Early Buzz Surrounding Top Training Camp Battles

Andrew Garda@andrew_gardaFeatured ColumnistJuly 30, 2013

Early Buzz Surrounding Top Training Camp Battles

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    Training camps have opened, and after a few days, we're ready to call a host of training camp battles done, right?

    Probably not, especially as teams have only seen their players for three or four days, most of it not in pads.

    Still, it's never too early to speculate and do some early handicapping on some of the battles taking place across the NFL landscape.

    Who has the early lead? Who is falling apart?

    Let's take a look.

Mark Sanchez vs. Geno Smith, Quarterback, New York Jets

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    The assumption has been that veteran Mark Sanchez will get one last shot to carry the New York Jets to the playoffs. Rookie Geno Smith is raw, and I was told by someone tied to the Jets that they passed on him in the first round for defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson in part because they felt Smith would need a year on the bench to develop.

    So far, though, Smith is proving to be more competition than some gave him credit for.

    Yes, Sanchez started camp by getting the majority of the snaps with the first team, but head coach Rex Ryan has said each will get equal time there.

    Smith has impressed with his long accuracy while with the first team and mentioned how important it was for a rookie to get a chance against a first-team defense. While Sanchez has been consistent, Smith has had more big plays.

    Of course, the stat everyone looks at is interceptions, and while Sanchez has turned the ball over, Smith went the first three practices without a turnover. As Rich Cimini of ESPN New York reports, Smith still has a ways to go in terms of blitz pickup and pre-snap reads.

    Overall, though, he's done a good job—a sentiment echoed by Brian Bassett and Corey Griffin of SNY's The Jets Blog in this video.

    The competition is far from over, but so far it appears as if the rookie is impressing. We know what Mark Sanchez can do—we've seen it for four years.

    The upside of Geno Smith could tempt the Jets coaching staff to roll the dice on the rookie and see what he can do instead.

The Packers' Running Back Battle

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    When the Green Bay Packers drafted Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, it seemed to spell the end of the line for James Starks, DuJuan Harris and Alex Green.

    After all, if the team had been happy with Starks, Harris or Green, why would it have drafted Lacy or Franklin?

    However, as ESPN's Rob Demovsky says, not so fast.

    Demovksy says that Green took the starting reps to open camp, showing the speed most figured he had lost forever when he tore his ACL in 2011. Meanwhile, the oft-injured Starks showed power with his carries. There are many who feel he's really overlooked as we hit camp.

    Unfortunately for Harris, he hasn't stepped on the field yet due to a knee injury from this offseason, as well as a procedure to have a cyst removed from his lung.

    That's not to say that any of them have a leg up on the rookies—just that they aren't dead yet.

    Lacy hasn't done a ton to impress in camp yet, but Franklin got praise from Demovsky:

    On Day 3, when the Packers put on the pads for the first time, it was Franklin’s turn to shine. He showed his quickness and ability to change directions. On one carry, Franklin looked bottled up in the middle of the line but bounced outside and to the second level of the defense.

    There's a long way to go in this battle, and it appears nobody has a leg up yet. It could be one big committee in the backfield.

Pierre Thomas vs. Mark Ingram, Running Back, New Orleans Saints

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    Entering his third season, Mark Ingram is determined to work hard and set himself up with a big year, but he won't walk away without finding a way to overcome Pierre Thomas.

    When the Saints drafted Ingram in 2011, most assumed Thomas would be ushered out the door, but injuries to Ingram have kept that from happening.

    That said, even Thomas expects Ingram to have a big season, and with Chris Ivory departed for the New York Jets, the opportunity is there.

    So far nobody seems to have an edge in camp, and there is a good chance we'll see the carries split between the two men.

    Right now they're neck-and-neck in the very early days of training camp.

Dion Jordan vs. Olivier Vernon, Right Defensive End, Miami Dolphins

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    If nothing else, No. 3 overall pick Dion Jordan wins "best hair at camp" for his recent haircut.

    The expectation is that he will get more than that, including the coveted spot at right defensive end across from Cameron Wake.

    He's going to have to fight off Olivier Vernon though, and writers such as Omar Kelly of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel have come away impressed.

    Jordan didn't participate during the first few days of camp due to his continued recovery from shoulder surgery, and that could hamper his development and chances to win the starting job.

    When he finally got on the field, it was clear this would be a process, with some mixed reviews from the press (links via The Oregonian).

    Chris Tomasson of Fox Sports Florida says that the team is trying to get him acclimated quickly after he missed time due to his shoulder injury.

    Several of the writers in the linked article from The Oregonian piece feel that, at least initially, Jordan will be a third-down specialist and situational rusher.

    However, as a high pick in this last draft, he'll get a chance to push past Vernon before the end of camp.

M.D. Jennings vs. Jerron McMillian, Safety, Green Bay Packers

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    The Green Bay Packers have now ushered Charles Woodson out of Green Bay and are left to figure out who will replace him across from Morgan Burnett.

    The two most likely candidates are holdovers from last year—M.D. Jennings and Jerron McMillian.

    The pair split time last year, but nobody emerged as a sure thing.

    The same thing can be said of camp.

    One of the two will step up, but early in camp we still don't know who. Both showed flashes last year, but neither has done so in camp as of yet.

    Packers safeties coach Darren Perry has indicated that the competition should last all of camp, with neither player a front-runner heading in.

    If one can't separate himself as the starter, the Packers might be forced to add a veteran safety.

    That's something they would rather avoid.

    Update: Tuesday, July 30

    Someone must have read today's article, as Jerron McMillian was a standout in Tuesday morning's practice.

    According to Mike Vandermause of the Green Bay Press-Gazette, McMillian made a ton of plays—both by forcing the ball into an area where teammates could make a play as well as picking off a pass himself.

    Vandermause isn't the only one impressed, as coach Mike McCarthy said McMillian has been at team facilities a lot and has excited the staff with his big-play ability.

    Now we'll see if Jennings can respond.

Vick vs. Foles (With Barkley Watching), Quarterback, Philadelphia Eagles

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    New head coach Chip Kelly has some difficult decisions to make, starting with just who the heck his starting quarterback will be.

    Michael Vick took a pay cut just to stay with the team, which doesn't engender a lot of confidence. Meanwhile, Nick Foles doesn't have a ton of experience under center, but Kelly knows him from facing him in the Pac-12 (Foles played for Arizona while Kelly coached Oregon).

    Oh, and the team selected Matt Barkley (former USC quarterback and another guy Kelly is familiar with) at the front of the fourth round. While Barkley is the least likely, there is no front-runner here, so nothing should shock.

    It comes down to Foles and Vick though. The team is rotating who gets first-team reps, but Vick started off camp getting them, though Foles had some as well.

    Geoff Mosher of CSNPhilly.com says Foles was sharp with his first-team reps, while Vick started off with an interception, though he recovered enough to have a solid rest of the day.

    Meanwhile, Eric Galko of Optimum Scouting says all three players were lackluster in front of fans at Lincoln Financial Field for the first time this year on Sunday.

    Galko says that Foles looked smooth and athletic but seemed a bit too slow in his reads and made a few poor decisions that overshadowed some crisp passes.

    Vick seemed all over the place in terms of accuracy and placement, Galko said, and struggled rolling out.

    Finally, Galko felt Barkley looked like he lacked confidence and certainly doesn't have the arm of the other two, but he had solid footwork and looked more athletic than Foles did.

    Overall it seems as if the rookie has a ways to go, but he is showing signs of progress already.

    With just over a month to go before the season kicks off, it looks as though nobody has stood out yet.

Kevin Kolb vs. EJ Manuel, Quarterback, Buffalo Bills

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    It's hard to imagine the Bills drafted a quarterback with the No. 16 pick to sit him this year given the severity of their quarterback situation.

    Yet Manuel is raw and could do with a year on the bench.

    That might work better if the alternative wasn't so underwhelming.

    Kevin Kolb came to Buffalo as a potential stop-gap measure, but he's yet to finish a season without injury or excel even when he had the super-talented Larry Fitzgerald to throw to.

    Head coach Doug Marrone says the two will split reps and this will all be decided before the season kicks off, but that just makes it harder to predict.

    The Bills kicked off training camp practices in earnest on Sunday, with Kolb getting slightly more reps in part because, as Marrone said, they're trying to avoid overwhelming Manuel:

    We have a young quarterback in EJ and we’re bringing him along and at the same point we have a lot of time before the preseason games to get the (reps) to 50-50. EJ did take some snaps with the first group, but you’re right Kevin had more.

    Joe Buscaglia of WGR550.com has complete notes on Day 1 that are worth reading in total.

    In short, though, Buscaglia said that Manuel started off red-hot, but after the first drill he struggled. The low point of the evening was a pick-six where the safety read Manuel the whole way. Buscaglia said Manuel's big arm and talent are evident, but so is the rawness.

    Kolb didn't do anything to separate himself, though, and Buscaglia described him as "average." Kolb was also picked off, twice in fact.

    That's pretty much business as usual for Kolb, who Buscaglia calls "the less talented of the two," but he's still in the hunt if he can cut the errors down.

    Mind you, given Kolb's history, that seems unlikely.

Matt Flynn vs. Tyler Wilson vs. Terrelle Pryor, Quarterback, Oakland Raiders

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    Last year about now, things were going so well for Matt Flynn.

    He had signed a big contract and was all set to take over the starting quarterback job for the Seattle Seahawks and prove he was starter material.

    Then Russell Wilson happened, and the rest is history.

    So here Flynn is a year later, now with the Oakland Raiders, who went and drafted another guy named Wilson. Suddenly Flynn is in another quarterback battle.

    This one leans far more in his favor, at least for this year. Both Tyler Wilson and Terrelle Pryor lack Flynn's apparent polish and are still rounding out the rough edges of their games.

    I spoke with Chris Hansen, Bleacher Report's AFC West lead writer and owner of Raidersblog.com, to get some insight into what he's seen in training camp so far.

    Hanson told me that while we don't know a lot about Flynn, "he'll have a pretty long leash" and "he'd have to be terrible for them to go to Wilson," though if things are grim, they might give Wilson a shot later in the season.

    From what he saw this weekend, Flynn is a bit limited, but he's capable and, most importantly, "smart with the ball."

    That's important for a team that can't afford to turn the ball over very often.

    Pryor sounds like a distant third, but according to Hansen, he'll be involved with a specific package of plays.

    NFL.com's Marc Sessler reinforced the feeling that Flynn is well in the lead, relaying that Wilson struggled on Friday, throwing interceptions on three of four passes at one point.

    This will be worth watching, but it's hard to imagine Flynn losing this job.

    Of course, that's what we said last year.

The St. Louis Rams Backfield

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    As with the Green Bay Packers, the Rams' starting backfield position is up for grabs.

    Unlike the Packers, though, the Rams are looking to fill the shoes of a very good back in Steven Jackson.

    Jackson's departure for the Atlanta Falcons leaves a pretty significant gap in the St. Louis offense, but the team has several options to go to. Daryl Richardson was solid with his opportunities last season, while Isaiah Pead has shown promise on occasion as well.

    The monkey wrench here could be fifth-round draft pick Zac Stacy.

    While Richardson is penciled in at starter for now, there are indications the team will use a committee approach this season.

    The guys themselves are trying to keep it fun and friendly, but that won't translate to the practice field, where the competition is apt to get very rough.

    Nobody has stood out yet, but it's very early, and this offense may not use just one back. We'll have to see who the best fit is as camp goes on.

The Arizona Cardinals Backfield

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    What an absolute mess.

    Rashard Mendenhall was brought in to take over lead back duties but is coming off an injury—something Ryan Williams can understand and empathize with.

    Meanwhile, rookies Andre Ellington and Stepfan Taylor are looking to make an early impact.

    Williams is already sidelined by a problem with his surgically repaired right knee and is awaiting a second opinion just to be sure after a clean MRI. Even more disappointing is the fact that he was doing pretty well prior to the injury.

    The guy just can't stay healthy. That certainly doesn't bode well for his chances.

    Taylor and Ellington have already made some noise, though, as B/R featured columnist Shaun Church mentions in his Day 3 column.

    A key piece of information Church imparts is the way both rookies picked up blitzes in addition to how well they ran the ball.

    With some injuries to the offensive line—already a weakness for this team—running backs who can protect the quarterback are vital.

    Church also notes that Mendenhall had a good practice, or in his words, "finally showed up."

    Reports from Day 2 were not kind to Mendenhall, who Church seemed to think might be saving himself for preseason games.

    If that keeps up, it sounds as if one or both of the rookies could be heavy in the mix come Week 1.

Barkevious Mingo vs. Jabaal Sheard, Outside Linebacker, Cleveland Browns

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    The Browns were excited with the progress Jabaal Sheard made in transitioning to outside linebacker during OTAs, but he'll face some serious competition from rookie Barkevious Mingo in camp.

    That's not to say Mingo won't take a few hits in his first training camp.

    Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal says that in his first padded practice, Mingo flashed some of that speed we loved on film in college and impressed head coach Rob Chudzinski.

    As Chudzinski told reporters:

    He flashed. I saw him getting around the edge on some guys. He had a nice counter move on his pass rush. It was a good day to see him and be able to get him in pads. You can see these guys in full speed finally.

    Ulrich said that Mingo was also stymied by veteran linemen, such as when Rashad Butler stuffed him.

    Right now, Sheard is practicing with the starters, but that could change if Mingo advances the way the Browns are hoping.

    With an already solid defense, the Browns could really improve with a great pass rush.

    Whichever guy ends up showing in camp that he can do it will definitely get the job, regardless of draft position or experience.

The Denver Broncos Backfield

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    This is a battle mostly between rookie Montee Ball and second-year back Ronnie Hillman.

    As you can see in the above video, Hillman likes his chances and has been working hard to be in position to be "the guy" in the Mile High City.

    Interestingly enough, it's not as insane as it sounds.

    ESPN Denver radio personality and NFL writer Cecil Lammey has been embedded out at Dove Valley for all of camp so far (check out his Google Hangouts from training camp). If you're a Broncos fan, you should read his stuff both at 102.3 ESPN and on the Footballguys message boards, where he shares all sorts of tidbits during and just after camp.

    Lammey has some great takes on not just Ball and Hillman, but Knowshon Moreno as well.

    Almost the first thing he does in the thread is remind us that John Fox doesn't tend to favor rookies in position battles. Now, the Broncos lack a running back like Fox had in Carolina, but it's something to keep in mind.

    He also reminds readers that with the Broncos, "starter" is a relative term. It's "ceremonial," he says, and just because you're the starter doesn't mean the offense will use you exclusively. Fox and company will go with the hot hand, be it Hillman, Ball or even Moreno.

    He also said that he feels Ball will get the red-zone and goal-line looks regardless of who is the starter, but also that Hillman looked better in general during Day 1 practices.

    He wanted to see Ball with the pads on, but unfortunately, when that happened, it wasn't what anyone had hoped for.

    Lammey also said that Hillman was getting the first-team reps while Moreno was getting second-team, and at one point Ball got no reps.

    In general, it sounded like as much as Ball failed to meet expectations, Hillman exceeded them.

    It could be that Ball is struggling the way any rookie does, while Hillman is doing well because he has a year under his belt. That's how things go at times, and at some point the light will probably go on for Ball.

    It really seems as if Hillman has a lead on Ball as of now. As Lammey says on the message board, "[Hillman's] created a gap that Ball is not closing at this time."

    That said, he reiterates that this will be a running-back-by-committee approach no matter what, and he expects Ball to end up as the "go-to guy" at the goal line.

A.J. Jenkins vs. Quinton Patton, Wide Receiver, San Francisco 49ers

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    With the injury to Michael Crabtree, Anquan Boldin has shifted from the No. 2 receiver to No. 1, which leaves a vacuum at the second spot.

    A.J. Jenkins and rookie Quinton Patton are the favorites for the position, but neither has been the breakout receiver the 49ers are hoping for.

    According to Grant Cohn of the Press Democrat, Patton has been wearing a non-contact jersey but is taking part in all the drills.

    Unfortunately, Cohn doesn't make it sound like Jenkins is making use of the downtime from Patton, as he has been inconsistent and at times ineffective.

    At this point, Vernon Davis is lining up as a receiver. We shouldn't expect that to be a permanent thing, but it's a pretty good sign that the Niners coaching staff doesn't feel all that great about the players battling for the second receiver spot.

Charles Brown vs. Terron Armstead, Left Tackle, New Orleans Saints

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    There's a lot to like about the New Orleans Saints this year—except for left tackle.

    Since Jermon Bushrod left for Chicago to join a Bears unit in serious need of help, the Saints must fill the hole with either Charles Brown—a backup who was drafted three years ago—or rookie Terron Armstead.

    Just what you want to protect Drew Brees' blind side.

    It's early, but according to Mike Triplett of the Times-Picayune, Brown has the inside edge.

    Triplett says that in the first practice with pads, Brown wasn't unbeatable—merely that he was consistent and solid—while Armstead (and backup Jason Smith) were more inconsistent.

    Overall, Triplett indicated that the line played well as a group, which more than anything should make Saints fans happy and Brees breathe easier.

    This is, of course, far from over, but protecting Brees is vital, so if the more experienced Brown wins the spot, it should come as no surprise.

T.Y. Hilton vs. Darrius Heyward-Bey, Wide Receiver, Indianapolis Colts

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    Nobody surprised more people last season than Colts rookie receiver T.Y. Hilton.

    Very few receivers have busted as hard as former top-10 pick Darrius Heyward-Bey.

    Drops were an issue for Hilton last year, but Andrew Mishler of Stampede Blue says the second-year player has already improved that aspect of his game.

    Meanwhile, according to Mishler, Heyward-Bey is having a poor camp:

    Former Colts quarterback Jack Trudeau has counted DHB for five drops over the last two days, as tweeted by WNDE's Derek Schultz. He saw one perfect pass today from Luck over the middle of the field that he flat-out dropped.

    Now, as Mishler points out, it's early—but so far it certainly looks like Hilton is picking up where he left off.

    Unfortunately, the same can be said for Heyward-Bey.

    There are a ton of interesting battles so far during camps. Who are you watching closely, and what are you saying? Add your picks and observations down in the comments, and thanks for reading.

    Andrew Garda is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. He is also a member of the fantasy football staff at Footballguys.com and the NFL writer at CheeseheadTV.com. You can follow him at @andrew_garda on Twitter.