For the first time since the Super Bowl, it finally feels like football is getting back into full swing!
NFL Clubs around the country are gearing up for training camp, which usually has implications on lineup decisions. This is the calm before the storm, because the NFL Preseason goes quickly. Soon enough, games begin mattering. Training camp is when coaches evaluate ambiguous position groups—whether it is a particularly strong or particularly weak set of players.
Coaches can also see and experiment with their newly acquired picks in action. Many players who surpass expectations begin to do so around this time of year, and they tend to be first-or second-year players who are getting their first, real shot to make a difference.
New England Patriots Cornerbacks
(Marcus Jones (R), Johnathan Jones [PUP], Jack Jones (R), Jalen Mills, Malcolm Butler)
When J.C. Jackson left New England in unrestricted free agency, the Patriots were left without their highest-graded player on defense with at least 200 snaps. There are multiple openings in the Pats’ secondary. Jalen Mills was the team’s clear No. 2 corner last season, logging 915 snaps—just 30 less than Jackson. The next closest was Myles Bryant. Currently Bryant is below rookies Marcus Jones and Jack Jones on the depth chart. The Patriots’ final lineup of cornerbacks is completely up for grabs.
Super-Bowl hero Malcolm Butler will look to find the field after missing the entirety of the 2021 season and playing the previous three with the Tennessee Titans. Jalen Mills is likely locked into a starting role, and if healthy, Jonathan Jones should start opposite Mills. In 2020, Jones posted the seventh-highest PFF season grade among all cornerbacks, allowing just 598 yards in coverage on 86 targets: the second-fewest among all cornerbacks with at least 80 targets. However, nickel cornerback is a role that remains up for grabs as we enter training camp. Both rookies will compete for a spot outside or, alternatively, the open spot in the slot.
Marcus Jones, a former Houston Cougar and third-round pick, notched five interceptions and 11 pass break-ups in ten games last season. Jones’s 90.1 PFF-coverage grade and 90.2 season grade were the best in this draft class. Jones is the favorite to win a starting gig. Moreover, Jones stands at 5 feet 8 inches tall. His stature is akin to a nickel corner, and his 125 tackles in college suggest he can contribute to run defense.
Still, fourth-rounder Jack Jones lingers in the mix. Jack Jones has over five years of experience playing in the Pac-12 for USC and Arizona State. Jones and Butler will have to duel for a chance to see the field in dime packages if Marcus Jones walks away with a slot cornerback role in Belichick’s defense. In an ascending division facing the likes of Josh Allen and Tyreek Hill, a potent defensive backfield is a necessity for the Patriots.
Baltimore Ravens Strong Safety
(Kyle Hamilton (R) v. Chuck Clark)
Kyle Hamilton is listed behind Chuck Clark on the Ravens’ depth chart for their strong safety position. Clark has been one of the Ravens’ starting safeties since the 2019 season, logging over 750 snaps in the past three years. Clark has traditionally split time between playing in the box or lined up deep. Having recently acquired Marcus Williams, the Ravens do not need a player who excels in downfield coverage; instead, they need a player who can contribute more as a chess piece; and Hamilton fits that bill.
Nonetheless, Clark has not been astonishing for the Ravens since his sixth-round selection in 2017. Clark’s 61.1 PFF-coverage grade in 2021 was the fourth-worst on the team. Hamilton enters the picture as a highly-touted prospect with the tools to excel in many defensive roles. The Ravens’ training camp will feature the two squaring off for the starting spot opposite Williams. After allowing the most passing yards in the NFL last year, the decision on who sees the field should be weighty.
The AFC North is one of the most competitive divisions in football, and the Ravens have playoff potential. Considering the Ravens will see Joe Burrow and potentially Deshaun Watson twice next year leverages the need for a difference-maker.
Overall, Hamilton vying for Clark’s spot in the defensive backfield should be an important and exciting battle this summer.
Cincinnati Bengals Cornerbacks
(Eli Apple, Cam Taylor-Britt (R), Chidobe Awuzie, Tre Flowers, Mike Hilton, Dax Hill (R))
The offensive line and cornerback were the Bengals’ two most glaring needs this offseason. While Cincinnati chose to address the former through free agency, they addressed the latter through the draft with back-to-back picks at the position. The Bengals allowed the sixth-most yards in the NFL, had two corners in the top 20 of most receptions allowed (Mike Hilton & Chidobe Awuzie), and Eli Apple was the closest defender on both of Cooper Kupp’s Super Bowl touchdowns.
First-round pick Daxton “Dax” Hill offers positional versatility, showcasing aptitude at slot cornerback and safety. In 2021, Hill’s six PBUs ranked fourth among all safeties in the 2022 NFL Draft Class, and Hill’s 9.8 yards-per reception also ranked in the top ten. Given the Bengals’ need at cornerback, they could allow Hill to start for them on Day 1 as a slot cornerback, pushing Mike Hilton to the bench.
On the other hand, the Bengals also added big-bodied cornerback Cam Taylor-Britt. The third-rounder and former Cornhusker ranked in the top ten of the draft class in PFF-coverage grade. Not to mention, Taylor-Britt allowed the fewest yards among all cornerbacks in this draft class with at least 65 targets. Taylor-Britt should push for a boundary role, pushing either Awuzie (or, more likely) Apple to the bench. In any event, the Bengals brought in a pair of talented, young defensive backs, and their presence should be monitored as teams wade through training camp into the preseason.
Cleveland Browns Receivers
(David Bell (R), Donovan Peoples-Jones, Anthony Schwartz, Jakeem Grant Sr.)
This position group is intriguing, 3rd round pick David Bell joins newcomer Amari Cooper, third-year receiver Donovan Peoples-Jones, second-year deep threat Anthony Schwartz, and special teams savant Jakeem Grant. With all but Amari Cooper’s job in the air, performances in training camp and preseason will likely dictate who will step on the field in base sets.
First, the favorite to secure the secondary role behind Amari Cooper is Donovan Peoples-Jones. Peoples-Jones came out of Michigan in the 2020 NFL Draft as an excellent height, weight, and speed prospect. As one of the 2020 NFL Scouting Combine winners in Indianapolis, Peoples-Jones posted a sub-4.5 forty-yard dash time, an amazing 44.5″ vertical leap, and a class-leading 11-foot, 7-inch broad jump.
In his past two seasons, though, Peoples-Jones has not contributed much to Cleveland’s offense. In his first year, Peoples-Jones served as an understudy to Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. Then, in his second year, he played on 75.1% of the Browns’ plays, which ranked in the top 50 receivers. Yet, Peoples-Jones’s 15.4% target share nearly ranked outside the top 100. Although Peoples-Jones is an intriguing athlete, he is arguably as unproven as third-round rookie Bell.
Bell, a former Purdue Boilermaker, was one of the most productive receivers to come out of college in this year’s draft, collecting 232 receptions, 2,935 yards, and 21 touchdowns through his three years with Purdue. Once considered a high second-round talent, Bell dropped off after a lackluster combine performance that saw him post the lowest forty-yard dash time in the class (4.65). Nonetheless, Bell was a Biletnikoff Award finalist in 2021 and an All-Big-Ten First Teamer.
Between Bell and Peoples-Jones, one will have to stay off the field in two-receiver sets, given that Cooper remains healthy. Considering only two teams ran fewer 3+ wide receiver sets (Atlanta and Baltimore), the competition for WR2 on Cleveland’s squad will be one of the most important storylines.
Pittsburgh Steelers Quarterbacks
(Mitchell Trubisky, Mason Rudolph, Kenny Pickett (R))
The Steelers’ quarterback situation should be closely monitored as we approach NFL Preseason. First, the Steelers signed former second-overall pick Mitchell Trubisky to a two-year deal worth $14.3M in March. Trubisky was the presumed starter until the Steelers selected hometown hero Kenny Pickett from the University of Pittsburgh. The former Pitt Panther led the draft class in PFF-season grade and passing grade but also finished top three in passing yards and touchdowns. Pickett also led the Panthers to an ACC Championship and Peach Bowl berth while fueling Jordan Addison’s Biletnikoff-winning season.
It is ambiguous whether Pickett will begin the season as the Steelers’ starting quarterback, but Pickett will likely see the field at some point this year. Trubisky is taking first-team reps, but that could change swiftly in training camp and preseason. As mentioned above, the AFC North is a tough division, and the Steelers need a competent signal-caller to compete. With a competitive defense and offensive weapons galore (Diontae Johnson, Chase Claypool, George Pickens, Najee Harris, and Pat Freiermuth), the missing piece for the Steelers appears to be the quarterback position.
Still, the Steelers have one of the least beneficial offensive lines. Last year, the Steelers averaged the fastest time to throw (2.1). Pickett’s average time to throw last season was 3.2 seconds, more than a whole second slower than Pittsburgh’s. Mike Tomlin & Co. may want to reel in Pickett’s ball-holding tendencies before throwing him out on the field. Regardless, Pickett may be the more talented between the two. Thus, the training camp battle between veteran Trubisky and rookie Pickett should be under a microscope.