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  • Can Cardinals’ Robert Nkemdiche reach that next level and hold off Josh Mauro for the starting job? Will rookie Eddie Jackson supplant two-year starter Adrian Amos in Chicago? Can Seattle find a suitable No. 2 across from Richard Sherman?
By Chris Burke
August 11, 2017

No, we didn’t forget about the defense. We spent this first week of the NFL’s preseason taking a glance at some of the most pressing offensive positional battles league-wide (quarterbacks, running backs, wide receivers and tight ends, offensive line), but it’s time to give a little love to the other side of the ball.

And so, a dozen of the defensive competitions to keep an eye on in the coming weeks:

Arizona: Robert Nkemdiche vs. Josh Mauro

To some extent, defensive line battles are slightly less pronounced than those at linebacker or in the secondary. Whereas teams tend to lock in top-two cornerbacks and LBs, most D-lines utilize heavy rotation throughout games. Arizona should be no different, especially in light of Calais Campbell’s departure this offseason. Campbell (77%) was the only Cardinals’ defensive lineman to play more than half the available snaps in 2016. Coach Bruce Arians has said on several occasions that it will take a group effort to replace Campbell, not just one player stepping into the vacated role.

That said, Arians’s club needs the light to flip on for Nkemdiche, their 2016 first-rounder. Mauro, Corey Peters and Rodney Gunter all are solid defenders—Arians told ArizonaSports.com that Mauro “has been as good a player as we’ve had for three years in the defensive line”—but Nkemdiche can get to another level.

Buffalo: Preston Brown vs. Reggie Ragland (and maybe Gerald Hodges)

The fact that Hodges garners a mention here says as much about Ragland’s early slide as it does the Bills’ MLB job turning into a three-horse race. Hodges could wind up pushing Ramon Humber for a starting role outside, too, but Jay Skurski of the Buffalo News reports that Hodges has been taking second-team reps inside ... ahead of a struggling Ragland.

Brown was a three-year starter under the Bills’ previous regime, and he racked up 139 tackles a season ago. It’s not as if he is a complete mystery. New coach Sean McDermott still, no doubt, would prefer someone push Brown for the middle linebacker spot.

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Chicago: Adrian Amos vs. Eddie Jackson

Jackson, a fourth-round pick this year, has been getting run with the Bears’ first-team defense alongside veteran safety Quintin Demps. He’s trying to supplant Amos, a 30-game starter for Chicago over his first two seasons in the league. Harold Jones-Quartey and 2016 draft choice Deon Bush also could play their way into snaps.

However, Jackson’s ballhawking abilities set him apart. He picked off nine passes while at Alabama (six in 2015), and he likely would have had more had a broken leg not ended his final season prematurely.

“He’s a very sharp guy, a very aware player, especially for a young guy,” coach John Fox said of Jackson last week. “Kids who come out of Alabama get pretty much a good taste of pro defense, particularly from a coverage standpoint—Nick [Saban] having been a secondary coach in the NFL for a long time. So they’re well-schooled.”

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Green Bay: Kevin King vs. Quinten Rollins, Damarious Randall and Ladarius Gunter

Is this already King’s job to lose? It sure seemed that way leading up to Green Bay’s preseason opener, as the rookie out of Washington reportedly drew heavy first-team reps at cornerback, opposite Davon House. At 6' 3", King has a good two inches on Gunter and four on Randall/Rollins.

This is an intriguing group. Gunter, Randall and Rollins all came into the league in 2015, and all have been key starters at one point or another for the Packers. Does their collective experience carry enough weight to push King to a backup role?

Jacksonville: Dante Fowler vs. Yannick Ngakoue

Fowler entered the league with the hype. Ngakoue has delivered the production. The latter surprised with an 8.0-sack rookie season, doubling the total Fowler notched last year after missing his own rookie campaign with a knee injury. The Jaguars aren’t going to hand Fowler a bulk of the reps just because he was the No. 3 overall pick three drafts ago.

Again, this is the D-line we’re talking about, so there could be a lot of shared responsibilities. Fowler, Ngakoue and rookie Dawuane Smoot all will be of use off the edge on passing downs, given Calais Campbell’s ability to rush from a tackle alignment. The question is which of Fowler or Ngakoue steps up as the early-down defender.

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Los Angeles Chargers: Jahleel Addae vs. Adrian Phillips and Tre Boston

The MMQB’s Andy Benoit wrote in his Chargers season preview that it “was surprising to see” Los Angeles chase a safety both in free agency (Boston) and the draft (Rayshawn Jenkins), because of how well Phillips played in spot duty a year ago.

Better to have depth than be scrambling, though. And the Chargers could roll any number of ways at safety, even presuming Dwight Lowery holds onto his starting spot. Remember, this is now a Gus Bradley-coordinated defense, so the safeties are of the utmost importance.

New England: Kony Ealy vs. Deatrich Wise

Fourth-round DEs out of Arkansas appears to be a growing specialty niche for the Patriots. Two years ago they uncovered Trey Flowers, and now Wise has forced his way into the conversation during training camp.

It’s fair to wonder what the Patriots’ plan might be for Ealy, should he fail to lock down a starting job. Bill Belichick traded for the disappointing (aside from his Super Bowl 50 performance) former Panther back in March, but Ealy is in the final year of his rookie deal, with a salary of less than $1 million and no guaranteed money owed.

Oakland: Darius Latham vs. Eddie Vanderdoes

When he was healthy at UCLA, Vanderdoes had the look of a first-round draft pick and a future NFL anchor up front. The problem, of course, was that he missed significant chunks of time due to injuries. It also took awhile for the Raiders to get a glimpse at him this offseason, because of the NFL’s (idiotic) rule that blocks rookies from attending OTAs or mini-camps until their final semester of college concludes.

Since arriving, though, Vanderdoes reportedly has been impressive, with QB Derek Carr even comparing his skill set to that of Justin Tuck.

Latham provided an unexpected boost last season, climbing from the UDFA ranks to play in 14 games (and start in two). The Raiders do not have a ton of depth along their defensive interior, so he may not be pushed off the roster if Vanderdoes leapfrogs him, but he’s going to have to work for the No. 1 job.

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Philadelphia: Mychal Kendricks vs. inevitability

According to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Jeff McLane, Kendricks requested a trade or release at the close of the 2017 season. The Eagles obviously opted not to move on that request, but they also don’t have much of a role for him headed into 2017. At best, he is the No. 3 linebacker in a nickel-heavy defense, stuck behind Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham. He’s not much of a fit for Jim Schwartz’s attack.

Perhaps delaying the Kendricks-Eagles split: Bradham had multiple run-ins with the law in 2016, so the league could hand down punishment to him at any time. Were Bradham to be hit with a suspension, Kendricks could be forced into more responsibility.

Seattle: Jeremy Lane vs. Shaq Griffin

The Seahawks’ quest to find a reliable No. 2 CB opposite Richard Sherman rolls on, and they added Griffin in Round 3 of this year’s draft to provide a little help. Pete Carroll nearly handed the gig to Lane before camp’s start, but Lane now has missed several practices with an undisclosed injury. While Seattle has a month until the regular season, Griffin at least can close the gap while Lane sits.

Washington: Mason Foster vs. Zach Brown and Will Compton

Assuming he fares well during preseason reps, Brown should be one of Washington’s starting linebackers—he was a late-add bargain in free agency, but is the best all-around defender of this group. He’s yet to be named a permanent starter, though, so he, Compton and Foster will wander into mid-August duking it out for two jobs.

It was Compton and Foster in those spots last season, playing inside in the Redskins’ 3–4 alignment. As one might expect given their positions on the field, they led the team, combining for 226. But Washington also was nowhere near good enough against the run or pass, which forced the front office to seek out upgrades along the entire front seven this offseason.

Brown, on paper, was an improvement.

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