We have finally reached NFL training camp and with the agreement between the league and the players association, there is a little more clarity about how the preparation for the 2020 season will look. With such a long time off, the early stages of this will involve a lot of lifting and running, before the players actually go out on the field and compete, but like I have done for several years, I want to look at some of the more interesting battles for starting positions.
Now that preseason has been cancelled, it will only enhance the importance of these competitions and even though I usually have a little bias towards rookies, since I studied them a lot since the Super Bowl ended, this whole situation should actually favor the more seasoned veterans. For this exercise, I tried to avoid a few of the really obvious ones, such as the Bears QB competition that has and will be talked to death by all the major networks, or the Dolphins entire offensive line pretty much, where you can’t point to one specific spot.
With that being said, here at the ten that I will follow the closest:
Green Bay Packers – Number two receiver
Key competitors: Allen Lazard, Marquez Valdes-Scantling & Equanimeous St. Brown
This seems to make my list pretty much every year and I still don’t feel like the Packers have found a solution. Head coach Matt LaFleur wants to build this offense on the zone run game and play-action passing off it, but this team needs help on the receiving end regardless and that is even more apparent after not going one player at the position in a historically great draft at exactly that. I ended up just calling it their “number two receiver”, because the Packers like to move Davante Adams around and if they use more 12 or 21 personnel this year, with high expectations for Jace Sternberger coming into his second season and drafting a flex H-back type in Cincinnati’s Josiah Deguara, it is more about that second guy on the field for them, who can play inside and out. Geronimo Allison went into the 2019 as the guy Rodgers seemed to have the most trust, but he is now Detroit and Allen Lazard emerged as a dependable target over the second half of last season. He came in as an undrafted free agent two years ago and made plays as a big-bodied target, who did his best work in the slot and only dropped two of 37 catchable targets for the second-highest team total of 477 receiving yards. However, Green Bay has two more talented players waiting to finally establish themselves in the pros as well. Coming in as a fifth-round pick in 2018, MVS has had all the chances possible and at running a 4.37 at 6’4”, 205 pounds made me believe he was ready to break out last season, but unfortunately drops and inconsistent play overall have limited his production to some degree. Equanimeous St. Brown came in the same year as a sixth-rounder and as another one of those height-weight-speed freaks, but outside of a strong first showing on offense, his rookie campaign was more about flashes and lacking trust from his QB, before missing all of last season with an ankle injury suffered in preseason. You have to question if any of these three is actually ready to become a major contributor in 2020 – which is exactly why a lot of questioned not using any draft capital on receiver – and the role of the “number two” could be one that is combined for by all of them, but at least the starting gig is still up for grabs.
Philadelphia Eagles – Nickelback
Key competitors: Nickell Robey-Coleman, Sidney Jones & K’Von Wallace
After playing about five or six different cornerbacks in each of the last two seasons – due to injury for the most part, but also trying to figure out who they can rely upon – the Eagles took advantage of the opportunity to acquire a true number one guy, when Darius Slay demanded a trade from the Lions. I believe Avonte Maddox when healthy has shown enough to earn that second starting spot, being deployed at outside and slot corner, only allowing one score in each of the last two seasons as the primary coverage defender and being a reliable tackler (missed right around 10 percent of attempts over the same stretch). I would expect him to switch to more of a field-side corner role full-time, because Philly has more options in the slot. The most obvious one seems to be eight-year veteran Nickell Robey-Coleman, who has played more than half of the defensive snaps every single season since coming into the league, but I think he has become a little overrated because of the great name for the spot he plays, due to allowing almost two thirds of the passes his way to be completed over the last two seasons and missing too many tackles. Sidney Jones is the guy the Eagles still hope for to emerge, as a highly touted CB prospect coming out of Washington a few years ago, but falling to the second round of the draft because of a torn Achilles, that he has never returned from fully and has been fighting through injuries ever since. He finally showed some promise last season, with better overall performance in coverage, tackling and coming up with his first two career picks. If he impresses the coaching staff in training camp, he could end up starting on the outside also, if they feel more comfortable with Maddox in the slot. And the third guy in this conversation is this year’s fourth-round pick K’Von Wallace from Clemson, who was labelled as a safety, but really played big nickel for the Tigers for the most part. I love his competitive swagger and ability to get involved as a blitzer, which fits very well with Jim Schwartz’s aggressive play-calling, but he may not be best suited to carry speedsters down the seams. So I think all three brings something different to the table, whether it is quality experience and track record, high level of talent and feel for the position or a more versatile player who features strong run defense and blitzing ability. I could see all three log around 50 percent of the snaps with how many DBs Philly likes to play at the same time.
Cincinnati Bengals – Guard spots
Key competitors: Billy Price, Michael Jordan, Xavier Su’a-Filo & Hakeem Adeniji
As much as you can like what the Bengals have done this offseason, in terms of getting their franchise quarterback in Joe Burrow with that first overall pick, getting rid of some injury-riddled veterans and finally spending money in free agency to improve the defense, if there is one position group that still holds them back from making it out of the bottom of the AFC North, it is the offensive line. Considering they seem content with one of the worst starters in the league at right tackle in particular, I am talking about the two guard spots in particular, where you usually want no more than one of these four players starting. However, they will have to choose two guys and it is really hard to tell who they will be. Last year’s fourth-round pick Michael Jordan ended up starting nine of 13 games and really struggled all-around. Even though he offers some intriguing measurements and athleticism, I always thought he was more of a backup with position flexibility. Third-year man Billy Price has been even more disappointing since they invested a first-round pick in him. Similar to his former teammate at Ohio State, I was lower on Price than most people, but not even I suspected he would have these issues at both guard and center, since you saw the power and grip strength to make you believe he would be a solid starter. Now this year in the sixth round of the draft, Cincinnati grabbed another one of those guys who could give them some versatility in Kansas’ Hakeem Adeniji, who played tackle for the Jayhawks, but projects well to the inside as well with the athletic upside he features. To throw into the mix with these three young guys is Xavier Su’a-Filo, who was once seen as a disappointing second-round pick for Houston, but then ended up starting 31 of 32 games over the last two years for the Texans and was a quality backup for Dallas, who played well when inserted into the lineup. Maybe he is the guy, who gives the Bengals some stability on the interior, but then they need to pick somebody on the opposite side to center Trey Hopkins. If he can get more consistent technically, I would personally like to give Adeniji a shot at some point at least.
Las Vegas Raiders – 3-tech defensive tackle
Key competitors: Maurice Hurst, Jonathan Hankins & Maliek Collins
Just two years ago, the Raiders finished dead-last in total scoring defense and their 13 sacks on the year was less than half of the next-closest team. Last year they improved to 24th in points allowed and more than doubled their sack output (32), thanks to some rookies coming onto the scene. This team is still far from getting to where they ultimately want to be defensively and if they want to make noise this season as a group, they will need to take that next step. Outside of maybe wide receiver, linebacker was the biggest need for this team coming into the offseason and they addressed it with two free agents in Corey Littleton and Nick Kwiatkowski, who will immediately upgrade this group. I also like some of the young talent in the secondary, but on the D-line is where I’m totally sure yet how snaps will be split. Maxx Crosby and last year’s fourth overall pick Clelin Ferrell should be starting on the edges, to go along with Carl Nassib and Arden Key as rotational pieces, but the interior is where playing time will still be decided as we move towards the regular season. Last year, three defensive tackles were on the field for 50+ percent of the defensive snaps – Jonathan Hankins, P.J. Hall and Maurice Hurst – and they moved free agency addition and former Cowboy Maliek Collins to Vegas with them. For this discussion, I am looking at that strongside defensive tackle in particular, who is shading the outside shoulder of the guard. Since Hall has primarily taken on the role of a 1-technique, who got mostly subbed out on passing downs, he is not considered here. Hurst is the most interesting to me, since I was really high on him coming out of Michigan due to the disruptive style of play he presented, but he dropped all the way to the fifth round of the 2018 draft because of a pre-existing heart issue. In 29 career games, he has recorded 7.5 sacks and seven more tackles for loss, but I’d have to say he hasn’t really lived up to my expectations yet. Hankins lead this group in playing time last season as a 16-game starter, who made most of his impact against the run, and also carried the biggest cap hit (around five million). That was until they signed Collins this offseason, who was a promising young player in Dallas, but couldn’t be paid because of all the other high contracts being handed out already. In four seasons with “America’s Team”, he recorded a combined 20 TFLs, 14.5 sacks and an additional 40 QB hits. However, I’m not really sure how much he has improved. So these guys should all play significant snaps, but who will emerge as the top option? And how much could that entire group be subbed out with three DEs that have the body-type to slide inside on passing downs?
Los Angeles Rams – Running back
Key competitors: Malcolm Brown, Cam Akers & Darrell Henderson
In today’s NFL, where it’s all about running back by committee and finding those specific skill-sets, there are only like three or four workhorse backs left, but I don’t think there is any team with as much as uncertainty about how touches will be split as the Rams. With the release of Todd Gurley, who was on the field for more than 70 percent of the snaps in each of the last four seasons and has been a star until his knees started becoming a huge question mark, a lot of opportunities have opened up with this group of young guys. Malcolm Brown is the veteran among this unit, who coming into his sixth season with the Ramsm has averaged 278 scrimmage yards over the last three seasons and scored a career-high five touchdowns in 2019. He may not be a very flashy player, but he is a dependable pass-catcher as well as -protector and had a role near the end-zone last season. Last year’s third-round pick Darrell Henderson was anything but dependable as a rookie, dropping one of his six targets and fumbling a toss on one of his 39 rush attempts. He recorded less than a hundred offensive snaps (8%) and only six of them were spent blocking for his quarterback Jared Goff. With that being said, he was a big-play machine at Memphis, putting up a combined 3600 yards from scrimmage and averaging a ridiculous 8.9 yards per carry in each of the last two seasons for the Tigers. He is an excellent fit for this zone-based rushing attack under Sean McVay. And then there’s this year’s second-rounder Cam Akers from Florida State. Once the number one running back recruit in the country, Akers’ career with the Seminoles didn’t go quite as expected, but a lot of that had to do with horrendous O-line play and he still showed plenty of flashes. The amount of miscues up front made it kind of hard to project his game to the next level, but he has tremendous feet to navigate through traffic, great burst through the hole and the ability to run through arm tackles. All those skills will be handy when lining up behind L.A.’s starting five, which had some major issues last season, but started to come together once a couple of rookies were inserted. That whole interior will be decided through training camp as well most likely, but if I had to bet how the usage of this backfield will look like, this is what I would say – Akers should get the majority of the touches, because otherwise the Rams would not have invested a high draft pick in him, with other needs on that roster. Brown will be their primary third down back and see plenty of goal-line work as well. And Henderson might be more of a designated runner, with the burst to threaten the edges of a defense.
New Orleans Saints – MIKE linebacker
Key competitors: Kiko Alonso, Craig Robertson & Joe Bachie
When you look at this Saints roster, it is hard to find a lot of holes – if any – but if you are looking for a spot, where they may not be fully settled, look no further than the middle of this defense. With Emmanuel Sanders finally being that second guy to go with Michael Thomas and being dominant up front on either side of the ball, you have to look at the second level defensively here. Demario Davis is coming off a first-team All-Pro season as their WILL, but the other two spots I would say aren’t locked in yet. As far as the strong-side goes, now that A.J. Klein left in free agency and Alex Anzalone just not being able to stay healthy, to me rookie Zack Baun from Wisconsin is set to become a key contributor for this group with his hybrid ability to play off the ball and come down on over fronts or as a rush end in sub sets. MIKE is really the spot that I’m not sure about. Kiko Alonso once was a very promising young LB, but he had probably the worst season so far now on his fourth team and played a career-low 27 percent of the defensive snaps last year. Craig Robertson amassed over 500 tackles in first six years with the Browns and Saints as a strong run-defender, but he has only started one game these last two seasons in New Orleans and struggled when on the field in 2019 in particular. He missed 18 percent of his tackling attempts and allowed all but one of the 14 targets his way to be completed. My personal favorite is undrafted rookie Joe Bachie from Michigan State, I had him as a top 100 prospect and talked about him as one of my impact UDFAs early in May. Bachie is a ferocious run-defender with excellent instincts for the position and a track-record of making plays in coverage. While some athletic limitations caused him to not hear his name called over the three days of the draft and may lead to him being subbed out on third downs, I think he can absolutely play base downs for them and his blitzing may keep him on the field in some passing situations as well. I’m interested to see how Dennis Allen deploys his personnel in those situations in general, since Baun can not only rush off the edge, but also be used as a roaming blitzer, and they have guys with inside-out versatility up front.
Washington TBD – Tight-end
Key competitors: Jeremy Sprinkle, Thaddeus Moss & Richard Rodgers
Just for future reference, I think I will refer to this franchise as the Washington football team, but not as the nickname “Washington Football Team”, since this obviously has to be a joke to make an official announcement after a few weeks into this whole process and to come up with this. Regardless of that, there are some issues with this roster, even though there is a lot to like as well. The defensive line is filled with first-round picks, Terry McLaurin was a stud receiver as a rookie and even though it didn’t look great last season, people seem to write off a very talented passer in Dwayne Haskins. While this team will likely have to win low-scoring affairs this season, the offense can almost only surpass the cellar-low expectations. There is at least one questionable spot on the O-line and we have yet to see anybody emerge among that receiver crew outside of “Scary Terry”, but they have a loaded running back room, including third-round pick Antonio Gibson, who could be that “swiss army knife” for offensive coordinator Scott Turner. The one spot that is definitely still up for grabs is tight-end. In the Turner offense, that Y has to be able to execute multiple run schemes as an in-line blocker, but also run wide receiver routes from a detached alignment. With such demands from that position, I was surprised Washington didn’t go after a more established tight-end in the offseason, with the only two additions coming in the form of an undrafted free agent and a one-year, one million dollar signing. UDFA Thaddeus Moss to me is actually the favorite of earn that starting gig, since his combination of hand-placement and leg drive make him an asset as a blocker, while also having experience being flexed out and winning on horizontal routes. The second guy added is Richard Rodgers, whose most memorable play came when catching a hail mary from Aaron Rodgers five years ago. Since leaving Green Bay, he has caught just one pass over these last two seasons, but his size and ball-skills still make him an intriguing receiver. Both of them are looking to beat out Jeremy Sprinkle however, who once Vernon Davis went down with an injury early on last season, started the final 13 games. He gets the job done as a blocker, but is a very limited pass-catcher (26 receptions for 241 yards and one TD last season).
Denver Broncos – Number two cornerback
Key competitors: Bryce Callahan, Isaac Yiadom & Michael Ojemudia
Going into this offseason, the Broncos needed to address three areas of their team – wide receiver, interior offensive line and cornerback. With their first two picks in the draft, they went out and got two stud pass-catchers in Alabama’s Jerry Jeudy and Penn State’s K.J. Hamler to give this offense a lot of firepower and in the third round they selected LSU center Lloyd Cushenberry, to go with Graham Glasgow coming over from Detroit in free agency. Corner is the one spot they didn’t really invest into, outside of spending another third-rounder on Michael Ojemudia from Iowa, since swapping Chris Harris Jr. for A.J. Bouye was a parallel move at best. Even though Bouye might be in the early stages of his decline, he is still a very good player. That position across from him however isn’t completely settled in my opinion. The favorite right now seems to be Bryce Callahan, who missed all of last season with a foot injury after signing a three-year, 21-million dollar contract with the Broncos. While he did average over 82 percent of the snaps with Chicago’s number-one ranked defense in 2018 in the games he finished, the majority of those were spent in the slot. So even assuming he will play a big role for Denver, with them being right in the middle of NFL defenses with five plus DBs out there for 73 percent of the snaps, these three players could theoretically make up for two “starting” spots next season. Isaac Yiadom played almost half the defensive snaps for the Broncos last year. A sort of hybrid corner/safety coming out of Boston College two years ago, he lined up almost exclusively on the outside, but had some struggles with a passer-rating allowed North of 100 and being responsible for over 400 yards on 45 targets. The guy I think is most likely to eat into that playing time is the rookie from the Hawkeyes. In a deep class at the CB position, Ojemudia is a guy that really stood out to me because of the physical profile he presented and how I saw him being able to use it, when he manned up against some of the nation’s top receivers at the Senior Bowl, after being in an almost pure zone system at Iowa. While the size may scream press-corner, he doesn’t have a lot of experience with that and my biggest concern for him is finding the air in the air late. However, in a Vic Fangio scheme that won’t leave him on an island too much and having Justin Simmons as an in-between the numbers eraser, I would like to see him get extended playing time as a rookie.
Los Angeles Chargers – Z receiver
Key competitors: Andre Patton, Joe Reed & K.J. Hill
Whenever people talk about the Chargers, they obviously talk about this loaded defense and the next thing they bring up is this group of skill-position players with Keenan Allen, Mike Williams, Hunter Henry and Austin Ekeler, who was unbelievable with the ball in space last season and made Melvin Gordon expendable. I like the way they have constructed this backfield to complement Ekeler, but even though Virgil Green has been a very solid blocking tight-end as their number two, he is averaging just 122 receiving yards per season in his career and there really is nobody with any production to speak of behind those two starting receiver. Andre Patton accounted for only 56 yards as a rookie, despite seeing 17 targets on the season, and Joe Reed and K.J. Hill were fifth- and seventh-round picks in April for them. To identify who L.A.’s WR3 will be, we first have to look at which type of player they are looking for in that offense. Mike Williams is your classic big-bodied X receiver, who they like to target on vertical patterns, such as fades and post routes, where his ability to attack the ball in the air can really shine through. Yet, with the offense using Ekeler a lot as a threat on jet or fly sweeps and just motion him around the formation, as well as Henry being flexed out wide as a single receiver at times, Williams on paper lined up quite a bit at Z and in the slot as well. Keenan Allen is a savvy route-runner, who is a nightmare to mirror off the line and is at his best creating separation underneath. He can obviously play out wide and keep corners guessing, but he is excels at operating out of the slot. So what would make sense here is that field-stretching Z receiver, who can create that space at the short and intermediate level. Patton ran a 4.4 flat coming out of Rutgers as a UDFA and even though no other receiver outside of him has more than two career receptions, I have already mentioned how ineffective he was despite actually logging just over 500(!) offensive snaps in 2019. Joe Reed clocked in at 4.47 and while he was used more in the slot and as a gadget player last season, in 2018 he averaged 18.6 yards per grab and you still saw that quick acceleration once the ball was in his hands. I think he telegraphs his routes too much at this point, but he should at least be a factor on special teams, as one of the premiere return-men in the country. And then there’s Hill, who dropped this far because the athletic testing was underwhelming (4.6 in the 40) and he needs to be more effective with getting in and out of his breaks, but he routinely got open at Ohio State and made crucial plays for the Buckeyes. He is much better suited to play inside though.
Seattle Seahawks – Right tackle
Key competitors: Brandon Shell, Cedric Ogbuehi & Jamarco Jones
As brilliant as Russell Wilson has been and how he has hidden the issues on this Seahawks roster, the one group that has been a problem child for several years now is the offensive line. We still have to see how the addition of some young guys on the interior will work out, but the right tackle spot in particular has been an issue for a while. With Germaine Ifedi moving on, you would have hoped that Seattle finally finds a long-term solution, but instead they signed two more fringe starters at best in free agency. Brandon Shell has started 37 of 48 games over these last three seasons and has the athletic traits you want to see at the position, but he allowed seven sacks last season and the Jets decided to not re-sign him despite having questions at both tackle spots at that point (before drafting Louisville’s Mekhi Becton in the first round). Then the Seahawks brought in another former first-round pick from a team with one of the worst track records of picking OTs early. Cedrick Ogbuehi started 25 combined games in his second and third season in the league, but even the Bengals with major issues at that position decided to let him walk after he was responsible for 14.5 combined sacks over that period. Last season he was a full-time backup in Jacksonville and now he is on a one-year prove-it deal. The third guy of the bunch is 2018 fifth-round pick Jamarco Jones, formerly of Ohio State, who started two games at right guard and one at left tackle last season, after missing his entire rookie campaign with an ankle injury. He did have his fair share of struggles and fought through some nicks and bruises on a weekly basis, but he brings a lot of thump at initial contact as a run-blocker and has excellent foot-quickness in protection. He definitely still has some technical work to do, but the talent is absolutely there. Shell has the highest cap hit at 3.5 million dollars and Ogbuehi got a pretty good base salary of 1.3 million, considering the start to his career, while Jones counts less than 100.000 against this cap this year as part of his rookie deal. So the money would say Shell has the best chances and Ogbuehi can make a run at this, but the guy I really want to man that position for future years is Jones and he should also be in the running for one of those guard spots.
Other notable position battles:
Chicago Bears – Nickelback (Buster Skrine, Duke Shelley & Kindle Vildor)
Detroit Lions – Defensive end (Julian Okwara, Romeo Okwara & Austin Bryant)
New York Giants – Outside corner (DeAndre Baker, Sam Beal & Grant Haley/Darnay Holmes)
Atlanta Falcons – Sub-linebacker (Deonne Bucannon, Foyesade Oluokun & Mykal Walker)
Arizona Cardinals – 5-technique (Jonathan Bullard, Michael Dogbe & Rashard Lawrence)
Baltimore Ravens – RUSH linebacker (Pernell McPhee, Tyus Bowser & Jaylon Ferguson)
Buffalo Bills – Defensive end (Mario Addison, Trent Murphy & A.J. Epenesa)
Houston Texans – Tight-end (Darren Fells, Jordan Akins, Jordan Thomas & Kahale Warring)
Jacksonville Jaguars – Free safety (Jarrod Wilson, Andrew Wingard, Josh Jones & J.R. Reed)
Kansas City Chiefs – Center (Austin Reiter, Andrew Wylie & Darryl Williams)