Training camp battles are so hot right now. Everybody's talking about them. Let's divert in a more specific direction. What are the most important training camp battles that involve rookies, competitions that will have serious implications on quality teams in 2021?
And I've purposely left quarterback off this article. Yes, Trey Lance vs. Jimmy Garoppolo in San Francisco, Mac Jones vs. Cam Newton with the Patriots, and Justin Fields and Andy Dalton duking it out in Chicago will, of course, be vital. Let's dig deeper.
Rookie: Cardinals CB Marco Wilson
Main competition: Robert Alford
This is probably it for Cardinals GM Steve Keim and head coach Kliff Kingsbury in Arizona. That is, if the Cardinals don't make the playoffs. Kingsbury's crew has loaded up for not just an appearance in the NFC playoffs but potentially a deep run, thanks to the acquisition of J.J. Watt and the draft selection of lightning bolt Rondale Moore in Round 2.
But, let's be real -- the cornerback room is in shambles. "Patchwork" may not even do it justice. There's Byron Murphy, who can play inside and out, but he's hardly met expectations that come with being the first pick in the second round two years ago. Beyond him, there's Malcolm Butler, who rebounded in 2020 after a brutal start to his Titans tenure but is now 31, then gobs of uncertainty.
For Wilson, he'll have to fend off Alford, a typically reliable, highly athletic corner. Problem is, he hasn't played since 2018 due to consecutive season-ending injuries. There's fellow rookie Tay Gowan, a sixth-rounder, and former Bengals first-rounder Darqueze Dennard in the cornerback room.
Wilson had a case as the most athletic cornerback in the 2021 class. Seriously. But he lasted until the fourth round because with all the athletic gifts in the world, why was his Florida film so wildly inconsistent? On an Arizona team that's going to score points, defense may not be as critical as it'll be for other teams. But with the Cardinals coach and GM in a vintage make-or-break season, Arizona's secondary can't be a sieve.
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Rookie: Bengals OG Jackson Carman
Main competition: Michael Jordan
The Bengals are on the rise. Right? Well, they should be, mostly due to the Joe Burrow-Ja'Marr Chase dynamic in Cincinnati. Is anyone ready to crown the Bengals as one of the top teams in the AFC? Of course not. But don't forget, there's always a collection of new playoff clubs every year, nothing's more critical than quarterback play, and Cincinnati has a good one in Burrow.
But he needs to be better protected on a more regular basis. And although I believe going Chase over Penei Sewell was the correct determination for the Bengals organization, if Burrow is on his back a lot in 2021 after his torn ACL and Sewell is instant impact in Detroit, that draft-day decision will ominously hover over Paul Brown Stadium for a long time.
Carman will always be remembered as the blocker the Bengals picked in Round 2 after passing on Sewell in Round 1 to pick Chase. And the former Clemson left tackle is bumping into guard in the NFL. Will he be ready to play at a relatively high level in a new position right away? Unseating Michael Jordan shouldn't be difficult -- he was among the league's most matador-like blockers a season ago. But confidently expecting a rookie to arrive on the scene and dominate from the jump is risky business. If Carman is up to the challenge, he'll be an underrated element of a Year 2 breakout for Burrow and this Bengals offense.
Rookie: Chiefs LB Nick Bolton
Main competition: Anthony Hitchens
As the back-to-back AFC representative in the Super Bowl and a club that's advanced to the AFC title in three-straight seasons, Kansas City is now a barbeque mecca and home to the team to beat in the American Football Conference.
The Chiefs defense is naturally in the background because of Patrick Mahomes, Tyreek Hill, and Travis Kelce. However, there's correlation between Kansas City's defense being at its best and the Chiefs actually winning -- not just getting to -- the Super Bowl. When Mahomes won his Super Bowl, his defense finished 14th in Football Outsiders' DVOA. Mahomes' two years as a starter in which he didn't ride a booze-filled float through downtown Kansas City after the season, the Chiefs defense finished outside the top 20 in that comprehensive metric.
And Kansas City's collection of linebackers has been not of Super Bowl-caliber during the Mahomes era, a distinction marked by the free agent flop of the incumbent Hitchens, Bolton's primary competition.
While Bolton didn't test particularly well at the Missouri pro day, his 4.60 time in the 40 proves he moves pretty well for the linebacker spot. In college, he maximized his physical traits due to exquisite football IQ, block-shedding capabilities, and reliable tackling. Most importantly, he flashed in coverage. The latter area is where there's plenty of room for him to separate from the more experienced Hitchens this summer.
Rookie: Chargers WR Josh Palmer
The Chargers have their quarterback. He embodies the new prototype at the position in today's NFL. Naturally, the Chargers have gone berserk trying to construct a luxurious environment for him this offseason. Time-tested stud of a center Corey LInsley was signed in free agency. Left tackle Rashawn Slater, of limiting Chase Young in college fame, was picked in Round 1. Tight end Tre' McKitty was a third-round pick. Another blocker -- Brenden Jaimes -- was selected on Day 3. And they're now the trendy upstart team to advance deep into the AFC playoffs.
At Tennessee, the nearly 6-foot-2, 210-pound Palmer was hindered by up-and-mostly-down quarterback play. It was at the Senior Bowl where he emerged as a serious prospect with route-running chops, deceptive speed and rebounding skills down the field. As for the distinct No. 3 wideout role, Palmer will have to fend off two former undrafted free agents -- Jalen Guyton and Tyron Johnson -- who both averaged nearly 20 yards per grab last season.
In quietly what is one of the deeper receiver rooms in the AFC, Palmer will have his work cut out for him this summer, earning the trust of Herbert and asserting himself as a steady target in what should be an explosive offense.
Rookie: Vikings OG Wyatt Davis
Main competition: Dakota Dozier
The Vikings went from Gary Kubiak to his son, Klint Kubiak, at offensive coordinator so once again, their offensive philosophy can be roughly described as this -- run, run, run, play-action off that run, then run some more. The offensive line is critical for Minnesota's zone-blocking scheme and for the mostly stoic Kirk Cousins. When pressured and when moved outside the pocket last season, Cousins had a passer rating of 38.2. Gross. The league average was 56.6.
Minnesota knows how much it leans on its unique offensive front for the run game and to mask Cousins' mobility limitations, which is why GM Rick Spielman has now invested five picks within the first three rounds on blockers since Cousins was signed and superstar runner Dalvin Cook was drafted.
And now Davis finds himself in a camp battle paramount to Minnesota's offensive success in 2021. Because Dozier, the incumbent at right guard, was a turnstile a season ago, and offensive lines are weak-link systems. One bad part can drag the entire group into liability land.
Davis was better for the Buckeyes in 2019 than in his final year in Columbus. He looks the part, though, as a squatty battler with recovery skills, decent power, and mostly stable balance.
Rookie: Washington WR Dyami Brown
The Washington Football Team is ... fun? Should be, yeah. Ryan Fitzpatrick at quarterback all but guarantees Ron Rivera's club will be very enjoyable every weekend.
But we all know how hard it is to consistently sneak into the win column on defense alone in today's NFL. Got to score points. A lot of them. The last five Super Bowl winners -- and six of the last seven -- finished in the top five in points scored during the regular season. Remember that.
Rivera signed former Panther Curtis Samuel to finally provide a legitimate running mate for serial separator Terry McLaurin. That's great. But this isn't your dad's NFL. Three legitimately threatening receivers are the new trend. So, Washington picked Brown in the third round to hopefully be a field-lengthening, tertiary weapon. While not the most elastic route runner, Brown was a deep burner at North Carolina -- he averaged more than 20 yards per reception in each of his final two seasons with the Tar Heels. Plus, Brown got a huge vote of confidence from our very own Pete Prisco before the draft, as he was the highlighted prospect on Prisco's Better-Than Team.
Brown won't be handed the WR3 job. Cam Sims ran the second-most routes for Washington in 2020 and discreetly averaged a hefty 14.9 yards per reception on 32 catches in what was an awful quarterback situation. The newly signed Humphries never lived up to the free agent hype in Tennessee after a productive start to his career in Tampa Bay. He'll be part of the WR3 battle too.