Surprises, disappointments from the NFL preseason
The conclusion of the second week of the NFL preseason signals a slight turn for home in the preparation process. Training camps are winding down, and with their remaining exhibition games, front offices will work to pare down their rosters to the 53-man limit allowed come Week 1.
At least a couple of the players on our list of preseason surprises and disappointments likely have wrapped up jobs with their performances to date. A few others may have put their spots -- or, at least their starting jobs -- in peril.
Five players who have excelled and five who have flopped in early August action:
• BJ Daniels, QB, 49ers: How quickly things can change in the NFL. San Francisco drafted Daniels in the seventh round, then went full "offensive weapon" with him in rookie camp, using the South Florida product out of the backfield and as a return man.
Two weeks into the preseason, though, the athletic Daniels may be about to unseat Colt McCoy and Scott Tolzein on the 49ers' QB depth chart, behind Colin Kaepernick. Daniels was sharp against Kansas City in the 49ers' most recent game, connecting on 6-of-9 passes for 72 yards and one beautifully thrown touchdown. With McCoy struggling to get up to speed in San Francisco, Daniels has taken advantage.
• Josh Norman, CB, Panthers: Not all that long after losing his starting job as a rookie, Norman has grabbed it back with a strong preseason. He's leading the league with three interceptions in just two games, and he also has been credited with four pass break-ups. Norman jumped an errant Jay Cutler pass on the Panthers' first defensive play of the preseason and later in that game went to the house on a second INT.
• Jerry Hughes, DE/OLB, Bills: Indianapolis and Buffalo swapped disappointing players in April, with Hughes landing with the Bills and Kelvin Sheppard moving to the AFC South. Hughes may turn the Bills into the clear winners of that deal.
So far, he's excelling as a pass-rusher in Buffalo's varying 3-4/4-3 defense. This past weekend against the Vikings, he blew past left tackle Matt Kalil for a sack, and later forced a fumble by QB Matt Cassel. That's exactly the type of impact the Bills are looking for after cutting DE Mark Anderson.
• Tony Jefferson, S, Cardinals: Jefferson opted to declare for the draft after his junior season, only to slip rather surprisingly through all seven rounds. (A 4.75 40 time didn't help.) But armed with a chance to earn a roster spot in Arizona, Jefferson has raised his game. He held his own against Green Bay to open the preseason and was all over the field en route to a pair of interceptions vs. Dallas on Saturday.
• LeGarrette Blount, RB, Patriots: Is Blount, whom New England traded for during the offseason, playing his way onto the roster? Possibly, though he still has to fend off Brandon Bolden and James Develin. Blount stated his case in the Patriots' preseason opener against a hapless Philadelphia run defense, churning out 101 yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. His highlight that day came when he reversed field and navigated his way through the Eagles' defense for an impressive 51-yard score.
His playing time diminished in Week 2 of the preseason, as Bolden led the Patriots in carries. Blount did haul in a 12-yard pass against his former team (Tampa Bay), though, reinforcing Bill Belichick's earlier praise of Blount as a dual-threat back.
• Coby Fleener, TE, Colts: With Pep Hamilton in as offensive coordinator and Andrew Luck entering year two on the job, the Colts were banking on Fleener to bounce back from an injury-plagued rookie season in a big way. That may still happen, but the early returns have been disheartening.
On top of leaving both of the Colts' preseason games with an injury (a concussion in Week 1, sprained knee in Week 2), Fleener dropped a pass in each game. The first of those drops cost Indianapolis a touchdown against the Bills, and he later fumbled in that game. Dwayne Allen's foot injury has put more pressure on Fleener to produce, and he has not delivered yet.
• Johnathan Franklin, RB, Packers: Franklin was the second running back drafted by Green Bay this year, and it appears as if he'll be at least No. 3 on the team's depth chart come the regular season. In his first two preseason games, Franklin has managed only 23 yards on nine carries -- an abysmal 2.5 yards-per-carry clip.
Packers beat writer Bob McGinn wrote Sunday that "Franklin ... can't get out of neutral", and that the rookie has struggled just as much in practice as in games.
• Fletcher Cox, DE, Eagles: Cox was a bright spot in a lost 2012 season for the Eagles, finishing with 5.5 sacks and improving as the year progressed. The transition from the Andy Reid regime to Chip Kelly has not been all that smooth for Cox, however, mainly due to the scheme changes implemented on defense.
"It's kind of up in the air, I don't know where I'll be playing," Cox told CSN Philly in July.
He has spent most of his time as a 3-4 end thus far in the preseason, and the Philadelphia Inquirer's Jeff McLane recently declared that Cox "has never looked so lost." Through two exhibition games, Pro Football Focus has him rated as the worst 3-4 end in the league. Kelly will need much more out of Cox if this in-flux defense is to put up any resistance in 2013.
• Justin Hunter, WR, Titans: Hunter has all of two catches for 14 yards in the preseason following up on a summer in which he's struggled and been ripped by wide receivers coach Shawn Jefferson. The Titans used the 34th-overall pick on Hunter in April, with the expectation being that the talented 6-foot-4-inch receiver would round out a position group that included Kenny Britt and Kendall Wright, among others.
None of those hopes have comes to fruition yet. The silver lining in the clouds is that Hunter still has plenty of time to develop, as teammate Bernard Pollard told The Tennessean: "I can’t wait until Justin Hunter realizes that he is a star. I can’t wait until he realizes that. It is out of control how good that guy could be."
Can Hunter flip the mental switch before the regular season kicks off?
Granted, the snaps have not been overly consistent -- Miller saw two carries for 21 yards in the Hall of Fame Game and has averaged fewer than 2.3 yards-per-carry on seven attempts since. But reports out of Miami have the thoroughly average Daniel Thomas pushing Miller for reps, including at the goal line and in short-yardage. That's troublesome for the Dolphins, who badly need Miller to cement away the top spot. KING: Monday Morning Quarterback: 'Chuckstrong' Is Gone, but the Urgency Isn't