With training camps now officially open for all 32 teams, what better way to kick off the return of football than to dissect some of the most intriguing position battles that will take place in preparation for the 2021 season.
Since returning from vacation I have been seeking the most under-the-radar camp battles for all 32 teams. I have texted with and called coaches, personnel members and various sources across the league to come up with the best non-obvious battles heading into camp.
On Monday, I focused on the AFC. Today, I'll dive into the 16 NFC teams.
Washington Football Team
Terry McLaurin finally got some help this offseason when WFT brought in Curtis Samuel as a free agent. The top two receiver spots are set in Washington for the first time in a while, which makes the battle for No. 3 even more interesting. I should say, this won't be a typical No. 3 spot, though. Antonio Gibson will still be used plenty as a receiving threat out of the backfield, Adam Humphries is going to work out of the slot and Logan Thomas is solidly the top tight end. I'm told the competition for the spot is going to come down to Sims and Brown, who was one of the best deep threats in this year's draft but also struggled a bit with drops at UNC. Additionally, keep an eye on what Kamren Curl does at safety in his competition with veteran Landon Collins.
Under the radar: Nickel corner, Darnay Holmes vs. Aaron Robinson
There are a couple great competitions on this Giants team that was a Doug Pederson tank away from potentially making the playoffs. I wanted to take a look at the EDGE competition but Cody Benjamin beat me to it. GM Dave Gettleman has tried just about everything to improve the corner position and he heads into 2021 with it looking the best it's been since he took over. With James Bradberry and Adoree' Jackson taking care of the outside, it'll come down to Holmes and Robinson for the nickel corner starting position. Of course, the team will throw out multiple looks in the backend that could see Jabrill Peppers or Xavier McKinney playing that fifth DB role. But in the traditional sense, Holmes is the favorite to reclaim his role after allowing just a 67.2 passer rating last season. Robinson will need to acclimate to the pros quickly to push Holmes, but I'm told the coaches really like what they've seen already from the third-rounder.
Under the radar: FS1, Damontae Kazee vs. Jayron Kearse
Our Patrik Walker hit on the Cowboys on Monday and I won't double up there, but I'll add that the Dalton Schultz vs. Blake Jarwin battle is one I'll keep a close eye on at tight end. Donovan Wilson helped steady a safety position that was a pain point for the Cowboys a year ago, and now Xavier Woods's free safety position is up for grabs. As soon as Dallas signed Dan Quinn acolyte Kazee, it seemed obvious he'd be the leader to win the starting job and he very well may. But he's still about 10 months removed from a torn Achilles that ended his season in October. Though Kazee returned to OTAs, he'll still have his snaps monitored as he returns to action in Oxnard. That should give a little daylight to Kearse, a five-year veteran who saw the most action of his career last season for Detroit. And Dallas is also working versatile rookie DB Israel Mukuamu at safety, and he was known to get his hands on the ball at South Carolina.
Under the radar: Third safety, Marcus Epps vs. K'Von Wallace
Take your pick of battles for the Eagles going into next week. Who are the linebackers outside of Eric Wilson? The third defensive tackle between Javon Hargrave and Fletcher Cox? The second corner? We'll look here at the third safety, who may have to be the second safety in Philly in Week 1 if Rodney McLeod hasn't fully recovered from his December ACL surgery. Philly inked Anthony Harris in free agency, so we know he's got one safety spot locked down. But who's the first off the bench (or the Week 1 starter sans McLeod)? Epps got more defensive snaps last season than Wallace and he was more trusted in pass coverage and held up better than advertised in run defense. Epps also began his career in Minnesota under Mike Zimmer, whom new Eagles DC Jonathan Gannon named as his biggest coaching influence. The way the position has been devalued, I won't be surprised if the Eagles sign a veteran free agent a week or two into camp if Epps, Wallace or Andrew Adams aren't getting the job done.
Competition in Seattle is hot at cornerback, WR3 and offensive line depth. Once the Seahawks re-signed Chris Carson, it was a foregone conclusion that he and Rashaad Penny would get the bulk of the carries as Pete Carroll wants to once again establish the run. But after a rash of injuries at the RB position last year, depth is going to be crucial for the Seahawks at this spot. DeeJay Dallas got the most touches last season out of this group battling for RB3, but my early money is on Collins, who did more with less (4.3 yards/carry on 18 attempts) after a couple solid seasons in Baltimore. Dallas and Homer both contributed to special teams last year and the Seahawks added UDFA Josh Johnson, who very well could have been drafted this spring if not for his ailing hamstring and a poor team surrounding him at Louisiana-Monroe.
Under the radar: TE2, Johnny Mundt vs. Brycen Hopkins vs. Jacob Harris
The running back spot just got thrust into the spotlight with the Cam Akers news. The WR3 spot will be some combination of Van Jefferson, DeSean Jackson and Tutu Atwell. And we know the Rams need to figure out their corner depth. So I'm going off the beaten path here for the tight end who will play behind Tyler Higbee. Mundt should make the team thanks to his special teams prowess. With Gerald Everett going to Seattle, the Rams need 2020 fourth-round pick Hopkins to step up. Hopkins got two whole snaps all of last season, but he should be further ahead in the playbook. The rookie Harris is extremely raw, and he was drafted in
the fourth because of his incredible workout numbers (no offense.) If Mundt can show better hands in camp, he can move up the offensive depth chart.
Under the radar: RG1 Justin Murray vs. Brian Winters vs. Josh Jones
This is going to be a critical camp in a crucial season for Kliff Kingsbury. Several starting jobs are up for grabs including running back, OLB opposite Chandler Jones and nickel corner. We'll focus here on the right guard spot that Murray has a hold on for now. Murray didn't allow a sack in his 360 pass-block snaps last season and had a pressure rate of just 3.3%. The Cardinals brought in Winters on a veteran minimum contract after he allowed three sacks in 394 pass-block snaps for the Bills last season, according to PFF. Third-round rookie Jones should see time at guard and tackle this camp, and I'm not sure where veteran guard Max Garcia is going to fit in on this roster.
The Niners offensive line at four of five positions is now set after inking Trent Williams to a long-term deal and reuniting Alex Mack with Kyle Shanahan. Brunskill filled in admirably at center last season after a rash of injuries at the position, but the former AAF lineman figures to start camp as RG1. San Francisco drafted Banks in the second round out of Notre Dame, where he didn't give up a single sack for the Irish in 2020. Brunskill offers great position versatility with his history at tackle, too, but Banks is the future at that spot for San Francisco.
Under the radar: ILB2, Krys Barnes vs. Kamal Martin
Aaron Rodgers returning for 2021 is the biggest story for the Packers, but perhaps the most closely watched competition at camp will be the battle for CB2 between Eric Stokes and Kevin King. The wide receiver group is always fun to watch, and I'm told Juwann Winfree is a good sleeper pick for one of the final WR spots. But new DC Joe Barry's specialty is linebacker, focusing on that position for most of the past quarter-century. Now that he's helming the Packers defense in place of Mike Pettine, he'll have a close look at coaching up the two leading candidates to start alongside new acquisition De'Vondre Campbell at inside linebacker. Barnes would seemingly have the upper hand in this competition based on his lights-out play last season as a rookie. He appeared in 13 games and led all undrafted rookies in the league in tackles with 78. But Martin, who started in six of the 10 games he appeared in, spent the first six weeks of the season on IR with a knee injury. That obviously slowed the rookie's development and put him behind the eight ball to start his career. The Packers also drafted Isaiah McDuffie in the sixth round to compete with Ty Summers and Oren Burks, who very well could be on his last camp in Green Bay.
The competition between Andy Dalton and Justin Fields will take up all the oxygen when discussing this team. And the Bears may come to regret so proudly declaring Dalton QB1 as quickly as they could with Fields continuing to showcase his prodigious talents. Nevertheless, RB3 is a spot I'll keep an eye on. Tarik Cohen and David Montgomery hold down the top two spots, and rookie Herbert will try to take reps from Williams, he of Super Bowl LIV fame. Williams opted out last season and signed a one-year deal worth just $1.125 million with Chicago. The Bears spent a sixth-round pick on Herbert, who I'm told has been getting reps with the 1s on special teams already at punt returner and personal protector.
Under the radar: RG1, Dakota Dozier vs. Wyatt Davis (CB2, Cameron Dantzler vs. Bashaud Breeland)
I'll give you two here. Third-round rookie Davis is going to compete with Dozier for the starting right guard spot. The Vikings have been methodically upgrading their offensive line through the draft in recent years and Davis followed left tackle Christian Darrisaw in this year's class for Minnesota. We'll see if Dozier -- who started all 2020 at left guard and who has flipped to right to make room for Ezra Cleveland -- can hold off the Buckeye in camp. On the defensive side, CB2 will be a hotly contested battle between Breeland and Dantzler. Patrick Peterson has CB1 locked up, and Mackensie Alexander figures to man nickel as Jeff Gladney's legal process plays out. Dantzler needs to show continued growth in his second year to fend off the veteran Breeland.
Under the radar: TE3, after TE1 T.J. Hockenson and TE2 Darren Fells
Detroit has so much competition for positions going into camp that I have to go deep to find something under the radar. Everyone's watching the cornerback, receiver and backup quarterback groups. So I'll take a look at a position that's near and dear to new head coach Dan Campbell's heart: tight end. Hockenson had the third-most receiving yards of all tight ends last season and TE2 will absolutely be filled by Fells, who's coming off his most prolific pass-catching seasons the last two years. Campbell had brought Josh Hill over from the Saints in free agency, but Hill opted to retire in the spring. Hunter Bryant was penciled in as TE3, but he landed on the NFI list and it's unclear when he'll be back to health. Alize Mack is the most senior member of the group of zero-NFL-snaps players vying for the spot, so it may be his to lose going up against undrafted free agents Brock Wright and Jake Hausmann this camp. Like many of these roles, whoever can also show contributions on special teams will better their chances.
New Orleans Saints
Under the radar: P1, Blake Gillikin vs. Nolan Cooney
There are plenty of options to choose from with these post-Brees Saints. The obvious competitions will be between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill, or at the cornerback position opposite Marshon Lattimore, or at defensive tackle now that David Onyemata is out for the first six games. Even linebacker outside of Demario Davis will be looked at closely. But we're under the radar here. So bust out your stopwatches and get ready for a punter competition. New Orleans released Thomas Morstead after a dozen years of service as one of several cost-cutting moves, and the Saints are moving forward this season with either Gillikin or Cooney. Gillikin is a 2020 UDFA out of Penn State where he averaged 42.2 yards per punt in his final year with the Nittany Lions. Cooney is a 2021 UDFA from Syracuse where he averaged 44.8 yards per punt in his final year.
By the way, the Saints have a partnership with Zebra Technology and thus they have trackers in the balls that can tell them spin rate and hangtime. So they won't need stopwatches after all.
What do you say here about the Super Bowl-winning team that returned all 22 starters for the first time in NFL history in a half-century? We know Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette will duke it out in camp, but the starting roles are pretty much figured out for the Week 1 Cowboys game. Let's take a look at the third OLB spot behind Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. First-round pick Tryon will compete with third-year backer Nelson for that spot in camp. Tryon has the lateral quickness that make it obvious why he's a first-rounder. Nelson played 30% of the defensive snaps last season and logged one sack and seven pressures. Tryon's obviously the future at the position, but Nelson isn't going to just hand it over to the 32nd overall pick.
Under the radar: LS1, J.J. Jansen vs. Thomas Fletcher
You asked for under the radar. Jansen is 35 years old and one of the last remaining pieces of that Super Bowl 50 roster in Carolina. Carolina inked him to a one-year deal at the start of free agency, and we all considered it to be a fait accompli that he'd be their guy in his 13th season with the team. Then the Panthers drafted Alabama long snapper Fletcher in the sixth round and now, friends, we have a snapper competition. Fletcher won the award for best long snapper in the country last season. Meanwhile, Jansen hasn't had a bad snap since the 2010 season opener. Jansen carries a cap hit just below $1 million, so it won't be about the money if he loses out to the rookie. But on a roster of 53 players, there can only be one long snapper.
Under the radar: C1, Matt Hennessy vs. Drew Dalman
Alex Mack manned the center position in Atlanta at an elite level for five years, and his presence will be missed by no one more than Matt Ryan. As the Falcons continue to figure out what they're going to be in 2021, they've got to settle who takes over Mack's spot. Hennessy did his best in the final two games of the season, but he struggled mightily in pass-blocking situations. In 225 snaps across guard and center last season, he allowed one sack and four pressures and had one of Pro Football Focus's worst pass-blocking grades of all eligible centers. New GM Terry Fontenot spent a fourth-round pick on Stanford center Dalman, who's Super Bowl-winning father Chris also (coincidentally) served as an assistant OL for the Falcons in the mid-2000s. We'll see which guy impresses the brand-new coaching staff more these next few weeks.