NFL Training Camp 2012: Analyzing the Most Heated Battles
NFL rosters are constantly in a state of flux; rarely is a player or a job untouchable. Training camp represents a stage where players can show what they have and make cases for not just roster spots but for starting jobs, as well.
The draft and free agency left a set of incumbent players no longer a lock to keep hold of their old jobs. In some cases, positions have been opened up entirely as players left via free agency, and those spaces are now up for grabs for several players.
We're going to take a look through some of the most heated battles of the 2012 NFL training camps.
Josh Gordon vs. Mohamed Massaquoi vs. Josh Cribbs vs. Travis Benjamin
The Cleveland Browns have been struggling to get some top-caliber quarterback play for years, but they have also been running on empty at wide receiver for a while now, and that isn't helping matters.
Despite a serious drop problem in 2011, Greg Little figures to open the season as their top receiver, having shown enough good to go along with the bad to earn the job.
That leaves the Browns with a logjam behind him for the second starting spot and the third wide receiver gig.
Massaquoi was supposed to be a significant part of Cleveland's plans at receiver, but he hasn't flashed the projected ability, despite looking the part physically.
Josh Cribbs has been arguably the Browns' most dangerous receiver in recent seasons, but it's clear that the team sees him as a return man and gimmick weapon more than an actual starting wideout.
That leaves a pair of rookies in the shape of Travis Benjamin and supplemental draft pick Josh Gordon.
Gordon is the superior talent of the two, but he has spent significant time away from the playing field and will be a long shot to make an immediate impact. Benjamin has a leg up in that regard and could be able to steal snaps early before Gordon is ready to be thrown into game action.
For the short term, the competition would seem likely to be between Benjamin and Massaquoi, but it would seem to be only a matter of time before Josh Gordon gets a chance to show if he can be the legit starter the Browns need.
LeGarrette Blount vs. Doug Martin
There are few better pure runners in the NFL than LeGarrette Blount.
The problem for him is that he isn't great at any of the other areas in which a running back needs to succeed in today's NFL. Last season, the Buccaneers didn't trust his hands or—more importantly—his pass-blocking ability enough to leave him on the field in those situations.
That meant that Blount split snaps almost equally with Kregg Lumpkin, who is not nearly the talent that Blount is.
The Buccaneers selected Boise State running back Doug Martin with in the first round of the draft this year, and Martin is at the opposite end of the spectrum: His selling point is that he does everything well.
Outside of Trent Richardson, Martin might have been the most complete running back in the draft, so he gets an immediate boost in this competition.
Blount has said that he won't be giving up the starting job easily, and Tampa Bay expects to run the ball enough this year to be able to give two runners a healthy number of carries. But Blount needs to show the new staff that he can be left on the field when the team is passing.
If he can't, it will be just a matter of time before he is getting carries simply to spell Martin.
Antonio Garay vs. Cam Thomas vs. Aubrayo Franklin
In addition to having some of the best hair in football, Antonio Garay is also a pretty good player. He is, however, significantly better as a pass-rusher than he is as a two-down run-stuffer.
The Chargers have Cam Thomas behind him, and Thomas is the opposite—far better as a two-down run-stuffer than he is as a pass-rushing force. The logical thing for them to do would be to start Thomas and play him on running downs, allowing Garay to ply his trade as a pass-rusher situationally. Garay could also move to DE on base downs and kill two birds with one stone.
San Diego, however, is reluctant to start players that they don't deem to be the team's best overall, so Garay continues to see his name atop the depth chart.
The signing of Aubrayo Franklin complicates matters further.
Franklin is not that far removed from being an excellent two-gap nose tackle in San Francisco. He was miscast in the Saints' defensive front last season, but in theory he could step right in to the nose tackle spot for the Chargers and be a legitimate candidate for playing time.
This job now becomes a three-way battle for playing time, with any of the three capable of winning the job.
The incumbent starter (Garay) might be the least suited for early-down snaps against the run, and the Chargers need to bench him in order to resolve that.
Brooks Reed vs. Whitney Mercilus
The Houston Texans said goodbye to Mario Williams in free agency, but that doesn't mean they're 100 percent happy with the situation his departure left for the team: relying almost entirely on the pass rush of Connor Barwin and Brooks Reed.
Though both players put up healthy sack numbers, they were also on the field for almost every snap of the season and rushing the passer more than most players. Their numbers were inflated by the sheer number of times they were rushing the passer. Neither player was out of this world in terms of the rate at which he brought the heat, and Reed's spot in particular could certainly be upgraded.
Where Reed did show particularly well, however, was against the run, and that could lead to a sharing of the duties at that outside linebacker spot.
Reed would be able to keep his starting spot and play primarily on run downs, with draft pick Whitney Mercilus providing some fresh pass rush from the bench.
There is a good chance that Reed will keep his starting spot and that Mercilus will have to fight for snaps spelling either Reed or Barwin.
It's an interesting battle to watch, though, because the Texans are likely aware that the sack numbers registered by Reed flatter his performance slightly.
Mike Jenkins vs. Morris Claiborne vs. Orlando Scandrick
When the Cowboys selected Morris Claiborne with their top pick of the draft, most people started immediately looking for potential Mike Jenkins landing spots and drumming up trade rumors.
Jenkins has battled through some injuries for Dallas, and it has affected his play badly, causing him to whiff on some tackles and generally drag his own reputation through the mud. But he is not far removed from a season of excellent play, and he is well capable of being a top corner in this league, so cutting him loose is by no means a foregone conclusion.
Orlando Scandrick has seen some time as a starter due to injuries, but he is the corner that Dallas loves to play in the slot and may well have that position regardless of which player wins the starting job opposite new import Brandon Carr.
Claiborne has rare ball skills for a corner coming out of college, but Rob Ryan's defensive schemes put immense pressure on cornerbacks, often leaving them out on islands with no help.
That is a big task for a corner, no matter how talented, and Dallas may elect to give Jenkins another shot once he is fully healthy before throwing Claiborne to the wolves.
Tarvaris Jackson vs. Matt Flynn vs. Russell Wilson
Seattle enters training camp with a three-way battle for the starting quarterback spot. They initially intended for the battle to be between only free-agent acquisition Matt Flynn and incumbent starter Tarvaris Jackson, but the staff has been so enamored with rookie pick Russell Wilson that he has forced his way into the conversation, as well.
Jackson has always been something of an underappreciated player during his time in the NFL. He has never been as bad as some people like to make out.
But at this stage, it's safe to say that the flaws in his game are inherent ones. They're unlikely to be coached out with another season of experience and starts.
Flynn had all kinds of hype before the free-agent period, but the market was never quite what the media expected it to be, suggesting that as good as he looked in Green Bay, the NFL world is far from convinced that he can do the same outside of that system.
The Seahawks aren't financially married to either player, with both of them playing under relatively manageable contracts, so there's a chance that this will be a legitimate competition, with the best player in camp winning the job.
Despite forcing his way into the competition, Wilson is still the longest shot to win the starting job. Three-way battles rarely last long because of how they make the starting snaps need to be divided up, so Wilson would need to show something pretty special early on to keep his name in the argument.
In the end, I'd expect Flynn to be given the chance to win the job, and Wilson can take the backup spot.
Jackson might wind up a cap casualty when all is said and done.