Camp Spotlight: Skill-position battles

August, 15, 2014
Aug 15
8:00
AM ET
NFL Nation reporters assess the most intriguing skill-position battle in each team's training camp:

NFC EAST

Running back: Coach Jason Garrett said DeMarco Murray is the leader of a running back committee but has traits of a bell cow. While the Cowboys like Lance Dunbar, Murray will continue to see the overwhelming majority of snaps when games start. During the past few seasons, the Cowboys have said they wanted to be a physical rushing team but moved away from the running game once the season started. In training camp, the Cowboys have shown more of a willingness to stick to the run. In their first preseason game, six of the first eight plays were rushes. Murray has noticed increased work in practices, leading him to believe there will be a greater focus on the run. -- Todd Archer

Tight end: The only real battle in Giants camp for a starting skill position is at tight end. Larry Donnell, an undrafted second-year player from Grambling, looks to have the edge and is playing with the first team. Former Patriots tight end Daniel Fells could push him now that he's back from knee injury. Adrien Robinson continues to be a big disappointment. -- Dan Graziano

Wide receiver/tight end: The most interesting competition in the Eagles' camp is for playing time at the offensive skill positions. In that sense, rookie wide receiver Jordan Matthews is competing not only against first-team slot receiver Brad Smith. Matthews is also competing against starting wide receivers Riley Cooper and Jeremy Maclin, as well as tight ends Brent Celek and Zach Ertz. Coach Chip Kelly wants to have versatile, big-bodied players who can line up anywhere, block effectively, catch the ball and then run with it afterward. Matthews started out as the second-team slot receiver. He could replace Smith or Cooper (or take snaps from the tight ends) by the time his rookie season is over. -- Phil Sheridan

Running back: The Redskins wanted to upgrade their third-down back situation, but they might end up going with the same guy as last season: Roy Helu. In camp, Helu has looked the best of the backs vying for that spot. Rookie Lache Seastrunk has a long way to go in protection and Silas Redd is not as shifty as Helu. Chris Thompson's durability makes him questionable. Helu is the best of this bunch at running routes and handling the protection schemes. Hard to see him losing the job. -- John Keim


NFC WEST

Running back: While all of Arizona's starting skill positions are pretty much set, the best position battle is for the No. 2 running back between second-year back Stepfan Taylor and Jonathan Dwyer. The two have split time behind starter Andre Ellington during training camp but with the Cardinals' new two-back system, the second job is valuable. Taylor has played in between the tackles while Dwyer is a power back who has proven to be dangerous in the red zone. -- Josh Weinfuss

Wide receiver: This is a new problem for the San Francisco 49ers. Last year, the 49ers got little help from non-starting receivers and they were last in the league in using three-receiver sets. However, they traded for veteran Stevie Johnson and signed veteran Brandon Lloyd and the two have battled to be the top reserve receiver. Both have looked good in camp. Johnson has the edge as the No. 3 receiver ; I think he is capable of catching 60 balls. Lloyd will likely be an active No. 4 receiver and a prime candidate to get quality playing time if there is an injury above him. -- Bill Williamson

Wide receiver: The Rams have six receivers vying for playing time, with two or three likely to be on the field most of the time. Kenny Britt, Tavon Austin and Brian Quick are the leaders in the clubhouse and it doesn't look like that will be changing. Stedman Bailey would likely be among the top two were it not for a four-game suspension to start the season. -- Nick Wagoner

Running back: As far as the starters go, there isn't a skill-position battle for the Seahawks. But there is a battle going on for which running back will back up Marshawn Lynch between Robert Turbin and Christine Michael. Turbin is listed as No. 2 on the depth chart, but Michael is the more explosive runner and will win this job if he continues to prove he can do the job as a blocker in pass protection. -- Terry Blount


NFC NORTH

Wide receiver: With Marquess Wilson expected to miss time in the regular season because of a broken collarbone at camp, competition has opened up for the No. 3 receiver position. Eric Weems appears to be the favorite but doesn't exactly stand out as much as he exhibits consistency. Josh Morgan provides flash plays and run-after-catch ability, but he lacks Weems' consistency. Josh Bellamy, Micheal Spurlock and Chris Williams are also in the mix, but expect the team's decision to come down to Weems and Morgan. -- Michael Wright

Running back: The most intriguing position battle has little to do with actual playing time, but more an allocation of snaps and touches between Reggie Bush and Joique Bell. Both figure to receive a lot of touches as new offensive coordinator Joe Lombardi will likely use many backs in a bunch of different roles. Bell may actually receive more carries as a straight runner and could be more valuable in goal-line situations. Bush is going to be a piece used out of the backfield and also out wide so his receptions could skyrocket. -- Michael Rothstein

Tight end: In the search for Jermichael Finley's replacement, it's a close race between Andrew Quarless, Brandon Bostick and rookie Richard Rodgers. Ultimately, Rodgers, a third-round pick, might end up as the top tight end among the group long term. But so far in camp and through the first preseason game, Bostick looks like he's the most ready-made replacement for Finley's big-play ability in the passing game. -- Rob Demovsky

Quarterback: The one major skill position battle is at the most important spot on the roster. Matt Cassel has received most of the first-team snaps in training camp and appears to be comfortably ahead of rookie Teddy Bridgewater. Cassel should start the Vikings' second preseason game on Saturday. Bridgewater has cooled after an impressive start, as the Vikings' defenses in practice have gotten more complex. Short of a major surge from the rookie late in camp, it appears Cassel will be the starter to begin the regular season. -- Ben Goessling


NFC SOUTH

Running back: The running back position has been the most intriguing battle. Starter Steven Jackson remains sidelined with a hamstring injury but is expected back for the opener. Jacquizz Rodgers stepped into the No. 1 role, but coaches are high on fourth-round draft pick Devonta Freeman. Speedy Antone Smith looked the best of the backs in the preseason opener. If anything, the Falcons have enough capable guys to keep Jackson fresher and possibly allow him to be more of a goal-line threat. -- Vaughn McClure

Wide receiver: The top three wide receivers are set in Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery and Jason Avant. It gets interesting at No. 4. Brenton Bersin had the early edge because of his sure-handedness. Tavarres King may have passed him with a strong week of practice and four catches in the preseason opener. The staff would love for Tiquan Underwood to step up because of his blistering speed, but he's been too inconsistent. For now, it's King. -- David Newton

Running back: Although Mark Ingram looked terrific in the preseason opener, I expect a pretty even split between Ingram, Khiry Robinson and Pierre Thomas all season (with Thomas in more of a third-down role). The good news is that the Saints' run game looks improved overall. -- Mike Triplett

Wide receiver: Chris Owusu continues to work as a starting wide receiver opposite Vincent Jackson. But the Bucs gradually have been giving rookie Mike Evans more reps with the first team. Look for that trend to continue and for Evans to be the starter by the beginning of the regular season. -- Pat Yasinskas


AFC EAST

Wide receiver: We all know that Sammy Watkins will be the Bills' top receiver this season. But who will be EJ Manuel's next favorite targets? Mike Williams has come on strong in training camp and is the No. 2 receiver. That was Robert Woods' role last season, but now Woods is locked in a battle with Chris Hogan to round out Manuel's top trio of pass-catchers. -- Mike Rodak

Wide receiver: The best and most competitive battle in training camp for the Dolphins continues to be the slot receiver position. This will be a valuable spot in Bill Lazor's new offense, and candidates Brandon Gibson, Jarvis Landry and Rishard Matthews all are making plays. Gibson continues to hold a lead because of seniority. But Landry has a lot of potential and could play eventually. -- James Walker

Running back: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and James White are vying for top billing. It very well could be a situation where the Patriots feature a different running back on a week-to-week basis, and White -- a fourth-round pick from Wisconsin -- shouldn't be overlooked as a significant contributor in 2014. -- Mike Reiss

Wide receiver: The Jets still haven't decided on a No. 2 wide receiver, the starter opposite Eric Decker, but it figures to be a rotation among Jeremy Kerley, David Nelson and Stephen Hill. Technically, Kerley is listed as a starter, but he's better in the slot than on the outside. Nelson is consistent and has the skill set to be an every-down receiver. Hill has the most upside, but he's still not a reliable target. It's still early, but none of the three draft picks has emerged as a legitimate option. Look for a revolving-door approach, based on personnel groupings and game situations. -- Rich Cimini


AFC WEST

Running back: With a deep roster on a team coming off a Super Bowl appearance, the one place where a player could carve out a little room for himself is at running back. Montee Ball is the unquestioned starter, but after Ball things are undecided. Ronnie Hillman has the edge as the third-down, change-of-pace guy, but C.J. Anderson and undrafted rookie Juwan Thompson have each gotten some practice snaps with the starters as well. -- Jeff Legwold

Wide receiver: The Chiefs have several candidates to choose from, but look for Junior Hemingway to get a large share of the snaps as their slot receiver. At 6-1 and 225 pounds, Hemingway is much bigger than the traditional slot receiver. But he does well getting open in traffic and offers the Chiefs some versatility because of his size and blocking ability. -- Adam Teicher

Running back: Darren McFadden knows the Oakland Raiders' playbook and personnel better, but Maurice Jones-Drew has proven to be the more durable running back. The bigger Run DMC is better at creating in space, while the shiftier but much smaller MJD is more effective between the tackles. Jones-Drew has the edge, but the biggest question in this battle is how the Raiders use each back's skill set. -- Paul Gutierrez

Running back: Chargers head coach Mike McCoy said Ryan Mathews remains the every-down back for San Diego. However, with the addition of Donald Brown in free agency along with third-down back Danny Woodhead coming off a career 2013 campaign, Mathews likely will see a decrease in carries. Mathews is in a contract year, so he'll be properly motivated to do the best with whatever touches he receives. -- Eric D. Williams


AFC NORTH

Running back: There's no skill-position battle for the Ravens right now, but there could be one by the middle of September. That's when running back Ray Rice comes off his two-game suspension. The one-cut style of backup Bernard Pierce seems to be a more natural fit to Gary Kubiak stretch running scheme. If Pierce has a fast start, the Ravens may have a decision to make by Week 3. -- Jamison Hensley

Wide receiver: There are two really compelling skill-position battles in Cincinnati this season at running back and receiver. I'm picking the receiver battle as the most intriguing because it's difficult to discern right now just who will occupy the final receiver spots on the depth chart. Dane Sanzenbacher, James Wright and Cobi Hamilton could all make the team. Sanzenbacher has been versatile and Wright has been better than expected. Hamilton, however, has been inconsistent. -- Coley Harvey

Quarterback: There is only one skill position battle worth watching with the Cleveland Browns, and it's one of the most-watched competitions in the league. Many factors go into the decision about who starts at quarterback, but the way Johnny Manziel and Brian Hoyer play in Washington on Monday night might be most crucial. The two have been near even for much of camp, and things could be settled with the way they play against Washington. If it's not settled, the Browns have an interesting decision: Does a tie favor the veteran, or the rookie? -- Pat McManamon

Running back: Le'Veon Bell is going to start, but the Steelers did not sign LeGarrette Blount to primarily provide injury insurance. Coach Mike Tomlin has made it clear that both Bell and Blount will figure prominently in the running game. The Steelers are serious about running the ball early and often this season, but Bell will have carries siphoned away from him because of Blount's ability to wear down defenses. -- Scott Brown


AFC SOUTH

Running back: Who plays behind running back Arian Foster matters greatly to the Texans given Foster's age and injury history. Jonathan Grimes, Alfred Blue and Ronnie Brown seem the prime competitors for the role. Grimes began the season on the non-football injury list, but jumped to the top of the field as soon as he returned. Blue is a promising sixth-round pick who might have been a star at LSU were it not for an injury early in his college career. -- Tania Ganguli

Running back: The starting running back position is Trent Richardson's to lose. The Colts wouldn't have it any other way because they gave up a first-round pick to acquire him. Ahmad Bradshaw is lingering over his shoulder if there are any signs that he's struggling. Bradshaw has shown he can produce when given the opportunity. He had the Colts' best rushing game of the season last year, 95 yards against San Francisco. -- Mike Wells

Running back: Offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch called back Toby Gerhart the "lead dog" in the Jaguars' backfield, and Jordan Todman, Denard Robinson, and Storm Johnson are battling to establish a hierarchy behind Gerhart. Fisch said there will be somewhat of a committee approach with Gerhart on top, but his carries will obviously be impacted by whether the Jaguars use a two-, three-, or four-man committee. It appears the Jags are leaning toward a three-man committee, which should mean 15-18 touches per game for Gerhart. -- Michael DiRocco

Running back: While veteran Shonn Greene is at the head of the line for the Titans' running back-by-committee approach, rookie Bishop Sankey is the team's most well-rounded back. Sankey is on a good growth curve, and I expect he will earn the most touches over the course of the season, with Greene and Dexter McCluster making their contributions as more situational players. -- Paul Kuharsky

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