The Biggest Spot Up for Grabs in Every NFL Training Camp
We're less than two months away from the start of the 2019 NFL season on Sept. 5 and mere weeks away from Aug. 1's Hall of Fame Game and the start of the preseason. This means that in a proverbial blink of an eye, games will be underway.
While preseason contests obviously don't carry the weight of regular-season matchups, they are important to set the stage for the year. Many roster positions are unsettled, and players will have their opportunities to snag jobs during the exhibition period.
First, however, those guys will get their cracks at securing roster spots away from the cameras in training camps—and training-camp season is already upon us. With this in mind, let's take a look at the biggest positions up for grabs around the league. These are spots that don't have an entrenched starter and will be vital to each team's success in 2019.
Arizona Cardinals: Center
If the Arizona Cardinals hope to see rookie success from quarterback Kyler Murray, they will need to improve the play of their offensive line. The unit allowed the last potential franchise quarterback, Josh Rosen, to be sacked 45 times in 14 games last season and isn't widely expected to be much better in 2019.
Pro Football Focus projects Arizona's line as the third-worst in the league for the coming season.
Settling the center position would go a long way toward getting more consistent play out of the unit, and there should be an open battle between former starter A.Q. Shipley—who suffered a torn ACL during the 2018 preseason—and last year's starter, Mason Cole.
With Shipley nearly a full year removed from his injury, this job is up for grabs, and the Cardinals can see how it plays out in training camp.
Atlanta Falcons: Guard
Like the Cardinals, the Atlanta Falcons desperately need to see improved offensive line play. Quarterback Matt Ryan was sacked 42 times last year and cannot afford to be under similar pressure this season.
Settling the two starting guard spots will go a long way toward improving the line. In free agency, the Falcons signed Jamon Brown, John Wetzel and James Carpenter. They then selected Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom with the 14th overall pick in the draft.
The good news is that the team now several talented options to fill the guard spots. The best players should emerge in camp, and, theoretically at least, the Falcons line will be improved in 2019.
Baltimore Ravens: Edge-Rusher
The Baltimore Ravens have an open job at the edge-rusher spot thanks to the departure of both Za'Darius Smith and Terrell Suggs in the offseason. The two combined for 15.5 sacks in 2018, so this is definitely a spot where the Ravens should allow the cream to rise to the top.
Matthew Judon, who has 15 sacks over the last two seasons, should be the front-runner on one side of the defense, but Baltimore has choices opposite him. They brought back Pernell McPhee this offseason after he spent time with the Chicago Bears and Washington, drafted Jaylon Ferguson in the third round and have the likes of Chris Wormley, Tim Williams, Shane Ray and Tyus Bowser.
Of course, in defensive coordinator Don Martindale's system, the rush can come from either the defensive end or the linebacker spot, so this could end up as more of a group effort on a rotational basis. If one guy is able to emerge in camp and in the preseason, however, he's likely to earn the bulk of the playing time in passing situations.
Buffalo Bills: Cornerback
The Buffalo Bills have themselves a top-tier cornerback in Tre'Davious White. He'll lock down one of the starting spots at the position this season—along with many an opposing receiver.
Things are pretty open at the other starting spot, however, and there are a number of players who could claim the job.
Buffalo brought back E.J. Gaines after he spent a season with the Cleveland Browns and signed former Houston Texans corner Kevin Johnson in free agency. Taron Johnson is returning after a strong rookie season—he had 42 tackles and three passes defended—primarily in the nickelback role, and the Bills have the likes of Ryan Lewis, Levi Wallace and undrafted rookie Cameron Lewis.
Carolina Panthers: Backup Quarterback
The backup quarterback battle isn't widely viewed as an important one during training-camp season, but it's going to be huge for the Carolina Panthers. Starter and 2015 league MVP Cam Newton is coming off a shoulder surgery, so the Panthers need an insurance policy.
Kyle Allen, who started in Week 17 against the New Orleans Saints, could be considered the front-runner. He played well in that game, passing for 228 yards and two touchdowns while rushing for another score.
However, Carolina did invest a third-round pick in West Virginia signal-caller Will Grier, and he should have every opportunity to unseat Allen as Newton's understudy.
Taylor Heinicke, who also made a 2018 start for the Panthers, is in the mix as well.
Chicago Bears: Kicker
The Chicago Bears' season ended on a missed field-goal attempt, which is likely still fresh in the minds of many Windy City fans. The team released the culprit, Cody Parkey, early in the offseason.
Currently, Chicago has Elliott Fry and Eddy Pineiro battling it out, but another candidate could enter the fray by the time players report for training camp July 25. Former Bears kicker Robbie Gould seems to want out of San Francisco and is seeking a trade.
"The bottom line is, I'm unsure if I want to play there anymore," Gould said, per ESPN's Adam Schefter. "At this point, I have to do what's best for me and my family back home."
For Gould, home is in Chicago, and there's at least a chance the Bears add him to the competition.
Cincinnati Bengals: Linebacker
The Cincinnati Bengals parted with longtime starter Vontaze Burfict this offseason, which leaves a significant hole in the middle of the linebacker corps. Essentially, all of the Bengals' linebacker spots should be up for grabs, though, as the unit was one of the team's biggest weaknesses in 2018.
Cincinnati allowed the most passing yards and the fourth-most rushing yards in the league. That's a clear reflection on the linebacker corps, which sees responsibilities in both phases.
2018 starters Preston Brown and Nick Vigil are returning, and the Bengals have Malik Jefferson, Hardy Nickerson Jr., Chris Worley and rookie third-round pick Germaine Pratt. The best three players should emerge in Cincinnati's base 4-3 scheme.
Cleveland Browns: Linebacker
Like the Bengals, the Cleveland Browns have an opening at linebacker. Unlike Cincinnati, the Browns have two of their three linebacker spots in capable hands.
Christian Kirksey is one of the team's top defenders, and Joe Schobert is a one-time Pro Bowler.
The third spot in the base 4-3 defense is open, however. The Browns released Jamie Collins in the offseason, and they will try to replace him with the likes of second-year man Genard Avery and rookies Sione Takitaki and Mack Wilson.
Wilson in particular has already impressed this offseason.
"Wilson is starting to look like a steal in the fifth round and could siphon some reps," Mary Kay Cabot of Cleveland.com wrote.
Dallas Cowboys: Strong Safety
Jeff Heath has started at strong safety for the Dallas Cowboys over the last two years. However, there's a reason why the Cowboys signed George Iloka in free agency this offseason. Heath—who finished 2018 ranked 81st among safeties, per Pro Football Focus—was a liability at times.
Iloka is gunning for Heath's job and looking to provide the Cowboys with a defensive upgrade.
"My goal from Day 1 is just to have the best year of my career," he said, per David Helman of the team's official website."If I go ahead and have that, the rest will take care of itself and speak for itself."
Iloka should have every opportunity to take the starting job before the beginning of September.
Denver Broncos: Tight End
The Denver Broncos traded for quarterback Joe Flacco this offseason and hope that he can lead the franchise back into the postseason. In order to get the most out of Flacco, the Broncos need to get the most out of the tight end position.
"Over the last three years, Joe Flacco has targeted a tight end on 23 percent of his passes, the fifth-highest rate in the league during this span," Graham Barfield of NFL.com wrote.
First-round pick Noah Fant would seem to be the front-runner for the position, but it's hard to predict how quickly any rookie pass-catcher will adapt to the NFL.
Denver also has Jeff Heuerman, Troy Fumagalli and Jake Butt at tight end. If any one of them proves to be a better Week 1 option, he should take the starting job.
Detroit Lions: Cornerback
The Detroit Lions have one quality cornerback in Darius Slay, though he's seeking a new contract and has suggested that a training-camp holdout is possible.
"Will I be there?" Slay said on The Pride Podcast (h/t Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press). "We'll see. Time will tell."
Regardless of Slay's status, the Lions have an opening across from him and several candidates to fill it. They have 2017 second-round pick Teez Tabor, Rashaan Melvin and rookie fifth-round pick Amani Oruwariye.
Detroit also signed Justin Coleman to a four-year, $36 million deal this offseason, though he's expected to be the team's nickelback. If he proves to be the best option opposite Slay, however, he'll likely earn the starting gig.
Green Bay Packers: Wide Receiver
The Green Bay Packers have a No. 1 receiver in Davante Adams, but there is no established No. 2 or No. 3. And there are plenty of players vying for jobs.
Options include Geronimo Allison, Equanimeous St. Brown, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, Trevor Davis, J'Mon Moore and Jake Kumerow.
Earning a roster spot could come down to their ability to fill a specialized role.
"You need guys that are at a certain area of expertise, and then it's our job as coaches to put those guys into position where they can showcase that skill set," head coach Matt LaFleur said, per Mike Spofford of the team's official website.
Houston Texans: Offensive Tackle
The Houston Texans allowed quarterback Deshaun Watson to be sacked a league-high 62 times in 2018. That's clearly not good, and it's a big reason why both tackle positions should be up for grabs in training camp.
The Texans still have Julie'n Davenport on his rookie deal, and they brought back Seantrel Henderson. But they also signed Matt Kalil and used a first-round pick on Alabama State's Tytus Howard. These should be the top four players competing for the two starting tackle jobs, though guys like Rick Leonard, Roderick Johnson and undrafted rookie D.J. Coker will be in the mix.
Houston should hope that an open competition helps the line improve because it cannot afford to see Watson sacked that often again.
Indianapolis Colts: Wide Receiver
The Indianapolis Colts have a legitimate No. 1 receiver in T.Y. Hilton, but the depth behind him was questionable in 2018. Chester Rogers was second among wideouts on the team with a mere 485 yards receiving on the season.
This is why Indianapolis signed Devin Funchess to a one-year, $10 million deal in free agency and used a second-round pick on Ohio State's Parris Campbell.
Funchess and Campbell will compete with the likes of Rogers, Zach Pascal, Deon Cain and undrafted rookie Penny Hart for the second- and third-receiver roles.
Chemistry with quarterback Andrew Luck will obviously be important. Unfortunately, Funchess, Campbell and Hart had none coming into the offseason. The players who did, outside of Hilton, are primarily the underwhelming players Indianapolis is trying to replace.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Wide Receiver
Dede Westbrook, who led the Jaguars with 717 yards receiving last season, should be one of the starters. But Donte Moncrief, the next-leading wideout with 688 yards, is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Marqise Lee was a 700-yard receiver in 2017, but he landed on injured reserve last preseason with a torn ACL. There's no telling what kind of player he'll be upon returning.
Jacksonville also has 2018 second-round pick DJ Chark Jr., offseason acquisition Chris Conley and Terrelle Pryor Sr. at the position. In addition, the Jaguars brought in former West Virginia wideout Marcus Simms shortly after the supplemental draft, according to NFL Network's Tom Pelissero.
Kansas City Chiefs: Running Back
According to offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy, the Kansas City Chiefs already view Damien Williams as their starting running back. Let's be realistic, though. If a better option emerges during training camp, the team will place him in the starting role.
Kansas City does have other candidates at the position. Darrel Williams is back after playing a complementary role—13 carries, two receptions and a touchdown in the final three weeks—down the stretch alongside Damien. The Chiefs brought in former San Francisco 49ers and Browns starter Carlos Hyde in the offseason as well.
In addition, they have rookie sixth-round pick Darwin Thompson. The Utah State product rushed for 1,044 yards and an impressive 6.8 yards per carry last season.
This may be Williams' job to lose, but it will be up for grabs in training camp.
Los Angeles Chargers: Offensive Tackle
The Los Angeles Chargers have one important unsettled spot on the roster, and it's at right tackle. 2018 starter Sam Tevi is back, but the Chargers should hope that someone is able to unseat him.
The Chargers used a third-round pick on Sioux Falls tackle Trey Pipkins, and he should be Tevi's primary competition. Other candidates for the job include Brant Weiss and Trent Scott.
Los Angeles Rams: Guard
The Rams are hoping that a player like Joseph Noteboom or Aaron Neary can replace him, though that won't be an easy task and Neary will open the season on a four-game suspension for a violation of the league's substance-abuse policy. Other options at guard include Jamil Demby and undrafted rookie Chandler Brewer.
While the Rams obviously believe they can find Saffold's replacement in-house, they don't have a lot of experience to work with. Out of the aforementioned group, Neary is the only one with an NFL start to his credit, and he has just a single one.
Miami Dolphins: Quarterback
There aren't too many open quarterback jobs this offseason, but the Miami Dolphins have one of them. They signed journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick in free agency as a potential placeholder for the season, but then they traded a second-round draft pick to acquire Josh Rosen.
The best player should emerge to claim the starting job before Week 1, but for now, Fitzpatrick appears to be the lead dog.
"One Dolphins player said Fitzpatrick has impressed everyone as a leader and that he was clearly the best quarterback in the offseason program," Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote. "So Josh Rosen will be a clear underdog to begin the season as the starter when camp opens July 25."
This doesn't mean, however, that Rosen cannot take the job away from Fitzpatrick. While the bearded wonder has been able to play tremendous ball for stretches, the Dolphins have to know he isn't the long-term answer. If Rosen can at least close the gap by the end of camp, giving him the opportunity to prove himself may be Miami's best option.
Minnesota Vikings: Backup Running Back
The Minnesota Vikings are hoping that running back Dalvin Cook can emerge as a legitimate every-down player. However, he'll first have to prove he can stay healthy for an entire season. He missed 12 games as a rookie in 2017 and another five games this past season because of injury.
This is why the No. 2 running back spot is important for Minnesota. Not only do the Vikings need an insurance policy at the position, but they ideally need a player who can spell Cook and keep him game-day eligible.
The backup job is there for the taking in Minnesota. Though the team drafted Alexander Mattison in the third round, it also added 2015 second-round pick Ameer Abdullah in free agency and has undrafted rookie Mike Boone in the mix as well.
New England Patriots: Tight End
The New England Patriots lost future Hall of Famer Rob Gronkowski to retirement this offseason, which leaves the tight end position up for grabs.
Though speculation about a possible Gronkowski return is likely to continue into the regular season—especially if he and Tom Brady continue working out together—the reality is someone has to claim his vacated role.
Veteran and former Patriot Benjamin Watson would appear to be the front-runner, but he's also going to open the season with a four-game suspension for violating the PED policy.
The Patriots also acquired Stephen Anderson in the offseason and have Matt LaCosse and undrafted free agent Andrew Beck on the roster.
New Orleans Saints: Nickelback
The New Orleans Saints have their starting cornerbacks in Marshon Lattimore and Eli Apple. However, there should be an open job at nickelback this season and a few potential candidates to fill it.
Patrick Robinson started eight games for the Saints in 2017 but suffered a broken ankle after just three appearances last season. P.J. Williams took over and started seven games, but he could face discipline for an offseason DWI arrest.
According to Olivia Prentzel of NOLA.com, Williams pleaded not guilty in February, but players don't need to admit guilt or be prosecuted to be in violation of the league's personal conduct policy.
Also in the mix at cornerback for the Saints is rookie fourth-round pick Chauncey Gardner-Johnson. Though he's more of a safety than a cornerback, teams frequently deploy three safeties in sub-packages, and Gardner-Johnson could carve out a significant role.
New York Giants: Center
At some point, rookie quarterback Daniel Jones is going to replace aging veteran Eli Manning under center for the New York Giants. There's a slight possibility he gets his chance during training camp and the preseason, but Manning is definitely the favorite.
A bigger question for New York is who will start at center. Jon Halapio started 10 games there in 2017 and began last season as the starter. However, he suffered a broken ankle in Week 2 and was replaced by Spencer Pulley.
Pulley signed a three-year, $8 million contract with the Giants this offseason.
With Halapio and Pulley healthy, this becomes an important camp battle as the Giants look to solidify and improve their offensive line.
New York Jets: Cornerback
The New York Jets signed cornerback Trumaine Johnson to a massive five-year, $72.5 million contract last offseason. Though Johnson didn't always play like an elite No. 1 corner in 2018, he's going to retain his starting job based on salary alone.
Opposite Johnson, however, things are pretty unstable. The Jets have yet to re-sign Morris Claiborne and will have an open competition to replace him in camp. Players vying for the job include Brian Poole, Darryl Roberts, Doug Middleton and rookie sixth-round pick Blassuan Austin.
It's worth keeping an eye on Claiborne, too. He had 14 passes defended and two interceptions for the Jets last season and would be a smart pickup if another starting-caliber cornerback doesn't emerge during training camp.
Oakland Raiders: Edge-Rusher
The Oakland Raiders desperately need to upgrade their pass rush. As a team, the Raiders produced a mere 13 sacks in 2018, which is hard to believe even after losing 2016 Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack.
This is why the edge-rusher job is and should be wide-open during training camp. Someone has to emerge as a legitimate sack artist for Oakland.
Fourth overall draft pick Clelin Ferrell should get every chance to be that guy in 2019, but the Raiders can't just count on one player to fix their pass-rushing woes. Players like second-year man Arden Key and rookie fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby will also have chances to earn significant playing time and possibly a starting job in camp.
Philadelphia Eagles: Running Back
Who will be the starting running back? The only bigger question for the Philadelphia Eagles this season is whether Carson Wentz will play a full 16-game slate. Fielding a strong running game should help keep Wentz upright and healthy, and the Eagles took steps to improve the backfield in the offseason.
Philadelphia traded for Bears starter Jordan Howard and used a second-round pick on former Penn State running back Miles Sanders.
Howard and Sanders are not the only options on the roster, however. Josh Adams, Wendell Smallwood and Corey Clement all return after seeing playing time in 2018, and the Eagles have 2017 fourth-round pick Donnel Pumphrey on the roster as well.
The Eagles are likely to employ a committee approach to their backfield this season, but someone is going to have to raise the bar and take the starting job.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Wide Receiver
With Antonio Brown now in Oakland, JuJu Smith-Schuster becomes the No. 1 wide receiver for the Pittsburgh Steelers. The question for Pittsburgh is who will emerge as the team's second and third receivers in training camp.
For Smith-Schuster, second-year man James Washington is one of the favorites.
"You talk about a guy, a young dude who's up-and-coming, it's going to be James Washington," he said, per Brian Batko of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
The Steelers also have offseason acquisition Donte Moncrief, rookie Diontae Johnson, Eli Rogers and Ryan Switzer competing for one of the top receiver jobs this year.
San Francisco 49ers: Wide Receiver
Like the Steelers, the San Francisco 49ers have an open competition at wide receiver upcoming. Unlike Pittsburgh, they don't have a clear top choice to be the No. 1 receiver. Kendrick Bourne led all 49ers wideouts with a mere 487 yards receiving last season.
This competition is wide-open from top to bottom.
Bourne will join second-year man Dante Pettis, holdovers Marquise Goodwin and Trent Taylor, offseason acquisition Jordan Matthews and rookies Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd in the competition at receiver.
While established quarterback-receiver chemistry would normally give players like Bourne and Pettis an edge here, Jimmy Garoppolo played just over two games last season before tearing his ACL. The top job could go to practically anyone.
Seattle Seahawks: Running Back
The Seattle Seahawks used a committee backfield to great effect in 2018. Starter Chris Carson rushed for 1,151 yards, while Mike Davis added 514 yards on the ground and rookie Rashaad Penny ran for 419 more.
Though Carson would be a logical choice to remain the starter, Penny was a 2018 first-round pick who will be given every chance to establish himself as the starter. Davis is now in Chicago.
Along with Carson and Penny, the Seahawks have running backs C.J. Prosise, J.D. McKissic and Bo Scarbrough. However, Carson and Penny are the two most likely to put in legitimate claims for the starting job.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Safety
Realistically, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should probably have every job in the secondary up for grabs this offseason. The unit allowed an average of 259.4 yards per game through the air last season, seventh-most in the NFL.
Things are particularly unsettled at safety, however, where Tampa is trying to find upgrades.
2018 starters Justin Evans and Jordan Whitehead are returning, but the Buccaneers brought in competition at both safety spots. They signed Kentrell Brice to a one-year deal in free agency and spent a third-round pick on Mike Edwards.
Brice and Edwards should both have legitimate chances to claim starting roles, especially as new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles looks to forge his own identity on defense.
Tennessee Titans: Guard
The Tennessee Titans signed free-agent guard Rodger Saffold to a four-year, $44 million deal this offseason, and he should lock down the left guard position for the foreseeable future. Things at right guard aren't as clear-cut, however, and the job is wide-open.
Veteran Kevin Pamphile likely heads into camp as the favorite, but he is coming off a season cut short by injury.
Competing against Pamphile will be rookie third-round pick Nate Davis. The NC-Charlotte product is a powerful, versatile player who spent time at both guard and tackle in college. If he cannot win the job outright, he should provide valuable depth all along the line in 2019.
Other candidates for the open guard spot include Tyler Marz, Jamil Douglas and Aaron Stinnie.
Washington Redskins: Quarterback
The Washington Redskins used a first-round selection on former Ohio State quarterback Dwayne Haskins back in April. While he has to be considered the future for Washington, the starting job is and should be open through training camp.
The Redskins also acquired Case Keenum during the offseason, and he and Colt McCoy should compete with Haskins to be the Week 1 starter.
According to Trevor Matich of NBC Sports Washington, however, the Redskins may be wise to let Keenum and McCoy compete for the starting job while bringing Haskins along slowly.
"The best thing the Redskins could do with Dwayne Haskins is not start him Week 1, even if they think he might be ready," Matich said, per Ethan Cadeaux of NBC Sports Washington. "The better call is to give him meaningful snaps in Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, let him prove that he is ready for the mental load."
If Haskins proves to be the best option by the end of camp, though, there's little reason to keep him out.
*All contract information via Spotrac.