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AFC position battles: Broncos' QB derby nearing end

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We projected the 20 most intriguing position battles in AFC one month ago. With the regular season approaching, let's check in on those position battles to see which players have earned starting gigs.

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

The Internet sneered in May when Broncos coach Gary Kubiak originally said Siemian had a chance to start. Three months later, Siemian's the favorite. Mark Sanchez played all summer like the turnover-prone tease he's been throughout his career (one pick and two fumbles in two preseason appearances thus far). Siemian offers the best of both worlds, because he plays more conservatively and has a higher ceiling, based on his big arm and room to grow. A solid performance in the Week 3 dress rehearsal should lock up the starting job. Of course, Siemian is still likely just a bridge quarterback to Lynch, whose tools are obvious and incredible. A strong preseason finish by Lynch could put Siemian on a short leash to start the season.

UPDATE: Denver Broncos head coach Gary Kubiak announced Monday that Trevor Siemian will be the team's starting quarterback for Week 1.

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

Like Bill Belichick's run as Jets head coach, this battle was over before it started. Griffin has rewarded Hue Jackson's faith by improving throughout camp and the preseason. The only question left is whether the team ultimately will trade McCown. The better bet is that he stays as insurance for Griffin and becomes available during the season if a starting QB elsewhere goes down.

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

We called this the ultimate boom-or-bust backfield entering camp. The Dolphins should consider it good news, then, that Ajayi and Foster are healthy heading into the season. Foster played better than Ajayi on Thursday night and could be the slight favorite to start, although it appears the two runners will split snaps. Drake is a candidate for injured reserve, while Isaiah Pead is making a surprising career comeback.

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

Some things in the NFL never change, like James Harrison beating out youngsters while beefing with Commissioner Roger Goodell. Jones missed much of camp and the first two preseason games with injury, making it more likely that the 38-year-old Harrison opens the year playing starter-worthy snaps. With Bud Dupree hurt, Jones and Harrison might both wind up as starters.

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

Coates is a prime example of training camp overanalysis in our football-obsessed world. Immature writers touted him after he generated consistent practice buzz before he faceplanted in two ugly preseason performances (five total catches for 48 yards, with two fumbles and zero TDs). Coates was clearly No. 4 on the depth chart in the team's third preseason game with Eli Rogers getting the snaps in the slot and Wheaton playing on the outside.

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

This committee is working just as planned. Yeldon starts, but he has split first-team work equally with Ivory through two preseason games. Ivory always runs like a man possessed by the ghost of Earl Campbell until the injuries start piling up, and that has been no different this preseason. Jacksonville has the makings of a great tandem.

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

Beachum is on track to start Week 1 over Joeckel, the No. 2 overall pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. Beachum's return to game action in Week 3 of the preseason went well, with Joeckel looking shakier after moving inside the guard.

8) Jaguars OTTO: Myles Jack vs. Dan Skuta

Jack has looked good as the team's backup middle linebacker, and he'll get starter's snaps in the team's third preseason game. Paul Posluszny remains the starter, and it's unclear if the Jaguars will use Jack on the outside in sub-packages to get him on the field. Whether it arrives in Week 1 or not, Jack's time is coming.

9) Texans defensive ends

The Bengals gave up on Devon Still, who has looked like the favorite to start at right defensive end across from J.J. Watt for most of camp. With Watt looking more likely to play Week 1, the Texans have to consider flipping second-year pro Christian Covington to Still's side. A converted defensive tackle, Covington had a dominant performance against the Saints (three tackles and a sack) in the second week of the preseason.

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

We wrote in July that believing OTA hype is harmful to your health, especially as a fantasy owner. Through no real fault of his own, Strong's chances to start have seemingly evaporated like so much other June smoke. Fuller has taken over as the Texans' starter on the outside, while Miller looks incredibly polished for a former quarterback playing the slot. Strong appears headed for the No. 4 role, while Shorts has no path to snaps.

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

The biggest change in this battle is that Terrance West graduated from "the field" to a potential starter. Otherwise, little is clear. All four running backs are worthy of snaps and a roster spot. Allen appears headed for a third-down role. We've been impressed with Dixon's footwork, but a knee injury will keep him out a month. That injury should secure Forsett's roster spot. Otherwise he might have been a trade candidate.

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

The Ravens loaded up on tight ends after injuries devastated the position last year. Unfortunately, this year has started in similar fashion. Watson will miss the season after tearing his Achilles' tendon in the third week of the preseason. Gillmore is the healthiest one now, so he's atop the depth chart. Pitta has missed three weeks because of a broken fingersuffered in a camp fight. This would be an exceedingly cruel way to lose a job after recovering from multiple hip surgeries.

13) Titans receiver battle royale

New general manager Jon Robinson helped alleviate the logjam here by trading Dorial Green-Beckham to Philadelphia for backup tackle Dennis Kelly earlier this month. That came after rookie fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe solidified his standing as a Week 1 starter (eight catches for 103 yards in two games). Free-agent pickup Rishard Matthews has also looked good, while Andre Johnson appeared to lock up a roster spot as a starter in the third preseason game. Kendall Wright has missed nearly all of camp with a hamstring injury, but he's guaranteed huge dollars, so it would be tough to trade him. Harry Douglas is on the bubble.

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

After Marc Sessler dubbed Duke Johnson a "Making the Leap" pick, the preseason became irrelevant. Stardom is around the corner. Not much has changed this month anyhow. Crowell figures to start the season as the early-down back, but we believe Johnson's talent will end up winning out with more touches.

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

Rookie Tyler Boyd has exceeded expectations, showing that he can excel on the outside and in the slot. Veteran Brandon LaFell is playing through a torn ligament in his hand and could wind up earning fewer snaps than Boyd, who is the leader for the No. 2 job according to Bengals.com. If you are looking for surprise contributor, 2014 seventh-rounder James Wright could step up.

16) Patriots entire interior offensive line

Bill Belichick has aggressively re-made the group that might have cost the Patriots another Super Bowl appearance. Center Bryan Stork was dealt to Washington to make way for David Andrews. Third-round pick Joe Thuney has the look of a longtime starter. Former top-10 pick Jonathan Cooper hasn't played since hurting his foot early in camp, leaving Josh Kline the expected starter. Belichick needs offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia to work his magic, fresh off the coach's brief retirement.

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

Injuries have forced the Steelers' hand in the secondary. With Senquez Golson out, rookie second-round safety Sean Davis has taken over as the team's nickel back. First-round pick Artie Burns never challenged Ross Cockrell for a starting job after missing most of camp with a thigh injury. Year after year, the Steelers struggle to find the right secondary mix.

18) Broncos defensive end: Who replaces Malik Jackson?

Injuries to Vance Walker and Phil Taylor quickly depleted the Broncos' defensive line. Now ex-Texan Jared Crick and Australian rookie Adam Gotsis will play bigger roles, with Gotsis showing up well in the preseason. The team also signed Henry Melton for depth, but its hard to see this group measuring up to Jackson's production.

19) Bills No. 3 receiver

Sammy Watkins has successfully returned from a broken foot, which pushes lesser names down the depth chart. In a surprise, Marquise Goodwin emerged as the favorite to take No. 3 receivers snaps with a consistent camp. Failing to make the Olympics could wind up giving Goodwin's NFL career new life, although he's now recovering from a concussion. Meanwhile, OTA favorite Dezmin Lewis has fallen off, while veteran Leonard Hankerson was cut after a drop-filled preseason game.

20) Jets outside linebacker

Jets coach Todd Bowles told reporters that no one has stepped up at the position, which would be troubling if this wasn't one of the easiest jobs in football. We still see second-year pro Lorenzo Mauldin as a breakout candidate, while rookie Jordan Jenkins' calf injury could keep him from starting in Week 1.

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