2017 NFL training camp: Analyzing notable AFC position battles

No position battle this summer means more than the Broncos' quarterback derby, in large part because the bones of a championship defense remain intact. General manager John Elway likely wishes, however, that his team didn't have quite so many open competitions at high-leverage spots.

Paxton Lynch vs. Trevor Siemian is just one of five key Broncos battles to watch. Garett Bolles was drafted in the first round to stop the revolving door at left tackle and improve Elway's spotty track record of finding offensive linemen. Tight end remains a sore spot, with A.J. Derby, Jeff Heuerman and Virgil Green all returning. The ceiling is the roof in the backfield for C.J. Anderson and Jamaal Charles, who also carry an inordinate amount of injury risk. (Second-year back Devontae Booker is already sidelined.) The defense is still searching to find a replacement for DE Malik Jackson, one year after losing him.

In Lynch and Siemian, new offensive coordinator Mike McCoy has two opposing archetypes for young quarterback success. Siemian showed toughness, a heady feel for the game and an underrated arm in 14 starts last season. Lynch is all arm strength, athleticism and measurables, a new-school prototype like Elway once was. This battle feels like it matters because the Broncos have gone 59-21 over the past five years, because Von Miller and the best cornerback trio in football are still in town. After accomplishing nearly everything else in Denver, Elway still has to prove he can find the right young quarterback to call his own.

With those five Broncos derbies out of the way, the rest of the top AFC position battles are below.

1) Texans quarterback: Tom Savage vs. Deshaun Watson

NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Wednesday the Texans are "blown away" by Watson's work ethic and progress learning the offense as a rookie. Somewhere, Savage's agent just ordered a double. I initially believed that Savage's three seasons in Bill O'Brien's system gave him the edge to start Week 1, but reports like that sound like a way of preparing everyone, including Savage, for the inevitability of Watson taking over.

2) Bengals running back: Joe Mixon vs. Jeremy Hill vs. Giovani Bernard

Finding carries for all three Bengals backs qualifies as a good problem. Bernard has made a speedy recovery from ACL surgery, but his role as a passing-down specialist should be more defined. That leaves Mixon and Hill battling for the starting job. While they are both second-round picks, Mixon's power and make-you-miss quickness stands apart. He wasn't drafted to sit on the bench.

This quarterback group is better than last year's trio and better than the Jets' quarterbacks. It's a start. Kessler performed well last season despite his limitations and could take a jump in Year 2 under Hue Jackson. Kessler will open camp as the starter, but Kizer's skill set gives him a realistic chance at starting Week 1. Osweiler, not totally out of the mix to start and due $16 million guaranteed, could head elsewhere if his young teammates perform well in August.

4) The entire Colts defense except for Vontae Davis

It's all up for grabs. General manager Chris Ballard brought in new challengers to start at essentially every position except Davis' No. 1 cornerback spot and strong safety -- but now that latter job is open, too, following Clayton Geathers' neck surgery. Some holdovers from the previous regime -- like defensive end Kendall Langford and linebacker Edwin Jackson -- may well keep their starting jobs, but no one is truly safe.

5) Raiders running back: Marshawn Lynch vs. Father Time vs. Jalen Richard vs. DeAndre Washington

Apparently, most of America expects the 2014 version of Marshawn Lynch to magically reappear in Oakland -- at least based on the florid written features and his average draft position in fantasy leagues. It's worth noting that Lynch was last seen averaging 3.8 yards per carry while battling calf, hamstring, abdomen and back injuries in 2015, and there is not a long history of 31-year-old running backs un-retiring with success. Thankfully, the Raiders don't need Lynch to go full Beast Mode. Richard and Washington are worthy of gobbling up snaps and Oakland's supersized offensive line will help the entire trio.

This is one of the most hopeless quarterback situations entering camp this century. From a distance, the ingredients are typical: A trusty old veteran gunslinger against a recent second-round pick. But McCown is 38 years old, plays reckless to the point of inviting injury and has been living off one great five-game stretch in Chicago for half a decade now. He ideally would be a No. 3 quarterback tutoring a young star, but there is little optimism that Hackenberg can turn around his systemic accuracy issues. First-time NFL offensive coordinator John Morton has his hands full.

7) Titans wide receivers

One year after Marcus Mariota struggled to find competent receivers, he suddenly has a surplus. Veteran Rishard Matthews is the safest pick to start, yet the best-case scenarios for No. 5 overall pick Corey Davis and free-agent pickup Eric Decker could push Matthews to the sideline. Third-round slot receiver Taywan Taylor and 2016 starter Tajae Sharpe also can't be ignored. This is a battle to watch closely, with Decker coming off major surgery and the Titans relying on rookies.

The Chiefs just wrapped up a ridiculous 16-year run at running back going from Priest Holmes to Larry Johnson to Jamaal Charles. Now optimistic Chiefs fans -- are there any other kind? -- believe Hunt is next to carry the torch. Those are unfair expectations for a third-round rookie, but Hunt has the burst and three-down ability to win this job in camp.

9) Bills middle linebacker: Reggie Ragland vs. Preston Brown

Middle linebacker should be the fulcrum of coach Sean McDermott's 4-3 defense; think Luke Kuechly in Carolina. But in Buffalo, McDermott has two potentially awkward fits drafted by two different Bills regimes. Brown was taking starter snaps during OTAs with Ragland coming off a torn ACL that stole his rookie season.

It took 18 seasons for Bill Belichick to construct the perfect backfield to extract maximum pain from fantasy football owners. Don't even try to guess how the Patriots will deploy this foursome on a week-to-week basis. Gillislee, Burkhead and White all make roughly the same money and can be deployed in a variety of ways. Lewis is too talented to languish if healthy. Seriously, just stop trying.

11) Jaguars left tackle: Cam Robinson vs. Branden Albert

If No. 34 overall pick Robinson shows up well in training camp, Albert and his $8.875 million salary could possibly be traded for the second time in six months. There would certainly be a market for him in this tackle-starved league. Robinson could also kick inside to guard if he doesn't look ready on the blind side.

12) Ravens front seven

I've read a lot about the Ravens defense returning to greatness this season. This is apparently based on the loaded secondary, because the front seven has a ton of questions and the team's best pass rusher is a 15th-year veteran (Terrell Suggs) coming off another surgery. The Ravens have open starting jobs at defensive end, inside linebacker and outside linebacker, with mostly unproven mid-round prospects aiming to fill the jobs.

13) Kansas City Chiefs outside linebacker: Dee Ford vs. Tamba Hali

Hali asked a fair question during his now-legendary tweetstorm: Is he needed in Kansas City any longer? Despite making a big impact as a part-time player last season, he played only seven snaps in the team's playoff loss compared to 56 for Ford -- an odd decision after Ford faded so badly late in the year. Post-rant, perhaps coach Andy Reid will give Hali a chance to win his old job back as Robin to Justin Houston's Batman.

14) Bills wide receiver: Zay Jones vs. Andre Holmes vs. everyone else

The Bills appear to be penciling in Jones as a starter opposite Sammy Watkins, a risky proposition for a rookie from East Carolina who missed most of OTAs. Holmes was barely a fourth receiver in Oakland, yet he's easily the next-best option in a group that includes Walt Powell, Rod Streater and Corey Brown. This group screams out for a late waiver-wire pickup.

15) Raiders cornerback: David Amerson vs. Gareon Conley

I'm under the impression that, despite some poor play early in his debut season with the Raiders, Sean Smith has one CB job locked down. Meanwhile, Amerson earns the salary of a star. His 2016 play and roller-coaster career put his future with Oakland in doubt, especially after the team drafted Conley in the first round. Conley remains under investigation with no charges filed in a rape case stemming from an April incident, with the uncertainty impacting Conley's unsigned status. If Conley is legally cleared in the near future, there's a long-shot scenario where he clearly outplays Amerson in camp and makes the big-bucks veteran expendable.

16) Browns strong safety: Jabrill Peppers vs. Calvin Pryor

Peppers needs a position to call home after moving all around the field at Michigan. Pryor, who has more starting experience than any Browns safety, is trying to resuscitate a once-promising career built off big hits and biggertrash talk.

17) Dolphins defensive end: Charles Harris vs. Andre Branch vs. William Hayes

Starting opposite Cameron Wake and next to Ndamukong Suh is one of the cushier gigs in football, because pass protection is always sliding in the opposite direction. Branch is the favorite here, due to his big free-agent contract, but the Dolphins would love Harris, their first-round pick, to challenge for the job. Hayes was acquired mostly as a run-stopping specialist, so I don't think he'll be the starter.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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