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Training Camp Battles: Rookies, vets expected to go head-to-head

Now that we know who's playing where in the wake of the NFL draft, it's time to start focusing on who's playing where, as in the positional battles to watch once training camps open. Here are 12 depth-chart competitions that I'll be keeping an eye on this summer:

1. N.Y. Jets outside linebacker, Vernon Gholston vs. Bryan Thomas -- After his nine-sack season in 2006 earned him a fat new contract, Thomas, a former first-round pick himself in 2002, regressed last year, totaling just 2½ sacks with almost zero big-play impact from his weakside position. Enter Gholston, the No. 6 overall pick, who will be starting at some point opposite newly signed strongside linebacker Calvin Pace, one of New York's big offseason additions. The Jets may work Gholston in as a situational pass rusher at first to get him acclimated to playing linebacker in their 3-4 defense (he was a defensive end at Ohio State), but New York needs him to develop into a three-down performer by 2009 at the latest.

2. Detroit running back, Kevin Smith vs. Tatum Bell -- Smith led the nation in rushing last year at Central Florida and the third-round pick couldn't have landed in a better NFL destination than Detroit in terms of first-year opportunity. The Lions rushed for less than 1,300 yards as a team in 2007, and let their top two runners -- Kevin Jones and T.J. Duckett -- leave in February. The Lions talked Bell into returning for a second season once they jettisoned offensive coordinator Mike Martz, but the ex-Bronco has yet to prove he's tough enough to make it through a year without being injured. The Lions will likely find playing time for both runners, but look for Smith to emerge as Detroit's lead back by October.

3. Oakland running back, Darren McFadden vs. Justin Fargas and Michael Bush -- The Raiders are already working on the over-crowding at running back, having released Dominic Rhodes just after taking McFadden fourth overall in the draft. Any minute now, LaMont Jordan and his $4.7 million salary in 2008 should be the next to go. That'll leave Fargas and Bush competing with the ex-Razorback.

Fargas posted a surprising 1,000-yard season last year, but now look for him to get no more than 10 carries per game, usually in specialized situations like the two-minute drill or short-yardage or goal-line formations. Bush could prove tougher for McFadden to climb over. He missed his NFL rookie season in the wake of the broken leg he suffered as a Louisville senior, but the Raiders are quite high on him and want to find a role for him this year. It'll still be McFadden's job early, but it won't be a coronation.

4. Miami quarterback, Chad Henne vs. John Beck and Josh McCown -- Henne has always been a fast learner and most observers believe he'll be the Dolphins' guy before Halloween rolls around. Miami's second-round pick started his first game as a true freshman at Michigan and won't find the NFL stage too big for him. That said, the veteran McCown, playing for his fourth team, probably will run the offense better than anyone in the preseason and earn the opening day starting job. As for Beck, Miami's second-round pick in 2007, Bill Parcells is said to have early respect for him and his work ethic, meaning he'll be given a legitimate chance to compete for the No. 1 position.

5. Carolina outside linebacker, Dan Connor vs. Landon Johnson -- The Panthers really didn't have a need at weakside linebacker when they chose Connor in the middle of the third round, 74th overall. But he was too highly rated to pass on, having been projected by some analysts to go either low in the first or early in the second round.

In March, the Panthers signed four-year starter Landon Johnson away from Cincinnati, giving him a three-year deal worth $10 million, including $3 million to sign. He was their upgrade on the weakside, where Na'il Diggs has started with modest results the past two seasons.

Johnson will likely fend off Connor's challenge to his playing time in the immediate future, but the presence of the ex-Penn State star gives Carolina the possibility of starting a very young and promising linebacking corps with Thomas Davis on the strongside and Jon Beason in the middle.

6. Washington third receiver, Devin Thomas vs. Malcolm Kelly -- Looking to get bigger at receiver, the Redskins weren't content to take a tall rookie pass-catcher in the second round. Instead, they selected two. Kind of like the way they added both Brandon Lloyd and Antwaan Randle El in free agency in 2006, even though both receivers were of similar slight build.

With SantanaMoss and Randle El still on hand, Thomas (the 34th pick out of Michigan State) and Kelly (the 51st selection out of Oklahoma) will square off this preseason for the rights to the third-receiver role. The good news is there's plenty of three-receiver sets in the version of the West Coast offense new head coach Jim Zorn brings with him from Seattle, so there should be enough work for all four players involved. Based on his breakthrough junior season in 2007, Thomas is expected to have the early edge in his one-on-one duel with Kelly.

7. Giants safety, Kenny Phillips vs. Sammy Knight -- Having lost starting free safety Gibril Wilson in free agency to Oakland in March, New York bought itself some insurance by signing Knight to a three-year, $5.1 million deal as a free agent. But this makes four teams in five seasons for the 12th-year veteran (Miami, Kansas City, Jacksonville and the Giants), and you don't get to be that well-traveled in the NFL without a good reason. Knight's speed, never his strong suit, is now an oxymoron. But he'll likely still be in the lineup early because the Giants prefer to bring their rookies along slowly, the way it took until late in the season last year for first-round cornerback Aaron Ross to start making an impact. Phillips should be more of a factor, and Knight less, as the season unfolds.

8. N.Y. Jets tight end, Dustin Keller vs. Chris Baker -- Draft weekend didn't make for happy viewing for Baker, who already was chafing about his contract and being underappreciated, even before New York traded back into the bottom of the first round to select Keller, the Purdue standout. Baker is upset that despite being the Jets starter, he's making almost a $1 million less this season than his new backup, Bubba Franks. As a first-round pick, Keller too will pass him on the team's salary chart.

Having learned their lesson from the Pete Kendall showdown last year, the Jets believe Keller gives them leverage in Baker's contract situation. New York doesn't want to trade Baker, because he's the team's best blocking tight end. But Keller is the pass-catching option, and his role will overshadow Baker's early on in Brian Schottenheimer's offense.

9. Pittsburgh third receiver, Limas Sweed vs. Nate Washington -- The Steelers took Sweed in the second round, 53rd overall, and he walks in the door as the obvious candidate to push Washington for the third-receiver role behind starters Hines Ward and Santonio Holmes. At the very least, Pittsburgh found a very talented replacement for Cedrick Wilson, the veteran receiver who was released this spring after being involved in a domestic violence incident.

The Steelers consider Washington a fairly crucial part of their receiving corps and that's why they tendered him at a first-round level ($1.417 million) before re-signing him as a restricted free agent this year. But Sweed is the big, tall receiver (nearly 6-4) that quarterback Ben Roethlisberger requested this offseason, so look for Big Ben to prioritize getting him the ball.

10. Seattle defensive end, Lawrence Jackson vs. Darryl Tapp -- The Seahawks were thought to be in the market for a first-round defensive tackle in the draft, but they couldn't pass on the chance to select Jackson, one of the most proven pass-rushers available. The ex-USC star will compete with Tapp for the starting right end position, even though Tapp's seven sacks in 2007 were third on the team behind left end Patrick Kerney's 14½ and outside linebacker Julian Peterson's 9½. One possibility is to shift Tapp inside to tackle, or perhaps to have the 6-5, 268-pound Jackson start the season playing in a three-man end rotation.

11. Arizona cornerback, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie vs. Eric Green and Rod Hood -- Arizona's projected starters at cornerback are Green and Hood, but the team's first-round pick could change that with a strong preseason. Rodgers-Cromartie has prototypical NFL cornerback size (6-2, 182) and speed (4.29), and the Cardinals love his ability to get his hands on the ball in coverage. Green missed the last five games of 2007 and is entering the final season of his four-year rookie contract. He didn't have an interception last season, although his 12 passes defensed ranked second to Hood's 21. Hood picked off five passes and started every game at left cornerback.

12. San Francisco nose tackle, Kentwan Balmer vs. Aubrayo Franklin -- It's a difficult assignment to ask any rookie to handle the nose tackle role in a 3-4 defense. That's why Balmer might end up replacing the retired Bryant Young at right defensive end more than he truly pushes Franklin for the man in the middle slot. Balmer was a 4-3 defensive tackle at North Carolina and doesn't have much experience at nose, so his rookie season could be a case of using him where he can best contribute. Right now that's as a 3-4 defensive end, and not subjecting him to the double-team blocks that a nose tackle absorbs on almost every play.

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