NFL training camps are back this week in full force, with veterans reporting across the country to mark the end of the summer doldrums of no football. We’ve officially made it to the start of the 2022 NFL season, everyone! And to mark the occasion, we at The Draft Network are bridging the end of the 2022 draft cycle with the opening of the 2022 season by highlighting one major training camp battle for all 32 NFL teams. There’s just one stipulation: each battle has to involve a rookie from the 2022 NFL Draft.
Here are the rookie competitions entering NFL training camp that we’ll be watching intently. To find your NFL team, click below. Each NFL team is sorted by division.
AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West
The job: Third-down running back
The Rookie: RB James Cook
The Veteran(s): RB Duke Johnson & Devin Singletary
Cook as an added weapon to the Buffalo passing attack has the potential to add even more headaches to trying to withstand wave after wave of talent offensively when playing the Bills. Buffalo has put an added focus on the running game this offseason as well, hiring offensive line coach Aaron Kroemer and bringing in guard Roger Saffold and TE O.J. Howard. It should help greatly for a team that, yes, rushed for 2,209 yards last year, but did so courtesy of 763 yards (6.3 YPC) by QB Josh Allen. But let’s keep the main thing the main thing.
Singletary enjoyed a stabilizing season, logging 870 yards on 188 carries and performing well down the stretch for the Bills. But his work on the passing downs offered just 5.7 yards per catch on 40 receptions (and 50 targets). We’ve got to clean more meat off the bone than that in the passing game.
Enter Cook and Johnson. Johnson is an accomplished pass-catching back with 311 career receptions across seven NFL seasons (and 2,870 yards through the air). Johnson enjoyed a resurgence down the stretch for the Dolphins last season, earning himself a chance to compete with the Bills this summer for more work. But Cook’s passing game skill set is mature beyond his years. I’d expect the investment the Bills made in Cook pre-empts Johnson’s experience and allows the rookie to platoon with Singletary while also pushing third-year back Zack Moss to the brink of making the roster at all.
The job: Starting inside linebacker
The Rookie: LB Channing Tindall
The Veteran: LB Elandon Roberts
Tindall’s arrival certainly gives the Dolphins more versatility on the second level of their defense. Roberts was a successful transplant from the New England Patriots as a free agent, following former head coach Brian Flores to South Florida for a crack at serving as a starting linebacker. 26 starts and 144 tackles later, Roberts has hit a glass ceiling on his skill set and a starting role—hence why Miami drafted Tindall with their first draft choice of 2022.
But Roberts has played six NFL seasons in the Dolphins’ system versus Tindall’s role as a depth player for the majority of his career at Georgia. Is Tindall ready to claim that role and start full-time?
Tindall’s blitz ability, passing down skills, and range will have a role rotationally at a minimum but I would consider it an upset for Tindall to claim the starting role straight out of camp. I think the separation between his own inexperience and fundamental improvements versus Roberts’ mastery of the system and role as an emotional leader is too great to overcome in the summer. By mid-season? That might be a different story. But look for Roberts to stave off the charge from a much more talented athlete initially.
New England Patriots
The job: All the cornerback spots
The Rookie(s): CB Marcus Jones & CB Jack Jones
The Veteran(s): CBs Jalen Mills, Jonathan Jones & Malcolm Butler
This is quite the group. Twelve months ago, this room was home to Stephon Gilmore and J.C. Jackson. These days, there’s a lot of trust being put into a 32-year-old Butler, Mills, and a career slot defender in Jonathan Jones. Can these young cornerbacks help infuse the speed needed to hang with some potent pass catchers within the AFC East?
It’s a big mystery, but Buffalo has Stefon Diggs and Gabriel Davis. Miami has Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle. The Jets have Corey Davis, Elijah Moore, and a top-10 overall pick in Garrett Wilson. These won’t be easy assignments, no matter who steps in to take any of the assigned receivers.
The hope is that Marcus Jones and Jack Jones (unrelated) are able to find success early with their scrappy play and high-end foot speed. And maybe they will—they’re going to have to beat out an aging veteran in Butler, Mills, and Jonathan Jones. Jonathan Jones has played 433 snaps in the NFL as an outside cornerback across six seasons of professional play. And, oh, by the way, is returning from season-ending shoulder surgery.
Between the two rookies, Jack Jones is the more physically talented and bigger of the duo despite checking in at just 5-foot-10 and 171 pounds. That lack of size comes with high-end agility. I’d bet we see him claim a job sooner rather than later. Marcus Jones won’t be far behind, but I think he’s more likely to contribute early on special teams instead.
New York Jets
The job: Tight End
The Rookie: TE Jeremy Ruckert
The Veteran(s): Tyler Conklin & C.J. Uzomah
The Jets are a challenging team to get a grasp on for training camp battles because most of their early picks are… just going to play. Wilson will play plenty. Ahmad Gardner will start immediately. Jermaine Johnson may have some competition for snaps from veteran free agent Jacob Martin? And sure, maybe the team plays a little bit of hard to get with RB Breece Hall early on, but the assessment of the player from New York all offseason seems to be that they’re all the way in.
This leaves Ruckert, the team’s third-round choice, against two free-agent tight ends getting between $5-6M per season from the team this offseason.
Uzomah hit career marks in Cincinnati last season as the team’s fifth-best option in the passing game, while Conklin flourished in Minnesota without Kyle Rudolph in the picture and an injured Irv Smith Jr. in his way. Conklin was third on the team in targets and receptions, plus fourth on the team in yards.
And then there’s Ruckert, a player who was clearly more gifted and capable than he was allowed to showcase in the Ohio State offense. The Buckeyes offer annual firepower offensively and (whispers) hate throwing to their tight ends. Always have. Ruckert leaves Columbus with 54 career receptions in 46 career games. And that is tied for 10th all-time among Buckeye tight ends in program history. But his 12 receiving touchdowns are the second highest mark for an Ohio State tight end ever and his senior year offered about half of his career numbers—a promising development for a plus athlete with blocking skills.
The finances may push Ruckert to TE3 early on, but he’s got the physical tools to make it interesting.
The job: Outside cornerback
The Rookie: CB Cam Taylor-Britt
The Veteran(s): CB Eli Apple & Chidobe Awuzie
For all of the improvements we’ve seen from the Cincinnati roster over the last two years, it is a little surreal to see that Apple or Awuzie is the team’s best outside corner. The addition of Taylor-Britt and first-round choice Daxton Hill to the secondary should certainly energize the secondary and infuse a new level of talent, but how quickly the team can get positive contributions will be a big factor in the leap in play on the back end.
Veteran Mike Hilton is arguably the best cover option overall for the Bengals, but he logged 869 snaps in the slot last year versus less than 50 on the perimeter. And, to be fair to Awuzie, he played well last season. But the sample size of sustained play is shaky and a one-year sample size of it isn’t enough to exude confidence.
Meanwhile, even if Awuzie becomes the player he was last year once again, Apple is a different story entirely. His seven credited touchdowns allowed in coverage last season was one off the pace of the worst in the league and he’s on his fourth team since entering the NFL in 2016 for a reason.
Can Taylor-Britt supplant him as a starter? He’s got the right demeanor and physicality to help ensure the Bengals aren’t too soft on the outside in run support and he showed high-level flashes of ball production this past season for the Huskers. I’d bet Taylor-Britt makes a hard run at Apple’s gig.
The job: TE2
The Rookie: TE Charlie Kolar
The Veteran: TE Nick Boyle
It is going to be hard to root against Boyle winning this job given the journey the former Delaware Blue Hen has had back from a gruesome knee injury in 2020 that nearly ended his career. Boyle played nine games that season, coming off a season in which he set career-high numbers in 2019 as a complementary piece of the puzzle for Baltimore’s multi-tight end offense. He managed to return from the injury in 2021 but wasn’t himself and was ultimately only given glimpses of the field before being shut down.
The Ravens are hoping the extra offseason will get Boyle back to where he was, but the team hedged that bet with the addition of Kolar in this year’s draft. The team also added Isaiah Likely but he seems to be more of a pass-catching weapon as compared to the Boyle/Kolar role of an in-line player charged with winning real estate at the point of attack in addition to efforts in the passing game. Kolar is a big, long body with a huge catch radius and a much more developed in-line resume than you’d expect from a Big 12 tight end.
The end result is likely determined by how close to 100% we see Boyle throughout the summer. But with the finances in Baltimore potentially changing sooner rather than later with a Lamar Jackson contract extension, Boyle on his current pay scale feels like someone who may not be a long-term fit.
The job: Slot Receiver
The Rookie: WR David Bell
The Veteran: WR Jakeem Grant
The Browns brought in Amari Cooper this offseason to help boost their pass-catching group amid the transition away from Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry—but the addition of Cooper via trade didn’t solve all of the problems the group currently faces. To get the pass-catching room to a better place, we’re going to need to see an emergence from Bell, a talented pass-catcher who slipped to the end of the third round amid some speed concerns.
The player that Bell will clash with for primary slot duties in training camp is everything that Bell is not: Grant is all speed. I would say Bell has a decided advantage as a route-runner, his hands are better, and he has the ability to play physically and contribute to all phases of the offense. Grant, meanwhile, is a blazer who can create for himself after the catch. Which would you rather have?
For a Browns offense that will run the football heavily, Bell would presumably have a decided advantage. He is, after all, more proficient at all the things that consist of playing wide receiver: catching the ball and getting open. But Bell is facing the ultimate equalizer: an injury early in camp. Bell is on the active/PUP list with a foot injury that could cost him reps early in camp. That can be a dangerous development for young receivers. At this point, I’d still lean to Bell winning the gig. But the longer the foot injury lingers, the more things tilt in favor of Grant.
The job: QB1
The Rookie: QB Kenny Pickett
The Veteran: QB Mitchell Trubisky
This one goes without saying, right?
The short-term contract for Trubisky certainly protected Pittsburgh from overreacting to the draft board in April, but as it turns out, the board fell just how they wanted it to anyway and Pickett was the pick at No. 20 overall. But in spite of the first-round investment into Pickett, I wouldn’t be so fast to dismiss Trubisky, especially coming out of training camp.
Trubisky enjoyed a stable year in Buffalo last season after a tumultuous campaign in Chicago that got so bad that Trubisky’s own coach apparently stiffed him on his exit interview after the 2019 season. The pair remained together in 2020 and Trubisky was eventually benched for Nick Foles.
The book on Trubisky is largely written from what we saw publicly but having transitioned from the dysfunction of Chicago to Buffalo and now Pittsburgh is enough to give me pause—Trubisky might not be done yet. His ability to win the job outright will come down to his ability to expand on what was not a strength before: winning inside of structure. Both Pickett and Trubisky have mobility and the skills to win intermittently as a runner. But the one who can take to the initial play structure faster will have the upper hand. I’d bet on Trubisky initially coming out of camp thanks to his five years of NFL experience.
The job: Starting left tackle
The Rookie: OT Bernhard Raimann
The Veteran: OT Matt Pryor
The Colts are a team that looks primed to give all sorts of problems to the AFC. Sure, Matt Ryan’s best days are behind him. And yes, the pass-catching group is probably a little lean. But the Colts are going to pound the rock and keep balance on offense. It’s who they are. And that, at its core, is why the left tackle competition is such a fascinating one to watch develop.
The Colts are welcoming two new starters to their offensive line in the same offseason for the first time since 2018 when the team drafted Quenton Nelson and Braden Smith in the first few rounds of the 2018 NFL Draft. This is a big change for a unit that hasn’t had to juggle that in recent years.
Third-round rookie Raimann will get the first crack at winning the job alongside veteran journeyman Pryor. Pryor started five games for the Colts last season before earning a contract extension with the team, seemingly putting himself in the good graces of the front office and coaching staff. But not good enough graces for the Colts to ignore Raimann, a midwest prospect who originally hails from Austria and has all the athletic tools to be an effective tackle at the NFL level.
This is a classic case of potential versus skill: Pryor has been in the NFL as a utility offensive lineman since 2018. He was a late-day-three selection. Raimann has all the physical upside that Pryor doesn’t but he offers only a fraction of the experience playing tackle at all—Raimann was initially a tight end at Central Michigan. I believe it would be an upset for the less experienced player to claim the win here, especially given Pryor took starting snaps for the Colts last season.
The job: Nickel corner (…we think?)
The Rookie: CB Roger McCreary
The Veteran: DB Elijah Molden
So I can’t say with complete confidence where McCreary will end up playing, but based on his selection at No. 35 overall, I think it would be a fair assumption to say that the Titans have plans for him somewhere along the back end. Molden enjoyed a strong campaign for the Titans last season, so a true “benching” in favor of McCreary doesn’t feel like it is in the cards. Maybe McCreary is the team’s ultimate insurance policy for Caleb Farley’s injury issues. Or perhaps there is some reallocation of talent beyond a one-for-one swap.
The Titans were one of the NFL’s most prominent DIME package defensive units in all of football last year. Nearly a quarter of their defensive snaps came in DIME. Could the team transition Molden back into a third safety spot and then charge McCreary with manning those reps Molden previously held in the slot? A ‘Big DIME’ with Kevin Byard, Amani Hooker, and Molden as the safeties plus Farley, Kristian Fulton, and McCreary as the corners feels like it has enough versatility to fit the run but stay athletic against the pass.
But this plan only works if McCreary earns the reps from Molden in the nickel to free up the flow of personnel. Based on McCreary’s man-to-man skills, I wouldn’t bet against it. I think we see Molden and McCreary cohabitating quite often provided the health of the rest of the secondary holds this season.
The job: Starting center
The Rookie: C Luke Fortner
The Veteran: C Tyler Shatley
Veteran center Brandon Linder rode off into the sunset of retirement this offseason, leaving the Jaguars without their best starting offensive lineman from the previous year. Now, the addition of Brandon Scherff certainly helps to stabilize the interior and that’s a big upgrade over AJ Cann, but the stability at center is going to need to be in a place that isn’t too far of a drop-off from what Linder provided.
The competition is squarely placed between two contenders: long-time veteran utility lineman Shatley and the rookie Fortner. Shatley has been with the team since 2014 but has logged approximately half of his career snaps in the NFL over the last two seasons. Fortner was the 65th overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft and brings a power component to the game that Jacksonville would almost certainly love to pair with Scherff on the inside from the jump.
How does Fortner get it done? He’s simply got to master the calls. He’s a superior talent and youth and inexperience loom as the only hurdles that could stop this transition from happening. But it is worth noting that Fortner has multi-tool flexibility at his disposal; he learned both the guard and center positions during his time with the Kentucky program. Anyone who can pick up the assignments for multiple spots likely has the wherewithal to handle install at a reasonable rate. My money is on Fortner being the starter from the jump.
The job: Running back
The Rookie: RB Dameon Pierce
The Veteran(s): RBs Rex Burkhead & Marlon Mack
There are so many rookies from the Texans class that are just… going to play. The expectations for the team this year are low—it is a roster that remains in transition as the team restocks talent and reloads on the heels of the Bill O’Brien era. Derek Stingley Jr, Kenyon Green, Christian Harris, Jalen Pitre, and John Metchie have little to no competition for playing time at all.
This brings us to Pierce. Pierce is an angry, physical runner who popped on the field despite a limited workload during his time in the Gators program. His status as a potential lead back is one that is rooted in upside and wanting to set a certain tone as a ball carrier.
His competition for that role has questions too, which makes this a compelling training camp battle. Mack has 127 rushing yards over the last two seasons combined and we can’t say with any level of certainty that he’s going to be the same player that he was in his second and third seasons in the NFL. Meanwhile, Burkhead is a 32-year-old back who isn’t likely to tote the rock with any level of volume. He set a career-high in 2021 with the Texans, logging 122 carries and 147 total touches. He averaged 3.5 yards per carry.
All of that, plus Pierce’s ability in pass protection, set the stage for Pierce to claim the featured back role. I think he’ll do exactly that.
Los Angeles Chargers
The job: Safety No. 3
The Rookie: SAF JT Woods
The Veteran: SAF Alohi Gilman
There’s no question Zion Johnson is going to be a starter for the Chargers from the jump. The team’s second-round draft choice was reserved for DE Khalil Mack, which creates a fearsome rush combination between him and Joey Bosa. But things get interesting when you look at the future of the team’s third-round choice, Woods.
Woods enters a secondary that has several talented players but still affords the rookie several pathways to playing time. Should Derwin James struggle with durability, Woods will be there. And if the team wants to implement three safeties simultaneously, Woods has the coverage ability to serve flexibility into the group and allow James to roam freely without compromising coverage on the back end in Brandon Staley’s two-high shells. That makes him an upgrade over Gilman, who is a stronger fit closer to the line of scrimmage. And yet Gilman logged more than 200 snaps last season as a deep safety as compared to just over 60 in the box as the team needed to work to keep James roaming the defense.
James logged more than 300 snaps both in the box and at free safety, plus an additional 200+ snaps in the nickel. If the Chargers want those numbers to sustain themselves, Woods will have the inside track to beat out Gilman for SAF3 on the roster. I would expect the range and ball skills of Woods are enough to push Gilman off that spot and relegate the former Irish defender into an exclusive special teams role.
Kansas City Chiefs
The job: Linebacker No. 3
The Rookie: LB Leo Chenal
The Veteran: LB Jermaine Carter
The Chiefs’ second level of the defense is suddenly looking pretty damn tough. Nick Bolton is a sledgehammer in the middle and Willie Gay is a long, explosive athlete who can cover a ton of ground. But the third party of the linebacker room is up for grabs between a day-two draft choice in 2022 (Chenal) and a veteran (Carter).
Carter is a bit of a sleeper, an under-the-radar player who has enjoyed three productive seasons across four years in Carolina with the Panthers. He was a 17-game starter in 2021 and logged 88 total tackles across 853 snaps. Was the workload bigger than it ideally should have been? Sure. Carter wasn’t great in coverage and wasn’t impactful on third downs. But he’s a good player who, in an LB3 role, could offer the Chiefs value.
However, he’ll need to stave off a challenge from Chenal, who was a terror for the Wisconsin defense last season as a pressure player who blitzed off the second level and tormented linemen and backs in protection. I am inclined to believe that, even against a player who I like a fair amount in Carter, Chenal is destined to win this showdown—especially with Bolton and Gay logging tenure as experienced players around him.
The job: Outside linebacker
The Rookie: LB Nik Bonitto
The Veteran(s): LB Malik Reed & LB Baron Browning
The numbers game here is enough to make your head spin. The Broncos have talent on the edge, including several youngsters who have the potential to make a big step forward. But none has a more favorable projection than Bonitto, who was the only investment that THIS regime in Denver has made. Bonnito has incredible range and explosiveness, but will he claim reps right off the jump after coming from a Big 12 defense that used him in unorthodox ways at Oklahoma?
Browning was a mid-round pick last season and played off-ball as a linebacker, but he is converting to a rush linebacker in 2022. His play enjoyed a big leap in 2021 at Ohio State when he was allowed to play WILL and get out of a stack role. Reed’s resume, unlike Browning’s, is established at the pro level. He led the linebackers in sacks with 5.0 after logging 8.0 sacks in 2020. He’s started 26 games over the last two seasons for the Broncos.
But all of this competition comes behind the starters. Denver paid Randy Gregory $70 million over five years to come over from the Dallas Cowboys in free agency and former first-round pick Bradley Chubb, when healthy, has been disruptive. So Bonitto’s reps are already narrowed into a scope that mirrors his role at Oklahoma if he wins the job: hunt the quarterback. I think there’s an outside chance he does indeed win the EDGE3 job, but if he does, I’ll be interested to see if the Broncos move Reed this summer. Reed is playing on the final year of his contract and entering the year with 13 sacks over the last two seasons. It’s up to Bonitto to live up to his potential to give the team that flexibility.
Las Vegas Raiders
The job: Interior offensive line
The Rookie: IOL Dylan Parham
The Veteran(s): IOL Andre James, John Simpson & Denzelle Good
The Raiders’ fearsome front of Richie Incognito, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson is long gone. But while the interior offensive line isn’t what it once was, Parham offers the team a fair chance to capture some of that same energy back in the newest iteration of the front.
Parham is dense. He’s physical. He’s nimble. Any instance in which Parham isn’t a day-one starter when foiled against the competition he’s facing in Las Vegas would be considered a massive disappointment. The question is simply: “where?”
Parham took snaps this spring with the team at the center position in OTAs. Can he serve as a glue guy in the middle between another young guard in Simpson and the winner of the rest of the replacement level battle royale for right guard? Or would he be better served playing next to one of the team’s young tackles in Alex Leatherwood or Kolton Miller?
The Raiders have flexibility inside at their disposal to find the right mix of talent. But point blank, period: Parham needs to be among the three inside.
AFC East | AFC North | AFC South | AFC West
NFC East | NFC North | NFC South | NFC West
The job: Starting inside linebacker
The Rookie: LB Nakobe Dean
The Veteran: LB T.J. Edwards
Here’s the good news, Birds fans. You not only have a slick new black helmet to wear this season, but you’ve also got a brand new linebacker corps at your disposal after the group that manned the field in 2021. Gone are Genard Avery and Alex Singleton. Haason Reddick presumably takes Avery’s spot and Kyzir White was signed in free agency to man another position. But what about the man in the middle, which is once again scheduled to be Edwards?
Edwards has been a fine NFL player, one that certainly deserved to be drafted in hindsight. A 26-game starter over the last two seasons, he’s been credited with 200 tackles, 10 tackles for loss, two interceptions, and six passes defensed over those 26 games. His athletic profile doesn’t necessarily warrant three-down reps, hence why the additions of Reddick (in the pass rush) and White (coverage) are so important. But what if you could have your cake and eat it, too? Dean might just allow it to happen.
Dean was one of the most instinctual players in the 2022 NFL Draft but fell into the third round thanks to some concerns over his size/stature and a reported chest injury that may prevent him from playing a full season. But Dean hasn’t missed offseason training yet and insists he’s ready to go, setting the stage for him to potentially join Jordan Davis as transplants from the Georgia defense to starring in the middle of the Eagles’ front. If Dean is indeed healthy, I have a hard time feeling that he won’t snatch the starting job from Edwards, because if any front in football can give Dean the same luxuries of free space as what he had in Georgia, it’s Philly. Medicals pending, give me Dean to snatch the starting job.
The job: Wide Receiver No. 3
The Rookie: WR Jalen Tolbert
The Veteran(s): WR James Washington
The Cowboys’ passing game is going to be in a bit of transition. Gone are Cedrick Wilson and Amari Cooper. Dallas has replaced them with a veteran player in Washington and a rookie in third-round draft choice Tolbert. Washington, a former second-round pick, has always had talent but his production to this point hasn’t matched his investment by the Steelers. I will say this on his behalf: I’d imagine life was pretty hard as a vertical route-runner playing with Ben Roethlisberger the last few years. And I don’t think it is a coincidence that Washington’s career-best season came when Roethlisberger only threw the ball 62 times in 2019. Playing with Dak Prescott should open the door for a much more productive version of Washington to come into the fray.
But Washington has also been dealing with a foot injury this offseason—reported to be tendinitis. Minor enough to not worry, present enough to know that a third-round draft choice is waiting in the wings.
Enter Tolbert. A career 17.6 yards per reception total will certainly catch your interest. Tolbert is what Washington was at Oklahoma State, but longer and faster. The question will be whether or not Washington’s NFL experience, albeit playing in an offense that was a poor fit, will be enough to maintain the gap. I’d call this one a coin toss in confidence level.
The job: Primary ball carrier
The Rookie: RB Brian Robinson Jr.
The Veteran: RB Antonio Gibson
There is no question that the Washington Commanders have a good football player leading their running back room in Gibson. But it should not be overlooked that the team pressed hard to bring back JD McKissic—so much so that they brought him back from the brink of signing with the *ahem* Buffalo Bills in order to retain his services. And THEN the team drafted Robinson Jr. with the 98th pick in the 2022 NFL Draft.
Gibson offered more than 1,300 yards from scrimmage last season but his per-touch productivity dipped nearly three-quarters of a yard across an extra 94 touches versus his rookie season (5.1 ypt on 206 touches in 2020 versus 4.4 ypt on 300 touches in 2021). And then there are the fumbles. His six fumbles led the NFL last season for ball carriers (and he lost four of them).
Gibson has already done his part this offseason by reconditioning his body and putting added focus on his ball security with his training. But nevertheless, Washington’s investment in the backfield was a firm one.
Robinson Jr. is a different kind of runner than Gibson; he’s a sledgehammer runner who surprises with his mobility and suddenness when he needs to make shallow cuts. A bell-cow at Alabama last year, Robinson Jr. fully realized his own potential after several seasons of limited production and opportunity. Based on his investment alone, we’ll be watching closely to see if Robinson Jr. bridges the gap and creates a 50/50 carry share. He’s got the talent. Will he get the opportunity?
Gibson out-carried the rest of the team combined last season and had 190 more carries than the next closest player on the team (Jaret Patterson). Expect that number to close down as head coach Ron Rivera has described the combination as a new iteration of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart. The carry totals for the four seasons that Rivera, Williams, and Stewart coexisted in Carolina?
- Williams: 155 carries
- Stewart: 142 carries
- Williams: 173 carries
- Stewart: 93 carries (missed 7 games)
- Williams: 201 carries
- Mike Tolbert: 101 carries
- Stewart: 48 carries (missed 10 games)
- Williams: 62 carries (missed 10 games)
- Stewart: 175 carries
Only once in those four seasons (Williams in 2013) did a Rivera back come within 100 touches of the number Gibson totaled on the field last season. I’d bet Gibson still leads the pack, but I’d bet it is a lot closer than we’d expect.
New York Giants
The job: Wide receiver No. 3
The Rookie: WR Wan’Dale Robinson
The Veteran(s): WR Kadarius Toney
Once upon a time, Toney was the prize that Giants fans never thought they’d get: a player selected in a Dave Gettleman trade-down. But as Toney’s rookie season pressed on, his novelty as a fun trivia answer waned in favor of the frustrating production foiled against the promising flashes of potential.
Robinson’s September featured four receptions for 14 yards. Then, 16 catches for 267 yards against New Orleans and Dallas combined in consecutive weeks. The remaining 11 weeks saw just 19 receptions and several games missed with injury. And then the offseason happened. Joe Judge and Gettleman were relieved of their duties, Brian Daboll was hired and suddenly Toney was reported to be on the trade block.
And THEN the Giants drafted Robinson out of Kentucky with a top-50 pick.
The trade rumors have since been dispelled, but the room for workload only accommodates so many players on the field simultaneously. And the numbers game in New York is currently a bit lean for both of these talents to consistently share the field together. Daboll’s Buffalo offenses used 10 personnel at a higher clip than just about every other team in the NFL—so that helps. But Kenny Golladay is still getting nearly $18M in cash this year. He’ll be here. Sterling Shepard, when healthy, is a better true route-runner than both players. But, to be fair to both Robinson and Toney, Shepard missed 10 games last season, four the year prior, and six the year before that. But Darius Slayton still lingers (at least for now) as someone who can collect reps, too.
The overlap in skill sets between Toney and Robinson makes early playing time (but not long-term outlook) challenging to overlap. I’m going to lean into the player picked by this head coach and general manager to take priority, however. I think Robinson commands more snaps early on.
Green Bay Packers
The job: Starting defensive lineman
The Rookie: IDL Devonte Wyatt
The Veteran(s): IDL Jarran Reed & Dean Lowry
Gone are Tyler Lancaster and Kinglsey Keke, a pair of depth players up front who certainly offered their fair share of quality reps. But if you told me the Packers were going to swap those two out for Reed and Wyatt? Yeah, I’d get it. The quality of the defensive front is certainly better for it—although getting a vibe on who ends up serving as the odd-front starters next to Kenny Clark is an interesting storyline for training camp.
Not to be overlooked is Lowry, the Northwestern alum who enjoyed his best career season in 2021. I think it would be short-sighted to dismiss him as a lock for a starter up front given the six years of sweat equity in Green Bay and the growth he showed as a disruption player last season. That leaves Reed and Wyatt for the other spot up front.
Make no mistake, all three will play early and often. But I’d consider the competition for a starting role wide open here.
Both players are versatile. Wyatt offers more explosiveness at this point in his career than Reed, so you may see Reed on the field for early downs at the end spot—which may set him up favorably to serve as the “starter” even if Wyatt ends up taking more total snaps. This one is fascinating to me and I don’t necessarily see any potential outcomes out the window.
The job: Starting right guard
The Rookie: IOL Ed Ingram
The Veteran(s): IOL Chris Reed & OL Jesse Davis
The Vikings are in need of some fresh play on the offensive line as they’ve struggled to find the right balance between their ability to block up the run and their ability to protect the quarterback. The metrics for Minnesota have not been overly favorable in pass protection over the past several seasons, which is likely how the Vikings ended up picking an offensive lineman in the top 100 for the sixth consecutive year:
- 2017: Pat Elflein (No. 70 overall)
- 2018: Brian O’Neill (No. 62 overall)
- 2019: Garrett Bradbury (No. 18 overall)
- 2020: Ezra Cleveland (No. 58 overall)
- 2021: Christian Darrisaw (No. 21 overall) & Wyatt Davis (No. 86 overall)
- 2022: Ed Ingram (No. 59 overall)
The addition of Ingram appears to be targeted directly at the right guard position. Minnesota has incumbent players in Christian Darrisaw, Ezra Cleveland, Garrett Bradbury, and Brian O’Neill elsewhere on the line. Bradbury’s standing as a long-term option at center is, well, not great. But Ingram won’t help that problem this season. Ingram’s competition at right guard is a few utility players who have appeal for playing multiple spots—not necessarily because they play them well. Reed and Davis serve as short-term bridge options, but only if Ingram proves to not be ready.
Reed has played both guard spots in the NFL and has had ‘center’ listed on his resume in the past, too. Davis comes to Minnesota after several seasons of tenured starter play in Miami, but his presence in the starting lineup was an indictment of Miami’s other options not a testament to his ability to play at a level that warranted the snaps he got.
Ingram should be considered in the driver’s seat for this competition. And, should he fail to secure the job to open the season, it would be considered a disappointment in my book. One thing to note? As of this writing, Ingram was merely “expected” to sign his rookie contract ahead of training camp. There’s been no formal pen to paper. That’s not necessarily something that will derail Ingram’s quest for the gig, but he needs every rep he can get to be ready to claim a starting role.
The job: Starting safety
The Rookie(s): SAF Kerby Joseph
The Veteran(s): SAF DeShon Elliott
Tracy Walker III is locked in at one starting safety spot for the Lions amid their bid to continue to reshape the defense in the aftermath of the Matt Patricia tenure. So far, so good. The team has received a sufficient facelift on defense and it appears as though the other safety spot will be committed to another new arrival. The two most prominent candidates include free agent signing Elliott and rookie Joseph. Their styles are a pretty stark contrast to one another, and it will ultimately come down to two factors:
- What the Lions want to prioritize in that other safety position from a skill perspective
- How quickly Joseph can acclimate to NFL life after playing just one season as a starter in college
Elliott is a more physical player but there’s little question that Joseph offers a greater upside with his ability to generate turnovers (Elliott has one career interception in 22 career starts). What are the expectations in Detroit? Is Dan Campbell willing to continue to play the long game? Or will he be more eager to try to allocate wins this season and therefore play the more tenured player who will likely avoid some of the mistakes you’d expect from a rookie with few reps under his belt?
Given the investment into Jameson Williams, a player who may not be ready to roll for the start of the season, I’d like to think Detroit will lean into developing more high-impact potential players—and that means more of Joseph early on. But this will ultimately come down to a philosophical question for Campbell and Co.
The job: The entire offensive line
The Rookie(s): OL Braxton Jones, Zachary Thomas, Doug Kramer, Ja’Tyre Carter & Jean Delance
The Veteran(s): OL Teven Jenkins, Sam Mustipher & Larry Borom
Oh, is that all? Just a casual smorgasbord of characters on the offensive line? All thrown into one collective pot of chaos? Here’s what we can say with some level of confidence about Chicago’s under-construction offensive line:
- Cody Whitehair will start, if healthy
- Lucas Patrick should start, if healthy
- You’d ideally LIKE Teven Jenkins to start, based on his draft status from 2021
If Jenkins isn’t among the top five players to start, especially given the state of the rest of the line, fly the red flag. Beyond that? I’d consider things to be open season.
I know the previous regime seemed to like 2021 rookie Borom quite a bit, but I wouldn’t consider him to be a centerpiece by any means—he was raw coming out of Missouri and among offensive linemen to take 400-plus snaps in pass protection last year, his pass block efficiency rating was 10th worst in football via our friends over at Pro Football Focus.
Enter the rookie group. The Bears took four offensive linemen on day three of this year’s NFL draft: Jones in the fifth round, Thomas and Kramer in the sixth round, and Carter in the seventh round plus undrafted free agent Delance. If competition pulls the best out of everyone, the Bears should be able to get quite an assessment of their options. I’d consider the specifics regarding all five spots to be wide open, with just two locks to start in Whitehair and Patrick. I’d bet you do indeed see Jenkins and Borom holding down spots on the line as well, leaving one vacancy (Left tackle? Right guard? Right tackle?) to be filled by a rookie.
Let the games begin.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The job: Running back No. 2
The Rookie: RB Rachaad White
The Veteran: RB Gio Bernard
The selection of White is an exciting addition to the Buccaneers’ depth chart. As the team has remodeled their skill group this offseason, the addition of White is perhaps a bit more under the radar than the money offered to WR Russell Gage Jr. in free agency and the team’s transition to Kyle Rudolph and a pair of rookies to replace the now (and again) retired Rob Gronkowski at tight end. Leonard Fournette returns after an outstanding season, but the reps behind him on the depth chart are open season. Bernard wasn’t especially established on the Buccaneers’ depth chart last year, taking less than 200 snaps on the year. But with Ronald Jones gone this offseason, Bernard has moved up by default.
But White is going to give you more in the passing game at this point in Bernard’s career. Fournette’s expanded role in the passing game last year further reduces the essential need for Bernard as a part of the rotation, too. If the Buccaneers get a sense that White is ready to take the reins as a pass-catcher, Bernard’s passing-down abilities will be marginalized to the point where he may not be a needed piece of the puzzle of the roster at all, let alone the second running back on the roster.
This is all wishful thinking if White proves not to be ready, however. Yes, you also have Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the fray as well, but Vaughn was a marginal pass-catcher coming out of Vanderbilt who hasn’t offered appeal there through two seasons in the NFL, either.
I’m expecting White to claim the RB2 spot in part due to his ability in the passing game and in part thanks to Fournette’s abilities to handle protection.
New Orleans Saints
The job: Starting left tackle
The Rookie: OT Trevor Penning
The Veteran: OT James Hurst
Finding a training camp battle of interest featuring a rookie on this roster came down to two selections: that of Alontae Taylor in the second round or Penning’s selection with the second of New Orleans’ two first-round draft choices. I opted to go with Penning for the sake of the ramifications of the outcome. Taylor’s presence in the secondary will be helpful for New Orleans, no doubt. But the secondary also has Marshon Lattimore, Paulson Adebo, Bradley Roby, Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, Tyrann Mathieu, and Marcus Maye. Taylor’s readiness amid that group is fascinating, but the Saints have plenty of options to make their nickel and dime packages go without him in 2022.
Meanwhile, at left tackle, the Saints bid farewell to Terron Armstead this offseason and are leaving that post to either the veteran Hurst or the rookie Penning. This is a much more pivotal battle for the Saints.
Hurst logged more than 150 snaps at left guard, right tackle, and left tackle each last season on his way to nearly 1,000 total snaps. His sweat equity at left tackle will mean Penning, who is an FCS prospect, won’t simply walk into the fray and claim the job. Sure, you can assume that Penning will play thanks to his status as a top-20 pick, but the Saints are not a team with the luxury of simply enduring “growing pains” at a critical position.
I would not be surprised to see Hurst hold off the younger player for one reason: work in pass protection. Penning’s framing was inconsistent both on film and during the 2022 Senior Bowl—and for a team that wants to pass the football deep and push the ball vertically, having a well-composed pocket will be a big piece of the big play recipe for New Orleans. Penning has the edge in the run game, Hurst as a pass protector. How will New Orleans choose to balance the payoff of each?
The job: Linebacker
The Rookie: LB Brandon Smith
The Veteran(s): LBs Damien Wilson, Frankie Luvu & Cory Littleton
One thing we can say for certain is that Smith isn’t going to be pushing Shaq Thompson off of a starting spot. But the rest of the group? I’d consider it to be a largely wide-open opportunity. Head coach Matt Rhule said after drafting Smith that the team would “play him at all three linebacker positions.” I’m not sure that’s a great idea, given how raw Smith was from a processing standpoint coming out of Penn State. But if you’re intent on letting that play out, I’d strongly encourage the Panthers to start with an outside linebacker role as compared to playing in the middle as the MIKE. That would square him against Luvu and Littleton primarily as compared to Wilson, who is presumably stepping in inside after taking the majority of his snaps stacked in the box for the Jaguars last season. He signed with the Panthers in free agency.
Luvu was with the Panthers last year and Littleton comes to Carolina after a two-year stint with the Rams. Littleton’s time with the Raiders didn’t live up to the expectations that he had after emerging with the Rams from 2018-2019, but he was a markedly improved player last season as compared to his first in Vegas. Smith’s skill set most closely mirrors that of Littleton, but I would consider Smith ultimately beating out the veteran an upset.
This is even further compounded by the pressure in Carolina to win early and win often—Rhule is most certainly on the hot seat after the Panthers’ third-straight five-win season. Smith would have to come in and blow things out of the water in order to claim a starting role in my eyes. And given the complexity of the roles that are vacant on the second level for Carolina, I’m expecting the 120th pick of the 2022 NFL Draft to arrive in a rotational, subpackage role first.
The job: QB1
The Rookie: QB Desmond Ridder
The Veteran(s): QB Marcus Mariota
This is fun. The comparison for Ridder for us at The Draft Network coming into the 2022 NFL Draft was none other than Ryan Tannehill. Tannehill has several connections to Atlanta—he was the quarterback who supplanted Mariota from the starting role in Tennessee back in 2019. But Tannehill’s (and Mariota’s) offensive coordinator that season was none other than… you guessed it. Arthur Smith, the current head coach of the Falcons.
Life’s funny that way.
Although we’re not sure that Mariota is laughing, given that he’s entered into “do or die” territory as far as his prospects of serving as an NFL starting quarterback ever again. Mariota has spent the last two years as the backup with the Raiders but comes to Atlanta with a head start in understanding the Falcons and Smith’s offensive system. I don’t think that advantage should be overlooked. Smith was a coach on the staff every year that Mariota played for the Titans; so the two know each other quite well. And the Falcons actively chose to bring Mariota in this offseason before investing a third-round choice in Ridder. This isn’t a Pittsburgh Steelers/Kenny Pickett/Mitchell Trubisky situation, where the draft status of the rookie makes a transition inevitable. And that, in my eyes, makes this competition even more fascinating. There’s less political motivation for a deferral to the rookie, and instead, Mariota and Ridder will have a more pure opportunity to stake their claim as the heir to Matt Ryan.
I do expect the mobility of Mariota and the experience in the system to be too big of a gap to overcome by Week 1 for Ridder. And instead, the question becomes how Mariota can re-write his own script as an NFL player after seeing his job taken from him by a low-investment quarterback while playing under Smith the last time around. Perhaps the time since has developed a chip on Mariota’s shoulder. If it has, Mariota may win the job by a mile. But if he doesn’t, his leash won’t be long to sustain the job through struggles.
Los Angeles Rams
The job: Starting right guard
The Rookie: OL Logan Bruss
The Veteran(s): OL Bobby Evans & Tremayne Anchrum Jr.
The Rams’ offensive line is going to look quite different this season as compared to last. Gone is veteran left tackle Andrew Whitworth. So, too, is right guard Austin Corbett, a player who ended up looking like a steal for the Rams after they plucked him via trade from the Cleveland Browns. Whitworth rode off into the sunset of retirement after a Super Bowl win, while Corbett signed with the Panthers in free agency. The domino effect for Los Angeles is mitigated by some of the depth the team held on the offensive line last season—Joe Noteboom was re-signed to a big-money contract to step in as the heir for Whitworth. But the right guard position does not have the luxury of a firm and clear answer to plug the hole.
That’s exactly why the Rams invested their top choice in the 2022 NFL Draft in Bruss, bringing the team back to the familiar well of Wisconsin offensive linemen yet again. Remember: right tackle Rob Havenstein and left guard David Edwards are both Wisconsin alumni, as well. But Bruss shouldn’t be considered a plug-and-play lock on the inside for the Rams. There will be some competition from fringe players returning from last year’s squad—most notably Evans, but also Anchrum Jr.
Los Angeles is going to have a chance to pick out the best available option among their active choices to man the right guard spot between Brian Allen and Rob Havenstein. We can’t be dismissive of either veteran player, but Anchrum Jr. did not log snaps for the Rams and Evans was credited with just over 80 offensive snaps (149 total) in 2021 and was a replacement level/practice squad level contributor. You’d have hoped if Evans were going to have the light come on, it already would have. He’s entering into year four of his NFL career and has failed to inspire.
Bruss isn’t a perfect prospect, but he’s played guard and tackle for the Badgers and enters the NFL with the kind of push and displacement skills in the run game that you’d like to see from an NFL interior offensive lineman. With the grace of veterans on either side of that position on the line, I am entering camp with the expectation that we’ll see Bruss lined up with the starters in Week 1.
San Francisco 49ers
The job: Running Back No. 2
The Rookie: RB Tyrion Davis-Price
The Veteran(s): RBs Trey Sermon & Jeff Wilson
The San Francisco 49ers enjoyed one of the most productive rookie rushing seasons in the NFL last season, with Elijah Mitchell finishing second among rookies with 963 rushing yards—it was also good for eighth in the NFL. All of that in just 11 games played, no less. And get this: Mitchell wasn’t even the first running back that the 49ers drafted in 2021.
Three rounds earlier, the team drafted Sermon in what was a clear bid to remodel their offense and create consistency in their running game. All of that progress would have you ready to believe the 49ers were set in the backfield, right?
Well, not exactly.
The 49ers drafted Davis-Price with the 93rd overall selection in the 2022 NFL Draft, just several months after Mitchell pushed his way into the top NFL rushing leaders as a sixth-round rookie. Ouch. Not much in the way of an endorsement for the 2021 investments, is it?
Now, despite the investment in Davis-Price, Mitchell should be considered a known commodity. But behind (or maybe beside) him is a wide-open competition.
Sermon enters year two looking to find his footing after a frustrating and underwhelming rookie season. Wilson is a well-established veteran and depth piece but there’s a reason Wilson has never been able to command more than 126 carries in a season. Some of that ties to durability, some of it to only one NFL season in his first four campaigns with over 4.0 yards per carry.
There’s no question that Sermon and Davis-Price are more physically talented players. Sermon, at 6-foot and 215 pounds, dropped a 95th percentile 10-yard split, an 80th percentile vertical leap, an 87th percentile broad jump, and an 85th percentile three-cone drill. Davis-Price’s 4.48s 40-yard dash at 211 pounds is a full tenth of a second faster than Wilson. Based on the physical talent, you’d rank the trio of contenders for RB2:
But life isn’t as simple as sorting athletes by traits and pushing play. And given that the 49ers drafted Davis-Price after an NFC Championship Game appearance and the emergence of Mitchell last season while also evaluating Sermon, I’m inclined to think that the LSU back is going to be RB2 or perhaps even RB1b when the dust settles after camp.
The job: EDGE
The Rookie(s): EDGE Cameron Thomas, Myjai Sanders & Jesse Luketa
The Veteran(s): EDGE Devon Kennard & Victor Dimukeje
The good news? The Cardinals added several new talented pieces to their pass rush room this offseason via the NFL draft. The bad news? The Cardinals bid farewell to Chandler Jones this offseason.
107.5 career sacks off the table is going to be a hard pill for anyone to swallow, even if the same defense still holds serve with J.J. Watt and his 102 career sacks (and counting). Where do the Cardinals go from here with their rush linebackers? They’ve got a battle royale of contenders at their disposal, many of which offer little to no experience rushing the passer in the NFL. Of the contenders, Markus Golden is comfortably the most accomplished and should be considered a favorite to lock down one starting rush linebacker spot. Golden was credited with 11 sacks last season on just 682 snaps (67%). But he’s now also 31 years old and the ability to keep him fresh will maximize his impact when he’s on the field. So the Cardinals must find two other contributors across their five other contenders in order to best position the pass rush group for success. Watt will be a heavy presence for opposing offenses too, but durability was once again not a strength for Watt, who missed 10 games and logged just one sack last season.
So who is the best of the rest? It depends on what you’re looking for. I like Sanders’ speed rush capabilities but functional strength is a concern that will be difficult to negotiate when he’s faced with NFL pass sets. I’m not sure he’s ready to be a first-year contributor in a heavy role. Kennard, Dimukeje, and Luketa are all heavy-handed defenders who I think can play to the formation strength and offer disruptive play at the point of attack, but I admittedly don’t love the pass-rush upside for any of the three. Kennard logged 14 sacks across two seasons in Detroit in 2018-2019 but has logged just three sacks in the two seasons since in Arizona. Dimukeje logged just 45 defensive snaps during his rookie season in 2021. And Luketa only transitioned from a stack linebacker to play on the edge during his final season at Penn State—he won more off explosive hands and effort than he did with a clear pass rush resume.
That leaves Thomas as a player who will need to play a big role for Arizona. Fortunately, I think he can. I was impressed with his motor and urgency despite his lack of length. The Aztecs moved him around a fair bit around the front and I think the Cardinals could reap similar benefits with some of the positional flexibility they have with their linebackers and a player like Watt.
Put me down for having Thomas as a starting outside linebacker in Arizona’s odd front looks opposite Golden. From there, I’d likely give Kinnard the nod against the competition, but I wouldn’t sleep on Luketa finding his way onto the field throughout the season, too.
The job: Starting Right Tackle
The Rookie: OT Abraham Lucas
The Veteran: OT Jake Curhan
Seattle made a big investment in the third round of the 2022 NFL Draft by securing their second offensive tackle of the same draft class—following up the selection of Charles Cross at No. 9 overall with the choice of Abraham Lucas from Washington State. And while one would assume that Lucas, as a top-100 selection, is primed to get the call early on to start for the overhauled Seahawks offensive line, it doesn’t appear to be so open and shut.
Curhan found himself collecting snaps for Seattle down the stretch last season, starting the final five games for Seattle and, quite frankly, playing pretty well. A big-bodied offensive tackle with plenty of power, Curhan was able to help Seattle win three of five down that stretch of play and average 182 rushing yards per game over that time.
Lucas comes from an Air Raid offensive attack, which may not lend itself favorably to an immediate transition to the NFL game—especially in a Seattle offense that appears as committed as ever to pounding the rock behind the likes of Rashad Penny, Kenneth Walker III, and Chris Carson. And Curhan shined the brightest driving off the ball and creating push in the run game.
That foil between the two sets the stage for a fascinating showdown between a lottery ticket from 2021 and a prime investment from 2022. If I were a betting man, I’d be willing to say we see Curhan hold off Lucas from the jump, even though Lucas is undoubtedly the long-term play at the position. Seattle will be trying to get a feel and evaluation for QB Drew Lock, and because of that, they’re going to want to be the best version of themselves offensively. You could make the argument that Lucas’ pass protection chops do that, but I’d counter that Seattle wants to stay ahead of schedule on offense and their prime objective for doing that will be to effectively run the football. This one could legitimately go either way but I like Curhan going into the season opener. For now. Call it a hunch.
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