NFL

2021 NFL training camps: 14 first-stringers who could lose starting jobs

Training camp competitions ignited this week with pads coming on for all 32 teams. Here’s a look at some of the notable names at risk of losing their starting gigs this month.

49ers general manager John Lynch gave himself away when he laid on the Garoppolo training camp praise too thick this week.

“He’s played his best football since he’s been here, and he’s played a lot of good football,” Lynch told The Adam Schefter Podcast.

Keep in mind this analysis is coming from a Hall of Fame safety, fully aware that the 49ers had yet to even practice once with pads on when he made the comments. All those OTAs and shorts-and-T-shirts practices early in camp are for teaching and installing. Lynch knows this. The quarterback competition with Trey Lance started in full on Tuesday. Lynch is fully aware Jimmy G’s troubles have come when the hitting starts, where his history of injuries and struggles to make quick decisions under pressure inspired the team to risk it all for Lance in the first place. 

Another Lynch quote from the same session was more telling: “People say, ‘Well, what do you do if they’re both playing great?’ That’s another great problem to have, and we’ll deal with that when it comes.”

It’s coming, probably soon. August was never about how Garoppolo played; the 49ers already made their evaluation on him. This month is about whether Lance develops quickly enough to start Week 1 and nothing else. All reports indicate he’s on schedule or ahead of it. 

Don’t put much stock in Kyle Shanahan saying he didn’t have a plan to give Lance first-team snaps … a day before he got a first-team snap. What have the 49ers said about their quarterbacks this entire year that would make you believe any of it? 

Whether Garoppolo starts in Week 1 or not likely depends on Lance’s preseason. If the rookie can transfer his early practice success to the games, Garoppolo shapes up as the most expensive backup in football. At this stage, that strategy makes more sense than trading him. 

Due nearly $25 million this season, Garoppolo would make for a tricky trade candidate. A team like the Colts, should they have interest, would probably want to negotiate a pay cut without giving up a truly premium draft pick. Why would Garoppolo or the 49ers want to bother?

The 49ers would be paying a lot of money for security, but this 49ers roster is ready to compete for a Super Bowl. Shanahan and Lynch have suffered through three losing seasons out of four largely because of injuries, often at quarterback. Entering the season with both Lance and Garoppolo offers them the best chance to make it to the finish line without having to play backups Nate Sudfeld or Josh Rosen. Just don’t be surprised if Garoppolo is the backup in this equation as early as Week 1. It’s not about him. 

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Leighton Vander Esch is fresh and looking healthier than he has in years, at least for now. No. 12 overall pick Micah Parsons is lining up everywhere and isn’t going to leave the field. While defensive coordinator Dan Quinn figures to keep three linebackers on the field more than most teams, someone is going to lose snaps here and it’s probably Smith because of his struggles in coverage. 

Coach Jon Gruden called Arnette’s rookie season “disappointing” back in January after injuries and COVID-19 interrupted the first-round pick’s progress, then the Raiders essentially replaced him in free agency. Former Charger Casey Hayward has taken Arnette’s outside corner spot with the starting group in camp, opposite Trayvon Mullen. It’s surprising only because Hayward has often been better in the slot, where the Raiders also could use help. Arnette appears more likely to come off the bench in his second season. 

Gruden changed defensive coordinators to Gus Bradley and clearly came into camp planning to dramatically change his defense. Kwiatkoski, a pricey free-agent acquisition a year ago, has often been the fourth linebacker to hit the field, according to The Athletic, with Nicholas Morrow and Cory Littleton as the starters.

Ferrell, the fourth pick in the 2019 draft, is consistently lining up as a backup behind starters Maxx Crosby and Yannick Ngakoue. Ferrell is finding his destiny as a run-stopping role player and will have a fine career, but the Raiders need more pass rush juice up front. It’s not his fault he was overdrafted. 

There are a lot of Raiders listed partly because Gruden has been so intentional with personnel groupings and they’ve had more newsworthy changes than most. When Brown signed in Las Vegas this offseason, I thought he had a chance to lead the team in receiving. For now, he’s the clear backup behind Bryan Edwards as the team’s X receiver. Henry Ruggs III has added weight and isn’t going to leave the field. Gruden compared Edwards to Terrell Owens on NFL Network, before Derek Carr compared Edwards to Davante Adams. These evaluations are either tinged with August fluff or Edwards is headed to Canton. Either way, it’s a reminder that the Raiders want to play the young guys. Brown might need an injury ahead of him to climb out of the No. 4 receiver role.

While coach Ron Rivera has experimented at practice with lining up Kamren Curl next to Collins, it appears the two men are battling for the strong safety job. Curl was a revelation as a seventh-round rookie starter and Collins is the second-highest paid player on the team, coming off a torn Achilles. Collins signed the contract with the previous Washington regime and hasn’t made a huge impact when he’s been on the field. It appears Curl will have a role as a nickel defender in the slot, so there is room for both, even if Collins plays fewer snaps. If Collins can’t win an every-down job, however, it’s possible he could be playing elsewhere in 2021.

The early quarterback competition in Denver has been back-and-forth, with Teddy Bridgewater turning it up this week after the pads came on. The tie here probably goes to Bridgewater. Coach Vic Fangio wants a caretaker who avoids mistakes and helps his defense win the game. Michael Silver reported for NFL.com in May, after spending a weekend with the Broncos’ front office, that Bridgewater was likely the team’s “presumptive starter” and there’s no reason to believe that’s changed.

Hooper isn’t going to get cut with a $4.5 million guaranteed base salary, nor should he. He’s a reliable chain-mover who finally made a few plays for the Browns in the playoffs last year. With that preamble out of the way, Hooper needs to show more to earn 784 snaps again. Odell Beckham Jr.’s return has improved the receiver depth, with wideout Rashard Higgins and running back Kareem Hunt also soaking up targets. Second-year tight end Harrison Bryant and David Njoku are more likely to make big plays from the tight end position. Hooper could be headed for a season where he’s more of a role player.

It’s not just that the Jaguars drafted Travis Etienne to swallow up many passing down snaps. Urban Meyer also brought in old Ohio State chum Carlos Hyde, who might get a handful of touches each week because of his explosiveness.

If given the opportunity, Davis could make a big leap in his second season. The early indications are that he won’t get that chance. Emmanuel Sanders has taken over as the Bills’ third receiver alongside Stefon Diggs and Cole Beasley. Offensive coordinator Brian Daboll praised Davis for sponging up information from his veterans, with the caveat that he’s “fortunate to have those three guys ahead of (Davis),” according to The Athletic. 

Davis was the nominal fourth receiver last year, too, and wound up playing the second-most snaps because of injury. It will probably take an injury in front of him to get a full complement of snaps.

Rookie third-round pick Trey Sermon took a lot of first-team reps this offseason while Mostert missed time with a knee injury, and Sermon might stay there. His big frame could make sense for the 49ers on early downs with Mostert’s speed being used as a change of pace. 

Kyle Shanahan has repeatedly touted Sermon’s impressive camp and is not afraid to play rookies or play the hot hand at running back. For all his heroic moments, Mostert hasn’t topped 137 carries in a season since joining the 49ers in 2017 and there’s no reason to think he will now.  

A standout as a rookie, Thornhill never quite looked the same in 2020 after returning from a torn ACL. Even before leaving practice this week with a groin injury, Thornhill was lining up behind Daniel Sorensen on the Chiefs’ safety depth chart. 

When Dunbar signed with the Lions this offseason, it looked like he could be their No. 1 cornerback. But he’s been lining up strictly with the backups in camp thus far and is now out of practice with a personal issue. The Lions appear ready to stay young with a starting cornerback tandem of Jeff Okudah and Amani Oruwariye.  

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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