Gregg Rosenthal is breaking down the most compelling position battles in each conference. After studying the AFC's juiciest competitions on Wednesday, it's time to hit the NFC.
Don't sleep on McCoy as a legitimate option to start, as early as Week 1. Cleared to practice to open camp after offseason complications following a broken leg, McCoy has a five-year head start learning Jay Gruden's offense and winning Gruden's heart. This could be McCoy's last chance to be an NFL starter, but he's still an underdog.
Haskins is clearly the future and there's reason to believe the No. 15 overall pick was the apple of ownership's eye even before the draft, so a standout camp would give him a strong chance to open the season as the starter. Anything close to an even competition in Washington will favor Haskins, which leaves Keenum in a tough spot. He doesn't have McCoy's history with Gruden or Haskins' enticing upside, so it's possible his low-cost contract makes him trade fodder if McCoy stays healthy in August.
Thompson's role as a third-down ace should be secure, which leaves one of the greatest running backs of this century trying to fend off Father Time and a young running back once again. Guice's recovery from ACL surgery has gone slower than expected and Peterson earned $1.5 million guaranteed on his recent contract, so the future Hall of Famer is unlikely to get cut. The Redskins are talking up a committee approach, but Guice taking over as the primary back is the ideal long-term result for the organization. Love (torn ACL in December) won't be ready for the start of the season, while Perine probably needs guys to get hurt in front of him to make the team.
This is one of those rare free-for-alls where every spot on the depth chart appears up for grabs. Pettis has the most complete game and the closest profile to a No. 1 wideout; he's a breakout candidate. Samuel and Hurd will make the team as highly drafted rookies, while 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan has hinted that Goodwin will be used less in an effort to get more big plays out of him. This is Year 3 of the Shanahan-John Lynch era and they desperately need to find players to build around.
This may be the best running back trio in football, but one player above might not even be active on game days because none play special teams. Multiple 49ers reporters believe Coleman is the guy most likely to lead the team in touches, but Shanahan figures to change his approach weekly depending on matchups. McKinnon still hasn't practiced since tearing his ACL last September and Breida missed offseason work with a torn pectoral muscle, a reminder of why the 49ers felt it necessary to load up at the position.
Every year, it feels like the Seahawks have some camp receiver battle with the twists and turns of a Victorian novel that drives their fans crazier than they already are. This one is especially confusing, yet meaningful. After Tyler Lockett, it's a mystery who'll routinely catch passes from Russell Wilson. In a perfect world, Metcalf marshals his outrageous athleticism, Brown gives the Seahawks a solid veteran presence and Jennings adds some juice as a No. 4. The worst-case scenario includes a Lockett injury and a passing attack even Wilson can't save.
And then there were two. After a bizarre offseason when Chicago coach Matt Nagy struggled to let go of the end of last season, the Bears have narrowed their kicker options down to two. (Unless they try to bring in someone from outside the organization.) No matter who wins this battle, it will be healthy for the Bears organization and fans to eventually come to terms with the reality their defense couldn't close out the Eagles and their offense scored one touchdown in the game.
Sanders' former Penn State teammate, Saquon Barkley, is backing Sanders' candidacy for Offensive Rookie of the Year, but it's hard to imagine him getting enough carries to pull that off. The Eagles have been a spread-the-wealth team in the backfield for a while and this is their deepest group in years. Howard, acquired from the Bears, is too trustworthy to be ignored. Clement's receiving skills helped the Eagles win a Super Bowl and Sproles will be a sentimental pick to make the team, although nothing's guaranteed. Even in a best-case scenario for Sanders, the Eagles are likely to keep him fresh enough to peak during the stretch run. (Sorry, fantasy leaguers.)
This battle to complement WR1 Davante Adams might not be as open-ended as believed. Allison appears headed for the slot and "MVS" showed enough as a rookie to believe he's a keeper. Everyone else is an underdog for major snaps.
Burns may be the single most important player in Carolina's transition to a 3-4 defense. The Panthers need his speed off the edge and aren't deep at the position. If he loses this battle, something's gone wrong.
It's as if the Bucs are trying to disprove the notion that teams can always find a running back. Barber is a workmanlike veteran, but it's surprising that he's the favorite to lead the team in carries again. Jones is trying to put one of the roughest rookie seasons for a highly drafted back in recent memory behind him.
Ten more battles to monitor
12) Philadelphia Eagles cornerbacks: Rasul Douglas vs. Avonte Maddox vs. Sidney Jones vs. Ronald Darby's health vs. Jalen Mills' health. Mills, who hasn't practiced since hurting his foot since last October, is starting camp on the PUP list. Darby was expected to do the same, having torn his ACL last November, but he was on the practice field Thursday. Of the remaining trio, Maddox has the highest upside.
13) New Orleans Saints No. 3 receiver: Tre'Quan Smith vs. Keith Kirkwood vs. Cameron Meredith vs. Rishard Matthews vs. Austin Carr. Who'll get snaps after first-team All-Pro Michael Thomas and veteran field stretcher Ted Ginn Jr.? The Saints are great at squeezing production from seemingly random players, but they need to get better at squeezing production from players like Meredith and Smith, both of whom they've invested heavily in.
15) Green Bay Packers No. 2 cornerback: Kevin King vs. Josh Jackson vs. Tramon Williams. King needs to stay healthy to be a physical complement to Jaire Alexander in the starting lineup. If not, 2018 second-rounder Josh Jackson could step into the mix. Williams is doing his best Terence Newman as a cornerback who refuses to get old. He's likely to play slot cornerback.
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