With training camp in full swing for all 32 teams and just a week away from the Hall of Fame game between the Falcons and Broncos, I wanted to take a look at the biggest position battles going on for every team throughout practice and a lot of times most of the preseason. Some of these may be very close two-man races for a specific spot, others include several candidates looking to crack the starting lineup. Some of them may be sexier when it comes to quarterbacks, while others are about offensive guards putting in the work up front. However you want to turn it, these are what I think the toughest battles going on right now and only competition will determine the winners.
Arizona Cardinals – Center
Key competitors: A.Q. Shipley vs. Mason Cole vs. Lamont Gaillard
You could argue between the Texans and Cardinals here, but when you look at all the injuries and reshuffling along it, Arizona might have had the worst offensive line of the 2018 season. It all started before they even kicked off preseason, when center A.Q. Shipley was lost for the year with a torn ACL. The rest of their starting five missed a combined 22 games and they were banged up constantly. Despite being knocked out for a year, the Cardinals extended Shipley for a year worth 2 million dollars. In his place they started rookie Mason Cole out of Michigan, who actually was the only constant up front for them. He spent most of his time at left tackle in college, but some hip tightness and overall skill-set made a move inside the right choice. Now the Cards are forced to make a decision between the guy they paid ahead of last year and a guy coming into his second year, since the guard spots look pretty locked in with a healthy Justin Pugh and J.R. Sweezy being brought in. However, to throw a bit of a wildcard into the mix, I also really like their sixth-round pick from this year’s draft in Georgia’s Lamont Gaillard. He was a first-team All-SEC selection as the centerpiece of a bruising Bulldog rushing attack and even though he is darkhorse in this competition, I would not totally rule him out.
Atlanta Falcons – Offensive guards
Key competitors: James Carpenter vs. Jamon Brown vs. Chris Lindstrom
It is no secret that the Falcons made it their quest to improve in the trenches, investing a lot of money and draft capital in the O-line. In free agency they paid a total of 48 million dollars over the next three years to James Carpenter, Jamon Brown and Ty Sambrailo. However, they would not be done, as they stayed put at 14th overall in the draft to select Boston College guard Chris Lindstrom and then traded back up into the end of the first round to grab Washington tackle Kaleb McGary in exchange for both their picks on day two. So when you consider that they gave left tackle Jake Matthews a big five-year contract last offseason and Alex Mack is still under contract through 2020, they will certainly have a lot of money allocated into the seven guys they carry on gameday and whoever doesn’t crack the starting lineup will earn plenty of money for sitting on the bench. That brings me to the competition we will see happening at training camp. I think Sambrailo could give McGary a pretty good fight, because the first-rounder is still learning how to use his hands properly and will have some bad reps early on, but in the end this will probably come down to where they drafted him. Same thing should be true for Lindstrom, who I actually think could be a really physical player right away and I had as my top-rated guard. However, he won’t be handed that job and at least for the second spot (probably at left guard), there could be a tight battle between the two recently signed veterans.
Baltimore Ravens – RUSH linebacker
Key competitors: Tim Williams vs. Tyus Bowser vs. Jaylon Ferguson vs. Shane Ray
Depending on which scheme your team is running and how they tag their personnel, you can call that position differently, but when talking about the Ravens, this is the spot Terrell Suggs filled for them during these last 16 years since the team drafted him. Either way it’s that second outside linebacker spot to go Matthew Judon, who has established himself as one of the top edge defenders in the league. Tim Williams was once considered a first-round pick, but after Baltimore selected him in the third round in 2017, he didn’t really show much his rookie year. Last season he recorded two sacks as part of a deep rotation, but he will have to take another big step going into his season, if he wants to be a contributor one of the best defenses in the league. Bowser was actually drafted a round earlier as kind of a do-it-all linebacker and he has shown some flashes, but he was on the field for only 16 percent of their defensive snaps last season. Ferguson is another small-school prospect the Ravens got on day two, who actually broke Suggs’ NCAA record for most career sacks. And finally, Ray was brought in late in free agency, as a guy who had high expectations in Denver, but never really broke through and is now looking to redirect his career. The Ravens also signed one of their former players in Pernell McPhee, but he fits better at SAM to me and might line up inside on sub packages for them. So there is definitely talent and great competition in that room among that group.
Buffalo Bills – No. 2 cornerback
Key competitors: Levi Wallace, Kevin Johnson and E.J. Gaines
I expect the Bills to have one of the top defenses in the league in 2019 once again, after they quietly finished second in yards allowed last season. The front-seven is loaded with young, talented players who are not talked about enough. Yet, the secondary also has one of better safety duos and one of the premiere off-corners in Tre’Davious White. Now it is time to find him a running mate to repeat as the league’s toughest pass defense. Taron Johnson is expected to be their starting nickel, where he did a solid job as a rookie in 11 games before having surgery as he had been dealing with lingering injuries throughout the year. Number three safety Rafael Bush was also used in the slot at times, especially when Johnson was out, primarily covering bigger bodies inside. However, there is certainly some competition for that number two job on the perimeter. Levi Wallace was second among corners for Buffalo with just 40 percent of the defensive snaps, starting the final seven games of last season as a rookie, and finished only behind Denzel Ward among first-year corners. Buffalo also brought in a former first-round pick from the Texans in Kevin, who did look like a bust in Houston for most of his time, but should benefit from their zone-heavy scheme, where his fluid hips will be an asset. And not to forget, E.J. Gaines was their week-one starter in 2017 and returned after a year in Cleveland.
Carolina Panthers – Left tackle
Key competitors: Taylor Moton vs. Greg Little
When you see your rocket-arm quarterback throw wobblers down the field and look like a completely different guy, ultimately ending up in surgery, you would think that team would be eager to keep him protected. That’s why I was really surprised when the Panthers passed up on Washington State tackle Andre Dillard with that 16th overall pick in the draft. However, after selecting Florida State edge rusher Brian Burns, who I had rated higher myself, they came back in the second round and traded up for Ole Miss’ Greg Little. Now, this kid has all the athleticism and talent in the world, but I need to see him show more aggressiveness and pure fire for the game. I think he might need a year with an NFL offensive line coach to get his mind-set right and in the weight room to work on his core strength. That’s why I think Taylor Moton is slightly ahead in this race for now. I had him rated as a third-round prospect with a future at right tackle or inside at guard. However, with Daryll Williams better on the right side himself, Carolina has a bit of a personnel question here. I think this competition should also include Greg Van Roten, who looks to be starting at left guard if Dorian Johnson doesn’t emerge during training camp. Because in the end the Panthers should put out their best five and if that means having Moton go back inside and putting Little out there early, that’s what they will do.
Chicago Bears – Kicker
Key competitors: Eddy Pineiro vs. Elliott Fry vs. Everybody
People are starting to come back around with this scary Bears defense and Mitchell Trubisky being one of the most pivotal quarterbacks when it comes to the team’s championship aspirations, but for quite some time after the season ended, all people were talking about was the “Double Doink”. The front office released kicker Cody Parkey after missing a game-winning 43-year field goal versus the Eagles in the Wildcard Round and appeared on TV, talking about it shortly after. Since then the Bears have invited pretty much everybody with a pair of cleats to try out for them and there have been instances where they had six guys go 1-for-6 from that same distance they were at in the playoffs.. It got so bad that they had a guy called Chris Blewitt kicking for them – seriously. Eddy Pineiro was traded from Oakland for a conditional seventh-round pick and Elliott Fry came over from the AAF. About a month ago this became a two-man race when the kicker with the unfortunate surname was released following an 0-3 showing from a good 40 yards away by the trio. However, with how things have gone I wouldn’t rule out that they sign some kid from the street, who they see kicking around a bottle. This could easily be what keeps the Bears from going on a deep playoff run, if they don’t have anybody they can trust to make that big kick.
Cincinnati Bengals – Offensive guards
Key competitors: John Miller vs. John Jerry vs. Christian Westerman vs. Michael Jordan
With Clint Boling retiring this offseason after being a full-time starter for the Bengals in all but his rookie season of his eight-year career, there is even less certainty surrounding their O-line, especially those guard spots. While Cincy re-signed right tackle Bobby Hart for way too much money and were expected to move Cordy Glenn inside to left guard with the arrival of 11th overall pick Jonah Williams, having lost the rookie out of Alabama for the entire season already ruined their plans. While they seem to be happy with last year’s first-round pick Billy Price at center, they need to put two guys around him that make running those zone-based schemes under new head coach Zay Taylor easier on the second-year man. To me none of the guys on the Cincinnati roster at this moment have shown anything to be handed a starting spot. My top guy for now would be John Miller, who was a third-round pick for the Bills back in 2015 and started 47 games for them since. He was solid last season, but Buffalo with some problems up front themselves would have retained him if the Bengals didn’t jump to pay him 5.5 million annually. Then there’s John Jerry, who is the most experienced of the bunch as a six-year starter, but sat out last season and had already believed his career was over. Christian Westerman was a fifth-round pick back in 2016 and then the Bengals grabbed center Michael Jordan from Ohio State in the fourth this year, whose toughness I think is on the exact opposite spectrum of the original MJ’s.
Cleveland Browns – Z receiver
Key competitors: Rashard Higgins vs. Antonio Callaway
Man, these Browns just have so much young talent. I love what they have done on the defensive line, they could have an excellent cornerback duo and they are loaded at the offensive skill positions to go with their main guy Baker Mayfield, who just set a new rookie QB record for touchdown passes. While they already had plenty of weapons in the passing game, acquiring Odell Beckham Jr. obviously puts them at a completely different level. Having OBJ at X to go with Jarvis Landry in the slot and David Njoku as that move tight-end is already special, but there’s one spot still up for grabs – that second wideout. To me there’s champagne problems in Cleveland, because you can never have too many threats, but winning this position battle could determine a big difference in targets when you look at all the guys who already require the touches. I thought there was a really strong connection between Baker and Rashard Higgins, who put up 455 receiving yards in ten games with the young signal-caller. They hooked up on several comeback routes and back-shoulder throws. With that being said, second-year man Antonio Callaway might just be too talented to keep off the field. A fourth-round pick a year ago, the former Florida standout was suspended from his school on several occasions but his talent was undeniable. As a rookie he went for 586 yards and five touchdowns on 13.6 yards per grab. His speed to go over the top or take a slant the distance is the difference. I could see both guys play a role, but that extra vertical threat in Callaway could be more of an asset.
Dallas Cowboys – Nickelback
Key competitors: Anthony Brown vs. Jourdan Lewis
When you look at this Cowboys roster, there are just so many really good players at the age of 25 or under. While all their contracts might be looming over this season, that triplet they have on offense to with a healthy offensive line is outstanding. Maybe even more impressive, their front-seven on defense is so fast and ferocious, plus they two excellent outside corners, who crowd receivers off the snap and make it tough for any rhythm-based passing offense. I think they really expect Xavier Woods to take the next step at free safety and Jeff Heath still seems like the best option to put along him. That’s what guides me into the slot, where I look at two guys competing for that nickel position. As far as 2018 goes, this wasn’t really a battle, as Anthony Brown was on the field for 67 percent of Dallas’ defensive snaps, while Jourdan Lewis only appeared on 18 percent of their plays. However, I really like Lewis coming out of Michigan and if two inches taller, I really believe he would have been a first-round pick a couple of years ago. That nickel spot is a very important one for Dallas because they like to bring in extra DBs and match them up with pass-catching backs or bracket the opposing number one receiver, to make the quarterback go a different way. That was really apparent in their shocking win over the Saints and also one a regular down basis, they need a guy who they can match with slot receivers. Brown certainly has a leg up in this competition, but Lewis’ foot quickness, awareness and ball-skills could earn him more playing time in ’19.
Denver Broncos – Sub-package interior rusher
Key competitors: DeMarcus Walker vs. Dre’Mont Jones
I’m sure everybody wants me to talk about the quarterbacks here, but I am looking at a less sexy battle of guys going after opposing signal-callers. Just in general, I think people might be overlooking these Broncos. I know I said this a year ago already, but I like them as a darkhorse. On defense they might have lost some guys in recent years, but Bradley Chubb is a perfect complement to Von Miller as that power rusher, Josey Jewell played pretty well for them last year, Kareem Jackson had an excellent 2018 season with the Texans and Bryce Callahan was one of the top slot corners with Chicago last year. What I really want to look at is what Denver will do on passing downs, when they substitute guys in that can rush the passer, especially from the interior. Derek Wolfe is doing a lot of the dirty work for them, but neither him nor Adam Gotsis or any of those big guys they have on the inside really offers much in the passing game. DeMarcus Walker actually was a second-round pick in 2017, but I have not seen his name pretty much at all since then, as he was kept off the field for most of his rookie campaign and only played 21 snaps last season due to injury. He was a true defensive end at Florida State, but at his skill-set he fits much better inside and could be a bigger contributor as a 5-tech in Vic Fangio’s scheme. Dre’Mont Jones on the other hand was a third-rounder out of Ohio State back in April, as a pure penetrator and pass rusher, but he could serve an important role and has experience coming off the edge as well.
Detroit Lions – No. 2 cornerback
Key competitors: Teez Tabor vs. Rashaan Melvin vs. Amani Oruwariye
The entire NFC North is so competitive and all the teams could be a tough out for anybody on Sundays, but I think the Lions might be one of those sleeper squads, that is not being talked about enough. While it has taken a year for the offense to transition to more a run-oriented attack with less big throws outside the numbers, the defense is being filled with more Patriots-like personnel. Matt Patricia brought in one of his former players in Trey Flowers, they have a bunch of big bodies up front and versatile pieces all across that unit. However, I think the entire secondary is in competition. I expect Tracy Walker to earn one of the safety spots after excellent performances in spot duties and then there’s a bunch of guys, who could see the field. Yet, to me it’s that second corner to go with Darius Slay, that I am really interested to see come out. Teez Tabor fell to the middle of the second round in 2017 because of speed concerns and has been a liability in coverage, surrendering a perfect passer rating when target last season. Rashaan Melvin on the other hand is coming off a rather disappointing season with the Raiders himself and is looking to prove himself once again. The guy I really like is their rookie out of Penn State, who I had graded as an early second-round pick but instead fell all the way to the fifth round for no particular reason. Oruwariye has the length, speed and instincts that could make him thrive in that Lions system.
Green Bay Packers – Offensive guards
Key competitors: Billy Turner vs. Cole Madison vs. Elgton Jenkins
Protection is key when you have a guy like Aaron Rodgers extending plays and trying to make some magic. However, protection can also come from an offensive play-caller in Matt LaFleur taking pressure of his QB by making that “Shanahanian” zone rushing attack go and opening up easy opportunities off play-action. To make that work you need be able to rely on your offensive line. When healthy, I don’t think the Packers need to worry about their two tackles or center Corey Linsley. And while they do seem to believe in Lane Taylor, that right guard spot is kind of up for grabs. GM Brian Gutekunst brought in Billy Turner from Denver, who was pressed into action last year but had only been a starter for one other season of his six-year career. Four years for 28 million dollars seemed pretty high for them and almost demands him to start, but I’m not completely sold. The Packers also have Cole Madison on the roster, who was a fifth-round pick for them a year ago and had some upside, but missed all of 2018 and should be a long shot at this point. Yet, Elgton Jenkins who the grabbed out of Mississippi State was a fringe first-rounder for me. The former center is pretty easy mover in protection and wins in the run game by torqueing pads. I like him as a starter.
Houston Texans – Offensive tackles
Key competitors: Julie’n Davenport vs. Matt Kalil vs. Tytus Howard vs. Max Scharping
Let’s not sugarcoat this – that entire Texans O-line was a mess last seaso., They did have some success running the ball and drawing up play-action off that, but that also had a lot to do with Deshaun Watson’s mobility and Lamar Miller having an under-the-radar season. When they did need to drop back and give Watson time to survey the field, they completely fell apart, allowing a league-high 62 sacks and 126 QB hits. The two spots that I think they are happy with and settled on are Nick Martin at center and Senio Kelemete at left guard, Outside of that everything should be up for grabs, Julie’n Davenport came into the league as a developmental prospect with athletic upside, but he was thrown right into the fire and has really struggled, ranking 77th out of 85 qualified tackles last season. Matt Kalil on the other hand once was the fourth overall pick, but never lived up to the hype and is now on his third team in three years. That leads us to the two rookies – Tytus Howard was a reach in the first round as another small-school project, after the Eagles traded a spot ahead of them to select Andre Dillard, and Max Scharping I liked as well, but he felt like another pick that came too early considering his inconsistent footwork and hand-placement. Overall I just don’t really like this group and I thought they hurt themselves when trying to address those spots, especially since the Texans need help up front now, which means no time to develop.
Indianapolis Colts – No. 2 receiver
Key competitors: Devin Funchess vs. Deion Cain vs. Parris Campbell
Unlike most of these position battles where I mention specific spots and tags on offense and defense, this is more about who will be the secondary target in the passing game to T.Y. Hilton. I wrote an entire article on why the Colts are set up for success back in November and it starts with Andrew Luck and that wall they have built to protect him. They should turn into one of the top rushing offenses because of the personnel on the O-line and with Jack Doyle coming back, Luck has some dependable targets. However I’m not quite sure who their number two receiver will be. Indy signed Devin Funchess, who is a big, athletic target, but he never really established himself as a go-to weapon in Carolina and could be more a red-zone target for this team. My sleeper in this race is Deion Cain, who I thought was a steal for them in the sixth round of last year’s draft. I had him just outside my top 100, thinking he could develop into an excellent number two and the reports on him out of camp were great before tearing an ACL. And the third guy in this race is probably the favorite right now. Parris Campbell was a 1000-yard receiver and team captain for Ohio State last year. He impressed a lot of people at the combine with his premiere athleticism, but at this point he is rather limited to gadget plays, screen passes and crossing routes. Still, his skill-set should be an asset for that offense.
Jacksonville Jaguars – Entire receiver depth chart
Key competitors: Marquise Lee vs. Dede Westbrook vs. Keelan Cole vs. D.J. Chark vs. Terrelle Pryor
So before I go into any details on this competition, let me make this clear – I’m a big believer in the Jaguars rebounding this year with a competent quarterback. The defense has all the pieces to be elite once again with those two All-Pro caliber corners and a pass rush that just keeps on adding, while Nick Foles is a major upgrade under center and they should have one of the most bruising, hit-you-in-the-mouth type rushing games. What I really can’t figure out on this team is how the receiver depth chart will look like when week one rolls around. Marquise Lee would seem to be the top guy after the team decided to let the two Allen’s go in favor of betting on the guy who they signed to a four-year, 38-million dollar deal coming off his rookie contract. However, Lee missed all of 2018 and two guys really shined in his absence – Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole. Dede was a Heisman trophy finalist at Oklahoma and went for over 700 yards with lackluster QB play, while Cole had some spectacular catches and showed big-play potential himself. Another guy they are pretty high on is D.J. Chark, who was one of the rising prospects in last year’s draft as a smooth pass-catcher and the ability to make defenders miss with the ball in his hands. And finally, I am interested to see what Terrelle Pryor has left in the tank. Three years ago he was a 1000-yard receiver on a bad Browns offense in his first year after transitioning from quarterback. It has been frustrating to watch since then, but there is definitely still the athleticism and size that could make him one of those big-bodied targets Nick Foles likes to throw to.
Kansas City Chiefs – No. 2 running back
Key competitors: Carlos Hyde vs. Darrel Williams vs. Darwin Thompson vs. James Williams
The Chiefs return the league’s MVP and one of the most explosive offenses in the league, especially with the news on Tyreek Hill being eligible to play. While I have already explained how I am worried about the fact that they lost one of top centers in the league, the one position that will really look different to the start of 2018 is running back. Kareem Hunt was immediately let go following the release of that video of him and it was a mix of Spencer Ware, Damien Williams and a couple of other guys. Yet, towards the end of the season Williams got the main share of the workload and he should be their featured back this season. With that being said, I am not willing to say that battle for the number two back has been decided yet. Sure, Kansas City signed former second-round pick Carlos Hyde quickly as free agency opened, but after some early flashes in San Francisco, no team has wanted to make him their lead guy long-term. The Browns moved off him too late as he was outplayed badly by rookie Nick Chubb and in Jacksonville he averaged just 3.3 yards per carry while not reaching the end-zone once. Darrel Williams was the RB2 for LSU in 2017 and got 11 of his 13 in the season finale for KC, meaning he should be more of a special teams contributor. This leads me to my two rookies. Darwin Thompson I thought was one of those draft diamonds after averaging a stupid 5+ yards after contact last season at Utah State and James Williams caught 83 passes at Washington State with some unique moves in the open field.
Los Angeles Chargers – Offensive guards
Key competitors: Dan Feeney vs. Michael Schofield vs. Forrest Lamp vs. Scott Quessenberry
When you look at this Chargers, you could certainly argue that they are the most complete team in the entire league. They have a bunch of weapons on offense (assuming Melvin Gordon will be there) led by an excellent veteran quarterback and a defense that is loaded with young talent at every level. The two areas that could use some improvement for them was the interior D-line, which they addressed with first-round pick Jerry Tillery, and that offensive line. Russell Okung and Mike Pouncey are quality starters and at this point I don’t see rookie Trey Pipkins being ready to take over at right tackle for a struggling Sam Tevi. However, those two guard spots are far from settled. Dan Feeney and Michael Schofield started all 16 games for the Chargers last season, but neither one of them would be in the starting five of at least 20 teams in the league. The guy I am still hoping on breaking through is Forrest Lamp. I had him as a mid-first round pick in 2017 because I thought his transition inside would be seamless due to the athleticism and aggressiveness. He missed his entire rookie campaign and never really saw the field in year two. And finally there’s Scott Quessenberry, who I had as a fringe top 100 prospect last year due to the push he created in the run game and how he could hold in a slide protection scheme.
Los Angeles Rams – No. 2 running back
Key competitors: Malcolm Brown vs. John Kelly vs. Darrell Henderson
Coming off a disappointing Super Bowl loss to the Patriots a lot of people are questioning Jared Goff and that entire Rams offense under Sean McVay. Believe me, they are fine. McVay is still one of the brightest offensive minds in football and I think having Cooper Kupp back will be big for them. However, the one big question mark is the health of their star running back Todd Gurley. None of us really know how bad the arthritis in his knees is and I’m not quite how convinced the Rams front office is, especially after seeing them trade two third-round picks to select Memphis running back Darrell Henderson 70th overall in April. That kid is an explosive home-run hitter who could produce a few big plays as a rookie even if Gurley is their workhorse. He averaged 8.9 yards through his last season in college, with 5.6 of those coming after initial contact. However, as of now Malcolm Brown would probably be second on the depth chart after what we have seen from him in that role. Last season he averaged 5.5 yards per touch for L.A. before breaking his clavicle in week 12. Don’t completely rule out my guy John Kelly in this mix of backs. He might have only been a sixth-round pick last year and just reached 100 scrimmage yards, but I thought he was a third-round talent due his contact balance and ability to break tackles. Back in 2016 at Tennessee he outrushed Alvin Kamara and was the only real weapon for the Volts the year after. These three could all see action, depending on Gurley’s health.
Miami Dolphins – Quarterback
Key competitors: Ryan Fitzpatrick vs. Josh Rosen
Obviously these two guys are at very different points of their careers, Ryan Fitzpatrick is coming off another season where he got the opportunity to start early and looked like a starter, but quickly showed us that he is Ryan Fitzpatrick, Josh Rosen on the other hand was a top-ten pick just a little more than a year ago, but people have somehow written off already, The circumstances in Arizona made it tough for anybody to succeed and it is pretty crazy for a team to give up on such a talented guy after just a year, regardless of the connections between their head coach and new quarterback, While I think Fitz is the type of guys who impresses coaches in training camp and will make this a tough one, Rosen should beat him out for the starting gig – he is much younger, is one of the most natural throwers I have ever seen and should be highly motivated to prove people wrong, With that being said, there is a twist in this, There is still the idea of the Dolphins trying to tank for next year’s draft to potentially grab the top QB or maybe their highest player on the board, which the veteran might be more suited to “earn” them
Minnesota Vikings – Right guard
Key competitors: Danny Isidora vs. Josh Kline vs. Dru Samia
I know everybody wants to put the blame on Kirk Cousins for why the Vikings took such a big step back, going from NFC Championship game participants to missing the playoffs entirely. While the highly compensated QB deserves his fair share, he didn’t have any dependable rushing attack, was under constant pressure and could not rely on that stout defense we have come accustomed with for Minnesota. This upcoming season the Vikes should feature Dalvin Cook much more heavily and the defense showed that it could still be one of the top units in the league towards the end of the year. The area they really had to address was the offensive line. Minnesota had the third-least total rushing yards of any team in the league and the O-line surrendered the most QB pressures and hurries overall. To change that they used their first-round pick on N.C. State center Garrett Bradbury, who will be a major asset to their outside zone run game due to his ability to get on the move and reach defensive linemen as well a the quick feet in pass pro. This also allows them to move Pat Elflein to left guard, which I think is a better fit for him. That leaves them w th a competition for right guard between three guys. Josh Kline signed a three-year, 16 million dollar contract with them in March, even though he was responsible for 38 pressures himself last year. Danny Isidora was a fifth-round pick for them in 2017, who I thought had a lot of upside, but has only cracked the starting lineup three times since then. And then there’s this year’s fourth-rounder Dru Samia from Oklahoma, who I never expected to fall out of day two due to his athleticism and nasty attitude, but he might need a year to add some functional strength.
New England Patriots – Defensive end
Key competitors: Deatrich Wise vs. Chase Winovich
Competition is king in Foxborough and while Tom Brady has been the one constant for them these last 19 years, nobody’s position on the depth chart or even the roster is safe. Both the utilization of their receivers and the share of touches in the backfield will be interesting to watch for them this upcoming year, but I want to focus on the defensive side of the ball. With the loss of Trey Flowers in free agency, at least one of those defensive end spots should be up for grabs with Michael Bennett expected to take over the other. Deatrich Wise has been a contributor for the Pats these last two years, combining for 9.5 sacks and already seeing the field for over 40 percent of the snaps last season. He might not be a great pass rusher, but he gets the job done and holding his ground in the run game. Competing with him will be their third-round pick Chase Winovich out of Michigan. This kid is one of the hardest playing, toughest guys I have watched in college and he does is at with a smile on his face when he is not beating somebody’s ass at the moment. He was very productive during these last two years with the Wolverines thanks to his power and feel for how to yank pads of blockers. This should be a pretty good battle, but with how they liked to use Trey Flowers on sub-packages and how Bennett slid inside over guards during his time with Seattle, both could see plenty of playing time.
New Orleans Saints – Big running back
Key competitors: Latavius Murray vs. Javorius Allen vs. Devine Ozigbo
Unlike the Patriots, the Saints are coming off a very disappointing ending to their season, as they finished with that whole no-call controversy, which led to exaggerated changing of the replay rules. Even with the retirement of center Max Unger and a new 40-year old Drew Brees, they should be one of the best teams in the league. They need to hope for Sheldon Rankins to return 100 percent from that torn achilles and that Marcus Davenport breaks out in year two after how much they invested into him, but that defense from last year is still intact. Offensively they need to change at center, but I really like second-round pick Eric McCoy from Texas A&M, and Jared Cook at tight-end is an overlooked addition. Their biggest loss in my opinion now is running back Mark Ingram. His violent running style in between the tackles to match with a very explosive guy in Alvin Kamara will be missed and someone has to take over some of that role at least. I know the Saints brought in Latavius Murray, but I always thought he was a rather limited back who needs some room to get going, which won’t bode well in short-yardage situation. Buck Allen was signed after a rather disappointing final year in Baltimore, looking to re-established a larger role. And then there’s one of my favorite guys from the draft in Devine Ozigbo. He couldn’t really break through until his senior year on a bad Nebraska offense, when he averaged 7.0 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns. I love bruising running style and sweet feet. Don’t just pencil Murray in for the RB2 spot.
New York Giants – No. 2 cornerback
Key competitors: Sam Beal vs. DeAndre Baker vs. Julian Love
A lot of things have not gone the way New York sports fans wanted them to. The Knicks didn’t get Zion in the NBA draft, neither Kyrie nor KD wanted to play at Madison Square Garden and the Giants drafted Daniel Jones sixth overall, who barely anybody even watched play at Duke but still rejected from the start. The fact that Eli is still undoubtedly the Giants starting QB is mind-blowing to me, but outside of that and Odell Beckham Jr. trade, their roster has seen some improvement recently. That includes who I think already is the best running back in football, a retooled offensive line and a load of big bodies on the D-line. However, the most additions have probably been made in the secondary. Their safeties should pretty much be cemented and Janoris Jenkins is still good enough to be a starter for them. With Grant Haley establishing himself as their top option in the slot as an undrafted free agent, it’s that second job on the outside that is up for grabs. Sam Beal was worth a third-round pick in the 2018 supplemental draft because of the upside he showed at Western Michigan as a long press-corner, but he missed his entire rookie campaign with a shoulder injury. At the end of this year’s first round of the draft, the G-Men traded up to make Georgia’s DeAndre Baker the first corner off the board due to the instincts and alpha-dog mentality he played with for the Dawgs. And then on day three they grabbed another guy I really like in Julian Love, who I thought had the quick feet and competitive nature to make him an excellent off-corner. All three of those guys have the talent to start, with Love probably also competing at nickel due to his size and style.
New York Jets – Right tackle
Key competitors: Brandon Shell vs. Chuma Edoga
As much as everybody loves Baker Mayfield and he was special as a rookie, Sam Darnold was the top-rated quarterback in last year’s draft and he was one of my prime candidates to break out this upcoming season in my most recent article. While the Jets made some of their biggest additions on defense with the highest-paid linebacker ever in C.J. Mosley and my number one overall prospect in the draft in Quinnen Williams, they also tried to help their young signal-caller by signing superstar running back Le’Veon Bell after a year, trading only a fifth-round pick for a former All-Pro guard in Kelechi Osemele and getting him a nice slot receiver in Jamison Croweder. To me the most important part was taking some weight off Darnold’s shoulder with the ground game and giving him better protection. The number that resonates with me when talking about this Jets O-line is 26. That was the percentage of runs stuffed at or behind the line of scrimmage and how often he was under pressure. That unit has the pieces to be much better in 2019 and the one spot I am keeping my eye on is right tackle. Brandon Shell has been a starter for Gang Green these last two years and he played his best ball down the stretch last year, but I also really like one of their rookies. Chuma Edoga was the most impressive player for me at this year’s Senior Bowl. He didn’t lose a single rep in one-on-ones and really impressed me with his feet. I need to see some better hand-positioning and he needs to hit the weight room to add some sand in his pants, but I think he has the talent to start soon.
Oakland Raiders – Left defensive end
Key competitors: Arden Key vs. Maxx Crosby vs. Benson Mayowa
Year two of the Jon Gruden experience and still entire Raiders roster looks completely different. Superstars have been traded away, others like Antonio Brown have been acquired and they just traded a boatload of guys. There are two battles going on at camp with multiple guys in the mix, but since I can’t figure out the tight-end situation with several names, I decided to look at defensive end. Obviously the surprising selection of Clemson’s Clelin Ferrell means that one of those spots is already taken, because of the leadership and hard play he will provide them with. However, I think there aren’t completely settled on the left side. Arden Key once was the most natural pas rushers in college football and one of the top guys I had ever watched at LSU, but some lack of work being put in and size concerns pushed him down the board last year. Coming in as a third-round pick, Key led a very disappointing Oakland D-line in snaps, but only got one sack all season. He has already come in underweight this offseason and needs to turn things around if he wants to come anywhere close to his potential. Fourth-round pick Maxx Crosby was a small-school standout at Eastern Michigan with 37.5 tackles for loss and 18.5 sacks. He will not be questioned for a lack of motor. And while more of a longshot, I don’t want to disregard a veteran like Benson Mayowa, who was a solid rotational piece these last three years.
Philadelphia Eagles – Top running back
Key competitors: Jordan Howards vs. Miles Sanders
When you look at this roster compared to their Super Bowl run two years, these Eagles might be better at most positions outside of backup quarterback. Of course we still have to see if Carson Wentz can stay healthy for a full season, but when he is, he can be one of the elite quarterbacks in the game and the Eagles know that, which is why they gave him that big contract this offseason. Up front they had a down-year on both sides of the ball and they had a ton of injuries in the secondary. That is a place I wanted to look at originally, but right now I can’t quite figure out who is even in the running, with Jalen Mills still earning plenty of playing time for some reason and not being sure who they want to play inside and on the perimeter respectively. Instead I want to look at the battle for main running back in this offense. This is a position Philly really wasn’t happy with as last season went along. Not a very dynamic showing by Jay Ajayi, Darren Sproles was mostly hurt again, neither Corey Clement nor Wendell Smallwood took the next step and in the end it was an undrafted free agent in Josh Adams who handled the biggest share of carries at the end of the year. This offseason they got Jordan Howard in a bargain trade from Chicago and they drafted Miles Sanders from Penn State in round two.
Pittsburgh Steelers – X receiver
Key competitors: Donte Moncrief vs. James Washington vs. Diontae Johnson
When you lose your top receiver without any obvious replacement, it is always tough to get that production from somewhere else, When that guy is a future Hall of Famer and has been the most productive guy over the last six years, it is pretty much impossible, Yet, I think the Steelers are happy with the decision to get rid of Antonio Brown and are looking forward to not only Juju Smith-Schuster thriving as their number one guy, but also one of those other young guys stepping up, Since Juju plays a lot in the slot and rarely is by himself into the boundary, I am looking at that X receiver spot specifically, Donte Moncrief has been teasing teams ever since his second year in the league, when he looked like the guy to complement T.Y. Hilton in Indy, Last season he definitely had his moments with the Jaguars, but couldn’t really establish himself as that guy, James Washington is entering his second year in the pros after a rather frustrating rookie campaign that saw him drop some passes, He was a Biletnikoff Award winner at Oklahoma State and wants to show he can get it done on the next level as well, And finally Diontae Johnson was somewhat of a surprise pick, as they got him via that AB trade to acquire another MAC receiver with that early third-rounder, While he is likely third in that race and could be more of a threat in the return game in year one, he is slippery in the open field and has better speed than what he clocked in
San Francisco 49ers – Running back depth-chart
Key competitors: Tevin Coleman vs. Jerrick McKinnon vs. Matt Breida
Man, Kyle Shanahan really loves his running backs! Whether it was Alfred Morris in Washington or the dynamic duo of Devonta Freeman and Tevin Coleman, that zone rushing attack with him as the offensive coordinator has been highly successful no matter the location. Now as a head coach in San Francisco, his team has had some of the worst injury luck in the league and somehow the offense has always found a way to be competitive and creative, In last year’s free agency they gave Jerrick McKinnon a big payday for what they saw from him as a dual-threat out of the backfield in Minnesota, but he suffered a season-ending ACL tear before even hitting the field, This put Matt Breida in the spotlight, who was among the league leaders in rushing before dealing with some injuries over the last few weeks himself, Now we can throw another name in the mix to complicate things, as Shanahan reunited with Tevin Coleman, who looked like the top RB2 in football during his stint with the Falcons, All three of those guys warrant touches and will probably have a role, unless they decide to trade one, but who will emerge as the lead guy?
Seattle Seahawks – 3-tech defensive tackle
Key competitors: Earl Mitchell vs. Al Woods vs. Nazair Jones
As the Seahawks have almost all of their pieces on defense from their championship run with Bobby Wagner being the one constant, they have added a bunch of young guys who have contributed for them. That included Frank Clark, who they ended up traded for excellent draft capital, the two Griffin brothers, that young safety tandem and Jarran Reed. The last of the bunch was just suspended for the first six games of the season and Seattle needs to man that 3-tech spot on their defense until he returns. I think Poona Ford will establish himself as the shade nose on that unit, but they need someone who can get upfield and penetrate. The first two names are both veterans who have already been in the league for nine years with three and four different teams respectively. Earl Mitchell most recently was a highly thought of four-year, 16 million dollar signing by the 49ers, but with all the talent they had on the defensive line and the fact he only recorded five tackles in the opposing backfield, they decided to decline that two-year option on his contract. Al Woods quietly had a pretty good year in Indianapolis in 2017, but last year was pushed out of the rotation a little bit because of guys like Denico Autry and Margus Hunt. My favorite would be Nazair Jones, who they drafted late in the third round two years ago and have now asked to move outside potentially. I like the way he can get off the ball and impact plays in the backfield.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – That entire damn secondary
Key competitors: Vernon Hargreaves III vs. Ryan Smith vs. M.J. Stewart vs. Kentrell Brice, Jordan Whitehead vs. Sean Bunting vs. Carlton Davis vs. Mike Edwards
Has any team drafted as many defensive backs in these last few years as the Bucs? I don’t think it’s even close. Every single guy of this group is 25 years or younger. They have had some injuries, but mostly they just haven’t had much success drafting secondary players outside of Justin Evans, who will start at one of the safety spots. I think the rest is still up for competition – just look at the list of key contributors – which includes two undrafted free agents in Lukas Denis and D’Cota Dixon, who I think can play as well. The highest-drafted guy of the bunch is Vernon Hargreaves, who was a top ten pick for them back in 2016. Like many others, I thought his instincts and quick change-of-direction could turn him into a great players at the next level, but he has struggled to stay on the field and actually played better in the slot more recently. Ryan Smith was actually part of that same draft class, but when you look at how many guys they have brought in to replace him, I can’t really see him be a starter in 2019. One of my favorites in last year’s draft was M.J. Stewart, who always played his ass off at North Carolina and drove on routes aggressively. I love him in the slot. Strong safety duties should be earned between Kentrell Brice and Jordan Whitehead unless one of those UDFAs steals the show. Brice was solid as a third safety in Green Bay last year and Whitehead had a rookie season that leaves him with plenty to learn. Then there’s the three rookies. Sean Bunting was a guy I really liked out of Central Michigan because of the explosiveness he displayed and so did the Bucs obviously, as they made him a top 40 pick. Carlton Davis is a guy that just bullied receivers at Auburn with his physicality. And Mike Edwards played a lot in the slot, covering shallow areas and making an impact as a blitzer for Kentucky.
Tennessee Titans – Outside linebacker
Key competitors: Cameron Wake vs. Kamalei Correa vs. D’Andre Walker
In last week’s article on second- and round-year players I expect to break out in 2019, I talked about Harold Landry being one of the more obvious candidates. I love his initial burst, bend around the edge and continued effort he displays. However, he is only one part of a young defense that I really like due to guys like Kevin Byard, Jayon Brown and of course the veteran Jurrell Casey. With that being said, I am interested to see who they will line up across from Landry at outside linebacker in week one. Cam Wake might be 37 years old by now, but he certainly still plenty left in the tank. I think he can provide some pass rush for Tennessee, but I question his fit at linebacker after having his hand in the dirt all of his career, depending on how versatile Dean Pees wants to be in coverage. Kamalei Correa was once a pretty high second-round pick for the Ravens, but never really fit inside for them. I thought he really flashed in the preseason last year, but he was traded for a sixth-rounder to line up more at his original spot in college. Despite Landry not even being a starter for most of 2018, Correa still was on the field for more than 30 percent of the defensive snaps. And then there’s the rookie out of Georgia. D’Andre Walker fell all the way to the fifth round because he lacks elite athleticism, but he sets a physical edge and was an impact player for the SEC powerhouse.
Washington Redskins – Quarterback
Key competitors: Case Keenum vs. Colt McCoy vs. Dwayne Haskins
Just a year ago there was no question about who would start under center for Washington. They had just let Kirk Cousins walk and traded for Alex Smith, who they ended up signing to a four-year deal with 55 million guaranteed. A horrific leg injury will keep Smith off the field for all of 2019 and it is still not clear if he will ever return, so the job is open. If you believe in Jay Gruden and what the organization has said, this should be a true three-man race. In the middle of March the Redskins swapped sixth- and seventh-round picks with the Broncos to acquire Case Keenum after a disappointing season. He will be highly motivated to prove that 2017 with the Vikings wasn’t just a fluke and while somewhat limited, he can work those bootlegs and extend plays. A good month after the trade they had Ohio State’s Dwayne Haskins fall to them at 15th overall. The Heisman trophy candidate is coming off a historical season in which he threw 50 touchdowns, as a less mobile but very precise QB who is still very young and could benefit from a year on the bench. And finally there is Colt McCoy, who has been a backup in Washington for five years now and been called into action on a few occasions. The coaching staff seems to really like him, but to me he ultimately should once again be more of an emergency option.