Predictions for the NFL's Hottest Training Camp Battles
After a summer in which the headwear of NFL players became actual "news," a most wonderful thing has happened.
All across the National Football League, training camps are underway, giving fans and the media alike actual, honest-to-goodness football news to dissect and discuss.
Among the hottest topics of conversation are the numerous battles for starting spots around the league, including a handful of teams that will head into August not knowing who their starting quarterback will be.
Here's a look at some of the most prominent battles raging in NFL training camps this year, the players fighting for those spots and a prediction as to who will emerge victorious when the dust settles.
New York Jets Quarterback
There probably isn't a more scrutinized training camp battle this summer than in New York, where incumbent Mark Sanchez is attempting to hold off rookie second-round pick Geno Smith and win the job of starting quarterback for the New York Jets.
The 2012 season was nothing short of an absolute fiasco for Sanchez and the Jets. The 26-year-old posted twice as many turnovers (26) as touchdown passes and finished the year ranked 31st among starting quarterbacks in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Last year's disastrous performance would certainly seem to open the door for Smith, who threw 42 touchdown passes and only seven interceptions at West Virginia in 2012, to swoop in and take the gig. Smith recently told Cindy Boren of the Washington Post that “I feel like I have a great shot" at unseating Sanchez with Gang Green.
However, head coach Rex Ryan cautions that Smith still has a lot of learning to do, according to Boren.
He came from a system that primarily was a shotgun system. His steps, drop backs [and] his mechanics that way, footwork-wise, weren’t dialed in the way they’ll have to be at this level. It’s all new to him.
It's that learning curve that will likely save Sanchez's bacon, at least for now. Don Banks of Sports Illustrated recently reported that Sanchez has a "firm grip" on the starting spot in the Big Apple, and barring a complete face-plant from Sanchez, it appears that he'll be the Week 1 starter for the Jets.
Projected Winner: Sanchez, but it's going to be a short leash. If he continues turning the ball over at the rate he did last year, we'll see Smith start by midseason.
Jacksonville Jaguars Quarterback
The Jacksonville Jaguars drafted Blaine Gabbert in the first round two years ago, hopeful that the Missouri star would blossom into their franchise quarterback of the future.
So far, not so much.
Gabbert has been wildly inconsistent as a starter for the Jaguars, and according to Ryan O' Halloran of the Florida Times-Union, not much has changed in offseason workouts so far this year.
The offseason workouts were the usual mix of Good Gabbert — delivering the kinds of throws that should make him a starting quarterback — and Bad Blaine — head-scratching one-hoppers or throws into traffic.
In other words, neither of the options available to head coach Gus Bradly inspire a ton of confidence, which is why offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch told O'Halloran that the team is in no rush to make a decision.
What the [eventual starter] has to do is tilt the field. We want to feel his presence on the practice field, feel his leadership and really feel like he’s taking over the team. The quarterback that does that will start Week 1.
Frankly, the odds are pretty good that neither of these quarterbacks is the long-term solution in Jacksonville, and this a battle that could run well into the preseason, but Gabbert would appear to have a slight edge if only because of his youth.
Projected Winner: Gabbert, but the Jaguars could easily end up flipping quarterbacks more than once this year.
Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback
The battle to start at quarterback for the New York Jets may be the most heavily scrutinized this year (such is life in the Big Apple), but in terms of impact on the NFL, it's the competition in Philadelphia that probably carries more weight.
With new head coach Chip Kelly installing his up-tempo attack with the Eagles, the early edge was given to veteran Michael Vick. Vick took a significant pay cut to remain with the team after a disappointing 2012 campaign, and many pundits believed that Vick's mobility would appeal to Kelly.
However, Kelly has repeatedly maintained that accuracy and a quick release are more important traits in his offense than scrambling ability.
In those regards, second-year pro Nick Foles would appear to have a clear edge. Foles outperformed Vick in OTAs, and Reuben Frank of CSN Philadelphia was emphatic in his belief that Foles gives the Eagles the best chance to win in 2013.
If this is a fair fight, if this is truly open competition, Foles will be the Eagles’ starting quarterback on opening day. And the fact that Foles is still here when it would have been easy to trade him and the fact that he really did split the OTA and minicamp reps with Vick tells you it really will be a fair fight.
Frank also cautions not to count out rookie Matt Barkley, whom the Eagles took in the fourth round of April's draft. It's very possible that Barkley is the future under center for the Eagles, but expecting him to win the job as a rookie may be a touch unrealistic.
With that said, Barkley being drafted by Kelly only reinforces that he doesn't appear locked into having a mobile passer, and if fitting a QB into his system is truly Kelly's priority and not the other way around, then Vick may be hard-pressed to win the job.
As Frank put it, accuracy and a quick trigger is "just not [Vick's] game. Never has been."
Projected Winner: Foles
Buffalo Bills Quarterback
The fat contract extension that the Buffalo Bills gave to Ryan Fitzpatrick didn't exactly pan out, and with Fitzpatrick now in Tennessee, the Bills are in the market for a new starter at quarterback.
The team addressed the position in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, making Florida State's EJ Manuel the first player at his position selected.
Manuel is talented and athletic, but he was also inconsistent in Tallahassee. The success of Russell Wilson, Robert Griffin and Andrew Luck last year may have given many fans the impression that rookie quarterbacks can best learn by doing, but in Manuel's case, he would likely be best served by some time as an understudy.
That leaves seventh-year veteran Kevin Kolb, whom the Bills signed in free agency.
Kolb was actually pretty effective for the Arizona Cardinals last year before getting hurt. The 28-year-old threw for nearly 1,200 yards and eight touchdowns while leading the team to a 4-0 start, before a rib injury ended his season.
And that's the rub with Kolb. Even when he's played well, he just can't stay on the field.
Still, as Tim Graham of the Buffalo News reports, NFL Network analysts Darren Sharper and Daniel Jeremiah both believe that Kolb gives the Bills the best chance to win, with Sharper stating that, "you want to put Kevin Kolb out there to provide a little bit of that veteran leadership to kind of guide these young receivers."
Projected Winner: Kolb, at least until he gets hurt.
Green Bay Packers Running Back
As potent as the Green Bay Packers offense was in 2012, a ground game that ranked 20th in the NFL was a weak spot.
The Packers took major steps to address that need in the 2013 NFL draft, double-dipping with the selections of Alabama running back Eddie Lacy and UCLA's Jonathan Franklin.
Lacy was widely considered the top back in the 2013 class, but questions about his injured toe caused a draft day slide. Franklin picked up over 1,700 yards for the Bruins in 2012 and is a player whom Charles Davis of NFL.com called "a big-time value pick."
As Rob Reischel of The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel reports, Lacy is the highest-drafted running back of the Ted Thompson era, a powerful 230-pounder with surprising quickness for his size.
With head coach Mike McCarthy pledging that "we'll be better" running the ball in 2013, both rookies could receive a fair amount of work, but a healthy Lacy appears to have a clear edge, especially since he's considerably better than Franklin in pass protection.
Given the check that the Packers just cut to Aaron Rogers, that's kind of important.
There are veteran holdovers in Titletown as well in Alex Green, James Starks and DuJuan Harris, but that trio is fighting for roster spots and change-of-pace roles. It's a rookie's world in the Green Bay backfield.
Projected Winner: Barring an injury, Lacy will start.
St. Louis Rams Running Back
Eddie Lacy may be the clear favorite to start for the Packers, but the running back job in St. Louis is as wide-open as it gets.
A trio of players will compete in camp to be Steven Jackson's replacement with the Rams, with rookie Zac Stacy joining second-year pros Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson in a jumbled backfield.
Richardson may well be the least gifted of the the three backs, but he showed some ability to be productive in the NFL as a rookie last year, gaining 475 yards on 98 carries.
Richardson enters camp atop the depth chart, and Rotoworld's Evan Silva recently came away impressed with the youngster after re-watching all of his 2012 carries.
What I found even more encouraging than Richardson's straight-ahead burst and speed was his toughness between the tackles. His sheer velocity on inside running plays was outstanding and extremely impressive for a back his size.
Richardson never shied from contact and finished runs with authority. He kept his feet moving through traffic and consistently fell forward to max out plays.
Pead, on the other hand, was a massive disappointment as a rookie after being taken in the second round of the 2012 draft, but the former Cincinnati star recently told Dennis Dillon of Sports Illustrated he's looking forward to competing with Stacy and Richardson this year.
There's competition, but who doesn't want to be in a competitive atmosphere? I'm all for it, we're all for it. We're not enemies; we still help each other, ask questions, things like that. But you need competition out there.
Then there's Stacy, a fifth-round pick who topped 1,000 yards last year at Vanderbilt. Silva writes that the 5'8", 216-pound Stacy is a "poised and decisive" back, but "doesn't have enough juice."
Very similar things were said last year about Alfred Morris. This isn't to say that Stacy is going to gain 1,600 yards as a rookie, but look for the youngster to surprise this year.
Projected Winner: Stacy
Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back
The Pittsburgh Steelers had a disappointing season (by their standards) in 2012, and a team that has long had a reputation for running the ball ranked a moribund 26th in the NFL in that regard.
The Steelers made an effort to right the ship in this year's draft, selecting Michigan State bell cow Le'Veon Bell in the second round.
Most people, including Vinnie Iyer of Sporting News, expect Bell to win the job as every-down back for Pittsburgh, with Iyer going so far as to rank the 230-pound back the leading candidate for Rookie of the Year honors in 2013.
With that said, however, it may not be quite that cut-and-dried.
For starters, Bell is going to have to run with more authority than he did in East Lansing. As the NFL Network's Mike Mayock pointed out, for a back of his size, Bell spent far too much time dancing east-west last year.
Also, in Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman and LaRod Stephens-Howling, the Steelers have a trio of backs who have shown themselves to be capable receivers and/or pass blockers. In fact, Dwyer and Redman were the NFL's third-ranked running backs in that regard in 2012, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Bell may well be on the field for the first snap of the 2013 season, but expectations that he will be a true "featured" back may be premature.
Projected Winner: Bell, but the other backs are going to see the field more than many think.
New England Patriots Wide Receiver
It's been a rough offseason for the New England passing game.
With Wes Welker in Denver, Brandon Lloyd released, Aaron Hernandez in jail and Rob Gronkowski's Week 1 status very much in doubt, well over 80 percent of New England's receiving yards from 2012 are either no longer with the team or possibly sidelined to start the season.
Simply put, someone is going to have to step up opposite free-agent signee Danny Amendola, who has an extensive injury history of his own.
The Patriots added a pair of rookie receivers in Marshall's Aaron Dobson and TCU's Josh Boyce, and, as Doug Kyed of NESN reports, the team had enough faith in the newcomers to jettison veteran Donald Jones before the start of training camp.
All eyes will be on Dobson and Boyce. Fans will be anxiously watching the second- and fourth-rounders, and the media will be analyzing their every movement and word. That’s a lot of pressure on two rookies in a system that hasn’t produced very impressive results from first-year receivers in the past.
But the Jones release shows that the Patriots trust what they’ve seen so far, even if it’s in limited time and reps.
However, the Patriots have another player in the fold who could help bolster the receiving corps. Before injuries wrecked his 2012 season, Julian Edelman was pushing Welker for playing time last year, and Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com recently predicted a breakout season for the 27-year-old.
There's no reason why Edelman shouldn't be the Patriots' No. 2 receiver behind Danny Amendola, other than health. Edelman is the only wideout on the roster to have caught a pass from Tom Brady.
The Patriots haven't needed Edelman before. They need him now, and he's shown the ability in his career to be a difference-maker. A sneaky season of more than 800 receiving yards could follow for Edelman.
Assuming he's healthy, it will be Edelman starting opposite Danny Amendola in Week 1.
Projected Winner: Edelman
San Francisco 49ers Wide Receiver
The offseason for the defending NFC champs didn't get off to the best of starts.
Granted, the acquisition of veteran wideout Anquan Boldin helped lessen the sting a bit, but the loss of Michael Crabtree to an Achilles tear was a big blow to the San Francisco 49ers any way you slice it.
There are any number of candidates vying to start opposite Boldin, none of whom have any real edge heading into camp.
Veteran Mario Manningham has the best NFL resume, but after tearing his ACL and PCL last year, there's no guarantee that the 27-year-old will be ready for the season opener, according to Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
A.J. Jenkins was the team's first-round pick in 2012, but barely played as a rookie. Jenkins had a solid showing at OTAs according to Grant Cohn of the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, but he's far from a finished product.
The same goes for Quinton Patton, a talented, but raw, rookie from Louisiana Tech who will be making the jump from the WAC to the NFL.
Patton has made a decent first impression on his new coaches, according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee, with Barrows writing that, "He has as good a shot as any to win the No. 2 job."
A ringing endorsement that ain't, but it may well be enough for Patton to at least be the lead man in a carousel of players who will see snaps opposite Boldin.
Projected Winner: Patton, although a number of players will rotate in and out.
Cleveland Browns Cornerback
2013 is a time of great change for the Cleveland Browns. New schemes are being installed on both sides of the ball.
Not only will the Cleveland defense be making the switch to a 3-4 front under coordinator Ray Horton, but the team is also searching for a batterymate for star cornerback Joe Haden.
2012 starter Dimitri Patterson is gone. Buster Skrine saw significant playing time last year due to injuries and had over 80 tackles, but he was beaten regularly in coverage all season long.
Free-agent acquisition Chris Owens is a serviceable pro with some starting experience, but at 5'9", Owens is undersized to play outside.
That leaves rookie Leon McFadden, who was selected in the third round of April's draft.
At 5'10" (if he's lucky), McFadden isn't much bigger than Owens, but he plays bigger than his size. McFadden ran behind the veterans in minicamp, but the youngster told Mary Kay Cabot of the Cleveland Plain Dealer that he doesn't want things to stay that way for long.
Those guys are technically vets in the game, and they’re both good players. They're competing for that No. 1 spot just as well. At the end of the day, when the season starts, we’ll find out.
The Browns are best served if McFadden claims that top spot and Skrine slides inside to the nickel spot, where his coverage weakness can be minimized and his physicality is a plus.
Assuming McFadden doesn't struggle mightily in camp, that's the lineup you'll see in Week 1.
Projected Winner: McFadden
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