NFL's biggest training camp battles at every position

Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Kenny Pickett (8) participates in organized team activities at UPMC Rooney Sports Complex. Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The NFL offseason is all about selling hope, which is why free agency and the draft are so important. Nothing can change a team's trajectory as much as adding talent during the offseason. .

Now, we are entering the hype season, where that hope can find a focus. Players are in the best shape of their lives. Medical procedures have been miraculously successful and will lead to career years. Practice against air is leading to some spectacular plays. The hype is in full bloom, but that means that meaningful training camps are just around the corner, and with them, position battles that will determine starting positions for teams throughout the league.

Which are the most important training camp battles to monitor? Here is a breakdown of the most important by position.

Quarterback:  Pittsburgh Steelers — Mitchell Trubisky vs. Kenny Pickett

The only first-round quarterback in this year’s draft, Pickett, will be starting sooner or later, but the Steelers gave themselves a runway by signing Trubisky from free agency. I wrote about whether Trubisky could realistically be expected to be much better with the Steelers than he was in Chicago, but earning the starting job likely has more to do with what Pittsburgh sees from Pickett.

The rookie was evidently seen as the only passer from this class who had a chance to start and succeed early, but there were some concerning elements to his college tape — chief among them was a 3.2-second average time to throw last season that settled at 3.08 seconds for his entire college career.

The longest average time to throw in the NFL last season was 3.2 seconds, and it’s a trait that typically gets worse initially for young quarterbacks. There’s a good chance that Pickett may hold onto the ball to an extreme degree when he first gets behind an offensive line that blocked for the league’s fastest average time to throw a season ago. That might be enough to buy Trubisky a little time as the starter, but if Pickett can surprise, the team has all the motivation in the world to elevate him to the starting job.

Alternatives: SeattleGeno Smith vs. Drew Lock | San FranciscoJimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance | CarolinaSam Darnold vs. Matt Corral

Running Back: Buffalo Bills Devin Singletary vs. Zack Moss vs. James Cook

Running back position battles aren’t what they used to be, as most of the NFL now employs some variety of committee approach to a position that used to be staffed by every-down bellcows wherever possible. On one hand, A.J. Dillon and Aaron Jones are in a battle for supremacy in Green Bay‘s backfield,  and on the other hand, we should expect to see both featured heavily and the exact way that the dynamic plays out is largely inconsequential.

Things are a little different in Buffalo however, where the team clearly felt that Cook brought something to the table that the teams wasn’t getting from Singletary or Moss. Bills general manager Brandon Beane talked about Cooks' run-after-the-catch skills, and Dalvin’s younger brother bears more than a passing resemblance to his Pro-Bowl brother. That resemblance gives Cook a chance to be better than his second-round pick status and take command of a greater portion of the available workload than was originally intended.

Alternatives: Tampa BayLeonard Fournette vs. Rachaad White vs. Ke’Shawn Vaughn | Dallas CowboysEzekiel Elliott vs. Tony Pollard | San Francisco — Elijah Mitchell vs. Tyrion Davis-Price vs Jeff Wilson vs. Trey Sermon

Wide Receiver: Green Bay Packers Christian Watson vs. Sammy Watkins vs Allen Lazard

The Packers spent so long trying to avoid going to the top of the market for Davante Adams that when they finally decided they were willing to go there, Adams wanted no part of it anymore. That left the Packers with a hole at a position that was already thin even with Adams on the roster, creating one of the biggest training camp battles in the NFL.

The good news is that each receiver has Aaron Rodgers throwing them the football, but the bad news is that the group is long on question marks. In a seven-year career, the only season that Watkins has played in every game was his rookie season. He hasn’t cleared 2.0 yards per route run since his career year back in 2015 and has just one season in the last four years with more than 55 targets. Watkins has No. 1 receiver traits, but that player may be long in the past.

Watson is another receiver who has some No. 1 trait — notably size and speed — but didn't run a full route tree at North Dakota State while displaying a borderline-problematic 13.4% drop rate during his college career. Watson’s 4.36-second 40-yard dash at 6-foot-4 and 208-pounds set pulses racing, but he has a lot of work to do to become a true primary option in this offense.

Lazard clearly has Rodgers' confidence as a target, but he might just not have the skills needed to be his No. 1 guy. Without Adams on the field, Lazard received a target on 20% of his routes and gained an elite 2.86 yards per route run. It’s an exceptionally small sample size, but it shows that without Adams, Rodgers defaults to Lazard as his primary target. That probably continues initially, but his lack of upside leaves the door open for somebody else to win a larger role.

Alternatives: Kansas City ChiefsMarquez Valdes-Scantling vs. Skyy Moore vs. Juju Smith-Schuster vs. Mecole Hardman | Dallas CowboysJalen Tolbert vs. James Washington

Tight End: Arizona Cardinals Zach Ertz vs. Maxx Williams vs. Trey McBride

The Cardinals traded for Ertz last season and immediately made him one of the most-featured tight ends in the league, as he averaged 7.2 targets per game for the Cardinals and was a huge part of the offense. Williams had been impressive before a knee injury ended his season, and the team brought both players back in free agency. The waters were muddied more when the Cardinals selected the top tight end in the draft, McBride. The Colorado State product's PFF grade improved in each of the last two seasons, culminating in a 95.0 receiving grade that saw him gain 2.78 yards per route run and over a third of the team’s receiving yards. McBride is a big time potential playmaker, but has two other quality tight ends to brush aside for playing time.

Alternatives: Cincinnati BengalsDrew Sample vs. Hayden Hurst | New York Jets — Tyler Conklin vs. C.J. Uzomah vs. Jeremy Ruckert

Offensive Line: Denver Broncos RT Tom Compton vs. Billy Turner vs. Calvin Anderson

The Broncos made one of the moves of the offseason when they traded for Russell Wilson to finally give them a new championship-caliber passer for the first time since Peyton Manning retired. Wilson should catapult the team immediately into a playoff contender, but the fewer weaknesses around him, the better. Right tackle is a question mark, but there will be a competition in the hope somebody can emerge and lock down the position.

Compton posted a career year in 2021 while filling in at right tackle for the San Francisco 49ers in Kyle Shanahan’s offensive line-friendly system. He played over 500 snaps for the team and recorded an 86.5 overall PFF grade — over 15 grading points better than his previous career best. He allowed 18 pressures from 304 pass-blocking snaps, but it would be wise to expect a major regression in a different offense.

Turner started the last three years in Green Bay across multiple positions, and his play at right tackle was solid overall, giving Denver a pretty solid floor of play. Anderson has just over 300 career snaps to his name, and has flashed some improvement over that time. He might be the underdog of the group, but there is potential for him to continue his development and challenge for playing time.

Alternatives: Dallas Cowboys — LG Tyler Smith vs. Connor McGovernTennessee Titans — RT Dillon Radunz vs. Nicholas Petit-Frere

Edge Rusher: Detroit Lions Aidan Hutchinson vs. Charles Harris vs Romeo Okwara vs. Josh Paschal

Edge rusher has become another position where depth and rotation is important, so the actual pecking order for a group that may all get significant playing time can be a pointless exercise, but the Lions have a very interesting group in the midst of their rebuilding project on defense. Their top pick, Hutchinson, will have the inside track to a starting role, but Harris was brought back in the offseason after a breakout 2021 campaign. A former first-round pick in his own right (albeit 22nd overall, not second overall), Harris recorded 52 pressures for Detroit last season — 18 more than his previous career high. His 78.7 PFF pass-rushing grade was a career-best by more than 10 grading points. Harris will be firmly in the mix for a lot of snaps to see if he can back that performance up.

Before Harris and Hutchinson, Okwara had been the biggest hope for pressure, as he posted 66 pressures in 2020 before playing just four games last year. 

Hutchinson isn’t the only rookie looking to make an impact, as Paschal also brings plenty of college production to the table. Paschal posted a 90.2 overall PFF grade this past season, and he was particularly effective against the run, giving him an avenue to playing time even if he isn’t the best pass-rusher of the group. Romeo’s brother, Julian Okwara, is also in the mix. 

This is a talented group of rushers and if things improve elsewhere on the defense, they could platoon to be a formidable unit.

Alternatives: Arizona CardinalsMarkus Golden vs. Cameron Thomas vs. Myjai Sanders | Houston TexansJonathan Greenard vs. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo vs. Jerry Hughes vs. Mario Addison

Interior Defensive Line: Buffalo Bills DaQuan Jones vs. Tim Settle vs. Jordan Phillips

If we assume Ed Oliver has a starting spot and a healthy volume of playing time locked up because he is stylistically unique among the Bills interior linemen, there is a significant battle brewing for the playing time outside of Oliver’s snaps.  Buffalo’s run defense certainly had use for an upgrade up the middle, and the team focused on big, run-stuffing interior linemen this offseason.

Settle’s overall PFF grade has improved each season of his NFL career, but on a stacked Washington defense, he was only able to acumulate 1,023 snaps in four years. Settle still has youth on his side — he is just about to turn 25 years old — and has very little wear and tear after being kept so fresh. He has a chance to be a breakout player if he can show well in training camp.

Jones has posted solid PFF grades virtually every season of his career, and his run defense performances are even better than that. That run defense performance has been heading in the wrong direction over the last couple of years, but he still has the inside track for the starting spot until somebody else can unseat him.

Phillips had Bills fans excited with a 10-sack season a couple of years ago, but those 10 sacks represented more than a third of his total pressures that season and were never a good representation of his performance, as 54.4 and 62.7 overall PFF grades since then have shown a player with a much lower ceiling than that. He’ll have his work cut out to unseat either Jones or Settle.

Alternatives: Dallas CowboysNeville Gallimore vs. Carlos Watkins vs. Osa Odighizuwa vs. Trysten Hill | Cleveland BrownsJordan Elliott vs. Taven Bryan vs Sheldon Day vs. Tommy Togiai vs. Perrion Winfrey

Linebacker: Philadelphia Eagles Davion Taylor vs. Nakobe Dean vs. Kyzir White

These three linebackers aren’t all in an interchangeable competition, but rather, the two veterans are likely battling to keep the rookie on the sideline, as Dean will attempt to earn the bulk of the starting snaps as the second linebacker next to T.J. Edwards. Last season, two Eagles linebackers played over 700 snaps, and the next-highest figure was 387. Dean has a well-rounded skill set, and the capacity to be Philadelphia's second starter.

Dean slipped in the draft due to concerns about his medical status, size and perhaps even speed. His tape though speaks for itself. Georgia had one of the best defenses that college football has ever seen, with high NFL draft picks all over the place, but Dean was the best-graded player on the unit. His 91.8 overall PFF grade was higher than any other defender on the unit, and 1.5 grading points higher than Georgia's next-best defender — first-round pick Devonte Wyatt

History shows that there is often a reason players slide as far as they do in the draft, so it’s by no means a sure thing that Dean comes in and proves the rest of the league wrong. He is going to have to earn that second starting place by outperforming veterans in camp.

Alternatives: New England PatriotsMack Wilson vs. Ja’Whaun Bentley vs. Jahlani Tavai vs. Harvey Langi | Atlanta FalconsDeion Jones vs Rashaan Evans vs. Troy Andersen vs. Mykal Walker

Cornerback: New England Patriots Jalen Mills vs. Malcolm Butler vs. Terrance Mitchell vs. Marcus Jones

The Patriots let J.C. Jackson walk in the offseason in a classic example of the team being unwilling to pay big bucks to retain one of its better players. Patriots head coach Bill Belichick has an outstanding track record of being proven right in those situations over the last 20 years, but it leaves the New England cornerback depth chart thin. Mills and Mitchell were the presumed starters, but the team has added Butler and Jones as competition.

Jones has phenomenal college tape, but at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds, he is battling against a weight of history to even play on the outside as opposed to being immediately labeled a slot corner-only at this level. Jones allowed just 48.0% of passes thrown his way to be caught last season and finished his college career with 88.9 and 87.4 PFF coverage grades.

Butler is another example of a player who never matched what he did in New England once he left Belichick’s defense. His PFF coverage grade never came within 10 grading points of his 2016 career high (86.9).

Alternatives: Minnesota VikingsPatrick Peterson vs. Cameron Dantzler vs. Andrew Booth Jr. | Arizona CardinalsBreon Borders vs. Marco Wilson vs Josh Jackson vs. Nate Brooks

Safety: Cincinnati Bengals Daxton Hill vs. Vonn Bell

Hill was a curious draft pick in the first round — not because he isn’t a fine player, but because there wasn’t an obvious need for Cincinnati at safety, where most people projected him to play in the NFL.

Hill is talented and versatile enough to potentially fit anywhere in the Bengals secondary, but if they are sticking to the most common projection, then he has a fight to unseat Bell, who has back-to-back seasons with a PFF grade above 70 in Cincinnati. Bell has graded well in all facets of the game and has been an excellent complement to Jessie Bates in the Bengals secondary. 

Alternatives: New York JetsLamarcus Joyner vs. Jason Pinnock


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