Wed Aug 25 03:03am EDT
The NFL preseason isn't just about the top draft picks -- quite often, it's much more about the guys just on the fringe, trying to make their teams. Or, players who are on the right track for a roster spot, but whose efforts may have gone under the radar. With two weeks left in the 2010 preseason, here are 10 players you should watch closely; you may see many of them quite often when the wins and losses really count.
Seattle Seahawks DE Dexter Davis(notes) -- Pete Carroll drafted Davis in the seventh round because he started a school-record 50 games at Arizona State, and he kept driving Carroll's USC offensive lines and quarterbacks nuts with his disruptive abilities. He's bagged one sack in each of his first two preseason games, and he looked especially impressive turning around the edge on a strip-sack of backup quarterback Matt Flynn(notes) in a close loss to the Packers last Saturday.
Oakland Raiders DT Lamarr Houston(notes) -- This Texas tackle was on the lists of many (including mine) as an underrated defender going into the draft. He became one of many reasons that Oakland's 2010 draft was praised when the Raiders took him in the second round. Houston has rewarded the Raiders with two sacks in his new role as a strong-side end, and he could be a big part of a Raiders front seven that will surprise this season.
Buffalo Bills RB Joique Bell(notes) -- You may never have heard of Wayne State, but Bell intends to put it on the map. He turned down offers from Michigan State and other bigger schools because he wanted to be a running back, not a defensive back. He went to a small school in the Detroit area, rushed for over 2,000 yards in each of his final seasons, and impressed everybody at the Senior Bowl. Through his first two preseason games, he has scored two touchdowns, amassed 8 yards per carry on 16 carries, and established that C.J. Spiller(notes) isn't the only young back on the Bills worth watching.
San Francisco 49ers RB Anthony Dixon(notes) -- The only rookie back with more rushing yards than Bell through two games (151 to Bell's 132), Dixon was pushed into the spotlight with the abrupt retirement of second-year back Glen Coffee(notes). Dixon, whom the 49ers took in the sixth round out of Mississippi State, fits the team's profile perfectly -- Mike Singletary loves smashmouth football, and at 6-foot-1 and 233 pounds, Dixon is the right fit. He reminds some of former San Francisco back Kevan Barlow(notes).
New England Patriots TE Aaron Hernandez(notes) -- The Pats took two tight ends in the 2010 draft -- Arizona's Rob Gronkowski(notes) was selected in the second round -- but fourth-rounder Hernandez has been blowing up on the field through the early preseason. His four catches for 46 yards and a touchdown announced him as a potentially explosive factor in Tom Brady's(notes) offense as Bill Belichick's team retools and gets younger.
(Watch NFL rookies making an impact in the preseason)
New York Giants WR Victor Cruz(notes) -- We're basing Cruz's presence here on one game, but what a game! Against the Jets and their excellent pass defense, Cruz made a definitive statement in his NFL debut, catching six balls for 145 yards and three (!) touchdowns. Cruz followed up with two catches for 30 against the Steelers, and we'll be looking for more from this UMass product who signed with the G-men as an undrafted free agent. The next challenge for Cruz will be to get numbers like these against first-team defenses.
Cincinnati Bengals DE Geno Atkins(notes) -- At 6-foot-2 and 293 pounds, Atkins came out of Georgia as a bit of a tweener. However, he's had no problem finding a role for himself in Cincinnati's defense. Including the Hall of Fame Game against the Cowboys, Atkins has registered a sack on each of his first three preseason games, and finished up against the Denver Broncos with 1.5 quarterback takedowns. The Bengals want to make sure that they can keep a consistent pass rush going even if elite end Antwan Odom(notes) gets hurt again, and Atkins seems to be intent on proving that he's part of the solution.
Oakland Raiders DB Stevie Brown(notes) -- In Oakland's aforementioned excellent 2010 draft, Brown (a seventh-round pick) may be the biggest sleeper of all. He was the personification of team spirit when the Michigan program was going downhill, which should prepare him well for the constant circus in Oakland. Brown played outside linebacker in college and is making the move to safety at the NFL level. Brown was snubbed by the scouting combine, and only a strong showing at Michigan's pro day saved him from not being drafted at all. But he leads the league in preseason picks with two, and passes defensed with four.
Indianapolis Colts LB Pat Angerer(notes) -- The Colts have cornered the market in fast, undersized linebackers with Clint Session(notes) and Gary Brackett(notes). Angerer, whom Indy took in the second round out of Iowa, is that same kind of player whose production outdoes his measurables. Angerer's two preseason sacks came at the expense of the pocket-impaired David Carr(notes) in one series against the 49ers, but there's no debiting his overall effort on the field -- and his 14 tackles prove the point.
Minnesota Vikings QB/WR Joe Webb(notes) -- Webb is an interesting case for a Vikings team suddenly short in receivers with injuries to Sidney Rice(notes) and Percy Harvin(notes). He spent his career at UAB alternating between quarterback and receiver, becoming the first player in NCAA history to throw for over 2,000 yards and run for more than 1,000 in consecutive seasons. The Vikings had planned to make him a full-time receiver when they drafted him in the sixth round, but they liked his arm and potential enough to keep him at quarterback. Brad Childress has said that he won't switch Webb back to receiver, but we've seen that Childress will do just about anything to meet the needs of his offense, and Webb has the ability to be productive in different ways.
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