As the NFL preseason is in full swing and the 53-man roster cutdown date draws closer, positional battles become of the utmost importance. While rookie quarterbacks and highly drafted skill position players receive the most attention in training camps and preseason games, the strength of a roster is often determined by the players that don’t grab the headlines. In the war of attrition that is the NFL season (now with 17 regular-season games), every late-round pick that makes the final roster is not only a boon to a team’s salary cap but to its depth.
Below are 5 key training camp battles across the NFL featuring sixth-round rookies engaged in competitions with veterans for a spot on their team’s 53-man roster. Thanks to talent, opportunity and situation, these rookies are in great positions to emerge from anonymity and have a positive impact in their rookie seasons.
Buffalo Bills WRs
Marquez Stevenson vs. Isaiah Hodgins, Jake Kumerow
The Bills have one of the most well-constructed wide receiver groups in the NFL, with Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley, Gabriel Davis and Emmanuel Sanders all poised to fill exact roles and once again assist Josh Allen in making Buffalo a Super Bowl contender. Despite excellent depth, Buffalo still lacks a wide receiver who can take the top off a defense and provide upside in the return game, which is why they drafted Marquez Stevenson out of Houston in the sixth round. Despite running a relatively disappointing 4.45-second 40-yard dash, Stevenson’s agility was on full display with a 3-cone drill time that was one of the fastest the combine has ever seen; in college, he certainly looked faster than his recorded 40 time. In 2019, he recorded 52 catches for 907 yards and 9 touchdowns; Houston played just five games in 2020 due to Covid but Stevenson still had 20 catches for 307 yards and 4 touchdowns. He was an impactful kick returner as well, averaging 26.9 yards on 33 returns from 2018-2020 with three return touchdowns.
The battle for Buffalo’s sixth receiver spot (behind the aforementioned four plus the newly re-signed Isaiah McKenzie, who had 5 touchdowns last season, will be fierce. Hodgins is a 2020 sixth-round draft pick who had what was essentially a redshirt rookie year thanks to a shoulder injury. At 6-foot-3 and 201 pounds, he brings an element of size that Buffalo’s receiving room could use. Hodgins has been praised by Allen and head coach Sean McDermott this offseason, but his injuries are once again rearing their head as he was forced out of Buffalo’s first preseason game with a knee injury after just one catch. Kumerow began 2020 with the Bills, was waived in December after recording just one catch (for a 22-yard touchdown) and was re-signed by Buffalo in 2021. If Stevenson can replicate and improve upon his Week 1 preseason performance, his combination of speed and return ability gives him a leg up on a roster spot over Hodgins and Kumerow.
Chicago Bears RBs
Kahlil Herbert vs. Ryan Nall, Artavis Pierce
Though Justin Fields has dominated the headlines in Chicago this offseason, the Bears have multiple offensive battles involving rookies that will determine the outlook of the offense in 2021. The first is in their backfield, which is unstable behind David Montgomery. Backup Tarik Cohen was coming off his most productive season in 2019 and looked like a reliable offensive contributor in 2020 until he suffered a torn ACL in Week 3. Behind him and Montgomery, Cordarrelle Patterson, Ryan Nall and Artavis Pierce formed a shaky running back room that saw Patterson finish the season second on the team in carries. Sixth-round rookie Khalil Herbert out of Virginia Tech is a serious threat to push for a roster spot and playing time despite being a late-round pick. After an unremarkable four seasons at Kansas, Herbert transferred to Virginia Tech in 2020 and had the best season of his career. He turned his 155 rushes into 1,183 rushing yards and returned 16 kicks for an impressive 26.9 yards per return. Herbert took his six carries for 38 yards and caught three passes in Week 1 of the preseason.
Free-agent signing Damien Williams is a lock to make the roster, as is starter Montgomery. Cohen is reportedly still rehabbing his torn ACL and a candidate to start the season on the PUP list, which would prevent him from playing the first six weeks of the season. Nall and Pierce did nothing to support any notion of them being NFL contributors and neither earned more than 10 touches or returned more than three kickoffs in 2020. With Chicago likely to keep three quarterbacks (Fields, Andy Dalton, Nick Foles) barring a trade, the running back position could see more of a squeeze than in seasons prior. Herbert has a great opportunity to not only make the roster but have an on-field impact in the first few weeks of the season thanks to his explosiveness and blocking skills.
Chicago Bears WRs
Dazz Newsome vs. Riley Ridley, Javon Wims
Wide receiver is a position that has seen significant overhaul in Chicago, as new faces in 2021 include Damiere Byrd, Marquise Goodwin and draftee Dazz Newsome, while Anthony Miller was traded to the Houston Texans. Behind Allen Robinson and sophomore Darnell Mooney, the Bears’ receiving depth chart is wide open and its development will be crucial to the development of highly touted rookie quarterback Justin Fields. Sixth-round pick Newsome out of North Carolina was one of the premier slot wide receivers in college football over the past two seasons and brings an element of quickness and agility Chicago lacks among their wide receivers. Converted from defensive back to wide receiver at UNC, he demonstrated impressive chemistry with quarterback Sam Howell and racked up 126 catches for 1,702 yards and 16 touchdowns between 2019-2020 as a key cog in one of college football’s best offenses. Newsome’s Chicago tenure got off to an inauspicious start with a broken collarbone in early June, and though he is now fully recovered he did not play in Chicago’s first preseason game. As long as he is able to play in the preseason, it shouldn’t be an incident that prevents him from making an impression.
At least one (if not two) of the trio of Newsome, Ridley and Wims will be cut before the 53-man rosters are decided. Drafted in 2019, the younger brother of Calvin Ridley hasn’t enjoyed the same success as his brother; he’s had just 10 catches for 108 yards through his first two NFL seasons with just four of those receptions coming in 2020. Wims has had a similarly slow start to his career with just 28 catches for 266 yards through his first three seasons. He is more well known than the average wideout on the roster bubble thanks to two high-profile lapses. Wims was ejected and suspended in Week 8 for punching New Orleans Saints’ cornerback C.J. Gardner-Johnson, and his troubles against New Orleans continued as he dropped what would have been a game-tying 40-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter of Chicago’s NFC Wild Card game. With an unsettled depth chart beyond Robinson and Mooney, Newsome is a legitimate candidate (health permitting) to parlay his speed and length into a roster spot and become Chicago’s primary slot receiver before the end of the season.
Cleveland Browns RBs
Demetric Felton vs. D’Ernest Johnson
Boasting one of the most talented running back tandems in the NFL, the Browns offense runs through Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt. Behind the dynamic duo, though, depth has been severely lacking the last two seasons and the Browns are looking to Felton to augment their backfield. Drafted in the sixth round out of UCLA, Felton was a wide receiver in his first three collegiate seasons before making the transition to running back in 2020. Though he registered just 132 carries in his lone year as a running back, he averaged 5.1 yards per rush and caught 22 passes for 159 yards and three touchdowns in UCLA’s six games in 2020. Felton returned a punt, a kickoff, and caught four of his six targets for 44 yards in Week 1 of the preseason as he looks to unseat incumbent third running back D’Ernest Johnson.
Johnson had 13 carries for 85 yards and a robust 7.31 yards per rush after Chubb exited in Week 4 last season with a sprained MCL, and he appeared to be a capable replacement. However, Johnson had just 19 carries at an uninspiring 3.47 yards per rush in Cleveland’s remaining 12 games along with 14 kick returns, as he regressed to his previous stature. Felton has an uphill battle to make the roster as a sixth-round pick, but his positional versatility, open-field elusiveness, and special teams contributions give him a great shot to nab the Browns’ last running back roster spot.
Pittsburgh Steelers OLB
Quincy Roche vs. Cassius Marsh
The Pittsburgh Steelers have one of the most dominant defenses in the NFL with premier talent at all three levels of their defense. However, the biggest question marks remain in their linebacking corps, as the position as a whole has seen significant turnover. At inside linebacker, Vince Williams retired, Devin Bush is coming off a torn ACL suffered in 2020 and Joe Schobert was acquired this past week from Jacksonville. At outside linebacker, the Steelers had one of their biggest offseason losses when Bud Dupree departed for Tennessee. Sixth-round selection Quincy Roche recorded 26 sacks and 39.5 total TFLs from 2017-2019 at Temple and was named the AAC Defensive Player of the Year in 2019. He transferred to Miami in 2020 and though his sack numbers dipped, he still managed to record 14.5 TFLs. Through Pittsburgh’s first two preseason games, Roche already has 1.5 sacks while PFF charts Roche as having the third-best pass-rush win rate among rookies so far.
While the signing of former Los Angeles Charger Melvin Ingram III does add to Pittsburgh’s outside linebacker rotation, T.J. Watt simply needs more help. Alex Highsmith (a 2020 third-round pick) had a promising rookie season but there still remains a need for an additional player in the rotation. Cassius Marsh was signed off the Indianapolis Colts’ practice squad in 2020 and played in just one game for the Steelers. On his seventh team since 2017, Marsh hasn’t showed notable pass rushing capabilities since 2018. While his special team contributions have been useful, neither that nor his one-year contract with a minimal dead cap hit guarantee him a roster spot. Because Pittsburgh will likely need to dedicate an additional roster spot to their inside linebackers, additional upside is necessary among their outside linebackers. Roche’s explosive burst and quickness lend him significantly higher pass-rushing upside and the opportunity to be a contributor as early as in his rookie year.
All statistics from Pro Football Reference & all scouting reports from The 33rd Team