Position Battles PreviewFriday, August 07, 2009
Most teams don't release depth charts in late July or early August because training camp season is all about competition. Coaches think that by objecting to name starters, all players will believe they're competing for a first-string job. It's debatable whether this is the best approach. Ranking players at a certain position would also give "backups" something concrete to aim for -- the spot atop the depth chart.
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Each week in training camp I'll touch on 10-15 position battles of significance. Here is a preview of the top 10:
1. Chiefs No. 1 Running Back
Larry Johnson vs. Jamaal Charles
Coach Todd Haley has opened the Chiefs' tailback job to competition, refusing to name a starter to open camp. Even practice-squad type Jackie Battle is getting run with the first team. Battle isn't under serious consideration, but Charles is a threat to L.J. because of his receiving skills. Haley often used a pass-heavy spread attack while coordinating in Arizona, and Charles played in a spread at Texas. If Johnson's power and speed have returned as Haley has suggested, however, Kansas City will employ plenty of power running formations. This is L.J.'s job to lose.
2. Cardinals No. 1 Running Back
Tim Hightower vs. Chris Wells
This battle is already beginning to take shape. Wells is out with an ankle sprain and will likely miss the Cardinals' exhibition opener. Nagging, minor injuries are nothing new for the first-round pick from Ohio State, and Beanie needed these practices to convince coach Ken Whisenhunt that he could hold up as a feature back. It's still early and Wells' remarkable talent (4.4 speed at 6'1/230) should take over eventually, but Hightower is the best bet to start Week 1 at this point.
3. Vikings No. 2 Wide Receiver
Sidney Rice vs. Percy Harvin vs. Bobby Wade
This is really a Rice-Harvin race. Wade is a reliable slot guy and special teamer, but an exorbitant $2.95 million salary could quietly have him on the roster bubble, even after Aundrae Allison's release. A borderline dominant red-zone threat when healthy, Rice looks to be over his 2008 knee troubles but has been up and down early in camp. Meanwhile, Harvin is the talk of Mankato. Even if Rice wins the "starting" job, Harvin will be a better bet for receptions.
4. Raiders No. 1 Running Back
Justin Fargas vs. Darren McFadden
Michael Bush is involved here, but will likely end up as the No. 2 back by season's end no matter who wins the first-team job. Fargas is the incumbent and seeing most of the reps with Oakland's starters early. The staff likes his banging style and blitz-pickup skills, but McFadden is the back to own in fantasy. If he overtakes Fargas by late August, he'll be an even better bet for touches.
5. Buccaneers No. 1 Running Back
Earnest Graham vs. Derrick Ward
The Bucs say this will be an even rotation. But Graham and Ward's skill sets are similar, so it isn't like one would be an ideal "change of pace" for the other. Tampa may just wind up riding the hot hand, meaning preseason play will be key. Ward has more experience running behind zone blocks, which the Giants often used when he was subbing for Brandon Jacobs over the last two seasons. New Bucs coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski is installing a full-blown zone system. Graham is the first-team back right now, but our bet is on Ward finishing '09 with more touches.
6. Broncos No. 1 Running Back
Knowshon Moreno vs. Correll Buckhalter vs. LaMont Jordan
Longer shots Ryan Torain and fullback Peyton Hillis have been sharp early in camp, but it probably won't be enough once Moreno signs. His holdout has lasted over a week. Buckhalter, who is 31 and was injury prone earlier in his career, has been in and out of practice with minor injuries. That's led to a lot of first-team work for Jordan. Coach Josh McDaniels isn't afraid to use a heavy committee, so Moreno needs to report quickly to be an early-season fantasy asset.
7. Giants No. 1 Wide Receiver
Steve Smith vs. Domenik Hixon vs. Hakeem Nicks
Smith may never be a "No. 1" because he doesn't play big enough to be a high-scoring red-zone weapon or fast enough down the field to be a true deep threat, but he is the Giants' lone receiver assured of a starting role. With Mario Manningham and speedy underneath guy Sinorice Moss also competing, New York has the guns to go receiver-by-committee. Nicks will really have to come on and bypass Hixon this preseason to be an every-down player in his first year.
8. Ravens No. 1 Running Back
Willis McGahee vs. Ray Rice vs. LeRon McClain
This one looks fairly cut and dried already. McGahee underwent two leg surgeries this spring and Rice has gotten all the first-team carries since OTAs. The Ravens appear to be headed away from last year's matchup-based three-headed monster, giving Rice a shot to emerge as a true featured carrier. Cam Cameron says McClain is the favorite for goal-line work, but that could change if reports of Rice's improved lower-body strength translate to short-yardage drills.
9. Vikings No. 1 Quarterback
Sage Rosenfels vs. Tarvaris Jackson
vs. Brett Favre
With Favre out of the picture for now, Jackson and Rosenfels entered training camp on equal footing. That changed quickly when Jackson sprained his MCL and missed four days of practice. Four days (eight practices) might not seem like a whole lot, but showing durability was essential in Jackson's case. He suffered a sprained MCL last season as well and has battled multiple injuries as a pro.
10. 49ers No. 1 Wide Receiver
Isaac Bruce vs. Josh Morgan vs. Michael Crabtree
It appears Brandon Jones and Jason Hill are competing in the slot for now. Crabtree's agents aren't messing around and his holdout appears capable of lasting deep into the preseason or perhaps even on into Week 1. Morgan can play all three positions (flanker, split end, slot), but the Niners prefer him at split end where he can run deeper routes on the weak side of the field. Bruce has been a flanker his entire career. It's probably going to be Morgan and Bruce lining up with the San Francisco first team on opening day.
We'll also be keeping a close eye on:
**Cowboys No. 2 Wide Receiver
Miles Austin vs. Patrick Crayton vs. Sam Hurd
**Chiefs No. 2 Wide Receiver
Mark Bradley vs. Devard Darling vs. Amani Toomer
**Titans No. 1 Wide Receiver
Justin Gage vs. Nate Washington vs. Kenny Britt (vs. Matt Jones?)
**Giants No. 2 Running Back
Ahmad Bradshaw vs. Danny Ware vs. Andre Brown
**Browns No. 2 Wide Receiver
Brian Robiskie vs. David Patten vs. Mike Furrey
**Browns No. 1 Quarterback
Brady Quinn vs. Derek Anderson
**Packers No. 3 Wide Receiver
Jordy Nelson vs. James Jones
**Steelers Goal-Line Back
Willie Parker vs. Rashard Mendenhall vs. Frank Summers