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