Behind Enemy Lines – Battles to look for

.Net reporter Scott Eklund takes a look at some position battles to keep an eye on as teams prepare for training camp.

San Francisco –

QB would seem to be a hotly contested position on the 49er's squad when training camp opens on July 30th. That isn't the case however, even with projected starter Tim Rattay out until the start of the season as he rehabs from a torn groin muscle. The keys to the starting job have been handed to second-year QB Ken Dorsey and coaches believe he will be able to hold down the fort until Rattay is ready to come back.


The biggest battle of camp is expected to be for the starting FS spot vacated when the Niners released veteran Zack Bronson in June. Vying for the spot are four-year veteran Ronnie Heard and second-year man Dwaine Carpenter. Heard has the slight edge because of his smarts and sure tackling, but Carpenter is more athletic and faster. Each will see time, but look for Heard to get a majority of the snaps…at least early on.


Another position battle to keep an eye on is the starting wideout spots. Second-year veteran WR Brandon Lloyd and 12-year vet Curtis Conway head into camp as the starters, but Cedric Wilson and rookie Rashaun Woods, as well as Derrick Hamilton, will push for playing time. Wilson was penciled in as the starter opposite Lloyd following the team's first mini-camp, but then Conway signed as a free agent and thus the battle for the second WR position became open. Woods impressed during the final two mini-camps and is expected to push for time, and Hamilton's size (6'4") and explosiveness also give him the chance to see some reps.


St. Louis –

The WR position for the Rams will see a battle for the third wideout spot. Starters Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt form the best starting tandem in the league. Each is dangerous down the field and across the middle. However, last season the third WR spot left something to be desired. Dan Looker manned the spot most of the year and while he has sure hands, he lacks the playmaking ability that former Rams Az-Zahir Hakim and Ricky Proehl displayed. Look for second-year men Kevin Curtis and Shaun McDonald to push Looker in training camp. Curtis has the speed to hurt defenses deep and McDonald is shifty and plays well in the slot. Each was injured most of their rookie seasons and they will be expected to produce once the regular season gets underway.


The RB position also is a spot to keep an eye on in camp. Veteran, and future hall-of-famer Marshall Faulk is the starter, but he hasn't played a full season since 1999. Expect a heated battle between solid two-year veteran Lamar Gordon and 2004 first-rounder Steven Jackson for the spot behind Faulk. Gordon has good speed and hands and filled in nicely when Faulk was injured in week three last season. Jackson is a bruiser who also has great speed and is also a good receiver out of the backfield. He won't make a lot of people miss, but he will run them over and pound away all day. If Jackson can pick-up the blocking schemes on blitzes, Gordon may be expendable by the end of training camp.


Starting QB Marc Bulger will not be challenged in camp, but 16-year veteran Chris Chandler has shown that he is capable of leading the team should the need arise. Chandler looked great in the team's mini-camps and he still throws one of the best deep balls. Rookie QB Jeff Smoker struggled some in post-draft workouts, but he has all the intangibles (height, footwork, release, leadership) needed to be successful in the league.


Arizona –

The cornerback spot opposite CB Duane Starks should be a good battle once training camp kicks off on August 1st. Newly acquired David Macklin and three-year veteran Renaldo Hill will battle it out during camp. Hill is still recovering from a wrist-injury suffered in November, but the team expects him to be fully recovered by the start of camp. Macklin is a four-year veteran who is on the smallish side (5'9), but what he lacks in height, he makes up for with strength and tenacity. Whoever loses the battle to start will see plenty of time though; with the three-receiver sets employed by most teams, the nickel corner sees the field 60-65 percent of the time.


Second-year WR Anquan Boldin and rookie WR Larry Fitzgerald make up a young, exciting tandem at wideout. Each has good speed and both will make catches in traffic. All they need to do is learn how to read defenses and form a rapport with QB Josh McCown and they will be dangerous. Behind them will be 2003 first-rounder Bryant Johnson, who may be best suited as the third receiver. He had trouble in 2003 picking up coverages and thus underachieved. He has speed to burn and with a year of seasoning he should be able to produce solid numbers. The fourth-spot is where the competition lies. Nate Poole and Kevin Kasper are both solid possession receivers, but neither strikes fear into opposing defenses. Look for Poole to get the nod, as he is the bigger target, but Kasper's smarts and route-running ability make him an asset as well.



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