Training camp battles to determine the Super Bowl

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Peter Schrager

Peter Schrager is the Senior NFL Writer for FOXSports.com and the national sports correspondent for FOX News Channel's "FOX Report Weekend." He's the co-author of Victor Cruz's New York Times' best-selling memoir "Out of the Blue" and lives in New York. Feel free to e-mail him at peterschrager@gmail.com or follow him on Twitter.

Perhaps it was Frank "The Tank" Ricard who said it best when he muttered the words, "Once it hits your lips, it's so good" in the 2003 classic Old School.
For fans of the NFL, that's the exact sentiment for the first week of training camp. The scent of the freshly cut grass on an August morning, the sight of a new head coach pacing up the sidelines with whistle and visor, the sound of a bright-eyed rookie wideout getting lit up by an NFL linebacker for the first time in his career — it all just tastes so, so good. And now, after nearly six months of waiting, talking, thinking and dreaming — it's finally time to play some football. With the start of training camps now just days away, let's break down 10 camp position battles that could help decide the difference between Super Bowl pretenders and Super Bowl contenders. Here are 10 position battles on teams with legitimate February hopes and dreams worth tracking over the next few weeks.

1. Super Bowl contender: New England Patriots

Position: Outside linebacker. For the past eight years, this was Mike Vrabel's spot in the Patriots' 3-4 defense. Working from the outside linebacker spot, Vrabel helped lead New England to four Super Bowl appearances by serving as an opportunistic pass rusher and an above-average LB in pass coverage. With him in Kansas City now, his spot is up for grabs in New England. Front runner: Pierre Woods. With Tedy Bruschi and Jerod Mayo manning the middle and Adalius Thomas at the other outside linebacker spot, the right outside linebacker will be expected to keep his end of the deal in ensuring the Patriots maintain one of the best LB units in the league. Woods is a four-year veteran out of Michigan who saw some time and excelled when given the opportunity last year. He's also a special teams demon. Contender: Tully Banta-Cain. Banta-Cain knows the system well, having played for the Patriots in a past life. After a forgettable tenure in San Francisco, he's back in Belichick-world and ready to compete for a starting role. He's a veteran presence. Long shot: Shawn Crable. Crable's a second-year man out of Michigan who hasn't made any impact in the league yet. He'll likely back up Adalius Thomas at the left outside linebacker spot.

2. Super Bowl contender: Pittsburgh Steelers

Position: No. 3 wide receiver. Nate Washington is in Tennessee now, opening up a spot in the Steelers offense designated for the long ball and big plays. Santonio Holmes and Hines Ward could make up the most well-rounded 1-2 wideout combo in the NFL. That third WR spot — which Washington perfected in last year's Super Bowl campaign — is an open book heading into '09. Front runner: Limas Sweed: Steelers fans had high hopes for Sweed, a second-round draft pick, in 2008. Yet as a rookie he struggled — managing just six receptions in the regular season. Steelers fans, unfortunately, best know Sweed for dropping a sure-fire touchdown pass in the '08 AFC championship game against Baltimore. Replays would later show that the former Texas star had his eyes on the scoreboard, not the ball. The 53rd overall pick from a year ago, he's got loads of talent. The job is likely his to lose. Contender: Shaun McDonald. The former Lion and Ram can play some football. Though he's never played on a real contending team before, fantasy owners know McDonald for his random spurts of big production over the past few years. A humble veteran who will embrace the chance to play on a real NFL team, McDonald could edge out Sweed for that No. 3 wideout role. Long shot: Mike Wallace. The rookie out of Ole Miss (not the 91-year-old 60 Minutes anchor) shares one pretty important quality with Washington — he's a burner. One of the fastest receivers in the 2009 Draft, Wallace can get off the line and past DBs. He's likely too raw to play the third wideout role right away for the defending champs, but is worth keeping an eye on.

3. Super Bowl contender: Philadelphia Eagles

Position: Free safety. You don't just replace Brian Dawkins. Someone will end up playing free safety, but he'll never have the same impact on the field, in the locker room or with the fans as No. 20 did for the past 12 years. That said, this is the same team that knew when to say goodbye to defensive stars like Hugh Douglas, Bobby Taylor, Takeo Spikes and Jeremiah Trotter. Life goes on. So will the Eagles defense. Front runner: Quintin Demps. Demps, a rookie in 2008, saw more and more action as the season went on last year. When Dawkins signed with Denver, it was all but assumed the second-year man would fill the 13-year veteran's shoes. Contender: Sean Jones. And then the Eagles went out and got Sean Jones, a versatile and under-appreciated safety formerly of Cleveland. Playing on one of the worst defenses in the entire league the past few seasons, Jones may not be a familiar household name. But capable of playing either the free or strong safety positions (or cornerback), he's a veteran who can slip in right away and make plays. If Demps isn't up to snuff, Jones could be the guy in No. 20's old spot on opening day. Long shot: Victor "Macho" Harris. A rookie out of Virginia Tech, Harris was thought to go as high as the first or second round in April's draft. He slipped to the fifth, where the Eagles scooped him up with the 157th pick. He was a stud in college who will be playing with a chip on his shoulder. Though he's 100-1 to get the starting role, he will certainly add some depth to the Eagles' defensive backfield.

4. Super Bowl contender: Chicago Bears

Position: Free safety. Are you laughing at the mention of the Bears as a Super Bowl contender? You shouldn't. With a franchise quarterback, a solid defense and run game, plus a manageable schedule in a winnable division — the Bears could be one of the top 5-6 teams in the NFC this season. With fan favorite and king of clutch Mike Brown no longer in town, there's a gaping hole at the free safety spot. Front runner: Josh Bullocks. You've got to be a pretty darn bad defensive back to be cut by the New Orleans Saints, the team long known around the league as the owners of the worst DBs around. Hello, Josh Bullocks. Bullocks has battled injuries over the past few years and was a real impact player in NOLA before getting hurt a few seasons back. If healthy and rejuvenated, he could be a steal of a signing. He's got the inside track on the free safety spot entering training camp. Contender: Craig Steltz. Steltz, a beloved team leader on the 2007 national champion LSU Tigers, had an up-and-down rookie campaign for the Bears last season. Filling in for the injured Brown last year down the stretch, he had his growing pains. The coaching staff seems to like him, though, and with a strong camp — could be the starter come opening day. Long shot: Danieal Manning. Manning's been in Chicago a few years now, and though he's made some plays here and there, has never solidified himself as worthy of a starting role. With a strong camp, though, he could do just that.

5. Super Bowl contender: Miami Dolphins

Position: Starting cornerback. After years of unfulfilled promise, Andre Goodman stepped it up and solidified himself as a reliable cornerback for Miami last season. He then went and signed with Denver for big bucks this offseason, leaving the spot open for 2009. Will Allen will start at one of the cornerback spots. It's an all-out battle for the other. Front runner: Eric Green. Though Green was benched and replaced by rookie Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in Arizona last season, he's a veteran corner who can play right away. He may not be the best man talent-wise for the spot, but he's got the NFL experience to do the job from Day One. Contenders: Vontae Davis and Sean Smith. Miami fans are ecstatic with both of their rookie cornerbacks, who each bring different skills and attributes to the table. Davis, the 25th pick overall in April's draft, is a ball-hawking cover corner and the cousin of 49ers tight end Vernon Davis. Smith, meanwhile, is a physical, 6-foot-3 converted wide receiver. Both players were early entrants into the NFL Draft and have some learning to do. Both players can end up being fantastic cornerbacks. Long shots: Jason Allen, Nathan Jones. Both are veterans who've seen some action in the past. Allen, for one, got significant playing time down the stretch in last year's miracle AFC East championship run. They're certainly quality backups. Opening-day starters? Likely not.

6. Super Bowl contender: Baltimore Ravens

Position: Starting running back. Whereas everyone is freaking out over who is going to start at wideout in Baltimore in the wake of Derrick Mason's retirement, I'm focused on the running back position. Mason could still come back to the team, and if he doesn't the Ravens will have to make do with guys like Mark Clayton, Demetrius Williams and Kelley Washington. At running back, there could be a bit of a battle, too. Front runner: Willis McGahee: A former Pro Bowler, McGahee's been the feature back in Baltimore the past two seasons and has had his fair share of success. Though he shared carries with both Le'Ron McClain and Ray Rice last season, he was the clear No. 1. A veteran who's been through the trenches, he'll likely be the guy getting the lion's share of the carries come opening day once again. Contender: Ray Rice. It was second-year man Ray Rice — not McGahee — playing with the starters in OTAs last month. The ex-Rutgers star added bulk over the offseason and looks ready to be a featured back in the league. Alas, you can't read too much into who lines up where during OTAs. Ravens fans shouldn't be too concerned. After all, in the end — as with most teams in the league these days — there's a good chance all of these guys get their fair share of carries over the course of the season. Long shot: Cedric Peerman. Peerman's more than a long shot. He's a "no chance in hell." But he's got a shot to get on the field and record some carries in '09. And with that loaded Baltimore backfield, that's saying something.

7. Super Bowl contender: New York Giants

Position: No. 2 wide receiver. Scout.com's Ed Thompson gave a rosy outlook on the Giants receiver situation this month, writing "While the Giants no longer have Plaxico Burress and Amani Toomer penciled in as starters, they've done a terrific job of selecting receivers with a wide variety of skills." Um, really? Have they? Sure, there might be a group of high draft picks in Giants blue — but can anyone actually be a No. 1 or 2 wide receiver in New York? The position is the major (and potentially only) question mark for the Giants this year. Steve Smith will start at one wideout spot, and he's not a true No. 1. Who will man the other WR position? Front runner: Domenik Hixon. Tough to get excited about Hixon, whose big moment in '08 was dropping a touchdown pass in the open field against the Eagles in the first home game following the Burress suspension. He looked good against Seattle last year. That was about it. Contenders: Hakeem Nicks and Ramses Barden. With the exception of guys like Randy Moss, Anquan Boldin, DeSean Jackson and Eddie Royal — it's very rare to see rookie receivers break out onto the scene and make major splashes, let alone two of them. The Giants spent first- and third-round picks on Nicks and Barden, and though both should get some action in '09, they shouldn't be relied upon as dependable go-to targets for Eli Manning. Long shots: Sinorice Moss, Mario Manningham: Neither player has lived up to expectations thus far. Moss is a borderline bust who may be on his last shot with the Giants, while Manningham didn't do anything in his rookie year. Both players have tons of promise. Perhaps one of them breaks out in '09? Someone has to if Giants fans expect to see a passing offense this year.

8. Super Bowl contender: Indianapolis Colts

Position: No. 3 wide receiver. Marvin Harrison's no longer a Colt, moving Anthony Gonzalez up on the depth chart from No. 3 to No. 2. Who will be that No. 3 guy in the "Kings" set that both Gonzalez and Brandon Stokley before him have manned so well for so many years? Front runner: Pierre Garcon. The second-year man out of Division III powerhouse Mount Union totaled only four catches for 23 yards last season, but folks in Indy are excited about his upside. Yes, his name is Pierre Garcon. No, he is not a French painter. He actually could end up being a tremendous fantasy sleeper in '09. Contender: Roy Hall. Hall caught only one ball in '08, but the Colts staff likes his potential, too. An Ohio State man like Gonzalez, he's got more big-game experience than Garcon. Long shot: Austin Collie. And then there's Collie, a do-everything kind of guy out of BYU. A rookie fourth-round pick, Collie's 6-2 with solid hands. With a solid camp, he could be on the field in that slot receiver position come opening day.

9. Super Bowl contender: Atlanta Falcons

Position: Starting cornerback. Though the bulk of Atlanta's star-studded offense from '08 returns in '09, five starters from the defense have gone their separate ways. Chris Houston will start at one corner. Who will take Domonique Foxworth's starting spot this year? Front runner: Chevis Jackson. The second-year man out of LSU had some bright moments in '08, but he also had some low ones. There's some ongoing banter on the Falcons message boards about Jackson being better suited as a nickel back than as the starting corner. That said, it's likely his job to lose. Contender: Von Hutchins. An AFC South lifer fresh from stints with the Colts and Texans, Hutchins has never been an NFL starter. Signed despite missing all of last season with an injury, he comes to the Falcons with a chance to do just that. Long shot: Brent Grimes. Grimes was the starter last year before losing the spot to Foxworth. He's still a good corner to have on the roster, but was overmatched by tall, physical receivers last year.

10. Super Bowl contender: New England Patriots

Position: Starting cornerbacks. The Patriots, again? Well, anyone who is penciling the Pats in for an automatic Super Bowl berth is crazy. There are question marks on this defense, and the cornerback situation is a complete open book. The defensive backfield got an extreme makeover this offseason and features more new faces than a freshman high school English class on the first day of school. Leigh Bodden, Shawn Springs and rookies Darius Butler and Jamar Love join a young unit with very little NFL experience. Front runners: Jonathan Wilhite and Leigh Bodden. Wilhite, a second-year man out of Auburn, made some real impact plays last year. Though he started the season off on special teams, he was starting by Week 15 vs. Arizona, and finished the year entrenched in that role for the Patriots during their successful finish to the regular season. Bodden is a Lions and Browns retread who still has some juice left in the tank. He's been on too many bad teams for too long. With the right supporting cast, he could end up being quite the NFL corner. Contenders: Shawn Springs and Darius Butler. The veteran and the rook. Though there may be question marks at corner in New England, there's certainly not a lack of depth. Springs, a former top-5 pick who's had a more than productive NFL career, brings 13 years of NFL experience and a hunger (shared by veterans Fred Taylor and Joey Galloway) to play for a winner. Butler, meanwhile, was the top-rated cornerback on several draft pundits' boards. The Patriots were thrilled to see the former UConn star slip all the way to the second round. There's no doubt Butler will make a difference right away in his rookie year. Both men could very well be starting in Week 1. Long shots: Terrence Wheatley, Mike Richardson. Wheatley is a second-year veteran who should see plenty of time in 2009. Richardson, a Notre Dame grad, has been on and off of the practice squad and active roster throughout his career. With strong camps, both players have outside shots of getting legitimate playing time — if not starting roles — at corner in New England this season.
Tagged: Falcons, Bears, Browns, Broncos, Lions, Titans, Colts, Chiefs, Dolphins, Patriots, Giants, Eagles, 49ers, Panthers, Ravens, Cardinals, Steelers, Mike Brown, Takeo Spikes, Joey Galloway, Derrick Mason, Randy Moss, Mike Vrabel, Will Allen, Amani Toomer, Jeremiah Trotter, Hugh Douglas, Brian Dawkins, Bobby Taylor, Plaxico Burress, Hines Ward, Shawn Springs, Steve Smith Sr., Fred Taylor, Adalius Thomas, Brandon Stokley, Anquan Boldin, Kelley Washington, Willis McGahee, Tully Banta-Cain, Shaun McDonald, Leigh Bodden, Sean Jones, Eli Manning, Nate Jones, Von Hutchins, Mark Clayton, Josh Bullocks, Eric Green, Domonique Foxworth, Nate Washington, Vernon Davis, Jason Allen, Santonio Holmes, Danieal Manning, Sinorice Moss, Demetrius Williams, Domenik Hixon, Pierre Woods, Roy Hall, Mike Richardson, Anthony Gonzalez, Chris Houston, Brent Grimes, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, Eddie Royal, DeSean Jackson, Limas Sweed, Ray Rice, Terrence Wheatley, Jerod Mayo, Pierre Garcon, Quintin Demps, Craig Steltz, Jonathan Wilhite, Chevis Jackson, Shawn Crable, Mario Manningham, Cedric Peerman, Mike Wallace, Ramses Barden, Austin Collie, Vontae Davis, Hakeem Nicks, Darius Butler, Sean Smith

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