Position battles to watch this preseason

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Blaine Gabbert has gotten good reviews to start training camp, but struggled a little in a recent Jaguars scrimmage. (CSM/Landov)

Thanks to the abbreviated offseason and a rash of injuries once camps finally got underway, this week’s exhibition games could be some of the sloppiest we’ve ever seen -- which, granted, is like picking the worst “Jersey Shore” episode.

Nevertheless, there are plenty of intriguing storylines to follow, starting with some of the more heated position battles around the league. Here’s a look at a few that we’re keeping our eyes on:

Jaguars QB: Blaine Gabbert vs. David Garrard

Garrard’s numbers haven’t been horrendous over the past few seasons. Since losing a divisional round game to the Patriots during the 2007 season, though, the Jaguars simply haven’t won very much.

That lack of success was enough to convince the Jags to trade up for Gabbert in April’s draft, sending the Nos. 16 and 48 picks to Washington for the No. 10 selection. Gabbert will be thrust into the fire -- he’ll start Thursday at New England with Garrard suffering from a back injury.

While Gabbert likely won’t be able to leapfrog Garrard on the depth chart in the first week of preseason play, a strong showing from the Missouri product would at least get the wheels turning in Jacksonville. The franchise needs some sort of spark and Gabbert may be the guy to provide it, sooner rather than later.

Cardinals RB: Beanie Wells vs. Ryan Williams

Here’s another case of a rookie trying to pull off a coup. Wells had a strong rookie season of his own in 2009, rushing for 793 yards and seven touchdowns, despite not starting a game. But he fell off the map in 2010, finishing with less than 400 yards on the ground, the victim of injuries and an apparent lack of motivation.

Arizona revamped the rest of its ground game around Wells this offseason, drafting Virginia Tech’s Ryan Williams, then trading Tim Hightower to Washington. In theory, those moves should have opened the door for Wells to take a stranglehold on the starting job. Instead, Williams is already making a push for playing time.

Both guys will no doubt see the field -- Hightower had 153 carries last season, Wells 116. That said, one of the Wells-Williams duo must step up and take the bull by the horns.

Whichever back proves to be more durable might win the race -- Williams missed a month of his final college season with a leg injury.

Packers OLB: Erik Walden vs. Frank Zombo and Brad Jones

You can probably file this one under “Good problems to have.”

The defending NFL champions are a bit unsettled at the right outside linebacker spot in their 3-4 scheme, but it’s not from a lack of bodies. There are three guys in the mix to start there -- Walden, a promising fourth-year player; Zombo, who burst onto the scene as a rookie in 2010 and held the position in Super Bowl XLV; and Brad Jones, who has started 12 games over the past two seasons.

No matter which way the Packers go, they should be in good shape. Green Bay’s other three starting LBs (Clay Matthews, A.J. Hawk and Desmond Bishop) combined for 264 tackles and 17 interceptions last season, so a revolving door at that fourth linebacker spot wouldn’t be the end of the world.

Bengals QB: Andy Dalton vs. Bruce Gradkowski

And on the opposite end of the spectrum from the Packers, we have the Bengals. Carson Palmer, the Bengals’ starter since 2004, told the team this offseason that he wanted a trade or he was going to retire -- so far, the team hasn’t budged on a trade and Palmer hasn’t caved on his threats.

Cincinnati’s contingency plan came in the form of TCU quarterback Andy Dalton, picked No. 35 overall in April. The Bengals also went out and signed ex-Raiders QB Bruce Gradkowski after the lockout ended.

Gradkowski has made 20 NFL starts, including eight with Oakland over the past two seasons, so he wins the experience battle over Dalton. The problem is that most of those starts, and the majority of Gradkowski’s appearances in general, have been underwhelming.

Dalton will get the start in the Bengals’ preseason opener at Detroit Friday. Don’t be shocked if he’s also under center come Week 1 at Cleveland.

Ravens OT: Oniel Cousins vs. Jah Reid and Ramon Harewood

Michael Oher’s got the Ravens’ left tackle spot on lockdown, but the situation is far more unsettled on the opposite side of the line. Baltimore coach John Harbaugh said last week that Cousins, who saw action in every Baltimore game last season, has the edge to start at right tackle.

Reid, a third-round pick out of Central Florida, and Harewood, who spent his rookie season of 2010 on IR with multiple knee injuries, could still have a say.

For as much importance as Baltimore puts on its ground game, getting its offensive line settled is critical.

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