NFC Battles of Week: Fierce feuds for No. 2 spots

By By The Sports Xchange
Published On: Aug 13 2014 10:43:05 AM EDT
Updated On: Aug 13 2014 10:43:05 AM EDT

As most NFL teams head into their final week of training camp, battles for starting jobs are becoming clear and many of the more intriguing duels are for backup spots -- where the loser may be odd man out.

That was a constant theme in a survey by Sports Xchange correspondents on the key Battles of the Week on NFC team.

Best example: the Trojan war in Philadelphia, where quarterback Mark Sanchez seems to have an edge over fellow USC alum Matt Barkley for the No. 2 spot behind starter Nick Foles.

Sanchez put distance between himself and Barkley with an impressive performance in Friday's 34-28 preseason loss to the Chicago Bears.

Barkley is now feeling a little heat from the team's fourth quarterback, G.J. Kinne, who completed 8 of 10 passes for 88 yards against the Bears, albeit against third- and fourth-stringers

Other NFC teams with intriguing competition for backup quarterback are Green Bay, San Francisco and Seattle.

Here is a closer look at NFC Battles of the Week from Sports Xchange reporters covering each team (teams listed alphabetically within each division):


BATTLE OF THE WEEK: No. 3 running back.

Joseph Randle is out front in the battle for the third running back spot with Ryan Williams. Randle has had a strong start to training camp and continued that with an impressive effort in the preseason opener, rushing 13 times for 50 yards. Williams had had carries for 29 yards. Randle was a disappointment as a rookie last season and has come to camp a more mature player with a better attitude. It has showed in his work ethic, attention at meetings and ability to pick up the blitz and handle the teams one-cut concepts.



After a lop-sided showing in the team's preseason opener, fullback John Conner turned in a strong showing on Saturday against the Steelers.

Conner, who came into the game in the second quarter, got a chance to work with the majority of the starting offense, and contributed a three-yard run for a first down.

He is currently competing against Henry Hynoski, listed as the starter on the Giant's unofficial depth chart in a battle that remains too close to call and which could go down to the wire.


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Mark Sanchez and Matt Barkley for the backup quarterback job.

They entered training camp essentially even, but Sanchez has pulled away. He completed 7 of 10 passes and led the Eagles to two touchdowns Friday against Chicago. Barkley was 7-for-16 with an interception.


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Kicker -- Kai Forbath connected on 35 of 40 field-goal attempts during his first season-plus with Washington. However, a relatively small percentage of Forbath's kickoffs went for touchbacks, putting pressure on the Redskins' poor special teams. In response, Washington drafted strong-legged Arkansas kicker Zach Hocker in the seventh round in May.

The competition in camp has been close. However in the preseason opener, Forbath missed from 34 -- the errant kick was negated by a penalty -- and 46 yards while making a 39-yarder and recorded one touchback in three kickoffs, sending another out of bounds. Hocker converted a 27-yarder and had one touchback in three tries while also making a tackle on one of his other two kickoffs.

Forbath said, "Obviously things didn't go quite as planned," seemingly leaving Hocker a leg up, pun intended, but neither the rookie nor Gruden saw it that way.

"The hang time was OK and the tackle was cool, but one touchback out of three kickoffs ain't gonna cut if I'm going to try to make this team," Hocker said.

"That's a decision that's going to come after the fourth preseason game," Gruden said. "There's really nobody leading right now, it's going to be down to the wire I'm sure."

Each kicker went 4-for-4 on field goal tries during the first practice after the Patriots' game.


--BATTLE OF WEEK: Third wide receiver.

Coach Marc Trestman said the broken collarbone suffered by second-year wide receiver Marquess Wilson will most likely keep him sidelined into the regular season, so the battle for the third receiver position was thrown wide open.

Eric Weems and Josh Morgan both made quick statements. Morgan has more experience than many of the candidates, but Michael Spurlock is a player who had a touchdown catch in the preseason opener and also is on the roster because he is a return man. Players who can show the added special teams dimension will get priority.

The Bears also gave Santonio Holmes a workout but signed inexperienced Greg Herd instead. The cost of signing Holmes could be too high. The battle for this spot could actually become more of a battle for two spots since they'll need to keep an extra receiver until Wilson is ready to return. None of the candidates have the combination of size (6-4) and speed that Wilson has.


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Outside linebacker.

After the Lions drafted BYU's Kyle Van Noy in the second round, general manager Martin Mayhew said he expected the outside linebacker to start. It makes sense for the 6-foot-3, 243-pound linebacker to start because of his combination of pass rush and coverage abilities, but so far, veteran Ashlee Palmer hasn't relinquished the job.

Palmer started in Saturday's preseason game against the Browns and had a tackle. Van Noy, who was in with the starters for a four-linebacker set, had a pass defensed, which was nearly a forced fumble. He also whiffed on a sack of quarterback Johnny Manziel.

Van Noy's upside makes him the favorite to still start, but it might wait for a few games..


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: No. 2 quarterback.

With a healthy Aaron Rodgers given the night off, head coach Mike McCarthy followed through on his intention to take a long look at incumbent backups Matt Flynn and Scott Tolzien in the first preseason game at Tennessee on Saturday. Conditions for handling the football and throwing it were far from ideal because of heavy rain that fell at the outset of the game.

Yet, Tolzien fared much better than Flynn did from a statistical standpoint. Flynn made the start in Rodgers' absence but completed just five of 10 passes for 49 yards and had a subpar passer rating of 64.2 before exiting late in the first half. In turn, Tolzien went 8-of-12 throwing for 124 yards with a strong efficiency rating of 100.7 before he gave way to undrafted rookie Chase Rettig in the final quarter.

Since McCarthy wanted Rettig to get some in-game work, the coach acknowledged afterward that he probably short-changed Tolzien on playing time. Hence, Tolzien, a fourth-year pro who made a good impression on McCarthy with his tempo and footwork in running the no-huddle offense against the Titans, may wind up working ahead of Flynn in the playing rotation with Rodgers expected to start Saturday's game at the St. Louis Rams.

Conditions in the dome will be more favorable for getting a better gauge on whether Tolzien has a viable shot to overtake Flynn, a seventh-year pro with some big fill-in performances for Rodgers to his credit, for the No. 2 job.


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Middle linebacker, Jasper Brinkley vs. Audie Cole.

Brinkley was a fifth-round pick of the Vikings in 2009. After spending the 2011 season on injured reserve, he replaced the highly-respected E.J. Henderson, starting 15 of 16 games, but wasn't impressive. So he was allowed to walk in free agency.

After starting just three games in a failed season in Arizona, the desperate Vikings brought him back to compete as a two-down middle linebacker. He's a thumper against the run, but is limited laterally and of little use in pass coverage. He has a slight edge on Cole because the Vikings shift Chad Greenway to the middle in the nickel and are experimenting with rookie Anthony Barr as the lone linebacker in their dime packages.

Cole, however, is gaining momentum on Brinkley. Cole is faster, a better athlete and, at 6-5 with long arms, he's tougher to throw over and around. Cole, a seventh-round pick in 2012, surprised everybody when he played so well in place of Erin Henderson last season. Not long after being released and re-signed in a procedural move to adjust the game-day active roster, Cole made his NFL starting debut and responded with 18 tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss at Green Bay. His upside is higher than Brinkley's. Cole also is a strong special teams player and can play the weak-side linebacker spot. He was moved there to start camp, but was shifted back to the middle to give Brinkley stiffer competition.


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Free safety -- Dwight Lowery vs. the Field.

With Lowery recovering from a concussion and third-round pick Dezmen Southward coming back from a knee injury, third-stringers Kemal Ishmael and Sean Baker received extensive action against the Dolphins.

The Falcons are trying to replace Thomas DeCoud, who was released this offseason, and the injuries to Lowery and Southward have muddled the competition.

Ishmael, a second-year player drafted in the seventh round in 2013 out of Central Florida, has shown flashes of spectacular play.

"Kemal has had a good camp," defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "He is one of the guys who has been able to take advantage of the front line being stouter, just from the standpoint of coming up and closing the gap."

Baker has "stepped up his game," Nolan said.


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Nickel cornerback -- Charles Godfrey vs. Bene Benwikere.

The Panthers are trying to convert Godfrey from safety to nickel corner, and it has not gone well. The seven-year veteran has not only had trouble at a new position, but he may still have lingering effects from last year's torn Achilles. Benwikere, the team's fifth-round pick, has been one of the most-impressive players in camp. The San Jose State product is also getting some work in on punt return. It will be interesting to see how long the Panthers keep Godfrey out there with the ones if he continues to struggle.


BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Right cornerback -- Corey White vs. Stanley Jean-Baptiste.

With Champ Bailey out for more than a week and Patrick Robinson leaving practice early Sunday with an unknown injury, White and Jean-Baptiste will be given extra reps in the three practices that will wrap up the Saints' training camp stay in West Virginia. White, a physical three-year veteran, has shown flashes when he's gotten a chance in his first two seasons. But he's also given up big plays at times. Jean-Baptiste, the Saints' second-round draft pick this spring, has not really distinguished himself so far -- especially in training camp -- but will have to step up to push White for opportunities.


BATTLE OF THE WEEK: No. 2 running back -- Bobby Rainey vs. Charles Sims.

Rainey has the experience, having led the Bucs in rushing a year ago after being claimed off waivers from the Browns. He also could be a more valuable special teams players. But the coaching staff really loves Sims, who at 6-feet, 217-pounds gives the Bucs a bigger back with superb hands. Slight edge to Rainey after Friday's game at Jacksonville.


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Kicker -- Rookie Chandler Catanzaro vs. incumbent Jay Feely.

Catanzaro took a large step to winning the job with his performance in the preseason opener. Catanzaro made all three extra points and all three field goals. Just as important, all of his five kickoffs were impressive. Two were touchbacks. The other three went well into the end zone, and the Texans started inside their 20-yard line each time.

Feely will have his turn this week in Minnesota. He's reliable but his leg isn't as strong as Catanzaro's, at least not on kickoffs. Feely's advantage is experience, and he's made clutch kicks. But coach Bruce Arians has never been enamored with Feely, and the Cardinals wouldn't mind getting much younger at the position.

The competition will go throughout the preseason, and Catanzaro will be tested in the finale in San Diego. That will be outdoors as opposed to last week's game in Glendale.


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: Third/fourth tight end or practice squad.

Undrafted free agent Alex Bayer is making a move to win the job as the team's fourth tight end. His main competition is Justice Cunningham, who had a drop against New Orleans. Bayer, meanwhile, had five receptions for 71 yards, including one for 42 yards.

Said coach Jeff Fisher said, "We felt like he had a chance. We liked what we saw, the athleticism, the pass catching ability, he was well-coached there (Bowling Green). (Tight ends coach) Rob Boras went out and had a private workout with him a week before the draft. We were kind of hoping he would fall, he did and so far it's worked out for us. He takes a lot of snaps here at camp and played a lot of snaps yesterday. I think he played over 40 snaps yesterday, 45 snaps. He's hanging in there and continues to make the plays, so reliable. He's getting to the right spot and the young quarterbacks trust him."


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: No. 2 quarterback.

After an uninspiring 3-for-11 performance from Blaine Gabbert in the first half of Thursday's loss, the 49ers' No. 2 quarterback job might still be up for grabs.

"I think all the quarterbacks...are coming out of this thinking there are a few (throws) they want back," Harbaugh said. "I think they all did about the same. A couple of good throws and runs and extending the play, and a few they'd like to have back, too."

Gabbert struggled with his accuracy and making reads in the preseason opener. He starred down tight end Derek Carrier before throwing an interception to a Raven defensive back in basic zone coverage. He also overthrew a wide open Quinton Patton on two occasions.

Reserve quarterback Josh Johnson fared much better, completing 6 of 8 passes for 63 yards and didn't throw an interception. He did, however, fumble a snap on the reserve unit's most promising drive of the evening in Baltimore's territory.

The key caveat to the backup quarterback situation is Gabbert's fully-guaranteed $2 million contract for 2014.


--BATTLE OF THE WEEK: No. 2 quarterback.

This may not be the most critical spot for the Seahawks, especially with Russell Wilson as the starter, but Seattle has an intriguing battle on it is hands between veteran Tarvaris Jackson and former Ohio State star Terrelle Pryor, whom the team acquired in April.

Jackson got two series against Denver and led a field-goal drive at the end of the first half. Pryor got three series and led two field-goal drives (one after an interception gave the Seahawks the ball at the Denver 24) and led a potential game-winning drive in the final minutes before throwing an interception that sealed the game. Seattle could make it easy and just keep both, though the Seahawks haven't often had three quarterbacks on its roster the last two seasons.

--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and, covered the NFL and the draft since the 1960s and is a selector for the Pro Football Hall of Fame.


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