Training camp battles to watch

On every NFL team — even a team as loaded as the 2010 Dallas Cowboys appear to be — one of the main areas of intrigue in training camp is the battles that go on for positions in the starting lineup.

On every team, there are clear-cut starters — nobody in Indianapolis thinks for a second that anyone will challenge Peyton Manning for the Colts' starting quarterback job, nor does anyone in Minnesota think rookie Toby Gerhart has a chance to unseat Adrian Peterson as the Vikings' top running back.

With training camp getting ready to begin this week in San Antonio, what positions present the best battles for starting roles in the Dallas lineup?

Free safety — candidates: Alan Ball, Mike Hamlin, Akwasi Owusu-Ansah
Owusu-Ansah might end up as the eventual starter at the position, but that transition likely is at least a year away, as he is learning the safety position while coming back from shoulder surgery and making the jump from Indiana University of Pennsylvania to the NFL. In the meantime, Ball has a slight edge in experience, but both he and Hamlin should play. Hamlin could be helped if the Cowboys have any injuries at cornerback, which is the position Ball played in college. Until then, however, look for Ball to start, but also look for him to be pushed by Hamlin, who can take over if Ball falters.

Left tackle — candidates: Doug Free, Alex Barron
It's true that owner Jerry Jones has all but said Free is guaranteed a starting role, and after the way he filled in for Adams last year, it's hard to blame Jones for showing such pride in Free. But the fact remains that Barron, the former St. Louis first-round draft choice, is far more athletic and has longer arms, two key traits tackles. Free likely will start at the beginning of the season, but don't be surprised to see Barron take over at some point to face the speed pass rushers who are in fashion, especially in the NFC East.

Starting wide receiver — candidates: Roy Williams, Dez Bryant
It's very possible that the only reason Bryant doesn't own this position is because owner Jerry Jones still wants to justify trading three draft choices for Williams, who remains as inconsistent as he is talented. Immediately after the Cowboys traded up to select Bryant in the first round of the NFL draft in April, Jones declared that Williams will remain the starter across from Miles Austin. But Bryant has sizzled through the mini-camps and OTAs, picking up the offense fairly quickly and making spectacular catches seem routine.

Fourth and fifth cornerbacks — candidates: Cletis Gordon, Jamar Wall, Bryan McCann
In an era in which virtually every NFL team spends considerable time with three receivers on the field, teams carry at least five cornerbacks and often six. But the fact that safety candidates Owusu-Ansah and Ball have played cornerback before allows Dallas the flexibility to save a roster spot and go with just five, three of whom will be Terence Newman, Mike Jenkins and Orlando Scandrick. With four years already on his résumé, Gordon is the most experienced of the three, while in mini-camps and OTAs, Wall appeared to be the most physical and McCann clearly the fastest. Gordon's experience should earn him one of the spots, while McCann's ability to return kicks and cover — fast — on special teams could give him the nod over Wall.

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