Around the NFL  

 

AFC training camp battles headlined by two QB races

Print

Training camp can be boiled down to two types of storylines that truly matter: injuries and jobs. There is no way to predict injuries, but we can try to handicap the important starting jobs up for grabs over the next month.

Here are the top 20 AFC position battles to watch in camp.

1) Broncos quarterback: Mark Sanchez vs. Trevor Siemian vs. Paxton Lynch

Either the Broncos are doing a masterful job lowering expectations for their first-round pick or Lynch truly will get a redshirt year. It still defies logic that Siemian, a second-year pro who was active for one game last season, has a better chance to start than Lynch. Siemian is the kind of storyline that often cuts sharply once pads arrive and the pass rush matters in practice. This is Sanchez's job to lose, but don't rule out general manager John Elway acquiring another veteran.

2) Browns quarterback: Robert Griffin III vs. Josh McCown vs. Cody Kessler

The winner of this battle will throw to a sneaky-fun collection of weapons: Josh Gordon (beginning in Week 5), Gary Barnidge, Corey Coleman, Duke Johnson and Andrew Hawkins. Based on their play from 2013 through '15, McCown should be the favorite over Griffin. Based on Hue Jackson's offseason comments and the expected snap distribution, Griffin is almost certain to win. Based on the NFL always making us look stupid, Kessler (whose third-round selection surprised many) will somehow be a factor before all is said and done.

3) Dolphins running back: Jay Ajayi vs. Arian Foster vs. Kenyan Drake

This is the ultimate boom-or-bust backfield. All three players have high ceilings and all three have durability questions. Foster is no lock to make the roster if he can't recapture his 2014 form after Achilles surgery. Ajayi is the favorite to start and owns a throwback power game to go with good hands. Taken in the third round, Drake has the gifts to be a strong third-down back and the curse of injuries dating back to Alabama.

4) Steelers outside linebacker: Jarvis Jones vs. James Harrison

It's an age-old NFL story. At what point do the Steelers call the fight and admit that a disappointing first-round pick can't unseat the ageless veteran? Jones started games last year. Harrison played more snaps and closed the games. That tells you what Mike Tomlin thinks of this battle. You try to be the coach who tells Harrison he's on the bench.

5) Steelers No. 2 receiver: Markus Wheaton vs. Sammie Coates

Coates enjoyed the rare distinction of gaining more yards in Pittsburgh's playoff loss (61) than he did his entire rookie regular season. That makes him the underdog in a battle with Wheaton to fill Martavis Bryant's big shoes in the starting lineup.

6) Jaguars running back: Chris Ivory vs. T.J. Yeldon

The Jaguars likely will settle on a committee approach, with Ivory gobbling up goal-line carries and Yeldon taking the passing-down work. Ivory's contract ($32 million over five years) indicates he's the favorite to earn the majority of the rest of snaps available. He just needs to win the battle against his own body in August by staying healthy.

7) Jaguars left tackle: Luke Joeckel vs. Kelvin Beachum

Joeckel was the No. 2 overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. Beachum was the No. 248 pick of the 2012 NFL Draft. This is Beachum's job to lose if he can show he's fully recovered from a torn ACL. Isn't meritocracy grand?

8) Jaguars OTTO: Myles Jack vs. Dan Skuta

The Jaguars drafted Jack out of UCLA to run their defense at middle linebacker. For now, that's Paul Posluszny's job on running downs. Jack will play in sub-packages right away, but we're curious to see if he'll steal snaps from veteran Dan Skuta on the outside, too.

Now is probably the time to tell you that coach Gus Bradley calls his outside linebacker spots "LEO" and "OTTO" for mystical reasons better explained elsewhere.

9) Texans defensive ends

My editor wanted to kill this battle from the list when it was framed as: "Who starts opposite J.J. Watt?" Now it could be: "Who starts at both defensive end spots while Watt gets healthy?"

With 2015 starter Jared Crick in Denver, the lack of proven options (Devon Still, Christian Covington, Brandon Dunn and Jeoffrey Pagan) should be a big concern for Texans fans.

10) Texans No. 2 receiver: Jaelen Strong vs. Will Fuller vs. Cecil Shorts III vs. Braxton Miller

If you believe the OTA hype, second-year pro Strong might just be the slight favorite to start over Fuller, the team's first-round pick in April. Believing OTA hype is usually not good for your health.

11) Ravens running back: Justin Forsett vs. Buck Allen vs. Kenneth Dixon vs. the field

Forsett finally found a home in Baltimore. Now he has to fend off no fewer than five challengers to his throne, all with significant recent NFL experience. Allen made few mistakes as a starter last year, while Dixon has the skill set to play every down. This battle probably will come down to a three-man fight for one roster spot between Lorenzo Taliaferro, Terrance West and walking headline generator Trent Richardson. Forsett could be a surprise cut candidate if the young kids play too well.

12) Ravens tight end: Ben Watson vs. Dennis Pitta vs. Crockett Gillmore vs. Maxx Williams

After a year-long worst-case scenario come to life, GM Ozzie Newsome isn't taking any chances at tight end this year. The variety here is remarkable. You have a 35-year-old coming off a career year in Watson. Pitta is trying to complete an improbable comeback from multiple hip surgeries. Gillmore was Baltimore's most dangerous pass catcher for a stretch last year, and Williams was a 2015 second-round pick.

Watson is the early favorite, but Gillmore is the most explosive player. If Pitta builds on a promising offseason, the Ravens could have a great problem on their hands.

13) Titans receiver battle royale

The most ignored team in the NFL has an intriguing set of receivers, even if it doesn't add Andre Johnson. Free-agent pickup Rishard Matthews should be a lock to start. After that, it's anyone's guess.

We'd think that former 1,000-yard receiver Kendall Wright would have a big role, but coach Mike Mularkey put him in the principal's office this offseason, in part because of Wright's reputation for freelancing. Dorial Green-Beckham and Justin Hunter are former second-round picks with immense physical gifts that have yet to fully translate in the NFL. Harry Douglas played for Mularkey in Atlanta.

Somehow, all the names above were running behind fifth-round rookie Tajae Sharpe from UMass over the summer. Hunter and possibly Douglas could be the odd men out here, with Sharpe cutting into Wright's snaps.

14) Browns running back: Duke Johnson vs. Isaiah Crowell

It was written: Football Svengali Marc Sessler already let us know that Duke Johnson will Make the Leap, so now it's time to sit back and enjoy the ride. Johnson has the tackle-breaking toughness and ability to make defenders miss in the hole that could make this a one-sided committee.

15) Bengals wide receivers: Who replaces Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones?

There are no magic answers coming for Andy Dalton beyond the Bengals' fierce running game, offensive line and defense. (Perhaps this isn't such an emergency after all.) Sanu should be simple enough to replace with rookie Tyler Boyd, the favorite to get snaps in the slot. Going from Jones to Brandon LaFell outside could be a bigger problem. It's hard to see who else could emerge from the Bengals' depth chart at the position: Brandon Tate, Cody Core, James Wright, Mario Alford and Jake Kumerow.

16) Patriots entire interior offensive line

The Patriots might have won their fifth Super Bowl if they could have protected Tom Brady late last season. They are healthier at tackle now, but their interior offensive line has seven players battling for three open spots. Former top-10 pick Jonathan Cooper, part of the trade that sent Chandler Jones to Arizona, will be in the mix for one of the starting guard spots, along with third-round pick Joe Thuney. The biggest reason for optimism: Bill Belichick convinced offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to end his retirement.

17) Steelers secondary: Top two draft picks vs. veterans

Pittsburgh GM Kevin Colbert has drafted well during his underrated 16-year tenure, although his track record in the secondary is wanting. Mike Tomlin hopes that changes this year. The team's first-round pick, Artie Burns, is vying for snaps at cornerback behind Ross Cockrell. Second-round safety Sean Davis is trying to displace veterans Robert Golden and Shamarko Thomas. Despite his lower draft position, Davis is the better bet to start Week 1.

18) Broncos defensive end: Who replaces Malik Jackson?

The Broncos let Jackson walk to Jacksonville for a variety of reasons, most of them financial. Coordinator Wade Phillips' ability to maximize D-line talent also played a role. Vance Walker is a solid rotation player. Gary Kubiak imported old friend Jared Crick from Houston. The team could move Sylvester Williams from nose tackle to play snaps at end. Australian rookie Adam Gotsis has only played football since age 13 and landed with the perfect coach to help him learn his trade.

It's worth remembering that Jackson wasn't even a starter until 2015. In SonofBum they trust.

19) Bills No. 3 receiver

This battle makes the list because Sammy Watkins' foot injury threatens to linger through the season. It also makes the list because the depth chart ranks among the league's least inspiring. Robert Woods is stretched as a starter. Greg Salas, Dezmin Lewis and Leonard Hankerson are the leading options to start if Watkins is out. Translation: Rex Ryan has his excuse to not allow forward passes this season.

20) Jets outside linebacker

Jets coach Todd Bowles says that his team is "not just about the quarterback position." He had better hope it's not just about outside linebacker. This group is so thin (Trevor Reilly, Jordan Jenkins) behind promising second-year pro Lorenzo Mauldin that Bowles should line up primarily as a 4-3 team in order to keep his best players on the field. (And his outside linebackers off it.)

Print