It seems it was just yesterday we were analyzing LeGarrette Blount vs. Doug Martin in Bucs camp, Matt Flynn vs. Russell Wilson in Seahawks camp, and a battle between Luke Kuechly and Jon Beason in Carolina. As teams are starting to report to camp this year, the new battles are beginning to take place. Here are a few to watch for this preseason.
Pittsburgh Running Back Situation - The Steelers finished the 2012 campaign ranking near last in the league in rushing, coming in at 26th. They were never able to find their rushing identity last season, as they shuffled through Isaac Redman, Johnathan Dwyer, Baron Batch, Chris Rainey, and Rashard Mendenhall. In an attempt to correct the cramped backfield, the Steelers let Rashard Mendenhall walk (who has since signed with the Cardinals), and added another name to the mix drafting Michigan State RB Le'Veon Bell in the 2nd round. Aside from Bell, the Steelers also brought in Cardinal RB La'Rod Stephens-Howling to join the backfield.
The Steelers have also opted to change their blocking scheme this season, moving to an outside zone scheme that will benefit such 'scat-back' runners like Bell and Stephens-Howling. A lot of preseason analysts have Bell penciled in as the number one on the depth chart, but I say not so fast. As a team with an average line, the RB will be key in pass blocking schemes, a weak spot for rookie Bell. Johnathan Dwyer will open camp as the number one on the depth chart, but with five names looking to climb it, look for a strong competition this camp and preseason in the Pittsburgh backfield.
Philadelphia Quarterback Battle - The battle I am personally looking most forward to watching, will be out of Philadelphia where Michael Vick, Nick Foles, and rookie Matt Barkley will be dueling it out for the starting spot, in the new offense lead by Chip Kelly. This competition brings me back to the Seattle Battle of last season, where rookie Russell Wilson stole the show and the job. Now, we don't see Matt Barkley overtaking Vick and Foles, but he has a strong chance to solidify his role with Philadelphia. There are a lot of ways this could play out and adding Chip Kelly as coach complicates it even more. Here are a few possible scenarios.
Foles named starter, Vick backup - In my opinion, this is the worst possible scenario for the Eagles. By naming Foles the starter you're committing to him as the future, but by placing Vick behind him you're letting him know it's his job to lose. If Chip Kelly wants to solidify his own name as head of the Eagles, he probably won't want it written next to Michael Vick.
Foles named Starter, Barkley Backup - This is the best case scenario for an Eagles team that needs to move on from Michael Vick. By giving Foles a season to himself, he can develop into Kelly's system. Barkley is still a rookie and will wait in the wings a few years while adapting to the NFL life.
Vick named starter, Foles/Barkley backup - This move would speak to a 'win now' attitude of Kelly. Something that is not a guarantee with Vick, but presents the best chance. The problem with starting Vick now, is what you have behind him. You didn't draft Nick Foles and Matt Barkley to hope they emerge as just a backup quarterback. Also, if you commit to one season of Vick on his one year contract, what are you really gaining?
The odds are Vick will open camp as the teams number one, but as a QB playing on a one-year contract, will it benefit the Eagles organization at all to start him? I think Kelly needs to start anew and let Foles play through 2013 to see what you have in him. If he completely busts ,you have Matt Barkley waiting in the wings. One thing is for sure though, the situation in Philadelphia is less than ideal.
49ers Wide Receiver Conundrum - After losing Michael Crabtree to a torn Achilles this spring, the 49ers enter camp with a lot of question marks at the wide receiver position. The Niners landed Anquan Boldin after a trade with Baltimore in the off-season, giving the team a little veteran leadership for a relatively young offense. Assuming Boldin is the teams WR1, the competition for the rest of the spots would come down to Mario Manningham, Kyle Williams, A.J. Jenkins, Quinton Patton, and Ricardo Lockette.
We wrote about A.J. Jenkins earlier as one of our top sleepers this season, but he still needs to show a lot of improvement to lock down the starting slot spot. Kyle Williams is still battling back from an ACL tear and Manningham is recovering from ACL and PCL tears and may not be ready for week one. The Niners wide out core may be more of a plug and play scenario all season, playing the bodies they have when they have them. With a few names still floating around in free agency, it will be interesting to see if the Niners go after a Laurent Robinson or Brandon Lloyd.
Other Battles to Watch
The Jets are tasked with choosing between Mark Sanchez and Geno Smith. Sanchez has seen his numbers regress yearly, and he ranked almost dead last in QB rankings last season. It seems inevitable that it has now become a not if, but when situation in New York. However Smith's skills are still limited and has a lot of things to improve on before becoming the centerfold of a New York franchise. Nothing is worse than getting those reigns and failing, just see Mark Sanchez.
The Colts made move late in free agency by landing former Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw. Bradshaw will challenge the carry-over of Vick Ballard, Donald Brown, and Delone Carter for the top spot in the backfield. The Colts leaned heavy on a weak running game last season, running the ball 39% of all offensive plays. All the backs in Colts camp can complement each other and play off their skill set, yet when the dust settles, we expect Bradshaw to open as starter and Ballard to see plenty of action as a change of pace.
The Packers most prolific rusher the last few seasons is arguably Aaron Rodgers. The Packers averaged about 105 yards a game last season, ranking them in the bottom third. They addressed this issue by drafting not one, but two running backs in this year's draft. Eddie Lacy and Johnathan Franklin join a backfield already occupied by last season's 'breakout' player DuJuan Harris, Injured and rattled James Starks, and third year power back Alex Green. This battle will ultimately come down to how Lacy and Franklin each react to playing in NFL schemes. If Lacy can handle the workload and keep his head straight, he has the inside track to the number one spot. He also possesses the ability to pass-block, an important feature for a team with a top passing offense.