While fans research which players to draft for their fantasy football rosters over the next six weeks, NFL coaches will prepare their teams’ depth charts. A starting position can be a life-changing job for a player, and training camp is the longest and most grueling part of the job interview. It’s also the most critical. The currency for these fights are practice repetitions, which are limited and therefore coveted. The players who practice with the starters play, and the ones who don’t, don’t. As training camp wears on, remember that the best metric for who is winning is who is practicing with the first team. Let’s dive into the top battles to watch as training camps open this week.
Washington, Starting Quarterback
Washington’s season unraveled last year when starting quarterback Alex Smith broke his leg in Week 11, and his recovery timeline is uncertain enough that it caused Washington to move on. The team traded for Broncos quarterback Case Keenum in March and then drafted Ohio State passer Dwayne Haskins no. 15 overall, and they’ll both be competing with longtime Washington backup Colt McCoy in a three-man quarterback competition for this season. Haskins is the team’s long-term plan, especially since neither Keenum nor McCoy is signed beyond this year, but Haskins is the least likely to be the Week 1 starter. He is 22 years old, started just 14 games at Ohio State, and played in an offense where he wasn’t calling plays in the huddle. The ghost of Robert Griffin III, who was rushed into being the team’s savior, also looms over the organization. Haskins is a better pocket passer than Griffin ever was, but it’s unlikely Washington will throw the rookie into games until he learns the basics.
”Once I learn the playbook, I know what I’m doing,” Haskins told ESPN’s John Keim in June. “I can call out the reads and point out sight [adjustments] and move protections; everything else will go from there. So I feel one full year of learning would do me justice.”
If there’s some justice in this world, McCoy will win the job. One of the greatest college quarterbacks of all time is entering his sixth year as the backup in head coach Jay Gruden’s offense. McCoy has made six starts in that span, and when his chance to seize the job finally came last year, he broke his leg after two games. He turns 33 on the opening day of the NFL season, and the starting job would be a hell of a gift.
Miami Dolphins, Starting Quarterback
Miami has the single worst top-to-bottom roster in the NFL. Recognizing this, Dolphins owner Stephen Ross took an unusual step in March and admitted the team may not be competitive for a few years. Ross has been a win-now owner in the past, but now he is committed to a rebuild. With this top-down edict, Miami was overhauled. After seven years, 88 games, and zero memories of Ryan Tannehill, the Dolphins finally cut bait on their franchise quarterback and shipped him to Tennessee in March. Two days later, the team signed Ryan Fitzpatrick. During the draft Miami sent the no. 62 pick in 2019 and a 2020 fifth-rounder for Arizona’s Josh Rosen, who had been exiled from the desert by old pal Kyler Murray. Between the Harvard grad Fitzpatrick and the “Why?” asker Josh Rosen, this quarterback room is a brain trust.
Fitzpatrick has lived many NFL lives as a journeyman but most recently played 206 miles northwest in Tampa Bay, where he led the league in passing yards per attempt (9.6). His Bucs tenure was vintage Fitz, going 2-6 in eight appearances and throwing 13 touchdowns and five interceptions in his first five appearances followed by four touchdowns and seven interceptions in his final three games. He is still the odds-on favorite over Rosen, who was abysmal in a lost rookie year that is impossible to evaluate. He played behind the league’s most injury-ravaged offensive line and the worst-designed offense in football. On the year, Arizona had one of the worst offensive DVOA ratings in the 33 seasons Football Outsiders has run numbers for, a sign of an organization-wide failure. If he’s more promising than his Cardinals season showed, he could earn the job. He certainly fits Miami’s timeline with four years left on an extremely cost-friendly contract (Arizona’s still on the hook for Rosen’s signing bonus).
Still, Miami is the front-runner for the top pick in 2020. Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa has a better chance of being in their long-term future than Rosen or Fitzpatrick.
Pittsburgh Steelers, No. 2 Wideout
Antonio Brown is irreplaceable, but Pittsburgh led the league in pass attempts last year and the target of 168 of those left when the team traded Brown to Oakland. JuJu Smith-Schuster is the team’s unquestioned no. 1 wideout, but the prolific no. 2 job is up for grabs. The clubhouse leader is free-agent addition Donte Moncrief, who looked promising in four years in Indianapolis but didn’t do much on a one-year deal in Jacksonville. He has impressed in the limited practices so far this year, but so has second-year receiver James Washington. Washington barely made a blip after Pittsburgh drafted him in the second round out of Oklahoma State last year, but the 5-foot-11 receiver dropped 15 pounds this offseason by eating less, changing tractor tires, and helping with his father’s crops. While Swiss army knife wide receiver Ryan Switzer and injury-prone Eli Rogers will also factor in for targets, Moncrief and Washington will be the leading candidates for the no. 2 role. If Washington overtakes Moncrief for first-team reps within the next few weeks, he could be a steal in fantasy. Yet even if one of them wins the other outside receiver job, they might not be second on the team in targets. ESPN’s Steelers beat writer Jeremy Fowler wrote on Wednesday that tight end Vance McDonald “is poised for a monster season if healthy.”
New England Patriots, No. 2 Pass Catcher
We are done questioning whether the Patriots can find a solution at a position, though once again they have a giant question mark at pass catcher. Rob Gronkowski has retired and insists he will stay retired. Josh Gordon remains in substance-abuse-violation purgatory, though the Patriots do have his rights and are reportedly paying for his treatment. Julian Edelman is out for three weeks with a thumb injury, and while he is expected to be healthy for the season, the Patriots will likely tinker with the no. 2 option as the season goes on.
First-round pick N’Keal Harry was a highlight machine at Arizona State and is the team’s future no. 1 option, but counting on a rookie receiver to contribute immediately is dicey, especially with a detail-oriented quarterback like Tom Brady. The next logical option is Phillip Dorsett, who had 16 catches on 26 targets for 165 yards and two touchdowns in the Pats’ first four games last year, but fell out of favor after Gordon entered the picture. He finished with just 16 catches for 125 yards and one touchdown in the remaining 12 games. That experience makes him the favorite, but Dorsett would be a no. 3 or even a no. 4 option on other teams, so he is not safe from 2018 sixth-rounder Braxton Berrios or former Charger Dontrelle Inman usurping him. (Former Bronco Demaryius Thomas is also on the team but will start the year on PUP after a car accident.)
The dark horse to keep an eye on is Maurice Harris. The cousin of Chargers Pro Bowler Keenan Allen, Harris impressed Washington’s Jay Gruden as an undrafted receiver out of Cal in 2016. He finally made an impact on the field last year, appearing in 12 games, including seven starts, which he parlayed into 28 catches on 47 targets for 304 yards. He is less proven than Dorsett, but may have better separation and ball skills.
Bill Belichick and the Patriots always fix their weak roster spots, and it’s usually because they give more players a chance to fill the role than most teams. This year will be no different. Whoever wins this job for the first week of September has zero guarantees of holding onto it for the first week of October. If the Patriots do take that approach, the smartest bet for the second-most targets during New England’s season is likely running back James White, who had 87 receptions and 751 yards last year.
Green Bay Packers, Aaron Rodgers’s Second-Closest Friend
Davante Adams has the no. 1 job in Green Bay locked up after he was one target shy of Julio Jones’s league-leading 170, and Rodgers wants to get him the ball even more often in 2019. But from Donald Driver to Greg Jennings to Jordy Nelson to Adams, every Packers no. 1 receiver started as a reliable no. 2, and that lucrative job is now available after the team let Randall Cobb go to Dallas in free agency. Green Bay didn’t add any receivers of note this offseason, but the team picked three receivers in the 2018 draft:
- Fourth-rounder J’Mon Moore out of Missouri
- Fifth-rounder Marquez Valdes-Scantling out of South Florida
- Sixth-rounder Equanimeous St. Brown out of Notre Dame
Moore and Brown had lackluster rookie years, and Brown had difficulty navigating the politics between Rodgers and former Packers coach Mike McCarthy. Valdes-Scantling made the biggest impact of that group, gaining 581 receiving yards on 73 targets in 10 starts. MVS will likely be opposite Adams on the outside, while the favorite for the slot job is Geronimo Allison, an undrafted free agent out of Illinois entering his fourth season. Allison began last year by winning the no. 2 gig and posting 289 yards and two touchdowns in the team’s first four games, but a concussion, hamstring tweak, and core muscle injury held him out of 11 of the next 12 games. How these players will fit into new head coach Matt LaFleur’s offense remains to be seen, but based on Rodgers’s history, he’ll find a second option he leans on.
Chicago Bears, Kicker
This is the best camp battle of the year by far. After Cody Parkey’s double doink, which was preceded by a quadruple-doink game, he went on Today without the team’s permission, which led to him being released. Replacing him has been a nightmare. The Bears had eight kickers try out for them this offseason and had each one try the same distance as Parkey’s double doink with the entire team watching. Six of the eight missed. One of them had the last name “Blewitt.” The Bears kept one player from that group, Elliott Fry, and then traded for the Raiders’ backup kicker, Eddy Pineiro. They hired a kicking consultant. They hoped San Francisco’s Robbie Gould would force a trade. Nothing has worked. Now GM Ryan Pace is watching other teams’ roster cuts for a kicker the way dogs watch their owners eat, hoping for scraps falling off the table.
”We’re watching all the teams, all the competitive situations around the league—one of them will be kicker,” Pace told NBC Sports Chicago. “We’re just watching that progress as we go forward. We know right now where we stand, where some of those battles are occurring. We’re watching those. And I’m sure there will be ones that will pop up that might surprise us.”
No offense to Ryan Pace, but no team’s kicking battle will be more surprising than the Bears’.