As the NFL offseason draws to a close, teams are sorting out their depth charts and finalising the rosters. Every year there are rumours of who is a surprise performer. Teams also come out either praising a rookie, or criticising them in the hopes of motivating them. What it all comes down to is who wins the battle at positions up for grabs.
Some teams have a clear idea of who will be the starter at every position. Others have question marks around positions about who will start. Some are interested in replacing an established starter if they feel there is a need for improvement, and will openly declare a competition. Before training camps start, these are the top position battles to watch.
Due to the higher numbers of Wide Receivers on the field, most teams have competition for the WR depth chart. As a result, the top WR position battles will be in a standalone article for Unfiltered Access. This article will focus on other positions where battles are taking place.
10. Detroit Lions Linebackers
A key piece of Head Coach Matt Patricia’s Defensive scheme is the LBs. Yet he doesn’t seem to have found the right players just yet. In 2018 the Lions were functionable with Devon Kennard, Jarrad Davis, and Christian Jones.
However, the Lions drafted Hawaii’s Jahlani Tavai in the second round and picked up Clemson’s Tre Lamar as an undrafted free agent. Both of these players have a good chance to force their way in as starters, although Lamar is more likely to be a backup. Tavai has good speed and showed some talent at pressuring Quarterbacks. Lamar, on the other hand, was better in coverage and is a clean tackler.
Davis is probably safe as a starter, although needs to find another level this year. Tavai could force Jones or Kennard off the field, while Lamar is most likely going to be a backup. What it all comes down to in Detroit is who fits Patricia’s scheme the best.
9. Pittsburgh Steelers Cornerbacks
On the surface, the Steelers’ starting CBs look to be Artie Burns, Joe Haden and FA pickup Steven Nelson. Right behind them though are Cam Sutton, Kameron Kelly and rookie Justin Layne. Sutton has been a backup CB in the last few years, and Kelly was signed after showing promise in the AAF. Layne, on the other hand, is a versatile CB who can play either side of the field.
Burns has been mediocre since being drafted in 2016, and the Steelers declined his fifth year option this offseason. The Steelers could also be looking to move on from Haden after this season, as he is now on the wrong side of thirty. This training camp will see the Steelers open up all three CB spots to the best candidate. Even Nelson, as a FA pickup, is no lock to become a starter.
8. New England Patriots Tight Ends
With the loss of TE Rob Gronkowski this offseason, the Patriots are looking for his replacement. While they won’t find someone to completely fill the void left, TEs have been a vital part of the Patriots’ system and someone needs to emerge. Although they may change the system, Brady has enjoyed throwing to TEs and New England will need someone else to run short and intermediate routes.
It is a three-horse race between second year player Ryan Izzo and FA signings Ben Watson and Matt LaCosse. LaCosse has been unable to make his mark on the league, but has always been faced with an established starter. Watson retired and then came out of retirement to play with the Patriots, although will miss the first four games due to suspension. Izzo is an unknown quantity, as he spent most of his rookie season injured.
Whoever wins this battle has their work cut out for them. Each player could make this spot their own, but none of them currently are inspiring picks. Someone has to win this battle, and it will be intriguing to see how the defending Super Bowl winners mange the situation. Keep an eye on another name to be added to the mix before the season starts.
7. Dallas Cowboys Cornerbacks
Dallas added some much needed talent to their CB group in the draft with Mike Jackson. He should immediately be competing with Chidobe Awuzie, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis for a starting spot opposite Byron Jones. In turn, this will also create a competition at the nickel CB spot.
Jackson could emerge as the best CB on the Cowboys’ roster this season. He has strong coverage skills, and is both physical and disruptive. In contrast, Awuzie has yet to prove himself a consistent playmaker but could be handed a starting spot due to his high draft pick a few years ago (second round).
6. Green Bay Packers Running Backs
This position battle lacks a lot of the spark some others do. But in a Packers Offense that hasn’t been firing on all cylinders for a few years, finding a lead RB is necessary. The Packers haven’t had a definitive dominant RB for years, with duties being shared between multiple players each season. The time has come for someone to make the position their own.
Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams were both drafted in 2017, and have posted similar numbers in their time in Green Bay. Both have had time as the starter, but they are yet to draw enough attention to open up the passing game. Rookie Dexter Williams might become that player. With a strong showing in training camp, Dexter Williams could walk into a starting role against average competition.
5. Indianapolis Colts Running Backs
Similarly to the Packers, the Colts have a stable of RBs that have been rolled out based on availability. Marlon Mack was considered the starter in 2018, but was injured early in the season. In his stead, Jordan Wilkins started, but returned to his backup spot later in the season. Nyheim Hines is the best receiving back on the roster and should retain that role. FA addition Spencer Ware has also had time as the starter in Kansas City, but was never able to stake a strong claim.
While it would appear that Mack and Hines remain the primary backs for rushing and receiving respectively, things could change. Improvements from Wilkins could see him force his way into a timeshare situation. Ware provides good depth and with his experience, could also fight for touches. This is Mack’s job to lose, and the competition is strong.
4. Miami Dolphins Running Backs
This battle is essentially between Kenyan Drake and Myles Gaskin. Drake became the de facto starter in 2018, but had limited success in the role. While he will benefit from an improved Offense, he is fighting for his spot as lead back this training camp.
Gaskin was drafted in the seventh round but was a strong runner during his college career at Washington. Gaskin will be given the opportunity to become the featured back, although it’s highly likely the Dolphins move to using a stable of RBs. Drake has had decent success as a receiving back, and the two could complement each other. Regardless, Miami needs one of them to take pressure off QB Josh Rosen, making this battle a little more intriguing.
3. Philadelphia Eagles Running Backs
In a similar vein to the Dolphins’ RB situation, the Eagles have a heavyweight battle on their hands at RB. After trading for Jordan Howard, the Eagles then drafted Miles Sanders in the second round. Behind these two are a few guys who rotated as the starter last season in Corey Clement, Josh Adams and Wendell Smallwood. These three players are backups or receiving backs, and aren’t expected to fight for the RB1 spot.
Howard was a dominant runner, but over the last year it became apparent he was unable to contribute as a receiver. This made it easier for teams to defend him, yet he still posted decent numbers. With a stronger Offensive Line blocking for him, Howard could improve again. Yet he faces stiff competition from Sanders, who was one of the better RBs in college last season. Sanders is a little more versatile, but Howard has the advantage in experience. With both players worthy of a starting spot, this should be a fierce battle.
2. Denver Broncos Quarterback
Although the Broncos have been adamant in saying Joe Flacco will be their starting QB, they would be foolish to not have rookie Drew Lock competing with him. Flacco also has a recent history of injuries that have impacted his performance. On the other hand, in his prime, Flacco was a more than capable QB, especially in the postseason.
The system is also set up in Flacco’s favour. He has been at his best when there is a strong running game and a reliable TE to target. Denver has both of these in place. Plus, there’s little incentive to push Lock as the starter, when they can instead let him develop as a backup. However, if Lock is worthy of starting, he should start. QB competitions are always interesting, because they largely shape the team’s forthcoming season.
1. Washington Redskins Quarterback
In the second of what is only a few true QB competitions in the league, Washington’s is one of the strangest in recent memory. There is no presumptive favourite here. If healthy, Alex Smith would likely be the one to beat, but it is unknown if he will ever play again. Meanwhile, Colt McCoy and Josh Woodrum each had time as starter last season, and know the system a bit better.
Where this battle is likely to take place is between Case Keenum and rookie Dwayne Haskins. After several years in the league, Keenum is yet to find a home or win a long-term starting QB job. Haskins was seen as a top QB candidate in the draft. If the gap between them isn’t too large, Haskins should be given the keys to the Offense. Like the Denver situation, Keenum will start training camp as QB1, but is far from guaranteed to start the season.