Naturally, at Pro Football Focus we have a view on the ones to watch, and have an idea of what to expect (or what we would do) before the season starts. So all this week we’re going to be spending a day looking at the most prominent positional battles within each team. Up first are the four teams of the AFC East.
So let’s take a little look at four training camp battles to watch.
Position: Right Guard
The Players: Kraig Urbik and Chad Rinehart
The Battle: Remember when the Bills had one of the worst offensive lines in the league? Season 2011 was something of a turnaround for a group that finished fourth in our OL rankings, and both the men we’re looking at today played their part. Former Steelers bust Urbik finished the season at center after spending most of the first 11 weeks at right guard, while ex-Redskin Rinehart spent time at both guard positions as he amassed 868 snaps. Now, with Cordy Glenn at left tackle and Eric Wood back at center, there’s only one spot left on a line that also returns Andy Levitre and Erik Pears. So will it be the man who started the year at right guard, or the man who finished it in that position?
As the incumbent the odds heavily favor Urbik, and if you look at his work in pass protection it’s easy to see why. The former Steeler gave up just three hurries all year while playing at two positions. That earned him the honor of finishing with the best pass blocking efficiency at two positions, a quite incredible feat. That said, Rinehart was no slouch himself, and gave up just two hits and eight hurries while playing more snaps and featuring more prominently at guard (where players give up more pressure than at center). Furthermore, the ex-Redskin tends to be able to do a lot more in the run game than the virtually anonymous Urbik, and it never hurts to give guys like Fred Jackson and C.J. Spiller a bit more room to operate.
The Verdict: On paper we’d take Rinehart, but the case for consistency and the ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ mentality makes sticking with Urbik understandable. Credit must go to the Bills for at least cultivating some depth on their interior line to be in a position where the winner of a camp battle is the best man for the job, as opposed to the one least likely to flop.
The Players: David Garrard and Matt Moore
The Battle: Fresh off an impressive 2011 season you’d think the job would be Moore’s to lose. It isn’t, and it’s not just that a new coach has come in and installed a new system. It’s that Moore has been here once before, flashing talent when in coming in for a beleaguered starter and then struggling when he’s annointed ‘the guy’. Couple that with the signing of the steady veteran Garrard and the top-10 draft selection of Ryan Tannehill and this has the potential to get very interesting.
Indeed reports already suggest Garrard has taken the early lead with his offseason work, and that’s not really that much of a surprise. Moore is more likely to excite you with the throws he makes, but the accuracy and reliability of the former Jaguar better fits the new system installed by Head Coach Joe Philbin. While some Jacksonville fans bemoaned Garrard’s unwillingness to pull the trigger, he was constantly a top-rated quarterback in our system, with a penchant for not making boneheaded plays. Whatever you say about Moore, his fearless factor will get him into trouble at times.
The Verdict: Long-term this position belongs to Ryan Tannehill, so right now all the Dolphins need is someone to keep things steady and avoid putting them in a position where their rookie quarterback has to take the field too early. History has taught us to trust Garrard with the ball, whereas it’s taught us to be a little more cautious when it comes to Moore. We’d take Garrard as management rebuilds the roster to their liking.
Position: Strongside Linebacker
The Players: Rob Ninkovich and Dont’a Hightower
The Battle: You never quite know what Bill Belichik is going to do with his defense. He is the only Head Coach who seems comfortable switching defensive schemes game to game (and we’re not talking about a hybrid here), so you don’t really know what exactly New England will expect from their SLB. Whatever it is, it’s likely to involve Ninkovich or Hightower and that creates an interesting dilemma for the man with the hoodie.
On one hand you’ve got a player in Ninkovich who plays the run extremely well. During the season he earned PFF’s sixth highest grade among 4-3 outside linebackers with his performance in this regard, and he followed this up with some tremendous work in the postseason. He’s a proven commodity who isn’t completely useless when he rushes the passer, but then again, he’s not going to set the world alight as a pass rusher either. And therein lies the problem for New England. They need to get better in this regard. Hightower is unproven, but the Patriots didn’t spend a first-round pick on him just for the sake of it. They see him as being something they sorely lack: an impact player, and it’s hard to make an impact if you’re not on the field.
The Verdict: New England is not above putting rookies on the field, or rotating people at positions that typically don’t rotate. With Hightower being late to sign his deal it’s very possible Ninkovich walks into the season the starter, but finds himself rotated out of passing situations and being spelled for a series once in a while. The onus then is on Hightower to prove he deserves a bigger role. For now, a timeshare seems the best way of comparing what you have now, to what you could have in the future.
The Players: Eric Smith, LaRon Landry and Yeremiah Bell
The Battle: The Jets may use three safeties in some defensive packages, but for the majority of the time you’re only going to see two of them on the field. The burning question is, which two will it be, and how will they be used?
Landry has to be the immediate favorite for one position, assuming he’s healthy. He has the kind of top-end talent and playmaking ability that the Jets have lacked from the safety spot. The problem is he has that troublesome Achilles injury and looks set to be given a deeper role in Ryan’s defense. As Redskins fans will tell you, Landry was at his best when he was playing closer to the line of scrimmage–Ed Reed he is not.
It’s not like the other options on the roster are much better at playing deep off the ball. Smith and Bell both lack the range and athleticism to play the role effectively, and are, like Landry, better suited to playing closer to the line of scrimmage where their weaknesses can’t be quite so badly exploited. That said, both men will no doubt still be exploited a few times this year, as they were in 2011. Neither man impressed last season as they earned -14.5 (Smith) and -12.0 (Bell) grades. Indeed, this looks like a weak spot for an otherwise loaded Jets defense, where the battle isn’t so much about finding a winner, as eliminating the biggest loser.
The Verdict: The likelihood is the Jets are going to be dammed whatever they do, but they’re likely best served keeping Smith off the field. His tendency to be a little over aggressive leads to him getting caught out of position and he lacks the skill-set to make up for those shortcomings. Landry brings with him big upside and, coupled with Bell’s experience (and nose for the quarterback that Rex Ryan will like to exploit), the duo should relegate Smith to sub-package duty.