Artwork by Robert Robinson, @badasskidsent
Written by: The Blitz Team
The NFL regular season is almost here! Over the next month teams will be going through practices and preseason games to help determine who will be on their roster during opening week. Not only will players be battling for roster spots, but they will also be fighting for their position on the depth chart so they can see the field as much as possible. For this edition of the All32 series, the Blitz Team takes a look at the biggest position battles that will be going on during preseason. Check out which ones we believe you should be paying attention to throughout August!
Pro Football Focus has Houston’s offensive line rated dead last in their 2018 O-line rankings, so naturally, this unit will be heavily scrutinized and variable during training camp. Both left and right tackle have by far the most questions of the group. Julie’n Davenport, who only started 4 games last season, and struggled, will be the team’s starting left tackle to begin the year. While he is extremely physically gifted he’s still technically raw, as would be expected from a 4th round pick with just a year’s worth of experience. Regardless, he will be forced into the fire. If he struggles significantly and Houston’s 2018 3rd-rounder Martinas Rankin gets healthy, which he is on track to do by the beginning of the season, he may take over the left tackle job.
The situation at right tackle is even worse, as current projected starter Seantrel Henderson started 1 game in the past 2 seasons with the Bills. Aside from Rankin, Kendall Lamm and Roderick Johnson should push Henderson as well. Lamm has been a spot-starter for Houston and Johnson is also a young, physically talented prospect who could shoot up the depth chart if he excels with his technique. While QB Deshaun Watson might have bailed this group out last year, one of these tackles needs to step up if Houston is to make a push in the playoffs.
Prediction: Left Tackle = Julie’n Davenport, Right Tackle = Martinas Rankin
One of the best battles that is going on in the Colts training camp is for the starting running back spot, next to now healthy Andrew Luck. This position is highly coveted and the competition is going to be fun. There are three contenders that are all competing for the top spot, former 5th round pick Marlon Mack, and rookies Nyheim Hines and Jordan Wilkins. We will begin with the front runner, Marlon Mack. He has already shown flashes of brilliance during his rookie season but also was firmly in the shadow of veteran Frank Gore. He showed he could make something out of nothing, along with proving he could run between the tackles and catch out of the backfield. I expect Mack to take full advantage of this new, healthy offensive line, who are significantly better than the product put on the field last season where he had to make something out of nothing almost every play. His mix of size and speed out of the backfield, along with his soft hands and ability to lineup all over the field.
Mack’s biggest contender is incoming rookie Nyheim Hines. Hines was an electric playmaker for the Wolfpack in 2017. He has elite level speed, and is another shifty player who can lineup in the slot or out of the backfield. I believe that Hines will no doubt make an impact on the offense and be effective stretching the field and testing the edge of the defense on reverses and screens. Hines is not the only rookie chasing Mack, Jordan Wilkins out of Ole Miss has impressed thus far in camp and could be a threat to swipe the throne. He is a big bodied runner who is more of an elusive runner. If he can prove he can run under his pads and bring the boom, he might also get a chance at the early down responsibilities.
Not mentioned in the previous competition was Robert Turbin, who will sit out the first 4 games of he season due to a PED violation. He was a big part of the short yardage offense until he broke his forearm. After he returns from his suspension, I expect him to take the majority of the short yardage touches, unless someone like Marlon Mack can prove his worth in the short game along with the pass. In the end, I expect Marlon Mack to take the bulk of the running back touches and really make a difference behind the new offensive line. I’m very hopeful and excited to see what Mack can accomplish and prove this season.
Prediction: Marlon Mack
Wide Receiver Corps
Wide receiver is pretty much the only question mark on the Jaguars when it comes to who will be starting. Right now, Marqise Lee, DJ Chark, Donte Moncrief, Rashad Greene, Dede Westbrook, and Keelan Cole will all be vying for spots.
In terms of the top 2, Lee is the favorite to be the #1 receiver, but he had his first healthy season just this past year (and still missed two games) He’s currently sitting out of training camp with an undisclosed injury. Moncrief (who is also injured in training camp for now) has an advantage as the biggest receiver on the roster by far, as well as the most experienced, so I could see him slotting into the #2 role to begin the season. However, Westbrook commanded 22% of targets in his 7 healthy games last season, a sign that he might start over Moncrief.
Further down the depth chart, Cole was decently effective filling in for Westbrook, averaging a little under 50 yards per game. Rashad Greene hasn’t seen much action in his two years with the Jags, but a training camp injury may well open the door for him. Meanwhile, DJ Chark is the most talented receiver on the roster, with a 4.34 40-yard dash time at 6'3". If he can work on his route running and ball skills, he could quickly become the best receiver on the roster. This is a receiving corps that is oft-injured and unproven, so hopefully training camp and preseason will shed some clarity on who will put it all together and win the starting job.
Prediction: WR1 = Marqise Lee, WR2 = Dede Westbrook, WR3 = DJ Chark.
Tennessee is a young up and coming team with a lot of potential. They signed Mike Vrabel as the head coach and Matt Lafleur as his offensive coordinator to rejuvenate this roster. Vrabel will almost certainly boost the production of this defense, but the addition of Lafleur may be a more exciting piece to the Titans puzzle. He led the Ram’s high flying offense in 2017, greatly improving the production of Jared Goff in his second year. Now working with Mariota, he should greatly enhance the production of this offense throughout their system, opening the field and deploying three receiver sets. The Titans have many different position battles occurring throughout camp, but the headline will be within the running back corps.
After the 2017 season ended, Derrick Henry looked primed to become the bell cow in Tennessee, and then Dion Lewis joined the mix to the tune of a 4 year 19.8 million dollar contract. Matt Lafleur highly values receiving backs who have the ability to run between the tackles, which doesn’t bode well for Henry. The former Crimson Tide running back will need to show his new coaching staff why he deserves the starting spot atop the depth chart as the early down workhorse. Lafleur has previously said that he believes the duo could turn into a “1A and 1B” type of backfield. They sound like they will use Henry as the hammer and Lewis as the scat back playing all over the offense. This is certainly going to make for an excellent position battle throughout training camp, and one to monitor early into the season. Lewis is the more versatile player, who looks apt to be a perfect piece in Matt Lafleur’s chess set. Who will become the starter week one and retain the most opportunities? The competition between Henry and Lewis is sure to be a rollercoaster ride.
Prediction: Dion Lewis