Predicting the Winner of the Most Heated NFL Training Camp Battles
Right around the second preseason game every year in the NFL, coaches and front office personnel begin to fortify the 53-man roster. While a majority of the roster is set, there are still position battles taking place, some just to have a roster spot but others to determine the opening-day starter.
Every man worth his salt wants to be named the starter. How each player handles the challenges he faces in the heat of the battle determines who is on the field on game day and who is riding the pine.
Here is a list of the most heated training camp battles to date. By the third preseason game, there should be a decisive answer to whose name will be announced coming out of the tunnel on opening day.
Tennessee Titans Quarterbacks: Matt Hasselbeck vs. Jake Locker
Matt Hasselbeck has played in a Super Bowl, commands the huddle and has respect of all his teammates. He is one of the fiercest competitors in the NFL and will not back down from the challenge of Jake Locker.
Locker played in five games last season as a rookie. Though he did not throw an interception, his completion percentage was a measly 51.5 percent.
Hasselbeck entered training camp as the front-runner, but too many interceptions and poor decisions led to Locker taking the lead.
Locker has many of the same intangibles Hasselbeck has, and the wily veteran seems to have conceded that he was keeping the seat warm until Locker was ready.
Winner: Locker should be named the opening-day starter sometime next week. He is getting his first start Friday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and if he plays as consistently as he has all training camp, Locker will be the man.
Miami Dolphins Quarterbacks: Ryan Tannehill vs. Matt Moore
Matt Moore played very well for the Dolphins last season after he was forced into duty, yet for some reason he has never been given a truly fair shake to be the starter in Miami. Moore certainly did not help his cause after an up-and-down Week 1 performance.
On the flip side, rookie Ryan Tannehill seized the moment versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and looked comfortable at the helm of the offense. The fact Tannehill played under virtually the same system in college is a major plus.
Veteran David Garrard deserves a mention, as he was the front-runner after the first week of training camp. However, an unfortunate knee injury has sidelined him and very possibly his career in the teal and orange.
Winner: Tannehill should walk away with the starting nod for Week 1 of the regular season after this week’s game versus the Carolina Panthers. Miami is in a true rebuilding mode with a new head coach and new offensive and defensive schemes. The only way Tannehill can gain experience is by playing at game speed. He will take his lumps early but should mature as the season rolls on.
Seattle Seahawks Quarterbacks: Matt Flynn vs. Russell Wilson
Matt Flynn had one of the best games in NFL history in his lone start for the Green Bay Packers last season. The former LSU product parlayed that game into a healthy payday yet right into a heated quarterback battle in Seattle.
At the start of training camp, the race looked to be a two-headed affair between returning starter Tarvaris Jackson and Flynn. One of the great things about competition, though, is that the best players rise to the top.
The quarterback race is still a two-man affair, yet Jackson is nowhere in the picture. Rookie Russell Wilson threw his hat into the ring early in training camp and leapfrogged Jackson.
Both Flynn and Wilson played solid in the Week 1 game versus the Tennessee Titans. Flynn will get the nod in Week 2, but expect Wilson to get plenty of opportunities to show his wares.
Winner: Flynn wins, but not by much. This battle will be closer than most people think, and there is a contingent in the Seahawks building that would have no issue if head coach Pete Carroll named Wilson the opening-day starter. Look for Flynn to be on a short leash once the regular season starts.
Arizona Cardinals Quarterbacks: Kevin Kolb vs. John Skelton
Both quarterbacks started games last season for the Cardinals, but neither wowed with his performances. The same can be said for the preseason so far. Kevin Kolb has talent but seems to get injured before he can get comfortable.
John Skelton seems to have the trust of his receivers and has solid control of the huddle, but his accuracy and decision-making skills are still a work in progress. In 2011, Skelton threw 11 touchdowns to 14 interceptions.
The Cardinals brass did not address the position in free agency, hoping that Kolb would be healthy and ready to lead the team in 2012. That decision does not bode well right now for the Cardinals.
Winner: Kolb by default, but this position battle is very liquid. Do not be surprised if neither player is the starter by Week 2 as the Cardinals staff has to explore free-agent options or trade scenarios.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Running Backs: LeGarrette Blount vs. Doug Martin
LeGarrette Blount is the returning starter and one of the hardest runners in the NFL. Blount will never be a burner but can pick up the tough yards inside. His running style is conducive to taking a lot of hits, but he turns the ball over too much.
Doug Martin was drafted in the first round of the 2012 draft after the Buccaneers front office made a bold decision to move back into the round to select him. Moves like that do not happen without a plan in place. From the start of training camp, Martin has been given every opportunity to take the job from Blount.
Winner: Martin has the perfect running style for the new offense in Tampa Bay, and as a first-rounder, he is not getting paid to sit on the bench. While Blount will surely get his carries, Martin will be the starter on opening day and will literally carry the load for the 2012 Tampa Bay Buccaneers squad.
San Francisco 49ers Wide Receivers: Mario Manningham vs. Randy Moss
After making one of the best catches in Super Bowl history, Mario Manningham took his ring and collected a big payday in San Francisco. When Manningham signed, he was dubbed a starter opposite Michael Crabtree.
A lot can change quickly in the NFL, and this has been the case for Manningham. He is now listed as a backup behind Randy Moss, who did not even play in 2011.
According to Cam Inman of the Mercury News, offensive coordinator Greg Roman said the depth chart “means nothing.”
The 49ers are sure to use three- and four-receiver sets a great deal in 2012. However, being named a starter does mean something to the players, and this will be an issue that needs to be addressed by head coach Jim Harbaugh.
Winner: Moss wins this battle if the team lines up in a two-receiver set. Manningham can play in the slot, though it isn't ideal, while Moss is a better player outside the hashes. Manningham will have a better year statically speaking though.
New England Patriots Running Backs: Stevan Ridley vs. Shane Vereen
Stevan Ridley showed he is a capable runner last season in spot duty, and the Patriots felt good enough about his progress to not look to upgrade the position in free agency or the draft.
Shane Vereen is a former second-round selection who has never been able to stay healthy. Vereen did not play until the second half versus the New Orleans Saints in the first preseason game but flashed when given the opportunity.
Ridley got the start versus the Saints, but according to Mike Reiss of ESPN Boston, Ridley hurt his leg during practice on Thursday. His services versus the Philadelphia Eagles on Monday are up in the air. If Ridley is unable to go, Vereen will catapult into the driver’s seat.
Winner: Vereen will be the opening-day starter. He has good hands and is more of a dual threat than Ridley. Ridley may get more short-yardage touches, but Vereen will be the go-to back in New England in 2012.
Dallas Cowboys Cornerbacks: Orlando Scandrick vs. Morris Claiborne
Orlando Scandrick, the team’s nickel cornerback last season, has been forced into the starting role due to injuries to Mike Jenkins and Morris Claiborne. With no news of Jenkins being healthy any time soon, Scandrick has started. Claiborne has been inconsistent at best when healthy.
Scandrick may not have gotten the chance to show his skills opposite Brandon Carr without the injuries to Jenkins and Claiborne, but he has seized the opportunities afforded him and arguably has had the best training camp of all the Cowboy cornerbacks.
Winner: Scandrick signed a new contract last offseason and is backing up the deal with strong and consistent play. Ultimately, the Cowboys would love to have Carr and Claiborne on the outside and Scandrick over the slot receiver. That will not happen until Claiborne can prove he is ready to play in the NFL.
Green Bay Packers Running Backs: James Starks vs. Alex Green vs. Cedric Benson
James Starks showed promise in 2011 and is a physically imposing downhill runner. Alex Green looked promising in training camp last season before tearing his ACL. Cedric Benson is a former first-rounder who resurrected his career in Cincinnati and has three straight seasons of over 1,000 yards rushing.
Starks entered training camp with the sure-fire lead, but he has played inconsistently and now is suffering from a turf toe injury. Green, still recovering from the ACL, has been limited by the medical staff but has flashed when given the chance. Benson was just signed, so the jury is still out.
Look for Benson and Green to get a ton of carries throughout the rest of the preseason. Whichever runner can show he is durable enough will get the nod.
Winner: Green wins after a solid preseason showing. Head coach Mike McCarthy is nothing if not unorthodox. One of the more creative minds in the game, McCarthy will trust Green with blitz pickups and use him out of the backfield. Green’s running style melds well with the Packers’ blocking schemes. Benson will be the primary backup and gives the backfield a veteran presence.
St. Louis Rams Wide Receivers: Brandon Gibson vs. Steve Smith
Brandon Gibson entered training camp as the leader in the clubhouse to be the opening-day starter at receiver for the Rams. Gibson returns as the top pass-catcher currently on the roster and was looking to expand on a promising 2011 season for him individually.
Smith, the former star receiver for the New York Giants and marginal player for the Philadelphia Eagles, entered the season just hoping for a roster spot.
Gibson has been hurt most of training camp with a hamstring injury, and Smith has used the chances given him to work for the starting spot. Smith has arguably been the best wide receiver for the Jeff Fisher regime this summer and does not look to be letting off the gas anytime soon.
Winner: Smith will win because he has performed at a high level and has earned quarterback Sam Bradford’s trust. Smith does not have the long speed that Gibson has but is a better route runner; he will have a major impact for the Rams offense in 2012.