NFL training camp: Where battles are won and lost.
With all 32 NFL teams hitting practice fields in full force, the time is now for players across the league to stake their claim on jobs entering Week 1.
Certain positions offer more clear-cut battle lines in camp and the preseason. Quarterbacks are obvious, and there are more than a couple QB skirmishes to track this offseason. Wide receivers and running backs will fight to stand out in crowded rooms. With rotations up front on defense and more nickel usage, those gigs can be less compelling to track but are still crucial for the makeup of teams, especially those seeking depth.
All 32 clubs will conduct battles royale up and down the roster, but some big tussles are more interesting than others. Let's look at 10 camp battles I find the most intriguing as we speed toward the season:
The key to how heated the battle might become is Purdy's recovery timeline. After undergoing UCL surgery this offseason, he's apparently been moving toward starting in Week 1, most recently being cleared to practice to begin camp. Niners brass has consistently indicated Purdy's the starter if he's healthy to open the season. If he's not ready to throw full-bore or if he suffers a setback, the battle will rage between Lance and Darnold. Regardless of Purdy's status, Lance and Darnold are at least set to see who wins the backup gig. Since San Francisco selected Lance No. 3 overall in 2021, the QB has played sparingly while dealing with injury, starting just four games in two years. Now healthy, will he finally begin to show signs of development? Darnold (himself a former No. 3 overall pick) has received praise during offseason workouts, and despite a roller-coaster career, he could fit well in Kyle Shanahan's system. Would the 49ers make Lance QB3, given all they shelled out to draft him?
The Bucs have insisted they'll conduct a true QB competition in camp, pitting Mayfield, a former No. 1 overall pick, against Trask, Tom Brady's recent understudy. But it's easy to assume Mayfield will wind up winning the job going away. While the former Browns/Panthers/Rams QB has his warts, he can still sling it when protected and could best take advantage of the receiving duo of Mike Evans and Chris Godwin. Trask, meanwhile, is an unknown. The 2021 second-round pick appeared in just one game in two years (completing 3 of 9 passes for 23 yards in relief) and looked scattershot. The 6-foot-5 QB owns size as a pocket passer, and the coaching staff has talked up his development this offseason. But unless he blows the doors off in the preseason, Trask would appear to have an uphill battle to squeeze out Mayfield for the Week 1 starting gig.
The classic battle of veteran versus first-round rookie is set to get underway in full force in Indy. Minshew has proven to be a capable signal-caller who can run an offense. Minshew's knowledge of new Colts coach Shane Steichen's scheme -- having worked with Steichen as his offensive coordinator in Philadelphia -- could give the vet a leg up early in camp. It's possible the Colts could tap Minshew to open the season to give Richardson, the No. 4 overall pick, a few weeks to develop on the sideline -- similar to how Pittsburgh handled Kenny Pickett last season. The biggest question will be how Richardson grasps the offense and performs in camp and preseason. The Florida product entered the draft with a sky-high ceiling but also needing development in areas of his game. As owner Jim Irsay noted, Richardson needs to play to grow. If the competition is close coming out of the preseason, history suggests the rookie gets the gig.
Howell enters camp as QB1, as Ron Rivera noted he would several times this offseason, but it's far from a lock he'll hold onto the gig. The club likes the 2022 fifth-round pick's development this offseason. But the fact remains that Howell played in just one game in Year 1, starting Week 18. While he impressed in that contest, it wasn't as if he pulled a Patrick Mahomes (Howell's line from that outing: 169 yards, TD, INT, 57.9 completion percentage in a win over Cowboys). Howell has to fend off the veteran Brissett, who has proven he's a competent passer who can lead a stable offense. It's easy to envision Brissett overtaking Howell once the pads come on and preseason action gears up. Washington has the horses to compete in the NFC East with improved QB play. Will Rivera choose young upside or savvy veteran leadership entering a pivotal season in D.C.?
The addition of tight end Darren Waller immediately brings pop to the Giants' passing attack, but how the WR room shakes out is anyone's guess entering camp. Hodgins came on strong at the end of the season. Slayton stretches the field and views himself as a WR1. Campbell finally stayed healthy for a solid last campaign in Indy. Shepard is dynamic when healthy but is coming off an ACL tear. Robinson showed flashes as a rookie but played in just six games before suffering an ACL tear of his own. Hyatt is a third-round pick with upside. Crowder can be a veteran utility man. The recent addition of Beasley offers another slot option who worked in head coach Brian Daboll's offense during Daboll's time as offensive coordinator in Buffalo. It's a deep group, but one without a true apparent alpha. Camp and preseason action will reveal how snaps are shared and who makes the cut.
Another year brings yet more WR turnover for Patrick Mahomes. This offseason, K.C. lost JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mecole Hardman. The expectation is Toney and Moore will take bigger leaps in Year 2 in the system. Toney, a midseason trade acquisition in 2022, owns WR1 upside but must stay healthy and display development in his route running. Case in point: He's already dealing with a knee injury that led to surgery and could cost him time. Rice owns good size and speed with vertical ability that should play well in the Chiefs' offense if he hits the ground running. James is efficient, coming off a solid season with the Giants. Ross is a wild card if finally healthy. We know Mahomes will make it work with whoever is on the field -- having tight end Travis Kelce as a security blanket makes everything easier. The question is, who from this group will take a stride forward and become a consistent playmaker for the defending Super Bowl champs?
The Eagles lost Miles Sanders in free agency when he signed a four-year, $24.5 million deal with Carolina. They replaced him with less costly options, adding Penny on a one-year, $1.35 million contract and trading with the Lions for Swift during the draft. Gainwell showed slasher and pass-catching acumen last season and should remain in a rotation in the backfield. Swift likely enters camp as the projected starter, but like Penny, he has an injury history, never having seen more than 151 carries in three seasons. Penny owns the most upside of the group, with a career 5.7 yards-per-carry mark. The former Seahawks first-rounder must prove he's healthy in camp after his 2022 was cut short by a broken fibula. There was some outside speculation this offseason that Penny could be a cut candidate, depending on how the rest of the roster shakes out. There might not be one clear workhorse in Nick Sirianni's backfield this season, but there is upside if the position group can avoid injury.
Mostert and Wilson were retained for 2023 after putting together a solid end-of-season run for a Dolphins backfield that got off to a wobbly start in 2022. Mostert generated 1,093 scrimmage yards and five touchdowns last season. Wilson added 392 rushing yards, averaging 4.7 yards per tote in eight games following his arrival via trade from San Francisco. The two figure to share snaps to open the season. Where the real intrigue comes is with Achane, a third-round pick this year. The speedy back should have the chance to carve out a significant role in Mike McDaniel's offense with a solid camp and preseason. All three could wind up splitting reps early in the campaign. Then there's the possibility Miami could add to the group. The Dalvin Cook rumors continue to swirl. An addition of a workhorse like Cook could turn this competition upside down.
The Vikings completely flipped their corner crew under new coordinator Brian Flores. Gone are Patrick Peterson, Chandon Sullivan, Kris Boyd and Cameron Dantzler. Minnesota signed Murphy and Williams, then drafted Blackmon (in the third round) and Ward (in the fourth). The question entering camp is how the group shakes out. Murphy is a sure-fire starter, but the rest is up for competition. Minnesota could need Blackmon to step into the flames off the bat. Ward can play a hybrid safety/nickel role, giving the new DC more versatility. Flores historically loves to blitz and play man coverage on the back end. That approach requires placing a lot of trust in the secondary. Do the Vikes have the playmakers to employ that plan? Will Flores change things up in his first year in the Twin Cities?
Every internet outlet is contractually obligated to mention the New York Jets in each post this offseason. Kidding -- but not really. For all the hype following the Aaron Rodgers trade, there remain questions about how the line settles and whether the group can improve on last year. Duane Brown starts camp on the PUP list, which adds more questions than answers. Mekhi Becton has received rave reviews this offseason but played just one game in the past two seasons. Veteran addition Billy Turner has experience on both sides and worked with Rodgers in Green Bay. Brown, Becton, Turner and 2022 fourth-rounder Max Mitchell could vie for the starting tackle spots if all are healthy. Inside, Gang Green re-signed 30-year-old center Connor McGovern, then drafted Joe Tippmann in the second round. The two should scrap for the starting gig during camp. Rodgers could lift the Jets to new heights in his first season in New York -- but not if he's constantly on his back. How the O-line plays will be key to any Gang Green turnaround in 2023.