NFL Nation: Eight in the Box 072613

NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each NFC West team as training camps get underway.

Arizona Cardinals: Rashard Mendenhall and Ryan Williams are fighting for the starting job at halfback. Both have had injury problems recently. Mendenhall is the more proven option. He also played under new Cardinals coach Bruce Arians when they were with the Pittsburgh Steelers from 2008 through 2011. Mendenhall averaged 1,103 yards and 9.7 touchdowns per season in that span, by far the most productive stint of his career. As Arians put it back in March, "Rashard is a proven back who can carry a team to a Super Bowl. We’ve got a good history together and know how to use him. But he is a heckuva player in all phases. He never has to come out of the game. The depth that it puts in our backfield is really exciting."

St. Louis Rams: Daryl Richardson, Isaiah Pead and rookie Zac Stacy are the leading candidates to start at halfback now that Steven Jackson has moved on. The team probably will take a committee approach to the position. Richardson outplayed Pead when both were rookies last season. Pead, a second-round choice, was playing catch-up as a rookie after rules prevented him from practicing with the Rams until June 7. Pead faces another challenge this season after the NFL suspended him for the first game of the season, citing a violation of the substance abuse policy. The Rams expect big things from Pead, but this is looking as if it could be a pass-oriented offense without a workhorse running back. Stacy comes closer than the others to fitting the power profile. He has a chance to emerge as a primary runner on early downs.

San Francisco 49ers: The 49ers do not yet know which receiver will start opposite Anquan Boldin while Michael Crabtree recovers from surgery to repair a torn Achilles tendon. Crabtree is expected to miss most or all of the 2013 season. Kyle Williams worked opposite Boldin in the first camp practice. A.J. Jenkins caught zero passes as a 2012 first-round pick, but he could be a leading candidate, as well. The team is also hoping to develop rookie fourth-round pick Quinton Patton and somewhat enigmatic Ricardo Lockette, who has been living with quarterback Colin Kaepernick. Lockette earned high, unsolicited praise from coach Jim Harbaugh earlier in the offseason. The 27-year-old is 6-foot-2 and weighs 217 pounds, giving him prototypical size. He also ran the 40-yard dash in under 4.4 seconds at the combine. Lockette played in two games with Seattle in the 2011 season, catching two passes for 105 yards and a touchdown in the final two games of that season. He hasn't played in a regular-season game since. Don't forget about Mario Manningham. He's not yet healthy, but the 49ers have him for the season.

Seattle Seahawks: It's not yet clear how the Seahawks will divide playing time at wide receiver. Percy Harvin is obviously going to be an every-down player if his recently disclosed hip injury isn't serious. Golden Tate and Sidney Rice also will play extensively, but one of them could see his snaps diminish in base situations. Doug Baldwin probably also will command playing time. Harvin's injury situation is a pivotal variable. Coach Pete Carroll said he's not particularly worried because so much time remains before the regular season. Although some thought Tate's playing time would suffer when the team acquired Harvin, the Seahawks thought the move would create even better matchups for Tate, who caught 45 passes for 668 yards and seven touchdowns last season. This is a contract year for Tate. Something or someone would have to give -- Rice, most likely -- if Tate earned a significant contract extension for Seattle. This is a highly competitive situation.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC South team as training camps get underway.

Houston Texans: Right tackle. There is a lot to sort out at linebacker, and we don’t know who the third receiver is going to be. But we’ll go to the right side of the offensive line, where Derek Newton is coming off knee surgery and third-rounder Brennan Williams has battled a knee injury of his own. Ideally the two would slug it out through camp, but we don’t know when they both will be ready to make a full push for the position. That could give sixth-rounder David Quessenberry the chance to win the job, at least at the start, or prompt the Texans to turn to middling veteran Ryan Harris. It’s a key position that will have a big bearing on how Arian Foster runs and the protection offered to quarterback Matt Schaub.

Indianapolis Colts: Receiver. There is a lot to sort out on the offensive line. But the Colts have question marks at receiver for Andrew Luck in his second season. Reggie Wayne is locked in as the super-reliable top option. But Darrius Heyward-Bey is No. 2 and never lived up to his draft status in Oakland. With a good quarterback in a new system, could he blossom? T.Y. Hilton did some good things as a rookie, and if he minimizes his drops, he can really be productive, particularly from the slot. After that, things thin out. LaVon Brazill is suspended for the first four games. Griff Whalen missed his rookie year hurt.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Quarterback. Once again, the team will be trying to find the guy who can perform best: Blaine Gabbert or Chad Henne. But new general manager David Caldwell, new coach Gus Bradley and a new staff don’t have the investment in Gabbert, the 10th pick in the 2011 draft. Henne has more experience. Both guys played their best when they first started last season. Gabbert fizzled on a bad team, got hurt and was shut down. Henne had a couple of big games, but ultimately didn’t offer much more. Coordinator Jedd Fisch’s system will allow the quarterback to make plays on the move more, which should be advantageous to Gabbert. Mike Kafka and Matt Scott are unlikely to pull an upset.

Tennessee Titans: Cornerback. Although Jason McCourty is locked in as the top guy, the second cornerback slot is up for grabs. Incumbent Alterraun Verner is a smart player with a good knack for slot play. But the team is moving toward more aggressive man-to-man play, and that’s not his forte. Tommie Campbell is physically gifted and fits the mold. The question is whether he can handle it mentally. New senior assistant/defense Gregg Williams did good work as the Titans' defensive coordinator (1997-2000) when there was a similar question with Denard Walker. Rookie third-rounder Blidi Wreh-Wilson also will get a crack at the job.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC East team as training camps get underway.

Buffalo Bills: Buffalo is one of two AFC East teams with a high-profile quarterback battle. Veteran Kevin Kolb will attempt to beat out rookie first-round pick EJ Manuel in training camp. Kolb is the early favorite because of experience. He signed a two-year contract with the Bills after stops with the Arizona Cardinals and Philadelphia Eagles. Manuel was the only quarterback drafted in the first round this year and is an intriguing prospect. He has good size, mobility and a solid arm. However, Manuel never put it all together at Florida State. The Bills and new head coach Doug Marrone believe they can coach up Manuel and make him a complete quarterback. But it will take time.

Miami Dolphins: An interesting and unexpected position battle has developed at defensive end between first-round pick Dion Jordan and 2012 third-round pick Olivier Vernon. Jordan is Miami’s No. 3 overall pick who is expected to make an immediate impact. However, major shoulder surgery in February caused him to miss practice time up until Wednesday, the third day of training camp. In the meantime, Vernon took advantage of the opportunity to play with the starting defense in the spring and summer and has been a force. He looks much improved from his rookie year and has been disruptive in the first week of camp. Jordan eventually is expected to be a cornerstone of Miami's defense. But Vernon is making a strong case to start in Week 1 after holding the position all during organized team activities, minicamp and the first week of training camp.

New England Patriots: The Patriots are searching for a starting receiver. Free-agent pickup Danny Amendola will replace former starter Wes Welker. However, the spot Brandon Lloyd left behind is wide open. Will it be a veteran like Michael Jenkins or Lavelle Hawkins? What about a rookie like Aaron Dobson or an unknown like Kamar Aiken? Your guess is as good as anyone’s at this stage. The Patriots have a lot of questions about their passing game. Pretty much the only sign of stability right now is future Hall of Fame quarterback Tom Brady, who has a tall task of keeping the offense at the top of NFL with limited weapons.

New York Jets: New York is the second division team with a significant quarterback competition. Veteran Mark Sanchez, the starter since 2009, will attempt to hold off rookie second-round pick Geno Smith. It’s been a lukewarm competition in organized team activities and minicamp, but both players are very confident that they will win the job in training camp. Sanchez has led the NFL in turnovers the past two seasons and is down to his last shot to prove he’s a franchise quarterback. Smith has some good physical ability but didn’t play in a pro-style offense at West Virginia. He needs time to adjust to the pro game, and that could factor into a close race.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each NFC South team as training camps get underway.

Atlanta Falcons. The Falcons are pretty well set at the offensive skill positions, but one guy to keep an eye on in training camp and the preseason is running back Jacquizz Rodgers. With the arrival of Steven Jackson, will Rodgers have a role as the third-down back? Jackson has a strong history of catching passes out of the backfield, but the coaching staff likes Rodgers and believes he has home run potential every time he touches the ball.

Carolina Panthers. From a fantasy standpoint, the issue is whether DeAngelo Williams or Jonathan Stewart will be the primary ball carrier. If both are healthy, they’ll split carries to some degree. But Stewart’s health remains a big question. He’s coming off surgery on both ankles and has had an assortment of injuries throughout his career. Williams had a strong finish last season and that may put him in the good graces of the coaching staff.

New Orleans Saints. The departure of Devery Henderson leaves the Saints looking for a third receiver after Marques Colston and Lance Moore. This position is critical because the Saints use so many three-receiver sets. Joe Morgan and Nick Toon appear to be the leading candidates for this job. Morgan seemed to have the advantage in minicamp, but the competition likely will go through camp and the preseason. Morgan is a long strider who has shown an ability to make some big plays. Toon, who missed his rookie year with an injury, is more of a possession receiver.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Veteran tight end Dallas Clark wasn’t re-signed and that means there will be a preseason battle for playing time at tight end. Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree appear to be the front-runners, but neither has produced much yet. The Bucs believe Stocker can do a little bit of everything and could blossom. But they also think that Crabtree, who was brought in from Green Bay, can be a productive pass catcher. Still, from a fantasy standpoint, drafting a Tampa Bay tight end probably isn’t a great idea.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC North team as training camps get underway.

Baltimore Ravens: No. 2 wide receiver. The Ravens are hoping Jacoby Jones steps up and wins this job. Baltimore named him the No. 2 receiver going into training camp, but there's no guarantee he will remain there. Jones is the most experienced option in a battle that includes Tandon Doss, Deonte Thompson, David Reed, LaQuan Williams and Tommy Streeter. But Jones has never produced more than 562 receiving yards in any of his six NFL seasons. The Ravens believe Thompson has the talent to develop into a productive receiver at this level, and Doss looks much improved from last season. Thompson is a speed receiver like Jones, but Doss is a better route-runner. David Reed is also in the mix, too.

Cincinnati Bengals: Strong safety. While there will be competition at the cornerback spot opposite Leon Hall, the strong safety position is the most unsettled area on what could be one of the top defenses in the NFL. It's been a trouble spot for years, and the Bengals didn't address it in free agency or in the first two rounds of the draft. Shawn Williams, a third-round pick, is considered the early favorite. The Bengals have been impressed with his ability to pick up the defense and feel he has the physical presence needed to excel at this position. George Iloka is the dark horse in the competition after having a strong offseason. But he might be a better fit at free safety, where the Bengals already have Reggie Nelson. Taylor Mays failed to win the job last season, so it's difficult to project him winning it this year.

Cleveland Browns: Cornerback. The Browns have one of the top young cornerbacks in the NFL in Joe Haden on one side and a major question mark on the other. It will come down to rookie Leon McFadden, Chris Owens and Buster Skrine. McFadden, a third-round pick, has been running primarily with the second team during offseason workouts, but he is the most talented defender in this battle. Even though he lacks size, he is extremely confident and competitive. Owens has been getting time with the starters despite struggling with consistency for most of his career. He was benched at times last season, when he was the nickel back for the Atlanta Falcons. Skrine has the speed you want at this position. He just doesn't have the technique down. Skrine continually put himself in bad situations last season, committing nine penalties.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Running back. While the Steelers have yet to name a starter, there's a feeling that this is rookie Le'Veon Bell's job to lose. The Steelers used a second-round pick on Bell because they felt Jonathan Dwyer and Isaac Redman failed to get the job done last season. Bell was a workhorse in college and brings more big-play ability than Dwyer and Redman. His strength is generating yards after contact. This could end up being more of a competition for the backup job. Dwyer and Redman are both similar running backs, and the Steelers likely will only keep one. LaRod Stephens-Howling, a free-agent pickup from the Arizona Cardinals, will factor in as a third-down back and a returner. He essentially replaces Chris Rainey, who was released in January after getting arrested for a second time on a domestic violence incident.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each NFC North team as training camps get underway.

Chicago Bears: The wide receiver position isn't as settled as you might think in Chicago. We know that Brandon Marshall will be one starter, and the assumption is that Alshon Jeffery will work on the other side, with Earl Bennett in the slot. But Jeffery is hardly a proven player, having missed six games as a rookie last season and catching 24 passes in the 10 games he played. Don't forget, too, that Bennett has a long history with quarterback Jay Cutler. The Bears also might be motivated to find roster room for rookie Marquess Wilson, who was troubled but talented at Washington State and might be difficult to get on to the practice squad.

Detroit Lions: Reggie Bush figures to get more snaps this season than any other Lions running back, presuming he stays healthy. But he isn't expected to be a workhorse, so the identity of the team's No. 2 running back will have added importance. Training camp should feature a spirited battle between Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell for that spot. Leshoure was the Lions' primary back last season and carries the pedigree of a second-round draft choice, but he wasn't explosive and continued to deal with hamstring injuries during the offseason. Bell proved a nifty runner last season and a good receiver as well.

Green Bay Packers: The running back position is wide open after the decision to draft Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin, who will join DuJuan Harris, James Starks, Alex Green and John Kuhn. Harris has opened training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list but eventually should join the mix. Lacy's size (5-foot-11, 230 pounds) makes him a candidate to handle goal-line and short-yardage situations, but he also could emerge as a first-down back depending on Harris' condition. Starks has as much talent as anyone in the group but has never been able to stay healthy.

Minnesota Vikings: We all know that Greg Jennings will be one of the Vikings' starting receivers. But who will man the second and third spots? The assumption has been that Jerome Simpson will start on the outside, with Jarius Wright in the slot and rookie Cordarrelle Patterson working his way into the rotation. But the competition is open, and I wouldn't assume those spots are locked up in that way. The Vikings have big plans for Patterson, and eventually he should displace Simpson alongside Jennings. It's probably just a matter of when.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each NFC East team as training camps get underway.

Dallas Cowboys: No. 2 tight end

The Cowboys used a second-round pick on tight end Gavin Escobar, even though starting tight end Jason Witten isn't going anywhere, and they liked what James Hanna showed as a receiver during his 2012 rookie season. They also signed veteran Dante Rosario and continue to look out for a more blocking-oriented tight end. What this all means is that the Cowboys would like to use more two-tight end sets in 2013 (and presumably beyond), largely eliminating the fullback position from their offense and offering quarterback Tony Romo a greater variety of options in the passing game. Training camp will help reveal the depth chart and the ways in which these guys all can expect to be used. Was Escobar drafted because they liked his ability to do something specific? Can Hanna hold him off for reps? How does Rosario factor into the mix? Change is afoot in the Cowboys' offense, and the tight end position is a big part of it.

New York Giants: Starting running back

David Wilson, their first-round pick from the 2012 draft, emerged as an electrifying kick returner in his rookie season and flashed big-play ability out of the backfield. He is the odds-on favorite to seize the starting running back role following the team's release of Ahmad Bradshaw. But, as is often the case, things aren't that simple. The Giants liked Andre Brown a lot as a goal-line back last season and used him a couple of times as a starter, with some success. He's back, and he doesn't intend to hand the job to Wilson without a fight. The Giants' backfield depth chart also includes veteran Ryan Torain, third-year fan favorite Da'Rel Scott and rookie Michael Cox. And these are the Giants, remember -- a pass-first offensive team that needs its running backs to pick up the blitz and help keep Eli Manning safe. Wilson offers the most upside as a runner, but it's entirely possible he could lose the starting job to a better blocker during this camp.

Philadelphia Eagles: Starting quarterback

What else is there? This is the big story of the Eagles' camp and will be one of the big stories in the NFL for the next month. Veteran Michael Vick has the experience, the foot speed and the arm strength, but new coach Chip Kelly wants a quarterback who can avoid turnovers, get rid of the ball quickly and make good, fast decisions in tight spots. These have not been Vick's strengths, which is likely why he faces a challenge from second-year quarterback Nick Foles and maybe even rookie Matt Barkley or veteran backup Dennis Dixon. Vick has to show that he's capable of running Kelly's offense the way Kelly wants it run -- and that he won't revert to his career-long tendencies to try to extend plays and make something happen with pure athleticism. If he can rein it in and operate the offense efficiently, it's his job. If he can't, one of the younger guys could snatch it from him and cost him his roster spot entirely.

Washington Redskins: No. 2 wide receiver

This would be the "Z" receiver in the Redskins' offense. Pierre Garcon plays the "X" position -- the outside receiver who lines up on the line of scrimmage. Santana Moss likely plays the slot again. The "Z" is the outside receiver opposite Garcon -- the "flanker" who lines up off the line of scrimmage to keep the tight end eligible and motions to different parts of the formation if that's called for. The candidates here are Leonard Hankerson, Josh Morgan and Aldrick Robinson. Morgan is the most polished and well rounded of this group, but he has trouble staying healthy. Hankerson is the one the coaches believe has the most upside, but he hasn't been able to develop consistency in his game. If he could, he'd be a valuable piece, because the Redskins believe they can use him in the slot as well. Robinson showed a lot of potential as a favored deep threat last season for Robert Griffin III, but he also has a lot to learn before he's a complete enough player to be used reliably here. Watch to see if Hankerson shows drastic Year 3 improvement in camp. If he does, it's likely his spot to lose, especially if Morgan is banged up as usual.
NFC Eight in the Box: East | West | North | South AFC: East | West | North | South

One key positional battle for each AFC West team as training camps get underway:

Denver: Running back, Montee Ball vs. Ronnie Hillman: Hillman is starting training camp as the No. 1 running back. But he will be hard-pressed to keep the job. The plan is for Ball, a second-round pick from Wisconsin, to quickly get ready to take over as the No. 1 back. Denver spent a lot of time grooming him in the offseason, but Ball will have to show he can handle the job in training camp. And he'll need to handle every aspect of being a starting tailback, including picking up blocking schemes. But that goes for Hillman, too. He played some last season and played well in the playoffs. But he is considered more of a change-of-pace guy. So while Hillman gets first crack, I think we will see Ball emerge and Hillman as a backup.Knowshon Moreno will be in the mix early as well, but Denver is going to focus on the youngsters.

Kansas City: Tight end, Tony Moeaki vs. Travis Kelce: The Chiefs’ top tight end this season might be free-agent pickup Anthony Fasano. But the second tight end will get a lot work. Moeaki has a lot of ability, but he has had trouble staying healthy. Kelce is a third-round pick. The new regime really likes him, and he has a chance to get a ton of playing time early. So this will be a solid camp battle. If Moeaki stays healthy, I can see him holding off Kelce, at least, for the short term.

Oakland: Receiver/returner Josh Cribbs vs. Jacoby Ford: I’m not sure this will be an either/or scenario. I think the Raiders would be fine with keeping both players if possible. But Oakland does have several young, intriguing receivers. If the Raiders feel there are some receivers (such as undrafted free agent Conner Vernon) they can’t keep off the 53-man roster, Oakland might only have room for Cribbs or Ford. Not both. Ford has had trouble staying healthy. When healthy, he is a dynamic return man and is better than Cribbs as a receiver. Cribbs is still strong as a returner but is also coming off an injury. It could come down to who is the healthier of the two.

San Diego: Top receivers. The Chargers’ receiving group looks promising, but it is currently difficult to project exactly what the rotation will be. It could shake out in training camp. The top four receivers will likely be Danario Alexander, Vincent Brown, Malcom Floyd and rookie Keenan Allen. I think we will see Brown and Alexander as the top receivers once the season starts. Floyd has been a starter, but he might be best as a No. 3 or No. 4 working as a deep threat. Allen will play, but only if he's ready. Alexander was terrific in the second half of last season after he was signed off the street. If he can show he wasn’t a flash in the pan, he could be dynamic. Brown is the key. He looks like he can be a top-notch possession receiver. He showed promise as a rookie but missed all of last season with an ankle injury. Now he's healthy and ready to go. He could be the most productive receiver on this unit.

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