NFL Nation: 2012 NFC 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:

CHICAGO BEARS

Left tackle: J'Marcus Webb versus Chris Williams

It's a bit disconcerting to stage a competition at such an important position, especially when you consider how difficult it is to find a good left tackle at the NFL level.

Williams, a first-round draft pick in 2008, hasn't manned the position since early in the 2010 season. Left tackles who are moved away mid-career usually aren't brought back. He has also started games at right tackle and left guard in his career, making him a candidate to be a swing backup if Webb wins the job.

Webb was one of the Bears' few options last season at left tackle. But after absorbing 15 accepted penalties and allowing 12 sacks, based on tracking from Pro Football Focus, it's clear Webb did not establish himself as a long-term answer.

Offensive coordinator Mike Tice was the Bears' offensive line coach when Williams moved to left guard. Tice also installed Webb as his left tackle last season, so it's reasonable to guess Webb would get the benefit of the doubt. The Bears will cross their fingers and hope one of the two emerges as a competent option.

DETROIT LIONS

Cornerback: Aaron Berry versus Jacob Lacey

Lions training camp will include a number of competitive storylines, from whether rookie offensive lineman Riley Reiff can win a starting job (somewhere) to whether safety Amari Spievey can hold on to his role. But the most significant battle could be between Berry and Lacey for the chance to replace Eric Wright as a starting cornerback.

Berry was the Lions' Week 1 nickel back in each of the past two seasons, and it would be a natural progression for him to take over as a starter. Lacey started 27 games for the Indianapolis Colts over the past three seasons, but it's worth reiterating that the Colts did not issue him a qualifying tender as a restricted free agent. That decision wasn't exactly an endorsement of his career to this point.

For the moment, at least, Berry's recent arrest for suspicion of drunken driving hasn't threatened his roster spot. The bigger issue has been his inability to stay on the field, having missed 15 games in 2010-11 and five last season because of injury.

Given the number of three- and four-receiver sets the Lions likely will face in the NFC North this season, both Berry and Lacey should see plenty of action. But the Lions surely would like Berry to feed off the competition and solidify himself as a permanent starter.

GREEN BAY PACKERS

No. 3 receiver: James Jones versus Randall Cobb versus Donald Driver

The winner of this competition might be reflected in playing time rather than actual starts, and that, of course, is assuming Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson receive the most snaps among the Packers' deep and talented group of receivers.

Driver started 15 games last season even though he played fewer snaps than Jennings and Nelson. Cobb's expected development adds another element to the question of who will play most often among this trio.

Some of the answer will depend upon matchups and scheme, but ultimately the most reliable playmaker will emerge and receive the most playing time.

MINNESOTA VIKINGS

Safety: Multiple players and positions

Given the miserable performance of their pass defense in 2011, it's safe to assume the Vikings will have a new starter at one safety position, and possibly both, in 2012. Veterans Jamarca Sanford and Mistral Raymond worked with the first team during most spring practices, but Sanford has proved a liability in pass coverage in the past, and a number of other players should get long looks during training camp.

That list is headed by first-round draft pick Harrison Smith, who eventually will be a starter, even if it isn't in Week 1. Fellow rookie Robert Blanton, who is making the transition from cornerback, is another candidate.

The Vikings also will have competition at right guard between second-year player Brandon Fusco and veteran newcomer Geoff Schwartz, but it's likely more fans will follow the progress of the safety positions.

NFC East training camp battles

July, 2, 2012
7/02/12
2:00
PM ET
AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

DALLAS COWBOYS

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.

PHILADELPHIA EAGLES

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.

WASHINGTON REDSKINS

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.

NFC West training camp battles

July, 2, 2012
7/02/12
2:00
PM ET
AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

ARIZONA CARDINALS

Quarterback: Kevin Kolb vs. John Skelton.

The Cardinals have grown accustomed to quarterback competitions. This one has no clear leader heading toward training camp.

The pressure is squarely on Kolb to justify the Cardinals' investment in him. He's had time to get healthy and learn the offense. Kolb should be more confident and relaxed as a result. But he has yet to take charge of the team and command the respect that only comes through performance. He'll have an extended opportunity this summer thanks to an exhibition schedule featuring five games, one more than usual.

Kolb now has 16 career starts. Skelton has 11. Neither has been consistent, but the team won more frequently with Skelton last season.

ST. LOUIS RAMS

Left guard: Rokevious Watkins vs. Bryan Mattison.

The Rams are counting on offensive line coach Paul Boudreau to coach up the position at right tackle and left guard in particular.

Watkins is a rookie fifth-round choice with college experience at both guard and both tackle spots. He's listed at 338 pounds and has weighed considerably more, but the scouting reports question his strength. Mattison started four games for the Rams last season after two seasons in Baltimore as a backup. I've wondered whether Quinn Ojinnaka might project as the starter here, but he's more apt to play tackle. Barry Richardson could be a consideration as well.

Whatever the case, the Rams will likely be counting on an inexperienced left guard to help protect Sam Bradford and clear running lanes for Steven Jackson. It's important someone rises to the occasion.

SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS

Nickel corner: Chris Culliver vs. Perrish Cox.

The 49ers easily could have handed the job to Culliver after the 2011 third-round choice played better than 40 percent of the defensive snaps last season. Adding Cox creates competition and improves depth at a position that has become increasingly important as offenses more use additional wide receivers.

Cox started nine games for Denver in 2010 as a rookie fifth-round pick from Oklahoma State. He missed last season amid sexual-assault accusations, then signed with the 49ers following his acquittal this offseason. Cox played for 49ers secondary coach Ed Donatell in Denver, so the 49ers should have a good idea what he can offer.

Culliver seemed to fade some late in the season, no surprise for a rookie making a significant jump without the benefit of a regular offseason. He figures into the 49ers' plans no matter what, but will Cox siphon off some of his playing time?

SEATTLE SEAHAWKS

Quarterback: Tarvaris Jackson vs. Matt Flynn vs. Russell Wilson.

The Seahawks face a dilemma. Flynn, Wilson and Josh Portis are the quarterbacks they would ideally keep for the long term, but Jackson is the only one with meaningful experience. Jackson is the only one they know for sure they could trust to keep the team competitive right now.

Flynn and Wilson will earn roster spots. Jackson could win one too. He could even start, but so could Flynn or Wilson. Wilson made a spectacular first impression during organized team activities and minicamp practices. His natural leadership ability and drive showed up repeatedly in how he commanded the huddle and the way he kept pressing coaches for additional information on the offense.

While it's natural to assume Flynn will emerge as the starter based on his salary and Wilson's inexperience, the Seahawks' excitement for Wilson has been palpable at every turn. This should be a fascinating battle once training camp begins.
AFC camp battles: West | North | South | East NFC: West | North | South | East

An early look at the biggest training camp position battles:

ATLANTA FALCONS

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 very 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 it I think it is very safe to say that his name brand value is much higher than Tatupu’s true value. Dent should eventually win out here.

CAROLINA PANTHERS

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 can probably play any of the three starting linebacker spots in the Panthers’ base 4-3 scheme, but 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 might just be the NFL’s Defensive Rookie of the Year in the middle. If healthy, Beason will start at one of the outside position 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 very solid and steady ‘backer 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 very interesting as to how it shakes out.

NEW ORLEANS SAINTS

Offensive line: Charles Brown versus Zach Strief

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 Brown 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, shows some power and nastiness, 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 favors 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 for both players, 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 entering the league. Martin should be the Buccaneers’ top running back before long.

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