NFC South: position battles

Saints position battles

July, 23, 2008
7/23/08
11:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Here's a look at two of the biggest position battles in New Orleans' camp:

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Free safety: Kevin Kaesviharn vs. Josh Bullocks.

This is not a position of strength for the Saints, who upgraded their defensive line by drafting Sedrick Ellis and their linebacker corps by bringing in Jonathan Vilma. With an improved front seven, there's the chance for the starting free safety to be a playmaker.

Bullocks started most of last year, but he was beaten in coverage at times and never has played consistently well. Bullocks also is coming off knee surgery and that could open the door for Kaesviharn.

At least at the start of camp, Kaesviharn is expected to get the work with the first team. Unless he really struggles or Bullocks has an outstanding camp, Kaesviharn probably will open the season as the starter.

Intensity index: Mild

Running back: Deuce McAllister vs. Reggie Bush and Pierre Thomas

 
 Jim O'Connor/US PRESSWIRE
 If his knee can't hold up, Saints RB Deuce McAllister will be in a battle for the starting job.

McAllister is coming back from his second major knee injury and he's not getting any younger. But he showed the ability to make it back from serious injury before and he's been the most dependable back in the NFC South this decade. The Saints may bring him along slowly in camp, but, if he's healthy, he'll probably be the opening-day starter.

Bush has yet to show signs he can be an every-down back, although he'll play a big role as a situational player. Thomas showed some promise, averaging 4.8 yards a carry last season, but he's not a real threat to a healthy McAllister.

Intensity index: Hot

Falcons position battles

July, 23, 2008
7/23/08
10:20
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Here's a look at two of the best position battles for the Falcons:

Quarterback: Matt Ryan vs. Chris Redman (or even Joey Harrington)

The Falcons drafted Ryan with the No. 3 overall pick and there's no question he's the future of this franchise. But is he the present?

That's a dilemma for new coach Mike Smith, who hasn't made his immediate intentions for Ryan known. The Falcons have a lot invested in Ryan and he has all the tools to be a franchise quarterback. But the Falcons likely are giving some serious thought to whether they want to play Ryan right away.

The team isn't likely to be that good and the Falcons could run the risk of turning Ryan into another David Carr if they start him immediately. This is a unique situation because fans are likely to be patient with the Falcons after last season's debacle.

Redman, who had been out of football, played surprisingly well and showed good poise late last season. It might be safer to let him, or Harrington, take the lumps early on and give Ryan some time to get prepared and comfortable.

Intensity index: Red hot

Running back: Michael Turner vs. Jerious Norwood.

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When the Falcons went out and signed Turner to a big contract at the start of free agency, the obvious assumption was that he'll be the feature back. But don't rule out Norwood turning this into a battle. In his first two seasons, Norwood averaged 6.2 yards a carry behind Warrick Dunn and he also catches the ball well out of the backfield. But there are questions about Norwood's size and ability to carry a heavy load. Turner is bigger and a more powerful runner, but Norwood could use camp to at least increase his role.

Intensity index: Mild

Bucs position battles

July, 23, 2008
7/23/08
10:00
AM ET

Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Here's a look at two of Tampa Bay's biggest camp battles:

Running back: Warrick Dunn vs. Earnest Graham and Michael Bennett

Warrick Dunn  Earnest Graham Michael Bennett

Dunn

 Graham

 Bennett

If Cadillac Williams (knee) is going to be a factor at all this year, it likely won't happen until the middle of the season. That leaves the battle for the starting running back job as the most interesting of camp.

Dunn, who rejoins the team that first drafted him after six years in Atlanta, is the most established runner of the bunch and he can catch passes out of the backfield. Coach Jon Gruden never wanted Dunn to leave in the first place and is thrilled to have him back.

But Dunn is 33 and has more than 10,000 yards on his tires. He's always prided himself on physical conditioning, but his age is a concern. Dunn will get first crack at the job, but Graham and Bennett aren't bad alternatives. Graham rushed for more than 800 yards last year after moving into the starting role.

Bennett joined the team last season and didn't get much chance to produce. But he was once a 1,000-yard rusher for Minnesota and he has the kind of speed that could make him effective in Gruden's offense.

Intensity index: Hot

 
 Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images
 Ike Hilliard will need to hold off a host of challengers to keep the No. 2 wideout spot.

No. 2 wide receiver: Ike Hilliard vs. Antonio Bryant, Michael Clayton, Maurice Stovall and Dexter Jackson

Hilliard started opposite Joey Galloway last year and he's dependable. But the Bucs would like to have someone a little younger and potentially more spectacular. They'll open up the job to competition in camp and hope that Bryant, Clayton, Stovall or Jackson steps up.

But there are no guarantees. Bryant is a reclamation project who may or may not redeem himself. Clayton had a great rookie season in 2004, but is trying to find his way out of Gruden's doghouse. Stovall's dependable, but he has trouble getting separation from defensive backs.

Jackson has the most upside of this group, but he's an undersized rookie. It's possible he'll be primarily a kick returner in his first season.

Intensity index: Hot

Panthers position battles

July, 23, 2008
7/23/08
9:00
AM ET
Posted by ESPN.com's Pat Yasinskas

Here's a look at two of the biggest position battles in Carolina's camp:

No. 2 wide receiver: Muhsin Muhammad vs. D.J. Hackett and Dwayne Jarrett

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Muhammad

The Panthers have one of the best receivers in the NFL in Steve Smith, but they had little to complement him last season when Keary Colbert and Drew Carter were the next two receiving options. Coach John Fox and Marty Hurney realized that situation needed to be upgraded and were active in this area in the offseason.

They went out and brought back Muhammad, who had been very productive for the Panthers before spending the last three seasons in Chicago. Muhammad and Smith once were one of the league's best receiving duos. Muhammad may have lost a step since then, but he remains a precise route runner with decent hands and he's an outstanding run blocker. Fox often prefers to stick with veterans and his comfort level with Muhammad is likely to be high.

But don't rule out the possibility of Hackett winning the starting job. He spent four seasons as a part-time player in Seattle and the Panthers signed him because they view him as a player on the rise. Jarrett had a hugely disappointing rookie year, but he has excellent size and skills and could put himself into the battle if he shows he has learned the playbook.

Intensity index: Hot

Running back: Jonathan Stewart vs. DeAngelo Williams

 
 Wesley Hitt/Getty Images
 DeAngelo Williams hopes to prove he can carry a heavy workload.

Fox and Hurney wanted to get back to being able to run the ball consistently and that was a major emphasis of the offseason. The offensive line has been overhauled and should be much better than a year ago. That will help, but Stewart and Williams need to produce.

Williams has been little more than a role player in his first two seasons, but he was brought in as a first-round pick and has shown flashes of explosiveness. The concern with him is that he might be too small to be a feature back, but he's determined to use training camp to show he can carry a heavy work load.

Stewart is bigger and more of a power runner. He reminds a lot of people of Stephen Davis, who carried the Panthers to the Super Bowl in the 2003 season. But Fox can be cautious with rookies and Stewart will have to show he can help protect quarterback Jake Delhomme if he's going to get immediate playing time.

Intensity index: Red Hot

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