Throughout the summer, we talked about some of the top approaching position battles. Predictably, the list we compiled in June is looking a little defunct now, and so it's time to explore this roster with fresh, training camp-conditioned eyes.
The tenor of some of these competitions has changed. It's not Hankerson versus Hardy for the #3 anymore, not after Hankerson has excelled and has gotten some buzz as the possible #2 wide receiver in Atlanta. Right tackle is a competition in name only. And injuries are threatening to turn what should be a tightly
Let's catch up on five position battles that matter.
1) Free safety
I envisioned this one taking the form of the favored veteran Charles Godfrey fighting tooth and nail against Ricardo Allen, who came relatively out of nowhere to contend for the job after spending his rookie season as a cornerback. Instead, Allen has apparently dominated this one thus far.
It's too early to call any battle, but Allen's been running with the first team and impressing in nearly every facet of his game, so he'd have to faceplant between now and the end of the month to lose any real ground. Godfrey, if healthy, is at least one rock solid insurance policy.
Projected Winner: Ricardo Allen
2) Running Back
I've had Tevin Coleman by a hair owing to his fit in the new blocking scheme, his status as a third round pick of the new regime, and my expectation that Freeman would settle quite nicely into a third down role ideally suited to his pass catching and blocking talents. This one's now hopelessly muddled, however.
It started when Freeman got off to a fast start at camp, a start he's sustained thus far. That's drawn heavy praise from Kyle Shanahan, as it should, and Coleman's hamstring injury threatens to limit him for anywhere from two weeks to a month. With Devonta Freeman also suffering a mild hamstring injury, however, both of these players may be getting healthy just in time for the start of the season, which means naming a starter might be more difficult than anticipated. It's likely to come down to a question of readiness and the best fit for the offense, but it's borderline impossible to call this one, so I'll go with my original prediction.
Also, Terron Ward may muscle his way onto the roster, particularly if these injuries linger. He, Jerome Smith, and Antone Smith are the only three healthy backs on the team right now.
Projected Winner: Tevin Coleman
This is another case where injury and rust have made the competition lackluster. Robert Alford has looked very good, leveraging his natural physical ability and third year of experience into a solid camp. Jalen Collins is coming off an injury that largely kept him out of OTAs, and he's showing all the inexperience and lack of readiness you'd expect from a slightly raw rookie who is getting up to speed. Collins' length and physicality play best on the outside, but he's not going to be there if he's scuffling, and he is now.
Collins' role in the defense isn't clear if he's not a starter, and it's possible he'll be a pure reserve to start. If things continue apace, Alford is going to win the job opposite Desmond Trufant by a landslide. Collins is still intriguing long-term, so don't fret.
Projected Winner: Robert Alford
4) Right Tackle
This competition is over. Lamar Holmes came to camp looking motivated and slimmer, but his broken foot has obliterated any chance of him trying to steal the job away from Ryan Schraeder. Jake Long came and went without a contract. Tyler Polumbus is...well, no. No.
Schraeder was the presumptive favorite all along after a strong 2014 season, but now he effectively has no competition for the gig. So long as he stays healthy, he should man the right side all year long.
Projected Winner: Ryan Schraeder
5) Defensive tackle
Paul Soliai seems like the logical choice to clog the middle on early downs, with Jonathan Babineaux being mighty useful in replacing him on third downs. With Babs and promising rookie Grady Jarrett lurking, though, giving the spot next to Soliai to Ra'Shede Hageman outright wouldn't seem wise.
I'm just about prepared to do so, though, and if Hageman strings together a couple of nice efforts in preseason games, I'll really be ready. He's looking stronger and meaner despite losing weight in the offseason, and a properly motivated Hageman is a player that deserves to start on a defense that prizes athleticism and physicality.
The sheer amount of rotation Dan Quinn is likely to do on his front four makes the designation a little less meaningful, but this is probably the year Babs transitions to a (still useful) part-time role. Jarrett will step in by 2016 or 2017.
Projected Winner: Ra'Shede Hageman
Your thoughts on position battles thus far?