Every NFC team's most intriguing position battle in training camp
With NFL training camps set to kick off, we assess each team's most interesting position battle.
AFC I NFC
Arizona Cardinals - Running back
Contenders: Chase Edmonds, James Conner
The Cardinals lost Kenyan Drake in free agency, creating an opening on the depth chart and leaving Edmonds as the immediate front-runner for the job. But Arizona signed Conner, a former starting running back who's two seasons removed from a Pro Bowl campaign. After a solid season with the Cardinals in 2020, Edmonds is expected to enter camp as the No. 1 back. However, Conner's physical traits and experience might cost Edmonds some carries and potentially his job.
Atlanta Falcons - Safety
Contenders: Duron Harmon, Erik Harris, Richie Grant, Jaylinn Hawkins
The Falcons are looking for two new safeties after losing their starters from 2020 this offseason. Harmon (127 career appearances) and Harris (65) are more experienced, but both have clear limitations. Second-round rookie Grant doesn't have any NFL experience, but his versatility could easily make him the best name of this group soon. Finally, Hawkins hopes to see the field more often after showing good signs in limited playtime as a rookie in 2020.
Carolina Panthers - Left tackle
Contenders: Cameron Erving, Dennis Daley, Trent Scott, Greg Little
The Panthers acquired Sam Darnold this offseason, but it isn't clear who'll protect the quarterback's blindside. Erving is the presumable front-runner due to his experience, but the former first-round pick has struggled to stay healthy recently. Little has battled his own injuries, and his play has been disappointing since entering the NFL in 2019. That makes Daley and Scott - two unproven offensive linemen - potential options. Carolina still has Brady Christensen on the roster, but the third-round rookie is expected to stay at right tackle.
Chicago Bears - Quarterback
Contenders: Andy Dalton, Justin Fields
Coach Matt Nagy has repeatedly said Dalton will start in Week 1, but we just don't fully buy that plan yet. Would Chicago really keep Fields on the bench if the first-round rookie outplays Dalton in training camp and preseason? Few teams are as desperate to find solid quarterback play as the Bears, who relied on Mitchell Trubisky and Nick Foles last year. Plus, Fields showed at Ohio State that he has a bright future ahead. His upside is probably higher than Nagy thinks.
Dallas Cowboys - Linebacker
Contenders: Jaylon Smith, Leighton Vander Esch, Micah Parsons, Keanu Neal, Jabril Cox
There's a reason why the Cowboys added linebackers through the draft and free agency. Starters Smith and Vander Esch have lacked consistency. Smith is coming off his worst NFL campaign, and Vander Esch struggles to stay healthy. The two will now compete for snaps with Neal and rookies Cox and Parsons, who's trending up after minicamp and could also play defensive end. Neal, a former Pro Bowl safety who moved to linebacker, is already familiar with defensive coordinator Dan Quinn from their time in Atlanta. Cox offers solid pass coverage support despite still being a liability as a tackler.
Detroit Lions - Cornerback
Contenders: Amani Oruwariye, Quinton Dunbar
The Lions have several roster holes after a big rebuild this offseason, but the cornerback position deserves special attention due to its poor form lately. Jeff Okudah is Detroit's presumptive No. 1 corner despite his struggles as a rookie last year. Fighting for a spot opposite Okudah are Oruwariye - who's flashed the potential of a quality starter - and Dunbar - a veteran who was one of football's top corners not long ago. Detroit's depth chart still features Ifeatu Melifonwu, but the third-round rookie's inexperience could be an issue.
Green Bay Packers - Cornerback
Contenders: Kevin King, Eric Stokes
The Packers brought King back for another year, but there are no guarantees his starting spot opposite Jaire Alexander is safe. King is coming off a disastrous outing in the NFC title game loss that ended Green Bay's 2020 season. Plus, the fifth-year defensive back, who's struggled to stay healthy, has lacked consistency when he's on the field. That explains why the Packers spent a first-round pick this year on Stokes, who had a great college career at Georgia. It's still King's job to lose ahead of camp, but Stokes could take over if his struggles remain.
Los Angeles Rams - Wide receiver
Contenders: DeSean Jackson, Van Jefferson, Tutu Atwell
The Rams' top two receivers - Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp - are undisputed. But the next name on the depth chart is still blank. Jackson may have a slight edge as the No. 3 wideout due to his experience. However, the three-time Pro Bowler, who signed with L.A. this offseason, has appeared in just eight games since 2019. Atwell also joined the team this year, and the second-round rookie could fit like a glove on the Rams' offense due to his speed. Meanwhile, Jefferson enters his second pro season coming off a quiet freshman campaign.
Minnesota Vikings - Right guard
Contenders: Wyatt Davis, Mason Cole, Dakota Dozier, Dru Samia, Kyle Hinton
The Vikings badly need an upgrade at guard. Dozier, one of the team's starters in 2020, was PFF's 123rd-ranked guard last season. With him dropping out of the starting lineup and Ezra Cleveland becoming a full-time starter at left guard, the right guard position is open. Davis is the front-runner for the role after joining Minnesota as a third-round pick this year, but Cole is also in the mix due to his versatility. The veteran played center for the Cardinals last season and landed with the Vikings via trade in March.
New Orleans Saints - Quarterback
Contenders: Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill
This offseason had plenty of big quarterback moves, but the Saints decided to look for Drew Brees' replacement within their roster. Winston has more experience under center after starting 70 games for the Buccanneers between 2015-19. However, his 28-42 record and 88 interceptions thrown over that span suggest he could be a liability. Meanwhile, Hill was the one who stepped up as New Orleans' backup last year and started all four games that Brees was sidelined. Whoever wins this battle will have to improve significantly to meet the Saints' high expectations at quarterback.
New York Giants - Wide receiver
Contenders: Sterling Shepard, Darius Slayton, Kadarius Toney, John Ross
This past offseason changed the scene for the Giants at wide receiver, giving them more bodies than big roles. With the arrival of Kenny Golladay locking up the No. 1 spot, the main questions are in the slot. We expect New York to keep Slayton outside and return Shepard to the inside, where he's been the most effective throughout his career. But the Giants could also rotate Shepard outside, leaving Slayton as an option in the slot. Either way, New York's next slot receiver will have the competition of first-round rookie Toney, who did most of his damage in college in the slot, and Ross, a former top-10 pick who's trying to revitalize his career.
Philadelphia Eagles - Left tackle
Contenders: Andre Dillard, Jordan Mailata
The Eagles have a good problem at left tackle. While some teams are looking for a starting-caliber man at the position, Philadelphia likely has two potential starters. Philly drafted Dillard in the first round in 2019 with the plan to develop him into Jason Peters' replacement. Dillard was set to take over last season, but an injury ended his 2020 campaign before it even began. That opened the door for Mailata, and the former rugby player didn't disappoint. Mailata exceeded expectations in the 10 starts he made last year, putting him in a position to keep the starting role moving forward. Dillard will need a big comeback to retake the spot.
San Francisco 49ers - Running back
Contenders: Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr., Trey Sermon, Wayne Gallman, JaMycal Hasty, Elijah Mitchell
The 49ers' running back position has formed something special under Kyle Shanahan: San Francisco likes using multiple runners instead of regularly employing a feature back. The same script will likely follow in 2021, with Mostert entering camp as the main guy. Next on the depth chart would presumably be Wilson if he was healthy. But Wilson underwent meniscus surgery in late May and is expected to miss part of the season. As a result, third-round rookie Sermon or Gallman, who started 10 games for the Giants last year, could take over. The 49ers' loaded backfield also features Hasty and sixth-round rookie Mitchell.
Seattle Seahawks - Cornerback
Contenders: D.J. Reed, Ahkello Witherspoon, Tre Flowers, Tre Brown, Damarious Randall, Pierre Desir
"It's going to take us all of camp to figure (our cornerback competition) out," said coach Pete Carroll, who lost Pro Bowl corner Shaquill Griffin to free agency this offseason. Seattle now needs to find a new top cornerback and decide who will start opposite him. Reed may be in the driver's seat for at least one of those roles after playing well over eight starts in 2020. Witherspoon, a former starter for the 49ers, was Seattle's biggest addition at the position in 2021, so he may have a slight edge, too. But don't forget that Flowers began last season as the No. 2 corner before an injury ended his year prematurely. Plus, Randall and Desir have each started at least 30 games elsewhere.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers - Running back
Contenders: Ronald Jones, Leonard Fournette
The reigning champions brought back all their starters, so we already have a very good idea of how they'll look. But Tampa Bay's running back position could have a few changes. Granted, Jones led the team in carries last year by a significant margin (192 to Fournette's 97), and he's the team's No. 1 back entering camp. But Fournette outplayed Jones in every playoff game last season, finishing the playoffs as one of the Bucs' most important players. Jones' role could be threatened if Fournette picks up where he left off.
Washington Football Team - Quarterback
Contenders: Ryan Fitzpatrick, Taylor Heinicke, Kyle Allen
Two things are at stake for Washington quarterbacks at camp. Firstly, there's a competition for the starting job, according to coach Ron Rivera. But it's hard to envision Fitzpatrick, who Washington signed this year after a solid 2020 season, losing the role. Still, even with Fitzpatrick likely securing the job, the battle between Heinicke and Allen for the backup spot will be intriguing. Allen posted a 99.3 passer rating in four starts in 2020 before sustaining a season-ending injury. Meanwhile, Heinicke played well during the wild-card loss to the Buccaneers in what was his only start last year.