Top 15 Defensive Position Battles to Watch in NFL Training Camps

Zach Kruse@@zachkruse2Senior Analyst IJuly 23, 2014

Top 15 Defensive Position Battles to Watch in NFL Training Camps

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    A number of intriguing defensive positional battles are ready to be waged at NFL training camps over the next month or so.

    The majority of NFL camps open within the week, and the competition for jobs and roster spots begin as soon a players report. Those who take advantage of the month of regular-season prep will position themselves for starting assignments come Week 1. Those who don't may see more of the sidelines than expected. 

    In the following slides, we will take a look at the top 15 defensive position battles at training camps in 2014. The 15 are ranked in descending order, figuring in the quality of the players involved in the competition and the importance of the competition to the team's defense to determine the overall ranking.

15. Inside Linebacker, Washington Redskins

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    After seven seasons and 112 straight starts from the now-retired London Fletcher, Washington will be turning a new page at inside linebacker. 

    Keenan Robinson, a fourth-round pick of the Redskins in 2012, will likely open camp as the new starter alongside Perry Riley. He has the speed and athleticism to handle playing in the modern game, but any visible struggles against the run over the next month may open the door for two veterans to take a bite out of his playing time. 

    Darryl Sharpton, 26, registered a career-high 87 tackles for the Houston Texans last season, while Akeem Jordan, 28, made 67 tackles and forced two fumbles for the Kansas City Chiefs. Both acquisitions can play the run, but the Redskins would be sacrificing needed range by removing Robinson from the starting lineup.

14. Free Safety, Baltimore Ravens

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    The Ravens are moving 2013 first-round pick Matt Elam back to his more natural position at strong safety, which was vacated by the departure of James Ihedigbo in free agency. To replace Elam at free safety, Baltimore has a veteran pickup and a third-round rookie ready to battle it out during August.

    Darian Stewart, a 25-year-old safety who spent time in St. Louis with current Ravens secondary coach Steve Spagnuolo, enters camp as the early front-runner. But he'll be pushed by Terrence Brooks, a rangy rookie who better fits into the traditional mold of a free safety.

    Stewart has the experience and hitting ability. Brooks is lightning-fast and possesses a skill set that better represents what most teams want opposite a strong safety. In the end, how the two stack up in August will determine which player is starting next to Elam in Week 1.

13. Safety, Indianapolis Colts

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    The departure of longtime stating safety Antoine Bethea left a hole in the Colts secondary next to LaRon Landry. 

    Delano Howell, who started three games at free safety for the Colts last season, represents the most obvious in-house option. He's only 24 years old and would appear to have the upside to grow into the role. 

    However, the Colts also added veteran Mike Adams, who has 10 years of NFL experience under his belt. His career record includes 13 interceptions and almost 150 games played. Teams don't generally add older players like Adams unless they plan on playing them, so it's reasonable to assume Adams is the early front-runner to start. 

    But the NFL is still a young man's game, and Adams is now 33 years old. That's ancient for the safety position. If Howell is the better player in camp, the Colts should have no problem sitting the veteran and playing the youngster. 

12. Defensive End, New York Giants

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    The Giants are hoping for a bounce-back season from Jason Pierre-Paul. New York is also hoping to find a replacement for Justin Tuck opposite JPP at defensive end. 

    Mathias Kiwanuka is the front-runner to start, but he'll first have to fend off competition from Robert Ayers and Damontre Moore. 

    Ayers, 28, had 5.5 sacks for the Denver Broncos last season. Moore, New York's 2013 third-round pick, played in 15 games as a rookie but did not register a sack. 

    Kiwanuka had six sacks over 16 games and 10 starts last season, but he has just one year with eight or more sacks in his career (2008). He has averaged only 4.5 sacks per season since entering the NFL. 

    Pierre-Paul's re-emergence is a much bigger factor for New York in 2014, but the Giants also need more production from his running mate at defensive end. Camp will help decide which player gets the first crack at the job. 

11. Inside Linebacker, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Cowboys lost starting middle linebacker Sean Lee to a torn ACL on the very first day of offseason practices. He'll now miss the entire 2014 season. Dallas will need to find his immediate replacement from a group consisting of Justin Durant, DeVonte Holloman, Anthony Hitchens and Rolando McClain. 

    Durant, 28, started six games last season but finished with just 24 tackles. Holloman, a former sixth-round pick, started at middle linebacker in the 2013 season finale and registered 11 tackles and two sacks. Hitchens was a fourth-round pick in last May's draft, but he's still adjusting to a move inside and life as an NFL rookie. 

    McClain is a huge wild card. A former first-round pick, he has left football on two different occasions since entering the NFL in 2010. But he's also only 25 years old, and few questioned his athletic ability coming out of Alabama. Still, getting anything significant from him now would be an unexpected bonus for the Cowboys. 

10. Inside Linebacker, Atlanta Falcons

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    As is the case in Dallas, the Falcons are already dealing with the season-ending loss of their top linebacker. Sean Weatherspoon, who was expected to be an impact player at a position lacking depth, tore his Achilles tendon and will miss all of 2014. 

    Paul Worrilow will be the likely starter inside, but who plays next to him is anyone's guess. Joplo Bartu, Prince Shembo, Tim Dobbins, Marquis Spruill and Yawin Smallwood will all have a shot at playing time. 

    Add former Colts linebacker Pat Angerer to the mix as well. The Falcons worked out Angerer and later signed him Tuesday, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun. The signing highlights how unsure of the position the Falcons remain, even this late into July. 

    If there's a bright side to the situation, it's that the Falcons have plenty of bodies to try out at Weatherspoon's spot. The team will hope one of the players embraces the opportunity during camp.

9. Defensive End, Dallas Cowboys

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    The Cowboys find themselves on this list twice, which helps highlight the adjustment period currently underway for the Dallas defense. But unlike middle linebacker, which saw its starter go down with an unfortunate injury, defensive end is up in the air thanks to the departure of a future Hall of Famer. 

    DeMarcus Ware, who gave the Cowboys 117 sacks over nine seasons, left Dallas in favor of Denver this offseason. Now the Cowboys must find answers from those who remain.

    The list of potential starters is a long one.

    George Selvie started all 16 games in 2013 and finished with seven sacks, the most among the team's defensive ends. Tyrone Crawford and Anthony Spencer are both expected to return from injury and contribute. Jeremy Mincey was signed in free agency, and last but not least, Demarcus Lawrence arrives as a highly regarded second-round draft pick. 

    The Cowboys would like to have a terrorizing pass-rusher play on the right side and a thumper on the left. Camp should determine which players left over in Dallas best fit each job description.

8. Cornerback, Cincinnati Bengals

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    The Bengals will need the month of August to sort through a cornerback group brimming with experience and talent. 

    The position features three veterans (Leon Hall, Adam Jones and Terence Newman) who have all played at least 80 career games and two youngsters picked high in recent drafts (Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard). All five are former first-round picks. 

    However, Hall is coming off a major injury (torn Achilles tendon), Jones is now 30 years old, and Newman (who is 35) has just four interceptions over his last 28 games. The upcoming season may begin the changing of the guard in Cincinnati, as Kirkpatrick and Dennard now represent the future at the cornerback position.

    Camp should help answer the necessary questions. First, how much do the veterans have left in the tank? And second, how ready are the two youngsters to play important snaps?

7. Defensive Tackle, New England Patriots

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    Vince Wilfork returns to play on the nose in New England, but the Patriots still need to determine over the next month who will start next to him. 

    The candidates are veteran Tommy Kelly (who played just five games in 2013 before tearing his ACL), Dominique Easley (New England's first-round pick in 2014) and Chris Jones (a sixth-round pick from 2013 who had six sacks during the regular season and another in the playoffs). 

    According to Field Yates of ESPN, Kelly will start training camp on the PUP list. Easley, who tore his ACL while at Florida last season, will begin his NFL career on the non-football injury list. 

    Both will eventually return and participate in camp. If the Patriots see an obvious drop-off in Kelly's play, the two youngsters could steal significant snaps. 

    Also, don't forget about the safety competition brewing in New England. Duron Harmon, a third-round pick in 2013, will need to beat out veteran Patrick Chung and 2012 second-rounder Tavon Wilson.

6. Safety, Chicago Bears

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    One of the worst position groups in football last season will attempt to use training camp as the jumping-off point for any and all improvement added by this offseason's roster changes. 

    Gone is Major Wright, who allowed five passing touchdowns in 2013 (fifth-most among safeties). Arriving are M.D. Jennings (started 16 games for the Packers in 2013), Ryan Mundy (77 tackles over 16 games for the Giants in 2013), Danny McCray (10 starts for the Cowboys in 2012) and Adrian Wilson (34 years old, five-time Pro Bowler with the Cardinals). The Bears also drafted Brock Vereen in the fourth round of May's draft. 

    Chris Conte, the other 2013 starter for the Bears, is still recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. 

    There are many questions that need to be answered over the next month. 

    Can Conte return from surgery and a poor season? Is Mundy ready to become a full-time starter? How long will it take Vereen to get up to speed? Will Jennings provide anything after a disastrous 2013? And does Wilson have anything left after missing last season with a torn Achilles? 

    The Bears hope to finally get some positive feedback at the position during camp. 

5. Cornerback, San Francisco 49ers

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    The 49ers are set with Tramaine Brock at one cornerback spot in the base defense. However, the departures of Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown have opened up a starting spot opposite Brock for 2014.

    Whomever secures that spot will likely come down to which cornerback wins a training camp competition between free-agent pickup Chris Cook and Chris Culliver, who is returning from a torn ACL he suffered last August. 

    Cook has the size and physical ability to be a plus-starter, especially in San Francisco's aggressive defense. But he lacks a history of takeaways (zero career interceptions) and was prone to mental mistakes with the Minnesota Vikings.

    Culliver has been absent for offseason workouts as he continues his recovery, but he was coming on as a player before injury struck last summer. The 49ers were ready to give him significant snaps in 2013. 

    If Cook and Culliver both flop, rookies Dontae Johnson and Kenneth Acker could climb the depth chart. Jimmie Ward, the team's first-round pick in May, will likely be in the mix as a nickel cornerback. 

4. Cornerback, San Diego Chargers

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    The Chargers made two major acquisitions at cornerback this season, drafting Jason Verrett in the first round and signing Pro Bowler Brandon Flowers after he was released by the Kansas City Chiefs. 

    A position that could have been viewed as a major problem is now a potential area of strength. 

    Richard Marshall and Shareece Wright return as 2013 starters, but Verrett and Flowers will push hard for playing time. While Wright had a strong season, Marshall didn't have an interception in 2013 and will be 30 in December. 

    Flowers, who went to the Pro Bowl in 2013 and has 17 career interceptions, will be expected to win a starting job. Verrett, an undersized (5'9") but willing fighter, could get plenty of significant snaps in the slot, where he's best suited. 

    First, the two newcomers will have to prove their worth in camp. Wright should be locked into a starting job, and Marshall likely won't hand over his easily. 

    Also, keep an eye on the Chargers' group of outside linebackers. This is a deep group consisting of veterans and young players. Camp will be needed to figure out how to give everyone chances at rushing the quarterback. 

3. Safety, Green Bay Packers

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    The Packers had the only defense in football not to receive an interception from the safety position last season, so change ahead of 2014 was bound to happen. To fix the problem, Green Bay let M.D. Jennings (a 16-game starter last season) walk in free agency, drafted Ha Ha Clinton-Dix in the first round and began preparations for Micah Hyde to play snaps at safety. 

    Jennings needed to be replaced, but the Packers will still be concerned as camp opens. Rookies face a steep learning curve at the safety position, and Hyde has never played the back end in the NFL. He and Clinton-Dix may suffer through some ups and downs as they settle into the position. 

    The Packers will first use training camp to determine how the safety snaps will be divvied up between them. Whichever safety looks more comfortable in August should be expected to line up next to Morgan Burnett when the Packers take on Seattle in the opener.

2. Inside Linebacker, Arizona Cardinals

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    Replacing Daryl Washington (suspended for the 2014 season) stands near the top of Arizona's priorities during training camp. 

    Kevin Minter, a second-round pick in 2013, is likely to start at one inside linebacker spot. Three veterans—Larry Foote, Ernie Sims and Lorenzo Alexander—will compete to start next to him. 

    It's not a great situation for the Cardinals. Foote is 34 years old and unlikely to play on third down. Sims, who will turn 30 in December, has bounced around the NFL in recent seasons. Alexander is 31 and still recovering from Lisfranc surgery last September. He is also switching positions from outside to inside linebacker. 

    Minter has the upside to be a very good player against the run, but the Cardinals are taking a huge step backward with the remaining candidates to replace Washington.

1. Cornerback, New Orleans Saints

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    The Saints will use the next month to decide who will start next to Keenan Lewis at cornerback in the base defense. Several worthy candidates are vying for the job. 

    Champ Bailey is the biggest name, but he's also 36 years old and entering his 16th NFL season. The Saints can only hope he has one good season left in his Hall of Fame body. 

    Corey White and Patrick Robinson have had up-and-down careers, with some brief flashes of promise but also plenty of disappointment. Robinson is returning from tearing his ACL in Week 2 last season. 

    Rod Sweeting, a 2013 undrafted free agent, and Stanley Jean-Baptiste, the Saints' second-round pick in 2014, are also in the mix for playing time. 

    With Lewis, Jairus Byrd and Kenny Vaccaro in place, New Orleans has the potential to feature one of the NFL's better secondaries next season. Finding the best player for the No. 2 cornerback role in camp can solidify the unit.