The Sports Xchange
By Frank Cooney, The Sports Xchange
NFC Battles of Week: Sideline view of key concerns
While gaudy headlines focus on quarterbacks and other big-name stars, there are important battles in every NFL training camp that are most appreciated by the players involved and those there every day to watch.
Team reporters in each camp for The Sports Xchange were asked to pick the Battle of the Week that is a key to success even if it does not involve the usual headliners.
In this report on NFC teams, it is no surprise that the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks are working hard to bolster an offensive line that gave up too many sacks last year. And it is logical that the San Francisco 49ers are now focused in finding a starting nose tackle after losing Glenn Dorsey to an injury.
Here is a closer look at the NFC team Battles of the Week from TSX correspondents at each training camp (teams listed by divison, alphabetically):
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Fourth cornerback spot between rookie seventh-round pick Terrance Mitchell and 2013 fourth round pick B.W. Webb.
Webb is still running ahead of Mitchell because he is a year older but Mitchell is the one on the rise because of the way he is turning heads in practice.
Mitchell still makes rookie mistakes and remains a work in progress but he attacks every day and every drill with aggression. He wants to compete. He wants to learn. He is a battler and the coaches are taking notice.
Webb was a disappointment as a rookie because of his lack of aggressiveness at cornerback and on special teams. He looks the part physically but he doesn't show it on the field. He has improved in year two in terms of know what is expected of an NFL player but he continues to lack the tenacity of a player like Webb.
NEW YORK GIANTS
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Fullback: Henry Hynoski vs. John Conner.
It's still not completely known what, if any role a pure fullback will have in Ben McAdoo's new system, but right now the coaches are trying to figure out which of Hynoski and Conner bring the most versatility to the offense.
Currently, Hynoski is listed ahead of Conner on the depth chart, a surprising occurrence given that he missed 13 games last season with a fractured shoulder while Conner played well in his stead.
Hynoski might have moved ahead of Conner in the competition thanks to a solid showing in the Giants' 17-13 preseason win over Buffalo. The fourth-year fullback's blocking was efficient whereas Conner missed a couple of run blocks.
A third and seldom-discussed factor in this competition is the development of the tight end. The new offensive system has seen a tight end frequently line up at the fullback spot, prompting questions as to whether the Giants might completely abandon carrying a traditional fullback in favor of an extra tight end.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: The only starting job that has not already been decided is the safety spot opposite Malcolm Jenkins. Returning starter Nate Allen is trying to hold off second-year man Earl Wolff.
Wolff started six games last season at the other safety spot. Allen, who will start the Eagles' first preseason game Friday night against Chicago, has a slight advantage over Wolff right now.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Third/fourth corners.
Three-time Pro Bowl pick DeAngelo Hall and second-year vet David Amerson -- replacing Josh Wilson, now with Atlanta -- are near-locks to start, but there's serious competition for the third spot held last year by Amerson and the fourth spot which was E.J. Biggers' in 2013.
Biggers, former New Orleans and Oakland starter Tracy Porter, Richard Crawford -- who saw time there as a rookie in 2013 but missed last year with a torn ACL, fourth-round draft choice Bashaud Breeland and practice squad veteran Chase Minnifield are the leading contenders.
Crawford has drawn particular praise from first-year coach Jay Gruden.
"I've been impressed with Richard," Gruden said. "I really (like) his quickness in and out of cuts. He's a very good nickel. There's a major competition going on there in the secondary."
However, Crawford is behind the rest of them on the Redskins' depth chart for The Aug. 7 preseason opener against the Patriots. Breeland, who continues to impress in camp, was on the first kickoff coverage and kickoff coverage in the joint practice on Aug. 4. Biggers was on the former. Porter had a rough day against Brady and the Pats on Aug. 4.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Backup running back.
It has shaped up as a three-way fight between rookie Ka'Deem Carey, fourth-year veteran Shaun Draughn and second-year player Michael Ford.
Draughn received the No. 2 nod on the first depth chart because of his pass blocking and pass catching ability. He's shown excellent hands and seems to have a good grasp of where to be in blitz situations. At 6-1, 205, he's built along the lines of starter Matt Forte, although not as strong.
Carey displays an excellent burst through holes and off the edge, and runs through tacklers -- although the tacklers aren't yet trying to bring him to the ground. Ford was a kick returner in camp last year but hasn't been featured in this regard as he focuses on the No. 2 back spot. He has shown good hands in the past, but hasn't always put this on display in this camp. The first two preseason, the fourth quarter of the third preseason game and possibly the last preseason game will determine a winner in this race since coaches haven't really been able to evaluate how they are running through contact yet.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: The Lions drafted kicker Nate Freese out of Boston College in the seventh round this year, but he's been locked in a tight competition with Giorgio Tavecchio in training camp.
Even though Freese has kicked with the first unit, Tavecchio has been more consistent thus far, making 16 consecutive field goals.
On Monday, Tavecchio, who went undrafted out of Cal in 2012, made all five of his attempts with a long of 48 yards. Freese, meanwhile, went 3-for-5 Monday, missing from 39 and 48. Freese remains the favorite as this year's draft pick, but this battle will continue through the preseason games.
GREEN BAY PACKERS
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Starting safeties.
The Packers figure to go into their first preseason game Saturday night at the Tennessee Titans with Morgan Burnett and Micah Hyde as the starters at safety.
That doesn't mean the starting lineup for the season opener at defending Super Bowl champion Seattle on Sept. 4 will feature the same tandem. For all the misery and utter lack of production Green Bay had with their safeties last season, when they didn't force one turnover, it is fast becoming a position of strength.
Hyde has looked the part of being a competent safety after making the transition from a promising rookie stint at nickel cornerback in 2013. A starting job at a new position would appear to be Hyde's to lose, provided the quality depth at cornerback with Sam Shields, Tramon Williams, Casey Hayward and Davon House doesn't take a hit to force another switch for Hyde.
Burnett's hold on the starting role he's had since his rookie year in 2010 isn't firm. He fell short last season of living up to the four-year, nearly $25 million contract extension he received last summer.
Pushing Burnett, and for that matter Hyde, for a top spot are Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, the 21st player taken in this year's draft, and Sean Richardson. The latter, a third-year player who made a valiant comeback last season from neck surgery, has stood out in training camp thus far with his nose for the football. To get more use of the personnel at his disposal, defensive coordinator Dom Capers has tinkered with a three-safety look in dime packages.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Safety Chris Crocker vs. the field
Crocker, who played the last seven seasons with coach Mike Zimmer as his defensive coordinator, was signed on Monday because Zimmer isn't happy with the seven safeties not named Harrison Smith, who has a lock on the other starting safety job.
Crocker, 34, knows the system so well that Zimmer has now essentially pulled him out of retirement for a third consecutive season. Injuries to incumbent Jamarca Sanford, Andrew Sendejo and Robert Blanton left Zimmer little choice but to reach out to Crocker. Sanford and Sendejo are back on the field now, but they're behind schedule. Blanton was given the job to lose and promptly lost it because of a hamstring injury.
Mistral Raymond has poor instincts and tackling ability, and Antone Exum is just a rookie late-round draft pick with some potential long-term. Once he gets his camp legs under him, Crocker's stiffest competition will come from Sanford.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Joe Hawley vs. Peter Konz for the starting center job.
Hawley, who took over from Konz late last season, appears to be ahead because he's a better communicator of the calls in pass protection and that allows the line extra time to settle in and get ready for the rush.
"His rhythm and his tempo are very good," Tice said. "He's utilizing his quickness and he can pull with the very best of them that I've coach. He's very good on screens."
Konz was coming on until the Titans came to town. After Hawley was ejected for fighting, Konz was getting mashed by the Titans.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Chase Blackburn vs. A.J. Klein at weak-side linebacker.
Blackburn is currently holding off Klein. The 23-year-old Klein is a bigger part of the Panthers' future, but coaches love the presence Blackburn, a 10-year veteran brings to the field and locker room. Klein will eventually take over the starting role, but Blackburn is holding him off for now.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Shayne Graham vs. Derek Dimke for the kicking job.
Graham, who was signed late last season, could be in a fight for a roster spot after 14 NFL seasons. He missed a pair of field goals in the team's divisional playoff loss at Seattle, albeit in harsh conditions, and has been inconsistent in training camp so far.
Graham missed a field goal for a second consecutive day in the Saturday's scrimmage, while Dimke, who made a favorable impression during a tryout last fall when former kicker Garrett Hartley struggled, made all six of his field-goal attempts over the two-day period.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Jamon Meredith vs. Patrick Omameh for right guard.
Meredith has the ability to also play tackle, but most of his action in the NFL has come at right guard. He is a physical run blocker but lacks some mobility in pass protection.
Omameh was signed by the Bucs from the 49ers practice squad last October and is extremely athletic. He lacks some technique and has never started an NFL game but is a good prospect who is gaining ground quickly. Right now, Meredith would have the edge.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Jay Feely vs. Chander Catanzaro for the kicker job.
Feely is 38 and in his 14th season. It appears the Cardinals would like a younger kicker with a stronger leg. But is that Cantanzaro?
He kicked well at the start of camp but then faded a bit. Feely has proven he can make kicks in the clutch, but leg strength is a question.
If Arians chooses Cantanzaro, he will be taking a gamble. With a rookie there might be some growing pains, and the team can't afford to lose games because its kicker is young.
A third kicker, Danny Hrapmann, was released recently.
ST. LOUIS RAMS
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: There is significant competition for the depth jobs in the secondary.
Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson are the starting cornerbacks with T.J. McDonald and Rodney McLeod at safety. After that it gets murky.
Second-round pick Lamarcus Joyner will likely be on the field in the nickel, and cornerback Brandon McGee could see time there. Rookie E.J. Gaines and McGee are listed as the backup corners, while Cody Davis and rookie Maurice Alexander are second-team on the club-issued depth chart at safety.
Also vying for jobs are cornerbacks Marcus Roberson and Greg Reid, and safeties Matt Daniels and Christian Bryant. That's 13 players hoping for one of 10, or perhaps 11 jobs.
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: With nose tackle Glenn Dorsey out, the competition at the team's nose tackle spot takes an interesting turn. The 49ers like Quinton Dial's size and strength, but at 6-foot-6, Fangio is concerned about his pad level.
"He's just got to get his pad level down," Fangio said. "Basically, he lines up a lot like a nose would at the end position. His double teams come from a tackle-tight end, rather than from a center-guard combination. I think he has the potential to do fine in there. We just got him worked in there and he's got to recognize the schemes. Things are a little different in there when you're operating between the center and two guards."
Mike Purcell was on the practice squad last season and would have a hard time getting in the lineup, even though he's technically No. 2 on the depth chart at nose behind Dorsey. Dial could potentially slide into that role, but he will have to overcome Jerod-Eddie who has proven he can work there as well.
BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Right tackle.
Some of the faces are a little different after a dizzying week of transactions. It was expected that second-year player Michael Bowie would battle rookie Justin Britt for the job. But Bowie hurt his shoulder on the first day of camp, and over the weekend was waived as injured, and then in something of a surprise, claimed by Cleveland.
In part due to Bowie's injury, the Seahawks then signed veteran free agent Eric Winston. He spent last week working with the second unit behind Britt. Britt, though, missed most of a Saturday scrimmage with a sore shoulder, and Winston worked with the first team.
Now, Bowie is gone, and Britt and Winston will battle it out for the job.
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