Monday, July 2, 2012
NFC East training camp battles
By Dan Graziano
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An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:
Inside linebacker: Dan Connor versus Bruce Carter.
Carter was the Cowboys' second-round pick in 2011. He was injured when they drafted him, so they didn't expect him to make much of an impact in 2011. Once recovered, he played in each of the team's final 10 games, but didn't play much. With Keith Brooking and Bradie James gone, the Cowboys need a starter at inside linebacker next to 2011 standout Sean Lee. Their hope is that Carter can be that for years to come, and they'd be perfectly thrilled if he could jump in at the start of this season. But they're not kidding themselves, and they know Carter might need some time to develop. That's why they signed Connor, the free-agent from Carolina. Connor's the veteran, and a guy they can plug in next to Lee right away and feel good about. But Carter's the one with the upside, and he's getting first-team reps this offseason while Connor recovers from shoulder surgery. My sense is that Carter will either convince them he's ready and get the job or convince them he's not and leave the job to Connor with the chance that he usurps him later in the year. I don't think Connor's performance in the preseason matters to this competition as much as Carter's does. We could have picked No. 3 wide receiver for this exercise, or guard, or center. But the Cowboys' main issues are on defense, and this is a spot on which the coaches will have their eye later this month.
NEW YORK GIANTS
No. 3 wide receiver: Rueben Randle versus Domenik Hixon.
The Giants have two of the best wide receivers in the NFL in Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, but the free-agent departure of Mario Manningham left that No. 3 spot open. They drafted Randle in the second round and think very highly of him, but that's not going to be what gets him the job. He'll need to outplay the other guys in training camp in order to earn it, and the other three names on this list have more experience in the league and the offense. My pick as the current favorite to open the season in that spot is Hixon, who was the favorite for it last year before re-injuring his knee. I think that, if he's healthy, he's got the best chance to land that position. But that's a huge "if" with Hixon, and Randle, Ramses Barden and Jerrel Jernigan all have the physical tools they need to impress coaches during this competition. It's probably Barden's last chance to show he can stay on the field and compete. And Jernigan has a shot to stick if he shows he can help in the return game. But my best prediction is a healthy Hixon wins the job and Randle gradually takes snaps away from him during the year as he continues to develop into the long-term answer.
Strong safety: Kurt Coleman versus Jaiquawn Jarrett.
This one got even more interesting with the recent signing of veteran O.J. Atogwe. Given his recent injury history and how slow he looked when actually on the field with the Redskins last year, I still think Atogwe is more likely to be a backup and a veteran mentor than a threat to the starting spot opposite free safety Nate Allen. But it's possible that neither Coleman nor Jarrett will impress enough to win the job. Jarrett is the team's 2011 second-round pick, and they have high hopes for him. He didn't show much last year, and his main problem is that the thing for which he was best known in college -- hard hitting -- is not something he's able to demonstrate during an offseason program. If he can make strides in coverage and then lay some people out in preseason games, he might have a chance to grab the starting spot. But if Coleman beats him out and Atogwe is healthy enough to stick, people will justifiably start wondering whether Jarrett really has a future as a starter in Philadelphia.
Safety: Madieu Williams versus Tanard Jackson.
This one could have been wide receiver, where there's a jumble at the spot opposite Pierre Garcon. But the Redskins' safety situation is its own jumble, and it's one about which more fans probably should be worried. They're projecting Brandon Meriweather as one of the starting safeties. They think he fits their coverage schemes much better than he did those of the Bears last year, and they think the reason the Patriots cut him had more to do with personality conflict than performance issues. So they feel good about that spot. For the other, they like Williams, who has impressed them as an alert and intelligent leader on the field. It's possible he could get a challenge from Jackson, the talented-but-troubled former Buccaneer who's reunited with former coach Raheem Morris (now the Redskins' secondary coach), but they'll need to see Jackson play in the preseason -- and stay clean -- before deciding how much he can give them. They also like their depth here, with guys like DeJon Gomes, Reed Doughty and Jordan Bernstine, so it's possible a sleeper candidate could emerge. But as of now, keep an eye on Williams and Jackson fighting it out for that spot next to Meriweather.