NFL Player Development – Positional Competition

Dan Essien explores the effects of positional competition when it comes to player development in the NFL…

The New York Jets are in the process of rebuilding their roster. A key element to that is player development. One of the most underrated elements of player development in football is positional competition. It’s true that talent often rises to the top regardless of what’s around them. But an often overlooked potential accelerant to development is who’s making them better in the days between games. Typically the best help a player can get midweek is great coaching. But often its their teammates that drive them to get better. I’m not talking about players at the same position competing here, though. I’m talking about iron sharpening iron. Offensive players making defensive players better and visa versa. QB vs. secondary, safety vs. tight end, wide receiver vs. cornerback, etc. Let’s take a look at the role of counter-positional competition in player development.

There are many examples of great players or units that influenced their counterparts to get better. It’s a concept that’s particularly important when rebuilding a roster, like the New York Jets currently are. Let’s go through a few prime examples of the effects of counter-positional competition from the lasts few years. First we’ll discuss examples of good and bad competition. Then, we’ll discuss how the Jets can implement this strategy in their rebuilding process.

Good Competition

Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham vs. Eagles O-Line

Part of the evidence of the benefits of competition is unexpected depth. The Eagles have some monsters in the trenches. Fletcher Cox and Brandon Graham have been battling the likes of Jason Peters, Jason Kelce, Brandon Brooks and Lane Johnson in practice. Undoubtedly it has kept them all playing at their best.  The fruit of this competition showed up when it mattered most as well.  In the Super Bowl, the Eagles rushed for 164 yards (6 yards per carry) behind their offensive line (without Jason Peters), and gave up 0 sacks. And we can’t forget the game clinching strip sack by Brandon Graham.

Patrick Peterson vs. Larry Fitzgerald

The Arizona Cardinals drafted CB Patrick Peterson in 2011 and at that point Larry Fitzgerald was already a bonafide star wide receiver. While Patrick Peterson was already an expected star (especially coming from the perennial NFL factory: LSU), he grew up quick having to face Fitzgerald in practice. Fitzgerald’s skillset is a perfect challenge for Peterson and visa versa. Fitzgerald is a big bodied receiver and an excellent route runner. Peterson is a big, physical corner, with great ball skills and instincts. They both have kept each other at their best for a while. Fitzgerald in particular is still playing at an incredibly high level for a wide receiver his age (34). They both have admitted to a great relationship because of their constant competition. The Cardinals did well to pair these two. They’ve really been one of the very few consistently good players that have gone through Arizona in the last decade.

LOB vs. Russell Wilson and the UDFA’s

The Seahawks, at the recent height of their powers, are a great example of how important competition can be. Seattle put together one of the best secondaries the NFL has ever seen. But at the same time they were also developing a 3rd round quarterback in Russell Wilson and two undrafted receivers in Doug Baldwin and Jermaine Kearse. Wilson, Baldwin, and Kearse were all tried in the fire. While teams hated facing the Seahawks secondary on a weekly basis, they had to hone their craft against them daily. I’d say it worked out pretty well.

Doug Baldwin is considered one of the best route runners in the NFL and solidified himself as Seattle’s top receiver. Jermaine Kearse showed good he could be with the Jets last season, when he totaled 810 receiving yards and 5 TD’s, and could’ve had even more with how often he got open. They seemed to both benefit from those battles with Richard Sherman.

Russell Wilson is a 4-time pro bowler and at times looks like a legit MVP candidate, particularly with how he’s been propping the team up recently with the amount of injuries and departures they’ve had to deal with. How good he has become has a lot to do with the fact for years he’s been facing off with the best free safety in the NFL in Earl Thomas during practice. Along with Sherman on the outside, as we mentioned, and Bobby Wagner leading the front at middle linebacker. Nothing comes easy.

Tyreek Hill vs. Marcus Peters

Despite the Chiefs trading Marcus Peters, we all know he’s a top 5 cornerback when he’s at the top of his game. When the Chiefs drafted Tyreek Hill in 2016, they used him as mostly a gadget player because of his speed and big play potential. In the offseason before his second year, however, Andy Reid said Hill would be utilized as the team’s top wide receiver. How better to gauge how good a receiver is than against Marcus Peters in practice? There were reports that their battles were a highlight during camp, and earned Lo and behold, Tyreek Hill lit it up as the Chiefs’ “number one” receiver, racking up 1183 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns.

Honorable Mention:

Xavier Rhodes vs. Stefon Diggs & Adam Thielen

Jalen Ramsey vs. Allen Robinson (2016)

Cooper Kupp vs. Trumaine Johnson (2017)

Bad Competition

2016 Cam Newton vs. Defensive decline

Cam Newton won the MVP in 2015. Much of that was parallel with the rise of the Panthers’ defense. However, his down year the following season can be linked pretty directly to the fall of the defense. The Panthers let Josh Norman, who had become one of the best cornerbacks in the NFL, test free agency and he eventually signed with Washington. As a result of that and some in-season injuries, the Panthers defense plummeted to 26th overall in 2016. That decline showed up in Newton’s production as well. Without a elite defense to practice against, Newton’s completion percentage dropped 7 points (60% to 53%), he threw 4 more interceptions and 16 fewer TD’s.

Jameis Winston vs. Tampa Bay secondary

Much has been made about 2015 first overall pick Jameis Winston not living up to his potential. But we never really examine the type of defense he’s facing in practice and how that’s affecting his development. Since Winston was drafted the Bucs have had the 16th, 22nd, and 32nd ranked pass defense in the NFL. We discussed how good competition helped Russell Wilson develop earlier. There’s no question Winston has more desirable physical tools than Wilson but his development has been at a much slower rate. The Bucs poor secondary play is likely part of the problem.

Jets failed defensive line experiment

The Jets drafted three defensive ends in the first round from 2011-2015 (Mo Wilkerson, Sheldon Richardson, and Leonard Williams. We all know how that strategy turned out. But we rarely consider how competition may have played a role. The Jets’ offensive line started to decline, most notably around the time they drafted Leonard Williams. D’Brickashaw Ferguson retired after the 2015 season, Nick Mangold began to decline and eventually was cut after the 2016 season. The decline of the offensive line play paralleled the growing ineffectiveness of the defensive line, despite the amount of talent they had.

Who you practice against matters. Bad habits, like slow starts, usually happen with teams that aren’t competing well enough during the week. Game experience isn’t a shock if you’re kept on your toes and at the top of your game in practice. So what does this mean for the Jets?

Going Forward

The Jets can utilize this concept of counter-positional competition to help build their young team. Let’s start with the QB position. The Jets are likely going to draft a rookie QB with the 3rd overall pick. We mentioned earlier how helpful a strong secondary can be to a young developing QB. The Jets have invested a good amount into their secondary recently. Their young safety tandem, Jamal Adams, and Marcus Maye (both 1st and 2nd round picks respectively), and their new shutdown cornerback, Trumaine Johnson. Whichever quarterback the Jets draft will be brought into a good environment with the Jets improved secondary.

The Johnson signing should also create a nice opportunity for Quincy Enunwa and Robby Anderson to get better. After Enunwa’s career year in 2016 and Anderson’s career year in 2017, it’ll be interesting to see if Johnson can push them to becoming even more consistent and effective. The same goes for the entire TE group for the Jets in relation to Jamal Adams and Marcus Maye. It won’t be easy pickings for any TE on the roster in training camp, particularly with Adams and Maye heading into their second seasons with great experience. But it’s good to know whoever emerges out of Jordan Leggett, Eric Tomlinson, Neal Sterling, Clive Walford, and Bucky Hodges will have been tried in the fire. Plain and simple, if the Jets continue to match up talent against talent, they’ll build up their team depth and field a more prepared team on gameday.

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