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Biggest looming training camp battles for every NFL team

The Jets' three-way competition at quarterback highlights our list of best training camp battles this summer

One of the greatest aspects of the NFL is how competition brings out the best in players, and we see this play out on a massive scale every summer as training camp battles take place for every NFL team.

As usual, some teams have yet to determine which quarterback will start under center. These battles are the big highlights every summer, and much depends on how they play out. However, other positions that don’t receive as much fanfare are just as important for teams that already have an established starter at quarterback.

With that in mind, let’s take a look at which training camp battle will be the most important for every NFL team this summer.

Arizona Cardinals: Quarterback

If all things were equal here, Sam Bradford would be the starter out of the gate. He’s an established veteran, and the Cardinals have a roster that is capable of contending in the very competitive NFC West. But not all things are equal. The big issue here is that Bradford has chronic knee problems and will be on a pitch count of sorts this summer, which will open the door for the rookie out of UCLA to make his case as the starter.

Rosen has already garnered first-team reps, and he’s impressed his coaches. Needless to say, Bradford will have his work cut out to keep this rookie on the sidelines in 2018.

Atlanta Falcons: Cornerback

Robert Alford and Desmond Trufant already have the top-two spots locked down for the foreseeable future. That said, given the frequency with which NFL teams utilize nickel packages these days, every team needs three starting cornerbacks. That’s where this gets interesting for Atlanta. Rookie Isaiah Oliver, selected in the second round this April, will compete with veterans Blidi Wreh-Wilson, Justin Bethel, Brian Poole and anyone else who makes a case for the right to step into the lineup when Atlanta goes with three cornerbacks. Oliver is raw but extremely talented, so it’s going to be interesting to see how this battle plays out.

Baltimore Ravens: Center

Ryan Jensen’s departure for Tampa Bay in free agency opened up what should be a fierce battle for the starting center spot in Baltimore’s offense this summer. Ryan Mink of the team’s website pegs Matt Skura, who started 12 games at left guard last year in place of Marshal Yanda, as the favorite right now for this spot. But he’ll be going up against Alex Lewis and rookie Bradley Bozeman, a sixth-round pick, for the honor of anchoring the middle of this offensive line.

Buffalo Bills: Quarterback

AJ McCarron spent the past four years backing up Andy Dalton in Cincinnati before happily signing with the Bills in free agency, and he’ll have a chance to start this year. But the Bills don’t have any reason not to start Josh Allen if McCarron doesn’t definitively show he’s clearly the better man for the job. It’s going to be fascinating to see how this plays out. McCarron is solid, but he doesn’t really do anything that wows you. Allen has one of the strongest arms we’ve ever seen, and he’s already made quite an impression on at least one of his defensive teammates. With that said, he’s also a raw talent who could end up finding his way back to the bench, even if he does end up starting the season under center.

Carolina Panthers: Wide Receiver

Devin Funchess already has one of the two starting spots locked down. He’s made positive strides and appears to be headed for a big season in a contract year. On the other side, however, it’s going to be very fun to see if first-round rookie D.J. Moore out of Maryland can do enough this summer to beat out veteran Torrey Smith. Moore and Smith couldn’t be more different — Smith is a one-trick pony as a deep threat, and Moore is a run-after-the-catch monster. Both will likely have big roles in Norv Turner’s offense. But Moore has a chance to become a real star as a rookie, if he can absorb the offense and proves he’s the best overall option.

Chicago Bears: Outside linebacker

Leonard Floyd is a proven commodity and will man the right outside linebacker spot. But the left side is wide open right now. The Bears brought in former San Francisco 49ers pass rusher Aaron Lynch, who is familiar with Vic Fangio’s system — one in which outside linebacker is a critical component. But he has just 2.5 sacks combined for the past two seasons. He’ll have his work cut out to earn the starting spot. Rookie Kyle Fitts has already impressed his coaches this spring, and Sam Acho is a tenured veteran who could start in a pinch.

Cincinnati Bengals: Defensive end

We recently dove into the Bengals’ intriguing situation on the edge defensively. Cincinnati has a glut of talent at defensive end, and the battles for starting spots this summer will be born not so much out of necessity but due to all that talent pushing for playing time. Carlos Dunlap will almost certainly land one of the two starting spots. On the other side, veteran Michael Johnson will have to fend off Carl Lawson, rookie Sam Hubbard and promising second-year player Jordan Willis. All of these players will likely earn playing time this coming season. But at this point we have no idea how that time will be split up.

Cleveland Browns: Quarterback

Despite Hue Jackson’s insistence that the starting job isn’t really up for grabs, we’re not buying that for one hot second. After all, it was just a year ago that he was adamant that rookie DeShone Kizer (recently shipped to Green Bay in a trade) would have a long leash and that he wouldn’t play quarterback roulette. And we know how that went. Also, Jackson has made comments about No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield that lead us to believe the rookie has a shot to start. It’s going to be fascinating to see how this battle plays out, even if the Browns continue to say there is no battle. Preseason games will be very telling.

Dallas Cowboys: Wide receiver

Dallas’ decision to let Dez Bryant go this spring was absolutely necessary, but it also opened the door for some fierce competition to replace the former star. The team has an entirely new crew at the receiver position now. Veterans Allen Hurns, Deonte Thompson and Tavon Austin were brought in, joining Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley. Dallas drafted Michael Gallup and Cedrick Wilson, too. Austin likely won’t have much of a say in how the depth chart plays out, as the team sees him as a running back more than a receiver. But at this point how the receivers will rank is a huge question mark that will likely not have a definitive answer until late this summer.

Denver Broncos: Running back

Denver’s decision to let veteran C.J. Anderson go opened the door for what will be a wide-open battle for the team’s starting running back this summer. The two main competitors for this position are going to be rookie Royce Freeman out of Oregon and third-year back Devontae Booker, who totaled 911 yards and five touchdowns the past two seasons as Anderson’s backup. Another back we can’t count out completely here is DeAngelo Henderson, who was a spark plug last preseason. If Freeman can stay healthy and picks up the offense quickly, then he likely will have a great chance to be the team’s starter as a rookie.

Detroit Lions: Running back

We all know it’s been ages since the Lions featured a strong running game. At this point, we can probably count Ameer Abdullah out of the running for the starting job. So it’s going to boil down to whether rookie Kerryon Johnson out of Auburn can beat out Theo Riddick, who has a knack for making big plays both on the ground and through the air, and veteran pile driver LeGarrette Blount. Detroit’s offensive line looks to be a group that can create room to roam now, so for the first time in years the offense has a legitimate chance to make hay on the ground. Will this end up being a committee in Detroit, or will one player rise up as the clear-cut answer?

Green Bay Packers: Cornerback

In all likelihood, all three starting cornerback spots are up for grabs this summer. The Packers, who have been downright awful at defending the pass in recent seasons, made significant changes at the cornerback position this offseason.

Veteran Tramon Williams was brought back after spending three seasons away. Second-year player Kevin King will be a full go after missing half his rookie season due to injury. Rookies Jaire Alexander and Joshua Jackson both feature outstanding talent and could start right out of the gate. With Aaron Rodgers picking on this crew in practice, the wheat will be separated from the chaff in relatively short order. That said, these battles will still likely rage on throughout training camp and even into the regular season as the Packers tinker with what works and what does not.

Houston Texans: Left tackle

Protecting the future of the franchise — quarterback Deshaun Watson — is only the most important thing the Texans have to do going forward. With that in mind, it’s going to be very interesting to see who emerges as the starting left tackle and protector of Watson’s blind side. The contenders are Julie’n Davenport (four career starts), third-round rookie Martinas Rankin and Buffalo cast-off Seantrel Henderson, who has started 27 games, though he played on the right side for the Bills. It’s a good thing Watson is a mobile passer, because this group doesn’t inspire much confidence.

Indianapolis Colts: Defensive end

The Colts have been ineffective at rushing the passer since the 2014 season. Last year, only one team garnered fewer sacks than Indianapolis, and until this is remedied the defense will continue to be picked apart through the air even with improvements made to the secondary. Veteran Jabaal Sheard will likely be one of the two starters at defensive end, but to this point nobody knows who’ll start on the other side. Margus Hunt, rookies Kemoko Turay and Tyquan Lewis and free agent Denico Autry will likely all battle it out for that spot.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Inside linebacker

Myles Jack has done this before. Last year, the Jaguars asked him to move inside and switched veteran Paul Posluszny to the outside. But that experiment didn’t last long and Jack was moved back outside, where he thrived. Once again ahead of the 2018 season, the Jaguars are moving Jack back inside now that Posluszny has retired. But will he stick? Don’t be surprised if in the end the Jaguars realize that Jack needs to stay outside, and that Blair Brown ends up manning the middle.

Kansas City Chiefs: Cornerback

The trade that sent Marcus Peters to Los Angeles left a gaping hole on Kansas City’s roster. Kendall Fuller, acquired in the trade that sent Alex Smith to Washington, could help fill the void. However, he’s a slot specialist and would be better suited to staying with that role. The other starting corner spot was already trouble last year, before Peters left. So it’s going to be interesting to see if Keith Reaser, Will Redmond, Steven Nelson, David Amerson or Ashton Lampkin can step up in a big way to keep the Chiefs from featuring a defense that gets picked on a lot through the air.

Los Angeles Chargers: Wide receiver

Chargers receiver Mike Williams

Keenan Allen is a lock to start. But the Chargers have quite the battle brewing for the two other starting spots at receiver, especially now that tight end Hunter Henry has been lost for the season with a torn ACL. Mike Williams, the No. 7 overall pick last year, has his work cut out to beat Tyrell Williams for one spot, and he’s already dealing with an injury issue that’s costing him time on the field. Travis Benjamin is also a player who could make some noise after going for 567 yards and four touchdowns last season.

Philip Rivers doesn’t care who’s out there, as long as they can make plays. With that in mind, the Clemson product really needs to step up this summer to prove he was worth a first-round pick.

Los Angeles Rams: Inside linebacker

It’s likely veteran former safety Mark Barron will keep one of the team’s two starting inside linebacker spots, at least for now. Who plays next to him this year, however, is something nobody knows just yet. Rookie Micah Kiser should not be discounted. He was a three-year stud at Virginia who could end up becoming one of this year’s biggest steals, having been selected in the fifth round of the draft. Bryce Hager is another option, but he’s had three seasons to distinguish himself and has yet to do it. The final competitor is likely Ramik Wilson, who made 15 starts the past two season for the Chiefs. There aren’t many areas of weakness on this defense, but the inside linebacker spot is a big question mark right now.

Miami Dolphins: Outside linebacker

Second-year linebacker Raekwon McMillan will almost certainly man the middle of Miami’s defense if he can show he’s fully recovered from the knee injury that knocked him out last year. The outside linebacker spots, however, are going to be up for grabs. Kiko Alonso is the big name here, but he’s a very inconsistent tackler who tends to get beaten like a drum. Stephone Anthony was brought on board this offseason, but he is also very inconsistent. We’ll be looking out for the speedy rookie Jerome Baker out of Ohio State to make a splash.

Minnesota Vikings: Right tackle

Riley Reiff gives the Vikings some stability on the left side, but the right tackle spot is wide open heading into the summer months. It’s going to be very interesting to see if rookie second-rounder Brian O’Neill out of Pittsburgh can give Mike Remmers a run for his money at this position. If he proves he’s ready to step into the starting lineup to open the season, then Remmers can be moved back inside, where he did very well late last season. That would give the entire offensive line more stability, which of course would make this already potent offense even more dangerous overall.

New England Patriots: Left tackle

Nate Solder’s departure in free agency left a huge hole on the left side of New England’s offensive line. The Patriots made a draft-day trade with the San Francisco 49ers for Trent Brown, who started 26 games for the 49ers on the right side the past two seasons. They also brought in rookie Isaiah Wynn out of Georgia, who can play either guard or tackle spot. If neither Brown nor Wynn does enough to impress, then don’t be surprised if six-year veteran LaAdrian Waddle ends up protecting Tom Brady’s blind side in 2018.

New Orleans Saints: Defensive end

We know that Cameron Jordan will be the starter on one side for the Saints. He’s one of the best pass rushers in the game today. But what we don’t know is who the Saints will have lining up opposite Jordan in the starting lineup. New Orleans gave up the farm to move up to No. 14 and select Marcus Davenport out of UTSA. So if he proves he’s ready to start, he’ll get every chance to play. But with veterans like Alex Okafor and Sheldon Rankins in front of him, it’s a big hill to climb for the rookie.

New York Giants: Right tackle

The Giants paid an arm and a leg for the services of Nate Solder, who finally gives them a no-doubt-about-it starter at left tackle. The same cannot be said for the right side, however, where disgruntled lineman Ereck Flowers will have to fight like crazy to keep that job. Hell have to beat out Chad Wheeler and Nick Becton, if the Giants don’t end up bringing in another man to compete for this position.

New York Jets: Quarterback

This is the only quarterback battle in the league right now that could legitimately be won by one of three different men. Of course there’s veteran Josh McCown, who was the steady leader for this team last year. Former Vikings quarterback Teddy Bridgewater has been making waves, too. He could either start this year or end up fetching a nice price in a trade later this summer. And, obviously No. 3 overall pick, Sam Darnold, is going to be given every opportunity to earn the job, too. Because head coach Todd Bowles enters the season on the hot seat, we expect one of the veterans to open the season under center.

Oakland Raiders: Inside linebacker

Lions Color Rush

The Raiders have struggled to find an answer at inside linebacker for years. When they brought in veteran NaVorro Bowman in the middle of last season, he helped. But then Oakland decided to move on in free agency, bringing in Tahir Whitehead, who appeared to be the de facto starter. Then the Raiders shocked everyone by signing longtime Chiefs starter Derrick Johnson, who might not have much left in the tank. But given Jon Gruden’s seeming preference in experience over youth, nobody should be surprised if Johnson ends up as the starter inside, with Whitehead being moved outside.

Philadelphia Eagles: Nickel cornerback

There’s a very spirited battle brewing in Philly for the team’s nickel cornerback spot in the wake of Patrick Robinson going back to the Bayou in free agency. Last year’s second-round pick, Sidney Jones, could make his mark here. But he’ll have to hold off undrafted rookie D.J. Killings out of UCF and a surprising candidate to take over, fourth-year pro De’Vante Bausby. He has been toiling on practice squads so far in his career but recently earned the praise of defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Inside linebacker

The biggest hole on Pittsburgh’s roster just so happens to be right in the middle of its defense. With Ryan Shazier (spinal injury) ruled out at least for the 2018 season, Pittsburgh found itself scrambling to replace his outstanding production. Likely, Vince Williams will retain one of the two starting spots. He performed admirably last year as a solid all-around player, though he lacks the big-splash abilities Shazier brought to the team. Former Colts linebacker Jon Bostic could start next to Williams, but he’ll be battling with Tyler Matakevich, a third-year pro who was the next man up last year when Shazier was hurt, only to suffer an injury himself.

San Francisco 49ers: Wide receiver

For a team that was so devoid of talent at this position just two years ago, suddenly San Francisco has an overabundance that should lead to some very competitive battles all summer long. It’s pretty crazy to think that Marquise Goodwin, who nearly had 1,000 yards last year and who landed a nice extension this spring, could find himself being pushed aside. But with guys like Kendrick Bourne, rookies Dante Pettis and Richie James, not to mention Trent Taylor and veteran Pierre Garcon, coming on strong, there will be some stiff competition for playing time this season.

Seattle Seahawks: Right tackle

Duane Brown gives Russell Wilson at least a modicum of security on the left side. But the right side of Seattle’s offensive line is a train wreck almost every time Wilson drops back to pass as long as Germain Ifedi starts at right tackle. George Fant and rookie Jamarco Jones should both push Ifedi for that starting spot. If nobody can step up and dethrone him, then Wilson will once again be running for his life more often than not in 2018.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cornerback

Buccaneers cornerback Vernon Hargreaves chases down Cole Beasley of the Dallas Cowboys

No team in the NFL gave up more yards through the air in 2017 than the Bucs. That was partly due to an ineffective pass rush, which has since been rectified through free agency. But it was also due to some patently awful play by second-year cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who took a significant step back as a sophomore. He’ll be challenged by fellow third-year pro Ryan Smith, along with second-round rookie Carlton Davis out of Auburn. Davis was one of our favorite underrated players, and he could really push for the starting job opposite veteran Brent Grimes.

Tennessee Titans: Inside linebacker

There are three men vying for the two inside linebacker spots on Tennessee’s 3-4 defense. Wesley Woodyard is obviously a favorite to claim one of those spots, being the tenured veteran among this group. He’ll hold onto his starting job if one of Jaylon Brown and rookie Rashaan Evans out of Alabama doesn’t push him out. Either way, those two will be battling for the other starting spot all summer long. Brown pushed Avery Williamson for playing time last year and likely thought the starting job was his before Evans was selected in the first round this year. So he’ll have a big chip on his shoulder and has an edge in terms of experience.

Washington Redskins: Running back

Derrius Guice will likely be the starter when Week 1 rolls around. He’s an impressive young running back, and the Redskins obviously were pleased as punch to have had him fall to them in the second round in April. That said, head coach Jay Gruden has already stated he doesn’t see Guice as a three-down back, and Rob Kelley has had success in this league as a two-down battering ram. Will the rookie make enough of an impression to earn the starting job, or will he have to wait his turn?

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