Many NFL teams come into training camp and the preseason with the majority of their starting roster spots already spoken for. But nearly every club has at least one job that’s still up for grabs as the regular season approaches. Which NFL preseason battles should you be paying attention to as the exhibition campaign gets underway this weekend?
2022 NFL preseason battles
Pro Football Network’s Aaron Wilson wrote about the NFL’s key quarterback battles last week. He’ll provide another update on Friday, so we’ll stick to non-QBs here. Let’s begin in Buffalo, where a key gig in one of the league’s best offenses is available.
Buffalo Bills: Slot receiver
The Buffalo Bills had the third-highest scoring offense in the NFL last season (28.4 points per game), but their receiving corps will look a lot different in 2022. Cole Beasley and Emmanuel Sanders, Buffalo’s second- and third-leading receivers in 2021, are both gone. Stefon Diggs is still Josh Allen’s top wideout, and Gabriel Davis will ascend to the No. 2 role, but who will operate in the slot?
Jamison Crowder was thought to be the favorite to start inside, but Isaiah McKenzie has been playing ahead of him at training camp. McKenzie, who put up an 11-125-1 line against the Patriots in Week 16, is more explosive than Crowder and offers a bit of rushing potential.
Crowder was behind the eight-ball after dealing with soreness at the outset of camp, and McKenzie just returned after a two-day injury absence. This competition is far from over, but the Bills did list McKenzie ahead of Crowder on their unofficial depth chart released this week.
New England Patriots: Pass-catching running back
While the New England Patriots still need to sort out their messy cornerback situation, a new area of concern was created on Tuesday when veteran RB James White announced his retirement from the NFL. White suffered a serious hip injury last season, and New England likely knew there was a decent chance the 30-year-old would hang up his cleats. Now, the staff can use the rest of training camp and the preseason to determine who will take over as the club’s pass-catching running back.
The leading candidate for that role may be veteran Ty Montgomery, who signed a two-year, $3.6 million deal with the Patriots in March. Montgomery has the skill set to thrive as a third-down back in New England’s offense as a former receiver turned RB. But so too does rookie Pierre Strong Jr., who flashed as a receiver at the East-West Shrine Bowl before the Patriots selected him in the fourth round.
New England could also choose to put more on Rhamondre Stevenson’s plate in his second NFL season. Nominal starter Damien Harris is not a receiver in any sense of the word — he has just two career games with more than three targets. Stevenson only earned 18 targets in his rookie campaign, but he profiles as a back who could handle more passing-game work if the Patriots don’t want to rely on Montgomery or Strong.
Baltimore Ravens: No. 2 WR
Tight end Mark Andrews is the Baltimore Ravens’ de facto top pass catcher, and Rashod Bateman will lead the WR corps. After trading Marquise Brown to the Cardinals during the draft, Baltimore is looking for at least one more complementary receiver.
Devin Duvernay recently returned to practice after missing five days with a thigh issue, and he’s listed as the No. 2 receiver on the Ravens’ depth chart. A third-round pick out of Texas in 2020, Duvernay received 47 targets a season ago, third-most among Baltimore’s remaining weapons behind Andrews and Bateman.
His main competition appears to be James Proche, an SMU product drafted three rounds after Duvernay in 2020. Proche has had an excellent camp, according to Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic, who notes the 25-year-old is typically the first player to arrive for practice and among the last to leave.
If neither Duvernay nor Proche separates themselves in the preseason, Baltimore could conceivably rotate its tertiary receiving options.
Cincinnati Bengals: Left guard
The Cincinnati Bengals made a concerted effort to fix their problematic offensive line over the offseason, signing center Ted Karras, right guard Alex Cappa, and right tackle La’el Collins. With former first-round pick Jonah Williams entrenched on Joe Burrow’s blindside, only left guard remains up for grabs.
Jackson Carman, the 46th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, split time between left and right guard in his rookie year and is now the leading contender to start at left guard. After offering inconsistent play last season, Carman has looked more stable in training camp.
Unlike the majority of Cincinnati’s starters, Carman will play in Friday’s preseason game to earn more reps as he tries to fend off rookie fourth-round Cordell Volson, who may need some time to develop coming out of North Dakota State.
Green Bay Packers: Wide receiver
The Green Bay Packers’ WR depth chart seems to be crying out for a veteran addition, but general manager Brian Gutekunst said in late July that he’s not interested in signing a free agent pass catcher. As such, the preseason is shaping up as critical for Green Bay to figure out their WR corps.
Injuries could play a prominent role in determining the Packers’ wide receiver options. Second-round rookie Christian Watson has been on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list since the beginning of camp — Green Bay is hoping he can return soon. Meanwhile, veteran Randall Cobb has missed multiple practices this week with a foot injury.
Those absences have allowed fourth-rounder Romeo Doubs to shine at training camp, where he’s been making spectacular plays daily. Players chosen after pick 100 rarely contribute much in their rookie years, but Doubs could be ready after producing in four straight seasons at Nevada. If the season started today, Allen Lazard, Sammy Watkins, and Doubs would likely be Green Bay’s top three wideouts.
Minnesota Vikings: Safety
Lewis Cine was Kwesi Adofo-Mensah’s first draft pick as the Minnesota Vikings general manager, but the Georgia safety isn’t being handed a starting role. While Cine has mixed in with the starters during training camp, Camryn Bynum is the current starter next to stalwart Harrison Smith.
Cine should usurp Bynum at some point — it’s just a matter of when that happens. NFL teams want their first-round selections to start unless there’s a pressing reason for them not to. Bynum doesn’t have a significant leg up in terms of experience, as the 2021 fourth-round pick has only played 211 career snaps.
Detroit Lions: Cornerback
The Detroit Lions have one outside corner locked into a starting job, but it’s not the former No. 3 overall pick on their roster. Amani Oruwariye will start on one side of Detroit’s defense as he enters a contract year. On the other side, Jeff Okudah is competing with converted safety Will Harris for the other CB role.
Okudah hasn’t been able to live up to his draft billing through three NFL campaigns. His rookie year was an unmitigated disaster both from a performance and injury standpoint, and he subsequently missed almost all of 2021 after tearing his Achilles. Instead of serving as the lockdown corner he was meant to be, Okudah is just trying to hang onto a starting position.
Harris is moving to corner after spending the first three seasons of his career at safety. The Lions listed Harris ahead of Okudah on their unofficial depth chart, and they are opposed to the idea of a timeshare. The loser of this battle could theoretically play nickel, but that may not work out given that A.J. Parker is expected to man the slot in Detroit.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Interior offensive line
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were dealt a serious blow in late July when Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen suffered a severe knee injury. Tampa Bay hasn’t officially placed him on injured reserve, but he’s facing a long absence and seems likely to miss the 2022 season.
The Buccaneers have a replacement for Jensen in 2021 third-round pick Robert Hainsey, but they’re now looking at three new starters on the interior offensive line: Hainsey, trade acquisition Shaq Mason, and whoever wins the training camp battle at left guard.
Aaron Stinnie, Nick Leverett, and Brandon Walton have all seen action at LG during camp, while rookie second-round pick Luke Goedeke could potentially factor in as well. Stinnie looks like the favorite to start — he’s only played 136 career snaps, but that’s more than Walton (60) and Walton (0) combined.
New Orleans Saints: Left tackle
After losing Terron Armstead to the Dolphins in free agency, the New Orleans Saints used one of their two first-round picks on Northern Iowa left tackle Trevor Penning. Thus far, he’s started multiple training camp fights and gotten kicked out of practice — but that’s just who he is.
Penning has been rotating with veteran James Hurst at left tackle. Hurst, 30, has been New Orleans’ swing tackle for the past two seasons, and he started 15 games in 2021 due to Armstead’s injuries.
Hurst may be the NFL’s best backup tackle, and he could start for a lot of teams — but Penning is clearly the future for the Saints. If he can rein in his aggressiveness (to a point), Penning will likely be New Orleans’ Week 1 starter.
Arizona Cardinals: Cornerback
The Cardinals somehow finished fifth in pass defense DVOA last season despite not having any elite talent at the cornerback position. Byron Murphy is solid in the slot, but rookie fourth-rounder Marco Wilson struggled when pressed into full-time duty, and veterans Robert Alford and Bashaud Breeland are no longer on the roster.
Murphy and Wilson will be starters again in 2022 by default, but Arizona still has a gaping hole at one CB spot. Antonio Hamilton, Josh Jackson, Breon Borders, and Jace Whittaker are among the uninspiring options vying for that role in camp. If at least one member of that cadre doesn’t flash in the preseason, the Cardinals could be in trouble.
Arizona’s depth chart desperately needs a veteran addition. The Cards could bring Alford back after he played well in 2021, but he’s entering his age-34 campaign. Fellow aged options such as Janoris Jenkins, Joe Haden, A.J. Bouye, and Xavier Rhodes are also available on the open market.