A training camp’s success or failure is often defined by the results of the various position battles that a team sorts through during the summer. Do the players rise to the challenge and get better as they battle, or do they crumble under the pressure? Do highly touted but raw rookies develop their game, or will aging veterans prove that experience is the most valuable asset in the game?
When the Bengals, Chiefs, and Saints get training camp underway, each team will have key positions up for grabs. In Cincinnati and Kansas City those positions are on the field, but New Orleans will be looking for an interim head coach to emerge during camp.
How will each position battle play out?
Many pundits spent time after the draft focusing on who the Bengals missed out on when trading back in the first round. Sure, they didn’t land guard David DeCastro, but with the picks the received in the trade they landed guard Kevin Zielter and defensive tackle Brandon Thompson. Both players will be factors in both the short and long term plans in Cincinnati, and overall it was a solid move by the Bengals.
The Bengals added two wide receivers during the draft, and although Mohamed Sanu was drafted three round ahead of Marvin Jones, it’s the fifth round pick who seems to be the most likely to make an early impact. He’s excelled in his limited action so far, and some reports have him a legitimate contender to play opposite of AJ Green this year.
Dre Kirkpatrick is a first round pick, but don’t expect him to be handed a starting position. He finds himself in a quality defensive backfield and he’ll earn whatever playing time he sees in 2012. Second round pick Devon Still was one of the best defensive line prospects in the draft and will be able to contribute early along with Thompson.
When the Chiefs selected Dontari Poe with their first round pick, they knew they were getting a raw prospect with a very high ceiling, but with equally high risks. He made a heck of an impression during the combine, but reviews on his game tape weren’t nearly as flattering. It’s tough to find a rookie that needs a strong training camp more than Poe. His can be a dominating talent, but he’s got to master his technique during camp.
Kansas City added two offensive tackles with back to back selections in the second and third round. Jeff Allen and Donald Stephenson will have a tough time finding playing time at tackle, but Allen has a chance to beat out Ryan Lilja at left guard.
Devon Wylie could be the biggest surprise out of the Chief’s draft class. He has the potential to be a player very similar to Wes Welker. But even though he’s talented, he’s going to be competing with Dexter McCluster for the same position. Wylie is currently battling a hamstring injury, so he’ll have to bounce back quickly during camp if he wants to see the field early in 2012.
New Orleans didn’t have much to work with this year as they didn’t have a selection until the third round. With that pick they picked up defensive tackle Akiem Hicks. He’s an athletic defensive tackle prospect from Canada. Like Poe, he’s got a high ceiling but also needs to refine his play after getting by with athleticism while playing at a lower level.
The only other truly noteworthy selection by the Saints was wide receiver Nick Toon. He struggled with injury and inconsistency, but he could develop into a solid second or third wide receiver in New Orleans’ offense. And if he can’t succeed with Drew Brees throwing him the ball, would he be able to anywhere?
Top Position Battles
Bengals – Leon Hall vs. Nate Clements vs. Dre Kirkpatrick vs. Terrance Newman vs. Jason Allen vs. Adam Jones (Cornerback)
There are nine cornerbacks currently on the roster in Cincinatti, but the battle for the top two spots really boils down to these six . Nate Clements wasn’t signed to be a long term solution at age 32. That being said, he’s not yet washed up and could conceivably play well as a starter in 2012. Leon Hall has been the starter on the right side in the past, but has he fully recovered from his Achilles tear last season?
Dre Kirkpatrick has more upside than Jason Allen or Terrance Newman at this point in their careers, but would the Bengals trust him to start as a rookie? Adam Jones at one time was a top talent playing outside, but now he’s best suited to be a top slot corner. Jones figuring to be the slot corner means there are five guys competing for two spots, making this one of the most interesting battles to watch in the entire league.
Chiefs – Javier Arenas vs. DeQuan Menzie (Nickle back)
Javier Arenas has been the nickel cornerback for the last two years in Kansas City, but that may be changing. DeQuan Menzie was a stellar corner in the slot in his time at Alabama, and that will be where he looks to play in at the next level, at least initially.
All isn’t lost for Menzie if he doesn’t win that job right away. He also will be working a safety during camp, and the Chiefs are confident they’ll find a place for the rookie to contribute in 2012.
Saints - Chris Chamberlin vs. Martez Wilson vs. Jonathan Casillas (Outside Linebacker)
Martez Wilson made a powerful impact late in 2011 as a pash rusher, but the rest of his game is still in need of development. Jonathan Casillas has plenty of experience as a starter, but he also has a lengthy injury history and it'd be tough to rely on him to stay healthy for an entire season.
Chris Chamberlin is an intriguing option. He played for Steve Spagnolo in St. Louis, and the new defensive coordinator thought enough of him to bring Chamberlin to New Orleans. He's got a better chance than most are giving him to win this job.
Coach Drew Brees?
After one of the most tumultuous offseasons in NFL history, training camp couldn’t get here soon enough for the New Orleans Saints. The team can finally begin to put the Bounty-gate saga behind them and get back to focusing to playing the game.
They will of course, be without head coach Sean Payton for the entire season and interim head coach Joe Vitt for the first six games of the year. It remains to be seen who will take over duties as head coach for the first six weeks of the season, but in all likelihood the biggest source of leadership for the Saints will come from their recently re-signed quarterback Drew Brees.
Will Brees be able to handle the extra responsibility? The Saints’ track record without Payton on the sideline isn’t particularly stellar – two of their three losses in 2011 came after Payton was injured and ran the show from the booth. And while that isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for the chances of New Orleans have a good season, there still is reason for hope.
When Payton went down in 2011, it was entirely unexpected. The Saints had to scramble to put together a plan of action, and it was understandably difficult. An NFL sideline is a chaotic but well orchestrated worked place, and making such a big change is nearly impossible to pull off without any problems.
Regardless of whether or not the punishment dealt to the Saints is fair or not, New Orleans does have the benefit of having time to plan for Payton and Vitt’s absence. And although they haven’t named who will be in charge for the first six weeks, it’s certain that the organization is putting together a plan of action that should help them to get through the first part of the season successfully.
Additionally, New Orleans has the benefit of playing in the Hall of Fame Game. And while most teams dread being forced to play an additional preseason game, the Saints will benefit greatly from it. They’ll now have five chances to iron out all the kinks that may arise on the sideline. They’ll likely be the only team in the league where the sideline performance trumps the importance of the play on the field during the preseason.
While the Saints will be looking for controlled chaos on the sideline, the leadership on the field will be the responsibility of Brees. The $100 million man will need to demonstrate that he personally can be the same player he is with Payton in his absence, something that he and the offense struggled with somewhat in 2011.
Pete Carmichael Jr. is likely going to be calling plays during the season, but there’s no question Brees will have an even larger control of the offense every week. He’ll also play a big role in keeping his team focused and productive during training camp and through out the grueling marathon that is the NFL season.
It’s a lot to ask of one player, but with great pay checks come great responsibility. Brees will be the key to any success the Saints have in 2012. We know he’s a great quarterback and leader in the locker room. Can he also play the part of being a part time coach as well?
Iron Sharpens Iron in Cincinnati
After parting ways with familiar but aging faces like Carson Palmer and Chad Johnson over the last few seasons, the Bengals started a new chapter in their franchise’s history with the additions of Andy Dalton and A.J. Green. Another seemingly solid draft class has left the Bengals with a lot of competition for roster spot, and fans can’t help but have high expectations for the season. Can the young Cincinnati squad live up to those hopes and win a playoff game?
The Bengals haven’t had back to back winning seasons in three decades, but 2012 may be the season that they’re able to break that trend. Their offense is full of young talent and they added young players who will compete for playing time on a defense that has grown into being one of the best in the league.
Before Cincinatti thinks about winning playoff games, they’ll have to go through one of the most competitive training camps in Marvin Lewis’s tenure. One of the most interesting battles will be on the defensive line. The Bengals already had stout defensive tackles with Geno Atkins and Domata Peko. The additions of Brandon Thompson and Devon Still make defensive tackle one of their deepest positions, and that’s not even taking into consideration Pat Sims.
Defensive tackle may be deep, but the battle for time at wide receiver may be even tougher. Green is probably the only route runner that can feel that his role is secure for 2012. In most cases a wide receiver drafted 3 rounds earlier than his closet competition would feel pretty good about his changes, but that’s not the case for Mohamed Sanu. Fellow rookie Marvin Jones has gained rave reviews thus far in mini camps and figures to push for playing time in 2012. Don’t forget Brandon Tate, Armon Bins, Jordan Shipley, and Andrew Hawkins either. All of these players have chance to be on the receiving end of Dalton’s passes this fall, provided they outshine their competition in August.
Those are just two positions where there will be some intense battles for playing time during camp. There’s tough battles at corner and strong safety as well. All this competition will be extremely beneficial for the Bengals in 2012 and beyond. The competition will keep players on top of their game in training camp and throughout the season. It’s something they’ve lacked over the last decade. Will the toughness gained in August translate to a playoff win at the end of the season? Lewis and the Bengals hope so.