The NFL preseason follows a specific progression each week in terms of game plans, veteran playing time and rookie exposure as teams prep for the regular season.
Today, let’s take a look at how NFL clubs approach the exhibition schedule from Week 1 to Week 4 as the evaluation process continues until final cuts are made.
Week 1: An Extension of Practice
During the first week of the NFL preseason, teams approach the game with a practice mentality that focuses on technique, core schemes, execution and conditioning.
Teams run their base install from the offseason workouts (Cover 1, Cover 2, core passing concepts, zone-running game, etc.) and grade on technique (footwork, hands, leverage).
Coaches don’t game-plan during the first week, there is no advanced scouting (film work), and players are lucky if they even get an opposing team roster once they board the plane.
As I’ve said before, this is a "line up and play" game with minimal adjustments, limited reps for the starters (two to three series) and second-/third-team players getting the majority of the snaps out on the field.
Plus, with the elimination of two-a-day sessions (and a reduction in the amount of hitting in today’s NFL camps), this is the first, true "live" competition for players.
Tackling, interior-line play and full-speed special teams coverage allows coaches to evaluate position battles while players are tested from a conditioning perspective.
For rookies, this is their first audition on the field—and they will bust (a lot) versus NFL speed.
However, the tape from the first weekend of the preseason is a vital tool for rookies, as they can make corrections, study their own technique and begin to develop given the number of reps they get under the lights.
Yes, jobs aren’t won or lost after one preseason game in August, but this is a great opportunity to earn more reps in Week 2 by making some plays versus NFL competition when the film is rolling.
Week 2: Second-Team Competition Takes Center Stage
In Week 2, the starters will begin to see more reps as they play through the first quarter (take a series or two in the second quarter) before shutting it down for the night.
And while there is still no true game plan leading up to the weekend’s matchups, both sides of the ball will increase (or lengthen) the call sheet.
That means more advanced schemes, personnel groupings and alignments to include the new packages that have been installed during camp.
Coaches want to get these concepts, schemes and so forth on tape as they begin to form game plans for the third week of the preseason.
However, when the starters take a seat at some point in the second quarter, the backups will once again be on display as they take center stage from the perspective of the grading process.
That includes quarterbacks playing for the No. 2 role, safeties trying to earn that "swing" spot (No. 3 safety on the roster), backup running backs, the No. 3/No. 4 wide receiver, etc.
This is when players can earn those roles on the second line of the depth chart and create some separation from the third-team guys that will eventually get a call from the head coach in the next couple of weeks to turn their playbooks in.
And that includes the kicking game.
Looking at the depth chart, if a backup player isn’t a "starter" on the four core special teams units (kickoff, kickoff return, punt, punt return) going into the second week of the preseason, well, it’s time to show up in the games.
Make a splash play on kickoff coverage, get the ball out or explode through the returner inside of the 20-yard line.
Do something to grab the attention of the coaching staff—because cuts are coming.
The opportunities will be limited for backup players in the third preseason game, so this is a critical time of the exhibition schedule to show signs of positive development in front of the coaching staff.
Week 3: Game Plans, Regular-Season Prep for the Starters
After the second preseason game, NFL clubs will break camp to establish a regular-season practice schedule—or routine—while simulating a "game week" at the team facility.
This is when teams hand out game plans and study tape, tendencies and other traits of the opposing team in position meetings while scripting each practice (first-/second-down install, third down, red zone) as they would in the regular season.
Out on the field, the competitive team drills we saw during camp (ones vs. ones) will take a backseat to scout-team work (backups run the opposing teams' plays) to prep the starters for extended reps over the weekend.
And for the NFL teams with players competing for the No. 1 job at the quarterback position, it’s now time to name the regular-season starter.
Make a decision, and give your team a No. 1 guy to follow.
On game day, the starters see their most extensive work of the summer, as they will play into the third quarter (one or two series).
This allows both the first-team offense and defense to go through the halftime routine while making adjustments before taking the field again in the second half.
For the backups, the third week of the preseason is a taste of reality in the NFL.
With the starters playing into the second half, those backups will get some late snaps in the fourth quarter while contributing mainly on special teams.
This is when regular-season roles are defined, and the depth chart begins to shake out based on the numbers of reps players get on that third weekend in August.
Remember, Week 3 in the NFL preseason should be viewed as a final dress rehearsal for the starters. Coaches will be looking for clean execution and positive production within the game plan.
Week 4: Rookie Showcase, Final Roster Spots on the Line
There could be some rookies vomiting on the field in Week 4 while the veteran "bubble guys" sell out in hopes of flashing on tape one more time with the entire league watching.
At this point of the preseason, some veteran starters won’t even take a snap, key backups will get a few reps, and the games (filled with penalties) will be long and drawn out as players compete for the those final roster spots that are still up for grabs.
That means the back end of the roster plays every snap on offense, defense and even special teams.
As my special teams coach in Washington, Danny Smith, said before the fourth and final preseason game, "Don’t put up your hand and ask for a breather…because there ain’t anyone left."
The game will get a little sloppy in the second half (technique breakdowns, poor angles, lack of discipline in the scheme) with the third-team guys taking the majority of the snaps.
However, this is still an opportunity for players to get on tape.
Sure, they might get cut, but there are 31 other teams in the league that will grade out the film and evaluate the young talent on every roster in the NFL.
And that can create future opportunities during the regular season when injuries occur or even the possibility of getting scooped up over Labor Day Weekend as teams set their final rosters.
Week 4 in the NFL preseason lacks the high-quality talent and execution we are accustomed to seeing at the pro level, and that is reflected in the play on the field.
But for the guys just trying to earn a paycheck in the league, this is still a showcase game with the eyes of the NFL watching.
Go make a play.
Seven-year NFL veteran Matt Bowen is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report.
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