NFL position battles to keep an eye on over the summer
Eagles Quarterback: Michael Vick vs. Nick Foles vs. Matt Barkley: After a second straight disappointing season, there were a number of rumors that Vick would be a cap casualty of the Eagles shortly after the Super Bowl. However, a contract restructure will bring Vick back to Philadelphia on a one-year deal for a cheaper price.
Foles made six starts last season and finished with a slightly higher quarterback rating than Vick, who made ten starts for the Eagles in 2012. Several Eagles beat writers expect Foles to win the starting job, and if new head coach Chip Kelly likes Foles enough, some suggest Vick could be released during the preseason.
Though Kelly is also said to be high on Barkley, the rookie is unlikely to factor into the equation unless the Eagles find themselves out of playoff contention later in the season.
Despite the talk of Foles being the favorite, I still like Vick to be the starter come Week 1. Kelly is clearly making an effort to hide his plans at quarterback, but Vick looks like a great fit in Kelly's uptempo offensive scheme. In addition, Vick has already been guaranteed $3.5 million, so releasing him outright doesn't seem very realistic.
Bills Quarterback: E.J. Manuel vs. Kevin Kolb: Here we have an interesting competition with the top drafted quarterback taking on a veteran free agent pickup. No one has any sort of familiarity advantage, as both players are new to Buffalo, and neither has any experience playing for new head coach Doug Marrone.
Manuel has the advantage from a talent standpoint. He is extremely athletic with ideal size, and can zip the ball downfield and into tight windows. However, he is considered a very raw prospect, and as a rookie, he has obviously never played against NFL competition.
Kolb is entering his seventh NFL season, and is actually coming off a pretty solid 2012 in which he went 3-2 with the Cardinals and posted an 86.1 quarterback rating. He was playing behind a porous offensive line that rarely gave him enough time to make his reads, so he could find more success with more help up front in Buffalo.
The Bills have insisted that they won't rush their prized quarterback into a starting role before he is ready, but the last top drafted quarterback to not start Week 1 was JaMarcus Russell in 2007. No team ever wants their quarterback to be "the first player since JaMarcus Russell to..." do anything, but it still appears that Kolb has the upper hand in this competition due to Manuel's unpolished game. That being said, I'd be surprised if Manuel didn't make a start by the end of the season.
Raiders Quarterback: Matt Flynn vs. Tyler Wilson: Like the previous quarterback competition, here we have a new veteran battling an impressive rookie. Flynn was an intriguing free agent just a year ago, but was beat out by a different Wilson - Russell Wilson - after signing with Seattle. Flynn lacks a strong arm and athleticism, but is accurate and has solid game managing ability.
Wilson, on the other hand, has a lively arm and has plenty of experience escaping pressure thanks to playing behind a putrid offensive line during his college days at Arkansas. Steve Corkran of the Contra Costa Times said during OTAs that Wilson was "doing something impressive that makes you think he's not an ordinary rookie." Several writers felt that Wilson clearly outperformed Flynn during OTAs and minicamp.
Despite his impressive pad-less practices, Wilson will have to show the Raiders' coaching staff that he is unquestionably the superior signal caller when suited up in pads facing a full-speed, hard hitting defense. Preseason will be huge for Wilson in this competition. However, Flynn would likely have to completely tank during his preseason action to lose his grip on the starting job, and for that reason, he'll probably end up being under center come Week 1.
Packers Running Back: Eddie Lacy vs. Jonathan Franklin: Here we have a situation in which a team has a serious need at a position, and brings in two rookies to compete for the starting job. Reports suggest that Lacy and Franklin are the only running backs on the Packers whose roster spots are secure, so it seems very unlikely that anyone else becomes the starter.
Lacy, having been drafted 64 picks higher than Franklin, is obviously considered the more talented back. However, you never know how things will shake out during the preseason. The Rams drafted Daryl Richardson 202 picks after Isaiah Pead in last year's draft, but Richardson still ended up being the primary backup to Steven Jackson.
That being said, it would likely take a lot for Franklin to dethrone Lacy as the Week 1 starter. The Packers have been pleased with Lacy's showings at camp, so he'd likely have to play horribly in preseason while Franklin lights up opposing defenses.
Rams Running Back: Daryl Richardson vs. Isaiah Pead: As I just said, seventh-round pick Richardson shocked the NFL community last season when he beat out second-round pick Pead. Now that Jackson has left St. Louis to play for the Atlanta Falcons, the Rams will hold a new competition to find a starting running back. A committee approach in the backfield, however, is a possibility as well.
Although Pead will be suspended for one game as a result of a marijuana related arrest, head coach Jeff Fisher has said that the ban will not affect the competition. Pead's absence, however, will give Richardson a chance to secure a big role Week 1 against a Cardinals defense that gave up 4.3 yards per carry last season.
There have been mixed reports about which runner will end up as the Rams' lead back when Pead is eligible to play in Week 2. Considering Richardson's success as the backup last year and Pead's well-documented talent, I think this battle will continue into the regular season. The Rams will likely use a committee approach for Week 2, and continue to feed the hot hand. If one player pulls away from the other, he'll get the bulk of the carries. If they play evenly, the committee approach will continue.
Patriots No. 2 Wide Receiver: Aaron Dobson vs. Julian Edelman vs. Michael Jenkins vs. Donald Jones: A series of very strange events (including injuries, mood disorders, and felony charges) have depleted the Patriots' receiving options. The team signed Danny Amendola to replace Wes Welker, so he is likely to lead the Patriots in targets this season, but the No. 2 receiver is a big question mark.
Dobson probably has the most raw talent, drawing comparisons to Miles Austin and Larry Fitzgerald. However, the rookie comes from a small school (Marshall) and may not be acclimated to facing NFL-caliber coverage by the time Week 1 rolls around. He also has reportedly had some trouble learning the Patriots' complicated offense.
ESPN Boston's Mike Reiss expects Edelman (foot) to win the No. 2 job if healthy at the start of the season. Edelman's roster spot, however, is said to be in jeopardy, so him earning a starting job is far from a sure thing.
Though Michael Jenkins often ran with the first-team offense at OTAs and minicamp, he is said to be competing for a roster spot with Donald Jones, so it seems like either of those two would be a long shot to start Week 1.
A lot of this competition hinges on how quickly Dobson can learn the Patriots' offense. If he proves that he has a solid understanding of the playbook and can have some success against NFL defensive backs, I expect him to win the starting gig. Otherwise, I expect the No. 2 job to go to Edelman, if healthy. If Dobson struggles, and Edelman remains hurt, the gig will likely go to whoever is more impressive during the preseason - Jenkins or Jones.
Titans Wide Receivers: Kenny Britt vs. Kendall Wright vs. Justin Hunter vs. Nate Washington: The Titans all of a sudden have a wealth of talent at wide receiver, but there may not be enough pass attempts to make each of these four players a consistent contributor - the team was in the bottom half of the league as far as passing attempts last season.
Britt is said to be fully healthy, and as long as he has truly healed from an ACL tear and keeps his head on straight, he should be locked in as quarterback Jake Locker's top target.
Wright caught "everything thrown his way" during camp, according to the Nashville Tennessean. He dropped 15 pounds this offseason, and it reportedly shows in his quickness and agility.
Head coach Mike Munchak said that Washington has had his best camp as a Titan this year. A thousand-yard receiver just two seasons ago, Washington has enough talent to make plays on a consistent basis.
I was never a huge fan of Hunter when he was playing college ball at Tennessee. Now as a 22-year-old rookie, he's a talented, but raw pass catcher at best. He has the tools to make an impact down the road, but his suspect route running and stone hands will make him the odd man out in 2013.
Bills Wide Receivers: Robert Woods vs. T.J. Graham vs. Da'Rick Rogers vs. Marquise Goodwin: Stevie Johnson has the No. 1 receiver role locked down, but - like the Titans - the Bills suddenly find themselves crowded with talent behind their top target.
I was a big fan of Woods (the 41st pick in April's draft) when he was at USC, and I expect him to win the No. 2 job fairly easily. Reports since the draft have suggested that Woods is "penciled in" as a starter, and that the Bills feel he can play "multiple spots" on offense. However, there is still a lot of question as to the No. 3 receiver.
Graham was the most impressive receiver at Bills OTAs, according to BuffaloBills.com, making him an underdog to beat out Woods for the No. 2 gig. However, Graham was one-dimensional as a rookie in 2012, rarely making an impact outside of running straight-line patterns. Some say that Graham is a perfect fit in new head coach Doug Marrone's offense, but he'll have to expand his game to earn a significant role.
Rogers dropped out of the draft due to off-field concerns, but many consider him an early-round talent. If he can stay out of trouble and focus on football, he should have a shot at making a significant impact as a rookie. Though he stood out early at OTAs by catching two long touchdown passes, he was also reprimanded for taunting a cornerback after a scoring play a few weeks later. I actually believe he has the talent to beat out Woods for the No. 2 job, but I think the coaching staff will really make him earn it due to his questionable character. As of now, he should just focus on channeling his talent and earning the No. 3 role, which is a possibility.
I don't expect Goodwin to be in play for heavy targets, but you can't ignore his sensational athletic ability. A former college track star, Goodwin is an extremely raw, extremely talented prospect. His game needs a lot of development, but he could challenge Graham for some of the straight-line deep looks in 2013.
Chiefs Tight End: Anthony Fasano vs. Travis Kelce vs. Tony Moeaki: The Chiefs just signed Fasano to a four-year deal, but he has mostly been a blocker to this point in his career, and is a low-upside signing. He set a career-high in receptions last season with 41, but was only able to pile up 332 yards (8.1 yard average).
Kelce was the most complete tight end in the 2013 draft. He is a great asset in the passing game as a receiver, and also excels as a blocker. Character concerns are part of what dropped him down to the third round. However, if he can keep his head on straight while adjusting to an NFL offense and NFL competition, I think he'll lead the Chiefs' tight ends in receiving this season.
Moeaki looked like a promising young player when he caught 47 passes for 556 yards as a rookie in 2010, but knee issues have since plagued him. He now looks to be the odd man out in the tight end rotation.
Bears Middle Linebacker: Jon Bostic vs. D.J. Williams: It looked like Williams would be the man to succeed the legendary Brian Urlacher when he was signed as a free agent, but then the Bears went and spent a second-round pick on Bostic, who was a standout during the pre-draft process. Bostic looks to have the inside track on the starting middle linebacker job for a few reasons - Williams was suspended on two separate occasions last season, and he also has experience at all three linebacker positions. The Bears could roll with Bostic in the middle, while they use Williams as an upgrade over James Anderson on the strong side.
Steelers Outside Linebacker: Jarvis Jones vs. Jason Worilds: Who will replace legendary Steelers pass rusher James Harrison? With LaMarr Woodley having one OLB spot locked down, the Steelers can't start both Jones and Worilds.
Worilds is an explosive 25-year-old entering a contract year, and he played very well in limited action last season, racking up 5.0 sacks.
Jones, a rookie, was the most productive defensive player in April's draft. He doesn't have the measurables of many first-round talents, but is more of an in-game performer than a practice standout. It currently looks like he has the slight edge over Worilds to start opposite Woodley, which would make him the Steelers' first rookie starter on defense since 2001. Whoever loses this position battle will still get regular playing time.
Buccaneers No. 2 Cornerback: Johnthan Banks vs. Eric Wright: The Bucs brought back Wright on a one-year deal in April, but went on to draft Banks with the 43rd pick later in the month. Banks was long considered a first-round talent, but his stock dropped after a poor combine showing.
The Bucs' No. 2 cornerback job will be crucial to the defense, as one side of the field will be constantly ignored by opposing quarterbacks thanks to the addition of Darrelle Revis. As of now, it looks like the Bucs will ease Banks into the NFL game, which means Wright is the favorite to get picked on opposite of Revis.
Banks will likely end up as the team's No. 3 cornerback, coming in for nickel packages. In a pass-happy NFC South, the nickel back will still get plenty of playing time.
Redskins Free Safety: Reed Doughty vs. Phillip Thomas vs. Bacarri Rambo: A big part of the reason that the Redskins' defense finished 30th against the pass last season was because of subpar safety play. As a result, the team went out and grabbed two talented youngsters (Thomas and Rambo) in the draft to compete for the position. Doughty is likely to be replaced, as defending the pass is not his strength.
Defensive coordinator Jim Haslett said he expects either Thomas or Rambo to start at free safety. Though Thomas was drafted two rounds earlier, Rambo appears to be the favorite to land the job.
Thomas has been playing strong safety during camp, and could push Brandon Meriweather - who tore his ACL during Week 11 last season - for the starting job there. The Redskins could potentially start an all-rookie safety tandem if Meriweather doesn't look good off of knee surgery, but as of now, it looks like Rambo and Meriweather will man the back end of the Redskins' defense.