We are now just over three weeks from the opening of NFL training camps. What looms for many players around the league is a battle for playing time, or even for their job. There will be a seemingly endless amount of coverage and discussion about these “camp battles” but I wanted to get an early start, focusing on one position that could be up for grabs on each NFL squad, beginning with the AFC.
A year ago, the Ravens drafted the pair of tight ends, including using a first-round pick on Hurst. Nagging injuries ruined his season while Andrews excelled late in the year, leading to an offseason hype train that has many calling the Oklahoma product the next star at the position. Ravens beat writers seem to agree, recently noting that Andrews looks “bigger, stronger and faster.” Hurst will have to prove he is healthy and can stay on the field or his day one draft pedigree will soon be meaningless.
After years of relying almost completely on McCoy in the backfield, the Bills were very active this offseason. They signed both Gore and Yeldon before using a day-two pick on Singletary. McCoy recently suggested that he expects his role to remain the same but he will be lucky to even make the final roster. One of these must go and it will likely come down to McCoy or Gore. Yeldon should fill the role as the pass-catching back while Singletary waits for his chance to take over.
The Bengals have not had any luck at the tight end position in recent years. While Eifert has the talent to be one of the top tight ends in the league, repeated injuries have kept that from happening. Uzomah was simply an average fill-in but that was enough for the team to bring him back before over-drafting the blocking TE Sample. As always, this job belongs to Eifert if he is healthy.
In many ways, the Browns have been the story of the offseason, thanks in part to the acquisition of WR Odell Beckham and the heightened expectations that accompany their recent moves. One dark cloud centers on the backfield. After the Browns signed RB Hunt early in the offseason, it became clear that Johnson wanted out. A long-time contributor, especially as a receiver out of the backfield, Johnson was frustrated after he felt he was not used correctly last season. Add in the new competition for touches and Johnson would go on to demand a trade. Browns decision-makers have given no hints that they would meet Johnson’s demands, so he appears set to stick in Cleveland.
Despite being the higher-drafted and higher-profile prospect a year ago, Freeman was easily outplayed by the undrafted Lindsay. A late-season wrist injury ended Lindsay’s season and has his availability for training camp in question. All of this is what Freeman needed to earn a larger role for the 2019 season. At 5’8” and under 200 pounds, Lindsay will also face size concerns and it is difficult envisioning him holding down a long-term workhorse role.
The Texans drafted a trio of rookie tight ends the past two years and gave former starter Ryan Griffin his walking papers after an off-field incident. While both Akins and Warring were selected in the third round of their respective drafts, it is late-rounder Thomas who worked as the starter in OTAs. As it has been for years, this could be a shared job once again this season though each of these players has the talent and opportunity to become a top fantasy option.
The Colts had almost nothing behind star WR T.Y. Hilton a year ago and they made some moves to change that, signing free agent Funchess and drafting Campbell. While the rookie from Ohio State is clearly who the Colts want to become their second option, that could take some time. Until he’s ready, Funchess should get the first crack. HC Frank Reich reportedly was impressed by the former Panther following OTAs. While WR Deon Cain is still not fully recovered from his ACL injury, the veteran Rogers will again be in the mix to contribute.
The Jaguars have let WRs Allen Robinson and Donte Moncrief walk in free agency in consecutive years and are now left with a questionable group of talents looking to earn the WR2 role, with WR Dede Westbrook now the presumed top option. Lee is not expected to be ready for camp after last year’s knee injury. Jacksonville signed Conley away from the Chiefs and he has reportedly been the team’s best receiver at OTAs. Someone has to catch the ball from new QB Nick Foles, but this might be a situation to avoid.
There is a large amount of uncertainty surrounding the Chiefs receiver depth chart given the off-field issues for WR Tyreek Hill. Obviously, if he is on the field, he’ll be the top option along with TE Travis Kelce. If Hill is handed a suspension though, it will give a huge opportunity to veteran Robinson and the rookie tabbed as Tyreek 2.0, Hardman. Early reports have been positive for the rookie despite limited college production. Robinson has had his chances in the past, taking over for an injured Sammy Watkins, but has failed to ever establish himself as a real threat. It is also worth noting that WR Byron Pringle was tabbed as an offseason standout.
The Chargers lost deep-threat WR Tyrell Williams via free agency and didn’t add any significant options at the position. That should give the veteran Benjamin a chance to earn more snaps. He has impressed in the past as a vertical option but has also dealt with numerous injuries throughout his career. HC Anthony Lynn called out second-year WR Cantrell, suggesting he needs to step up with Williams out of the picture. Lynn later praised Scott for his strong OTA performance. In the end, any targets Williams might be leaving will likely be scooped up by a returning TE Hunter Henry and WR Mike Williams.
Perusing the Dolphins depth chart, any of the four key fantasy-relevant positions could be highlighted here as there is little certainty around this roster under new HC Brian Flores. It’s the offseason, so of course, the reports have been glowing for former first-rounder Parker. When Parker has busted the past couple of years, it has been Stills who has served as the top option in the passing game. Wilson missed a large chunk of last season with a hip injury and is likely to miss part of training camp. Undrafted rookie Preston Williams has also impressed in rookie camp.
It has only been a couple of months since future Hall of Fame TE Rob Gronkowski retired from the Super Bowl champion Patriots and the team has already made multiple attempts to replace him. New England signed Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who later requested his release amidst personal issues. They brought Watson out of retirement and he was then suspended for four games for a PED violation. The traded for TE Michael Roberts, but he failed a physical and was shipped back to Detroit. That leaves former Bronco Matt LaCosse as the presumed Week One starter with the veteran Watson set to contribute when he gets back on the field.
The Jets earned headlines by signing RB Le’Veon Bell this offseason but they have also upgraded their receiving corps, adding Crowder from the Redskins. Along with incumbents Enunwa and Anderson, Crowder will compete for targets from QB Sam Darnold. This is less about a specific position battle between the trio and more about which will emerge as the top target for Darnold. Anderson is the obvious favorite, but all three receivers have dealt with injuries in the past year.
The only real bright spot for the Raiders a year ago was the long-awaited breakout for veteran TE Jared Cook and of course, Oakland let him walk in free agency. While there are many recognizable names, including past pre-season sleepers like Willson and even Erik Swoope on the roster, Waller is the clear early favorite to win the job and make an impact. Both HC Jon Gruden and TE coach Greg Olsen praised Waller. With the upgrades at the receiver position, we shouldn’t expect any of these players to duplicate Cook’s numbers from last season.
After the Steelers dealt away WR Antonio Brown, all attention turned to who could help take his place and earn some of those targets. While WR JuJu Smith-Schuster will be the biggest beneficiary, there is room for more. Most assumed that second-year WR Washington would walk into the role, but that was before Pittsburgh signed Moncrief and drafted Johnson much earlier than most expected. After mini-camp, it is Moncrief who reportedly “looks like the slam-dunk number two” receiver. Johnson is likely more of a dynasty stash than a contributor this season.
The Titans Offense struggled in 2018 and while it has been suggested that the offense will be built around RB Derrick Henry, Tennessee made multiple moves to improve their pass-catching group. We can assume WR Corey Davis is the lead receiver (for now) but which wideout is next in line? The rookie Brown, former Buccaneer Humphries, along with Taylor, are all options. Each has the ability to play in the slot, though Humphries, coming off his career-best season, is the most likely candidate.