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More position battles on NFL teams


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Leftwich in need of protectionScouts Inc.

As we get closer to late July and training camp, interesting individual battles are shaping up on almost every NFL team. We have picked a few that certainly will be worth watching.

Baltimore Ravens: No. 2 WR

Unrestricted free agent acquisition Derrick Mason obviously will be the No. 1 wide receiver in this offense, but the battle for No. 2 will likely come down to rookie Mark Clayton and youngsters Randy Hynes, Clarence Moore and Devard Darling. It's probably Clayton's job if he can grasp the offense in training camp. He has the best technical skills of any of the rookie receivers, and much like Mason, he knows how to get open and separate.

Moore, Hynes and Darling are all big, ranging guys who are tough size matchups for smaller DBs, especially in the red zone. But none of the three has the type of speed you want on the perimeter, and all three really limit the vertical aspect of the offense.

If Clayton is not ready to start early, he could certainly be a fit as a No. 3 slot receiver because of his quickness and precise routes. But if Clayton started, moving Moore to the slot wouldn't necessarily be an ideal situation because his toughness and concentration inside are not always consistent.

The good news for the Ravens is that they can start the season with five quality receivers on their roster, with two new starters. However, the battle for No. 2 might last all the way through the preseason.

Cleveland Browns: Starting RB

After playing well down the stretch in 2004, Lee Suggs went into the offseason thinking he would be "the guy" in Cleveland in 2005 -- especially with 2002 first-round draft pick William Green out of the mix at running back.

However, as much as the Browns like Suggs' slashing style and combination of explosiveness and power, he has missed 15 games over the last two seasons and durability is certainly an issue. That is why the front office decided to acquire former Denver Broncos RB Reuben Droughns. While these two players will battle for the starting position, both will play a lot and give the Browns an effective 1-2 punch.

Cleveland is even tinkering with some two-back sets featuring both Suggs and Droughns on the field at the same time. Droughns is not as nifty as Suggs, but he is a no-nonsense, north/south power runner and gives the Browns toughness in the run game. The downside is that Droughns' running style also causes him to wear down.

If he stays healthy in the preseason, Suggs likely will be the opening day starter. Both will share the load, and the Browns should get 1,500 to 1,800 yards rushing from the RB position in 2005.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Starting LOT

Talented QB Byron Leftwich prefers to stay in the pocket and is not a scrambler, meaning his blindside pass protection is critical. That is why the battle at left offensive tackle between incumbent Mike Pearson and this year's second-round draft pick, Khalif Barnes, will be very competitive throughout the season.

Ordinarily, you wouldn't expect a rookie to be in the mix this early for the starting job, but you get the sense that the Jaguars are not satisfied with Pearson as their starter. First of all, he is coming off a serious knee injury that cost him the last 12 games of '04. His quickness and lateral movement, already suspect for a LOT, could be hindered even further.

Pearson is a power-type player who has lock-on qualities. Unfortunately, he struggles on an island against quickness and simply gives up too many sacks. Barnes is a first-round talent who lasted until the second round because of injury concerns. He is a better athlete than Pearson and matches up much better on the perimeter against speed rushers. He also can handle all the complicated nuances of playing the LOT position.

Pearson is a safe choice as a starter, but he might not be the best choice. If Barnes has a good preseason, the Jaguars' coaching staff could throw him into the fire early.

Houston Texans: No. 2 WR

Andre Johnson is the emerging star for the Texans' offense, but he needs help on the perimeter to take away double coverage. It is imperative that Houston develop a quality No. 2 receiver.

The competition in training camp will come down to Jabar Gaffney and Corey Bradford, and they have different skill sets. Gaffney is a smooth athlete with only average speed, and Bradford is a one-dimensional deep threat. Both struggle to separate against tight man-to-man coverage, and both need to win with their first step off the ball to have success.

Bradford keeps defenses on their toes with his deep speed. It's difficult to jump his routes. Look for Bradford to emerge as the No. 2 starter, with Gaffney as the nickel slot receiver, but neither will give the Texans the production they would like opposite Johnson.

Chicago Bears: No. 2 WR

The only absolute in the Bears' passing game is that UFA acquisition Muhsin Muhammad is the go-to guy in the passing game. He is a nightmare matchup for smaller and less physical corners. However, the starting spot on the other side is totally up for grabs.

The favorite to nail down the job going into training camp is young Bobby Wade, who had 42 receptions in 2004. Wade is more quick than fast, and tends to get his routes jumped when he's on the perimeter. When he's in the slot, he can use his quickness to find open spots in the defense. In a perfect world, he would be the No. 3 slot receiver.

Young Justin Gage could be a nice fit as the No. 2 WR because he has great size, good vertical speed and solid hands. He's also a nice red-zone target. Second-year player Bernard Berrian is also in the mix, but he seems to be one of those "builds speed as he goes" receivers -- not an ideal attribute to play on the perimeter.

The guy to watch is second-round draft pick Mark Bradley of Oklahoma. He has size and outstanding deep speed and is exactly what the Bears are looking for as a No. 2 WR. Bradley might be a developmental project who needs at least one year to be ready.

Look for a good training camp battle between Wade and Gage, with Bradley and Berrian brought along slowly, and expect Wade to emerge as the starter.

New England Patriots: Nos. 1 and 2 CBs

You would like to assume that veteran CB Tyrone Poole would return healthy from a knee injury and take over at one CB position, but considering his age (33), declining speed and durability questions, the Pats actually could have four quality corners battling for both starting CB spots.

Poole, youngster Randall Gay, ex-Cardinals free agent Duane Starks and nickel CB Asante Samuel, and maybe even a fifth player -- Troy Brown -- could be battling for the spots. Gay was a starter at the end of the 2004 season and played well for a guy with limited experience. Although he's not a great turn-and-run man-to-man corner, he has pretty good ball skills and range, and he will only get better.

Starks has excellent cover skills and is a premier athlete. The downside is that he's small and not very physical. He has missed a lot of games with injuries, and the likelihood of his staying healthy through a long NFL season is not good.

Samuel has good short area quickness and ball skills, but he seems better suited to play inside against the slot receiver in nickel schemes than on the edge against bigger and faster WRs. In a perfect world, the Pats probably would like to start veterans Poole and Starks with youngsters Samuel and Gay not only backing up but also producing in the nickel and dime packages.

Whoever wins the battle, we know the coaching staff will put two good players on the field.

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Leftwich in need of protectionScouts Inc.

As we get closer to late July and training camp, interesting individual battles are shaping up on almost every NFL team. We have picked a few that certainly will be worth watching.

Baltimore Ravens: No. 2 WR

Unrestricted free agent acquisition Derrick Mason obviously will be the No. 1 wide receiver in this offense, but the battle for No. 2 will likely come down to rookie Mark Clayton and youngsters Randy Hynes, Clarence Moore and Devard Darling. It's probably Clayton's job if he can grasp the offense in training camp. He has the best technical skills of any of the rookie receivers, and much like Mason, he knows how to get open and separate.

Moore, Hynes and Darling are all big, ranging guys who are tough size matchups for smaller DBs, especially in the red zone. But none of the three has the type of speed you want on the perimeter, and all three really limit the vertical aspect of the offense.

If Clayton is not ready to start early, he could certainly be a fit as a No. 3 slot receiver because of his quickness and precise routes. But if Clayton started, moving Moore to the slot wouldn't necessarily be an ideal situation because his toughness and concentration inside are not always consistent.

The good news for the Ravens is that they can start the season with five quality receivers on their roster, with two new starters. However, the battle for No. 2 might last all the way through the preseason.

Cleveland Browns: Starting RB

After playing well down the stretch in 2004, Lee Suggs went into the offseason thinking he would be "the guy" in Cleveland in 2005 -- especially with 2002 first-round draft pick William Green out of the mix at running back.

However, as much as the Browns like Suggs' slashing style and combination of explosiveness and power, he has missed 15 games over the last two seasons and durability is certainly an issue. That is why the front office decided to acquire former Denver Broncos RB Reuben Droughns. While these two players will battle for the starting position, both will play a lot and give the Browns an effective 1-2 punch.

Cleveland is even tinkering with some two-back sets featuring both Suggs and Droughns on the field at the same time. Droughns is not as nifty as Suggs, but he is a no-nonsense, north/south power runner and gives the Browns toughness in the run game. The downside is that Droughns' running style also causes him to wear down.

If he stays healthy in the preseason, Suggs likely will be the opening day starter. Both will share the load, and the Browns should get 1,500 to 1,800 yards rushing from the RB position in 2005.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Starting LOT

Talented QB Byron Leftwich prefers to stay in the pocket and is not a scrambler, meaning his blindside pass protection is critical. That is why the battle at left offensive tackle between incumbent Mike Pearson and this year's second-round draft pick, Khalif Barnes, will be very competitive throughout the season.

Ordinarily, you wouldn't expect a rookie to be in the mix this early for the starting job, but you get the sense that the Jaguars are not satisfied with Pearson as their starter. First of all, he is coming off a serious knee injury that cost him the last 12 games of '04. His quickness and lateral movement, already suspect for a LOT, could be hindered even further.

Pearson is a power-type player who has lock-on qualities. Unfortunately, he struggles on an island against quickness and simply gives up too many sacks. Barnes is a first-round talent who lasted until the second round because of injury concerns. He is a better athlete than Pearson and matches up much better on the perimeter against speed rushers. He also can handle all the complicated nuances of playing the LOT position.

Pearson is a safe choice as a starter, but he might not be the best choice. If Barnes has a good preseason, the Jaguars' coaching staff could throw him into the fire early.

Houston Texans: No. 2 WR

Andre Johnson is the emerging star for the Texans' offense, but he needs help on the perimeter to take away double coverage. It is imperative that Houston develop a quality No. 2 receiver.

The competition in training camp will come down to Jabar Gaffney and Corey Bradford, and they have different skill sets. Gaffney is a smooth athlete with only average speed, and Bradford is a one-dimensional deep threat. Both struggle to separate against tight man-to-man coverage, and both need to win with their first step off the ball to have success.

Bradford keeps defenses on their toes with his deep speed. It's difficult to jump his routes. Look for Bradford to emerge as the No. 2 starter, with Gaffney as the nickel slot receiver, but neither will give the Texans the production they would like opposite Johnson.

Chicago Bears: No. 2 WR

The only absolute in the Bears' passing game is that UFA acquisition Muhsin Muhammad is the go-to guy in the passing game. He is a nightmare matchup for smaller and less physical corners. However, the starting spot on the other side is totally up for grabs.

The favorite to nail down the job going into training camp is young Bobby Wade, who had 42 receptions in 2004. Wade is more quick than fast, and tends to get his routes jumped when he's on the perimeter. When he's in the slot, he can use his quickness to find open spots in the defense. In a perfect world, he would be the No. 3 slot receiver.

Young Justin Gage could be a nice fit as the No. 2 WR because he has great size, good vertical speed and solid hands. He's also a nice red-zone target. Second-year player Bernard Berrian is also in the mix, but he seems to be one of those "builds speed as he goes" receivers -- not an ideal attribute to play on the perimeter.

The guy to watch is second-round draft pick Mark Bradley of Oklahoma. He has size and outstanding deep speed and is exactly what the Bears are looking for as a No. 2 WR. Bradley might be a developmental project who needs at least one year to be ready.

Look for a good training camp battle between Wade and Gage, with Bradley and Berrian brought along slowly, and expect Wade to emerge as the starter.

New England Patriots: Nos. 1 and 2 CBs

You would like to assume that veteran CB Tyrone Poole would return healthy from a knee injury and take over at one CB position, but considering his age (33), declining speed and durability questions, the Pats actually could have four quality corners battling for both starting CB spots.

Poole, youngster Randall Gay, ex-Cardinals free agent Duane Starks and nickel CB Asante Samuel, and maybe even a fifth player -- Troy Brown -- could be battling for the spots. Gay was a starter at the end of the 2004 season and played well for a guy with limited experience. Although he's not a great turn-and-run man-to-man corner, he has pretty good ball skills and range, and he will only get better.

Starks has excellent cover skills and is a premier athlete. The downside is that he's small and not very physical. He has missed a lot of games with injuries, and the likelihood of his staying healthy through a long NFL season is not good.

Samuel has good short area quickness and ball skills, but he seems better suited to play inside against the slot receiver in nickel schemes than on the edge against bigger and faster WRs. In a perfect world, the Pats probably would like to start veterans Poole and Starks with youngsters Samuel and Gay not only backing up but also producing in the nickel and dime packages.

Whoever wins the battle, we know the coaching staff will put two good players on the field.

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