In the NFL there is constant competition at pretty much every position. Front offices try to find replacements for aging players or those, who will soon demand contracts they can’t afford. That creates an environment, where every man is working as hard as they can to earn a starting spot. Only competition gets the best out of football players and it is vital for a team’s success. I picked out the eight positional battles that will be most interesting to watch through training camps and beyond. So here they are:
Packers’ Z receiver – Geronimo Allison, Trevor Davis, Michael Clark, DeAngelo Yancey, J’Mon Moore & Equanimeous St. Brown
With the lack of eagerness to sign Jordy Nelson back, the Packers leave a huge hole at one of their receiver spots. While Davante Adams has developed into one of the top X receivers, Randall Cobb is a key piece in the slot for Green Bay and they signed Jimmy Graham as a move tight-end and goal-line monster, I think the Z receiver spot is wide open at this point. The Packers like to move their guys around the formation, but primarily this is the position they don’t really have any proven veteran on their roster for. The following are the candidates to take over.
Geronimo Allison saw the most playing time, at about a third of their offensive snaps. While he displays some shake to his routes, I see too much wasted movement and a frustration against athletically gifted DBs, who can sit on his routes. However, he puts in the effort as a blocker and looks more dynamic with the ball in his hands. Trevor Davis was a fifth-round pick out of Cal back in 2016 and I actually liked his tape quite a bit. He shows a strong swipe of the cornerbacks’ hands and has shown some creativity to win on secondary routes, which should match well with Aaron Rodgers’ scrambling ability. I’m also a big fan of his stutter-and-go, which Rodgers would hit at a much higher rate than Bretty Hundley did in 2017, and he has an extra gear to win on deep balls. He only surpassed 20 percent of the offensive snaps three times last season, but he averaged 12 yards per punt return. I didn’t even really think about last year’s undrafted Michael Clark, but I saw him make some pretty big catches on tape. There is nothing that really stands out about him physically, but he is a dependable pass-catcher. And then there are the two rookie receivers, who could get into that competition – J’Mon Moore and Equanimeous St. Brown. Moore has that long, lanky build and he can really go up and snatch the ball out of the air. In his last two years with Missouri he recorded consecutive seasons with 1000+ yards, while averaging 16.5 yards per catching and scoring 19 touchdowns during that stretch.Hetracks the deep ball pretty well and looks like a wild horse on catch-and-run plays, Unfortunately, he doesn’t appear to have the most natural hands and he carries the ball too loosely at this point. EQ on the other hand is one of the most impressive specimen in the entire draft. He saw a massive drop-off in his production from 2016 to 17 because of the switch at quarterback and a more run-centric approach to the Notre Dame offense. However, his hands are excellent and he has the speed to cross the field like a gazelle. He also high-points the ball exceptionally well. The question marks with him are his ability to defeat press-coverage and how competitive he actually is.
None of these guys possess the football acumen of a Jordy Nelson, but there’s some talent.
Eagles cornerbacks – Ronald Darby, Jalen Mills, Rasul Douglas, Sidney Jones & Avonte Maddox
The Super Bowl champs are no exception to the concept of constant competition. There’s a few blasphemous people who say there might be a quarterback controversy brewing in Philadelphia, but I think Carson Wentz is the men and I had him as my league MVP until he went down in week 13. Mike Wallace is coming over to take on a clearly defined role as a speedster out wide, which Torrey Smith recently owned. The D-line is loaded and the Eagles have several guys out of the backfield, but I think those two positions will feature heavy rotations. The three spots that actually seem to be up to grabs to some degree are the two outside corners and the nickel position.
Ronald Darby was acquired via trade about a year ago and played some good football for them, so he looks to be set. He possesses exceptional short-are quickness and just has to find some more consistency. Jalen Mills went from a liability to an average starter, as their bigger outside guy who can disrupt receivers off the line, while Rasul Douglas got his hands on plenty of balls as a rookie despite not really seeing a lot of playing time in the postseason. Sidney Jones is the wildcard in this whole thing. I had the second-round pick from a year ago as my number two corner in the entire draft, but he ended up tearing his ACL at the Washington pro day and fell to the Eagles at 43rd overall. Evaluating Jones’ tape, I see a long, aggressive corner in the mold of a former fellow Huskie in Marcus Peters, who displays excellent route-anticipation, an ability to stick his foot in the ground and attack out of breaks and special playmaking to finish. If he is back to himself and has taken advantage of a year on an NFL roster, I expect him to start on the opposite boundary of Darby. Philly also drafted another ultra-competitive DB with their fourth-round selection in this year’s draft. Avonte Maddox was one of those draft prospects I really enjoyed watching. He was Pittsburgh’s clear-cut number one corner with smooth transitioning and feistiness at the point of the catch. While he isn’t patient enough against some routes yet, the fact that he is only 5’9’’ will never change. However, he could be a great fit inside, where they just had Patrick Robinson really make a name for himself and earn a big contract with the Saints.
Overall, I think the Eagles have an intriguing young cornerback room with very talented and competitive guys that should serve them well in the upcoming years.
Cardinals quarterback – Sam Bradford & Josh Rosen
It’s not too long ago since I watched hours of Josh Rosen’s college tape and I was impressed enough to put him as my number two quarterback in the draft, so I decided it would only be fair to go back on check out some film on Sam Bradford as well. I think it’s easy to say that we kind of know who he is by now. Bradford is immensely talented as a rhythm-thrower from the pocket, but simply hasn’t been able to stay healthy since the Rams picked him first overall back in 2010.
Last year he only played in the season-opener, so I went back and watched him in that game. I have to say, I was extremely impressed. He found the holes against zone-coverage, put the ball in perfect position against man, manipulated defenders with his eyes as well as by taking down his throwing shoulder to draw them deep and set up an easy check-down, he stepped up off play-action and took shots to be able to fire the ball deep, threw with touch on the move and just carved up the Saints D. Of course that unit wasn’t the same it ended up being later on in the season, but he was outstanding in that lone start. Let’s move back at Rosen, who the Cardinals were lucky enough to select tenth overall in April. Looking at the board before the draft and what assets the teams around them had to move up, it felt like they could be the odd team out, that won’t get their QB of the future, but they had to be thrilled when Rosen fell to them. When I watched him at UCLA, I saw a young signal-caller who was in complete control of his offense and displayed impeccable footwork. Rosen is already far beyond his years in terms of understanding defenses, fooling safeties and processing information. I like his confidence, which some people even label as cockiness. He might present a rather slender frame and have an injury history, but if he can stay upright and be a little less reckless late in some plays, I see a bright future ahead for him.
I’m not sure who will start the season-opener, because I think Bradford is one of the more impressive guys in shorts and as long as he stays healthy, he doesn’t really give up the starting gig, but with him recovering from another injury, the rook will get a lot of first team reps and will have plenty of opportunities to convince the coaches he is ready to take over the reins. Once they go with the young guy, I don’t really see how they can go back however.
Buccaneers cornerbacks – Vernon Hargreaves III, Brent Grimes, Ryan Smith, Robert McClain, Carlton Davis & M.J. Stewart
Alright, what do we do with this mess? The Bucs made it a priority to become a more physical team up front and invested heavily in both their offensive and defensive line. Their defensive backfield has been a mess for the last couple of years as well however, finishing the most recent season dead-last in passing yards allowed.
Vernon Hargreaves was the 11th overall pick two years ago, but he has looked way too passive in Tampa’s scheme as an outside corner. I actually liked him much better after moving into the slot a few weeks into last season, when he was allowed to get handsy with his opponents. Brent Grimes has been their best corner by far since coming over from Miami, but he just turned 35 years old and I’m sure the Bucs didn’t envision him to be their number one guy at that age, even though he still has the athleticism of somebody in their mid-twenties. Ryan Smith saw a lot of playing time last season and played tough against the run, but he was exposed quite a bit. He just doesn’t have the speed to survive on the outside as a starter and routinely saw his stack-technique defeated by curl and comeback routes, because he was so scared of being beaten over the top. Robert McClain actually played the second-most snaps at cornerback for the Bucs only behind Grimes, but that was more due to a lack of adequate options and some guys missing time with injuries. I like both those guys just mentioned as solid back-ups, but they are just no quality starter material. Tampa Bay selected two more DBs in the draft with North Carolina’s M.J. Stewart and Auburn’s Carlton Davis. Stewart was my favorite nickelback in the entire class, due to his crazy competitiveness and the aggressive attitude he plays with. That brings up a little bit of a conflict with the idea of moving Hargreaves inside though. Davis is a no-nonsense, get-in-your-face press-corner. He is nothing like those smaller guys the Bucs have on their roster. He is physical with his man through the echo of the whistle and won’t back down from anybody. I just hope the Buccaneers use him in the right fashion, as he can be one of those goes to disrupt receivers from getting into their route, and don’t ask him to play in space like they usually do.
I have a huge problem overall with Tampa Bay’s mind-set in coverage. I think they are not nearly aggressive enough and instead of matching the physicality of some of the receivers they go up against, they let guys like Julio Jones have a free release and burn them underneath as well as on routes over the middle. I still believe in Vernon Hargreaves, because I watched him become a top ten prospect for me back in 2016, with the football IQ and instincts combined with the flashy change-of-direction ability to break on routes. I think the Bucs just need to give him the freedom to cover guys one-on-one and even though that will bring some growing pains, he has the confidence to be able to shake the last play off and think he will win the next rep.
Browns’ early-down running back – Carlos Hyde & Nick Chubb
While the Browns have an excellent all-around back in Duke Johnson at their disposal, the fourth-year man out of Miami will have most of his snaps coming on passing downs as well as splitting out wide as a receiver. He is not the type of back, who you want to pound opponents on first-and-ten or ask to run through the line in short-yardage situations. That’s what Cleveland brought in veteran Carlos Hyde and rookie Nick Chubb for.
While Hyde came close to 1000 yards rushing with the 49ers the last two years after arriving there as the potential replacement for the amazing Frank Gore, it never felt like he was Kyle Shanahan’s guy to feature going forward. San Francisco let him walk in free agency after probably his best year as a pro and now he brings his hard running-style and pass protection prowess to Ohio. However, the Browns didn’t stop there and decided to add Georgia’s Nick Chubb in the second round of the draft. Chubb had a phenomenal freshman campaign, stepping for Todd Gurley, but after a horrendous knee injury the following year, he has never quite looked the same. Last season he and his fellow Bulldog back Sony Michel dominated college football, combining for over 2500 yards and 31 touchdowns on the ground, on their way to leading Georgia to their first National Championship game appearance in almost 40 years. I’ve been rooting for Chubb ever since I first saw him enter the SEC and even though concerns about his knee won’t go away anytime soon, I think he brings a lot of very good things to the table. He runs with a lower center of gravity and great balance, short-area quickness and footwork, displays excellent vision in different schemes and his physical style of running has a cumulative effect on defenders, which leads to his biggest runs coming at the end of games.
While there certainly are a lot of similarities between the Browns’ two newest additions to the backfield, I see Chubb having the upper hand in this competition. Hyde might be one of the top pass-protecting backs in this league, but Chubb holds his own in that department as well, plus he has started every game outside of that one knee injury while Hyde finally played his first full season in 2017. To me, Chubb just has a better feel of how plays develop and how to use subtle cuts to set up his blockers. I believe the Browns under Hue Jackson and now Todd Haley will pride themselves on being a tough, ground-and-pound team with Tyrod Taylor getting on the move off play-action and all three of their backs could amass up to 150 touches.
Bengals’ right end – Michael Johnson, Carl Lawson & Jordan Willis
The Bengals had a down-year in 2017 with a couple of really bad losses to teams like Jacksonville, Chicago and Minnesota. Looking at their schedule from last season, they lost to a lot of physical football teams and they will need to get back to winning in the trenches this upcoming campaign. While there are still serious question marks along their offensive line, they have some real talent on the opposite side of the ball.
Carlos Dunlap is a fixture on the left side of their defensive front and Michael Johnson has started all but two games over the last three years after coming back from his one-year stint with the Buccaneers. However, Johnson hasn’t gone over five sacks since 2011 and the Bengals drafted two very promising young players last April. Carl Lawson was selected in the fourth round and starred for Cincy with 8.5 sacks and 59 total pressures on just 41.6 percent of the snaps. Jordan Willis was a late riser out of Kansas State in last year’s draft process due a monster combine performance. Yet, he was still available in the third round after I had him penciled in a second-rounder already. Willis could only come up with one sack on just over 30 percent of the defensive snaps, but I liked what I saw from him in terms of jacking up blockers against the run, as well as the potential he possesses as a pass-rusher with his burst and power.
So what can Lawson get better at? The former Auburn Tiger needs to land that initial club more consistently, which is harder for him than some others because he’s only 6’2’’ and doesn’t have the longest arms. He was clearly one of the steals in last year’s draft, as I had him as a late second-rounder and he looked like he should have gone even earlier than that. Willis has to get better overall with his arm technique, because too often he gets a solid jump of the snap, but is content with engaging with the offensive tackle, instead of attacking one shoulder and swiping the hands away. What I really like about him is the way he redirects and chases bootlegs to his side. Johnson is extremely long, strong and pretty fluid for his size, but he is not a very dynamic pass rusher at this point of his career to me. His snap count already went down from 76.5 to jump under 60 percent and while he might still earn the starting gig due to his run-stopping prowess on early downs, those two sophomores will see the field more and more in passing situations.
Jets quarterback – Josh McCown, Teddy Bridgewater & Sam Darnold
This is kind of a unique situation with the Jets. They have a 39-year old journeyman quarterback in Josh McCown coming off his best full season as a pro, they brought in a 25-year old signal-caller in Teddy Bridgewater, who had some pretty good moments with the Vikings and then they traded up in the draft for one of those college kids at the top. Surprisingly that third overall pick ended up being Sam Darnold, after a lot of people (including me) linked Baker Mayfield to them. Not only are all three of those guys at completely different stages of their careers, but they also offer three skill-sets you can’t really compare to each other. Let’s work ourselves from oldest to youngest.
McCown is entering his 16th NFL season with his eight team. Last year he matched his career-high in starts with 13 a piece and totaled career highs in passing yards (2926) and touchdowns (18). While he doesn’t impressive with any specific attribute, he plays with a lot of poise and leadership, which was key for a young Jets roster, that had players calling him Uncle Josh. Bridgewater was a late first-round pick by Minnesota back in 2014. A few games into his rookie campaign, the coaches put him in the starting lineup and he played all 16 games the following season, while leading his team to a home playoff game (which they lost in traumatic fashion on a missed cheap-shot field goal by Blair Walsh). During training camp in 2016 he suffered a horrible knee injury that kept him off the field until he got two pass attempts late in a game this previous season, with one of them ending in an interception. When healthy, Bridgewater is a solid game-manager with decent mobility, who wins within the structure of an offense. Depending on his health, he could be the wild card in this competition. And then there’s the young, promising rookie. I don’t think the Jets expected Darnold to be there at number three, but they sure didn’t mind selecting the then-20-year-old as their QB of the future. I had the young man as my top quarterback and number five overall prospect available. He’s a smart, gritty and confident competitor. While he got himself into trouble with turnovers and wasn’t quite as ready mentally for the NFL game as a Josh Rosen for example, he possesses excellent leadership qualities, keeps his eyes downfield while extending plays and gives teammates the believe, that they are always in the game with him at the helm.
As you see, all three guys offer very different total packages and it’ll be interesting to see which direction this organization will go. I could easily see all three of them getting playing time at some points of the season, but I think Darnold will be their guy after this year.
Colts’ left end – Margus Hunt, Tarrell Basham, Denico Autry, Kemoko Turay & Tyquan Lewis
With Matt Eberflus coming over from Dallas, I strongly expect the Colts to switch to a 4-3 front with a single-high safety in Malik Hooker, who I mentioned as one of my young breakout players for 2018 (LINK!!!), controlling the middle of the field and allowing more man-coverage principles across the field. With that move looking to be inevitable, this brings serious personnel questions with it.
I expect John Simon to stay at SAM linebacker, just that he plays mainly off the ball, with Antonio Morrison, Anthony Walker, second-round pick Darius Leonard and possibly even undrafted free agent Skai Moore competing for the other two LB spots. This will also be an interesting competition, but I think you can pencil in Leonard at one of those positions, since the Colts invested the 36th overall pick in him. Al Woods and Hassan Ridgeway look like their starters inside on the D-line, but I’m not sure what they will do on the edge. Jabaal Sheard was one of the few bright spots on the 2017 Colts squad, racking up 67 total pressures and earning a top ten edge defender grade by Pro Football Focus. So he looks like the presumptive starter on the right side, but who will emerge as an impact player at that left end spot? Margus Hunt saw the field the most for them last season, at 53.3 percent of the snaps, but he only recorded one sack and looks more like a rotational piece, who can take advantage of mismatches inside on passing downs. Indianapolis selected Tarrell Basham in the third round a year ago and while he has shown flashes of his explosiveness and power, he only earned about a fifth of their defensive snaps over the course of the season. Denico Autry would be far and away their most accomplished D-end statistically with 10.5 career sacks, but the Raiders didn’t even think about resigning him, despite desperately needing someone to go with Khalil Mack. That leaves us with two more rookies in Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis. While I believe Lewis can a solid contributor across the formation with good fundamentals and effort, I think Turay could be the real deal. The former Rutgers star was never quite able to produce the numbers he would have liked to, but when you put on the tape, you see a guy who is wreaking havoc in opposing backfields. Turay is a smooth operator, who makes setting a hard edge or getting around behemoth offensive tackles look easy.
I think this will be an open competition all the way throughout training camp and possibly beyond. With the personnel being in some kind of hybrid mold, it is hard to point out what the coaching staff is really looking for from that left end spot. If they want experienced run-stoppers Hunt and Autry would make sense, but Basham and Turay are too talented to not see the field for me.
Other interesting battles:
Rams’ outside linebackers
Bills’ right guard
Broncos’ running back
Chargers’ wide receivers