Training Camp Battles: Rookies, vets expected to go head-to-head
Now that we know who's playing where in the wake of the NFL draft, it's time to start focusing on who's playing where, as in the positional battles to watch once training camps open. Here are 12 depth-chart competitions that I'll be keeping an eye on this summer:
1. N.Y. Jets outside linebacker, Vernon Gholston vs. Bryan Thomas -- After his nine-sack season in 2006 earned him a fat new contract, Thomas, a former first-round pick himself in 2002, regressed last year, totaling just 2½ sacks with almost zero big-play impact from his weakside position. Enter Gholston, the No. 6 overall pick, who will be starting at some point opposite newly signed strongside linebacker Calvin Pace, one of New York's big offseason additions. The Jets may work Gholston in as a situational pass rusher at first to get him acclimated to playing linebacker in their 3-4 defense (he was a defensive end at Ohio State), but New York needs him to develop into a three-down performer by 2009 at the latest.
2. Detroit running back, Kevin Smith vs. Tatum Bell -- Smith led the nation in rushing last year at Central Florida and the third-round pick couldn't have landed in a better NFL destination than Detroit in terms of first-year opportunity. The Lions rushed for less than 1,300 yards as a team in 2007, and let their top two runners -- Kevin Jones and T.J. Duckett -- leave in February. The Lions talked Bell into returning for a second season once they jettisoned offensive coordinator Mike Martz, but the ex-Bronco has yet to prove he's tough enough to make it through a year without being injured. The Lions will likely find playing time for both runners, but look for Smith to emerge as Detroit's lead back by October.
3. Oakland running back, Darren McFadden vs. Justin Fargas and Michael Bush -- The Raiders are already working on the over-crowding at running back, having released Dominic Rhodes just after taking McFadden fourth overall in the draft. Any minute now, LaMont Jordan and his $4.7 million salary in 2008 should be the next to go. That'll leave Fargas and Bush competing with the ex-Razorback.
Fargas posted a surprising 1,000-yard season last year, but now look for him to get no more than 10 carries per game, usually in specialized situations like the two-minute drill or short-yardage or goal-line formations. Bush could prove tougher for McFadden to climb over. He missed his NFL rookie season in the wake of the broken leg he suffered as a Louisville senior, but the Raiders are quite high on him and want to find a role for him this year. It'll still be McFadden's job early, but it won't be a coronation.
4. Miami quarterback, Chad Henne vs. John Beck and Josh McCown -- Henne has always been a fast learner and most observers believe he'll be the Dolphins' guy before Halloween rolls around. Miami's second-round pick started his first game as a true freshman at Michigan and won't find the NFL stage too big for him. That said, the veteran McCown, playing for his fourth team, probably will run the offense better than anyone in the preseason and earn the opening day starting job. As for Beck, Miami's second-round pick in 2007, Bill Parcells is said to have early respect for him and his work ethic, meaning he'll be given a legitimate chance to compete for the No. 1 position.
5. Carolina outside linebacker, Dan Connor vs. Landon Johnson -- The Panthers really didn't have a need at weakside linebacker when they chose Connor in the middle of the third round, 74th overall. But he was too highly rated to pass on, having been projected by some analysts to go either low in the first or early in the second round.
In March, the Panthers signed four-year starter Landon Johnson away from Cincinnati, giving him a three-year deal worth $10 million, including $3 million to sign. He was their upgrade on the weakside, where Na'il Diggs has started with modest results the past two seasons.
Johnson will likely fend off Connor's challenge to his playing time in the immediate future, but the presence of the ex-Penn State star gives Carolina the possibility of starting a very young and promising linebacking corps with Thomas Davis on the strongside and Jon Beason in the middle.