Football season is back ... sort of. All 32 NFL teams opened training camps over the last week, a welcome relief as fans flooded into training facilities in record numbers to watch players take their first steps toward the 2012 season.
A long list of position battles are happening all over the league. The outcome of those battles could go a long way toward determining the shape of the season in 2012. While there are too many to run down in a single post, especially since we have a full roster of team blogs getting into the finer points of each and every roster spot, a few contests jump off the page.
Below is a look at some of the more notable position battles unfolding in the weeks ahead. In the comments below, give us your take on the outcome as well as other roster jockeying that could be equally important.
Kevin Kolb Vs. John Skelton
The Cardinals were so sure of their quarterbacking situation they tried to woo Peyton Manning in the offseason, losing out to the Broncos. Kolb enters camp as the favorite to win the job, but injuries and disappointing performance last season have made it a race. That John Skelton is at all in the mix probably serves as a good time to remind readers about how meaningless quarterback wins are. The Cardinals were 5-2 in games Skelton started; his wins included a pair of games against the Rams, one versus the Browns and another against the Seahawks.
Kolb's completion percentage, 57.7, topped Skelton's 54.9 percent. Kolb had a 76.5 QB rating when under pressure and 94.3 rating when blitzed. Both numbers beat Skelton, but what really drags down the backup is the fact that he threw 13 interceptions when not being blitzed. Larry Fitzgerald has lobbied for Skelton in the past, after he proved to the passer who reliably found him last season.
Projected Winner: Kolb, but with the shortest leash in the NFC
Don't look know, but Ryan Tannehill is getting great reviews for his early work in training camp. He still faces an uphill climb, a steep one, to be the starter in Week 1. The battle for the starting job is between Matt Moore and David Garrard.
Garrard did not play at all last season, but has a lengthy resume and a solid showing in spring work in his favor. Moore does not get enough credit for his work last season when he complete more than 60 percent of his passes with 16 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Over the last eight games of the season, Moore threw 12 touchdowns and five interceptions.
The thing to watch in Miami is how well Tannehill does in practice and the preseason. The answer will determine just how soon he replaces one or the others ahead of him.
Projected Winner: Matt Moore as a placeholder
Tarvaris Jackson Vs. Matt Flynn Vs. Russell Wilson
Jackson has the arm, but his ceiling seems to be that of a competent backup in the NFL. He completed just under 40 percent of his passes under pressure last season. Flynn was brought in during the offseason after a prestigious understudy behind Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay. He lacks the cannon arm to make him a super star, but looks to have a good head for the game, even with just two starts on his vitae.
Wilson, a third-round pick this year, is the one getting all the attention and plenty of work with the first team. Drew Brees' name gets tossed around in the comparisons for Wilson, and the Wisconsin product has fantastic accuracy. He also gets the Troy Smith comparisons. Working against him is his 5-foot-11 height.
Projected Winner: Flynn
Tim Hightower Vs. Roy Helu
Hightower averaged just 3.8 yards per carry before ending up on the shelf last season. His name is listed atop the running back depth chart, but his ACL still has him limited. The better bet right now is Roy Helu, who took over the feature back role last season. Even with Evan Royster factored in, Helu still leads the group in pure talent. The Nebraska product can breakoff big plays and holds up well in pass protection.
Projected Winner: Helu, but this being Mike Shanahan's team it could be someone who is not even on the roster yet.
Dennis Pitta Vs. Ed Dickson
This would have been a far more interesting battle had Pitta not broken his hand in practice this week. He may not be ready for the start of the season, but should be on the field soon enough. Dickson saw more snaps as the starter last season, but Pitta became one of Joe Flacco's top targets in the later part of the season. Pitta had a catch rate of 74 percent last year, 10 points higher than his counterpart.
Projected Winner: Pitta should be seeing more targets as the season gets going, but Dickson will open the year as the starter because of the injury situation.
Chris Williams Vs. J'Marcus Webb
No offensive line has allowed more sacks over the last two years than the Bears' woeful protection unit. With Mike Martz not calling for seven-step drops on every play, Jay Cutler automatically gets more protection from pass rushers, but the tackle situation is iffy enough that it could be the difference between a playoff bid and disaster.
Webb is the incumbent, but Mike Tice decided in the spring to give Williams, normally a guard, the chance to push Webb for the left tackle job. Webb drew 14 penalties last season, allowed 12 sacks and 48 total pressures, according to Pro Football Focus.
Projected Winner: Webb
Brian Quick Vs. Brandon Gibson Vs. Greg Salas Vs. Steve Smith
You might not have heard of any of these guys, but the Rams season depends on them turning into a competent option for Sam Bradford, who's locked in a position battle with himself. The organization pinned high hopes on Brian Quick when they made him the first pick in the second round of this year's draft. With size and hands, he is unlike anything the Rams have had at the position for a long time. He is also a rookie from Appalachian State and has yet to get many reps with the starters.
Gibson is a preseason stud who fades when the games count. Salas, plucked out of the fourth round last year by Josh McDaniels, dropped four passes to start the year, but caught 12 of 14 targets in Weeks 8 & 9 before landing on injured reserve with a broken leg. He is seeing plenty of reps on the outside early in camp. Steve Smith is trying to work his way back to the form he had in 2009, when he had 1,220 receiving yards before injuries threw him off track.
Projected Winner: Quick, the organization is going to make him earn it, but has too much riding on his 6-foot-4 frame to sit him.
Steve McLendon Vs. Alameda Ta'amu
Incumbent nose tackle Casey Hampton is still recovering from a torn ACL and may not be ready to start the season. McLendon and Ta'amu will compete to replace Hampton as the anchor of Pittsburgh's vaunted defensive front. McLendon is the favorite over the rookie Ta'amu. In limited work last season, McLendon has two sacks and three hurries in half as many snaps as Hampton. He showed well against the run, and his experience gives him an edge.
Ta'amu was a steal in the fourth round this year. Big and wide, the University of Washington product looks the part and has the power to go with it.
Projected Winner: McLendon
With Will Smith, the team's best outside pass rusher, suspended for the first four games of the season, new defensive coordinator Steve Spagnuolo will have to find help elsewhere to start the season. New Orleans plays Carolina and Green Bay during that four game stretch, so finding the right mix on defense could be crucial.
Turk McBride is the favorite to start across from Cameron Jordan. He had two sacks in limited duty last season, including filling in while Smith was serving his StarCaps suspension. Junior Galette could match for snaps as a pass rusher. He had four and a half sacks last year, against some of the league's weaker tackles. Watch Martez Wilson, who could see ample playing time as a pass rusher. Spagnuolo is converting him from linebacker to end.
Projected Winner: McBride
Brian Rolle Vs. Jamar Chaney
In case you forgot, Philadelphia's linebackers proved to be a big problem for the team last season. They struck a deal to add DeMeco Ryans in the middle, and are letting Rolle and Chaney battle it out for the weakside job.
Chaney started in the middle last season. Rolle made 13 starts on the weakside, finishing the year with 51 total tackles. Working in Rolle's favor is his ability in coverage. He and Akeem Jordan were the only Philly linebackers last season to finish with positive grades in coverage according to Pro Football Focus.
Projected Winner: Rolle
Aaron Williams Vs. Terrence McGee
Buffalo has one starting corner job filled with first-round pick Stephon Gilmore. As for who will start across from him, Williams took over down the stretch last season. McGee suffered a knee injury and needed surgery to repair his patella tendon.
This is only Williams' second season. He desperately needs to improve his coverage game after allowing an opposing passer rating of 120 on balls throw his direction last year. McGee's struggles with his health -- the last time he played more than 10 games was in 2009 -- likely have him ticketed for the nickle role, assuming he can get back to full speed when the season starts.
Projected Winner: Williams
Charles Woodson Vs. M.D. Jennings Vs. Jeron McMillian
The decision to release Charlie Peprah opened up a competition at strong safety. Green Bay put Woodson in the starting spot in their base package to start camp, but have been shuffling all three in and out in various looks. Woodson could be the latest in a healthy tradition of moving older corners to the safety spot.
Jennings made a strong impression last season as a laser focused undrafted rookie. With Peprah's departure opening up more playing time, Jennings' work ethic should get him plenty of looks in camp. He was working at safety in the nickle package as Woodson moved into the slot. As a feature in the nickle, Jennings could see more than enough playing time.
Projected Winner: Woodson