• With roster spots and starting gigs on the line, the stakes are only higher as the second slate of preseason games nears. Here are 32 players to watch.
By Chris Burke
August 18, 2016

What did we learn from the first week of the NFL preseason? Mainly, that the regular season needs to get here faster. Alas, the preseason only reaches its halfway point at the close of this weekend, with 16 games packed into a stretch of about 51 hours starting Thursday night.

To get you ready for the latest round of exhibitions, here’s one player per team to keep track of as this weekend unfolds:

Philadelphia Eagles at Pittsburgh Steelers (Aug. 18, 7 p.m. ET, NFL Network)

Eagles: Ryan Mathews, RB.

The first-team offense is expected to play at least a full quarter Thursday, so we’ll see if Mathews can build on the momentum he built early last week—15 yards and a TD on just two carries. Side note: Carson Wentz won’t suit up after fracturing a rib vs. Tampa Bay.

Steelers: Sean Davis, DB.

The Steelers will rest most of their offensive stars. They face more pressing questions on defense anyway, like where to play Davis. The rookie split time between corner and safety last week, and he figures to see time both spots again.

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Cincinnati Bengals at Detroit Lions (Aug. 18, 7:30 p.m. ET)

Bengals: Jake Fisher, OT.

The Michigan native Fisher, who will start at right tackle in place of an injured Cedric Ogbuehi, will get a test from Detroit’s D-line. There is a bit of an opening at receiver, too, with Brandon LaFell (hand) among those sidelined. Rookie Cody Core, off a three-catch showing last week, stands to benefit.

Lions: Kyle Van Noy, LB.

The Lions seem determined to make something of Van Noy, who has seen off and on first-team reps during camp. With DeAndre Levy not expected to play and Jon Bostic out several weeks, now’s the time for Van Noy to make a statement.

Chicago Bears at New England Patriots (Aug. 18, 8 p.m. ET)

Bears: Leonard Floyd, OLB.

Floyd made a strong first impression in 30 snaps last week, and reportedly has performed well during a spirited set of joint practices with the Patriots. New England’s offense line will have to be careful not to allow him any clean shots on whichever QB is in there.

Patriots: Joe Thuney, G.

Thuney has emerged as almost a lock to start at guard, leaving a battle on the right side between Shaq Mason, Tre Jackson and Jonathan Cooper, assuming the latter two ever get healthy. The Patriots’ interior O-line was hit or miss last week, so Thuney could become the linchpin of a young group.

Atlanta Falcons at Cleveland Browns (Aug. 18, 8 p.m. ET)

Falcons: Dwight Freeney, OLB and Keanu Neal, S.

Expanding the boundaries to include two Falcons, but Freeney and Neal both will make their preseason debuts Thursday after sitting out Week 1. They are vitally important, in very different ways, to coach Dan Quinn’s attack this season.

Browns: Nick Hayden, DE.

Projected starting defensive end John Hughes just rejoined the Browns after two weeks away for an unspecified personal reason. He may not have lost his gig while absent, but Hayden gave the Browns something to think about. While playing with the first-team defense against Green Bay, Hayden showed up a handful of times.

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Oakland Raiders at Green Bay Packers (Aug. 18, 8 p.m. ET)

Raiders: George Atkinson, RB.

A star last week in Arizona with 97 yards and two TDs on just five carries, Atkinson is trying to force a leap from practice squad to 53-man roster this season. UDFA Jalen Richard is banged up and Taiwan Jones is ... Taiwan Jones, so the Raiders have room on the depth chart.

Packers: Ladarius Gunter, CB.

The second-year cornerback landed in the fire during the playoffs last season, pressed into duty vs. Washington due to injuries above him. Any playing time he receives this year should come as less of a surprise—he has generated a positive buzz during camp and at least has solidified himself as a backup.

Minnesota Vikings at Seattle Seahawks (Aug. 18, 10 p.m. ET, NFL Network)

Vikings: T.J. Clemmings, OT.

Mike Zimmer did not exactly have a glowing review for either Clemmings or Andre Smith out of Minnesota’s preseason opener, but the battle remains very much on for the starting right tackle spot. Clemmings is a blowout loser in the experience column vs. Smith, so he has to show his upside.

Seahawks: Cassius Marsh, OLB.

The converted defensive lineman sure looked the part of an NFL linebacker during Seattle’s preseason opener. He may wind up starting there, too, if he can fend off Michael Morgan and Eric Pinkins—neither a household name himself. Bobby Wagner and K.J. Wright are the other LB starters, meaning Seattle is in good shape regardless.

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New York Jets at Washington Redskins (Aug. 19, 7:30 p.m. ET)

Jets: Erin Henderson, LB.

Or, perhaps more to the point: Darron Lee, LB. Lee, the rookie out of Ohio State, lived up to the hype in his first preseason action. As such, the veteran Henderson now sits in a borderline unwinnable fight to hang onto his starting job.

Redskins: Ryan Grant, WR.

With rookie Josh Doctson (currently on the PUP list) arriving to join DeSean Jackson, Pierre Garcon and Jamison Crowder, there are not many extra targets lying around in Washington. But if one were to guess at a potential breakout performer, Grant would lead the list. The 2014 draft pick caught three passes last week.

Miami Dolphins at Dallas Cowboys (Aug. 19, 8 p.m. ET, NFL Network)

Dolphins: Laremy Tunsil, G.

The Dolphins had a chance this week with Branden Albert briefly out to get Tunsil a look at tackle. They instead handed him reps inside, where Dallas Thomas again looked overmatched at times during Miami’s preseason Week 1. Time to get Tunsil some first-team game snaps.

Cowboys: Benson Mayowa, DE.

Just activated off the PUP list, Mayowa is questionable for Friday night’s game. Be it this week or next, though, the Cowboys will be anxious to see what Mayowa can do given how lacking they are in pass-rushing punch. Further up the depth chart, Ryan Russell could use a better showing than he had in the first preseason outing.

Arizona Cardinals at San Diego Chargers (Aug. 19, 9 p.m. ET)

Cardinals: Alan Ball, CB.

The Cardinals activated Justin Bethel off PUP this week, but he remains weeks away from a full return. So, in the interim, it’s Patrick Peterson and rookie Brandon Williams as the starting CBs with a concerning lack of depth behind them. Ball, a 31-year-old journeyman, is on the spot to help provide a safety net.

Chargers: Hunter Henry, TE.

The rookie hauled in three passes for 43 yards last season, a terrific beginning for a player San Diego is counting on as Antonio Gates’s complement. Even at less than 100% health, Arizona’s defense has the athletes to track TEs, which makes this an early barometer for Henry.

Carolina Panthers at Tennessee Titans (Aug. 20, 3 p.m. ET)

Panthers: Ryan Delaire, DE.

Carolina has a pretty good idea about its current top four pass rushers: Kony Ealy, Charles Johnson, Wes Horton and Mario Addison. Delaire sits in fifth position, off a season in which he played through a torn labrum. He without question could leapfrog one or both of the Horton/Addison combo by displaying consistent disruption.

Titans: Jalston Fowler, FB.

No NFL fullback is going to be an every-down player the way the game is played now. But with Mike Mularkey insisting that the Titans be a competent power-run team, Fowler certainly will have a role. He was a battering ram last weekend, leading the way to solid gains on multiple occasions.

New York Giants at Buffalo Bills (Aug. 20, 4 p.m. ET, NFL Network)

Giants: Roger Lewis, WR.

Geremy Davis would have been in this spot had he not tweaked his hamstring last weekend. Instead, it’s Lewis, the undrafted free agent out of Bowling Green. His talent was never the question so much as off-field issues. He is yet another dazzling athlete in the Giants’s WR corps.

Bills: Zach Brown, LB.

This will be Brown’s second start since the Bills learned that 2016 draft pick Reggie Ragland would miss the season with an ACL tear. A 2012 second-round pick, Brown never found his footing in Tennessee, but Buffalo is betting that he’s not a lost cause.

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Baltimore Ravens at Indianapolis Colts (Aug. 20, 7 p.m. ET, NFL Network)

Ravens: Darren Waller, TE.

Baltimore has had all sorts of injury issues at tight end this summer. If and when the full roster of TEs is available, there will be a numbers crunch. Waller put himself in a bit of a bind by earning a four-game suspension to start this season, but the converted receiver is an intriguing talent. He caught five balls last week.

Colts: Frank Gore, RB.

Andrew Luck is expected to make his return to the field Saturday night, hence the NFL Network pick up of this one. Gore will be out there, too, for his first preseason showcase. Don’t expect either Luck or Gore to play long, but the Colts should be focused on establishing their run-pass balance right out of the gate.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Jacksonville Jaguars (Aug. 20, 7:30 p.m. ET)

Buccaneers: Kenny Bell, WR.

Some folks out there had high hopes for Bell, a 2015 draft pick. After a rookie season lost to injury and a kick-return fumble to open the preseason last week, he’s as close to the roster bubble as he is an assured spot. If he draws second- and third-team defenders on Saturday, he has to light them up.

Jaguars: Yannick Ngakoue, DE.

In his first Jacksonville action, Ngakoue beat Ryan Clady for a sack in Jacksonville’s preseason loss to the Jets. Ngakoue doesn’t come with the expectations of 2015 first-rounder Dante Fowler, but he might be a steady rotational rusher as a rookie.

New Orleans Saints at Houston Texans (Aug. 20, 8 p.m. ET)

Saints: Cortland Finnegan, CB.

Unfortunately, the odds of a Finnegan-DeAndre Hopkins showdown are low. The Saints added Finnegan over the weekend to add a little veteran fire to their secondary. They’re not counting on him to be an immediate starter, but an opening could arise in short order.

Texans: Devon Still, DE.

Still’s daughter, Leah, thankfully won her bout against cancer. Still now can turn more of his focus onto the field, and he’s headed toward the regular season as a potential starter in Houston. Can he do enough to hold down that spot when J.J. Watt returns and takes back his own starting end position?

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San Francisco 49ers at Denver Broncos (Aug. 20, 9 p.m. ET)

49ers: Eli Harold, OLB.

Penciled in as a starter as Aaron Lynch prepares to open the regular season serving a four-game suspension, Harold still has his work cut out for him trying to hold off other contenders for that job. Getting to the QB once or twice Saturday would go a long way.

Broncos: Devontae Booker, RB.

It didn’t take long for Booker to close the cap on incumbents C.J. Anderson and Ronnie Hillman. The latter could be in particular trouble, given his one-year contract. Booker was underwhelming in his first preseason game, rushing for just 11 yards on four attempts with a short catch to boot. The numbers should climb if he gets more action early.

Kansas City Chiefs at Los Angeles Rams (Aug. 20, 9 p.m. ET, NFL Network)

Chiefs: Dee Ford, OLB.

Nothing new here. The Chiefs are still waiting for their 2014 first-round pick to take the proverbial leap, even more so with Justin Houston and Tamba Hali out nursing injuries. The returns from Kansas City’s first preseason game were not overly encouraging.

Rams: Ethan Westbrooks, DE.

Is Westbrooks the next star-in-waiting along the Rams’s defensive line? He’s still looking for his first regular-season sack, but he notched one in preseason action vs. the Cowboys last week. There is more of an opening at DE than the Rams have had in recent years.

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