As NFL training camps kick off over the next couple of weeks, exciting rookies and under-the-radar veterans will fuel hype — and plenty of story lines — as they battle for their position on the depth chart. But the majority of the time, these training camp competitions will end up centered on bench spots and the back ends of teams’ rosters — with general managers and coaches deciding on their fifth and sixth wide receivers, who to keep as their eighth and ninth offensive linemen, and who to hold on to as their fifth safety or sixth cornerback.
There are, however, a few important exceptions, and for a handful of teams, training camps are worth watching closely. Uncertain hierarchies or a glut of new additions mean that camp performances could determine who ends up playing key roles for potential playoff teams. Let’s take a look at a few of these crucial positional battles — starting with the most obvious two.
The Texans’ Starting Quarterback
When Houston took former Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson in April’s draft, head coach Bill O’Brien made it clear that Tom Savage would remain the team’s starter. It’s been only a few months, and the famously fickle coach has already softened on that stance: O’Brien recently noted that Watson has picked up the Texans’ complicated pass offense “better than any rookie I’ve been around,” and that while “Tom will go into camp no. 1 … it’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out.”
If Watson shines early on, there’d be little reason for O’Brien to stick with Savage, who underwhelmed in two starts last year. Hell, even if Watson doesn’t light it up right off the bat, all he has to do is outplay the guy in front of him. The two-time defending AFC South champion Texans have plenty of offensive talent in DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller, and Lamar Miller, and boast a top-tier defense led by J.J. Watt and Jadeveon Clowney. If Watson does his best Dak Prescott impression and quickly emerges as the dynamic playmaker Houston envisioned when it moved up in the first round to draft him, the Texans could not only head back to the playoffs again in 2017, but contend for the Super Bowl.
The Broncos’ Starting Quarterback
The Broncos head into 2017 with a new coach (Vance Joseph), a new offensive coordinator (Mike McCoy), and a relatively blank slate at the quarterback position. Incumbent Trevor Siemian will duke it out with 2016 first-rounder Paxton Lynch for starting duties. Let’s just put aside the fact that Siemian was invited to the Pro Bowl last year after a multitude of other AFC QBs suffered injuries or declined their invites. Siemian (who completed 59.5 percent of his passes, threw 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions, and posted an 84.6 passer rating in 14 starts) and Lynch (59 percent, two touchdowns, one interception, and a 79.2 passer rating in two starts) are both learning a new offense — and neither has an apparent lead in the competition.
Siemian is a former seventh-round pick who performed better than most expected last season, but he’s the high-floor, low-ceiling option for Denver. Lynch, on the other hand, may be more of a gamble, but his upside is through the roof; he’s got prototypical size, a big arm, and plenty of mobility, and he’s a good fit in McCoy’s aggressive, attacking offensive scheme. Combined with the fact he was the team’s first-round pick from 2016, the Broncos are likely pretty motivated to pass the torch to Lynch. Denver’s defense alone could carry the Broncos to the playoffs in 2017, and with even marginal improvement out of the quarterback position and the offense as a whole, Denver could start to look like a Super Bowl–caliber squad again pretty quickly.
The Cowboys’ Secondary
The Cowboys’ underrated defense from last season, which finished 17th in defensive DVOA and fifth in points allowed, lost guys who combined to play 2,643 defensive snaps when cornerbacks Brandon Carr (1,011 snaps — 96 percent of Dallas’s total on defense) and Morris Claiborne (404 snaps — 38.4 percent) and safeties Barry Church (673 snaps — 63.9 percent) and J.J. Wilcox (555 snaps — 52.7 percent) departed in free agency. That exodus leaves defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli with the task of replacing a combined 217 tackles, 24 pass breakups, and five of the team’s nine interceptions from last year.
Dallas added cornerback Nolan Carroll and safety Robert Blanton in free agency, but Carroll was arrested and charged with a DUI in May, and Blanton started just two games for the Bills last year. Past those two acquisitions, Dallas must sort through a depth chart consisting of Jeff Heath (who played 243 snaps last year), Leon McFadden (56 snaps), Jameill Showers (a former quarterback who is moving to safety), Kavon Frazier (who is coming off of foot surgery), and four rookies — Chidobe Awuzie (second round), Jourdan Lewis (third), Marquez White (sixth), and Xavier Woods (sixth) — to fill out the starting defensive secondary that has just three holdovers: Byron Jones, Orlando Scandrick, and Anthony Brown. Lewis is currently facing a misdemeanor domestic violence charge, with a court date set for July 24.
Facing an offensive arms race in the division — the Eagles added Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, the Giants added Brandon Marshall and Evan Engram, and the Redskins added Terrelle Pryor and should get Josh Doctson back from injury — the Cowboys will have to put their defensive puzzle together quickly in order to stay competitive in the NFC East.
The Bills’ Receivers Group
The Bills head into 2017 with a new general manager (Brandon Beane), a new head coach (Sean McDermott), and a new offensive coordinator (Rick Dennison) — and over the next month and a half, that troika will be tasked with figuring out how to replace a combined 1,576 snaps, 167 targets, 90 catches, 1,233 receiving yards, and eight touchdowns from the team’s passing offense last year after the Bills let Robert Woods, Marquise Goodwin, and Justin Hunter leave in free agency. Add in the fact that, after undergoing a second surgery on his foot in January, Sammy Watkins is anything but a sure thing, and the Bills’ passing game is a huge question mark going into training camp.
Even assuming Watkins is a full go, Buffalo is going to be relying heavily on some combination of rookie Zay Jones and free-agent acquisitions Andre Holmes, Jeremy Butler, and Corey Brown to pick up the slack. Veteran pass catcher Brandon Tate (145 snaps last year — just 13.6 percent of the team’s total) could find himself in a bigger role this season, as could Walt Powell (296 snaps — 27.8 percent), Dezmin Lewis, or Rod Streater.
The Bills’ talent-studded defense could make a jump in 2017 under McDermott’s direction, and Buffalo can continue to lean on its physical ground attack on offense. But unless a few of these receivers emerge as big-time playmakers downfield, the Bills will have a hard time contending with the Dolphins, much less the Patriots, in the AFC East.
The Seahawks’ Offensive Line
Here’s what we know about the makeup of the 2017 Seahawks’ offensive line: Justin Britt is going to be the starter at center. Outside of that, we all just have to wait to see how things are going to shake out at either tackle or guard spot.
The team let Garry Gilliam, who started 29 games at right tackle over the past two seasons, leave for the division rival 49ers when it refused to match San Francisco’s $2.2 million restricted free agency offer sheet. That means last year’s first-round pick, Germain Ifedi, who started 13 games as a rookie at right guard, could be moving out to Gilliam’s old spot. He’ll compete there with veteran addition Oday Aboushi, who may also get in on the competition at right guard with last year’s third-round pick, Rees Odhiambo. Another free-agent acquisition, Luke Joeckel, figures to start somewhere on Seattle’s line, but it’s unclear where: Seahawks general manager John Schneider thinks Joeckel is best at left guard. Head coach Pete Carroll thinks he’s “perfectly suited” at left tackle. Judging by Seattle’s track record for unpredictability with its offensive linemen over the years, that probably means it’ll start Joeckel out at right guard or right tackle. Ethan Pocic, who played mostly center in college, could get training camp snaps at anywhere but left tackle. No one’s sure whether last year’s left guard starter, Mark Glowinski, did enough to keep his job. Former basketball player George Fant, who started 10 games last year at left tackle, looks like the favorite to start there this year too, but his job is anything but secure.
If you’re confused, you’re not alone. But the bottom line is that whatever combination the Seahawks land on for their offensive line, it needs to be better than the unit Seattle fielded last year. That group finished dead last in pressure rate per Football Outsiders, and wasn’t much better in run blocking, ranking 26th in adjusted line yards. If the Seahawks continue to leave Russell Wilson exposed to constant pressure and fail to clear paths for their running backs, Seattle could miss the playoffs for the first time in six seasons.
The Cardinals’ Secondary and Defensive Line
Arizona’s defense still has plenty of talent, but the group is facing an incredible amount of turnover heading into 2017. Five of the Cardinals’ top seven snap-takers from last year’s defensive unit are gone; after losing or letting go of safeties Tony Jefferson (929 snaps in 2016) and D.J. Swearinger (837); cornerback Marcus Cooper (826); defensive lineman Calais Campbell (830); and linebackers Kevin Minter (1,003), Sio Moore (242 snaps), and Alex Okafor (230), head coach Bruce Arians and defensive coordinator James Bettcher must mix and match their recent draft picks, veteran depth players, and free-agency additions to account for the loss of a combined 405 tackles, 35 passes defensed, 19 sacks, eight interceptions, and seven forced fumbles from last year’s squad.
Safety Antoine Bethea and linebacker Karlos Dansby are both free-agent acquisitions who should pick up plenty of the slack at their respective spots, and a pair of rookie draft picks, pass rusher Haason Reddick and safety Budda Baker, figure to earn plenty of playing time in rotational roles early in their careers. But assuming that Tyrann Mathieu will continue to play mostly up in the slot as a hybrid safety/cornerback, the safety spot opposite Bethea, the corner opposite Patrick Peterson, and multiple spots on the interior defensive line will still be up for grabs. The team will take long looks at safety Tyvon Branch (270 snaps in 2016); cornerbacks Brandon Williams (240), Harlan Miller (140), and Justin Bethel (269); and defensive linemen Rodney Gunter (243) and Robert Nkemdiche (82) before coming away with the best player at each position.
Over the past few seasons, the Cardinals’ aggressive blitzing scheme has consistently befuddled opposing quarterbacks, but with so many new or inexperienced players tasked with executing the system, it’s tough to predict if Arizona will be able to sustain that style of play. Without that integral element, the Cardinals will have a hard time getting back above .500 and contending for the playoffs.
The Colts’ Whole Defense, Basically
Under new general manager Chris Ballard, the Colts are undergoing a near-complete defensive makeover from last season. With the departures of safety Mike Adams (996 snaps in 2016); linebackers Erik Walden (760), D’Qwell Jackson (707), Trent Cole (237), Robert Mathis (535), Akeem Ayers (362), Sio Moore (170), and Josh McNary (178); cornerbacks Patrick Robinson (401) and Antonio Cromartie (202); and defensive linemen Arthur Jones (322) and Zach Kerr (317), Indianapolis must replace more than 5,100 defensive snaps — nearly half of the 11,834 snaps Colts defenders combined to take last season.
The only starter who looks like a lock to hold down his job is cornerback Vontae Davis. Past that, the rest of the defensive rotation is up for competition. Head coach Chuck Pagano should be able to rely on free agent defensive tackle Johnathan Hankins and outside linebacker Jabaal Sheard to play major snaps, and can probably slot in first-round pick Malik Hooker at free safety. But everywhere else, the team still has to sort out starters and rotational role players among its free-agent additions — including defensive linemen Margus Hunt and Al Woods, and linebackers Sean Spence, John Simon, Jon Bostic, and Barkevious Mingo — and must determine where rookie cornerbacks Quincy Wilson and Nate Hairston fit into a secondary group that also includes second-year pros T.J. Green and Tyvis Powell and third-year safety Clayton Geathers.
A lot will have to fall into place to turn this Colts defense into anything that’s going to scare opposing offenses, but the good news is that it’ll be hard to go anywhere but up for a group that finished last season 27th against the pass and dead last against the run, per Football Outsiders DVOA. In a wide-open AFC South, though, even an incremental jump in efficiency could be enough for Indianapolis to get back into the postseason after missing out on the playoffs the last two years.