By Nick Shook
Around The NFL writer
Read full post on NFL.com
In case you couldn’t tell by the droplets of sweat gathering upon your brow, summer is here. Training camp is merely days away. The dog days of the preseason are near (don’t all groan at once).
More than 2,800 players are going to fight for their football lives in the next month, with some competitions more dire than others. We’re here to preview a handful of position battles up front that will be worth watching across the league.
Minnesota Vikings: The right side of the line
We’re starting in Minnesota with a whole half (OK, math wizards, two-fifths) of the offensive line, because versatility is king and there’s a lot to sort out.
Determining how these purple-clad blockers line up begins with the right guard position, which is currently the home of a large void thanks to the retirement of Joe Berger. Minnesota drafted his ideal successor in Brian O’Neill, but hedged against it by signing veteran swing lineman Tom Compton. Danny Isidora might also claim ownership of the starting job, which becomes more likely if O’Neill ends up starting at right tackle. Or Mike Remmers could start there, sliding O’Neill to guard. Not to be forgotten, Rashod Hill also could make some noise as a starter or remain for depth. There are a lot of possibilities here with no clear-cut answer.
If I’m looking at it now, I see Remmers starting at tackle with O’Neill ready to take his job at the first sign of weakness. Isidora and Compton battle it out inside, and Hill backs everyone up. An opening-weekend group of Reiff-Easton-Elflein-Compton-Remmers could very quickly become Reiff-Easton-Elflein-Remmers-O’Neill. Or Elflein-Isidora-O’Neill. See why this is such a big problem?!
This is why we have training camp, and to the credit of general manager Rick Spielman, the Vikingshave multiple options from which to choose. This isn’t a matter of a lack of talent, just a matter of assigning it. Many other teams would like to have that problem.
Why this arrives first in this piece is simple to see: Minnesota’s fully guaranteed messiah at quarterbackneeds protection. The good part: The Vikings have the most important positions — left tackle and center — very much figured out.
Cleveland Browns: Shon Coleman vs. Austin Corbett
Joe Thomas is gone to the bounties of retirement, and realistically, he’s been gone since the middle of the 2017 season. That gave us a decent look at who might replace him, and judging by the Browns‘ personnel strategy, they weren’t too pleased.
Coleman did an OK job in the big picture, but showed multiple signs that he simply isn’t a good fit for left tackle. Coleman succeeds at identifying and making contact with his target most of the time, but is often caught leaning and is consistently too upright. That makes him susceptible to the bullrush, and when left on an island against an edge rusher, he struggles. He gets pushed back, collapsing one side of the pocket. It’s not reliable enough to confidently start at left tackle.
That can change with the added experience gained from playing in 16 games and an offseason of work. But he has a rookie who is going to bring plenty of competition from the beginning of camp.
Thirty-third overall pick Austin Corbett comes from the same program as Browns Pro Bowl guard Joel Bitonio and very much followed in the latter’s footsteps, playing tackle at Nevada and was good enough to earn all-conference honors twice. While Bitonio slid to guard upon arrival to the NFL, Corbett will likely remain at tackle, thanks to Cleveland having its interior line solidified with Bitonio, J.C. Tretter and Kevin Zeitler. He’s a solid blocker in all facets and plays with a streak of violence necessary to succeed in the tougher divisions of the NFL (like the AFC North), but doesn’t quite have the measurables (length, height) that make him a natural tackle. He’ll have to make up for that with his technical skill, and he’ll have a good role model lining up next to him in Bitonio — if he can beat out Coleman.
Our own Lance Zierlein compared him to John Greco, who was a solid blocker at all three positions during his lengthy NFL career (which included a seven-season stop in Cleveland). If the Browns get another Greco in Corbett, they’ll be pleased with their selection.
Indianapolis Colts: Jack Mewhort vs. Braden Smith
I spoke with Eagles tight end Zach Ertz on Monday and we came across the topic of his former Stanford teammate, Andrew Luck. He made a point that we have all acknowledged, but one that’s relevant to this space.
“The guy is unbelievably talented,” Ertz said of Luck. “I saw him in college, I was with him for three years. If he’s healthy and they’re able to keep him upright, the guy should be mentioned up there with the rest of those guys.”
Key phrase: “[If] they’re able to keep him upright.”
Offensive line has been a huge problem for the Colts in recent years, but GM Chris Ballard attempted to atone for Ryan Grigson’s sins this offseason by spending multiple draft picks on offensive linemen. Keeping Luck’s jersey clean and name off the injury report begins with a reliable offensive line. That brings us to this battle, which is again about health.
Mewhort is the predecessor of the aforementioned Elflein in the lineage of Ohio State interior linemen who have gone on to have productive NFL careers. His problem has been his struggle to stay on the field. Injuries have caused Mewhort to miss 17 games over the last two seasons, including 11 in 2017.
Injuries are out of a player’s control, but when they pile up, they become a negative trait on a scouting report, which brings us to the selection of Smith. Indianapolis grabbed an instant starter on the opposite side of the line in Quenton Nelson, but Smith is the one whose ascension is less clear. Does he start the season behind a healthy Mewhort, ready to slide in if the veteran ends up sidelined again? Or does he take the job in camp? Either way, that situation is much better than it was at this time last year.
Baltimore Ravens: Orlando Brown vs. James Hurst
Brown arrives in a familiar place — his father established his pro career with the Ravens and Browns — as a value selection for the franchise. An expected first-round pick, Brown plunged after an abysmal combine, but his tape and size still make him a tantalizing prospect. How quickly he can grow into a matured NFL tackle will determine how long he’ll stick in the league, which is a general statement but has added meaning for Brown, who is massive but has the soft-bodied look of one who hasn’t yet reached his full potential. He’ll likely get extra rope in Baltimore thanks to his father’s legacy, making this less pertinent in 2018. But will Hurst prove worthy of the starting job? For an offense that is looking at involving two quarterbacks, right tackle needs to become a position of strength.
Oakland Raiders: Right tackle
This is another case of future starter versus veteran, but this one takes on an intriguing angle because one of the veterans has only been around for two seasons, and the other had a rather abysmal 2017 season. Vadal Alexander is the first veteran, and has spent much of his time in Oakland as a sixth lineman in a personnel group the Raiders used much more often than the typical NFL team. Otherwise, Alexander has backed up whoever Oakland chose at right tackle (or right guard), be it Marshall Newhouse, Menelik Watson or Gabe Jackson. This appeared to be the year in which Alexander might get a shot at a full-time starting gig — until Oakland signed Breno Giacomini and selected Kolton Miller in the first round of the 2018 draft. Giacomini had a nightmarish season in Houston and at 32 years old isn’t much of a source of hope, but with Alexander’s four-game suspension hanging over his head, the door is more open for the former. Miller looks to be the future at right tackle and projects to eventually slide over to left tackle once Donald Penn hangs it up, but this situation is very unsettled at this point. It’s an intriguing battle to watch, in case Alexander surprises some folks, Giacomini experiences a renaissance and/or Jon Gruden decides to ease Miller into the pro game.