Position battles to watch this summer
Minus a few tweaks here and there, either via trade or by picking through what’s left in free agency, NFL rosters are somewhat set for minicamps. With that in mind, we take a look at a dozen of the more fascinating position battles set to unfold before the regular season kicks off …
• T.J. Graham vs. Marquise Goodwin, Da’Rick Rogers and Robert Woods, WR, Bills: In the span of one draft weekend, the Bills went from being extremely thin at wide receiver to having an exciting young nucleus.
The Bills could employ a lot of three- or four-receiver looks again this year, with Graham (31 catches in 2012) or Goodwin out of the slot. Woods might have the inside track on the No. 2 spot, opposite Stevie Johnson, but Rogers, an undrafted free agent, is one of the biggest wild cards in the league heading into the summer.
• Jon Bostic vs. D.J. Williams, MLB, Bears: Who gets the job of replacing legendary ex-Bear Brian Urlacher in the middle of this defense? Williams, signed away from Denver, was the odds-on favorite heading into the draft. There, though, Chicago used a Round 2 pick on Bostic.
Both players could wind up on the field — if Bostic wins the job in the middle, Williams and James Anderson may engage in a second position battle at strongside linebacker.
• Jarvis Jones vs. Jason Worilds, OLB, Steelers: Longtime Pittsburgh edge rusher James Harrison will be wearing a Bengals uniform in 2013, leaving the Steelers to fill the void he left behind.
Worilds alone left them in pretty good shape — the 2010 second-rounder had 5.0 sacks last season and started in place of an injured Harrison three times. Pittsburgh added to its arsenal in Round 1 this year, nabbing Jones after he tumbled down the board a bit. LaMarr Woodley has the other OLB spot locked down, so Jones and Worilds are scrapping for one spot.
• Johnthan Banks vs. Eric Wright, CB, Buccaneers: Wright struggled last year, then earned a four-game suspension for violating the league’s PED policy. He still could retain the No. 2 job, with new arrival Darrelle Revis as the team’s lock-down No. 1 guy, though Wright will have to earn it.
That’s because Banks comes in after Tampa Bay selected him No. 43 overall and ought to have a chip on his shoulder — he was projected as one of the top two or three corners in the draft, only to slide into Round 2, behind his own college teammate, Darius Slay.
Of course, playing in a division against Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans, the Buccaneers may need Banks, Revis and Wright all on the field together plenty.
• Isaiah Pead vs. Daryl Richardson and Zac Stacy, RB, Rams: Most NFL teams require at least two viable options at running back to survive the 16-game grind. Still, someone from this group is going to grab the lead as the Rams’ go-to guy in clutch situations.
Richardson has the statistical edge, after rushing for 475 yards on 98 carries while spelling Steven Jackson last season. But Pead could be the favorite for the gig — during Peter King’s Super Bowl tweetup, ESPN’s Adam Schefter dubbed Pead his pick for breakout star of 2013. Then there’s Stacy, the 160th overall pick, who’s comfortable on all three downs.
• Reed Doughty vs. Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas, S, Redskins: The Redskins badly needed to address their safety spot in the draft, and did so by selecting Rambo (Round 6) and Thomas (Round 4). Thomas could start from Day One at the free safety spot — Doughty is the highly replaceable incumbent there.
Rambo, meanwhile, could challenge either at free safety or strong safety, where Brandon Meriweather is expected to start. The Redskins have left open Rambo’s projected position thus far, and his versatility might make him valuable at both safety spots.
• Marshall Newhouse vs. Derek Sherrod, RT, Packers: One of a number of tackle battles just in the NFC North alone — Detroit’s trying to figure out its situation, and Chicago may still bail on J’Marcus Webb.
In Green Bay, however, it’s Newhouse and Sherrod duking it out (with Don Barclay in the mix, as well). Newhouse started all 16 games for the Packers last season, but did so on the left side, where Green Bay is moving Bryan Bulaga in 2013. Sherrod did not see any action after breaking his leg late in the 2011 season.
• Connor Barwin vs. Trent Cole and Brandon Graham, OLB, Eagles: Two of these three guys should start outside in the Eagles’ 3-4 defense. But who’s going to be the odd man out? Cole started 16 games for the Eagles last year, while Graham stepped in and delivered 5.5 sacks after inheriting a starting role late. Despite those numbers, Philadelphia still went out and handed $36 million to Barwin in free agency, a hint that the front office did not want to rely on the Cole-Graham combo.
• Jason Campbell vs. Brandon Weeden, QB, Browns: Before anyone argues that Weeden is the better play for the Browns’ future, allow me to point out that Campbell (31) is just two years older than Weeden (29). Sure, it’s probably now or never for Weeden — but what if the Browns have decided already on “never”?
Campbell reportedly will be given a “legitimate chance” to wrestle the No. 1 job away. And while none of his career numbers really jump off the page, Campbell did post an 11-7 record as the Raiders’ starter from 2010-11. Cleveland is not nearly as far from being competitive as it has been in recent seasons. Don’t be surprised if new coach Rob Chudzinski chooses the veteran here.
And a quick mention of the other QB duels: Buffalo (Kevin Kolb vs. E.J. Manuel), Jacksonville (Blaine Gabbert vs. Chad Henne) and the Jets (Mark Sanchez vs. David Garrard and Geno Smith), for starters, all face decisions on their No. 1 QBs.
• Erik Walden vs. Bjoern Werner, OLB, Colts: This ought to be an interesting one with Walden, arguably overpaid in free agency at four years and $16 million, taking on Werner, whom many thought should play DE in the pros. The winner gets to start opposite Robert Mathis at OLB in the Colts’ 3-4 scheme.
Walden was underwhelming as a Packer, which is why Green Bay let him walk without any semblance of a fight this offseason. He could hold down the fort, at least early as Werner learns the ins and outs of playing linebacker.
• Drayton Florence vs. Josh Thomas, CB, Panthers: If the Panthers again fall out of contention in the NFC South, there’s a good chance that their pass defense will be their undoing. Carolina’s dearth of talent at safety was front and center in our pressing questions piece, and the cornerback spot may be just as troublesome.
For now, pencil in a starting duo of Josh Norman and Florence — yes, the same Florence who was cut by the Broncos late in camp and then wound up on injured reserve in Detroit. Captain Munnerlyn could see some starts, too, even if it’s in the slot.
Thomas, a five-game starter last season in Carolina, might be the only one capable of shaking up the depth chart at all. The Panthers have to find some answers on their pass defense, so the door is wide open for someone to shine in camp.
• Anthony Fasano vs. Travis Kelce and Tony Moeaki, TE, Chiefs: The rookie, Kelce, could win the day here if he stays out of trouble and proves that he can block in Andy Reid’s offense. He certainly has the highest upside here, especially with Moeaki continuing to deal with knee injuries.
Fasano has a pretty solid track record with 24 career touchdowns and 205 receptions, spread over seven seasons. Even so, neither he nor Moeaki creates the matchup problems for defenses that Kelce can.