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AFC training camp battles: Oakland Raiders, Denver Broncos have TE decisions to make

By The Sports Xchange
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Oakland Raiders TE Mychal Rivera. File photo Bruce Gordon/UPI | <a href="/News_Photos/lp/f340bd1eb7df1911def9d175b6c8e340/" target="_blank">License Photo</a>
Oakland Raiders TE Mychal Rivera. File photo Bruce Gordon/UPI | License Photo

AFC training camp position battles for each team in the conference.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

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--Wide receiver: Injuries hampered a number of wide receivers' ability to participate in the early part of the Ravens' training camp. This has created an opportunity for younger players fighting for a roster spot to leave an impression. Steve Smith Sr. (Achilles), Breshad Perriman (knee) and Chris Moore (undisclosed) have not been able to practice. However, all three players are locks for the final roster, joining Mike Wallace and Kamar Aiken.

This means Michael Campanaro, Keenan Reynolds, Jeremy Butler, Chris Matthews and Kaelin Clay are fighting to make the team. Butler has looked the most impressive of the group with his ability to come down with the ball. Campanaro has also looked solid, but he has been hampered with injuries throughout his career. He is also missed a couple of practices in this year's training camp.

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Reynolds is still trying to make the transition from college quarterback to receiver and remains a work in progress. He could be headed to the practice squad. Matthews has had an uneven camp and faces an uphill battle. Clay could make his mark on special teams as the top returner.

BUFFALO BILLS

--Wide receiver: There aren't a lot of positions up for grabs, but this is certainly a hot competition. Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods are the undeniable starters, but after that it's wide open. Journeymen veterans Greg Little, Greg Salas, Leonard Hankerson, Walter Powell and Jarrett Boykin -- along with 2015 seventh-round draft pick Dezmin Lewis -- are all in the mix, and no one has stepped up and taken the lead in the first week of camp.

They are getting plenty of reps, but it seems like their performance in preseason games could be the determining factor in which guys make the team.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

--Defensive tackle: Among the more intriguing prospects for the Bengals is Marcus Hardison out of Arizona State. Problem is, the Bengals are loaded with solid defensive linemen, most notably Geno Atkins.

The nickel defense is where Hardison or DeShawn Williams could find some snaps. Cincinnati was in the nickel more than 60 percent of the time last season so there is plenty of playing time to be earned for this duo.

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CLEVELAND BROWNS

--Right tackle: The Browns are using training camp to find a replacement for Mitchell Schwartz, who signed with the Chiefs in free agency. Veteran Alvin Bailey has spent more time with the starters than anyone else, but he is being pushed by two rookies.

Spencer Drango, a fifth-round draft pick from Baylor, worked with the first team on Thursday. Third-round pick Shon Coleman has also worked with the starters. Drango and Coleman are both raw, but the Browns are in a long term building project. If one of the rookies shows a higher ceiling than Bailey has, coach Hue Jackson might end up going with Drango or Coleman. He said he will continue to "mix and match" until he finds the right combination.

DENVER BRONCOS

--Tight end: Somebody needs to step up. Coach Gary Kubiak said the position was "just a little bit behind" when camp began.

Virgil Green might finally be ready for the task. After five years working behind players like Daniel Fells, Julius Thomas and Owen Daniels, Green appears to be the No. 1 tight end, and during Thursday's practice, he played like it, catching four touchdown passes in a practice heavy on red-zone work.

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"Virgil is the red-hot player of the day here in Dove Valley. What a day he had," coach Gary Kubiak said. "He made a bunch of plays in the red zone."

It helps that he is healthy, which has been a problem for Green. He has dealt with nagging injuries and missed team work in OTAs because of a dislocated finger.

HOUSTON TEXANS

--Cornerback: The Texans are deep at cornerback with two established starters in Johnathan Joseph and Kareem Jackson. They have enviable depth behind them with former first-round pick Kevin Johnson operating as the third corner. He plays nearly as many snaps as Joseph and Jackson and often makes more big plays.

Meanwhile, A.J. Bouye is currently ahead of Charles James as the fourth cornerback. James is a feisty special teams contributor, but Bouye is taller and makes more plays on the football.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

--Right offensive guard: Heading into the Colts' preseason opener against Green Bay in the Hall of Fame Game, it appears as if second-year offensive lineman Denzell Good has edged Hugh Thornton as a starter at right offensive guard.

Good, a seventh-round draft pick from Mars Hill in 2015, played in six games and started four at right tackle as a rookie last season. He was moved inside to offensive guard during the offseason and has quickly picked up the nuances of a new position.

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Thornton had been penciled in as the starter since last season. He started 11 games at right guard in 2015 and has spent most of his four-year NFL career there. Thornton sat out most of the Colts' OTA and spring mini-camp work this year as he rehabbed from offseason foot surgery. He has been hampered during training camp with a foot injury as well. Undrafted rookie Adam Redmond is also in the mix.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

--Left guard: It is a three-way battle for this spot with two of the three players preferring not to play there. One won't for sure. Kelvin Beachum and Luke Joeckel are two of the candidates, but they are waging their own two-man battle for the right tackle spot. Both have indicated that the tackle position would be their first preference, so they will continue to battle for the starting job at that spot.

Whoever doesn't win the starter's role instantly becomes a contender for the guard position one spot over. The two tackles are contending with Mackenzy Bernadeau, who has not had the strongest start to training camp. Joeckel seems to be getting more reps at guard thus far. Beachum was given a "veterans" day off but then also missed the following day with soreness in his knee.

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That increased speculation that the former Pittsburgh Steelers starting tackle might not be at 100 percent when the Jaguars open their 2016 regular season. Even with Beachum on the sideline for two days, Joeckel was getting reps at the guard spot. The coaching staff knows of his talents at tackle, so the idea is to give him increased reps at guard, a position he is still learning.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

--Right cornerback: The departure of Sean Smith (UFA/Oakland) left the door open at the right side of the Chiefs' secondary and there is a very competitive situation when it comes to his replacement. Third-year corner Phillip Gaines is the early leader with pressure coming from second-year cover man Steven Nelson. And there are three rookies getting plenty of snaps in Kansas City's defense -- draft picks Keivarae Russell, Eric Murray and D.J. White.

Gaines missed the last 13 games of the 2015 season with a torn ACL that required surgery. Along with his rookie season after being drafted out of Rice, he has very limited defensive snaps. Nelson struggled last year after being selected in the third round of the 2015 draft. He's a bit smaller (5-11, 180) than what the Chiefs like at corner, but made significant progress and is in the hunt for right cornerback and is the leader for work as the slot corner.

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Among rookies, Russell, a second-round choice out of Notre Dame, has shown the most athleticism in team drills.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

--Left cornerback: Tony Lippett vs. Chimdi Chekwa. This is a surprising battle because Lippett was battling rookie Xavien Howard until Howard was put on the physically unable to perform list to start training camp.

Howard is not expected to return until the Sept. 11 opener at Seattle, so it was thought Lippett would inherit the starting job. However, he is struggling mightily, leaving an opening for Chekwa, who is faring reasonably well.

Chekwa took snaps with the starters for most of Tuesday's practice (the team was off Wednesday) and part of Thursday's practice. Neither player has extensive experience, making this position an area of concern overall.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

--Wide receiver: Coach Bill Belichick says the group of wide receivers this summer is as competitive he ever had. Position coach Chad O'Shea raves about the players' work ethic, versatility, skills and football intelligence. The one problem, though, is that many of them have missed some playing time this summer, with some of the top options out for an extended period of time.

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Julian Edelman (foot) and Danny Amendola (knee/ankle) opened camp on the PUP list, although Edelman came off the list and participated in practice Sunday. Veteran free agent addition Nate Washington vomited on the first day of camp and has not practiced since.

Free agent newcomer Chris Hogan suffered a shoulder injury that's caused him to miss multiple workouts. Versatile returning veteran Keshawn Martin missed multiple sessions for unknown reasons as has rookie fourth-round pick Malcolm Mitchell. Ironically, one of the only guys to practice every day has been fourth-year former second-round pick Aaron Dobson, who missed the bulk of the last two seasons to injury and is probably fighting for his roster life.

NEW YORK JETS

--Kicker: Not exactly the most glamorous of training camp battles, but it is for real on the Jets and a focus now that the quarterback riddle is solved.

Veteran incumbent Nick Folk hasn't done a whole lot to endanger his job over his six years with the Jets, during which he's converted 81.3 percent of his field goals and all 180 of his point after attempts. But he's due to make $3.3 million this season while rookie free agent Ross Martin would make just $452,000. Martin wasted no time making things interesting by nailing 50- and 60-yard field goals on consecutive kicks in last Tuesday's practice (Aug. 2).

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"It's going to be a competition," Jets head coach Todd Bowles said. "They're pretty close there."

OAKLAND RAIDERS

--Tight end: The Raiders would like to see Clive Walford take the ball and run with it as something approximating an every down tight end. Walford looks the part on seam plays down the middle and has assumed the challenge of improving his blocking.

But if Walford has any more physical issues, the position will likely be piecemealed with Mychal Rivera as the receiving tight end, Lee Smith as the blocking tight end, with Walford working in as he develops. Also a factor is Gabe Holmes, who the Raiders promoted from the practice squad last season so he wouldn't be claimed by another team. It's also worth noting that fullback Marcel Reece has seen some time at tight end during training camp.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

--Strong safety: Sean Davis was drafted in the second round to be the strong safety of the future, but he'll have to jump over veteran Robert Golden, who is running with the first-team defense for the first week of camp. Golden started three games last season when Will Allen was injured. The Steelers elected not to re-sign Allen and used their second-round on Davis, whose versatility could come in handy.

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Defensive backs coach Carnell Lake likes to have strong safeties that are equally adept at covering and run support. He had that in former safety Troy Polamalu, and he said he'll have that in Davis whenever he is ready to play.

"Troy was that guy in his prime," Lake said. "He was able to cover anyone from that safety spot. For years, the Steelers have had that guy for the most part. In today's game with the ball going up in the air so much you need some cover guys."

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

--Wide receiver: This unit was expected to have a different look regardless, with veteran Malcom Floyd retiring in the offseason. Keenan Allen has recovered from his lacerated kidney and is firmly the No. 1 wide out. With Travis Benjamin penciled in to start opposite Allen, that much we know.

But at the No. 3 spot, the training-camp knee injury to Stevie Williams, which could keep him out for the season, muddles the picture. But this pass-catching picture came into clearer focus this week when the team signed James Jones. Jones, 32, had 890 receiving yards and eight touchdowns last year with Green Bay. Jones will battle Tyrell Williams and Dontrelle Inman for snaps. Both gained valuable experience last year, but if Jones is fit, he should have the inside track.

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TENNESSEE TITANS

--Strong safety: As the Vikings head into their second week of camp, look for the strong safety battle to heat up. The team signed longtime Tennessee Titan and former first-round draft pick Michael Griffin to compete with incumbent Andrew Sendejo.

But, so far, Sendejo is keeping a firm grip on the job, based on the consistency with which he has lined up with the first unit while Griffin learns the defense on the second team. Head coach Mike Zimmer said he must see what Griffin can do. Don't be surprised if Griffin gets some extra looks when the team practices with the Bengals next week in Cincinnati.

Sendejo is a scrappy overachiever but the team could use more talent and versatility to allow free safety Harrison Smith to do more things to help the defense.

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