Feels crazy to say, but we are just days away from the first set of NFL teams beginning training camp. As is the case every season, the league will be filled with positional battles throughout the NFL. Last year’s most notable was with then New England Patriots’ starter, Cam Newton versus Mac Jones. The former NFL MVP ended up missing a week of practice near the end due to COVID reasons, and the rest as they say is history. This year will have its fair share of battles headed into the regular season as well. The Patriots again have a couple of interesting ones, but they aren’t the only squad to keep an eye on. Especially with the quarterback shuffle that has happened this offseason.
Be sure to check out all of our NFL coverage.
Patriots No. 1 Cornerback: Malcolm Butler vs the Jones
The Patriots’ cornerback situation may be one of the more interesting in the NFL with the loss of J.C. Jackson. As it relates to a top outside cover man, they have two interesting options to choose from, starting with Butler, who stunningly returned to 1 Patriot Place in the spring. The Super Bowl 49 hero didn’t play last season with the Cardinals due to retirement. However, is back with his original team, even after his Super Bowl 52 benching. The year off is a bit of a concern, but Butler was solid in 2020 with the Tennesee Titans.
Save for five touchdowns allowed, it was arguably Butler’s best year there from a numbers perspective. Along with his knowledge of how things work in the system, Butler may get the starting outside nod from Bill Belichick. However, there are two other worthy options. First is rookie Jack Jones of USC/Arizona State may not have been the first corner the Patriots took this year but he turned some heads during the offseason program. He even got some starting reps at mandatory minicamp as well. Youth at cornerback can be both good and bad, but if he continues to impress, he may play himself into a starting spot.
There is also Jonathan Jones, who was held to just six games last year due to a shoulder issue. Slightly undersized yes, but he was a big missing piece on that Patriots defense last year. He held steady against Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his lone start, allowing just 66 yards despite being targeted a dozen times. Odds are Butler begins the season as the No. 1 corner, but don’t sleep on either of the Jones.
Seattle Seahawks Running Back Committee
The new kid on the block for the Seahawks is running back Kenneth Walker III, who depending on who you talk to, was the best running back in this year’s draft. He ran for over six yards a carry and 1600 yards in his final year at Michigan State, nearly finishing top five in Heisman voting. He enters a room with Seahawk veterans Rashaad Penny and Chris Carson. Carson was held to just four games a season ago due to injury, while Penny put up a career-best 749-yard season at over six yards a carry. Not the best sign seeing as he was the top running back taken in his class, but better late than never for a career season.
Back to the Michigan State product, Walker missed part of the Seahawks’ mandatory minicamp with a hamstring issue. A slight setback, but hopefully this won’t be a long-term deal for the rookie. Carson is where things get interesting, however. He had around 13.5 carries a game before going down last season, but with the addition of Walker, that will certainly take a hit. This will also be the case for Penny, but not as severely, as he should be the leading man going into the regular season. It wouldn’t be a shock however if Walker ends up leading this group by the end of the season statistically.
Green Bay Packers Outside Reciever Retool
Davante Adams is now a thing of the past in Packer-Land™ after the low-budget spin-off ‘Last Dance’ season. Also gone as well is Marquez Valdes-Scantling, leaving both outside receiver spots up for grabs on the Green Bay depth chart. In the draft, Brian Gutekunst picked up Christian Watson and Romeo Doubs, but also signed veteran Sammy Watkins to a one-year deal that same month. Additionally, Allen Lazard is back for his fifth season with the Pack as well.
Packers’ Head Coach Matt LaFleur went out of his way during minicamp to say that Watkins will be a “big part of the offense”. Hard to say if that means he will be the go-to guy, but that sounds good for his 2022 stock. Lazard meanwhile had a career season last year, highlighted by eight receiving touchdowns, the most by any Packer besides Adams. In addition, he was Aaron Rodgers‘ second most targeted wideout last season with 65 to his credit. As for Watson and Doubs, they have a massive opportunity in front of them. It wouldn’t be a shocking result if one of them end up starting the season on the outside. Watson drew Jaire Alexander in spots during minicamp which is worth noting.
Patriots Speed Threat
Sticking to wideouts, the top of the New England receiving depth chart is more or less set in stone. However, the spot right behind that should get interesting. Nelson Agholor didn’t have much of an impact in year one of a two-year deal, and Belichick may already have his replacement. That being second-round receiver Tyquan Thornton out of Baylor, who effectively could fit the role the Patriots have/had in mind for the veteran out of USC. He has legitimate track speed and isn’t just a straight-line speed receiver.
Keep in mind, that the Patriots cut Josh Gordon early into the 2019 season, with a then injured rookie N’Keal Harry in mind for the role the current Kansas City Chief had. Of course, that didn’t go according to plan, as Harry was unceremoniously shipped off to the Chicago Bears this week. Hard to imagine a similar situation is in the works here. if Thornton impresses just enough to catch Belichick’s eye, Agholor very well could be shown the door a year early. The Patriots can also help out their cap situation by dumping him, more so with a trade, saving just south of 10 million dollars against the cap. At the end of the day, this all comes down to Thornton’s efforts on the field.
Becoming the Tank Commander
The Seahawks, now in a post-Russell Wilson world, may be in for a long season. Their options at quarterback are Geno Smith, and newly acquired Drew Lock from the Denver Broncos. Not what you would call ideal, but it is what it is. Smith surprisingly enough is entering his fourth year out in the pacific northwest, which will match his tenure with the New York Jets. Given the situation he was in, he wasn’t that bad in three starts a year ago, throwing for five scores and a tick over 700 yards. Given the familiarity with the team, Smith is certainly the safer option at the moment.
Lock meanwhile unceremoniously lost the Broncos starting gig last year to Teddy Bridgewater. However, due to a concussion for Bridgewater near the end of the season, Lock got the starting nod in the final three games of 2021. Hard to imagine he is entering this battle with Smith as the favorite, but if the veteran falters, Lock is the lone option. However, a potential move for Jimmy Garoppolo would throw all of that out the window. He would instantly become the best quarterback on the roster by default, but that would hang on the San Fransisco 49ers releasing him. Hard to imagine John Lynch trading him inside the NFC West.
Arizona Cardinals Tight End Battle: Trey McBride vs Zach Ertz
Although he recently signed a three-year extension (with an out after next season), the Cardinals found their long-term solution at tight end with Trey McBride. The John Mackey Award winner is primed for a strong start to his rookie year with the DeAndre Hopkins Suspension. The real question is will he impress enough in camp and into the first month of the season to secure a premier role in the Arizona offense?
Kyler Murray loved Ertz in the near dozen games he got to play with him last season, which could bode well for McBride. The Colorado State product enters the NFL coming off a 90 catch 1121-yard season. When camp opens up for the Cardinals on the 26th, it will be the first time McBride will get the chance to work with Murray. Although he may not start as the top tight end in Arizona, it may be a matter of if not when for McBride. The same thing happened with Ertz when he was with the Philadelphia Eagles with Dallas Goedert.
Carolina Panthers’ QB Debacle
The Carolina Panthers’ quarterback room is a quarterback room, that is for certain. After the Sam Darnold trade yielded lackluster results in year one, they traded a future third-round pick to the Patriots to draft Matt Corral. Then just last week, Carolina traded a conditional pick (maxes out as a fourth based on playing time) to the Cleveland Browns for Baker Mayfield. Safe to say that Mayfield is the presumptive starter as of now, but who is the man in waiting, and how many quarterbacks will the Panthers carry on their roster?
Currently behind Mayfield are Darnold, Corral, and XFL icon P.J. Walker. Darnold is basically cut/trade-proof with a fully guaranteed 18 million dollar deal this year. That likely makes Walker the odd man out as it relates to the 53-man unit. However, the Panthers will likely stash him on the practice squad. As for the remaining two signal callers, how Corral looks in comparison to Darnold will be fascinating. It was no secret Darnold wasn’t good last season, but can the Ole Miss rookie push him back to the No. 3 Quarterback? If Corral looks good in the limited reps he is likely to get, it shouldn’t be out of the realm of possibility.
Follow Jack Gaffney on Twitter @JackGaffneyPTST
Main Image Credit: Embed from Getty Images