Training Camp Battles Destined to Last All Summer
Can we say it now?
Then again, it’s about that time to turn on the air conditioners, stock up on the sunscreen and enjoy some vacation time before fall rolls around.
Submitted for your approval are 10 anticipated training camp battles in the NFL that have caught our eye. We chose this bunch because we find them not only the most intriguing but the most pivotal as well. And it may take some time before any of these positions are filled.
Could others be listed? Yes, because this league thrives on competition. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments.
But here is one thing we can say with certainty: There will be a battle in the training camp of the Tennessee Titans...as in running back Jackie Battle.
And he isn’t exactly chopped meat.
Arizona Cardinals: Third Wide Receiver
We have now had the privilege of watching Larry Fitzgerald play wide receiver for the Arizona Cardinals for 10 seasons.
Time flies when he is hauling in 846 passes for 11,367 yards, while his 87 scoring receptions are tied for the 12th-highest total in NFL history.
This past season, 2012 first-round pick Michael Floyd proved his worth, totaling 65 catches for a team-high 1,041 yards and five touchdowns.
So why not add some blazing speed to a Cardinals’ team that scored only 250 points just two years ago (2012)?
Adam Green of ArizonaSports.com talks about the big-play additions to Bruce Arians’ team in the form of veteran free-agent wideout Ted Ginn Jr. and third-round wide receiver John Brown. Both give Arizona explosive potential when it comes to the passing game, as well as on special teams.
So who will emerge as the third option for veteran quarterback Carson Palmer this season? Either player’s ability to stretch the field will make Fitzgerald and Floyd, as well as new tight end John Carlson, even more dangerous.
It’s a nice “problem” to have and could make the Cardinals offense the real deal this season.
Chicago Bears: Safeties
When you finish 30th in the NFL in total defense and give up the most rushing yards in the league, there’s plenty of blame to go around. From injuries to inconsistency, 2013 proved to be a forgettable season for the Chicago Bears and their traditionally strong defense.
Wholesale changes have been and will be made. The arrival of veterans such as defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young, the presence of Jeremiah Ratliff and Stephen Paea and the drafting of defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton make for an interesting mix up front.
But what about the last line of defense? This past season, the inability to stop the run also resulted in the Bears giving up 25 touchdowns through the air despite ranking 15th in passing yards allowed.
Safety has been a hot topic of discussion in the Windy City this offseason. Patrick Finley of the Chicago Sun-Times speaks of the recent addition of veteran strong safety Adrian Wilson, who signed with the New England Patriots in 2013 after a stellar career with the Arizona Cardinals. He joins other offseason additions such as Ryan Mundy and M.D. Jennings in an attempt to shore up one-half of the starting tandem.
Meanwhile, incumbent free safety Chris Conte (as documented by Larry Mayer of ChicagoBears.com) is still on the mend following surgery in March, while fourth-round pick Brock Vereen is in the mix as well.
We’ll see how it all plays out...later than sooner.
Cincinnati Bengals: Left Outside Linebacker
Of the six teams that gave up the fewest yards in the league in 2013, the Cincinnati Bengals were the lone AFC team to make the list. The club ranked fifth in the NFL versus both the run and the pass—the only team in the league to rank in the top five in both categories.
But there will be a few changes this season. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer is now the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings, and the Bengals replaced him by promoting linebackers coach Paul Guenther.
Speaking of linebackers, the Bengals are short one after the decision to release left outside linebacker James Harrison this offseason. Now head coach Marvin Lewis and Guenther look for the next player to team with Pro Bowler Vontaze Burfict and Rey Maualuga.
At this time, it appears that Emmanuel Lamur is the front-runner. Just ask Geoff Hobson of Bengals.com:
As far as a guy who wasn’t around last year making a big impact, it’s got to be Lamur at SAM backer. He suffered a season-ending shoulder injury in the preseason finale and since he’s been back, teammates and coaches have just been raving about him. He keeps getting bigger (6-4, 243) and faster. He can be the Carlos Dunlap of the linebackers when it comes to making athletic, game-busting plays.
The former undrafted free agent from Kansas State played in nine regular-season games as a rookie in 2012 and started the team’s playoff contest that year. But he missed all of last season with a shoulder injury.
It appears that Lamur is back with a vengeance. Still, second-year Jayson DiManche doesn’t plan to go down without a fight, versatile Vincent Rey could figure in the mix, and the Bengals did draft Marquis Flowers in the sixth round in May.
And all that competition bodes well for a team that already has one of the deeper defensive units in the league.
Cleveland Browns: Quarterback
This has more the makings of a saga than a battle.
Johnny Manziel is the fourth quarterback drafted in the first round by the Browns since the city of Cleveland got the team back in 1999. The 22nd overall selection doesn’t exactly lack confidence.
For now, veteran Brian Hoyer is the anointed starter for head coach Mike Pettine’s club. The term "veteran" is a reminder that the well-traveled signal-caller has been in the league for five years with the New England Patriots, Arizona Cardinals and Browns. A closer look at the resume show that Hoyer has made just four career starts, going 3-0 for Cleveland this past season before going down.
Two weeks ago at minicamp, Pettine reiterated that Hoyer would be the starter when training camp opens in July, via Cleveland.com's Mary Kay Cabot. And that’s when the real fun is expected to begin. And the preseason performances of both Hoyer and Manziel will be picked over and probed on a daily basis.
We are not exactly breaking news here, but this is going to be a summer-long battle whether anyone insists it is or not.
Detroit Lions: Left Outside Linebacker
Do you get the impression that Detroit Lions outside linebacker Ashlee Palmer can feel someone breathing down his neck?
And that’s not because defensive coordinator Teryl Austin is expecting Palmer and rookie Kyle Van Noy to be stacked on the same side together.
Last season the five-year defender made a career-high 10 starts but produced just 33 tackles, recorded no sacks or interceptions and recovered one fumble. He knows that he will have to produce a lot more if he is to hold off the second-round pick from BYU.
“Van Noy, they brought him in as a linebacker, rush guy, whatever they want to bring him in as,” said Palmer to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press at minicamp two weeks ago. “He’s our teammate, he’s our brother. I’m going to help him, but all I can do is work, get better.”
With a linebacking corps that already includes standouts Stephen Tulloch and DeAndre Levy, expect a good battle for the third spot, with the winners being the Lions overall.
Houston Texans: Nose Tackle
The Houston Texans will open 2014 with a new head coach in Bill O’Brien...as well as a 14-game losing streak.
The franchise will also begin its 13th campaign in the league with a new defensive coordinator in well-traveled coach Romeo Crennel.
The one-time sideline leader of the Kansas City Chiefs brings his version of the 3-4 to the Lone Star State. This past season, the Texans were a very respectable seventh overall in total defense. But a closer look shows that the team was a mere 23rd versus the run and had a problem forcing turnovers, totaling a mere 11 takeaways in 16 games.
This offseason, the Texans signed defensive lineman Jerrell Powe, who toiled with Crennel with the Chiefs. But general manager also drafted Notre Dame’s Louis Nix III in the third round in May.
“I can tell he is a sharp guy and a guy with wits about him,” said Crennel about Nix to Deepi Sidhu of HoustonTexans.com two weeks ago. “His head is spinning as well. I think as soon as that knee gets well--he’s a big, strong, physical player and he has played the nose position, and so he knows how to play it--I think that will all bode well for him.”
It also bodes well for the Texans, who look to bounce back from a forgettable season.
Minnesota Vikings: Middle Linebacker
You were expecting quarterback?
That’s certainly a possibility when it comes to the Minnesota Vikings. First-round pick Teddy Bridgewater has caught the eye of new offensive coordinator Norv Turner, as explained by Brian Hall of Fox Sports North.
But it’s the middle linebacking spot on Mike Zimmer’s new-look defensive unit that appears to be up for grabs. This past season, Jasper Brinkley totaled 27 tackles. Now he returns to the Twin Cities.
The other candidates for the job are 2012 seventh-round pick Audie Cole and 2013 seventh-round selection Michael Mauti. The former totaled 45 tackles and a sack in his second NFL season. Sam Carlson of SI.com’s FanSided has the latest when it comes to this competition.
Minnesota’s defense needs all the help it can get after allowing the second-most total yards in the league and giving up an NFL-high 480 points.
Philadelphia Eagles: Cornerbacks
Yes, the Philadelphia Eagles finished dead last in the league in 2013 when it came to pass defense.
Teams flew past the Birds for an average of 289.8 yards per game through the air. And while Billy Davis’ unit managed a very respectable 19 interceptions, the Eagles also surrendered 25 touchdown passes.
Roughly 15 months ago, Philadelphia turned to free agency and added starting cornerbacks Bradley Fletcher and Cary Williams. According to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), the latter did not enjoy a great debut season in the City of Brotherly Love.
Jeff McLane of Philly.com says 2014 free-agent pick Nolan Carroll, late of the Miami Dolphins, has been impressive since joining the team. Is he a threat to either Fletcher or Williams in terms of a starting job? Where does Brandon Boykin fit in the picture in terms of an increased role?
San Francisco 49ers: Center
You could make a very strong case that the San Francisco 49ers have the best offensive line in the league.
Is it on the verge of getting better?
That might be tough. Veteran center Jonathan Goodwin, who had started every game the last three seasons, was not re-signed and wound up joining the New Orleans Saints. Enter Daniel Kilgore, a fifth-round pick in 2011 who has waited for his turn to grab a starter’s job.
However, in a theme that seemed to prevail throughout the entire draft, the Niners grabbed a player who perhaps they did not assume to be around when they picked.
In this case it proved to be Marcus Martin, a third-round pick from USC who rates as a strong prospect. According to Andrew Pentis of 49ers.com, the rookie figures to make the starting center job less than a snap for Kilgore to claim.
Seattle Seahawks: Right Tackle
While head coach Pete Carroll and his Seattle Seahawks enter 2014 as defending Super Bowl champions, they are a team with a few questions marks.
Then again, you can expect them to have the answers, which has been the case the last two years. Including a total of five postseason games, the Seahawks are a combined 28-9, and none of those defeats has been by more than seven points. All told, Carroll’s club is 22-4 since opening the 2012 season with a 6-5 mark.
This upcoming season, there will definitely be one change on the starting offensive line. The unit had its share of issues in 2013, due mainly to injuries that sidelined tackles Russell Okung (eight) and Breno Giacomini (seven) and center Max Unger (three) for a combined 18 regular-season contests.
Then-rookie Michael Bowie stepped in Giacomini’s spot for those seven games. The seventh-round pick from 2013 also saw action at left tackle and started at both right and left guard during the regular season (Week 16) and playoffs (versus the New Orleans Saints).
But enter 2014 second-round pick Justin Britt, whom offensive line coach Tom Cable (via Clare Farnsworth of Seahawks.com) praised last month. The University of Missouri product intends on giving Bowie a run for his money in terms of that right tackle job.
It can only mean good things for the Seahawks if the 6'6", 325-pound rookie prevails. It would give Carroll a starter with terrific potential, as well as a swingman in Bowie who has already seen action at four of the five offensive line spots.
A little stability on Seattle’s offensive line this season wouldn’t hurt.