The Top 10 NFC West Position Battles
There's competition in the air.
Much of the NFC West has been shaken up like an etch-a-sketch, as there is now one team (St. Louis) in rebuilding mode, two clubs (Seattle and Arizona) overhauling their offenses, and a fourth franchise (San Francisco) attempting a long-awaited resurgence to divisional supremacy.
With said change at hand, competition surely follows.
With training camps now open around the league, position battles are not only set, they're underway. Pushing and shoving their ways to the front, rookies are attempting to uproot veterans and the old oaks are seeking to teach the youth their places.
A hot summer, full of injuries and ego boosters, lies directly ahead; so without further adieu, here's counting down the top 10 position battles in the NFC West.
10. OLB—San Francisco
As a team on the rise, San Francisco is simply performing a tune-up at their thinner areas. One part they've checked into this off-season is at outside linebacker, where no player managed to create a truly consistent pass rush in 2009.
Manny Lawson, Ahmad Brooks, and Parys Haralson return as incumbents, but the 49ers also picked up pass rusher Travis LaBoy in April. The addition served as a way to bring in an experienced pass rusher who did not cost a draft pick, or an arm and a leg.
Adding LaBoy to the trio that produced a total of 17.5 sacks last year means the newly formed quartet will be fighting tooth-and-nail for playing time all summer long.
9. QB—St. Louis
To define Sam Bradford's situation as a "position battle" is a bit of a stretch. The gazillion-dollar man is going to see time eventually this season, but the matters of when and how much are yet to be determined.
St. Louis isn't getting a tuneup, or an overhaul. We're talking about a serious rebuilding here—maybe a complete restoration.
The Rams should prefer to see Bradford sooner rather than later (Sooner, get it?), and he can get in the game earlier by impressing coaches as much in practice as he did at his pro day.
The Rams are about to start gutting their team's talent, but before this endeavor begins the talent worth keeping needs to be sifted out and set aside.
The Rams aren't paying Bradford to get injured, but sitting on the bench isn't going to help him advance either. Between Bradford and the starting roll is 10-year vet and journeyman backup, A.J. Feeley.
Feeley could simply be a strategic training tool for Bradford's early development. Then again, if Feeley can produce and guide this young Rams team to even a small taste of success, he may not be too hot on giving up the helm to the young gun.
Sure, Feeley is supposed to be a mentor to the first overall pick of the 2010 draft, but as a player who never had many legitimate chances to succeed in the league he could prove to be more than a simple stepping stone.
Other contenders at the position include second-year quarterback Keith Null and rookie Thaddeus Lewis, who will fight for the third quarterback spot.
Another part of San Francisco's tune up is the focus on offensive line. They displayed this focus blatantly on the first day of the 2010 Draft, taking an offensive tackle (Anthony Davis) and guard (Mike Iupati) in the first round.
If the incumbent starters on the line didn't already know they were going to be pushed hard this year, they knew after the draft. Already, Iupati has already shown some impressive stuff in training camp drills, and Davis won't be too far behind. The rest of the summer should be exciting all along the front five, as the starters push and shove and sort themselves out—one pancake at a time.
The final adjustment the 49ers have paid attention to has been at kick returner. Last year's pitiful display returning the ball inspired San Francisco to hire Kurt Schottenheimer as special teams coordinator, traded a fifth round choice to Miami for Ted Ginn Jr., drafted Kyle Williams in the sixth round, and signed undrafted free agent return phenomena LeRoy Vann.
So what does this translate into? Pure competition, the bulk of which will be decided at exhibition-game speed. The criteria is primarily going to be based on the ability to secure the ball, results returning it, and the importance of the player's contributions from his other role.
Veterans Jordan Babineaux, Lawyer Milloy, and third-year player Jamar Adams are getting pitted against youngsters Kevin Ellison, Kam Chancellor, and Earl Thomas. Reasonible expectations are that Babineaux and Milloy retain their starting spots, but that Thomas is going to push them extremely hard in an effort to crack the starting lineup by week one.
Thomas could very well find that spot, and as the aging Milloy tries to mentor the young secondary, he may just find himself playing the self sacrificing tribal elder this year.
Through it all, however, the Seahawks secondary should benefit from the combination of young talent, veteran leadership, and stiff competition at safety.
Most of fantasy football's self-proclaimed gurus easily have already inked Chris "Beanie" Wells in as the Cardinals immediate starting runingback this year. There is, however, another young threat named Tim Hightower on the team, and he's not the sort to go down without a fight.
The Cardinals first-round pick from 2009 impressed many with his rookie year performance last year, but Hightower has been a solid shorter-yardage threat for the last two years as well, and he raised his average yards per carry from 2.8 in 2008 to 4.2 in 2009.
In their first season post Kurt Warner, Arizona is attempting to overhaul their style while maintaining their competitiveness and respectability. A solid rushing attack is going to be imperative while they sort who out their next franchise passer will be.
While Wells should eventually lock down the starting job, Hightower will never be far from his heels.
Hasselbeck's team is growing young around him. The 12-year veteran now finds himself fighting for his own job against seventh-year passer J.P. Losman, and fifth year up-and-coming quarterback Charlie Whitehurst.
A new coach, a new system, two first round picks, an old passer, two younger ones, and a partridge in a pear tree. Needless to say, the door is unlocked, and open for a seemingly inevitable, eventual controversy.
Hasslebeck should be able to ward off the invading throwers through training camp, but if he sustains an early-season injury like he did last year, he may never get his job back.
The question is this: who will A.J. Feeley's, and eventually Sam Bradford's primary receiving targets be this year? The Rams bring ten wide receivers into camp this year, and will be whittling down to a group they feel is most likely to help them as they rebuild their franchise.
This is no small task. The groups senior most player (as NFL experience goes) is Laurent Robinson, and he's only in his fourth year.
The most accomplished prospect here is Donnis Avery, who has the potential to be a pro-bowl caliber receiver—eventually.
Rookie Mardy Giyard may also show promise sooner than later and could secure a starting spot by opening day, but to expect great things from a fourth-round draft choice is, well, silly.
The key jump-ball threat here is Kent Jordan, whose 6'4 frame gives him a chance to sail above defenders for the high ones.
This mess will eventually sort it's self out, but only after an arduous position battle this summer.
The Hawks backfield arsenal returns pounding running back Julius Jones, who racked up over 1,000 rushing yards in 2006 while playing for the Cowboys, who should take the bulk of the carries ahead of young Justin Forsett.
They also, however, imported the explosive and multi-talented Leon Washington from the New York Jets. Washington gives Seattle another dimension to a potential three-headed attack from the backfield, but one of these foot soldiers will eventually be named as the guy to receive the bulk of the carries on offense.
Most signs point to Jones taking this position, but anything could happen in such a position battle.
For now, Arizona's incumbent bench warmer Matt Leinart has been given the teams quarterback job to lose.
And lose it he might.
In Warner's wake, the southpaw will now need to fend off newly imported journeyman Derek Anderson to maintain his position as the offense's trigger man.
in size and stature, the two are quite similar. The dynamic of Leinart's left-handedness and his experience (having been with the Cardinals since they drafted him in the first round five years ago) give him a leg up.
As the team heads toward a more run-oriented approach in 2010, they know as well as any team that one-dimensional offenses don't fly long. If Leinart struggles as he has in the past, the possibility of getting the hook is always present.
A key factor will be which passer seems able to best utilize pro-bowl receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who will be heavily blanketed since Anquan Boldin's move to Baltimore.
As the most important position on the defending NFC West champion's offense, the quarterback battle in Glendale is the hottest and most intriguing in the division—hands down.
Summation and Synopsis
Unaffectionately referred to as "the weakest division in football" the NFC West is up for grabs.
Where the San Francisco 49ers are making final tuneups and setting their sights on finishing first, Seattle and Arizona are attempting mild overhauls to maintain competitiveness while revamping, and retooling.
And, of course, the St. Louis Rams have themselves a whole project that they're just starting.
The reality is that the division is not full of pushovers, and neither are it's teams; and the battles for these positions are going to dictate which team comes in first in the race for NFC West supremacy.