Slowly but surely, the 2015 draft class is starting to show signs of life. Hau'oli Kikaha created consistent pressure for New Orleans again this week, Tampa Bay's Kwon Alexander was an obvious bright spot in his team's blowout loss to Cleveland, whose own rookie, Danny Shelton, has been a man amongst boys so far.
Time is running short for any additional signs of progress before the regular season begins. That goes for every player still on a roster, not just the NFL's newcomers. Rosters must be trimmed down to 75 by Tuesday afternoon, then to 53 on Saturday.
The final week of the preseason will be mostly reserved for those players on the bubble, trying to hang on for the final cutdown. This past weekend was as close to the real deal as the NFL will get until Week 1.
Here is what stood out:
First Down: Sam Bradford, take two
The lead item from Bradford's preseason debut last week was the low hit he took from Baltimore's Terrell Suggs. This week, there should be far more talk about Bradford's actual play.
He hardly could have performed any better than he did in Green Bay. Bradford completed all 10 of his pass attempts for 121 yards and three touchdowns, one each to Darren Sproles, Trey Burton and Brent Celek. The toss to Sproles was particularly pretty—Bradford dropped the ball right over Sproles' shoulder as he crossed the goal line on a wheel route.
Green Bay started Brett Hundley at quarterback rather than Aaron Rodgers, so the main goal obviously was to escape healthy. (The Packers failed. More on that in a moment.) Still, Bradford faced most of the first-team defense ... and he picked it apart.
Fourth Down: The Steelers' defense
Ben Roethlisberger's and Antonio Brown's fantasy owners should be in a good mood, because it sure looks as if Pittsburgh is going to have win some 42–35 games this season. The transition from former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau to his replacement, Keith Butler, is at best a work in progress.
All four of Buffalo's quarterbacks rolled on Saturday afternoon, with EJ Manuel (7-for-8 for 170 yards and two touchdowns), Matt Cassel (6-for-7 for 38 yards) and Tyrod Taylor (12-for-13 for 122 yards plus a 20-yard rushing touchdown) each stating his case for the starting job. Fourth-stringer Matt Simms even finished 5-for-5 with a touchdown.
Manuel's first scoring toss, a 67-yard to TE Charles Clay, was indicative of the Steelers' entire afternoon. Clay had a free release from the slot, then never had a defender within five yards of him on a simple post route—a breakdown in the Cover-2 defense Butler and head coach Mike Tomlin would like to use this season.
All told, Buffalo posted 542 total yards at a clip of 7.7 yards per play.
First Down: NaVorro Bowman and Dominique Easley
Let's start with Bowman. His performance so far this preseason has been nothing short of remarkable, given how long a journey back he had after wrecking his knee about 19 months ago. Bowman played three snaps last week ... and recorded three tackles. Saturday against Denver, he was all over the field in his half of play, notching seven more tackles and two sacks.
The 49ers are desperate for some positive momentum following a brutal off-season, and getting their defensive standout back might do it.
The Patriots have waited a long time to see Easley at 100%, too. They drafted him in Round 1 last year despite the Florida product tearing his ACL in Sept. 2013, then they placed him on injured reserve midway through last season.
If Friday was any indication, he's all the way back. Easley (two tackles, 1.0 sack) was a menace up front, consistently getting the first step off the snap and creating a push at the line.
Fourth Down: Atlanta's offensive line
Miami's defensive line will probably cause its fair share of problems this season, so perhaps the Falcons have no reason to panic after their O-line got pushed around Saturday. On the other hand, Atlanta's front has been a trouble spot for multiple seasons now and already stood out as a potential question mark.
Atlanta coughed up six sacks overall on the night and rushed for just 50 yards, 28 of which came in the fourth quarter with the benches emptied. Consider it a setback, if nothing else.
First Down: Blake Bortles
Bortles delivered some absolute dimes en route to 245 yards passing vs. Detroit. The growth he has made since his rookie season really showed elsewhere, though.
Take, for example, the incompletion Bortles threw on third-and-11 from the Lions' 17. It looked ugly—a fan in the front row actually caught the ball without having to move much. But a year ago, Bortles may have panicked in the pocket when his receivers were covered or tried to force one in to a double-covered Allen Robinson. Instead, he tossed the ball out of the end zone and let his kicker boot a field goal. Bortles also made several smart decisions tucking the ball and taking off, as on a spinning 11-yard scramble to move the sticks early. He actually led the Jaguars with 38 yards rushing on four attempts.
That's three weeks in a row now that Bortles has been sharp, even with some injuries around him on offense.
"I really didn't know what to expect [of the offense this preseason]," Bortles said in his press conference Friday. "I knew what I saw in camp, and I thought the guys looked really good as a unit. We've had three opportunities now to showcase that against an opponent and everytime, the guys have stepped up to the challenge. ... It's been impressive and it's fun to be a part of."
Fourth Down: Corey Brown
There are excusable mistakes for NFL receivers to make. Then there is, well, this ...
Just a few plays later, Brown dropped another wide-open attempt on a fourth-and-4, killing Carolina's drive. It was the latest in a string of errors from Brown this preseason, including a couple of drops last week vs. Miami. Per Bill Voth of Black and Blue Review, Cam Newton is 0-for-9 so far when targeting Brown.
"The biggest thing, more so than anything else is Corey Brown has to stop putting the pressure on him to replace Kelvin Benjamin," coach Ron Rivera said in his postgame press conference Friday. Benjamin will miss the entire 2015 season with a knee injury. "To replace Kelvin is going to be a unit job, not a one-man job. ... I don’t need one guy trying to make a lot of plays. That’s the bottom line. Corey has to stop thinking that it has to be him to do it because that’s what happened."
Carolina still has Brown penciled in as a starter for the moment, understandable given the Benjamin injury and Devin Funchess's continued absence due to a hamstring issue. If Brown cannot shake the yips by Week 1, though, Rivera and his staff will have to reassess the situation.
First Down: Darren McFadden's workload
The Cowboys' running back job appeared to be Joseph Randle's to lose headed into the preseason. He may not necessarily have done that, but the third-year running back also has not blown away the competition.
McFadden's showing Saturday will not go unnoticed, then. On just five touches (four rushing attempts plus one reception), McFadden chalked up 43 yards—an 8.6 yards-per-touch clip. By contrast, Randle rushed six times for just 15 yards.
An extensive injury history likely will keep McFadden from ever being a bell-cow back
Fourth Down: Green Bay's injury situation
This might belong in the "First Down" category— after all, there were a few hours Saturday night when the Packers thought they might be down both Randall Cobb and Jordy Nelson well into the season. They dodged a bullet though, since Cobb's injury turned out to be a sprained AC joint, not a collarbone injury. And while he still could miss regular-season action, the timeline should be manageable.
Bonus First Down: Tyler Lockett
May as well get this out of the way now: Don't kick it to Lockett. Three exhibition games into his NFL career, Lockett already is emerging as a lethal return man. The Kansas State product bobbed and weaved his way to a 67-yard punt return touchdown, adding that score to his 103-yard kickoff return from preseason Week 1.
Those won't be his last big returns this year, if opposing teams keep giving him chances.