Pastabelli: Training Camp Competitions (Coakley/James mentioned)
Suggs' speed, style give him edge
By Len Pasquarelli
For all the rhetoric regarding intramural battles at the opening of NFL training camps, most coaches privately admit they have already identified all but a few starters by the first snap of the initial practice.
It is romantic, but hardly reality, to suggest that NFL franchises head to camp with most of the positions up for grabs.
There are, however, some legitimate mano a mano competitions every summer that prove to be compelling, and this year will be no different.
Most of the focus, as always, will be on those camps where the starting quarterback spot is still undecided. Over the next month or so, there will be reams of copy churned out and mulled over surrounding the quarterback competitions for Miami, Oakland, Washington, San Diego, Dallas and the New York Giants. Fact is, though, there are clear favorites for starting jobs in nearly all of those situations. And unless Eli Manning and Philip Rivers can come to speedy contract resolutions, the issue will be settled in the Chargers' and Giants' camps, respectively.
Instead, some of the more intriguing skirmishes -- really, many of the truly legitimate one-on-one battles for spots atop the regular season depth chart -- figure to be waged at positions other than quarterback. And while some of the combatants are not necessarily big names, the relative anonymity does not diminish the profile of the impending battles.
One of the more riveting competitions probably will be in the Cleveland Browns camp, where former first-round draft choice William Green will attempt to reclaim the starting tailback job from Lee Suggs, who spent much of his 2003 rookie campaign on the non-football injury list and then rushed for 186 yards in the season finale against Cincinnati.
Green, the Browns' first-round selection in 2002, is coming off a troubled year, one in which he served a league-mandated suspension for a repeat violation of the substance abuse policy and was involved in a ugly domestic incident that ended with him being stabbed. His off-field distractions and questions about his character aside, Green still possesses big-time skills, as demonstrated in the second half of the '02 season.
On the flip side, Suggs has the kind of rare long speed that turns scouts' head (witness his 5.2-yard average in limited playing time last year), and he will enter camp as No. 1 on the crowded depth chart. It is an interesting scenario for coach Butch Davis, who typically favors a physical inside running game and who wants to bludgeon opponents, and whose choice at tailback might be a factor in determining his future.
"People got a taste of what I can do late last year and it's great to be starting camp all healed up and healthy," said Suggs, a fourth-round pick in 2003. "The competition, me and Will both feel, will be great for both of us. I'm looking forward to it."
Here is a look at 10 other training camp competitions, exclusive of quarterback battles, that merit attention:
Dallas Cowboys, weak-side linebacker: Veteran Dexter Coakley has played in three Pro Bowl games in eight seasons, remains a proactive player, and was second on the team in 2003 with 110 tackles. But Coakley has always had to overcome size limitations, and coach Bill Parcells has long favored big, physical 'backers. So keep an eye on second-year veteran Bradie James, a fourth-round pick in 2003, who spent most of his rookie season on special teams. Parcells once noted that James "couldn't lift a Kleenex" when he reported to the Cowboys, but the former LSU star has virtually lived in the weight room in the offseason and, at 243 pounds, has the kind of size the staff covets.
Jacksonville Jaguars, left offensive tackle: Six-year veteran Ephraim Salaam, signed as an unrestricted free agent in the spring, has started 85 games in stints with Atlanta and Denver and will push third-year pro Mike Pearson hard. Pearson started 27 contests his first two seasons, including all 16 in 2003, and, while his pass blocking is solid enough, he is not a strong drive blocker. Then again, Salaam has always been regarded as a better pass blocker, too.
Denver Broncos, tailback: The acquisition of cornerback Champ Bailey via trade cost the Broncos emerging star Clinton Portis, so coach Mike Shanahan will need to dip again into his seemingly bottomless satchel of tailbacks. Despite great depth, don't expect the Broncos to employ a committee approach, which means that someone is going to get the bulk of the carries. That someone likely is second-year veteran Quentin Griffin, a pinball-type runner who bounced his way to 345 yards as a rookie in 2003. His favorite status aside, Griffin will be pushed by the venerable Garrison Hearst and youngsters Tatum Bell, Ahmaad Galloway and Cecil Sapp. Don't discount Galloway, who missed all of '03 with a knee injury, but whom the coaches like.
Minnesota Vikings, free safety: Never mind that, in his first season as a starter, Brian Russell tied for the NFL lead in interceptions (nine) in 2003. The Vikings are so unconvinced that Russell is their long-term solution that they signed him to just a one-year, minimum salary offer as an "exclusive rights" free agent, and will force him to re-earn the starting spot he snatched last summer. Head coach Mike Tice will afford Willie Offord, who the coaches consider the more physical of the pair, an opportunity to steal Russell's job in camp.
Tennessee Titans, wide receiver: Starter Justin McCareins was traded to the New York Jets in March and his departure means Drew Bennett and Tyrone Calico should wage war for the starting job opposite No. 1 receiver Derrick Mason. Bennett is a deceptively good athlete, a player who looks more like a possession receiver, but who possesses terrific body control and can make the acrobatic catch. Calico is raw but blessed, a playmaker just waiting to emerge, and he scored four touchdowns on just 18 catches in 2003.
New Orleans Saints, middle linebacker: Last year at this time, New Orleans coaches were gushing about then-rookie Cie Grant, an undersized middle 'backer who could run like a tailback. This year, the rave reviews have been directed at rookie Courtney Watson, a second-round selection from Notre Dame, and a guy Saints officials acknowledge is even better than advertised. Watson runs well and demonstrates great instincts. Start a rookie at such a critical position, especially coming off a season in which New Orleans statistically ranked a miserable 27th versus the rush? It could happen. Grant remains in the picture, as does Orlando Ruff, an unspectacular but steady defender.
Chicago Bears, strong safety: Hard-hitting Bobby Gray started 10 games in 2003, taking the place of the injured Mike Green (groin), and now he will attempt to replace him on a more permanent basis. It won't be easy, given Green's experience, and the fact he ranks third on the Bears defense in tackles over the past three seasons. But Gray is an explosive hitter and rookie head coach Lovie Smith doesn't come in having loyalties to anyone.
Carolina Panthers, strong-side linebacker: The mere fact Mark Fields was able to take part in some offseason workouts, after missing the team's Super Bowl season in 2003 as he battled cancer, is already a feel-good story. Whether the much respected nine-year veteran can author the next heart-warming chapter by regaining his starting job remains to be seen. Greg Favors, who stepped in to Fields' spot last year, departed in free agency. But the Panthers added veterans Jessie Armstead and Brandon Short, and Fields, who will be closely monitored early in camp, will have to hold off their challenges. Short is only 27 years old and was a three-year starter for the Giants, and one of the surprises of the free agency period is that he didn't generate more interest.
Kansas City Chiefs, cornerback: The coaching staff is tiring a bit of waiting for Eric Warfield to become the big-time, shut-down corner he has the potential to be. And Dexter McCleon, who was supposed to be a "nickel" defender in 2003, but started all 16 games, will turn 31 in October. So watch for second-year veteran Julian Battle, blessed with the kind of size and physical presence every team is now seeking at the position, to get the chance to bump someone from the lineup. Battle played sparingly from scrimmage as a rookie, and notched only three tackles, but was one of the Chiefs' most improved young players in the offseason. He can hit like a safety and run like a corner and, with a good camp, is going to force the Chiefs to expand his playing time.
Indianapolis Colts, free safety: The Colts already have an undersized strong safety in Mike Doss but don't seem concerned about perhaps adding another munchkin, second-round pick Bob Sanders of Iowa, to their secondary. Sanders will push the incumbent, Idrees Bashir, who suffered through an injury-plagued '03 season, when he played in just nine games. Colts brass seems to feel Bashir, a former second-rounder who has just five interceptions in three seasons, isn't a natural playmaker. Sanders, despite being under 5-feet-9, is a guy who is always around the ball.
Senior writer Len Pasquarelli covers the NFL for ESPN.com.
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