NFL Nation: 2012 AFC training camp battles

AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

CINCINNATI BENGALS

No. 2 wide receiver: Brandon Tate vs. Mohamed Sanu

Actually, there's a battle at every spot in this wide receiver group except for the top one (A.J. Green). Experienced veterans Jerome Simpson (Vikings) and Andre Caldwell (Broncos) both left in free agency, and the Bengals didn't sign a wide receiver in free agency or draft one in the first two rounds.

The Bengals believe Sanu can be their No. 2 wide receiver as a rookie third-round pick. He is a competitive receiver with size who isn't afraid to go across the middle. Perhaps the biggest plus is his route running, which was a weak spot among the Bengals' wide receiver group last season.

Tate, however, has been one of the more pleasant surprises of the spring workouts. He didn't catch a pass last season, when he signed a week before the season opener, but he has picked up the Bengals' offense in his first full offseason with the team. Tate has been running as the No. 2 wide receiver in most team drills after being the fifth receiver and returner in 2011. Armon Binns and Ryan Whalen could also figure into this competition.

CLEVELAND BROWNS

Free safety: Eric Hagg vs. Usama Young

There was speculation that the Browns would move veteran cornerback Sheldon Brown to safety when they let Mike Adams sign with the Broncos in free agency. Others thought the team would give the job to Young, who started eight games for the injured T.J. Ward last season. Instead, Cleveland decided to have an open competition for that spot on a pass defense that ranked second in the NFL last season.

The leading candidate for the job coming out of minicamps is Hagg, a seventh-round pick from a year ago. He's running with the first team, and isn't close to losing that spot by the way he's playing. Hagg has been the most improved player on the Browns' defense, and is constantly around the ball.

Young might not have the same upside as Hagg, but he has more experience. He was fourth on the team last season with 66 tackles, which led all Cleveland defensive backs. Still, it looks like Young will have to play some catch-up to come out of training camp as the starter.

BALTIMORE RAVENS

Cornerback: Jimmy Smith vs. Cary Williams

The expectation last season was Smith would become a starter at some point during his rookie season. That is, until Smith hurt his ankle on the opening kickoff of the 2011 season. That allowed Williams to establish himself at a spot he never relinquished.

Now, the roles are reversed. Williams couldn't participate in team drills this spring after having hip surgery, which provided the opening for Smith to work with the starting defense all offseason. Williams is hoping to be at full strength when training camp opens this month.

It looks like this is Smith's job to lose in training camp. The 2011 first-round pick has prototypical size and speed to be a shutdown cornerback in this league. Williams, though, has surprised before. He finished last season as the Ravens' third-leading tackler (77), and ranked second in passes broken up (18).

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Cornerback: Keenan Lewis vs. Cortez Allen vs. Curtis Brown

The Steelers didn't sound devastated when they lost starting cornerback William Gay to the Cardinals in free agency, because they have confidence they can replace him. Who exactly will replace him is up in the air right now. Filling that spot will be a three-player race in training camp, although Lewis is expected to get the first snaps with the starting defense.

Lewis, a third-round pick in 2009, has shown flashes of being a playmaker, but he has a history of being undisciplined. He doesn't lack confidence. Lewis predicted a Pro Bowl season for himself in May. But he doesn't have a great deal of experience with one career start.

Allen, a fourth-round pick, played on the Steelers' nickel defense like Lewis did last season. Brown, a third-round pick, is considered a favorite of the coaching staff and the dark horse candidate to win this battle. He's a tenacious defender who led the Steelers in special teams tackles last season.
AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

DENVER BRONCOS

Safety: Quinton Carter versus Rahim Moore

The two 2011 draft picks will fight it out to play along with free-agent pickup Mike Adams. Carter and Moore rotated in the offseason. If draft status is an indication, Moore will have the inside edge. He was a second-round pick and Carter was a fourth-rounder.

However, if their short NFL careers are a factor, Carter will have the edge. He was better than Moore as a rookie. Still, the team likes Moore’s long-term potential. His biggest issue appears to be confidence. He made some mistakes and he didn’t recover from them last year. He has vowed to work on his mental game. No matter who wins the starting job, I expect both players to see the field often.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

Backup quarterback: Brady Quinn versus Ricky Stanzi

This is one of the more intriguing battles in Kansas City. Quinn was signed to be the backup to Matt Cassel because of his experience. He played for Kansas City coach Romeo Crennel in Cleveland. It appeared that Stanzi, a fifth-round pick in 2011, was earmarked for another year as the third-stringer.

However, Stanzi was impressive during the offseason and he and Quinn rotated as Cassel’s backup during organized team activities. It seems Quinn still has the edge, but Stanzi will get a fair shake. If he shows he has big potential in camp and in the preseason and Quinn is below average, I can see Stanzi overtaking Quinn.

OAKLAND RAIDERS

Right tackle: Khalif Barnes versus Joe Barksdale

There are a few battles to watch in Oakland (including at tight end and at a cornerback spot), but this is a position to keep an eye on. Oakland’s offensive line is improving, but this is the weak area. Barnes has had his struggles, and some were surprised when he was re-signed. Oakland paid him enough to make it appear he will be given every opportunity to win the job.

Barksdale is a player the previous regime traded up to take in the draft last year. He has to show the new staff he can play in the zone-blocking scheme, which Barnes has some experience in. I think Barksdale will eventually take this job, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Barnes begins the season as the starter.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS

Kicker: Nate Kaeding versus Nick Novak

The Chargers decided early in the offseason they would let Kaeding and Novak engage in a good, old-fashioned kicking battle in training camp and the preseason. It should be fascinating to watch. These are two good kickers. I don’t think there is a favorite.

You’d think Kaeding would be the favorite because of his pedigree. However, after Kaeding went down for the season in Week 1 with a knee injury, Novak was terrific. If Kaeding can show he is fully healthy and he looks good, he could retake the job. But Novak will not give in easily. This battle should go the distance.

AFC East training camp battles

July, 3, 2012
7/03/12
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AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

BUFFALO BILLS

Receiver: Donald Jones versus Marcus Easley versus T.J. Graham

The Buffalo Bills need at least one more receiver to step up if their offense wants to go to the next level. The Bills are hoping to find a gem from a group of unknowns in Jones, Easley and Graham. Jones was the starter last year and showed a few flashes and deep speed. A season-ending ankle injury cut his year short. He returns with two players gunning for the same job.

Easley is an intriguing player. He has some tools but also had a lot of bad luck with injuries. The Bills have stayed patient, but Easley may be down to his last chance. Graham, a rookie third-round pick, also is in the mix. The Bills hope Graham can develop fast and make his mark. The winner of this battle will complement 1,000-yard receiver Steve Johnson and slot receiver David Nelson in Buffalo's passing game.

MIAMI DOLPHINS

Quarterback: Matt Moore versus David Garrard versus Ryan Tannehill

We have yet another three-way position battle in the AFC East. The Dolphins are leaving all of their options open at quarterback between Moore, Garrard and Tannehill. All three quarterbacks bring something different to the table. Miami coach Joe Philbin said he wants to make a decision after the third preseason game.

From my point of view, Garrard looked better in the practices I attended. He looks more comfortable than Moore, the incumbent, because Garrard has played in a West Coast offense. The Dolphins plan to run a precision passing game based on timing and progressions, and that's not Moore's game. Moore has a backyard style. Tannehill is the furthest behind and still needs to get used to the speed of the NFL game. He had only 19 career starts in college and has often looked that way in practices open to the media this offseason.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS

Running back: Stevan Ridley versus Shane Vereen

The reigning AFC champions are venturing into the unknown at running back. After losing dependable starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis to free agency, the Patriots are looking to second-year tailbacks Ridley and Vereen to carry the load. Both will get their share of carries this year. But the one who performs best in training camp and the preseason will be the starter.

Ridley averaged a solid 5.1 yards per carry as a rookie in 2011. He has a good burst between the tackles but needs to fix his fumbling woes. He had two late-season fumbles in the regular-season finale against Buffalo and the divisional playoff game against Denver. Patriots coach Bill Belichick didn't go back to Ridley the rest of the postseason. Vereen is quick and looks to be more of a home run hitter. Injuries hampered Vereen last season, but the Patriots are pretty high on last year's second-round pick. Danny Woodhead and former Indianapolis Colts tailback Joseph Addai also are in the mix for depth. Woodhead and Addai are expected to contribute more on third-down situations.

NEW YORK JETS

Safety: LaRon Landry versus Eric Smith

The Jets didn't have many weaknesses on their fifth-rated defense last season. But the biggest weakness was definitely safety. The Jets were eaten alive oftentimes over the middle of the field in 2011. Various tight ends and slot receivers had a field day because New York lacked the size, athleticism and physicality necessary to own the middle of the field.

Enter new safeties Landry and Yeremiah Bell. Both are solid veterans who are sure tacklers and physical hitters. Jets head coach Rex Ryan is excited over the prospect of having two enforcers over the middle waiting to blow up receivers. Bell is already making plays in organized team activities and minicamp. He will get one starting position. Landry is the favorite over Smith, last year's starter. However, Landry is still ailing from an Achilles injury and has yet to show the coaching staff how he fits in the defense. Once Landry returns, he must beat out Smith for a starting role.
AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

HOUSTON TEXANS

Right tackle: Rashad Butler versus Derek Newton

Right guard: Antoine Caldwell versus Brandon Brooks

The Texans are reshaping the right side of their offensive line after releasing right tackle Eric Winston to save money and watching right guard Mike Brisiel take a free-agent deal with the Oakland Raiders.

Butler and Caldwell have experience in the system and go into training camp as favorites to win the starting jobs. But it won’t be a giant upset if one of them loses out to the promising kid in position to make a push. The team is high on Newton, who appeared in 14 games as a rookie in 2011, and Brooks, a third-round pick who was listed at 343 pounds when he was drafted and would be the team’s biggest lineman even if he slims down. We won't see Newton and Brooks as starters, but we could see one of them pull an upset.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS

Cornerback: Kevin Thomas versus all comers at left cornerback

The secondary is the Colts’ biggest issue, and depth beyond starting right cornerback Jerraud Powers is very questionable at corner. Thomas lined up as the second starter during spring and summer work. But the team did a lot to give itself other options for that slot as well as nickel and dime.

The Colts traded for Cassius Vaughn, claimed Korey Lindsey off waivers and signed free agent Justin King, previously of St. Louis. Those three plus holdovers Chris Rucker, Terrence Johnson and Brandon King will look to earn roles during training camp. The team could continue to seek help at corner, too.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS

Cornerback: Rashean Mathis vs. Aaron Ross

While Derek Cox will man right cornerback, veterans Mathis and Ross will compete for the starting job on the left side.

Mathis is a true pro who’s been a good leader for the Jaguars for nine seasons. He’s made great progress in a comeback from a shredded knee suffered in November. Ross was part of two Super Bowl-winning teams with the New York Giants and will also offer leadership. The guy who doesn’t get the starting job will still be an important player on defense, lining up in the slot in the nickel package.

TENNESSEE TITANS

Quarterback: Matt Hasselbeck versus Jake Locker

It’s experience versus potential in what will be one of the most watched training camp battles in the NFL. Don’t believe Hasselbeck can’t lose the job. Coach Mike Munchak wouldn’t be setting it up as a competition for show.

To me, the question is whether Locker can be accurate enough to make his mobility too appealing to pass up. If so, he’s got a chance. If not, then Hasselbeck should retain the job. In the long run, it would be far easier to pull Hasselbeck along the way than it would be to take Locker out of the lineup. That could be a factor in what the Titans say will likely boil down to a gut feeling on whom they are better off with under center.

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