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Can vets hold off the rookies in key defensive battles?

  • By Pat Kirwan NFL.com
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Despite limitations in practice due to roster size and the unpredictability of who is lining up against you in preseason games, teams must still find a way to settle starting positions that are up for grabs this summer.

The defensive camp battles look very interesting to me this year. Just as we pointed out in the offensive camp battles: veterans will not give up their starting position to a high draft pick without a fight. Just because a rookie or young player looks great in shorts during OTAs, he is not a lock to start.

I can't wait too see some of these defensive camp battles for myself on my camp tour for NFL.com and Sirius Radio. Some pit veterans against veterans, others are veterans against rookies. The ability to tackle and be physical is impossible to evaluate in shorts, so the battles truly get underway once the pads go on. Competition is what every coach wants. Of course there are elite players that don't have to compete for their starting position, but most starters still have to earn their spot each year.

Defensive end

College sack numbers mean very little when young players get to camp. I've known college players with close to 20 sacks as seniors and zero as NFL rookies. One-dimensional pass rushers are easily eliminated. As for defending the run, young players aren't ready for the power and athletic ability of NFL offensive tackles; disengaging from a block can be a real issue.

 

1. Jacksonville Jaguars

Paul Spicer

Derrick Harvey
Spicer, 32, did have 7.5 sacks in 12 starts last year. Harvey is the future, for sure, but Spicer isn't giving the job away.


2. Jacksonville Jaguars

Reggie Hayward

Quentin Groves
Hayward will be tough to beat if he's healthy. From 2003-05, when he played 16 games in each season, he averaged 9 sacks a year. The problem is that he couldn't stay on the field the last two seasons. Groves may have issues with size, especially in run situations.


3. Miami Dolphins

Matt Roth

Phillip Merling
Roth is a bit of a tweener, size-wise, and Merling has the bulk to be a two-gapper in the new defensive scheme.


4. Arizona Cardinals

Bertrand Berry

Travis LaBoy
Although there is a chance that both players could end up on the field at the same time this season, in terms of choosing one over the other, this battle is too close to call.


5. St. Louis Rams

James Hall

Chris Long
As the second overall pick, Long may be handed the position. If that's the case, he will handle it the right way. He has already started to gain the respect of his teammates, but it would still be a wise move to let Hall start when camp opens and have Long win the spot.


Defensive tackle

The game happens real fast inside and any hesitation in penetrating a gap or reading a scheme can neutralize the best of young talent. Even though no one is giving them a chance at this point, I have a feeling some of these veterans will hold off the youngsters. Still, most of the players listed below will be in a rotation.

1. Kansas City Chiefs

Ron Edwards

Glenn Dorsey
The Chiefs will rotate tackles in this scheme and Dorsey looks like the next Warren Sapp. But beating NFL guards is not easy; offenses will attack Dorsey rather than run away from him.


2. Cincinnati Bengals

John Thornton

Pat Sims
The Bengals are looking for a stout defender inside to slow down the run. If Sims demonstrates the ability to do it, the rookie will win this position battle.


3. New Orleans Saints

Hollis Thomas

Sedrick Ellis
Thomas needs to get in great shape to stay up with the motor that first-round pick Ellis will bring to the field everyday.


4. Philadelphia Eagles

Brodrick Bunkley

Trevor Laws
The Eagles like to use a 3- or 4-man rotation at the tackle position and both men will play, but Bunkley has to start feeling the heat as a former first-round selection. Laws is a crafty rookie who will push to start quickly.


Inside linebacker

The ability to key and diagnose plays, separate from blockers and take good drops in coverage usually separates players in the inside linebacker battles.

1. New England Patriots

Victor Hobson

Jerod Mayo
There is a lot of hype around first-round pick Mayo, but Bill Belichick's system may take time for him to digest. Hobson, a free-agent addition, is a steady veteran.


2. Detroit Lions

Paris Lenon

Jordon Dizon
The Lions surprised many when they took Dizon as high as they did (second round), but they were looking for a guy with a big motor. He may struggle to separate from blockers early and wait until he sees how deep his drops have to be in this league.


3. Cleveland Browns

Andra Davis

Leon Williams
Both guys can attack the run game and survive the pass game. Williams played well when given the chance last year and this battle should go down to the wire.


Outside linebacker

Outside backers in the 3-4 better get after the quarterback when their number is called. The 4-3 guys have to be able to cover a tight end or a back out of the backfield.

1. New York Jets

Bryan Thomas

Vernon Gholston
Thomas said he didn't play at a high level last year and now he has one of the strongest players to come out of college football on his heels. If Gholston plays hard for 60 minutes then this battle will be over.


2. Carolina Panthers

Landon Johnson

Dan Connor
Connor was too good to pass up when the Panthers were able to draft him in the third round. In fact, the Panthers brass didn't expect him to be available. Now we have a good camp battle that should make Carolina a better team. Johnson is physical and Connor is ahead of most rookies when it comes to the mental part of the game.


3. Arizona Cardinals

Chike Okeafor

Clark Haggans
Find a way to get them both on the field. Arizona is going to be a better team because it has so many camp battles going on and this may be the best of the bunch.


Safety

The modern game has made this a "matchup" position. Most decent safeties can fill in the box and make a tackle, but the group gets split quickly when personnel groups and formations put them in space.

1. New York Giants

James Butler

Kenny Phillips
When all is said and done, these two may both start. But until then, Butler brings Super Bowl experience and Phillips brings athletic ability and matchup skills.


2. Washington Redskins

Reed Doughty

Stuart Schweigert
Schweigert was just signed as the Redskins continue to beef up the back end of their roster. He had 10 starts for the Raiders last year with 69 tackles, four passes defended and two interceptions. Doughty came off the bench after the death of Sean Taylor and started six games with 53 tackles and two passes defended. Both are close in age, setting up a battle which may be won by the guy who flashes big-play ability in preseason games.


Cornerback

Young corners will get picked on by NFL quarterbacks and some will fold under the pressure. The older, savvy vets read routes better, pick up receiver tendencies and know how to survive. While the young guys will get beat, if they can recover, close on the ball and make a play, then they will get the nod.

1. Arizona Cardinals

Roderick Hood

Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie
Rodgers-Cromartie is raw and hasn't seen a lot of NFL arms or receivers. He is fast and, with limited coverage calls, could be ready early.


2. Buffalo Bills

Jabari Greer

Leodis McKelvin
McKelvin is in the same boat as Rodgers-Cromartie; Greer, like Hood, has enough tricks to survive this battle for at least the short term.


3. Dallas Cowboys

Anthony Henry

Mike Jenkins
Henry could move to safety or he could stand his ground against the rookie. He will respond to the competition -- and Pacman Jones could make this battle a moot point if he plays this season.


4. Detroit Lions

Travis Fisher

Leigh Bodden
The Lions needed a corner and the Browns were willing to give up Bodden. Rod Marinelli will let this camp battle go the distance.


5. New England Patriots

Jason Webster

Terrence Wheatley
Wheatley can fly, but this defense needs smart corners not cover corners. Webster could survive now that Asante Samuel, Randall Gay and Eugene Wilson are gone.


6. New York Giants

Sam Madison

Terrell Thomas
Thomas isn't the only competition for the 34-year-old veteran, but he is the guy I will watch this summer. Madison will probably hold off the youngster, but if Thomas gets on the field in 2008, then it could be a case of no turning back.


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