Plenty of position battles to keep an eye on as minicamps progress
The Pats, 49ers both had WR needs and loaded up at that position this offseason
Locking onto Brandon Weeden could lead to bad history repeating in Cleveland
Tarvaris Jackson, Russell Wilson aren't options to start despite what Seattle says
With the draft and free agency having reordered depth charts around the league, it's time to take stock of the positional battles that will be worth watching unfold once training camps open. Here are 10 intriguing depth-chart competitions that warrant our attention this summer:
The Patriots receiving logjam -- They say there's power in numbers, but this is getting ridiculous. Even should designated franchise player Wes Welker remain unsigned and stay away from the team's June minicamp, I'm pretty sure New England will have more than enough pass-catchers to conduct practices.
Last week the Patriots added old friend Jabar Gaffney to the mob at wideout, where he'll compete for a roster spot with the likes of fellow free-agent signings Brandon Lloyd, Donte' Stallworth and Anthony Gonzalez, in addition to returnees Deion Branch, Matthew Slater, Julian Edelman, Chad Ochocinco (or is it Johnson again?), and Welker. Throw in seventh-round pick Jeremy Ebert of Northwestern and you have a 10-man camp receiving contingent that's going to ensure a few very familiar names show up on the cut list come early September.
And I seem to remember New England likes to get the ball to its tight ends once in a while, too. Joseph Addai signing or not, it shapes up as a pass-happy preseason in Foxboro.
Baltimore's Terrell Suggs vacancy -- Opportunity comes knocking at times of desperation in the NFL, and every once in a while there's a Victor Cruz-like story waiting to emerge. Who will pick up the slack in the Ravens' pass rush after Baltimore lost Suggs, the reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year, for at least half the season due to an Achilles' tear? Rookie second-round pick Courtney Upshaw is in the best position to man the right outside linebacker-defensive end slot that Suggs has owned for so long, but the Ravens do have other options.
Veteran Paul Kruger (5.5 sacks in 2011) was expected to battle Upshaw for the left outside linebacker spot that departed free agent Jarrett Johnson vacated, but then Suggs changed those plans. Now Kruger and Pernell McPhee (6 sacks as a 2011 rookie) will vie for that job, while Upshaw deals with a swift learning curve on the right side. And don't forget about third-year veteran Sergio Kindle, the second-round pick in 2010 who has really never gotten his NFL career started after fracturing his skull in a fall down two flights of stairs just before his first training camp. If he's ever going to be a factor for Baltimore's defense, now's his chance to get on the field and push Upshaw for playing time.
Brandon Weeden vs. Colt McCoy, Cleveland starting quarterback -- If the Browns really do intend to keep McCoy around as Weeden's backup and nominal camp competition, and I'm not convinced they will, they had best do so with their eyes wide open regarding the possible unintended consequences of the move. We all know Weeden's going to get a shot at the No. 1 job sooner than later. Cleveland's not going to bench a guy who's already 28 years old -- after taking him 22nd overall in the first round -- in favor of a 2010 third-round pick who has looked mediocre at best.
But if Weeden should start slowly in the preseason, while McCoy looks sharp, Cleveland could wind up having a repeat of the messy Brady Quinn-Derek Anderson conundrum of 2007-08 on its hands. The Browns took Quinn in the first round in 2007, but it was Anderson who emerged that season, leading Cleveland to 10 wins and earning a Pro Bowl berth.
It was all well and good, except that it muddled the future for the Browns, who signed Anderson to a contract extension in 2008 and never developed Quinn. In short order, both Browns quarterbacks were toast, which led to the drafting of McCoy in 2010 and Weeden this year. Cleveland does not want to be doomed to repeat that history.
49ers rookie receiver A.J. Jenkins vs. San Francisco's receiver depth chart -- No team finished the 2011 season with more of a crying need at receiver than the 49ers, who still somehow came within a play of reaching the Super Bowl in head coach Jim Harbaugh's rookie season. But the position suddenly has been transformed into one of the deepest on San Francisco's roster, and that leaves Jenkins, the team's somewhat surprising first-round pick, facing a crowd of competition in his quest to produce rookie-season impact.
Michael Crabtree has been joined by veterans Randy Moss and Mario Manningham, and those two high-profile additions figure to round out the 49ers' busiest three receiving targets. San Francisco also re-signed Ted Ginn Jr., and will have Kyle Williams, Brett Swain and undrafted rookie Chris Owusu of Stanford in camp and pushing for a job. It's the kind of problem you want to have, but the 49ers now have too many good options for quarterback Alex Smith to consider.
Russell Wilson vs. Tarvaris Jackson, Seattle's backup quarterback -- My way of thinking, if the Seahawks were happy with what they got out Jackson as their starter for 14 games last season, they wouldn't have signed Matt Flynn in free agency or drafted Wilson in the third round. So I'm not buying it's a three-man quarterback competition in Seattle. It's last year's starter against this year's rookie to see who earns the No. 2 job, behind Flynn.
Jackson has seen this movie before, in Minnesota, and he knows the advantage always goes with the new option, because there's no taint or stain of defeat on the quarterback who just walked through the door. The sense is that Pete Carroll and Co. are intrigued with Wilson's skill set and will find ways to get him on the field, perhaps even using him in a Wildcat role. Jackson clearly enters with the edge in experience, and his knowledge of the offense should give him a healthy advantage. But if Wilson proves himself a quick study, don't be surprised if he's only relegated to the team's No. 3 quarterback role for a little while this season.
Dre' Kirkpatrick vs. Nate Clements, Bengals cornerbacks -- Cincinnati got far more from Clements than it had the right to expect last year after losing Jonathan Joseph to Houston in free agency, and Bengals defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer loves the veteran leadership factor he brings to the position. But with the drafting of Alabama's Kirkpatrick in the first round, Clements might be vulnerable to losing not only his starting left cornerback job, but also his roster spot as well.
The reality is this: If Leon Hall has recovered from his Achilles' injury and is ready to resume his starting role at right corner -- still an iffy proposition at this point -- Clements might get squeezed out. Repeat, might. The Bengals signed veteran cornerbacks Terence Newman, Adam Jones and Jason Allen this offseason, and Kirkpatrick's arrival creates a solid six-man contingent. In that scenario, Clements' $5.5 million cap number could put him in jeopardy, although Cincinnati doesn't need the cap room and would be wise to keep Clements around until it knows for certain if Hall is fully recovered.
Ryan Broyles vs. Titus Young, Lions third receiver -- There were plenty of eyebrows raised outside of the Detroit war room when the Lions selected Broyles in the second round, seemingly ahead of needs at cornerback and interior offensive line. After undergoing a torn ACL last November, Broyles figures to be a question mark heading into training camp. But the Oklahoma receiver was wildly productive in college (an NCAA-record 349 receptions), and he's being groomed as the team's eventual starter at slot receiver, ahead of Nate Burleson.
It could be that's where Broyles might end up making his impact as a rookie, pushing Burleson for playing time in the slot. Drafted out of Boise State in the second round last year, Young played a reported 63 percent of Detroit's snaps as its No. 3 receiver, faring well with 48 catches for 607 yards and six touchdowns as a rookie. But Young lines up outside, opposite of Calvin Johnson, and Broyles is more likely to steal snaps from the almost 31-year-old Burleson this season than a younger, faster downfield threat like Young.
Justin Tucker vs. Billy Cundiff, Baltimore kicker -- No kicker -- or player, for that matter -- in the NFL had a more devastating ending to his 2011 season than Cundiff, the Ravens veteran who badly shanked a potential game-tying 32-yard field goal attempt with 11 seconds left in Baltimore's 23-20 AFC title game loss at New England. So, competition for Cundiff in 2012? Yeah, I think so. Especially since Cundiff missed 10 field goals a year ago, all on the road.
Tucker, a collegiate free agent from the University of Texas, is the guy who gets the first crack at Cundiff's job. Tucker turned down contract offers from the Bears and Cowboys to take the Ravens' deal, because he likes the idea of kicking for a former NFL special teams coach in John Harbaugh, and he knows the roster situation is ripe for the taking in Baltimore. Cundiff was forced to rush some on his field goal failure in Foxboro, but a 32-yarder has to be made in that situation in the NFL, and he may never really recover the confidence of the decision-makers or the fans in Baltimore.
Lamar Miller vs. Miami running back depth chart -- The Dolphins traded up in the fourth round to take the University of Miami rusher with the second pick of the draft's third day, and they're determined to find ways to use his 4.4 speed in as many ways as possible. To start off, he'll likely return kickoffs and be on the field in Miami's third-down package, perhaps even split wide in a receiving formation. Anything to get him the ball in the open field and let his wheels work.
The Dolphins need more explosion on offense, because while Reggie Bush was a lead-back revelation of sorts in his first season in Miami, 2011 second-round pick Daniel Thomas had an uneven rookie season, running for fewer than 600 yards and no rushing touchdowns. He didn't run with the power the Dolphins wanted from him, and at times he looked overwhelmed. Miller's versatility has Miami intrigued. If he can prove that a left shoulder injury requiring offseason surgery is completely healed, the Dolphins and new head coach Joe Philbin may have a new toy to play with on offense.
LaMichael James vs. Kendall Hunter, 49ers third-down running back -- Receiver isn't the only rung on the 49ers depth chart that has more viable roster candidates than slots available. San Francisco has itself some decisions to make in the backfield as well, after drafting Oregon scat-back LaMichael James in the second round. On the surface it was a puzzling pick, because James and second-year back Kendall Hunter (fourth round in 2011) basically offer the same kind of change-of-pace running style when compared to lead back Frank Gore.
James can be expected to take reps from Hunter, because head coach Jim Harbaugh loves the matchup problems he presents and knows his abilities well from competing against him at Stanford in the Pac-10. In addition to Gore's carries likely being slightly reduced with James around, the 49ers added Brandon Jacobs and his power running style in free agency, and also picked up special teams cog Rock Cartwright, who plays running back. Throw in goal-line running back Anthony Dixon and San Francisco is stacked with rushers.
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