0 of 9
David Banks/Associated Press
Competition is brewing.
The NFL’s offseason program may have just started with the onset of organized team activities, but a handful of position battles are already under the microscope.
Everything starts at quarterback where a few jobs are available for the taking. While these competitions will draw the most attention, other teams around the league will find elements critical to their potential success or failure this fall based on what they did or didn’t do this offseason.
OTAs are merely the first step of the process. As the weeks pass, individuals will assert themselves through minicamps and training camp.
Decisions don’t need to be rushed, but each positional battle must be decided by the start of the regular season in order to put the team in the best position to succeed.
In the coming months, nine particular position battles will likely be more influential to their individual situations than others found around the league.
1 of 9
David Banks/Associated Press
There’s only one way the Chicago Bears quarterback competition goes. The sole question is how long it takes before the coaching staff reaches the point where Justin Fields should take over the offense and officially become the future of the franchise.
Head coach Matt Nagy is taking the typical (and outdated) path by making a first-round rookie “earn” his spot.
“Andy is the starter,” Nagy told reporters going into organized team activities. “Andy’s going to get the one reps.”
Something else the coach said is far more important in his evaluation of the quarterback position.
“We got to make sure as we go through this thing that we also do what’s best for the Bears and for Justin,” Nagy added.
Young quarterbacks grow at their own rate. The days of automatically sitting a rookie so he can learn from a veteran are long gone. Today’s young signal-callers come into the league more prepared than ever. They should start when they are ready.
Everyone saw Baker Mayfield, Kyler Murray and Justin Herbert take the league by storm very early in their careers. They were ready to play from Day 1, even if they didn’t initially.
In Fields’ case, the Bears simply need to gauge how comfortable he is to inform how they handle the upcoming competition.
“We want him to learn this offense so that he can play at that 4.4 speed that he has when he’s out there,” the head coach said. “A guy like Andy Dalton or Nick Foles that do not have that 4.4 speed to be able to play fast mentally with the decisions they are making along with Justin. When you have that speed that he has, it’s definitely a rare element.”
Dalton can try to hold off Fields as long as he can, but the job ultimately belongs to this year’s 11th overall draft pick.
2 of 9
Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
The Denver Broncos chose to pass on an opportunity to select Justin Fields or Mac Jones in the 2021 NFL draft. Instead, the team will move forward with Teddy Bridgewater or Drew Lock behind center.
The decision makes some sense. The team has a steady hand in Bridgewater, while Lock, who the organization originally selected with a second-round pick in the 2019 draft, presents significant upside if he can properly harness his natural throwing ability.
New general manager George Paton appears willing to see how his plays out in the coming months to determine where the team stands. Head coach Vic Fangio told reporters it’s “totally 50-50” between the two.
“Competition makes us all better as human beings,” Bridgewater said. “In the end, you look back and you realize you form relationships and bonds with different guys through competition.
What the Broncos really need are fewer turnovers compared to Lock’s performance last season. The 24-year-old certainly has plenty of gunslinger in him. The second-year signal-caller tied for the most interceptions with 15 (in 13 games).
Growth in terms of processing speed and improved consistency will give Lock a significant advantage, though the difference between the two quarterbacks seems quite clear at the onset of team activities.
“You can definitely tell that he’s a vet,” tight end Noah Fant said of Bridgewater, per DNVR Sports’ Zac Stevens. “Ball placement and things like that are very important to him. He’s been great for us.”
Lock may present the better natural arm talent, but Bridgewater is the better quarterback at this stage of their careers.
3 of 9
Steven Senne/Associated Press
Bill Belichick tried to nip any discussion of the New England Patriots’ pending quarterback competition in the bud before it dominated headlines. He told reporters, “[Cam Newton is] our quarterback. Whatever time Jarrett [Stidham] or Mac [Jones] are ready to challenge and compete, then we’ll see how that goes.”
A franchise doesn’t select a quarterback in the first round, as the Patriots did with Jones, and think his addition won’t create a stir.
Newton should have the upper hand. He’s been in the system a year and still has awesome physical tools. At the same time, this year’s 15th overall pick is already turning heads at the very onset of his career.
The Patriots and their coaching staff are notorious for their preference toward veteran players due, in part, to the difficulty level found within their playbooks. Yet, the rookie signal-caller appears to be picking up everything in stride.
“Jones is putting himself in position to possibly compete for the starting job come training camp in July because he’s keeping up with the challenging mental aspect of the Patriots’ playbook,” ESPN’s Mike Reiss reported.
Jones didn’t have the same natural skill set as the other four quarterbacks selected in this year’s first round. Even so, his intelligence, retention, on-field recall and application of the playbook, along with outstanding passing touch, made him a legitimate first-round talent. Those mental traits tend to translate quickly.
Ultimately, the Patriots want to win now. Newton could very well retain the job as New England’s QB1 throughout the summer and into the regular season. But the 32-year-old veteran isn’t guaranteed anything, and he’ll have a talented rookie champing at the bit to take over the team’s offense.
4 of 9
John Cordes/Associated Press
San Francisco 49ers head coach/offensive play-caller Kyle Shanahan is known for devising the game’s best running schemes. So, the idea of some random back emerging to provide significant production falls a bit under the team’s normal operating procedure.
But this year is different.
The 49ers didn’t just draft one, but two running backs to go along with the veterans Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Wayne Gallman.
Shanahan always said the team would pull the trigger on a talented back earlier than expected depending on the individual.
“It’s been proven that you can get guys (running backs) later,” Shanahan said during the 2017 campaign, per NBC Sports Bay Area. “But that by no means makes it that I’m going to say we’re never going to draft a running back high.
“When you find a special one and you think that makes sense for your team, you should never hesitate to do that.”
San Francisco chose Ohio State’s Trey Sermon with this year’s 88th overall pick. Granted, he’s not a first- or second-round addition, but Sermon is the highest-drafted ball-carrier in the Shanahan-John Lynch era. He should immediately push Mostert to be the feature back. Wilson could have, too, but he’s dealing with a knee injury. Sixth-round rookie Elijah Mitchell will be in the mix as well, though his early value probably lies on special teams.
Essentially, the 49ers are five-deep in the backfield (once Wilson is healthy). A strong rotation will serve the team well, but an individual will likely assert himself as the team’s lead back through this summer’s competition.
5 of 9
Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
The New England Patriots put together an eye-opening offseason to the surprise of many. The Chicago Bears may have salvaged the franchise’s current standing with a single draft pick. Both of these may be true, yet the Kansas City Chiefs achieved something more impressive than any other team accomplished.
The Chiefs completely rebuilt their offensive line in a few months to a level we’ve never quite seen.
Patrick Mahomes’ pummeling at the hands of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Super LV couldn’t go unanswered. Chiefs general manager Brett Veach and head coach Andy Reid did everything to improve Kansas City’s starting front five and the unit’s overall depth. As a result, Kansas City will have significant competition up front, particularly on the right side.
“There’s going to be a battle on the right side,” Reid told reporters. “There are a bunch of guys that can play, and we’ve always done this: We take the five best and throw them in there.
“So, we’ll see how it all sorts out.”
The left side will be set with Orlando Brown Jr. on Mahomes’ blindside and Joe Thuney lined up at guard. From there, things remain undecided.
Veteran Austin Blythe will compete with second-round rookie Creed Humphrey at center. Kyle Long can push the returning Laurent Duvernay-Tardif out of his right guard spot. Right tackle is the most unsettled with Mike Remmers still on the roster and Lucas Niang’s return after the rookie opted out of the 2020 campaign.
Not only is Kansas City’s front line improved, but the group is also much deeper overall to make an already near-unstoppable offense even better.
Winners: C, Humphrey; RG, Long; RT, Remmers
6 of 9
Don Wright/Associated Press
The center position is an often overlooked and thankless job. Not for the Pittsburgh Steelers, who boast a proud history of centers dating back to 1966 that includes Ray Mansfield, Mike Webster, Dermontti Dawson, Jeff Hartings and Maurkice Pouncey.
Pouncey retired this offseason, creating a sizable void in the middle of an offensive front in flux.
Along with the nine-time Pro Bowler’s departure, guard Matt Feiler and left tackle Alejandro Villanueva left in free agency. A significant transition will occur in front of 39-year-old quarterback Ben Roethlisberger.
History shows how important getting the correct snapper in place is to the franchise, and Pittsburgh has multiple options to form a new battery.
B.J. Finney and J.C. Hassenauer are the veteran options. Hassenauer started four games last season for the injured Pouncey. Finney previously started games for Pittsburgh before leaving as a free agent last year. He’s now back after playing his first five seasons in the Steel City.
The organization also invested a third-round pick in Kendrick Green, who’s expected to make a full-time switch over the ball.
“You are talking about a guy who took snaps in practice, but didn’t play a number of games there,” offensive line coach Adrian Klemm told reporters. “There were two games that he played in, I think it was his bowl game and one this year where he didn’t even know he was going to play (center) in the game. But he was ready for it.”
The Steelers hope to get the most out of Roethlisberger during the tail end of the quarterback’s career. In order to do so, the center’s performance will be crucial for the offense to get and stay on track.
7 of 9
Emilee Chinn/Associated Press
The Dallas Cowboys appeared set at linebacker for years to come after 2018 first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch performed at an All-Pro level during his rookie campaign and Jaylon Smith signed a five-year, $64 million contract extension prior to the 2019 season.
Neither has lived up to expectations since those points in their respective careers.
The Cowboys could transition away from both veterans after this year’s draft additions of Micah Parsons and Jabril Cox. Clearly, Dallas’ front office saw something special in Parsons and made him the 12th overall pick. He’s set to take over at middle linebacker.
“They wouldn’t move me there if they didn’t have a need at Mike,” Parsons told reporters. “Mike linebacker, you get a chance to force. … I can go both ways, always be around the ball. They know that is what I do best. I am excited to start there.”
Smith remains part of the equation, though, and the Cowboys can’t save anything by moving on from the 25-year-old this year. He’ll likely move to Will or Sam backer.
Cox is an intriguing option based on the versatility he presents. According to Pro Football Focus, the fourth-round pick had the second-highest career slot coverage grade among available draft prospects.
Keanu Neal can be thrown into the mix as well since he’s converting to linebacker after playing safety for the Atlanta Falcons.
“He’s a stud. He’s a stud of a player,” Cowboys head coach Mike McCarthy told reporters. “Just his approach. I think football comes extremely naturally to him. I think he’s making the full-time conversion into the linebacker room. He looks very comfortable.”
This competition feels more like an inevitable transition for the Cowboys linebacker corps.
Winners: Mike, Parsons; Will, Smith
8 of 9
Tony Dejak/Associated Press
Cleveland Browns general manager Andrew Berry spent all offseason deconstructing and rebuilding the team’s defense. The Browns suffered from a significant disadvantage last season because they didn’t have the pieces in place to consistently stop opposing offenses, particularly with potent passing attacks.
Berry addressed all three levels with multiple additions.
Upfront, some combination of Jadeveon Clowney, Malik Jackson and Takkarist McKinley will join Myles Garrett and the returning Andrew Billings. At linebacker, Anthony Walker Jr. will take over in the middle, while the team’s ballyhooed second-round selection of Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah will bring more athleticism and versatility. The secondary received the biggest facelift.
Cleveland aggressively pursued and signed defensive backs John Johnson III and Troy Hill in free agency. The team also sunk a first-round draft pick in Northwestern cornerback Greg Newsome II.
Newsome isn’t guaranteed a starting spot, though. Greedy Williams, whom the organization chose in the second round of the 2019 draft, returned to the field Tuesday after missing all of last season with nerve damage in his right shoulder.
Denzel Ward is a Pro Bowl-caliber player at one outside corner, while Hill should primarily handle slot coverage responsibilities.
With all of the talent Cleveland has at safety in Johnson, Ronnie Harrison and the returning Grant Delpit, how everything works out at the other outside corner spot will be crucial to the unit’s growth if the Browns are to fully realize the team’s potential as a possible Super Bowl contender.
9 of 9
Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press
The Los Angeles Chargers pieced together one of NFL’s best all-around draft classes, yet didn’t address kicker despite last year’s horrific special teams performance.
Michael Badgley tied for 27th in field-goal conversion percentage last season. He missed three extra points as well.
Chargers general manager Tom Telesco signed journeyman kicker Tristan Vizcaino and undrafted free-agent Alex Kessman to address the position. New special teams coordinator Derius Swinton II told reporters there will be “real competition” between the three—and there needs to be.
The Chargers finished 7-9 last season with seven losses coming by one score or less, including three by three or fewer points. As a whole, the team’s special teams were one of the worst in recorded history. Improvement is needed everywhere, but very few things in football are worse than an offense playing competently only to have its kicker let it down, especially in crunch time.
Maybe Badgley bounces back under Swinton’s supervision. After all, the “Money Badger” missed only four field goals in his previous two seasons. If not, Vizcaino showed some promise during his only appearance last season with the San Francisco 49ers. Kessman, meanwhile, comes in with a big leg capable of booming long field goals.
Los Angeles did an excellent job building around reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Justin Herbert this offseason. The team should be on the verge of a legitimate playoff push, as long as it’s far more stable on special teams, starting with the kicker.