Patrick Daugherty: Who do you need to see the most from this preseason?
We all know it can be easy to overstate the importance of a few August performances. Take, for example, last year’s preseason leaders. We also know you can ignore the exhibition season your own risk (Alfred Morris, Victor Cruz).
In no particular order, I’d like to see Lamar Miller run with confidence and effectiveness in the Dolphins’ new offense, Jordan Matthews and Brandin Cooks translate some of their practice hype and for the Arian Fosters of the world to show they still have something left in the tank (Editor’s Note: Poor start, Jordan.).
Editor’s Note: Our 2014 online Draft Guide is now live here! Inside you’ll find exclusive columns, rankings, projections, six different mock drafts and tons more.
Evan Silva: I'm a believer in grabbing elite tight ends early in drafts and being aggressive at that position, because the fall-off behind the top four is immense. It's a classic case of position scarcity. At the same time, tight ends have a relatively high injury rate; each of this year's top four tight ends has had injury issues in the past (Jimmy Graham, Rob Gronkowski, Julius Thomas, Jordan Cameron). Therefore, I like the idea of pairing a top tight end with a breakout candidate tight end in the later rounds.
So I'm watching guys like Ladarius Green, Travis Kelce, Zach Ertz and Gavin Escobar closely. Kelce already had something of a breakout performance last Thursday night, which will lead to more opportunities. I want to see if Ertz will be an every-down player in Philly's 2014 offense after playing under 50 percent of last year's snaps. I want to see Green high-point passes like he did in San Diego's preseason opener. I also want to see his usage when Antonio Gates begins playing in exhibition games. Escobar is a guy I'm watching closely from a Dynasty perspective. The defense-less Cowboys are going to be a pass-dependent team in 2014, and Escobar might wind up playing a much bigger role than people expect.
Daugherty: It's a weirdly huge year for tight ends. All four of those guys Evan mentioned were on my Preseason Watch List. I'd throw in Zach Ertz. Common sense suggests he's going to have a much bigger role this season, but not if he whiffs on his blocks in the preseason. Evan is right that the drop off is immense after the top four at tight end, but we might finally be getting a big-time infusion of young talent. They won’t all break out at once, though.
Can't forget Andre Holmes, either. Liked the noise he made down the stretch last season, and apparently so did the Raiders, as he's been running with the first team. I think he could Cruz himself into a huge role if he keeps up the momentum.
Mike Clay: My chief concern with Ertz is target volume. I think part of why the team was okay with trading DeSean Jackson was because they plan on continuing to spread the ball around. It won't surprise me if no one on the Eagles exceeds 20 percent of the team's targets. That said, Ertz is going to play more, the Eagles are going to score a lot, and I'm projecting him to lead the team in receiving touchdowns. I like him in the middle rounds.
Sticking with the Eagles theme, I also can't wait to see Jordan Matthews. He's their most-talented wideout and I think he can be in the WR2 conversation by mid-season. It won't take him long to earn an every-down role.
Another guy I was anxious to see was over-sized pinball Trent Richardson. He's still the same, mediocre back we rolled our eyes at in 2013. Of all the backs I've watched so far, he's the least explosive out of the backfield. Add in his affection for running into his linemen, and you have a must-avoid player on draft day.
There are definitely a few other guys I plan on watching closely. They include the Jake Locker/Justin Hunter connection, Lamar Miller's usage in Bill Lazor's offense, and the running back rotations in New Orleans and Detroit.
Adam Levitan: Clay's observations on Trent Richardson are scary. The interior of that offensive line is atrocious and won't do him any favors — at this point I'm backing off.
Moving on, usage if far more interesting to me than stats in the preseason. A good (or bad) series or quarter is often a fluke if we don't ask ourselves why.
Therefore, I want to see exactly how (or if) Bill Lazor is moving Mike Wallace around. Is he really going to do the things the Eagles did last year that helped produce a career outlier year from DeSean Jackson? What about C.J. Spiller? The way he's been pounded between the tackles and removed on all passing downs/red-zone downs through two preseason games is scary. Also, if Torrey Smith has improved his route tree enough to be a true "X" in the Gary Kubiak scheme, he's going to be a steal in the fifth or sixth round.
Raymond Summerlin: One of the things I am interested in every preseason is the line play on both sides of the ball. Although great backs are great no matter who is blocking for them, so much of an average running back's effectiveness is built on how effective their offensive line is at creating holes, and how effective their opponent's front is at disrupting the play. It’s usually easy to see how good teams will be in both areas early in the preseason. The Jets, for instance, showed early last preseason that their run defense was as stout as they come, and then preceded to shut down Doug Martin, Stevan Ridley, C.J. Spiller and Chris Johnson the first four weeks of 2013. By watching New York in the preseason, we were able to identify them correctly as a matchup to avoid despite the fact that they were mediocre at best the year before.
To that end, I will be paying attention to the offensive lines on teams like the Ravens, Jaguars and Giants. All three have "trendy" running backs, and all three were atrocious run blocking units last season. It will also be interesting to see how formerly formidable outfits like the 49ers, Seahawks and Cardinals do after losing key players along their front sevens.
Chet Gresham: I'm interested in seeing how handcuff running backs are doing. I want to grab guys who will have opportunity and talent if the starter goes down. Carlos Hyde, James Starks, Jeremy Hill, Devonta Freeman, Christine Michael, Ronnie Hillman/CJ Anderson, all would be in nice spots if they became the starter. I like to look at usage. Are they getting work between the tackles, near the goal line, passing game, on third downs, etc. And I also want to see if they can execute in those situations.
Daugherty: It's important to remember Levitan's point that preseason usage is *far* more telling than preseason statistics. When people say the preseason is "worthless," or something of that nature, that should be what they're referring to. God bless him, but not reading too much into Logan Thomas' fourth-quarter stats. I am, however, quite interested in the fact that Andre Brown didn't receive a single touch in Saturday's game. Usage > numbers is just something all exhibition observers have to keep in mind. It's all good and well that Lache Seastrunk stuffed the stat-sheet against some second- and third-string defenders, but not nearly as informative as, say, Andre Williams getting goal-line carries with the first-team offense.
Levitan: We saw some interesting running back usage over the weekend that is worth tracking over the next two preseason games. Andre Ellington got every single first-team snap, including third downs and red-zone. Bishop Sankey didn't get any first-team reps, but did impress. Giovani Bernard didn't rotate with Jeremy Hill or BenJarvus Green-Ellis at all. Le'Veon Bell and LeGarrette Blount shared the work — could we be looking at a B&B backfield? (Don't put me in a vacant for saying that, Stringer and Avon).
To be clear, a lot of this usage had to do with the first team getting just one or two series. Obviously, Ellington and Bernard aren't going to play every snap of an entire game. But there are signs here we need to watch.
Clay: I agree that using the preseason as a resource to understand each team's depth chart is key, but it's important to not overvalue (or discard) a player based on it. Andre Ellington is a fine example of this. Last preseason, he didn't appear in Arizona's first preseason game. In Game 2, he was fourth in line at tailback and played the last 18 snaps of the game. In Game 3, he was fifth in line and played 13 of the final 18 snaps. In the finale, most of the starters sat out, but Ellington played 28 snaps. Even worse, he struggled to a 3.5 YPC during the preseason before leading the NFL in the category during the regular season. It's important to keep a close eye on preseason usage, but, as Adam stated as related to Bernard and Ellington, be sure to apply some common sense.
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