We check in on the most hotly contested training camp battles for each team in the AFC.
NFL training camps will open in just a matter of days, so it’s a good time to look at the most intriguing position battles being waged across the league. Today, we look at the AFC.
Middle Linebacker: Incumbent Preston Brown will attempt to stave off second-year man Reggie Ragland — who missed his rookie season with a knee injury. Brown is a reliable and steady player, but not the dynamic athlete the Bills would like to have at the position. Ragland is the superior athlete. However, he’s never played middle linebacker in a 4-3 and must show he’s over the injury.
Defensive Tackle: Among the Dolphins’ defensive tackles, Ndamukong Suh is “Kool” and everyone else is “The Gang”. Third-year behemoth Jordan Phillips is the front-runner to step up, but his production has yet to match his immense talent. Rookies Davon Godchaux and Vincent Taylor will push Phillips for snaps and possibly his spot in the rotation.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Nickel Back: Stephon Gilmore and Malcolm Butler have the outside spots secured. However, standout nickel Logan Ryan left for Tennessee in free agency, leaving big shoes to fill. Eric Rowe performed admirably on the outside last year, but must show he can adjust to the slot. Jonathan Jones has a skill-set more suited for the nickel and will push Rowe hard for the position.
NEW YORK JETS
Quarterback: Winning this battle is akin to be recognized as the tallest elf. It appears veteran journeyman Josh McCown is the front-runner heading into camp. If youngsters Bryce Petty or Christian Hackenberg show promise, the Jets may elect to go with young potential over the veteran stopgap.
Outside Linebacker: With Terrell Suggs entering his age-35 season and Elvis Dumervil no longer around, the Ravens need someone to step up. There sure are plenty of bodies and talent from which to choose. Albert McClellin, Za’Darius Smith, Matt Judon, and rookies Tyus Bowser and Tim Williams will all be vying for roles at outside linebacker in camp. As it stands, there will likely be some superb talent that doesn’t make this roster at the position.
Quarterback: The lack of stability at quarterback has been a staple in Cleveland for decades now. There is currently no clear leader among the group of Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler, Kevin Hogan or rookie DeShone Kizer. Kessler was the starter most of 2016, but is limited physically. Osweiler has a shot, but he washed out in Houston. Kizer has the most upside, while Hogan is the longest of longshots to win the starting nod.
Running Back: The Bengals drafted Joe Mixon — who may have been the most talented back in the 2017 draft — in the second round. Mixon has a legit shot of winning this job, as Jeremy Hill is coming off of averaging 3.6 and 3.8 yards per carry in 2015 and 2016, respectively. Giovani Bernard is returning from a torn ACL and his health is not guaranteed for training camp.
Wide Receiver: Antonio Brown is the best receiver in the NFL, but there were no other major threats in 2016. Martavis Bryant returns after a year-long suspension to resume his role as the league’s best deep threat. Also in camp…Eli Rogers, Sammie Coates, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Darrius Heward Bey, DeMarcus Ayers, Justin Hunter, Cobi Hamilton (all have NFL game experience), as well as Marcus Tucker and Canaan Severin. This will be fierce competition. Each of these players will be on someone’s roster in 2017.
Quarterback: Veteran Tom Savage has the chance to become a starter for the first time in his career. However, he doesn’t inspire much hope, regardless of how much Bill O’Brien talks him up in the off-season. If rookie first-round pick Deshaun Watson shows what he’s capable of in camp, O’Brien would be smart to pull the trigger and name him starter ASAP.
Left Tackle: The Jags traded for Branden Albert from Miami after the 2016 season. But, Albert has not been enthusiastic about the address change. Now that Cam Robinson was added in the draft, Albert likely realizes he’s just a stopgap at best. Robinson possesses all the tools to be a starter at left tackle, but he needs tons of work on his technique and consistency.
Inside Linebacker: Veterans Sean Spence and Jon Bostic were brought in over the off-season to add leadership and competition in camp. Antonio Morrison, Edwin Jackson, Luke Rhodes and rookie Anthony Walker provide youth and upside, and will all push for reps in camp. Walker was a tackling machine in college and should impress when the pads go on. One thing is for sure; the Colts need better production from the position than they received in 2016.
Wide Receiver: As Marcus Mariota progresses, he’ll need more weapons in the passing game. The Titans drafted Corey Davis in round one of the 2017 draft and also added veteran Eric Decker after he was released by the Jets. Rishard Matthews figures to start across from Davis going into camp. Harry Douglas, Tajae Sharpe and Tre McBride will all compete for a major role. If Decker returns to form after being hit with injuries over the past 2 seasons, things will be very interesting in camp.
Quarterback: Whoever wins the QB job in Denver, this will not be a quarterback-driven team. The Broncos head into camp with 2016 starter Trevor Siemian battling 2016 first-round pick Paxton Lynch for the starting quarterback gig. Siemian was solid last season, but does not possess the elite physical tools that Lynch does. Siemian is also returning from a shoulder injury, while Lynch received rave reviews from teammates during off-season workouts.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
Cornerback: Marcus Peters has one side on lock, literally. Teams rarely test Peters, and they pay when they do. Opposite Peters, there is substantially less stability. Terrance Mitchell, Phillip Gaines and D.J. White will enter camp on even ground to win the nod. Each will also vie for the nickel role with Steven Nelson in the mix.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Wide Receiver: With Keenan Allen returning from an injury that cut his 2016 season prematurely short, the Chargers hope he is fully healthy. Drafting Mike Williams in the first round lends insurance against that. Williams, however, missed time with his own injury during off-season workouts. Dontrelle Inman was a pleasant surprise in 2016, while Isaigh Burse and Tyrell Williams are both promising talents. The big question is whether the big names can stay healthy and establish themselves in camp.
Slot Receiver: The Raiders signed Cordarelle Patterson from Minnesota in free agency this off-season. They have claimed to have a big offensive role for him. Also, Seth Roberts was one of the better slot receivers in the NFL last season, and he returns. This will be an interesting battle, as the third receiver will get substantially more reps than the fourth guy, once the season starts. While they both will make the roster, this competition should be a hot one.