Predicting Winners and Losers for the Top 25 NFL Training Camp Battles

Michael SchotteyNFL National Lead WriterJune 4, 2013

Predicting Winners and Losers for the Top 25 NFL Training Camp Battles

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    The decisions that are being formulated throughout this time of the year can make or break NFL organizations. Sure, we're still more than 90 days away from the opener, but that doesn't mean players or coaches are enjoying any real semblance of downtime.

    Starting with free agency and building up with the draft, the pressure is on to get all of the proverbial ducks in a row faster and more efficiently than other teams. New schemes are being installed. New wrinkles are being added—to both playbooks and around various coaches' eyes. Rosters are being evaluated in order to be later whittled down.

    As the players feel the pressure to place themselves atop their respective depth charts, teams will be left with some hard decisions over the next few months. Which players will find themselves successful in their personal personnel battles this offseason, and which will fall just short?

Philadelphia Eagles Starting Quarterback

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    Candidates: Matt Barkley and Michael Vick

     

    Tale of the Tape

    With the 32-year-old Vick clearly on the downside of his career, new Eagles head coach Chip Kelly might wish he had the chance to coach the phenom a decade or so ago. Vick might wish the same, as apparently Kelly is the first coach to teach him how to hold a football.  

    Barkley certainly had all the hype in the world when his falling draft stock gave the NFL Network and ESPN something to talk about during draft weekend. Yet, he fell to pick No. 98 for a reason. And while his future may be bright, the Eagles will want to start putting crooked numbers in their 2013 win column before the Southern Cal prospect is ready.

    The offense looks to be running entirely out of the shotgun formation, which should give Vick time to throw and space to do some damage with his legs. He'll provide a wrinkle to the Eagles that Barkley simply can't provide or overcome in his rookie season.

     

    Projected Winner: Michael Vick

San Francisco 49ers Starting Wide Receiver

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    Candidates: A.J. Jenkins and Quinton Patton

     

    Tale of the Tape

    It's tempting to pick a single player to "replace" receiver Michael Crabtree, who is out for most of this season with an Achilles injury. However, it's going to take the entire 49ers village to shoulder the load meant for Crabtree this season, as the 25-year-old receiver was blossoming into a serious weapon for Jim Harbaugh's offense.

    As the team looks for someone to physically fill the void left in the 11-man starting roster, it's important for fans to realize that the actual production is going to have to be divvied up between multiple players—including backs and tight ends.

    So, putting a starter on the field isn't about finding a guy who can catch 70-plus passes, it's about making sure the new starter knows the offense like the back of his hand. Jenkins was drafted last season and did little during his rookie season. He's gotten bigger for the 2013 season and has been working out with his quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, meaning there could be some chemistry brewing. He's got the edge on the rookie Patton.

     

    Projected Winner: A.J. Jenkins

Cincinnati Bengals Starting Tight End

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    Candidates: Tyler Eifert and Jermaine Gresham

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Bengals fans came out in droves to bash fellow Bleacher Report scribe Matt Miller when he placed Gresham at No. 50 in his top 50 tight ends of the 2012 NFL season. Apparently, the Bengals front office saw some of the similar shortcomings when it decided to use its first-round pick on the year's best tight end prospect.

    Whoever loses this battle will still likely see the field as dual tight end sets are all the rage in today's NFL, and not in the old "three yards and a cloud of dust" manner of years past.

    Still, Eifert wasn't drafted No. 21 to sit around and he's clearly got more physical tools, receiving ability and big-play attitude than Gresham.

     

    Projected Winner: Tyler Eifert

Dallas Cowboys Starting Center

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    Candidates: Phil Costa and Travis Frederick

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Jerry Jones and his staff surprised a lot of people when they selected Frederick (who had a mid-round grade on my personal draft board) in the first round. Yes, the interior of the offensive line has been a huge issue for the Cowboys (frankly, so was the exterior of the offensive line last season), but certainly better players were available, no?

    None of that matters now. Reach or not, Frederick doesn't have to compete with the pre-draft perceptions of him, or where he was on other teams' draft boards. He just has to compete with a player who went undrafted in 2010 and who seriously underwhelmed last season.

    The upside here is that Costa could end up moving to guard and improving yet another position, so maybe quarterback Tony Romo could have some breathing room in the upcoming season.

     

    Projected Winner: Travis Frederick

Buffalo Bills Starting Quarterback

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    Candidates: Tarvaris Jackson, Kevin Kolb and EJ Manuel

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Manuel wasn't supposed to be the first quarterback off the board, but the Bills obviously loved what they saw out of his physical tools and believe they have the coaching and support to smooth over the obvious wrinkles in his game.

    While Kolb and even Jackson are almost certainly more ready for action at the moment, Manuel is positioned as the quarterback of the team's future, and that means there is little reason to not make him the quarterback of the present as well.

     

    Projected Winner: EJ Manuel

Seattle Seahawks No. 3 Wide Receiver

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    Candidates: Doug Baldwin, Golden Tate

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Percy Harvin was brought in to be the Seahawks' No. 1 receiver and he will likely see snaps all over the field as the offense will try to create mismatches that quarterback Russell Wilson can exploit. Sidney Rice, then, will most likely continue to function as the team's No. 1 receiver from an Xs and Os standpoint, where he will man the "X" receiver position and find himself drawing coverage from opponents' best cornerbacks most of the time.

    Tate has the tools of a poor man's Harvin, but never really stood out in the role for the Seahawks. Baldwin is coming off a sophomore slump, but he is still the more polished receiver of the two. He has the ability to play both the slot and the "Z" receiver position and could do some serious damage as this team's third option.

    Tate will be relegated to special teams.

     

    Projected Winner: Doug Baldwin

Pittsburgh Steelers Starting Right Outside Linebacker

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    Candidates: Jarvis Jones and Jason Worilds

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Steelers fans aren't exactly happy with how I've been down on Jones, though I'm positive most would agree wholeheartedly with some of my criticisms of his game if he were drafted to wear another uniform color (especially if it were Ravens purple). Still, my criticisms are about Jones against the rest of his draft class, while this battle is only between he and Worilds—a second-round pick in 2010.

    Right now, Worilds is probably the most ready and the more athletic pass-rusher, but the Steelers clearly like something they see in Jones and had this position lined up for him when they made their selection in April. Don't be surprised, however, if Worilds ends up making this a difficult battle.

     

    Projected Winner: Jarvis Jones

Green Bay Packers No. 2 Cornerback

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    Candidates: Casey Hayward and Sam Shields

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Hayward and his six interceptions made a lot of headlines last year and even garnered some attention as a possible Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate—an award that would go to Carolina Panthers rookie linebacker, Luke Kuechly. Yet, Hayward spent most of his time at nickelback for the Packers, and it will be interesting to see if he can continue to get even better as his role possibly expands.

    Shields just recently signed his restricted free-agency tender and will have plenty of chances to win this battle, but it's difficult to see Hayward's ball skills not winning the day here. Both players will play significant roles as the Packers try to return to the playoffs.

     

    Projected Winner: Casey Hayward

New York Giants Starting Middle Linebacker

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    Candidates: Dan Connor and Mark Herzlich

     

    Tale of the Tape

    It is probably foolhardy to bet against Herzlich, as he has consistently beaten odds as well as cancer on his way to currently lining up as the Giants' first-string middle linebacker. But I've just watched too much tape of both him and Connor to believe that he can beat out the former Cowboys and Panthers linebacker in a direct competition.

    Once Connor learns the defensive scheme and the two are put on a level playing field of training camp, he should rise to the top of the depth chart. Like many of the other competitions on this list, look for the "loser" to still play an extremely important role. Herzlich and Connor could conceivably pair as nickel linebackers when all is said and done.

     

    Projected Winner: Dan Connor

Atlanta Falcons Starting Strong-Side Defensive End

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    Candidates: Kroy Biermann and Malliciah Goodman

     

    Tale of the Tape

    This may end up being less of a battle and more of a foregone conclusion by the time camp comes around, as the Falcons are experimenting with Biermann and are planning to move him all over the field. In an effort to get the best 11 on the field, both of these players may end up seeing a lot of playing time and could both end up as starters at some point. It all depends on what the Falcons will consider their base set and how many wrinkles they plan to install for Biermann. 

    If the Falcons end up in a 4-3 most of the time, Biermann has to be the guy. Goodman is the better pure pass-rusher, but Biermann is more well-rounded and clearly has the eye of the coaching staff if it feels he's an important enough player to scheme around.

     

    Projected Winner: Kroy Biermann

Baltimore Ravens No. 2 Cornerback

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    Candidates: Corey Graham and Jimmy Smith

     

    Tale of the Tape

    The Ravens won a Super Bowl with very little talent at cornerback. This season, with Ladarius Webb coming back from injury, they should expect a boost at the position—even with Cary Williams in Philadelphia. The biggest question then, even after an offseason of turnover on the Ravens defense is: Who is going to man the position across from Webb?

    Make no mistake about it, the Ravens desperately hope that Smith wins this battle handily. He's had his ups and downs since being a first-round pick in 2011, but he has the athleticism to cover staring receivers (more than can be said for Graham). However, Graham is the more steady player and may end up being the safer option.

     

    Projected Winner: Jimmy Smith

Miami Dolphins No. 2 Cornerback

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    Candidates: Richard Marshall and Jamar Taylor

     

    Tale of the Tape

    I've been high on Taylor throughout the draft process and truly believe he'll end up winning this battle sooner rather than later, but the chips are stacked against him at the moment. First, it was a kidney issue that dropped his draft stock. Then, a sports hernia surgery sidelined him during OTAs. Combine this with the fact that he's a rookie and that cornerbacks need more time than other positions to get to speed in the NFL, and, all of a sudden, Marshall probably wins this battle easily.

    Yes, he was a disappointment last season, but at 28, it isn't as if Marshall's days in the NFL are even close to over. I'm expecting a slight bounce back this season with better players in front of him in the Dolphins defense—just enough so he can ably fill the No. 2 cornerback position until Taylor is ready.

     

    Projected Winner: Richard Marshall

Chicago Bears No. 2 Wide Receiver

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    Candidates: Earl Bennett and Alshon Jeffery

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Jeffery wasn't ready for the NFL last season, and it was clear at times that the complexity of the pro game overwhelmed him. With a new offense being installed, it could be the case once again. So, Bennett may need to help shoulder some of the weight once again.

    That said, Bennett just isn't, physically speaking, anywhere near the receiver that Jeffery is. Across from Brandon Marshall, Jeffery can do serious damage and keep teams from completely rolling their coverage over to Jay Cutler's favorite target.

    It's just up to Jeffery to prove that he's the man for the job mentally as well as physically.

     

    Projected Winner: Alshon Jeffery

Washington Redskins Starting Strong Safety

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    Candidates: Reed Doughty and Phillip Thomas

     

    Tale of the Tape

    There's probably something to be said for veteran presence and steady play—especially at the safety position, where a "rookie blunder" can mean a backbreaking long touchdown (just ask the Denver Broncos). If the Redskins want to play it safe at safety, Doughty could end up in the starting lineup for another year.

    Thomas is just the more talented player, however, and the Redskins defense has been crying out for a talent infusion for so long that it would be crazy to not let Thomas work out the rookie kinks sooner rather than later.

     

    Projected Winner: Phillip Thomas

New England Patriots No. 2 Wide Receiver

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    Candidates: Aaron Dobson and Michael Jenkins

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Jenkins brings one truly great skill to the table—he can run-block as well as any receiver in the NFL. If you're scratching your head and asking yourself if that really matters to a team like the Patriots in today's NFL, well you're in good company. For a receiver, blocking is like the cherry on top of the sundae; it's great to have, but take away the rest of the dessert and the cherry isn't much of a treat.

    Dobson, on the other hand, brings legitimate down-the-field receiving skills to the table. So, like with many things in the Patriots offense, this could come down to matchups. I would not be surprised at all if Jenkins ends up starting games in which Bill Belichick wants to feature running back Stevan Ridley. Overall, Dobson should be the choice.

     

    Projected Winner: Aaron Dobson

Oakland Raiders Starting Quarterback

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    Candidates: Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor and Tyler Wilson

     

    Tale of the Tape

    First, let's just get this out of the way—Raiders fans who've read my stuff already know it's coming. Pryor is not an NFL quarterback, period. He's a great athlete and he was terrific in college. But, unless you're still driving the Tim Tebow bandwagon, it's easy to realize that the miles between athletic college quarterback who can pass and talented passer in the NFL are vast and wide.

    The Raiders have all but confirmed my opinion.

    That leaves us with Flynn and fourth-round pick Wilson. Flynn has been called the Raiders' starter by head coach Dennis Allen, but being the starter in May and June isn't nearly as important as being the starter in August and September. Wilson has more physical tools than Flynn and should start to separate himself from the free-agent acquisition.

     

    Projected Winner: Tyler Wilson

Detroit Lions No. 2 Cornerback

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    Candidates: Bill Bentley and Darius Slay

     

    Tale of the Tape

    It's easy to get excited about draft picks every year, but it's important to remember that teams (while excited as well) develop attachments with players whom they were excited about in years past. For the Lions, who loved Bentley last season and who were excited to bring Slay into the fold this season, the two extremes will make an interesting decision for this year's training camp.

    Bentley was an intriguing young player before an injury ruined his 2012 season, and it isn't as if the Lions have forgotten about him or are ready to give up on him. His role may end up as the nickelback in the very near future, but he'll likely be more ready than Slay in 2013 and should get the starting nod.

     

    Projected Winner: Bill Bentley

Tampa Bay Buccaneers Starting Nose Tackle

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    Candidates: Gary Gibson and Akeem Spence

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Few players deserve to get a better situation around them more than defensive tackle Gerald McCoy of the Buccaneers. He's been far better than given credit for in his young NFL career, but he's languished with few talented players around him on a Buccaneers team that has struggled to overcome subpar coaching and inadequate spending. Yes, much of that has changed as of late, but the results have yet to follow.

    The spot next to McCoy has been a concern for sometime, but Spence was added in the fourth round and should be an immediate upgrade. He's got the bulk at 307 pounds to hold up at the point of attack and allow McCoy to create more havoc for opposing passers.

     

    Projected Winner: Akeem Spence

Minnesota Vikings No. 2 Wide Receiver

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    Candidates: Cordarrelle Patterson and Jerome Simpson

     

    Tale of the Tape

    The Vikings and their fans have every right to be excited about this year's draft class after picking up Patterson (along with two other first-round selections) in April. However, the receiver position isn't always an easy position to make an immediate impact at, and Patterson is rawer than many prospects. In an offense centered around Adrian Peterson and the run game, uncertainties at receiver aren't as welcome.

    Simpson had back problems last season but apparently has the situation more under control in 2013. He should have the upper hand in starting across from Greg Jennings as Patterson is eased into the offense and used as a situational weapon.

     

    Projected Winner: Jerome Simpson

New Orleans Saints Starting Free Safety

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    Candidates: Malcolm Jenkins and Kenny Vaccaro

     

    Tale of the Tape

    After the draft, the conventional wisdom was that Vaccaro would replace Roman Harper in the starting lineup and give the Saints two good pass defenders to help stymie the Cam Newtons and Matt Ryans of the world. However, it is looking more and more as if Vaccaro will step in for Jenkins, who can move to nickelback.

    Of course, Vaccaro has spent plenty of time at nickelback himself and could end up starting there in the NFL, and that's OK. While nickelback isn't a "starting" position, it's important in today's NFL, where offenses consistently use multiple receiver sets.

     

    Projected Winner: Kenny Vaccaro

Cleveland Browns Starting Quarterback

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    Candidates: Jason Campbell and Brandon Weeden

     

    Tale of the Tape

    The fact that this is even a competition spells bad things for Weeden's future, as the 29-year-old quarterback doesn't have a ton of time to turn it around in the NFL. In the past, I've often gone to bat for Campbell, as he's always seemed to fall into tough situations. However, at 31, it's clear that his best NFL days are behind him and he's not any team's future.

    Weeden should get the nod as the incumbent, but he'll need to be at his best if he wants to keep his job beyond 2013.

     

    Projected Winner: Brandon Weeden

Houston Texans Starting Right Tackle

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    Candidates: Derek Newton vs. Brennan Williams

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Newton was terrible in 2012 before a knee injury sidelined him. Now, he's carrying extra weight, which is a big no-no for the Texans' zone-blocking scheme. Combine that with the addition of a extra-athletic Williams in the third round of the draft and it's looking more and more like Matt Schaub is going to have yet another new strong-side protector this season.

    This move is just as important for running back Arian Foster who had trouble running behind the right side of the line last season. Williams fits the ZBA well and should win this job whether Newton gets to 100 percent or not.

     

    Projected Winner: Brennan Williams

Denver Broncos Starting Running Back

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    Candidates: Montee Ball and Willis McGahee

     

    Tale of the Tape

    Right now, it shouldn't be surprising if Ball isn't the most electric player at Broncos camp. He's a tougher, physical runner who is at his best with pads on, the ball in his hands and an end zone in front of him. Shorts and shirts workouts are never going to showcase what he does best, and fans need to realize that he won't be making headlines as soon as they might like.

    Ball was drafted because the Broncos clearly had a need to complement quarterback Peyton Manning with a more competent running attack, and McGahee isn't the answer. It will be interesting to see how he responds to a challenge from the rookie.

     

    Projected Winner: Montee Ball

Arizona Cardinals No. 2 Wide Receiver

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    Candidates: Michael Floyd and Andre Roberts

     

    Tale of the Tape

    This is a bit of a misnomer, because if the question is which receiver will be a bigger part of the offense, I'd go with Roberts every single time. However, Roberts has shown to be a very talented slot receiver, so the Cardinals will be asking Floyd to step into the "Z" receiver role in 2013—even if Roberts gets No. 2 targets and sees more playing time.

    Floyd is an uber-talented player, but he needed a "redshirt" year to acclimate to the NFL game. The time for him to make an impact is now, and the addition of a more vertically inclined offense should help.

     

    Projected Winner: Michael Floyd

New York Jets Starting Quarterback

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    Candidates: Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith

     

    Tale of the Tape

    The biggest question here is how secure Rex Ryan feels in his job. I believe the answer to that is a wholehearted "very secure." Woody Johnson would still stick with the charismatic and cocky head coach even after another disappointing season. Without the necessity to win now, why not take the necessary steps to win in the future? 

    Sanchez has had every single chance to show that he could carry a team, but he's been unable. Smith will have the same bumps and bruises as any rookie, but he's got the physical tools to succeed in the NFL. Now, if only the Jets actually make the right decision...

     

    Projected Winner: Geno Smith

     

     

     

    Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.