NFL: Training camp battles for all 32 teams

By The Sports Xchange
San Francisco 49ers Vernon Davis makes a catch for a touchdown in front of Dallas Cowboys Justin Durant at AT&T Stadium on September 7, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. UPI/Ian Halperin
San Francisco 49ers Vernon Davis makes a catch for a touchdown in front of Dallas Cowboys Justin Durant at AT&T Stadium on September 7, 2014 in Arlington, Texas. UPI/Ian Halperin | License Photo

As most National Football League teams plunged into their first full week of training camp Monday, here is a closer look at interesting battles already heating up.

While some may be obvious, many are from the perspective of those who watch the daily workouts and see these battles play out. After the first week, here are reports from reporters on the scene with each team for The Sports Xchange (teams listed alphabetically, first NFC, then AFC):




--Linebacker: Markus Golden has the inside track to land the starting "Sam" outside linebacker position, but there are a handful of other players right behind him who will get their shot at some serious playing time, head coach Bruce Arians said. The top three contenders are Shaq Riddick, Alex Okafor and Tristan Okpalaugo, who put up some big sack totals the past two seasons while playing in the CFL.


"Those guys are all fighting for a spot," Arians said. "That's the beauty of this training camp right now. You can't have a bad day. There's about five positions where you cannot have a bad day because you may never get back up the ladder."


--Middle linebacker: Paul Worrilow is the incumbent, but the Falcons drafted the speedy Deion Jones from LSU in the second round. Worrilow has a better understanding of the defense in his second year in this scheme.

"He's so conscientious, he just wants to do everything right," linebackers coach Jeff Ulbrich said.


--Wide receiver: Philly Brown vs. Damiere Byrd. Brown weighed in at 200 pounds, 20 more than where he was at last season. He claims his speed is unaffected, but the Panthers are high on the blazing-fast Byrd, who spent last season on the practice squad.


--Cornerback: Bryce Callahan vs. Kyle Fuller. Callahan took extensive snaps the first day of practice with the first team in Fuller's place, then moved to nickel back when the defense went out of the base 3-4 and into coverage. A similar situation occurred with slightly less regularity in OTAs and minicamp.


Fuller last year was challenged by coaches and eventually improved his skills in man-to-man coverage after being more of a zone defender under former head coach Marc Trestman. Callahan took over the nickel-back spot last year and showed an ability to handle man coverage over the middle, but it wouldn't be a stretch for the Bears to make him the starter and then move him to the slot receiver in nickel positions if he continues playing at a high level.

Callahan had a standout game against Green Bay in a Thanksgiving night win last year but suffered knee problems and wound up in only nine games with three starts. It might seem a stretch for a waiver-wire pickup to replace a first-round draft pick, but Fuller wasn't the selection of general manager Ryan Pace. He is tied more to the Phil Emery regime.


--Middle linebacker: Justin Durant vs. Anthony Hitchens. The Cowboys are looking for an option to replace the suspended Rolando McClain. The versatile Hitchens, who has started at all three spots in the past, will get the first look. Durant was signed to give them an experienced veteran option. He will likely play mostly on passing downs with Hitchens handling the work in the regular defense.



--Strong safety: Four different players took first-team reps at strong safety for the Lions this spring, and that's the starting spot most up for grabs as training camp begins. Rafael Bush is the favorite for the job as he brings the most experience (14 starts) from his four seasons in New England, but he has had problems staying healthy of late. Tavon Wilson was one of the Lions' first signings of free agency and has a long history with general manager Bob Quinn, and rookie Miles Killebrew and second-year player Isaiah Johnson have tantalizing upsides. Starting free safety Glover Quin has played with three different starters in his first three seasons in Detroit, but the sooner the Lions can sort this position battle out the better for chemistry's sake.


--Backup wide receiver: Even with Jordy Nelson still sidelined because of a new knee injury that left him on the physically unable to perform list at the start of training camp, the Packers' starting duo is clear-cut with Nelson and Randall Cobb. Nelson's continued absence - he wasn't cleared for the spring workouts as he completed his recovery from a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2015 season - is beneficial in that Green Bay's young understudies are getting more quality reps in practice. All the more so with second-year wideout Ty Montgomery also on the PUP list after he missed most of last season with an ankle injury that required surgery in December.


Until Montgomery makes his belated return to the field, the battle for the pecking order from No. 3 receiver down to realistically No. 6 already is being waged among young returnees Davante Adams, Jeff Janis and Jared Abbrederis and rookie Trevor Davis. Abbrederis and Davis, a speedy fifth-round draft pick out of Cal, made a profound early impression with a slew of catches (some of them sensational) in the first practice last week.


--Safety: Cody Davis vs. Maurice Alexander. With Rodney McLeod off to the Philadelphia Eagles as a free agent, the Rams need to find a replacement over the next six weeks. Davis, McLeod and Christian Bryant all looked good and drew praise from coaches during OTAs, and each will get a long look as McLeod's heir apparent opposite T.J. McDonald, who is returning after missing the last five games of 2016.

Alexander replaced McDonald last December and responded with 27 tackles and two sacks. Davis was considered the front-runner to fill McLeod's spot, but Alexander and Bryant's strong OTAs certainly changed the dynamic of the battle. Alexander ran with the No. 1 Rams defense to open training camp opposite McDonald, and looked smooth over his first practice on Saturday. Davis, though, came up with the lone interception of the day when he picked off Jared Goff during 11-on-11 drills.



--Left defensive end: Brian Robison vs. Danielle Hunter. The job belongs, for now at least, to Robison, the respected 33-year-old veteran. But hovering close is Hunter, the sky-is-the-limit 21 year old who surprised everybody a year ago with how quickly he adjusted to the NFL. As one of the older players on the team, Robison will be given plenty of rest throughout training camp.

That will give Hunter even more opportunities to force his way into earning more regular-season snaps and possibly the starting position. Robison is steady and technically sound. Hunter might be the most physically gifted athlete on a team that includes running back Adrian Peterson. Hunter came into the league as a raw player who struggled as a pass rusher in college. He quickly turned things around and posted six sacks, the second-highest total on the team.


Left guard: Tim Lelito vs. Senio Kelemete. This battle may not materialize for a while with right guard Andrus Peat temporarily filling in for left tackle Terron Armstead, who is on the PUP list to start training camp. When Armstead returns to the lineup, Peat will shift back over to right guard, leaving Lelito, the starter for most of last season, to go head-to-head with Kelemete for the job on the left side. Kelemete showed he was up to the challenge last season when he had to step in to replace Lelito and Jahri Evans when they missed games because of injuries.



--Defensive tackle: The Giants' depth at defensive tackle took a hit before the team even made the practice field, but that could be a good thing for a team that is trying to figure out who the fourth defensive tackle will be. Starter Damon Harrison began camp on the PUP list with swelling in his knee, where he joined Jay Bromley (ankle). Undrafted rookie free agent Melvin Lewis also started on the non-football illness list, but was then waived.

With three defensive tackles down, it will be interesting to see who from a group that includes Louis Nix and Montori Hughes takes advantage of the opportunity. Hughes spent the spring sidelined with a lower leg injury, so it would appear that Nix will get first dibs alongside Hankins. Whether he takes advantage of the opportunity remains to be seen.


--Wide receiver: Beyond Jordan Matthews, the wide receiver situation is up in the air. Nelson Agholor, the team's 2015 first-round pick, had a disappointing rookie season. Josh Huff, a 2014 third-round pick, has 35 catches in two seasons. In the offseason, the Eagles signed two free-agent wide receivers -- Rueben Randle and Chris Givens. Randle had eight touchdown catches with the Giants last season.



--Wide receiver: Bruce Ellington vs. Quinton Patton vs. DeAndrew White vs. Eric Rogers vs. Jerome Simpson for the starting wideout position opposite Torrey Smith. With Anquan Boldin having signed with Detroit, the door has officially swung open for a new starter to emerge from a large, and generally undistinguished, group. The competition is so wide open, Aaron Burbridge, Dres Anderson, DeAndre Smelter, Devon Cajuste, DiAndre Campbell and Bryce Treggs cannot totally be discounted.


--Strong-side linebacker. Mike Morgan vs. Eric Pinkins vs. Cassius Marsh. Morgan is currently running with the first-team defense as the team looks to replace the departed Bruce Irvin in the starting lineup. However, Marsh and Pinkins will push Morgan for playing time.

"(Morgan)'s the first guy up right now," head coach Peter Carroll said. "But it is wide open. I'm really excited to see what Cassius does and really excited to see what Pink does. It's just going to take some time though."


--Backup wide receiver: Kenny Bell vs. Adam Humphries. The Bucs have a tussle for the third spot behind Mike Evans and Vincent Jackson. Bell caught a few deep balls last Thursday and says he has improved his route running.



-- Strong safety: David Bruton Jr. vs. Duke Ihenacho. An intriguing fight for playing time at a spot where the Redskins have few options. Bruton Jr. and Ihenacho were teammates in Denver for a time. Ihenacho even started 13 games there in 2013. But he was cut during training camp in 2014 and picked up by Washington. Injuries limited him to four games total in two seasons. For now, Bruton, who signed as a free agent, has the edge after he had a breakthrough season in Denver last year. Injury ended that one in a Dec. 22 game against Pittsburgh so Bruton missed the playoffs. But he is running with the starters. Ihenacho earned the starting job in 2015 before sustaining a broken left wrist in Week 1.



--Running back: Head coach John Harbaugh made sure his deep group of running backs got plenty of carries with both the first and second teams during the first full-squad training camp practices.

Justin Forsett, Javorius "Buck" Allen, Terrance West and rookie Kenneth Dixon each looked solid during drills. If the running backs can't separate themselves, Harbaugh could enter the season using a "running-back-by-committee" approach, meaning the players will split carries. However, each of them is striving to be the featured back.


"I grew up on old-school running backs." Forsett said. "I love watching them play - Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders, all those guys. Of course, if you are a running back - everybody wants to be on the field all the time."

Allen, who took over the starting role for the injured Forsett last season, expressed a similar sentiment. "All of us are trying to compete," Allen said. "Everybody wants to be the starter. Everybody in the room wants to be the starter. You're going to try to beat whoever is on top and whoever the man is behind you, you're going try to stay in front of him. That's my motive, and that's how I'm taking it."


--Edge rusher: The Bills have a gaping hole at edge rusher as rookie Shaq Lawson won't be available to play until perhaps midseason, and Manny Lawson, who was slated to start at that spot, is now sidelined by a pectoral injury. IK Enempkpali, known primarily for the infamous punch he threw at Jets quarterback Geno Smith last summer, seems to be at the top of the depth chart as camp begins, and players like Max Valles, Lorenzo Alexander, and Randell Johnson will have opportunities to show something in camp.



--Wide receiver: After the offseason departures of Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones, the Bengals spent this past offseason weighing their options aside from veterans A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell. Speedster Mario Alford, second-round pick Tyler Boyd and returnee Brandon Tate all are in the mix.

"There's a lot of competition out there," quarterback Andy Dalton said. "Especially when you lose some guys. We've got some new guys out there, but a lot of talent. Just putting it all together to see how they can help this team."


--Quarterback: Robert Griffin III vs. Josh McCown. Head coach Hue Jackson vows to name a starter before the preseason opener in Green Bay on Aug. 12, but he isn't ready to declare a winner yet. Griffin has to be considered the favorite because he took most of the first-team reps in spring practice and minicamp. Jackson said he hasn't determined how he will divide the reps -- 60-40, 50-50 or whatever. The battle heated up after the pads went on Sunday. Griffin took the first five snaps Friday on the first day of camp.



--Quarterback: Trevor Siemian is expected to get some shots with the first unit, but in the first week of training camp, the spotlight belonged to Mark Sanchez, who completed nine of his 13 passes and was not intercepted on the first day -- although one pass nearly was picked off by cornerback Bradley Roby. Sanchez saw the first-team work in team and seven-on-seven periods and had multiple connections with both Emmanuel Sanders and Demaryius Thomas.


--Tight end. C.J. Fiedorowicz and Ryan Griffin are battling for a starting job. Both were sidelined during the spring and missed practices. Fiedorowicz is more of a blocking tight end whereas Griffin is more of a pass-catching type. Both are big downfield targets, but neither has made many big plays overall.


--Safety: With Dwight Lowery gone after the 2015 season, second-year safety Clayton Geathers was penciled in to be his eventual replacement and line up next to veteran Mike Adams. Now Geathers will be forced to sit and watch as he recovers from a pre-training camp foot injury. Rookie T.J. Green will now get a longer look. Green was a second-round pick last spring and the rookie from Clemson will be given every opportunity to win himself a job.


He left last week's opening training camp practice early due to cramping issues. Green, though, is still raw but the Colts' coaching staff love his size (6-foot-3, 205), athleticism and speed. Winston Guy got work with the first-team defense in the team's opening practice. Guy, who was also bothered by cramping, has the game experience to contend with Green along with a handful of undrafted free agents.


--Left tackle: Kelvin Beachum vs. Luke Joeckel. This will be the most-watched and most-competitive battle that takes place in training camp. A healthy Beachum should win the job, but coming off ACL surgery there are no guarantees how his knee will hold up. Joeckel is playing with a chip on his shoulder in that he's been subjected to much scrutiny during the offseason. The loser of this contest could still win a starting spot in the line as they will move to left guard and battle Mackenzy Bernadeau for starting honors.


--Backup quarterback: The fight for the No. 2 quarterback position began the first day the Chiefs were on the field at Missouri Western State University, when it was just rookies and quarterbacks working ahead of the full squad reporting. The job will fall to Tyler Bray, Aaron Murray or rookie Kevin Hogan.


The practices are important, but preseason game action will be most defining in deciding who sits in the No. 2 chair, or whether the Chiefs try to find a veteran backup on the street or waiver wire.

"You get to see them play when they don't have the colored jersey on," head coach Andy Reid said. "That gives you the best indicator of what you're going to have. I look forward to that. Here (training camp), things will be a little faster than they were. We'll be in pads. We'll be in live drills. They won't be live, but we'll have live drills, so things will be faster and there will be a rush on them that will be close, but they're not live. I look forward to seeing them in the games, and I look forward to seeing them in practice. Every rep they're going to get is going to help."


--Left guard: Dallas Thomas vs. Laremy Tunsil. Thomas was one of the NFL's worst starting guards last season so it was thought Tunsil, the first-round pick from Mississippi, would be the automatic starter. But so far that hasn't happened. Tunsil lined up at second-team left tackle and left guard in early practices. It is expected Tunsil will eventually be the starting left guard, but no one knows when that will happen.



--Wide receiver: Aaron Dobson vs. Nate Washington. Washington comes to New England as a veteran who made 40-plus catches in eight straight seasons, the latest coming with Bill O'Brien's Patriots-like Texans offense. However, he is off to a slow start in Foxborough, looking a bit out of sorts and dropping too many balls this spring, and actually vomiting on the field during the first day of training camp practice.

Dobson is a fourth-year former second-round pick who missed the bulk of the last two seasons due to injury, leaving many believing his time as a Patriot was coming to an end. Dobson, though, has had an impressive spring and start to the summer, easily the best offseason of his career. If the two trends continue, Dobson, not Washington, might secure a role as an option on the outside at receiver in New England's deep arsenal of passing weapons.


--Outside linebacker: Calvin Pace was not retained and the disappointing Quinton Coples has been gone since the middle of last season. The Jets did not add any experienced outside linebackers and the main contenders could be Lorenzo Mauldin and Jordan Jenkins, who were the team's third-round picks in the last two drafts.


Mauldin finished his rookie season with 10 tackles, four sacks and a fumble recovery in 15 games. Jenkins had 59 tackles in his senior season with Georgia and head coach Todd Bowles praised him in minicamp and OTAs while also giving him some snaps with the first team. On the first day of training camp, Jenkins tipped a ball to himself and intercepted Ryan Fitzpatrick during 11-on-11 drills. Others in the mix could be Freddie Bishop, Trevor Reilly, Deion Barnes and Mike Catapano.


--Right tackle: Menelik Watson vs. Austin Howard. Watson opened the first practice with the first team at right tackle, but it was at least a minor surprise that Howard, who missed the end of the season with a knee injury, was also on the field and getting first-team reps. Watson held on to the job during training camp a year ago before being lost to a torn Achilles in the third preseason game. Howard, who played right guard in 2014, stepped in and did a credible job returning to the right side. Watson is the more athletic of the two, while Howard is bigger and has more power. The Raiders like the idea of starting Watson and having Howard as a swing player -- at guard and tackle -- on both sides.



--Backup tight end: Jesse James vs. David Johnson. The Steelers signed Ladarius Green to replace Heath Miller as their starting tight end, but his backup will be determined in the next month before the regular season begins. Matt Spaeth held that job for the past three seasons, but he was released with a failed physical designation. That means it will be between James, a second-year player out of Penn State, and Johnson, a seven-year veteran who played his first four seasons in the NFL with the Steelers. James is the more prototypical tight end. He is 6-foot-7 and 261 pounds. Johnson can line up as an inline tight end, but at 6-foot-2 he is probably better suited to fill an H-back role. In the end, it simply might be a matter of how offensive coordinator Todd Haley wants to implement his tight ends. Xavier Grimble, who spent last season on the practice squad, might be the best receiver other than Green, but he must prove he can block.


--Cornerback: Brandon Flowers vs Casey Hayward. Flowers reported to camp in great shape although he was a little heavy -- it happens when you carry a chip on your shoulder. Flowers struggled last year after arriving at Chargers Park before the season far from fit. Then his knees started barking and soon he was getting burned on a regular basis. Flowers swears he learned his lesson and vows to bounce back and be a leader in the secondary.


But Hayward, a free agent from Green Bay, was brought in to push Flowers, and if it happens, steal his job from him. The competition should be spirited, with a proud Flowers trying to get right and an appreciative Hayward wanting to reward the Chargers for showing faith in him.


--Cornerback: Brice McCain vs. Perrish Cox. Head coach Mike Mularkey said he expects this battle to go down through the end of camp. On the first day, both players rotated in with the first group. Mularkey said the player that tackles the best could end up winning the job.

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