So just like death and taxes, tough roster decisions will need to be made and the “Turk” will soon be coming (September 1—roster cut down to maximum of 75 players and September 5—roster cut down to maximum of 53 players). You would hope that positional and roster battles in training camp only come down to who is a better player for a team’s system.
But other factors like where a player was drafted, which player is a coach’s “guy” (for example—veteran running back Keith Byars followed Bill Parcells from team to team), whether a player was selected by the current head coach or inherited from a past regime, and of course contract dollars always creep into the equation.
When it comes to player contracts being part of roster evaluations, sometimes making a larger salary can help or hinder a player fighting for a job. Cutting a player with years and guaranteed money still on their contract can cause serious cap ramifications, but conversely sometimes coaches would rather go with a younger and cheaper player due to their ability to play special teams over a veteran who is past that point in their career.
However in the end, I am a firm believer in the old saying, “Follow the Money” when it comes to training camp position battles.
That is why the more a Head Coach/GM/Team has invested in a player in terms of time and most important of all money, the longer the lifeline a player will receive—see Eagles OT Winston Justice, a high second round pick in 2006, who has yet to become a starter but somehow still remains on the team’s roster due to “potential."
Some of the NFL Training Camp Offensive battles to keep an eye on are:
Detroit Lions QBs—Daunte Culpepper, rookie Matthew Stafford (first overall pick in 2009 NFL Draft, Georgia) and Drew Stanton.
LV’s Take: As soon as NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell announced that the Lions had selected Stafford with the first overall pick, this competition heated up. Conventional wisdom says that sitting a quarterback early in his career and easing him into a team’s system are the best way to go (see Steve McNair, Steve Young with the Niners, Donovan McNabb, Eli Manning and others). But recently with the success of 2008 first-year starters and playoff quarterbacks Matt Ryan (Falcons) and Joe Flacco (Ravens) more people are believing that it is “sink or swim” time for rookie quarterbacks.
Stafford definitely has all the measurable (arm, footwork and big school pedigree) that made him the first overall selection. But all indications are that former three-time Pro Bowl quarterback Culpepper is ready to fight for his role as the Lions starter. Culpepper is healthier than he has been since his devastating 2005 knee injury and in throwing sessions, you can see his arm strength, pocket awareness and mobility coming back.
However, as much as new Lions head coach Jim Schwartz has proclaimed that this is an open competition, there are the mitigating factors of money—Stafford signed a huge deal of six years for $78 million with 41 of that guaranteed—and 0-16 team looking to make a splash. Look for this battle to continue through training camp and it will be the Lions’ four pre-season games that will determine this one. I see Culpepper winning the starter’s job for Week One in New Orleans, but you know eventually Stafford will get his shot. Watch for the Lions’ Week Seven bye as a possible stake in the ground for the start of the Stafford Era in Motown.
New York Jets QBs—Rookie Mark Sanchez, (first round, USC), Kellen Clemens, Erik Ainge and rookie Chris Pizzotti (Harvard).
LV’s Take: This is supposed to be an open competition for new Jets head coach Rex Ryan’s starting job. But the moment that the Jets traded up with the Browns to select Sanchez in the first-round of the 2009 NFL Draft you knew who would be under center in September. I am sure Clemens will continue to fight, but the Jets didn’t pay USC pretty boy Sanchez all that money—a five-year contract worth $50 million, with $28 million in guarantees—for nothing. I believe Sanchez has a good chance of being this year’s version of Baltimore Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco—a strong rookie season in 2008 by “managing” the offense.
Tampa Bay Bucs QBs—Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich, Josh Johnson and rookie Josh Freeman (first round, Kansas State)
LV’s Take: The Buccaneers head coach Raheem Morris continued former head coach Jon Gruden’s trend of collecting quarterbacks by signing McCown and Leftwich plus drafting Freeman this offseason. Leftwich was perceived to be the automatic starter when he signed, but his long delivery and lack of mobility have opened the door for McCown and the surprising Freeman to step in the mix. In the end I believe the veteran leadership of Leftwich—he won a Super Bowl ring in 2008 as the Steelers back-up—will shine through. However, by mid-season, it maybe time for Freeman to remove his red shirt.
Tampa Bay Bucs RBs—Derrick Ward, Earnest Graham, Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, Clifton Smith and Josh Vaughan
LV’s Take: The Buccaneers under new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski will be a running team first so you know this battle is important. I think this one was over before it even started as Ward got a huge contract—four years, $17 million—to be the starter. The former Giants change-up back produced a career-high 1,025 rushing yards last year and he will be looking to be this year’s Michael Turner. Unfortunately roster leftovers from the Gruden era Graham (attitude) and Williams (knee) may have to prove their worth to the new Bucs regime.
New York Giants RBs—Brandon Jacobs, Ahmad Bradshaw, Danny Ware and rookie Andre Brown
LV’s Take: This one isn’t really a battle, but it will be fun in training camp to see who is going to step-up to be Jacobs other half in the backfield. Derrick Ward is now a Buccaneer, so Bradshaw will have to hold-off Ware (strong special teams player) and Brown (hard running rookie from NC State). You know G-Men head coach Tom Coughlin would love to have a running game with two 1,000-yard backs again, but reproducing that effort will be tough in the NFC East. I believe that the Giants’ new Thunder and Lightning combination will be Jacobs and Brown as Bradshaw is better as a home run threat than an every down runner.
New England Patriots RBs—Sammy Morris, Fred Taylor, Laurence Maroney, Kevin Faulk, BenJarvus Green-Ellis and Omar Cuff
LV’s Take: Other than the couple years where Corey Dillon was the featured runner for the Pats, head coach Bill Belichick likes to spread the carries around. Recovering quarterback Tom Brady is going to need some time to get back in shape, so the running game will be essential. Look for often-injured running back Laurence Maroney to get the lion’s share of carries (200 plus perhaps) if he can shed his “soft” player title. Taylor will fill the short-yardage and goal-line role vacated by LaMont Jordan (Broncos) while Faulk will again be the pass-catcher and third down back for New England. After those three, it will a training camp fight between Morris (veteran, but how much does he have left), Green-Ellis (was the “Law Firm” a fluke after a strong ’08 season?) and Cuff (good young runner from Delaware). Look for Maroney as the starter in week one, but eventually injuries will push Taylor into the starting line-up.
Denver Broncos RBs—Correll Buckhalter, LaMont Jordan, Ryan Torrain, Darius Walker, and rookie Knowshon Moreno (first round, Georgia)
LV’s Take: It's another crowded backfield situation as new Broncos head coach Josh McDaniels collected running backs this off-season. Though Buckhalter was promised the job after he signed in free agency, all indications are that if Moreno can be signed by training camp that the former University of Georgia star will be the Broncos featured back. The first-rounder is quicker to the hole and his young legs will help new starting quarterback Kyle Orton.
New York Giants WRs—Domenick Hixon, Steve Smith, Sinorice Moss, Mario Manningham, David Tyree (2007 Super Bowl hero), rookies Hakeem Nicks (first round, North Carolina) and Ramses Barden (third round, Cal Poly)
LV’s Take: During the 2008 NFL Season there was no greater impact to a team’s fortunes than the shooting injury and suspension of former Giants receiver Plaxico Burress. The Giants won 11 of their first 12 games but lost three of their last four after Burress’ shooting injury in November. The G-men tried to pump-up Hixon (career highs 43 receptions and 596 yards, but we all remember the dropped potential 80-yard bomb in Week 14 against the Birds), Steve Smith (57 catches) and 13-year veteran Amani Toomer but most secondaries didn’t respect the trio.
The Giants decided, after being bounced from the 2008 playoffs by the Eagles, that in the 2009 draft the receiver position needed to be addressed and they brought in Nicks and Barden. But you have to wonder if the G-Men have done enough to get quarterback Eli Manning back in his comfort zone or if they should have pursued potential trades for Browns WR Braylon Edwards or Cardinals WR Anquan Boldin harder this offseason. Watch for Smith, Hicks, and Hixon to be the leaders for the Giants top three spots in the receiver unit. It will also be interesting to see if Tyree can return to his pre-injury form and if Moss can stay healthy enough to live-up to comparisons to his older brother Santana (Redskins WR).
Philadelphia Eagles WRs—DeSean Jackson, Kevin Curtis, Reggie Brown, rookie Jeremy Maclin (first round, Missouri), Hank Baskett, Jason Avant, rookie Brandon Gibson (sixth round, Washington State), Shaheer McBride and Danny Amendola
LV’s Take: Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb wanted weapons and now he may have too many pass catchers. Obviously 2008 All-Rookie performer Jackson is the No. 1 in this unit then the fun begins after him. Curtis is coming off his second groin surgery within a year, Maclin is speedy but comes from a spread option system in college, Brown is a former starter that showed potential earlier in his five-year career then faded, and the others are in the mix too. Look for the Jackson at the “X,” strong over the middle receiver Avant at the “Y,” and Curtis at the “Z." Brown, Baskett (hopefully still has his legs after marrying playmate Kendra Wilkinson), Maclin and Gibson (practice squad) should also make the team.
Chicago Bears WRs—Rashied Davis, Devin Hester, Earl Bennett, Devin Aromashodu, and rookies Juaquin Iglesias (third round, Oklahoma), Johnny Knox (fifth round, Abilene Christian) and Derek Kinder (seventh round, Pittsburgh)
LV’s Take: We all know that the Bears may have mortgaged that future to bring-in Pro Bowl quarterback Jay Cutler from the Broncos. The 4,000-yard passer in 2008 definitely knows how to wing-it, but other than All-Rookie running back Matthew Forte and emerging TE Greg Olsen there are question marks everywhere within the Bears receiving unit. There have been inklings that the Bears may take a look at free agents Plaxico Burress, Marvin Harrison or Matt Jones but for now head coach Lovie Smith seems to be content with his current group.
Unfortunately no receiver on the Bears’ current roster has over 50 catches in their career. The Bears want Hester, the superstar return man who is coming off a career-high of 47 catches in 2008, to be their main pass catcher. But the former Hurricane has a lot to learn in terms of running routes and not being a body catcher. The wild card in the mix could be Bennett, who played with Cutler at Vanderbilt, but the second-year player has zero career catches. Look for Hester, Bennett and Iglesias at the top three spots with Davis, Knox and Kinder rounding out the roster.
Other Battles to Watch
SF 49ers WRs—Isaac Bruce, Arnaz Battle, rookie Michael Crabtree (first round, Texas Tech), free agent pick-up Brandon Jones, Josh Morgan, Jason Hill, Michael Spurlock and Dominique Zeigler
Seahawks WRs—Nate Burelson, Deion Branch, TJ Houshmandzadeh, Jordan Kent, Courtney Taylor, Ben Obomanu and rookie Deon Butler (second round, Penn State)
Cleveland Browns WRs—Braylon Edwards, Mike Furrey, Joshua Cribbs, David Patten, Syndric Steptoe, Paul Hubbard, and rookies Brian Robiskie (second round, Ohio State) and Mohamed Massaquoi (second round, Georgia)
Jacksonville Jaguars Offensive Line—tackle Tra Thomas, veteran guard Chris Naole, Vince Manuwai, Maurice Williams, Tony Pashos, and rookies Eugene Monroe (first round, Virginia) and Eben Britton (second round, Arizona).
Detroit Lions OL—Jeff Backus, Daniel Loper, Gosder Cherilus, Ephraim Salaam, Damion Cook, Stephen Peterman and rookie Lyndon Murtha (seventh round, Nebraska)
New Orleans Saints TEs—Jeremy Shockey, Dan Campbell, Darnell Dinkins, Billy Miller and Buck Ortega
Tennessee Titans TEs—Bo Scaife, Alge Crumpler, rookie Jared Cook (second round, South Carolina), Craig Stevens and Matthew Mulligan
Lloyd Vance is a Senior NFL Writer for Taking It to the House and an award-winning member of the Pro Football Writers of America (PFWA)