As the NFL preseason comes to a close and kickoff draws nigh, positional battles become of the utmost importance. While rookie quarterbacks and highly drafted skill position players receive the most attention in training camp 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 games), every rookie that contributes during the season is not only a boon to a team’s salary cap but to their depth.
Below are three distinct positional battles across the NFL featuring mid- and late-round rookies engaged in competitions with veterans for starting spots and playing time. Thanks to talent, opportunity and situation, these rookies are in great positions to get off to a fast start and have a positive impact in their rookie seasons.
Nate Hobbs vs. Nevin Lawson
Las Vegas made significant investments in its secondary this offseason as they followed their 2020 first-round selection of cornerback Damon Arnette with the selection of four more collegiate defensive backs in 2021. The Raiders also signed Casey Hayward, Karl Joseph and Nevin Lawson in free agency in an effort to further bolster their defensive backfield. Over the past three seasons, Las Vegas ranks in the bottom 10 in passing yards allowed and opposing passing yards per attempt, as Paul Guenther’s defenses have struggled mightily. The Raiders brought in former Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley to serve in the same capacity and his impact on the defense in 2021 will be big – as will the play of fifth-round pick Nate Hobbs out of Illinois. Despite a nondescript college career in which he recorded just three interceptions and 11 passes defensed, Hobbs’ NFL career has gotten off to a dynamite start. Through the Raiders’ first two preseason games, he recorded 6 tackles, an interception at outside cornerback, a brilliant sack on a corner blitz, 2 tackles for loss and was even awarded a game ball from head coach Jon Gruden.
Thanks to major turnover at the position, Las Vegas has a cornerback room largely unsettled behind top corner Casey Hayward. Outside of their two starting corners, the Raiders project to play a considerable amount of nickel once again as Bradley’s Chargers played nickel defense 66% of the time in 2020 which matches up well with the 70% nickel defense rate of the 2020 Raiders. Hobbs is currently the frontrunner for starting nickel cornerback as he competes with Lawson. Already suspended for the first two games of the 2021 NFL season, Lawson is a candidate to be cut or at the very least ride the bench for much of 2020. He was unremarkable last season, and continued development from sophomore cornerbacks Arnette & Amik Robertson will only squeeze Lawson further. Between a strong start to the preseason, demonstrated versatility on the inside and outside, and glowing praise from Gruden and Bradley, Hobbs is in a strong position to begin the season as Las Vegas’ starting nickel cornerback.
Deonte Brown vs. Pat Elflein
One of the most noteworthy moves this offseason was the trade of Sam Darnold from the New York Jets to the Carolina Panthers, as New York’s regime looked to usher in a new era while Carolina looked for an alternative to Teddy Bridgewater. The unit in front of Darnold, though, will be critical to any success he’s able to achieve and deserves a closer look. During the offseason, Carolina signed Cameron Erving to play left tackle, extended right tackle Taylor Moton, and drafted tackle Brady Christenson out of BYU in the second round. However, it’s their least heralded acquisition on the offensive line that could have the biggest impact in 2021. Sixth-round pick Deonte Brown out of Alabama is a massive guard at 6-foot-4, 350 pounds. and possesses a wealth of upside. With 26 starts in college, Brown was named first-team All-SEC in 2020 and is a dominant run blocker while proving himself to be a more than competent pass blocker. Having lost approximately 20 pounds since the Senior Bowl in January (according to Brown himself), he’s already begun alleviating on one of his primary concerns. He has shown well in both pass protection and as a puller this preseason and is already over the ankle injury he suffered in the second preseason game.
Currently projected as the backup, Brown should quickly push Elflein for the starting left guard spot. Elflein has the fourth-worst PFF grade of any offensive lineman in the league over the past three seasons and was waived prior to Week 10 after playing in just one game for Minnesota due to injury. He was then claimed by the New York Jets and started the final six games for New York. After showing promise at center as a rookie in 2017, Elflein was moved to guard in 2019 and his career has been on a downward trajectory due to numerous injuries and poor play. Brown already projects as the best left guard on Carolina’s roster thanks to his frame, nasty demeanor, and technique. If he keeps his weight under control while improving his footwork, he will be a force to be reckoned with in 2021 and beyond.
Paulson Adebo vs. Ken Crawley
With all the attention on who will be quarterbacking the PDB (Post Drew Brees) Saints, one of the biggest question marks in New Orleans has flown under the radar. While the Saints have one of the better cornerbacks in the NFL in Marshon Lattimore, his complement on the other side of the field remains a substantial question. Last year’s starting cornerback, Janoris Jenkins, was released this offseason and the Saints saw the retirement of 11-year veteran corner Patrick Robinson. New Orleans opted not to pursue a starting corner in free agency, and instead opted to draft Paulson Adebo out of Stanford in the third round. In 2018, his sophomore year, Adebo led the nation in passes defensed with 24 and had four interceptions. He once again had four interceptions in 2019, and opted to return to Stanford for his senior year in 2020. Due to Covid, Adebo opted out of last season, which hurt his draft stock. The 6-1, 192-pound cornerback has generated eight tackles through New Orleans’ first two preseason games as he’s played well at both outside cornerback and as gunner on special teams.
With the departures of Jenkins and Robinson this offseason, the Saints remain thin at cornerback. Crawley has played in 48 games throughout his six-year NFL tenure and produced just one interception with his largely uninspiring play. He was injured in Week 2 of the preseason and his status for Week 1 of the regular is in jeopardy, which opens the door for Adebo to begin the year across from Lattimore. Cornerback Brian Poole also suffered an injury against Jacksonville and was placed on IR, further depleting the Saints’ unit. Though Adebo hasn’t played in a game since 2019, his combination of elite athleticism and burst, along with his penchant for causing turnovers, gives him a tremendous shot to make an impact at outside cornerback for New Orleans.
All statistics from Pro Football Reference & all scouting reports from The 33rd Team