With training camp on the way for all 32 NFL teams, the competition for roster spots and moving up on the depth chart has started. I want to take the time to look at the most compelling battles for starting jobs around the league. You won’t find Patriots running backs on this list, because they have like 20 of them on their roster and they will all play a role at different stages of the season. This is more about true starters, who are counted on to produce at a certain level throughout the year. And no, I won’t talk about kickers either for all the Bucs fans out there.
Lions Left Tackle
Competitors: Greg Robinson, Cyrrus Kouandijo and Cornelius Lucas
Matthew Stafford and Detroit had a magical season a year ago. I haven’t seen many worse teams that found a way to make the playoffs. Offensively they had no running-game for the most part, the protection broke down continuously and Golden Tate was the only consistent option in the passing game, outside of Theo Riddick. Defensively they couldn’t stop anybody, but with Ziggy Ansah being healthy again and number one corner Darius Slay coming back from injury I’ll see what they can do. The Lions identified the offensive line as their biggest weakness and went ahead to address it. They signed two of the biggest names on the O-line market in free agency with guard T.J. Lang and tackle Ricky Wagner. They seem to like what they have at center and the other guard spot, but there’s a battle for the second tackle spot. Lucas has been with the team for three years now, but only started six total games for them. He will have to step his game up in order to compete with two other young guys, who haven’t begun their careers like they expected it. Robinson was the second overall pick of the 2014 Draft and has been rotating between guard and tackle for the Rams, while Kouandijo has been fighting knee issues since entering the league as a second-rounder with the Bills the same year. Rick Wagner always was a right tackle for Baltimore and I believe that’s where he’s best suited, but that leaves the second-most important offensive position up for grabs and Stafford needs more security from his blindside. That offensive front should be better overall, but with Riley Reiff gone, they have a big hole at that left tackle spot if neither one of those three guys emerges.
Redskins Running Backs
Competitors: Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine
The running back situation in Washington over the last few years has been curious to me. When Alfred Morris earned the starting gig during the 2012 preseason to form a deadly combo with Robert Griffin III during their rookie seasons, it seemed like those two would be the Redskins’ guys for the future. While RG3’s career has been in a freefall due to injuries and inconsistencies, Morris has seen his production plummet badly as well. In his four years with the organization his carries, yards and average all went down heavily, until the team decided to let him go and put the ball in the hands of Matt Jones. That didn’t work out as well as expected, mainly because of Jones’ fumbling issues, which I always questioned. In week eight the newly inserted Rob Kelley showed some promise, as he rushed for 321 yards in his first three starts. Yet, over the final six weeks, he averaged just 46.7 yards per contest. I like his hardnosed running-style, but he hasn’t won the job yet. In the fourth round of this year’s draft the Skins added a similar back in Oklahoma’s Samaje Perine. At the combine, the former Sooner checked in at the exact same weight as the man they call ‘Fat Rob’, but I think Perine is more explosive and an underrated pass-catcher. For anyone who saw the second-year man tank his way through defenders and questions if the rook will bring the same kind of attitude, Perine says himself he’d much rather through somebody than make that guy miss. So either way, this team will feature a punishing style of running and mix it up occasionally with third-down back Chris Thompson.
Competitors: Cameron Brate and O.J. Howard
Tampa Bay once again is one of those sexy playoffs tips by a lot of analysts and fans. That’s in large part due to the firepower they possess on offense with Jameis Winston spreading the ball around. Mike Evans just had a huge season and speedster DeSean Jackson was signed to give the passing attack another dimension. Another receiver, who I could see playing some valuable minutes is third-rpund pick Chris Godwin out of Penn State. The guy who was primed for a bigger role this upcoming season is tight-end Cameron Brate. A year ago, he took Austin Seferian-Jenkins’ job and recorded 660 yards plus eight TDs in ten starts. In the draft, the Bucs found themselves in a funny situation though. They weren’t necessarily looking for another tight-end because of the promise Brate showed when given the opportunity, but one of the safest prospects with top 10 talent fell to them in the first round and so they selected Alabama’s O.J. Howard. The 6’6’’ standout dominated the pre-draft process with his freakish athleticism for his size. I’m pretty sure the coaching staff will work on using both those guys heavily and they could certainly start a bunch of games with two-tight sets, but I’m intrigued to see who will develop into the number one option at that position. Howard offers more flexibility to me, because he has turned into a pretty good blocker, especially when you look at his tape as a senior, but he never put up the statistics a player with his talents was expected to. Brate on the other hand might not be the strongest blocker, but he clearly is the more polished receiver at this point. It will be interested to watch how this position battle unfolds going forward, but I’m sure both players will be asked to fulfill different tasks and help this team put up some points.
Seahawks Running Backs
Competitors: Eddie Lacy, Thomas Rawls and C.J. Prosise
Marshawn Lynch is now with the Raiders and the Seahawks need somebody to bring them the same attitude Beast Mode brought to the table. The natural predecessor would be the guy the 12s started calling Mini Beast Mode – Thomas Rawls. It wasn’t the easiest season for him in 2016/17, mainly because injuries forced him to miss half the campaign, in which he was expected to be their new workhorse. Things didn’t really get easier for the third-year pro this offseason when the organization decided to sign former Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy. Despite the fact NFL people have made a lot of jokes about Lacy’s weight, he was off to a pretty good start with the Packers last season, before he got hurt. When healthy and in shape, that guy can be a nightmare for defenses. The third name in this discussion is sophomore C.J. Prosise. In his lone full start in 2016, the former Irish combined for over 150 yards from scrimmage and went off on a 72-yard touchdown the week after before banging up his shoulder. Just from this little paragraph you get the message, that all three of their featured backs this year have dealt with significant injury problems. I believe the coaching staff wants a tone-setter like Marshawn to start games and I’m pretty sure all of those guys will see extensive playing time. So my guess is Lacy will be the actual starter, but Rawls will average around 12 carries himself and Prosise will make his mark on passing downs and as a change-of-pace kind of player. Of course everything for Seattle starts up front with the offensive line, as that unit struggled mightily a year ago, but more so in pass protection. They have some big guys on that unit and the offense will once again lean heavily on the ground game.
Rams Wide Receivers
Competitors: Robert Woods, Pharoh Cooper, Nelson Spruce, Mike Thomas, Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds
With Sean McVay as the Rams’ new head coach and Jared Goff entering his sophomore campaign, the offense will open up more and spread the ball around in the passing game. For the average fan, the only starting-quality QB in Los Angeles is on the Chargers, but while Goff certainly has to take a big step in year two, a lot of the time last year his protection broke down and the receivers let the signal-caller down. Tavon Austin to me is the only multi-year veteran who’s shown me special traits. The new HC already talked about featuring him more in their scheme, yet the rest of the line-up and depth chart isn’t clear to me yet. Newly-signed Robert Woods, who comes off an average career-start with the Bills, seems to be the most obvious number two because of his contract, but I really believe in Cooper Kupp out of Eastern Washington, who they stole in the third round of the draft, to make an immediate impact for this team. Between the trio of second-year receivers in Cooper, Spruce, Thomas and rookie Josh Reynolds, I think this is truly a competition for opportunities that starts in training-camp and will last throughout the season. Each of them have appealing qualities, but they have to show they can bring it all together. The tight-end battle will also be interesting between second-year man Tyler Higbee and rookie Gerald Everrett, with both of them creating seam-stretching vertical threats. It all starts with Todd Gurley and the ground-game though, to open up the passing attack. If they can’t take some pressure off of Goff, his future might seem uncertain a year from now.
Ravens No. 2 Inside Linebacker
Competitors: Albert McClennan, Kamalei Correa and Patrick Onwuasor
Wild Card: Zachary Orr
The Ravens defense was off to a great start last season, as they were ranked number one against the run and among the top five teams in points allowed before squaring up with the Cowboys in week 11. They weren’t the same unit when Dak Prescott started exposing their secondary, which was continued in the upcoming weeks by Tom Brady and Ben Roethlisberger. That’s why Baltimore focused on improving their back-end during the offseason via the draft (selected Alabama corner Marlon Humphrey 16th overall) and free agency (signed Tony Jefferson, Brandon Carr and Brandon Boykin). I also think the pass-rush will be better with some of their other defensive draft picks and the development of a couple of young edge-rushers. The spot I’m not sure if they did enough yet, is the second inside linebacker. Last year Zachary Orr played at a second-team All-Pro level next to C.J. Mosley, but Orr retired briefly due to neck issues. Now the position is up for the taking and I could see a couple of guys filling it. McClennan has been with the team for multiple years now and he has played each linebacker spot at times, but has made a more significant impact on special teams. Correa was drafted in the second round a year ago as an outside-guy, but he has been working off the ball a lot in Ravens’ practice and could be another pass-rushing threat from that spot. Onwuasor is more of a long-shot at this point, but I’ll never rule out a undrafted player, who has worked his way onto an active roster and earned some playing time. Of course, the recently retired Orr is available again now, as he was told by doctors he’s not at a higher risk of injury than fellow players. If he returns to Charm City, they might have the premiere LB duo in the AFC.
Competitors: Tom Savage and Deshaun Watson
Since Bill O’Brien took over as head coach, Houston has started nine different quarterbacks in three years. Their latest experiment was giving Brock Osweiler a four-year, 72 million dollar contract. I think we all understand that’s not the kind of money he deserves for how he played last season. Osweiler was benched late during the year for Tom Savage, even though the team was close to clinching the AFC South. Things got so bad the front office worked out a deal with the Browns that basically cost the Texans a future second-round pick just so they can clear up some cap room by shipping the one-year starter to Cleveland. After the Tony Romo speculations were over, Savage was thought to be the clear starter because of his experience in the system, but Houston traded up in the draft to select Clemson’s Deshaun Watson. Even though the coaching staff says it’s Savage’s job to lose at this point, I have no doubt the rookie will push him for the starting gig. Watson isn’t the most accurate thrower at this point, but he is the ultimate winner and brings a different kind of mindset with him. O’Brien’s offense is pretty complex and most QBs need more than one offseason to figure it out, but I wouldn’t rule the National Championship MVP out at this point. He is eager to learn and if the coaching staff decides to reduce the playbook to a certain degree he might change their original plans. What makes Watson less of a risk to get caught up in the specifics of the scheme, is the fact he can make plays when things break down. Savage has yet to throw an NFL touchdown himself and while he has been learning the offense since their current head coach arrived, this Texans team will lean on letting their talented playmakers take over to complement a defense that was ranked number one in yards allowed without the services of three-time Defensive Player of the Year J.J. Watt.
Competitors: Jon Bostic, Antonio Morrison, Sean Spence, Edwin Jackson, Anthony Walker, Jabaal Sheard, John Simon, Barkevious Mingo and Tarrell Basham
Wild Card: Garrett Sickels
I made my opinion clear a few times now that I thought the Colts had one of the worst teams last season and without Andrew Luck they would have picked right behind the Browns and 49ers instead of finishing at .500. They are loaded with pass-catchers and their offensive line should continue to work better together than in recent years with Ryan Kelly in the middle of that unit, who is heading into his second season. Defensively they had some big issues that go beyond countless injuries in the secondary. The defensive backfield should actually grow into a strength for them with Vontae Davis back to a hundred percent, plus the draft additions of Malik Hooker and Quincy Wilson. The biggest turnaround should be up front, as they have added 18 total defensive linemen and linebackers. That front seven will look a lot different and while I think the three down-linemen are slotted in already, the linebacker spots look to be up for grabs right now. D’Qwell Jackson inside was let go and their main edge rusher Robert Mathis retired. Edwin Jackson and Antonio Morrison are the only two from that list returning to Indy and they both are just entering their second seasons as a pro respectively. The only true fix I think is John Simon, but he can line up at any of those spots. Jabaal Sheard would be the next name up, but the Patriots replaced him with a rookie last year due to a lack of consistent motor. Bostic and Spence are veterans, who know their job and will certainly see some playing time, while Walker and Basham are two promising rookies and will fight for the same. The name to look out for is former top-ten pick for the Brown – Barkevious Mingo, who is a clear bust at this point, but is looking to resurrect his career. Rookie Garrett Sickels is my wild-card because he is a pure pass-rusher and could earn some third-down snaps.
Competitors: Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch
Wild Card (for the future): Chad Kelly
The Broncos Super Bowl last February seems forever ago. Most of their pieces are still there, especially defensively, where they still have one-man wrecking crew Von Miller, Brandon Marshall in the middle and the absolute best cornerback-trio in the league. On offense Denver is trying to improve on a horrendous offensive line from a year ago and get the running game back on track. Yet the excellent receiving-duo of Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders is still looking for answers about who will throw them the ball in 2017. I thought Siemian did a more than solid job last year and statistically was a big improvement from an aging Peyton Manning (18 TD to 10 INTs compared to Manning’s 9-:17 ratio in shortened regular season playing time). The problem was that the offense often stalled and didn’t manage to stay on the field for long with him at the helm. Paxton Lynch, who they drafted late in the first round last year, is the more exciting player with a big arm, size and athleticism. I feel like we saw what Siemian is capable of basically, but we don’t really know where Lynch is at this point. We only saw him start two games, in which he showed some promise, but also looked like a rookie, obviously. The wild card here is Mr. Irrevelant Chad Kelly. During his time at Ole Miss he was the premiere QB in the SEC and put up big numbers, especially in big games, like their win against Alabama at Bryant-Denny-Stadium. He has a bunch of off-the-field issues and is fighting through injuries right now, but if he gets his stuff right, he has the potential to take over that spot at some point.
Competitors: David Amerson, Sean Smith, Gareon Conley and Obi Melinfonwu
For the Raiders to challenge the Patriots in the AFC they have to get better defensively, as they were ranked 26th in total yards and 20th in points allowed in 2016. Even though the inside linebacker position clearly is the weakest spot on this unit and I have no idea why they haven’t shown any sign of trying to address it via the draft or free agency, the position group that disappointed the most a year ago was the cornerbacks. After David Amerson started to come into his own, the Silver and Black signed veteran Sean Smith to build on a secondary that already fielded a safety-duo of Reggie Nelson and youngster Karl Joseph. Let’s just say it didn’t work out the way the organization hoped it would. Smith got burned repeatedly and Amerson didn’t have his best season either. Once Defensive Player of the Year Khalil Mack and the pass-rush turned it on and worked together with the secondary, the entire defense took a step forward. Yet, in Philadelphia the team used their first- and second-round picks on two defensive backs. Conley was heavily relied on to lock receivers down at Ohio State and moved his name into talks as a top-15 pick with a strong combine showing, but after he was accused of rape many thought he might not even get drafted. The Raiders had background-information and selected him on day one anyway. Melinfonwu is an athletic freak from UConn, who blew up the Senior Bowl and Combine. His biggest area of improvement as a safety are how he reacts to the ball in the air, which leads me to believe the Raiders will move him outside because of his length at 6’4’’. I wouldn’t be surprised if the two rooks start in September and Amerson takes over the nickel-role.
Other notable camp battles:
Packers RBs (Competitors: Ty Montgomery, Jamaal Williams and Aaron Jones)
Bears TEs (Zach Miller, Dion Sims and Adam Shaheen)
Vikings RBs (Competitors: Latavius Murray and Dalvin Cook)
Cowboys LG (Competitors: Chaz Green and Jonathan Cooper)
Eagles CBs (Competitors: Jalen Mills, Ron Brooks, Patrick Robinson, Rasul Douglas and (when healthy) Sidney Jones)
Falcons DEs (Competitors: Adrian Clayborn, Brooks Reed, Derrick Shelby and Takkarist McKinley)
49ers CBs (Competitors: Dontae Johnson, Will Redmond, Rashard Robinson and Ahkello Witherspoon)
Seahawks OTs (Competitors: Luke Joeckel, George Fant, Germain Ifedi and Ethan Pocic)
Browns QBs (Competitors: Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan, Brock Osweiler and DeShone Kizer)
Ravens TEs (Competitors: Benjamin Watson, Crockett Gillmore, Maxx Williams and Nick Boyle)
Dolphins No. 2 DE (Competitors: William Hayes, Alan Branch and Charles Harris)
Chargers OGs (Competitors: Matt Slauson, Forrest Lamp and Dan Feeney)