Training camp battles (cont.)
6. Washington third receiver, Devin Thomas vs. Malcolm Kelly -- Looking to get bigger at receiver, the Redskins weren't content to take a tall rookie pass-catcher in the second round. Instead, they selected two. Kind of like the way they added both Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El in free agency in 2006, even though both receivers were of similar slight build.
With Santana Moss and Randle El still on hand, Thomas (the 34th pick out of Michigan State) and Kelly (the 51st selection out of Oklahoma) will square off this preseason for the rights to the third-receiver role. The good news is there's plenty of three-receiver sets in the version of the West Coast offense new head coach Jim Zorn brings with him from Seattle, so there should be enough work for all four players involved. Based on his breakthrough junior season in 2007, Thomas is expected to have the early edge in his one-on-one duel with Kelly.
7. Giants safety, Kenny Phillips vs. Sammy Knight -- Having lost starting free safety Gibril Wilson in free agency to Oakland in March, New York bought itself some insurance by signing Knight to a three-year, $5.1 million deal as a free agent. But this makes four teams in five seasons for the 12th-year veteran (Miami, Kansas City, Jacksonville and the Giants), and you don't get to be that well-traveled in the NFL without a good reason. Knight's speed, never his strong suit, is now an oxymoron. But he'll likely still be in the lineup early because the Giants prefer to bring their rookies along slowly, the way it took until late in the season last year for first-round cornerback Aaron Ross to start making an impact. Phillips should be more of a factor, and Knight less, as the season unfolds.
8. N.Y. Jets tight end, Dustin Keller vs. Chris Baker -- Draft weekend didn't make for happy viewing for Baker, who already was chafing about his contract and being underappreciated, even before New York traded back into the bottom of the first round to select Keller, the Purdue standout. Baker is upset that despite being the Jets starter, he's making almost a $1 million less this season than his new backup, Bubba Franks. As a first-round pick, Keller too will pass him on the team's salary chart.
Having learned their lesson from the Pete Kendall showdown last year, the Jets believe Keller gives them leverage in Baker's contract situation. New York doesn't want to trade Baker, because he's the team's best blocking tight end. But Keller is the pass-catching option, and his role will overshadow Baker's early on in Brian Schottenheimer's offense.
9. Pittsburgh third receiver, Limas Sweed vs. Nate Washington -- The Steelers took Sweed in the second round, 53rd overall, and he walks in the door as the obvious candidate to push Washington for the third-receiver role behind starters Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. At the very least, Pittsburgh found a very talented replacement for Cedrick Wilson, the veteran receiver who was released this spring after being involved in a domestic violence incident.
The Steelers consider Washington a fairly crucial part of their receiving corps and that's why they tendered him at a first-round level ($1.417 million) before re-signing him as a restricted free agent this year. But Sweed is the big, tall receiver (nearly 6-4) that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger requested this offseason, so look for Big Ben to prioritize getting him the ball.
10. Seattle defensive end, Lawrence Jackson vs. Darryl Tapp -- The Seahawks were thought to be in the market for a first-round defensive tackle in the draft, but they couldn't pass on the chance to select Jackson, one of the most proven pass-rushers available. The ex-USC star will compete with Tapp for the starting right end position, even though Tapp's seven sacks in 2007 were third on the team behind left end Patrick Kerney's 14½ and outside linebacker Julian Peterson's 9½. One possibility is to shift Tapp inside to tackle, or perhaps to have the 6-5, 268-pound Jackson start the season playing in a three-man end rotation.
11. Arizona cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie vs. Eric Green and Rod Hood -- Arizona's projected starters at cornerback are Green and Hood, but the team's first-round pick could change that with a strong preseason. Rodgers-Cromartie has prototypical NFL cornerback size (6-2, 182) and speed (4.29), and the Cardinals love his ability to get his hands on the ball in coverage. Green missed the last five games of 2007 and is entering the final season of his four-year rookie contract. He didn't have an interception last season, although his 12 passes defensed ranked second to Hood's 21. Hood picked off five passes and started every game at left cornerback.
12. San Francisco nose tackle, Kentwan Balmer vs. Aubrayo Franklin -- It's a difficult assignment to ask any rookie to handle the nose tackle role in a 3-4 defense. That's why Balmer might end up replacing the retired Bryant Young at right defensive end more than he truly pushes Franklin for the man in the middle slot. Balmer was a 4-3 defensive tackle at North Carolina and doesn't have much experience at nose, so his rookie season could be a case of using him where he can best contribute. Right now that's as a 3-4 defensive end, and not subjecting him to the double-team blocks that a nose tackle absorbs on almost every play.