The Best NFL Training Camp Battle at Every Position

Alessandro MiglioFeatured ColumnistJuly 22, 2013

The Best NFL Training Camp Battle at Every Position

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    Training camp has arrived, signifying the return of the NFL. The natural state of the universe has finally been restored.

    Some teams have already begun camp, with the rest to soon follow suit, setting the stage for many battles at every position around the league. 

    Which training camp position battles are the most intriguing? Click through and find out.

Quarterback

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    Best battle: Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith, New York Jets

    Mark Sanchez oozes confidence that he will win his own job back for the Jets against rookie Geno Smith. But do others share that confidence in him.

    The veteran has a leg up on the rookie in experience, to be sure. Smith has plenty to prove this preseason if he is going to take the reins. But it's not too far-fetched that the second-round pick will be under center against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Week 1.

    Quarterback competitions always make for good daytime television, but the New York spotlight takes them to the next level. Case in point, the "competition" might already be over, per Sports Illustrated's Don Banks:

    If by early you mean before the regular season arrives, it's looking more doubtful all the time. As training camp looms, this appears to be the second consecutive year Sanchez will be involved in a so-called quarterback competition that's really not all that competitive. Smith didn't wow anyone in the Jets' organization with his uneven offseason work, and he hasn't looked pro-ready and capable of assuming control of an NFL-style offense at this point. Maybe the perception changes once the preseason games start and his natural playmaking ability is on display, but Sanchez has a firm grip on the starting spot and seems to have the support of the team's veteran leadership, too.

    Even so, the potential for drama in New York is great.

     

    Runner-up: EJ Manuel vs. Kevin Kolb, Buffalo Bills

    The Bills signed Kevin Kolb to a contract worth up to $13 million this offseason. At the time of the signing he was the presumptive starter with Ryan Fitzpatrick ousted, but the Bills may have had other plans when the draft rolled around.

    Buddy Nix made a surprise selection when he submitted EJ Manuel's name for the 16th overall pick. Manuel was the first quarterback taken in the draft—something few pundits predicted—and threw Kolb into an instant competition for the starting gig.

    Given Kolb's massive failure in Arizona, it is difficult to see him winning the job unless Manuel proves too raw for the job. But perhaps better protection in Buffalo will help Kolb more than we think.

Running Back

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    Best battle: Isaiah Pead vs. Daryl Richardson vs. Zac Stacy, St. Louis Rams

    St. Louis is in unfamiliar territory.

    Between Marshall Faulk and Steven Jackson, the Rams knew who their workhorse running back was for over a decade. The only certainty at the position they have heading into camp is that Jackson is gone.

    The good news is they have three young and talented backs vying for the starting gig. Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson are both second-year players with potential, and St. Louis selected Zac Stacy in the 2013 draft.

    Richardson was listed as the projected starter heading into camp, according to Bleacher Report's Bill Riccette.

    But, as NFL.com's Chris Wesseling points out, Richardson was ineffective in his last five games of his rookie season. It's possible that his mediocre finish could hurt his chances to earn the starting spot.

    Pead barely played in his rookie year, as he tripped down the depth chart early. He is also suspended for the first game of the season, which could already have him in the doghouse.

    Stacy, however, should not be forgotten. The former Vanderbilt star is reminiscent of Doug Martin coming out of college, without the hype of course.

    It will be a fun battle.

      

    Runner-up: Eddie Lacy vs. Johnathan Franklin vs. DuJuan Harris, Green Bay Packers

    How long has it been since the Packers had a running game?

    Really only a few seasons—Ryan Grant did have back-to-back 1,200-yard seasons in 2008 and 2009—but it seems like it has been quite a while. That may finally change this year.

    The Packers ponied up and drafted not one, but two running backs in the 2013 draft. Eddie Lacy comes up from Alabama, where he had a dominating season in Mark Ingram's and Trent Richardson's wakes. Johnathan Franklin is an underrated dynamo from UCLA.

    They will compete with DuJuan Harris for the starting gig this preseason unless there is a hiccup in his recovery from having a fist-sized cyst removed from his lung. (Incidentally, that sounds terrifying—was an alien chestburster in there?)

    It is easy to think one of the rookies will come out ahead, but that didn't stop ESPN Wisconsin writer Jason Wilde from predicting Harris will be Green Bay's leading rusher in 2013. 

    It's likely the Packers will emerge with a committee of some sort, but they have a nice stable in that backfield going forward.

Fullback

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    Best battle: The traditional fullback position vs. extinction

    The traditional fullback position is in trouble. It has seemed that way for some time, but stalwarts like Vonta Leach and Lawrence Vickers kept the vultures at bay.

    Neither can find a team right now.

    The NFL is in the middle of an offensive transformation. It has increasingly become a passing league, yet teams have never enjoyed more success on the ground than they have the past couple of seasons.

    A big reason for that is the evolutionary adaptation we have come to know as the "read option." Cam Newton had massive success with it as a rookie, and it really gained steam last season thanks to the magnificent performances by Colin Kaepernick, Russell Wilson and Robert Griffin III.

    Whether it's here to stay or a passing fancy remains to be seen, but it's clear offenses are ditching the traditional fullback position in favor of more versatile players like James Casey and Charles Clay.

Wide Receiver

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    Best battle: A.J. Jenkins vs. Mario Manningham vs. Kyle Williams vs. Quinton Patton, San Francisco 49ers

    The 49ers made a bit of a surprise splash when they selected A.J. Jenkins in the first round of the 2012 draft. He rewarded them with a lackluster preseason and wound up with one target for the entire season. Chad Hall had more playing time.

    Obviously, the 49ers hope Jenkins will do more in his second season, but the pressure is now tenfold with Michael Crabtree out for the season. 

    Jenkins will be vying for a starting spot opposite Anquan Boldin against Mario Manningham and Kyle Williams, both of whom are coming off season-ending injuries. Rookie Quinton Patton is also in the mix.

    None of these guys figure to fill Crabtree's shoes completely, but the 49ers need one or two of them to work out or the offense could have trouble moving the ball.

     

    Runner-up: Aaron Dobson vs. Josh Boyce vs. Julian Edelman vs. Michael Jenkins vs. Mark Harrison, New England Patriots

    Things have simply not been the same at the "X" receiver ever since Randy Moss soured in New England.

    Chad Johnson, officially known as Ochocinco at the time, and Brandon Lloyd filled the role about as well as a baby fills a diaper. Neither is with the team any longer, and the Patriots are leaving no stone unturned in their pursuit of production on the outside, as Patsfan.com's Derek Havens pointed out on Twitter. 

    The turnover at wide receiver might be an issue for Tom Brady and the Patriots, so someone needs to step up early. Danny Amendola figures to be the new Wes Welker, leaving the other roles up for grabs.

    Will rookies Aaron Dobson, Josh Boyce or Mark Harrison make an impact? Or will Michael Jenkins shake his "lackluster" label and turn his career around in New England? Perhaps Julian Edelman will finally stay healthy and be more prominent in the offense going forward.

Tight End

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    Best battle: Fred Davis vs. Jordan Reed vs. Logan Paulsen, Washington Redskins 

    The Redskins have a good problem on their hands at tight end.

    Fred Davis might be one of the league's most talented at the position, but injuries and an affinity for controlled substances have kept him from realizing his potential. He makes his return from a torn Achilles tendon on a one-year deal with the Redskins.

    Logan Paulsen might not be a sexy name, but he filled in admirably in Davis' absence last season. Jordan Reed is the rookie with upside, unlikely to crack the starting lineup unless he wows in camp.

     

    Runner-up: Luke Stocker vs. Tom Crabtree, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    Dallas Clark has moved on, opening the door for third-year tight end Luke Stocker to take the reins at starter. But he has plenty of competition from a Green Bay import.

    Tom Crabtree attempts to step out of Jermichael Finley's shadow, where he resided over the past several seasons. Stocker was similarly stuck behind Clark and Kellen Winslow Jr.

    Can Stocker hold off the colorful Crabtree? Or will the latter finally blossom?

Offensive Tackle

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    Best battle: Lamar Holmes vs. Mike Johnson, Atlanta Falcons

    Tyson Clabo is one of the league's better right tackles. The problem was his salary in Atlanta, where he was owed $4.5 million for the 2013 season.

    The Falcons let him go, thereby creating a hole at the position to be filled by one of two men: Lamar Holmes or Mike Johnson.

    The massive linemen will go toe to toe for the right to replace the effective Clabo. 

      

    Runner-up: Jason Fox vs. Corey Hilliard, Detroit Lions

    The Lions had a pretty nice set of tackles last season, but they might not find themselves so fortunate this year.

    Gosder Cherilus fled for greener pastures in Indianapolis and Jeff Backus fled to retirement, leaving second-year man Riley Reiff to man the blindside and Jason Fox fighting with Corey Hilliard for the starting job at right tackle.

Offensive Guard

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    Best battle: Jeff Allen vs. Geoff Schwartz, Kansas City Chiefs

    Kansas City sports a much better football team than their 2012 record would suggest. Bill Parcells might say, "You are what your record is," but right now that is 0-0 with plenty of promise.

    One of the best units on the team is the offensive line. The only position that is a bit shaky is left guard.

    Geoff Schwartz comes over from Minnesota, and he will challenge last year's starter, Jeff Allen. The latter wasn't terribly good in 2012, so Schwartz has a good shot to win that job.

     

    Runner-up: Doug Legursky vs. Colin Brown vs. Sam Young vs. Chris Scott, Buffalo Bills

    Gone is Andy Levitre, too rich for Buffalo's blood. One of the best guards in the league must be replaced, and the competition is wide open.

Center

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    Best battle: Peter Konz vs. Joe Hawley, Atlanta Falcons

    The Falcons knew Todd McClure was no spring chicken. The 36-year-old center finally retired this offseason after 13 years in the league, but the Falcons are ready.

    They drafted Joe Hawley in 2010 and Peter Konz in 2012, both of whom will vie for the starting gig at center this training camp. 

     

    Runner-up: Gino Gradkowski vs. A.Q. Shipley, Baltimore Ravens

    Not to be outdone, Matt Birk retired from the NFL after 14 seasons.

    The Ravens, however, might not be in as good a position as the Falcons. Baltimore will pit Gino Gradkowski against A.Q. Shipley for the job. Here is what Bo Smolka of CSN Baltimore had to say about the battle: 

    Gradkowski (6-3,300), a fourth-round draft pick a year ago, is the most familiar with the Ravens offense after working under Birk all last season. Gradkowski was limited primarily to special teams, though he did play the majority of the offensive snaps in the regular season finale at Cincinnati.

    Shipley (6-1, 309) has one thing that Gradkowski lacks: starting experience. It has been a long and winding road to the Ravens for Shipley, who came from the Colts in a trade for a conditional 2014 draft pick.

Edge-Rusher

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    Best battle: Dion Jordan vs. Jared Odrick vs. Derrick Shelby vs. Olivier Vernon, Miami Dolphins

    The Dolphins have arguably the best pass-rusher in the league in Cameron Wake. But they need to get him some help.

    Dion Jordan was drafted as part of the answer.

    Jeff Ireland made a bold move, trading up to the No. 3 spot in the 2013 draft for the right to take Jordan, who is filled with promise as a pass-rusher. But draft position guarantees nothing. 

    "Considering Olivier Vernon had a very active day today, pick up two would-be sacks, Dion Jordan has his work cut out for him this camp," said Omar Kelly, Dolphins beat writer for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel

    Still, it is difficult to believe Jordan won't be given every opportunity to win a starting job. He has his work cut out for him against veterans Jared Odrick, Olivier Vernon and Derrick Shelby, last year's preseason darling at defensive end.

    In the end, Jordan might be playing linebacker more than end, but the Dolphins clearly have something brewing on defense.
     

     

    Runner-up: Kroy Biermann vs. Malliciah Goodman vs. Johnathan Massaquoi, Atlanta Falcons

    Ray Edwards was an utter disaster for the Falcons, getting cut midseason after becoming a locker-room cancer.

    Kroy Biermann took over after Edwards' release last season, but he is in for a fight for the starting job during training camp. Youngsters Malliciah Goodman and Jonathan Massaquoi will give him a run for his money.

Interior Defensive Lineman

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    Best battle: Cameron Heyward vs. Ziggy Hood vs. Brett Keisel, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Brett Keisel isn't getting any younger.

    The epically bearded 34-year-old has been a stalwart at defensive end for the Steelers, but his time might be up. 

    If he holds up, he figures to lock down one of the starting jobs. The other side might have a heated competition between incumbent Ziggy Hood and former first-round pick Cameron Heyward.

    The latter has outplayed the former, according to Pro Football Focus' grades (subscription required), and could win the starting gig after two seasons coming off the bench. 

    Bleacher Report NFL lead writer Matt Miller had this to say: "If I'm the #Steelers, Cameron Heyward is playing a lot more than Ziggy Hood in 2013." 

     

    Runner-up: Cameron Jordan vs. Kenyon Coleman vs. Akiem Hicks vs. Tom Johnson, New Orleans Saints

    The Saints are switching to a 3-4 defense this season, which means a lot of uncertainty along that defensive line.

    They will enter camp with four guys legitimately vying for playing time at defensive end, including Akiem Hicks and former first-round pick Cameron Jordan.

    This should be a fun competition for Rob Ryan's defense.

Linebacker

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    Best battle: Jameel McClain vs. Arthur Brown vs. Daryl Smith, Baltimore Ravens

    The Ravens lost Dannell Ellerbe to free agency and future Hall of Famer Ray Lewis to retirement. Can the defense survive such a blow?

    They tried to mitigate those losses by signing Rolando McClain and later Daryl Smith, but McClain retired suddenly just after he was arrested this offseason. 

    Jameel McClain might have the inside track on one of those jobs, but he still hasn't been medically cleared to practice after a spinal cord contusion.

    That means rookie Arthur Brown and former Jacksonville Jaguar Smith could begin camp as the de facto starters.

     

    Runner-up: Travis Lewis vs. Ashlee Palmer vs. Tahir Whitehead, Detroit Lions

    Justin Durant is gone, leaving one of the outside linebacker positions up for grabs in Detroit.

    It falls to Travis Lewis, Ashlee Palmer and Tahir Whitehead to compete for the job. Palmer is by far the most experienced of this trio, so he figures to have the upper hand.

Cornerback

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    Best battle: Xavier Rhodes vs. Josh Robinson vs. Chris Cook vs. A.J. Jefferson vs. Jacob Lacey, Minnesota Vikings 

    Antoine Winfield bolted for the Pacific Northwest after being released, leaving a gaping hole at cornerback.

    Chris Cook and rookie Xavier Rhodes are the big cornerbacks who might have inside tracks at the starting gig, but don't count out 5'10" Josh Robinson in his second season.

     A.J. Jefferson and Jacob Lacey are in the mix, but likely as depth at the position.

     

    Runner-up: Ron Bartell vs. Darius Slay vs. Jonte Green vs. William Bentley, Detroit Lions

    The Lions have had a porous secondary for years, but there is promise of improvement as training camp begins.

    Veteran Ron Bartell has been solid when healthy in his career. The problem is he hasn't been very healthy, and he finds himself competing with a bunch of young players.

    William Bentley and Jonte Green both started at times as rookies, and Darius Slay is a speedy rookie who could sneak up on the competition. 

    If the Lions hit on those draft picks and Bartell works out, they could finally have themselves a decent secondary.

Safety

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    Best battle: Marcus Gilchrist vs. Brandon Taylor vs. Darrell Stuckey, San Diego Chargers

    The Chargers have one of the best safeties in the game in Eric Weddle. It's his running mate in the defensive backfield that's in question.

    Atari Bigby is gone, leaving three inexperienced players to vie for the starting job.

    Well, Gilchrist isn't exactly inexperienced—he is a converted slot cornerback who has played safety in the past, per Ricky Henne of Chargers.com:

    “I’ve always played safety from high school to college,” he said after practice. “It was one of those things where I was working at all the positions. Nothing was set in stone. I just worked at all positions so I’m very comfortable playing safety.”

    According to Head Coach Mike McCoy, the decision to shift Gilchrist to safety came down to his philosophy of putting the most talented players on the field at all times.

    “We’re trying to find the best players to go out there and play,” said McCoy. “He’s played obviously there before.  During the offseason when we got here we talked about position flexibility and possibly putting him back there.  So we let him work there for a while and see how comfortable he is and see what we think as a football team.  He’s done a nice job so far.”

    He doesn't exactly have stout competition from special teams ace Darrell Stuckey and sophomore Brandon Taylor.

     

    Runner-up: Jerron McMillian vs. M.D. Jennings, Green Bay Packers

    Green Bay recently locked up Morgan Burnett to a long-term deal, so there is no question who will be starting at one of the safety spots.

    With Charles Woodson gone, however, the other spot is up for grabs. 

    Perhaps that wording would give M.D. Jennings—the victim of the simultaneous possession debacle in Seattle last season—nightmares. He is competing with second-year safety Jerron McMillian, who had a lukewarm rookie year.

Kicker

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    Best battle: Caleb Sturgis vs. Dan Carpenter, Miami Dolphins

    Yes, there are training camp battles at kicker.

    Most notably, the Dolphins have a good one on their hands, pitting veteran Dan Carpenter against fifth-round rookie Caleb Sturgis.

    Carpenter is behind the eight ball with that $2.7 million base salary due for the 2013 season. Carpenter has been mostly solid with the Dolphins over the years, but he has missed his share of key kicks.

    More importantly, the Dolphins spent a fifth-round pick on a kicker. Why would they waste that by cutting him unless he proves to be a total bust in the preseason?

     

    Runner-up: Dustin Hopkins vs. Rian Lindell, Buffalo Bills 

    For much of draft season, Dustin Hopkins was the clear leader at kicker. Then the Dolphins took Sturgis first.

    Hopkins' loss was Buffalo's gain as the Bills took him to compete with incumbent Rian Lindell. Much like the Dolphins, however, it is difficult to believe Hopkins will lose the battle unless he falters during camp.

Punter

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    Best battle: Shawn Powell vs. Brian Stahovich

    Not only do the Bills have a camp competition at kicker, but the punting job is up for grabs as well. Who will replace the departed Brian Moorman?

    Shawn Powell lost his camp competition with Moorman last year, and he finds himself in a dogfight with Brian Stahovich, who was impressive at Bills tryouts.

     

    Runner-up: Drew Butler vs. Brian Moorman, Pittsburgh Steelers

    Exiled Bills punter Moorman seeks to stake his claim as Pittsburgh's new punter against Drew Butler, one of the worst punters in the league as a rookie.

    Will the youngster hold on to his job, or will the 37-year-old Moorman find new life in Western Pennsylvania?