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!
Wide Receiving Corps
The offseason departures of Dez Bryant (released), Jason Witten (retired), and Brice Butler (FA) leave a major void of production to be filled by the new group of Cowboys pass catchers. While Witten’s absence is certainly significant, it will be a timeshare for the young tight ends already on the roster. The true battle throughout camp will be at receiver. Terrance Williams and Cole Beasley are the returning starters, but new arrivals Allen Hurns (FA), Deonte Thompson (FA), Tavon Austin (trade), and draft picks Michael Gallup (3rd) and Cedrick Wilson (6th) offer up competition for snaps as well. Last year’s 7th-round pick Noah Brown, who made the 53-man roster, and practice squad standout Lance Lenoir are also firmly in the mix.
Assuming Dallas looks to carry six receivers like they did last year, let’s break down how the position battle might take shape. Hurns, who signed a $12 million contract to come to Dallas, is essentially a lock, as are Beasley and Gallup. It’s also fair to assume Williams is safe, despite an offseason spent recovering from a foot injury and an embarrassing off-field moment. Williams has the coaches’ trust on the field and they like how he affects the game even without the ball in his hands. Expect Hurns and Gallup to compete for Dez’s top spot as the “X” receiver, with Williams on the other side and Beasley in the slot. This essentially leaves two more spots in the room, and it’s hard to imagine they don’t keep Tavon Austin after trading away Ryan Switzer. Austin fills the role of returner and gives the offense a much-needed explosive playmaker. That leaves one spot left for Thompson, Wilson, Brown, and Lenoir to compete for throughout camp. I think it likely comes down to Wilson or Brown, but knowing how this coaching staff operates, it would take an impressive camp/preseason by Wilson to overcome the run-blocking skills that Brown offers.
Prediction: Allen Hurns, Terrence Williams, Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Tavon Austin, Noah Brown.
Written by: Greg Lehr
New York Giants
The Giants’ secondary struggled mightily last season, ranking 30th in the league in pass defense. Despite this lack of success, there was very little shake-up in the defensive backfield, with most of the starters already set. Pro Bowlers Landon Collins and Janoris Jenkins will start at strong safety and right cornerback, respectively, with Eli Apple at left cornerback. The one question mark that remains is free safety, where the Giants currently have no starter named.
Darian Thompson, the starting FS for the Giants last year, was the likely frontrunner to have the starting role again despite quite a poor season last year. However, three other players already have emerged as potential challengers. Andrew Adams, who was the 2016 starting FS before Thompson usurped him last season, is still on the roster and very much has a chance to regain the starting job. In addition, recently signed Michael Thomas (currently Collins’ backup at strong safety), who played the last five seasons in Miami for new Giants defensive backs coach Lou Anarumo, has been getting reps with the first team. Finally, Curtis Riley, currently the backup to Eli Apple, is in the mix for the starting job.
Despite the competitive race for the position, there seems to be a favorite emerging from the pack. Recent reports have indicated that, after Thompson started the first day of training camp at free safety, each of the other three players mentioned were subsequently given a day to show their skills with the first team unit. After all four players had, in a sense, “auditioned,” Curtis Riley was the first to get a second opportunity to practice with the first team, indicating that he gave the most impressive performance. His second practice as the starter was also reportedly very impressive, despite his suffering a minor setback with a hamstring injury. Riley, if he stays healthy, can actually make an unexpected run at the starting job, overtaking both Thompson and Adams as the dark horse player for starting free safety.
Prediction: Curtis Riley
Written by: Phillip Salmo
The Eagles released longtime starter Mychal Kendricks this offseason leaving a hole at weakside linebacker. It’s now a wide-open battle between the trio of Kamu Grugier-Hill, Nate Gerry, and Corey Nelson. How do they stack up?
Corey Nelson was signed away from the Denver Broncos this off-season and was slated to compete with Kendricks for the starting role before the latter was released. Nate Gerry is a second year converted safety and former practice squad player who has been showing flashes on the first team during his transition to outside linebacker. Last, is Kamu Grugier-Hill who has been a lifetime special-teamer but has all the physical traits to start in this league.
This is about as wide open of a battle as I’ve seen between a position in 2018. If I had to pick one of these three to start it would have to be Corey Nelson, but only because he was brought in through free agency. In reality, I think we need the preseason games to determine this one. It’s just too wide open.
Prediction: Corey Nelson
Written by: George Haraktsis
With the selection of Derrius Guice in the second-round of this year’s draft, the Redskins actually have one of the deeper talent pools at this position. Guice is far and away the most talented of the bunch and should have no issue handling the workload on first and second downs. Chris Thompson excelled last season before suffering a season-ending injury in Week 10, but he will once again have the third-down role locked up. The real battle will take place behind Guice and Thompson.
The problem for Kelley and Perine is the fact they are early-down backs, yet neither one is as talented as Guice. As a former fourth-round pick, Perine may have a slight advantage versus the former UDFA Kelley, who missed most of last season due to an ankle injury. Jay Gruden will likely choose to only keep one of them, as it simply doesn’t make sense to keep three backs who lack the necessary skills to be a consistent third-down backs or contribute much on special teams. This is where guys like Byron Marshall and Kapri Bibbs have a chance to make a splash in camp and show they deserve a roster spot. After being put on the active roster in the last few weeks of 2017 (due to injuries at the position), Bibbs made a couple noteworthy plays and turned in 100 yards of total offense in Week 17 alone. Marshall could also spell Thompson as a third-down back, but I believe Bibbs offers slightly more versatility that increases his value as a fourth running back.
Prediction: Derrius Guice, Chris Thompson, Samaje Perine, Kapri Bibbs
Written by: Greg Lehr