With the third week of preseason play in the books, training camps around the NFL are coming to an end. So too are the position battles that took place over the last month-and-a-half.
So which rookies were successful in their attempt to beat out a veteran for a starting job? Here are 10 training camp battles that appear to have been won by players from this year’s rookie class.
Sam Darnold, Quarterback, New York Jets
Jets head coach Todd Bowles reportedly wasn’t going to name a starting quarterback until next week, but it’s now confirmed that Sam Darnold will start over Josh McCown after a solid outing in the Jets’ third preseason game. The third overall pick led an 11-play, 75-yard touchdown drive to open the game against the New York Giants last week, and he finished 8 of 16 for 86 yards with a touchdown pass.
It’s also worth noting that between the three quarterbacks, Darnold has taken the most first-team reps in the preseason, so it would be hard to see anyone else starting for the Jets in Week 1. Of all the quarterbacks taken in the first round of last April’s draft, Darnold has looked the most pro-ready with an excellent display of pocket awareness and the ability to make big-time throws on the run.
Jessie Bates, Safety, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals releasing veteran safety George Iloka last week all but confirms that Jessie Bates, a second-round pick out of Wake Forest, will be the starting free safety in Week 1. The decision to release Iloka was reportedly a financial one, but it was made easier by the fact that Bates had outperformed Iloka in the preseason.
Bates will attempt to replace Iloka, who had been the Bengals’ starting safety since 2013 and was routinely among the team’s leading tacklers year after year.
Royce Freeman, Running Back, Denver Broncos
Royce Freeman has made a strong case to start in the backfield with a rushing touchdown in each of Denver’s first three preseason games, but Broncos head coach Vance Joseph is intent on having a running back-by-committee approach. “I’m not overly concerned about who’s the lead back,” Joseph told reporters last week. “It takes three or four guys.”
For what it’s worth, Hall of Famer and Broncos legend Terrell Davis predicts Freeman will win the starting job. That being said, Freeman might not always start this season, but he is the most likely of Denver’s running backs to take on the biggest workload.
Kolton Miller, Left Tackle, Oakland Raiders
Raiders head coach Jon Gruden told reporters on Monday that he’s “confident” Kolton Miller will be their starting left tackle. The decision to move veteran Donald Penn to right tackle last week supports that. The first-round pick had some help in winning the job with Penn missing the better part of training camp recovering from offseason foot surgery. Penn had been entrenched at left tackle for the Silver and Black since 2014, starting all but two games. Understandably so, it might take some time for him to get comfortable at his new position.
Daniel Carlson, Kicker, Minnesota Vikings
The Vikings made the bold decision to hand over their kicking duties to a rookie when they released Kai Forbath last week. Daniel Carlson, a fifth-round pick who Minnesota traded up for, was perfect on extra point attempts and field goals in the first week of the preseason, which included a 57-yarder that further strengthened his case. Carlson’s next task is keeping the job. He missed two field goals wide left against the Seattle Seahawks last week, which Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was none too happy about.
Michael Gallup, Wide Receiver, Dallas Cowboys
He might not be Dallas’ No. 1 wide receiver just yet, but Michael Gallup has looked the part in training camp and the preseason. In fact, he’s already a starter in some eyes.
The question is: Can Gallup make Cowboys fans forget about Dez Bryant? The rookie will have his work cut out for him.
Chris Godwin, Wide Receiver, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
DeSean Jackson has been looking over his shoulder from the No. 2 wide receiver spot at Chris Godwin for a couple of weeks now. Two weeks ago, the third-round pick hauled in his first touchdown catch of the preseason against the Tennessee Titans. He followed that up with another one against the Detroit Lions in Tampa Bay’s third preseason game. Jackson has been productive in his own right with six catches for 127 yards in the preseason, but Godwin, given his size and ability to win 50-50 balls, is a better fit to start outside.
Michael Dickson, Punter, Seattle Seahawks
Michael Dickson is the reason why Jon Ryan, after 10 seasons in Seattle, was forced to sign with the Buffalo Bills. To say that the rookie has performed well is an understatement.
The Seahawks may have gotten a steal in the fifth round. Dickson appears ready to make opposing offenses miserable by having them start inside their own 20 or worse.
Tre’Quan Smith, Wide Receiver, New Orleans Saints
Tre’Quan Smith, the Saints’ third-round draft pick, has caught 11 passes for 147 yards and a touchdown through three preseason games. Meanwhile, Cameron Meredith, who the team hoped would start opposite Michael Thomas, has yet to catch a pass. Granted, Meredith is still working his way back from last year’s ACL tear, but it looks like, at least right now, that Smith is a better option to start outside or inside depending on what role the Saints have planned for Ted Ginn Jr. this season. One thing’s for sure, Drew Brees is going to have options in the passing game this season.
Kerryon Johnson, Running Back, Detroit Lions
Like the Broncos, Detroit plans to use a host of running backs this season. LeGarrette Blount, a back-to-back winner of Super Bowls with the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles, figures to handle some of the early down work with Theo Riddick serving as the team’s receiving back. Kerryon Johnson, the second-round pick who had a breakout preseason debut for the Lions, will do a bit of both, running the ball and catching passes out of the backfield. Johnson’s performance thus far in training camp and the preseason will likely put former first-round pick Ameer Abdullah out of a job. Johnson and Co. will be tasked with fixing the league’s worst rushing offense from a year ago.