Most head coaches will never admit it, but if you privately pressured them at the outset of training camp, they could predict for you pretty accurately the composition of their 53-man roster.
What even veteran coaches often can't predict, though, is who will win the key intramural positional battles that highlight training camps every summer. Because if they could identify the best player ahead of time, there really wouldn't be much need for the crucible of training camp competitions played out under characteristically withering conditions.
There will be, of course, one or two such head-to-head (and, in some cases, head-to-head-to-head) bouts in all 32 training camps over the next six weeks. Many of them are high-profile in nature and already have been touted as summer highlights: the four-way foray for the New York Jets' starting quarterback job; the competition between Dominic Rhodes and first-round draft choice Joseph Addai for the right to succeed Edgerrin James as the starting tailback for the Indianapolis Colts; the anticipated fray pitting Chicago Bears tailbacks Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson; the free-for-all for the two starting defensive tackle spots on the Philadelphia Eagles' front four.
But there are lesser-publicized competitions that will take place, too, some of them with potentially high-stakes consequences.
One of those will be in Denver, where speedy Tatum Bell, former Heisman Trophy winner Ron Dayne and the relatively unknown Cedric Cobbs will vie for the right to become the latest Broncos 1,000-yard rusher. There is no odds-on favorite entering camp, although the odds are excellent that whomever wins the job will register four-figure rushing yards.
Bell was the man Denver coaches privately hoped would seize the No. 1 job last season, but he seemed to take things for granted in camp, and Mike Anderson grabbed the top perch on the depth chart and posted the second 1,000-yard season of his career. Bell rushed for 921 yards, and an impressive 5.3-yard average, on just 173 carries, and demonstrated breathtaking long speed at times. He probably goes to camp a slight favorite, but will have to convince coaches he can handle the workload, and will have to hold off Dayne, whose career has been resurrected, and Cobb.
During head coach Mike Shanahan's previous 10 seasons in Denver, the Broncos have rated outside of the top 10 in rushing offense just one time, in 1999. That year, the Broncos were, gasp, 12th. In the other nine seasons, they've been first or second in the league on four occasions. In that stretch, Denver had 10 individual 1,000-yard rushers, spread among five different tailbacks.
Indeed, being the Broncos' starting tailback is about as close to a guarantee of a 1,000-yard season as any back might ever get. Still, outside of Rocky Mountain area codes, not much has been made of the pending tailback tussle. Then again, some of the best and most heated camp competitions often get lost in the frenzy surrounding many over-hyped ones.
Here are 12 less-discussed competitions worth scrutinizing this summer:
• Stephen Gostkowski versus Martin Gramatica (New England Patriots, kicker): A fourth-round choice, Gostkowski provided one of the best post-draft moments this year when, after being asked about his most uplifting field goal at the University of Memphis, he described a long game-winner with incredibly vivid recall. Alas, when queried about the opponent against whom he made his "most memorable" kick, he replied: "I don't remember." Either Gostkowski or the veteran Gramatica, who has not kicked in a regular-season game since November 2004, and who had to battle back from abdominal problems just to get into sufficient shape to merit a minimum-salary contract, will be asked to make typically unforgiving Patriots fans forget about the free agency defection of the beloved Adam Vinatieri. No small task there, right, given that Vinatieri, who signed with Indianapolis, was regarded as the top clutch placement specialist in recent history, and provided the winning kicks in two of New England's three Super Bowl championships.
One other kicker battle worth noting is in Atlanta, where the Falcons opted not to re-sign 12-year veteran Todd Peterson, who converted 23 of 25 field goals in 2005. Instead, Atlanta, which wants to develop a younger kicker, will go to camp with the unproven tandem of Zac Derr and Tony Yelk. In his dozen seasons in the league, Peterson converted 235 field goals. Derr and Yelk combined have made, well, 235 fewer than that. If neither looks impressive early in camp, the Falcons might be in the market for a veteran.
• Seth Wand versus Charles Spencer (Houston Texans, left offensive tackle): The Texans have allowed a mind-boggling 229 sacks in their four-year existence. First-year coach Gary Kubiak hired Mike Sherman to fix the longstanding offensive line woes, and the former Green Bay head coach has responded by enacting a musical-chairs approach. As currently projected, not a single starter will line up at the spot he played in 2005. That, for quarterback David Carr, represents the good news. The bad news is that the key left tackle spot, where pass-rushers have poured through as if it was a turnstile, still must be addressed. Wand has started 18 games in three seasons, including all 16 contests in 2004, and his performance was adjudged, somewhat mercifully, as uneven. Spencer, a third-round draft choice, has played on the offensive side of the ball just two seasons, including only one year at left tackle. He might not win the job outright in camp, but the sense is that Spencer could oust Wand during the season.
• Napoleon Harris versus Dontarrious Thomas (Minnesota Vikings, middle linebacker): The Vikings have made some impressive moves in the offseason, but for first-year defensive coordinator Mike Tomlin to be able to effectively implement the Cover 2 scheme he brought with him from Tampa Bay, someone is going to have to seize the middle linebacker spot. The position is critical in the Cover 2 because it demands an active and athletic defender who can turn and run, and take responsibility for the deep middle zone. There aren't a lot of middle linebackers who can get 18-20 yards down field, but that's what Tomlin was accustomed to during his five seasons with the Bucs, and that is what he expects. Thomas is arguably the more athletic of the two and that could be to his advantage. Harris, the veteran acquired from Oakland in the Randy Moss trade, is more a traditional middle linebacker. Neither has demonstrated big-play skills in his career, combining for no interceptions and just five takeaways. Don't rule out the possibility that E.J. Henderson, a former starter in the middle, might yet get into the fray, especially if Minnesota coaches are convinced that first-round choice Chad Greenway is ready to start at the weakside linebacker spot.
• Keith Adams versus Na'il Diggs (Carolina Panthers, weakside linebacker): The Panthers lost a big-time talent when Will Witherspoon bolted to St. Louis as an unrestricted free agent, and replacing the very athletic veteran will be a challenge. Until last season, when he started all 16 games for the Eagles, Adams was primarily known as a special teams star and situational linebacker. But provided with extensive playing time, the five-year veteran registered 101 tackles. Adams is a bit undersized, at just 5-foot-11, but he certainly has the kind of quickness Carolina coaches demand from their linebackers. Diggs is bigger, at 241 pounds, and has much more experience. But he suffered through an injury-plagued 2005 campaign, one in which he had career lows in appearances (nine), starts (six) and tackles (45). In the three previous seasons, he averaged 14.8 starts and more than 100 tackles. Adams will go to camp working with the No. 1 unit, but no one should write off Diggs, particularly if he is healthy, just yet. Rookie James Anderson, an impressively fluid defender, probably won't be a factor in camp, but could carve out some playing time for himself in nickel situations.
• Kelley Washington versus Antonio Chatman (Cincinnati Bengals, No. 3 wide receiver): This battle presupposes that second-year veteran Chris Henry, the No. 3 wideout behind starters Chad Johnson and T.J. Houshmandzadeh, will be sanctioned by the NFL for his turbulent offseason. That certainly seems likely, given four arrests in a six-month stretch, and Cincinnati officials will use camp time to prepare for at least a four-week absence during the season. The angular, long-striding Washington was branded a steal when the Bengals landed him in the third round of the 2003 draft, but he has averaged only 21 catches and 259.3 yards in his three league seasons. Washington privately chafes at what he perceives as a lack of opportunities, but Henry's spate of off-field problems could be playing time pounding on his front door. Released by Green Bay in the offseason, Chatman was signed more as a punt returner, but now is a candidate for the No. 3 receiver spot. He isn't the classic, vertical/boundary threat that Washington is, but Chatman has some quickness and run-after-catch skills, and works pretty well out of the slot.
• Chad Lavalais versus Darrell Shropshire versus Antwan Lake (Atlanta Falcons, nose tackle): With the addition of right end John Abraham in the offseason, some have suggested that it doesn't really matter who joins the former Jets star, left end Patrick Kerney and "under" tackle Rod Coleman in the lineup. But the Falcons' most glaring defensive deficiencies in 2005 didn't come from their pass rush, but rather against the run. So they need someone to establish himself at nose tackle, in part to stuff the inside, but also to allow Coleman, a terror when he has just one-gap responsibilities, more chances to penetrate and wreak havoc. The job theoretically should belong to Lavalais, arguably the most rounded of the candidates, but team officials are growing weary of his incessant weight problems. Shropshire and Lake are pluggers, effort-type guys who won't dazzle anyone, but who will show up with their motors running. This could be Lavalais' last chance to prove he's capable of being a starter in the league.
• Rob Petitti versus Jason Fabini versus Marc Colombo (Dallas Cowboys, right offensive tackle): When the Cowboys signed Fabini, after he was released by the Jets for salary cap considerations early this spring, conventional wisdom was that he would walk right into a starting job. After all, Fabini has started 114 games in eight seasons, most of them at right tackle. And the man who drafted him for the Jets in 1998 was Bill Parcells. But word is that Fabini didn't look good at all in the spring. Comparatively, Colombo, who has played in just two games the past three seasons, and was forced to scrap his way back from a shattered leg that threatened to prematurely end the career of the Bears' 2002 first-rounder, was a revelation. The sure thing is that someone with a vowel at the end of his name is going to be the starter. The pretty sure thing is that it's going to be Petitti, who started all 16 games as a rookie in 2005, and who grew into the job as the season wore on. He's still inconsistent but, given time to keep improving, Petitti could end up being a pretty solid strongside blocker.
• Daylon McCutcheon versus Leigh Bodden (Cleveland Browns, left cornerback): Replacing Gary Baxter when the Browns' best coverage defender suffered a torn chest muscle in 2005, Bodden started 11 games and played well enough to merit a contract extension. With Baxter expected back at full strength for training camp, Bodden might now set his sights on supplanting McCutcheon, a member of the team's original roster in 1999, at the left cornerback spot. With 96 career starts, McCutcheon has been a fixture in the Cleveland secondary for seven seasons, but a lot of pro scouts have felt that the undersized but feisty defender might be best suited for the No. 3 cornerback position. Bodden, a steal as an undrafted college free agent from noted football power Duquesne University in 2003, possesses prototype size (6-foot-1, 190 pounds) and runs well, and the Cleveland staff wants him on the field.
• Hank Fraley versus Jamaal Jackson (Philadelphia, center): During 2001-2004, Fraley, a self-made player, started all but one game for the Eagles, and was a model of consistency. A former undrafted college free agent from tiny Robert Morris College, claimed on waivers by Philadelphia after Pittsburgh released him, Fraley exhibited remarkable scrappiness, great technique and superior knowledge of blocking schemes. But then Fraley wrecked his shoulder in 2005, Jackson replaced him in the lineup for the final eight games of the season and the Eagles discovered that bigger might be better. The 330-pound Jackson has a 30-pound advantage on Fraley and, while he lacks Fraley's savvy, Jackson might be stouter as an inside anchor. That the Philadelphia staff likes Jackson, who didn't appear in a single game in his first two years in the league, was evidenced this week when the Eagles signed him to a long-term contract extension. Fraley remains what he always has been, a lunch-pail guy with guile and nuance, and this figures to be quite a battle for the starting job.
• Jeff Posey versus Mario Haggan (Buffalo Bills, strongside linebacker): Although he has been a steady defender for the Bills over the last three seasons, Posey never has quite lived up to expectations, as noted by just 9½ sacks during his Buffalo tenure. Haggan hasn't been much more than a special teams player but, with a new staff and a new scheme, he could challenge the incumbent. At 248 pounds, Haggan is the bigger of the two and it's time for him to step up his game or be little more than a "lifer" on the kick coverage teams. The wild card in the equation is Angelo Crowell, who played remarkably in 2005 when an Achilles injury forced Pro Bowl weakside linebacker Takeo Spikes onto injured reserve. There are some questions about whether Crowell could move to the strong side and be effective there. But new staffs are prone to shake things up and the sound Posey hears in the background might be a few younger players gaining ground on him.
• Gerome Sapp versus B.J. Ward versus Dawan Landry (Baltimore Ravens, free safety): Baltimore has three Pro Bowl-caliber players in the secondary -- cornerbacks Chris McAlister and Samari Rolle, and strong safety Ed Reed -- and probably requires just a steady, stabilizing presence at free safety. But no one knows if the Ravens even have such a player on the current roster. On experience alone, Sapp probably is the early-line favorite to win the job. He was reacquired by the Ravens from Indianapolis last month via trade and, while his résumé includes only two starts, there is some evidence to suggest the former Notre Dame big hitter might be more than just a nondescript special teams player. Ward is inexperienced. The long-term guy might be Landry, a fifth-round pick who has terrific size (220 pounds), gets around the ball, and had 250 career tackles in college. The former Georgia Tech standout might need some seasoning, though, so Sapp likely has an edge.
• Dewayne White versus Greg Spires (Tampa Bay Bucs, left defensive end): Let's make one thing clear: Spires is simply one of the most underrated players in the NFL at any defensive position. He is a superb complementary end to Simeon Rice, typically rings up 4-5 sacks annually, and plays the run much tougher than any 265-pounder has a right to. So dislodging him from his starting job is going to be a tough chore. But White, a former second-round selection who has mostly played in pass-rush situations during his first three seasons, seems to be a young veteran who is coming of age. White has long arms, has learned how to disengage from blockers, and is the kind of active, athletic defender the Bucs love. He's still got to make a little more progress versus the run, but the Tampa Bay coaches spent the offseason divining ways to get him on the field more. Taking snaps away from the resourceful Spires might not be the optimum way to do it, but someone is going to have to cede some playing time to White if he has a strong training camp.
Len Pasquarelli is a senior NFL writer for ESPN.com. To check out Len's chat archive, click here.