NFL roster battles: Patriots need wideouts, Raiders need a left tackle

Jared Wickerham

Entering the final week of preseason, many teams are still trying to figure out who to start, and where. Here's a look at eight of the most pressing position battles still being waged.

We are less than one week away from the kickoff to the 2013 NFL season, and there are still position battles to be fought. While most teams simply hope to get out of Week 4 with healthy starters, the final exhibition game does give coaches a last look at reserves before paring down the roster to 53 players. More daring coaches may even let key players participate in hopes of shining some light on murky position battles.

With that, here are eight position battles to keep an eye on Thursday:

New England Patriots wide receivers

Key players: Danny Amendola, Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson, Matt Slater, Kenbrell Thompkins

The Patriots are dealing with a very fluid situation at wideout. With Rob Gronkowski out for the time being, there should be plenty of targets headed toward the receiving corps. How targets will be distributed remains to be seen, however. Danny Amendola is the clear-cut No. 1, but undrafted rookie free agent Kenbrell Thompkins may be  No. 2 after impressing in preseason, leaving the roles of Julian Edelman, Aaron Dobson and Matt Slater somewhat murky.

Oakland Raiders left tackle

Key players: Alex Barron, Menelik Watson

The Raiders are in crisis mode along the offensive line. With Jared Veldheer out with a torn triceps, the team needs a reliable left tackle. Unfortunately, backup Alex Barron was unimpressive in his last two preseason games working with the first team. Matt Flynn was sacked six times over that span. The Raiders will try rookie Menelik Watson with the first team this week, and hope he is a revelation. Watson is an impressive physical specimen, but he has never played left tackle at any point during his career.

Pittsburgh Steelers running backs

Key Players: Jonathan Dwyer, Isaac Redman, LaRod Stephens-Howling, Felix Jones

The Steelers were hoping to improve in the running game this season, but after a Lisfranc injury downed Le'Veon Bell for the time being, Pittsburgh finds itself having to choose a starter from last year's usual suspects. Jonathan Dwyer has been seeing the majority of the Steelers' carries in preseason as a result of injuries, but still seems to be making questionable decisions. The job would potentially be Isaac Redman's for the taking, if only he could stay on the field. Felix Jones and LaRod Stephens-Howling, meanwhile, appear to be battle for a third-down role.

San Francisco 49ers cornerbacks

Key players: Tarell Brown, Carlos Rogers, Nnamdi Asomugha, Perrish Cox, Tramaine Brock

The 49ers have a lot of capable bodies to throw at the cornerback position, making it difficult to tell how reps will be split. Carlos Rogers and Tarell Brown appear to be the two starters, but the competition for the third cornerback spot has been fierce. Defensive coordinator Vic Fangio suggested that Nnamdi Asomugha may have a leg up for now, but the battle is ongoing.

Baltimore Ravens wide receivers

Key players: Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones, Deonte Thompson, Brandon Stokley, Tandon Doss, Aaron Mellette, LaQuan Williams

Torrey Smith, Jacoby Jones and Brand Stokley appear to be the only three wideouts guaranteed to make the 53-man roster, according to Ravens blog Baltimore Beatdown. Only Smith was a meaningful threat to defenses last season, however. Beyond those three there is a muddle of potential. Thursday's Week 4 preseason game could play a big role in determining final cuts among the group.

Miami Dolphins running backs

Key players: Lamar Miller, Daniel Thomas, Mike Gillislee

Lamar Miller seemed to have won the outright starting job in May, but reports out of training camp continue to indicate that Daniel Thomas is still competing. Though Thomas hasn't been an effective runner since entering the NFL, he is a reliable pass catcher, blocker and short-yardage back. With Mike Gillislee around as a change-of-pace, it's tough to tell how large a role Miller will have as The Man this season.

Denver Broncos running backs

Key players: Ronnie Hillman, Montee Ball, Knowshon Moreno

Ronnie Hillman has been the more effective runner in training camp, but he has also fumbled in two straight games, prompting the Broncos to give Montee Ball first-team reps during practice this week. Hillman is still listed atop the depth chart, however, and the two will almost certainly split carries into the regular season. Knowshon Moreno remains something of a forgotten man, but his overall skill set makes him a good stop-gap option in case the other two struggle.

Cleveland Browns outside linebackers

Key players: Jabaal Sheard, Barkevious Mingo

The Browns are still trying to figure out who will be the primary pass-rusher on the opposite side of the field from Paul Kruger. Unfortunately, Jabaal Sheard and rookie Barkevious Mingo have been sitting with knee and lung injuries, respectively. Until one emerges, expect a rotation to start the regular season.

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