By KELTON BROOKS
Are you ready for some football?
As of Sunday, the NFL is six weeks away from opening kickoff. That’s 42 days and 1008 hours. But before Aaron Rodgers and the Green Bay Packers travel to the vaunted CenturyLink Field of the 12th Man to take on the defending champion Seattle Seahawks, positional players will need to win their training camp battle as they hold heavy implications on their team’s outcome at the end of the season.
Now that every team has reported to their respective training camp sites, here are the top-10 2014 NFL training camp battles in descending order.
10. Chicago Bears, Safety
The parties involved: Adrian Wilson, Ryan Mundy, Chris Conte, M.D. Jennings, Brock Vereen, Danny McCray
The Skinny: Overall, the Bears passing defense ranked 15th in the league in 2013, largely due to Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings deflecting passes and hauling in interceptions from the cornerback position. But the Bears were decimated on the back end of the defense and haven’t done much to stop the bleeding.
Incumbent Chris Conte, who is a three-year starter for the Bears, will start the season on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list, as he’s still recovering from off-season shoulder surgery. Chicago lost former starting safety Major Wright—who gave up five touchdowns; fifth most in the NFL for safeties—to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in free agency. Mundy ventured over from Meadowlands where he compiled 77 tackles and an interception for the New York Giants. McCray was mediocre at best in his stint with the Cowboys, and Vereen is a rangy and athletic 4th-round rookie from the University of Minnesota.
The most intriguing yet perplexed member of the group is the 34-year-old, five-time Pro Bowl addition, Adrian Wilson. The 14-year veteran missed the entire 2013 season with an injury. Wilson suffered a torn Achilles, but he posted on Twitter recently that he was dealing with Haglund’s deformity, which is a bony enlargement on the back of the hell that rubs against and irritates the Achilles.
I never tore my Achilles…. I had Haglunds Deformity. Do your research please
— Adrian Wilson (@adrian_wilson24) July 22, 2014
In 181 career games, Wilson has racked up 978 tackles, 25.5 sacks, 27 interceptions, 106 pass breakups, and 13 forced fumbles in addition to recovering nine fumbles, according to ESPN Stats&Info.
Wilson turns 35 in October.
Week 1 starters: Mundy and Conte. Even with those predicted two, the verdict is still hazy. Wilson and Conte are interchangeable, and Vereen is the wild cald depending on how soon he adjusts to the NFL.
9. Carolina Panthers, Wide Receivers
The parties involved: Kelvin Benjamin, Jerricho Cotchery, Tiquan Underwood, Jason Avant, Tavarres King, Marvin McNutt.
The Skinny: Even with the departed Steve Smith, the Panthers still had one of the league’s poorest passing offenses. The Panthers averaged 190.2 yards through the air in 2013—29th in the NFL. Topple that with quarterback Cam Newton still hampered by his off-season ankle surgery, this group may have dark days ahead of them.
It’s not about who will lineup as week 1 starters, but who will show up and produce. Who are these guys?
Steve Smith is now with the Baltimore Ravens. Cotchery has been a serviceable possession wideout in stints with the Jets—where he had his only 1,000 yard season in 2007— and Pittsburgh, but nothing spectacular. He did have 10 touchdowns in 2013, which is more than he had in the past four seasons combined (7). McNutt, King, Underwood—all college standouts, but haven’t elevated their play in the NFL. And Avant has never amassed 700 yards in his career.
All eyes fall on the 1st-round receiver Benjamin, who formerly caught passes from Heisman trophy winner Jameis Winston and the National Champions Florida State Seminoles. Benjamin and his 6-feet-5, 240 pounds of muscle, will have to transition into the rigors of the NFL immediately. Typically, rookie receivers don’t come into the league blazing, but Benjamin will have to break the trend if the Panthers will have any production from their receivers.
Week 1 starters: Benjamin, Cotchery and Avant in the slot. The Panthers are a run-first team. It’s their bread and butter, but the receivers Achilles Heel as well.
8. Oakland Raiders, quarterback
The parties involved: Matt Schaub, Derek Carr, Matt McGloin, Trent Edwards
The Skinny: Schaub punched his ticket out of Houston faster than the pick-sixes he threw in four straight games, ultimately losing his job. The Houston faithful displayed a classless act as they cheered Schaub after he fell pray to an ankle injury week 6 of the 2013 season against the St. Louis Rams that caused him to miss the rest of the season.
Perhaps a change of scenery was needed for a veteran quarterback who is good in the regular season, but falls flat in the playoffs. Raiders coach Dennis Allen reportedly said he doesn’t have any problem with Schaub’s confidence going forward. That’s a big check to cash knowing Schaub had his worst season as a pro throwing 14 interceptions in 10 games.
The Raiders invested in Carr in round two of the 2014 NFL Draft. Carr, who is the younger brother of former No. 1 overall pick David Carr, will get the nod if Schaub struggles early on in the season as coaches have spoken highly as about the former Fresno State Bulldog.
This team has talent, especially with the signing of James Jones and oft-injured running back Darren McFadden, but in this day and age in the NFL, you will go as far as the quarterback takes you.
Week 1 starter: Schuab. The veteran will start on opening day unless Carr shines throughout camp and the preseason.
7. New York Giants, defensive ends
The parties involved: Jason Pierre-Paul, Robert Ayers, Mathias Kiwanuka, Damontre Moore
The Skinny: When the Giants won their two Super Bowls against the New England Patriots, they prided themselves on getting to the quarterback early and often. New York had 53 sacks in their 2007 championship year and 48 in 2011. They only had 33 in 2012 and 34 in 2013 (tied for 25th). If the Giants have any resolutions to get back to their disruptive ways on defense, then the four mentioned above will have to produce.
Pierre is the most prolific and athletic of the group, sacking opposing quarterbacks 16.5 times in 2011. Although, he has only garnered 8.5 sacks since then and missed five games due to injury in 2013. Ayers is an underachieving former 1st-round pick from the Broncos, who has never had more than six sacks in a season. Kiwanuki briefly spent time at linebacker when he first got to the NFL, so his sack numbers are a bit skewed. However, the nine year pro reached the quarterback eight times in 2008.
Kiwanuki is the player that will have to increase his production on the Giants defensive line and become a mainstay alongside Pierre-Paul. Moore was once regarded as a possible first round selection, but his stock plummeted during the 2013 draft for a number of reasons. He essentially was redshirted in 2013 for the Giants, learning the playbook and figuring out what it takes to play amongst the best in the league.
The defense must capture its old form if they wish to compete in an improving NFC East.
Week 1 starters: Pierre Paul and Kiwanuki. The Giants will rotate all four ends, but those two will headline the bunch.
6. Cincinnati Bengals, quarterbacks
The parties involved: Leon Hall, Terrance Newman, Adam Jones, Dre Kirkpatrick, Darqueze Dennard
The Skinny: The Bengals have been trying to replace Jonathan Joseph for three seasons now. Joseph has continued to excel in Houston while Cincinnati has been a revolving door opposite of Leon Hall to find some sort of consistency. While Hall is the Bengals most talented cover corner, he is coming off a torn Achilles Tendon. Newman has still shown flashes, but has been a shell of himself in Cincinnati with only four interceptions combined the past two seasons. He also turns 36-years-old come September.
Jones resurrected his career after he was derailed from numerous off-the-field issues, but never fully reached his lofty No. 6 overall selection in the 2005 draft with only eight career interceptions. Jones also turns 30 in September. The 2014 season for Cincinnati is the bridge to pass the torch to the recent high draft picks in Kirkpatrick and Dennard.
Kirkpatrick’s career got off to a rocky start in Cincinnati. He didn’t appear in his first game until November during his rookie season and only played in five games with little impact. The third-year cornerback out of Alabama had three interceptions in 2013, with two coming in the last game of the regular season. The Bengals are hoping his late performance will springboard his confidence into the 2014 season.
The defending AFC North Champions also has high hopes in Dennard, who they nabbed in the first round this past draft. Dennard is a physical, press corner at 5-feet-11 and 202 pounds with long arms to strip the ball away from receivers as they try to corral the catch.
Week 1 starter: Hall, Newman and Dennard in the nickel. Newman is still serviceable even at his old age, Hall is still a question mark, but if healthy, he’s one the Bengals best players on defense, and Dennard is an upgrade over Jones at this point in their careers.
5. St. Louis Rams, wide receivers
The parties involved: Chris Givens, Tavon Austin, Austin Pettis, Kenny Britt, Stedman Bailey, Brian Quick
The Skinny: The consensus around the league is that the Rams are a team on the verge. Arguably the best defensive line in the NFL, a strong running attack and a great coaching staff. But their question mark is the quarterback and wide receiver positions. Since there is no competition at quarterback, lets focus on the receivers.
Word from from Rams camp is that Stedman Bailey has been the most impressive of the group, but he’s scheduled to miss the first four games of the season due to violating the league’s substance abuse policy. This group comes down to three players who need to make the biggest impact. Austin, Britt and Quick.
The Rams traded up to draft the speedster in the 2013 NFL draft, but Austin was primarily used as a gadget instead of a focal point, what you would expect from the No. 8 overall pick. Aside from his explosive performance against the Colts with three highlight reel plays, he wasn’t a consistent factor and missed the last three games of the season because of an ankle injury. Murmurs of “bust” is circulating around the former 33rd overall pick in the 2012 draft, Quick, who has only 29 catches in his first two seasons. Britt, the talented receiver who has undergone scrutiny because of injury and off-the-field issues, was formerly in Tennessee with coach Jeff Fisher.
If Britt has anything to offer from the promising early start of his career, he is easily the Rams best receiver. Although, Fisher and offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer plans to ground-and-pound is ever so evident with the drafting of the mammoth Auburn tackle in Greg Robinson and teammate running back Tre Mason. Not to mention 2nd-year back Zac Stacy who was 27 yards shy of a 1,000 in 2013.
Week 1 starters: Givens, Britt and Austin in the slot. Givens was two yards shy of 700 in his rookie season and flashed big play ability, but he slumped in his sophomore season due to Bradford missing the season and a case of the “dropsies.” Pettis routinely manages to creep in as the starter, but if Britt performs well throughout camp, he will beat out Pettis.
4. New York Jets, quarterback
The parties involved: Geno Smith, Michael Vick, Tajh Boyd, Matt Sims
The Skinny: This battle comes down between two players, Michael Vick and Geno Smith. It’s that simple. Up until week 11, the Jets flip-flopped wins and losses. Credit that to the play of Smith. In wins, Smith completed 59 percent of his passes—nothing to applaud—with 10 touchdown and five interceptions. In losses, he completed 52 percent of his passes throwing two touchdown to 16 interceptions. That’s 21 interceptions on the seasons.
If the Jets had any sort of consistent play from the quarterback position, then they would have been a playoff team in 2013. The problem is the Jets head-scratching confidence in Smith. It’s understandable not to give up on a quarterback after one season, but Jets coach Rex Ryan is playing for his job and New York is trying to compete with New England and a young and hungry Bills’ team.
If they vow to demote Smith and pencil in Vick as the starter, then the organization cannot go back to Smith. Vick played admirably before getting knocked out to injury—what has plagued him throughout his career—in week six. He threw for 1,215 yards, five touchdowns and three interceptions up until that point.
Week 1 starter: Smith. If the Jets want to win, they will start Vick, but if they want to stand their ground in hopes Smith will become the quarterback they believe he can become, then we’ll see him under center against the Raiders on kickoff Sunday.
3. Dallas Cowboys, inside linebacker
The parties involved: Justin Durant, Rolando McClain, Anthony Hitchens, Orie Lemon
The Skinny: Truthfully, the Cowboys entire defense could feature on this list. But the linebacker corps lost its leader in Sean Lee. Regardless of how talented you are, your ability depends on your availability on the playing field of any sport. Lee has never played a 16 game season since entering the league in 2010 and is now slated to miss the entire 2014 season after tearing his ACL the first day of the Cowboys off-season practice.
He teased the NFL in his sophomore campaign totaling 105 tackles, seven pass deflections and four interceptions. Lee was on pace to shatter those number this past season with 99 tackles and four interceptions in 11 games, but missed the rest of the season due to injury.
Durant is the favorite to replace Lee, but wasn’t much of a factor with only 24 tackles in 2013. A 4th-round rookie, Hitchens, is still wet behind the ears as he is still getting acclimated to the NFL. McClain, once a highly-touted first rounder out of Alabama, has retired twice since entering the league and is only 25-year-old. It’s a toss up whether the Cowboys will receive any production from McClain.
Week 1 starter: Durant. When you’re a member of the Dallas Cowboys, everything is heighten. From the secondary to defensive end, the Cowboys have to find away to bounce back on defense. Losing Lee was a phenomenal blow for a team who also lost star defensive end DeMarcus Ware in the off-season.
2. Minnesota Vikings, quarterback
The parties involved: Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder, Teddy Bridgewater
The Skinny: The Vikings are one year removed from the playoffs, largely because of Adrian Peterson’s MVP season rushing for 2,097 yards in 2012. But if this talented Vikings roster had a competent quarterback, then they would become a perennial playoff team. Ponder has played himself out of the starting role and hasn’t backed the Vikings after they reached to draft him early in the 2011 NFL draft.
In his defense, Ponder hasn’t been downright awful throwing for 34 touchdowns to 30 interceptions in his three year career, but not worthy of his 12th overall selection.
The Vikings have already pegged Cassel as their week 1 starter, but after trading back in the first round to draft former Louisville quarterback Teddy Bridgewater 32nd overall, Minnesota may be forced to draw back their hands and take a closer look at their young quarterback. Cassel made a name for himself after filling in for Patriots’ quarterback Tom Brady after a season-ending knee injury, but he didn’t fit the billing, failing in Kansas City after he was signed to a deal worth $63 million over six years.
Cassel played only four seasons for the Chiefs and was riddled with injuries during his final two seasons. Bridgewater was the consensus No. 1 overall pick after dismantling the Florida Gators in the 2013 Sugar Bowl. A pocket passer first, but mobile Bridgwater, watched his stock drop after a poor pro day performance.
Week 1 starter: Cassel, until later in the season. Cassel will begin the season as the week 1 starter, but his mediocrity will rear its ugly head. Expect Bridgewater to start soon if the Vikings get off to a bad start.
1. Cleveland Browns, quarterback
The parties involved: Brian Hoyer, Johnny Manziel, Tyler Thigpen
The Skinny: Come on, it’s Johnny Football. The scrambling, lightening rod out of Texas A&M is the main attraction of NFL training camps whether he wins the starting gig or not. Manziel will bring life back to the Browns organization who haven’t won a championship since 1964 or reached the playoffs since 2002.
Browns owner Jimmy Haslam and coach Mike Pettine both have shared comments about Manziel needing make more noise on the field than off. But they knew what they were getting themselves into drafting the former Heisman winner. Neither Hoyer or Manziel have extended themselves from each other in camp, but the odds on favor still side with Hoyer, who played well last season before he suffered a torn ACL. Both the coach and GM have backed Hoyer.
Hoyer threw for 615 yards, five touchdowns and three inceptions before his season was ended early in the first quarter against the the Bills Oct. 3, 2013.
Week 1 starter: Hoyer. It’s only a matter of time before the fans start clamoring for Money Manziel to get on the field.