The preseason can be a confusing time for many NFL fans. While the return of football in any form is exciting, many are put off by the lack of star power and the inconsequential nature of the exhibition games.
However, even though these games may not factor in to the standings, for many players, these August contests tend to be the most important of their careers. Save for the game’s biggest stars, everyone is battling for a role, whether it be for a starting spot, a rotational backup slot, or simply a last-chance practice squad gig, making these games potential career-shapers for many players.
Unfortunately, as enticing, heated, and controversial as these positional battles may be, many of them fly under the radar for a majority of fans. So, as a primer for the start of August action, here are the biggest positional battles to watch for in this week’s slate of games.
Thursday, August 9th
Panthers @ Bills
With the Bills having undergone massive roster overhaul, it is fitting that there are positional battles in all phases of play. The headlining act, however, is the quarterback competition.
2017 5th round pick Nathan Peterman and free agent signee A.J. McCarron have been so neck and neck that the Bills’ opening depth chart designates both as co-starters, but Peterman seems to have gained the upper hand of late. Having performed well in drills with the first team on Monday, Peterman could really begin to pull away if that consistency carries over against Carolina’s youthful secondary.
As for the Bills’ 2018 1st round pick, Josh Allen started camp somewhat shakily, and has not taken first-team reps in three straight practices. While he is expected to get playing time later on in the season, he still has a ways to go.
Bears @ Bengals
In this matchup, the hottest positional battle comes down to the wide receivers. The Bears will likely keep six, and while the top five (Allen Robinson, Anthony Miller, Taylor Gabriel, Kevin White, and Joshua Bellamy) seem to be locked in, the final spot is up for grabs.
Rookie Javon Wims is currently the favorite following a dominant Hall of Fame Game performance, but Tanner Gentry has a slight advantage in fluidity and explosiveness that could edge him out. Bennie Fowler and Demarcus Ayers could also make a push, but neither offers much more than speed and special teams ability, putting them at an early disadvantage.
Buccaneers @ Dolphins
While all eyes will be on how quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Griffin fare in preparation for starter Jameis Winston’s suspension, the true tussle will be the one to determine who starts at corner alongside Brent Grimes.
Embattled 2016 1st round pick Vernon Hargreaves is currently the favorite, but 2018 2nd round pick Carlton Davis has made a “strong impression” with his physical play throughout camp and could turn the tide. Furthermore, with Hargreaves often moving inside in nickel packages, fellow third-year Ryan Smith also has a chance to see time opposite Grimes.
Browns @ Giants
Although the top two picks of the latest draft, QB Baker Mayfield and RB Saquon Barkley, will draw the hype, the fiercest competition will be for the Giants’ starting free safety. 2016 3rd round pick Darian Thompson started all 16 games last season, and is the most versatile of the group.
However, he has since ceded time throughout spring minicamp to Andrew Adams, the superior cover man. One dark horse candidate is special teams ace Michael Thomas, but he started just two games at safety last season for the Dolphins, and will likely be fighting an uphill battle.
Steelers @ Eagles
Having let go of long-tenured defensive backs Mike Mitchell and William Gay in the offseason, the Steelers now have fierce competition both at safety and slot corner.
While incumbent nickleback Mike Hilton has drawn the favor of coaches, his slight frame offers little in the run game, which could cause the team to go with their 2018 1st round pick, gargantuan safety Terrell Edmunds, as their fifth DB sooner than later.
Although he will most likely fail to beat out veteran SS Morgan Burnett, Edmunds should still see playing time in a reserve role, and his preseason performance will determine exactly how much.
Saints @ Jaguars
Following Allen Robinson’s unceremonious free agency departure, the Jags no longer have a well-defined No. 1 wideout, and will see at least five contenders vie for that role. The favorite is Keelan Cole, who established himself as a dominant deep threat last season thanks to his strong hands and instincts with the ball in the air.
Marqise Lee should also push for the job, but, having battled a minor injury throughout camp, he will have some catching up to do. Meanwhile, the remaining three (D.J. Chark, Dede Westbrook, and Donte Moncrief) all have speed to burn, with Westbrook in particular having made several flash plays throughout camp, making him a potential candidate to pull away in live action.
Washington @ Patriots
Despite impressing coaches throughout camp, rookie running back Derrius Guice was not able to break through on Washington’s opening depth chart, having been slotted in at the fourth string, behind Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine.
Considering that Guice was considered by many to be a 1st round talent due to his patience, power, and quickness, this demotion comes as a surprise, but could be a testament to the kind of effort that the slimmed-down “Fit Rob” Kelley has shown. Regardless, it is irresponsible to give excessive credence to an early depth chart, as Guice could still usurp the spot with a strong preseason performance.
Rams @ Ravens
For both teams, the most intriguing camp competitions come down to the backup quarterbacks. The biggest name is, of course, Ravens first round pick Lamar Jackson. Although he showed of tremendous quickness and escapability in the Hall of Fame Game, his accuracy and timing were both lacking, giving an early advantage to veteran backup Robert Griffin III.
The Rams, meanwhile, feature another intriguing rookie: Luis Perez from Texas A&M-Commerce. Though raw, Perez showed off active feet and solid touch in college. While he may not beat out Sean Mannion, Perez could still finagle a roster spot ahead of Brandon Allen with an impressive preseason, especially since he should receive increased reps with starter Jared Goff likely to sit out the Thursday’s opener.
Titans @ Packers
Once again, the camp battle to watch will be for the backup quarterback spot. Although Brett Hundley put up solid numbers filling in for Aaron Rodgers last season, the Packers sensed the need to upgrade to someone who could keep the team in legitimate contention were Rodgers to go down, leading to the trade for DeShone Kizer.
However, while Kizer has mostly looked “like a work in progress” in camp, a third contender has entered the ring: undrafted rookie Tim Boyle, who put together an impressive showing at the team’s annual scrimmage. While I still expect Kizer to win the job, Boyle could force a surprise trade if his success persists.
Texans @ Chiefs
All eyes may be on Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes, but the real question is who Watson’s bookend protectors will be. The favorite to hold down Watson’s blind side is the strong, quick-footed Julién Davenport, who made four starts last season in lieu of Derek Newton.
Meanwhile, on the right side, the favorite to start is the massive Seantrel Henderson. Despite having spent the last few seasons recovering from Crohn’s disease, Henderson has held his own in camp against the team’s top pass rusher. With rookie Martinas Rankin recovering from a foot injury, Henderson could secure the role with a strong, consistent preseason.
Cowboys @ 49ers
After releasing three-time Pro Bowler Dez Bryant in the offseason, the Cowboys now have severe uncertainty at wide receiver and several contenders to fill that void. Cole Beasley and Allen Hurns are the best route runners on the team, but speedster Terrance Williams has shown tremendous grit all offseason, practicing through the pain of a recent surgery in an effort to win the top spot.
Meanwhile, the team seems to have big plans for newcomer Tavon Austin, and rookie Michael Gallup has already impressed with his aggressiveness on jump balls. While I expect Hurns to get the nod, August should make for a relatively even five-way skirmish.
Colts @ Seahawks
With both squads lacking a concretely defined starting running back, the focal point of this game will be the backfield. For Seattle, incumbent Chris Carson currently has the advantage, but 1st round pick Rashaad Penny has shown off explosiveness to complement his sharp cutting ability and could seize the job.
Meanwhile, Marlon Mack has emerged as the favorite to start for Indy, but the backup role is still up for grabs, with Robert Turbin, Josh Ferguson, and rookie Nyheim Hines all vying for snaps. Turbin has an advantage as the veteran, but Hines is the quickest of the bunch and will likely surpass him.
Friday, August 10th
Falcons @ Jets
As with the rival Bills, all eyes will be on the Jets’ three-way quarterback tussle. Veteran Josh McCown put up career numbers last season under the tutelage of new offensive coordinator Jeremy Bates, but will be pushed hard by new signee Teddy Bridgewater.
Although Bridgewater spent his last two seasons recovering from a devastating injury, he has shown out this offseason, and should be considered the favorite to emerge as the Week 1 starter. Behind them, rookie Sam Darnold has already raised eyebrows thanks to his advanced grasp of the game, giving him a “fair shot” to win the job with a strong preseason showing.
Lions @ Raiders
Having lost Sean Smith, T.J. Carrie, David Amerson, and D.J. Hayden in the offseason, the Raiders are working with a young, unpredictable cornerback group featuring competition of all three spots.
Seeing that 2017 1st round pick Gareon Conley is due to miss time with a hip strain, Daryl Worley, Shareece Wright, and rookie Nick Nelson should all see increased snaps in preseason action. Although veteran Leon Hall is the favorite to start in the slot, he will be pushed by Nelson, and may also cede slot time to box safety Marcus Gilchrist, who has taken substantial first team reps there.
Saturday, August 11th
Vikings @ Broncos
Now that Case Keenum has all but secured the starting quarterback role out of camp over Paxton Lynch, the most heated battle will instead be for the Broncos’ third starting cornerback job.
With veteran Tramaine Brock recovering from a hamstring injury, youngsters Isaac Yiadom and Brendan Langley will see extensive action, giving them an early edge. Yiadom has been particularly impressive throughout camp, and has received heavy doses of first team action in Brock’s stead, putting him in the driver’s seat heading into Saturday night.
Chargers @ Cardinals
Although the player to watch will be Cards rookie quarterback Josh Rosen, he has safely secured the backup role out of camp and will likely have to wait his turn behind veteran starter Sam Bradford.
Instead, the most intriguing battle will have to do with who Rosen is throwing to. Athletic deep threat Brice Butler is currently listed as a starter alongside living legend Larry Fitzgerald, and should hold on to the gig if he continues to refine his game.
Meanwhile, 2nd round rookie Christian Kirk has impressed with his intensity in camp, but still has a ways to go before he surpasses Butler, Chad Williams, and burner J.J. Nelson, as head coach Steve Wilks has suggested that Kirk’s initial action may come on special teams.