Who Is Winning the Biggest NFL Training Camp Battles?

Alex Dunlap@AlexDunlapNFLContributor IAugust 6, 2012

Who Is Winning the Biggest NFL Training Camp Battles?

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    It's the Pareto principle.

    If you look at any organization, any structured grouping of individuals, you will find one overriding doctrine to be universally true.

    Twenty percent of any given workforce delivers 80 percent of the organization's production. In this life, one in five of us are far-and-away leaders in industry, while four in five are simply human capital.

    From the car salesman to the NFL football player, a very distinct, quantified group of winning individuals exists.

    The stars. The producers. The moneymakers.

    Here we declare the winners of some of the NFL's biggest training camp battles.

    As we know, not everyone will make the cut.

Z Receiver for the New England Patriots

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    The Patriots are firmly set at the X and Y receiver positions with Brandon Lloyd and Wes Welker. Their presence, along with two playmaking tight ends in Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez, makes the position generally referred to as the "No. 2" wideout more like the fourth or fifth option in New England.

    Our warriors in the current battle to occupy this spot are Jabar Gaffney, Deion Branch and Donte' Stallworth.

    I spoke to Mike Loyko, who has been in attendance at Patriots camp for The Austin Chronicle, and he says it's clear the starter is going to be Gaffney. 

    Loyko says that Deion Branch, at this point, is only really capable of running two routes effectively: the 10-yard in and the sideline comeback. Not exactly a matchup nightmare.

    We all know that Stallworth is far from a serviceable option at this point. Loyko told me that Bill Belichick was uncharacteristically heartfelt and emotional when talking about Stallworth "as a person" at the podium on Saturday. Usually not a good sign. 

    It reminds me of the way that Ozzie Newsome and Marvin Lewis addressed my questions at the NFL combine about Ricky Williams and Cedric Benson. When John Elway says publicly he would like his daughter to marry a guy like Tim Tebow, it's time for Tebow to start packing his bags. 

    After Gaffney left following the 2008 season, the Patriots struggled to find a serviceable No. 2 wideout in their offense. It's a role they would certainly like to utilize, and that's the main point of this whole signing.

    Gaffney had the best season of his career last year and shows no signs of slowing down. Furthermore, he was able to be a key contributor opposite Brandon Lloyd in Denver under current Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels.

    Since leaving New England, Gaffney's numbers and production have improved with each season. It all just makes too much sense. 

    Gaffney returns to the Patriots "a much better player," according to Loyko. He provides options that can extend the defense vertically and create bigger intermediate windows and matchups for Welker, Julian Edelman and the tight ends. If the defense doesn't call Belichick's bluff, he'll use Gaffney as his chess piece to burn them over the top. 

Lead Running Back for the New Orleans Saints

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    My RosterWatch co-host Byron Lambert and I charted every offensive play run by the Saints' first-team offense through two 11-on-11 contact periods during camp.

    We came to a few very obvious conclusions. One is that people are forgetting about Pierre Thomas. He is the lead horse, and it really isn't even close.

    We charted the personnel grouping, the formation and whether there was pre-snap motion for every play. Once the ball was snapped, we made note of the player who ended up with the ball in his hands. On rushing plays, we noted the rusher and his gap assignment.

    On passing plays, we noted the receiver and the route. If the receiver who caught the ball was not Drew Brees' initial read, we made note of the player who was the first-read target and credited that player with a target.

    We know Darren Sproles is going to get the ball. He was in on approximately 35 percent of the Saints' first-team snaps. He came out in a relatively limited variety of sets and was employed most frequently in passing-game motion formations.

    Every time the Saints motioned Jimmy Graham out of their flex overload two-tight strong set, the ball was thrown to Sproles on a designed checkdown. They will be using one of the league's most dangerous offensive weapons in Graham to do what they always do: Give Sproles plenty of space to operate.

    It's the Pierre Thomas-Chris Ivory-Mark Ingram battle that many are still trying to predict.

    Lambert spoke with Saints offensive coordinator Pete Carmichael after one practice while Carmichael was hanging around the QB and WR groups who had stayed after practice to work together. Carmichael, who will be in charge of things for six weeks, gave the distinct impression that the organization sees Thomas as the lead back coming into the season.

    Thomas got approximately 45 percent of first-team reps, while Ingram received approximately 15 percent. Thomas was used in every personnel grouping, while Ingram only took a small handful of reps outside of the two-tight end, two-back set—practicing to play in downs when the defense knows the run is coming.

    Chris Ivory barely sniffed the first team, getting in on a few snaps here and there, totaling seven percent. 

    I saw Ingram on the bike after finishing team drills our first day at camp, and I asked interim head coach Joe Vitt about it. 

    Apparently, "bringing Mark along slowly" is standard operating procedure around Saints headquarters. It was the same all last season. Ingram had to sit out on Wednesdays when first and second downs were installed. That is a death sentence for a rookie RB who was drafted to play on those downs.

    Ingram looks like the best runner on the team, but right now, he isn't playing like it. At least for now, Thomas is winning the battle to start out as the primary rock-carrier for the Saints in 2012.

Quarterback for the Seattle Seahawks

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    The candidates: Tarvaris Jackson (the sorry incumbent), Matt Flynn (the $10 million Kevin Kolb/Matt Cassel experiment), and 5'10" rookie Russell Wilson. 

    Flynn might not be "winning" this job right now, but he will win this job. 

    It could be the hardest competition to judge. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll is not making this battle easy on the QBs involved, or the media.

    We can only rely on what we know, so let's lay it out and see what conclusions we can reach.

    1) I noticed Pete Carroll was conspicuously present at Ryan Tannehill's pro day, taking great interest in his drills. I came to the conclusion later that week that this stop was part of a "QB tour" of sorts. Carroll swung through Arizona to watch Nick Foles and then Brock Osweiler on his way back to Seattle. I remember thinking, "Why? Is Flynn not the guy? Is Carroll not sold?" 

    2) The incumbent Jackson is not a good NFL QB, but it seems the team loves him. Immediately handing his job off to someone like Flynn or Wilson carries with it the chance of locker room discord, which is harmful to team chemistry.

    3) Flynn has proven nothing at the NFL level besides one monster performance in a meaningless game with the most explosive surrounding cast imaginable.

    4) Russell Wilson is a rookie, 5'10" quarterback who is oozing with confidence. He also has a delivery that makes him appear 6'2" on tape. Just not in person.

    But this is Carroll we are talking about. Despite his youthful exuberance as a "players coach," getting walk-though practices professionally DJ'ed and mingling with the likes of Snoop Dogg (or Lion?), you forget he is the second-oldest acting head coach in the NFL. He loves an old-school battle, and he loves the spirit that competition brings to a team.

    First-team reps are being split, and different QBs are taking the podium each day at camp, furthering confusion.

    None of this matters, though. I'm convinced that Flynn came in with the knowledge that he would have to "earn" the position with a "wink, wink" kind of connotation. He needs to be better than Jackson, period, and God bless Seahawks fans if he is not—you're in for a long season. The rookie Wilson adds depth, and solid, solid depth at that.

    This competition had to seem fair. 

    Flynn is winning. He is making throws the others can't. I believe he will be named the starter by the third game of the preseason. 

Starting Wide Receivers for the San Francisco 49ers

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    As Chelena Goldman of SFBay.ca reports, 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh has stated the following about the current state of his receiving corps:

    We’ve got five guys who are No. 1 receivers as we go into camp. ... It will still play out what the roles are, who the starters are, who the backups, the contributors. We’ve got five guys tied for first.

    Well, thanks Coach. That helps a lot. Where do you even start with this one? Michael Crabtree, Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, A.J. Jenkins and oh yeah, a seemingly rejuvenated Randy Moss. Who's got it better than us? Seriously.

    I don't know who's winning this battle, but I have an idea who's losing. I believe that the 49ers will rotate all these guys, but the starting group should be Moss at the X, Manningham at the Z and Crabtree in the slot.

    The most impressive rookie WR on the current 49ers roster is not Jenkins. He is not a ball snatcher, and this problem is already hurting Alex Smith. Smith threw three balls at Jenkins in practice late last week, and all three went for picks.

    Jenkins simply is not an aggressive, "go up and get it" receiver at this point, even though he obviously has the physical gifts to be. He gets knocked around in the press and dogs it on routes where he doesn't get off to a good start. He always has.

    Try running an Internet search for "A.J. Jenkins diva" and see what pops up. 

    The 49ers' most impressive rookie so far has the coolest nickname I have ever heard: "NaPalm." Undrafted rookie Nathan Palmer from Northern Illinois has been impressing coaches, teammates and media alike, and trust me, he is impressive.

    Williams is underrated. He drew his share of criticism for the fumble that lost the 49ers the game in overtime for the NFC championship, but he is fast and is a weapon. Williams doesn't have a huge role on the offense, and that is by design. When he does get involved in the passing game, though, he makes the most of his opportunities.

    In 2011, according to Pro Football Focus, Williams had the third-highest completion percentage vs. number of times thrown at of any NFL WR. I love the notion that he may be in the slot for exotic formations featuring rookie RB LaMichael James. So much speed.

    Speaking of NFC championships, former New York Giant Manningham brings a championship pedigree, sub-4.4 speed, and a pair of relatively suspect hands to the Bay Area in 2012.

    My projected trio of winners in this training camp battle fit wonderfully together, especially in Harbaugh's scheme.

    Moss needs no introduction. Crabtree has shown vast improvement in finally becoming a supercharged, athletic possession receiver with the ability to break monster plays. Manningham has the jets and the pacing to stretch things and requires attention in coverage that accounts for one quarter of the field in many instances.

    The 49ers are a run-first team that has crafted an offseason strategy that will continue to emphasize the run with the threat of the pass. They would also like to be able to operate more efficiently on downs when the defense knows the pass is coming.

    I'm not expecting huge numbers from any one of these guys, but this is San Francisco, and this is Harbaugh. Numbers don't matter; winning does.

    This combination as their base personnel gives the 49ers offense the most options. The others will be used in reserve and specialty roles, barring injuries.

Quarterback for the Tennessee Titans

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    Just when everyone starts counting the Titans out, there they are, always at least somehow contending for the AFC South. That will not be the case this year. The Houston Texans will run away with the division.

    With that settled, we now move on to the next question: Will their starting QB be veteran incumbent Matt Hasselbeck or second-year, first-round draft selection Jake Locker?

    My brain tells me Locker, but my gut says Hasselbeck, and I'm a guy that likes to go with my gut. Let's not think about who Locker could be or who Hasselbeck was. Who are they right now?

    Let's talk a little football.

    I'll tell you why intermediate-to-deep routes to the sideline stems of the route tree are so hard to complete as an NFL QB. It takes three things:

    1) The 100 percent belief that your receiver's hands will be in the spot where you are aiming the ball to go. With the speed of the NFL receivers, this spot seems ridiculously small and represents a serious disconnect from previous experience. If you don't have it, the defense knows.

    An experienced safety will see this coming and be licking his chops. His responsibility will be the crossing tight end, but he will see an opportunity to cut underneath and ball-hawk the easiest pick six of all. That is unless the QB...

    2) Looks the safety off. Unless he makes that safety or slot corner legitimately believe that his target could conceivably be within their respective scopes of responsibility and keeps him honest.

    3) The QB must be able to do both of these things, under pressure, basically throwing the ball, on a wire, to a spot that is muscle memory. It is throwing your wide receiver open as opposed to throwing to an open wide receiver.

    A simple look at Pro Football Focus's very helpful pass distribution chart from last season tells you what your brain has been seeing anyway. If we are looking at on-field passing distribution only, Locker struggles badly outside the hash marks at all levels: short, intermediate and long. He doesn't go through progressions, and he bails on plays too early. He is very good from 10-19 yards in the middle third of the field.

    Hasselbeck is good in most every area, but struggles to the deep right third. He was much better than average in 2011 to the deep left third.

    If/when Kenny Britt returns to action, and with the acquisition of a unique outside threat in rookie Kendall Wright, you need to know the QB can make those throws.

    No matter how promising, those new toys are nothing but a liability if your QB is in any way weak in delivering the ball to them. It's pick-six city over there. Hasselbeck is not perfect in this respect, but at this moment, I believe he is better than Locker.

    It is setting your body, developing your cadence and driving the ball through the spot. This is coached easily if you have the arm, which I believe Locker does. But it's kind of like changing a golf swing. It is not an overnight deal. Outside of the occasional rocket-armed Matt Stafford or Joe Flacco, almost every young QB takes his lumps in this part of the game.

    Obviously, Locker is a rushing threat. It is nowhere near the same and almost laughable, but it is worth mentioning that Hasselbeck still has reasonable feet for a 37-year-old. 

    I spoke with Matt Rybaltowksi of CBS Sports, and he said Hasselbeck has been slightly more accurate across 7-on-7 and 11-on-11 drills. Of the drills he charted, he told me Hasselbeck's completion percentage was 73 percent, while Locker's was 65 percent.

    They say Locker is winning the battle, but I think it would be in the Titans' best interest to let Hasselbeck win the war. He played well last season when Chris Johnson was playing like an overpaid slacker. Until proven otherwise, I like the team's chances better with Hasselbeck under center to start.

Starting Wide Receiver Opposite Brandon Marshall for the Chicago Bears

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    We should all be expecting a big year from the Bears. They are a big team. Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, a monster 6'7" TE in Kellen Davis, my goodness. Even their offensive coordinator looks about 6'8".

    We know that Earl Bennett and Jay Cutler are best friends forever. Nothing gets a smile from Cutler in interviews faster than when he's asked about his former college teammate. It is like asking Drew Brees about Jimmy Graham.

    Bennett is an easy guy to like. He recently said in this report from Jay Taft of the Rockford Register Star:

    We’ve got Brandon (Marshall) out there who’s going to create a lot of attention just off his name; the guy’s a great player. Then you’ve got Devin (Hester) the speedster, you know. And then you just have me in the slot. People will continue to sleep on me, and I will continue to do my job.

    I won't be sleeping on Bennett this season, and neither will Cutler, who is actively involved in the installment and design of Chicago's 2012 playbook. Bennett has said here that he will be in the slot, a great spot for him as a producer in space and as a cog in the pick game that will free up Kellen Davis. We can also glean from this statement that the sentiment is clear (at least to Bennett) that Devin Hester will be the starter at the RWR position.

    So, if we are talking about who is winning the battle, that's it. I'll take Bennett's word.

    This is very simple to me. Alshon Jeffery should complete this scary receiving corps on a team of big men looking to do big things. The mismatches this group could create against the notably un-physical defenses of the NFC North are unimaginable. We've seen the Hester offensive experiment. It is mediocre at best, and inconsistent if nothing else.

    I've followed Jeffery all draft season, interviewed him and have had exhaustive talks with various members of his representation. Regardless of any negative stigma, he is as dedicated as they come, and he is ready to go to work.

    Joe Cowley of the Chicago Sun-Times is reporting that Jeffery is already a fan favorite and is saying all the right things.

    “Whatever the team needs me to do to step up and make plays, I’m down to do,’’ Jeffery said.

    I think the team needs him to step up...into the slot opposite Marshall. For now, however, Hester is winning that battle.

Starting Running Back for the Arizona Cardinals

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    Incumbent starting RB Beanie Wells comes into his fourth NFL season with more than a few question marks. So does his competition for the job, "second-year rookie" Ryan Williams, who suffered a season-ending torn patellar tendon in August of 2011.

    Wells is not practicing in training camp as he returns from a mysterious offseason knee procedure. Williams is being "brought along" in camp and eased back into action. According to ArizonaSports.com, head coach Ken Whisenhunt elected to hold Williams out of the Cardinals' preseason opener against the Saints, saying:

    Ryan's not going to play. We said all along that we were going to be conservative with that and I think he really pushed it hard this week, especially Wednesday night, and he's got a little bit of soreness, so I don't want to risk it.

    The Cardinals are used to this with their runners. They have been dealing with Wells' various injury situations for three years now, tossing in the likes of LaRod Stephens-Howling or Tim Hightower. The organization has stated it expects Wells back in the next few weeks, but who knows?

    We do know a few things about Wells as a runner, though. Despite having a very respectable 2011 season with more than 1,000 yards and 10 TDs, he is far from dependable.

    Byron Lambert of RosterWatch did a study of the top 15-18 RBs in the NFL (guys who you would consider "NFL starting running backs"). His findings were not kind to Wells, who ranked among the bottom in Reliability Ranking, Boom/Bust Ratio and overall production distribution. In this case, production is measured numerically as calculated for fantasy football reliability, but these statistical shortcomings hurt the real ownership and staff in a much more direct fashion.

    Williams has the ability to do things that Wells can't. A patellar tendon tear is a significant injury, and the recovery can be hard on the patient. But all indications are that Williams is completely on schedule  and has been impressive in camp.

    He reminds me of fellow Virginia Tech alum David Wilson. As Mike Loyko once told me when scouting Wilson together, "It looks like you could have Williams put on Wilson's uniform at Virginia Tech and no one would know the difference."

    It says something that the Cardinals would pick Williams at No. 38 overall in 2011. It's impossible to be sold on Wells as your primary runner. I thought it was an odd pick in some ways. Williams was never known for his ability in pass protection, and we all know Wells suffers horribly in this regard. The whole offensive line does. The Cardinals just paid LT Levi Brown on a five-year extension, and he allowed the third-most sacks and fourth-most QB hurries of any offensive tackle in the league last season.

    What they do need is a back who can get smaller in the screen game and can bounce outside with the change of direction ability to break out and cut up. That is not Wells' game. He is a straight-line runner of thoroughbred workhorse pedigree.

    But if he ever was dynamic, no evidence exists that this is still the case. The second-level speed is still all there, and he has a surprising burst to the third level, but he rarely gets to the third level.

    In 2011, Wells padded his numbers quite a bit in one 228-yard explosion against St. Louis in much the same way DeMarco Murray unleashed his monster outlier performance on the Rams. Other than that, Wells had only one 100-yard game in 2011.

    Williams is winning the battle, because Wells is not present for the battle—and Williams is a formidable opponent in this competition. Who knows what will happen when Wells gets back into the swing of things, but I believe that if Williams starts the season, he will be successful enough to retain the role and become the 1A option in a committee backfield time share.

Starting Wide Receivers for the Tennessee Titans

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    I recently caught up with Matt Rybaltowski of CBS Sports and got his thoughts about the Locker/Hasselbeck conundrum. I had to talk about these receivers while I had him on the phone.

    I thought Damian Williams was beginning to become a potentially formidable NFL WR last season. 
    The Titans see him as a No. 4 option, according to Rybaltowski. Even though Kendall Wright only came into practice Tuesday and started out having to wear a red jersey per new CBA contact rules, the Titans are sold on him.

    Rybaltowksi told me in no uncertain terms that the plan all along has been to roll out Kenny Britt at the X, Nate Washington at the slot and Kendall Wright at the Z.

    Britt is still recovering from a small offseason scope procedure on his left knee that is much more benign than the previous surgery he had on his right knee. As soon as Wright got into camp, he started taking first-team snaps at the X in Britt's absence. Of course, we have the pending legal issues with Britt as well

    Britt will meet with league commissioner Roger Goodell today. I feel like I am writing an article for The Onion when I relay the fact that the talented WR has been arrested eight times since being drafted in 2009.

    What this situation boils down to will depend on Britt's legal proceedings. But in a best-case scenario, the Titans would like to use Williams as a No. 4 option. In the most likely scenario, we will see Washington in the slot, Wright at the X and Williams in the Z until Britt is done with his suspension.

Right Tackle for the Houston Texans

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    I spoke recently with Patrick Starr of StateOfTheTexans.com, who has been attending both open and closed Texans practices since July 27.

    There aren't too many battles in Texans camp, certainly not on the defensive side of the ball, where they are stocked with young, salty talent. The one question that I had was, who is winning in the battle to take over the large shoes of the recently departed Eric Winston?

    The candidates are Rashad Butler and Derek Newton. Newton is currently winning the battle.

    Butler is a sixth-year backup, while Newton is a second-year player who saw action in 14 games last season.

    Newton, according to Starr, represents more of what the Texans seek in Winston's replacement: a large, capable body who can set the edge in the zone scheme. Newton is an offensive tackle who is built for the run

    Butler has reportedly been better in pass protection, likely as a result of veteran technique tricks in early camp drills

    Starr went on to say that Newton has been receiving the kind of uncharacteristic lip service at the podium from head coach Gary Kubiak that makes a reporter raise his eyebrows.

Quarterback for the Miami Dolphins

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    Ryan Tannehill is not ready and the new coaching staff in Miami does not believe in Matt Moore.

    David Garrard is firmly leading the race to quarterback the Miami Dolphins after one week of training camp.

    The Miami Dolphins won six games last season. Five of the remaining 10 games they lost were by three or fewer points. One possession per game in five games meant the difference between a garbage season and a miracle playoff run.

    Garrard has not been a great QB, but he has had a knack for closing. Out of 76 games started, Garrard has led 11 fourth-quarter comebacks and 18 game-winning drives. That could have meant a lot to Miami in 2011.

    Moore does that less than once a year.

    Tannehill blew four double-digit halftime leads for Texas A&M in 2011 in his first full season as a starting quarterback. He also can't make all the throws that will be required of him yet.

    I figured they would rush Tannehill into the job, but as the season approaches, I am feeling that this is becoming less and less likely.

    I honestly don't even know why we are still talking about this "battle." If Tannehill gets tossed in, then so be it. But to me, that means throwing your season down the drain to prepare for the future.

    We know what a Moore season looks like. It will be below average, even when RB Reggie Bush turns in Gale Sayers performances.

    Garrard is leading the race in Miami.

Starting Wide Receivers for the Cincinnati Bengals

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    I spoke with Brennen Warner of CincyJungle.com about who is winning the Bengals' respective battles at the slot and Z receiver to complement A.J. Green.

    He said, regarding the Z:

    Armon Binns and Brandon Tate have basically been 2a and 2b at outside receiver all during camp. The rookies Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu have also been impressing in limited snaps. Sanu has always been on the second team, while Jones has been impressing recently and was basically WR No. 4 today at least (rotating with Green/Binns/Tate).

    Vidal Hazelton and Justin Hilton have been making flashes. Hilton is my pick for the practice squad. Very few drops and has an incredible deep stride. Hazelton has been better than I've expected too. Some flashy one-handed catches, but he's not unique like Hilton.

    He basically said the pecking order at outside WR has been Green, Binns/Tate, Ryan Whalen/Sanu, Jones, Hazelton/Hilton. Jones and Sanu have the greatest chance to go up, Binns and Tate the greatest chance to go down.

    Regarding the slot:

    You've got Andrew Hawkins, Jordan Shipley and the undrafted Kashif Moore. Shipley only started practicing recently and hasn't been himself, when he was beastly as a rookie. It's not looking good for Shipley, because Hawkins can hold it down as a slot receiver.

    Hawkins has been first-team slot all camp, and I doubt Ship will take it back from him. Hawkins had elite agility and quickness, very few drops, and he contributes in all phases of special teams. Looking more and more likely that Shipley might be traded? That's what I would do.

    Finally, there's no spot for Moore on the team really. An average slot guy and average kick returner on a team stocked full of both. Mohamed Sanu and Ryan Whalen have both been mixed in at the slot as well, but they are primarily outside guys.