The 2018 NFL Draft has come and gone, and the bulk of the league’s free agent signings are in the books, but the upcoming season’s rosters are anything but set. While some players will be angling just to make a 53-man roster, a handful of emerging young talents will be battling veterans for their spot in a starting lineup. Several competitions will be headlining stories come August, when needy teams will rely on rookie playmakers and low-cost veterans in hopes that offseason roster moves will pay off in December.
Here’s a look at seven of the most interesting position battles slated to shake up the preseason in 2018.
Jets quarterback: Josh McCown vs. Teddy Bridgewater vs. Sam Darnold
There’s something for everyone on the Jets’ QB depth chart this offseason. There’s a wily veteran working on a late-career renaissance (McCown). There’s a young Pro Bowler working on a comeback from a catastrophic knee injury (Bridgewater). And then there’s a player who could have been 2018’s No. 1 overall pick (Darnold, the rookie out of USC).
Each has his merits and concerns. McCown played one of the best seasons of his career to help the Jets win a surprising five games in 2017, but he’ll be 39 years old this season and has never made more than 13 starts in a season. Bridgewater looked like Minnesota’s quarterback of the future his first two years in the league, but he’s only thrown two passes over his last two as a dislocated knee has raised serious concerns over whether or not he can still play at a high level. Darnold is built like a franchise quarterback, but he was responsible for entirely too many turnovers with the Trojans and is anything but a sure-thing draft pick.
That’s a lot of intrigue packed into one depth chart. And, if you’re a fan of reporters getting hit by errant passes on the sidelines, Christian Hackenberg is still on the roster … for now.
Browns quarterback: Tyrod Taylor vs. Baker Mayfield
Taylor, acquired this past offseason for a third-round draft pick, may be the best quarterback the Browns have had since their reboot in 1999. With just one year left on his contract, the Pro Bowler isn’t long for Cleveland, however. Enter Mayfield, the 2017 Heisman Trophy winner and No. 1 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft.
The starting job would have been Mayfield’s by default if Taylor weren’t in town, and the turnover-averse veteran will give the rookie gunslinger a serious roadblock on his path to the starting lineup. The former Bills signal caller is an efficient, if unexciting option who can bring stability to the NFL’s most embattled position group. Mayfield, on the other hand, is an explosive playmaker who threw for 119 touchdowns in his three seasons at Oklahoma. He’s got the bigger upside, but he’ll have to prove he can handle the learning curve playing in the NFL — and playing for the Browns — will place in his path.
Patriots running back: Sony Michel vs. Rex Burkhead vs. Mike Gillislee vs. James White vs. Jeremy Hill vs. Brandon Bolden vs. Ralph Webb
New England is well-stocked in the backfield, which fits into Bill Belichick’s platoon-heavy philosophy when it comes to running backs. The Patriots have eschewed a traditional lead-back system in the past decade, giving fantasy owners fits by spreading carries between unheralded players like Jonas Gray, Shane Vereen, and Bolden over the course of a season.
A roster filled with versatile backs could continue that trend in 2018, but the team’s decision to draft Michel with the 31st pick may signal a change. The Georgia product is a hard-charging all-purpose back who can handle duties as the team’s lead ballcarrier and provide the kind of receiving support out of the backfield with which Tom Brady thrives. Plus, he’s already got experience standing out in a crowded rotation — he split carries with fellow standouts Nick Chubb and D’Andre Swift in Athens the past two seasons.
Burkhead and White will provide pass-first targets who can move the chains, but will also be given the chance to earn carries. Gillislee, who can be cut this season with no salary cap ramifications, was a healthy scratch late in the season. His short-yardage role could be usurped by Michel, who weighs in at just seven pounds lighter. Hill came to New England from Cincinnati in free agency, but he’ll have to prove his waning production with the Bengals is a trend that can be reversed.
And don’t sleep on Webb. Vanderbilt’s all-time rushing leader was a priority undrafted free agent add for the Patriots. His ability to contribute on special teams will give him a very real shot to break into the team’s tailback rotation in 2018. He could take Bolden’s spot on the roster this fall.
Cowboys starting wideouts: Terrance Williams vs. Cole Beasley vs. Allen Hurns vs. Tavon Austin vs. Deonte Thompson vs. Noah Brown vs. Michael Gallup vs. Cedrick Wilson
Dez Bryant’s untenable contract led to his departure from Dallas, and Jason Witten’s move from the field to the broadcasting booth leaves a lot of targets for the remaining receivers in Dak Prescott’s arsenal. The question now is who will rise to the occasion and take the Cowboys’ two starting wideout spots. Fortunately, head coach Jason Garrett has plenty of options to which he can turn.
Williams and Beasley are the team’s frontrunners for elevated roles after combining for 87 receptions last season. However, Williams’ receiving output has declined in each of the past two seasons and Beasley, whose forte is in the slot, had the worst season in his past four last year. That leaves some big opportunities for Hurns and Austin, who will be searching for fresh starts in Texas. Cowboys vice president Stephen Jones has already gone on record saying Austin could get up to two dozen touches per game — one year after getting just 72 total touches with the Rams.
Hurns is capable of being a Bryant-lite deep threat for Prescott, even if he’s failed to follow up on his breakout 2015 in the years that followed. Austin is an enigma of athleticism whose inability to find a stable role with the Rams has left him struggling to live up to the promise he showed as the eighth pick of the 2013 NFL Draft. Fellow free agent Thompson is coming off the best season of his six-year career, but he’s never been more than filler before last year’s 15.9 yards-per-catch showing with the Bills.
This leaves room for young contributors to step up, but more question marks abound. Brown only has 37 receptions in his last four years of organized football. Gallup and Wilson were uber-productive college receivers … but in the Mountain West. Still, Dallas is a soft landing spot for two rookies looking to prove they can translate their college football skills to the NFC East.
Colts starting tailback: Marlon Mack vs. Nyheim Hines vs. Jordan Wilkins
Frank Gore is gone, and now a trio of young backs will have the opportunity to take the pressure off Andrew Luck’s embattled shoulders this fall. Mack is the favorite in his second season with the club, but he averaged just 3.8 yards per carry behind an overwhelmed offensive line in 2017.
Indianapolis didn’t exactly place a premium on upgrading from him this spring, though. With holes across the roster to fill, the Colts waited until Day 3 of the 2018 NFL Draft to select Hines and Wilkins, two useful but flawed prospects. Hines is one of the fastest young players in the league and should be an asset in the passing game, but he hasn’t proven himself as an every-down back and was inconsistent at NC State. Wilkins ran for more than six yards per carry at Ole Miss, yet he struggled to churn out big yards-after-contact numbers and was an ineffective blocker on passing downs.
Indianapolis will be better in 2018 than it was in 2017, but there’s no clear building block for the future in the team’s backfield. It’ll be up to Mack, Hines, and Wilkins to stake their claims this preseason.
Chiefs starting cornerbacks: Steven Nelson vs. David Amerson vs. Kendall Fuller vs. Eric Murray vs. Tremon Smith
The Chiefs lost four cornerbacks this offseason, including All-Pro Marcus Peters after a trade with the Rams and nine-game starter Terrance Mitchell in free agency. That’s going to mean an overhaul alongside Eric Berry in the secondary, but Kansas City is well positioned to move forward in 2018.
The franchise brought in a pair of guys with Washington roots to compete with Nelson (seven starts last season) and Murray (two starts, though he was more useful as a safety than a corner). Fuller was a big component of the team’s Alex Smith trade, and he’s ascending after knocking down 10 passes in his second year as a pro. Amerson went from Washington to Oakland before signing with the Chiefs. Smith is a sixth-round pick who will have the chance to contribute.
All four bring value to the table, even if no single player can replace what Peters did in his three seasons in Kansas City.
Rams outside linebackers: Matt Longacre vs. Samson Ebukam vs. Ogbonnia Okoronkwo vs. Ejuan Price vs. Trevon Young vs. Garrett Sickels
Robert Quinn was traded to the Dolphins this offseason. Connor Barwin is a free agent. Together, that pair combined for 27 of a possible 32 starts in Los Angeles last season. The Rams’ offseason defensive priority has been a continued focus on their defensive line (signing Ndamukong Suh, re-signing Dominique Easley) and they didn’t draft a true outside linebacker until Round 7 when it picked up TCU’s Travin Howard.
The good news for this year’s field of OLB candidates is they won’t be counted on to provide as much of a pass-rushing presence as players in similar schemes thanks to LA’s pressure creators up front. The bad news is there aren’t a lot of recognizable names on the team’s list of subs. Longacre brings the biggest pass-rushing chops of the group after tallying 5.5 sacks last season, but he’s only started one game in his three-year career. Ebukam is ascending after being drafted as a 2017 fourth-round developmental prospect from Eastern Washington, and his progress could be a big reason why the team could justify trading away Quinn.
Things get less clear behind that pair. Okoronkwo was the Big 12’s co-defensive player of the year in 2017, but concerns about his size dropped him to the fifth round of the draft. Young was even less heralded coming out of Louisville, and will have to make a similar shift from DE to OLB as a pro. Price was a ferocious, but undersized, college star who played just one game as a rookie. Sickels played in just one game last season as an undrafted free agent and spent most of the year on practice squads.
There’s a lot of young talent there — but not many players who fit the mold Quinn set in seven seasons with the team.