- Matt Williamson, ESPN.com
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An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:
Linebacker: Lofa Tatupu versus Akeem Dent
Curtis Lofton signed with New Orleans, leaving a big hole at middle linebacker. In Lofton’s absence, Atlanta signed Tatupu, who is presently atop the depth chart over Dent, the Falcons’ third-round pick in 2011.
I contend the Falcons saw Lofton’s departure coming when they made the selection of Dent with the intentions of him taking over in his second season. Dent appeared in every game as a rookie but rarely saw the field on defense, although he was a solid special-teamer. When we last saw Tatupu, it looked like he was carrying a piano on his back on the field. Maybe he is healthier now than then and is moving better, but I think it is safe to say Tatupu's name brand value is much higher than his true value. Dent should eventually win out here.
Linebacker: Thomas Davis versus James Anderson
After using the No. 9 pick on Boston College’s Luke Kuechly, it is pretty safe to say the rookie is going to be a starter in Carolina from the get-go. Like stalwart Jon Beason, Kuechly probably can play any of the three starting linebacker spots in the Panthers’ base 4-3 scheme, but he is at his best in the middle.
To ease the rookie’s transition to the NFL, keeping Kuechly at middle linebacker probably makes the most sense when it is all said and done. He just might be the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year in the middle. If healthy, Beason will start at one of the outside positions and should wear the communication headset in his helmet as an every-down contributor. He, too, is a great player and very versatile.
The issue is with Anderson, a solid and steady linebacker who rarely gets the national credit he deserves, and Davis, who truly has great qualities but has a brutal injury history. If Davis isn’t Davis, this situation is easy: Anderson will play on the strong side and Beason on the weak side. But if Davis looks like his old self in the preseason, he needs to be on the field, which would in turn put Anderson on the bench for much of the time -- which he certainly does not deserve. It will be interesting as to how it shakes out.
Brown was a second-round pick in 2010 and certainly has ability. But he isn’t a mauler in the typical right tackle fashion and, quite simply, he has been rather disappointing since entering the league. Penalties have plagued him, and he has not stood out as a run-blocker or in protection.
Strief is a better player right now than Brown, but Brown is the more gifted of the two. All Strief has done is get the job done when he has been given the opportunity for the Saints. He moves well and shows some power and nastiness. He has great size and can hold his own as a run-blocker and in pass protection.
Strief has also been very effective as a sixth offensive lineman, which is a personnel grouping New Orleans uses quite a bit, so both of these offensive tackles could see plenty of playing time together. But to me, Brown would have to have a simply outstanding training camp and preseason to deserve the starting position over Strief.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Running back: Doug Martin versus LeGarrette Blount
The Buccaneers traded back into the first round of the 2012 draft to select Martin with the No. 31 pick. I have a hunch they would have loved for Trent Richardson to fall into their laps early in the round, but Martin is an excellent consolation prize for this rebuilding offense.
This line is built to run block, and that is exactly what new head coach Greg Schiano wants to do. You would think that would favor the big, bruising Blount over the smaller rookie, but Blount simply does not bring anything to the table in the passing game. Blount is effective running the football, but when he is in the game, Tampa Bay is just too easy to play against.
There are probably enough carries to go around in Schiano’s offense, but if Martin can prove himself reliable in protection in the preseason, he should be the lead ball carrier. Although smaller and not quite as overpowering as Blount, Martin doesn’t lack for physicality at all and runs with good leverage, which is something Blount cannot consistently claim. But Martin is sure-handed and is an accomplished route runner for someone just entering the league. Martin should be the Buccaneers’ top running back before long.