NFL training camps are in full swing, and for coaches and general managers, the task of setting depth charts and whittling rosters down to the best 53 has begun. The battles for jobs will be fierce—but not all positional competitions are created equal. For some teams, the only true openings are for rotational or reserve roles. But for a handful of other squads, free agency and the draft have created uncertain positional hierarchies and left key starting jobs up for grabs. For those teams, preseason performances carry not just the potential to shake up depth charts, but to shape the upcoming season at large.
With that in mind, here’s a few of the positional battles I’m most looking forward to watching over the next month—starting with the most obvious ...
The five quarterback battles
Thanks to their elite defense, the Ravens could be a playoff contender if they get even an average performer at quarterback. That may come down to who wins the job: The sunk cost of Joe Flacco’s $24.8 million cap hit this year tips the scales in his favor, but after posting three consecutive underwhelming campaigns (and that’s being kind), the money alone shouldn’t be enough for Flacco to hold off rookie first-rounder Lamar Jackson.
It helps Flacco that he’s coming into this year fully healthy; last year, he missed most of the preseason rehabbing a back injury, and the loss of those reps manifested early in the year, when he posted a 66.1 passer rating in the team’s first six games and tossed four touchdowns to eight picks. Flacco improved in the turnover department as the season went on, notching a 14-to-5 touchdown-to-interception ratio the rest of the way (the team went 6-4), but his measley 5.87 yards per attempt in that 10-game stretch demonstrates how the team looked to mitigate his obvious deficiencies throwing down the field. Only Eli Manning and Drew Stanton were worse among passers with at least 150 attempts. Flacco’s days as the Ravens’ starter are clearly numbered—offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg recently noted that Jackson is “way ahead of the curve,” and head coach John Harbaugh has already indicated that Jackson’s going to be on the field this year “one way or another,” whatever that means. Jackson figures to be the most compelling reason to watch the preseason.
It’s worth tuning in to watch the quarterback battles for the Browns, Bills, Cardinals, and Jets over the next month, too. In Cleveland, Tyrod Taylor appears to have the edge (and GM John Dorsey and coach Hue Jackson’s support) over top pick Baker Mayfield. Based on Cleveland’s endless QB turnstile last year, though, that could change quickly—and if Mayfield pulls a Russell Wilson and puts together a highlight-reel preseason performance, he may give the team no choice but to start him over the team’s more experienced veteran QB acquisition.
In Buffalo, A.J. McCarron and Nathan Peterman opened camp splitting reps with the first team in front of Josh Allen but the rookie already made some headway, grabbing some of those first-team snaps on Friday. McCarron’s on a cheap two-year deal (that they can get out of after one year without much pain) and Peterman’s shown few signs of being a long-term option at the position—the door is open for Allen.
In Arizona, Sam Bradford is the favorite to start over the team’s first-round pick, Josh Rosen, but should he falter early—or suffer another injury—Rosen will be ready. The former Bruin has a strong and accurate arm, and is the most polished of all this year’s rookie signal-callers, having operated under center in a pro-style scheme at UCLA.
As for the Jets, it’s anybody’s guess how that quarterback competition will go down: Josh McCown’s the early favorite, but Teddy Bridgewater drew rave reviews in the team’s OTAs and minicamps. And rookie Sam Darnold has a strong arm, athleticism, and upside through the roof—though he hasn’t yet agreed with the Jets on his contract. The Jets, dare I say, will be fun to watch over the next few weeks.
The Packers’ pass defense finished last year 23rd in yards allowed (236.8 per game), 30th in yards per attempt (7.9), tied for second-to-last in touchdown passes surrendered (30), and 27th in pass-defense DVOA. Notably, that group also ranked dead last in two telling coverage-centric metrics: DVOA vs. opponents’ no.1 receivers and DVOA when the defense didn’t get pressure. Part of those struggles were because of a slew of injuries (Green Bay finished with the second-most adjusted games lost in the secondary last year), some were scheme related, and others still were due simply to poor play.
The good news? Injuries heal; former defensive coordinator Dom Capers and his increasingly ineffective scheme are gone; and the Packers brought in an infusion of cornerback talent. Veteran Tramon Williams, fresh off a resurgent season with the Cardinals, is back via free agency, and Quinten Rollins returns from an Achilles tear that cost him all but six games last year. Kevin King, the team’s second-rounder last year, will hope for a big jump in his sophomore campaign and will be bolstered by depth players Davon House (re-signed in free agency), Demetri Goodson, and Josh Hawkins. Add in the team’s top two picks in the draft, Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson, and defensive coordinator Mike Pettine has a bevy of versatile options to fix the most glaring issues on his new defense. I can’t wait to see how and where Pettine utilizes each player in the coming weeks.
Dez Bryant’s release creates a target vacuum in the Cowboys offense, and the Dallas brass assembled a, well, eclectic mix of newcomers to help fill that void. That group is headlined by former Jaguar Allen Hurns, who has struggled with injury and caught just five touchdowns in the past two years after posting 1,031 yards and 10 scores in 2015. He’s buttressed by former Ram Tavon Austin, who the team has said could be in line for two dozen touches a game, both out wide and in the backfield; and Deonte Thompson, a veteran journeyman playing for his fourth team in six years. Add rookie third-rounder Michael Gallup to the picture, and it’s completely unclear who Dak Prescott’s going to be relying on downfield when he’s not targeting incumbent deep threat Terrance Williams or third-down slot receiver Cole Beasley (who is reportedly set to run a more expanded route tree in 2018). As Beasley put it:
Cole Beasley on Cowboys' new WR group: "We don't have the typical big, tall receiver who is going to go up and get fade balls all the time. We got guys who can do a lot of other things & guys who can run. It's not going to be any worse or better, it's just going to be different."— Brandon George (@DMN_George) July 26, 2018
Falcons nickel cornerback
Atlanta has plenty of talent on the outside with established starters Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford both on long-term contracts. But nickel’s the new base defensive scheme in the NFL—the Falcons played with five defensive backs 72 percent of the time in 2017 per Football Outsiders. During Atlanta’s impressive wild-card round win against the Rams, the Falcons were in nickel on every single snap. If Atlanta hopes to improve against the pass next season (they finished 20th in DVOA last year), they’ll need more from that crucial third cornerback spot.
Brian Poole is the incumbent at that position, and he’s a strong tackler and effective blitzer who emerged as a regular contributor after being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2016. But Poole was a relative weak link in coverage in 2017 and surrendered 55 catches (second-most among slot corners) on 65 targets, a touchdown, and a 108.3 passer rating in coverage, per Pro Football Focus. He will face some competition for his job this year with second-year pro Damontae Kazee and newcomers Justin Bethel, Isaiah Oliver, and Ron Parker threatening to eat into his snaps. Kazee made the switch from cornerback to safety last year, and head coach Dan Quinn indicated recently that they’ll give him a shot at the nickelback spot this year as well. Bethel comes over from the Cardinals to contribute primarily as a gunner on special teams, but could challenge for bigger role on defense. Parker, a former Chief, adds depth to the team’s safety spot and could be utilized in “big nickel” packages as the third safety on the field (in place of the third corner). And if Oliver (the team’s second-round pick out of Colorado) plays well during the next month, he could earn a role in the team’s nickel packages as well, coming in to play on the outside while bumping Alford into the slot.
Darius Slay, fresh off a 2017 campaign that saw him win first-team All-Pro honors and lead the league in interceptions (eight) and passes defensed (26), is a bona fide shutdown corner and the unquestioned leader of this group. But past Slay, the Lions cornerback hierarchy, while deep, is anything but set.
Teez Tabor saw limited action as a rookie last year. He appeared in 10 games and started one, but looks primed to challenge incumbent Nevin Lawson as the team’s no. 2 starter on the other side. The former second-rounder has size and versatility and has already impressed in the team’s first week of camp. Pure speed is not the former Florida product’s forte (he ran a 4.62 40 at the combine), but his undeniable nose for the ball (nine interceptions in college) helps mitigate that concern. He’ll need to avoid getting beat deep in preseason action to earn to that starting gig.
Lawson has 40 career starts under his belt (including 15 for Detroit last year), which is experience that could factor in for Matt Patricia, the team’s new detail-oriented head coach. The same could be said for newly signed seventh-year pro, DeShawn Shead, who missed most of last year to a torn ACL, but brings size, versatility, and plenty of athleticism. Add in Quandre Diggs, a hybrid safety and slot corner, and Jamal Agnew, a fifth-round pick last year, and the Lions aren’t hurting for talent or depth at the position. They’ll need all of it playing in a division with Aaron Rodgers and Kirk Cousins.
The Jets’ quarterback competition will generate the most hype, but the team’s receivers battle is worth watching, too. The leader of the group is Robby Anderson, who emerged as a playmaking deep threat last year (63 catches, 941 yards, and seven touchdowns). But Anderson’s going to have to compete for targets with Quincy Enunwa, who led the team in receiving yards in 2016 (58 catches, 857 yards, four touchdowns) before missing last year with a neck injury.
Behind that duo, New York’s got some options for the no. 3 role: Jermaine Kearse is coming off a solid campaign (he caught a team-high 65 passes for 810 yards and 5 scores), but will have to hold off sophomores Chad Hansen and ArDarius Stewart, plus Terrelle Pryor, who struggled last year but still boasts incredible upside. Add in third-year pro Charone Peake, veteran Andre Roberts, Lucky Whitehead, and Charles Johnson, who all could factor into the competition as well.
Seahawks running backs
The clearest theme to emerge from Seahawks’ chaotic offseason is that Pete Carroll and Co. really, really want to get back to running the ball. Formerly one of their biggest strengths, Seattle’s ground game has been among the league’s worst the past two seasons—in fact, in 2017, the team finished tied for dead last with just four rushing scores, three of which came from quarterback Russell Wilson. There’s just one problem with Seattle’s plan to recapture that part of their offense, though: That pesky offensive line, which wasn’t very good last year (and remains mostly unchanged).
FOA tidbit: the Seahawks had 4 (!) offensive linemen rank in the bottom 10 in their position in snaps per blown block (Ifedi, Odhiambo, Joeckel, Pocic). That's remarkable— Ben Baldwin (@benbbaldwin) July 20, 2018
It may help that the team fired run-game czar Tom Cable and turned to Mike Solari. Free-agent right guard D.J. Fluker (the only projected new addition to the line) could provide a small boost. But barring a major jump in performance across the board, the Seahawks are going to need their running backs to create yards on their own.
Rashaad Penny, the team’s top pick this year, should get plenty of opportunities to carry the load, and he certainly fits the bill from a skill set point of view. The former Aztec runner finished second among draft-eligible backs in PFF’s elusive rating (128.6) last year, racking up a class-high 80 missed tackles forced while gaining 1,200-plus yards after contact. But Penny struggled as a pass blocker, an issue that could limit his use in certain situations, and he’ll face stiff competition from Chris Carson, who’s drawn praise from coaches and media during the team’s OTAs and minicamps. Carson played in just four games last year before breaking his leg, but averaged 4.2 yards per carry on 49 totes, consistently eluding tackles behind the porous line.
Top-7 running backs in "evaded tackles per game" in 2017 via @rotounderworld:— Yahoo Fantasy Sports (@YahooFantasy) July 27, 2018
Kareem Hunt 8.6
Chris Carson 6.8
Marshawn Lynch 6.6
LeSean McCoy 6.1
Le'Veon Bell 6.1
Leonard Fournette 5.7
Ezekiel Elliott 5.7
Add in the oft-injured but talented third-year pro C.J. Prosise, veteran Mike Davis, and the versatile J.D. McKissic, and Seattle has some choices to make at the position. Carroll’s preached all offseason about a renewed focus on the core tenet of his coaching philosophy—Always Competing (check out the base and central theme of Carroll’s Win Forever pyramid)—so I’d expect Penny’s going to have to earn the lead back job.
With a new head coach (Steve Wilks), a new offensive coordinator (Mike McCoy), three new quarterbacks (Bradford and Rosen, and Mike Glennon), and a slew of new receivers, there’s just one thing we can rely on when it comes to the Cardinals passing game this year: Larry Fitzgerald. The wily vet led the team in targets last year (161) and will feature prominently once again, but with the departures of Jaron Brown and John Brown, the rest of the depth chart behind him looks like a toss-up.
J.J. Nelson is well-positioned to inherit some of those vacated opportunities: The fourth-year pro flashed early last year, reeling in 10 passes for 163 yards and two scores in the Cardinals first two games, but that mini-breakout was short-lived—he grabbed just 19 more balls and failed to find the end zone the rest of the year. Nelson will be looking to recapture that early-season success, but must prove he can develop into more than just a speedy deep threat. Chad Williams, the team’s third-round pick from last year, has a chance to bounce back after a disappointing rookie season. Williams showed up for last year’s camp out of shape and ultimately played just 98 snaps and caught three passes for 31 yards. The 6-foot-1, 204-pound pass catcher worked with Chad Johnson during the offseason and reportedly looks more confident and comfortable than he did all of last year.
Rookie Christian Kirk figures to get a shot at a big role, too. The former Aggie has the quickness to get open underneath and the elusiveness to turn a short pass into a home run from anywhere on the field—but first-year receivers always face steep learning curves making the transition to the pro game. Add in veteran former Cowboy Brice Butler and Greg Little, who hasn’t played in the league since 2014, and there’s no way to know what to expect from this group. Whether it’s Bradford or Rosen taking snaps, the Cardinals are going to need a receiver or two to step up.
Don’t look now, but Miami’s quietly put together a talent-packed cornerbacks group. On the outside, Xavien Howard looks poised to establish himself as the team’s no. 1, and offers potential as a breakout star—a glimpse of which we saw last year when Howard picked Tom Brady off twice on Monday Night Football. On the other side, expect a fierce battle between incumbent Cordrea Tankersley and 2016 starter Tony Lippett, who’s finally close to full health after missing last year to an Achilles tear.
That group’s flanked by nickel playmaker Bobby McCain, who just became the highest-paid slot corner in the league with his four-year, $27 million extension. Add in the team’s first-round pick, the uber-versatile Minkah Fitzpatrick, who figures to push out just about everyone on the list as he competes for snaps in the slot and on the outside, and this Dolphins cornerbacks competition is one to watch.