NFL

5 key position battles worth watching during the 2023 NFL preseason

The preseason is critical for players hoping to win starting jobs this season

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Preseason football is officially here.

Even though most of the big stars won’t play more than a few snaps, the preseason is critical for teams. Starting positions are up for grabs across the league, including some major roles on teams with Super Bowl or postseason aspirations.

Keep an eye on these five positional battles -- all for 2022 postseason participants -- throughout the 2023 NFL preseason:

San Francisco 49ers quarterbacks

The battle: Brock Purdy vs. Sam Darnold vs. Trey Lance

The favorite: Purdy, the NFL’s Mr. Irrelevant in 2022, enters the preseason as the presumed starter ahead of Darnold and Lance, both former No. 3 overall picks. He closed last season strong, going 7-0 before finally losing in the NFC Championship Game after getting injured early. Now “cleared and ready to go” after elbow surgery, the expectation is that Purdy will step back in as the starting quarterback while Darnold and Lance duke it out for backup duties.

The stakes: San Francisco has had trouble keeping its quarterbacks healthy throughout the Kyle Shanahan era. From Jimmy Garoppolo to Nick Mullens to Lance and Purdy, it’s been impressive how the team can stay in contention regardless of the signal caller. But if this team wants to seriously challenge the Eagles in the NFC this season, they’ll need a healthy and capable starting quarterback. Not only will Purdy be relied upon to stay off the IR, he’ll need to take another step as a playmaker.

Philadelphia Eagles running backs

The battle: D’Andre Swift vs. Kenneth Gainwell vs. Rashaad Penny vs. Boston Scott

The favorite: All four of these running backs should see the field this season. Which one is out there the most? That’s a better question. Miles Sanders served as the Eagles’ bell-cow back over the last four seasons, but head coach Nick Sirianni said that he’s open to any strategy in 2023. Swift and Penny have battled various injuries in their careers, so the safest bet is that Gainwell leads the defending NFC champions in carries this season.

The stakes: While quarterback Jalen Hurts is equipped to handle short-yardage runs, the Eagles would be wise to limit his usage as much as they can during the regular season. These four running backs will play a crucial role in limited Hurts’ mileage throughout a season that is, at minimum, expected to last through mid-January. There isn’t a better situation in the league for a running back with this elite offensive line and dual-threat QB by their side.

Miami Dolphins running backs

The battle: Raheem Mostert vs. Jeff Wilson Jr. vs. Devon Achane

The favorite: Similar to the Eagles, all of these running backs will get carries this season. Mostert spent all of last season with the Dolphins, while Wilson was acquired from San Francisco in a mid-season trade. Both have years of experience with head coach Mike McDaniel dating back to their 49ers days. Achane is the wild card after being selected in the third round and flashing game-breaking speed all offseason. Considering Mostert and Wilson’s extensive injury history, Achane is a decent bet to lead Miami in rushing – especially if he shines in the preseason. This could all change though if the Dolphins sign free agent Dalvin Cook.

The stakes: Life is typically good as a running back in the Shanahan system. That didn’t exactly carry over in McDaniel’s first season leading the Dolphins, but you can point to health and lackluster O-line play as a reason why. Whoever gets the bulk of carries in 2023 has the chance to be a star as the team aims for another postseason berth. The focus will be on Miami’s two star receivers, opening up plenty of room for a good running back to operate.

New York Giants wide receivers

The battle: Darius Slayton vs. Sterling Shepard vs. Isaiah Hodgins vs. Parris Campbell vs. Jalin Hyatt vs. Jamison Crowder vs. Wan’Dale Robinson

The favorite: Of all the preseason position battles, this one feels the most wide open. The Giants were a mess at wide receiver last year – and general manager Joe Schoen clearly recognized that. Veterans Campbell and Crowder join third-rounder Hyatt as newcomers, while Slayton, Shepard, Hodgins and Robinson return for second seasons under Brian Daboll. It’s early – and a rotation will likely be used – but expect Slayton, Hodgins and Campbell to get the most snaps. Slayton was New York’s best WR in 2022, Hodgins finished strong after signing mid-season and Campbell reportedly was impressive in offseason programs.

The stakes: The Giants made the playoffs last year despite boasting one of the league’s worst receiving corps. If they can get some average production at the position, New York could take another step forward. It really doesn’t matter if it's a young player like Hyatt or Robinson or a veteran like Slayton, Shepard or Campbell – the Giants just need someone other than Saquon Barkley to be a skill-position threat. If no one steps up, the team could regress in 2023.

Kansas City Chiefs wide receivers

The battle: Marquez Valdes-Scantling vs. Kadarius Toney vs. Skyy Moore vs. Rashee Rice vs. Justin Watson vs. Justyn Ross vs. Richie James

The favorite: In an incredibly young group, MVS stands out as the most likely No. 1 receiver. And while that might be a scary thought for most teams, those teams don’t have Patrick Mahomes and Travis Kelce. Valdes-Scantling shined in the AFC Championship Game last season, and the Chiefs will be looking for more of that production after losing Mecole Hardman and JuJu Smith-Schuster. Toney, if healthy, has the highest ceiling – the problem is he’s never been healthy (15 games missed in his first two seasons). Moore showed some flashes as a rookie, while Rice enters this season with some hype as a second-round pick.

The stakes: Mahomes can make it work with any group of wide receivers, as he proved last year in his first go-around without Tyreek Hill. As long as Kelce is healthy, the Chiefs’ top wideouts will never have to play the role of a traditional No. 1 receiver. Still, if any of these players can emerge as a legitimate, consistent weapon, it only makes the defending Super Bowl champions more dangerous.

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