With training camps finally underway this week, we broke down the top 20 position battles in the AFC on Wednesday. Below are our NFC battles to watch.
Three years ago, this scenario would have looked as realistic as a Donald Trump presidency. Back then, Kaepernick was battling Cam Newton and Russell Wilson as the most promising young quarterback in the NFC. Gabbert was coming off successive seasons where he finished dead last in yards per attempt. Niners coach Chip Kelly was then viewed as an offensive revolutionary in Philadelphia on the way to a division title.
Fast-forward to the present, where Kaepernick is so openly disrespected that his former teammates expect him to lose his job. He's only still on the team because other teams didn't want to trade for him. Still, we don't count out Kaepernick just yet. Gabbert might be the favorite to start Week 1, but both players have the skill set to surprise under Kelly. Remember, this is still the coach who got Nick Foles to the Pro Bowl.
Kelly cuts corners with talent at wide receiver because he believes in his scheme. That theory will be pushed to its limit on a team where the slight consensus favorite for the No. 2 job (to start alongside top dog Torrey Smith) is Quinton Patton, he of 36 career catches. Third-year speedster Bruce Ellington has earned kudos from Kelly all offseason and is our pick to eventually win the job. CFL import Eric Rogers has a chance at the No. 3 spot. DeAndre Smelter and Jerome Simpson are other names to watch. If Kelly pulls this off, look for a return of the "G" word.
Goff is listed twice because this is ultimately a battle against his own expectations. After a shaky OTA season, the No. 1 overall pick needs to show progress, or the Rams will consider bringing him along more slowly than expected.
Keenum is the Brian Hoyer-like trusty veteran who enters camp as the starter and can hold the fort. Sean Mannion, a third-round pick one year ago, impressed this offseason and shouldn't be completely ruled out as a starter. Really. Make no mistake: It will be a disappointment if Goff isn't leading the Rams when the franchise kicks off its Los Angeles reboot 70 years after the first go-around.
It's not about the name on the back of the jersey in Carolina. The secret sauce for Ron Rivera and unsung defensive coordinator Sean McDermott remains their ability to coach up a brutally effective secondary with disparate spare parts. Bene' Benwikere, coming off a broken leg, is the favorite to start in one spot. Rookies James Bradberry and Daryl Worley will battle with surprise Super Bowl starter Robert McClain for other snaps. In Rivera we trust.
Coach Pete Carroll won't promise Rawls the starting job despite his average draft position in fantasy leagues. And why should he? Rawls was a revelation last season, but he's also an undrafted player coming off a nasty ankle injury. Seattle drafted three running backs this year (C.J. Prosise, Alex Collins and Zac Brooks) and signed another undrafted runner -- USC's Tre Madden. Is it that crazy to imagine that one of them could challenge Rawls, a player on few radars at this time a year ago?
Let's pause for a moment to consider that the NFC's dominant team over the last four years won't start a single offensive lineman in the same spot as a year ago. It's almost as if coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider have a blind spot in the area -- like Bill Belichick with second-round defensive backs or Mike Tomlin with sidelines.
Perhaps the Seahawks just have faith that Russell Wilson's weapons can obliterate anything with the help of offensive line coach Tom Cable. The biggest players to watch here: Garry Gilliam moving from right tackle to left tackle, Justin Britt moving to center and first-round pick Germain Ifedi starting at right guard.
If NFL Films created one of those sweet yearbook videos about this Cowboys offseason, it would be called "Suspensions and Surgeries."
This was a defense that had plenty of questions before starters DeMarcus Lawrence, Randy Gregory and Rolando McClain were suspended. Both defensive end starters are out, and Gregory might not be coming back. Defensive linemen Benson Mayowa and Maliek Collins also underwent surgery, along with the annual clean-up for star linebacker Sean Lee. Unheralded guys like Mayowa, second-year pro David Irving and fourth-rounder Charles Tapper are in the mix to start at end. Talented defensive tackle Tyrone Crawford could move outside.
At this point, Dwight Freeney should be offended he's not on the team. This would be one shiny big-name signing that'd make all the sense in the world for Jerry Jones.
After last season's Tony Romo-less descent into the eighth circle of football hell (fraud), you would think the Cowboys would upgrade their backup quarterback spot. You would think wrong, because it's Kellen Moore or fourth-round rookie Dak Prescott.
The team has no such problem at running back, where Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris will go at it behind Ezekiel Elliott. McFadden has to get healthy in time for the season or risk being inactive on game days.
It would be a shock if Bradford didn't open the season as Philadelphia's starter, with Chase Daniel likely to be his backup. Wentz, the No. 2 overall pick, is engaged in a more metaphysical battle. It's his job this month to justify Philadelphia's big trade for him and make coach Doug Pederson believe that Wentz could take over the team down the stretch if Bradford's season eventually goes sideways.
We'll also keep an eye on the Eagles' receiving corps, where Chip Kelly's decimation of the position hurts. Rueben Randle smells like an early favorite to start opposite Nelson Agholor on the outside, with Jordan Matthews mostly manning the slot.
The arrival of coordinator Jim Schwartz shook up the Eagles' defense, especially in the secondary. Leodis McKelvin suddenly looks like the No. 1 cornerback. Last year's second-round pick, Eric Rowe, is a forgotten man, while Nolan Carroll, rookie Jalen Mills and free-agent import Ron Brooks are all in the mix. It's a good thing Philly's safety tandem (Malcolm Jenkins and Rodney McLeod) looks so excellent.
This position exemplifies John Fox's suddenly frisky defense. Pernell McPhee is a slept-on star at one OLB spot. Houston, recovered from his unfortunate self-inflicted celebration injury, finished last season strong. Young has 16.5 sacks over the last two seasons. Floyd, the No. 9 pick of the draft, should start his career as a situational pass rusher. Fox knows you can never have too many good pass rushers.
It was only one play in an early camp practice without pads, but it was symbolic of the questions Jeff Janis faces. The gifted Packers receiver failed to see the field like Aaron Rodgers, continuing to run downfield while Rodgers sight-adjusted to a back-shoulder throw. The pass went nowhere and Janis was apologetic after.
Despite all the tools Janis showed in the playoffs, there are concerns about why he can't get on the same page as his all-world quarterback. Until he does, Adams remains the favorite to get snaps after a brutally disappointing second season. Montgomery is a dark horse here, but he still isn't healthy.
The Giants drafted Cruz's clone in Shepard and gave the veteran a steep pay cut after two seasons decimated by injury. In a perfect world, Shepard will earn the starting job, with Cruz proving he can physically handle the No. 3 receiver job. Reduced snaps could help Cruz stay on the field long term and keep the Giants' unproven depth on the bench. If Cruz doesn't look right, a straight release is an option.
Forgive Sean Payton for being optimistic about his offense this year. He has turned over his roster, with Drew Brees finally having promising depth at running back and wideout. Willie Snead will try to back up his surprising rookie season while fending off second-round pick Michael Thomas and 6-foot-6 behemoth Brandon Coleman for snaps.
There isn't a more compelling backup RB battle in football. Tim Hightower, out of football for three full years, ran with such joyful abandon last season that flashy 2015 free-agent pickup C.J. Spiller could be on the chopping block.
Xavier Rhodes is the CB1 of this defense. After that? Well, last year's first-round pick, Trae Waynes, barely played as a rookie and still is struggling to displace 37-year-old (37!) cornerback Terence Newman. This year's second-round pick, Mackensie Alexander, has an uphill battle to take out veteran Captain Munnerlyn for the slot cornerback job. Great Mike Zimmer defenses usually start in the secondary.
No organization is better at developing defensive talent than Seattle, which is why it's so surprising the 'Hawks don't have an heir apparent ready to take over after Irvin's departure. Sixth-year veteran Mike Morgan knows Carroll's defense going back to USC, but he's usually a special teamer. Cassius Marsh, Kevin Pierre-Louis and Eric Pinkins are other options.
General manager Thomas Dimitroff's future in Atlanta could hinge on this promising draft class. Up to five rookies have a legitimate chance to start in Week 1, including linebackers Deion Jones and De'Vondre Campbell. This big a roster turnover is extremely rare in the NFL, and it will bode well for the Falcons' future if it pans out.
Seferian-Jenkins was kicked out of practice once this offseason for not knowing the offense; don't be shocked if the former second-round pick gets kicked out of the starting lineup in favor of an undrafted Harvard product who already has been cut by the Bucs twice. Two people whose football acumen I trust implicitly love Brate: Chris Wesseling and Jameis Winston.