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NFL preseason position battles: Five juicy non-QB competitions

Roughly one month ago, I looked at the biggest position battlesheading into training camp. With each of these job auditions winding down, I wanted to check back in on the status of five of the most intriguing NON-quarterback competitions.

Dallas Cowboys: Middle linebacker

Jaylon Smith already beat the odds by playing 578 snaps last season after recovering from the devastating college knee injury that sidelined him as a rookie. Now he appears set to score a bigger upset, holding off first-round pick Leighton Vander Esch for the starting middle linebacker job.

Smith was expected to be moved to strong-side linebacker even before Vander Esch was drafted. Left unsaid in that projection: The uncertainty of whether Smith could handle the larger role. His 2017 season was understandably uneven, with diminished explosion and change-of-direction skills from his heyday at Notre Dame.

But he looks like a different player this year after shedding his knee brace. Even before Vander Esch hurt his groin last week, Smith was dominating the first-team reps with no signs of letting go. Smith and Cowboys stalwart Sean Lee have been the guys in two-linebacker sets. Vander Esch's injury has all but ended his chances of passing Smith by the opener.

Sure, there could be a bit of wishful thinking at play here with all the Cowboys' voluminous praise of Smith. He's already beloved and respected by Dallas coaches and teammates for his toughness and leadership skills. He's a player the Jones family would love to have representing the team for a long time.

"What I'm seeing right here, right now, what I've seen so far, what I saw in the offseason, completely justifies our drafting him in the second round. Completely," Jerry Jones said earlier this month.

The focus on the starter designations might be beside the point. In Lee, Smith and Vander Esch, defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli has three flexible linebackers who can provide answers against a variety of offensive formations. They can all play multiple spots, part of the most intriguing Cowboys defense in years. DeMarcus Lawrence is a top-tier pass rusher, Randy Gregory is surprisingly creeping back to the starting lineup and second-year cornerback Chidobe Awuzie has Pro Bowl traits.

The Cowboys have the potential for something special in Smith and Lee, especially after an offseason from Smith that the team might not have expected.

Cleveland Browns: Running back

Carlos Hyde vs. Nick Chubb looked like one of the best position battles in football entering the offseason, but it failed to truly materialize. It's not hard to see why after watching the Browns' preseason games.

Hyde has dominated first-team reps exclusively, at least when passing-down back Duke Johnson isn't working into the mix. Hyde's burst jumps off the screen, whereas Chubb is more of a grinder who looked improved in the second preseason game after a tentative showing in the opener. Hyde's talent was never fully harnessed in San Francisco, but his combination of size and wiggle should make him an ideal tag-team partner for Johnson. That may not leave much room for Chubb -- barring injury, of course -- at least not until next season.

New England Patriots: Wide receiver

Way back in the olden days of mid-July, Jordan Matthews, Malcolm Mitchell and Kenny Britt were expected to be contributors to the Patriots' remodeled passing attack. None of them made it to September. Britt's release on Wednesday was surprising because of the timing, but he had fallen behind after a hamstring injury that lingered for two months. Mitchell and Matthews also had significant health issues.

This "throw a bunch of veteran receivers against the wall and see who sticks in August" approach is not a new one in New England, but the standouts in camp have been eye-opening. Former Colts first-round pick Phillip Dorsett is set to start, even if he hasn't translated his practice success into games yet. Cordarrelle Patterson is in line to be the team's No. 3 receiver in addition to the future executor of Bill Belichick's new-kickoff-rule cheat codes. Second-year undrafted tight end Jacob Hollister looks slated for a significant role in the offense. Britt's departure absolutely boosts Eric Decker's chances of making the team.

There's a lot of talk in fantasy football circles about Chris Hogan's new role as the No. 1 receiver in New England, at least until Julian Edelman is back from suspension. But Rob Gronkowski is the true top option, and running backs James White and Rex Burkhead might not be far behind. The Patriots' offense that racked up 613 yards in the Super Bowl is going to look a lot different, but Tom Brady has made it work with motlier crews than this.

Seattle Seahawks: The defense

The stark demolition of this decade's defining defensive core has not yet fully been absorbed. It will take seeing a mostly anonymous secondary playing the role of "The Legion of Boom" in a regular-season game for it to set in. It will take seeing a rookie like Rasheem Green and third-year undrafted pro Branden Jackson earning the snaps that once went to Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett.

Most observers seem to be looking at the Seahawks with confusion or declaring them a mess, but I'm fascinated by whether coach Pete Carroll can make this all work, surprising the league like he did early in the decade by speaking a historic defense into existence. Second-year cornerback Shaquill Griffin will start on the outside, with Justin Coleman as the nickel back. The team's fourth-round pick at safety from a year ago, Tedric Thompson, is likely to start opposite Bradley McDougald, barring an increasingly unlikely return by Earl Thomas. Fifth-round rookie cornerback Tre Flowers has a chance to start, especially if Byron Maxwell can't stay healthy.

Replacing five longtime veteran starters in one offseason is bold. Replacing five veteran legends (Avril, Bennett, Richard Sherman, Kam Chancellor and possibly Thomas) all at once is without much precedent in this era. Can Carroll start over at age 66 and produce a successful sequel in Seattle as the final act of a career arc few saw coming?

Washington Redskins: Running back

On the surface, signing Adrian Peterson was the type of move that the Redskins used to make all the time: a legendary player at the end of his career getting one final check. In reality, it was a no-risk transaction that offers coach Jay Gruden one additional option at a suddenly shorthanded position.

Rookie Derrius Guice was set to have a big role in Washington's offense. His torn ACL -- followed by Samaje Perine's ankle injury -- gave Gruden the space to provide Peterson a two-week tryout. The Redskins aren't that desperate. Rob Kelley is solid enough as a projected starter and Chris Thompson is a dynamic passing-down option if he's truly recovered from his broken leg.

Peterson says he has every intention of being the starter in Washington -- and why wouldn't he? He's defied the odds before in his career and his arrival gives everyone something to watch in these final two preseason weeks. Gruden wouldn't have signed Peterson unless he had a chance to start, but the 33-year-old's far from a lock to even make the roster. In the end, even first-ballot Hall of Famers get treated like undrafted rookies just trying to make the cut. The only alternative to that ending is not playing the sport you love again.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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