Arena: NFL's Most Intriguing Training Camp Battles
Pittsburgh Steelers' #2 WR
Candidates: Martavis Bryant, Sammie Coates, Juju Smith-Schuster
Pittsburgh has perhaps the most complete offense in the NFL, headlined by Ben Roethlisberger, Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown. However, they must have felt they had a hole to address at the #2 WR spot, considering they drafted the uber-athletic Juju Smith-Schuster in the second round.
Teams typically expect second round picks to step in and contribute right away, but Smith-Schuster won’t simply have a spot handed to him. For starters, Martavis Bryant is back from a year-long suspension and was the perfect compliment to Brown before problems with drugs and alcohol abuse got in his way.
Sammie Coates was the top performer in the Steelers’ carousel of #2’s last season, but he severely underwhelmed after suffering a finger injury and had a lot of trouble catching passes thereafter. If he can fully recover and stop dropping passes, he could be a darkhorse candidate to win the job.
When the Steelers selected Smith-Schuster in the NFL draft, Bryant tweeted, “lol that’s Sammie coates replacement not minds take it how you want to I am back.”
All three of these receivers are athletic burners who can take the top off the defense and make plays after the catch, but Smith-Schuster may have the best hands of the group. USC receivers have a history of underperforming in the NFL, but I still think the rookie has the edge in this competition.
Dallas Cowboys' CBs
Candidates: Orlando Scandrick, Anthony Brown, Chidobe Awuzie, Nolan Carroll, Jourdan Lewis
The Dallas Cowboys experienced a secondary exodus this offseason with almost all of their key contributors leaving through free agency. That leaves a mixture of a few incumbents, rookies and free agent signing Nolan Carroll all competing for starting cornerback spots.
In all likelihood, Orlando Scandrick should assume the top CB spot. At age 30, he has by far the most experience of anyone in the competition and is entering his 10th season with the Cowboys. He has mostly manned the nickel corner position for his career, but has proven capable of taking on top receivers when necessary.
After Scandrick, however, this is a complete crapshoot. There have been rumors that Cowboys’ coaches are high on Anthony Brown and expect a breakout season, but the second year pro is completely unproven and has never had to cover high profile receivers with regularity.
The most intriguing players in this competition are rookies, Chidobe Awuzie and Jourdan Lewis. Both were highly sought-after players in a deep cornerback draft class, and both have the potential to take over starting cornerback spots by the end of the season. Awuzie is a very sure tackler who is tremendous against the run and has very fluid hips. Lewis, meanwhile, looks perfect for the nickel corner spot as he should match up perfectly with slot-receivers and tight-ends.
Cleveland Browns' Starting QB
Candidates: DeShone Kizer, Cody Kessler, Brock Osweiler
On paper, the Browns could be competitive this season if they can get at least average quarterback play.
The early favorite to win the job is Cody Kessler. He’s coming into his second year in the league and has more experience in coach Hue Jackson’s system than his competition. He also had pretty good stats for a rookie with 65.6 completion percentage. That's on top of a 92.3 passer rating and much better athleticism than people give him credit for.
The fan favorite for the starting spot is DeShone Kizer, of course. Kizer has phenomenal, Cam Netwon-esque potential but performed terribly last year for Notre Dame. He was particularly terrible in the fourth quarter and struggled immensely with his accuracy. Sitting and learning the ins and outs of the position would be good for Kizer, but if the Browns are terrible this year, they may throw him into the fire and see if the pressure results in a diamond.
The wild-card in this race is Brock Osweiler. We all know how terrible he was last year after getting a huge contract with the Texans, but the Browns agreed to do an NBA-style trade to take on his contract in exchange for a first-round pick. Osweiler still has the potential to be a franchise quarterback if he can learn to stop being so timid in the pocket.
Cincinnati Bengals' Starting RB
Candidates: Gio Bernard, Joe Mixon, Jeremy Hill
From the moment the Bengals drafted Joe Mixon in the second round, questions about their backfield began.
Who’s the starter? Who’s the third-down back? Who will fall out of the rotation?
We know one thing for sure, Mixon will get his share of touches. Though his off-field issues are well chronicled, Mixon has never been a slouch on the field. He is a proven playmaker in the run and pass game and is a better blocker than he gets credit for. He may even end up being a better runner than top RB prospect Leonard Fournette when all is said and done.
The real competition is likely to come from Jeremy Hill and Gio Bernard; both of whom were once considered future-franchise runners. Hill has proven to be a good goal-line back, but has only averaged 3.7 yards per carry over the last two seasons combined. Bernard has been unreliable because of his problems staying on the field. He has been dynamic as a receiver and has consistently shown the ability to take simple run plays the distant, but if he can’t get healthy, he is a candidate to be cut.
Whatever happens, the Bengals should have the deepest and most versatile stable of running backs in the league.
Denver Broncos' Starting QB
Candidates: Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch
Perhaps the most interesting training camp battle pits last year’s first round pick Paxton Lynch against last year’s starter Trevor Siemian.
Lynch was the favorite to win the competition last season after being hand-picked by Elway to take over from Peyton Manning, but struggled to adjust to the NFL after playing in simple one-read system at University of Memphis. Lynch is a mobile, extremely strong-armed prospect who the Broncos hope can eventually master the mental aspect of the game enough to fulfill his Pro Bowl potential.
Siemian is considered a placeholder, game-manager type QB who is steady but unspectacular. He couldn’t be a difference maker last year and his overall ineffective play handicapped the Broncos' offense. He is still young, though, and has a lot of room to improve after a full-season as the starter.
It will be interesting to see how much Lynch has really improved since last year’s training camp. He often looked lost reading complex coverages and lacked confidence in the pocket. He was compared to Ben Roethlisberger heavily prior to being drafted, but hasn’t shown the type of pocket presence that makes Big-Ben elite.
Lynch and Siemian should both be well-improved from last season and if either of them can have a breakout season, Denver could become Super Bowl contenders again.