Why the three first-round rookie quarterbacks should sit, and why a QB drafted much later might be the best of the rookie bunch. Plus, the tales of three rising defenders: a star in Tennessee that is worth every penny of his new contract, a physical freak emerging as a force in Cincinnati, and a misfit in Philly who needs be rescued from the wrong scheme
There are couple things to keep in mind as the NFL closes out its exhibition season (that’s what it is, not the “preseason” as the NFL prefers) Thursday night.
The last exhibition games are about the future and the bottom of the roster, nothing more. Decisions on the players projected to play meaningful snaps this season have already been made. But a lot of stuff happens during the regular season, so you never know when these depth players will be called upon to be key contributors.
Avoid making sweeping determinations off of the exhibitions. Yes, last summer the Seahawks led the NFL with a plus-74 point differential while Jacksonville was last at minus-51. But Washington was second to Seattle and the Texans were sixth. Among those in the bottom third: the Packers and Broncos. Exhibitions are a time to watch how an individual player fares against competition, and to see how he might fit into some of the concepts used by his team.
With that in mind, let’s ignore Thursday’s slate of games (college football actually has real football, if you’re interested) and go through 10 Things I Think I Think from what we saw in the exhibition season.
1. All three teams that took quarterbacks in the first round of the draft—Jacksonville (Blake Bortles), Cleveland (Johnny Manziel) and Minnesota (Teddy Bridgewater) —made the correct decision to sit their rookies. They all have things to work on. Bridgewater, whose comfort in the Vikings’ system grows by the day, looks the closest to being a starter. He looked like he was thinking his way through his exhibition debut but has started to look more reactionary, like he did in college. Manziel is not close to the starting job. He appears to be struggling with the constraints of a more sophisticated pro system, which was going to be the case. And he can’t yet rely on his athletic ability. Manziel doesn’t play nearly as fast as he did in college, probably because he’s thinking too much. Until that changes, he needs to sit no matter who he’s sitting behind. It was a mistake to even call it a competition in the first place. The Browns shouldn’t have allowed it to proceed to that step until Manziel at least mastered the playbook.
2. The work done by the Jaguars and Bortles has been very impressive to this point. The mechanical problems he had have been cleaned up quicker than most people, including me, thought was possible. But that doesn’t mean that he should play. Playing the best guy is not always the right thing when you’re talking about the future franchise quarterback. The Jaguars don’t even know who their center is going to be, and they’re leaning on a bunch of rookies. Why put Bortles out there in that situation? What if he reverts back to all his bad habits and regresses (a likely scenario)? Keep Bortles on the sidelines, let him keep drilling his mechanics to the point that when things break down, he’s doing the right things based on instinct. This was the mistake the Jaguars made with Blaine Gabbert. He never had a chance to make needed improvements before he hit the field. Coaches (at least the good ones) are charged with putting all of their players in a position to succeed. Jaguars coach Gus Bradley is doing that with Bortles. Fans should let him.
Gus Bradley's 1Q Interview: "Why aren't you playing Blake Bortles?"
3. At this point, the rookie quarterback I’m most giddy about is Zach Mettenberger of the Titans. Go flip on any of his exhibition games. What you’ll see is a poised and fairly accurate thrower who is not afraid to fit the ball into tight windows or throw players open, and he can make all the pro throws. Mettenberger plays with extreme confidence, and it seems to filter down to his teammates who feed off him. Jake Locker has been fine so far. He’ll always be limited because he doesn’t anticipate well and some of his throws are a beat late, but he’s tough and gutsy, which has kept him as the starter. Still, the Titans have to be through the roof about Mettenberger. He looks like the real deal.
4. The offseason work of Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff and coach Mike Smith has worked so far. The Falcons are working at a much quicker pace on offense, which will enhance their weapons, and are buzzing on defense. They look like they’ve gotten the wake-up call last season provided. However, I still think the only way the Falcons get consistent pressure on the quarterback is when defensive coordinator Mike Nolan dials up his blitzes. This is the same criticism I had of them last year, and I don’t see enough improvement. It’s really going to hurt them in that division. Kroy Biermann, who is coming back from Achilles surgery, hasn’t been a legitimate pass-rushing threat since 2010. It’s good that the Falcons are playing Osi Umenyiora in a reserve role to conserve his pass-rush ability, but they don’t have many other options out there. How much pressure the Falcons generate on the quarterback will decide whether they sink or swim this season.
Atlanta Falcons camp report: Peter King on how the Falcons are relying heavily on rebuilt offensive and defensive lines
5. Speaking of the Falcons, Hard Knocks has showed us exactly why DT Ra’Shede Hageman slipped to the second round (and was still probably a reach at 37th overall): he’s soft mentally, plays with entitlement and only plays when he wants to. You can see it on the field as well. When he cares, he’s difficult to stop. Too bad that, at this point, he only cares on a handful of snaps per game. If there’s any coach that can unlock Hageman’s potential, it’s defensive line coach Bryan Cox. Playing for Cox is either going to be the greatest thing that ever happened to Hageman, or it’s going to make him want to quit football. There’s no middle ground with Cox. Either you bring maximum effort all the time, or he has no use for you. It’s amusing that more than a few mock drafts pegged Hageman as a potential Patriot. He is so not their type of player.
6. One of the questions I had going into the summer was what the Titans had planned for emerging defensive line star Jurrell Casey. A three-technique defensive tackle, Casey had no clear home as Tennessee changed their scheme from a 4-3 to Ray Horton’s attacking 3-4. Silly me. Casey is basically playing the role that Darnell Dockett filled for Horton with the Cardinals, but with even more effectiveness. Casey is a better athlete than Dockett, with quicker feet, more strength and more violence at the point of attack. There’s been no letdown in his game. He’s worth every penny of the four-year, $36-million contract extension he just received. When he’s not penetrating as a one-gap player, he’s taking up multiple blockers to free up teammates. He’s still terrific.
Titans Deep Dive Preview: Can they win behind Ray Horton's defensive creativity?
7. A request: Somebody who plays a 4-3 scheme please call the Eagles and inquire about end Vinny Curry and/or outside linebacker/end Brandon Graham. Both are misfits in Philadelphia’s scheme and would be much better off playing in a 4-3. I especially have a soft spot for Curry, who would have finished third among interior rushers in our Pressure Points rating (behind J.J. Watt and Gerald McCoy) if he had more snaps. I prefer Curry because he has more outside (early downs) and inside (pass rush) versatility.
8. Have to give props to Rams rookie end Michael Sam. His decision to drop 13 pounds to 257 has made him much more viable as a NFL player. Playing at the lighter weight, Sam is quicker than he was at Missouri. He looked like he belonged during the preseason, but probably not with the Rams. Undrafted Ethan Westbrooks is a better prospect at this point, as well as more versatile. Sam could probably use a year on a practice squad to gain the strength to go with his increased quickness. Then he could really have something. Good start from Sam.
On Further Review: Peter King breaks down Michael Sam's odds on making the Rams
9. This could be the year of the young, versatile offensive threat. From rookies Brandin Cooks (New Orleans), John Brown (Arizona), Bruce Ellington (San Francisco) and De’Anthony Thomas (Kansas City), to second-year player Tavon Austin (Rams), I can’t recall a season in which we’ve seen such young and dynamic players poised to make an impact so early. Each of them will be a handful for defensive coordinators. Normally young receivers struggle to get comfortable in the NFL, but that seems to be changing. I asked 49ers offensive coordinator Greg Roman why these types of players seem to acclimate themselves quicker to the pro game now. He thinks it’s because they’re being asked to do more on the college level. “I think they’re used to a little bit of multiplicity, multitasking, yeah,” Roman said. “I think… people put those duties on them [in college] because they were able to handle it. That’s part of the allure of having a guy like that.”
10. The Bengals aren’t going to miss Michael Johnson that much thanks to the emergence of 2013 second-round pick Margus Hunt. Hunt, 6-8, 290 pounds and a freak athlete, certainly has the physical skills to dominate in the NFL, but he didn’t start playing football until 2009; he really didn’t know what he was doing last year. Coach Marvin Lewis and the Bengals gave Hunt the redshirt season he needed and it looks like it is paying off. He’s playing much faster against the run and the pass. Hunt still makes mental errors, but those will subside the more he plays.