Position battles to watch in training camp
We’re all excited that the NFL is back, but let’s face it: The preseason is excruciatingly long. Heck, we’re still more than a month out from the season opener between the Cowboys and Giants.
As with every late July and August, though, there should be plenty to talk about as the regular season approaches, which brings us to the position battles that we’re keeping an eye on this preseason.
Every team has some intriguing showdowns heading into camps, but 12 of the best follow below. They’re rated in order of importance, from the ones we deemed least critical to a team’s 2012 success up to the battles that may make or break a team’s shot at the playoffs. Each matchup also has a projected winner, even if it’s probably way too early to make the call in most cases.
Here’s our look at a dozen of the most important position battles of the preseason:
12. Mario Manningham vs. Randy Moss (49ers No. 2 WR)
The 49ers’ receiving corps certainly looks better on paper — and the reason this particular battle isn’t higher on the list is that both guys, plus Ted Ginn, A.J. Jenkins and maybe Kyle Williams, should see action. What’s at stake is a starting spot opposite Michael Crabtree in the 49ers’ run-heavy offense. Moss, somewhat incredibly, could have the edge, because Manningham might be better suited to a No. 3 WR role.
Projected winner: Moss
Importance of this battle (scale of 1-10): 1
11. Stevan Ridley vs. Shane Vereen vs. Danny Woodhead (Patriots RB)
Is that everybody? I think that’s everybody, with apologies to undrafted FA Brandon Bolden. BenJarvus Green-Ellis left in free agency, and the team added (and recently cut) Joseph Addai, clearing up the picture at least somewhat. Last year, Green-Ellis led the way with 667 yards rushing, while Ridley put up 441 and the diminutive Woodhead topped 500 total yards. This is the definition of a backfield by committee.
Projected winner: Ridley
10. LeGarrette Blount vs. Doug Martin (Buccaneers No. 1 RB)
Similar to the 49ers’ receiver joust and the Patriots’ running back competition, both Blount and Martin should see plenty of action — it’s rarer and rarer that teams go through the season relying on just one back. Martin’s arrival might be just the thing to light a fire under Blount, but Martin brings a more complete game to the table. If Martin can outwork Blount in camp, new coach Greg Schiano is sure to take notice.
Projected winner: Martin
9. Armon Binns vs. Mohamed Sanu vs. Brandon Tate (Bengals No. 2 WR)
A.J. Green is the unquestioned go-to guy in the Bengals’ passing game, but with Jerome Simpson off to Minnesota, who will be the No. 2 option? There’s no shortage of options — so many, in fact, that Jordan Shipley and fifth-round pick Marvin Jones aren’t even on the list here, and someone probably won’t end up on the roster. By all accounts, Binns was terrific in early workouts, so he may hold a surprising edge here. Tate, though, has the experience and Sanu might have the highest ceiling.
Projected winner: Sanu
8. O.J. Atogwe vs. Kurt Coleman (Eagles SS)
Coleman and Nate Allen were penciled in as the Eagles’ safety starters, but the arrival of Atogwe as a free agent in June might alter those plans. Atogwe bombed in Washington last season after signing a five-year, $26 million deal, and his late signing means he has catching up to do. Still, he’s a veteran leader and may serve as an upgrade on Coleman, who isn’t exactly a Pro Bowl talent in the defensive backfield.
Projected winner: Coleman
7. Atari Bigby vs. Brandon Taylor (Chargers SS)
There are intriguing situations all over Chargers camp, including at wide receiver and running back. The Chargers really need more from this position than they got last season, when Steve Gregory was thrust into the starting lineup and returned an up-and-down (probably more down) performance. This is experience vs. youth here — Bigby, 30, was used sparingly as a backup in Seattle last season but knows the league and its receivers; Taylor, a third-round pick out of LSU this year, can bring the hammer as a heavy hitter.
Projected winner: Taylor
6. Chimdi Chekwa vs. Shawntae Spencer vs. DeMarcus Van Dyke (Raiders No. 2 CB)
For now, let’s go ahead and chalk Ronald Bartell up as one of the Raiders’ starting corners. That leaves Chekwa, Spencer and Van Dyke to duke it out for the other role. Spencer will enter camp with the inside track over the younger Chekwa and Van Dyke, but he was barely able to get on the field for the 49ers last season. Both Chekwa and Van Dyke struggled with injuries last season, so it’s hard to get a great read on where this will go.
Projected winner: Spencer
5. Bill Bentley vs. Jacob Lacey vs. Alphonso Smith (Lions No. 2 CB)
Aaron Berry had the cornerback spot opposite Chris Houston locked down until he was arrested … and then arrested again. The second offense, in which Berry allegedly waved a loaded gun at a group of people during a disagreement, forced Detroit to send him packing. Smith has been in Detroit’s system the longest, but he has a habit of surrounding one spectacular play with a handful of bone-headed ones. Can Lacey re-energize his career outside of Indianapolis? Is the rookie Bentley ready for a starting role?
Projected winner: Lacey
4. Antoine Caldwell vs. Brandon Brooks (Texans RG)
The Texans remade the right side of their O-line this offseason, parting with guard Mike Brisiel and tackle Eric Winston. There’s a tussle on at the tackle spot too, between Rashad Butler and Derek Newton. But the one inside, between Caldwell and Brooks, has more of our attention. Caldwell has 13 starts under his belt in Houston over the past three years; Brooks, at No. 76 overall, might have been one of the most underrated players in the 2012 NFL Draft.
Projected winner: Caldwell
3. Vlad Ducasse vs. Wayne Hunter vs. Jeff Otah (Jets RT)
More on this battle here. None of the choices are all that terrific, so it may come down to which guy is the least of three evils. An oft-injured Otah, if he can stay on the field, should have an edge over an overmatched Hunter and the disappointing Ducasse. If Otah can’t stay healthy, Hunter may be back in by default. The Jets need better play at RT, especially if southpaw Tim Tebow sees extended time.
Projected winner: Otah
2. J’Marcus Webb vs. Chris Williams (Bears LT)
Webb has been a complete wreck for two straight years now. He allowed 12 sacks and 30 QB hurries last season, which led Pro Football Focus to rate him the worst offensive tackle in the NFL. Amazingly, he scored even lower in 2010, when he gave up 11 sacks and 38 QB hurries. Williams was moved from guard to tackle during OTAs to help stabilize the position … but will his move thin Chicago out too much on the interior?
Projected winner: Webb
1. David Garrard vs. Matt Moore vs. Ryan Tannehill (Dolphins QB)
This position battle has been beaten to death already, and it’s only July. Every guy has his selling points: Garrard was a 2009 Pro Bowler and finished 2010 13th in QB rating, before sitting out 2011 with a herniated disc in his back; Moore provided a huge spark for Miami last season, going 6-6 in the starting role; and Tannehill, the No. 8 overall pick in April, has dibs on Miami’s “QB of the future” role. This fight could rage throughout the preseason.
Projected winner: Garrard