10 preseason position battles to watch
Training camp and the preseason have a way of leaving us wanting more—especially when it comes to enjoying the one-on-one matchups that make for the great NFL storylines from week to week. Be that as it may, August is the month where one-on-one battles occur between teammates, with the outcome of these positional battles often substantially changing the outcome of a team’s season. Below we list the top 10 most compelling positional battles to watch this preseason.
1. Broncos QB: Mark Sanchez vs. Trevor Siemian
While rookie Paxton Lynch is the long-term candidate for this spot, the word out of Denver is that Sanchez and Siemian are neck-and-neck in a race to become the first new starting quarterback of a reigning Super Bowl champion since Elvis Grbac took over the Ravens in 2001. Like the Ravens, the dominance of the Broncos’ defense places a premium on conservative, mistake-free football. Sanchez, who has never finished above 25th in PFF passer rating during the course of his career, appears too mistake-prone to warrant such consideration, while Siemian has yet to throw a regular-season pass in the NFL, and remains largely unknown. He was the 40th-highest graded college quarterback in 2014, finishing with more interceptions (11) than touchdown passes (seven) that season at Northwestern.
2. Rams QB: Jared Goff vs. Case Keenum
Jared Goff, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2016 NFL Draft, is currently running second behind incumbent starter Case Keenum in Los Angeles. Keenum, after taking over for the ineffective Nick Foles, was the 16th-highest graded quarterback from Weeks 14–17 of last season, giving the Rams something of a buffer in case the rookie from Cal is slow to develop. While he didn’t light the world on fire in his preseason debut, it won’t be long until Goff will be starting in the Rams’ new (old) home. If he can emulate his productivity from college, he would give the Rams something they haven’t had during the entire PFF era—a quarterback with a top-10 overall grade.
3. Vikings C: Joe Berger vs. John Sullivan
While this training camp battle doesn’t have the glamor of a quarterback competition, it’s a compelling storyline for the defending NFC North champion’s offense. Berger, filling in for the injured Sullivan last season, was the team’s best lineman by a long shot, and the highest-graded run-blocking center in the league (and second-highest graded center overall). Sullivan was no slouch himself before missing 2015, finishing seventh, second, first, and third in overall grades amongst centers the last four years. Sullivan has struggled in training camp to regain strength from back surgery, but there’s no doubt the Vikings would like for him to regain his old form so they can allocate Berger’s strengths at somewhere like right guard, where he was one of the Vikings’ highest-graded offensive players last week, filling in for the injured Brandon Fusco.
4. Titans RB: DeMarco Murray vs. Derrick Henry
The winner of this battle will get the majority of the carries in Mike Mularkey’s run-first scheme and, given each player’s running style, both probably need said majority to be effective. Both players got off to a roaring start in the preseason opener versus the porous Chargers’ defense, with Murray earning a positive grade while rushing for 93 yards, while Henry received the Titans’ best offensive grade, rushing for 74 yards and forcing five missed tackles (on 10 carries). Murray is just a year removed from being one of the worst free-agent signings in the league, but just two years removed from leading the NFL in rushing and finishing fifth among running backs in total grading. Henry was very productive at Alabama, rushing for 2,225 yards in 2015 and earning the 12th-best grade among collegiate running backs that year. His 396 carries in 2015 are a possible cause for concern, however.
5. Vikings CB: Terrence Newman vs. Trae Waynes
Despite Waynes being the highest-drafted cornerback in team history, the 38-year-old Newman was able to hold him off for all of his rookie season, earning his seventh positively-graded season (out of 10 in the PFF era) in 2015. Newman showed signs of his age as the season progressed, however, surrendering a 100.0+ quarterback rating into his coverage six out of his last eight starts at cornerback (after having no such games during the first seven). Waynes struggled early in the preseason last year, but improved as the season progressed, earning positive grades in three of the four games in which he played significant snaps. Newman has been hampered by a nagging injury this preseason, opening the door for Waynes to get a lot of work at left cornerback. Last week, he responded by earning a positive grade, defending one of the six passes into his coverage against the Bengals.
6. Saints WR: Michael Thomas vs. Willie Snead
Snead came out of nowhere last season to rack up almost 1,000 yards on fewer than 100 targets, finishing in the top 10 among wide receivers in missed tackles forced and grading positively for an otherwise disappointing Saints team. Snead’s reward was the Saints drafting Michael Thomas, who dropped just five of 115 catchable passes last season at Ohio State. He’s big (6-foot-3, 203 pounds) and physical, forcing a missed tackle on over 23 percent of his receptions last season. Many believe that Thomas has the potential to develop into a true No. 1 wide receiver. If he does so, beating out Snead in a competition to start alongside Brandin Cooks will be simply a stepping stone towards realizing a bright future in the New Orleans’ passing game, which will feature three solid options at the wide receiver position.
7. 49ers QB: Blaine Gabbert vs. Colin Kaepernick
As with the running back battle above, the winner of this race appears set to operate in an offense that’s very friendly for their position, with players like Nick Foles, Mark Sanchez, and Sam Bradford all posting career seasons (for them) with Chip Kelly at the helm. Upon first glance, it would appear that Kaepernick’s athleticism would give him the edge in an offense that emphasizes the zone read so heavily. That said, Gabbert appears to be on pace with Kaepernick so far this preseason, despite finishing 30th last season in PFF QB rating and failing to distinguish himself in the first preseason game of 2016. If Kaepernick can regain the form that saw him grade positively in 2012 and 2013, he should be the favorite to win this job, giving Kelly possibly the most-talented quarterback he’s had to work with in his four seasons as an NFL head coach.
8. Jaguars CB: Prince Amukamara vs. Jalen Ramsey
The Jaguars re-tooled defense appeared to luck into Jalen Ramsey when he fell to the fifth pick in the 2016 NFL draft. However, Ramsey’s mini-slide created unanticipated competition between he and another newcomer. Amukamara comes over from the Giants, where he finished a respectable 17th in yards per coverage snap allowed (1.04) last season, and figures to play plenty in nickel personnel if he were to lose out in this competition. For a defense that graded 30th in the league last season, competition can do nothing but help improve a unit looking to help the Jaguars make the playoffs for the first time since 2007. The experience of Amukamara and 2015 free-agent addition Davon House, teamed with the length and athleticism of Ramsey—the top run defender among cornerbacks in college football last season—should help the 2016 Jaguars defense make a jump similar to the one their offense made in 2015.
9. Dolphins RB: Jay Ajayi vs. Arian Foster
With Lamar Miller signing with Houston, the running back position is wide open in Miami, with the Dolphins signing the veteran Arian Foster to compete with 2015 draft pick Jay Ajayi. Ajayi, the eight-highest graded running back in college football in 2014, was productive in limited duty as a rookie, never grading negatively in any game, with an elusive rating of 83.7 that was the best in the league among running backs with more than 40 carries. Foster is aiming to reclaim the form that made him one of the NFL’s best at his position after a few years-worth of injuries. He’s graded positively in all of his seasons as an NFL starter, and was still productive in 2014, finishing fourth and eighth among running backs in breakaway percentage and elusive rating that season. While many assume the nod will go to the younger back, don’t be surprised to see Foster earn reps early on.
10. Jaguars LT: Luke Joeckel vs. Kelvin Beachum
Much has been made of the Jaguars’ skill position players, and with good reason. But for Jacksonville to take the next step offensively, the offensive line needs to improve, as Blake Bortles faced pressure on 241 of his dropbacks last season (fourth-most among quarterbacks), while producing just the 33rd-highest accuracy percentage on those pressured throws. Joeckel has not played at a level commensurate with his position as a No. 2 overall draft pick; he finished with the sixth-worst pass-blocking efficiency among tackles last season. Enter Beachum, who, after playing very well for the Steelers in 2014, saw just 329 snaps a year ago before injury ended his season, and was allowed to sign with Jacksonville this offseason. The loser of this battle figures to take over the left guard position, meaning the Jaguars are hoping both players can overcome what has limited them in the past.