On Thursday, we looked at the top 18 position battles in the AFC. With training camps officially starting this weekend in Minnesota and Pittsburgh, let's preview the best battles in the NFC.
1. Eagles quarterback: Sam Bradford vs. Mark Sanchez
This could be written as Bradford versus his health. Or Bradford versus history. No quarterback has ever returned from back-to-back torn ACLs because no one has suffered back-to-back torn ACLs quite like Bradford. It's all uncharted territory, and we're surprised the Eagles have so much faith in Bradford returning to form. (NFL Media Insider Ian Rapoport has reported they have engaged in long-term contract talks, but Bradford will play out his contract year.)
No matter how you frame this battle, it's the most meaningful one in the entire league. The Eagles can make the playoffs regardless of who wins this job. Sanchez has reportedly looked improved in offseason No. 2 under Chip Kelly, but that's the sort of thing you hear about Mark Sanchez in June. In many ways, Bradford is similar to Sanchez. They have both inspired a surprising amount of praise and loyalty in their careers despite mixed resumes.
2. Dallas Cowboys running back: Joseph Randle vs. Darren McFadden
The faith in McFadden in Dallas can be explained. He went to Arkansas and Jerry Jones is never going to give up on a high-profile Razorback. The faith in McFadden around the country is more perplexing. We ran an article on this very website asking the question: Who would be more successful this year: Frank Gore or McFadden? That pits one of the best running backs of the last decade playing in an outrageous offense versus a guy that hasn't looked good on film in years.
McFadden doesn't make anyone miss and doesn't stay healthy. Don't be surprised if this battle turns into Randle, who is underrated, against a veteran that the Cowboys cut elsewhere in training camp.
3. St. Louis Rams running back: Todd Gurley vs. Tre Mason
Gurley will start camp on the non-football injury list. Coach Jeff Fisher has expressed optimism Gurley will be on the field "sooner than later" but it's unrealistic to expect him to be ready for a full load of carries in Week 1. Mason was quietly one of the most explosive, entertaining rookies in the league last year. This is a good problem for the Rams to have. An early season split of carries, with Mason leading the way in September, wouldn't be a surprise.
4. Philadelphia Eagles inside linebacker: Kiko Alonso vs. Mychal Kendricks vs. DeMeco Ryans
The Eagles have three starters for two positions. In theory, Ryans should be the odd man out. He's 31 and coming off a second torn Achilles tendon. But Philadelphia surprisingly chose to guarantee him $6.25 million this season and Chip Kelly insists he's a huge part of the team plans. Kendricks was previously on the trade block, but he's a dynamic player. (And the only one of the trio that played great last season.) Alonso is sure to start after the team dealt LeSean McCoy for him. If we had to guess, Ryans should be a part-time player as he comes off injury.
5. Atlanta Falcons running back: Devonta Freeman vs. Tevin Coleman
Third-stringer Antone Smith remains in his role of scoring a 50-yard touchdown every three weeks. That leaves the starting job up to last year's fourth-round pick (Freeman) against this year's third-round pick (Coleman), with Freeman leading the way heading into camp. Coleman is a one-cut runner that ultimately fits better in new coordinator Kyle Shanahan's system. Freeman's versatility on passing downs will keep him useful. We're more worried about Atlanta's offensive line than their young backs.
6. Chicago Bears outside linebacker: Jared Allen vs. Willie Young vs. Lamarr Houston vs. Sam Acho
If you are going to dramatically change defensive schemes, you might as well have a ton of options to fit into new roles. Free agent pickup Pernell McPhee is locked into one starting job. Houston and Allen are both getting high-level starter money but Houston is coming off a torn ACL and Allen is best used as a part-time player. Young led the team with ten sacks last season and Acho showed potential on the outside in Arizona. Put them all together and this could be a solid group.
7. Minnesota Vikings wide receiver: Charles Johnson vs. Cordarelle Patterson
Johnson finished last season as Minnesota's best receiver, which makes Teddy Bridgewater's strong finish to the season even more impressive. Offensive coordinator Norv Turner called Johnson "far and away" the team's best receiver last year, which Patterson should have taken as a personal shot. With Mike Wallace in town, Adrian Peterson back, and Kyle Rudolph healthy, there will be fewer snaps to go around. That means Patterson, the 2013 first-round pick, needs to displace Johnson or be a part-time player.
8. Dallas Cowboys guard: La'el Collins vs. Ronald Leary
It's rare that a guard battle cracks a list like this, but it's also rare there is a starting battle on one of the best offensive lines we've seen in the last ten years. Collins has a high profile after his unfortunate drop from a first-round pick all the way out of May's draft. Collins' more natural position is tackle, but Leary still could be the underdog here. He's not as strong in pass protection.
9. Seattle Seahawks wide receiver
We admit that this wouldn't rank so high if it didn't include the two-time NFC champions and the former host of Hardball. Chris Matthews came out of nowhere to put up 109 yards in the Super Bowl, showing off his great ball skills. Jermaine Kearse is a solid role player but lacks upside. Ricardo Lockette, second-year player Kevin Norwood, and rookie Tyler Lockett are also in the mix for snaps. Doug Baldwin is the only sure thing here and he's best off playing in the slot, where Jimmy Graham will certainly help the passing attack.
10. Carolina Panthers defensive end: Kony Ealy vs. Frank Alexander vs. Mario Addison vs. Wes Horton
The Panthers could have one of the best defensive lines in football if they find a great tag-team partner to Charles Johnson at defensive end. Ron Rivera has plenty of options and has sounded particularly high on Alexander this offseason. This is a deep pass rush with great potential inside play from Kawann Shortt and Star Lotulelei. The Panthers have the makings of a deep rotation regardless.
11. Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver: Riley Cooper vs. Josh Huff vs. Miles Austin: Rookie Nelson Agholor and second-year pro Jordan Matthews should have big roles, leaving this motley crew to fight for outside snap scraps.
12. Minnesota Vikings cornerback: Trae Waynes vs. Terence Newman: Mike Zimmer's preference for veterans he knows over promising rookies gives Newman the early edge.
13. Green Bay Packers tight end: Andrew Quarless vs. Richard Rodgers: Rodgers has more potential as a receiver, and Quarless' arrest in July doesn't help his case. It's possible free agent Jermaine Gresham gets thrown into this mix.
14. Chicago Bears wide receiver: Kevin White vs. Marquess Wilson:Eddie Royal makes too much money not be locked into a role as the team's slot receiver. Wilson is the "starter" heading into camp, but we rank this battle low because White wasn't drafted to sit on the bench.
15. San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks: We could have also listed the entire 49ers offensive line, which is in flux. At cornerback, the team has Tramaine Brock, Shareece Wright, Jimmie Ward, Dontae Johnson, and Chris Cook all in the mix for an underwhelming group.
16. Panthers wide receiver: Devin Funchess vs. Jerricho Cotchery. Carolina would have the worst relay team of any receiver group, despite the return of Ted Ginn.
17. Saints inside linebacker: Stephone Anthony vs. Dannell Ellerbe vs. David Hawthorne. The Saints need their rookie class (Anthony) and their free agent/trade class (Ellerbe) to pan out to help their defense.
18. Ndamukong Suh's replacement: Most people believe that Haloti Ngata is taking Suh's place on Detroit's depleted defensive line. But there is a battle between Tyrunn Walker and Caraun Reid for a position that is going to be under a lot of pressure to make the Lions front office look smarter for allowing Suh to leave the building.
*The latest Around The NFL Podcast features the triumphant return of Dan Hanzus and discusses the biggest mysteries heading into training camp. *