NFL Training Camp Battles We Just Can't Wait to See
NFL fans are starting to get hungry for football. OTAs and minicamps are only whetting their appetite; they need real, live football they can watch and see and feel. They crave full-speed action and bone-crushing hits. They need to hear helmets and shoulder pads popping in anger.
Training camps are the first time players battle for anything meaningful—but it's not a score on a scoreboard; it's a spot on the depth chart.
Even the best teams in the NFL have position battles; whether a decorated warrior can hold off a hyped-up recruit always makes for good viewing.
When it's a committee of players slugging it out for a single starting spot, things are no less interesting. In fact, when a team picks a player over multiple other candidates, it can say a lot about the player—and the direction the team is going.
We can't wait for the time when plastic shells and metal facemasks clash at full speed. And we are eager to see how these training camp battles turn out.
San Francisco 49ers Running Back
Combatants: Frank Gore, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James
While most football watchers will have their eyes on the San Francisco 49ers wide receiver situation, injured No. 1 wideout Michael Crabtree simply won't be replaced. The burden will fall on the running game to produce, and that's where the more interesting battle lies.
Incumbent starter Frank Gore will soldier on as always. For the last six seasons, Gore has averaged between 73.5 and 80.0 yards per game, according to Pro Football Reference. In each of the past two seasons, he has run for eight touchdowns and just over 1,200 yards. He has also been in the Pro Bowl.
At age 30, though, Gore has 1,911 career attempts under his belt—and a back never known for his speed will surely begin to lose some of it.
Hunter, whose season ended with an Achilles tendon injury suffered in Week 12 against the New Orleans Saints, is already cutting at OTAs, per CSNBayArea.com's Matt Maiocco. Hunter, a 2011 fourth-round pick, had a good showing with the 112 reps he got in 2011.
LaMichael James, a 2012 second-round pick, was dangerous and explosive in Chip Kelly's zone-read offense at Oregon, but was brought along slowly his rookie year. Starting Week 13, James got a steady diet of at least three carries all the way through the Super Bowl—and scored a 35-yard touchdown that sparked the 49ers' NFC Championship Game comeback.
Per Matt Barrows of The Sacramento Bee, James is up to 205 pounds after playing at 195 last season. If James maintains his speed at that size, he could be very hard to stop.
Detroit Lions Offensive Tackle
COMBATANTS: Riley Reiff, Jason Fox, Corey Hilliard
For the last 12 seasons, the Detroit Lions haven't had to worry about who was playing left tackle: Jeff Backus, Matt Millen's first ever pick, had the position locked down. While Backus had up years and down years, he reported for work for 186 consecutive games and got the job done.
Head coach Jim Schwartz is entering a season with serious questions about his job security, and he is also wondering who will keep Matthew Stafford's blind side clean.
Last Thanksgiving, Backus finally got an injury he couldn't play through. 2012 first-round pick Riley Reiff, used mostly as a third tackle throughout his rookie season, got the call.
Reiff struggled against the Houston Texans, as judged by Pro Football Focus. He earned a minus-2.9 run block grade and plus-0.6 pass block grade on 91 snaps. Whether Reiff is ready to play left tackle full-time or if he's better suited to the right side is an open question.
Meanwhile, 2010 fourth-round pick Jason Fox might just be ready to step up. Coming out of Miami, Fox stood 6'7", 303 pounds and had plenty of experience under his belt: 47 starts in four seasons. His body and technique needed NFL polish, but he was a legitimate left tackle prospect.
A series of injuries (and logjam above him) has kept him off the field for his first three seasons, but the talent has always been there.
Hilliard, a 28-year-old right tackle who's typically played well in relief of the departed Gosder Cherilus, would likely have the upper hand over the loser of the left tackle battle.
Oakland Raiders Quarterback
COMBATANTS: Tyler WIlson, Matt Flynn, Terrelle Pryor
There are training camp battles that are compelling because they're between two good players on a contending team, like when a decorated veteran tries to hold off a hyped-up rookie.
Then, there are there are competitions that draw attention because they're an indication of how players fit into a new scheme, coach or direction.
Then, there are battles that you can't look away from, like a car accident.
The Oakland Raiders quarterback battle is a combination of the latter two.
Terrelle Pryor has been the same story since high school: fantastic athlete, questionable quarterbacking skiils and suspect mental tools. Despite "working hard," as Contra Costa Times reporter Steve Corkran quoted Raiders head coach Dennis Allen as saying, Pryor is "not there yet."
Allen is also naming Flynn "our starting quarterback going forward." Flynn's short track record—and inability to hold off Russell Wilson last season—raises the possibility that fourth-round pick Tyler Wilson could be the second straight rookie to usurp Flynn's gig.
St. Louis Rams Running Back
COMBATANTS: Isaiah Pead, Zac Stacy, Daryl Richardson
When the St. Louis Rams took Isaiah Pead in the second round of the 2012 draft, the purposes seemed twofold: adding a complementary threat to workhorse back Steven Jackson and underwriting Jackson with an insurance policy in case he broke down.
Instead, Jackson carried his usual load—Pead was given only 10 carries—and then left via free agency. If Pead can take over for Jackson, he's done nothing to prove it yet. Worse, Pead was recently suspended one game for violating the league's substance abuse policy.
Now that the Rams have aggressively added receiving weapons around quarterback Sam Bradford in a bid for the postseason, the running game can't falter. Though Pead is presumably the Rams' first choice to step up, he has plenty of competition.
2013 fifth-round pick Zac Stacy is an intriguing option. Bleacher Report's Gary Davenport sees many similarities between the compact, tough, productive Vanderbilt product and 2012 rookie surprise Alfred Morris.
Even given those two options, the lead dog may end up being 2012 seventh-round pick Daryl Richardson. Richardson immediately outplayed Pead for reps in 2012 and served as the change-of-pace back Pead was supposed to be.
Though Richardson racked up 475 yards on 98 carries (4.85 yards per carry), his effectiveness waned as the season wore on. If the more talented Pead can put it together, Richardson will have a hard time getting those kind of chances.
Buffalo Bills Quarterback
COMBATANTS: EJ Manuel, Kevin Kolb
Any quarterback training camp battle is a low-stakes proposition.
"If you have two quarterbacks, you don't have one," as the old saying goes, and any team without a quarterback is not going anywhere for the forseeable future.
The Buffalo Bills quarterback battle is intriguing not because the starter will go on to do great things, but because the winner will point the way toward what new head coach Doug Marrone is doing.
Marrone, who served as New Orleans Saints offensive coordinator under Sean Payton before taking over at Syracuse, was thought to be bringing his particular flavor of spread passing to the NFL.
Marrone and the Bills, though, made the incredibly bold move of selecting quarterback EJ Manuel in the first round. Manuel, who wasn't any evaluator's best available quarterback, was taken with every other signal-caller still on the board.
Moreover, Manuel is the antithesis of Drew Brees: he's tall, athletic, raw and doesn't display great accuracy or decision-making skills.
Manuel will be competing with perpetual disappointment Kevin Kolb, who failed to catch on in Philadelphia and make the best of a bad situation in Arizona. Kolb is a more traditional dropback quarterback and, if asked to stick to high-percentage throws, may give Buffalo a better chance to win.
If Marrone has grander plans for Manuel's skill set, though, the Bills are going to be very interesting to watch even after the training camp battle.
Indianapolis Colts Wide Receiver
COMBATANTS: Darrius Heyward-Bey, T.Y. Hilton
When the late Al Davis and the Oakland Raiders passed on both Michael Crabtree and Jeremy Maclin to select Darrius Heyward-Bey with the No. 7 overall pick, it was further evidence that Davis was losing his grip on the game.
Heyward-Bey possessed the size (6'2", 205 pounds) and blazing straight-line speed (4.25 second 40-yard dash time, per NFLCombineResults.com) Davis coveted. But could he play?
Even while six starting quarterbacks, four offensive coordinators and three head coaches churned through Oakland, Heyward-Bey gradually proved that yes, he can play. Over the last two seasons, he has caught 105 passes for 1,581 yards and 11 touchdowns despite missing five starts in that period.
Still only 26, Heyward-Bey has jumped ship to Indianapolis, where he'll compete with second-year man T.Y. Hilton for the deep-threat role in Andrew Luck's arsenal.
Hilton, who set fantasy leagues afire by catching 50 passes for 861 yards and seven touchdowns as a rookie, still has a lot of room to improve. The 5'10", 183-pound third-round draft pick got underneath a lot of Luck's deep passes, but left a lot of plays on the table.
Pro Football Focus graded Hilton 80th out of 105 qualifying receivers in 2012. He'll have to get much better on the underneath stuff to hold off second-year counterpart LaVon Brazill—or risk losing his deep-ball gig to Heyward-Bey.
Cincinnati Bengals Running Back
COMBATANTS: BenJarvus Green-Ellis, Giovani Bernard
It's hard to find a lot of fault with the man they call "Law Firm." Green-Ellis, brought in from the New England Patriots to be the workhorse back, gained 1,094 tough yards and added six touchdowns en route to a Bengals playoff appearance.
But Green-Ellis is what he is: a career 4.0 yards-per-carry grinder. With the Bengals' vertical attack, defenses are stretching themselves out to cover targets like, A.J. Green, Mohamed Sanu and Jermaine Gresham. After the Bengals added tight end Tyler Eifert to the mix, there should be even more space to run in.
Giovani Bernard is hoping to take advantage of it.
Bernard put up some of the best explosion numbers of the 2013 combine. Per NFL.com he cut a 4.12-second short shuttle and a 6.91-second three-cone drill. With his hard, quick running style he piled up yards and touchdowns in the ACC. Defenses tried to slow down the North Carolina passing attack, which Bernard will need to do in the NFL.
The question is, will Bernard or Green-Ellis be the change-of-pace back?
Green Bay Packers Right Tackle
COMBATANTS: Marshall Newhouse, Derek Sherrod, David Bakhtiari, Andrew Datko
The Green Bay Packers struggled mightily to protect star quarterback Aaron Rodgers last season. Head coach Mike McCarthy decided to move his best tackle and guard—Bryan Bulaga and Josh Sitton, respectively—from their natural right side to Rodgers' blind side. Can the perennial title contenders keep Rodgers clean?
With incumbent left tackle Marshall Newhouse replaced by Bulaga, will Newhouse flip to the right? Or will he lose his job altogether?
Derek Sherrod, a 2011 first-round pick, is back from a broken leg that sidelined him for all of 2012. Sherrod didn't get a ton of experience his rookie season, getting into five games, but not cracking the starting lineup.
Sherrod presumably has the talent to challenge Newhouse immediately; unfortunately McCarthy named him "the farthest away" of the Packers' 2012 IR list from returning, per Jason J. Wilde of ESPN Milwaukee.
Don Barclay probably has the second-best shot at the starting job; he played OK in relief of both T.J. Lang and an injured Bulaga last season. Per Pro Football Focus, Barclay was solid in the run game and poor in pass protection, versus the other way around for Newhouse.
Rookie David Bakhtiari has the frame and athletic talent to play tackle in the NFL, but his underdeveloped body will likely keep him on the shelf for the forseeable future.
Atlanta Falcons Strong-Side Defensive End
COMBATANTS: Kroy Biermann, Malliciah Goodman
The Atlanta Falcons fell agonizingly short of the Super Bowl in 2012 and plan to get to the summit of the mountain in 2013.
While they made a clear free-agent move at rush end, replacing John Abraham with Osi Umenyiora, the Falcons appeared to stand pat with incumbent Kroy Biermann. Then, in the fourth round of the draft, the team selected 6'4", 274-pound Malliciah Goodman.
Biermann has always been a stout run-stuffer, but he lacks the speed and athleticism needed to attack quarterbacks. Pro Football Focus gave Biermann a minus-6.6 pass-rushing grade in 2012, 47th out of 62 qualifying 4-3 ends.
Goodman is cut from similar cloth, but with an inch and over 30 pounds on Biermann—not to mention Goodman's outstanding 36 3/8" inch arms—has the natural size and power to overcome his lack of burning speed.
Whether Goodman can improve the Falcons' front seven could mean the difference between them planting their flag at the top of the mountain, or coming up just short once again.
Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback
COMBATANTS: Mike Vick, Nick Foles, Matt Barkley
Let's get one thing out of the way: Fourth-round rookie Matt Barkley is not going to beat out both Nick Foles and Michael Vick to be the Philadelphia Eagles starting quarterback this season.
Almost everything else, though, is up for grabs. Barkley, the incumbent Vick and precocious sophomore Foles could find themselves in any other order on the depth chart.
The big question isn't really which quarterback starts or how much the No. 2 plays, but what kind of offense he'll play out of.
According to The Morning Call's Jimmy Kempski, the Eagles are running almost exclusively out of the shotgun in OTAs. This gives a small window of insight into how new head coach Chip Kelly is going to deploy his zone-read offense in the NFL. It appears to lean more toward protecting Vick and maximizing his running skills rather than the dropback passing of Foles and Barkley.
As training camp winds on, how Kelly uses his quarterbacks—and which quarterbacks he uses—will continue to be one of the most fascinating preseason stories of 2013.