Part two of my look across the NFL at the deepest position groups for every team continues with the NFC. Look for part one here.
Linebackers: Arizona kept 10 edge/linebackers on their initial 53-man roster last year, and they run four-deep at each spot this summer. The Cardinals drafted three edge players in April, pushing some of the veterans down the depth chart. They also signed ILB Chandler Wooten as an undrafted free agent out of Auburn. Wooten will struggle to make the squad, as will seventh rounder Jesse Luketa, who was also a second round pick in this year’s CFL draft. Other names to keep an eye on at the back end of the LB depth chart are Jessie Lemonier (13 games and 1.5 sacks in two seasons with the Chargers and Lions), Ben Niemann (typical hard-nosed Iowa linebacker in his fifth year), and Victor Dimukeje (pass-rushing edge player).
Running Backs: Head coach Arthur Smith, in his second year, came from the Tennessee Titans, one of the few teams that have embraced the run game. He’d like to do the same in Atlanta, but the Falcons were at the bottom of the rushing rankings in 2021. Competition abounds for what is likely three running back jobs (the Falcons use a fullback, so an additional roster spot will be kept for that position). The three players currently on the outside-looking-in are probably 2019 fifth rounder Qadree Ollison, special teams and return ace Avery Williams, and 2021 practice squadder Caleb Huntley. Williams could make it on the strength of his return skills and is learning the running back position after playing defensive back in college.
Defensive Line: Carolina was recently in the mix for veteran edge rusher Carlos Dunlap, who ended up signing with the Kansas City Chiefs. That shows they may not be done adding at an already deep position. By sheer numbers, the Panthers have more ends than tackles in camp for their four-down base. Yet a couple of third-team tackles stand out, like 2021 seventh-rounder Phil Hoskins and collegiate free agent Marquan McCall, a nose tackle who goes 345 pounds. At end, Austin Larkin tries to hang on to a backup position, while former Buffalo Bill Darryl Johnson returns from an injury that landed him on injured reserve last season. Even deeper on the depth chart are players with NFL regular season experience, like Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Frank Herron. A notable rookie free agent is Michigan State product Drew Jordan.
Wide Receivers: Darnell Mooney emerged as a key contributor in the wide receiver room last season, but more will be needed from his compatriots if QB Justin Fields is to take the next step. There are many spots up for grabs this summer at the receiver position, as there are few locks to make it. Veterans pepper the back end of the depth chart, including 2020 Houston Texan draft pick Isaiah Coulter, 5’9″ former Chief Chris Finke, and return man Nsimba Webster. Dante Pettis, David Moore, and Tajae Sharpe are others with significant NFL experience who are all bunched together, trying to separate from the rest of the pack. Chicago currently has 13 receivers in camp, but is only expected to keep about six. We know from the Oliver Luck lawsuit that the XFL had trouble getting competent receivers for 2020; perhaps they’ll reach out to NFL veterans who don’t make it this year. Their search could start in Chicago.
Quarterbacks: This is Dak Prescott’s team, and the Cowboys seem to like Cooper Rush as their backup, a position he has held for most of the last five years. In his first start last year, he led Dallas to a win over Minnesota. That means Will Grier and Ben DiNucci are squaring off to either hold the clipboard as the number three, or perhaps settle for a practice squad role. DiNucci was a seventh round pick in 2020, so he may have a leg up over the veteran Grier. Grier failed to beat out PJ Walker in Carolina last year. A former third round pick, Grier is the kind of QB who could resuscitate his career in a league like the XFL if he fails to make the Cowboys, and the kind of QB the XFL would welcome.
Tight Ends: Detroit has eight tight ends in camp contending for what is likely three spots – perhaps no surprise with head coach Dan Campbell a former TE himself. That also means this is a position where the XFL can snap someone up; even if you account for one or two making the practice squad, that still leaves three or four available for the league to potentially sign. Barring an upset or injury, the top three are pretty much locked in. Former receiver Devin Funchess was signed in June and could make a case to be the fourth at that position. Shane Zylstra was brought in last year as a COVID replacement and will have an uphill battle to make the team, but along with rookie free agent Derrick Deese Jr., is a top practice squad candidate.
Green Bay Packers
Special Teams: There are a couple of legitimate competitions going on here for a unit that underperformed last season, costing coordinator Maurice Drayton his job. At kicker, Mason Crosby has faced competition in camp before, and he’ll do so this year as well, with rookie free agent Gabe Brkic providing that challenge. The Oklahoma product was a Lou Groza Award finalist as the top placekicker in the nation as a senior. Crosby started the summer on the physically-unable-to-perform list, giving Brkic all the early reps to make his case. At long snapper, Steven Wirtel replaced Hunter Bradley mid-year in 2021 to mixed results. Georgia Tech rookie Jack Coco will push Wirtel for the job in camp.
Los Angeles Rams
Linebackers: Some talented players will be left off of Los Angeles’s 53-man roster at the linebacker spot. The Rams brought in four undrafted free agents to compete there in addition to drafting Daniel Hardy out of Montana State in the seventh round. Of those UDFAs, Keir Thomas (Florida State) and Jake Hummel (Iowa State) are the most intriguing. Thomas plays outside and Hummel inside. Jake Gervase, a fourth-year player from Iowa, made the move from safety to linebacker last season and is firmly on the bubble. He’ll have to show special teams value to stick, as will players like Christian Rozeboom and Anthony Hines. It’s a deep group that could have as many as three players represented on the team’s practice squad to start the season.
Offensive Line: Four-fifths of Minnesota’s starting line is settled, leaving just the right guard spot to be hashed out in training camp. There could be three or four players trying to win that job, and it’s possible not all make the squad. Wyatt Davis, a third round pick last year, is one of those players whose job could be in jeopardy with the drafting of Ed Ingram. His draft pedigree could buy him another year of developmental either as a reserve (if he doesn’t win the starting gig) or on the practice squad. Kyle Hinton, a seventh rounder in 2020, has been on and off the Vikes’ practice squad. Rookie free agent Josh Sokol is trying to win the backup center job, while second-year man Blake Brandel and journeyman Timon Parris are contending to be the swing tackle.
New Orleans Saints
Defensive Backs: The Saints’ base defense is nickel, so they predominantly play five defensive backs at a time. They could end up keeping 10 or 11 in the secondary on their initial 53-man roster. At safety, Daniel Sorensen was signed from Kansas City to provide veteran depth and play special teams. He’ll be challenged for that role by Justin Evans, a Bucs second round pick in 2017 who hasn’t played in two years; and Smoke Monday, a high-level rookie free agent from Auburn (NOTE: Monday recently sustained what’s being termed as a “significant” knee injury). At corner, another rookie free agent in Vincent Gray will look to turn heads for a roster or practice squad role. Bryce Thompson, a UDFA last year, and fourth-year vet Dylan Mabin will also hope to shine in the preseason.
New York Giants
Wide Receivers: The Giants play a lot of three-receiver sets, as they don’t carry a fullback and won’t feature many two tight end looks in Mike Kafka’s offense. There may only be two spots open for competition here. Among those who may not make the roster but could be interesting XFL prospects are Collin Johnson, a tall target at 6’6″ who was claimed off waivers from Jacksonville last season; Robert Foster, an Alabama alum who made the Bills as an undrafted free agent in 2018 and has hung around the league; Austin Proehl, a former Seattle Dragon who scored the first touchdown in the relaunched 2020 XFL; and Keelan Doss, who has 11 career receptions in nine games with the Raiders.
Defensive Backs: In his June roster projection, The Athletic’s Bo Wulf called the cornerback position “the most fun bottom-of-the-roster battle of camp.” Therefore, it’s a battle in which XFL personnel should have a vested interest. A couple of rookie free agents will compete among Josh Jobe (Alabama), Josh Blackwell (Duke), and Mario Goodrich (Clemson). For now, it may be a toss-up. At safety, Middle Tennessee’s Reed Blankenship is another undrafted prospect. Kary Vincent Jr., Tay Gowan, and Josiah Scott were all added via trade last season by general manager Howie Roseman, a noted deal-maker. Standing out on special teams may be a way some of these players separate themselves from the rest.
San Francisco 49ers
Tight Ends: The number three tight end spot, generally the last tight end kept on a roster, is wide open in San Francisco. All-world George Kittle is number one, and 2020 sixth round pick Charlie Woerner seems like a safe number two. That leaves five players duking it out in training camp and the preseason for the number three job. Ross Dwelley may have a leg-up, given that he played all 17 games for the team last year. But he’ll be pushed by Tyler Kroft, whose star has fallen since a strong 2017 campaign in Cincinnati; converted WR Jordan Matthews, who topped 800 yards receiving three years in a row in Philadelphia from 2014-2016; and longshot veterans Tanner Hudson and Troy Fumagalli.
Defensive Backs: The really interesting competition here is among the safeties. Seattle signed three high-level undrafted free agents at the position this spring in Joey Blount (Virginia Tech), Bubba Bolden (Miami, Fla.), and Scott Nelson (Wisconsin). At best, one makes the team and one makes the practice squad, which leaves one to get sniped by the XFL. The other place in the defensive backfield that bears watching is at nickel corner, where four players are vying for two or three roster spots. John Reid, a former fourth-round pick of the Texans, could be the odd man out there, while two 2019 Seahawks draft picks in Marquise Blair (second round) and Ugo Amadi (fourth round) are behind starter Justin Coleman.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Wide Receivers: Tampa Bay has done all they can to stock this room with weapons for the returning Tom Brady. Six receivers will likely be kept heading into the regular season, with potentially three making the practice squad. Tampa brought 15 rookie free agents to camp and four of them are receivers. It will be tough for them to even break through onto the practice squad, potentially earmarking them for the XFL. Among them, Jerreth Sterns (Western Kentucky) and Deven Thompkins (Utah State) are the two most interesting. Jaelon Darden was a sixth round pick last season who, despite his return prowess, could struggle to make the team. He’s joined by Vyncint Smith, Breshad Perriman, and Scotty Miller, all of whom have some work to do this summer to latch on.
Offensive Line: Two former XFL players are featured on Washington’s offensive line this summer: C Jon Toth (Defenders) and OT Willie Beavers (Renegades). Sadly, both are likely to be available to the league again in the fall. Keith Ismael is another center who has starting NFL experience but is buried on the depth chart and could be a high draft pick in the XFL in the OL phase. The interior of Washington’s offensive line has the most prospects to watch for, including Deion Calhoun, a surprise undrafted free agent in 2019 from Mississippi State who was thrust into the starting role for seven games with the Dolphins that year. Rashod Hill, Nolan Laufenberg, Aaron Monteiro, and Tyrese Robinson are other names to watch out for on cut-down days.