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Battles to watch in every NFL camp

By
Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange
Courtesy NFL Twitter
Courtesy NFL Twitter

While most the focus is on star quarterbacks and headlines are demanded by surprise injuries, the attention of those actually in each NFL training camp is on key battles that players, coaches and media in attendance see every day.

A survey of TSX insiders covering every team reveals those battles that are most discussed in each camp around the league.

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Many of these are battles for so-called lesser positions, like the fifth wide receiver. That's the case with the Dallas Cowboys, with Brice Butler, Andy Jones and Noah Brown. Or for backup or slot cornerback, a popular situation in many camps, including the New York Giants.

Some battles are just battles. In Cincinnati, the always-feisty linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, who has a history of disciplinary problems, hit running back Giovani Bernard at the knees, which put an edge on things because Bernard is coming off a torn ACL. Oh yeah, and this was in a non-contact drill.

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In Davie, Florida, the battle is between two men for two positions, as left tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive end Charles Harris square off in each practice in a heated battle to keep their respective positions. Harris has speed, Tunsil technique. It is a fun battle to watch.

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Here are the battles watched closely from every NFL camp, as reported by TSX insiders covering each team:

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DALLAS COWBOYS

--Fifth receiver spot among Brice Butler, Andy Jones and Noah Brown. This will be tough, possibly forcing Cowboys to keep six receivers. Butler is having an amazing camp, not dropping a ball. Jones and Brown are younger and kept up with Butler catch-for-catch and both can also play in the slot.

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NEW YORK GIANTS

--Backup slot cornerback. The Giants found out last year what life is like without Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, their slot cornerback. He was forced from the wild-card game in Green Bay with a thigh injury, leaving the Giants with no quality depth. Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers went right after the replacements, including former cornerback Trevin Wade, and the results weren't pretty. The Giants didn't draft to fill this position, but will instead look to younger guys, such as Mykkele Thompson and Donte Deayon, to compete for the job. If the Giants have an injury to cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins or Eli Apple, Rodgers-Cromartie is likely first to step in, which would leave that slot cornerback position open to whichever player is his backup.

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PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

--Shelton Gibson vs. Marcus Johnson for the sixth and final wide receiver spot. Johnson, a 2016 undrafted free agent who spent time on the Eagles' practice squad last year, is having an excellent camp and appeared to move ahead of fifth-round rookie Shelton Gibson, who continues to drop too many passes.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

--Junior Galette vs. Preston Smith at outside linebacker. Intriguing battle to watch on the right side as the Redskins try to generate a better pass rush. This is a big year for Smith, who dropped from nine sacks as a rookie, including a playoff loss to Green Bay, to 4.5 last year, when he was called out by coaches and teammates for his spotty production. Galette has the track record -- 22 total sacks in 2013 and 2014 with New Orleans -- but has missed two consecutive years with torn Achilles' tendons. Galette still shows good burst and gave left tackle Trent Williams fits in the early part of camp. These two will have an advantage on outside linebacker Trent Murphy, who is suspended the first four games for violating the NFL's drug policy.

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CHICAGO BEARS

--Bryce Callahan vs. Kyle Fuller at right cornerback. With Marcus Cooper still suffering from a hamstring injury, the Bears have looked largely at Callahan at right corner with a few glimpses of Fuller. Both players have solid zone skills, but Callahan appeared more willing to attack the ball in coverage than Fuller, and is more physical. Callahan has been a key contributor in the past as a nickel back, but was plagued by nagging injuries last year.

DETROIT LIONS

--Cyrus Kouandjio vs. Greg Robinson at left tackle. Kouandjio and Robinson are the two leading candidates to start at left tackle for the Lions this fall, and they split reps with the first-team offense at the team's first padded practice of training camp Tuesday. The Lions are looking for a short-term replacement for Taylor Decker, who underwent shoulder surgery in June and is expected to miss the first half or so of the season. Both Kouandjio and Robinson joined the Lions on the final day of June minicamp, so this is the first up-close look coaches are getting at the players.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

--Kevin King vs. Ladarius Gunter vs. Quinten Rollins at cornerback. The Packers added free-agent cornerback Davon House in free agency, and he appears to be a lock to start at one corner. The other job is entirely up for grabs. Gunter finished the 2016 season as the top corner in Green Bay's decimated secondary. While Gunter competed well, his pedestrian 4.67 speed in the 40-yard dash was -- and always will be -- an issue. Rollins, Green Bay's second-round pick in 2015, battled a groin injury and inconsistency last season. Opponents had a ridiculous 133.8 passer rating against Rollins. Foes also completed 71.4 percent of passes directed at Rollins, and he allowed seven touchdown passes. The Packers then drafted the 6-foot-3, 200-pound King with the first pick of the second round. Early on in camp, all three players played with the first team.

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MINNESOTA VIKINGS

--Ryan Quigley vs. Taylor Symmank for punter. Don't assume Quigley, the five-year veteran signed in free agency, will win the punting job this summer. Symmank has no regular-season games on his resume, but what he has is the superior leg strength. He spent the first week of camp booming punts. A couple of them were 57-yarders with over 5.0-second hang times. What Quigley has is a more controlled game that makes him better, at this point, when it comes to directional punting. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer isn't blinded by straight power, preferring that his punters punt to specific spots with specific hang times so that the cover guys can do their jobs.

ATLANTA FALCONS

--Cornerback. Jalen Collins, who started in the Super Bowl, was working with the third-team defense on Tuesday. He was also on the special teams knit-cap/scout team. Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford are working with the first-team. C.J Goodwin and Deja Olatoye were working with the second team. Collins took over for Alford at right cornerback down the stretch of last season after Trufant went out because of a pectoral injury. Alford moved over to left cornerback.

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CAROLINA PANTHERS

--Vernon Butler vs. Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle. A second-year pro, Butler is taking a lot of the repetitions and looks good. If the 2016 first-round draft pick keeps up this pace, he could be ready to displace Lotulelei as the primary cog in the middle of the defensive line. Lotulelei had offseason shoulder surgery, so his durability could become a factor as well.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

--Rookie No. 1 draft choice Ryan Ramczyk vs. Khalif Barnes at left tackle. This is a close competition to see who will start while Terron Armstead recovers from recent shoulder surgery. Ramczyk has received the most snaps with the first unit and has held his own, but the distribution of first-team snaps has more to do with the coaches trying to learn as much as they can about the rookie and accelerate his development than it does with a front-runner in the competition.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

--Devante Bond vs. Kendell Beckwith at linebacker. The Bucs will have a new strong-side linebacker this season. Bond spent last season on injured reserve but is working with the first-team defense. Beckwith, at 6-3, 251 pounds, is larger than most Bucs linebackers but plays fast and physical. He also is a former teammate of MLB Kwon Alexander. After the first four days of camp, Beckwith probably improved as much as any player on the team.

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ARIZONA CARDINALS

--Running back. Head coach Bruce Arians wants more of a two-back system. David Johnson and Chris Johnson will get the bulk of that work. Behind them are five running backs competing for two or three spots. Entering the team's first preseason game at the Hall of Fame, Elijhaa Penny seems to have the inside track on the No. 3 spot based on how he performed in training. Andre Ellington, was beset by injuries since joining the league in 2013. Rookie T.J. Logan looks like a shoo-in to make the team, at least as a kick returner, and could pose problems for Kerwynn Williams and rookie James Summers.

LOS ANGELES RAMS

--Kayvon Webster vs. E.J. Gaines at cornerback. Three years ago, Gaines stepped up as a rookie to earn a starting role with the Rams and went into 2015 eyeing an even bigger year. But a foot injury in training camp cost him an entire season and he returned to mixed reviews last season. The Rams brought in Webster as competition, and the two have had a spirited battle for a starting position opposite Trumaine Johnson. Both are responding, with Gaines coming up with an interception on a tipped ball against Jared Goff on Monday, and Webster showing up big-time in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. Webster has a history with new Rams defensive coordinator Wade Phillips, having played under him in Denver.

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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

--Cole Hikutini, George Kittle, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek are in the competition for the starting position and roster spots at tight end. The rookies (Hikutini and Kittle) have held the advantage over the veterans in the early going. Hikutini put on a nice show Monday when given an opportunity created by Kittle's hamstring injury. The duel for the starting spot -- and roster spots in general -- is wide open.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

--The competition at running back appears to be a fierce one for the Seahawks this camp. Thomas Rawls, Eddie Lacy and C.J. Prosise are the top trio of the group. The battle for fourth and fifth on the depth chart will take most of camp to figure out. Alex Collins, Mike Davis and Chris Carson have received plenty of work in the opening days of camp with each getting chances with the first-team unit.

BUFFALO BILLS

--Reggie Ragland vs. Preston Brown at middle linebacker. The Bills need to figure out who is going to be the middle linebacker in the 4-3, and some believed Ragland -- the 2016 second-round pick who missed his entire rookie season -- would take control. He really hasn't, and fourth-year veteran Brown is clearly entrenched, at least through five practices. Ragland could end up contending for the weak outside spot, but right now, Brown -- who has led the Bills in defensive snaps played three years in a row -- is out-pacing Ragland inside.

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MIAMI DOLPHINS

--Left tackle Laremy Tunsil vs. defensive end Charles Harris. These aren't two guys battling for the same position. It is Miami's last two first-round picks (Tunsil in 2016, Harris in 2017) going head-to-head in what is becoming the best matchup of training camp. It doesn't happen often because technically, Harris is a second-teamer behind Andre Branch. But Harris is a pass-rushing specialist and every now and then in both 11-on-11 and one-on-one drills these two battle. Harris has used his quick first step to get around Tunsil a few times, but Tunsil used technique, strength and speed to gain a slight overall edge.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

--Geneo Grissom, Kony Ealy and Deatrich Wise Jr. at defensive end. These three appear to be the front-runners to replace Rob Ninkovich at the vacated left end spot. Grissom is taking the first-team reps in camp, but hasn't played any meaningful snaps in his first two seasons and was cut out of camp last year. Ealy was healthy, but not on the field to open camp because he had a "thing" with head coach Bill Belichick. Wise has been impressive in his first few workouts, but clearly has a long way to go toward a possible starting job or even rotational reps. This battle is wide open.

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NEW YORK JETS

--No. 2 receiver. Literally every receiver in camp will get an opportunity to line up opposite No. 1 wideout Quincy Enunwa. Robby Anderson entered camp as the favorite, but had a couple of bad drops in the first practice and had a slight hamstring injury during the third workout. Chris Harper, a two-year veteran with 14 career catches, may have vaulted into the lead with a handful of impressive catches, including a 35-yarder on Tuesday that elicited applause from his teammates.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

--Defensive end. The Ravens were hurt when Lawrence Guy signed with the New England Patriots in the offseason. However, this provided an opportunity for Brent Urban, Bronson Kaufusi and rookie Chris Wormley to battle for that starting role. Urban, a third-year player, is imposing at 6-foot-7, 300 pounds, but he must show he can stay healthy. Kaufusi, a second-year player, is also looking to bounce back after missing all of last season with a broken ankle. Wormley was a third-round pick from Michigan and is a solid fit in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

--Not a position battle, but tempers flared Tuesday when linebacker Vontaze Burfict hit running back Giovani Bernard at his knees during a non-contact drill. Bernard is coming back from a torn ACL suffered late last season. Burfict, who has a history of disciplinary issues, appeared to shove running backs coach Kyle Caskey during the ensuing scuffle. "We are wasting time pushing and shoving," head coach Marvin Lewis told reporters following Tuesday's practice.

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CLEVELAND BROWNS

--Shon Coleman and Cameron Erving at right tackle. Both are getting plenty of practice time. Coleman is working at left tackle on days when Joe Thomas is rested. Coach Hue Jackson said Coleman's work at left tackle isn't hampering his growth at right tackle. The Browns need a right tackle to replace Austin Pasztor, who started 15 games last year.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

--Backup inside linebacker. Tyler Matakevich vs. L.J. Fort and Steven Johnson. It's not a battle for a starting job, but it figures to be an important role this season. Vince Williams, who was the top reserve the past four seasons, steps into the starting role with Lawrence Timmons' departure. Ryan Shazier has not been able to stay healthy in any of his first three seasons and Williams was called upon to start a number of games in his absence. When Williams missed practice Sunday and Monday due a heat-related illness, it was Matakevich who played with the first-team defense.

HOUSTON TEXANS

--Marcus Gilchrist's arrival should inject competition into the safety position, which is in flux after Quintin Demps signed with the Chicago Bears this offseason. Gilchrist has starting experience and is healthy now. He could push Andre Hal or Corey Moore for a starting job if he learns the defense quickly enough.

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INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

--Wide receiver. Yes, T.Y. Hilton and Donte' Moncrief are the Colts' top two receivers. But the big question continues to be who will end up as the team's No. 3 and No. 4 receivers. It appears to be a three-player race with Phillip Dorsett, Kamar Aiken and Chester Rogers fighting it out for the job. Dorsett, Indianapolis' 2015 first-round draft pick, had issues with injuries his first two seasons in the league. Aiken was a veteran free-agent signee who spent his previous three seasons in Baltimore. Rogers, a former undrafted free agent from Grambling who impressed during training camp last year, had extensive work with the first-team offense over the final month of the 2016 season.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

--Leonard Fournette vs. Chris Ivory at running back. The veteran Ivory is still running with the first unit, but it's likely only a matter of time until Fournette replaces him. Ivory battled with T.J. Yeldon a year ago for the starting job, with Yeldon holding the upper hand with 13 starts to Ivory's one start. But as far as production, Yeldon held only a 465-439 margin in rushing yards while Ivory led in average yards per attempt, 3.8 to 3.6. Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick, looked strong in training camp thus far, breaking off several lengthy runs with his size and speed. Yeldon is still in the picture, but will likely be used mostly as a third-down back.

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TENNESSEE TITANS

--LeShaun Sims vs. Adoree' Jackson at cornerback. With the revamping of the secondary, it was assumed that first-round pick Jackson would team with free agent Logan Ryan as the Titans' starting cornerbacks. But Sims, who started the final few games last season as a rookie, isn't going down without a fight. He has remained with the first unit through four days of camp work, and is keeping Jackson on the second team.

DENVER BRONCOS

--No. 3 wide receiver. Bennie Fowler has the upper hand because of his size, experience and toughness. He went on a vegan diet over the offseason, which he said has him in the best shape of his career. Rookie Carlos Henderson struggled early but made some good catches Sunday and Monday. Second-year veteran Jordan Taylor is also in the mix, but he doesn't fit the body template of a typical No. 3 receiver. Cody Latimer, the Broncos' 2014 second-round pick, also is battling for playing time, but he continues to struggle with consistency.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

--The Chiefs' wide receiver group is among one of the tighter competitions in camp. Tyreek Hill, Chris Conley and 2017 fourth-round pick Jehu Chesson appear locks for what probably will be six active roster spots. Albert Wilson, De'Anthony Thomas, Demarcus Robinson and Seantavius Jones appear to be the front-runners for the final three spots. Wilson brings the most experience and is the oldest receiver on the roster at age 25. Thomas gets an edge due to his special teams value, especially in the return game. Robinson excelled during OTAs, but Jones has turned the most heads so far in camp. Marcus Kemp is a sleeper among the undrafted rookie free agents. The Chiefs also signed veterans Corey Washington and Robert Wheelwright this week.

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LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

--Kellen Clemens vs. Cardale Jones at backup quarterback. Clemens is everything a team wants in a backup in that he has winning experience as a starter and he is a solid teammate and a contributor in the quarterbacks' room. But he's also 34 years old, just one year younger than starter Philip Rivers. Jones was acquired just before camp and the former Ohio State star caught head coach Anthony Lynn's eye last season when they both were at Buffalo, but is a project.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

--Eddie Vanderdoes vs. Treyvon Hester at defensive tackle. Hester, a seventh-round pick, got a head start in that he was present throughout the offeseason program while Vanderdoes, taken in the third round, could not participate because his class at UCLA had not graduated.

Hester opened with the first team -- in part because Jihad Ward and Mario Edwards Jr. were both injured -- but after four days of practice, Vanderdoes appeared to have the upper hand. The Raiders are desperately seeking an interior pass rush.

--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and is a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

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