Under-the-Radar NFL Training Camp Battles You Need to Monitor

Brent Sobleski@@brentsobleskiNFL AnalystJuly 23, 2019

Under-the-Radar NFL Training Camp Battles You Need to Monitor

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    Quarterback competitions often dominate discussion during training camps, but those usually occur on teams without much stability or short-term hope. More interesting competitions ensue on teams with playoff aspirations and key starting positions available.

    Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Josh Rosen doesn't excite anyone when the Miami Dolphins are rebuilding. But an open spot at wide receiver for a potential division winner does.

    Competitions that matter could prove crucial to the 2019 season.

    Nine, in particular, could change the fates of squads that have far more than just making the postseason on their minds.

          

    Will Zeke really holdout? Will Melvin Gordon actually sit out into the 2019 season? What's the latest on Trent Williams? All that and more on the latest edition of The Lefkoe Show

Chicago Bears: Kicker

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    Eddy Pineiro vs. Elliott Fry

    The Chicago Bears didn't have the league's worst kicking situation last season; it only felt that way.

    Cody Parkey missed seven field goals and three extra points with none bigger than the partially blocked kick that hit the left upright and crossbar with five seconds remaining in the Bears' 16-15 wild-card playoff loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

    As a result, the organization released Parkey and scoured the land to find consistency within its kicking game. The Bears traded a conditional 2021 seventh-round pick to the Oakland Raiders for Eddy Pineiro, who looked like he would win the Raiders' job last season before suffering a season-ending groin injury. Chicago's front office also signed Elliott Fry after a tryout that included Younghoe Koo, Nick Rose and veteran Caleb Sturgis.

    Pineiro has yet to attempt a regular-season field goal, while Fry converted 14 of 14 attempts as a member of the Alliance of American Football's Orlando Apollos.

    Since Fry already beat out multiple kickers to earn a three-year deal and showed the level of consistency the Bears want, he has the edge.

    Projected Winner: Elliott Fry

Cleveland Browns: Right Guard

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    Austin Corbett vs. Kyle Kalis vs. Eric Kush

    The Cleveland Browns are Super Bowl contenders. No, really, they are, according to Caesars. Their star-studded roster includes concerns along the offensive line, though.

    Offensive tackle is a major question mark with Greg Robinson and Chris Hubbard as the projected starters. Right guard, meanwhile, is up for grabs after Cleveland included Kevin Zeitler in the Odell Beckham Jr.-Olivier Vernon megadeal.

    Austin Corbett is the obvious choice after general manager John Dorsey chose the 23-year-old blocker with the 33rd pick in the 2018 draft. Corbett didn't join the starting lineup as a rookie and has competition from veteran Eric Kush and Kyle Kalis.

    "I've got to go make it happen. It's all on me," Corbett told reporters during minicamp. "There's no one else. If I don't get the starting job, it's my fault I didn't do well, and if I do, that means I'm stepping up and I've got to keep showing them that."

    The play of the offensive interior is vital when a team features a shorter-than-ideal quarterback because the middle three blockers set the depth of the pocket. Whoever starts at right guard can't allow defensive tackles to push him back into Baker Mayfield's lap.

    Corbett is the most talented among those vying for the position, and he'll likely find a home after bouncing between multiple positions.

    Projected Winner: Austin Corbett

Green Bay Packers: No. 2 Wide Receiver

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    Marquez Valdes-Scantling vs. Equanimeous St. Brown vs. Geronimo Allison vs. Jake Kumerow vs. J'Mon Moore vs. Trevor Davis

    Each of the Green Bay Packers' wide receiver roles beyond top target Davante Adams is open.

    Of course, the use of multireceiver sets will allow more than one option to carve a niche within Matt LaFleur's scheme. A second reliable receiver is necessary, however, for the offense to become less predictable. The Packers' two-time Pro Bowler finished second in the league last season with 169 targets.

    "I'd like 169 targets," Adams joked, per Packers News' Jim Owczarski. "No, it'd be great to have it spread out. Obviously, all the balls thrown my way, I'm not going to tell him don't throw it. But the other guys doing things, making it easier on me, on Aaron [Rodgers] and on our run game, that'll definitely help."

    Each of the receivers brings a different skills set, and LaFleur's coaching staff must discern who is better suited to play outside and in the slot. Valdes-Scantling brings the most as an all-round target.

    The 2018 fifth-round pick presents size (6'4", 206 lbs) and separation skills. According to Pro Football Focus, Valdes-Scantling created at least one step of separation on 70.3 percent of his targets, which ranked third. Plus, he can build upon last year, when he finished third on the team with 581 yards.

    St. Brown, Allison, Kumerow, Moore and Davis will compete for other spots because Valdes-Scantling is the receiver to beat as Rodgers' No. 2 target.

    Projected Winner: Marquez Valdes-Scantling

Houston Texans: Left Tackle

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    Matt Kalil vs. Julie'n Davenport vs. Max Scharping vs. Tytus Howard

    The Houston Texans didn't address left tackle to the level many expected this offseason.

    After quarterback Deshaun Watson endured a league-high 62 sacks with Julie'n Davenport the weak link on an already porous offensive front, the Texans didn't go all-out to address their blind side.

    Granted, the free-agent market lacked a marquee talent. Once Trent Brown signed with the Raiders, Greg Robinson and Matt Kalil became the best available options. Robinson re-signed with the Browns, and the Texans brought in Kalil.

    Kalil is an underwhelming option after disappointing stints with the Minnesota Vikings and Carolina Panthers. He should be nothing more than a placeholder until the Texans find a promising young option. Davenport isn't the answer, either, as last season showed.

    Houston could very well rely on a pair of rookies as its starting offensive tackles. The Texans chose Tytus Howard with the 23rd overall pick, but the developing lineman is better suited to right tackle after playing the majority of his collegiate career on the strong side.

    Second-round pick Max Scharping feels like the proper fit after 53 consecutive collegiate starts, including 27 at left tackle. Scharping allowed a single sack over the last three seasons, according to Pro Football Focus.

    Texans head coach Bill O'Brien knows who Kalil and Davenport are, whereas the rookies can greatly impact the starting lineup.

    Projected Winner: Max Scharping

Kansas City Chiefs: Outside Corner

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    Charvarius Ward vs. Tremon Smith vs. Keith Reaser

    The Kansas City Chiefs overhauled portions of last year's 31st-ranked defense, including the secondary. Steven Nelson's free-agent defection to the Pittsburgh Steelers will have arguably the biggest impact on the back line.

    Nelson excelled as a nickel corner yet spent the majority of last season working outside the numbers because Kendall Fuller, whom the Chiefs acquired in last year's Alex Smith trade, is far more natural covering the slot. The Chiefs also signed Bashaud Breeland, and he'll serve as the unit's top cover man. But Nelson's departure left an opening opposite Breeland.

    Charvarius Ward, an undrafted free agent, became a starter by the end of his rookie campaign, but he won't be handed the position. Tremon Smith, who doubles as a returner, is entering his second season, and Keith Reaser is coming off a spectacular performance as arguably the best defender in the now-defunct Alliance of American Football.

    Ward showed he can be a quality starting option. According to Pro Football Focus, he graded as a top-five cornerback from Week 17 (his second start) through the playoffs. His skill set is apparent as a 6'1", 200-pound corner with 32¼-inch arms and 4.4-second 40-yard-dash speed, but the Chiefs must find out whether he can be consistent. Otherwise, Smith or Reaser could steal the spot.

    Projected Winner: Charvarius Ward

Los Angeles Rams: Nose Tackle

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    Greg Gaines vs. Sebastian Joseph-Day

    A Ndamukong Suh-size hole exists in the middle of the Los Angeles Rams defense. The Rams didn't re-sign their starting 1-technique, and Suh landed with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    Suh won't be easily replaced, but the Rams invested in the nose tackle position in each of the last two drafts. General manager Les Snead chose Sebastian Joseph-Day in the sixth round of the 2018 draft and doubled down with Greg Gaines' acquisition in this year's fourth frame.

    Neither is an explosive upfield penetrator, but both are strong at the point of attack.

    "I am really strong in the run game, and I think that's what they want me to do here, is just let Aaron Donald take the pass-rush reps and I'll take the double-teams on first and second down," Gaines told reporters.

    Gaines' wrestling background makes him nearly impossible to uproot. The 6'1", 312-pounder ranked first among interior defenders in this year's draft class with 36 stops, per Pro Football Focus.

    Gaines is the favorite, but Joseph-Day used his first professional offseason to get into outstanding shape by spending five days each week at the Rams facilities, according to The Athletic's Vincent Bonsignore. If the rookie struggles, the second-year nose tackle will be ready for an increased workload.

    Projected Winner: Greg Gaines

New England Patriots: Outside Wide Receiver

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    N'Keal Harry vs. Dontrelle Inman vs. Phillip Dorsett

    Julian Edelman is the New England Patriots' No. 1 wide receiver with or without two healthy thumbs. But he's also a slot receiver.

    The Patriots lacked an outside threat last season when Josh Gordon wasn't on the field. Gordon's decision to take a break from the game to see to his mental health, followed by his indefinite suspension by the NFL, put a crimp in the team's plans, and Rob Gronkowski's retirement further exacerbated the passing game woes.

    Tom Brady can't rely on his future Hall of Fame tight end to create mismatches anymore. Instead, bigger targets on the outside must take over the role. The Patriots signed 31-year-old Demaryius Thomas to a one-year, $2.9 million free-agent contract. He's the obvious candidate to start at X receiver once he returns from the physically unable to perform list thanks to last year's Achilles injury.

    New England signed Dontrelle Inman to a one-year prove-it deal as well. Those veterans, along with the speedy Phillip Dorsett, provide insurance. All three are consummate professionals. They'll provide depth if this year's first-round rookie, N'Keal Harry, struggles.

    Harry's game is predicated on an ability to outmuscle and body-off defenders. His strong hands and 38.5-inch vertical help him make spectacular catches even when contorted. But an inability to separate could cause the rookie problems. The Patriots plan to fast-track Harry, and he'll receive plenty of first-team reps during training camp, according to NESN's Zack Cox.

    Projected Winner: N'Keal Harry

New Orleans Saints: Nickel Corner

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    Patrick Robinson vs. P.J. Williams vs. C.J. Gardner-Johnson

    Center is a major concern area after Max Unger's retirement, but the New Orleans Saints have plenty at the position in Cameron Tom, Nick Easton and second-round rookie Erik McCoy.

    A heated competition at nickel corner between 31-year-old veteran Patrick Robinson, incumbent P.J. Williams and fourth-round rookie C.J. Gardner-Johnson is arguably more of a surprise.

    Williams re-signed this offseason on a one-year, $2.3 million deal. Robinson, meanwhile, missed 13 games with a broken ankle.

    Gardner-Johnson's versatility as a safety-nickel corner gives the Saints even more options.

    "It's limitless what this player can do," secondary coach Aaron Glenn said of Gardner-Johnson, per Brett Martel of the Associated Press. "We're just excited to have him, and I'm sure [defensive coordinator Dennis Allen is] going to make schemes to be able to use this player, to make sure his versatility is used out there."

    The Saints signed Robinson to a four-year, $20 million deal last year. His experience and reliability in the slot make him the logical choice to cover inside receivers. And Williams is a one-year insurance policy if Robinson doesn't bounce back.

    Allen can use Gardner-Johnson as a multipurpose weapon in sub-packages since he can play nickel or in the box or cover deep.

    Projected Winner: Patrick Robinson

Pittsburgh Steelers: Right Tackle

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    Matt Feiler vs. Chukwuma Okorafor

    The Steelers will experience significant change along the offensive line after years of continuity. First, offensive line coach Mike Munchak left for the Denver Broncos. Second, a new starter at right tackle will emerge after the organization traded right tackle Marcus Gilbert to the Arizona Cardinals.

    Matt Feiler started 10 games last season as Gilbert's injury replacement. Feiler isn't comfortable in his standing, though.

    "It's up for grabs," he said, per Mike Prisuta of the team's official site. "It's going to be a tough battle."

    Normally, the transition occurs naturally. A long-term starter suffers an injury, and his replacement plays well enough to take over. But the Steelers also have a high draft pick waiting in the wings.

    Pittsburgh selected Chukwuma Okorafor in the third round of the 2018 draft. Okorafor entered the league as a project, but he has the requisite length and athleticism for the position. The 21-year-old blocker came to training camp lighter and better conditioned.

    "I'm down a little bit," Okorafor said of his weight, per the Tribune-Review's Chris Adamski, "so I feel a little bit more fast."

    Okorafor's upside should give him the edge even though Feiler is a more consistent option.

    Projected Winner: Chukwuma Okorafor