2014 NFL Training Camp Battles: Can Trent Richardson turn it around?
Here are the biggest and best training camp battles heading into the 2014 season in the AFC South.
While the Indianapolis Colts should be the heavy favorites to win their second-straight AFC South title, that doesn't mean they don't have issues they need to address. Sure, they have Andrew Luck , but their running back situation is unclear and so is the offensive line.
Will that allow the Jacksonville Jaguars , Tennessee Titans or Houston Texans to have a shot at sneaking up behind Indianapolis and grabbing the division crown? The respective answers: maybe but probably not; heck no; and nosiree. But if Jacksonville, Tennessee and Houston can solve their own training camp battles in a productive manner, any one of them (or all of them) could make for an interesting season.
CAMP BATTLES TO WATCH: AFC SOUTH
Key battle: Trent Richardson vs. Ahmad Bradshaw vs. Vick Ballard, running back
If Richardson truly was worthy of being taken No. 3 overall by the Cleveland Browns in 2012, this decision would be easy. But he, generally speaking, was awful for both Cleveland and Indianapolis last season, and there's a real question whether Richardson ever will be the three-down running back many draft analysts would have envisioned. Instead, he'll have to contend with Ballard, who had a strong rookie season in 2012, and Bradshaw -- who replaced the injured Ballard last year before he, himself, got injured. On paper, this starting running back spot seems like a matchup that any of these guys could win.
Predicted outcome: Trent Richardson will win. It seems that the Colts coaching staff really wants Richardson to succeed and to win the starting job. He probably will. But will it last? In my eyes, it's doubtful. Ballard was impressive in 2012, and the 28-year-old Bradshaw seemingly still has the talent to play well at this level (if he can get his neck troubles under control). If Richardson can't find his way, it won't be difficult to give Ballard, who's coming off an ACL tear, or Bradshaw the job once the season begins.
Other battle: Khaled Holmes vs. Jonotthan Harrison vs. FN Lutz II, center
The Colts didn't get great play from their center last season. Samson Satele ranked 32nd of 35 centers according to the Pro Football Focus metrics, and Indianapolis celebrated that accomplishment by cutting him in March. Though the team signed former Dallas Cowboys center Phil Costa in the offseason, he promptly retired. That leaves Khaled Holmes as the favorite to win this job. The problem there is that Holmes has little experience, playing four games in 2013 during his rookie year. The other problem: the players behind him are Jonotthan Harrison and FN Lutz II, both of whom are undrafted free agents.
Predicted outcome: Khaled Holmes will win. Because who else is there?
Key battle: Cecil Shorts vs. Marqise Lee vs. Allen Robinson
The Jaguars already didn't expect to have former first-round pick Justin Blackmon on the team this year, which is why they took Lee and Robinson in the second round of the 2014 draft. But this week, Ace Sanders , who recorded 51 catches for 484 yards and a touchdown during his rookie season last year, announced that he had been suspended for four games and that he was taking a leave of absence from the team. That basically leaves this trio for two starting spots. Shorts is coming off a career-high 66 catches last season in which he led the Jaguars in receptions, while Lee and Robinson starred in college for USC and Penn State, respectively.
Predicted outcome: Cecil Shorts and Marqise Lee will win. It's tough to tell who will win the battle of the rookies, because both were sidelined for much of the offseason workouts with injuries. But Lee is 22 years old, and Robinson is 20. So, based on (I guess) Lee's life experience, we'll give him the edge. Either way, don't look for either to become a breakout star this year. That role might be reserved for running back Toby Gerhart anyway.
Other Battle: Chad Henne vs. Blake Bortles, quarterback
At this point, the Jaguars are saying that Henne, based on a relatively decent end to the 2013 season, will be the starter, while Bortles -- the No. 3 overall pick -- will get to take his time and ease into NFL life. Though the two oftentimes split first-team reps during offseason practices, Henne will enter training camp as the starter. In this competition, the ghost of first-round bust Blaine Gabbert and all the implications of a bad draft pick will loom heavy.
Predicted outcome: Chad Henne will win. Unless something drastic happens -- if Henne gets injured or is simply horrible -- don't expect Bortles to start right away, if at all in 2014. But this should be the final season for Henne as Jacksonville's starter.
Key battle: Michael Oher vs. Taylor Lewan, right tackle
The Titans have some depth at the tackle spot, but with Michael Roos at the left tackle spot, it likely will come down to whether Lewan, the No. 11 overall pick, can overtake the veteran Oher, who signed in the offseason after spending five seasons in Baltimore. Oher spent much of his career on Joe Flacco 's blind side (GET IT?!?!?), but he was never all that effective at left tackle. Lewan, however, worked on both sides of the line this offseason, so it's possible that he could back up both left and right tackles if need be.
Predicted outcome: Michael Oher wins. If money didn't have anything to do with it, I'd have no problem writing that Lewan would start ahead of Oher immediately. But Tennessee signed Oher to a four-year, $20 million contract in the offseason and would take a relatively big hit in the 2014 and 2015 salary caps if the Titans release him. Also, Lewan was a left tackle in college, and it'd take him time to adjust to a new position. Besides, Roos' contract runs out after this season, so Lewan probably will land on the left side eventually.
Other battle: Coty Sensabaugh vs. Blidi Wreh-Wilson , cornerback
With the loss of standout cornerback Alterraun Verner , the Titans need to find a complement for Jason McCourty, and Sensabaugh (a fourth-round pick in 2012) and Wreh-Wilson (a third-round pick in 2013) will get the opportunity to take Verner's old job. Wreh-Wilson spent most of his time last year on special teams, while Sensabaugh recorded seven passes defended in the slot.
Predicted outcome: Blidi Wreh-Wilson wins. Sensabaugh likely will stick to the nickel cornerback spot, while Wreh-Wilson has good size and good speed that might make him more effective on the outside.
Key battle: Ben Jones vs. Xavier Su'a-Filo, left guard
It seems probable that the Texans drafted Su'a-Filo in the second round to make him the immediate starter at the left guard spot previously held by Wade Smith, but Jones could make some noise as well. He started 10 games at right guard as a rookie in 2012, and he spent last season as a backup to Brandon Brooks on the right side.
Predicted outcome: Xavier Su'a-Filo wins. Jones got 702 snaps in 2012, but he ranked 53rd among all guards in the league by Pro Football Focus, and it seems as though Su'a-Filo has a better chance to make a positive impact on this year's offensive line.
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