NFL training camps are getting into full swing and the regular season begins in less than two months, but there are quite a few positional battles to be decided before then.
The 2015 NFL season kicks off on Thursday night, September 10th with the Pittsburgh Steelers visiting the Super Bowl Champion New England Patriots, and the NFL odds for all Week 1 games have already been up for several months.
However, we still have a ways to go before we get to that point as training camps have just now opened and there is still an entire preseason to play. Granted, preseason results mean absolutely nothing in and of themselves, but what does matter are personnel battles in positions where the starters have yet to be determined.
Here are some of those battles where the Week 1 starters may not be settled until the end of the preseason.
Atlanta Falcons Running Back: The Falcons lost their top two running backs from last season, releasing veteran Steven Jackson and losing Jacquizz Rodgers to the Chicago Bears via free agency. Jackson was running in slow motion the last couple of years though while Rodgers was probably too diminutive to take over as the every-down back. So who does that leave? Well, Devonta Freeman currently tops the depth chart, but at 5-foot-8, he may not be the full time answer either. Enter rookie Tevin Coleman out of Indiana, who has the best receiving-skill set for a running back coming out of college in a long time and who may very well earn the starting nod sooner rather than later. At the very least, there could be the always dreaded timeshare to begin the season.
Baltimore Ravens Wide Receiver: With Torrey Smith now gone to the San Francisco 49ers, 36-year-old veteran Steve Smith, Sr. is virtually assured to become the number one receiver in Baltimore, but who will start on the opposite side of the field? The most logical candidate is obviously rookie first-round draft-pick Breshad Perriman out of Central Florida, and the Ravens would love nothing better than Perriman leaving no doubt by establishing himself early on. The one major knock against him though are his drops, and unfortunately he had four of them on Day 1 of minicamp. In fact, Perriman only rotated with Kamar Aiken and Marlon Brown with the first team during camp, with Aiken actually getting the most reps with the starters. Aiken cannot be counted out given his knack for getting separation from defensive backs and some acrobatic catches he made in practice, while Brown had some shining moments with the Ravens last season.
Chicago Bears Wide Receiver: With Brandon Marshall gone to the Jets, there is now no doubt that Alshon Jeffery is the go-to receiver in Chicago after just about posting number one receiver numbers last year even while sharing the field with Marshall. But who starts on the opposite side? The obvious choice would be Kevin White out of West Virginia, part of a great receiving class this season that was drafted in the first round, and he probably deserves the nod just based on raw talent alone. So why is there any doubt? Well, that would be because John Fox replaced the fired Marc Trestman as head coach, and Fox has always hated giving rookies any extended playing time. That reason alone keeps Marquess Wilson, who is actually currently ahead of White on the depth chart and got most of the snaps as the “Z-receiver” during team OTAs, and veteran Eddie Royal, who developed a rapport with quarterback Jay Cutler when both were with the Broncos, both in the mix to snare the starting nod.
Cleveland Browns Quarterback: We get that this is not a sexy job, but somebody has to start under center in Cleveland. The Browns quickly discovered the Johnny Manziel is not the franchise savor that they envisioned when drafting him in the first round last year as he was awful in his few opportunities on the field his rookie year, and his off-field antics did not exactly endear him to management either. Thus, even though the were heavily invested in Manziel, the Brown did not give “Johnny Football” a vote of confidence by going out an signing career back-up Josh McCown to a multi-million dollar contract. And now McCown tops the depth chart and early reports are that he is almost certain to begin the year as the starter unless he totally flops during preseason and Manziel shows some maturation. Stay tuned.
Dallas Cowboys Running Back: The Cowboys refused to pay DeMarco Murray the big bucks after he led the NFL in rushing last year, allowing him to sign with a division rival in the Philadelphia Eagles, and they were unable to work out a trade for Adrian Peterson like many observers expected. They did add one running back at a bargain price though signing Darren McFadden very cheaply, and while “Run DMC” has always had a penchant for nagging injuries throughout his career, he did play in all 16 games last year for the first time in his career while with the Oakland Raiders. So naturally, McFadden missed most of OTAs this year with a pulled hamstring! That leaves Joseph Randle as the fairly heavy favorite to get the starting running back nod in Dallas, which is a coveted job given that whoever wins the job gets to run behind what is probably the best offensive line in football. And do not forget that Lance Dunbar is also still in the mix.
Houston Texans Quarterback: The Texans actually have a very nice roster at just about every other position except quarterback, so if whoever wins the starting job is at least competent and not a turnover machine, Houston might surprise some folks this season. And the two quarterbacks competing for the job could not be any more different. Brian Hoyer has the mobility to move the pocket while being an accurate passer, but his downfield arm strength leaves a lot to be desired. Contrarily, Ryan Mallett is more of a pro-style, statuesque pocket quarterback with a cannon-arm, but his problem has always been accuracy. Also, both quarterbacks are familiar with the system of head coach Bill O'Brien as both played under him while he was the offensive coordinator of the New England Patriots.
New York Jets Quarterback: The Jets are expected to finish in last place in the AFC East for the second straight year this season, mainly because that had probably the worst quarterbacking in the league last year while finishing dead last in the NFL in passing offense. To that end, they added Ryan Fitzpatrick this off-season in an attempt to push incumbent Geno Smith. The current expectation is for Smith to retain his starting job, and he certainly has the physical tools to be an NFL quarterback. Smith struggles with the mental part of the game though as he is often late and/or just plain awful with his on-field decisions. Fitzpatrick is nowhere near the athlete that Smith is, but the Harvard product is certainly cerebral and he is familiar with the pistol offense favored by new Jets’ offensive coordinator Chan Gailey after playing under him while with the Buffalo Bills.
New York Jets Running Back: Quarterback may not be the only battle the Jets have going on during training camp and preseason after trading with the St. Louis Rams to acquire Zac Stacy a couple of months ago. Granted, most experts expect Chris Ivory to be the starter after he shared duties with the mostly ineffective an now departed Chris Johnson last season, averaging a mere 12.3 carries per game. And yet he still rushed for 820 yards on 4.1 yards per carry, so he should flourish with an increased workload right? Well, the caveat there is the former coaching staff was concerned about Ivory’s durability, and if Gailey and new head coach Todd Bowles share that same concern, then it would put Stacy squarely in the mix to compete for the starting job as well as returnee Bilal Powell.
Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback: Perhaps the most interesting positional battle of all is the one to determine who will start under center in the City of Brotherly Love. The Eagles traded away Nick Foles to the Rams for Sam Bradford despite the latter’s checkered injury history, and Philadelphia has yet to see Bradford in uniform as he skipped minicamp and OTAs while recovering from tearing his ACL during preseason last year, the second time he suffered that devastating injury. There were even some reports earlier on that Bradford was contemplating retirement. However, word is he will be participating during training camp and he certainly has the skill set to flourish in a Chip Kelly offense – if he stays healthy. Meanwhile, Mark Sanchez played his best football after replacing the injured Foles last year since he took the New York Jets to the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, and reports are that he has looked even better with improved arm strength this off-season.