NFL Training Camp: Predicting the Most Surprising Outcomes of Position Battles
With NFL training camps well underway and the preseason about to begin, position battles are in full swing in every NFL training camp.
Training camp battles often occur between rookies and unproven players going up against experienced veterans either on the tail-end of their careers or coming off a disappointing season. In the case of highly-touted young players, they are often expected to win these battles, but some battles could have results that many would not expect.
The following 15 position battles all may be too close to call right now, but they are projected to have outcomes that could come as a surprise to many.
Tennessee Titans: Jake Locker over Matt Hasselbeck, Quarterback
Locker (left) and Hasselbeck
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In his first season as Tennessee Titans quarterback, Matt Hasselbeck had his best season since 2007, in which he threw for 3,571 yards and 18 touchdowns, and led his new team to a 9-7 record. Even following a good season, however, Hasselbeck could be in line to be replaced.
That is because the Titans selected Jake Locker as the eighth overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, and therefore have plans for him to be the team’s franchise quarterback. One season to develop behind Hasselbeck was very beneficial for Locker, a quarterback with major accuracy problems coming out of the University of Washington, but if the Titans determine he is ready to take the reins in 2012, Hasselbeck will be forced to the bench.
Locker is still facing questions as to whether he is ready. According to Matt Rybaltowski of CBSSports.com, Locker’s latest training camp on practice on Friday was “arguably his most complete” yet, but Rybaltowski also reported that he completed less than 36 percent of his passes during 11-on-11 drills in the two previous practices.
Even with Locker’s struggles, the Titans seem to be leaning in his direction as the starting quarterback. According to NFL Network’s Michael Lombardi and Ian Rapoport (via Rotoworld), the Titans “hope” that Locker will be the starting quarterback, which makes sense considering the value they invested in him with a top-10 draft pick.
Houston Texans: Derek Newton over Rashad Butler, Right Tackle
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Derek Newton was only a seventh-round draft selection in 2011, but he is a promising young offensive tackle with the size, feet, and power to be a starting-caliber offensive tackle. With the offseason release of last year’s starting right tackle Eric Winston, Newton goes into his second season with a chance to earn a starting job.
Veteran right tackle Rashad Butler is expected to rise to the starting role, but it is not going to be handed to him. According to Nick Scurfield of HoustonTexans.com, the Texans are holding an open competition between Butler and Newton at right tackle.
Newton is certainly going to have to step up, and clearly outperform Butler, in order to win the starting job. The potential Newton showed as a collegiate player and draft prospect, however, is enough to believe that he has a chance to win this job, especially considering Butler has never been an established starter in the NFL.
Philadelphia Eagles: Brian Rolle over Jamar Chaney, Weakside Linebacker
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In 2010, Jamar Chaney was a seventh-round draft pick, but he made an immediate impact in his rookie season. One year later, sixth-round draft pick Brian Rolle stepped into immediate playing time with the Philadelphia Eagles.
However, with the Eagles bringing in veteran middle linebacker DeMeco Ryans and rookie second-round pick and outside linebacker Mychal Kendricks in an overhaul of their linebacker corps, Chaney and Rolle now must fight for a roster spot of their own.
Chaney has done some great things in his first two seasons, which would make him the expected favorite in this battle. However, his play has also been inconsistent, and given the emergence of Rolle as a rookie, Chaney may be headed back to the Eagles’ bench.
Rolle is very short for an NFL linebacker at only 5’10”, but with the selection of 5’11’’ linebacker Kendricks early in this year’s draft, the Eagles have shown that a lack of height does not concern them. Rolle makes up for his lack of height with intelligence, instincts and sound tackling, and his first season was quite promising.
Now, the two linebackers are in a tightly-contested battle. Thus far in training camp, Rolle has been working as a starter in the base defense, but Chaney has been a first-teamer in the nickel package, according to Reuben Frank of Comcast Sports Net.
Rolle seems to have the early lead, and if he continues to build upon his early season, he should emerge as the victor in this battle.
New York Giants: Mark Herzlich over Chase Blackburn, Middle Linebacker
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As a rookie, just making the New York Giants’ final roster made Herzlich a feel-good story, as he had overcome cancer as a collegiate player. Entering his second season, however, Herzlich wants to be more than a feel-good story; he wants to start.
Herzlich started two games in his rookie season, but he has entered training camp as the second-team middle linebacker behind Chase Blackburn, according to Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPNNewYork.com. But although Blackburn was the team’s starter for the stretch run that ended with a Super Bowl title last year, I like Herzlich’s chances to ultimately win his job back.
Blackburn was a late addition to the Giants last season following a season-ending injury to Herzlich’s ankle last November, and while he is back for the 2012 season, he has never started more than eight games in a single season. That leaves the window open for the starting middle linebacker job, and Herzlich has certainly won his share of tough battles before.
This could be a very tight battle throughout training camp at a position that is admittedly a weakness for the Giants, but if Herzlich can get even closer to his pre-cancer form this season, he will be a starting-caliber linebacker and an asset for the Giants’ defense.
Carolina Panthers: Haruki Nakamura over Sherrod Martin, Free Safety
Nakamura with the Ravens
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Haruki Nakamura is a talented free safety both as an instinctive pass defender and a skilled tackler, but he has always been underrated and under-appreciated for one primary reason: he was the backup to Ed Reed, who will go down as one of the NFL’s greatest free safeties of all-time, with the Baltimore Ravens.
Now a member of the Carolina Panthers, Nakamura finally has his chance to prove himself as a starting-caliber safety.
Incumbent starter Sherrod Martin is solid, but there is certainly room for an upgrade, especially in tackling. While Nakamura is unproven, as he has never started an NFL game, he has the talent to be a surprise winner of this job and unseat Martin.
According to the Charlotte Observer, Nakamura has been taking the first reps at free safety, but is in competition with Martin for the starting job. Many fans who are unfamiliar with Nakamura may be surprised if he wins this job, but for those familiar with his skill set, winning the job should make sense as he is an unproven but talented player with potential to be a very solid starter.
Oakland Raiders: Chimdi Chekwa over Shawntae Spencer, Cornerback
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The Oakland Raiders let go of last season’s three starting cornerbacks—Stanford Routt, Lito Sheppard and Chris Johnson—but brought in free agents Ron Bartell and Shawntae Spencer with the expectations of them being the new starting cornerbacks. However, Chimdi Chekwa, a fourth-round pick from the 2011 NFL draft, should not be forgotten about.
Chekwa did not play often as a rookie, but he is expected to take on a greater role as a second-year player. Chekwa is an instinctive cornerback who covers well and can be a playmaker, and he could be exactly what the Raiders end up needing at the second spot across from Bartell.
On the other hand, Spencer has reportedly been “letting (wide receivers) do whatever they want,” according to the San Francisco Chronicle’s Vic Tafur via Twitter. That certainly does not sound like the performance of a man in line to be a starter, which could open the door for Chekwa to advance his way into a starting spot.
Additional competition for a starting spot could also come from fellow second-year player DeMarcus Van Dyke. Van Dyke was a third-round pick in the 2011 NFL draft, but he is very well suited to play the nickel cornerback spot, which could result in Spencer being the fourth cornerback or getting cut if Chekwa can win his presumed starting spot.
Minnesota VIkings: Greg Childs Takes No. 2 Wide Receiver Spot
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Michael Jenkins is an incumbent starter as the Vikings’ No. 2 wide receiver, but his statistics have dropped for four consecutive seasons. As a result of his disappointing play in his first season in Minnesota, the Vikings signed free-agent Jerome Simpson to replace him in the lineup. But with Simpson facing a three-game suspension to start the season, the door is open for rookie Greg Childs to steal a spot in the lineup.
It is unusual for a fourth-round pick, as Childs was in the 2012 NFL draft, to start right away as a rookie. That said, Childs would have been selected higher had the last two seasons of his collegiate career not been derailed by injuries. As he is finally regaining his full form, he could emerge as a very solid No. 2 wideout, and the Vikings’ best option at that starting spot.
According to ESPN 1500 Twin Cities, Childs is the “in-house favorite” to start in that spot, and he appears to be the best option at this time.
As evidenced by this video, Childs is already showing his ability to make big plays in Vikings training camp.
Dallas Cowboys: David Arkin Emerges at Weak Right Guard Spot
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Following the Dallas Cowboys’ stunning release of center Andre Gurode, who had made five consecutive Pro Bowls prior to last season, the Cowboys’ interior offensive line personnel looked bleak. It turned out to be exactly that and, unfortunately for the Cowboys, they may not have made enough improvements yet for that area of their offense to improve.
The Cowboys should be set at left guard this season with the free-agent addition of Nate Livings, but the right guard position remains a major question mark. The team signed Mackenzy Bernadeau as a potential starter at the position, but he has been unable to compete for the job while recovering from hip and knee surgeries.
Bernadeau still has a chance to end up the starter at that position, but the current competition is between 2011 fourth-round pick David Arkin, 2011 seventh-round pick Bill Nagy, and 2012 undrafted free agent signing Ronald Leary.
Nagy started four games last season before suffering a season-ending ankle injury, but the player who could surprisingly emerge in this battle is Arkin. While Arkin was mostly inactive in his rookie season, he showed significant promise coming out of Missouri State as a draft prospect, and needed a year to adjust to a steep increase in competition.
According to the Dallas Morning News, Arkin has received first-team reps in training camp, where he has also rotated with Leary. Leary has impressed Cowboys head coach Jason Garrett, according to the San Antonio Express-News, but if Arkin can live up to his talent, he should be able to beat out Leary, and if Bernadeau and Nagy continue to battle injuries, the door is open for him to win the battle.
Denver Broncos: Jason Hunter over Robert Ayers, Defensive End
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The Denver Broncos expected Robert Ayers to be a big difference-maker at defensive end when they drafted him with the 18th overall selection of the 2009 NFL draft. With only 4 1/2 sacks in his first three NFL seasons, Ayers has failed to become that, and now his starting spot could be in serious jeopardy.
As reported by Andrew Mason of CBSSports.com, Jason Hunter has moved ahead of Ayers on the depth chart, and has been working with the first-team defense in training camp. Hunter has never been a full-time starter in his NFL career, but with Ayers having been a disappointment thus far in his career, it looks like he could be on the cusp of getting his chance.
It is also quite possible that both players could be starting when the season begins. The Broncos’ set starter at defensive end, Elvis Dumervil, could face a suspension to start the season from the NFL, having been charged for aggravated assault with a firearm. Assuming Dumervil is in place as the starter, however, it appears Hunter has the upper hand in starting across from him.
Buffalo Bills: Nigel Bradham over Kirk Morrison, Strong-Side Linebacker
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Kirk Morrison has been penciled in by most as the starting strong-side linebacker, and as the most experienced and proven linebacker aside from the other two starting linebackers, Kelvin Sheppard and Nick Barnett, that presumption makes sense. However, given that Morrison did not start a single game last season and only had seven tackles, his starting spot is far from safe.
Nigel Bradham, a 2011 fourth-round pick, is a talented player with the potential to be a starting strong-side linebacker. Considering that reports have not attributed him playing with the first-team defense, this may be a stretch, but as he continues to catch on as a rookie, it would not surprise me if he makes a late charge for this starting spot.
As reported by Bleacher Report’s own Chris Trapasso, Morrison has not been taking all of the first-team reps at strong-side linebacker, giving some up to Arthur Moats. Moats is also a contender for the starting job, but in his first two seasons, he has not shown enough to make it seem likely that he will win that position.
Bradham may be the most talented linebacker of the trio, but will he be able to catch up quickly enough to win the starting job? It may appear unlikely, but it should not be ruled out.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Cortez Allen over Keenan Lewis, Cornerback
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Cortez Allen, a 2011 fourth-round pick from The Citadel, did not play much for the Pittsbugh Steelers in his rookie season, but with the departures of William Gay and Bryant McFadden from last season, the door to more playing time is open. Keenan Lewis, a fourth-year cornerback, is expected to take over the starting spot, but Allen is a more gifted playmaker who could steal that spot away from him.
According to Bleacher Report’s own Chris G., Allen has been working as the nickel cornerback while Lewis has been working as the second starter. However, Chris also explained that Allen has been performing well enough to make a strong push for the starting job.
Considering both players’ lack of meaningful experience, this is a battle that should carry on throughout the preseason. That said, if Allen continues to perform as well as he reportedly has, he should begin to take first-team reps away from Lewis and could be a surprise winner of the starting spot.
Cincinnati Bengals: Armon Binns Wins Loaded Battle for No. 2 Wide Receiver Spot
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The Cincinnati Bengals’ battle to find its starting split end across from star second-year wideout A.J. Green is so wide open that almost any selected starter would be a surprising choice.
Binns, an undrafted free agent signing in 2011 who spent most of his rookie season on the Bengals’ practice squad, would be among the most surprising choices. That said, reports are indicating that he is emerging as the leader in the battle.
For months, I have been projecting Marvin Jones, a rookie fifth-round pick out of California, as the expected starter, but the insiders who have been at camp are not expecting to see that happen. According to Stripe Hype and Cincinnati.com, Binns has been consistently working with the first-team offense.
Binns is a raw talent, but it sounds as he though he has made considerable improvement, and he does have the combination of size, athletic ability and hands to be a playmaker. It would be a surprise if Binns emerges as a long-term starter this season, but he is getting a chance to prove himself.
Cleveland Browns: Eric Hagg over Usama Young, Free Safety
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Eric Hagg, a 2011 seventh-round draft selection, did not play much in his rookie season, but the expectations are being raised this year. Hagg drew buzz following minicamp and OTA’s as the potential replacement for Mike Adams as the starting free safety, and his positive momentum seems to be carrying through Browns training camp.
Based upon history, veteran Usama Young, who has started 14 games over the past four years, would be the projected starter. However, multiple insiders who have attended Browns training camp practices, including CBSSports.com’s Pat Kirwan and Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal, believe Hagg is in line to earn the starting job.
Young has never been able to establish himself as a starting-caliber free safety, and Hagg is a well-rounded safety who is effective in coverage and has the potential to be a solid starter in the Browns’ secondary. This battle will likely continue throughout much of the preseason, but if Hagg continues to perform well, he should be on the field come Week 1.
Washington Redskins: DeJon Gomes in Three-Way Battle at Free Safety
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In 2010, when the aforementioned Eric Hagg was a starting safety at Nebraska, DeJon Gomes held down the other starting safety spot. Gomes was selected somewhat higher, the fifth round, in the 2011 NFL draft, but like Hagg, he is trying to earn his way into a surprise starting spot.
Gomes’ best fit on the Washington Redskins would actually be at strong safety, but free-agent addition Brandon Meriweather is expected to start at that position. That leaves Gomes in a competition at free safety with two additional free-agent signees, Madieu Williams and Tanard Jackson.
Williams and Jackson are talented players, but their performance has really dropped off in recent seasons. Gomes, who started five games last season, is a gritty player who needs to improve in pass coverage, but he tackles well and should make a hard run at winning this job.
Even Meriweather praised Gomes, telling the Washington Post that he should not be overlooked because he “plays hard and is real smart.” Given the uncertainty that shrouds both Williams and Jackson, Gomes could end up being a surprise winner in the three-way battle.
New York Jets: Mark Sanchez Remains the Starting Quarterback
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Well, it would really be a surprise if starting cornerback Antonio Cromartie makes good on his prophecy and becomes the New York Jets’ No. 2 wide receiver, but the chances of that happening are very slim to none.
In all seriousness, Mark Sanchez retaining the starting quarterback job would be no surprise at all. In fact, it is expected and all but assured that he will be the starter, at least at the beginning of the season. That said, with the daily, ESPN-driven hype that surrounds the team’s backup quarterback, Tim Tebow, it becomes easy to believe that Tebow will be under center for the Jets this season.
Tebow proved that he can win games, even in the postseason, in his first year as a starting quarterback last season, so it is certainly a possibility that Tebow becomes the starter if Sanchez struggles early on in the season. For now, however, the starting quarterback job is firmly in Sanchez’s grasp, especially given that he signed a five-year, $58.25 million contract extension in March.
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Dan Hope is an NFL draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @Dan_Hope.