Commentary

Key NFC training camp battles

Redskins have veteran logjam at RB; Seahawks need workhorse to emerge

Originally Published: July 19, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The Dallas Cowboys kick off NFC training camps Saturday, when they report to San Antonio and begin their pursuit of playing in a Super Bowl at Cowboys Stadium.

Training camps are all about competition, although the limited number of offseason moves has cut down some of the big position battles. Here are some of the main ones in the NFC. I'll take a look at the big AFC position battles next Monday.

1. Washington Redskins: Running back -- No coach in football is better at putting together a running attack than Mike Shanahan. He's done it with low draft choices, castoffs and unknowns. Seeing how he sorts out the aged Redskins backfield will be fascinating. Clinton Portis turns 29 in September, but he has had a lot of wear, with 2,176 carries and 242 receptions in his career.

Instead of finding young replacements, Shanahan brought in 30-year-old Larry Johnson and 29-year-old Willie Parker. He also wants to sign 30-year-old Brian Westbrook. On top of that, the Redskins have 34-year-old fullback Mike Sellers. The addition of Westbrook would give Shanahan five former Pro Bowl running backs with age and experience. Who will get the bulk of the carries?

2. Seattle Seahawks: Halfback -- New Seahawks coach Pete Carroll thought a reunion with former USC halfback LenDale White would stettle his worries about a first-down back. Carroll cut him after a month, leaving a backfield in need of a go-to back. The main option for the Seahawks is Julius Jones, who hasn't cracked 700 yards in two years with the team.

Backup Justin Forsett is a 5-foot-8, 194-pound quick back known more for his explosiveness and pass-catching than being a workhorse back on first and second down. Forsett will compete with Jones for the starting job in camp, but if Carroll's not satisfied, he might have to trade for Marshawn Lynch or a bigger back before the start of the regular season.

3. Chicago Bears: TE Greg Olsen vs. TE Desmond Clark -- This is the sleeper battle of the summer. Olsen might be eight years younger than the 33-year-old Clark, but there is something about Clark that has caught the eye of the Bears' new offensive coaching staff. Clark went from 41 catches to 19 last season and his playing time went from 78 percent to 38 percent of the snaps. Although Olsen gradually has put up better numbers in each of his three seasons and is coming off a 60-catch, eight-touchdown year, the Bears' staff still thinks he could be doing more. This summer offers him a big challenge with Clark on board.

4. Arizona Cardinals: CB Greg Toler vs. CB Michael Adams: -- A year ago, the Steelers thought they had found a great young No. 2 cornerback in William Gay and decided to let Bryant McFadden go to the Cardinals in free agency. As it turned out, it was a mistake, forcing the Steelers to scramble and reacquire McFadden in a trade this offseason. The Cardinals believe Toler is better suited to be the starter on the other side of Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and were willing to let McFadden go for a fifth-round pick.

5. Carolina Panthers: QB Matt Moore vs. rookie QB Jimmy Clausen: -- Moore seems to have won the offseason battle, so the pressure is on Clausen to win the preseason battle. Coach John Fox wants to make Clausen earn the chance to start, so he's kept Clausen with the third team behind Moore and Hunter Cantwell. Clausen will have four preseason games to catch up and try to unseat Moore, who has been a winner in his limited time starting for Fox.

From the inbox

Q: I am a Vikings fan living just an hour away from Green Bay. I know that the Wilf family is getting frustrated with the stadium situation. With the lease at the Mall of America Field to expire after 2011, what can I expect will happen? How worried should I be?

Jeff in Wausau, Wis.

A: The politicians and the area have to step up at some point. I know the finances are tough in any state these days, but Minnesota could lose the Vikings. The Wilf family is well financed and creative in how it wants to get something done, but the Wilfs can't do it alone. I think in the end something will get done, but the state of Minnesota can be stubborn. Like most of these stadium situations, this will likely get to a crisis point before something happens. Nothing will happen this year, and it won't help if the owners have a lockout. In fact, that would only delay things for the Wilf family. The drama is building.

Q: John, it seems there is no love for the G-men in 2010. I think they did the right thing by getting stronger in the secondary and drafting D-linemen. Also, Tom Coughlin is at his best when his back is against the wall. I think they can compete for the division title; what do you think?

Michael in Smithtown, N.Y.

A: This is a critical year for the Giants. As much as they improved in their passing game last season, they clearly slipped on defense. Injuries played a big role in that, but you kind of get the feeling Coughlin is trying to plug holes in the dike. The Giants also need their power running attack to return to help that defense. What makes matters worse is that the Redskins could challenge the Giants and Eagles for second place now that the Skins have Donovan McNabb. The Giants aren't getting much love because they have a fight on their hands this season.

Q: I have a question regarding Jimmy Clausen's contract. As we all know by now, he was projected as a top-10 pick, but slid into the second round, effectively costing him millions. But what I'm wondering is, given that he has been rumored to be a "me first" kind of player, do you see a potential contract holdout? He was a second-round pick, but he's probably going to want first-round money.

Hart in New Orleans

A: That could happen, but both sides started working on a deal last week, and I think both sides realize a holdout would be disastrous. Any holdout longer than a week would make Clausen a backup for the whole season. John Fox seems to want to go into the regular season with Matt Moore as his starter, and because Fox is in the last year of his contract, he may not want to take a chance on a rookie quarterback. Remember a few years ago when the Panthers drafted Chris Weinke? He ended up getting a creative contract that included a lot of incentives he could earn if he played a lot. The Panthers are generous with players they like. They like Clausen, so something will get done

Q: Could you see the Redskins implementing a two-tight end system where both Fred Davis and Chris Cooley can be on the field at the same time? The Redskins have question marks at receiver, and two tight ends could help the running game and rookie tackle Trent Williams get accustomed to the NFL.

John in Chicago

A: Absolutely. Early reports are that Mike Shanahan really likes Davis, and Cooley is already an established star at tight end. The two-tight-end formation is ideal for the zone running scheme because there is no strong side or weak side to tip off strengths and weaknesses of the blocking scheme. Plus, there are questions about the depth of the Redskins' wide receiving corps. Shanahan has always operated a strong two-tight-end formation. Great point.

Q: I still do not understand why the Cowboys let Flozell Adams go. I know they must have confidence in Doug Free and that they brought in Alex Barron as insurance. However, isn't one left tackle in the hand worth two in the bush? Where do you think Flo ends up?

Eric in Charlottesville, Va.

A: All great careers come to an end, and Adams was no longer a top-level left tackle. He committed too many penalties and allowed too many sacks. The bigger concern is the overall age of the Cowboys' offensive line. Over the next couple of years, the Cowboys will have to replace most of their 30-plus-year-old starters. You noticed that once Adams was released, teams didn't jump to sign him. The situation is similar to what happened with Orlando Pace last season after the Rams let him go. Pace eventually signed with the Bears, but they found out his skills had declined. It happens. The Cowboys needed to try Free and Barron to see if they can get younger and better along the offensive line.

Q: With so much loss of talent on both sides of the ball (Anquan Boldin, Kurt Warner, Karlos Dansby, Antrel Rolle), but some interesting additions (Dan Williams and Kerry Rhodes) and some unproven talent (Early Doucet and Matt Leinart), how do you see the Arizona Cardinals' season playing out in 2010?

Brandon in Lynchburg, Va.

A: Arizona's loss of talent has given the 49ers the edge in the NFC West, but it hasn't eliminated the Cardinals from staying on top. The ace in the hole for the Cardinals is head coach Ken Whisenhunt. He's given the Cardinals a winning vision and he can adjust to the talent that is there. The Cardinals aren't as talented at quarterback going from Warner to Leinart and at wide receiver after trading away Boldin. But Whisenhunt can still adjust to a more run-oriented offense, taking advantage of Beanie Wells' skills as a power back. The keys to the season will be the development of Wells and how Leinart responds now that he is the starting quarterback. Whisenhunt will give Leinart the first half of the season to be the starter, but if Leinart struggles a lot, Whisenhunt won't be shy about trying the strong-armed Derek Anderson. I don't see the Cardinals as a 10-win team, but they are good enough to be in the eight- or nine-win area, which keeps them in contention.

Q: With Deion Branch and T.J. Houshmandzadeh having gone under the knife, do you think that Golden Tate will have to be the Seahawks' No. 1 receiver right away?

From Arneet in Seattle

A: Tate isn't ready to be the No. 1 receiver. The team needs to develop him as a No. 3 or No. 4 receiver to give him a proper baptism during his rookie year. So far, so good. He runs his short routes well and he catches the ball very well. His problem coming out of Notre Dame was he wasn't a precise route runner. Tate is working hard to fix that, but it will take time. If Branch or Houshmandzadeh take a step backward with their health, the first call will be to Terrell Owens, who remains on the Seahawks' radar in case of an emergency.

Q: With Redskins guard Mike Williams out for the year (and possibly his career), do the Redskins have a suitable replacement on the roster with Artis Hicks or Chad Rinehart? If one of them is not the answer, who is out there (via trade or free agency) who could fill that gap and fit in with what Mike and Kyle Shanahan are doing on offense?

John in Washington, D.C.

A: I think the Redskins can get by. Anything the Redskins would have gotten out of Williams was a bonus anyway. Remember, he had been out of the league and weighed 420 pounds before showing up last year during the offseason and working his way into a job. Williams was a player the Redskins couldn't count on even though he was a great success story last season. Patching a right guard spot isn't the hardest thing to do. The bigger challenge was getting a left tackle, and the Redskins addressed that when they drafted Trent Williams with the fourth pick in the first round. They then got good insurance by picking up Jammal Brown from the Saints. Now the Redskins are three deep for experienced tackles with Williams, Brown and Stephon Heyer. Hicks is good enough to get by with, but if he doesn't work out, the Redskins could go with Rinehart. At least the Skins are deeper and more talented than they were last year, when they had more questions than just right guard.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer