Which Training Camp Battles Will Have Biggest Impact on 2014 NFL Season?
Not all training camp battles are created equal.
An awful lot of them are intriguing, but some simply have a wider area of impact than others.
The following eight battles all have some potentially far-reaching ramifications not just for the teams involved but the division, conference and league around them.
There will certainly be some training camp battles that are on this list which don't really do much and some which didn't make the list which we'll look back at and say "holy crap how did we miss that?"
Some of these teams are on the list because of how good they normally are, and how any issue could make them vulnerable. Some are on the list because the right choice at a position could make things interesting in their division and maybe even produce a playoff run.
All of them are worth watching.
New York Giants Center Battle: J.D. Walton vs. Weston Richburg
The New York Giants struggled in a lot of different facets of the game last season, but offensive line was likely the biggest core issue. I’ve talked about some of their changes elsewhere, but perhaps the biggest change takes place at the center spot.
Who wins the battle between J.D. Walton and rookie Weston Richburg could shape the entire season for not only the Giants but also the NFC East as a whole.
Because ultimately, the offensive line needs to protect Eli Manning, and a key piece to any line is the center position. Yes, left tackle gets a lot more glory, but the center makes a lot of things happen along the offensive line. He keeps the line on point, makes sure it adjusts to what he sees in the defense and makes sure it gets any commands the quarterback passes to it.
Walton hasn’t played a snap since he broke his ankle back in 2012, but the team gave him $3 million guaranteed, as reported by Connor Orr of The Star-Ledger. On the other hand, do you count on a guy who has been out of the game this long?
That's clearly not the case, since the Giants drafted Richburg in the second round of the 2014 NFL draft. The former Colorado State center is a good fit for new offensive coordinator Ben McAdoo’s blocking scheme and has the versatility to sit at guard or tackle in a pinch.
Walton has the edge, but there are no promises here, and the Giants will be super careful selecting the winner. If they get it wrong, it could be another long season for the offensive line, Eli Manning, the offense and the team as a whole.
And it could open the door quite wide for the rest of the division.
Minnesota Vikings Quarterback Battle: Matt Cassel vs. Teddy Bridgewater
A lot of people are already counting the Minnesota Vikings out, but I’m not going to do that. In fact, I think this team could be a huge pain in the rear end for the rest of the NFC North.
I expect new head coach Mike Zimmer to get a lot more out of this defense than anyone did last year, and if the Vikings can get the offense firing on all cylinders, it could be pretty impressive (though nowhere near as much as the rest of the NFC North).
The tipping point for that is who is under center.
Reporters such as ESPN’s Adam Schefter keep saying that the Vikings are “determined” not to rush Bridgewater under center (via Rotoworld)—a sensible notion given how things shook out with Christian Ponder.
However, there is a lot of buzz that makes it sound like they’d really like him under center.
ESPN.com’s Ben Goessling reported that Zimmer isn’t scared by the thought of having Bridgewater as the starter, and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Master Tesfatsion says offensive coordinator Norv Turner has raved about Bridgewater’s deep ball, calling it “outstanding.”
Last season wasn’t a great one for anyone playing quarterback for the Vikings, including Matt Cassel. He has a lot more experience than Bridgewater has of course, and according to Goessling, he will start training camp as the starter.
But we’ve seen what Cassel brings to the table, and it’s not terribly impressive. Is that more of a risk than throwing Bridgewater in there if he isn’t ready and perhaps screwing up his development?
The Vikings aren’t Super Bowl favorites, and most wouldn’t even call them playoff contenders. However, they have a lot of talent on the roster—certainly more than enough to cause a lot of trouble in the NFC North as well as the NFC playoff picture in general.
If they choose the right quarterback that is.
Denver Broncos Center Battle: Manny Ramirez vs. Will Montgomery
The Denver Broncos did a lot to shore up the defense and make it more physical after the crushing defeat in the Super Bowl. However, the defense wasn’t the only issue for the team.
For a line which lost Ryan Clady, the offensive line actually played well, but when it came up short (like it did against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 7 when it allowed four sacks and a multitude of quarterback pressures), it really came up short.
This year we’ll see how Clady looks when he comes back, but we could also see a new face at center. Last season saw Manny Ramirez (no, not that one) win the starting center job by default. He performed very well, but the Broncos are leaving nothing to chance and brought in former Washington center Will Montgomery, who was drafted by the Carolina Panthers when John Fox was the head coach there.
Both Ramirez and Montgomery can shift to guard if need be, which gives the Broncos some emergency latitude and will make both a strong bet to stay on the roster whether they win or lose the starting center job.
I’d give the edge to Ramirez as he has a year under his belt working with Peyton Manning. However, the Broncos will go with the guy whom they feel will do the best job at center, and Montgomery is a more athletic lineman, which makes a big difference in front of Manning.
Their championship window isn’t open all that wide and won’t stay open all that long. Not only will the entire AFC West be gunning for them and trying to get pressure on Manning (before he can use that ridiculously quick release) and stymie what was the top passing offense in 2013.
Detroit Lions Cornerback Battle: Rashean Mathis vs. Bill Bentley
When the Detroit Lions released cornerback Chris Houston, it was a bit of a surprise because while Darius Slay played well on one side of the field, there was no obvious replacement for Houston for the other side.
In reality, it spoke volumes about their confidence in the choices they had there.
Most likely Rashean Mathis will be the starter here at least for this season. He’ll be 34 when the season begins, but he is coming off his best campaign in years. Mathis is a solid corner, but he has had his share of injuries in the past, and even if he wins the job (as we expect), he has to stay healthy.
Bill Bentley has yet to record an interception, but as Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press reports, the team expects him to start off as the nickel corner. If Bentley can show improved coverage skills, he could overtake Mathis in camp.
Why does this matter? Because in a division where you see Aaron Rodgers and Jay Cutler twice along with Eli Manning, Cam Newton, Drew Brees, Matt Ryan and Tom Brady, your secondary had better be on point.
The Lions have the talent to make the playoffs, but their schedule has some tough teams on it. How the secondary performs will impact not only the NFC North but also the playoff picture in general.
St. Louis Rams Running Back Battle: Zac Stacy vs. Tre Mason
Don’t get me wrong, 7-9 is a bad record. But it could have been much worse if fifth-round rookie Zac Stacy hadn’t totaled 973 yards on the ground, 141 receiving yards and a total of eight touchdowns.
And that was after having all of one carry for the first four weeks of the season.
Not wanting to put all their eggs in one basket, the St. Louis Rams selected Tre Mason with their third-round pick in the 2014 NFL draft.
The two backs are similar in many ways—both are so-so catching the ball, and both are just 5’8”, though Stacy has about 17 pounds on Mason. Mason has some ball-protection issues and needs to improve his pass-protection skills.
We’re not totally sure what to make of the Rams offense this year. Bradford is in a “prove it or lose it” year for his job, but there aren’t a lot of tremendous pass-catching weapons on the field. We think Chris Givens, Austin Pettis and Tavon Austin should be a dynamic trio, but we’ll have to wait and see. We think Jared Cook can regain the production he flashed in Tennessee, but we’ll have to wait and see.
The one thing we do know is how good Stacy was last season and how good Mason looked at Auburn.
The Rams could be a dark-horse team in the NFC West this year. They have a solid defense, and the offense could be productive.
They may need to rely on the backfield, though, and so, who they choose to lead the way through the tackles will affect the ability of the offense to win games.
If the Rams can put it together, they’ll make some waves in the NFC and could change how the playoffs shake out.
Green Bay Packers Center Battle: J.C. Tretter vs. Corey Linsley
The Green Bay Packers have always struggled on the offensive line, and this year they have a serious problem before we even hit training camp.
Who the hell is the center?
Amazingly, the team seemed to have found a replacement in Evan Dietrich-Smith, who immediately left for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
The potential replacements have yet to take a snap in the NFL.
J.C. Tretter was the 122nd overall pick in 2013, then he broke his leg and tore ankle ligaments in camp. A converted tight end with a tremendous amount of athleticism, Tretter is an Ivy League player who will have to really step up his level of play to hold the point against NFL defenses.
Rookie Corey Linsley is another mid-round pick, though from a much bigger program in Ohio State. Linsley is a bit undersized, but he managed to play very well for the Buckeyes. He needs to add some weight to really hold the center position at the NFL level.
This is a pretty important choice for the Packers, as the center is in charge of keeping Aaron Rodgers—the most expensive and most critical part of the offense—healthy. We saw what happened when Rodgers went down last season—the Packers don’t want a repeat of that.
The rest of the NFC? The teams can’t think of anything they’d want more.
The Packers have been able to overcome issues on the offensive line before, but if they stumble, it would make the NFC playoff picture look very interesting.
San Francisco 49ers Cornerback Battle: Chris Culliver vs. Chris Cook
The San Francisco 49ers have a phenomenal defense—one which will give every team they face fits.
If they have one weak spot in the armor, it’s the corner position across from Tramaine Brock.
With Culliver coming off of an ACL injury from last training camp, one which shut him down for all of 2013, nothing is totally certain, though he’s more familiar with the Niners defensive scheme than Cook, a former Minnesota Viking, is.
Cook has great size and speed but could never take advantage of it in Minnesota. Culliver has done more with his talent, but he is also facing charges stemming from "an alleged hit-and-run" in March of this year, per Matt Maiocco of CSNBayArea.com.
Someone needs to step up. While the defense as a whole is formidable, the Niners' schedule is filled with teams that can throw the ball, and if one corner position is a liability that will make it far more difficult to shut an opposing offense down.
The NFC West has become highly competitive, and if the 49ers are going to stay in the hunt for the division title—and catch the Seattle Seahawks—they cannot let up on defense.
In the NFC there are no easy ways to the playoffs, and the competition will be tough for the two wild-card spots.
Baltimore Ravens Right Tackle Battle: Ricky Wagner vs. Ryan Jensen
The Baltimore Ravens had some real issues on the offensive line last season, and the impact of that was felt throughout the entire offense, which struggled all year.
That’s not to say that the struggles all came because of poor offensive line play, just that the struggles certainly didn’t help. The line got better as the year progressed, but improvements have to be made.
One place where we could see change is at right tackle. In today’s NFL you need bookend tackles. The Ravens have a great left tackle in Eugene Monroe.
Can they find another guy for the right side?
Bryant McKinnie and Michael Oher are gone, replaced by second-year tackles Ricky Wagner and Ryan Jensen.
Wagner shows really good athleticism and can use his long arms to fend off defenders, but he lets himself get overpowered too much and struggled quite a bit in pass protection when on the field.
Jensen sat out all of last season with a broken foot and is a small-school player who could struggle as he transitions to a higher level of play in the NFL. Jensen can play at any spot on the line, and that versatility could come in handy if there are injury issues.
The Ravens have to get their offense back on track, and the offensive line has to open holes for the backfield and give quarterback Joe Flacco the time to deliver the ball.
The AFC North is wide-open, and the level of competition across the whole AFC isn’t terribly high. After the top of the group, there are a lot of teams who could make the playoffs if things fall right.
How the Ravens play will directly impact all of those teams, and how the line plays—specifically right tackle—will directly impact the Ravens.