NFL Training Camp 2012: Predicting Winners and Losers for Top 10 Camp Battles
One of the consistent themes throughout NFL training camps each season is position battles. While some players duke it out for the final spots on the 53-man rosters, others push for starting positions.
This season's NFL training camps promise to have some of the most interesting position battles in recent memory. I cannot even count on one hand the number of teams that are going to go into camp with some sort of quarterback competition.
These battles are not just limited to the quarterback position, either. As you will see in the following slides, there are a ton of different positions up for grabs.
Will Doug Martin unseat LeGarrette Blount for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting running back job? What about the six different players vying for time at cornerback in Cincinnati with the Bengals?
I will take a look at 10 different position battles around the NFL heading into training camp, giving you my final prediction on each.
10. Cincinnati Bengals Starting Cornerback Slot
Who: Dre Kirkpatrick, Nate Clements, Terence Newman, Jason Allen and Pacman Jones.
Kudos to the Cincinnati Bengals for setting out to address a relative weakness in their pass defense. They signed veterans Jason Allen and Terence Newman, who, combined, have 154 NFL starts under their belt.
Then, Cincinnati went with the best player available with its top 2012 NFL draft pick by selecting former Alabama standout Dre Kirkpatrick.
What was a weakness in 2011 has quickly turned into a strength this upcoming season.
Newman, Allen and Kirkpatrick join a crowded cornerback group that already consists of Leon Hall, Nate Clements and Pacman Jones.
It goes without saying that Hall is etched in stone as the Bengals' No. 1 corner as long as he is fully recovered from a devastating Achilles injury last year.
I would hedge my bets on either Newman or Clements winning the No. 2 job, with Kirkpatrick starting his NFL career in the slot.
Despite their plethora of young talent, Cincy is in "win-now" mode. It just makes sense for them to go with one of those two veterans on the outside while Kirkpatrick works on his technique and hones some issues that saw him drop a bit in the draft.
The player this affects the most is Pacman Jones, who might be a training camp casualty. If the enigmatic reserve player and special teams performer is relegated to riding the pine, it makes no sense to keep him on the final 53.
Either way, this is a very good situation for them to have.
Winner: Nate Clements
9. San Franciso 49ers: Backup Running Back
Who: Kendall Hunter, Brandon Jacobs and LaMichael James.
The San Francisco 49ers have built quite a backfield. Frank Gore will remain the starter in 2012, but he should see his touches limited due to a number of different factors, mainly to keep him fresh throughout the season.
This is one of the primary reasons that San Francisco signed Brandon Jacobs away from the New York Giants and selected LaMichael James in the second round of April's draft.
We can conclude that the major training camp battle in Santa Clara this summer will be at the backup running back position.
Kendall Hunter, a fourth-round pick in 2011, impressed a great deal last season by accumulating nearly 700 yards as Gore's primary backup. While many say Hunter doesn't have the build to be a featured running back, his 5'7", 199-pound frame suggests otherwise. In fact, Hunter compares favorably to Ray Rice in that regard.
Brandon Jacobs was brought in to be nothing more than a short-yardage back, as the 49ers struggled in that area in 2011. His 36 rushing touchdowns over the course of the last four seasons ranks among the best in the NFL during that span. Don't expect Jacobs to get much of a look outside of goal-line and short-yardage situations, though.
The huge wild card in this battle is former Oregon running back LaMichael James, who was one of the most explosive players in the recent history of college football.
James has an ability to break the long run on every single play, something the 49ers also struggled with in 2011. He is also a receiving threat out of the backfield for the progressing Alex Smith.
Winner: LaMichael James
8. Baltimore Ravens: Outside Linebacker Jobs
Who: Paul Kruger, Sergio Kindle and Courtney Upshaw.
Outside linebackers in a 3-4 defense are linchpins. They make the rest of that unit tick in every possible way. Their ability to rush the passer yields timely interceptions in the back end and negative yardage in the offensive backfield.
Without a consistent threat from this position, a defense will consistently struggle to stop the pass.
This is the situation that the Baltimore Ravens might find themselves in after losing reigning Defensive Player of the Year Terrell Suggs to a torn Achilles this offseason. Reportedly, Suggs may miss the entire 2012 season.
Good thing Baltimore went out and selected former Alabama standout Courtney Upshaw in the second round of April's draft. He has elite speed coming off the edge and should be able to make an immediate impact. In fact, many scouts had Upshaw as a top-15 pick during the earliest stages of the draft process.
Sergio Kindle, another early-round pick, is going to need to start living up to those expectations. Although most of his early career issues cannot be placed on the talented pass-rusher, he just needs to show an ability to contribute sooner rather than later.
Kindle is currently dealing with hearing loss issues, continuing a run of bad luck that began with him falling down a flight of stairs and suffering a cracked skull immediately following the 2011 NFL draft.
The only viable veteran leftover at this position is Paul Kruger, who leaves a lot to be desired in terms of a pass rush. He has a total of 6.5 sacks in 36 career games, including just one start.
It just makes sense for the Ravens to go with talent, no matter how inexperienced that talent might be. Kruger will be able to come in as a situational player and perform relatively well, but he is not a starter at this point.
Winners: Courtney Upshaw and Sergio Kindle
7. New England Patriots: Starting Running Back
Who: Stevan Ridley, Shane Vereen and Joseph Addai.
Surprisingly, the New England Patriots got over 1,300 total yards from BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Danny Woodhead from the running back position last season. Green-Ellis signed with the Cincinnati Bengals in the offseason, and Woodhead is slated to start at fullback for the Patriots this season.
So, New England is going to have to find other players to shoulder the load and create a more balanced offensive attack with Tom Brady and Co. dominating through the air.
The Patriots chose both Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen relatively early in the 2011 NFL draft with hopes that they would form a solid duo in the backfield. While Ridley, a third-round pick, accumulated nearly 500 rushing yards last season, Vereen was held back due to injury and played in a total of five games.
New England is going to rely on these two a great deal heading into 2012. They seem to complement one another extremely well. If Vereen is healthy, he could be a real sleeper in the backfield. On the other hand, Ridley proved that he can be a solid running back in the National Football League.
They also went out and signed former Indianapolis Colts 1,000-yard rusher Joseph Addai, who adds a veteran presence to the mix. Addai, a first-round pick in 2006, is two years removed from a 1,200-yard, 13-touchdown performance.
My bet is that the Patriots go with a committee-type set in the backfield with both Ridley and Vereen getting a bulk of the carries. Addai will help out in pass protection and on third downs.
Winner: Stevan Ridley
6. Green Bay Packers: No. 3 Wide Receiver
Who: James Jones, Donald Driver and Randall Cobb.
This is where it gets incredibly interesting. Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson combined for over 2,200 yards as the Green Bay Packers' starting receivers in 2011.
By no means does this indicate that the Packers' No. 3 wide receiver battle isn't important. As evidenced by the nearly 5,000 yards that Green Bay threw for in 2011, it relies heavily on the pass. Additionally, you can expect Aaron Rodgers to stray away from Jermichael Finley if he continues to struggle with actually catching the football.
James Jones was solid, though not spectacular, in his fifth season with the green and yellow. He averaged nearly 17 yards per catch, but only recorded an average of three receptions per game. That's not the consistency that Green Bay is going to look for from its slot receiver.
Despite already having a Hall of Fame career in Green Bay, Donald Driver needed to take a pay cut in order to remain with his original team. Driver has seen his production drop in each of his last two seasons, bottoming out with a 445-yard performance in 2011. It remains to be seen how much he has left in the tank.
This brings me to my dark-horse favorite to win the slot position in Green Bay: Randall Cobb. The talented 2011 second-round pick didn't see the field on offense as much as his counterparts, but he performed extremely well in that limited action. He accumulated nearly 400 receiving yards while becoming a standout special teams performer as a rookie.
Cobb has a chance to be dynamic in the slot. He can break away from press coverage and beat nickel defenders over the top with blazing speed. In short, Cobb could add an entirely new dimension to an offense already stacked with talent.
Winner: Randall Cobb
5. Arizona Cardinals: Starting Quarterback
Who: Kevin Kolb and John Skelton
In reality, we could look at the Arizona Cardinals' right tackle position, where Jeremy Bridges will be battling with impressive rookie Bobby Massie for the starting job. While that competition isn't as sexy, it might be more important to the overall success of the franchise this season.
I just don't see Kevin Kolb or John Skelton wowing Arizona's coaching staff right now. Neither quarterback appears to be pulling ahead in the competition, which could be an indicator that Arizona will have to go with the lesser of two evils.
Kolb's first season in the desert was an absolute disaster after coming over in a costly trade from the Philadelphia Eagles. He missed seven games due to injury because of inept offensive line play that saw the quarterback get sacked 30 times.
When Kolb was on the field, he did nothing to prove that he was worth the lofty bounty that Arizona paid. He completed less than 60 percent of his passes, threw nine touchdowns in as many games and accumulated just three wins in nine starts.
On the other hand, Skelton won five of his seven starts in a surprising late-season stretch. That being said, his numbers were among the worst starting quarterbacks in the league. The young quarterback completed just 55 percent of his passes, threw three more interceptions than touchdowns and compiled a horrendous quarterback rating of 68.9.
Unlike Seattle, the Cardinals are limited in their options. Neither quarterback gives them much confidence heading into 2012. If I had to go with one, it would be the guy that Arizona put their trust into last offseason by giving up a second-round pick and Pro Bowl cornerback to acquire.
Winner: Kevin Kolb
4. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Starting Running Back
Who: LeGarrette Blount and Doug Martin.
Let's get one thing straight: The former regime with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers really didn't give LeGarrette Blount much to work with in terms of consistency after a successful rookie season.
Blount rushed the ball 15 times or fewer in nine of his 14 appearances in 2011. Considering that the former Oregon running back is a bruiser, they didn't give him an opportunity to dominate late in games.
Instead, Raheem Morris and Co. made the foolhardy decision to concentrate on passing the ball a great deal in these situations.
Any indication that Blount cannot be a starter in the NFL is beyond dumb at this point.
That being said, Tampa Bay traded back into the first round of April's draft to select former Boise State standout Doug Martin. The talented running back possesses everything you look for in an elite ball-carrier in the National Football League.
He has exceptional speed, can hit the holes quickly and has great field vision. Moreover, Martin has the ability to catch the ball and block out of the backfield—two things with which Blount struggles.
I may be a bit subjective here because of my belief in Martin, but I think he wins the job straight out of camp. Either way, Blount will also play an important role in the Buccaneers' newly-installed offense.
Winner: Doug Martin
3. Tennessee Titans: Starting Quarterback
Who: Matt Hasselbeck and Jake Locker
The Tennessee Titans were incredibly close to shocking the football world and making the postseason in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year the franchise in 2011. They had just spent a top-10 pick on a quarterback and had their all-everything running back hold out into camp.
Then came the signing of longtime Seattle Seahawks quarterback Matt Hasselbeck, who seemed to be that veteran presence that this team needed on the field and off.
Hasselbeck had his best year since a Pro Bowl performance in 2007. He threw for over 3,500 yards and possessed a quarterback rating near the mid 80s. That being said, the veteran quarterback did struggle down the stretch, throwing just four touchdowns in the final seven games of the season.
Enter Jake Locker, for whom Hasselbeck acted as a great mentor. The former Washington standout didn't see a great deal of action as a rookie, but he did contribute four touchdowns without throwing an interception. This was after he looked extremely good in training camp and during the preseason.
Now, Tennessee is in a precarious situation. It is still considered contenders for a playoff spot in the AFC, which may lead it to believe that the veteran is its guy.
However, there are other factors that play into this situation. First, can Tennessee conceivably sit a quarterback it selected in the top 10 for his first two seasons in the league? Second, would the 2012 version of Jake Locker be that much worse than his veteran counterpart?
The answers are twofold. Tennessee wouldn't hesitate letting Locker ride the pine another season, especially with the relationship he has with his mentor. That being said, there is a strong possibility that Locker would actually increase the Titans' chances for a postseason run.
My bet is on them going with the youngster here.
Winner: Jake Locker
2. Miami Dolphins: Starting Quarterback
Who: Matt Moore, David Garrard and Ryan Tannehill
There will come a time in the not-so-distant future, possibly early in training camp, that rookie first-round pick Ryan Tannehill is no longer a part of this competition.
Tannehill isn’t completely out of the running and could play at some point this season. But he got by far the fewest first-team snaps and it was an issue to the point that he went to Philbin and offensive coordinator Mike Sherman to discuss it in mid-June.
Not an indicator of someone ready to compete for a starting job as a rookie.
This leaves veterans David Garrard and Matt Moore battling it out in camp. Both have had their success in the NFL, and both would be able to run the Dolphins' West Coast offense, which focuses on short routes and a limitation of mistakes.
New Fins head coach Joe Philbin asserted that Garrard has been impressive since signing a one-year contract in the spring.
Garrard’s impressive...... He looks you in the eye, shakes your hand and you feel good about the guy. He can still move well. He throws the ball with a lot of velocity and his accuracy has been good. His command of the offense is good.
It really wouldn't surprise me if Garrard got the call heading into the regular season. Some seem to forget that the veteran quarterback has compiled 45 more touchdowns than interceptions and a surprising 85.8 quarterback rating in 76 career starts. Not too shabby if you ask me.
For his part, Moore was fairly impressive in his first season in South Beach last year. He thew just nine interceptions in 12 starts and possessed an impressive quarterback rating that neared the 90s.
This could go either way, but I will give Garrard the lead at this point.
Winner: David Garrard
1. Seattle Seahawks: Starting Quarterback
Who: Matt Flynn, Tarvaris Jackson and Russell Wilson
The one thing we cannot say about the Seattle Seahawks quarterback situation is that they are lacking options. Pete Carroll and Co. made it a goal to create as much competition at this position during the offseason.
For good reason.
Tarvaris Jackson has never been anything more than a pedestrian quarterback in the NFL. While Jackson did throw for more than 3,000 yards for the first time in his career, he compiled a quarterback rating of under 80 en route to a .500 overall record.
To be honest, the only hope that Seattle has to win the NFC West is for either Flynn or Wilson to unseat the incumbent.
That being said, a recent report from John Clayton over at ESPN indicates that Jackson will be going into training camp as the starting quarterback.
Apparently, Flynn did not impress enough during organized offseason activities to unseat Jackson. This isn't an indication that the former Green Bay Packers backup won't begin the season as the starter; it just means that he won't start camp later this month running with the first team.
All things equal, Flynn gives the Seahawks offense a better chance at success.
While Wilson probably will be the odd man out in this competition and serve as the scout team quarterback, there is no doubt in my mind that he is the future starter. Aside from his height, the former North Carolina State and Wisconsin signal-caller has all the possible indicators for success.
I am going to go out on a limb and state that Carroll will come to the conclusion that Flynn gives them the best shot to contend for a postseason spot.
Winner: Matt Flynn