As NFL teams go to work on junior college and practice-bubble fields across America, football fans are feeling the itch again.
They're checking out preseason dates and planning trips to away games. They're scouring the wires for the latest news about who's looking good and who isn't. They're even driving out to watch their teams practice all day in the summer sun and see the rookies and free-agent signings in living color.
As new faces join familiar ones to fill out a 90-man camp roster, it won't be long before the reality sets in: Only half this many players will actually dress on game days, and only 22 will run through the tunnel as starters.
Over the next few weeks, these camp battles will decide some of the highest-profile roles on some of the most interesting teams.
To get an idea of what the coaches will be looking for, let's go into the film room and break down the top candidates for each of this season's most hotly contested starting spots.
St. Louis Rams Running Back
One of the most interesting training camp battles is happening in St. Louis. The longest-tenured every-down back in the NFL, Steven Jackson, left a 6'3", 229-pound hole in the Rams backfield when he signed with the Atlanta Falcons.
Second-year backs Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson will compete with fifth-round pick Zac Stacy to fill Jackson's spot in the starting lineup.
When the Rams drafted Pead in the second round last season, the speedy, shifty University of Cincinnati product was set to serve as both a change-of-pace for Jackson and Jackson's heir apparent.
Something funny happened on the way to the Edward Jones Dome, though: Pead missed early camps because of his late graduation date, and he struggled to find his place on the squad.
The Rams struggled to make the most of Pead on the field. Here are his 2012 "highlights":
Notice anything about these plays? Tosses, sweeps, screens and draws are all of the ways an offense traditionally tries to get an undersized back involved.
Though Pead was active for 15 games and started one, he had just 10 carries and three receptions on the season. In the last week of the season, though, the Rams figured out how to use him. Watch this play against the Seattle Seahawks:
On 1st-and-10, the Rams lined up in a single-back, two-tight end set, with Lance Kendricks lined up as an offset H-back. The split end, Chris Givens, goes in motion and will execute a jet-motion sweep at the snap:
The Rams line down-blocks to the right while Kendricks leads to the left. Givens prepares to take a play-fake after the handoff.
The Rams offensive line successfully seals most of the Seahawks defensive line upfield as Pead counters back behind Kendricks' lead block. The play action to Givens slows the linebackers just a touch:
This play went for seven yards, Pead's most successful up-the-middle run. On the very next play, the Rams called the exact same play, but flipped (just like in Madden). Pead gained another seven yards and a first down.
Rams head coach Jeff Fisher told Joe Lyons of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch he's "pleased" with Pead's "professional approach" this offseason and how much he's progressed in his attitude and preparation.
Though Pead will have to serve a one-game suspension at the outset of the season, it looks as though he and the Rams will both be very prepared to maximize his talent this season.
While Pead was emotionally miserable and mentally unprepared last season, Richardson, a seventh-round pick, pounced on the opportunity to spell Jackson.
Richardson was active for all 16 games and carried the ball 98 times for an average of 4.8 yards per carry (475 total). Listed at 5'10" and 192 pounds, Richardson is slightly smaller than Pead. He also doesn't have the top-end speed Pead has.
Richardson had the one thing that Pead lacked last season: confidence.
Watch this run against the Redskins:
It's a simple counter, not unlike the one Pead ran from an up-front perspective. But Richardson has the vision and instincts to read his second-level blocking, bounce it further back outside, then cut back up field to drive toward the marker.
Richardson's limitations are apparent in that play, too: He lowered his head and drove with his legs to truck through free safety Madieu Williams, but Williams effortlessly stuffed Richardson.
Richardson is a valuable back to have around, but he may be at or near his ceiling already.
Zac Stacy brings some of what Richardson lacks. At 5'9" and 216 pounds, Stacy is a fireplug of a tailback with very shifty hips and impressive burst. Watch his senior highlight reel:
What do we see here? Some of the same elaborate counters and draws the Rams used to try and get Pead open in space. Yet Stacy hits these seams and follows his blocking much like Richardson. Pead has excellent vision and patience, as well as instant-on speed when he sees daylight. It remains to be seen if his small frame can shrug off tacklers at the next level, though.
This camp and preseason, watch how the Rams use their backs. If they continue to use simpler zone runs and inside dives, Richardson has the edge. If the Rams use a lot of motion, space, delays and misdirection in the run game, that suits Pead's and Stacy's games.
Indianapolis Colts Wide Receiver
As the Colts transition from departed offensive coordinator Bruce Arians' system to Pep Hamilton's "No Coast Offense," second-year quarterback Andrew Luck will need as much help from his targets as he can get.
Luck is a sterling prospect. He deserved all of the praise he got for digesting Arians' playbook and putting the team on his back. He's also worked with Hamilton before at Stanford.
But backup quarterback Matt Hasselbeck told a Nashville radio station, and ESPN reported, it's a complicated mix of what worked in the Peyton Manning/Tom Moore era, what worked with Arians and Luck last season and what Luck did with Hamilton at Stanford.
"I am swimming learning this playbook right now," Hasselbeck said, using NFL slang for over-thinking and moving slowly instead of instantly acting or reacting.
On one side of the field, Luck (and Hasselbeck) will have Reggie Wayne. The 34-year-old six-time Pro Bowler was invaluable in 2012 and will surely be in 2013.
On the other side, last season's outside receiver, Donnie Avery, is gone. Ready to take his crucial coverage-exploiting spot are second-year sensation T.Y. Hilton and free-agent signee Darrius Heyward-Bey.
The 5'10", 183-pound Hilton was a third-round revelation for the Colts in 2012. Playing mostly out of the slot, he caught 50 passes for 861 yards and seven touchdowns. Per Pro Football Reference, his average of 17.2 yards per reception was fifth-best in the NFL.
Hilton's mostly made an impact in two ways: inside-cutting routes that allowed him to catch the ball in space and turn upfield and pure straight-line speed. He proved in 2012 that he could beat a defense deep from the outside, as he did here against the New England Patriots:
The question is, can Hilton consistently beat man-to-man coverage on the outside?
Hilton doesn't have much in the way of height or strength. Pro Football Focus graded him (subscription required) minus-2.8 overall on the season and ranked him 80th out of 105 qualifying wideouts.
That paints a bleak picture of what's happening when he isn't streaking down the sideline.
Darrius Heyward-Bey was drafted by the Oakland Raiders to do just that, as well as score big touchdowns. As the Raiders struggled to find a consistent offensive focus, philosophy or starting quarterback, Heyward-Bey slowly learned to use his size and hands, as well as his speed.
Watch a similar play to Hilton's here, except Heyward-Bey beats press man coverage, sees and adjusts to the ball in the air, leaps over an interfering defender and displays great hands in making the catch and holding on (NSFW Warning: explicit lyrics):
If you let the video roll for one more play, you see Heyward-Bey run a great fade route and display fantastic body control to keep it in bounds for a touchdown. That's a tool Hilton simply doesn't have.
Hilton also doesn't possess size like Heyward-Bey's 6'2", 205-pound frame.
That all said, Hilton has earned Luck's confidence. The two are developing hand-in-hand, and Heyward-Bey has developed almost in a bubble. Either has the speed to excel in the slot, but Heyward-Bey has the size to excel on the outside.
If "DHB" breaks out in camp, the ceiling on the Colts offense goes up by a lot more than five inches.
Philadelphia Eagles Quarterback
The Eagles quarterback situation has all the hallmarks of the best training camp battles.
First, it's a quarterback battle: a fight for the right to be the leader of the team, the face of the franchise and the straw that stirs the drink on the field. Second, it's under a new head coach with a new way of doing things. Third, there's a highly touted rookie involved.
Best of all, it's within an exciting new offense the NFL has never seen.
Unlike almost any other position battle, a quarterback battle always ends with a winner and a loser. They may switch places midseason, but it's been a long time since an NFL team seriously tried a two-quarterback approach—and even longer since it's worked.
Between veteran Michael Vick, second-year man Nick Foles and rookie Matt Barkley, all three quarterbacks have NFL arms and bona fide credentials. It's not inconceivable that in two or three years, all three quarterbacks will be starting for some NFL team.
The question is, who will start for Chip Kelly's new-look Eagles?
Don't overestimate the role experience plays in this; none of the three top quarterbacks have any experience in Kelly's offense. Dennis Dixon, a long shot to make the roster, is the only signal-caller in Eagles camp who comes in knowing what Kelly wants to do and how to do it.
"Our depth chart is written in sand right now," Kelly told Philly.com reporters at his first training camp press conference. "It is an open competition and somebody is going to rise to the top."
I've written before about Kelly's zone-read-based offense and how he'll have to adapt it to the NFL. When Kelly signed on with the Eagles, many thought the starting job was Vick's to lose, given Vick's blazing wheels.
Kelly's offense, though, doesn't require a "running quarterback" to work. Here's Charles Fischer of Fishduck.com explaining the foundation play of Kelly's offense, the inside zone read:
For those who can't watch the video, the key to Kelly's offense is downfield, smash-mouth running with a man-on-man blocking advantage. The offensive line leaves the backside defender unblocked, picking up an extra blocker on the playside.
The quarterback reads that defender. If the defender stays home, the quarterback hands it off, and the running back has the advantage of an extra blocker. If he pursues the runner, the quarterback keeps it himself and runs through the space where the defender used to be.
There's no question Vick is more terrifying when running undefended than Foles, but is Foles athletic enough to run for yardage when there are no defenders in front of him?
If all of that isn't proof enough that the Eagles don't need a "running quarterback" to run, consider that Kelly enthusiastically drafted Barkley.
What about the passing game?
Don't assume that Foles is a better passer than Vick because he doesn't run like Vick. Last season, Foles had slightly fewer (265) attempts than Vick (351), but he had largely similar stats. Foles completed a slightly higher percentage of his passes (60.8 percent vs. Vick's 58.1), but for fewer yards per attempt (6.4 vs. Vick's 6.7).
Foles threw both touchdowns and interceptions less frequently than Vick. Foles' 2.3 percent touchdown rate and 1.9 percent interception rate is roughly a wash, compared to Vick's 3.4 percent touchdown rate and 2.8 percent interception rate.
Kelly's passing offense builds off of his running offense. Not only can play-action passes be built off of the base zone-read runs, the passing game itself uses reads.
Here's Charles Fischer again, explaining how the quarterback reads a linebacker to determine whether he passes or runs after an audible is called in from the sideline:
The quarterback who runs Kelly's offense best is neither a "running" quarterback nor a "passing" quarterback, but the one who understands how the offense works. The quarterback who best executes the reads at the blazing tempo Kelly wants to run will have the inside track to win the starting job.
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