Coming out of NFL training camp, we always see some surprises.
Last year, former Los Angeles Rams head coach Jeff Fisher gave the starting quarterback job to Case Keenum over No. 1 overall pick Jared Goff. It didn’t work out too well. The Rams went 4-5 with Keenum under center thanks to an anemic offense, prompting them to go to Goff, who struggled badly.
This season, there’s certainly a plethora of intriguing training camp battles and some will result in surprise. It’s simply the nature of the sport.
These decisions can be extremely consequential. Mishandling the quarterback situation was one of the factors that ultimately got Jeff Fisher fired at the end of last season. The Rams may have been worse if Goff had been under center from the start, but perhaps we may have seen more development from him. It’s impossible to say, but Fisher would probably like to have that decision back.
So, as we head into optimism season, here are eight training camp battles whose underdogs should feel good.
Cleveland Browns: Quarterback
The Browns’ quarterback battle doesn’t exactly feature the biggest names. Quarterback battles rarely do. But this one is perhaps the most interesting training camp contest of all, and its winner will be DeShone Kizer.
This is mainly because, unless Brock Osweiler or Cody Kessler become entirely new players, there isn’t a very good argument against starting Kizer.
Osweiler is on the Browns because they got a draft pick to take on his salary. Kessler got eight games last season. But not only did he fail to impress, he was mediocrity defined. Sure, there’s a chance for development, but it’s not like Kessler was a heralded prospect — he went at the end of the third round last year.
For the most part, we have a pretty good idea of what these players are. Not only are they not good, there just isn’t any real upside.
Kizer might not be that great either, but the Browns should at least give him a chance before handing the reins over to whomever they take in the draft next year if he stinks. If nothing else, Kizer has arm talent, some ability in the pocket and showed that he’s capable of making full-field reads. If he fails, so be it.
The Browns are tanking the season anyway, and at least Kizer’s development is a solid excuse. If he succeeds, even better. The Browns’ path forward is that much easier if they stumbled upon the next Dak Prescott. Either way, this is a win-win.
New York Jets: Quarterback
There’s a similar rationale to Kizer here when it comes to the Jets and Christian Hackenberg. The only difference is that there’s much less upside when looking at the Penn State product.
But look at the alternatives: Josh McCown and Bryce Petty. McCown puts you in a perpetual state of losing, makes you dull to watch and hit his ceiling a decade ago. Petty received his chance last season and, as most people predicted, he was terrible.
Hackenberg, unless every single report of the last two years is wrong, will be terrible as well. It says a lot about Hackenberg that he failed to make it off the inactive list for an entire season despite being a second-round pick on a team that was starved at his position. Hackenberg couldn’t even make it onto the active roster for a totally meaningless Week 17 clash against Buffalo. More than that, his accuracy is so terrible that his throws were hitting reporters on the sidelines at OTAs.
In other words, Hackenberg is an even more perfect vehicle to tank with than McCown or Petty. More than that, it will probably give the Jets plausible reasoning to cut ties with him at the end of the season. If by some chance he ends up being serviceable, then the Jets have their backup quarterback for the future. Again, it’s a win-win.
New Orleans Saints: Running back
Adrian Peterson was reportedly great in OTAs (more on that here). As a result, he’s taken over as the favorite for this job in the eyes of many — a perception that will not last.
Minnesota had one of the worst run-blocking offensive lines in the league last year. However, Peterson himself was downright disastrous prior to suffering a season-ending injury after three games. As bad as Minnesota’s offensive line was, Peterson led the league in rushing with the same group blocking for him in 2015. This past season saw his yards-per-carry average drop from 4.5 to 1.9. Sure it’s a small sample size, but it tells us a story of decline.
Peterson was a shell of himself and now is coming off a serious injury, which isn’t the first of his career. He is also well past his prime at the age of 32.
Compare that to Ingram, who has quietly been one of the league’s best backs for a couple years now. The 27-year-old put up a career-high 5.1 yards per carry and 1,043 yards last season. He also finished with a top-10 ranking in the advanced metric DYAR (Defense-adjusted Yards Above Replacement) for the first time in his career.
Yes, New Orleans had one of the best run-blocking lines last season, but Ingram is in the prime of his career. Peterson, on the other hand, is at the tail end and coming off a major injury. Giving the job to the latter defies logic.
Los Angeles Rams: Wide Receiver
It’s no secret that Tavon Austin’s four-year, $42 million contract is among the worst in football. However, it will likely surprise people if and when Austin fails to win a starting job in training camp.
Let’s take a look at the Rams’ depth chart at receiver. Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp are two new additions, via free agency and the draft, who will almost certainly get a chance to start. That’s two of three starting positions. The third comes down to Austin and Pharoh Cooper (Bradley Marquez and rookie Josh Reynolds have an outside shot here).
Playing Austin — the rare receiver incapable of running a route downfield — wouldn’t just be detrimental to the team, it would be detrimental to the development of Jared Goff. The Rams didn’t change general managers, but Jeff Fisher was the coach who believed in Austin. Sean McVay has no reason to play him unless he gets orders from above. Draft position and salary will only get Austin so far.
It goes without saying that Cooper is a question mark. He had just 20 targets last season, but caught 14 balls. Being drafted in the same class as Goff, Cooper could develop alongside him as well. Maybe Reynolds or Marquez outplays him in camp and wins the job instead. Austin, however, is doomed.
Denver Broncos: Running Back
Beyond the obvious (Tom Brady will start at quarterback for the New England Patriots), there are few assumptions that should be made in training camp. We should not assume Jamaal Charles is the starting running back for Denver until we are told Jamaal Charles is the starting running back for Denver. If anything, it makes sense for the Broncos to limit his role, even if they are hinting he will be a go-to guy.
Charles has played just eight games over the past two seasons combined thanks to injuries. At 30 and coming off two straight serious tears, it wouldn’t be particularly surprising if Charles suffered a third. Injury prevention is one of the best arguments to limiting Charles. Why make him a workhorse back when his body may not be able to handle it?
It’s not as if the Broncos don’t have capable running backs on their roster, either. C.J. Anderson struggled for periods over the last two seasons, but he usually gets more than the offensive line gives him. He had a 72.0 PFF grade last season, a solid number over seven games. Like Charles, Anderson is coming off a major injury, but he’s much younger, making him more apt to recover.
The Broncos may end up splitting carries between the two or even getting Devontae Booker involved. However, the assumption that Charles will own this job will ultimately be proven wrong.
Los Angeles Chargers: Tight End
Antonio Gates has had an iron grip on this job for years, and rightly so. He’ll be enshrined in Canton one day, so he deserves the benefit of the doubt.
However, that grip loosened a little bit last season. The Chargers drafted Hunter Henry — presumably his replacement — in the second round, and Henry got 574 snaps of action. Gates was still No. 1 on the depth chart, but the blueprint was set for Henry to take the job.
The 22-year old has a real shot at being named the starter by the end of camp with Gates being relegated to a lesser role, perhaps with frequent red-zone opportunities.
Despite having only 36 receptions, Henry was top-five among tight ends in both DYAR and DVOA, an advanced metric that looks at efficiency on a play-by-play basis. He caught nearly 70 percent of his targets, including 10-of-16 in the red zone.
At this point, Henry is simply a better player. Keeping Gates in the starting role would be mostly based on respect. And given that the Chargers have a solid chance at making the playoffs, they shouldn’t be making sentimental decisions.
New York Giants: Running back
Paul Perkins heads into camp as the favorite, but rookie Wayne Gallman has a real chance of pulling off the upset.
The fourth-round pick out of Clemson is the perfect player for a team with a bad offensive line, which the Giants happen to have. His biggest strength is gaining yards after contact, which is a necessary strength with the Giants and an area where he clearly has a leg up on Perkins. Gallman isn’t a particularly refined runner — especially on the inside — but is really hard to bring down.
Gallman’s preference for running outside also meshes with the Giants’ talent. He doesn’t need great blocking to succeed there, so he won’t be as reliant on tackles Ereck Flowers and Bobby Hart to succeed. The Giants have more talent on their interior of their line, which may provide Gallman the requisite help he needs to develop that part of his game.
Perkins showed some flashes in his rookie year and will undoubtedly get a chance to win the job. However, Gallman’s upside will be very enticing for a team that hasn’t had a run game since 2012.
Houston Texans: Running back
To say that Lamar Miller disappointed last season would be an understatement. The Texans saw Miller as a workhorse back when they signed him away from the Miami Dolphins last offseason. Unfortunately, he averaged just 4.0 yards per carry. He also ranked 33rd among running backs in DYAR and 35th in DVOA with a 45-percent success rate.
It’s no coincidence that the Texans drafted D’Onta Foreman out of Texas in the third round. Foreman very well could be the starter in Week 1.
Watching the running back’s tape at Texas, it’s hard not to like what you see. Foreman has great vision, he consistently makes the correct read and is nearly unstoppable as a downhill runner. He makes yards after contact and can break one off for a big gain as well as anyone in this draft class. The two biggest negatives with him are pass protection and pass catching, neither of which Miller counts as exceptional strengths.
Don’t be surprised if Foreman — not Miller– wins the job out of camp should the former see his recent off-field issues go away.