Which Training Camp Battles Will Have Biggest Impact on 2013 NFL Season?

Andrea HangstFeatured Columnist IVJuly 21, 2013

Which Training Camp Battles Will Have Biggest Impact on 2013 NFL Season?

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    NFL training camps are about to begin, which means veterans and rookies around the league alike will begin competing for 53 active roster spots. With teams currently allowed 90 players on the roster, not all who report to camp will have jerseys with their names on them come September.

    Though camp battles come in many sizes, here we take a look at 10 of the biggest around the league. These battles will impact not just the players and positions involved, but also their team's chances for success this season—they're the ones these teams must get right.

     

Washington Redskins Safeties

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    For the second straight season, the Washington Redskins have questions that need answering at the safety positions, both free and strong. The only thing different this year are the players involved. The returning favorites are Brandon Meriweather and Reed Doughty, and their primary competition is a pair of rookies, Bacarri Rambo and Phillip Thomas.

    Meriweather has the best shot at free safety this year, taking over for the departed Madieu Williams despite having played only 44 snaps last season. However, at strong safety, Doughty has been somewhat of a disappointment in his time with the Redskins, particularly in coverage. 

    Both Rambo and Thomas possess skill sets that can allow them to play both free and strong safety, though Rambo is a bit sharper at the former because of his deep coverage abilities. However, they'll need to outperform the veterans in run-stopping and midfield passing coverage. 

    If anything, the Redskins need stability and better play at safety. Drafting two safeties this year certainly helps underscore how important improvements at the position are to the team.

    Rambo and Thomas will push the veterans, to be sure. If they can win either or both of the jobs, the Redskins will have a more dynamic secondary. If they cannot, we'll likely see more of the same inconsistent play out of the positions in 2013. 

    It's much more important now that teams get it right when it comes to their starting free and strong safeties. With the increased use of the read-option as well as two tight end sets, having a pair of high-level safeties are necessary for defenses to successfully take on a variety of offensive positions all over the field.

    If the Redskins don't find the right combination, they could very well find themselves in the same position that their own offense puts opposing defenses in every week. 

Green Bay Packers Running Backs

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    The Green Bay Packers averaged just 104.6 rushing yards per game last year, ranking them 22nd in the league. Though they had one of the most effective passing games in the league, the lack of a strong ground game cost them—no quarterback was sacked more in 2012 than Aaron Rodgers. Therefore, a major focus of the Packers' offseason has been on improving the run game.

    The Packers addressed this via the draft, taking running backs Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin in Rounds 2 and 4, respectively. They join DuJuan Harris, James Starks and Alex Green in what has now become a crowded offensive backfield.

    Though the Packers could ultimately choose to use a committee of backs this year, considering the various talents each of these backs possess, it's not likely that all five men will be seeing significant snaps. The rookies are safer, of course, than the veterans, but the battle will be long and arduous for all.

    The right running back or collection of backs will help the Packers have a more dynamic, complete offense this year—one that will allow Rodgers more protection. This training camp competition should be one of the most compelling in the league—the outcome of which will do a lot to make one of the NFL's best offenses even more dangerous. 

Cleveland Browns Cornerback

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    The Cleveland Browns have one highly capable starting cornerback in Joe Haden. Alongside him, however, they have a trio of players fighting for Sheldon Brown's former job. The competitors are last season's nickel corner, Buster Skrine, free-agency addition Chris Owens and third-round 2013 draft pick Leon McFadden.

    It's important that the Browns find the right man for the job; any perceived weakness will mean opposing offenses will pick on the corner alongside Haden and leave the star on an island, untargeted. But it's going to be a tough battle, simply because the three options each have identifiable drawbacks at this early date.

    Skrine struggled in coverage on the inside last year, allowing 73.1 percent of passes thrown his way to be caught, for a total of 751 yards and five touchdowns to zero interceptions, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).

    Owens had only one start last year for the Atlanta Falcons, and at 5'9", he does not possess ideal size for an outside corner. McFadden is 5'9" also, but NFL.com says he has all the traits to be an effective cornerback despite his shorter height. His lack of experience against higher-level collegiate competition, however, may result in a steep learning curve for him.

    Initially, it seems like Skrine has the edge simply because he's a holdover from last season. However, the Browns have a new defensive coordinator, Ray Horton, and with him a new defensive philosophy. Skrine is as green in Horton's system as Owens and McFadden, which makes this a battle the three players will likely be embroiled in for much of training camp. 

    Cleveland's defense ranked 24th in passing yards allowed last year. Though Horton's new 3-4 defense, with its attacking style, will take the pressure off of Cleveland's secondary as long as it works as planned, the Browns still cannot afford to field cornerbacks who give up touchdowns and don't pull down interceptions. This is a pass-heavy league, after all, and defending the pass involves more than pressuring quarterbacks. 

     

Indianapolis Colts Running Backs

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    Currently, the Indianapolis Colts have seven running backs on their roster.

    Some of these backs are holdovers from last season, such as Vick Ballard, Delone Carter and Donald Brown, while others are new faces, like rookie Kerwynn Williams and free-agent signing Ahmad Bradshaw. Needless to say, competition between them will be fierce during training camp.

    Though the Colts ran the ball 27.6 times per game last year, ranking them 13th in the league, the number is a bit deceiving. Rushes still made up just 39.3 percent of their total offensive plays, owing to the fact that quarterback Andrew Luck attempted, on average, the fifth-most passes in the league. Furthermore, the Colts averaged just 3.9 yards per rush last season. This year, they need to run the ball more—and more effectively.

    Like the Green Bay Packers, the crop of running backs currently on the Colts roster have various skills, ones that are often complementary. Carter is a good power runner, useful in short yardage. But then again, so is Bradshaw. Brown is shiftier and faster. But then again, so are Ballard and Williams. These backs will need more than their respective niches to stand out in training camp.

    Though the Colts possess a prodigious passer in the second-year Luck, balance is the true key to lasting success and consistent performances. The Colts running backs will play a major role in the offense and in Luck's continued development. A good run game helps quarterbacks as much as having reliable wide receivers, so this battle for the final 53 will have a huge impact on the Colts' ability to field a strong, balanced offense and find themselves back in the playoffs.

     

New York Jets Quarterback

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    Geno Smith or Mark Sanchez? The New York Jets need to decide, and training camp will do much to force their hand.

    Of the 38 quarterbacks ranked by Pro Football Focus in 2012 (subscription required), Sanchez came in at 37th. Regressing with each passing season, it's becoming increasingly clear that he's no longer the answer behind center for the Jets. The only question is whether the rookie Smith will fare any better this year.

    Though Smith was phenomenal in college, there are limitations to his game that may prevent him from winning the Jets' starting job his rookie year, such as his footwork and his lack of experience playing under center.

    Smith certainly has upside that Sanchez, at this point, does not seem to have. Sanchez's decision-making, in particular, appears to be getting worse with time, and Smith's accuracy in college certainly surpasses anything Sanchez has done in the NFL.

    NFL experience, however, is in Sanchez's favor, especially considering the lesson the Jets have (hopefully) learned about prematurely rushing a young quarterback QB into the starting job. Still, Sanchez's repeated mistakes last season—more interceptions than touchdowns, nine fumbles—mean he won't retain the starting job without a very real fight.

    Though football is a team sport, no position gets more scrutiny than quarterback. He is, after all, the one through whom the offense flows, whether the play is a pass or a run. The Jets desperately need to get this one right this year, or they'll have another rough year in the AFC East.

     

Atlanta Falcons Offensive Line

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    The Atlanta Falcons have three positions on their offensive line that need to be addressed over the summer—center, right guard and right tackle. For a team that has quickly become known for its strong passing and rushing games, having a solid, stable offensive line is crucial. 

    At center, the competitors for the starting job that once belonged to Todd McClure are 2012 draft pick Peter Konz, who spent his rookie season primarily at right guard, Joe Hawley, who played 22 snaps last season, Matt Smith and Jacques McClendon. 

    At right tackle, the competition comes down to Lamar Holmes and Mike Johnson. Johnson is also in the running for the right guard job as is Hawley, alongside Phillipkeith Manley and Garrett Reynolds, who was the team's starting right guard for the first six weeks last season.

    A wholesale shakeup of the Falcons O-line could spell trouble for both quarterback Matt Ryan and new starting running back Steven Jackson. The Falcons had a strong 2012 behind Ryan's arm but managed just 87.3 rushing yards a game.

    The right side of the line, in particular, needs to be a better run-blocking unit for Jackson and Jaquizz Rodgers, while proper communication between the center and Ryan is necessary for Ryan to again be a top quarterback. 

    The Falcons head into training camp as heavy favorites to return to the postseason, and they could very well be in the running for a Super Bowl this season. However, chaos on the offensive line could tear those hopes to shreds. The battle for these three line positions is, without question, the most important to the Falcons, and how it plays out could have a major effect on the NFC playoff picture come winter.

New England Patriots Wide Receivers

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    With Danny Woodhead, Wes Welker, Aaron Hernandez and Brandon Lloyd all off the roster and tight end Rob Gronkowski currently recovering from back surgery, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady's receiving corps has taken a major hit this offseason.

    Though the Patriots aren't lacking for wide receivers—they presently have 10 on the roster, along with six tight ends—how the depth chart will look come Week 1 is still a mystery for training camp to solve.

    The top option for Brady's No. 1 receiver is free-agent signing Danny Amendola, but even he has concerns—his injury history chief among them. Other veteran additions Michael Jenkins and Lavelle Hawkins have flashed their talent, but it's been inconsistent (perhaps the presence of a top quarterback like Brady can bring out the best in them). Julian Edelman, who managed to get a new contract in the offseason, will also be competing for a starting job. 

    Rookies include draft picks Josh Boyce and Aaron Dobson, who are joined by undrafted free-agents Mark Harrison and Kenbrell Thompkins. Both Dobson and Boyce have a good chance of making the Patriots' final roster, while the others will have to fight it out for at least a practice squad spot.

    Because so much remains up in the air in New England, the battle between the receivers will be intense and won't reach its conclusion until camp does. 

    Though many may say that it doesn't matter who Brady is throwing to, considering his track record, this is the most tenuous situation he's faced in his receiving corps in years. If few of these receivers shine in training camp, the Patriots may fall from Super Bowl favorites to just trying to keep their heads above water. 

     

     

Pittsburgh Steelers Running Backs

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    In 2012, the Pittsburgh Steelers finished the season with a run game that ranked 26th in the league in rushing yards per game. Injuries suffered by running backs and offensive linemen, combined with inexcusable mistakes like fumbles, and the result was the worst rushing season by the Steelers in over a decade.

    To address this issue, the Steelers drafted running back Le'Veon Bell in the second round, allowed the disgruntled Rashard Mendenhall to leave as a free agent, re-signed Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman and brought in La'Rod Stephens-Howling to join Baron Batch in the offensive backfield.

    Further, the Steelers have also opted to switch to an outside zone-blocking scheme, a move that benefits one-cut runners like Bell and Stephens-Howling, though it will require adjustment from both Dwyer and Redman as well as their offensive line. But these changes mean that the top running back roster spot is wide open in Pittsburgh. This will produce the team's most hotly fought training camp battle of the summer.

    Because of the change in the offensive line philosophy, Bell appears to be a front-runner for the job. However, his lack of experience in pass-blocking is a drawback; he'll need to work on it this summer in order to leapfrog both Redman and Dwyer on the depth chart. Dwyer will head into camp as the team's No. 1 running back, but there's no guarantee that will be his job once camp ends.

    The competition between these five players will be tough, and it's likely all will get opportunities with the first team, both in practices and in preseason games. There's a very real sense of urgency in Pittsburgh to right what went wrong last year, and nothing was more disappointing than how it ran the ball.

    With the Baltimore Ravens seemingly stronger for all of their offseason roster changes, the Cincinnati Bengals quickly ascending the ranks in the AFC and the Cleveland Browns in the midst of a rebuilding process that may actually stick, the Steelers cannot afford to fall behind in any area. 

     

Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback

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    The battle for the Philadelphia Eagles' starting quarterback job will be waged between three passers: Michael Vick, Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley. Though Barkley is a dark horse, the Eagles are completely revamping their offensive philosophy under new head coach Chip Kelly, and as a result, he cannot yet be counted out.

    Possibly the most complicated training camp competition in the league this year, it's very likely we won't know who will be the Eagles' regular-season starting quarterback until just before the season begins. All three will likely get the opportunity to work with the first-team offense—in both practices and preseason games—in order to see who best fits Kelly's system. 

    Though Vick has a bit of an edge—he has more experience than Foles and Barkley and has the mobile profile that Kelly has preferred in his time coaching at Oregon—Foles' skills as a pocket passer and Barkley's overall football intelligence are both assets, regardless of what we can assume presently about Kelly's system.

    The tenor of Philadelphia's offense could vary wildly based on who is under center, with a bit of mutual tailoring of the game on the parts of both the quarterback and Kelly. Nothing will be truly known about what Kelly has planned for the Eagles this season until the quarterback situation is finalized, so clearly how this competition plays out will have a major impact on the Eagles, their divisional matchups and their entire season.

San Francisco 49ers Wide Receiver

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    When San Francisco 49ers wide receiver Michael Crabtree tore his Achilles tendon in OTAs earlier this spring, the team lost its top receiving target from 2012.

    Last season, Crabtree was targeted by quarterbacks Alex Smith and Colin Kaepernick 126 times, for a total of 1,105 yards on 85 receptions—nearly twice as many targets, receptions and yards as the second-highest targeted player on the team, tight end Vernon Davis.

    The transition from Smith to Kaepernick only further increased the receiver's role in the 49ers offense, with three of his four 100-plus-yard receiving games coming after the switch. There was no one more important to the success of San Francisco's passing game, and now he's gone for at least part of—if not all—the 2013 season.

    Assuming that Anquan Boldin, who the Niners acquired in a trade with the Baltimore Ravens, is the team's No. 2 receiver this year, the competition for Crabtree's spot will come down to A.J. Jenkins, Kyle Williams, Mario Manningham, Quinton Patton and Ricardo Lockette. 

    Lockette is the dark-horse candidate for the job; he'll need to fight just for a roster spot, let alone a starting one. Williams is coming back from an ACL tear, while Manningham is still recovering from ACL and PCL tears. And he may not be healthy enough to play come Week 1.

    Jenkins has shown improvement, but his skill set seems best suited for slot receiving, leaving the rookie Patton with a lot of expectations weighing on him headed into training camp.

    It's important that the 49ers find someone who is capable of coming close to Crabtree's production. With only Jenkins, Manningham and Williams seeing playing time last year and just 673 snaps at that (Crabtree played 869, including playoffs), each contender should get ample opportunities to stand out in training camp.

    This is a big issue presently, but by the time camp breaks, the hope is that it will become a more minor concern.