Non-padded workouts, beat writers speculating on depth charts, coaches talking up everyone in their sightlines? Yawn. At long last, it’s time for some battles to be settled on the field.
Training camp is finally getting underway in full force this weekend, which means competition for starting gigs. Here are the top-nine position battles for fantasy owners to watch:
1. Titans No. 1 Quarterback
Matt Hasselbeck vs. Jake Locker
Even though Kenny Britt (knee, off-field) is in danger of missing multiple games, this offense has a ton of explosive upside. That makes this quarterback battle much more interesting than the ones going on in Seattle, Miami and Arizona.
What makes it even more intriguing is the skill set that Jake Locker possesses. He’s drawn comparisons to an early-career Donovan McNabb thanks to a rocket arm and elite scrambling ability. If Locker can win this job, he has QB1 upside thanks to those legs. Hasselbeck’s upside is capped in the QB2 range.
Who wins? The Titans’ coaching staff has gone on the record this will be a true, open competition. But local media has been getting the feeling that Hasselbeck -- who is on top of the team's initial depth chart -- will win out, thanks in part to an early-season schedule that includes games against the Patriots, Lions, Texans and Steelers in the first six weeks. Look for Hasselbeck to get the nod coming out of camp, but Locker to take over at some point around the season’s midpoint. Additionally, Hasselbeck can’t be expected to sustain health for a full 16 games at age 37.
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2. Redskins No. 1 Running Back
Tim Hightower vs. Roy Helu vs. Evan Royster
This entire competition is shaped by coach Mike Shanahan’s annual lack of backfield clarity. We know that just because he likes one guy on Wednesday, it doesn’t mean he’ll like that same guy Thursday.
Keeping that in mind, Shanny has repeatedly stated this offseason that if Tim Hightower (ACL surgery) is healthy, he’s the starter. Um, okay. We also know that players off ACL tears are rarely able to bounce back well the following season, as I explored in this column. So if Hightower slips behind at all, Roy Helu and Evan Royster won’t be far behind.
Who wins? Out of these three, it’s blatantly obvious that Helu is the superior talent. Helu also fits best in the zone-blocking, one-cut scheme and is the top pass-catcher. Shanahan may stubbornly stick with Hightower as his “starter,” but look for the best player to eventually win out here. Helu projects as the back to own.
3. Cardinals No. 2 Wide Receiver
Andre Roberts vs. Michael Floyd
The Cardinals didn’t draft Michael Floyd, a four-year starter at Notre Dame, 13th overall to watch him sit. However, reports questioning his work ethic and bulky frame have him clearly behind Andre Roberts right now. Early Doucet is locked into the slot.
Still, it’s worth noting that Roberts held the No. 2 wideout job for the majority of 2011 and finished with 51 catches for 586 yards and two scores. The Cardinals were so impressed with that production that they spent a first-round pick on Floyd.
Who wins? This looks like a case of the Cardinals wanting to make a rookie “earn it.” Floyd shouldn’t have a problem outplaying Roberts badly in camp. If he can’t do that, the Cards have a big problem on their hands. The problem is quarterback situation and Larry Fitzgerald/Doucet hogging targets. We should be able to do better for fliers, especially with a rotation looming.
4. Bengals No. 1 Running Back
BenJarvus Green-Ellis vs. Bernard Scott
Over the last two seasons, Bernard Scott has reached 10 carries in a game just four times. It’s clear evidence that despite showing some signs of game-breaking ability, the Bengals just don’t see him as a true feature back. They confirmed that by replacing Cedric Benson with BenJarvus Green-Ellis.
It’s easy to say that Scott will steal a big workload because Green-Ellis isn’t that good. But is Green-Ellis at least as good as the plodding Benson (3.66 yards per carry over last two years) was? Probably.
Who wins: We might not end up with a clear winner here. What we will be watching is the status of Green-Ellis now that he’s out of New England. If the Bengals aren’t impressed with what they see, he could end up as a nominal starter and short-yardage back. In that case, Scott could push for 10-13 touches per game.
5. Bucs No. 1 Running Back
Doug Martin vs. LeGarrette Blount
Much like Shonn Greene, the holes in LeGarrette Blount’s game are glaring. He fumbles too much, runs to contact, is absolutely inept in the passing game and struggles to make people miss in space. Recently, reports have surfaced that before Greg Schiano took over, Blount consistently showed up late for meetings and when he was there, he made a habit of falling of asleep in those meetings.
Therefore, it’s not hard to see why the Bucs -- who had the league’s No. 30 defense last season -- used a first-round pick on Doug Martin. Drawing comparisons to Ray Rice, Martin has the potential to be a three-down and goal-line back.
Who wins: The Bucs are likely to give both backs an equal shot on early downs at the outset of camp. Gradually, Martin projects to earn a majority of those early-down carries. We know he’ll get the third-down work no matter what.
6. Redskins No. 2 Wide Receiver
Santana Moss vs. Leonard Hankerson vs. Josh Morgan
Most of us -- myself included -- wrote off Santana Moss as a 33-year-old cap casualty this offseason. It didn’t happen. Not only is Moss still on the team, but he is leading this battle after a rejuvenated offseason. Leonard Hankerson is coming off hip surgery and seeing snaps in the slot. Josh Morgan (fractured leg) wasn’t near 100 percent during minicamp.
Who wins: Hankerson’s size, hands and explosiveness is certainly impressive. And with Moss’ contract set to jump from $2.65 million to $4.15 million in 2013, Hankerson will likely be handed the job on a silver platter next offseason. But for now, the veteran Moss appears motivated and focused to prove his doubters wrong. There’s flier appeal with Moss as long as he wins the job.
7. Patriots No. 1 Running Back
Stevan Ridley vs. Shane Vereen
I’m hesitant to even include this battle on the list because we know how it’s going to end. The Patriots aren’t going to have a true “starter,“ they will simply use their running backs on a situational basis as needed.
However, the battle is worth watching so we can determine if a 60/40 or 70/30 split is possible. Remember that Stevan Ridley’s late-season fumbles earned him a spot on the bench last season. It’s also worth noting that BenJarvus Green-Ellis was really just a clock-killer and goal-line back over the last two years, but he still piled up 1,675 yards and 24 touchdowns during that span.
Who wins: Ridley is certainly the top power back here. Think Green-Ellis but faster and more explosive. Meanwhile, Vereen has early-down ability as well as the skill-set to siphon some passing down work from Danny Woodhead. A hot-hand approach is likely, but Ridley has the most upside thanks to his scoring potential.
8. Colts No. 1 Running Back
Donald Brown vs. Delone Carter vs. Vick Ballard
Left for dead as a bust after his first two seasons, Brown actually impressed for the lowly Colts in his third season. Over the final eight games of last year, he rushed 102 times for 492 yards (4.8 YPC) with three touchdowns. In other words, there’s actually some talent here.
A new regime is in town now and they’re talking out of both sides of their mouth. Chuck Pagano says Brown can be an “every-down back” and a “bell cow,” but he also has talked about a committee to keep his backs fresh.
Who wins: As the back with the most pedigree, experience and talent, Brown is a good bet to enter Week 1 as the starter. However, both Delone Carter and Vick Ballard project as better options in power and goal-line situations. It’s hard to get excited about any of the options here.
9. Ravens No. 1 Tight End
Ed Dickson vs. Dennis Pitta
The Ravens do run some two-tight end sets, but it’s not like they’re the Patriots. Ed Dickson started last year as the featured tight end and then gave way to Pitta later on. Dickson has the better all-around talent, while Pitta is the more polished pass-catcher.
Who wins: The Ravens are still a run-first kind of team, so look for Dickson to earn the title of starter thanks to his blocking. Pitta will still be used as a slot man or move tight end. Only an injury to one or the other would yield TE1 upside.
OTHER BATTLES WORTH WATCHING: Bills No. 2 WR (Donald Jones vs. T.J. Graham); Browns No. 2 WR (Mohamed Massaquoi vs. Josh Gordon); Chiefs No. 2 WR (Steve Breaston vs. Jonathan Baldwin); Eagles No. 2 RB (Dion Lewis vs. Bryce Brown); Lions No. 2 WR (Nate Burleson vs. Titus Young)