NFL Players with Most to Prove in Preseason Week 1
The scores don't matter, and neither do most of the stats. The NFL preseason is arguably too long, too boring, too monotonous. Depth charts are molded in practice as much as they are in exhibition games.
But there is something to be said for live action against actual opponents, especially when you're going up against guys who are putting everything on the line. And that's why the preseason matters.
And so as the first full week of NFL preseason games takes place over the next few days, there will be certain players who will have a chance to change their fortunes by emerging into starting roles, or by shedding injury and/or productivity concerns.
Whether they're proving people wrong or proving them right, here are a dozen NFL players with lots of proving to do this weekend.
Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater
You know what they say about first impressions. While Minnesota Vikings rookie quarterback Teddy Bridgewater is battling veteran Matt Cassel for the starting job, the fact is Cassel has already made his first impression on the league.
Coach Turner always tells me I have to be quicker with my decision making. He has been telling me I’ve got to get back from under center fast. ... That’s been the main point for me. Just playing faster, progressing faster and just getting rid of the football faster.
And Turner has already stated, per Andrew Krammer of 1500ESPN.com, that "preseason games will weigh heavily" in the decision regarding who will start Week 1 of the regular season.
Reports continue to indicate that Bridgewater has surpassed expectations, per Fox's Jay Glazer and Chip Scoggins of the Star Tribune, but he'll have to back that up in a real scenario Friday. Can he speed things up while facing a defense that wants to crush him? That's the big question.
Browns QB Johnny Manziel
Some of these are too easy. As the Cleveland Browns enter their first preseason game against Detroit, Johnny Manziel will arguably have more to prove than anyone else in football.
That's because a lot of folks are casting doubt on the No. 22 overall pick, and they have plenty of reason to do so. Manziel has spent the majority of the offseason appearing in photographs at parties. And regardless of how many of his peers were doing the same thing, the optics weren't in his favor.
On top of that, he hasn't received strong reviews for his performance at training camp. A recent summary from ESPNCleveland.com's Tony Grossi notes:
Coach Mike Pettine told me before training camp started that coaches would evaluate Johnny Manziel through the first four days and decide whether he earned first-team reps. The numbers tabulated each day by ESPNCleveland's Jason Gibbs have not been pretty. Gibbs has charted all plays in 7 on 7 and team drills. Unofficially, Manziel has completed 42 of 85 passes (49.4 percent). He has been "sacked" two times officially. Two other obvious sacks were waved off and resulted in Manziel interceptions.
And yet he's now getting first-team reps as he tries to beat out Brian Hoyer for the starting quarterback job, despite the fact that, according to NFL Media's Aditi Kinkhabwala, head coach Mike Pettine admits he didn't do anything to earn that opportunity.
Is Manziel a gamer who can rise above the controversial, poor practice performances or was he a waste of a first-round pick? We'll get our first true feel for that on Saturday.
Jaguars QB Blake Bortles
I promise this list will become less obvious in a moment, but the reality is that anyone drafted to become a franchise quarterback is going to have a lot to prove in his first preseason game. And that's especially the case with Blake Bortles, whom many believe was drafted far too early by the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Because Chad Henne is likely to start, Bortles might not have as much early pressure on his shoulders. But he has already exceeded offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch's expectations, according to USA Today’s Jim Corbett, and it's probably only a matter of time before the No. 3 overall pick is moved into the No. 1 slot on the depth chart.
Considering how much rides on Bortles' future, it's imperative that he doesn't fall on his face against Tampa Bay's second-teamers Friday night.
Raiders QB Matt Schaub
Rarely do preseason performances matter much to 10-year veterans, but Matt Schaub is a huge exception. That's because the Oakland Raiders are hoping that, after six consecutive years as a reliable NFL starter, Schaub's 2013 flop in Houston was an anomaly.
It'll be important for Schaub to start strong with a steady performance—even if it's just for a few series—Friday night against Minnesota. Because the 33-year-old has been receiving rave reviews throughout the offseason, but this will be his first live-action test. And even if he's entrenched as the starter right now, nothing is forever in this league. The Raiders spent a second-round pick on Derek Carr for a reason.
Schaub will be the guy making $8 million this year, though, and you have to wonder if he's been built up so much that he has nothing to gain and everything to lose. He has to prove that he's not the same guy who posted a horrendous passer rating of 73.0 and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 10-to-14 in eight starts last year, and he has to begin doing that this week.
Cardinals G Jonathan Cooper
When the Arizona Cardinals go to work against Houston Saturday night, it'll be one of those rare instances in which most trained eyes will be on—of all positions—the left guard. But that's bound to be the case when you're talking about a guy like Jonathan Cooper, who after being selected seventh overall in 2013 missed his entire rookie season due to a broken leg.
Of course, it doesn't help that Cooper has already been facing public criticism from his head coach.
"I'm a little disappointed with where Coop is at right now," Bruce Arians said last week, according to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com. "I'd hope he come a little faster."
Early Saturday night, against a jacked Texans defensive front, we'll get a feel for how fast he's actually coming along.
And if he can't deliver, the North Carolina product could be in trouble. Because as Bob McManaman of AZCentral.com reports, presumed backup guard Earl Watford has been stealing a good chunk of Cooper's first-team reps in training camp.
Colts WR Hakeem Nicks
If Hakeem Nicks was hoping that a new environment would automatically fix what literally and figuratively ailed him during his last couple seasons with the Giants, he received a wake-up call over the weekend from Indianapolis Colts offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton.
"I don’t know if I can say that I’ve seen enough," said Hamilton Sunday of Nicks' performance thus far, per Tom James of the Terre Haute Tribune-Star. "I think he is still working to get himself in game shape."
The good news is the 26-year-old is healthy, at least for now. But the last things he needed were questions regarding his conditioning, because he's locked in a depth-chart battle with Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Donte Moncrief and Da'Rick Rogers.
Wayne won't play Thursday night against the Jets, according to ESPN.com's Mike Wells, so Nicks should have plenty of chances to prove that he's in game shape and ready to make an impact coming off a zero-touchdown season in New York.
Ravens RB Bernard Pierce
With Ray Rice suspended for the first two games of the regular season, Bernard Pierce will be expected to carry the load in the Baltimore Ravens backfield in two important divisional matchups with Cincinnati and Pittsburgh.
But Pierce himself has had a tough offseason. According to Jeff Zrebiec of The Baltimore Sun, the 24-year-old gained more than 20 pounds after offseason shoulder surgery. He's back in shape now, but he also missed some time earlier in training camp with a heat-related illness.
Plus, he'll have a lot to prove from a non-health standpoint, too. The 2012 third-round pick averaged 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie, but he saw that number plummet to 2.9 in 2013. Among backs with at least 150 attempts, that ranked dead last in football.
Rookie Lorenzo Taliaferro is probably more of a project and Justin Forsett is a career backup, so Baltimore will be counting on Pierce to send a statement that he's ready to take the reins Thursday night against a very tough San Francisco defense.
Eagles CB Cary Williams
The pressure will be on Cary Williams from the get-go this preseason, not only because he's the No. 1 cornerback on a defense that ranked dead last against the pass last season, but also because he's once again talking a big game.
Last month, while discussing big-money cornerback peers Darrelle Revis, Richard Sherman and Patrick Peterson, Williams suggested he belongs in the same conversation as that star-studded trio. From CSN Philly's Geoff Mosher:
I look at my career. I’ve played in playoff games. Most of those guys haven’t played in playoff games. It is what it is. Hopefully those guys could make it to the playoffs. Hopefully those guys could continue the success that they’ve had in their careers. Much respect to those guys, because I don’t see a much of a difference in any of them.
But Williams was beaten for over 800 total yards through the air last year, which, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), ranked in the bottom 10 in the NFL. He also surrendered eight or more catches on three different occasions, so consistency was a major issue.
The reality is that Williams is also going to face hard challenges for his starting spot. Third-year slot specialist Brandon Boykin and free-agent acquisition Nolan Carroll both had better 2013 seasons on paper, and both will be coming for him starting on Friday against Chicago.
The bad news for Williams is he'll be dealing with either Brandon Marshall or Alshon Jeffery.
Colts RB Trent Richardson
If Trent Richardson is going to avoid becoming a JaMarcus Russell- or Tony Mandarich-sized bust, it'll have to happen now. Two years into his career, the 2012 No. 3 overall pick is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry, and now he'll have to work to fight off veteran Ahmad Bradshaw—who is healthy again—for starting reps.
Fans are hoping Richardson hasn't been teasing them in training camp, because the 23-year-old has performed well headed into Week 1 of the preseason. Indy head coach Chuck Pagano had this to say, via ESPN.com's Mike Wells:
He’s getting back to 100 percent, so I think some of those runs you’re starting to see, the hard work, the full offseason, the comfort with the scheme, the terminology, being around the offensive guys, the guys that are lined up in front of him blocking and seeing him starting to put a foot in the ground, see a hole, burst through the line of scrimmage, all that stuff is coming. It’s only going to get better, too, as he gets closer to 100 percent health-wise. Again, he’s on track, he’s on track.
And Richardson himself is setting lofty goals (relatively speaking). He told Stephen Holder of The Indianapolis Star this week that his goal is to rush for over 1,000 yards, which won't be easy, considering Bradshaw's presence as well as the fact he couldn't even hit the 600-yard mark last season.
Against a very solid Jets defensive front Thursday night, Richardson can't afford another disappointing performance.
Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin
This rookie wide receiver class is incredibly deep and talented, and Kelvin Benjamin of the Carolina Panthers certainly has the raw ability to emerge as one of its most successful pros. But one word almost universally associated with the 6'5", 240-pound Florida State product is "raw."
The problem is Benjamin can't afford to work with training wheels as a rookie. The Panthers saw their receiving corps get blown up in the offseason, leaving their first-round pick to compete with dudes like Jason Avant and Jerricho Cotchery for the right to replace the departed Steve Smith.
In addition to having to prove that he's ready to contribute as a potential NFL starter, Benjamin will have to prove that he is, and can stay, healthy. He missed nearly a week of camp due to a bruised knee, according to ESPN.com's David Newton, and he can't afford to miss more game or practice time between now and Week 1.
The Panthers made such large strides last year, but now Smith is gone and Cam Newton admits he isn't 100 percent after undergoing offseason ankle surgery, per the Associated Press (via Fox Sports). Benjamin can be the hero here, starting Friday night against the Bills.
Lions TE Eric Ebron
Since the dawn of football time, the Detroit Lions have been seeking a No. 2 receiving target capable of giving Calvin Johnson room to work. And you'd better believe that they believe Eric Ebron could be that guy, because they wouldn't have spent a top-10 draft pick on him if that wasn't the case.
The guy has all of the tools to become an elite tight end, and he has the support in that offense to take off quickly. The problem is he's been dropping plenty of passes in practice, according to Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press, and Detroit won't be able to afford to start giving some of Brandon Pettigrew's reps to Ebron until the team is sure he can relied upon.
Against a solid Browns defense Saturday night, Ebron has to prove that he's not going to be a liability when it comes to drops while also holding up as a blocker.
Rams RB Tre Mason
Pretty much every back in this year's draft class has something to prove, just because not a single one of them was taken in the first 50 picks. But Auburn's Tre Mason dropped all the way to the middle of the third round before the St. Louis Rams finally selected him, so he's bound to have a chip on his shoulder within an offense that should be wide open.
The problem is that Mason hasn't distinguished himself whatsoever in practice. There was once a belief that he could carry the ball eight or more times per game while pushing current starter Zac Stacy, but he's listed right now as the team's fourth-string running back.
At the very least, that means the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year will have a chance to do some damage against scrubs when the Rams host the Saints on Friday night.