Preseason action always provides a jam-packed current of information to pick through, especially when rosters are still being shaped and tweaked as they are in August.
What did the all-important week of NFL exhibition games teach us? An attempt to figure out the significant lessons, one team at a time:
Dolphins 17, Falcons 6
Atlanta: The fact that the Falcons’s pass rush is concerning hardly counts as breaking news—it struggled to generate pressure last season and was almost nonexistent vs. Miami. Most troublesome of all is not just that second-year DE Vic Beasley has been unable to crash the pocket, but that he’s being tossed around with such ease. Miami right tackle Ja’Waun James utterly controlled Beasley on Thursday night, handling Beasley’s attempts to bend the edge and rerouting any combo moves with ease. It’s one thing for Beasley to be limited from a statistical standpoint. It’s another issue entirely if the offensive coordinators can plan to block him one-on-one. He has to be an attention-drawing, disruptive force.
Miami: Kiko Alonso’s story in this game was a two-parter. He looked fluid and confident against the pass, covering a ton of ground in the middle of the field—once, he flew to the sideline to take down wide receiver Aldrick Robinson. Alonso also nearly forced an interception by disrupting Matt Ryan on a blitz up the middle. But he was less of a factor against the run, and that’s where the most rust appears from Alonso having missed 31 of a possible 32 regular-season games the past two seasons. Atlanta’s blocking held up Alonso in traffic repeatedly, leaving the tackles for other defenders.
Seahawks 27, Cowboys 17
Dallas: Rookie cornerback Anthony Brown always was a better prospect than playing on a wretched Purdue team could make him look. He showed that promise again Thursday night, leading the Cowboys with eight tackles plus a pass breakup. Brown already seems to be a more effective tackler than he was at times in college. And as such Dallas defensive coordinator Rod Marinelli doesn’t hesitate to activate him against the run, pulled up tight to the line. This sixth-round pick could turn out to be a huge steal.
Seattle: With Jimmy Graham’s status for Week 1 still up in the air (wouldn’t count on him playing), all signs are pointing toward Brandon Williams making the 53-man roster. He might deserve a spot even if Graham is ready to go. Williams made a pair of catches for 15 yards Thursday, but more than that he continues to be a steady blocker out front of Seattle’s run game. The 28-year-old Williams is a great story: His college career at Oregon ended because he was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, and he has scrapped his way onto multiple NFL teams since.
Patriots 19, Panthers 17
New England: Whether or not D.J. Foster can squeeze onto the Patriots’s roster, the undrafted rookie running back should land an opportunity somewhere and Friday night showed why. Foster missed loads of time this summer due to a hamstring injury, so this was his first game action, and he carried twice for nine yards, caught three passes for 33 yards and returned a punt. That’s versatility. Foster said at the combine that his final season at Arizona State, for which he made a full-time switch from RB to slot WR, made him a better all-around player. He finally flashed some of that talent.
Carolina: Carolina’s Cameron Artis-Payne also needed a strong performance Friday night and he delivered. The nine carries for 28 yards don’t jump off the page, but Artis-Payne had other, rather important plays toward his cause. One was an 11-yard reception on a toss from Cam Newton. The other came when he prevented Newton from taking a huge hit; Artis-Payne found a late-blitzing Jamie Collins up the middle, and he stepped in and delivered a strong block to allow Newton to get his pass off.
Redskins 21, Bills 16
Buffalo: The Bills are going to wind up cutting at least one solid defensive tackle, just because of the numbers game they’re playing at that position. A player firmly on the roster bubble headed into the weekend was journeyman Casey Walker, signed in late July and now on his fifth team in four years. If he is about to become a free agent again, Walker put some usable tape on his reel. He bulled his way into the backfield multiple times Friday, including one play on which he drew a holding call.
Washington: This season is lining up for Bashaud Breeland to take the leap from good, young cornerback to legitimate shut-down star. Josh Norman’s arrival opposite him helps, without question, but Breeland has shown steady improvement throughout his career. The latest examples came vs. Buffalo, particularly when Breeland planted himself in Sammy Watkins’s hip pocket. On one such occasion, Tyrod Taylor took a shot deep to Watkins, but there was no space to be found—Breeland was all over to force an incompletion.
Steelers 27, Saints 14
Pittsburgh: Preseason stardom comes with no guarantee of translating over to the regular season. Still, second-year receiver Eli Rogers looks every bit like a player Ben Roethlisberger could come to rely on once the games matter. Rogers made two more catches for 17 yards Friday, continuing a strong preseason. Ten of those yards came on a third-and-10 conversion, with Rogers making a terrific hands catch despite having New Orleans CB De’Vante Harris draped all over him. Plays like that will go a long way toward earning Roethlisberger’s trust.
New Orleans: An emphasis for Willie Snead this season, off a surprising 69-catch rookie year, is being more productive from over the middle of the field. His play against Pittsburgh was off the charts there, a hint that Snead may be in for even better things in 2016. Snead made a tough catch near midfield with a linebacker trailing him in coverage, then later one-upped himself with an acrobatic touchdown grab that came as three Steelers converged on him.
Buccaneers 30, Browns 13
Cleveland: The Cleveland defense was torched while the first-teamers were out there, so it’s a little undeserved to spotlight a player off that unit. And yet, rookie safety Ibraheim Campbell does look like he can be a good one ... in time. Right now, he is doing a decent impression of the player he’s replacing, Donte Whitner—Campbell comes downhill with a vengeance and wants to lay the lumber. The challenge for him will be in reading plays a little more quickly, so that he’s arriving before the pass hits its target and not just after. Jameis Winston hit a handful of passes between the hash marks, at least a couple of which hung in the air for a bit. If Campbell can start turning those into incompletions and interceptions, he’ll be irreplaceable.
Tampa Bay: A strong outing for DE Jacquies Smith, who produced two sacks and was flying around the edge on passing downs. The Buccaneers have the luxury of a deep group of edge rushers, counting Smith, Noah Spence, William Gholston and Robert Ayers. There will not be many instances when Gerald McCoy is off the field, but Tampa Bay on occasion could trot out a four-DE set with Gholston and Ayers sliding inside. Those mix-and-match fronts are very difficult to handle, at least for offensive lines that have more hulking interior offensive linemen.
Packers 21, 49ers 10
Green Bay: Losing center Corey Linsley to a torn hamstring during camp would have been a borderline disaster were it not for the presence of J.C. Tretter on the roster. Tretter is not just a fill-in option, he is a legitimate starter in this league—he’ll probably be paid like one if he gets to free agency after this season. On the Packers’s run plays early Friday night, Tretter had his man on the turf consistently. San Francisco’s Tony Jerod-Eddie was the victim more than once, with Tretter driving him back and then finishing his block
San Francisco: Ray-Ray Armstrong only has five career NFL starts to his credit, but that number could be on the uptick soon, because Armstrong sure seems to be closing in on a starting job. He was an active playmaker against the Packers’s first-team offense, even getting into a bit of a jawing match with Aaron Rodgers after Armstrong laid a hit on the QB. The 49ers may even be willing to live with a rough moment in coverage—Jared Cook was a tough matchup for Armstrong—so long as Armstrong keeps getting after the football. He had four tackles, including one for loss, on Friday night.
Chiefs 23, Bears 7
Kansas City: According to FantasyPros.com, Chris Conley currently is going undrafted in most leagues and is ranked as WR80 based on his average draft slot. I won’t venture too far in trying to provide fantasy advice, but those Conley numbers are a public error. The 2015 third-rounder has all but sealed the Chiefs’s No. 2 receiver role on the strength of two straight quality performances. He caught two passes for 30 yards Saturday, on the first leaving CB Jacoby Glenn looking like he had never attempted a tackle in his life.
Chicago: The name Harold Jones-Quartey may not be a household one among football fans, but the ex-Cardinal has come out of nowhere to stake his claim as a starting safety alongside 2015 standout rookie Adrian Amos. Jones-Quartey led Chicago with six tackles against Kansas City. He is a non-stop (and at times borderline reckless) attacker from the secondary, with the majority of his plays coming vs. the run. While his style may be tough to sustain over 16 games, it looks good now. Case in point: the flying shoulder he leveled Spencer Ware with on a short gain up the middle.
Eagles 33, Colts 23
Philadelphia: It would be at least a little bit ironic if Josh Huff, an Oregon product and an Eagles draft pick during the Chip Kelly regime, found his stride now the Kelly is coaching elsewhere. At least for one night, though, that was the case. Huff even seemed to be a focal point of the game plan, to some extent, with two catches for 30 yards and two designed jet sweeps, one of which resulted in a TD. Huff remains elusive in open space. The trick has been finding ways to get him there.
Indianapolis: Left tackle Anthony Castonzo was part of the Colts’s O-line problem last season, when his performance slipped due in part to a balky knee. But quite frankly, Saturday’s performance against the Eagles was about as bad as he’s ever turned in. Philadelphia’s edge rushers ran circles around him, with Brandon Graham in particular turning Castonzo into a turnstile. Rookie Le’Raven Clark was as bad or worse in a spot start on the right side and guard Jack Mewhort left the game with a knee injury. Long story short, the Colts need Castonzo to rebound as much as they need rookie center Ryan Kelly to be a star. Castonzo’s got a lot of ground to cover in a short amount of time.
Ravens 30, Lions 9
Detroit: NFC North rivals Detroit and Chicago might have been the two worst teams across the board this preseason week. One bright spot for the Lions: safety Tavon Wilson, who, at least based on what we’ve seen during games, deserves to be Glover Quin’s sidekick in the starting lineup. Wilson made five tackles Saturday night, and he was active in a variety of ways: blitzing, playing deep, covering one-on-one outside. Rafael Bush is on the roster and rookie Miles Killebrew figures to earn playing time. A couple weeks away from the regular season, though, Wilson has earned the inside track.
Baltimore: Maybe Mike Wallace can get it back now that he’s out of Minnesota. He and QB Joe Flacco, in his return from injury, teased the makings of a useful rapport ... and do so right from the outset. On Baltimore’s first play from scrimmage, Flacco took a deep shot to Wallace up the left sideline. It was there for a huge gain, too, had the rusty QB not just overshot Wallace—the veteran receiver blew by CB Nevin Lawson off the line and had a step. Wallace finished with three catches for 37 yards, the majority of his targets from play No. 2 on coming in intermediate range.
Giants 21, Jets 20
New York Giants: Rookie CB Eli Apple will not always be allowed to get away with contact as he did vs. the Jets. However, that physical nature is a signature aspect of his game and it can be game-changing when the officials let him play. Apple stymied Eric Decker in this one, the best example coming as he fought Decker deep downfield to force a Ryan Fitzpatrick incompletion. Apple made his presence felt, time and again.
New York Jets: With their dominant defensive front and a cornerbacking corps paced by Darrelle Revis, the Jets can turn their safeties loose. And if Calvin Pryor responds to that freedom the way he did Saturday, his third season could result in Pro Bowl buzz. Pryor tallied six tackles, plus a sack of Eli Manning when he came unblocked on a blitz off the edge. Receivers also have to be aware of Pryor’s hitting ability—Odell Beckham Jr. sure was when he pumped the brakes on a Manning pass, allowing Revis to make a clean INT.
Titans 27, Raiders 14
Tennessee: I made a point to watch rookie right tackle Jack Conklin in this game, and he did not disappoint. Despite a difficult matchup against Oakland’s collection of talented edge players, Conklin was a driving force for the Tennessee run game during the first half. Several of DeMarco Murray’s positive gains came to Conklin’s side—on one, Conklin helped seal off Khalil Mack in the backfield, then bounced to the second level to clear a linebacker. Stacy McGee gave Conklin trouble on a second-quarter sequence, but Conklin bounced right back by bulldozing Jihad Ward on a 4th-and-1, then leading the way for a Derrick Henry TD.
Oakland: David Amerson is the recent recipient of a four-year, $38 million contract extension, so he should be expected to play well. It remains rather startling to see just how much better he is than when he was in Washington. Tennessee WR Rishard Matthews came up with a sizable grab over the middle Saturday with Amerson trailing, but for the most part the fourth-year CB was in the hip pocket of Tennessee’s receivers. He chipped in six tackles to go along with his rock-solid coverage.
Broncos 17, Rams 9
Los Angeles: Dominique Easley is a candidate for a bounce-back season, even if he winds up receiving limited playing time as a backup Los Angeles D-lineman. The Patriots’s 2014 first-round pick isn’t necessarily blowing up this preseason, but he has come up with a handful of nice plays when given some run. Against Denver, he was the trigger on a fourth-and-1 stop of RB C.J. Anderson—Easley collapsed the line to Anderson’s left, then teamed with Mark Barron to make the tackle.
Denver: The Broncos have been claiming all summer that Todd Davis would be able to fill Danny Trevathan’s shoes at linebacker. They are on to something. Obviously, Davis will be judged on what he does during the regular season, yet there are a plethora of positive signs to date. Davis was a one-man wall in the middle against Los Angeles’s Todd Gurley-less run game, recording five tackles, starting with a stuff on the game’s first play from scrimmage.
Vikings 23, Chargers 10
San Diego: Brandon Mebane did not suit up in Minnesota (and Joey Bosa obviously is still MIA), so the Chargers had to work some other options in up front. Against the run, it wasn’t pretty. Corey Liuget and backup nose tackle Ryan Carrethers both were demolished on an early Jerick McKinnon run; Darius Philon, Bosa’s replacement, beat T.J. Clemmings for a tackle on the next snap but had a few shaky moments himself. Mebane alone makes a significant impact, but the Chargers look light on depth.
Minnesota: Chalk this up as a promising afternoon for cornerback Trae Waynes. Making a spot start with Xavier Rhodes out, Waynes forced an early interception by deflecting a pass away from Keenan Allen and into the arms of teammate Harrison Smith. He was solid beyond that big play, too, mostly staying tight in coverage as he so often did back at Michigan State. Waynes also is still willing to step up vs. the run, one of his clear selling points when he was a draft prospect.
Texans 34, Cardinals 24
Arizona: Rookie Cole Toner could wind up being released as early as Monday, but it won’t be an easy decision for Arizona should it come to that. The fifth-round pick reportedly had a solid camp and he played a decent game Saturday once the Cardinals sat their starters. Toner did botch one block that led to disruption in the backfield, but he also served as a lead horse several times when Arizona went to the ground game. A 4th-and-1 QB sneak from Matt Barkley happened right behind him—Barkley converted to keep a touchdown drive alive.
Houston: Linebacker John Simon impressed vs. Arizona, praise that goes beyond his brilliant pick-six of Carson Palmer—Simon tipped a TE screen, hauled down the INT and then raced 50-plus yards to the end zone. Simon will be penciled in as a second-teamer when the Texans are running at full speed, but there is an obvious need for reliable defenders beyond Jadeveon Clowney and Whitney Mercilus. Simon is that, as his seven-start, 5.0-sack 2015 season proved. He was in the mix against both run and pass Saturday.
Jaguars 26, Bengals 21
Cincinnati: The play that may stand out for safety Shawn Williams when the Bengals roll back tape of this one is his missed tackle on a long T.J. Yeldon run. There were a positives as well, though, at least enough to believe that Williams will be fine as a full-time starter. Williams finished with a pair of tackles (one for loss), plus showed some range when called upon—once, he blitzed off the right side of Jacksonville’s line, then flew across the field to jump in on a tackle vs. an inside WR screen near the left sideline. If Williams or expected fellow starter George Iloka have any reason to look over their shoulders, it’s because Derron Smith is coming along nicely.
Jacksonville: Even as the Jaguars continue to ease Myles Jack into significant minutes, it’s painfully apparent why he needs to be out there more. Simply put: Paul Posluszny has a very specific role in which he can thrive—as a between-the-tackles run defender—but is a problem elsewhere. Andy Dalton just missed on a TD pass to TE C.J. Uzomah early, after Uzomah ran past Posluszny to the corner of the end zone. A few minutes later, Posluszny wound up in zone coverage trying to defender rookie WR Tyler Boyd, a disastrous mismatch for the Jaguars. Jack’s wheels must be on the field for passing downs.