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Top position battles to watch this year

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John Czarnecki

John Czarnecki has been the editorial consultant for "FOX NFL Sunday" since its 1994 inception. This season marks Czarnecki's 32nd year covering the NFL. He is one of 44 selectors to the Pro Football Hall of Fame.

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Coaches love to be ahead of the curve when evaluating their own personnel.

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And let me tell you, many of them are going nuts right now, unsure about many of their own young players because they didn’t see them during the offseason at minicamps and OTA days. Those lost days would have done a lot for their confidence in picking new starters.

The entire selection process has been confounded by the new collective-bargaining agreement because of its limitations on two-a-days in training camp with pads.

“You like a guy one day on his pure athletic ability,” the Rams’ Steve Spagnuolo said, “but I need to know whether he will hit or not. Or can he take a hit or not? I’m worried now about having enough time to evaluate all that.”

With the NFL’s first preseason games next weekend, the evaluation process has hit another gear, and it’s been especially rough with restricted players not being able to take the practice field until Thursday, the official first day of the NFL calendar year.

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All 32 teams are having major position battles as new players seem to arrive daily, but the following are the major competitions we are watching with curiosity:

Denver’s Quarterback Saga: Hands down, Kyle Orton is winning the job and running with the first team. Orton wants this job, and that’s why he deliberately messed up a potential trade to Miami, a team that seemed desperate for him. The Broncos have a real mess on their hands, thanks to the departed Josh McDaniels, who picked Tim Tebow in the first round a year ago. Denver can’t trade Tebow for realistic compensation — who wants him? — while most Denver veterans believe Orton is their best option for winning. Tebow and Brady Quinn pale in comparison to Orton in camp, proving that the lockout really hurt both of them with their teammates and the new coaching staff. How the hell does Coach John Fox bench Orton for Tebow simply because he’s the fans’ choice?

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Packers Running Punch: Green Bay is in the process of retooling its offensive line, but the key question for the defending champions is, who’s going to be running it? You may say this is not a big deal because Aaron Rodgers is going to be throwing it, but it is a big deal to Ryan Grant, who lost the starter RB role through injury. Grant is the big-money player on the roster, but so many young players there respect what James Starks, a sixth-round pick in 2010, did during the team’s playoff march to Dallas. He scored in the NFC Championship Game, and he became reliable in blocking for Rodgers, no easy task for a young runner. As much as Grant wants his old job back, I say coach Mike McCarthy sticks to his idea of running by committee, because he also trusts Starks.

Carolina’s Diaper Derby: A year ago, Panthers GM Marty Hurney thought he drafted his quarterback of the future when Notre Dame’s Jimmy Clausen — Mel Kiper’s favorite quarterback — dropped to him in the second round. Well, the kid didn’t win a game. But he’s running with the first team for now while Cam Newton, this year’s No. 1 overall selection, figures out how to become a more accurate passer. Newton has tons more physical tools than Clausen does, but he’s definitely raw. Still, there’s no way they can keep him on the bench after September. To his credit, Newton doesn’t want to be simply given the job. “Everybody knows if you’ve been given something,” he said. “You get the respect from your teammates by working hard and doing everything and earning what you want.”

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Bengals Competing to Replace Palmer: Probably the most ludicrous angle of Carson Palmer’s refusal to play again in Cincinnati is that his younger brother, Jordan Palmer, is in the mix to be a backup. Owner Mike Brown would flip out if Jordan actually won the job. But before we give rookie Andy Dalton, who did such a fine job at TCU, the starter’s role come opening day, we must realize that Bruce Gradkowski, once a favorite of Jon Gruden, knows the Bengals’ playbook very well. And why’s what? The new offensive coordinator here is Jay Gruden. Gradkowski is a blood-and-guts kind of quarterback, but his veteran experience could keep Dalton on the bench for a while. This entire month will be spent getting Dalton up to NFL speed, because coach Marvin Lewis would rather roll the dice with the kid. Of course, Lewis may have no other option than to play Gradkowski.

Minnesota Mayhem: After riding the Brett Favre roller coaster for two years, the Vikings pulled off yet another quarterback surprise — trading for Donovan McNabb after they already had shocked the NFL by drafting Florida State quarterback Christian Ponder. You have to ask, would they have drafted Ponder if they already had McNabb? Detroit’s Matthew Stafford told me McNabb will be the guy “because he’s been making plays all his life.” But Bill Musgrave, the new offensive coordinator, pushed to draft Ponder because of his quick mind and accuracy, and he’ll heavily influence the final decision. The lockout killed any chance of Ponder starting in September. But if McNabb messes up and the Vikings slip below .500 in the mighty NFC Central, Ponder will play. He can’t learn anything sitting on the sidelines. With Sidney Rice gone, the offense should be centered around Adrian Peterson anyway.

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Chicago Changing Catchers: Some personnel people have termed Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz a roster wrecker as he’s bounced around the NFL, and his latest input was making talented tight end Greg Olsen expendable for Carolina. But the big battle for the Bears is, where does Devin Hester stand with the arrival of ex-Cowboy Roy Williams? Remember, Williams played for Martz in Detroit. There is no doubt that Johnny Knox and Earl Bennett are ahead of Hester, the converted return man. Hester has shown flashes of receiving excitement, but he’s never been a smooth route runner. Williams wasn’t a No. 1 receiver when Jerry Jones paid him like one, but he may be more consistent than Hester out on the flanks. Remember, the Bears were one game away from the Super Bowl last season, and they sound determined to make Jay Cutler happy. Chicago used to be all about defense, but the focus this month will be on offense, including the arrival of Marion Barber, a runner with Walter Payton toughness. Chicago has a lot of unanswered questions on offense.

Whom Does Kyle Shanahan Really Like?: The Redskins’ quarterback competition, with Rex Grossman back from the unemployment lines, should be intriguing with father Mike Shanahan talking up John Beck, when it was his son and offensive coordinator, Kyle, who dumped on McNabb and promoted Grossman last season. These are two young quarterbacks coming back from the dead, so to speak. Can any Redskins fan really get excited about either of these journeymen? What is perplexing about this debate is that there really shouldn’t be any competition. The head coach should pick one and focus the entire preseason on getting him ready for the real deal. That makes the most sense and that means Beck, if Mike makes the call.

Tagged: Bears, Bengals, Broncos, Packers, Chiefs, Vikings, Redskins, Panthers, Mike Brown, Donovan McNabb, Carson Palmer, Roy Williams, Kyle Orton, Ryan Grant, Devin Hester, Bruce Gradkowski, Jordan Palmer, John Beck, Tim Tebow, Christian Ponder, Andy Dalton

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