NFL Preseason: Top position battles for every team

By Howard Balzer, The Sports Xchange  |  Updated Aug. 10, 2017 at 10:54 AM
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As the first full week of preseason games kick off, there is competition at numerous spots on rosters. Some are for starting jobs and many are for key backup roles.

Writers on the scene for The Sports Xchange provided a snapshot of one of the battles on their team this week. The variety illustrates how much is up for grabs.

The area with the most competition is cornerback, which was identified by six teams. After that, four positions have three teams with competition.

Following is a look at 32 teams, grouped by division.

NFC EAST

DALLAS COWBOYS

--Rod Smith and Alfred Morris at third running back. Morris is the veteran. He is in the best shape of his career and can still look like the former 1,000-yard rusher he was with the Redskins. But he doesn't play special teams and is not good in pass protection or receiving. Smith can play special teams, and the Cowboys found out he is a pretty good runner in the preseason opener. Smith has the advantage. Morris might be trade bait.

NEW YORK GIANTS

--Offense vs. the defense: Offenses going against defenses is nothing new to NFL training camps, but what has made the Giants' offense vs. the defense so interesting to watch is how much more lethal the Giants' offense now is. At the start of camp, many predicted that the offense would get a good test against the 10th-ranked defense from last year, and sure enough, that battle has come to fruition. Head coach Ben McAdoo has designed periods during the practice that pit a receiver against a defender, for example, and he'll keep score to see which side wins. The competition has not only resulted in some classic battles, but more important, it's provided an early glimpse into just how far the offense, which last year this time looked sluggish and flat, has really come.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

--Isaac Seumalo and Chance Warmack for the starting left-guard job. Seumalo will start Thursday night against Green Bay and it's his job to lose. But Warmack, who played for offensive line coach Jeff Stoutland at Alabama, has had a pretty good camp thus far.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

--Rob Kelley vs. Samaje Perine at running back: Kelley was the surprise of last season as an undrafted rookie free agent who took over for Matt Jones in Week 8. Coaches love him for his push after contact and his reliability. If a hole is there, Kelley will find it and at least get the Redskins into a manageable down and distance. Perine, a fourth-round pick in 2017, is a true power back. Overshadowed by star running back Joe Mixon at Oklahoma, Perine is well positioned for playing time if Kelley falters. He has better hands than Washington's coaches expected, though he needs to be better in pass protection and he drew the coaches' ire for a fumble in practice last week. For now, Kelley is the No. 1 back.

NFC NORTH

CHICAGO BEARS

-- Mitch Unrein vs. Jonathan Bullard and Jaye Howard at defensive end. Unrein isn't particularly fast or powerful but has displayed enough on both counts to remain with starters for two years. He played in Denver for John Fox four seasons. He's been dependable and has 44 tackles in two seasons playing largely in the base 3-4 defense. In nickel, he usually came off the field. The Bears acquired Howard in the offseason and his strength and experience have been apparent, although he is trying to come back from last year's season-ending hip injury. Bullard has the most to prove after a rookie year when he drew criticism from coaches and didn't make an impact until the season's final games. Bullard has a new jersey number (90, after being 74), a new outlook and has been moved to both end spots in camp. He has generally been more disruptive. Yet, the real test for him will be preseason games. Howard and Bullard are perceived as bigger pass rush threats than Unrein. It would appear the Bears can use all three on the roster, but this might be impacted by how many pure nose tackles they keep. All three have been tried at nose at times to add depth. Former Packers C.J. Wilson and John Jenkins are run-stuffing nose tackles who could back up starter Eddie Goldman. At 6-3, 314, Howard is heavier than both Unrein and Bullard and a better emergency fit at nose if needed there.

DETROIT LIONS

--Quandre Diggs vs. D.J. Hayden at nickel cornerback: While Darius Slay and Nevin Lawson have the starting cornerback jobs locked up, a good battle is brewing between Diggs and Hayden for the No. 3 spot. Diggs has taken most of the reps so far, but he's coming off a down season that ended prematurely because of a torn pectoral muscle. The Lions signed Hayden to a one-year deal in free agency with the expectation that he would contribute in nickel packages. Both players have had solid camps so far, with Diggs looking more and more like the player who overachieved as a part-time starter his rookie year.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

--Quinten Rollins vs. Kevin King vs. Damarious Randall at cornerback. Green Bay, which had some of the worst cornerback play in football last season, solved half of its problems this offseason by signing Davon House in free agency. The other cornerback job remains open, although Rollins has surged to the lead. Rollins had an injury-plagued, forgettable 2016 season in which he allowed seven touchdowns. Foes also had a 133.8 passer rating against Rollins and completed 71.4 percent of their passes.

But Rollins, who played four years of college basketball at Miami (Ohio) and just one year of football, has been an early star of camp. "He's quick. You can tell his core issues have been taken care of," Packers cornerbacks coach Joe Whitt said of Rollins. "He's fluid. You can see the explosiveness out of his breaks. The kid is coming in with a focus that our standard of play wasn't there last year and he's a very prideful man. He hasn't said two words. He's just been working. That's what I like. We don't need a lot of talking."

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

--Emmanuel Lamur vs. Ben Gedeon at weak-side linebacker: Gedeon, the rookie fourth-round draft pick, has muscled his way into the competition for the job in the base defense. This is the position Chad Greenway played before retiring after 11 seasons. The position is needed for only about 40 percent of the snaps since the Vikings play so many nickel packages. Camp started with Lamur competing with Edmond Robinson for the job. But Robinson has tailed off, while Gedeon has come on strong. The 6-foot-2, 244-pound Gedeon is a more natural middle linebacker, but has enough athleticism to handle the primary job of stopping the run as weak-side backer in the base.

NFC SOUTH

ATLANTA FALCONS

--With cornerback Jalen Collins suspended for the first 10 games, the Falcons will turn to C.J. Goodwin to take over the fourth cornerback spot. Goodwin, a former college basketball player and converted wide receiver, made the team last season as a special teams player. He played in 14 games and made one start. The Falcons are hoping Goodwin can make a big jump in his second year as a cornerback. He was already working with the second team as the Falcons had to be anticipating the news on Collins, who was working with the third team.

"One other corner that has jumped out to me so far and I thought he was making progress last year is C.J. Goodwin," Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. "For sure, he's one that we counted on. He made the team as a special teams player first and then through injuries, him and Jalen Collins really jumped in quickly and both of them answered the bell."

Goodwin, 6-foot-3 and 190 pounds, played 16 plays on defense and 23 on special teams in Super Bowl LI. He had two tackles and one pass breakup.

"Goodwin, to me, I know he's going into his third year technically in the NFL, but it's his second year as a defensive player, so I'm hopeful that jump we talked about, going from year one to year two, that's the jump I hope he'll make," Quinn said.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

--The role of backup tight end doesn't receive a lot of chatter, but given the heavy workload placed on Greg Olsen, there's a need to have a steady reserve. Ed Dickson and Scott Simonson are in contention for this role, though Dickson's experience as an eight-year veteran and Simonson, who has been waived by the organization three times since 2015, but had a slow start to camp because of an injury have probably tilted this competition. Still, there's ample opportunity for the needle to move here. Because Olsen is so productive, there hasn't been a need to go after another high-profile player at that position, but that shouldn't lessen the importance.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

--Third-year DE Hau'oli Kikaha has recovered from his third surgery on his left ACL and has been getting reps with the first team as he tries to surpass Alex Okafor, who was signed as a free agent to upgrade the pass rush. Okafor is the front-runner but a healthy Kikaha, who was a second-round draft choice in 2015, has a chance to challenge him if he performs well early in the preseason.

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

--Javeon Elliott vs. Robert McClain at slot cornerback: Elliott, who was an undrafted rookie signed after a tryout, is the starting slot corner in nickel passing downs. He has a knack for making plays on the football. But McClain enters his eighth NFL season and is a real asset on special teams. He adds some experience to the position and, right now, it's Elliott's job to lose.

NFC WEST

ARIZONA CARDINALS

--Second-year defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche keeps turning heads in camp seemingly every single day and it's getting to the point now where the former first-round pick could be on the verge of overtaking 12-year veteran Frostee Rucker for a starting role in the Cardinals' 3-4 base defense. Rucker, who turns 34 in September, might be difficult to displace because of his experience and reliability. The Cardinals like to rotate their defensive linemen in and out of games, however, so Nkemdiche is sure to see plenty of action. Because of his youth and explosiveness and ability to be an overall disruptor, he's likely to find himself getting most of the snaps up front in 2017.

LOS ANGELES RAMS

--Cooper Kupp vs. Pharoh Cooper at wide receiver: The Rams under head coach Sean McVay feature a number of different wide-receiver and tight-end packages, but it will be interesting to see who earns the bulk of the time alongside Robert Woods and Tavon Austin between Cooper and Kupp. Kupp, a rookie from Eastern Washington, has impressed with his command of the playbook and route-running polish.

"I see a mature rookie," McVay said. "I think one of the things that really impressed us about (him), just watching him in college is that he's one of those receivers that sees the game through the quarterback's eyes. He always has a plan at the line of scrimmage, understands coverages and route concepts and I think that's what enables him to be such a productive player and very advanced for a rookie. He's one of the more mature rookies that I've ever been around and we're expecting some good things from him moving forward."

Cooper also drew praise from McVay.

"I think Pharoh is a great competitor," McVay said. "I think what Pharoh Cooper's doing is continuing to get more comfortable playing the receiver position as a whole. This guy is just a very good athlete that's continuing to become a better receiver each and every day. A tough, physical player, competes well in the run game and I think you see the play that he makes down in the red zone yesterday -- he's aggressively running through the football, he's kind of a fearless mindset and mentality. I really enjoy being around Pharoh and love what he's done the last few days."

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

--Matt Barkley vs. C.J. Beathard for backup quarterback. Training camp began with a clear-cut pecking order at quarterback, with Brian Hoyer starting, Barkley backing up and Beathard probably headed to a season on the developmental squad. But the rookie has outplayed the veteran in the early going, giving 49ers coaches something to watch in Friday's preseason opener against Kansas City.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

--Backup quarterback: Trevone Boykin earned the backup job to Russell Wilson last season without a challenge from a veteran quarterback in training camp. He doesn't have that luxury this year as Austin Davis is pushing him hard for the reserve role. Davis unofficially completed 8 of 13 passes with an interception during the team's scrimmage on Monday while Boykin was 6 of 11 with an interception. Boykin struggled significantly in the first handful of practices of camp, but has looked marginally better in recent days. It will be a fight that should last all of camp.

AFC EAST

BUFFALO BILLS

--Tight end has been interesting because of the presence of Logan Thomas in the competition. Charles Clay is the starter, and unless his nagging knee injury barks, that will be the case come opening day. Behind him, Nick O'Leary is probably No. 2, but that's certainly not set in stone. Thomas, a converted quarterback who is trying to make the transition to tight end at the NFL level, is 6-foot-6 and weighs 250 pounds. He's a big target down the middle, and he has good hands. The big issue for him is will he be able to block? O'Leary has improved in that area, and if Thomas does, too, he could make the team and even get meaningful snaps because he has real potential to be a downfield threat.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

--QB Jay Cutler vs. time: Not to be cute or flip, but this is a real battle because the opener is Sept. 10 against Tampa Bay, which gives the newly-acquired Cutler roughly one month to learn the offense and his teammates. Cutler, signed Monday, retired in May and admitted he hadn't been working out recently. In the QB-driven NFL, this is now the biggest battle of training camp.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

--Cameron Fleming vs. LaAdrian Waddle for backup swing offensive tackle. The New England offensive line returns its five starters, who seem pretty well entrenched in their roles. Fleming and Waddle served as backups a year ago, although the latter was a healthy scratch virtually all season. Despite New England using two draft picks at the position -- Tony Garcia and Conor McDermott -- Fleming and Waddle have split reps at left tackle when starter Nate Solder has missed practice time. With neither rookie stepping up at this point, it looks like Fleming and Waddle are likely battling it out for one roster spot as the veteran swing tackle backup. Fleming's ability to serve as a tight end in jumbo packages could give him an edge, but the battle likely will have to play out in preseason game action.

NEW YORK JETS

--No. 1 wide receiver: Last week's battle was for the No. 2 wide receiver job. Well, every understudy is now battling to be the headline attraction following the season-ending neck injury suffered by No. 1 wideout Quincy Enunwa. Robby Anderson, whose 42 catches for 587 yards last season are by far the most of any returning player in camp, is the favorite by default, though he's gotten off to a slow start this summer. Veteran Marquess Wilson, who had 56 catches for 777 yards in four seasons with the Chicago Bears, is also a candidate but has broken his foot three times in the last two years. Rookies ArDarius Stewart and Chad Hansen will each have a big learning curve to negotiate, which might leave Chris Harper - who has 14 catches in two NFL seasons but has displayed good hands and big-play ability thus far in training camp - as the sneakiest candidate to win the job.

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS

--Returner: The Ravens have as many as 10 players looking to earn their way onto the roster as a returner. Michael Campanaro, a fourth-year player from Wake Forest, has the most experience, but he has battled through injuries throughout his career. Keenan Reynolds, a former record-setting quarterback at Navy, has shown much improvement since his rookie season and is pushing hard for the job. Baltimore has also been impressed with undrafted rookie receiver Tim White. He has shown blazing speed and the poise to handle kicks. Other players getting looks at returner are Griff Whalen, C.J. Board, Chris Moore, Bobby Rainey, Lardarius Webb, Danny Woodhead, and Taquan Mizzell.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

--With Adam Jones suspended for the first game of the season, the starting cornerback spot for that game, and subsequent chance for a player to showcase themselves on Sunday, Sept. 10 versus the Ravens, is available. William Jackson III, whom the Bengals selected as the 24th overall pick in last year's draft, appears to be the favorite. Jackson missed his rookie season after being injured during training camp. He's battling Darqueze Dennard for this spot. Dennard also has had his share of injury issues in his career. Jackson has performed well in 11-on-11 drills against the first team-offense even handling himself quite well in one-on-one coverage with A.J. Green.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

--Incumbent Cody Parkey and rookie seventh-round draft choice Zane Gonzalez usually end practice every other day in a kicking duel. The competition is close to dead even at this point, which makes the preseason opener against the Saints on Thursday and the next three games critical to both kickers. Gonzalez kicked field goals of 39 and 22 yards in an intrasquad scrimmage on Friday. Parkey connected from 40 yards. Both can reach the back of the end zone on kickoffs. Practice ended Monday with another field-goal session. Parkey was 5-for-5. Gonzalez missed from 33 yards. but then hit his next two kicks.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

--Backup running back: Le'Veon Bell has not yet reported and rookie third-round pick James Conner has missed most of camp with a shoulder injury. That has left most of the reps with the first-team offense to Fitzgerald Toussaint and Knile Davis. Toussaint was designated the starter when the Steelers released their first depth chart of training camp Tuesday. It's been a spirited competition between the two. Toussaint has been with the Steelers the past two seasons, and Davis was signed as a free agent in March. Conner returned to practice Tuesday, but Toussaint and Davis will continue to battle because the Steelers will keep only three tailbacks.

AFC SOUTH

HOUSTON TEXANS

--Wide receiver: Jaelen Strong and Braxton Miller are competing to be the No. 2 receiver opposite Pro-Bowl selection DeAndre Hopkins. Strong is big and jumps well and has improved his conditioning. Miller is shifty and smart and has sound hands. A converted quarterback, Miller knows the game extremely well.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

--Inside linebacker: Second-year linebacker Antonio Morrison has been having a good camp thus far. Morrison played relatively well against the run as a rookie, but struggled in pass coverage. He has getting first-team reps while doing a better job of playing under control. Veteran Jon Bostic was a free-agent pickup in the offseason from Chicago and has done a nice job. Bostic has also been working with the first defensive unit. The big question is if he can stay healthy over the course of the season. Sean Spence has had a consistent camp as he continues to push for work. Edwin Jackson, who got extensive playing time last season, remains in the mix. Lee Rhodes is also a possibility.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

--Cam Robinson vs. Josh Wells at left tackle. When veteran Branden Albert made his surprising announcement last week that he was retiring, it was assumed that rookie Cam Robinson would move into the starting spot that Albert was supposed to have had this year. But Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone made it clear that Robinson would not be handed the job, rather he would have to earn it. Josh Wells may have something to say about that. A thumb injury cost Wells the entire 2015 season and the first 11 weeks last year. But he's healthy now and is pushing Robinson for the starting spot. Both players are 6-foot-6, but Robinson has a 15-pound weight advantage. They've shared working with the first unit offensive line in recent days and while most expect Robinson to win the job, Wells is making a strong push for the starting spot.

TENNESSEE TITANS

--Adoree' Jackson vs. Eric Weems at kickoff returner: Jackson has been electric, but Weems was signed to fill that role in the offseason. It will be interesting to see just how much the Titans want to put on Jackson's plate, as the first-round pick is already likely to be the punt returner and is in the race for a starting cornerback spot as well.

AFC WEST

DENVER BRONCOS

--Starting left guard: After being acquired in a pre-camp trade, Allen Barbre was expected to make a push for the left-guard spot, but Max Garcia has held him off so far, taking every first-team repetition at the position where he started last year. The Broncos moved Garcia back to left guard after he struggled at right guard during OTAs, gambling that free-agent pickup Ron Leary would be as effective at right guard as he was on the left side, where he started in Dallas before jumping to the Broncos in March. Barbre could still make a push for the job, but right now, it appears the spot is Garcia's to lose.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

--Kansas City struggled against the run last season, and one reason stemmed from a plethora of injuries and lack of experienced depth at inside linebacker. The Chiefs added significant competition with the addition of fifth-round pick Ukeme Eligwe and acquiring Kevin Pierre-Louis from Seattle via a trade. Kansas City also re-signed veteran Josh Mauga, who missed last season with a labral tear in his hip. The leader of the group remains Derrick Johnson, who returns from an Achilles tear in December that ended his season. Ramik Wilson appears to be the likely starter alongside Johnson, but the competition remains fierce behind them for the remaining roster spots. Defensive coordinator Bob Sutton continues rotating Mauga, Eligwe and Pierre-Louis with Justin March-Lillard and Terrance Smith looking for the right chemistry in shutting down the run.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

--Dwight Lowery vs. Tre' Boston at safety. Lowery is the returning veteran here, but Boston wasn't brought in to stand on the sidelines. Lowery provided solid play last year and was often the calming factor in the secondary when Jahleel Addae played loose. Boston, a former Carolina Panther, is opening eyes with his plays around the ball. He capped Tuesday's practice by picking off Philip Rivers in the red zone.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

--Sean Smith vs. Obi Melifonwu at dime back. Smith, at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, was recently getting time covering tight ends in four-receiver sets, a role that the Raiders specifically selected Melifonwu to fill. The problem? Melifonwu struggled early and then was injured. As for Smith, he was at least temporarily demoted from his starting position at corner but his length could enable him to compete for that role, depending on his approach and attitude.

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