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7 NFL Training Camp Battles for Key Starting, Backup Spots

The most compelling part of training camp for me during my NFL management career was observing the intense competition for open starting positions and key backup spots in camp practices, joint scrimmages with other teams and preseason games.

With all NFL training camps opening in the next three weeks, here are seven camp battles for starting and key backup spots that I find especially intriguing:

7 Key NFL Training Camp Battles

San Francisco 49ers: Quarterback

Last season’s rookie sensation as Mr. Irrelevant — Brock Purdy — appears to be on track to return from his elbow injury before the regular season. He is throwing with his personal quarterback coach and ortho specialist. We’ll see if he's ready before the San Francisco 49ers’ opener on Sept. 10 in Pittsburgh. 

Meanwhile, a pair of former third-overall picks — Trey Lance by the 49ers in 2021 and Sam Darnold by the New York Jets in 2018 — have a chance to shine in camp and preseason games.

Purdy won his first seven starts, leading San Francisco to the NFC title game before his first-quarter injury in Philadelphia. If he can get some camp practice time and looks in top shape to coach Kyle Shanahan, then Purdy is the likely opening-day starter. Lance and Darnold then battle for the No. 2 job.

But if Purdy is not ready, the door opens for Lance or Darnold, with the loser of that competition perhaps being traded or released. That would most likely be Darnold due to the extreme cap hit ($11 million) if Lance is jettisoned vs. a cap savings of $1.55 million if Darnold is traded or released. 

The Bay Area will hold its breath on how this situation turns out. 

>> READ: 49ers are Perfect for Darnold to Rebuild Career

Indianapolis Colts: Quarterback

No. 4 overall pick Anthony Richardson will be the starter sooner or later. His progress in training camp and preseason competition with  Gardner Minshew, a solid quarterback with 24 career starts, will determine who new coach Shane Steichen picks to start against Jacksonville Jaguars in the regular season opener.

Richardson is talented but raw, which could bode well for Minshew to get the initial start, especially since he should be more comfortable with the Indianapolis Colts' offense.

Minshew worked with Steichen for the past two years in Philadelphia, where he was the backup and Steichen the offensive coordinator. The two quarterbacks split reps through OTAs and minicamp, so we’ll see how the division of labor and their quality of play pans out in Colts camp, preseason games and joint practices with the Chicago Bears and Eagles.  

Buffalo Bills: Running Back

Last year’s starter, Devin Singletary, left for Houston in free agency, leaving 2022 second-round pick James Cook as the heir apparent. Cook had 507 rushing yards, 21 receptions and three TDs on 110 touches in his rookie season.

The Buffalo Bills signed former Patriot Damien Harris to a one-year deal as competition and to split time with Cook. Harris is a four-year veteran who rushed for 929 yards and 15 TDs in 2021 before losing his starting job to Rhamondre Stevenson last season. Hamstring and thigh injuries limited Harris to 11 games (nine starts) and 462 rushing yards. 

The Bills also added a proven back in nine-year veteran Latavius Murray, who ran for 760 yards and six TDs with the Denver Broncos and New Orleans Saints last season.

Josh Allen carries a big load passing and running in the Bills' offense. The team would like to take some pressure off Allen with more production in the run game from a good group of backs who will battle for the starting job and overall playing time.

Minnesota Vikings: Cornerbacks

This is a 13-win team with questions surrounding a defense that ranked 31st last season. The biggest one is who will man its cornerback spots. The Minnesota Vikings’ top four cornerbacks didn’t play well down the stretch or in the playoff loss to the New York Giants, and all have departed — Patrick Peterson, Duke Shelley, Chandon Sullivan and Cam Dantzler. 

Coach Kevin O’Connell and new defensive coordinator Brian Flores need to choose two outside starters and a slot corner (a virtual starter). The options are $9 million per year free agent signee Byron Murphy Jr., 2022 second-round pick Andrew Booth Jr., 2022 fourth-round pick Akayleb Evans, this year’s third-rounder Mekhi Blackmon and fourth-rounder Jay Ward (a slot corner/safety combo player) and former Patriot Joejuan Williams.

Murphy, Booth, Evans and Williams missed significant time last season because of injuries. That further muddies the water on who will emerge from this group for a team seeking to defend its NFC North title. Murphy should grab one outside spot.

Evans played well in his two starts and 10 games last season before concussions derailed him, so he may be the favorite at the other outside spot over Booth, who battled injuries in college and last season. Blackmon and Ward likely are ticketed for special teams roles unless they come on quickly.

Philadelphia Eagles: Defensive Tackle

Six-time Pro Bowler Fletcher Cox comes off a solid season with seven sacks and 43 tackles while playing 65 percent of the defensive snaps. He re-signed on a one-year, $10 million deal, so he should start at one of the defensive tackle spots.

With the free agent departure of Javon Hargrave (11 sacks and 60 tackles in 2022), the Eagles will look to a pair of former Georgia defensive tackles who are recent first-round picks — Jordan Davis (2022) and Jalen Carter (2023) — to replace Hargrave in the starting lineup.  

Davis is bigger at 6-foot-6, 335 pounds, while Carter is 6-foot-3, 313 pounds but likely more talented overall. Davis had a shaky rookie season with only 18 tackles and no sacks in 13 games. He missed four games due to an ankle injury.

Carter brings off-field baggage from his street-racing incident last January in which two people were killed. That was a major factor in dropping him from a likely top-five pick to No. 9 overall. 

It’s likely Cox, Davis and Carter rotate at defensive tackle for the stout Eagles defense that ranked second last season. But all players want to start, and we’ll see who claims the spot alongside Cox.  

Marquez Valdes-Scantling Kansas City Chiefs
Marquez Valdes-Scantling

Kansas City Chiefs: Wide Receivers

Patrick Mahomes has been great with whoever he throws to at wide receiver, and All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce remains the No. 1 target for the league’s MVP. So it probably doesn’t matter who emerges from the current group of wide receivers because Mahomes will make it work.

JuJu Smith-Schuster led the wideouts last year with 78 catches for 933 yards and three TDs, but he left for New England in free agency. Marquez Valdes-Scantling leads the returnees after a 2022 season with 42 receptions for 687 yards and two TDs.

The rest of the Chiefs' wide receiver group includes plenty of unproven talent.

There is former Giants first-rounder Kadarius Toney, last year’s Round 2 Chiefs' pick Skyy Moore and this year’s second-rounder — Rashee Rice. A wild card in the mix is Richie James, who had 57 receptions for 569 yards and four TDs with the Giants last season before signing a one-year deal. 

There may not be a Tyreek Hill-type standout in the mix, but you can bet Andy Reid and his staff will make this a productive group. We’ll see who emerges as the starters in the two- and three-receiver formations.

New York Giants: Wide Receivers

James led the team’s wide receivers in catches last year (57). But he left the logjam among Giants receivers that offers a mix of size, speed and production but had no true No. 1 wide receiver for emerging quarterback Daniel Jones

Isaiah Hodgins was an excellent mid-season pickup off waivers from Buffalo, where he had played under Giants coach Brian Daboll, who was the Bills' offensive coordinator. Hodgins became a key target for Jones with 33 catches for 351 yards and four TDs in eight games. Plus, Hodgins had eight catches for 105 yards and a TD in the wild-card win against the Vikings.

Darius Slayton had 11 starts with 46 catches for 724 yards and two TDs. Parris Campbell is a free agent signee on a one-year, $5 million deal after having 63 receptions for 623 yards and three TDs last season in Indianapolis, where he was a second-round pick in 2019. 

The Giants have two other vets who have enjoyed NFL success in Sterling Shepard (362 career catches for the Giants) and Jamison Crowder (188 catches for 1,979 yards and 14 TDs from 2019-2021 with the Jets). 

The Giants have high hopes for Wan’Dale Robinson, their second-round pick in 2022 who opened the season as the starting slot receiver. He had 23 catches for 227 yards last year but played just six games due to knee problems. That included an ACL tear in Week 11 against Detroit when he had nine catches for 100 yards before getting hurt. 

It will be extremely interesting to watch the competition for starting roles and roster spots at Giants training camp and through the preseason leading up to the team’s Sunday night opener against the Dallas Cowboys.  

Jeff Diamond is a former Vikings GM, former Tennessee Titans President and was selected NFL Executive of the Year after the Vikings’ 15-1 season in 1998. He now works for the NFL agent group IFA based in Minneapolis. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffdiamondnfl.