NFL training camp battles define the direction of franchises on an annual basis, and we’re always surprised by at least a few of the winners. Guys come out of nowhere to claim vital roles for their respective teams, and those stories are always a thrill to follow. On the flip side, players we expect to succeed sometimes falter, opening the door for their teammates to shine.
No doubt, there are some NFL training camp battles we won’t talk about here that will feature unheralded talents. We can’t wait to see who emerges from the shadow of obscurity this year to become stars.
Based on what we can see in front of us, however, there are plenty of intriguing NFL training camp battles set to take place in the coming weeks.
With that in mind, the following are the 10 we think will have tremendous impacts, both for the teams involved and the NFL in general.
Denver Broncos, quarterback (Trevor Siemian vs. Paxton Lynch)
Given the insane defensive talent on Denver’s roster, not to mention the talent at receiver and running back, the Broncos should be a playoff team. They almost were last season, falling a game short of postseason play even though they got some mediocre quarterback play from Trevor Siemian and Paxton Lynch.
The two signal callers are embroiled in a quarterback competition this summer that might not be decided until very late in the preseason. Based on the information that’s come out of offseason workouts, however, it would appear the job is Siemian’s job to lose.
Of course, if Siemian does win the job, then things will continue to be awkward throughout the season. If he plays well and keeps the job, then the team’s decision to trade up for Lynch in the 2016 NFL Draft will come into question. And if he struggles, then the calls for Lynch to play will be a source of drama that could drag on throughout the season.
Hopefully, one of these young men takes this job with some authority during training camp. A strong offense, led by a competent quarterback, will make Denver one of the strongest teams in the AFC.
Seattle Seahawks, running back (Thomas Rawls vs. Eddie Lacy)
Russell Wilson has been like a tackling dummy the past few years. He’s been phenomenal under pressure, but he’s also been sacked and pummeled after throws far too often. If this type of abuse continues, then his career won’t extend as long as it should.
The offensive line remains a big problem in the passing game, so the Seahawks must get back to pounding the rock. Last year that was a missing element, as Seattle ranked No. 25 in the league rushing the ball.
Needless to say, either Thomas Rawls or Eddie Lacy needs to provide consistent production on the ground. Lacy has been racking up cash as he meets his weight goals leading up to training camp. If he can stay healthy and keeps his weight under control, then he can definitely make a difference.
Though, the contract extended to Lacy appears to have motivated Rawls, who has been lighting up the practice field with his energy and noticeable burst.
One of these guys needs to step up and prove he can be the bell-cow running back the Seahawks need.
Cleveland Browns, quarterback (Brock Osweiler vs. Cody Kessler vs. DeShone Kizer)
On paper, the Browns appear to have some pretty impressive talent across the board. Their offensive line is darn good, they have some running backs and receivers who can make plays and have a defense that really could light some teams up in 2017.
No, we’re not predicting a playoff run for this squad, but if the offense can score points the Browns could win 5-7 games. Provided the quarterback position ends up finally getting resolved after years of inadequate play, this is a team on the rise.
Hue Jackson and Co. will be monitoring a three-way competition between Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and rookie DeShone Kizer. All three have received some solid compliments from the coaching staff this offseason, and while Kessler was the de facto starter heading into OTAs we’re not convinced he’ll remain so during training camp.
The second-round rookie out of Notre Dame has been getting some serious love from the local media and is considered a legitimate contender for the job.
Considering Osweiler and Kessler are known quantities, and that both are quite honestly limited, the Browns shouldn’t hesitate to let Kizer start from Day 1 if he shows he’s ready.
Cincinnati Bengals, running back (Joe Mixon vs. Jeremy Hill)
The Bengals need more from their ground game in 2017 if they’re going to stay competitive in the AFC North.
Jeremy Hill can score touchdowns. Of that there is no doubt. But he’s also a guy who has averaged 3.6 and 3.8 yards per carry the past couple of seasons. He’s not that explosive a runner, which is certainly why the Bengals leaped at the opportunity to take a risk drafting Joe Mixon out of Oklahoma.
Mixon has the burst, speed and power to do it all. He is more of a complete back — essentially combining the best traits of Hill and scat-back Gio Bernard (who’s coming off ACL surgery).
To be quite honest, we fully expect Mixon to seize the starting role this summer, relegating Hill to short-yardage and goal-line situations. However, Geoff Hobson of the team’s official website expects Hill to keep his job.
Needless to say, it should be quite the battle between these two men during training camp and preseason games.
New York Jets, quarterback (Josh McCown vs. Christian Hackenberg vs. Bryce Petty)
This battle is intriguing because it will signal the direction of the Jets franchise in a big way. Objectively speaking, it almost certainly won’t matter who starts for New York in 2017 — the team is going to lose a bunch of games.
Barring a seismic shift in what Christian Hackenberg and/or Bryce Petty bring to the table during the preseason, any outcome other than Josh McCown starting will tell us that head coach Todd Bowles is not in charge. McCown, by all accounts, has been the best quarterback this offseason, and Bowles wants to win. His job is likely on the line, whether that’s fair or not.
Though, the best possible outcome for the Jets would be an improved Hackenberg — a Hackenberg who can connect with his receivers at a 60-plus-percent rate. During his college (56.1 percent) and pro career so far (36.2 NOT A TYPO percent last preseason), that’s not something he’s been able to do.
We don’t really expect Petty to be a major factor at all. He was awful last year, completing 56.4 percent of his passes with three touchdowns and seven interceptions.
So this really will boil down to McCown against Hackenberg. And if Hackenberg ends up starting even if he hasn’t shown much tangible improvement, then it will mean Bowles isn’t the man in charge of his own team and is likely out the door following the season.
Pittsburgh Steelers, wide receiver (JuJu Smith-Schuster vs. Martavis Bryant vs. Sammie Coates)
We already know the Steelers can count on Antonio Brown and, to a lesser degree, Eli Rogers. What we don’t know is who the team will be counting on as the third receiver.
It was kind of a shock when the team selected JuJu Smith-Schuster out of USC in the second round of the 2017 NFL Draft. After all, Martavis Bryant was reinstated by the NFL, and when he’s on the field he tends to be unstoppable. Though, staying on the field has been a big problem for the talented player, who has a lot to prove.
Then there’s Sammie Coates, who averaged 20.7 yards per catch last year and hauled in a couple of touchdowns.
All that said, we fully expect Smith-Schuster to push both of these veterans for playing time. He’s one of the most underrated receivers to come out of the draft and is going to be a boon to the Steelers in the years to come.
Houston Texans, quarterback (Tom Savage vs. Deshaun Watson)
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) May 8, 2017
Based on everything head coach Bill O’Brien has said this offseason, it’s going to take a whole heck of a lot to convince him to let rookie Deshaun Watson start in 2017.
To a degree, that’s understandable. The Texans are a playoff team, even with a piss-poor quarterback. Brock Osweiler proved that last season, and J.J. Watt wasn’t even a part of the team’s postseason party in 2016.
Savage knows O’Brien’s offense. He’s been in it now for three seasons and likely knows the playbook like the back of his own hand. But let’s not kid ourselves about him, either. He’s not in any way a reliable option, having played in just five games, completed just 60.9 percent of his 92 career passes with no touchdowns and one interception.
Knowing the playbook and winning a quarterback competition against a very talented rookie who is coming off a national championship are two entirely different things.
Our fearless prediction here is that Savage will “win” the competition and start Week 1, losing the job eventually sometime in the first handful of weeks to the rook.
Minnesota Vikings, running back (Latavius Murray vs. Dalvin Cook)
It’s a whole new era in Minnesota now that Adrian Peterson is down in the Bayou. The Vikings signed Latavius Murray in free agency, handing him a pretty nice contract in the process. He had a couple of very productive seasons in Oakland before making the move, chewing up 1,854 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns on the ground from 2015-16.
So it was pretty surprising when they took Florida State product Dalvin Cook in the second round. Granted, it was a steal. Some teams bit hard on some questionable off-field information, disregarding his outstanding production on the field.
While Murray has rehabbed an ankle injury this offseason, Cook has soaked up all the reps in practice. He has a head start on his veteran teammate and could have an angle on the starting job.
One report recently suggested Cook will likely start and that Murray will be the team’s short-yardage, goal-line specialist. But we know Murray won’t let the rookie have that starting job, so it’s going to be very interesting to see who the Vikings trot out there in Week 1 to play behind Sam Bradford.
Chicago Bears, quarterback (Mike Glennon vs. Mitch Trubisky)
— Sportsnaut (@Sportsnaut) May 23, 2017
Like Savage vs. Watson in Houston, veteran Mike Glennon is the starter on paper right now, and the Bears sure hope that he can keep the job this year.
But if Glennon doesn’t cling to this opportunity with both hands, taking full advantage of it, Trubisky will become a problem. Starting in the first preseason game, Glennon must absolutely show everyone he’s the clear-cut starter. If he has poor outings and Trubisky shines, the Bears will have a hard time convincing their players and fans that the rookie needs to stay on the sideline throughout the season.
Granted, we don’t expect this scenario to play out. Glennon was more than serviceable even as a rookie in Tampa Bay. But circumstances out of his control took that opportunity away from him. Now he’s in a situation where his job security depends on him to perform at a high level.
After all, the Bears gave up an awful lot to move up just one spot for the rookie.
New Orleans Saints, running back (Mark Ingram vs. Adrian Peterson)
The Saints have a pretty good problem on their hands. Both Ingram and Peterson are capable of dominating defenses on the ground.
Heck, Ingram is coming off a career year as a pro. The former Heisman winner totaled 1,362 yards and 10 touchdowns last year. Now suddenly, he’s going to have to fight for his job against a potential Hall of Fame running back — a situation he’s embracing as best he can.
After missing most of last season with a knee injury, Peterson has wowed his new Saints teammates this spring. Even head coach Sean Payton has been impressed, leading us to believe the former Vikings star could actually end up as the starter over Ingram.
If the Saints are going to control ballgames, rather than giving up just as many points as they score, then the running game is going to be a huge point of emphasis in 2017. So, regardless of who ends up as the “starter,” it’s clear both Ingram and Peterson figure to get plenty of work this season. And let’s not forget about rookie Alvin Kamara, who is also very talented.