2014 NFL Training Camp Battles: Is Geno the answer for the Jets?
Rex Ryan has made it clear that second-year quarterback Geno Smith will be hard to be, but Michael Vick admits that sitting on the bench won't be easy.
The AFC East begins with Belichick, Brady and the Patriots, but is this the year one of the other three make a move in this division? It all starts with training camp, and below we highlight some of the key camp battles across the division.
CAMP BATTLES TO WATCH: AFC EAST
Key battle: Da'Norris Searcy vs. Duke Williams, safety
With Pro Bowl safety Jairus Byrd now in New Orleans, the Bills enter camp in search of his replacement in the secondary. General manager Doug Whaley has indicated that Searcy, who started seven games last season, has a slight edge over Williams because of experience, but a lot can change in the next month. Searcy and Williams have different skill sets; the former doesn't cover ground like Byrd but excels near the line of scrimmage, while the latter offers more in the way of overall athleticism.
But Searcy's versatility as a hybrid defensive back/linebacker could be what differentiates him from Williams.
"That is extra value to my play," Searcy said of his hybrid position last season (via BuffaloBills.com). "I don't want that to leave, I like that role for me. But if it does, then I'll just play safety. I have no problem with that either."
There's also a third horse in this race: Jonathan Meeks, a 2013 fourth-rounder who has a knack for making plays in the passing game.
Predicted outcome: Experience and versatility give Searcy the edge, but we could see sub packages that include Aaron Williams (the other starting safety) alongside Duke Williams, with Searcy playing more of a hybrid role.
Key battle: Lamar Miller vs. Knowshon Moreno, running back
On paper, the choice seems straightforward; Moreno, who ranked sixth in Football Outsiders' RB efficiency metric, should be penciled in as the Dolphins' starter ahead of Miller, who was 31st. But there's a reason Moreno only signed a one-year deal: The former first-round pick was the beneficiary of playing in a high-powered Broncos offense last season, something the Dolphins under Mike Sherman knew nothing about. At 27, Moreno is relatively young by running back standards, but Miller is 23, dynamic, and his best days are in front of him.
Moreno may have entered offseason workouts as the likely starter but he has been slowed by a knee injury. Meanwhile, Miller has shined in new offensive coordinator Bill Lazor's offense.
Predicted outcome: Miller, because of his explosiveness speed and, ultimately, upside. Moreno is reliable, and a good blocker, and it's reasonable to think that both will get work in Lazor's scheme.
Cornerback -- Cortland Finnegan signed with the team this offseason but is coming off a horrendous two years with the Rams. But if he doesn't return to the form he displayed with the Titans early in his career, he could be surpassed on the depth chart by Jamar Taylor and Will Davis.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
Key battle: Aaron Dobson, Brandon LaFell, Josh Boyce, Kenbrell Thompkins, No. 3 wide receivers
Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola are Tom Brady's starting wide receivers, but both are shorter than 6-feet and don't present much of a threat in the downfield passing game. But Dobson, Boyce and Thompkins -- each entering his second year -- do. And the hope is that one (or more) can emerge as such after a year of on-the-job training. The Patriots also signed LaFell, the former Panthers veteran who ranked 43rd in Football Outsiders' WR efficiency metric in 2013.
Predicted outcome: Dobson, at 6-foot-3, is the most athletic of the group, but Thompkins showed the ability to make big catches in huge moments last season (see the Saints game).
Other battles to watch: Backup quarterback -- Ryan Mallett vs. Jimmy Garoppolo. Mallett's in the final year of his rookie deal and could be elsewhere in a year's time. The Pats used a second-round pick on Garoppolo and coach Bill Belichick has never been afraid of making personnel decisions that fly in the face of convention.
Interior offensive line -- Dan Connelly vs. Josh Kline. Connelly struggled at times last year and if Kline plays well in camp, he could earn more playing time.
NEW YORK JETS
Key battle: Geno Smith vs. Michael Vick, quarterback
Yes, Rex Ryan has indicated second-year quarterback Geno Smith would be "hard to beat out," but Smith struggled for most of last season, throwing eight touchdowns and 19 interceptions in the first 12 games before improving over the final month, tossing four TDs vs. two INTs, and leading the team to a 3-1 record.
Vick signed with the Jets this offseason fully aware of the situation he was getting himself into.
"It's still tough right now ... I won't lie," Vick said in May. "Because deep down you always want to be a starter. Hopefully that opportunity will come again one day and I've just got to keep working for it."
And that's the thing: If Smith stumbles in training camp and preseason, Vick could be the guy. For what it's worth, Vick's former boss, Eagles coach Chip Kelly, still thinks the 34-year-old can play.
"I still think he's got a lot of football left in him," Kelly said this spring. "He's got tremendous arm skill. I don't know too many guys in the league that have the arm that Mike does. There's still days in practice in December when he rips a couple and you're just like, 'Whoa.' He can throw the football. He still has the ability."
Predicted outcome: It's Smith's job to lose. Vick provides a veteran insurance policy but Smith, the 2013 second-round pick, showed glimpses of potential down the stretch last year and Ryan wants to see what a full offseason will do for his young QB's progress.
"The last four weeks of the season, when most rookies are [on the decline], he's [on the rise]," Ryan said back in March when talking about Smith's rookie campaign. "And we all saw it coming. And what's [the] evidence? He's the second-highest quarterback rating in the National Football League. ... Was he using his legs? Was he protecting the football? Was he throwing it with accuracy? Did he really take to Marty's [Mornhenweg] offense and the Jets offense?
"Yeah, he absolutely did," the coach said, answering his own question. "He grew by leaps and bounds. That's what I was so excited about. And the competition -- whoever we bring in -- that is going to be outstanding. But make no mistake, Geno Smith, he's gonna be hard to beat out, I'm just telling you."
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