Analysis  

 

Training camp battles for Patriots, Eagles, Ravens and more

James Lang/US Presswire
Jimmy Smith (left) and Cary Williams (right) are competing to start opposite stellar cornerback Lardarius Webb.


 

The quarterback competitions in Arizona, Seattle, Tennessee, Miami and Jacksonville will command plenty of attention over the next month, but there are several other position battles that'll be intriguing to follow around the NFL.

Here are five non-QB competitions to keep an eye on heading into training camp:

1) New England Patriots starting running back: Stevan Ridley vs. Shane Vereen

The Patriots allowed The Law Firm of BenJarvus Green-Ellis to relocate to Cincinnati during the offseason. Green-Ellis will never be confused with Adrian Peterson, but he was very dependable, tough and productive during his time in New England. The competition to replace Green-Ellis as the Patriots' starter is between Ridley and Vereen -- both second-day picks in the 2011 NFL Draft.

Ridley saw significantly more playing time than Vereen last season, despite being selected a round later than the former University of California running back. Ridley, an LSU product, finished the 2011 campaign with 441 yards rushing, while Vereen managed a meager total of 57 yards on the ground. Each of them accounted for one rushing touchdown on the season.

Ridley seems to be the favorite to win the job, but I wouldn't rule out Vereen just yet. His failure to see the field in 2011 was largely the result of a nagging hamstring injury. He is a more explosive runner than Ridley and has excellent hands out of the backfield. The Patriots are never going to be a run-first team as long as Tom Brady is under center, but the emergence of one of these runners would make this offense even tougher to defend.

2) Philadelphia Eagles punt/kick returner: Brandon Boykin vs. Damaris Johnson

Despite the presence of DeSean Jackson, the Eagles return game was a disaster last season. They finished 31st in kick-return average and 27th in punt-return average. Jackson averaged a paltry 6.7 yards per punt return. After signing Jackson to a big contract extension during the offseason, the Eagles will likely try and protect him from the dangers of the return game. The leading candidates to handle punt- and kick-return duties are rookies Brandon Boykin and Damaris Johnson.

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The Eagles selected Boykin in the fourth round of the 2012 draft with the hope that he could fill the nickel cornerback role, as well as the return duties. He finished his career at Georgia averaging 24.2 yards on kick returns and 12.9 yards on punt returns, tallying five total touchdowns.

Johnson didn't hear his name called during the 2012 draft, but he was highly pursued by the Eagles as an undrafted free agent. Johnson missed his entire senior season at Tulsa for disciplinary reasons, but he still managed to break the NCAA's career record for kick-return yardage (3,417 yards). He finished his college career averaging 25.5 yards on kick returns and 12.1 yards on punt returns. In the process, he returned two kicks and two punts for touchdowns.

This battle will likely be won during preseason games. The Eagles invested a fourth-round pick in Boykin, but Johnson's explosiveness created a lot of buzz during OTAs. I expect one of these two players to help the Eagles vastly improve their return game in 2012.

3) New York Jets No. 2 wide receiver: Chaz Schilens vs. Stephen Hill

The Jets are looking for a big-bodied wide receiver to complement Santonio Holmes. They relied on Braylon Edwards to fill the role in 2010 before plugging Plaxico Burress into that spot in 2011. This year, Schilens (a free-agent addition) and Hill (second-round draft pick) will compete for the right to start opposite Holmes.

Schilens posted very modest numbers (72 receptions, seven touchdowns) during his four seasons with the Oakland Raiders. Despite his pedestrian production, he has shown glimpses of explosive potential. He has all the necessary physical tools to be a valuable deep threat. Prior to the 2008 draft, I personally clocked the 6-foot-4 Schilens in the low 4.3's at San Diego State's pro day.

The Jets moved up in the second round to select Hill. He has arguably the most upside of any receiver in the 2012 draft class, but is far from a finished product. The 6-4 speedster from Georgia Tech only caught 49 balls in his college career, playing in the Yellow Jackets' option attack. Jets fans will be anxious to see Hill involved in the offense, but he faces an uphill climb to beat out the veteran Schilens in his first NFL season.

4) San Francisco 49ers backup running back: Kendall Hunter vs. LaMichael James

During the offseason, the 49ers brass vocally expressed a desire to add more explosiveness to their offense. They aggressively addressed that issue in free agency and the draft. Lost in the shuffle of the sexy receiver additions (Randy Moss, Mario Manningham and first-round pick A.J. Jenkins) was the second-round selection of James. The former Oregon superstar will compete with Hunter, a 2011 fourth-rounder, to back up Frank Gore at running back.

James put up video game numbers while playing for the Ducks, rushing for 5,082 yards and 53 touchdowns over three years in Eugene. He has deceptive lower-body strength to break tackles at the line of scrimmage and is a home-run threat once he gets into the clear.

Hunter won't be easy to unseat in this competition. He was a solid contributor during the 49ers' turnaround season in 2011, rushing for 473 yards and two touchdowns while averaging 4.2 yards per carry. He might not have the pure top-end speed of James, but Hunter is every bit as quick in a short area. This competition will be fun to watch during training camp and the preseason.

5) Baltimore Ravens No. 2 cornerback: Cary Williams vs. Jimmy Smith

When the Ravens spend a first-round pick on a defender, he is expected to contribute from Day 1. Smith was on track to do just that before he suffered an injury on the opening kickoff of the 2011 season. His injury created a big opportunity for Williams, and the former seventh-round pick of the Tennessee Titans took full advantage of it.

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Williams has excellent length, speed and toughness. He finished the 2011 campaign as the Ravens' second-leading tackler (78 total tackles) and was a key reason why they finished the season as the league's fourth-best pass defense. Because of Williams' emergence, opposing teams weren't able to simply avoid throwing at standout cornerback Lardarius Webb.

Smith is a rare talent. If not for some off-field concerns, he likely would've been a top-10 pick in the 2011 draft. He's 6-2 and has the same muscular frame as former Ravens All-Pro CB Chris McAlister. He has the speed to match up with Pittsburgh's explosive receiving duo and the size to battle the Cincinnati Bengals' A.J. Green. If he can stay healthy, Smith will be the favorite to win this competition and start opposite Webb.

Follow Daniel Jeremiah on Twitter @MoveTheSticks.

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