By Kenn Ruby
Now that most teams are halfway through their preseason slate, a number of key position battles are becoming clear. Here's a look at what we know so far.
LenDale White missed the Aug. 17 game with a swollen ankle and has missed subsequent practices with a swollen knee. Chris Brown rushed for 67 yards and might have stayed ahead of White for the time being. Even if White were to somehow win the starting job, he just can't seem to stay healthy. Brown looks like a safer bet for 2007 and is close to being named the opening-game starter.
Marion Barber and Julius Jones both played well against the Broncos on Aug. 18. Barber had 57 yards on 11 carries and scored twice, while Jones rushed for 31 yards and a 4-yard touchdown. Jones seems comfortable with the new offense and is still the starter, but who gets the goal-line carries is the big question right now for fantasy owners. Tyson Thompson solidified his hold on the third-string job with 75 yards on 16 carries.
DeAngelo Williams saw his first action of the preseason Aug. 17, but his 13 yards rushing on three attempts left something to be desired. He did catch two passes, but he still trails DeShaun Foster (18 yards rushing) for the starting job. Williams might have greater upside than Foster and could find himself starting sooner rather than later, but until he can stay healthy, he'll have a hard time becoming the star that some projected.
Coach Cam Cameron stated on Aug. 21 that Jesse Chatman is now competing with Ronnie Brown for the starting job. Chatman, who had 62 yards from scrimmage Aug. 16, has had a strong camp, but it still seems unlikely that he'll unseat Brown. Chatman and Brown are already slated to be Miami's kick-return duo.
Although Kevin Jones is showing improvement rehabbing his foot, it's looking more and more like he'll start the season on the PUP list (missing the first six games). Jones still thinks he can be ready by the season opener, but Tatum Bell is the running back that will start for Detroit in September. T.J. Duckett, who had 31 yards and a touchdown Aug. 18, will back him up, with Aveion Cason and Brian Calhoun pitching in when needed.
New starter Brandon Jackson played the entire first half Aug. 18, rushing for 54 yards and a touchdown. Vernand Morency is due to return next week from his knee injury, but time is running out for him to grab the starting job. He did not play in Thursday's exhibition game, and it sounds like his best-case scenario is to split time with Jackson, who had another solid outing in Week 3.
With his greatest threats for the starting job either suspended (Dominic Rhodes) or hurt (Michael Bush), LaMont Jordan appears to have locked up the opening- day starting assignment. Jordan had 67 yards and a touchdown on just eight carries Aug. 18, while starter Rhodes had only five yards on five carries. If Jordan returns to his 2005 form, he could be a steal this year.
This one is just about over. Brandon Jacobs, who carried the ball six times for 23 yards, outplayed Reuben Droughns in the Aug. 19 game against the Ravens. The Giants want Jacobs to be their workhorse this year, so Droughns looks like he'll only get significant playing time if Jacobs gets hurt. Ahmad Bradshaw has 111 yards from scrimmage in two games and he has probably moved ahead of Derrick Ward and Ryan Grant in the race to back up Jacobs and Droughns.
Travis Henry injured his knee in the second quarter of the Aug. 18 preseason game. He was diagnosed with a mild MCL sprain, but the Broncos will hold him out of the Aug. 25 game as a precaution. Mike Bell left the game with a hip injury and may miss the rest of the preseason. Cecil Sapp is the top beneficiary of the injuries, as he'll probably start Aug. 25 and go into the season as Henry's top backup.
With Michael Pittman seemingly winning the fullback job (and the goal-line carries that go with it), Kenneth Darby has emerged as a candidate to be the top backup to Cadillac Williams. Darby, who already has more than 100 yards rushing during the preseason, is working with the second team and appears to be ahead of Earnest Graham.
Jerious Norwood was held out of the Aug. 17 game with a stomach infection. Even though Warrick Dunn has returned to the practice field and could possibly play on Aug. 27, Norwood will enter the season as the featured back. With Norwood and Dunn both out on Aug. 17, Jason Snelling continued to impress with 50 yards rushing and two receptions, but he probably won't see the field much this year.
Clinton Portis and Rock Cartwright both sat out the Aug. 18 preseason game against Pittsbugh. Neither Derrick Blaylock nor Ladell Betts did anything to change the depth chart situation in their absences – Betts is clearly the backup, while Blaylock and Cartwright are dueling for the third running back role. Portis continues to believe that his knee injury is minor and that he doesn't need to play to be ready for the opener.
Other notes: Neither Michael Bennett nor Kolby Smith could get anything going Aug. 16 against Miami. The Chiefs now have Larry Johnson signed and ready to play, but the Kansas City offensive line isn't really opening up anything so far. Johnson did not play Thursday night but is expected to see his first action next week in the last preseason game at St. Louis. ... Although Tony Hunt only gained seven yards on six carries in the Aug. 17 game, he scored twice. It looks like he, not Correll Buckhalter, is going to get the goal-line carries for Philadelphia this season. ... Rookie Marshawn Lynch started Aug. 17 and gained 16 yards on five rushes. He remains a safe bet to win the starting job in Buffalo over Anthony Thomas and Dwayne Wright. ... Thomas Jones missed the Aug. 17 game with a strained calf, but he would have played if it had been a regular-season game. Backup Leon Washington was sharp, gaining 52 yards on the ground and catching two passes. He still figures to be a quality backup and change-of-pace back for the Jets. ... Kevin Faulk caught six passes in New England's Aug. 17 game and could still unseat Sammy Morris as Laurence Maroney's backup. ... Thomas Clayton, who ran for 42 yards and the game-winning touchdown on Aug. 18, continues to gain ground on Maurice Hicks and Michael Robinson for the 49ers' backup job. The Sacramento Bee recently reported that Hicks and Robinson were in a dead heat, but Clayton, who has 99 yards in two games, is making his presence felt. ... Edgerrin James caught a five-yard touchdown pass on Aug. 18. He might lose goal-line carries to Marcel Shipp in Arizona, but at least he's getting the ball in the red zone right now. ... Quincy Wilson, who was the NFL's leading rusher in the last preseason, left the Aug. 18 game with a bruised chest. It's a minor injury, but Wilson is battling Kenny Watson to back up Rudi Johnson. So far, neither has distinguished himself. ... After not carrying once on Aug. 18, Maurice Jones-Drew rushed a team-high seven times for 21 yards on Thursday. He should still be valuable this year, but don't get too caught up in the hype -- he'll start the year backing up Fred Taylor. Alvin Pearman, who has two preseason touchdowns, is close to locking up the third-string job. ... Brian Leonard had 49 yards rushing for the Rams on August 18, and he's now clearly ahead of Travis Minor for the backup job. He won't see the field much as a tailback, but he's reportedly learning the fullback job and could steal it from Madison Hedgecock. ... Clifton Dawson, who had five carries for 27 yards Aug. 20, has looked better running the ball than his competitors for the Indianapolis backup job. DeDe Dorsey caught four passes in the game but was ineffective on the ground, and Kenton Keith was limited to two carries due to a sore ankle. The winner of the job could have value if the Colts use a two-back set, but chances are the Colts will employ Joseph Addai as an every-down back.
Brady Quinn threw for 155 yards and two touchdowns in his pro debut Aug. 18, but excited Browns fans should consider that the performance came against Detroit's third- and fourth-stringers. Still, starter Derek Anderson, who fumbled and lost the first snap of the game, and Charlie Frye weren't much better. Anderson and Frye each threw a pick, with Anderson's coming in the red zone. Quinn has been taking snaps with the first-team and second-team offenses in practice, and is clearly going to be the starter at some point, but Cleveland won't rush him.
Jeff Garcia completed all six pass attempts in the Aug. 18 game. He's a lock to start the opener with Luke McCown likely the first backup. McCown rushed for 37 yards and threw for 66, while Bruce Gradkowski threw for 113 yards and a score in garbage time. If Tampa Bay parts ways with Chris Simms as expected, its quarterback corps will be set.
Daunte Culpepper has been hands down the best quarterback in camp, and he rose to the occasion Aug. 18 with two touchdowns in limited action. He also fumbled the ball twice, a problem that has plagued him throughout his career. Josh McCown still has a chance to win the starting job – his would-be game-winning touchdown was dropped – but he's probably a little behind Culpepper. Like Culpepper, Andrew Walter also fumbled twice, but he also threw an interception and otherwise did not look good. JaMarcus Russell's holdout looks like the only thing that is keeping Walter on the roster.
Brodie Croyle's struggles continued Thursday as he was only 5 of 17 for 45 yards and threw his third interception in three preseason games. Croyle had an opportunity to lock up the starting job because Damon Huard was held out with a sore calf. It apparently will take a bit longer, though, for a starter to emerge as coach Herm Edwards backed off an earlier statement that he'd name a starter after two preseason games.
The leash on starter Byron Leftwich is getting shorter by the day. Leftwich struggled Aug. 18 against the first-team Tampa Bay defense and only had success when the backups were on the field, and he looked even worse Thursday against the Packers. Leftwich was just 6 of 16 for 67 yards before David Garrard came in to effectively state his starting case. Garrard, who was 11-of-14 passes for 129 yards and a rushing touchdown in the earlier game, engineered two touchdown drives against the Packers, going 6 for 7 for 97 yards and a touchdown.
Other notes: With D.J. Shockley out for the season with a torn ACL, Chris Redman becomes Joey Harrington's top backup in Atlanta. Casey Bramlett inherits the No. 3 job. ... Trent Edwards threw for 101 yards and a score and has been the best Buffalo quarterback this month. He's not pushing J.P. Losman yet, but it looks like he's wrapped up the backup job. ... Trent Green was officially named the starter in Miami, which surprised no one. Cleo Lemon will back him up. ... Brooks Bollinger played with the first-team offense Aug. 17. Tarvaris Jackson is still the starter in Minnesota, but the abysmal Minnesota receiver situation should limit his value this season. ... Carolina starter Jake Delhomme was terrible on Aug. 17, and was clearly outplayed by backup David Carr. There is no controversy yet, but this one bears watching. ... The Seahawks held out Matt Hasselbeck on Aug. 18, giving Seneca Wallace the start and David Greene extensive time on the field. Wallace, who just signed a big contract extension to be Hasselbeck's backup, faced heavy pressure and lost two fumbles that were returned for touchdowns. ... Mark Brunell is competing with Todd Collins for the backup job in Washington. Brunell is a favorite of coach Joe Gibbs, so he should have the lead, but Collins was the first one to come in when Jason Campbell left the game Aug. 18 with a bruised knee. ... Rex Grossman threw a pick and fumbled three times Aug. 20. He's still the starter, but the Bears have Super Bowl aspirations this season. With capable backup Brian Griese playing well right now, Grossman might be on a shorter leash. ... The Patriots signed Vinny Testaverde to be their third quarterback. He turns 44 this year, so New England will be happy with whatever it can get from him.
David Boston, who caught a 19-yard touchdown Aug. 18, still holds the lead for the No. 2 receiver over Maurice Stovall, Michael Clayton and Ike Hilliard. Stovall fumbled the only pass he caught in the game, and coach Jon Gruden mentioned it a few times during the post-game press conference. Stovall's continual problems holding onto the ball will probably cost him the job.
Jacoby Jones had another strong game Aug. 18 (two catches for 32 yards, two rushes for 24 yards and an electrifying 80-yard punt return for a touchdown). Jones has been working with the first-team offense, and coach Gary Kubiak is raving about him. He's pushing Kevin Walter for the No. 2 job, but Kubiak has called Walter the two and Jones the "two-and-a-half." Jones will be on the field during most three-wideout sets and is creeping up fantasy cheat sheets. Veteran Keenan McCardell is still nursing a sore groin and looks like the No. 4 receiver.
Despite his hamstring injury, Devery Henderson looks like he's wrapped up the No. 2 job. David Patten returned to action Aug. 18 after missing a week with a turf toe injury and looked good Thursday against the Chiefs, catching six passes for 75 yards and one touchdown to possibly challenge Henderson. Lance Moore had another nice game with six receptions for 88 yards, but he's battling Patten, Terrance Copper and Robert Meachem, so he has an uphill battle just to make the team. Neither Henderson nor Marques Colston played Thursday.
Charles Sharon has been practicing with the first-team offense and is zooming up the depth chart. He probably won't start, but he looks like the No. 3 receiver, edging Mike Walker and Matt Jones. Reggie Williams could be out of the running for a roster spot. He's reportedly "moping" and "disinterested." With plenty of better candidates in Jacksonville, he should be avoided. He had two receptions for nine yards Thursday.
Taye Biddle continued his hot preseason Aug. 17 with 43 yards (including a 35-yarder) on two catches. He's still Carolina's No. 5 receiver, but he could move up as there are a lot of questions ahead of him on the depth chart. One of those questions, Dwayne Jarrett, saw his first action of the preseason and finished with one catch for seven yards. He'll probably start for Carolina at some point this season, but he's running behind Keary Colbert and Drew Carter for now.
Plaxico Burress missed the Aug. 19 game with a sore ankle, but finally returned to practice Aug. 21 after nearly three weeks off. Sinorice Moss also missed the game with a mild ankle injury, and Steve Smith left the game with a concussion after scoring a touchdown. The only healthy receiver, Amani Toomer, returned to game action for the first time since tearing his ACL last November. Burress and Toomer are expected to start, with Moss and Smith backing them up. But with all of the injuries in New York, it's still anyone's game.
Other notes:Dwayne Bowe made his pro debut Aug. 16, though he didn't catch a pass. He was expected to see more action in Thursday's game, but he had just one reception for 21 yards. Still, the Chiefs expect big things from him this year, and he could still crack the opening day starting lineup. ... Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell are fighting it out for the No. 4 job in New England. Gaffney has had an impressive camp and probably holds a slim lead over last year's top Patriots receiver. They could see plenty of action with Randy Moss and Donte' Stallworth both banged up a little. ... Brian Clark caught a 90-yard touchdown for the Broncos on Aug. 18. With Rod Smith likely to start the season on the PUP list, Brandon Marshall and Brandon Stokley are competing for the No. 2 job with Clark possibly joining the mix if continues to excel. ... Terry Glenn will miss the preseason recovering from an Aug. 1 knee surgery. Patrick Crayton and Sam Hurd each caught three passes Aug. 18 and could see plenty of time in Dallas with Glenn and Terrell Owens both injury prone. ... James Jones, who caught two touchdowns Aug. 18, is making a strong push to unseat Greg Jennings as the No. 2 receiver in Green Bay. Jennings didn't catch a pass in the first two preseason games and then had just two for 19 yards Thursday. He is complaining about being ignored. Jones, meanwhile, caught six passes for 80 yards Thursday. ... Vincent Jackson lost a fumble in the Aug. 18 game, but showed his toughness by playing with a hand numbed from Novocain and stitches. Jackson used his size to score a red-zone touchdown, which bodes well for his fantasy value. His stock is rising, and he's a lock for the top receiving job in San Diego. ... With Mike Furrey and Roy Williams both on the sidelines with minor injuries Aug. 18, Shaun McDonald had his second strong game in a row. McDonald is developing a nice rapport with Jon Kitna, but he's no more than the No. 4 receiver in Detroit this season. ... Marques Hagans is making some noise for the Rams, catching five passes for 71 yards and a score on Aug. 18. He's still behind Torry Holt, Isaac Bruce and Drew Bennett, but he's worth keeping an eye on. ... Brandon Lloyd finally returned to practice Aug. 14 and caught a touchdown in the game four days later. Lloyd missed some time with shin splints, but now looks like he's neck-and-neck with Antwaan Randle-El for the No. 2 receiver job in Washington. ... Santonio Holmes looked good again on Aug. 18. The Steelers like his ability to run after the catch, and it looks like he'll be the starter this year instead of the fading Cedrick Wilson. Holmes has six catches for 148 yards in three preseason games. ... Mark Clayton left the Aug. 19 game with a sprained ankle and will miss the rest of the preseason. Demitrius Williams will probably move into the Baltimore starting lineup, but Clayton insists he'll return in time for the opener. ... The Vikings signed Packers cast-off Robert Ferguson on Aug. 21. As the most experienced receiver on the roster, he could push starters Troy Williamson and Bobby Wade for playing time immediately.
L.J. Smith missed the Aug. 17 game with a groin injury. His value is dropping, which could benefit Matt Schobel and Brent Celek. Schobel caught a 58-yarder in Smith's absence, and Celek looks like he'll start if Smith misses the opener as feared. ... Jerramy Stevens played but didn't make any catches for the Buccaneers on Aug. 18. Alex Smith, who caught one pass for 16 yards, has moved past him on the depth chart.