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Some Position battles on NFL teams this coming year


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Feeley, Harrington may lose jobsBy Todd McShay

Scouts Inc.

Training camp has always provided an opportunity for rookies, reserves and free-agent additions to challenge established starters. Some veterans just aren't the players they were earlier in their careers, which creates an opening for players ready to push them for playing time.

The following is a breakdown of what we consider to be the eight most intriguing training camp battles, including who the early favorite is to open the regular season as the starter:

Eagles No. 2 Wide Receiver: Todd Pinkston vs. Greg Lewis vs. Reggie Brown

Eagles' fans should be hopeful that this competition is taking place for the No. 2 receiver spot, not for the No. 1 job as Terrell Owens' replacement. Regardless, Pinkston is too soft to keep this starting job forever, but he's also too tall and fast to keep off the field.

Because of his potential to stretch the field vertically, Pinkston is a decent complement to Owens, who does a lot of his best work on short-to-intermediate routes that he turns into long gains after the catch. Assuming Owens is on the field when the season begins, look for Pinkston to work as the opposite starter, Lewis as the No. 3 slot receiver and Brown as the No. 4 in dime situations.

Lewis, a former undrafted free agent in 2003, has been a pleasant surprise for the Eagles. He has contributed on special teams and as a sub-package receiver in his first two NFL seasons. He stepped up as a starter for three games when Owens went down in 2004, and Lewis finished with 17 receptions for 183 yards. While there's much to like about Lewis' work ethic and potential to stretch the field vertically, he will always fit better as a No. 3 or No. 4 slot receiver in the NFL.

There are still some long-term durability concerns regarding Brown and he is still a little bit rough around the edges. However, Brown can be an acrobatic playmaker. He made huge strides with his hands and route-running consistency as a senior at Georgia, and he's a tough, competitive player who thrives on going over the middle and making the catch in traffic.

In short, Lewis is the best fit as a No. 3 receiver to start the regular season, but Brown is the greater threat to steal the No. 2 receiver job from Pinkston.

Make no mistake, there is no replacing Terrell Owens. If the two sides can't get a deal done and Owens is stubborn enough to sit out the 2005 season, Pinkston and Lewis are the likely candidates as starters, with Brown working as the No. 3 receiver and Billy McMullen working as the possession No. 4. In that scenario, the Eagles won't have enough offensive firepower to make a return trip to the Super Bowl.

Projected Winner: Pinkston

Dolphins Quarterback: A.J. Feeley vs. Gus Frerotte

Frerotte's chances of becoming the Dolphins' Week 1 starting quarterback seem to increase with each passing day. Frerotte and Feeley will split snaps in the preseason before head coach Nick Saban makes his decision on the starter. When Saban took the job, it seemed that Feeley, who started eight games for the Dolphins last season, was the natural fit.

Feeley's numbers left a lot to be desired, as he completed 53.7 percent of his attempts for 1,893 yards with four more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (11). But the youngster has more upside than Frerotte and can't be judged solely on his performance behind a patchwork offensive line, and with very little balance from the running back position. Despite showing flashes of brilliance, Feeley's penchant for critical mental errors and turnovers would drive a Bill Belichick-disciple like Saban crazy.

Saban won't put up with those types of sloppy mistakes in what promises to be a ball-control, power-run offense. That's where Frerotte comes in. Frerotte is on the downside of his career and has always had problems beating the blitz. However, he reads defenses well, has good arm strength and excellent experience. Frerotte also has played in the same system with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan in Minnesota, giving him an immediate leg-up in the competition.

Projected Winner: Frerotte

Vikings Running Back: Michael Bennett vs. Mewelde Moore vs. Ciatrick Fason

This could easily have been Onterrio Smith's job but his suspension for the entire 2005 season obviously takes him out of the equation, and it could signal the end of his days in Minnesota. Smith will be a restricted free agent this season and, if the same coaching staff is in place, we're hearing that Smith has run out of chances.

With that said, the Vikings still have a ridiculous amount of depth at the position. Moe Williams isn't even included in the candidates list but he will continue to contribute on a high level as a short-yardage ball carrier, change-of-pace runner and reliable dump-off receiver out of the backfield, not to mention on special teams.

As for the No. 1 job, Bennett has to be the favorite to start on opening day if he's suited up. The former 2001 first-round pick has missed 13 games to injuries since his 2002 Pro Bowl season, in which he rushed for a career-best 1,296 yards. A broken foot limited him to eight games in 2003 and he missed the first five games of 2004 with a knee injury.

Bennett's inability to stay healthy has stunted his development terribly, but the good news is that he's still only 25 years old and possesses the explosive speed to provide long runs. The Vikings will always need good depth behind him, but he's their top choice.

Moore will continue his role as a versatile backup. He gives the Vikings good insurance should Bennett's injury problems persist. Moore lacks the size, power and durability of an every-down starting back in the NFL, but he received excellent experience as a rookie and proved capable of handling multiple roles. Moore contributed as a change-of-pace runner, receiver and special teams' player as a return guy and in other facets.

The team has the luxury of bringing Fason along slowly. He is an outstanding athlete with good top-end speed and very little mileage on his legs, but he's also unpolished in the passing game and needs to learn to run with better pad-level.

Projected Winner: Bennett

Lions Quarterback: Joey Harrington vs. Jeff Garcia

Harrington has the physical tools to develop into a solid starter, but has yet to put it all together. He continues to make too many mistakes under pressure and his inconsistency has been difficult to overcome. With an improved offensive line and a ridiculous amount of young skill-position talent surrounding him in 2005, the pressure is on.

Garcia's presence won't make life any easier on Harrington this summer. Garcia should benefit from reuniting with Mariucci in Detroit, where the scheme is much better suited to his style than the scheme in Cleveland. Garcia has the experience, accuracy, quick release and feet to operate in Mariucci's version of the West Coast offense.

However, Garcia is no longer considered even an adequate NFL starter and his physical tools are on a heavy decline. Garcia signed a four-year deal with the Browns as a free agent in 2004, but only played one season before being released. In 2004, he started in 10 games and completed 57.1 percent of his attempts with nearly as many interceptions (nine) as touchdowns (10).

Harrington threw more interceptions than touchdowns in each of his first two seasons (2002-'03), but improved in that regard in 2004, throwing 19 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also had career-bests in terms of completion percentage (56 percent) and QB-rating (97).

As much as head coach Steve Mariucci likes Garcia, he knows that the aging veteran is only a short-term solution. Mariucci won't hesitate to pull Harrington four or five games into the season if he isn't getting the job done. But with so much young talent on the offensive side of the ball, Mariucci knows the more ideal scenario is for the fourth-year quarterback to win the job over the 35-year-old retread. Patience and promise of a bright future will lead to Harrington being behind center when the Packers come to town on opening day.

Projected Winner: Harrington

Falcons Flanker: Peerless Price vs. Michael Jenkins

The Falcons' wide receiving corps is the team's weak-link, thanks largely in part to Price's disappointing play as a high-priced free agent acquisition in 2003. In his last season with the Bills (2002) as a complementary No. 2 receiver opposite Eric Moulds, Price raked in 96 catches for 1,252 yard with nine touchdowns.

That led to his free-agent payday in Atlanta, but Price has yet to live up to his price tag. He has missed a game because of injury in each of his two seasons with the Falcons and the supposed go-to-guy has averaged 39.5 fewer receptions, 545.5 fewer yards and six fewer touchdowns per season than he boasted in his final season in Buffalo.

Price's vision problems, which are caused by an inoperable retinal condition, led to rumors of his possible early retirement. If the condition worsens, Price still hasn't ruled out retirement, but he absolutely plans on returning in 2005. The question now, however, is whether Price can hold onto his starting job?

On top of the vision problems, Price's inconsistent hands and lack of toughness are maddening for the Falcons' coaching staff. The team seriously considered cutting Price this offseason despite the serious financial ramifications.

The door is certainly open for Jenkins, however, he has much to prove as well. He had some durability issues and failed to make the necessary strides in terms of coverage recognition and route running, notching just seven receptions as a rookie last season.

Jenkins did, however, prove himself on special teams in 2004 and has reportedly made huge strides in terms of his hands and confidence as a route runner during recent mini camps. He has an outstanding combination of size (6-foot-4, 215), strength and speed. The second-year pro has the potential to become a greater mismatch than Price, and Jenkins is also a lot more competitive and tougher over the middle.

In our opinion, Jenkins eventually will supplant Price as the Falcons' starting flanker but not by Week 1. Look for Price and Dez White to retain their starting wide receiver jobs but for Jenkins to still factor greatly into the equation. As the No. 3 receiver, Jenkins will line up on the perimeter in sub-packages. That will allow the smaller and less physical Price to move inside to the slot, where he should get cleaner releases and better man-to-man matchups versus No. 3 cornerbacks.

Projected Winner: Price

49ers Quarterback: Tim Rattay vs. Alex Smith

Rattay is a gutsy signal-caller with a quick release and good accuracy when he has a passing window. But the 6-foot quarterback has trouble seeing downfield when throwing from within the pocket, and can't seem to stay healthy. In 2004, Rattay missed seven starts because of groin, shoulder, forearm and foot injuries.

Rattay is at best a decent starter and can't be relied upon to stay healthy from week-to-week. That's what made Smith such a no-brainer as the No. 1 overall pick in this year's draft.

Smith still needs to get bigger and he lacks ideal arm strength. He also will have a big adjustment, transitioning from the mid-major college level (Mountain West Conference) to the NFL, especially after playing in such a wide-open shotgun-oriented offensive scheme. However, he still has much better natural physical tools than Rattay and Smith's intelligence and confidence will help make up for what he lacks in terms of experience as a rookie.

Smith has enough arm strength to make all the necessary NFL throws. He is a fine athlete who can run himself out of danger and buy second-chance passing opportunities, and also has the height (6-4) to see over his offensive line as a pocket passer.

The 49ers are in a rebuilding phase right now as an organization so there's no sense in letting the future franchise quarterback hold a clipboard on the sideline as a rookie. There's no question that Smith will struggle in his first NFL season, but he's not going to lose his confidence as a result.

Troy Aikman stumbled to an 0-11 record in his rookie season (1989) and threw twice as many interceptions (18) as he did touchdowns (nine), before winning more games in the 1990's (90) than any other NFL quarterback in any decade. Much like the Cowboys in 1989, what do the 49ers have to lose by starting Smith right away in 2005?

Projected Winner: Smith

Colts Right Cornerback: Marlin Jackson vs. Donald Strickland vs. Joseph Jefferson

Strickland and Jefferson are the incumbents, but neither has put a stranglehold on the position. Strickland had an impressive rookie season in 2003 and started the last eight games. He built on that momentum early in 2004, starting the first four games and averaging five tackles per outing, but a shoulder injury in Week 4 landed him on the injured reserve.

Jefferson is a former third-round pick with a good combination of size and speed. He showed a lot of developmental upside as a rookie, but it has been downhill since. He missed the entire 2003 season because of a groin injury that required surgery and he missed the first five games of last season with a knee injury that eventually required arthroscopic surgery. The problem is that Jefferson has arthritis in his knee, which means he may never be 100-percent again.

Strickland and Jefferson's inability to stay healthy led the Colts to spend a first-round pick on Jackson. So far, Jackson has done nothing to disappoint. He has had some trouble off the field and his play on the field was inconsistent throughout his career. He also lacks ideal speed and has not shown great ball skills in coverage.

However, he has ideal size, strength and athletic ability. He is tough and competitive enough to match up man-to-man against a majority of NFL receivers. He's a much better fit in coach Tony Dungy's cover-two scheme, where he won't be forced to turn and run downfield very often. Jackson is confident, mature and experienced enough to step in right away as a starter in Week 1 of his rookie season. Based on how well he played in recent mini-camps, that's exactly what he will do.

In that scenario, Jefferson will likely be moved to a backup FS role with Strickland playing the nickel position and Jason David working as the dime cornerback.

Projected Winner: Jackson

Raiders No. 2 Cornerback: Nnamdi Asomugha vs. Renaldo Hill vs. Denard Walker vs. Fabian Washington vs. Stanford Routt

Asomugha has great size, speed and athletic ability. The problem is that he hasn't progressed nearly as fast as the team would have liked. Right now, he doesn't look natural because his recognition skills are inconsistent and his technique is poor. Regardless, Asomugha is the best option right now and also has more upside than any cornerback playing behind him. That's why Asomugha will go into the season as a starter.

Hill and Walker are simply fill-the-gap backups while Washington and Routt develop. Hill is solid as a sub-package zone cornerback because he's quick and instinctive, but he has just decent size and lacks the speed to turn and run vertically. Walker was once a solid starter but the 31 year old lost a step and no longer matches up well in anything but soft underneath zone coverage.

Both of the team's rookie cornerbacks have explosive speed, but Washington was the fastest player in the 2005 draft class and he's a lot more polished as a three-year starter coming out of Nebraska. Routt is bigger than Washington, but he's a track star turned football player whose learning curve should be relatively steep.

If Washington and Routt show signs of progress in training camp, Walker will be the odd man out. In that scenario, look for Asomugha to start opposite Woodson in Week 1, with Hill serving as the No. 3, Washington as the No. 4 and Routt as the No. 5. Washington should overtake Hill as the nickel cornerback by season's end.

Furthermore, if the Raiders' three young cornerbacks develop enough over the course of the next year, there's a strong possibility that Charles Woodson will be asked to move to FS in 2006, leaving Asomugha and Washington as the starters and Routt serving as the nickel.

Projected Winner: Asomugha

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