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7 must-see NFL training camp battles to watch

Training camps around the league have opened, and now begins the time of year when 90 men strap on their pads and leave everything on the field for even the slightest chance at achieving their childhood dreams. Roster spots and starting jobs are won and lost in camp.

Every moment counts during this time of year. The fate of each team lies on the practice field. Here’s a look at the top training camp battles around the league.

Quarterback: Teddy Bridgewater vs. Matt Cassel (Minnesota Vikings)

It only took two years and a new coaching staff, but the Vikings have finally realized that Christian Ponder was not the answer to their quarterback problem. While Ponder remains on the roster, Minnesota re-signed Cassel to provide a steady veteran at the position who could compete with Bridgewater for the job.

While fans will always mention Cassel’s 2010 season with the Chiefs, he isn’t a 27:8 TD/INT ratio quarterback. He is the trusted backup who can take over the reins temporarily and play smart, efficient football. He showed that last season with an 11:9 ratio and a 81.6 quarterback rating. He enters training camp as the starting QB, but Bridgewater is nipping at his heels.

When the college football season came to a close, Bridgewater was the consensus top quarterback in the draft. Then he took his gloves off for his Pro Day and disappointed the media. He later had anonymous scouts even questioning the size of his knees. His draft stock slipped and he fell to the last pick in the first round, where the Vikings swooped in for one of the biggest steals of the draft. Just hours after being drafted, Bridgewater hopped on a plane and flew to Minnesota to get to work immediately.

Bridgewater put the gloves back on in minicamp. Suddenly like Superman with his cape, he transformed into the quarterback scouts raved about. OC Norv Turner raved about Bridgewater’s arm strength—”he can make all the throws he needs to make“, a great endorsement from a coach who loves the vertical passing attack. He would later praise Bridgewater for his dedication to the playbook and how quickly he has improved in just a short period of time.

HC Mike Zimmer has made it clear Cassel is the starter as of now, but there will be a great battle in camp to see who may get the nod come Week 1. Given the great first impression Bridgewater has left on the coaching staff, with his talent, it could be a matter of weeks before Bridgewater pushes past Cassel.

Running back: Ben Tate vs. Terrance West (Cleveland Browns)

When the Browns drafted Trent Richardson with the third overall pick in 2012, they had plans of having their own Adrian Peterson in the backfield. Now, two years after drafting him, Richardson is struggling in Indianapolis and the Browns are hoping a new featured back emerges.

The Browns signed Tate away from the Texans on a two-year deal. He shined as a rookie in 2011—with 954 rushing yards and an equally impressive 5.4 yards per carry. Injuries have remained a problem throughout his career. He missed all of 2010 with a broken ankle, missed five games in 2012 with multiple foot injuries and played through cracked ribs last season.

Tate certainly has talent—we saw it in 2011 and again last season when he rushed for 771 yards after Arian Foster was placed on IR. He comes to a Browns team with a strong offensive line and an offensive philosophy built on the ground-and-pound game. He also has experience in the zone-blocking scheme that OC Kyle Shanahan relies on.

While Tate enters training camp as the starting running back, he is set for a fierce competition with West. The rookie from Towson dominated in college—last season he rushed for over 2,500 yards and combined for 42 touchdowns. He possesses an excellent blend of power, cutting ability and vision out of the backfield.

While Tate recovered from an injury in minicamp, West spent all his time with the first-team offense and shined. Now, the Browns head into training camp and HC Mike Pettine has made it clear there is a job up for grabs. Tate will get most of the first-team reps, but Cleveland knows they have a great talent in West. There is a very real chance we see the rookie start eating into Tate’s reps until he eventually takes over the job.

Tight end: Richard Rodgers vs. Andrew Quarless (Green Bay Packers)

While the Packers’ roster may be loaded at wide receiver, one of the biggest question marks entering training camp is at tight end. Everything changed when Jermichael Finley went down with a spine injury. Finley is a free agent without any suitors and the Packers are in search of a new starting tight end.

Quarless stepped into the starting role when Finley went down—he was already unimpressive as a blocker, so Green Bay relied on him entirely for his hands and running simple, quick routes. Quarless didn’t even have the advantage of working with Aaron Rodgers. Just two weeks later, Rodgers was lost for most of the season and Quarless was left catching passes from Seneca Wallace and Matt Flynn. He finished the season with 32 receptions and 312 receiving yards—showing why he is a better backup tight end than a starter.

The Packers recognized their need for a tight end and drafted Rodgers in the third round. Many draft pundits were skeptical, but the Packers were in desperation mode and Ted Thompson isn’t afraid to take a player he loves. The most important player Rodgers had to impress was the quarterback. Aaron Rodgers was wowed by the rookie in minicamp, “You have to be excited about his body type and hands. He’s made some incredible catches, makes it look easy.”

Quarless had to sit out for all of OTA’s, giving Richard Rodgers the chance to thrive while working with the first-team offense. Now training camp has arrived. Quarless is healthy and is ready to prove why he should start, but he is behind Rodgers as of now. Every practice snap is crucial so Rodgers should have the upper hand in this situation. If he can carry over his success from OTA’s to training camp and impress with the pads on, we will see plenty of Rodgers-to-Rodgers touchdowns.

Wide receiver: St. Louis Rams WR corps

The Rams offense is finally coming together. The offensive line has been upgraded with the addition of Greg Robinson and return of Rodger Saffold, and should be more than enough to protect Sam Bradford. St. Louis has found their featured back in Zac Stacy and they have a stellar defense to keep the game tight. Now it all comes down to their young group of wide receivers, which is still being finalized.

There isn’t just a battle for one starting spot—Chris Givens, Stedman Bailey, Tavon Austin, Austin Pettis and Kenny Britt all will be competing for roles in training camp. Five wide receivers competing for potentially three spots.

Austin was invisible for much of his rookie season but came on late with his speed as he learned the playbook. He prefers to play in the slot, so it could come down to Givens, Bailey, Pettis and Britt competing for the two starting outside spots.

Bailey showed positive signs as a rookie, but a looming four-game suspension will put him a leg behind the competition. Givens was a disappointment last year—he failed to find the end zone and saw a drop in receptions and receiving yards from his rookie year. He admitted to playing through an ankle injury all of last year, but he just didn’t produce what the Rams needed from him.

If Givens is healthy and shows more of his rookie-form than how he looked last year, he should squeeze his way once again into one of the starting jobs. He was still the Rams’ leading receiver last season and while the numbers were pedestrian, they are enough to keep him on the field.

It all comes down to Britt and Pettis. Britt has dealt with injuries and off-the-field issues, rather than utilizing his great size and athleticism. He was healthy for OTA’s and drew praise from writers for highlight catches. Pettis has impressive size at 6’3″ but he has two things working against him—he hasn’t caught more than 40 balls in a season and he was a pick by the old Rams’ regime. In a battle of potential, Britt will likely come out on top and form a three-receiver set of Givens, Britt and Austin.

Linebacker: Michael Wilhoite vs. Chris Borland (San Francisco 49ers)

While Wilhoite and Borland duke it out for the starting inside linebacker spot next to Patrick Willis, it’s a temporary job. The position is only available until NaVorro Bowman returns from his torn ACL, as he is expected to miss roughly half the season.

Wilhoite offers experience—he started two games last season when Willis was hurt, racking up 19 solo tackles in Weeks 4 and 5. When Willis returned, he went back to his backup role, observing what these two Pro Bowl linebackers were doing. He will start training camp with the first-team experience in San Francisco’s defense.

Borland is just a rookie, but the 49ers didn’t draft him in the third round to just waste a pick and have him sit on the bench. He is a sound tackler with underrated athleticism who closes gaps quickly and can get to the ball carrier. He obviously doesn’t have the NFL experience Wilhoite offers, but he was first-team All-Big Ten for three seasons. He will fight on every snap and show coaches why he should be the starter, but Wilhoite should likely win the battle in the end.

Cornerback: Patrick Robinson vs. Corey White (New Orleans Saints)

The Saints made a big splash in the offseason by signing Jairus Byrd. The former Bills’ safety cashed in with New Orleans and filled a major void in its secondary. They made an outstanding move last offseason when they signed cornerback Keenan Lewis, but they still have some questions as to who will play opposite him.

Jabari Greer was promptly cut by the Saints at the end of the season. Coming off a torn ACL at the age of 32 with a history of injuries, it was an easy decision to save money and part ways. His departure opens up a starting spot for someone new to start in a loaded secondary. Byrd, Kenny Vaccaro and Lewis are a great cast to help make the other outside CB’s job easier.

Robinson played two games last year before his season was cut short by a torn patellar tendon. Now 10 months later, he is healthy and ready to show DC Rob Ryan why he should start opposite of Lewis. He was healthy for OTA’s and worked with the first-team defense, but the Saints have made it clear this is an open competition.

If Robinson can’t take control of the job, White could be next in line to be the starter. He stepped up for the Saints last year when Greer was injured and showed real improvement from his rookie season. He is only 24 and is entering his third season, a time when players can really blossom. Now with Robinson healthy, White clearly has a chance to prove once and for all that he is the better player. He is behind Robinson for now, but in the end White should emerge as the Saints’ starting CB.

Free safety: Darian Stewart vs. Terrence Brooks (Baltimore Ravens)

A year after drafting him with the 32nd pick, the Ravens quickly realized that Matt Elam is a much better fit at strong safety than free safety. Elam is better suited playing near the line of scrimmage and laying the lumber on the running back. This left a hole at free safety, so Ozzie Newsome made sure this team had options—drafting Brooks in the third round and signing Stewart as a free agent.

As Stewart enters his fifth season in the league, he has already surpassed expectations at the age of 25. Stewart went undrafted in 2010, signing with the St. Louis Rams and emerging as a key player for the Rams defense, playing in 12-plus games each season. He was their starting free safety and a favorite of Steve Spagnuolo, who is now coaching with the Ravens. The one thing that’s always held Stewart back is health, but he has been healthy throughout camp and is the favorite entering camp to start for the Ravens.

While Brooks spent OTA’s working with the third team, the coaching staff had to have loved his speed and range. Brooks showed last season at Florida State that he could be a true center fielder, covering a wide area and possessing great closing speed to get to the ball quickly. He has impressive ball skills and excellent athleticism. It might take some time, but this will be Brooks’ job by midseason.

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