Welcome back football, and welcome back tweets from beat reporters on sidelines. I've missed you so.
The teams that have starting quarterback competitions… those will take up most of the attention, and rightfully so. Since returning from vacation I have been seeking the most under-the-radar camp battles for all 32 teams. I have texted with and called coaches, personnel members and various sources across the league to come up with the best non-obvious battles heading into camp.
Today, we'll focus on the AFC. Tomorrow, we'll post the 16 NFC teams.
When you return 21 of 22 starters, it's hard to find any under-the-radar battle in camp. I suppose I could look deep in the tight end room, or posit how and when Greg Rousseau and Boogie Basham will steal reps from the edge-rushing vets ahead of them. But I'm told to keep a close eye on the battle at corner opposite Tre'Davious White between Levi Wallace and Dane Jackson. Wallace took the majority of snaps at the other outside corner spot last year (while Josh Norman took the share of backup reps) and tallied two picks and eight pass breakups. But Dane Jackson, the seventh-round pick who went up and down from the practice squad, had similar per-game numbers in five games and a third of the snaps. Folks in Buffalo are expecting a good battle there.
This one may have gotten onto more people's radar last month at minicamp, but on a team with several starting battles (OLB opposite Jaelan Phillips, nickel corner, free safety, TE2), you can easily forget about the center spot. Matt Skura is the better known name in this competition with Michael Deiter after his time in Baltimore. Skura has to bounce back from his struggles in the second half of last season to earn the job over Deiter, who's played multiple interior positions dating back to his days at Wisconsin.
With Dont'a Hightower and Kyle Van Noy back, along with Matt Judon now in the fold, the Patriots appear to be set at what you'd call the traditional linebacker spots. You can argue amongst yourselves about the front-seven positional definitions for the Pats before we see them on the field in training camp, but I'll call this the battle of the backup edges. Chase Winovich is trying to hold on to his role after playing in 58% of defensive snaps last season and tallying 5.5 sacks for the Pats. Josh Uche saw time in just nine games last season and will be competing with his fellow Michigan man for snaps. New England also drafted Ronnie Perkins in the third round, and he'll push for snaps with Winovich and Uche.
Some of the more obvious battles involve the corners, tight ends, right guard and running backs. But how will new defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich and head coach Robert Saleh view the safety position heading into the season? Marcus Maye can play either safety position though it seems he's more likely to be a strong safety for Ulbrich. That leaves free safety spot open for competition. Former third-round pick Ashtyn Davis had a typical rookie season in 2020 with some flash plays and a couple TDs allowed. The Jets inked LaMarcus Joyner to a one-year deal to compete with Davis, hoping Joyner can return to form after being out of position the last few years with the Raiders. It's extremely possible both Davis and Joyner are on the field at the same time when the Jets go with five DBs.
We could focus here on TE2 between Blake Bell and rookie Noah Gray, or on CB3 with Mike Hughes, Rashad Fenton and Deandre Baker. But I think the starting right guard spot is under-the-radar because so many have Laurent Duvernay-Tardif as the Week 1 guy. Not so fast, I'm told. As we know, the doc opted out last year, and I'm told he didn't look as rusty upon his return as one may have imagined. My former CBS Sports colleague Kyle Long was trending toward earning this spot before a freak leg injury sidelined him for a few months. I'm hearing rookie sixth-round pick Trey Smith is the real deal, and he's shown that in very limited time already. LDT is the leader to earn his spot back by the time the Chiefs play the Browns, but I'd expect a strong push from Smith this summer.
Las Vegas Raiders
The Raiders drafted Johnathan Abram in the first round of 2019 to transform their secondary and give it the hard-hitting grit of Raiders teams of yesteryear. They're still waiting. Abram missed his rookie season and gave up five touchdowns in 13 games last season while tying for second in the league in unnecessary roughness penalties with three. So the Raiders brought back a familiar face in Karl Joseph on a one-year deal after he didn't exactly tear it up in Cleveland (seven TDs allowed and a 102.1 passer rating against him). Joseph -- who in 2016 was also a first-round pick of the Raiders -- is trusted by Jon Gruden as a leader in the locker room, and his guidance in the backend can help his candidacy this summer.
Keenan Allen, Mike Williams and Jalen Guyton will reprise their roles atop the wide receiver depth chart for the Chargers. But what about the fourth spot, one that could wind up being on the field for a quarter of all snaps in Justin Herbert's second year? Tyron Johnson goes into camp as the odds-on favorite after his 20-catch, 398-receiving-yard season last year. L.A. picked Josh Palmer in the third round and has high hopes for him. And considering that the Chargers will likely keep six receivers on the 53-man roster and Joe Reed is one of their most reliable special teams players, that means Hill has to make his mark this summer or else find himself on the outside looking in.
The battle I chose here is one of the freshest for the Broncos: right tackle. After Ju'Wuann James went down with an Achilles injury that will take him out for the season, the Broncos held a competition for free agents and ultimately signed Bobby Massie and Cameron Fleming. It felt like Massie had the leg-up for the starting job by virtue of the higher contract ($2.5 million for one year compared to Fleming's $1.67M), but I'm told not so fast. As Drew Lock battles Teddy Bridgewater for QB1, watch for this legitimate competition at right tackle to take shape over the weeks.
Asking around about this, the overwhelming response I got was QB3 between Josh Dobbs and Dwayne Haskins. But quarterbacks are never under the radar, so we won't go there. Vince Williams' retirement just put linebacker in the spotlight, and the battle for Mike Hilton's slot corner role is very much in focus for Steelers fans. Pittsburgh has a lot of faith in both left tackle Chukwuma Okorafor and right tackle Zach Banner (who's returning from an ACL injury). Even in the event both of them perform in lights-out fashion this training camp, who would back either up in case of an emergency is far from decided. With no money to spend in free agency, the Steelers signed Joe Haeg back in March to a cheap deal. Haeg's playtime has steadily dwindled since starting 14 games as a rookie in Indianapolis in 2014. The Steelers just signed journeyman Chaz Green a few days before camp, and he's coming off a forgettable season in Indy where he played significant offensive snaps in three games and was credited with four sacks allowed, per PFF. Pittsburgh spent a fourth-round pick on Dan Moore Jr. and has to be hoping he acclimates quickly to the pros so the team can breathe a little easier at the tackle positions.
The Ravens have so many different formations and looks that it's hard to say what exactly this competition is outside of "the inside linebacker that's not Patrick Queen." Wink Martindale had a healthy rotation at this spot last year among Chris Board, L.J. Fort and Malik Harrison, with Fort getting the most snaps of the trio followed by Harrison and then Board. Fort and Harrison were the top choices on early downs for the Ravens while Board got more than a third of his snaps on third down alone. On third down he had 2.5 sacks and eight pressures. If Board can show improvement as a run-stopper this camp, he could see more time on earlier downs.
Who's up for a kicking competition? The Browns look pretty set at most starting positions, and we know there will be quality battles in the defensive backfield with how many resources Andrew Berry and staff have put back there. Cody Parkey assumes the role of the incumbent for the first time in his career since 2015 with the Eagles, and he'll do battle with third-year kicker Chase McLaughlin for the only spot on Cleveland's roster. Parkey performed well for the Browns last season outside of a December stretch where he missed an extra point in three consecutive games. He made all 11 of his kicks in the postseason, though. McLaughlin, 25, enters his third season having played for five different teams before the Browns claimed him off waivers this spring.
Gone are Carl Lawson, Carlos Dunlap and Geno Atkins in Cincy. Sam Hubbard is a holdover from last season, but the Bengals appear to be fairly set along the starting defensive line with Hubbard, D.J. Reader, Larry Ogunjobi and Trey Hendrickson. The question becomes who wins the top backup defensive tackle spot? Ogunjobi is unquestionably their top DT, and the Bengals returned Mike Daniels in 2021 despite a severe lack of pass-rush production relative to his playing time. Cincy will need rookie Tyler Shelvin—all 6-foot-3 and 346 pounds of him—to be a force in the middle this camp so that tensions are eased should there be a position catastrophe like last year.
Good, consistent teams like the Titans don't have a lot of holes, and the ones they do aren't exactly under the radar. The battle at right tackle between Kendall Lamm and rookie Dillion Radunz is the obvious top competition for an offensive starting gig. But what about the guy behind Derrick Henry? Last year that was Jeremy McNichols, and the GM Jon Robinson added Brian Hill in free agency after three-plus years in Atlanta. McNichols had a respectable 4.3 yards per carry last year, but Hill comes in averaging 4.7 yards from last season and even softer hands. Hill is a more east-west runner than even Henry, and that will translate in Tennessee's stretch zone. Second-year RB Darryton Evans could push both men for playing time.
Left tackle is going to be a battle in camp between Sam Tevi and Julien Davenport as they look to win the spot that Eric Fisher will eventually assume. On the defensive side, as Xavier Rhodes did more than enough to lock up CB1 last season in his first year with Indy, CB2 is more unclear. Rock Ya-Sin has started 21 of his 28 games with two career interceptions and a lot of good-not-great coverage stats. Marvell Tell III was drafted three rounds after Ya-Sin in 2019, though you may have forgotten him since he opted out in 2020. Tell had as many passes defensed (five) as Ya-Sin in 2019 in about 30% of the snaps. If the opt-out year was good to Tell, he can absolutely push Ya-Sin for the starting role, or at least significant playing time.
I spent a good portion of my post-vacation work hours thinking about this post, calling and texting around and ultimately putting it together. The Texans were the 32nd team I wrote about. What competition here is under the radar when about half of the starting jobs are up for grabs? That's not a drive-by of the Texans, because in truth the roster needed to be overhauled to some degree and man, has Nick Caserio overhauled it. If you believe Marcus Cannon winds up sliding inside to the right guard spot as Tytus Howard remains at right tackle, then the one offensive line spot that is truly open is left guard. Max Scharping's play in his second season last year wound up getting him benched after beginning the year as a starter. Can he rebound this camp? He's going to be pushed primarily by former Packers guard Lane Taylor, and Justin McCray will try to work his way into the rotation too. New offensive line coach James Campen spent more than a decade overseeing the Packers offensive line, so he's familiar with both Taylor and McCray and should know what makes each man tick.
The Jags signed Shaquill Griffin to be their top corner after a rash of injuries at the position in 2020. And C.J. Henderson, the ninth overall pick a year ago, looks to rebound from an up-and-down rookie season. But the nickel slot is still undecided. Tre Herndon has carved out a great career with the Jags after going undrafted in 2018. But Jacksonville also took Tyson Campbell with the first pick of the second round in April. Herndon played some slot last season, and Urban Meyer has raved about Campbell's versatility that he's seen since attempting to recruit him out of high school. There's also going to be the battle for QB2 between Gardner Minshew and C.J. Beathead, and I would have written about Aldrick Rosas vs. Josh Lambo if I didn't have a firm one-kicking-competition quota for this piece.