What We Learned About Each NFL Team This Preseason
Preseason football is one of the biggest and most entertaining job interviews in the country.
Though stats and player production need to be taken with a grain of salt this time of year, there is still a lot to take away after a sample size of four games featuring hundreds of new faces across the league.
Now that preseason football is over, teams must cut down from 75 to a 53-man roster.
But before we turn our attention to the regular season, let's take a look at what we've learned so far from each team in the NFL.
The Success of the Bills' Season Depends Primarily on Development of EJ Manuel
The preseason has shown us that the Bills defense has a lot of talent up front both against the run and the pass. In fact, the Bills are loaded with talent across their roster. Defensively, they have continued the momentum from last season by giving opposing quarterbacks fits.
Manuel has looked shaky and indecisive at times, but he is still trying to learn the speed of the game.
With a talented arsenal of running backs to take some of the pressure off, the young QB can be brought along at a comfortable pace. But if the Bills are going to have any chance at a postseason appearance in 2014, Manuel will have to live up to the expectations the organization had for him when it made him the only QB to be drafted in the first round in 2013.
In exhibition games he had his ups and downs, completing 61 percent of his passes. But he did have nine throws over 20 yards, which is good for second in the NFL—albeit many of those passes came against a second-team defense in Week 3.
Now, after starting the season claiming they were open to a competition at starting quarterback, but with no real contenders, per Gregg Rosenthal of NFL.com, the Buffalo Bills are signing 31-year-old free-agent QB Kyle Orton, as reported by NFL Insider Ian Rapoport. This shows just how confident the Bills currently are in their young signal-caller.
The Offensive Line Has Showed Much Improvement
Pro Bowl left tackle Branden Albert is the shiny new addition to this offensive line via free agency. In order for this line to prevent the same sack-happy fate it suffered a year earlier, Albert must stay healthy for the entire season.
Also, keep a close eye on rookie offensive tackle Ja’Wuan James, who the Dolphins drafted in the first round with the 19th pick overall. So far this preseason he has been worth the investment.
Sacks have been kept to a minimum during the four exhibition games, which is a positive sign of improvement.
This preseason has also showed us that the Dolphins are loaded with an impressive amount of young players who certainly pass the eye test. This list includes guys such as tight ends Gator Hoskins and Dion Sims, running backs Orleans Darkwa and Damien Williams, and wide receiver Rishard Matthews.
Though some of these guys may not make the roster, each has shown a good amount of potential this preseason. This speaks to the overall depth of the team except at offensive tackle.
New England Patriots
The Patriots Have an Amazing Collection of Linebackers
Head coach Bill Belichick could be looking at the best group of linebackers the Patriots have ever had. With a healthy Jerod Mayo in the middle and the extremely versatile second-year stud Jamie Collins on one side paired with Dont'a Hightower on the other, this group could be the team’s greatest strength.
Making such a claim is high praise when you factor in the Super Bowl-winning teams that featured Tedy Bruschi, Mike Vrabel, Willie McGinest, Ted Johnson, Roman Phifer, Bryan Cox, Rosevelt Colvin and others. But this season's group has the potential to be as good, if not better, than in years past.
In a league that centers on the passing game, versatility becomes a prerequisite in order to keep those linebackers on the field and as much as possible. Both Hightower and Collins are excellent pass-rushers when given an opportunity, and Collins is also one of the better coverage linebackers in the league.
This group hasn’t gotten nearly as much attention as the San Francisco 49ers' talented group, but it may prove to be better equipped for today’s pass-happy offenses.
New York Jets
The Jets are On Thin Ice with Cornerbacks
The Jets are uncharacteristically thin at cornerback heading into this season. This should be interesting to watch considering Rex Ryan’s blitz-happy defense relies so heavily on solid play from that position.
And just when things couldn’t get any more dire for their cover personnel, Dimitri Patterson's recent episode only makes matters worse.
Before New York's third preseason game, Patterson disappeared without a trace for 48 hours only to surface later without informing the organization.
The cornerback denied claims that he went AWOL, according to ESPN.com.
In any case, general manager John Idzik has now suspended Patterson for an undisclosed amount of time. The fact that he is still a member of the organization only speaks to its desperation at the position.
Things could get hairy for a defense that has managed to keep this organization competitive since the arrival of Coach Ryan.
It's Going to be a Long Season for the Cowboys Defense
“Awful” would be one word to describe the Cowboys defense—and that might be an understatement. After being depleted by free agency and injuries, there isn’t much left for Dallas to pin its hopes on when it comes to stopping other teams.
In the preseason, the Big D led the league in yards per play allowed (6.1) and finished second in points allowed per game (29).
After an abysmal preseason performance that surprised nobody, it looks like Tony Romo and the offense will have to outscore their opponents if they’re to have any chance for a respectable season.
New York Giants
Hard to See Where the Giants got Better this Offseason
The G-Men have endured a lot of changes both on the roster and in their scheme this offseason, all with the hopes of rebounding from a disappointing 2013 that saw QB Eli Manning suffer through the worst year of his career.
With a new coordinator to implement a West Coast offense, Eli will clearly need more time to get comfortable.
Making matters worse, promising running back David Wilson was forced into early retirement with a neck injury. That leaves this offense with a depleted arsenal of playmakers.
Giants fans better hope rookie WR Odell Beckham Jr. is worth the high-priced investment their team wagered on him. So far he has spent more time on the stationary bike than on a football field.
In truth, it would be a major surprise if the Giants were able to muster up a winning season in 2014.
This Offense Knows how to Create Space
After four preseason games, the Eagles offense has looked virtually unstoppable despite lacking any elite playmakers beyond LeSean McCoy. However, Philadelphia has a series of rookies looking like they might be ready to contribute early. Just based on what we’ve seen so far, head coach Chip Kelly’s mind may be too much for the NFL to handle, at least until there are enough sample sizes on tape.
Chip Kelly has his team averaging a league-high 33.8 points per game in exhibition play. One of the most impressive aspects of the Eagles' success this preseason has been the way the offense can create space for the ball-carriers with overexaggerated lateral movement and athletic blockers getting downfield.
Clearly the rest of the league is trying to keep up with Coach Kelly’s unique approach to the sport both in practice and during games.
It seems safe to assume that the success of this offense will continue into the regular season with some regularity.
RG3 Has No More Excuses
One thing that this offseason has showed me is that people have a strong sense of unfounded animosity toward Robert Griffin III.
Perhaps it’s partly due to the insane rookie year he had that set expectations through the roof. Maybe people feel there is a smugness to the kid that makes them want him to fail. Whatever the reason, I’ve never seen anything like it.
For ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski, RG3's problems can be traced back to poor fundamentals, which he discusses on The Herd with Colin Cowherd (ESPN Insider subscription required).
His mechanics have regressed, by the way. They have regressed in the fundamental way of throwing the football: his throwing slot, his footwork, his inability to remain consistent in that. When you and I talk all the time, the word that comes up a lot in my mind is consistency. And we see a lot of players in this league, they make great throws. They can make a great play. But you have to do it on a consistent basis. That's what separates the great players from the guys that have short careers.
We seem to forget that RG3 is only in his third year as a pro, one of which was hampered by a recovering knee injury. And this preseason is mostly about learning a new system.
In Griffin’s first two years he has completed 62.7 percent of his passes with 36 touchdowns and 17 interceptions. Those are hardly the stats worthy of the criticism he has received as of late.
With that said, RG3 has the talent around him to be one of the best in the NFL this year—he really has no more excuses not to succeed.
This Offense Is Dedicated to the Run
If we’ve learned anything about the new-look Ravens from the preseason it’s that this is a team dedicated to establishing the run.
This offense has attempted more carries (156) than any other offense that has played four games in the preseason. But it's doing more than just trying to run, it's doing it pretty well. This improved offensive line has rushed for the most yards (684) in the league during the exhibition games and is ranked fifth in the league in yards per carry (4.4).
If the Ravens can keep this up, they could be a force in the AFC.
The Man from Estonia Can Play
When the Bengals decided to invest a second-round pick in a guy who barely knew how to play the game of football, a lot of people scoffed at the decision.
The guy I’m referring to is Margus Hunt, and he has only been playing football since 2009.
His rookie season was limited to being mostly a spectator, but he used that time to improve on his craft slowly but surely.
This preseason he has emerged as one of the most dominant players on the Cincinnati front. He finished the preseason tied for second in the league with four sacks, three of which came in the fourth game against the Indianapolis Colts.
Two of his sacks in that game were magnificent displays of both his raw physical ability and a window into just how far he has come in a year.
Expect Hunt to see much more time on the defensive side of the ball now that Michael Johnson left for Tampa Bay. Hunt is fighting for playing time as part of a rotation with Carlos Dunlap, Robert Geathers and Wallace Gilberry.
Johnny Manziel Will Start at Some Point this Season
Though Johnny Manziel’s NFL preseason performances have had their ups and downs, he still flashed enough of a preview of his playmaking ability to be intrigued.
Besides, journeyman QB Brian Hoyer has done very little in four preseason games to cement his position as the starter for a 16-game season. Even if he looks like the QB we saw in his two-game start last season before getting injured, it’s highly unlikely the Browns will keep one of the most popular athletes in the world on the bench for long.
With WR Josh Gordon suspended for the year, this team is going to need as many playmakers as it can find to step up and contribute.
The Steel Curtain Is Lacking in Pass-Rushers
There’s been a lot of talk about the Steelers defense this offseason and throughout the summer. Most of the talk has been positive thanks in large part to the impressive play of rookie LB Ryan Shazier and rookie DL Stephon Tuitt.
But something that has been concerning is the lack of pressure on the quarterback this team is generating. At the conclusion of the preseason, Pittsburgh has only racked up six sacks. Only three teams have fewer sacks than the Steelers.
Over the decades this team has built a reputation of being one of the more feared defenses in the league. Now it appears to be adding the young talent needed to return to postseason form, but it has to get more pressure on opposing quarterbacks for this defense to be competitive.
Expect an Increased Emphasis in the Running Game
The Lions have made one playoff appearance in the last 14 seasons. The team has faded badly down the stretch the last two years. In its last 32 regular-season games, Detroit has committed a whopping 67 turnovers.
Reggie Bush and Co. are looking to change that fate with an increased emphasis on the running backs in this offense.
Mikel Leshoure and Joique Bell have each done a nice job carrying the bulk of the load while Bush is kept out of harm’s way. Despite the limited opportunities, Bush managed to run for 105 yards on only seven carries.
A little more help from the running game should certainly make life a bit easier for Matthew Stafford.
The Secondary Is Old and Thin
The team’s porous defense from a year ago has added some new faces to help up front. With additions like Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston, Willie Young and rookie defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Will Sutton, the trenches should do a better job of holding up against the run this year.
But is defensive coordinator Mel Tucker satisfied with the play of his secondary? At safety, Chris Conte was activated from the physically unable to perform list.
Free-agent addition Ryan Mundy and rookie Brock Vereen look like the starters for now. Offseason additions M.D. Jennings and veteran Adrian Wilson didn’t last long. Wilson was released about a week ago, per ProFootballTalk.com.
CBs Charles Tillman and Tim Jennings are getting up there in age and look to be a step slow. In the preseason the Bears defense has allowed the second-most passing yards in the league.
It should be interesting to see how this unit holds up as the season goes on.
The Defense is Trending Up
It looks like Teddy Bridgewater fans will have to wait a little bit to see their rookie quarterback in action.
Matt Cassel has been declared the starter, and Bridgewater will be able to learn from the sidelines.
The Vikings hired Mike Zimmer to be their head coach and to shore up a defense that was one of the worst in 2013. This preseason has already shown remarkable improvements on that side of the ball.
This roster is loaded with first-round talent ready to break out, but it needs a guy like Coach Zimmer to bring it all together. His footprints are beginning to be seen throughout. The defense as a whole ranks 11th in yards per play.
Top draft pick Anthony Barr has flashed talent and appears to have earned a starting job. If this unit can improve as the season goes on, the Vikings could have a squad worthy of a postseason appearance.
Green Bay Packers
Packers Have a Running Game
Last year we saw signs of a thriving running game for the first time in years. Rookie RB Eddie Lacy has the talent to potentially lead the league in rushing. This revelation with the running game continued throughout the preseason as several backs up and down the depth chart showed their potential to contribute.
The Packers ranked sixth in rushing yards this preseason and should have a solid ground attack heading into the 2014 regular season.
Though Lacy was used sparingly, he did manage to average 5.5 yards per carry. If he can stay healthy, Packers fans are expecting huge numbers this year.
James Starks is another RB who will contribute to the offense. Between Lacy and Starks, the Packers have what could be their most productive RB duo in years.
The Texans are Without a Viable QB Option
If you look at the Texans roster you can see a ton of talent across the board. However, there is a glaring weakness that just so happens to be at the most important position in the game.
The Texans QB situation is not looking too good with Ryan Fitzpatrick as the starting quarterback and no real second option. Sure, they have rookie quarterback Tom Savage, but he is far too raw to offer up any immediate upgrade.
During the preseason, Fitzpatrick has completed 58 percent of his passes with one touchdown and two interceptions.
Case Keenum has also looked terrible this offseason and would be a significant downgrade from Fitzpatrick.
Last year Fitzpatrick did a respectable job filling in for Jake Locker, but his skills are limited.
The Texans defense might just be good enough to carry this team, but that still spells bad news for the franchise either way.
Can the Offensive Line Hold Up?
The unit up front for the Colts has been a problem for the team for a few years now, and unfortunately things don’t appear to be changing anytime soon.
Starting left guard Donald Thomas tore his quadriceps early on in the summer and will miss the entire season. Center Khaled Holmes suffered an injured ankle during the first preseason game.
Coaches hope that Holmes will be back for the regular season, but the issues surrounding the offensive line are bigger than a Khaled Holmes return.
The entire line has shown no push in the running game, making things much harder for a running back already trying to fight off his own struggles. Trent Richardson will have to be a special back to achieve the type of success he and Colts fans are hoping for. If the Colts can't solidify the middle in the passing game, then Andrew Luck will be taking one heck of a beating for a third straight season.
Blake Bortles Gives the Jaguars the Best Chance to Win Now
Although head coach Gus Bradley has stood by his plan to sit Blake Bortles during his rookie season, Bortles’ play on the field is hard to ignore. Of all the quarterbacks to attempt over 50 passes this preseason, Bortles has the highest average yards per pass.
In addition, the Jaguars' first-round pick has thrown a league-high 11 passes from 20 yards or beyond while not throwing a single interception.
Those kinds of stats are impressive, but the poise he has displayed in the pocket along with a rare ability to go through his progressions has been inspiring. He also displayed notable accuracy on the move and looks unfazed in a muddy pocket.
It’s unclear whether will see Bortles at all this year, but the odds are heavily in his favor to make an appearance at some point—especially with the unimpressive Chad Henne as the alternative.
The Titans May Have Found Their Future Quarterback
That's right, Titans fans. It’s not often that you find a franchise quarterback in the back end of the NFL draft, but every now and then it can and does happen.
The next name that could end up joining this rare group of quality starting NFL quarterbacks is none other than Zach Mettenberger.
But how could a quarterback of that quality fall all the way to the sixth round of the draft? To start, there are a few reasons.
Mettenberger was forced to sit out most of the draft process after tearing his ACL while at LSU. Before he did, Mettenberger had a pretty productive career during college, becoming the only QB in school history to throw for 2,500 or more yards in back-to-back seasons.
In the preseason, Mettenberger’s 659 passing yards led the league while completing an impressive 69 percent of his passes. In addition, of all the QBs who have attempted at least 50 passes, only one quarterback has a higher average yards per pass attempt.
To be fair, Locker’s numbers are comparable, and between him and Mettenberger, one of these guys will eventually end up carrying this franchise.
It’s safe to say Locker has done nothing to lose his starting job yet, but anyone who knows new head coach Ken Whisenhunt and his affinity toward strong pocket-passers knows that Mettenberger is more his style of QB.
The Falcons Uncovered Another Playmaker for this Offense
With the offensive line taking a big hit from the injury of left tackle Sam Baker, it’s unclear how well this front line will perform. The Falcons did draft Jake Matthews with their first overall pick, but rookie offensive linemen tend to struggle.
One bright spot that seems to be exciting fans and coaches alike is rookie running back Devonta Freeman. Freeman has shown impressive moves in the open field combined with the lower-body strength and effort to carry defenders for that hard-fought yardage.
If Steven Jackson is unable to find his youth again, Freeman could emerge as a surprise weapon for this offense.
In the preseason, Freeman has amassed 280 total yards from scrimmage, averaging 4.2 yards per rush.
Kelvin Benjamin Is Ready to Be a Top Target
The Panthers are in desperate need of warm bodies to rise to the occasion and fill the void at the receiver position after cleaning house this offseason.
They drafted WR Kelvin Benjamin early to provide a big target for Cam Newton. Apparently they knew what they were doing, considering the way Benjamin has performed throughout the preseason.
For most rookie receivers, there is a drawn-out acclimation process where the speed and the talent of the league can overwhelm. This can lead to a lot of dropped balls and mental errors.
Despite having a history of both, Benjamin has shown us that the big stage is not too much for him to thrive on. This kid was considered one of the more raw receivers drafted early, but so far he has played like an experienced vet, showing imposing athleticism and more reliable hands than he had in college.
New Orleans Saints
Mark Ingram is Ready to be a Featured Back
The Saints have waited quite a while for their former first-round draft pick to emerge as a guy ready to take over a starting role in a high-potent offense. If the preseason is any sign of the future, he appears to be finally ready for that role.
Ingram had 22 carries in four games totaling 156 yards for a 7.1 yards-per-carry average. That makes the former Crimson Tide back one of the most impressive runners in the month of August.
Slated to back up Ingram is Khiry Robinson and the versatile veteran Pierre Thomas. These three make up a talented trio of runners who will no doubt all have their opportunity to make plays.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Offensive Line Is In Trouble
In order to have a functional offense it’s critical to have an offensive line you can depend on. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, this is a luxury they have yet to afford.
No offensive line has played as poorly as the one in Tampa Bay. This comes at a terrible time while offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford tries to install the system. Without continuity upfront, it’s difficult for the offense to get anything established.
In an attempt to rectify the situation, the Bucs executed a bold trade that would bring in veteran guard Logan Mankins. His presence is certainly needed considering the lack of production inside.
If this poor play continues, this team will surely be one of the worst in the NFL.
Denver Is Ready to Compete for a Super Bowl
Just in case anyone was wondering whether Peyton Manning is too old to still play at a high level, that question has been answered before the first game of the regular season.
Denver has looked very much like a team primed for a Super Bowl run this preseason. Manning is in midseason form already and has the offense functioning on a very high level. Keep in mind, this is the time of year when these guys are keeping all their best plays off the review tape.
The running back position still seems to need some sorting out in terms of which players will see the bulk of the touches. As of right now, Montee Ball has the upper hand, followed by Ronnie Hillman.
A player not to sleep on in this positional battle is C.J. Anderson. Though he is listed currently third on the depth chart, he provides a physical running style that this offense can turn to every now and then.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Offensive Line Is Shaky
With a good amount of turnover in personnel along the offensive line this past offseason, the moves looked risky on paper as it all unfolded.
Even though it’s just the preseason, early returns on the revamped Chiefs offensive line have not been good.
First overall pick Eric Fisher has continued to struggle since entering the NFL, while sixth-round pick Zach Fulton has been physically dominated through most of the preseason. Right tackle Ryan Harris has done some good things against the run and pass and is one of the few bright spots up front. He may only get a chance to play because of Donald Stephenson’s four-game suspension to start the season.
Against the Vikings, the offensive line had yet another poor showing as quarterback Alex Smith was under a litany of pressure throughout the night.
The Raiders Continue to Invest in Broken Free-Agent QBs
The offseason is typically a time of hope for every team across the NFL landscape—but with time and perhaps a preseason preview, that hope can either amplify or fade away.
There are some good things coming out of Oakland this year worthy of hope; however, Matt Schaub is not one of those things.
The Raiders brought in Schaub, 33, to give them a veteran option, and entering the preseason the Raiders had already named Schaub their uncontested starting quarterback. Head coach Dennis Allen has proclaimed over and over again, such as to Michael David Smith of Pro Football Talk, that there would be no competition at the QB position.
This was clearly a guy the Raiders felt confident about. But as the preseason revealed, Schaub still seems to lack the confidence and decision-making he once had. His arm looks to be significantly weakened (perhaps from an elbow injury), and he has showed zero command of the offense or the players on the field.
The good news is that second-year QB Matt McGloin has played fantastic followed by rookie Derek Carr. As it stands now, it looks like Carr is going to be playing a lot sooner than anybody thought.
According to Vic Tafur of the San Francisco Chronicle, via Pro Football Talk, the chances Carr will start Week 1 are 100 percent.
This feels a lot like what happened last year with Matt Flynn.
San Diego Chargers
The Best TE for San Diego Is No Longer Antonio Gates
Ladarius Green spent his first two years being the understudy to one of the all-time greats, Antonio Gates.
This summer Green has played more snaps than any other Charger, and all signs seem to point toward a continual improvement. He has really bulked up over the offseason and looks to have benefited from a highly dedicated strength-building program.
His blocking is not where it needs to be just yet, but he's certainly getting better.
Blocking is mostly about effort after all.
The true value he brings to the team is the ability to stretch the field and get open with incredible speed for a guy his size.
Whether it's because he's too fast for the linebacker or too big for the defensive back, he looks like a weapon the Chargers might be forced into using with the recent flurry of injuries.
Green caught all seven of his targets for 104 yards and two touchdowns against the Seattle Seahawks this preseason. The future looks bright for the tall tight end.
Palmer Will Continue to Make Head-Scratching Decisions
Aside from the unfortunate injuries on defense, the Cardinals could actually be considered in good shape to compete in 2014. For a team playing in the toughest division in football, this group has proved it can challenge the big boys.
With that said, there is one player who continues to bring down this roster’s overall potential.
Carson Palmer may have the arm strength and ideal size for a franchise quarterback, but something is severely lacking in his decision-making under pressure. This pattern has played itself out again and again throughout Palmer’s career and will continue to do so as long as he remains the Cardinals quarterback.
In preseason action Palmer showed us more of the same, completing just 50 percent of his passes and finishing the preseason with a 75.9 passer rating.
One player who can really make the future bright in Arizona is physically gifted rookie QB Logan Thomas.
St. Louis Rams
Defensive Line Is Stacked with Talent
We could talk about the Sam Bradford injury and the guy set to replace him, but the thing we really learned about the St. Louis Rams this preseason is that they are stacked beyond belief on the defensive line.
Any team looking to add a solid 4-3 defensive lineman should be keeping a close on the Rams' cut list, because somebody really talented is going to be let go.
The projected starters for the regular season are supposed to be sack master Robert Quinn and Chris Long on the ends with Kendall Langford and Michael Brockers clogging up the middle. But waiting in the wings is first-round pick Aaron Donald, who is certainly going to see a lot of playing time throughout the season.
A little further down the trough are Michael Sam, William Hayes and Ethan Westbrook, all of whom have dominated this preseason.
The strength of the Rams roster can certainly be found on their defensive line.
San Francisco 49ers
Carlos Hyde Is the Future for the 49ers Backfield
This team appears to be in constant transition while it turns out a formidable defense and potent running game year in and year out.
During the offseason the 49ers took a bigger hit than usual in the secondary, losing three of the four starters from a year ago. To make matters worse, LBs NaVorro Bowman and Aldon Smith will be absent for at least the first half of the season.
Offensively, Frank Gore is clearly past his prime and looking more like a change-of-pace back rather than a featured part of this offense. The good news is that rookie RB Carlos Hyde has showed all the signs of a guy primed to take over as the workhorse.
Expect Gore and Hyde to split time early on, at least until Hyde takes over as the featured back.
Seattle's Offense Has Gotten Better
Expect the defending Super Bowl champions to be a much better offensive football team in 2014. The Seahawks struggled at times offensively during their road to a championship with an injury-riddled offensive line and their top receiving weapon sidelined for most of the season.
Now Russell Wilson has another year of experience under his belt, and it seems to be showing up in his play so far. Teams looking to surpass the Seahawks should be worried with Wilson’s new toys, Percy Harvin and rookie WR Paul Richardson.
There is a lot to be excited about in Seattle if this team can maintain its hunger for another ring.
Ryan Riddle is a former NFL player and currently writes for Bleacher Report.
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