Let the battles begin

With the Green Bay Packers coming off a 4-12 season, there are, not surprisingly, many jobs that will be strongly contested during training camp. PackerReport.com's Steve Lawrence breaks down the 10 hottest battles.

Thirty-two practices. Four preseason games. One intrasquad scrimmage. That's what will determine who starts and who won't. Who will earn a spot on the final roster and who will have to join the real-world workforce.

Ten marquee battles headline this year's Green Bay Packers training camp. Ranked from most intriguing to least intriguing, they are:

Right guard

Jason Spitz vs. Junius Coston

The Packers want Spitz to win the job. After all, he comes with a third-rounder's pedigree and price tag, not to mention a bit of a nasty streak. He moved ahead of Coston, a second-year-player with practically no NFL experience, during the organized team activities, but that was before the linemen started knocking heads with defensive linemen. Spitz's inexperience showed as he struggled during one-on-one pass-rushing drills on Friday night, the first day of training camp. Packers general manager Ted Thompson says he isn't worried about starting Spitz or Coston opposite second-round pick Daryn Colledge at guard. Then again, Thompson admitted during the shareholders meeting: "I'm not playing quarterback."

Punter

B.J. Sander vs. Jon Ryan

Ryan showed a big leg during the offseason workouts — and he absolutely killed the ball during the first night of training camp — but there's no telling how he'll react in his first NFL game. Sander is the proven commodity, though he hasn't proven to be very good. For his part, Sander said his leg tired at the end of last season because he punted in NFL Europe that spring. He'll have no excuses this time.

Punt returner

Charles Woodson vs. Greg Jennings vs. Will Blackmon vs. Cory Rodgers

Woodson opens training camp as the No. 1 punt returner. The legend of his playing days at Michigan as a returner outweighs what he's accomplished in the NFL. In eight NFL seasons, he's returned 12 punts. Not per year. Total. His average? A mere 6.4 yards. Antonio Chatman was better than that. With Woodson playing such a key role on defense — namely keeping Ahmad Carroll off the field so he won't commit stupid penalties — it would by a shock if one of the three rookies in the battle doesn't emerge with the job.

Backup receiver

Rod Gardner vs. Marc Boerigter

Both are listed on the Packers' depth chart as lining up at flanker behind Donald Driver. If that holds, then only one will have a job come Week 1 of the regular season. Both are tall, just as new coach Mike McCarthy likes, but both are underachievers. Gardner couldn't even keep a job last year in Carolina, where the Panthers desperately sought warm bodies to play opposite Steve Smith. Boerigter caught eight touchdown passes as an NFL rookie in 2002 but hasn't scored since, averaging 6.3 yards per season in the interim. The Packers desperately need one of these receivers to step up in a reserve role.

No. 2 running back

Samkon Gado vs. Najeh Davenport

Assuming Ahman Green is healthy enough to be the starter, then Gado and Davenport will battle for the top backup job with the loser, perhaps, being out of a job. Davenport is coming off a broken ankle and has never been able to stay healthy. Davenport was healthy enough to practice Friday, but the Packers must determine if he can be counted on. Gado, meantime, showed plenty of promise as the team's only productive runner last season, but he struggled mightily with the new offensive scheme during the offseason. Since Gado and Davenport have similar styles, it wouldn't be a shock if only one made the final roster.

Left defensive tackle

Kenderick Allen vs. Colin Cole

The small but quick Cullen Jenkins and the big, hard-working Cole combined to form a decent duo opposite Grady Jackson last season. Thompson added the run-stuffing but underachieving Allen to the mix during the offseason. Because Jenkins brings pass-rush skills, his roster spot would appear safe. If the Packers can light a fire under Allen, who was a prep superstar who hasn't done much since, then this could be a big-time battle. Otherwise, look for the status quo to remain.

Strong-side linebacker

Ben Taylor vs. Brady Poppinga

Talk about total opposites. Taylor is a solid and dependable veteran, but he's not a game-changer. In 16 starts last season, he managed to post zeroes in the following statistical categories: interceptions, sacks, fumbles recovered and fumbles forced. Poppinga, meantime, started just once and played in 12 games before a season-ending knee injury that will delay his training camp debut. He made his share of mistakes, but he also sacked the quarterback twice.

Split end

Robert Ferguson vs. Greg Jennings

Because he's a veteran, Ferguson is the clear favorite to earn the starting job. With very few exceptions, rookie receivers make little, if any, impact. But Jennings looked like a fast learner during offseason workouts, and Ferguson has a history of injuries and underachieving. If Jennings gets off to a fast start and isn't overwhelmed with the speed and complexity of the NFL game, he could push Ferguson.

Backup safety

Marviel Underwood vs. Tyrone Culver vs. Tra Boger vs. Atari Bigby

With the Packers unloading Mark Roman on Thursday, the backup safety jobs are wide open. Boger and Bigby must be considered long shots to make the roster, but they are the only players listed behind Marquand Manuel at strong safety. Draft picks Underwood (2005) and Culver (2006) are listed behind Nick Collins at free safety. Even if the Packers move Underwood or Culver, look for the team to add a veteran at some point.

Kicker

Billy Cundiff vs. Dave Rayner

Yes, I ranked this No. 10. And yes, I realize the importance of this battle. But how can anyone be excited by these two? Cundiff has had a decent career and has a big leg, but he did his kicking in Texas. To say he's not Ryan Longwell is an understatement, but it's a mystery how he'll do in Lambeau Field starting in November. Rayner, meantime, has one field-goal attempt in his career while kicking off last season in Indianapolis. Unless either one has a stellar camp, look for the Packers to bring in a kicker of two as camp progresses.

Lawrence is a regular contributor to PackerReport.com. Send comments to steve_lawrence_packers@yahoo.com.


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