Analysis

Twelve important position battles to track during 2021 NFL training camps

Football is right around the corner, with training camps getting underway this week. And that means it's time to turn our eyes toward the position battles -- including the all-consuming quarterback competitions -- that will rage across the NFL. With jobs at stake and the winners often owning the potential to shape their teams' seasons, I thought now would be a good time to highlight the position battles to watch.

Below, I've listed 12 important position battles, including five QB competitions, to keep track of as we dive into camp.

Training camp is finally here! Be sure to check out NFL Network's extensive live coverage, including Inside Training Camp every day and highlighted by Training Camp: Back Together Saturday Fueled by Gatorade on July 31.

New England Patriots
New England Patriots
QUARTERBACK

Cam Newton vs. Mac Jones vs. Jarrett Stidham


This is really a two-man race, given that I don't see a scenario in which Stidham, the third-year pro with eight total games (and zero starts) to his name, gets the nod. I truly believe the Patriots will be at their best -- at least in 2021 -- with Newton under center, due to his presence, leadership and familiarity with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels. However, if the 2020 version of Cam Newton -- the one who ranked toward the bottom of the NFL in most passing categories -- shows up to camp, the door will be open for Jones to either win the job in August or take over at some point during the regular season. I do think Newton will be better this season, but it'll be tough for him to recapture the dynamic form that once made him one of my favorite players to scout in college and the NFL. At 32 years old, he's not the same runner or playmaker he was early in his career, though he did lead all QBs with 12 rushing TDs last year. 


That said, Jones was drafted No. 15 overall for a reason. He's a proven winner and an accurate pocket passer who should fit well into McDaniels' system. Newton knows the pressure he's under to perform. Will he step up? Or will New England have a different QB1 for the third straight year? 

Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos
QUARTERBACK

Drew Lock vs. Teddy Bridgewater


Of all the quarterback battles, this is the one that truly is a toss-up. Lock, 24, has shown a lot of inconsistency in 18 games over two seasons, posting an 8-10 record in the process. The third-year pro and former second-round pick has a higher ceiling than the 28-year-old Bridgewater, but he's so much of a wild card that you wonder how much longer the Broncos will hold out for Lock to fulfill his promise without seeing the results. On the other hand, the Broncos know exactly what they're getting with the veteran Bridgewater. He's a steady leader who can command an offense and excels in the short passing game. The question is whether Teddy, who owns a career record of 26-23 and a career passer rating of 89.5, will be good enough to help Denver compete for the AFC West title (or a playoff spot).

Chicago Bears
Chicago Bears
QUARTERBACK

Andy Dalton vs. Justin Fields vs. Nick Foles



General manager Ryan Pace and head coach Matt Nagy knew they couldn't pin their job security on Dalton, the 33-year-old veteran signed to a one-year deal in free agency, so they moved up in the draft to select the uber-talented Fields 11th overall. Chicago's QB situation is thus more about when Fields will play, not if. Dalton comes into camp as the front-runner to take reps with the 1s, but it's soon to be all about Fields and how quickly he can develop. As far as the 32-year-old Foles goes, I don't foresee any situation that puts him on the field in Chicago this season, and there's most likely not much of a market for the Super Bowl LII MVP at this point in his career, coming off a two-season stretch in which he went 2-9 with a 13:10 TD-to-INT ratio. A team could make a trade for him if injuries hit.

San Francisco 49ers
San Francisco 49ers
QUARTERBACK

Jimmy Garoppolo vs. Trey Lance


There's something to be said for a quarterback who wins, which is what Garoppolo has been throughout his career. Since becoming Kyle Shanahan's full-time starter in San Francisco in 2017, Jimmy G has put up a 22-8 record and helped the 49ers to a Super Bowl appearance. He's not a top-10 quarterback, but he's good enough within the system to routinely pile up victories. However -- and this is a big concern -- he seems to always be hurt, with the most recent setback being ankle issues that cost him all but six games in 2020. Of his three full seasons in San Francisco, Garoppolo has only played one full regular-season slate. Team CEO Jed York has suggested the ideal situation is for Lance, who comes in with limited experience but big potential as the No. 3 overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, to not play this season, and Shanahan reiterated on Tuesday that there is currently no open QB competition. Still, an injury to Garoppolo could change the story, making this position one to monitor.

New Orleans Saints
New Orleans Saints
QUARTERBACK

Jameis Winston vs. Taysom Hill


For the first time since the 2005 season, a quarterback not named Drew Brees will be tasked with running New Orleans' offense, making this a huge training camp for Sean Payton and the Saints. Winston, the first overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, is the better option, as his game is more well-rounded than specialist Hill's. Hopefully a year of seasoning behind Brees helped Winston develop a better mindset, and that he learned when to take a more conservative approach, rather than constantly playing with reckless abandon like he did in Tampa. I think Jameis is going to be the guy, but you never know what Payton has up his sleeve. Hill went 3-1 as a starter last season when filling in for an injured Brees, so we know he's fully capable of winning with a talented supporting cast.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
TIGHT END

Rob Gronkowski vs. O.J. Howard vs. Cameron Brate


A lot of the position battles on this list will be won by the player who is less of a liability than his competition. The Bucs are enjoying quite the opposite problem at tight end, which features three good, intriguing options. Gronkowski will be known as one of the best tight ends to ever play the game when it's all said and done, and though the 32-year-old is not what he was during his prime in New England, he still serves as a reliable red-zone option for Tom Brady and rugged blocker in the run game. Howard, a 2017 first-rounder entering the final year of his rookie deal, missed a majority of the Bucs' Super Bowl-winning campaign with an Achilles injury, but is set to return (even if he's not practicing yet) as the most talented TE on the roster. Brate was recently placed on the PUP list, but presuming he makes it back on the field, he'll be the third TE in this deep group -- and the drop-off between these three players feels minimal.

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
LEFT TACKLE

Sam Tevi vs. Julie'n Davenport


The left tackle position was the big question mark after Anthony Castonzo's retirement -- and I'm going to be honest here, it's still a big question. Eric Fisher, the ex-Chief who was signed this offseason, would be the hands-down favorite for the blind-side assignment if he were healthy, but he tore his Achilles in the AFC Championship Game in January and is starting camp on the PUP list. So the battle will be on to take Fisher's place in the meantime. Tevi started 43 of 48 possible games with the Los Angeles Chargers since 2018, but only 14 of those (all in 2020) were at left tackle. With Tevi having allowed two sacks, nine QB hits and 33 total pressures on 594 pass-blocking snaps last season and Davenport playing on his third team in four years, Carson Wentz can't feel all that great about his short-term LT options while Fisher recovers. (Will Holden, who started one game at right tackle for the Colts last season, is also a potential option.)

Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs
RIGHT SIDE OF O-LINE

Kyle Long vs. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif vs. Andrew Wylie vs. Mike Remmers vs. Lucas Niang vs. Creed Humphrey


The Chiefs completely revamped their offensive line -- and they had to, after watching Patrick Mahomes run for his life in Super Bowl LV. I loved the signing of Joe Thuney to play left guard and the trade for left tackle Orlando Brown. But if Remmers is still the Chiefs' starting right tackle, there's a big problem. There could be a decent solution here, depending on what the rookie Humphrey brings to the table. He could impress enough to start at center or guard, which then could shift some players around. Having worked with Andy Reid in Philadelphia, I know he loves to develop linemen and likes versatility within the unit. I'm sure he's working through some of that now, trying to figure out the best three possible players he can trot out at center, right guard and right tackle to protect the franchise.

New York Giants
New York Giants
RIGHT TACKLE

Matt Peart vs. Nate Solder


Despite some splashy free-agent signings made by the team, New York's offensive line -- listed second-to-last in Pro Football Focus' 2020 season-end rankings -- is still a major concern. In fact, if anything, the O-line got worse after losing its best performer (Kevin Zeitler) in free agency to the Ravens. Peart, a second-year pro, enters training camp as the favorite to start at right tackle -- and the Giants want him out there, so expect them to do all they can to help him succeed as the starter. Solder had a disappointing 2019 campaign after getting paid big money in 2018, then opted out of 2020 due to the pandemic. He was struggling before taking a year off, so the question is, what will the 33-year-old look like when he shows up to camp?

Green Bay Packers
Green Bay Packers
CORNERBACK

Kevin King vs. Eric Stokes


When you have a shutdown cornerback -- in Green Bay's case, it's Jaire Alexander -- it's a given that the corner playing opposite him will routinely get picked on. King bore the brunt of that burden during last season's NFC Championship Game loss, so I'm guessing it didn't do much for Cheeseheads' psyche when he was re-signed this offseason. What turned those likely frowns upside down was the selection of Stokes late in the first round. He's a big, fast and confident cover corner who has the talent to go toe-to-toe with wide receivers at the next level. Regardless, the competition between these two players will improve the secondary.

Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
CORNERBACK

Greedy Williams vs. Greg Newsome


By playoff time last season, the Browns were desperate for healthy defensive backs, and it showed. They did a nice job addressing their much-needed secondary depth this offseason, and they now look to sort out the CB2 position opposite Denzel Ward in camp. Williams returns from a gnarly nerve injury in his shoulder, and he'll have a shot if he's fully healthy. Newsome, the Northwestern product I had as the third-best cornerback in the draft, poses a big threat to Williams as a rookie with the mentality and talent to win the job.

Seattle Seahawks
Seattle Seahawks
CORNERBACK

Ahkello Witherspoon vs. Tre Flowers vs. Pierre Desir vs. Tre Brown vs. D.J. Reed


Unlike the Bucs with their TE options, the Seahawks are in for a world of hurt with this cornerback group of castoffs. It's amazing to me that GM John Schneider and coach Pete Carroll allowed this unit to get so thin, with the top players on this list looking to me like backups, at best. Like I wrote a few weeks ago, last year's trade for safety Jamal Adams is coming back to hurt the Seahawks. They only had three draft picks this year, making it very hard to address all of their needs. Expect to see some solid competition within this group, but I'll be shocked if they can compete with the elite receivers in the NFC West.

Follow Marc Ross on Twitter.

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