NFL Position Battles That Won't Be Decided Until the End of Training Camp
Football fans, we've made it. The calendar has officially turned to July, and while that means we'll soon be stuffing our faces and setting off fireworks in honor of America, it more importantly signals that NFL training camps will soon commence. To celebrate this soon-to-be wonderful time of year, it's time to examine position battles that won't be decided until the end of camp.
Every season, players vie for starting jobs in camp. It's a significantly different animal than OTAs, which are conducted in pads and shorts. Training camp represents real football—the kind with pads, hitting and intimidation, and it's where the cream rises to the top.
The most high-profile battles set to take place at this year's camps are absolute doozies. They feature three rookie signal-callers attempting to usurp veterans, three major clashes at running back, a second-year passer taking on a well-known backup and the Dallas Cowboys throwing middle linebackers at the wall to see which one sticks.
In this column, we'll tell you the participants and who is most likely to emerge victorious and start in Week 1.
Here are the NFL position battles that won't be decided until the end of training camp.
NY Jets Quarterback
One of the most uninspiring quarterback battles in recent memory is set to begin later this month at New York Jets camp in Florham Park, New Jersey, as second-year starter Geno Smith aims to hold off veteran Michael Vick.
Smith is coming off a neophyte campaign in which he threw only 12 touchdown passes against 21 interceptions, albeit doing so in leading the team to an 8-8 record. Those are hardly impressive numbers, even for a greenhorn.
And while Vick recently claimed that he "revolutionized the game" with his running style, per Rich Cimini of ESPN New York, he would be well-served to check out YouTube clips of former quarterbacks like Steve Young and Randall Cunningham. Vick's assertions have as much veracity as when your buddy drunkenly claimed to hook up with Rihanna.
One thing that whoever wins the starting job has to look forward to is a significantly better supporting cast than the Jets fielded in 2013. Receiver Eric Decker and running back Chris Johnson were signed in free agency, while tight end Jace Amaro was added in the second round of May's draft. If Smith holds on and is named the starter, we'll get a chance to see what he's capable of with legitimate weapons around him.
As of now, it appears that Smith has the leg up, with offensive coordinator Marty Mornhinweg telling Dom Cosentino of The Star-Ledger, "Geno will get about—he has gotten—let's say 70 to 75 percent of the reps with the [first team]. I'll get him a couple reps with the second group as well."
Morhinweg's quotes indicate that the job is Smith's to lose, which makes sense. Even though Smith wasn't great as a rookie, he does have upside, and Vick is a 34-year-old, injury-prone option.
The only way that Vick wins the job is if Smith falls completely on his face. While it's possible that happens, it's not likely. Expect Smith to officially be named the starter before the team's third preseason game.
Miami Dolphins Running Back
When the Miami Dolphins signed former Broncos running back Knowshon Moreno during the free-agent period, it appeared that coach Joe Philbin's team had a new starter at the position.
After all, Moreno is coming off a splendid season in Denver, having scored 13 total touchdowns while rushing for over 1,000 yards and catching 60 passes.
Conversely, last year's starter in South Beach, Lamar Miller, had an extremely disappointing 2013 campaign, only rushing for 709 yards and two touchdowns.
But Miller has refused to relinquish the job throughout OTAs and played ahead of Moreno throughout minicamps. Miller recently told Omar Kelly of the Sun Sentinel, "I’ve been competing my whole life. Whether it was at the University of Miami or in the NFL. [Competition] bring the best out of all players. … I want to get better as a player too, so I’m up to the competition.”
Compounding the issue of Miller playing well is Moreno's health status, as a lingering knee problem forced him to recently undergo arthroscopic knee surgery, which will sideline him for another three weeks.
While the tea leaves certainly point to Miller starting in Week 1, caution must be advised when it comes to this impending camp battle. Moreno was signed for a reason, and if healthy, he projects to be a monster in coordinator Bill Lazor's offense. If Moreno can come back strong and play himself into shape, expect him to be named the starter, with both men seeing time throughout the season.
Cleveland Browns Quarterback
The training camp battle that's a lock to receive the most national attention will take place in Cleveland, as incumbent Brian Hoyer and rookie Johnny Manziel lock horns for the right to become the Browns' Week 1 starter.
Up until this point, the Browns have pumped up Hoyer at every turn, with head coach Mike Pettine recently telling Lindsay H. Jones of USA Today: "Brian is securely ahead of (Manziel) right now. But we will compete, and we'll decide. The issue for us as a staff will be finding the right time to name a starter. If you wait too late, then no one is ready for the opener. If you do it too soon, was it a true competition?"
Add that to the report that the Browns are looking to sign Hoyer to an extension, per ESPN's Adam Schefter, and it appears that he will be the guy.
That is, until logic and reason enter the equation.
The bottom line is this: The Browns didn't trade up the first round to select Manziel so he could sit on the bench. Hoyer is a journeyman who has thrown 192 passes over five seasons for three different teams. Yes, he played well last season before tearing his ACL, but we're not talking about the second coming of Bernie Kosar.
Manziel has more talent and more upside and has the added benefit of being the clear-cut choice of the fans, which matters in Cleveland, where citizens haven't seen a championship in football since Lyndon B. Johnson was in the Oval Office (1964).
Don't believe the Hoyer hype. It would be a colossal upset if Manziel weren't under center in Week 1.
Minnesota Vikings Quarterback
Last season, the Minnesota Vikings trotted out the quarterbacking pu pu platter of Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman.
In a related story, the team went 5-10-1 and finished in last place in the NFC North.
Freeman is now gone, and Ponder has proved to be a bust in his three seasons in the Twin Cities. Cassel was re-signed, but he's hardly an inspiring option, as he owns a career record of 32-36.
Enter rookie passer Teddy Bridgewater, whom the team traded back into the first round for to select at No. 32 overall. He has impressed throughout OTAs.
One of the things that has been the most impressive to me is, I knew (Teddy would be) be very accurate, I knew he'd make great decisions, quick decisions, but he's been outstanding throwing the ball deep, which some people thought that was going to be an issue. I think in the six or eight weeks we've had him on the field, I think he's been put in a position where he's had to make most of the throws he would have to make and I think he can make all the throws he needs to make.
Speaking after the drafting of his rookie quarterback, Vikings coach Mike Zimmer told Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune that Bridgewater "will play when we feel like he’s ready, if he’s the best guy, which we hope that he will be. We always want to have competition."
The writing is clearly on the wall for Cassel. If Bridgewater plays halfway decent in training camp and the preseason, he'll be the team's Week 1 starter.
St. Louis Rams Running Back
Last season, St. Louis Rams running back Zac Stacy was a rookie revelation, rushing for 973 yards and seven touchdowns. He accrued more than 25 carries in a single game five separate times and evolved into the focal point of the club's offense when quarterback Sam Bradford tore his ACL at midseason.
But the Rams wanted to add competition at the position and did so by selecting running back Tre Mason in the third round of May's draft. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller touted Mason as the Rams' top back, and now it appears that Mason could usurp Stacy and become the team's starting running back.
Consider this quote from Rams offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, who told Nick Wagoner of ESPN.com:
Well right now, competition is for who's the starter. We're just going to let them all roll and see what happens. You saw some guys that worked with the young guys today. Zac (Stacy is) obviously a really, really good player, but we're going to create competition for all the guys. That's a long way off, but we know we have a good stable group of backs, and they all have different skill sets, which we'll try to use throughout the course of the year.
Despite sparkling as a neophyte, Stacy will have to hold off Mason in training camp to keep his job. The smart money is on Stacy retaining the role, but Mason could easily come on and steal carries from the second-year back.
Oakland Raiders Quarterback
When the Oakland Raiders traded for former Texans quarterback Matt Schaub and lavished him with a two-year, $13.5 million contract, it seemed all but certain that he would be the team's starter this season.
That opinion didn't change when the Raiders tabbed quarterback Derek Carr with their second-round pick in May's draft. Schaub was brought in to be "The Guy," and Carr would surely be relegated to clipboard-holding status in his neophyte campaign.
But a funny thing happened as OTAs progressed: Carr looked like the better of the two quarterbacks. Or perhaps that was the logical outcome, as Schaub is a 33-year-old passer coming off an atrocious season, and Carr was a highly regarded prospect in this year's draft.
A few weeks ago on NFL Network's Total Access, NFL.com's Albert Breer reported that Carr has given the Raiders coaching staff reason to believe he could potentially play and/or start this season.
And after a recent OTA practice, Raiders offensive coordinator Greg Olson lavished Carr with praise to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle.
Olson said: "I really, really like (Carr). Everybody knew he was accurate, but he is more accurate than we thought. … We’ll have to wait and see how he does against a live rush, but so far his intelligence, accuracy and quickness in getting the ball out has been excellent."
And even though coach Dennis Allen told Paul Gutierrez of ESPN.com that he expects Carr to enter training camp as the backup, that's merely a formality. This will be a legitimate competition for the starting job.
Because of his veteran status and contract, Schaub would have to perform very poorly to lose the job. But the most likely scenario is that Carr ends up starting at some point this season.
Dallas Cowboys Middle Linebacker
The Dallas Cowboys' worst nightmares were realized on the very first day of OTAs, as star linebacker Sean Lee tore his ACL and was ruled out for the entire 2014 season.
It was a gargantuan blow for a defense that finished dead-last in the league in 2013, and now the team is scrambling to replace Lee at middle linebacker.
Before this week, the candidates included veteran Justin Durant, second-year player DeVonte Holloman and rookie Anthony Hitchens (fourth-round pick).
But this past Tuesday, the Cowboys traded for Ravens linebacker Rolando McClain, the erstwhile eighth overall pick of the 2010 draft by the Raiders.
For any Cowboys fan who is actually excited by the addition of McClain: Slow your roll. If McClain is the answer, I'd love to know the question. Actually, I do know the question: Which Cowboys middle linebacker candidate is most likely to be cut before the season begins?
Since entering the league, McClain has been a colossal bust and has run into trouble off the field. The Cowboys simply cannot depend on him to contribute. He's a major roll of the dice, and the team is unlikely to come up aces with his addition.
Durant and Hitchens remain the most likely candidates to start in place of Lee in Week 1.
Oakland Raiders Running Back
The second Oakland Raiders-centric training camp battle in this column features two aging running backs in Darren McFadden, 26, and Maurice Jones-Drew, 29.
And unlike every other competition listed, it's impossible to currently forecast a winner between the two rushers.
In six years in Oakland, McFadden has never once played a full 16 games in a season, and he missed six contests last year. To call him injury prone would be like calling Luis Suarez volatile.
Last year in Jacksonville, the wheels completely fell off for Jones-Drew, as he averaged a meager 3.4 yards per carry. His season went so badly that he recently told Sam Farmer of the Los Angeles Times that he contemplated retirement.
While one man will obviously emerge as the starter, expect both men to receive a ton of playing time as the Raiders hope and pray for a successful running back-by-committee strategy.
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