The NFL season never truly comes to a close.
Amid the post-draft speculation, and the preseason fervor of the summer months, the supposed off-season of the NFL often presents an intense display of drama and intensity in the form of heated positional battles.
Throughout the league the tale of an aging, entrenched veteran fighting for one last gasp against a hungry young upstart takes center stage in training camps. Such situations are always more prevalent with a youthful, rebuilding roster, such as the one fielded by the Cincinnati Bengals at their camp in Georgetown, Ky.
The Bengals head to Georgetown this summer with five rookies among the contenders for eight available starting spots.
Cincinnati’s most notable training camp competitions figure to take place on the offensive line, where guards Andrew Whitworth and Bobby Williams are the only returning starters from 2008.
The left tackle position—protecting Pro-Bowl quarterback Carson Palmer’s blindside—will be a competition between rookie sixth overall pick Andre Smith and second year tackle Anthony Collins.
Collins, a fourth round selection in 2008, played in nine games—starting six—during his rookie campaign, giving him a slight experience edge.
Neither player is noted for their quickness in handling the edge rush, as both are described as the run-blocking, wide-body type of linemen that are best suited for right tackle—where the loser of the battle on the left side will likely be placed.
While the end result for the youngsters Smith and Collins will likely still be a starting job, even if they lose the battle at left tackle, Smith’s fellow rookie Jonathan Luigs—a fourth round selection out of Arkansas—will be in a battle that could place him anywhere from the starting center job to the practice squad.
Luigs will be fighting with third year centers Kyle Cook and Dan Santucci for the right to sure up an often anemic interior to the Bengal offensive unit. None of the three competitors offers elite size to handle nose tackles in 3-4 defenses by themselves—something that will hurt the Bengals significantly, as they have 10 games against teams that run a 3-4.
While the two veterans offer knowledge of the Bengal offensive blocking schemes, Luigs will likely enter camp with the starting job to lose, as he possesses superior quickness to reach the edge on screen plays, as well as handle pass blocking schemes more effectively.
The rookie overtaking the veteran plotline will play out on the defensive side of the ball in Georgetown, as well.
Rookie linebacker Rey Maualuga, who saw his precipitous drop in draft position end when the Bengals selected him with the sixth pick of the second round of the 2009 draft, is likely to usurp veteran Dhani Jones at middle linebacker—despite Jones leading the team with 73 tackles in 2008.
The 30 year old Jones may not be entirely bumped from the starting lineup, though, as his speed will allow him to contend for the strongside linebacker spot formerly occupied by Rashad Jeanty—third on the team with 58 tackles in 2008.
The battle between Jones and Jeanty will be one of the few veteran vs. veteran battles of the summer, and will ultimately give the Bengals impressive linebacker depth for a squad that has traditionally been snake-bitten by injuries—with Jones’ 2008 season being the only time a Bengal linebacker has started all 16 games in a season the past two years.
To allow the linebackers to have a successful season the Bengals will need productivity from their defensive front four, particularly the hole-clogging defensive tackle position.
With the addition of sixth year tackle Tank Johnson on April 27 to complement the productivity received from Domata Peko—29 tackles in 2008—and promising second year player Pat Sims—22 tackles in 2008—the Bengals have three talented tackles competing for two spots.
As the Bengals shift to a run-stopping focus, the winners of the defensive tackle battle will likely be the two players who are able to command a double team most frequently, decreasing the number of releasing guards and leading fullbacks that Maualuga and the linebackers will have to contend with.
Johnson and Peko have received more acclaim in their careers for their penetration abilities than their skills as run-stuffers up front.
Therefore, Sims would seem to have the advantage if defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer elects to put tackles on the field that will be stout against the run, as his 6’2”, 320 lb. frame lends itself more to occupying multiple blockers and allowing others to make plays than causing havoc in the backfield from the defensive tackle position.
Of course, any pass rushing ability that the defensive linemen bring to the table will be a welcome addition to the fold, as well, as the Bengals finished 30th in the NFL with 17 sacks in 2008.
As such, the pressure will likely be on the safety position once again to prevent big plays that result from the added time in the pocket for opposing quarterbacks.
The occupants of those safety spots will be determined in a heated four-way battle in training camp between veterans Roy Williams and Chris Croker, and third year safeties Chinedum Ndukwe and Marvin White.
Ndukwe and White were given the most opportunity in 2008, and produced a combined 94 tackles.
However, they will likely be left to contend with Croker for the strong safety spot, as the five-time Pro Bowler Williams figures to stake a claim to the free safety position that he excelled at under Zimmer in Dallas’ 4-3 defense before the team switched to the 3-4 following Zimmer’s departure in 2008.
Ndukwe and White offer added speed and size at the safety spot, as both come in at over 6’0”. However, Crocker is acknowledged as a sure-tackler, which gives him a slight edge if Zimmer elects to focus on run prevention from his secondary.
The safety position battle in Cincinnati is just one of the hundreds of youth vs. veteran battles throughout the league. All of them will make for added drama in the summer heat, and, as always, provide a continuing heartbeat for the NFL.