TSX Survey: Battles to watch in each NFL camp

While most the focus is on star quarterbacks and headlines are
demanded by surprise injuries, the attention of those actually in
each NFL training camp is on key battles that players, coaches and
media in attendance see every day.

A survey of TSX insiders covering every team reveals those battles
that are most discussed in each camp around the league.

Many of these are battles for so-called lesser positions, like the
fifth wide receiver. That’s the case with the Dallas Cowboys, with
Brice Butler, Andy Jones and Noah Brown. Or for backup or slot
cornerback, a popular situation in many camps, including the New
York Giants.

Some battles are just battles. In Cincinnati, the always-feisty
linebacker, Vontaze Burfict, who has a history of disciplinary
problems, hit running back Giovani Bernard at the knees, which put
an edge on things because Bernard is coming off a torn ACL. Oh
yeah, and this was in a non-contact drill.

In Davie, Florida, the battle is between two men for two positions,
as left tackle Laremy Tunsil and defensive end Charles Harris
square off in each practice in a heated battle to keep their
respective positions. Harris has speed, Tunsil technique. It is a
fun battle to watch.

Here are the battles watched closely from every NFL camp, as
reported by TSX insiders covering each team:


–Fifth receiver spot among Brice Butler, Andy Jones and Noah
Brown. This will be tough, possibly forcing Cowboys to keep six
receivers. Butler is having an amazing camp, not dropping a ball.
Jones and Brown are younger and kept up with Butler catch-for-catch
and both can also play in the slot.


–Backup slot cornerback. The Giants found out last year what life
is like without Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, their slot cornerback.
He was forced from the wild-card game in Green Bay with a thigh
injury, leaving the Giants with no quality depth. Packers
quarterback Aaron Rodgers went right after the replacements,
including former cornerback Trevin Wade, and the results weren’t
pretty. The Giants didn’t draft to fill this position, but will
instead look to younger guys, such as Mykkele Thompson and Donte
Deayon, to compete for the job. If the Giants have an injury to
cornerbacks Janoris Jenkins or Eli Apple, Rodgers-Cromartie is
likely first to step in, which would leave that slot cornerback
position open to whichever player is his backup.


–Shelton Gibson vs. Marcus Johnson for the sixth and final wide
receiver spot. Johnson, a 2016 undrafted free agent who spent time
on the Eagles’ practice squad last year, is having an excellent
camp and appeared to move ahead of fifth-round rookie Shelton
Gibson, who continues to drop too many passes.


–Junior Galette vs. Preston Smith at outside linebacker.
Intriguing battle to watch on the right side as the Redskins try to
generate a better pass rush. This is a big year for Smith, who
dropped from nine sacks as a rookie, including a playoff loss to
Green Bay, to 4.5 last year, when he was called out by coaches and
teammates for his spotty production. Galette has the track record
— 22 total sacks in 2013 and 2014 with New Orleans — but has
missed two consecutive years with torn Achilles’ tendons. Galette
still shows good burst and gave left tackle Trent Williams fits in
the early part of camp. These two will have an advantage on outside
linebacker Trent Murphy, who is suspended the first four games for
violating the NFL’s drug policy.


–Bryce Callahan vs. Kyle Fuller at right cornerback. With Marcus
Cooper still suffering from a hamstring injury, the Bears have
looked largely at Callahan at right corner with a few glimpses of
Fuller. Both players have solid zone skills, but Callahan appeared
more willing to attack the ball in coverage than Fuller, and is
more physical. Callahan has been a key contributor in the past as a
nickel back, but was plagued by nagging injuries last year.


–Cyrus Kouandjio vs. Greg Robinson at left tackle. Kouandjio and
Robinson are the two leading candidates to start at left tackle for
the Lions this fall, and they split reps with the first-team
offense at the team’s first padded practice of training camp
Tuesday. The Lions are looking for a short-term replacement for
Taylor Decker, who underwent shoulder surgery in June and is
expected to miss the first half or so of the season. Both Kouandjio
and Robinson joined the Lions on the final day of June minicamp, so
this is the first up-close look coaches are getting at the players.


–Kevin King vs. Ladarius Gunter vs. Quinten Rollins at cornerback.
The Packers added free-agent cornerback Davon House in free agency,
and he appears to be a lock to start at one corner. The other job
is entirely up for grabs. Gunter finished the 2016 season as the
top corner in Green Bay’s decimated secondary. While Gunter
competed well, his pedestrian 4.67 speed in the 40-yard dash was —
and always will be — an issue. Rollins, Green Bay’s second-round
pick in 2015, battled a groin injury and inconsistency last season.
Opponents had a ridiculous 133.8 passer rating against Rollins.
Foes also completed 71.4 percent of passes directed at Rollins, and
he allowed seven touchdown passes. The Packers then drafted the
6-foot-3, 200-pound King with the first pick of the second round.
Early on in camp, all three players played with the first team.


–Ryan Quigley vs. Taylor Symmank for punter. Don’t assume Quigley,
the five-year veteran signed in free agency, will win the punting
job this summer. Symmank has no regular-season games on his resume,
but what he has is the superior leg strength. He spent the first
week of camp booming punts. A couple of them were 57-yarders with
over 5.0-second hang times. What Quigley has is a more controlled
game that makes him better, at this point, when it comes to
directional punting. Special teams coordinator Mike Priefer isn’t
blinded by straight power, preferring that his punters punt to
specific spots with specific hang times so that the cover guys can
do their jobs.


–Cornerback. Jalen Collins, who started in the Super Bowl, was
working with the third-team defense on Tuesday. He was also on the
special teams knit-cap/scout team. Desmond Trufant and Robert
Alford are working with the first-team. C.J Goodwin and Deja
Olatoye were working with the second team. Collins took over for
Alford at right cornerback down the stretch of last season after
Trufant went out because of a pectoral injury. Alford moved over to
left cornerback.


–Vernon Butler vs. Star Lotulelei at defensive tackle. A
second-year pro, Butler is taking a lot of the repetitions and
looks good. If the 2016 first-round draft pick keeps up this pace,
he could be ready to displace Lotulelei as the primary cog in the
middle of the defensive line. Lotulelei had offseason shoulder
surgery, so his durability could become a factor as well.


–Rookie No. 1 draft choice Ryan Ramczyk vs. Khalif Barnes at left
tackle. This is a close competition to see who will start while
Terron Armstead recovers from recent shoulder surgery. Ramczyk has
received the most snaps with the first unit and has held his own,
but the distribution of first-team snaps has more to do with the
coaches trying to learn as much as they can about the rookie and
accelerate his development than it does with a front-runner in the


–Devante Bond vs. Kendell Beckwith at linebacker. The Bucs will
have a new strong-side linebacker this season. Bond spent last
season on injured reserve but is working with the first-team
defense. Beckwith, at 6-3, 251 pounds, is larger than most Bucs
linebackers but plays fast and physical. He also is a former
teammate of MLB Kwon Alexander. After the first four days of camp,
Beckwith probably improved as much as any player on the team.


–Running back. Head coach Bruce Arians wants more of a two-back
system. David Johnson and Chris Johnson will get the bulk of that
work. Behind them are five running backs competing for two or three
spots. Entering the team’s first preseason game at the Hall of
Fame, Elijhaa Penny seems to have the inside track on the No. 3
spot based on how he performed in training. Andre Ellington, was
beset by injuries since joining the league in 2013. Rookie T.J.
Logan looks like a shoo-in to make the team, at least as a kick
returner, and could pose problems for Kerwynn Williams and rookie
James Summers.


–Kayvon Webster vs. E.J. Gaines at cornerback. Three years ago,
Gaines stepped up as a rookie to earn a starting role with the Rams
and went into 2015 eyeing an even bigger year. But a foot injury in
training camp cost him an entire season and he returned to mixed
reviews last season. The Rams brought in Webster as competition,
and the two have had a spirited battle for a starting position
opposite Trumaine Johnson. Both are responding, with Gaines coming
up with an interception on a tipped ball against Jared Goff on
Monday, and Webster showing up big-time in 7-on-7 and 11-on-11
drills. Webster has a history with new Rams defensive coordinator
Wade Phillips, having played under him in Denver.


–Cole Hikutini, George Kittle, Vance McDonald and Garrett Celek
are in the competition for the starting position and roster spots
at tight end. The rookies (Hikutini and Kittle) have held the
advantage over the veterans in the early going. Hikutini put on a
nice show Monday when given an opportunity created by Kittle’s
hamstring injury. The duel for the starting spot — and roster
spots in general — is wide open.


–The competition at running back appears to be a fierce one for
the Seahawks this camp. Thomas Rawls, Eddie Lacy and C.J. Prosise
are the top trio of the group. The battle for fourth and fifth on
the depth chart will take most of camp to figure out. Alex Collins,
Mike Davis and Chris Carson have received plenty of work in the
opening days of camp with each getting chances with the first-team


–Reggie Ragland vs. Preston Brown at middle linebacker. The Bills
need to figure out who is going to be the middle linebacker in the
4-3, and some believed Ragland — the 2016 second-round pick who
missed his entire rookie season — would take control. He really
hasn’t, and fourth-year veteran Brown is clearly entrenched, at
least through five practices. Ragland could end up contending for
the weak outside spot, but right now, Brown — who has led the
Bills in defensive snaps played three years in a row — is
out-pacing Ragland inside.


–Left tackle Laremy Tunsil vs. defensive end Charles Harris. These
aren’t two guys battling for the same position. It is Miami’s last
two first-round picks (Tunsil in 2016, Harris in 2017) going
head-to-head in what is becoming the best matchup of training camp.
It doesn’t happen often because technically, Harris is a
second-teamer behind Andre Branch. But Harris is a pass-rushing
specialist and every now and then in both 11-on-11 and one-on-one
drills these two battle. Harris has used his quick first step to
get around Tunsil a few times, but Tunsil used technique, strength
and speed to gain a slight overall edge.


–Geneo Grissom, Kony Ealy and Deatrich Wise Jr. at defensive end.
These three appear to be the front-runners to replace Rob Ninkovich
at the vacated left end spot. Grissom is taking the first-team reps
in camp, but hasn’t played any meaningful snaps in his first two
seasons and was cut out of camp last year. Ealy was healthy, but
not on the field to open camp because he had a “thing” with head
coach Bill Belichick. Wise has been impressive in his first few
workouts, but clearly has a long way to go toward a possible
starting job or even rotational reps. This battle is wide open.


–No. 2 receiver. Literally every receiver in camp will get an
opportunity to line up opposite No. 1 wideout Quincy Enunwa. Robby
Anderson entered camp as the favorite, but had a couple of bad
drops in the first practice and had a slight hamstring injury
during the third workout. Chris Harper, a two-year veteran with 14
career catches, may have vaulted into the lead with a handful of
impressive catches, including a 35-yarder on Tuesday that elicited
applause from his teammates.


–Defensive end. The Ravens were hurt when Lawrence Guy signed with
the New England Patriots in the offseason. However, this provided
an opportunity for Brent Urban, Bronson Kaufusi and rookie Chris
Wormley to battle for that starting role. Urban, a third-year
player, is imposing at 6-foot-7, 300 pounds, but he must show he
can stay healthy. Kaufusi, a second-year player, is also looking to
bounce back after missing all of last season with a broken ankle.
Wormley was a third-round pick from Michigan and is a solid fit in
the Ravens’ 3-4 scheme.


–Not a position battle, but tempers flared Tuesday when linebacker
Vontaze Burfict hit running back Giovani Bernard at his knees
during a non-contact drill. Bernard is coming back from a torn ACL
suffered late last season. Burfict, who has a history of
disciplinary issues, appeared to shove running backs coach Kyle
Caskey during the ensuing scuffle. “We are wasting time pushing and
shoving,” head coach Marvin Lewis told reporters following
Tuesday’s practice.


–Shon Coleman and Cameron Erving at right tackle. Both are getting
plenty of practice time. Coleman is working at left tackle on days
when Joe Thomas is rested. Coach Hue Jackson said Coleman’s work at
left tackle isn’t hampering his growth at right tackle. The Browns
need a right tackle to replace Austin Pasztor, who started 15 games
last year.


–Backup inside linebacker. Tyler Matakevich vs. L.J. Fort and
Steven Johnson. It’s not a battle for a starting job, but it
figures to be an important role this season. Vince Williams, who
was the top reserve the past four seasons, steps into the starting
role with Lawrence Timmons’ departure. Ryan Shazier has not been
able to stay healthy in any of his first three seasons and Williams
was called upon to start a number of games in his absence. When
Williams missed practice Sunday and Monday due a heat-related
illness, it was Matakevich who played with the first-team defense.


–Marcus Gilchrist’s arrival should inject competition into the
safety position, which is in flux after Quintin Demps signed with
the Chicago Bears this offseason. Gilchrist has starting experience
and is healthy now. He could push Andre Hal or Corey Moore for a
starting job if he learns the defense quickly enough.


–Wide receiver. Yes, T.Y. Hilton and Donte’ Moncrief are the
Colts’ top two receivers. But the big question continues to be who
will end up as the team’s No. 3 and No. 4 receivers. It appears to
be a three-player race with Phillip Dorsett, Kamar Aiken and
Chester Rogers fighting it out for the job. Dorsett, Indianapolis’
2015 first-round draft pick, had issues with injuries his first two
seasons in the league. Aiken was a veteran free-agent signee who
spent his previous three seasons in Baltimore. Rogers, a former
undrafted free agent from Grambling who impressed during training
camp last year, had extensive work with the first-team offense over
the final month of the 2016 season.


–Leonard Fournette vs. Chris Ivory at running back. The veteran
Ivory is still running with the first unit, but it’s likely only a
matter of time until Fournette replaces him. Ivory battled with
T.J. Yeldon a year ago for the starting job, with Yeldon holding
the upper hand with 13 starts to Ivory’s one start. But as far as
production, Yeldon held only a 465-439 margin in rushing yards
while Ivory led in average yards per attempt, 3.8 to 3.6.
Fournette, the No. 4 overall pick, looked strong in training camp
thus far, breaking off several lengthy runs with his size and
speed. Yeldon is still in the picture, but will likely be used
mostly as a third-down back.


–LeShaun Sims vs. Adoree’ Jackson at cornerback. With the
revamping of the secondary, it was assumed that first-round pick
Jackson would team with free agent Logan Ryan as the Titans’
starting cornerbacks. But Sims, who started the final few games
last season as a rookie, isn’t going down without a fight. He has
remained with the first unit through four days of camp work, and is
keeping Jackson on the second team.


–No. 3 wide receiver. Bennie Fowler has the upper hand because of
his size, experience and toughness. He went on a vegan diet over
the offseason, which he said has him in the best shape of his
career. Rookie Carlos Henderson struggled early but made some good
catches Sunday and Monday. Second-year veteran Jordan Taylor is
also in the mix, but he doesn’t fit the body template of a typical
No. 3 receiver. Cody Latimer, the Broncos’ 2014 second-round pick,
also is battling for playing time, but he continues to struggle
with consistency.


–The Chiefs’ wide receiver group is among one of the tighter
competitions in camp. Tyreek Hill, Chris Conley and 2017
fourth-round pick Jehu Chesson appear locks for what probably will
be six active roster spots. Albert Wilson, De’Anthony Thomas,
Demarcus Robinson and Seantavius Jones appear to be the
front-runners for the final three spots. Wilson brings the most
experience and is the oldest receiver on the roster at age 25.
Thomas gets an edge due to his special teams value, especially in
the return game. Robinson excelled during OTAs, but Jones has
turned the most heads so far in camp. Marcus Kemp is a sleeper
among the undrafted rookie free agents. The Chiefs also signed
veterans Corey Washington and Robert Wheelwright this week.


–Kellen Clemens vs. Cardale Jones at backup quarterback. Clemens
is everything a team wants in a backup in that he has winning
experience as a starter and he is a solid teammate and a
contributor in the quarterbacks’ room. But he’s also 34 years old,
just one year younger than starter Philip Rivers. Jones was
acquired just before camp and the former Ohio State star caught
head coach Anthony Lynn’s eye last season when they both were at
Buffalo, but is a project.


–Eddie Vanderdoes vs. Treyvon Hester at defensive tackle. Hester,
a seventh-round pick, got a head start in that he was present
throughout the offeseason program while Vanderdoes, taken in the
third round, could not participate because his class at UCLA had
not graduated.

Hester opened with the first team — in part because Jihad Ward and
Mario Edwards Jr. were both injured — but after four days of
practice, Vanderdoes appeared to have the upper hand. The Raiders
are desperately seeking an interior pass rush.

–Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and
NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and is
a member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

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