Three 2021 NFL training camp battles to watch for every NFC team | NFL News, Rankings and Statistics | PFF

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Three 2021 NFL training camp battles to watch for every NFC team

Lake Forest, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bears quarterbacks Justin Fields (1) and Andy Dalton (14) talk to each other during organized team activities at Halas Hall. Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Career trajectories will be altered over the next month, whether that be quarterbacks entrenched in a competition for a starting job or depth pieces battling for a place on the 53-man roster come Week 1 of the 2021 NFL season. Training camp, which begins on July 27 for 29 of 32 teams, will kick off those competitions in earnest.

Here is a brief look at three training camp battles of note for every NFC team, ranging from rookies Justin Fields and Trey Lance attempting to unseat veterans at quarterback to the competition that will decide the final roster spots at wide receiver on a loaded Tampa Bay Buccaneers receiving corps.

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NFC East

Dallas Cowboys

Three-technique: Neville Gallimore vs. Trysten Hill vs. Osa Odighizuwa

Free agent acquisition Brent Urban is considered the favorite to man the one-technique spot in Dallas next season. There’s less clarity at the three-technique, though. Gallimore and Hill are the incumbents, but they earned just 52.1 and 33.8 PFF grades, respectively, during the 2020 season. That could provide an opportunity for playing time for Odighizuwa, the highest-graded interior defensive lineman at the Senior Bowl back in January.

Tight end: Blake Jarwin vs. Dalton Schultz

Jarwin signed a four-year, $22 million contract with Dallas last offseason, only to have the first season on that contract last just 25 snaps. Schultz took advantage of his new starting role by bringing in 63 passes for 615 yards and four touchdowns — higher raw receiving totals than Jarwin has posted in a single season in his four-year career. At the least, that performance makes for a training camp competition between Jarwin (64.2 career receiving grade) and Schultz (63.9 career receiving grade).

No. 2 Outside Cornerback: Anthony Brown vs. Kelvin Joseph vs. Nahshon Wright

Cowboys outside cornerbacks combined to allow a 116.9 passer rating on throws into their coverage last season, beating out only the Jacksonville Jaguars (118.7) and Philadelphia Eagles (117.5). Trevon Diggs, who was part of that group, enters training camp as the clear top option outside, with Dallas hoping his improved play later in the season carries over into 2021. Brown (54.6 PFF grade in 2020) is the favorite to start the year opposite Diggs, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the two rookies push him in camp and as the season progresses.

New York Giants

Wide receiver: Sterling Shepard vs. Darius Slayton vs. Kadarius Toney

The Giants didn’t offer Kenny Golladay a four-year, $72 million contract for him to sit on the sideline. That leaves Shepard, Slayton and first-rounder Toney to compete for snaps behind him on an offense that also features two starting-caliber tight ends — Evan Engram and Kyle Rudolph.

Chicago, Illinois, USA; New York Giants wide receiver Sterling Shepard (87) practices before the game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. Credit: Mike Dinovo-USA TODAY Sports

Toney stands out as the dynamic after-the-catch threat that this wide receiver group is missing, coming off a college career in which he set the record for forced missed tackles per reception by a Power Five wideout. But he’ll need a strong training camp and preseason to unseat the incumbent starters, Shepard (slot) and Slayton (wide).

Edge rusher: Lorenzo Carter vs. Oshane Ximines vs. Ifeadi Odenigbo vs. Azeez Ojulari vs. Elerson Smith

New York got next to no pass-rush contribution from its outside linebackers last season. Kyler Fackrell led that group in total pressures at 19, which tied for 79th among all edge defenders in the NFL. Carter tearing his Achilles in Week 5 contributed to the lack of impact from the group overall, and he returns as one of the favorites to regain a starting job in 2021.

The Giants will hope second-round pick Ojulari can make an instant impact, as well. The PFF Draft Guide called him “one of the most advanced pass rushers in the class” after his 91.7 pass-rush grade last season at Georgia.

Right tackle: Matt Peart vs. Nate Solder

The Athletic’s Dan Duggan noted the following in a July mailbag: “Offensive line is a question mark as far as performance, but it looks like the starting five is set: LT Andrew Thomas, LG Shane Lemieux, C Nick Gates, RG Will Hernandez, RT Matt Peart.”

That indicates New York will give the first chance at the starting job to the second-year tackle out of UConn. Peart was impressive as a run blocker in his 150 offensive snaps last season (81.7 run-blocking grade), but he struggled in pass protection alongside the rest of the offensive line (46.9 pass-blocking grade). Solder gives the Giants a veteran to turn to should Peart struggle as the starter, even if the 33-year-old is two years removed from quality play at tackle.

Philadelphia Eagles

Left tackle: Andre Dillard vs. Jordan Mailata

The first two years of Dillard’s career have not gone according to plan since Philadelphia made him a first-round pick in 2019. Dillard had several rough outings in spot start duty as a rookie behind Jason Peters, only to miss out on a potential full-time starting role in 2020 due to injury.

Mailata wasn’t the next man up at left tackle, but Philadelphia’s offensive line needed quite a few players over the course of the season. Mailata’s impressive showing across over 700 offensive snaps in 2020 (70.3 overall grade) makes for an intriguing battle between him and Dillard this offseason.

No. 2 cornerback: Avonte Maddox vs. the field

The Eagles’ cornerback situation behind Darius Slay, whose play left much to be desired in itself last season, is dire. Maddox is the longest tenured player on the roster, with three seasons under his belt in Philadelphia, but he’s coming off a disappointing 2020 campaign (37.8 PFF grade). It’s still difficult to see Maddox not starting either out wide or in the slot given the lack of alternative options. Zech McPhearson, a fourth-round rookie out of Texas Tech, will also have an opportunity to contribute immediately. Like Maddox, he can bounce between the slot and outside alignments.

Backup running back: Boston Scott vs. Kenneth Gainwell vs. Kerryon Johnson

Despite some injuries, Miles Sanders has logged over twice as many offensive snaps as any other Eagles running back since 2019. There’s no reason to expect that to change in 2021, but there is some competition for snaps behind him.

Scott has given Philadelphia solid play in that role over the past two seasons, particularly as a receiving outlet (80.1 receiving grade since 2019). He’s also currently projected for the most production (478 combined rushing and receiving yards) of any Eagles running back behind Sanders in PFF’s fantasy projections. Johnson is a name to watch if healthy, though. He earned an 80.2 PFF grade as a rookie in 2018 but has been hampered by injuries throughout his career.

Washington Football Team

Right Tackle: Cornelius Lucas vs. Samuel Cosmi

For about a week, it seemed as if Washington’s starting tackle duo was set after the team signed Charles Leno Jr. to man left tackle opposite Morgan Moses. But Moses' release opened up another battle.

Per The Athletic’s Rhiannon Walker, head coach Ron Rivera said the following of the battle: “We do want (Cosmi) on the field, but we will put him on the field when we get him there, when he earns that opportunity. Lucas is a guy that we’re taking a nice, hard look at.”

It would seemingly take an impressive camp from Cosmi to start over Lucas, who earned a career-high 78.9 PFF grade in over 600 snaps at left tackle for Washington last season.

Strong Safety: Landon Collins vs. Kamren Curl

Seventh-round rookies aren’t supposed to provide the kind of immediate impact that Curl did last season for Washington, finishing the year as the 35th-most valuable safety in the NFL, according to PFF’s Wins Above Replacement metric. That has created a (good) problem for the Football Team. They now have multiple candidates for the starting strong safety job.

Collins has the benefit of a contract that pays out $12.5 million in guaranteed money this season, but he is still working his way back from an Achilles injury. It will be difficult for Rivera to simply hand the starting job back to Collins if Curl continues to prove he deserves it this offseason.

No. 3 Wide Receiver: Dyami Brown vs. Adam Humphries

When healthy, Humphries has been a reliable slot option. He dropped just five of 149 catchable targets over the past three seasons, but his health hasn’t been nearly as reliable as his hands. Humphries managed just over 600 total snaps in Tennessee after signing a four-year, $36 million contract before the 2019 season.

Ashburn, Virginia, USA; Washington Football Team wide receiver Dyami Brown (2) carries the ball during an OTA at Inova Sports Performance Center. Credit: Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports

Brown winning the No. 3 job would give Washington’s offense more flexibility to cycle Curtis Samuel and Terry McLaurin into the slot. It would also put another vertical threat on the field, with Brown coming off two consecutive 20-yard-per-reception seasons at North Carolina.

NFC South

Atlanta Falcons

Left guard: Josh Andrews vs. Jalen Mayfield vs. Matt Gono vs. Drew Dalman

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s D. Orlando Ledbetter reported in early June that Andrews was the offseason leader to win the starting left guard job. That was echoed by The Athletic’s Tori McElhaney later in the month.

In an ideal world, someone beats out Andrews before the 2021 season. The 30-year-old has 410 career offensive snaps, most of which came last season in New York when he earned an 18.1 pass-blocking grade. Gono was expected to be in the mix, but there remains little news on his recent surgery. That potentially leaves only Mayfield and Dalman as competitors, both of whom will also be working at different positions along the offensive line.

No. 2 edge defender: Steven Means vs. Jacob Tuioti-Mariner vs. Adetokunbo Ogundeji

Atlanta was thin at edge defender before releasing Barkevious Mingo. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Falcons target a veteran still available in free agency, but Means, Tuioti-Mariner and Ogundeji are the only viable options to start opposite Dante Fowler Jr. at outside linebacker as things stand. The 32-year-old Means is the most experienced of that group, even with 2020 being the first season in his career playing over 200 defensive snaps (62.2 pass-rushing grade). Regardless of who wins this competition, the Falcons need more out of Fowler in 2021.

Cornerback: Fabian Moreau vs. Isaiah Oliver vs. Kendall Sheffield

A.J. Terrell’s rookie performance (60.8 PFF grade) last season was far from disastrous, particularly given the struggles of the 2020 cornerback draft class overall. He enters next season as Atlanta’s clear No. 1 on the depth chart. The other two starting jobs are up for grabs, though. Moreau seems to have the inside track to start opposite Terrell outside, leaving Oliver and Sheffield to battle for playing time after slow starts to their NFL careers. Neither Oliver nor Sheffield has earned a coverage grade above 55.0 since 2019.

Carolina Panthers

Left tackle: Cam Erving vs. Trent Scott vs. Greg Little

Rookie tackle Brady Christensen has played primarily on the right side so far this offseason, per a recent interview with Alaina Getzenberg of the Charlotte Observer, indicating he’s not in the left tackle competition. That leaves an underwhelming group battling for the starting job.

Erving, a first-round pick in 2015, can’t point to lack of opportunities as the reason for his lack of success to this point. His 44.4 PFF grade since 2018 ranks dead last among 151 offensive linemen to play at least 1,500 offensive snaps. Yet, it would seem he has another good chance at a starting job now in Carolina.

No. 3 wide receiver: Terrace Marshall Jr. vs. David Moore

Moore has been a serviceable third option in Seattle over the past three seasons, grading between 64.0 and 68.0 all three years. But Marshall brings more physically to the table than Moore with his combination of size, speed and catch radius. He earned an 81.1 receiving grade last season, taking over as the primary slot target in LSU’s offense. PFF’s fantasy projections currently project Marshall for 41 receptions and 543 receiving yards, while Moore sits at 32 receptions and 401 yards.

No. 3 cornerback : A.J. Bouye vs. Rashaan Melvin

Bouye has played just 253 of his 5,102 career defensive snaps from the slot. Yet, that appears to be where his path to the field is in Carolina due to Donte Jackson and Jaycee Horn expected to start outside. The Athletic’s Joseph Person reported that defensive coordinator Phil Snow told Bouye he’s needed at nickel back. Bouye is therefore favorite to start in the slot, but he’ll also miss the first two games of the season due to a PED suspension. Melvin, who earned a 55.3 PFF grade with the Lions back in 2019, will also compete for snaps behind Jackson and Horn.

New Orleans Saints

Quarterback: Jameis Winston vs. Taysom Hill

The Saints enter the 2021 season without Drew Brees as their starting quarterback for the first time since PFF began charting plays in 2006. Winston gives head coach Sean Payton a more traditional quarterback option, albeit one who is very different stylistically from Brees. Winston’s 10.8-yard average depth of target since 2015 leads all qualifying quarterbacks, while Brees’ 7.4-yard average beat out only Alex Smith.

Hill’s athleticism could create an interesting rushing attack with a top-five offensive line and Alvin Kamara and Latavius Murray in the backfield. But Hill is nearly 30 years old with fewer than 200 NFL dropbacks to his name and more turnover-worthy plays (eight) than big-time throws (five) in his four-year NFL career.

No. 2 cornerback: Paulson Adebo vs. the field

The Saints have been tied to several veteran free agent cornerbacks to fill the starting job opposite Marshon Lattimore, but none of those rumors have led to a signing. That leaves Adebo to battle off the likes of Patrick Robinson, Ken Crawley and 2020 undrafted free agent Keith Washington Jr. for the position. It would be concerning if Adebo, who opted out of the 2020 college football season, didn’t win that job. His length and ball skills helped lead to 80.0-plus coverage grades in both 2018 and 2019 at Stanford.

No. 2 off-ball linebacker: Zack Baun vs. Pete Werner

Baun enters this competition with a one-year experience advantage in New Orleans, but there’s still work to be done in terms of transitioning to off-ball linebacker after playing primarily on the edge at Wisconsin. Baun saw just 102 defensive snaps as a rookie in 2020, 87 of which came in an edge defender alignment.

He mentioned in a press conference this offseason that he feels much more comfortable entering his second season.

Still, Werner may have a leg up to stay on the field in nickel with his size, athleticism and off-ball experience at Ohio State. Werner tallied nearly 2,000 defensive snaps for the Buckeyes over the past three seasons.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Running back: Leonard Fournette vs. Ronald Jones

This battle is for the early-down work, with Giovani Bernard expected to take on the lead receiving role out of the backfield. And in terms of strictly running the ball, Jones was the more effective back last season. Jones’ 84.7 rushing grade in 2020 ranked sixth among running backs with at least 100 attempts on the year, while Fournette’s 70.9 grade ranked 36th out of 49 qualifiers.

It appears to be an open competition. Head coach Bruce Arians said the following of Jones and Fournette in a June interview: “Both those guys are starters in my mind. Whoever goes out first doesn’t really matter to me. But that will be determined in camp.”

Backup wide receivers: Scotty Miller vs. Tyler Johnson vs. Justin Watson vs. Jaelon Darden vs. Jaydon Mickens

Wide receiver might just be the deepest position on Tampa Bay’s roster, which should lead to interesting competitions throughout camp for roster spots. Miller and Johnson seem the most secure of this bunch. Both made some plays when called upon in 2020. The rookie Darden’s ability as a returner may also give him a leg up in making the roster, but that doesn’t mean he will be limited to return work. Darden is coming off a monstrous final season at North Texas, where he averaged over four receiving yards per route run. He has the speed and quicks to make an impact early on, even in a limited role.

Mickens recently being charged with two misdemeanors stemming from a March gun arrest doesn’t help his cause.

Tight end: Rob Gronkowski vs. O.J. Howard vs. Cameron Brate

Tampa Bay’s wealth of receiving riches doesn’t end at wide receiver. There are three starting-caliber tight ends once again on the roster entering the 2021 season. Gronkowski still serves as a big target who can come down with contested balls, even if he’s lost a step. His 78.4 receiving grade in 2020 was actually higher than his receiving grade in 2018 (78.0). Howard is the wild card of the group. He was out to an impressive start to the 2020 season (80.1 PFF grade) before injuries once again got in the way of a potential breakout.  

NFC West

Arizona Cardinals

Running back: Chase Edmonds vs. James Conner

Both Edmonds and Conner have something to prove entering 2021.

Edmonds will be looking to show that he can serve as a lead back after earning a 69.2 PFF grade in just over 500 offensive snaps in a timeshare with Kenyan Drake last season. Edmonds graded significantly better as a receiver (77.0) than as a runner (62.6) on the year.

Conner will be looking to remain healthy and show that he can be an elusive, three-down back. Since 2018, Conner ranks in the 68th percentile among qualifying running backs in missed tackles forced per carry and the 96th percentile in missed tackles forced per reception.

Right guard: Justin Murray vs. Brian Winters vs. Josh Jones vs. Max Garcia

Murray was the Cardinals’ starting right tackle back in 2019, moving inside to start six games at right guard last season (59.5 PFF grade). He’s likely the favorite to earn the starting job again alongside Kelvin Beachum at right tackle, but Winters, Jones and Garcia will look to put the pressure on Murray. Winters has logged over 5,000 career snaps at guard (63.4 career grade) with New York and Buffalo, and Jones was a PFF favorite coming out of Houston at tackle. He earned a 93.4 overall grade in his final season with Houston back in 2019.

No. 3 cornerback: Robert Alford vs. Darqueze Dennard vs. rookies

Cornerback is the most concerning positional group on Arizona’s roster entering next season. Malcolm Butler and Byron Murphy figure to be the team’s top two cornerbacks, whether Murphy ends up outside or in the slot again.

Glendale, Arizona, USA; Arizona Cardinals cornerback Robert Alford (23) during training camp at State Farm Stadium. Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Alford last played in 2018 due to back-to-back season-ending injuries in the offseason, but he had several solid years in Atlanta prior to that stretch, highlighted by a 76.7 PFF grade in 2017. Dennard has lined up primarily in the slot during his career but played the majority of his snaps outside for the first time in 2020. Rookies Tay Gowan and Marco Wilson round out the potential starting candidates. Gowan was PFF’s eighth-ranked cornerback in last year’s draft.

Los Angeles Rams

No. 2 outside linebacker: Terrell Lewis vs. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo vs. Justin Hollins

In an ideal world, Lewis remains healthy and takes control of this starting job with ease. He’s the most talented candidate to replace Samson Ebukam after earning a 71.4 PFF grade on just over 100 total defensive snaps as a rookie. The problem is that a clean bill of health is far from a given for Lewis. His career-high in snaps at Alabama was just 483 in 2019, and lingering knee issues sidetracked his rookie campaign in 2020. Injuries have been a factor for Okoronkwo, as well. Health figures to play a significant role in this competition.

Inside linebacker: Micah Kiser vs. Troy Reeder vs. Ernest Jones vs. Kenny Young

Kiser and Young return after winning the starting linebacker jobs last offseason. Kiser posted a 40.0 PFF grade before going down with injury in 2020, while Young finished the season with a 38.1 overall grade. Clearly, there is room for competition, and the rookie Jones is the primary name to watch in that competition. His ability to stack blockers and consistency as a tackler should both be positives against the run for one of the weaker linebacker units across the NFL.

No. 3 wide receiver: DeSean Jackson vs. Van Jefferson vs. Tutu Atwell

The Rams clearly emphasized adding speed at wide receiver this offseason with the additions of Jackson and Atwell.

It’s not difficult to see a healthy Jackson, even at 34 years old, being a big part of this offense. Matthew Stafford said of his new deep threat Jackson back in May, “I mean, he can still run, I know that. He can still go.”

That has been evident over the past two seasons despite all the missed time due to injury. In just 245 offensive snaps since 2019, Jackson is one of nine wide receivers to record at least three receiving touchdowns of 50-plus yards. His experience and the big-play threat he still provides could give Jackson a leg up on Jefferson and Atwell in the competition.

San Francisco 49ers

Quarterback: Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance

Lance will join Justin Fields and Mac Jones as a first-round quarterback selection looking to prove he doesn’t need any adjustment period and is ready to start Week 1.

His athleticism and success in the designed run game at North Dakota State open up additional possibilities for Kyle Shanahan as a play-caller — a point going in Lance’s favor. However, San Francisco may decide that it wants to take things slowly with Lance, who averaged just 18 pass attempts per game in his lone starting season against FCS competition. The 49ers offense ranked seventh in expected points added per play with Garoppolo at the helm in 2019. He’s capable of success with a strong supporting cast.

No. 3 wide receiver: Mohamed Sanu vs. Jauan Jennings vs. Richie James Jr.

It feels like a long time ago that Sanu was traded for a second-round pick. He may no longer look like the guy who warranted that kind of return back in 2019, but he does appear to have a good opportunity to fill the void left by Kendrick Bourne’s departure, having reunited with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco.

Jennings is an intriguing candidate to earn a role on this offense, as well. The seventh-round selection in 2020 didn’t see any playing time as a rookie, thanks in part to a hamstring injury that landed him on injured reserve. But he projected as a good fit in San Francisco’s offense after forcing 30 missed tackles after the catch in his final season at Tennessee.

One-technique: D.J. Jones vs. Zach Kerr

Jones has manned this role for San Francisco the past few years, and the 49ers decided to bring him back on a one-year deal to compete for the job again in 2021. But Kerr, another free agent signing, represents legitimate competition for the job. He’s coming off a career-high 84.1 PFF grade on the Carolina Panthers’ defensive line in 2020. Kerr has earned grades of at least 70.0 against the run in five of the last six seasons — a threshold that Jones has yet to clear in his four-year career.

Seattle Seahawks

No. 1 tight end: Gerald Everett vs. Will Dissly

Both Everett and Dissly will be looking to post career years in 2021 after facing several roadblocks to begin their respective careers.

Opportunity has been a limiting factor for Everett, who split time the last few seasons with Tyler Higbee in Los Angeles. He is coming off a down 2020 season but ranked in the 77th percentile of qualifying tight ends in receiving grade across the 2018 and 2019 seasons. For Dissly, the problem has been injuries. He is only now getting back to full health after back-to-back season-ending injuries in 2018 and 2019. He ranks in the 85th percentile of qualifying tight ends in receiving yards per route run over the past three seasons.

Outside cornerback: Ahkello Witherspoon vs. D.J. Reed Jr. vs. Tre Flowers vs. Pierre Desir vs. Tre Brown

Witherspoon is the favorite to be the No. 1 cornerback after several up and down years in San Francisco. That tenure ended on a high note, with Witherspoon earning three straight game grades north of 75.0 to close out the 2020 season. Reed also showed some good things down the stretch last season in Seattle. He finished the year worth nearly half of a win more than a replacement-level player, per PFF WAR. That led all cornerbacks on the team, including Shaquill Griffin. Those two should get the first opportunity as starters, but their spots are far from secure.

Nickel: Marquise Blair vs. Ugo Amadi

The starting nickel job will also be open for competition between Blair (who started the 2020 season in the slot) and Amadi (who took over for Blair following his injury). Amadi actually performed well in relief last season, but there’s a reason Blair won the job entering the 2020 season. The former second-round pick was very impressive in limited action as a rookie (78.5 overall grade), and Seattle likely wants to get him on the field alongside Jamal Adams and Quandre Diggs at safety.

NFC North

Chicago Bears

Quarterback: Justin Fields vs. Andy Dalton

There are a number of things that point to the idea that Fields should be the starting quarterback in Week 1. He put up back-to-back PFF grades of at least 90.0 as Ohio State’s starting quarterback, becoming the most accurate quarterback PFF has ever charted in the process. His high-end physical tools only add to the mystery of why he fell outside the top 10 in the 2021 NFL Draft.

However, the Bears have stuck to the story that Dalton is the starter. “There’s so many things that can happen between today and that Week 1, but Andy is our starter and Justin’s out No. 2. And we’re going to stick to this plan,” head coach Matt Nagy said of the situation in June on The Cris Collinsworth Podcast.

No. 3 wide receiver: Anthony Miller vs. Marquise Goodwin vs. Damiere Byrd vs. Dazz Newsome

Miller has failed to live up to the expectations he set after posting seven receiving touchdowns as a rookie in 2018. The frustrations with the former second-round pick led to trade talks surrounding Miller earlier this offseason. A trade appears less likely as the season nears, but that doesn’t guarantee Miller the No. 3 receiver role behind Allen Robinson and Darnell Mooney.

Detroit, Michigan, USA; Chicago Bears wide receiver Anthony Miller (17) makes the game winning touchdown reception against Detroit Lions cornerback Tony McRae (34) during the fourth quarter at Ford Field. Credit: Raj Mehta-USA TODAY Sports

Goodwin and Byrd would both provide some additional speed to the starting lineup, and Newsome could provide an after-the-catch spark. Newsome broke at least 14 tackles in each of the past three seasons at North Carolina.

No. 2 outside cornerback: Desmond Trufant vs. Kindle Vildor vs. Artie Burns

Let’s assume that Jaylon Johnson takes a step forward as the team’s top cornerback in his second season out of Utah. The cornerback position would still have questions entering the 2021 season thanks to the release of Kyle Fuller. The Bears signed Trufant after a disastrous 2020 season in Detroit that was marked by missed time due to injury and poor play when on the field (38.4 PFF grade). Another injury or any sign that Trufant isn’t the same consistent presence that he was in Atlanta could open the door for Vildor or Burns. Vildor is competing for snaps both in the slot and out wide.

Detroit Lions

Interior defensive line: Levi Onwuzurike vs. Da’Shawn Hand vs. Nick Williams

A new coaching staff in Detroit means a new 3-4 base defense, with Trey Flowers and Romeo Okwara moving to outside linebacker, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press. Michael Brockers figures to be one of the ends in that base defense, but there will be some competition at the other spot.

Onwuzurike would bring some explosiveness to the position but he needs to string together dominant reps more consistently at the NFL level than he did at Washington. Hand, arguably Onwuzurike’s biggest competition for a starting job, hasn’t been able to replicate his strong rookie performance in 2018 (85.2 PFF grade).

No. 2 outside cornerback: Amani Oruwariye vs. Quinton Dunbar

There is plenty to like about Detroit “buying low” on Dunbar with a one-year contract worth less than $1 million. He’s coming off a rough year in Seattle in 2020, but Dunbar is just one year removed from an 87.6 PFF grade in Washington. He’ll compete against Oruwariye for the starting job opposite Jeffrey Okudah. Oruwariye showed some promise as a rookie but struggled alongside the rest of the Lions' secondary in 2020 as a full-time starter (50.4 overall grade).

Safety: Will Harris vs. Dean Marlowe

Assuming Tracy Walker is Detroit's top safety, the other starting safety job is up for grabs between Harris and Marlowe. Harris has done little with the opportunities he’s been given the past two years (51.9 PFF grade), while Marlowe simply didn't have much opportunity in Buffalo. The Lions’ free agent acquisition was buried on the Bills depth chart behind Micah Hyde and Jordan Poyer, but few teams provided a better chance for Marlowe to crack the starting rotation than Detroit. He played between 50 and 100 defensive snaps in the box, slot and deep alignments last year for the Bills.

Green Bay Packers

Right guard: Lucas Patrick vs. Jon Runyan Jr.

Green Bay’s offensive line still has some moving parts that need to be pinned down ahead of the 2021 season, centering around whether David Bakhtiari will be available Week 1. The most likely starting lineup configuration with Bakhtiari in place at left tackle is Elgton Jenkins at left guard, rookie Josh Myers at center, Billy Turner at right tackle and either Patrick or Runyan at right guard. The Athletic’s Matt Schneidman projected in June that Patrick has the edge in that competition, coming off a 66.9 PFF grade at primarily right guard in 2020.

No. 2 edge rusher: Rashan Gary vs. Preston Smith

Gary closed ground on Smith in Green Bay’s edge rotation last year. He played over 500 defensive snaps in 2020 after seeing just 256 defensive snaps as a rookie. Gary also outproduced Smith in that time on the field, recording a 65.9 pass-rushing grade that was over 10 points higher than the six-year veteran’s mark. The question now becomes whether Gary can continue that upward trajectory and surpass Smith in playing time this season.

No. 2 outside cornerback: Kevin King vs. Eric Stokes

The Packers decided to bring back King on a one-year deal this offseason, and it’s safe to assume he’ll enter training camp as the favorite to keep his starting job opposite Jaire Alexander. But King could be hooked quickly if he continues to play at the level he did in 2020 (45.6 coverage grade). Green Bay drafted Stokes in the first round to eventually step into a starting role outside following three consecutive seasons at Georgia with a PFF grade of 70.0 or higher.

Minnesota Vikings

No. 3 wide receiver: Chad Beebe vs. Olabisi Johnson vs. Ihmir Smith-Marsette

Barring injury, the winner of this competition will have a smaller impact than the No. 3 wide receiver on nearly every other NFL team given how often Minnesota turns to heavier personnel packages. The Vikings ran a league-high 676 offensive plays with two or fewer wide receivers during the 2020 regular season.

Beebe and Johnson are the returning candidates, while Smith-Marsette looks to earn playing time as both a returner and receiver. Smith-Marsette’s production was limited by his quarterback play at Iowa, but he has the kind of speed that can challenge defenses downfield.

No. 2 defensive end: Stephen Weatherly vs. D.J. Wonnum vs. Jalyn Holmes

Minnesota’s defensive line is in a much better place entering the 2021 season than where it finished 2020.  The return of Danielle Hunter and Michael Pierce from injury and opt out, respectively, and the additions of Dalvin Tomlinson and Sheldon Richardson should elevate the unit. However, the starting edge spot opposite Hunter is still a question mark.

Weatherly returns following one season in Carolina. He ranks in the 10th percentile of all qualifying edge defenders in pass-rush win rate since 2018. Unfortunately for Minnesota, Holmes ranks in the first percentile in the same metric. Wonnum or one of two recent draftees, Patrick Jones II and Janarius Robinson, may end up being the best option.

Cornerback: Cameron Dantzler vs. Patrick Peterson vs. Bashaud Breeland

The two starting jobs outside will come down to the competition between these three with at least a suspension looming for Jeff Gladney and Mackensie Alexander the favorite to start in the slot.

Dantzler put together an impressive rookie season with several big performances late in the year, ending the 2020 season with a 70.9 PFF grade. Dantzler and Peterson, who will look to revive his career on a defense that doesn’t utilize as much man coverage as Arizona’s, are the favorites to start. Breeland should factor in the competition, though. He’s coming off a solid 2020 season in Kansas City (69.4 coverage grade).


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