Thursday January 20th, 2005

With training camps all but closed, the league's cut-down days looming and kickoff weekend a little more than two weeks away, the NFL's preseason has served the majority of its purpose.

The games don't count in the preseason, but the individual performances certainly matter. Here are 10 players who have been impressive in August, either cementing their starting status or far exceeding the expectations others had for them at the opening of camp.

Some, like Washington rookie safety Sean Taylor, showed he was ready to contribute immediately. Others, such as Buffalo first-round quarterback J.P. Losman, gave us a hint of the talents that could be fully developed in years to come. And then there are veterans like long-forgotten Giants running back Ron Dayne, whose surprise showing forced us to take a fresh look at his game.

We know far more now than we did in late July:

• FS Sean Taylor, Redskins: It's the rare rookie who looks like he belongs in the NFL from the moment he first steps on the field, but Taylor is obviously in that select company. The fifth pick overall has been a ball-hawking, play-making machine through three games, and he already has a decent little highlight film to his credit.

He picked off two passes and returned one for a touchdown against Denver, forced a fumble against Carolina, and both forced and recovered a fumble Saturday night at Miami, laying out Dolphins receiver Chris Chambers in the process. To no great surprise, Washington moved him to first-team free safety before the Dolphins game, a position he figures to man for the next 10 years or so.

• RB Lee Suggs, Browns: Logic tells you that if the starting running back job in Cleveland boils down to a toss-up between incumbent William Green and Suggs, Green will get the nod. Why? Because with Green showing real progress in terms of his comeback from last year's substance abuse suspension, the Browns don't want to give him any reason to get discouraged and slip back into old habits.

But Suggs is making head coach Butch Davis' call a difficult one. He's averaging 7.9 yards per carry -- 87 yards on 11 attempts -- and has two touchdowns. His strong showing in a scrimmage against Buffalo (five carries for 82 yards) is another check in his column. Suggs looks more explosive than Green, but whoever starts, look for both backs to see plenty of action in Cleveland's revived run game.

• QB J.P. Losman, Bills: Before breaking his left leg in practice Tuesday, Losman was getting third-team mop-up work behind starter Drew Bledsoe and backup Travis Brown. But the Buffalo rookie had already given a glimpse of why he's the team's quarterback of the future. Losman was 9-of-11 for 78 yards and had a 96.2 passer rating, and he handled the offense with an impressive command and poise.

But what the Bills really believe sets him apart from this year's other first-round quarterbacks is his feet. Losman gained 80 yards on seven scrambles, and he made plays to keep drives alive. In his five drives, Buffalo scored three field goals, missed on another field-goal attempt and fumbled the ball away once.

• LB Marcus Washington, Redskins: His signing this offseason wasn't as heralded as the team's other free-agent additions, but new assistant head coach-defense Gregg Williams can't stop raving about Washington's blend of size and athleticism. Washington is playing the strong-side linebacker slot, and Williams will have him on the field every down, rather than remove him in passing situations as Indianapolis often did.

Washington had a sack against Miami in the Redskins' 17-0 road win Saturday night, and through three games the Redskins' first-team defense has yet to surrender a touchdown. Don't be surprised if Washington's production overshadows that of Redskins Pro Bowl linebacker LaVar Arrington at some point this season.

• RB Ron Dayne, Giants, running back: If there was a comeback-player-of-the-year award handed out in the preseason, Dayne would be its unanimous 2004 winner. Through two games, Dayne leads the NFL in both rushing (181 yards) and touchdowns (three), and his loss of almost 40 pounds this offseason has allowed him to flash breakaway speed again. The Giants still want to see him consistently handle the short-yardage back role, but anything they get out of him is an upgrade over last year, when then-head coach Jim Fassel deactivated him for all 16 games.

Kudos to new Giants head coach Tom Coughlin, who saw something in the 1999 Heisman Trophy winner that a lot of other folks missed. Long after the Giants' Thunder (Dayne) and Lightning (Tiki Barber) backfield turned into a quickly passing storm, Dayne has resurfaced to give New York's offense a bolt of much-needed juice.

• RB Musa Smith, Ravens: Baltimore keeps saying it'll be all right at running back even if the worst happens at Jamal Lewis' mid-season federal drug conspiracy trial. Much of the cause for their optimism is Smith, the second-year veteran who, along with Chester Taylor, would inherit Lewis' carries.

Smith didn't show much in the Ravens' preseason win against Atlanta (14 rushes for 26 yards), but he was impressive in a Friday-night loss at Philadelphia, racking up 80 tough yards on 14 carries, including nine carries for 64 yards in the second half. He also caught one pass for 14 yards and showed the ability to bounce off tacklers.

Smith was a third-round selection for Baltimore in 2003, and by now we all know the Ravens just don't miss on their top draft picks.

• WR Tyrone Calico, Titans: Tennessee rolled the dice and traded the popular Justin McCareins to the Jets this offseason because they believed Calico ready to handle the No. 3 receiver role. So far, so good on that gamble. Calico's previously shaky hands have been solid so far, catching a team-leading eight passes for 110 yards, with one touchdown. In a win at Buffalo this weekend, the second-year veteran was especially strong, turning in a six-catch game that included a 40-yard reception and an eight-yard scoring grab in the corner of the end zone.

• RB Chris Brown, Titans: Speaking of Tennessee players who are under the microscope, all Brown is being asked to do is replace Eddie George, whose name has been synonymous with the franchise's for the last eight years. Again, the Titans' in a second-year player looks well placed. Brown is averaging 6.7 yards per attempt on 16 rushes, with a six-for-46-yard effort against the Browns and a 10-carry, 61-yard night at the Bills.

Brown is running with confidence, and it's clear that he gives the Titans a home-run threat that George no longer provided. He has picked up the tough yards so far, and has protected the football well. Tennessee will miss George in the locker room, but on the field, Brown should more than fill the void.

• LB Roderick Green, Ravens: It hardly seems fair, but Baltimore has found yet another defensive talent in the 6-2, 245-pound Green, their fifth-round pick this season out of Division II Central Missouri. Like last season's NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year, Terrell Suggs, Green is a collegiate defensive end who is learning to play outside linebacker in the Ravens' 3-4 scheme.

He's learning quickly. Green has 1 1/2 sacks in his first two preseason games, and has opened eyes in Ravens camp with his speed, athleticism and constant motor. Though he's likely to see the majority of his action on Baltimore's special teams units this season, file his name away, because he will be heard from as a pass-rushing linebacker in the Suggs mold.

• LB Mark Fields, Panthers: If there was any question as to how strong Fields would return after losing the entire 2003 season to his battle with Hodgkin's disease, he emphatically addressed the issue Thursday night against the Giants. Fields dropped New York running back Tiki Barber for a 1-yard loss on the third play of the game, and later added four more tackles, including sacks of both Eli Manning and Kurt Warner on consecutive snaps late in the second quarter.

Fields, 32, had a career year in 2002, when he had 7 1/2 sacks, seven forced fumbles and 127 tackles. No less an authority than Panthers head coach John Fox called him the team's most valuable defender. Now that Fields is back on the field, Carolina's already stellar defensive front seven looks more impressive than ever.

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