- Can rookie Zay Jones establish himself as the No. 2 across from Sammy Watkins? Will Brandon LaFell or John Ross earn the spot as A.J. Green's sidekick?
Next up, it’s the other playmakers on offense: wide receivers and tight ends. Even more so than in the backfield, the fallout from at least a few of these competitions will send recognizable names to street when teams have to cut their rosters down to 53 guys.
Here are 11 of the better WR/TE battles still ongoing:
Arizona: John Brown vs. his health
Way back at the NFL combine in February, Arizona coach Bruce Arians declared it a “wide-open competition” to find the starter opposite Larry Fitzgerald on the outside. But he added, “Hopefully, John Brown can come back and be as healthy as he was two years ago.”
That’s the key. In 2015, his second season in the league, Brown topped the 1,000-yard mark and seems destined to repeat the feat on a consistent basis. Last season, Brown battled leg injuries throughout and in October was diagnosed as having the sickle-cell trait, and his production dropped to 39 receptions for 517 yards.
The Cardinals believe they can manage that health issue, but Brown already has missed time this summer with minor hamstring and quad issues. The uncertainty has left the door open for J.J. Nelson and Jaron Brown (coming back from an ACL tear).
Buffalo: Zay Jones vs. Andre Holmes and Anquan Boldin
The Bills added another wrinkle to their positional battle Monday, when they nabbed Boldin from free agency. The 36-year-old is limited athletically for his position these days, but he led the Lions in TD receptions a year ago (eight) and remains an ultra-reliable pass catcher.
At this point in his career, Boldin is best suited as a move-the-sticks guy from the slot. That doesn’t help the Bills decide whom to pair with Sammy Watkins in two-receiver sets. For what it’s worth (answer: very little), Holmes was listed as a starter on Buffalo’s first depth chart of August.
The reality is that the Bills would prefer Jones to do enough in the coming weeks to lock down the No. 2 job, with Boldin hopping onto the field in three-wide sets. Holmes is the odd man out in that scenario.
Chicago: Zach Miller vs. Dion Sims and Adam Shaheen
Sims just signed a three-year, $18 million contract (with $10 million guaranteed); Shaheen was a second-round pick in April, at No. 45 overall. The Bears are going to use both of those players, the amount they do probably contingent on how quickly Shaheen, who played his college ball at D-II Ashland, can acclimate himself as a blocker.
What, then, of the 32-year-old Miller? He has been a solid producer for the Bears when healthy, posting a career-best 486 yards receiving in just 10 games last year. The problem is that he rarely has stayed 100% for long. He’s listed as the second-teamer for Thursday’s preseason opener, behind Sims.
Chicago also boasts a pair of developmental tight ends in Daniel Brown and Ben Braunecker. Miller’s veteran presence is valuable on a roster that’s in flux, but are the Bears prepared to cut one or multiple young TEs to let him hang around?
Cincinnati: John Ross vs. Brandon LaFell
Until Ross can get on the field following his offseason shoulder surgery, it’s pointless to pencil him in as a starter. Rookies face a steep learning curve as it is, let alone when they’re delayed into August. So, for now, LaFell looks like the sidekick to A.J. Green. Ross, 2016 second-rounder Tyler Boyd and ’16 sixth-rounder Cody Core are fighting to be next up.
The outlook could change in a heartbeat if and when Ross joins the fray. LaFell outperformed expectations last season (64 catches, 862 yards, six TDs), but that’s close to his ceiling. He’s 30 years old now, with a contract that includes no guaranteed money beyond this season.
Denver: Virgil Green vs. Jeff Heuerman and A.J. Derby
The two most dangerous pass-catching TE threats on the roster are Heuerman and rookie Jake Butt. The former tore his ACL as a rookie in 2015 and has nine career catches; the latter is rehabbing his own ACL tear, suffered in December, and—barring a miracle—will not be ready for the start of the regular season.
Even with a full deck, Green might hold his starting spot because of his blocking ability. Letting him live inline, with either Derby or Heuerman shifting around the formation as receiving threats is probably the best this group can offer.
Indianapolis: Phillip Dorsett vs. Chester Rogers and Kama Aiken
T.Y. Hilton and Donte Moncrief are cemented as the Colts’ No. 1 and No. 2 receivers, respectively. Per Mike Wells of ESPN.com, the third slot “is, without a doubt, Rogers’ to lose.”
Rogers had some moments as a UDFA pickup last season. But were he to retain the third receiver job, it would be a glaring indictment on Dorsett, a 2015 draft selection. There has been very little buzz out of Colts camp surrounding Aiken, who signed a cheap one-year deal to move from Baltimore to Indianapolis this offseason.
L.A. Rams: The rookies vs. the vets
In one corner the Rams have free-agent addition Robert Woods and the perennially frustrating Tavon Austin. In the other, it’s third-round pick Cooper Kupp and fourth-rounder Josh Reynolds. As the preseason begins, it’s a split decision—Woods, Kupp and Austin all were listed as starters ahead of the Rams’ preseason opener, but Austin has been battling a hamstring issue.
Kupp is almost a lock to start, as of early August.
“I see a mature rookie,” Rams coach Sean McVay said, via a team transcript. “I think one of the things that really impressed us about Kupp, just watching him in college is that [he is] one of those receivers that sees the game through the quarterback’s eyes. ... He’s one of the more mature rookies that I’ve ever been around and we’re expecting some good things from him moving forward.”
Reynolds is dealing with his own hamstring injury, and second-year receiver Mike Thomas (who’s facing a four-game suspension) just came off the PUP list. This has the makings of a competition, but it’s not there yet.
Minnesota: Laquon Treadwell vs. Jairus Wright, Rodney Adams, Michael Floyd, etc.
Is Treadwell ready for legitimate playing time, following his complete bust of a rookie season? He reportedly has been working with the first-team in heavy doses, joining Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen in three-receiver sets.
The window on Treadwell’s opportunity may well be four games. That’s how long Minnesota will be without Floyd, as he serves a suspension for violating the league’s substance-abuse policy. No one else among the Vikings’ WR depth chart has pushed his way onto the field, but Floyd could once he’s back.
Oakland: Cordarrelle Patterson vs. Seth Roberts
The Vikings spent four seasons trying to figure out how to make Patterson a larger part of the offense, only to settle repeatedly for using him as a kick returner and bit weapon. He did catch a career-high 52 passes last season, but for just 453 yards (8.7 yards per catch).
Roberts has had similar production, decent but not necessarily good—last season, he notched 38 receptions for 397 yards and five TDs.
One of the two will be the Raiders’ top target out of the slot, as Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree handle the workload outside. Patterson’s breakaway speed and size (6' 2", 220 lbs.) continue to make him an intriguing option. Can Oakland unlock him in ways Minnesota never could?
Pittsburgh: Martavis Bryant vs. the NFL
The Steelers are still waiting on the league to reinstate Bryant from his indefinite suspension. (Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that moment could come as soon as this week.) Until it does, Bryant remains unable to practice with his team.
Whenever he can play again, Bryant would drop back onto the depth chart as Pittsburgh’s No. 2 receiver, behind only Antonio Brown. In his stead, the Steelers have the likes of Sammie Coates and Darrius Heyward-Bey for an outside role; Eli Rogers and rookie Juju Smith-Schuster have been battling in the slot.
Only the NFL can end this “battle.”
San Francisco: Jeremy Kerley vs. Trent Taylor
“Trent’s not scared of anything,” 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan said of Taylor last week, via the team’s website. “He’s not a huge guy, but he’s not going to turn anything down. He’s going to do his job. He’s going to get in front of a guy and he’s going to bring it as hard as he can. If you don’t do that in our offense, you can’t play it for us.”
Is all that enough to bounce Kerley from the starting slot role? Kerley caught a career-high 64 passes last season, but that was in a different system, with a different coach and quarterback. The 49ers are not going to commit to him just because he’s been around longer than the rookie Taylor.
On the flip side, the slot role should be better defined this year. Kerley essentially fell into No. 1 receiver duties a year ago (his 115 targets lapped the 49ers field). With Pierre Garcon on board and a somewhat stable situation at QB, Kerley could benefit from the relative calm.