NFL Position Battles That Should Finally Be Decided in Preseason Week 4
The 2013 NFL preseason has just about wrapped up, with only Thursday's preseason finales to go.
Many of the position battles around the league are also just about wrapped up, decided by last week's "dress rehearsals."
However, there are still some competitions set to go down to the wire, with players vying for spots right up until the end.
Here's a look at some of those battles and how they should shake out as the preseason draws to a close.
Seattle Seahawks Running Back: Christine Michael vs. Robert Turbin
It may seem a little to odd to start things off with a battle to be a backup, but given that it's the backup running back for a Super Bowl contender that loves to run the ball, it's a battle that carries more than a little weight.
On one hand, second-year pro Robert Turbin really hasn't done anything to lose his job as Marshawn Lynch's backup. Turbin looked good last week against the Green Bay Packers, picking up 72 yards in 14 touches by ground and by air.
However, the more we see of rookie Christine Michael, the more it becomes clear that Michael offers a degree of explosiveness that Turbin just doesn't have.
Michael ripped off a 43-yard touchdown against the Packers, finishing the night with 97 yards on 11 carries while pitching in a 25-yard catch.
Michael was similarly effective in the preseason opener, gaining 89 yards on 16 carries. The former Texas A&M star should see more than a little work Thursday night against the Raiders.
Given that it's the Raiders, both running backs should have an easy go of it on the ground this week. However, every long run Michael rips off makes it harder to keep him buried on the bench.
Turbin may be listed first on the depth chart, but if Lynch went down, it wouldn't be even a little surprising to see Michael leapfrog him.
Oakland Raiders Quarterback: Terrelle Pryor vs. Matt Flynn
Matt Flynn must really hate training camp.
Last year, Flynn entered camp as the presumed starter for the Seattle Seahawks, only to be supplanted by Russell Wilson. This year, the same thing's happening in Oakland, with Terrelle Pryor set to unseat Flynn.
Of course, Flynn has no one to blame but himself.
To say that he's played terribly in the preseason might be an understatement. His presence in the pocket has been awful, and he just doesn't have the arm strength to challenge defenses downfield.
Enter Terrelle Pryor, who gave the offense a spark when he entered last week's matchup with the Chicago Bears.
Mind you, this isn't to say that Pryor is magically going to fix the Raiders' myriad problems. It's not even known if he can be an effective NFL starter.
However, Pryor's mobility and arm strength at least give the Raiders a chance to move the ball, something that seems next to impossible with Flynn under center.
Pryor will start the preseason finale against Seattle, and if he performs even adequately, he'll be the starter when the Raiders face the Colts in Week 1.
Arizona Cardinals Free Safety: Tyrann Mathieu vs. Rashad Johnson
One of the biggest stories of training camp and the preseason for the Arizona Cardinals has been the outstanding play of rookie Tyrann Mathieu.
The former Bednarik Award winner, who the Cardinals picked in the third round of April's draft, has been "all over the field," according to what head coach Bruce Arians told Chris Wesseling of NFL.com.
Mathieu has seen playing time at three positions, and after starting the second preseason game at free safety in place of the injured Rashad Johnson, some wondered if Mathieu would stick in that spot.
Well, Johnson was back in the starting lineup in last week's loss to the San Diego Chargers, making three tackles. Right now, it looks like that's where he'll open the season.
However, if Mathieu, who Mike Jurecki of 910 AM in Phoenix expects to play significant snaps Thursday, puts on a show, there's still a chance that "The Honey Badger" could unseat Johnson.
Even if he doesn't, Mathieu is set to see significant playing time as a rookie in subpackages. In fact, it's not hard to imagine Mathieu making a bigger impact than Johnson even while playing far fewer snaps.
Johnson may win the battle and start, but Mathieu will wind up winning the war by making the bigger splash on defense for the Redbirds this year.
Denver Broncos Running Back: Montee Ball vs. Ronnie Hillman vs. Knowshon Moreno
The backfield situation in Denver has become a game of running back roulette.
When training camp opened, most pundits thought it was only a matter of time before rookie Montee Ball ascended to the top of the depth chart. However, Ball's struggles in pass protection and Ronnie Hillman's hard running put that ascension on hold.
Until Hillman lost fumbles that were returned for touchdowns in successive games, that is.
Now, as Mike Klis of The Denver Post reports, Ball was running with the first-team offense in practice on Monday while Hillman carried a football with him everywhere he went.
The script flipped on Tuesday, with Klis reporting that Hillman once again practiced with the first team.
Never mind the presence of Knowshon Moreno. The former first-round pick may not have Ball's power or Hillman's quickness, but he also doesn't have Ball's problems with pass-blocking or Hillman's fumbling issues.
In fact, Klis' colleague Mark Kiszla believes that it's Moreno that should start for the Broncos in Week 1.
It may seem strange for a presumed starter to play in the preseason finale, but Hillman and/or Ball could easily see a fair amount of action Thursday against the Arizona Cardinals.
Or both could sit while Moreno carries the load. A big game (or terrible one) from one of the Denver backs might still alter the pecking order, but the simple fact is this isn't a fight in which there's going to be a clear "winner."
Hillman will start Week 1, but all three backs will see significant action this year.
San Diego Chargers Slot Receiver: Keenan Allen vs. Eddie Royal
This offseason has been one bit of bad news after another for the San Diego Chargers' wide receiver position. First, Danario Alexander went down with a season-ending ACL injury, and then Malcom Floyd had what appeared to be another serious injury.
However, Floyd's injury wasn't a severe as originally feared, and the Associated Press reports (via Kevin Patra of NFL.com) that Floyd is back at practice and should be ready for Week 1. That means Floyd and Vincent Brown will man the outside receiver spots.
The slot, however, is still somewhat up in the air.
Eddie Royal had an injury scare of his own last week. As USA Today reported at the time, Royal was taken to an area hospital after suffering a scary fall in practice. The sixth-year veteran, who was diagnosed with a concussion and a bruised lung, is expected to be OK, but his status for Week 1 is still in doubt.
That injury provided rookie Keenan Allen with an opportunity for more playing time, but the former Cal star has failed to capitalize with an uneven training camp that's been marred by soreness in his surgically repaired knee.
Allen may well be the Chargers' most talented receiver on Thursday, and while he won't be catching passes from Philip Rivers, this is his last chance to stake a claim to significant playing time out of the gate.
Eddie Royal, assuming he's healthy.
San Francisco 49ers Wide Receiver: Quinton Patton vs. Jon Baldwin
The San Francisco 49ers are trying to become the first Super Bowl loser in two decades to get back to the big game the following year, but the Achilles injury suffered by top wideout Michael Crabtree has left a gaping hole in the passing game.
So far, no one has stepped into that void opposite Anquan Boldin.
However, there was a glimmer of hope in Sunday night's exhibition game with the Minnesota Vikings. Rookie Quinton Patton played fairly well in his preseason debut, reeling in four passes for 35 yards and a touchdown.
That may not sound like much, but it was probably enough to vault Patton into the lead. Kyle Williams and Mario Manningham are still working back into shape from ACL tears, and Jonathan Baldwin hasn't been with the team long enough to be a serious challenge.
With that said, Baldwin will likely play quite a bit Thursday, and the third-year pro could mount a late charge with a strong showing.
Patton, at least until Manningham is ready to come back from his own ACL injury.
Pittsburgh Steelers Running Back: Jonathan Dwyer vs. Isaac Redman
After ranking 26th in the National Football League last year in rushing, the Pittsburgh Steelers thought they'd fixed the problem. The team drafted Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell in the second round of April's draft, and it was widely assumed that Bell would open the season as the starter in the Steel City.
However, those plans went out the window when Bell sprained his foot in the Steelers' third preseason game. With Bell out until at least October, it's back to the drawing board.
The leading candidates to replace Bell are Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman, with the recently acquired Felix Jones a dark-horse contender.
As Scott Brown of ESPN.com reports, Redman will sit out the preseason finale due to a stinger, while Dwyer, Jones and third-down back LaRod Stephens-Howling will all play against the Carolina Panthers.
Brown believes that Redman has the job all but sewn up, but Dwyer, who led the team in rushing last year, could stake a late claim with a strong showing against Carolina.
Jones will need a good outing just to make the team, while Stephens-Howling appears set to open the year as Pittsburgh's third-down back.
Frankly, regardless of the "winner," this has all the makings of a full-blown committee attack until Bell returns.
Detroit Lions Slot Receiver: Ryan Broyles vs. Patrick Edwards
The Detroit Lions are pretty well set at the outside receiver spots.
Nate Burleson is the team's primary threat, while cagey veteran Calvin Johnson serves as a complementary weapon.
Wait a second. Reverse that.
Anyway, there's a bit of a battle for the starting job in the slot, and that player could have a real impact in 2013 given the team's proclivity for throwing the ball.
Second-year pro Ryan Broyles showed flashes of considerable talent in 2012 before having his rookie year cut short by an ACL tear.
That ACL tear was Broyles' second, and as he told Chrissie Wywrot of the team's website, the rehab hasn't been easy.
"Mentally, I'm 100 percent," Broyles said. "My body thinks differently from day-to-day."
Meanwhile, fellow second-year player Patrick Edwards has used Broyles' absence to make a push for the job with a good training camp.
Edwards may well have shined in practice, but Broyles showed last Thanksgiving versus the Houston Texans (six catches, 126 yards) that he can do so when the games count.
If the knee is OK, the job will go to Broyles.
New York Jets Quarterback: Geno Smith vs. Mark Sanchez
Only with the New York Jets could a quarterback controversy rage even though there's a good likelihood neither of the contestants in the competition will even play in the preseason finale.
Such is life with Gang Green.
Fear of another injury may also prevent the team from playing rookie Geno Smith, although if last week's three-interception debacle against the G-Men was any indication, Smith could use the reps.
Smith really could use some work against second- and third-string defenders to rebuild the confidence that took such a pounding last week.
However, after leaving Sanchez in last week's game into the fourth quarter only to see him get hurt, the New York media would freak out if Smith were to get banged up in this game.
Odds are neither player will suit up, and with Sanchez's injury opening the door for head coach Rex Ryan to announce Smith the winner of a quarterback competition that Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News called "farcical," the youngster will be the Jets starter against Tampa Bay in Week 1.