Predicting the Winner of the Most Heated NFL Training Camp Battles
Nothing gets fans excited like the prospect of a great NFL training camp battle. Yet, for the players, nothing could be worse.
For fans, training camp battles are something to which just about everyone can relate. Most of us played some sort of sport at some point in our lives, and many of us played high school or college football. The rush of seeing the weekly depth chart put up on the bulletin board or going head-to-head with the guy above you is a connection we have to our NFL heroes, even if so much of their lives is drastically foreign.
This isn't high school for the players, however. Imagine your boss walking up to you and asking you to sit down and watch someone else take a "few reps" at your job. Then imagine your job being on the line. For some NFL players, sliding down the depth chart ostensibly means sliding off a roster altogether—if the salary cap calls for it.
Moreover, training camp battles split reps in ways established positions don't have to worry about. Think an eventual rookie starter wouldn't be better off if he'd gotten 75 percent of the reps in camp rather than splitting them 50-50?
The stress of a training camp battle is great for fans, great for media and terrible for the players themselves. Here are the potential winners of some of the most action-packed battles across the league this preseason.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Defensive Tackle
Candidates: Gary Gibson vs. Derek Landri vs. Akeem Spence
In 2012, Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy had one of the best unheralded seasons in the entire NFL. Yet, overall, the Buccaneers defense just wasn't very good—ranking 29th overall in the NFL while still being No. 1 against the rush. On the interior next to McCoy, the prospects weren't great. To make matters worse, Roy Miller—last year's starter—is off to the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Gibson is the incumbent after playing 287 snaps last season. Landri had a great 2011 but was disappointing last season, along with every other Philadelphia Eagle. Spence, a fourth-round pick, has the size and ability that coach Greg Schiano better be looking for.
I've been high on Spence for a while and love his fit in Tampa Bay. McCoy has taken a liking to him and is teaching him the finer points of NFL life. This is going to be a heavy rotation no matter what, but Spence should end up with first crack in base situations.
Projected Winner: Akeem Spence
Chicago Bears' Starting Middle Linebacker
Candidates: Jon Bostic vs. D.J. Williams
After the Chicago Bears drafted Bostic in the second round, fans considered this position his divine right. However, Bostic almost immediately started proving them right with fantastic play in both camp and in the preseason game. He's also been helped by a Williams calf injury, but it may not have mattered anyway.
Bleacher Report's newest lead writer, Matt Bowen, did a great job breaking down Bostic's preseason interception of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. Among lots of other great nuggets, he wrote:
There is no question Newton is at fault here for forcing this ball with the linebacker sitting inside, but let’s give Bostic the credit for adjusting to make the catch and taking it back for six points. That’s a highlight play from a rookie trying to win a starting job. Remember, good things happen when you play the technique of the defense and trust what you see.
If Bostic can stick to those basics, he'll win this job easily.
Projected Winner: Jon Bostic
San Francisco 49ers Nickel Cornerback
Candidates: Nnamdi Asomugha vs. Eric Wright
Asomugha and Wright are not good cornerbacks. Let's just get that out of the way. At one time, both could hold their own. More importantly for the Niners, they can both be good in limited roles. It's just that the days of Asomugha as a legitimate shutdown corner and Wright's days of earning ridiculous contracts are officially over.
So, neither of these guys are challenging cornerbacks Carlos Rogers or Tarell Brown on the outside, but both can slip into the spot vacated by the injured Chris Culliver. Overall, Wright was the better player last year and (if healthy) should have the upper hand, but Asomugha has been around longer and is anxious to prove the time in Philadelphia was an aberration.
Projected Winner: Nnamdi Asomugha
Minnesota Vikings' Starting 4-3 Nose Tackle
Candidates: Fred Evans vs. Sharrif Floyd vs. Letroy Guion (vs. Kevin Williams?)
Many teams treat the nose tackle position many different ways. For the Minnesota Vikings, it seems they'll stick with traditional 1-technique/3-technique roles (also called nose tackle and under tackle) and eschew the chance to pair their first-round draft pick, Floyd, with their star defender, Williams. Instead, they'll pull Floyd off the bench as part of a rotation that should put constant pressure on offensive lines.
Meanwhile, Guion has the size for the position and the experience playing next to Williams. Evans, while smaller, is the better overall player but has the flexibility to play a number of positions. Another interesting possibility was posited by Pro Football Focus' Sam Monson. He believes a move one spot down the line could be great for Williams and extend his career.
Projected Winner: Letroy Guion
Pittsburgh Steelers' Starting Running Back
Candidates: Le'Veon Bell vs. Jonathan Dwyer vs. Isaac Redman
Bell sat out the Pittsburgh Steelers' first preseason game, but that could be a good thing, according to ESPN's Jamison Hensley. Hensley wrote:
Resting him indicates the Steelers don't want to risk injuring him further, which is a sign he figures big in the team's plans early in the season. Last year's running backs, Isaac Redman (who got the start) and Jonathan Dwyer, combined for eight carries for 22 yards, which shows why the Steelers need a healthy Bell.
Prior to the draft, I wasn't as high on Bell as some others, and I believe for him to have a great season, he'll need the Steelers offensive line to step up in a big way. Still, he's the best option on the roster and is an extremely tough runner.
Once he's fully healthy, this battle should be in the rearview mirror.
Projected Winner: Le'Veon Bell
St. Louis Rams' Starting Running Back
Candidates: Isaiah Pead vs. Daryl Richardson vs. Zac Stacy
Speaking of running back battles that should end quickly...
Pead has the draft status and Stacy has the love of draftniks everywhere, but it's Richardson who has the upper hand early. Although head coach Jeff Fisher considers this a battle, Richardson was the best back on the team after Steven Jackson (now with the Atlanta Falcons) last season, and he started the first preseason game.
None of the other backs did much to change that. Pead especially looked like a lesser back, fumbling on his first carry.
With the additions to the Rams' passing offense, this should end up as a pass-heavy offense relying on lots of short passes and intriguing usage of weapons like wide receiver Tavon Austin. So, the lead back here shouldn't expect the kind of workload that Jackson used to receive.
Projected Winner: Daryl Richardson
Buffalo Bills' Starting Quarterback
OK, Kolb never really had a chance here.
After recent quarterback draftees like the Indianapolis Colts' Andrew Luck, the Washington Redskins' Robert Griffin III and the Carolina Panthers' Cam Newton enjoyed immediate success in the NFL, it's put the pressure on teams to give their quarterbacks a proper trial by fire.
The worst-case scenario for a team drafting a new QB is sitting him and having him still fail. Then, there's no moving on for the head coach and general manager—unless you mean moving on to other forms of employment.
Manuel needs a lot of polish on his overall game. He was not a finished product at Florida State and is going to be prone to a lot of unforced errors early on in his career. That said, the best place to work through those errors is on the field, and Manuel has tremendous athletic ability to help the Buffalo Bills win games as he adds that polish.
Kolb was a worst-case scenario if Manuel fell flat on his face. That hasn't happened, and the rookie should get the start.
Projected Winner: EJ Manuel
Pittsburgh Steelers' Starting Outside Linebacker
Candidates: Jarvis Jones vs. Jason Worilds
If defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau starts a rookie on his defense, it means that rookie is a tremendous out-of-this-world talent.
Note: The opposite is not necessarily true. Plenty of great defenders have come in to Pittsburgh and started out in a specialized role. So, it's not a judgment on Jones if he does the same.
Worilds may not be this year's reigning first-round pick, but he was a second-rounder just a few years ago. He's the more well-rounded player and every bit the same athlete. No, he doesn't have the same pass-rushing ability, but the Steelers can rotate Jones in for pass-rushing situations.
As of right now, the job looks to be Worilds' to lose, and Jones would have to play extremely well to supplant the older player.
Projected Winner: Jason Worilds
New York Jets' Starting Quarterback
Candidates: Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith
The Sanchez era needs to be over in New York. Frankly, the fact that they're even wasting practice reps on him is more than a little embarrassing. If this battle is anywhere close to even, the New York Jets need to take a long-term view of the situation and start the Smith era sooner rather than later.
Let's take it one step further. If the Jets start Sanchez, it will go a long way toward proving that head coach Rex Ryan's job isn't as safe as the sycophants in the media would have people believe. Ryan is a defensive mastermind, but if he's under a win-now ultimatum and believes Sanchez truly gives him the better chance in 2013, then he doesn't belong at the reins of an NFL team.
The upside for Sanchez here is that he didn't actually play that poorly against the Detroit Lions. After the mind-numbingly bad interception to defensive end Ezekiel Ansah, Sanchez put it together (albeit as Detroit's backups started rotating in).
Still, over the next few games, Smith's clearly apparent advantage of physical tools should shine through, and the Jets should do the right thing and move on.
Projected Winner: Geno Smith
Philadelphia Eagles' Starting Quarterback
Candidates: Matt Barkley vs. Nick Foles vs. Michael Vick
On the training camp field, this battle looked closer than it really was.
Philadelphia Eagles fans have derided me this offseason as I wrote off Foles, but he simply doesn't have the tools to be a legitimate NFL starter. His upside (and I mean way-up-there upside) is the guy we talked about on the last slide—New York Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez. If the Eagles put a ton of talent around Foles, he could be dragged kicking and screaming into the playoffs, but he's not putting this team on his back.
Much the same can be said about Barkley. He doesn't have the tools of a starter either—at least not right now. Arm strength can improve, though, with mechanics and reps. So, it's possible Barkley matures into a viable starter, but he clearly isn't right now. Even though he can statistically put up good numbers against other teams' backups, his passes flutter and he clearly lacks the minimum arm strength teams look for.
That leaves Vick.
On a practice field, Vick doesn't throw much better than a guy like Foles. However, in a game situation, there are ways in which he pressures a defense that can't be matched by anyone else on the Eagles roster. Vick's biggest problem over the past few years has been health. When healthy, though, he's the best quarterback on this Eagles roster.
Projected Winner: Michael Vick
Michael Schottey is the NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.