The NFL's Top 7 Remaining Position Battles

Maurice Moton@@MoeMotonFeatured ColumnistAugust 23, 2020

The NFL's Top 7 Remaining Position Battles

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    NFL teams have shifted to padded practices, giving coaches a chance to assess how their players execute against live opposition.

    Without a preseason, team decision-makers must weigh these practices on a heavier scale before the campaign opens Sept. 10.

    But since clubs are just ramping up the intensity, few front-runners have emerged in positions battles. We'll break down contenders for seven of the top open roster spots across the league, ranking them based on competitiveness and the importance of the position.

    Two teams have intriguing quarterback situations set to unfold in the coming weeks. Early-round draft picks and veterans who joined new squads may find it difficult to beat out players already comfortable in the system.

    With so much change this offseason, we could see some surprise starters.

7. New England Patriots: Quarterback

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    New England Patriots quarterback Cam Newton
    New England Patriots quarterback Cam NewtonMichael Dwyer/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Cam Newton vs. Jarrett Stidham 

    The battle between 2015 NFL MVP Cam Newton and Jarrett Stidham, who's thrown four regular-season passes, seems like a no-brainer.

    Yet, the New England Patriots have split first-team reps to set up a true camp competition, per Phil Perry of NBC Sports Boston. "Little ground was made up by either party Monday because a) there was such a dearth of competitive throws called during a run-game-focused practice and b) the reps were split so evenly," he wrote.

    In fact, ESPN's Mike Reiss wonders if the Patriots would consider a rotation under center.

    "In an unconventional season, what if coach Bill Belichick goes the unconventional route with the New England Patriots' starting quarterback job? ... Perhaps it's QB1a and QB1b," Reiss wrote.

    The Patriots could explore this unorthodox strategy until they're comfortable with Stidham or Newton. That approach comes with a major risk, though. The offense might struggle to establish continuity with two very different quarterbacks taking snaps.

    Stidham's more of a traditional pocket passer, while Newton can make plays with his legs, bowling over defenders by running full steam ahead.

    According to ESPN's Adam Schefter, Stidham went to the hospital for a check on his upper leg Thursday and went through a light practice Friday. His workload will likely be a significant factor in this battle.

    Thus far, Reiss notes that none of the Patriots quarterbacks (including Brian Hoyer) have flashed during practices. He also thinks one of the two competitors would have to impress the coaching staff to leapfrog Newton for the pole position, which keeps this battle on the low end of this ranking.

6. San Francisco 49ers: Cornerback No. 2

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Ahkello Witherspoon vs. Emmanuel Moseley

    Opposite Richard Sherman, the San Francisco 49ers can go back to Ahkello Witherspoon, who opened the 2019 campaign as a starter, or continue to put faith in his replacement.

    Witherspoon suffered a foot sprain in Week 3 last year. Emmanuel Moseley took advantage and started nine games, recording eight pass breakups and an interception while allowing a 54.2 percent completion rate.

    Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh told reporters the job is up for grabs.

    "The corner spot opposite Sherm, obviously we'd like to see a competition over there," Saleh said. "It is wide open if you want to call it that."

    Saleh said Jason Verrett has "been looking good." Despite the early praise, he's difficult to trust, considering his injury history, as he's played just six games since the start of 2016.

    Witherspoon struggled in the latter half of the 2019 campaign and made little impact during San Francisco's playoff run, logging two postseason tackles. Although Saleh may not say it, Moseley seems like the front-runner to start Week 1.

    The reigning NFC champions have a big question mark in the secondary and a tough call to fill it with either a 2017 third-rounder or a third-year undrafted product out of Tennessee who played well as a fill-in starter. Unlike the Patriots' quarterback battle, there's no clear favorite, meaning this job will have to be earned.

5. Dallas Cowboys: Cornerback No. 2

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    Cornerback Trevon Diggs
    Cornerback Trevon DiggsMichael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Trevon Diggs vs. Daryl Worley vs. Anthony Brown vs. Jourdan Lewis vs. Reggie Robinson II

    The Dallas Cowboys have multiple moving parts at cornerback. The front office allowed Byron Jones to depart via free agency, which left a vacancy on the boundary.

    According to Jon Machota of The Athletic, Chidobe Awuzie seems like a lock to remain at cornerback.

    "While there was some speculation this offseason about him potentially moving to safety, the fourth-year corner revealed Sunday that the coaches have not mentioned anything to him about playing safety, a position he played in college. Awuzie expects to remain at cornerback all season," Machota wrote.

    Jourdan Lewis fits well in the slot, with his recent experience on the inside. Anthony Brown has flexibility at the position, though the fifth-year veteran may have to hold off rookie second-rounder Trevon Diggs, who has impressed head coach Mike McCarthy, per Machota.

    "Very smooth," McCarthy said about Diggs. "He looks like he's transitioning very well so far. … The thing that jumps out to you on the practice field is particularly his ball skills. He's a natural. I think he'll adjust very well to the NFL game."

    Diggs played wide receiver through his freshman year at Alabama. He still has ball-tracking skills as a cornerback. If the 6'2", 195-pound cover man continues to stand out during practices, the Cowboys may choose upside over experience.

    Daryl Worley is a wild card in this battle. He's started 49 out of 56 games in his career. He's not fleet of foot, but the 25-year-old has held down the boundary role for four campaigns with the Carolina Panthers and Las Vegas Raiders.

    Reggie Robinson II emerged in his final term at Tulsa, recording 13 pass breakups and three interceptions, though he may need more polish in his footwork to mirror shifty receivers on the perimeter.

    The Cowboys' cornerback battle has more contenders than the San Francisco 49ers' competition at the same position. Brown, Diggs and Worley all have a legitimate shot to start opposite Awuzie.

4. Los Angeles Rams: Starting Running Back

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    Los Angeles Rams running back Cam Akers
    Los Angeles Rams running back Cam AkersAssociated Press

    Top Contenders: Cam Akers vs. Darrell Henderson vs. Malcolm Brown

    The Los Angeles Rams go into the post-Todd Gurley era with a group of potential starters—none of them proven in a lead role.

    In May, head coach Sean McVay said the Rams have "three really good backs," per ESPN's Lindsey Thiry. Among the trio, Cam Akers was a second-round pick in April's draft, so he's the logical front-runner to handle the majority of the carries.

    On the other hand, the condensed offseason may force the Rams to employ a committee. Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown know McVay's system, though the former only played 93 offensive snaps in 2019, partially because of an ankle injury. The latter has just 197 rush attempts for 769 yards and six touchdowns through five years.

    McVay praised Henderson for his offseason progress, per's Eric D. Williams.

    "He's taking a big step in the right direction," McVay said. "He's showing big-picture understanding of everything in all phases—pass game, run game and protection."

    Despite the praises for Henderson, Akers doesn't face stiff competition since the others lack lead-back experience. Furthermore, the rookie has taken a bulk of the snaps with the first and second units, per Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic:

    "Akers rotated between the ones and twos on Wednesday, much like he did Tuesday. The Rams' running backs continue to work in committee, though it's notable that Akers at least has the appearance of taking more snaps. The staff feels a little urgency in onboarding Akers quickly, because they believe he will factor into their plans this season."

    Rodrigue noted the team hopes to expedite Akers' learning process through an atypical offseason, so his reps won't necessarily translate to a workhorse role. Still, he's in line to handle a good chunk of the snaps over Henderson, who's coming off ankle surgery, and a career backup in Brown.

    This battle ranks fourth because of the mix of competitors. The Rams have two recent Day 2 picks and an experienced veteran vying for the spot. Because of the condensed offseason, Akers isn't a guarantee to start despite his second-round pedigree.

3. New York Jets: Starting Inside Linebacker

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    New York Jets linebacker Blake Cashman
    New York Jets linebacker Blake CashmanSteve Luciano/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Patrick Onwuasor vs. Neville Hewitt vs. Blake Cashman vs. James Burgess

    C.J. Mosley opted out of the 2020 campaign because of COVID-19 concerns, leaving a void in the middle of the New York Jets defense. Nonetheless, Gang Green has become accustomed to playing without him.

    In 2019, Mosley only lined up for 114 defensive snaps before he went down with a season-ending groin injury. Already without Avery Williamson (torn ACL), the Jets relied on a young trio to fill the gaps. Neville Hewitt, Blake Cashman and James Burgess all played at least 427 defensive snaps.

    Williamson opened camp on the physically unable to perform list. According to The Athletic's Connor Hughes, Burgess "tweaked his lower back," and Cashman has taken first-team reps.

    Hughes also noted that Hewitt looks and sounds like a natural "Mike" linebacker this offseason:

    "Hewitt is much more vocal this year than last. You can tell he's both comfortable in Gregg Williams scheme, and at MIKE linebacker. Hewitt worked primarily as the WILL linebacker the majority of camp last season, deferring the defensive play-calling to C.J. Mosley. When Mosley went down, he had to adjust to becoming the vocal defensive leader. That transformation is complete."

    While Hewitt and Cashman attempt to leave strong early impressions, the Jets still have a veteran with starting experience in Patrick Onwuasor. He opened with the first-stringers in 32 out of 57 career contests but saw a decline in snaps after Week 5 last season with the Baltimore Ravens.

    If Williamson can't suit up for Week 1, the Jets will likely depend on a combination of Onwuasor, Cashman and Hewitt to start in the middle. After starting 10 games last year, Burgess could compete for a prominent role if he returns from injury.

    Williamson plans to suit up for Week 1, but one of the linebackers in this competition may call the shots with the headset if he can't. That's a major responsibility on defense. Furthermore, none of the contenders have an early-round draft pedigree, which would factor into the pecking order. This is an intense battle among unheralded players and will likely extend through the final days of camp.

2. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Tight End No. 1

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    Tight end Rob Gronkowski
    Tight end Rob GronkowskiChris O'Meara/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Rob Gronkowski vs. O.J. Howard vs. Cameron Brate

    On paper, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have arguably the best tight end trio. They can roll out two-tight end sets in 12 personnel, which takes away from the importance of designating a lead player at the position.

    Yet, the snap-count distribution draws intrigue because quarterback Tom Brady only has one ball to throw, three tight ends who can contribute in the passing attack and two Pro Bowl wide receivers on the perimeter.

    Peter King of NBC Sports had a close look at the Buccaneers' practices and provided his estimates on how the team will divvy up snaps among Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate.

    "I'd bet Howard plays the most snaps of the tight ends, with Brate maybe a few more than Gronkowski; but that's just a guess," King wrote.

    Howard possesses more athletic ability and quickness than Brate and Gronkowski, but all three have showcased reliable hands, logging catch rates of at least 65.6 percent for their careers.

    Gronkowski played nine seasons with Brady in New England. They can rediscover their chemistry following a one-year split after the tight end's decision to retire before the 2019 campaign.

    While the pecking order isn't a big deal to the Buccaneers, fantasy football managers will keep their eyes on this battle, as one tight end may fall out of favor, with so many pass-catchers to feed.

    Howard started 14 contests compared to Brate's six last year, but the latter had two more targets (55-53). Gronkowski complicates the outlook at this position because he's more accomplished than the other two contenders and has a rapport with Brady. Any one of the three could finish with the most targets in 2020, pushing this competition to No. 2.

1. Chicago Bears: Quarterback

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    Quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky (left) and Nick Foles (right)
    Quarterbacks Mitchell Trubisky (left) and Nick Foles (right)Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    Top Contenders: Mitchell Trubisky vs. Nick Foles

    The Chicago Bears have an open competition at quarterback after general manager Ryan Pace acquired Nick Foles from the Jacksonville Jaguars to compete with Mitchell Trubisky.

    Both signal-callers struggled last season. Trubisky threw just 17 touchdown passes and 10 interceptions. In Week 1, Foles broke his collarbone, returned in Week 11 and lost his starting job to rookie Gardner Minshew II after three outings.

    Foles has had playoff success, but he's an inconsistent regular-season quarterback who's yet to play through a full 16-game slate. Trubisky took a step back in his third year. Now, the Bears will find out how he responds to adversity.

    Head coach Matt Nagy made a reasonable point that Foles goes into the battle at a "disadvantage" without OTAs or minicamp practices with the receivers, according to NBC Sports Chicago's Bryan Perez. Then again, he's not ready to say Trubisky made strides during the offseason yet.

    "We don't have enough right now," Nagy told reporters Tuesday. "I wish I could tell you we had enough. But there's just not enough with where we're at. We need to see more. I can't give you a fair statement or opinion with that...But I would say, realistically, we just need a little bit more time to be able to compare it to the last two years."

    Trubisky and Foles will go through an intense battle that will likely come down to the final days of training camp. Without spring reps, both quarterbacks need to establish a rhythm—perhaps the newcomer more so than the incumbent, who has a rapport with the wide receiver corps.

    With only a few padded practices in the books, this seems like a wide-open spot. Nagy didn't say Trubisky improved, which seemingly means Foles still has a shot. The Bears have the biggest decision among these battles: choosing who runs the offense between a top-two pick from 2017 and a recent Super Bowl MVP.