Heading into training camps this week, NFL fans will finally start to see many of our questions get answered. OTAs and minicamps are nice, but they're not football. Late July and the month of August, when the pads come on and the sun is beating down on extended drill work—this, my friends, is when the proverbial rubber meets the road and teams start to find out what they have.
Looking around the league, one of the positions that seems in flux more than ever before is running back. Clearly, the days of the workhorse are long gone. Here for the foreseeable future are committees filled with backs that are used in specialized situations.
Obviously, there are still teams with one main back such as the Bears, Ravens, Titans and Jaguars, but for the most part, teams want to use a mish-mash of talents for different situations, they want them to be young and in this day and age, they want them to be able to diagnose and pick up the blitz.
There are obviously camp battles going on in every NFL camp, but today I wanted to look at three battles that I find particularly interesting, for various reasons.
1. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: LeGarrette Blount vs. Doug Martin
It's no secret that new Buccaneers head coach Greg Schiano wants a smashmouth ground attack to not only control the ball but to help his starting quarterback, Josh Freeman, who took a big step backwards last year.
In Blount, Schiano has a bulldozer who certainly has the power but has been unable to be trusted in pass protection and has a reputation for laziness. His skills can't be questioned, but his commitment certainly can. One big thing working in Blount's favor, however, is his contract. He is dirt cheap this year, earning just $540,000 before becoming a restricted free agent in 2013.
As for Martin, the rookie first-round pick is the complete package. His fall to the bottom of the first round says more about the suppression of running back value league wide than it does about his talents. Martin can do it all, from running between the tackles to catching passes out of the backfield to, you guessed it, protecting the quarterback.
Obviously, this is going off Martin's college tape. Much could change in his first NFL camp. This will be an old-fashioned battle under the August sun.
The press in Washington seems to think this is Hightower's job to lose. While that may be the case, if Mike Shanahan has shown us anything it's that he is unafraid to change his running back workflow at any time, be it training camp or midseason.
Hightower, coming off an ACL injury, certainly showed some talent last year, though his numbers were not exactly impressive. He's hard-charging and certainly gets yards after contact. He looked very impressive in what turned out to be his last game in 2011 down in Carolina. If he can pick up where he left off, a big question mark, he'll be an excellent complement to RGIII.
It will be interesting to see how fair this fight is allowed to be, because if you go by last year's tape, Roy Helu would probably be the winner. While perhaps not as strong as Hightower, Helu certainly made the most of his opportunity when thrust into the lead back role. However, he was dinged up all year and might be most effective sharing the load with Hightower.
As for Evan Royster, I really only include him because of the Shanahan factor. No one really expects him to do much more than provide a breather for whoever starts and perhaps to be the guy who closes out games in the four-minute offense. With that said, Shanahan has been known to surprise before, which always makes it worthwhile to keep an eye on as many backs as possible.
3. New England Patriots: Stevan Ridley vs. Shane Vereen
After letting BenJarvus Green-Ellis to walk in free agency, the Patriots enter training camp trying to sort out a position that, while perhaps not as vital in their offense as some others, is still an important component to what Tom Brady and company want to do.
Obviously, Ridley is the favorite here. He certainly saw the field significantly more than Vereen last year. He is a versatile back with good vision who doesn't shy away from contact, but late-season fumbles didn't do him any favors. He needs to show he can hang onto the ball and that he can keep up with Brady when it comes to the multiple checks at the line and the hurry-up style the Patriots love to use.
Vereen, on the other hand, is a bit of an unknown, mostly because he spent the bulk of 2011 battling a hamstring injury. However, the Patriots spent a second-round pick last year on the California product and no doubt want to see what he can do with fresh legs and a full offseason to immerse himself in the playbook. While Ridley seems to be the foregone conclusion to start, don't be surprised if Vereen makes things interesting as camp and preseason games roll on.
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