited for today's game because linebackers must be able to play in space.
Two acquisitions could push Ragland off the roster.
The Chiefs signed Damien Wilson to a $5.75 million free-agent contract and then traded for 2016 first-round pick Darron Lee. With Anthony Hitchens expected to take over as "Mike" and Lee at "Will," the team has three options for Ragland: a move to "Sam" or the backup Mike, or it could release him and save $1.25 million in salary-cap space.
Los Angeles Chargers: LB Kyzir White
The Los Angeles Chargers drafted Kyzir White in last year's fourth round and asked the rookie to convert from safety to linebacker. He did and started three games before suffering a season-ending knee injury. Now, he has to prove himself all over again. But he's not starting from scratch.
According to Michael Peterson of SB Nation's Bolts from the Blue, the 6'2" White bulked up to 233 pounds and started to play some "Mike" linebacker during organized team activities.
"I'm feeling pretty comfortable," White told NBC San Diego's Fernando Ramirez. "Still learning as I go, day by day. But I'm definitely feeling a lot better than I did when I first got put out there."
The ability to play multiple positions is valuable, but White doesn't have a specific home. The Chargers signed 14-year veteran Thomas Davis Sr. to play at "Will." Denzel Perryman is set at Mike. White, along with Jatavis Brown, is stuck behind both. The Chargers also drafted linebackers Drue Tranquill and Emeke Egbule in April.
Los Angeles Rams: TE Gerald Everett
Tight end becomes an afterthought in the Los Angeles Rams offense at times. Gerald Everett can change that perception.
The Rams offense primarily uses 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end and three wide receivers), which means a couple of things for Everett. Tyler Higbee is generally considered the starter because he's a better in-line option. When Everett takes the field, he must replace Higbee or serve as an oversized slot/wide receiver.
Everett is an outstanding athlete. However, the 6'3", 240-pounder has never been a consistent target. His performance during training camp can build upon an already impressive offseason after head coach Sean McVay called the tight end "a bright spot," according to Myles Simmons of the Rams' official site.
An expanded, or even starting, role for Everett will provide the Rams with far more scheme flexibility, which should be a priority after the New England Patriots dismantled their previous approach during Super Bowl LIII.
Miami Dolphins: QB Josh Rosen
The Miami Dolphins will feature the league's most intriguing quarterback competition once training camp begins. The organization signed Ryan Fitzpatrick as a veteran starting option and eventually landed Josh Rosen in a draft-weekend coup to possibly become the face of the franchise.
Rosen, whom the Cardinals drafted 10th overall last year, already sits at a crossroads. He didn't perform well as a rookie, albeit in terrible circumstances. Arizona gave up on the quarterback after only one year and drafted Kyler Murray with the 2019 No. 1 overall pick.
The Dolphins aren't going to hand the 22-year-old Rosen the starting job either. Multiple beat reporters named the 14-year veteran the early winner in minicamp, via the Score's Mike Alessandrini.
"The real competition starts in training camp," Rosen told reporters. "We're absolutely competing now. But right now, it's sort of more focused on me. I'm really just trying to get better myself."
Minnesota Vikings: OG Josh Kline
Josh Kline started 46 straight games for the Tennessee Titans before signing a three-year, $15.5 million free-agent deal with the Minnesota Vikings.
Kline is the expected starter at right guard among a revamped Vikings interior, but it's not a given.
"I wouldn't say I'm the starter right away," the 29-year-old blocker said, per ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin, "but you've got to act like you are. You've got to work your tail off in this league no matter what."
Kline is absolutely right; the Vikings are reworking their front. First-round pick Garrett Bradbury is expected to take over at center, and Pat Elflein is moving to left guard and potential competition for the other guard spot.
Head coach Mike Zimmer wants a nastier attitude from his team, and fourth-round pick Dru Samia fits the bill. He has the potential to start as a rookie.
"Maybe one of the toughest competitors we've seen on tape with how he finishes," general manager Rick Spielman said of the 6'5", 305-pound blocker, per the St. Paul Pioneer Press' Dane Mizutani. "He has a few technical flaws to clean up. We think that is correctable with coaching."
New England Patriots: TE Matt LaCosse
The New England Patriots' need to replace future Hall of Fame tight end Rob Gronkowski is no small feat. Matt LaCosse, whom the team signed in free agency, is first in line to do so. According to ESPN.com's Mike Reiss, LaCosse took first-team reps during minicamp.
"Obviously it's a good opportunity, but nothing has been earned yet," LaCosse said. "We still have a really long way to go. Everyone is competing for the same spot. It's one of those things you keep your pedal on the metal, and you kind of get what you earn here."
In four seasons, the 6'6", 255-pound target started six games with 27 receptions for 272 yards. Obviously, his role will expand after the Patriots released Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Ben Watson received a four-game suspension for a failed drug test.
LaCosse has a chance to seize a major role in New England's offense or fade into obscurity.
New Orleans Saints: C Nick Easton
Max Unger, who anchored the New Orleans Saints offensive line for four seasons, retired this offseason. The Saints organization responded by signing Nick Easton to a four-year, $22.5 million free-agent deal.
What looked like an easy transition won't be. The Saints also traded up in this year's second round to draft Texas A&M center Erik McCoy.
"He's one of those players that in the process stood out," head coach Sean Payton said of the rookie, per 247Sports' James Parks. "See his strength on tape in each game. Really had a high grade on him. Played at obviously a high level of competition. See the consistency. Just a lot of things to like with the player."
According to The Athletic's Larry Holder, McCoy has already received plenty of first-team reps, while Easton has filled in at right guard for the absent Larry Warford.
Easton signed with New Orleans to be a starter, but he may have to settle for being the Saints' sixth lineman.
New York Giants: C Jon Halapio
General manager Dave Gettleman overhauled the right side of the New York Giants offensive line this offseason with the acquisitions of guard Kevin Zeitler and offensive tackle Mike Remmers. The left side was already settled with guard Will Hernandez and tackle Nate Solder.
Center will be the final piece of the puzzle to fall into place.
Both Jon Halapio and Spencer Pulley started last season. Halapio opened as the starting pivot, but he suffered a broken right ankle in Week 2 and may never reclaim the job.
The Giants re-signed both players this offseason. Pully received a three-year, $8.03 million deal, and Halapio signed a $645,000 exclusive rights free-agent contract.
According to ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan, the two split first-team reps during spring sessions, and the competition will continue into training camp.
"Just because you're a veteran player, a rookie, a second-year player, if you are the best player at that position at any time, we owe it to the organization and the team for you to be in that lineup," offensive line coach Hal Hunter said, per the New York Post's Paul Schwartz. "Whoever the best player is should play."
New York Jets: LB Brandon Copeland
The New York Jets drafted Jachai Polite in this year's third round with a singular purpose: to generate more of an edge rush. In order to do so, Polite will have to surpass Brandon Copeland, whether as a starter or the primary pass-rusher in sub-packages.
Copeland became a starter last season and provided five sacks. The outside linebacker spot opposite Jordan Jenkins is far from settled, though.
The Jets will give Polite every chance to show exactly what he did on the field for the Florida Gators in 2018, when he managed 41 total pressures and an 18.4 pass-rushing win percentage, according to Pro Football Focus. They will also forget about his disastrous predraft performance.
"Whatever happened in the past is irrelevant to me," head coach Adam Gase said, per Darryl Slater of NJ Advance Media. "Moving forward, it's going to be on him to do the right things—and to worry about what he can control, which is showing up every day, being on time, knowing what he needs to do, go out there and practice hard. He does that, it'll be smooth sailing for him."
Oakland Raiders: TE Darren Waller
Tight end Jared Cook led the Oakland Raiders last season with 68 receptions for 896 yards and six touchdowns. But the 32-year-old veteran agreed to a free-agent deal with the Saints, and the Raiders didn't acquire an immediate replacement.
Oakland plans to rely on an in-house option. Darren Waller managed 18 receptions over four seasons (was suspended for 2017), but head coach Jon Gruden has big plans for the 6'6", 255-pound target.
"Darren Waller is very interesting," Gruden said in March, per the Las Vegas Review-Journal's Michael Gehlken. "We're going to give him a chance of a lifetime."
The 26-year-old Waller, whom the Baltimore Ravens originally selected in the sixth round of the 2015 draft, played wide receiver at Georgia Tech and needed time to make the transition. His athleticism and receiving skills provide an interesting combination, but the Raiders have other options in Luke Willson, Derek Carrier and 2019 fourth-round pick Foster Moreau if Waller falters.
Philadelphia Eagles: RB Josh Adams
Josh Adams could easily go from being the Philadelphia Eagles' leading rusher last season with 511 yards to off the team in 2019.
The running back room is fully stocked after the offseason additions of veteran Jordan Howard, who led the Chicago Bears in rushing each of the last three seasons, and 2019 second-round pick Miles Sanders.
Those two add to a stable that already featured Adams, Corey Clement, Wendell Smallwood, Donnel Pumphrey and Boston Scott.
Adams is a limited option, despite last year's production. He doesn't have the same versatility in the passing game as Clement, Smallwood or Scott. With Howard and Sanders now in the lineup, the Eagles won't ask Adams to be a feature back after he was thrust in the role last year because of injuries.
The numbers game doesn't favor the second-year runner.
Pittsburgh Steelers: WR James Washington
Antonio Brown left huge shoes to fill. Forget the veteran wide receiver's peculiarities for a moment because his production can't be easily replaced.
JuJu Smith-Schuster earned his first Pro Bowl last season after a 111-catch, 1,426-yard campaign. But he produced at a high level with Brown on the roster. Brown also contributed more than 100 receptions and 1,000 yards. Who picks up that slack has yet to be determined.
James Washington, whom the Steelers drafted in last year's second round, will get the first crack. According to the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review's Chris Adamski, head coach Mike Tomlin expects Washington to "take a big leap in Year 2."
Those expectations shouldn't be hard to realize since Washington caught only 16 passes for 217 yards in 2018. If the 5'11", 213-pound target doesn't drastically improve, the Steelers will turn to other options such as Donte Moncrief, Eli Rogers, Ryan Switzer and third-round rookie Diontae Johnson.
San Francisco 49ers: RB Jerick McKinnon
In 2018, Jerick McKinnon was well on his way to becoming the San Francisco 49ers' feature back after signing a four-year, $30 million free-agent deal.
Unfortunately, McKinnon suffered a season-ending torn ACL before the start of the regular season. Now, his return doesn't automatically mean a starting spot. The 49ers signed Tevin Coleman in free agency. Since McKinnon is still rehabbing, Coleman received most of the first-team reps during OTAs, per Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group.
Coleman played under Kyle Shanahan during the head coach's stint as the Atlanta Falcons offensive coordinator. The 26-year-old back is an ideal fit in Shanahan's system. His speed to hit the outside zone opens up the entire scheme. The same can be said of Matt Breida, who led the 49ers with 814 rushing yards last season.
San Francisco features three starting-caliber runners. McKinnon was once guaranteed a starting spot; he now needs to earn the designation or serve in a rotational role.
Seattle Seahawks: WR DK Metcalf
Identifying a rookie as the player with the most on the line for any team isn't fair. But the Seattle Seahawks aren't doing wide receiver DK Metcalf any favors by pumping him up at every turn.
"I think he's way above what people from the outside probably expected him to be," fellow receiver Tyler Lockett said Tuesday, per Andy Patton of USA Today's Seahawks Wire. "The biggest thing that I like is the fact that he's being himself. He's playing his game, and he's using these tools and the things that has God-given talent to be able to be successful and get himself open."
No one questions Metcalf's natural ability. However, he fell to the end of the second round for a reason. How he adjusts to running a full route tree will determine how successful he is this fall. Seattle can expect growing pains.
Furthermore, Doug Baldwin's retirement thrust Metcalf into a significant role. The rookie can't replace Baldwin's production or leadership, but expectations are already sky-high. Anything less than stellar play will be a disappointment.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: RB Ronald Jones
Tampa Bay Buccaneers running back Ronald Jones struggled to get his footing during his rookie campaign and gained a disappointing 44 yards on 23 carries. Far more is expected from the 2018 second-round pick, and he seems more comfortable in his second year.
"RoJo has been showing out," quarterback Jameis Winston told reporters. "... He's getting comfortable in this offense. No one is breathing down his neck ... and he's out there executing at a high level."
While Winston's evaluation is promising, it's not entirely accurate. Jones doesn't have a free path toward a starting spot. He must unseat Peyton Barber as the lead back.
"He gets those 10-, 15-yard runs breaking tackles, power runner—punishing runner," head coach Bruce Arians said of Barber, per AL.com's Mark Inabinett. "When we're building something, that's the kind I want to build around."
Tennessee Titans: OT Jack Conklin
Offensive lineman Jack Conklin received first-team All-Pro honors as a rookie in 2016, yet his long-term status with the Tennessee Titans remains in doubt.
One decision and another possibility show the organization's disappointment in the blocker's regression.
First, the Titans didn't pick up Conklin's fifth-year rookie option. Granted, a $12.9 million price tag next season would've been steep even if Tennessee wanted to retain the right tackle. However, the coaching staff is considering a reset up front, with Conklin moving to guard.
"We discuss a lot of things," offensive coordinator Arthur Smith said when asked about the possibility, per A to Z Sports Nashville.
Dennis Kelly is a viable replacement at right tackle, while the Titans selected Nate Davis in this year's third round to potentially start at guard (opposite top offseason signing Rodger Saffold).
Washington Redskins: QB Case Keenum
Rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins is the future of the Washington Redskins franchise. Veteran signal-caller Case Keenum is trying to be the present.
"I've been in this situation before, so I'm going to come in and compete, and competition makes all of us better," Keenum told reporters at OTAs. "I hope I make him better, and I think he's going to come in and make me better, and that's what helps the team is competition."
Keenum's career sits at a crossroads. He went from a dark-horse MVP candidate during the 2017 campaign to his third team in three years without a guarantee he'll start for Washington.
"It has been a journey, but it has made me who I am," the 31-year-old said during an interview on SiriusXM NFL Radio.
If Haskins wins the job outright, Keenum's career arc as a long-term backup will be set in stone. This is likely the seven-year veteran's last chance to be viewed as a starter.