NFL training camps are in full swing with 35 days remaining before the 2023 regular season kicks off in Kansas City. That means the fight for the last few remaining spots in each of the league's 32 starting lineups are heating up. Some of the more easily trackable fights are on offense with the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions. Even offensive lines are noticeable given teams will utilize their main front five more often than not.
Defensively, many teams utilize a number of different personnel in their front seven and secondary, making those contests more murky to define as much of the roles are scheme and coordinator dependent. They're still critical for depth purposes, but those battles possess less of a sparkle. Let's take a look at the 10 juiciest battles around the league while taking a stab at how they will turn out as the preseason is set to begin starting Thursday with the Hall of Fame Game between the Cleveland Browns and the New York Jets.
Note: The Indianapolis Colts' quarterback "battle" between Gardner Minshew and 2023 fourth overall pick Anthony Richardson will not be listed below. Team owner Jim Irsay said Richardson " ." This is Richardson's job.
10. Vikings: Two of their three starting cornerback spots
The Minnesota Vikings had the worst defense of any playoff team in the NFL last season as well as simply one of the worst in the entire league in 2022. Their lack of production forced 2022 Offensive Player of the Year Justin Jefferson and the offense to bail out the team in close game after close game last season (11 one-score wins, most in a season in NFL history).
Vikings Defense 2022 Season
Total YPG Allowed
Pass YPG Allowed
That's why Vikings head coach Kevin O'Connell had to kick defensive coordinator Ed Donatell to the curb after just one season and hire former Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores to run his defense in 2023. That change leaves two of the three starting cornerback spots up for grabs with free-agent signee Byron Murphy Jr. (two years, $17.5 million) holding down one of the three slots. The arrival of Flores will lead to a significant schematic shift from what the team ran under Donatell in 2022. Minnesota ran zone coverage 78% of the time, the fifth-highest rate in the NFL, while blitzing 20.8% of the time, the eighth-lowest rate in the league. That means the Vikings were one of the least aggressive units in the league a season ago.
That will change under Flores: the Miami Dolphins ran man coverage 51.3% of the time, the highest rate in the NFL, while blitzing on 36.4% of opposing quarterback dropbacks, the fourth-highest rate in the NFL, from 2019-2021 when he was their head coach. That made them the most aggressive, attacking defense in the entire league during his tenure. The other two spots will come down to first-year players (Mekhi Blackmon -- a 2023 third-round pick out of USC --, Jay Ward -- a 2023 fourth-round pick out of LSU --), second-year players (Andrew Booth Jr. -- a 2022 second-round pick out of Clemson --, Akayleb Evans -- a 2022 fourth-round pick out of Missouri --), or free agent signee Joejuan Williams (one-year, $1.1. million) who spent his first three seasons with the New England Patriots after being a 2019 second-round pick.
As for who will win, well according to The Athletic, Murphy Jr. and Akayleb Evans have been fixtures on the first-team defense throughout camp. However, the third spot is still open with Williams (6-feet-3, 212 pounds) and Blackmon (5-11, 178 pounds) duking it out. Each provides Flores with a contrasting body type and skillset. Whoever gets the last vacancy between the two could be matchup specific throughout the season.
9. Dolphins: Running back roles
Mostert racked up a career-high 1,093 scrimmage yards along with five touchdowns in 2022 after returning from a knee injury that caused him to miss all but one game in 2021. Wilson, who the Dolphins added around the trade deadline, is more of the thunder to Mostert's lightning in their backfield tandem. The 27-year-old also totaled over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, a career-high 1,045, and six scrimmage touchdowns while splitting the season between the 49ers and the Dolphins.
Both will get their touches, but De'Von Achane, a third-round pick in the 2023 NFL Draft, will likely factor into the mix heavily. His blazing speed is evident between his 4.32 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine and his two kickoff return touchdowns in college. Achane can also contribute as a pass-catcher, accumulating 457 receiving yards and four receiving touchdowns on 60 receptions across his final two seasons at Texas A&M. The Dolphins only had four picks in the 2023 draft, but they chose to make Achane their second pick of the four-man class and their first offensive player selected. McDaniel may have big plans for the rookie in 2023 despite the presence of Mostert and Wilson Jr. Mostert likely serves as the primary back with Wilson Jr. getting 45% of the carries on early downs and around the goal line. Achane probably sees his involvement climb as he gets acclimated to life in the NFL.
The last time McDaniel went on the record about his running back group was when he was asked about the potential for the team to sign Dalvin Cook on July 28. At this stage, he's "extremely happy" with his three top running backs. This battle is not as intriguing as some others because McDaniel will probably end up utilizing each back a fair amount.
"First and foremost, I'm extremely happy with our running back group," McDaniel said. "Extremely happy. I have great relationships with some very talented players. However, Dalvin Cook is a great player. I look at it like if it works on both sides, it makes sense for somebody. You're adding a player to a team and an organization, and all the things they both need need to be met for it to work. He's a free agent and he's visiting the Jets. And that's what I have to say."
8. Jets: Every offensive line spot except their guards
Gang Green looked for opportunities to upgrade the front five that will be tasked to protect Aaron Rodgers in 2023. They did so given the team's 35.9% quarterback pressure rate allowed in 2022, the seventh-worst in the NFL last season. The Jets re-signed their 30-year-old center Connor McGovern to a one-year, $1.9 million contract with only $500,000 of it guaranteed this offseason. He's been their primary starting center for each of the last three seasons.
An opportunity to potentially upgrade arose in the second round of the 2023 NFL Draft when New York selected Wisconsin center Joe Tippman 43rd overall. Like a typical Badgers offensive lineman, Tippman was steady in college, allowing only one sack in his 590 pass-blocking snaps across the last two seasons. He also represents the Jets' highest-drafted center since selecting Nick Mangold, a seven-time Pro Bowler, 29th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft. It's game on between the rookie and the vet for the right to snap the football to Rodgers in his first Jets season.
The same goes for both offensive tackle spots. Soon-to-be 38-year-old Duane Brown, a five-time Pro Bowl left tackle who started 12 games for the Jets a year ago while battling through injuries, is recovering from a shoulder surgery and is currently on the physically unable to perform list (PUP). New York's 11th overall pick from the 2020 NFL Draft, Mekhi Becton, a mammoth of a human being standing at 6-7 and 363 pounds, is set to playin order to compete for what he hopes is the starting left tackle gig. In 2022, he was moved to right tackle opposite Brown and suffered a season-ending knee injury. He initially said play right tackle put undue stress on the wrong knee. Now, he says a bad surgery in 2021 was the issue, hungry to fit into any starting role up front. Billy Turner, the 31-year-old tackle who has played under offensive coordinator Nathaniel Hackett as a Green Bay Packer and as a Denver Bronco, is also in the mix as is 2022 fourth-round tackle Max Mitchell. He started five of his six games played as a rookie.
The preseason games, starting with the Hall of Fame game Thursday, and the rest of the camp practices will be telling as no one has separated yet in the battles for the three remaining starting gigs along Rodgers' offensive line.
7. Eagles: Starting running back
Ahead of the Philadelphia Eagles' first padded practice of training camp on Tuesday, the running back reps in training camp have been near even among the three contenders to be the defending NFC champions' RB1 following Miles Sanders' offseason departure to the Carolina Panthers, according to CBS Sports' Jeff Kerr.
Those contenders are D'Andre Swift, a 2020 second-round pick out of Georgia whom the Eagles acquired this offseason; Rashaad Penny, an injury-plagued, explosive (5.7 career yards per carry) 2018 first-round pick of the Seattle Seahawks who signed one-year, $1.4 million deal this offseason; and Kenneth Gainwell, a fifth-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Kerr has reported that, while in just shorts and helmets, Swift has "stood out in the passing game." That checks out with his resume considering Swift is only one of five players in the entire league with more than 1,500 rushing yards (1,680) and 150 receptions (156) combined over the past three seasons. Swift has elite company in that club as he's joined by NFL two-time defending scrimmage touchdowns leader and Chargers running back Austin Ekeler, Packers Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones, Saints Pro Bowl running back Alvin Kamara, and Super Bowl LV champion Leonard Fournette. Swift's 5.5 yards per touch over the course of his three-year career is tied for the fifth-most in the league with Ekeler.
Expect Swift to eventually pull away from the pack, but the goal line work could be split between the three and of course 2022 Second-Team All-Pro quarterback Jalen Hurts. Penny's role is likely that of a change-of-pace back while Gainwell likely wins the RB2 job given his youth (24 years old) and leg up on mastery of the Eagles playbook.
6. Giants: Starting wide receiver spots
To be clear, none of these receivers will be quarterback Daniel Jones' top target in 2023. That will be Pro Bowl tight end Darren Waller, whom the Giants acquired from the Las Vegas Raiders in exchange for a 2023 third-round pick this offseason. However, at least three people have to start at wide receiver in today's NFL. Pro Bowl running back Saquon Barkley co-led the G-Men in catches a year ago with 57 alongside the departed Richie James, now a Kansas City Chief. The tough part is almost all of New York's top wideouts are best suited for slot receiver roles.
Darius Slayton, a 26-year-old wideout who stands 6-1, led the team in receiving yards a year ago with 724, making him the only player on the team with over 600 yards receiving in 2022. He certainly has the confidence of a WR1, declaring to the New York Post that "everybody doesn't know what I know" in regards to how he can be the team's top wide receiver. Between Slayton, Shepard, Crowder, and Beasley -- seasoned veterans -- and Campbell, Hodgins, Robinson, and Hyatt -- the young guys -- there are plenty of options for the reigning Coach of the Year Brian Daboll to choose from. The rest of training camp and the preseason will be required to figure out who will come out on top in this tightly-contested race.
5. Seahawks: Starting running back
Seahawks running back Kenneth Walker III, their second-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft, led all rookies in carries (228), rushing yards (1,050), and rushing touchdowns (nine) last season. However, head Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider still decided to draft another second-round running back in the 2023 NFL Draft: Zach Charbonnet. He had a productive final season at UCLA in 2022, ranking fourth in the FBS in rushing yards per game (135.9) and yards/carry (7.0).
The difference between Walker III and Charbonnet could be pass-catching ability. Walker III wasn't much of a factor in Seattle's aerial attack last season, catching 27 passes for 165 yards on 35 targets. Meanwhile, Charbonnet hauled in 37 passes for 321 receiving yards (tied for the seventh-most among FBS running backs last season) on 44 targets in college. Carroll went out of his way to praise Charbonnet's receiving process post-draft back in May.
Seattle also drafted a second running back in their 2023 class with their seventh-round selection and final pick, Georgia's Kenny McIntosh, and the door has swung open for him to receive first-team reps in camp following injuries to both Walker and Charbonnet.
Walker has been dealing with a lingering groin strain, per Carroll, so the plan is to allow him to rest and heal his ailment.
Charbonnet's situation is a little more murky at the moment as he had pain in his shoulder pop up, so the team is running tests on him to figure out what the issue is.
McIntosh's stock fell in the pre-draft process after he ran a 4.62 40-yard dash while measuring 6 feet tall and weighing 204 pounds. However, Carroll revealed that he's lost 10 pounds in the time between OTAS and minicamp and training camp, leaving him looking a lot more agile.
Should Walker and/or Charbonnet miss time into the preseason, perhaps McIntosh could climb up to being the RB2 in the Pacific Northwest. However, one would think Walker and Charbonnet would be given every opportunity to earn the top two running back spots when healthy with Walker having the inside track for the starting running back gig. The injuries, plus Carroll's love of the ground game and using multiple backs make the Seahawks running backs competition a hard one to read.
4. Chiefs: Final two starting wide receiver spots
JuJu Smith-Schuster's departure to the New England Patriots and Mecole Hardman's departure to the New York Jets in free agency opened up two starting wide receiver spots alongside Marquez Valdes-Scantling in the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs' offense. If Kadarius Toney, a former first-round pick, could stay healthy, he would be a heavy favorite to start. Yet, he early in training camp, causing him to miss time ahead of the 2023 regular season.
Second-round pick Patrick Mahomes. Richie James co-led the Giants in catches with 57 a year ago and has shined in camp so far. Former Clemson star Justyn Ross is a fun mystery box for Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid if healthy. This battle is unsolved and will likely need all three preseason games to figure out.possesses nice length at 6-1, 204 pounds, making him an easy target to locate for NFL MVP and Super Bowl MVP
3. 49ers: Starting quarterback
The fight to be the starting quarterback for the NFC runner-up would top this list, but this is a "competition" in name only. The sole reason this spot isn't officially decided is because of Purdy's on-going recovery from suffering a torn UCL in his right elbow during the 49ers' NFC Championship Game defeat at the Philadelphia Eagles. If healthy, this is Purdy's gig. His insertion into San Francisco's starting lineup along with Jimmy Garoppolo's season-ending foot injury.had the 49ers offense firing on all cylinders. Purdy is the only quarterback since at least 1950 with a win and multiple passing touchdowns in each of his first five regular season starts. He led or co-led the NFL in numerous passing categories after becoming the starter following
Brock Purdy From Weeks 14-18, 2022 Season
* Second-best in first five career starts since at least 1950, trailing only Pro Football Hall of Famer Kurt Warner (131.4)
As of Sunday, July 31, head coach Kyle ShanahanPurdy "[hasn't] had arm troubles" and has "been totally healthy." Provided Purdy's rehab continues to stay on track, it's his job. If not, Darnold or Lance are fighting to keep his seat warm until he gets back.
2. Commanders: Starting quarterback
Now this is a true quarterback competition. It's also a key one because with average to above-average quarterback play, the Commanders could maybe sneak back into the playoffs. Despite going 8-8-1 and finishing last in the NFC East in 2022, the Commanders had a top-10 scoring defense, allowing 20.2 points per game, the seventh-fewest in the entire NFL. The contenders are 2022 fifth-round pick Sam Howell, whose only career game and start came in Week 18 against a Dallas Cowboys team going through the motions with its playoff seed secured, and journeyman Jacoby Brissett.
The 30-year-old passer has seen it all in his seven seasons as an NFL quarterback. He served as the New England Patriots' third-string quarterback his rookie year behind Tom Brady and Jimmy Garoppolo after being selected in the third round of the 2016 NFL Draft. Brissett was then traded to the Indianapolis Colts the following offseason in 2017 in exchange for wide receiver Phillip Dorsett since Colts quarterback Andrew Luck was set to miss that entire season because of a shoulder injury. He threw for a career-high 3,098 yards, 13 passing touchdowns and seven interceptions in 15 starts that season.
Brissett returned to the bench in 2018 when Luck became healthy enough to play, but he then became the Colts' starter again in 2019 after Luck retired just before the start of the season. Brissett tossed a career-high 18 touchdown passes to only six interceptions that season shortly after signing a two-year, $30 million extension. He started five games in 2021 for an injured Tua Tagovailoa after being picked up by the Miami Dolphins in free agency, and he most recently played for the Cleveland Browns in 2022, starting 11 games in place of the then-suspended Deshaun Watson. Brissett posted a career-high 88.9 passer rating in Cleveland last season while also completing a career-high 64% of his throws for 12 touchdowns and six interceptions.
With Watson returning after over a year-and-a-half off from football, Brissett outplayed the quarterback with the fully guaranteed, $230 million contract.
Jacoby Brissett vs. Deshaun Watson (2022 season)
According to CBS Sports' Zach Pereles, who has been on-site at the Commanders' training camp, Howell has "." With new assistant head coach/offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy in which he won two Super Bowls as their offensive coordinator, Howell could surprise many in his first full season as an NFL starting quarterback.
1. Buccaneers: Starting quarterback
A quarterback competition for a reigning division champion, a juicy matchup given the winner will be throwing to Pro Bowlers Mike Evans and Chris Godwin in a wide open NFC South following Tom Brady's second and final retirement. Mayfield, the first overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft by the Cleveland Browns, has 69 career starts to 2021 second-round pick Kyle Trask's zero. Trask has only played in one career game, a 30-17 Week 18 loss at the Atlanta Falcons in the 2022 regular season finale. That experience gave Mayfield the initial leg up in this contest.
"First couple of days, I think the experience that Baker brings — just playing in games, being in camps, going through installs — you could see where the offense was jelling really well," Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive coordinator Dave CanalesWednesday. "The timing of the snaps and all that is really critical for us, so probably a little bit of an edge for Baker to start off, just in terms of the smoothness of the offense."
However, Mayfield's teams have lost 16 of his last 24 starts in which he was thrown 26 touchdowns while committing 26 turnovers, resulting in a 79.5 passer rating. That rating ranks 33rd out of 36 qualified quarterbacks since 2021. Those struggles the last two seasons plus Trask starting to find a rhythm with more play time in camp has created what seems like a real deal battle to be Brady's successor.
"But it just took a couple of days for Kyle to really settle in, and then what we saw is, the last two practices Kyle really showed what he can do: stretching the field with his arm, getting the ball out quickly, making decisions," Canales said. "So I'm really excited about both of those guys and the progression that they've made throughout the last couple of days."
CBS Sports Senior NFL Writer Pete Prisco was out at Buccaneers training camp practices this week, and he echoed Canales assessment: there's a real competition brewing in Tampa Bay. Trask did lead all of college in passing touchdowns, 43, his final season of college football in 2020.
Sounds and looks like there is a real QB competition in Tampa. Didn’t think that when I was there for minicamp. But Kyle Trask is playing well. Had a nice night too.— Pete Prisco (@PriscoCBS) August 2, 2023
This will likely be the most impactful battle of training camp because who the Buccaneers settle on and how they perform could have a large effect on the winner of the NFC South division in 2023.