Ten positional battles worth tracking during training camp
Though most starting positions are set, some are determined in training camp
Contrary to popular belief, the Jets' QB battle is second to its receiver competition
The best competition will be between 49ers QBs Shaun Hill and Alex Smith
The traditional training camp battles for starting positions and roster spots aren't nearly what they used to be. The modern era of free-agency and salary cap prudence necessitates that franchises have a pretty good feel for which players are going to be on their team and in the starting lineup. One coach I spoke with recently estimated that more than 90 percent of the positions on the final 53-man roster and more than 95 percent of the starting roles are pretty much determined before the pads even start to pop in training camp.
But training camp performances are still necessary to determine some starting spots, as well as the third cornerback and wide receiver roles, which are so critical anymore that they're generally considered starting positions. Here are 10 position battles worth monitoring this summer, led by some skill-position competitions that could likely determine the fate of three franchises.
San Francisco 49ers: Quarterback
The battle between Shaun Hill and Alex Smith is the purest competition of them all at the game's most important position. Sorry Jets and Lions, but I don't buy that Mark Sanchez and Matthew Stafford will have to fight to start their teams' openers. Theirs is not a competition.
There are reports out of San Francisco that the 49ers' brass hopes Smith wins the job. In case you were wondering, yes, that is exactly how the NFL works. Just because a team has players competing for a job doesn't mean it doesn't still have a preference. But I think Smith has his work cut out for him, even though he clearly is the more physically gifted player. All Hill has done for Mike Singletary is win when given the opportunity, and win over his teammates with his toughness and work ethic. I don't see how the Niners can start anyone other than Hill in the opener unless there is a major disparity in their production this August.
New York Jets: Wide Receivers
The real competition for the Jets isn't between those throwing the passes, but rather who will be receiving them. It still wouldn't surprise me to see the Jets bring in a solid veteran, like Amani Toomer. An inexperienced quarterback plus inexperienced wide receivers rarely equals success in the NFL. The only known commodity is Jerricho Cotchery, but he has never had to be the leader of the group.
Two of the young guys competing for playing time, Chansi Stuckey and Wallace Wright, told me recently on Sirius NFL Radio that everybody is a nobody until they are given a chance to be a somebody. I agree fellas, but you are getting your chance right now. Stuckey and Wright are joined by fellow talented youngsters Brad Smith and David Clowney, giving Sanchez an athletic group that has longevity. The Jets are hoping the top two of those four will be viable threats who can produce, especially since defenses will be focused on tight end Dustin Keller and all-purpose back Leon Washington, in addition to Cotchery.
Tennessee Titans: Defensive Tackle
Talk about big shoes to fill, literally and figuratively. Albert Haynesworth was the most dominant interior force in the league the past two seasons, but now that he's in Washington, the Titans need some young players to step in and fill his void. They will likely take a committee approach to the position opposite Tony Brown. Second-year player Jason Jones could get the starting nod, but he'll be pushed by former Buc Jovan Haye and this year's second-round pick, Sen'Derrick Marks.
Green Bay Packers: Outside Linebacker
This job was supposed to belong to first-round pick Clay Matthews, but his hamstring injury during organized team activities significantly hurt his candidacy. The Packers have no shortage of combatants for the outside linebacker position opposite Aaron Kampman, including Brady Poppinga, Brandon Chillar and raw-but-talented Jeremy Thompson.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Right Guard
Although the Steelers' offensive line was criticized throughout the 2008 season, this is really the only spot up for grabs. Incumbent Darnell Stapleton played just well enough to allow the Steelers to win the Super Bowl, but he will be challenged by third-round pick Kraig Urbik. The rookie is just what you would expect from a Wisconsin offensive lineman: He's big, strong and tough. Stapleton has the edge because of his experience, but Urbik was drafted for a reason and could claim the spot with a solid preseason.
New York Giants: Wide Receivers
Plaxico Burress' late-November shooting left two big holes: one in his leg and one in the Giants' receiving corps. Steve Smith stepped up in his absence, but it wasn't nearly enough as the G-Men faltered down the stretch. Much like Cotchery for the other New York team, Smith will have to prove he can produce consistently when teams are keying on him.
Aside from Smith, the Giants have a bunch of young guys competing for playing time, which makes their situation eerily similar to the Jets. The biggest difference is that the Giants invested heavily in the wide-receiver position in this year's draft. The hope is that first-round pick Hakeem Nicks can become a major factor at some point during his rookie year, leaving any contribution from third-round pick Ramses Barden a bonus. Mario Manningham and Domenik Hixon will also need to make the most of their opportunities if the Giants hope to have the No. 1 seed heading into the NFC playoffs this season.
Indianapolis Colts: Wide Receiver
The starters are set with Reggie Wayne and Anthony Gonzalez, but the Colts have always had a No. 3 receiver who could be extremely productive in their system. BYU standout Austin Collie was drafted in the fourth round with that very thought in mind. Veterans Pierre Garcon and Roy Hall, both Bill Polian draft choices, won't allow Collie to just step into that position without a fight.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Offensive Tackles
That's right -- not one but both offensive tackle positions are up for grabs in Jacksonville. Rookies Eugene Monroe and Eben Britton will attempt to force their way onto the field ahead of grisly veterans Tra Thomas and Tony Pashos. And though Monroe and Britton are poised to be good players in the league, their selections were curious for a team that wants to win right now because it's questionable how much of an upgrade they can be in a year (if at all) over Thomas and Pashos. The upside is that no matter who wins the starting jobs out of camp, the Jags should have much better depth than they did last year, when their season was torpedoed by injuries across the offensive line.
Dallas Cowboys: Cornerback
Mike Jenkins is last year's first-round pick, but many feel he was out-played as a rookie by fellow youngster Orlando Scandrick. Those two will go toe-to-toe all camp with the winner earning the starting job and the loser receiving the consolation prize of being the nickel corner. If it is close, Jenkins will get the nod because of his draft status and the amount of money the organization has invested in him.
Washington Redskins: Right Tackle
Long-time right tackle Jon Jansen is now a Detroit Lion, which means the spot he manned for most of the last 10 years is now up for grabs. Stephon Heyer has the inside track because of the playing time he has received under the tutelage of offensive line coach Joe Bugel the last two years, but the Skins brought in competition with veteran Jeremy Bridges and career-reclamation project Mike Williams. Whoever wins the job will need to mesh well with a veteran foursome that has spent a significant amount of time together over the last five years.
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