Jadeveon Clowney made waves this week harassing Matt Ryan and the Falcons, but he wasn't the only rookie who caught Stephen White's attention. The retired NFL defensive end goes deep on the first-year players' performances at the halfway point of the preseason.
I am back again with another update on the players that I broke down before the draft. I didn't get to everybody for various reasons, but I did try to add a few players I missed last time. I will say this again since a few people evidently missed the disclaimer last week *cough* Bills fans *cough*: I am telling you what I am seeing in preseason games and where I think they're at currently as far as their level of play.
It is only two preseason games, so once again take it all with a grain of salt.
Unless you were under a rock since Saturday, I'm pretty sure you've seen the two outstanding plays Clowney made against the Falcons this weekend. Just understand that this is a kid who is still developing his technique. The speed rush that got him a sack probably didn't look like anything special, but the fact that he turned his hips, dipped and really sunk in his rip is why he won so cleanly against the left tackle. You didn't see him speed rush that way in college for whatever reason. It's like he has been running while pulling up an anchor until this point, and now, better technique is going to allow him to free himself of that anchor and truly unleash the beast.
It was also obvious that he is getting more comfortable in that defense. He even lined up wide on the slot wide receiver a few times and bounced back and forth so the quarterback couldn't be sure if he was in coverage or coming on a rush. We are probably still a year or two away from seeing Clowney as a finished product at outside linebacker, but, man, is it going to be fun to watch him develop along the way!
I honestly think the Raiders could take some notes from the Vikings on how they've integrated Barr into their defense at linebacker and as a rush defensive end. The advantage Barr has over Khalil Mack right now is that Barr hardly ever comes off the field, no matter the situation. Barr appears to be making a smoother transition to the NFL so far than Mack.
Against the Cardinals, Barr wasn't making a lot of tackles, but he was all over the field taking on blocks, looking pretty decent dropping in coverage, blitzing and, yes, rushing the passer. He had a sack-fumble to end the half on what wasn't a great pass rush, but he was relentless and kept coming while the quarterback tried to scramble. He was also very physical and looked sure of himself on almost every play. Basically, he looked like he knew what the hell he was doing; as G.I. Joe used to say, knowing is half the battle.
Might be even more than half for a rookie in the NFL.
It has only been two preseason games, but I do love what Barr is doing so far up in Minnesota.
Jake Matthews, OT, Atlanta Falcons
I kinda wonder if Matthews had one of those little bottles of syrup with him on the field against the Texans because he was pancaking fools left and right for one stretch in the first half. I've been impressed with the fact that Matthews has looked like a veteran who has done this before rather than a rookie in his first two games. Not only has he done well blocking rushers one-on-one, but he's also shown a comfort level with blocking up blitzing and passing off pass rush games as well. Those are two of the hardest things for young offensive linemen to do. They usually get so locked in on the one guy they are supposed to block prior to the snap that when the look changes after the snap, they rarely adjust to their new assignment quickly enough.
Now that starting left tackle Sam Baker is out for the year with a knee injury, Matthews is likely to switch to the left side. From what I have seen so far, I think the Falcons might have just upgraded their left tackle position out of necessity.
Jernigan played quite a bit against the Cowboys and showed off his power a few times as a pass rusher, but he didn't make very many plays. His job in the Ravens' 3-4 is often holding up blockers to keep them off the linebackers rather than trying to come off and make plays himself. In many ways it's a perfect defense for him because he lacks that quick get-off that you need in a fast-flow 4-3 defense, but I do wonder if he is big enough to really anchor in there against some of the double teams he'll see while two-gapping.
So far so good, but I haven't exactly seen him "flash" yet.
Ups and downs
Robinson got his lunch money taken from him a little at left tackle against the Packers. But who doesn't when one play you might be trying to pass block Julius Peppers and the next play you might be trying to pass block Clay Matthews? Those are two of the best pass rushers in the world, so the fact that Robinson got caught slipping a couple of times shouldn't have been that surprising. What I will say is that he didn't let those few screwups affect his confidence very much, as far as I could tell, and he held his own against both guys quite a bit.
Oh, and then he went inside to guard and just started mashing fools. Since we know the Rams plan to play him at guard this year, with Jake Long at left tackle, that's really the most important thing to watch right now. He continues to impress not only with his physicality, but also with his athleticism when pulling and going up to the second level to block linebackers. Basically, he is living up to the hype so far.
On one play against the Dolphins, Evans simultaneously showed off the strength, athleticism and speed the Buccaneers coveted when they made him the seventh pick in the draft. He also showed that being a rookie means you still make boneheaded plays from time to time.
In the second quarter, Evans jumped for a Mike Glennon pass, shrugged off a big hit from the safety, outran much of the rest of the Dolphins secondary ... and then fumbled the football just short of the end zone after being jostled by a hustling cornerback.
It wasn't a boneheaded play because he fumbled, but because he had the ball in the wrong (inside) hand, exposing it to the cornerback. That kind of thing is taught at the pee-wee level, and I have no doubt that Evans knew better. At the same time, he was probably caught up in the moment thinking he was about to score his first touchdown. I doubt that he makes the same mistake twice. That play shows just the kind of explosiveness and big-play ability Evans can bring to that Bucs offense.
After being called out by the head coach because he wasn't on top of the details in the first preseason game, Lee appeared to pick it up a bit against the Bears. He ended up catching four balls for 27 yards and a touchdown.
He still drives me crazy catching the ball with the outside of his hands together rather than with his thumbs together, but hey, it seems to work for him. As long as that is the case and he continues to produce, I imagine nobody in Jacksonville will complain much going forward.
Question marks and red flags
Khalil Mack, OLB, Oakland Raiders
I didn't comment on Khalil Mack last week and almost didn't this week because, well, it's hard to say just how he is doing. And that isn't his fault. I'm just not sure that playing the No. 5 pick in the draft at SAM linebacker is a great idea. Why? Because he comes off the field in nickel, and most teams play a looooootta nickel. Now, he could also be a pass rusher in nickel, BUT that would mean either LaMarr Woodley or Justin Tuck, two big offseason additions, would either have to come off the field or kick inside to pass rush. Tuck has rushed inside plenty, but so far he has been rushing from defensive end a lot on passing downs this preseason. Woodley could probably also rush inside, but it's not something he is known for doing. So where will Mack's pass-rushing reps come from during the season if nobody gets hurt?
That's not to say that Mack is a one-trick pony who can only pass rush. It's hard as hell to make a contribution from the sideline. It's also hard for guys who haven't been pass rushing all game to suddenly go in on third-and-long and rush. I saw a couple of Mack's pass rushes against the Lions and they looked so damn average I had to double-check and make sure it was actually him. For a guy with a ton of athleticism and who showed last year in college that he does have good pass-rushing technique, he just looked out of sorts to me, unsure whether to try to use his speed or his power or a combination of both.
I actually thought Mack would have a pretty smooth transition to the pros because he played a true linebacker position and was a big-time pass rusher in college. Now, I'm starting to wonder if trying to make him a jack of all trades and putting him at SAM linebacker may actually hold him back for a while.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Buffalo Bills
He injured a rib trying to catch a turrible pass from EJ Manuel against the Steelers. He got hit late with his back turned. This is something worth monitoring closely because Watkins plays with such a reckless abandon most of the time that a painful rib injury really could force him to change his whole approach, for a while at least. So much of his game is running through contact after the catch, I'm wondering if that part of his game will suffer a bit until he heals up all the way.
Michael Sam, DE, St. Louis Rams
I talked up Sam a bit last week, and this week he got a sack against the Packers with a corner rush that looked like the rushes he won with in college. Still, he started off much slower this week and almost looked overwhelmed at times to start the game. He picked it up eventually, but he can't afford to start off slow or not make the most of any opportunity he gets because those game reps will start getting a lot harder to come by this week. He is going to really have to pick it up to make the final roster.
Leave it to Lewan to promptly get an unnecessary roughness penalty a play or two after he got into the game for retaliating against a Saints defensive lineman who pushed him while they were both running to the ball. Soon after, he earned another 15-yard penalty after snatching Saints defensive lineman Cam Jordan's facemask after getting beat on a pass rush. Listen, I know Jordan is a beast and sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do, but damn that was an awful start to his night.
After that he got himself together and played some pretty good football at left tackle, however. He showed textbook footwork when he was pass blocking and he held his own against some pretty good pass rushers. If he can eliminate the dumb penalties and just concentrate on doing his job, it's a given that he starts this year at some point. That's a big if right now, though.
Aaron Donald, DT, St. Louis Rams
I came away as a big fan of Donald after breaking down his college tape. Last week against the Saints, Donald showed that quite a bit of his game will translate well to the NFL. But this week? This week, Donald got his ass handed to him more often than not.
Let me clarify: it's not like Donald was getting pancaked all over the place or anything, so he didn't "suck." But man oh man, did he find success a lot harder to come by against the Packers.
Here's the thing: for some reason they didn't play Donald as a true three-technique most of the first half. Instead he was just the right defensive tackle all of the time. That meant on some plays he would be a three-tech and a nose tackle on other plays, depending upon the offensive formation. He didn't look very comfortable at nose tackle, but he didn't get a lot done when had opportunities at three-technique either.
I think some guys who are as good as Donald coming out of college and have a taste of success early start believing their own press clippings and think they can dominate anybody they face. I'm not saying that was Donald's problem this week, but I am saying he looked ill-prepared for the schooling he endured in that game.
The big thing now will be to see how he bounces back this week. Will he come out fired up and try to shake off the stench of last week? Or, will he allow it to affect his confidence? Personally, I can't wait to find out.
Dee Ford, OLB, Kansas City Chiefs
Ford is still learning the OLB position in KC, and it shows. For most of his game reps against the Panthers, he looked tentative and unsure of himself. He did show that great first step of his on a few pass rushes, but he only tried speed rushes around the horn and didn't find much success. Like Clowney's first week, he also got caught peeking in the backfield when he was supposed to be pass rushing and gave up a nice gain through the air to a backup tight end.
Near the end of the game, Ford did pick it up a little and got in on two tackles. He also ended up with half a sack when it was all said and done, but he needs that sense of urgency at all times. Even when you are wrong, if you go all out you can make plays, and he has to understand that. I get it, though; this is a whole new world for him, just like all the other college defensive ends who convert to outside linebacker. I think he will be fine, but it's going to take him a while to adjust to what he is being asked to do.
Kony Ealy, DE, Carolina Panthers
Ealy was running around and hustling against the Chiefs, but didn't have much on the stat sheet to show for it. You can see the athletic ability and power, but the technique, particularly the pass-rush technique, is still lacking. He has some great guys to learn from on the Panthers' defensive line. All he has to do is take notes and watch. I'm still not sure how good of a player he will eventually be, but I do think he can make plays in the NFL with just a little more polish.
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