Biggest Depth-Chart Question Marks After 1st Week of NFL Minicamps
OTAs and minicamps might not mean much to you, but they can mean everything to those trying to make a career out of professional football. Some poor performers in these weeks might not even make it to training camp.
You can rest assured the draft picks will get their chances once full pads are put on in late July and early August, but the same cannot be said for veteran retreads. Everyone competes for their spot in this modern NFL, so we take a look at the biggest depth-chart question marks after the first week of minicamps.
We could produce a slideshow of dozens of positions/teams, but we limit it to 10 of those that made the most headlines in the past few weeks.
So, yes, that means the obligatory review of Johnny Manziel with the Cleveland Browns and the never-ending New York Jets quarterback circus. You will get a lot out of all of our picks, player analysis and predictions here, especially if you play fantasy football and are arranging your draft board.
New England Patriots Running Back
- Shane Vereen
- Stevan Ridley
- Brandon Bolden
- James White
The New England Patriots' starting running back might not have been a debate had Stevan Ridley not fumbled away the role a year ago—or had year-end starter LeGarrette Blount not signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Now, we will see if Ridley gets a chance to win it back.
New England Patriots RB Depth Chart
You have to expect the Patriots' "passing back" will be seen as the incumbent starter, ESPNBoston.com's Mike Reiss expects that, writing Vereen will get the most snaps at the start. Reiss broke down the playing-time percentages of the past two seasons:
- Stevan Ridley — 28.2 percent
- Shane Vereen — 24.7 percent
- LeGarrette Blount — 24.0 percent
- Brandon Bolden — 21.9 percent
- Stevan Ridley — 44.8 percent
- Danny Woodhead — 34.1 percent
- Shane Vereen — 12.7 percent
- Brandon Bolden — 7.5 percent
If Vereen was healthy for all 16 games last year, I think it's safe to say he would have topped the list. The other point is that the way the Patriots play offense, you're usually going to get a pretty even split between the 'big back' and the 'passing back.' Finally, I don't think anything is just going to be handed to Ridley. He'll have to earn it.
Since Ridley is the big back in a Patriots offense that went with Blount more often than not down the stretch, you have to give Ridley a shot at regaining the starting role he lost due to fumbling issues a year ago. Also, Vereen has had a history of health issues.
Ridley told NESN.com's Doug Kyed during OTAs he expects to compete to start:
In this system, always. I'm telling you, I don't say that lightly. I mean, you can go out there and be a starter one game and the next game, you're two or three guys behind. So really none of that matters. It's week in and week out and that's what Coach stresses to us every week that we have to go out there and be competitive as we can be.
He's going to play the matchups game, and we just have to be unselfish enough to go out there and capitalize on the plays that we get. It's not really about competition between the room. I think we just have to push each other to make each the best that we can be.
Ridley told Bleacher Report/Boston.com's Erik Frenz he has grown since losing his starting job last season:
I want to aspire to be a 1,000-yard back every year. And to not reach that, was kind of really a little bit under what I wanted, but it wasn't about my personal goals. ...
Even though you mess up and you're going to be down some days, you just come to work the next day because yesterday is behind you. All you can do is go forward. That's really what I learned through it all.
Brandon Bolden, 24, has value on this roster because of the way coach Bill Belichick likes to rotate his backs, but he will be pushed by fourth-round rookie James White out of Wisconsin. White is not your typical Wisconsin power back. He is more of the undersized shifty type.
Vereen will start, but as long as Ridley gets his ball maintenance in order, he will wind up getting the bulk of the heavy lifting, just as Blount wound up doing down the stretch last season. Bolden backs up Ridley as the big back, while White gets time behind Vereen as the passing back. All of them will play, which will frustrate the heck out of fantasy footballers.
Cleveland Browns Quarterback
- Brian Hoyer
- Johnny Manziel
- Tyler Thigpen
We are sorry we have to do this, but Johnny Football hype is unavoidable. The Cleveland Browns quarterback battle will be the most overly scrutinized depth-chart question mark in all of football until it is resolved. We hope that happens early in training camp, but it is wide open right now.
Cleveland Browns QB Depth Chart
The incumbent is a hero in the state of Ohio, but he isn't the first-round pick, and he is coming off reconstructive knee surgery. Regardless, he was well ahead of Manziel in OTAs, as Browns GM Ray Farmer told 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland:
I want the best quarterback to start. Who is the best quarterback right now? Brian Hoyer. ... It is a good question. I will tell you that probably by a substantial margin.
I say that because here's a guy who's a five- or six-year veteran that has been in the league, who knows the defenses, who reads it quicker. He's got an advanced calculus degree. Johnny's good at math, but I don't know if he's in the advanced calculus stages yet.
The question is not if Manziel will start, but when. It still could happen right out of training camp. Mary Kay Cabot of The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer quoted head coach Mike Pettine's response to Farmer's statements from the above interview:
I think when Ray made the comment, (it was) just because of the circumstances, that Brian had been here for those seven, eight weeks before the draft even started. That was essentially a head start, and I don't think it's insurmountable. Brian is securely ahead of him right now, but we will compete and we will decide.
The issue for us as a staff is finding the right time to name a starter. If you wait too late, then nobody's ready for the opener. If you do it too soon then it wasn't a true competition. That will be part of our discussions as well as far as 'okay, here's the plan, here's a date that want to go ahead and name him.'
Hoyer is going to open training camp as the starter, assuming he can take full No. 1 reps coming off knee surgery. His health and physical limitations won't allow him to hold that job through the third week of the preseason, though. Johnny Football's time is going to arrive before Week 1 at Pittsburgh.
Houston Texans Defensive End or Linebacker
This question won't excite anyone until you mention the name Jadeveon Clowney. We should expect him to start for the Houston Texans, but where is the question right now. The defensive end looks like he will be playing linebacker.
Defensive coordinator Romeo Crennel told the Houston Chronicle's Brian T. Smith: "Clowney won’t automatically start this season and must earn his spot in a revamped 3-4 defense."
We won't bother putting up the Texans' depth chart, because Clowney will play wherever and whenever the Texans want to deploy him. When you are the No. 1 overall pick, you have your own depth chart, and your name is the only one on it.
Clowney's issue in the short term is his hernia surgery, as Smith reported, but he should be ready for training camp.
Clowney is clearly the outside rush linebacker on the right side of the defense, while J.J. Watt is the left defensive end. Clowney could get time over the tight end behind Watt, but it makes more sense to have that freakish athlete rushing from the opposite side. If he's healthy, he's a starter and a game-changer.
Oakland Raiders Running Back
- Maurice Jones-Drew
- Darren McFadden
- Marcel Reece
- Latavius Murray
- Kory Sheets
- Jeremy Stewart
This position battle is not an earth-shattering one in the entire scheme of the NFL, but it is an interesting debate between the disappointing incumbent veteran and the accomplished, but over-the-hill, free-agent acquisition.
Frankly, neither of the Oakland Raiders running backs might be healthy enough to start most of this season.
Oakland Raiders RB Depth Chart
He said on NFL Network's NFL Total Access (h/t Chris Wesseling) he was told: "We get an opportunity to compete."
MJD, despite breaking down as he approaches 30, has been really, really good at competing, which is something that cannot be said for his Raiders counterpart.
The longtime disappointment is going to be the golden age of 27 this season, which still gives him a chance for a career breakthrough. He has never been healthy for a full season, though.
Everyone keeps dismissing Reece, because he is a fullback, but he winds up getting a lot of touches because of the health issues of the Raiders' backs. Don't expect that to stop. Also, Murray is the young gun who can break through. He still needs to get past the CFL import sheets and hold off the undrafted free agent Stewart.
MJD will get the work on the early downs, and McFadden will chip in touches when he is healthy. Reece will be the fallback option, while Murray is a long shot at this point.
Miami Dolphins Running Back
- Lamar Miller
- Daniel Thomas
- Knowshon Moreno
- Mike Gillislee
- Marcus Thigpen
This position seemed like it was solved with the signing of 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown running back Knowshon Moreno this winter. But, alas, as Moreno is wont to do, he has allowed Lamar Miller to steal some thunder in OTAs.
Miami Dolphins RB Depth Chart
Miller dominated the first-team reps in OTAs, according to multiple reports, giving this position battle a whole lot of intrigue. Miller's disappointing second season was the impetus for Moreno's signing, but he is not going to lose his starting job without a fight.
"He's had a very good camp," head coach Joe Philbin told ESPN.com's James Walker. "This is the time as a third-year player that you're ready to make a big contribution."
Thomas is stuck between the young incumbent with upside and the veteran import with credentials. Perhaps Thomas' best case is holding on to the goal-line and short-yardage role. The Palm Beach Post's Andrew Abramson speculates Thomas might not be a lock to even make the roster this season. Ouch.
We have seen Moreno out of shape and on the outs before. That was his career in Denver for years. Walker and others reported Moreno showed up to OTAs out of shape, which is why Miller was holding the first-team reps. When the bell rings for training camp and the regular season, Moreno should be more prepared to compete.
Miller won't hold off Moreno, if Moreno wants it. That is an "if" that has defined Moreno. Since the veteran back signed a one-year, prove-it deal, we should expect Moreno to steal the starting job before the start of the season. Miller has long-term potential, but he isn't a feature back just yet.
New England Patriots Cornerback
- Darrelle Revis
- Brandon Browner
- Alfonzo Dennard
- Kyle Arrington
- Logan Ryan
The New England Patriots signed arguably the best cornerback of our generation, so they have one side on lock. The question is who starts opposite of Darrelle Revis and draws all of that attention that tends to go to that corner?
Revis doesn't get tested much, so that leaves a lot of throws to the other side of the field. That starting cornerback will have the chance to pick off a lot of passes at least.
New England Patriots CB Depth Chart
The former Legion of Boom member will serve a four-game suspension at the start of the season, but he could emerge as a starter by midseason. It won't be easy to unseat the Patriots incumbents, but Browner is a physical corner who could really make the Patriots tough to pass on down the stretch.
Dennard is another Pats corner facing NFL discipline. He served a jail sentence this winter, as ESPNBoston.com's Field Yates reports here, which could draw a suspension by the league. Dennard, who is 5'10", had a tough time with Demaryius Thomas last season, too. Big receivers will have an advantage on him, unlike Browner, who is 6'4".
If Browner and Dennard are both suspended, Arrington or Ryan will have to fill in. They are capable reserve corners who can start in this league, but Ryan is slightly taller at 5'11" and is coming off an impressive rookie year.
We will give Ryan the nod at the start of the season, but all of these guys are going to play a lot this season. Browner is the starter after his four-game suspension expires.
New York Jets Quarterback
- Geno Smith
- Michael Vick
- Matt Simms
- Tajh Boyd
Again, like the Cleveland Browns' Johnny Manziel hoopla, we have to apologize for this one. It is New York and the quarterback position, so we have to mention it.
New York Jets QB Depth Chart
The second-year quarterback would really have to stumble to not win this job going away in training camp. It is entirely possible he does after that mostly down rookie season he suffered through.
Smith was talking like a leader to the New York Post's Post's Brian Costello on Saturday:
Last year I was a rookie. I was learning. I'm still learning, but I was learning the offense. I know the offense. Now, it's about perfecting it. There's really no comparison. It's completely night and day.
... I can see it this year. It's night and day, because I can coach guys up on where I need them to be. ... That's what quarterbacking is. It's about being the coach on the field. That's the position we're in right now. We're still building. We're still developing that chemistry, but as of right now, we're levels ahead of where we were at this time last year.
If not for the offseason signing of Vick, Smith would run unopposed as the starter. As it is, Vick is a big name who will make training-camp headlines in the NFL's biggest media market. Vick is fully prepared to start the year as the backup, as he told the David Teel of the Newport News (Va.) Daily Press:
The thing for me is to prepare myself to go out and win whenever I'm asked. I can't worry about any of the surrounding events because I have no control over them. The thing I can control is when I have the ball in my hand.
Geno has had a very productive camp, making strides each and every day. Geno has a lot of room to grow. He looks good right now. He's playing at a high level. Now there has to be carryover to training camp, preseason and the regular season.
Smith starts and winds up playing his way into a quarterback controversy again. Regardless of how much time Vick gets, this Jets season will still be defined on how Smith starts and finishes. We have a feeling it will be a mixed bag, but the Jets need to find out if Smith is the long-term answer and just use Vick as a one-year insurance policy.
Carolina Panthers Wide Receivers
- Jerricho Cotchery
- Jason Avant
- Kelvin Benjamin
- Tiquan Underwood
- Kealoha Pilares
- Tavarres King
- Marvin McNutt
This is an unfortunate battle after the Carolina Panthers completely remade their receiving corps this winter. Gone are Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell, Ted Ginn Jr. and Domenik Hixon. Even with that crew, the Panthers needed to upgrade at wide receiver. Apparently, that started with them just drawing all new cards.
Carolina Panthers WR Depth Chart
The 32-year-old leads the list only because he has the longest track record. Frankly, Cotchery is a fourth or fifth receiver on most other teams in the NFL. He will wind up there by the end of the season for the Panthers, too.
Avant is in the same boat as Cotchery, a longtime veteran who might get time early and fall down the list later. He was getting first-team reps last week, according to ESPN.com's David Newton.
The Panthers' first-round pick is a big target, but he was considered a bit raw of a prospect going into the draft. With the Panthers, he needs to be a polished product right away. This makes him a boom or bust as a rookie. The opportunity is there, but need might thrust too much on him too quickly.
The Panthers should have considered signing Santonio Holmes in the worst way. The receivers on this roster are a mixed bag...mostly an awful mix of has-beens and never-will-bes. The fact Cam Newton is one of the most talented quarterbacks in the game can help one of these extras emerge as something viable, but the trio above is ahead of them right now.
It is easy to see how much Benjamin means to the Panthers and Newton right away. We suspect he is going to be up and down as a rookie, like all first-year receivers are.
Opportunity will make Benjamin productive, but just how much will depend on his training camp performance. Watch this one very closely. Newton is going to make someone much better than imagined. Benjamin is the talent with a high ceiling.
Indianapolis Colts Wide Receivers
- Reggie Wayne
- Hakeem Nicks
- T.Y. Hilton
- LaVon Brazill
- Da'Rick Rogers
- Donte Moncrief
We chose this position battle over the dozens of others around the league because there is just so much potential here with Andrew Luck entertaining a breakthrough third season. There are a lot of pieces in this offense, which can rise to the level of the Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints and Green Bay Packers.
Indianapolis Colts WR Depth Chart
The veteran figures to be a starter if he is healthy coming off reconstructive knee surgery. He is more of a possession target at age 35. Wayne and the Baltimore Ravens' Steve Smith would be the oldest starting receivers in the NFL again this season. Wayne is likely to play more out of the slot than the others in this offense.
When Nicks was healthy, he looked headed to being one of the best wide receivers in the NFL. The question is how useful are the legs of this 26-year-old now. The Colts signed Nicks on a prove-it deal, and if Nicks is healthy and starting in Luck's offense, look out for a huge rebound and a career year.
We list him third here, but Hilton is a surefire starter and the statistical leader of this bunch. He will start on the outside in a three-wide offense and smash his second-season totals (82 receptions for 1,083 yards and five touchdowns) in year three.
Brazill and Rogers have both shown flashes of brilliance, but they will need to show more consistency to get targets in this offense. Heck, they might have trouble holding off the speedy third-round pick Moncrief who has a big future with Luck and Co.
Hilton and Nicks can be 1,000-yard, 10-touchdown targets, while Wayne figures to provide veteran support out of the slot. He is just too old to expect much from, even if he tops the depth chart. The others will contribute in spurts. If they all play up to their potential, this is going to be one scary offense to contend with.
Eric Mack, one of the giants among fantasy writers, was the Fantasy Football Lead Writer for Bleacher Report this past season. He is now an NFL featured writer here. Follow him on Twitter, where you can ask him endless questions about your team, rip him for his content and even challenge him to a head-to-head fantasy game.
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