Up for grabs: Major position battles on each NFL team

--- By Howard Balzer, NFLDraftScout.com ---

It is often said that NFL games are won in the trenches, a cliche because it is often so true.

While offensive focus is always on the quarterback ... and the receivers ... and the running backs ... and the offensive coordinator ... the reality is that offensive consistency is usually elusive if the line has issues.

It is certainly true that it's what up front that counts.

As NFL teams enter the second full week of OTAs, and with most mandatory minicamps just two weeks away (Detroit, Miami, New England, Philadelphia and Tennessee) will conduct their minicamps next week), battlegrounds are already being set for jobs that will be contested when training camps open in late July.

In a survey of correspondents for The SportsXchange/NFLDraftScout.com, 12 teams listed some aspect of the offensive line where battles loom. Cornerback was next with only four.

Eight teams have questions at guard, with some expecting competition on both sides.

Below is a team-by-team look, by division, at positions up for grabs as the 2018 season approaches.

NFC EAST

DALLAS COWBOYS

--Wide receiver: This position has been overhauled with the release of Dez Bryant and the entire group position in flux. Terrance Williams is a returning starter and Cole Beasley was the third receiver. But the Cowboys added Allen Hurns and Deonte Thompson in free agency. No way Hurns doesn't grab Bryant's starting job. And then there is third-round pick Michael Gallup who will be groomed for the No. 2 receiver spot.

NEW YORK GIANTS

--Right tackle: The Giants revamped four of their five starting jobs on the offensive line, but the lone holdout has been the right tackle position. The team remains hopeful that Ereck Flowers, their starting left tackle for the last three seasons, comes to his senses and fights for the job. Flowers took a positive step toward that when he finally showed up at the team's facility for OTAs, but it remains to be seen if any wounded feelings after the signing of left tackle Nate Solder have been smoothed out or if a divorce is in the future. The Giants waived Adam Bisnowaty, last year's sixth-round pick whom they traded up to get, after Bisnowaty failed to show enough during the rookie minicamp to convince the coaching staff that he was on the path upward. His removal from the roster leaves Chad Wheeler as the primary competition for Flowers, followed by undrafted rookie free agent Nick Gates, a rather thin selection of options for such a critical position.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

--Defensive tackle: Starter Tim Jernigan had back surgery last month and could be out until November. How the Eagles will replace him remains to be seen. They signed five-time Pro Bowler Haloti Ngata in free agency. But he's 34-years-old and played in just five games last season with the Lions. They acquired versatile Michael Bennett in a trade with Seattle and could use him inside or outside. They also have returning players Destiny Vaeao and Elijah Qualls.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

--Running back: This should be an interesting battle with holdovers Rob Kelley and Samaje Perine fending off rookie Derrius Guice, Washington's second-round draft pick from LSU. Guice could start Week 1, but he will need to pick things up fast. Also, Chris Thompson could return at some point during OTAs or minicamp from a broken right leg that ended his season in Week 11.

NFC NORTH

CHICAGO BEARS

--Inside linebacker: Even as the eighth pick in the draft, Roquan Smith is automatically not given a starting spot. In fact, he will begin behind Nick Kwiatkoski, their fourth-round draft pick in 2016. Kwiatkoski's ability to deliver a hit and understand the defense became apparent his first two seasons, but his lack of speed probably will afford Smith a chance to earn the starting spot by opening day. The other dimension to this battle is that the Bears wouldn't mind seeing Kwiatkoski challenge Danny Trevathan at the other inside linebacker spot. Trevathan has missed 25 games in his last four seasons due to injuries and suspensions, including 11 in two Bears seasons, and although he's a leader, they need stability at the position. It's possible 2018 fourth-round linebacker Joel Iyiegbuniwe could also figure into that mix, further squeezing Trevathan.

DETROIT LIONS

--No. 2 cornerback: Darius Slay is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he tied for the NFL lead in interceptions, and Quandre Diggs played well last year as a slot cornerback in nickel packages. The Lions have good depth in their secondary, including three viable options for the No. 2 cornerback spot. Nevin Lawson started 15 games last year and re-signed after a brief foray into free agency. DeShawn Shead was a starter in Seattle in 2016 before missing most of last season with a knee injury. And the Lions are hopeful that Teez Tabor, last year's second-round pick, is ready for bigger things in Year 2. Any of those three could win the starting job opposite Slay.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

--Cornerback: The Packers used their first two draft picks on cornerbacks Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson. They also signed veterans Tramon Williams and Davon House this offseason, and welcome back 2017 second-round draft pick Kevin King from a torn labrum. History shows the Packers are likely to go with the veterans early, with the youngsters potentially passing them by midseason. But if the young players can shine this summer, their time could come even sooner.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

--Right guard: This spot and right tackle could go any number of ways. First, the always-steady Joe Berger retired, creating a big hole to fill. Then the Vikings used the 30th overall draft pick on a cornerback rather than address right guard at a time when the pool of available guards was still there. By the time the Vikings were up in the second round, the guards were gone. So they took Pittsburgh's Brian O'Neill, who has played tackle for two years after switching from tight end. It appears he will need a year to gain the strength and weight needed to play tackle in the NFL. He could move inside to guard, but the Vikings are likely to keep him focused on right tackle. If he's unable to win the right tackle job, the Vikings could move right tackle Mike Remmers to right guard. Remmers actually is better suited on the inside. The Vikings also could move Remmers inside and use Rashod Hill at right tackle. Hill held his own in games he started as an injury replacement for Remmers last year. But Hill is better suited as the No. 3 tackle who can play either side in a pinch. Other options at right guard are Tom Compton, who was signed away from Chicago, and Josh Andrews, a young veteran the Vikings liked well enough to sign off the Eagles' practice squad. Danny Isidora, who probably will back up left guard Nick Easton, also impressed the Vikings as a rookie a year ago.

NFC SOUTH

ATLANTA FALCONS

--Fullback: The Falcons' fullback position will be hotly contested. Head coach Dan Quinn is expecting that the battle to replace Derrick Coleman at fullback will be decided after the exhibition games. Undrafted free agents Luke McNitt of Nebraska and Daniel Marx of Stanford are the leading candidates. "These are two really competitive guys," Quinn said. The Falcons want to see if they can play in open spaces and if they can sustain blocks on a NFL level.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

--Left guard: There's a gap to fill here and the Panthers brought in some undrafted free agents to add to the competition. The main contenders, though, could be second-year lineman Taylor Moton and Tyler Larsen. Moton figures to have an edge because he was impressive as a rookie based on his versatility and his grasp of the concepts needed to excel. That alone means he should be well-equipped to adapt under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Larsen did himself a big favor by excelling at times as a fill-in for several weeks at center last season. The Panthers ought to like the possibilities that exist here. Part of the key could be determining the best fit for Larsen while maintaining the idea that he might be needed as the primary backup at center.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

--Linebacker: Two of the Saints' starting linebackers from 2017 -- A.J. Klein and Alex Anzalone -- finished last season on injured reserve, and the organization signed free agent Demario Davis, who was the Jets' leading tackler last season. Throw in solid holdovers such as Craig Robertson, Manti Te'o and Nate Stupar, and you have one of the most competitive spots on the team. "We're going to put all those guys out there. We're going to move them around. We're going to let them compete," defensive coordinator Dennis Allen said. "At the end of the day between the process of OTAs, minicamp and training camp, we have time to evaluate."

TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS

--Cornerback: The Bucs re-signed Brent Grimes as a free agent to a one-year deal. But Grimes is 35 and missed three games last season. Vernon Hargreaves, the former first-round pick from Florida, has failed to lock down a starting job and is being penciled in as the team's slot corner in nickel situations. That leaves rookies M.J. Stewart and Calton Davis to compete with returning veteran Ryan Smith for the other cornerback spot. At 6-foot-1, Davis gives the Bucs a different body type and range than they currently have. Stewart may also get some looks inside as a slot corner.

NFC WEST

ARIZONA CARDINALS

--Cornerback: The starting spot opposite perennial Pro Bowler Patrick Peterson always seems to be a position battle. No less than six corners have already had a shot at the job and either kept it or lost it, or won it and parlayed it into a new contract with another team. This year, there are at least three corners vying for the starting honors on the other side of Peterson, although a trade with the Browns for Jamar Taylor might have solved the problem. Hoping to compete will be five-year veteran Bene Benwikere and third-year pro Brandon Williams.

LOS ANGELES RAMS

---Inside linebacker: Alec Ogletree's departure via trade created a huge hole inside, and the competition to fill it begins right now. The Rams could look to some veteran holdovers initially, with Cory Littleton and Bryce Hager getting early consideration as each has flashed dependable skill sets the last few years. Also, Ramik Wilson was signed as a free agent and certainly brings experience to the table. But keep an eye on rookie draft pick Micah Kiser out of Virginia. He's a tough, smart, physical tackling machine who fits coordinator Wade Phillips' system perfectly.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

--Guard: Both starting spots are open, and how well two players have recovered from 2017 injuries figures to play a role in just how open they are. Joshua Garnett was projected to be a starter last season before suffering a knee injury. No doubt, he's a front-runner again this year if he proves to be healthy. Laken Tomlinson got 15 starts at the injury-plagued position, but that didn't stop the 49ers from signing Jonathan Cooper from Dallas in the offseason. Cooper could be this year's Garnett -- a talented guy ticketed for a starting spot if/when he recovers from a MCL tear.

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

--Running back: This is expected to be a spirited battle throughout the offseason for the Seahawks. Even with the selection of Rashaad Penny in the first round, the Seahawks remain high on Chris Carson as he returns from a broken leg that ended his 2017 season. Additionally, Germain Ifedi remains as the projected starter at right tackle, but George Fant is expected to compete for the job as he returns from an ACL tear sustained last preseason.

AFC EAST

BUFFALO BILLS

--Guard: Both positions should be wide open. Left guard Richie Incognito retired, and right guard Vlad Ducasse is an average player, so veteran holdover Ryan Groy and rookie fifth-round pick Wyatt Teller both seem capable of winning the starting positions. John Miller may also be in the mix, but he was hardly used last season after Sean McDermott took over as head coach.

--Slot WR: The Bills signed free agent Jeremy Kerley, and then spent their final two draft picks on Ray-Ray McCloud of Clemson and Austin Proehl of North Carolina. All three will be in contention along with Brandon Reilly who spent most of 2017 on the Bills' practice squad. For that matter, 2017 second-round pick Zay Jones is better-suited to playing the slot, but the Bills are so deficient in outside receivers that Jones was outside most of his rookie year.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

--Strong-side linebacker: This job, for first and second downs, could go to either Stephone Anthony or Chase Allen. Miami needs a sturdy-bodied veteran who can stop the run. Rookie Jerome Baker is a bit slight for the job, which is the same case for veteran Kiko Alonso. On passing downs this isn't an issue, but on running downs Miami needs an answer here.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

--Left tackle: With seven-year starter and team captain Nate Solder having moved on to the Giants as a $60 million free agent, the job protecting Tom Brady's blind side is wide open. The two most likely candidates are undersized (6-foot-2, 302) first-round pick Isaiah Wynn and mammoth (6-foot-8, 380) trade addition Trent Brown. Legendary offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia emphasized that he "really" likes the guys he has to work with and sounds confident he will find a suitable left tackle, a spot blocking for Brady that's essentially been handled by just Solder and Matt Light for the entirety of the future Hall of Famer's career.

NEW YORK JETS

--Wide receiver: The Jets have an abundance of wideouts, and they likely have four players -- Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse, Quincy Enunwa and Terrelle Pryor Sr. -- for three starting spots. Each comes with a question mark. Anderson, last year's breakout star, could be facing a suspension due to another arrest, the seven-year veteran Kearse doesn't appear to be in the team's future plans, Enunwa missed all last season after neck surgery and the newly-acquired Pryor is coming off a down year with the Browns.

--Outside linebacker: Jordan Jenkins should have one of the outside spots locked up in the Jets' 3-4 base defense, but the other is anyone's guess. David Bass is probably the leader for now just because he's the most experienced, but Josh Martin, free-agent acquisition Kevin Pierre-Louis, Obum Gwacham and Freddie Bishop will all get a look.

AFC NORTH

BALTIMORE RAVENS

--Right tackle/Center: Veteran James Hurst has the inside track for the starting job. However, he will face tough competition from Orlando Brown Jr., who was taken with the 83rd overall pick in this year's draft. He is the son of former Ravens tackle Orlando "Zeus" Brown and has the size (6-foot-8, 345 pounds) and technique to push Hurst.

The Ravens will have a new starting center for the third straight year after Ryan Jensen departed via free agency. Matt Skura is the projected starter. However, the Ravens could shuffle the line and move Alex Lewis from left guard if Skura struggles. In that scenario, Orlando Brown Jr. would start at right tackle and James Hurst would move to left guard. Bradley Bozeman, a sixth-round pick from Alabama, could also compete for reps at center.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

--Offensive line/right side: Incumbent guard Trey Hopkins has some serious competition from a pair of physical second-year players in Alex Redmond and Christian Westerman. They also like the size and physicality of seventh-rounder Rod Taylor from Ole Miss. Incumbent right tackle Jake Fisher has been cleared coming off a heart procedure. He's also coming off an inconsistent season and the Bengals immediately went out and got him competition when they signed tackle Bobby Hart barely after the Giants cut him. Hart had a controversial end to his career in New York with current and former players questioning his commitment when he missed the season finale with an injury. But he's getting a new start and he brings 21 NFL starts, some of them quite solid, before the age of 24.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

--Left tackle: No one on the Browns roster can replace 10-time Pro Bowl left tackle Joe Thomas, who retired on March 14, but someone has to play the position. The leading contenders are Shon Coleman, who played right tackle last season, Rod Johnson, a 2017 fifth-round draft pick, and rookie second-round pick Austin Corbett.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

--Free safety: Third-year safety Sean Davis is expected to transition from strong safety to free safety. He will have to show the coaches he can pick it up quickly. Davis did not play well last season, and the Steelers spent two draft picks on safeties. Rookie first-round pick Terrell Edmunds will be a starting strong safety at some point. Morgan Burnett was signed to a three-year $15 million contract to start at either strong or free safety. If Davis wants to earn a second contract with the Steelers he has to start showing it on the field. If not, the former second-round pick will find himself passed over for the younger players the Steelers are grooming.

AFC SOUTH

HOUSTON TEXANS

--Free safety: Andre Hal is going to face a challenge from rookie Justin Reid for the starting job. Hal struggled after signing a three-year, $15 million contract. Reid is the Texans' top draft pick, a third-rounder from Stanford. Reid is the younger brother of NFL safety Eric Reid, a former Pro Bowl selection with the 49ers.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

--Offensive line: Indianapolis' offensive line continues to be a work in progress. Three spots appear to filled with veteran Anthony Castonzo holding things down at left tackle and a pair of younger performers, rookie Quenton Nelson and third-year veteran Ryan Kelly, holding things down at left guard and center. The right-guard spot is less certain with several candidates, including rookie Braden Smith and free-agent addition Matt Slauson, both in contention. Right tackle is also a question mark with holdovers Joe Haeg, Denzelle Good and Le'Raven Clark and recent free-agent pickup Austin Howard all in the mix.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

--Tight end: Austin Seferian-Jenkins and Niles Paul both signed in free agency to replace long-time starter Marcedes Lewis at this spot. Both have solid NFL experience with Seferian-Jenkins the more experienced and productive of the two. Pushing them for playing time will be a pair of Jaguars backups last year in James O'Shaughnessy and Ben Koyack. Both played in all 16 regular-season games a year ago and are in their mid-20s and ready to have productive seasons. Three of the four will likely be on the roster at the start of the season. Whoever struggles the most in training camp and exhibition games will likely be looking for a job elsewhere.

TENNESSEE TITANS

--Guard: Both guard positions figure to be worth watching throughout camp and preseason. The Titans tendered left guard Quinton Spain as a restricted free agent to keep him, and extended right guard Josh Kline with a front-loaded contract. But they also brought in competition that management knows well. Xavier Su'a-Flo, who Mike Vrabel knows from the Texans, and Kevin Pamphile, who general manager Jon Robinson helped draft with the Buccaneers, were both brought in to compete and provide depth.

AFC WEST

DENVER BRONCOS

--Tight end: Jeff Heuerman heads into the offseason as the top tight end on the roster, but that isn't saying much; the fourth-year veteran has just 18 career receptions and eight starts in his first three seasons. The Broncos would like to see one of their recent fifth-round picks, Jake Butt (2017) and Troy Fumagalli (2018), emerge. Butt, who dropped out of the draft's early rounds last year because of a torn ACL, is the favorite, having taken the 2017 season to complete his rehabilitation from the injury. He has looked strong and crisp in his route-running during on-field work this offseason. Austin Traylor, a dependable blocker, is also in the mix.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

--Left guard: The only starting position on the offense with open competition has a long list of candidates. Journeyman Bryan Witzmann enters as the incumbent, starting 13 games there a year ago. But third-round lineman Parker Ehinger returns fully healthy from a torn ACL suffered during his rookie season in 2016 and former first-round Cleveland lineman Cameron Erving also remains in the mix. Sixth-round draft pick Kahlil McKenzie is a sleeper given his transition from the defensive line, but he could project as the future starter here.

--Cornerback: Kendall Fuller will be an every-down corner for the Chiefs, but the rotation after that remains unsettled. Third-year corner Steven Nelson appears in line for the other starting spot, but needs to improve consistency. The club believes free agent David Amerson can thrive in their press-man scheme. Rookies Tremon Smith and Arrion Springs also look promising. The team also sees promises in Keith Reaser, Will Redmond and Ashton Lampkin.

LOS ANGELES CHARGERS

--Wide receiver: Tyrell Williams has had two straight productive seasons since filling in when Keenan Allen got hurt. But despite settling in as the No. 2 wideout to Allen last year, Mike Williams wants Williams' job. Mike Williams was a No. 1 pick in 2017, but he was limited to 11 catches for 95 yards because of injuries.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

--Kicker: Eddie Pineiro was brought in as an undrafted free agent to compete with Giorgio Tavecchio, who has a season's experience under his belt replacing Sebastian Janikowski. Pineiro has a long-distance leg and already has a relationship with his holder, sixth-round draft pick Johnny Townsend. Both played at Florida.

--Howard Balzer is a national NFL columnist for The Sports Xchange and some information was provided by TSX insiders covering each team.

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