NFL News & Analysis

2017 Training Camp Battles: AFC

BEREA, OH - MAY 12: DeShone Kizer #7 of the Cleveland Browns in action during the team's rookie camp at the Cleveland Browns Training Facility on May 12, 2017 in Berea, Ohio. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Yesterday, we kicked off our NFL training camp coverage with intriguing position battles from the NFC. Today, we feature the AFC and the namesake battles across the country that will take place during training camp:

AFC East

  • Right tackle appears to be the biggest position battle for the Buffalo Bills ahead of training camp. The current projected starter is Jordan Mills who started all 16 games there last season, but his production wasn’t great. His spot is under jeopardy after the Bills selected Temple T Dion Dawkins with the 63rd overall pick in the second round of the 2017 NFL draft.
  • Last season, Mills graded as the 56th best tackle among 77 qualifying tackles with an overall PFF grade of 56.5. He was one of the worst run-blocking tackles last season with a run-block grade of 47.5 ranking 66th out of 78 qualifying tackles.
  • Mills wasn’t much better in pass-protection either, his 57 total pressures last season were the fifth-most among tackles with a minimum of 179 pass block snaps. His pass-blocking efficiency (PBE) of 91.9 ranked 66th among 74 tackles (PBE measures pressure allowed on a per snap basis with weighting towards sacks).
  • Many analysts feel that Dawkins' best position at the next level will be guard but his play at tackle last year at Temple was impressive. He ranked 19th among 315 qualifying tackles last season with an overall grade of 86.4.
  • Dawkins PBE of 98.4 ranked third among draft-eligible tackles last season. He gave up two sacks and surrendered just nine total pressures on 443 pass block snaps in 2016.

  • One interesting position battle to watch when the Miami Dolphins open training camp this week is who will start at right defensive end opposite Pro Bowl left end Cameron Wake. The main competitors will be Andre Branch, William Hayes and Charles Harris.
  • Branch was the Dolphins starter at right end last season, and was ranked 68th out of 106 qualifying edge defenders with an overall PFF grade of 66.9. In PFF's pass-rush productivity ratings Branch was 50th out of 87 edge rushers with at least 200 pass-rush attempts.
  • Hayes was acquired in a trade from the Los Angeles Rams this offseason. Hayes had the eighth best run stop percentage of all edge defenders in 2016 at 10.3, and Hayes ranked as the 17th best edge defender with an overall grade of 82.8.
  • Harris was drafted by Miami in the first round this year, so whether he starts or not, he will get significant playing time. In 2016, Harris totaled the fifth most pressures of any 3-4 outside linebacker in the FBS with 62, and was the ninth ranked edge defender and 36th overall on PFF's 2017 Draft Board.

  • The New England Patriots traded for former Philadelphia Eagles cornerback Eric Rowe just before Week 1 last season. Rowe did not appear in a game until Week 6, but played the final 12 games including the post season, logging the third most snaps among Patriots’ cornerbacks. At 6-foot-1, Rowe offers the ability to match up against bigger receivers for the Patriots. Last year, Rowe posted a 63.0 quarterback rating when targeted last season which ranked sixth in the NFL.
  • Former undrafted free agent out of Tennessee Justin Coleman appeared in 10 games in 2016 registering 167 snaps in coverage and 224 defensive snaps overall. Despite the low snap total, Coleman yielded a team best 0.71 yards per coverage snap last season.
  • 2016 second round pick Cyrus Jones struggled to find consistent playing time before eventually becoming a weekly healthy inactive due to fumbling issues on kick and punt returns. Jones played 36.4 percent of his coverage snaps in the slot and figures to be given plenty of chances to win the job considering he was New England’s first player off the board in the 2016 draft.
  • Entering his second season after signing with the Patriots as a UDFA out of Auburn, cornerback Jonathan Jones reportedly worked with the first team in OTAs this offseason and would figure to have an inside track on the job heading into training camp. Jones logged only 64 snaps on defense last season, but was a key contributor on special teams and will be looking to make a jump into more of a consistent role on defense in 2017.

  • The New York Jets will open training camp with QB Josh McCown as an early favorite to win the starting QB job. However, HC Todd Bowles has stated, “I don’t look at anybody as the front-runner. I just wait until training camp comes and we’ll sort it out then.” McCown, who will be entering his 16th season, will compete with QBs Bryce Petty (245 career snaps) and Christian Hackenberg (0 career snaps).
  • In Cleveland last year, Josh McCown finished with an overall grade of 53.4, a significant drop from his 2015 grade of 72.6. McCown is now four years removed from his best season, where he ranked fifth among QBs with a grade of 86.2 and had a passer rating under pressure of 112.2, more than 20 points higher than the next best quarterback.
  • In the 2016 preseason, Hackenberg had an adjusted completion percentage of 53.8 percent, which ranked second to last out of 57 QBs with at least 40 drop backs. In the regular season, Petty’s adjusted completion percentage of 69.6 percent ranked 31st out of 39 quarterbacks with at least 150 drop backs.

AFC North

  • With RB Giovani Bernard still recovering from a torn ACL in week 11 of last season, there is a battle between Jeremy Hill and rookie Joe Mixon to be the Cincinnati Bengals’ lead running back this season.
  • Mixon, the 2017 second round draft pick of the Bengals, showed great potential on the field last year having the fourth best overall grade (88.9) and second best receiving grade (90.1) for running backs in his draft class making him a threat in the passing game.
  • Meanwhile, Hill was able to raise his overall grade from 62.0 in 2015 to 72.4 in 2016, however that still ranked 34th out of 61 eligible backs. Hill still has not matched his production from his 2014 rookie season where he posted an elusive rating of 40.5 and a breakaway percentage of 32.7 percent, which were 26.3 and 28.6percent, respectively last season.

  • The Cleveland Browns open their 2017 training camp with an open competition at the most crucial position of them all: quarterback.
  • Cody Kessler is the last man standing from the Browns’ 2016 quarterback group, after injuries forced him to cede starts to Josh McCown before a second concussion in Week 11 sidelined him for the remainder of the season. His overall PFF grade of 74.7 was 25th out of 33 eligible quarterbacks last season, but some of his underlying metrics give reason for optimism. His adjusted completion percentage (which takes into account dropped passes, throw aways, spiked balls, batted passes, and hits on the quarterback while throwing) of 78.2 was fifth out of 37 QBs with at least 180 attempts, and 80.6 adjusted completion percentage while under pressure was the best mark in the NFL.
  • The Browns moved on from Josh McCown and Robert Griffin III, and acquired veteran QB Brock Osweiler. Osweiler struggled as a starter with the Houston Texans in 2016, posting an overall PFF grade of 48.6, 32nd out of 33 eligible quarterbacks. His adjusted completion percentage of 68.9 was 32nd out of 37 eligible QBs, and his 60.9 percent adjusted completion percentage under pressure was 24th among the same group of quarterbacks.
  • The Browns also drafted quarterback Deshone Kizer with the 52nd overall pick of the 2017 NFL draft. His 2016 performance at Notre Dame earned him a 77.0 overall PFF grade, 74th out of 152 quarterbacks with at least 280 snaps. His 68.0 adjusted completion percentage was 85th among 133 quartebracks  with at least 145 attempts, while his 59.5 adjusted completion percentage under pressure was 54th among 133 eligible QBss.

  • After the release of veteran OLB Elvis Dumervil, the Ravens are in need of a new OLB to fill the void opposite of Terrell SuggsMatt Judon, Za’Darius Smith, Tim Williams and Tyus Bowser are all in contention to take the spot.
  • The run game proved to be problematic for both Judon and Smith in 2016. Judon ranked 55th in run stop percentage (3.6 percent) among 57 qualified 3-4 OLBs with 100 or more run snaps. It was not much better for Smith, who ranked 43rd with a run stop percentage of 4.6 percent.
  • Bowser, a second round pick in the 2017 draft and Williams, a third round pick, are looking to build off their success in college. Williams had the third highest pass-rush productivity (PRP) among draft-eligible edge defenders with a mark of 16.8. Bowser ranked 17th with a PRP of 14.2.
  • Bowser and Williams were also effective in stopping the run. Williams claimed the second highest run-stop percentage among draft-eligible edge defenders at 12.8 percent. Meanwhile, Bowser also ranked highly at 12th with 8.5 percent.

  • The Pittsburgh Steelers have All-Pro Antonio Brown locked in as their top wide receiver, and Martavis Bryant returning from a year-long suspension will start opposite him. The battle to be the Steelers third option at wide receiver will be one to watch this preseason, here are the contenders:
  • JuJu Smith-Schuster – the Steelers drafted Smith-Schuster in the second round this year, and he was the 13th ranked receiver and 113th overall on PFF's 2017 Draft Board. His 2.15 yards per route run was sixth in the Pac-12 of wide receivers that ran at least 200 routes.
  • Eli Rogers – in 2016, Rogers was Pittsburgh's main slot receiver as 584 of his 697 snaps he lined up in the slot. His 1.45 yards per route run from the slot was 13th of 31 wide receivers than ran at least 200 slot routes.
  • Sammie Coates – ESPN's Jeremy Fowler is reporting that Coates will miss the beginning of training camp after having a procedure done on his injured knee. Coates played 332 snaps in 2016 and was ranked 104th of 115 qualifying wide receivers with an overall PFF grade of 46.5.
  • The other contenders battling for snaps and a roster spot are Justin Hunter, signed as a free agent this off-season, Darrius Heyward-Bey, who has mostly been a special teams player and Cobi Hamilton, who logged 467 snaps last season.


AFC South

  • As the Indianapolis Colts begin training camp, a key position battle to watch is at right tackle. The Colts offensive line allowed an NFL high 262 total pressures in 2016, so the ability to pass-protect and keep quarterback Andrew Luck healthy in 2017 will be the key to this competition.
  • At the end of 2016, rookie Le'Raven Clark was the team's starting right tackle, and he has been lining up with the first team in OTAs this offseason. Clark played 198 snaps at right tackle, and in 106 pass-block snaps gave up one sack and 14 total pressures.
  • Joe Haeg played 952 snaps as a rookie in 2016, 495 of them at right tackle before moving to guard when the Colts had to shuffle their line due to injuries. At tackle he allowed five sacks and 27 total pressures in 288 pass block snaps.
  • The Colts drafted the massive 6-foot-8, 358-pound Zach Banner in the fourth round of this year's draft. Banner was PFF's ninth ranked tackle in the draft, and he surrendered two sacks and 13 total pressures in 423 pass block snaps at USC in 2016.

  • As the Jacksonville Jaguars head into their 2017 training camp one of the more intriguing camp battles is expected to be at offensive guard.
  • New Offensive Line Coach Pat Flaherty, the fifth coach to hold this position in six years, will seek to improve the unit that was ranked 22nd in the league by PFF in 2016.
  • While A.J. Cann (65.9 overall grade) and Patrick Omameh (75.5) appear to be the front-runners, competition is expected from Tyler Shatley, Chris Reed and Earl Watford
  • Run-blocking was an area of concern for the Jags in 2016 as all of the guards on the roster, Cann (46.5 run block grade), Omameh (51.6), Reed, (42.7), Shatley (34.7) and Watford (41.7), performing considerably worse than the league average of 65.3.
  • Rookie second round pick Cam Robinson, primarily a tackle, could also come into consideration if as expected the starting tackles are Brandon Albert, acquired via a trade with the Miami Dolphins and incumbent Jermey Parnell. While at Alabama in 2016, Robinson saw a run blocking grade 67.0 and allowed 13 total quarterback pressures over 484 snaps.

  • Tom Savage will enter Houston Texans training camp trying to hold off first round rookie QB Deshaun Watson for as long as he can over the 2017 season.
  • Savage has just 207 career regular season snaps to his name after being drafted in the fourth round of the 2014 draft and inheriting the job after Brock Osweiler played his way to the bench last season.
  • In a low sample size of just 80 dropbacks, Savage’s numbers actually got better when pressured – his passer rating jumped from 75.9 to 89.9, and his completion percentage jumped almost ten percent.
  • In each of the past two college seasons, Watson earned a PFF college grade of over 90.0, and last season his 76.1 percent adjusted completion percentage ranked third in the entire draft class.

  • After signing Logan Ryan to a three year, $30-million contract this offseason, there is no question that he will be one the Tennessee Titans starting cornerbacks. The question remains, though, who will start opposite of Ryan and who will be the nickel corner? The No. 18 overall pick Adoree’ Jackson will be duking it out with LeShaun Sims, who showed flashes as a rookie, and Brice McCain, who spent the bulk of his playing time in the slot last season.
  • Jackson entered the draft ranked as the seventh best cornerback on PFF’s draft board after earning an overall grade of 83.6 his final year at USC. Jackson was an elite playmaker in college, finishing his career with six interceptions and 19 pass breakups including five interceptions and seven pass breakups in 2016. Jackson was also a stout run defender in college, and his 80.2 run defense grade was the 12th highest among draft-eligible cornerbacks.
  • 2016 fifth round pick LeShaun Sims saw limited playing time in his first year with only 235 defensive snaps. After the Titans released struggling starting CB Perrish Cox during their Week 13 bye, Sims responded by posting  the highest graded individual game performance by a Titan last season (93.2) in Week 14. However, in three of the four games that he registered more than 35 defensive snaps, Sims received an overall grade lower than 45.0. Consistency will be key for Sims if he wants to see an expanded role in 2017.
  • Brice McCain led all Titans cornerbacks with 844 snaps last season, but he was primarily used as a nickel cornerback as 89.8 percent of his coverage snaps came lined up against a slot receiver. His 518 snaps in slot coverage led the NFL, while his 12.3 cover snaps per reception ranked fifth among cornerbacks with at least 270 slot coverage snaps. While it seems that the Titans are content with using McCain primarily in the slot, he could make a push for the second outside cornerback spot when camp opens.

AFC West

  • The Broncos are holding an open competition at the quarterback position for the second straight season as Trevor Siemian will fight for first-team reps with second-year QB Paxton Lynch.
  • Siemian’s overall grade of 56.2 ranked 30th out of 33 qualifying quarterbacks last season.
  • Siemian particularly struggled in a clean pocket with the league’s fifth-lowest adjusted completion percentage when he received adequate protection.
  • 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch struggled in his two starts last season earning an overall grade of 44.7.
  • Lynch’s adjusted completion percentage of 65.8% ranked below QB’s like Blaine Gabbert, Ryan Fitzpatrick, and Brock Osweiler in a limited sample size.

  • The Chargers drafted Hunter Henry to be the heir apparent to Antonio Gates, but there’s a very real chance the student becomes the master as soon as training camp, leaving Gates a bit-part player in the twilight of his career.
  • The two split snaps relatively evenly last season, with Gates (585) narrowly edging Henry (573), but there was a far bigger discrepancy in the pass game where Gates (85) came closer to doubling the number of targets that came Henry’s way (45).
  • Henry had a significantly better drop rate in 2016 (5.3 percent to 10.2) and gained far more yards per route run (1.99 to 1.41), so unless Gates can find a late-career surge, Henry could well steal the lion’s share of targets as well as just surpass him as starter.

  • The Chiefs used a number of players a season ago in an attempt to replace three-year starter Sean Smith at right cornerback, who departed to Oakland in the offseason.
  • 2015 third-round pick Steven Nelson acquainted himself nicely in his second season, but when the Chiefs use five or more defensive backs (which they did 72 percent of the time in 2016), he moves into the slot, where his 0.89 yards per coverage snap allowed from the slot are both 11th best among 52 cornerbacks with more than 130 such snaps and far lower than his 2.08 mark allowed when on the outside.
  • Third-year player Philip Gaines, a former third-round pick from Rice, was given the first crack at the position, but struggled coming off an ACL injury. His tenure at the position ended when he allowed 209 yards and two touchdowns into his coverage against Denver in Week 12.
  • After also trying out D.J. White (139 snaps at RCB), and Kenneth Acker (61 snaps), they settled in on Terrance Mitchell, who has bounced around between Dallas, Chicago, Houston and Kansas City before returning in November. He acclimated quickly, allowing just a 55.5 rating into his coverage, shutting down players like Amari Cooper (24 yards on five targets into Mitchell’s coverage), Demaryius Thomas (14 yards on four targets) and Antonio Brown (zero yards two targets) in the process.  Mitchell is likely to get the first crack at the position.

  • Oakland Raiders right tackle Austin Howard will face competition in training camp to retain his starting job in 2017 from free agent acquisition Marshall Newhouse and second year man Vadal Alexander. Given the Raiders huge investment in franchise quarterback Derek Carr, pass protection will be a key to this battle.
  • The Raiders offensive line surrendered a league-low eight sacks last season, and Howard allowed four of them. He was rated 66th of 94 tackles in PFF's pass blocking efficiency (pressures allowed per snap with weighting towards sacks) with 35 total pressures in 408 pass block attempts.
  • Newhouse played 258 snaps at right tackle and 247 at left guard for the Giants in 2016. He showed good pass protection ability allowing two sacks and four total pressures in 99 pass block attempts at tackle, ranking 13th of 94 in pass blocking efficiency.
  • In 2016, Alexander logged 171 snaps at right tackle when Howard was injured. He ranked 26th of 94 in pass blocking efficiency at tackle with one sack allowed and six total pressures in 117 pass block snaps.

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