Training camp battles kicked into high gear this week with pads coming on for all 32 teams. Here's a look at some of the notable names at risk of losing their starting gigs this month.
There might be a hardcore underground Darnold fan quotient out there, but their reasons for optimism are running dry. Following last month’s Baker Mayfield trade, all arrows have pointed in Mayfield’s direction to win the starting QB job. This isn’t exactly breaking news, of course, but not even Darnold’s 11 starts for Carolina last year, or Mayfield’s late arrival this offseason, offer much in the way of hope. For now, the two QBs are splitting time with the first-team offense. Mayfield could continue throwing training-camp picks and keep the door ajar, but a coaching staff that might soon find itself on the hot seat and a Week 1 game versus Cleveland give us a clear forecast of which way the wind is blowing. The question now might be: Will Darnold ever start again in the NFL?
For now, Smith appears to have the early lead on Drew Lock, who came to Seattle in the Russell Wilson deal. Smith has received most of the first-team reps in camp to this point after starting three games in place of the injured Wilson last season and likely is the favorite to start Week 1 … against Wilson’s Broncos. But if the 49ers can't find a trade partner for Jimmy Garoppolo and end up cutting him, that’s a player the Seahawks could entice to sign for moderate money, with Seattle’s QB spot hardly in a firm place. Another benefit: The Seahawks play at San Francisco in Week 2. But it’s getting late, and winning a starting job in a month (or less) would be heavy lifting for Garoppolo even if he lands here.
The assumption has been that Jones would be on a one-year trial with new coach Brian Daboll before the team figured out its long-term direction at quarterback. But is it possible that Jones doesn’t even begin this season as the starter? Tyrod Taylor never played for Daboll in Buffalo, but that doesn’t mean Taylor couldn’t win the job if the Giants’ new leadership decides that Jones isn’t the long-term answer -- and presumably never will be.
After inheriting a flawed roster and messy salary-cap situation, Daboll has already hinted there could be growing pains this year. The smart money remains on Jones getting a shot to prove he can still be the starter, but the Giants could opt to pull a stunner and turn to Taylor -- especially if reports of the Giants’ offense struggling mightily in camp keep up. A Jones benching would be the most surprising development of any of the potential demotions mentioned in this piece. Stranger things have happened, though, and perhaps Daboll's patience will wear thin if Jones' turnover woes (his 49 giveaways -- including a league-high 20 fumbles lost -- since 2019 are tied for third-most) persist.
The don’t draft running backs in Round 1 hive has been on a told-you-so bender with CEH, who started all 10 games he played last season but averaged only 4.7 yards per touch and made two costly fumbles in a pair of early-season losses. Edwards-Helaire is off the physically unable to perform list, only spending a day there in camp, but he’s up against it to prove he’s Kansas City’s best back. Ronald Jones arrives capable of unseating him, and Jerick McKinnon was the Chiefs’ best all-around back by the end of last season.
Predicting how the Patriots will utilize their running backs is almost always a fool’s errand. However, if Harris doesn’t lose his starting gig early on this season, he appears likely to at some stage. After New England drafted two backs this spring, it cast doubt on Harris’ long-term place with the club. But in my eyes, it’s more about what Rhamondre Stevenson can do than what Harris cannot. When Harris saw his workload slip a little bit down the stretch last year, it opened the door for Stevenson to stand out with his big-play ability. Harris still figures to have a role, but he might be ceding the leading one to his younger counterpart.
When the Eagles traded for A.J. Brown, Reagor’s days as a starter in Philadelphia -- he started 13 of 17 games a year ago -- were over. Now Reagor is battling for a role on the team. Averaging fewer than 25 receiving yards per game, Reagor might have been traded this offseason had the Eagles been offered anything of tangible use. It’s possible he plays well in August and wins one of the top four WR spots, edging out either Zach Pascal or Quez Watkins for one of them. But the former No. 21 overall pick hasn’t come close to fulfilling his potential in the NFL, and the path to doing so in Philly is even steeper now.
Cleveland started the final four games last season in what seemed to be a primer for winning a starting gig in 2022. That effort had a significant delay in camp. Cleveland failed a conditioning test, which isn’t a completely unusual occurrence for a veteran, but he missed four practices before finally passing it. That’s a tough sign for a young player who might be coughing up a pretty great opportunity. The Ravens will not mess around with their blocking in front of Lamar Jackson.
The 27-year-old Risner has started 47 games in his first three seasons and is one of the more well-liked Broncos in the locker room. Also, he should be highly motivated to play well this season considering he’s entering a contract year. But the outlook for Risner, who has been solid to this point in his career, suddenly seems a little murky. Netane Muti has been seeing some first-team snaps at guard and might be a better fit in the team’s newly implemented zone-blocking system. Risner makes pretty good coin this season and could be a dark-horse trade candidate should Muti clearly beat him out for a starting gig.
Barnett was viewed as a potential franchise pillar a few years ago, but things haven’t been as smooth since. He had only two sacks in 15 starts a year ago and hasn’t yet been able to curb a penchant for committing back-breaking penalties. The Eagles still could start Barnett this season, but his snap counts could go down in what appears to be a far deeper rotation of rushers up front. The team brought him back at a reduced salary, and Barnett finally could give way as 2021 Eagles sacks co-leader Josh Sweat has started to emerge. The health of Brandon Graham and acclimation of free-agent signee Haason Reddick clearly will have an impact on which players start up front.
There have been not one but two regime changes in Jacksonville since the Jaguars made Chaisson the 20th overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. With only two sacks in 31 career games, casting doubt about his role on the team isn’t exactly the hottest take of the millennium. (After all, former first-round mate C.J. Henderson is already long gone.) But if the Jaguars are serious about getting No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker on the field plenty early, then Chaisson will be pushed to a reserve role with Josh Allen holding down the other edge-rushing spot in the team’s 3-4 defense. Chaisson’s early work in camp reportedly has been up and down, but the writing appears to be on the wall for keeping a starting assignment unless Walker is simply too raw to trust early.
Bush’s career has gone off track since his 2020 ACL injury, and now the player the Steelers once traded up for in Round 1 appears to be battling to keep his starting job. The team has been rotating Myles Jack, Robert Spillane and Bush for first-team reps at inside linebacker, and Bush’s spotty play a year ago won’t soon be forgotten. He can change that with a big camp and preseason, but the Steelers might not be convinced that will occur given that they declined his fifth-year option over the summer. At the very least, Bush is at risk of seeing his role reduced unless he can display the form he showed in a strong rookie season.
It was clear this offseason, after the Falcons signed linebackers Rashaan Evans and Nick Kwiatkoski and drafted Troy Andersen, that Jones’ days as a fixture in the Atlanta defense were threatening to end. His name was reportedly floated in trade talks this offseason, but GM Terry Fontenot clearly hasn’t yet received an offer he felt compelled to accept. Currently, Jones resides on the PUP list with a shoulder injury. Cutting Jones doesn’t appear to be an option, as the cap savings would be minimal.
Calling Butler, who was out of the NFL last season after being placed on the reserve/retired list by the Cardinals last August, a “first-stringer” might be a bit of a stretch. But considering how thin the Patriots’ CB depth chart appears, plus Butler’s name value alone in New England, he’d been projected to start by many entering camp. The early days of practice could have people rethinking the idea. Reports indicate Butler has struggled in one-on-one coverage, especially when matched up with DeVante Parker, and could be behind Jalen Mills and Terrance Mitchell for the outside starting jobs. Bill Belichick has no place for nostalgia, so Butler will have to rebound over the coming weeks to earn his starting job.
Tre’von Moehrig and Abram have been receiving the majority of first-team reps early in camp, but a player familiar with head coach Josh McDaniels is lurking. Ex-Patriot Duron Harmon signed with the Raiders and easily could slide into a starting role if Abram, who had his fifth-year option declined this offseason, doesn’t tighten up his coverage. Abram fits the mold of intense competitor that McDaniels and DC Patrick Graham are seeking, but Abram must prove he’s accountable. The Raiders have the benefit of an additional preseason game, starting with Thursday’s Hall of Fame Game, to determine who wins the starting job.
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