10 Position Battles Ready to Be Decided in the Final Week of NFL Preseason
Many different NFL training camp battles have been decided over the course of the last week. This runs directly against the natural grain of preseason that suggests teams wait until following the third game to choose the winners of certain competitions.
I completely understand the Miami Dolphins and Tennessee Titans making the relatively early decision to start young quarterbacks. It gives the players a ton of confidence heading into the regular season and also enables them to receive a majority of first-team reps in practices.
With that in mind, there have been some training camp battles that have yet to be decided.
Today's article is going to focus on 10 such battles set to end in the final week of the preseason.
San Francisco 49ers: Right Guard
Alex Boone, Leonard Davis and Joe Looney
It seemed that Boone had this job nailed down with an impressive training camp and initial preseason game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Things have changed over the course of the last couple of weeks.
Boone, a converted tackle from Ohio State, struggled against the Houston Texans and didn't play very well against the Denver Broncos Sunday afternoon.
Meanwhile, Davis has been as advertised through three preseason games. He still seems to have something left in the tank and could be a reliable veteran force along the right side of the line.
Looney, a fourth-round pick in April's draft from Wake Forest, has failed to stand out in camp. He seems to do well when pulling to either side but tends to struggle one-on-one against the defender. You also have to realize that Looney is coming off a serious injury and is just now returning to game shape.
At this point I would bet on Boone winning the job when camp breaks with Davis being ready to step in at any time throughout the season should the former struggle.
Buffalo Bills: Wide Receiver
Derek Hagan, Marcus Easley, T.J. Graham, Donald Jones and David Nelson
This is far from etched in stone, as teams must report a depth chart throughout the preseason. In reality it is mostly procedural at this point.
With that in mind, things can definitely change during the final week of the preseason.
Jones has impressed Bills head coach Chan Gailey thus far in training camp; he said of Jones, "He's had a very good camp. He looks quicker and faster than I remember him last year." The third-year receiver recorded just 23 receptions and one touchdown in eight games last season.
This left the Bills with a void opposite Steve Johnson—a void they were unable to fill via free agency after flirting with Robert Meachem, among others.
Derek Hagan, who was a standout for the Oakland Raiders in training camp last year, was brought in as an under-the-radar free agent in the offseason. He has also impressed the Bills this summer. That being said, he has just one catch in six targets during the preseason.
The real wild card here is rookie third-round pick T.J. Graham from North Carolina State. He has caught eight passes for over 130 yards in three preseason games. The real eye-opening statistic as it relates to Graham is the fact that he has nabbed over 60 percent of the passes thrown his way.
It seems that Jones has the inside track to retain the starting job opposite of Johnson. I can, however, envision a scenario where Graham takes that spot from him in rather short order. Either way, you can expect Buffalo to trot out a ton of different receivers as the season gets going. The Bills have the depth, however unproven it might be.
New England Patriots: Running Back
Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen
This is a really good problem for the New England Patriots, as it seems they have two capable young running backs on the roster. You can definitely expect more balance from their offense than what we saw last season.
Vereen has compiled 127 total yards in three exhibition games but went down to a leg injury against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Friday night. It remains to be seen what impact this is going to have on the Patriots' starting running back position.
It can now be concluded that Ridley is the favorite to land the starting running back job in New England. He has been far more consistent and seems to be more prepared than Vereen to shoulder the proverbial load. The second-year running back has looked strong and elusive during preseason, continuing what was an impressive rookie season in 2012.
For his part, Greg Bedard at The Boston Globe believes there isn't a competition anymore, saying, "You combine Stevan Ridley’s 87 yards on 16 carries and Shane Vereen, again, hopping off the field with an injury, and any competition is over."
Arizona Cardinals: Starting Quarterback
Kevin Kolb and John Skelton
Neither of these quarterbacks has been impressive through four preseason games. In fact, it could be stated that they have been downright horrible. Of course it doesn't help that the Arizona Cardinals offensive line is a disaster in the making, but one of these players has to step up if the Cardinals are going to contend in the NFC West.
Kolb and Skelton have combined to throw for two touchdowns compared to five interceptions with a quarterback rating of just 50.
There isn't an indication either way about a decision by Arizona's coaching staff, which seems to mean that the quarterback competition is going to drag into the final week of the preseason.
I would give the upper hand to Skelton at this point, considering the two mind-numbing interceptions that Kolb threw against the Tennessee Titans Thursday night.
Chicago Bears: Wide Receiver
Earl Bennett, Devin Hester and Alshon Jeffery
While Jeffery did impress a great deal in the Chicago Bears' first two preseason games, he struggled a lot against the New York Giants on Friday night. The 2012 second-round pick made just one catch and dropped another two passes.
It seems that Chicago is going to give the South Carolina product an opportunity to get extended reps opposite Brandon Marshall as a rookie.
My take is that the Bears utilize a combination of Bennett, Hester and Jeffery on the outside, lining another up in the slot to make things incredibly difficult for opposing defensive coordinators.
Either way, this is the first time in a while that Chicago boasts a formidable wide receiver unit heading into the regular season. The Bears have ample options and seem to possess a tremendous amount of depth.
Houston Texans: Wide Receiver
Lestar Jean, Keshawn Martin and DeVier Posey
Martin has been one of the biggest surprises of training camp throughout the National Football League but showed his inexperience against the New Orleans Saints this previous weekend. The Michigan State product was holding the ball too loosely, which caused him to fumble the ball twice.
The Houston Texans might be ready to make a decision in regards to the slot receiver position, per Nick Scurfield of the team's official website:
Martin seems to have separated from the pack so far in training camp, but Jean and Posey have had flashes and could make up ground with strong performances in the preseason. Jean was limited to one full preseason game last year, catching two passes for 51 yards, before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury. Posey has starter potential but missed 10 games at Ohio State last season due to suspensions.
Of course this indication came before the start of the preseason, but Martin really hasn't given up a hold on the position and will press Kevin Walter as the No. 2 guy opposite Andre Johnson.
Washington Redskins: Running Back
Roy Helu, Tim Hightower, Alfred Morris and Evan Royster
Talk about a cluster of unproven talent. It seems that each preseason game another running back steps up for the Washington Redskins.
Morris, who rushed for 107 yards on 14 carries against the Indianapolis Colts on Saturday, could start the season as the Redskins' feature back if he continues his impressive play in the final preseason game.
Helu was the favorite to land this gig when the preseason started, but he has been dealing with an Achilles injury and just recently returned to practice. It is going to be important to see whether the Nebraska product is going to be able to make an impact against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Wednesday.
Also in the equation is second-year running back Evan Royster, who has also impressed in camp. The Penn State product did miss Washington's game against Indianapolis over the weekend but should be ready to go by the start of the regular season.
The likeliest scenario here is that the four running backs listed above share carries early on. That being said, I see Helu and Morris getting more touches as the year progresses.
Cincinnati Bengals: Wide Receiver
Armon Binns, Marvin Jones, Mohamed Sanu and Brandon Tate
In another position battle that is filled with unproven talent, the Cincinnati Bengals seem to be in a really good situation heading into the regular season.
Tate and Jones have been the most impressive through three preseason games. Both seem to have the ability to stretch the field on the outside and have gained a rhythm with Andy Dalton.
I can easily envision a scenario where Jones starts at some point in the regular season, but this job will most likely go to Tate early on.
You also have to account for Binns, who has been equally impressive this summer.
Geoff Hobson of the Cincinnati Bengals' official website seems to have another take on the competition:
Sometimes Binns may have to pinch himself to believe it, but the number belongs to him now, and in this era when No. 18 is the Pro Bowl receiver, No. 85 now stands for T.J. Houshmandzadeh-like tough catches and gritty reliability at a formidable 6-3, 210 pounds. If Binns is not the No. 2 receiver, then he and Brandon Tate are 2A and 2B.
In any case, it is a good problem to have.
New York Giants: Middle Linebacker
Chase Blackburn and Mark Herzlich
I predicted Herzlich to win this job in the offseason, and the Boston College product has done absolutely nothing to prove me wrong through three preseason games.
He has been one of the most productive New York Giants defenders and seems to have regained the strength that made him a first-round prospect prior to his unfortunate bout with cancer.
Meanwhile, Blackburn hasn't been nearly as impressive and seems to have lost ground in the competition.
Indianapolis Colts: Wide Receiver
T.Y. Hilton and LaVon Brazill
Much like his predecessor, Andrew Luck has a way of making his wide receivers better than they actually are. This has been in full evidence in the Indianapolis Colts' first three preseason games.
According to various reports, the shoulder injury that Hilton suffered against the Washington Redskins on Saturday isn't too serious, and he should be ready to go in the team's final tuneup prior to the start of the regular season.
This is great news for both the young receiver and his quarterback. Hilton caught four passes for 54 yards and a touchdown against Washington.
It seems that he has overtaken Brazill and could be slotted to start depending on the long-term availability of Austin Collie, who has suffered four concussions in less than two years.
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