NFL Preseason Counts More Than You Think
August 2, 2012 by Joshua Duffy • Print Story •
As we head to the first set of NFL preseason games, beginning with the Hall of Fame game between Arizona and New Orleans on Sunday, the age-old debate about the value of preseason will once again annoy the living hell out of me.
Side 1: It's not real football, the stars don't play, coaches don't use the full playbook, fans get screwed on ticket prices, I've never heard of these guys, blah blah blah.
Me: Shut your face. It's football. And "these guys you've never heard of" are the "diamonds in the rough" you'll be bragging about in a couple of months once they become relevant to your fantasy teams.
I love the preseason, and I don't care who knows it.
Going into the 2009 preseason, running back Arian Foster was undrafted trying to stick in Houston. He came on through the preseason, and was able to stick around the club through the year (active roster and practice squad). The following summer, he blew up in the third preseason game against the Cowboys (18 carries, 110 yards, 1 TD), and went on to be named First-Team All Pro.
It was Tony Romo's preseason performances in 2004 and 2005 that set up the future of the Dallas Cowboys over the past five years.
And it's not just the stars. In 2010, Tennessee Titans rookie Marc Mariani, a seventh-round pick out of Montana, won the return job with a stellar performance through the preseason. He went on to make the Pro Bowl.
And I know the majority of the "I've never heard of these guys" will stay in the shadows of camp body anonymity. But some of them will break through and become household names. We don't know which ones are which yet, but they're there.
A week into camp, here are a few I think are worth your time:
(Note: No first-rounders here. Sure, Bucs running back Doug Martin is relatively unknown to most fans, but he was a first-round pick out of Boise State. Lack of name recognition doesn't make him a long shot. I'm going for the fourth-quarter guys.)
WR Juron Criner, WR, Oakland Raiders
The fifth-round receiver out of Arizona has already made a bit of a name for himself through OTAs with his penchant for circus catches. He doesn't have the speed of Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore or Jacoby Ford (hence the fifth-round draft position), but there's room in that offense for a possession receiver with size, and Criner fits the bill at 6-foot-3, 225 lbs. The Raiders cleared an extra spot at the position with the trade of Louis Murphy to the Bucs.
Tank Carder, LB, Buffalo Bills
Carder, a fifth-round pick out of TCU, is a second-teamer on the Bills defense behind Kelvin Sheppard, who started nine games as a rookie in 2011. But Carder has special instincts in the middle of the defense, earning him a spot on the 2010 All-American first team and back-to-back honors as the Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year. There's Sean Lee potential here.
Colt McCoy, QB, Cleveland Browns
The opposite of the young guy looking to make a name for himself is the older guy looking for redemption. Of course "young" and "old" are relative terms in the NFL, with McCoy just 25 and entering his third-year in the league, but he's been around enough for people to forget his intangible awesomeness coming out of Texas, remembering instead the pounding he took as just another guy who couldn't hack it. Now, with a new savior, first-round pick Brandon Weeden, ready to take his place, McCoy is one injury on another team away from getting his much-needed ticket out of town. But he's going to need to show he's still got the ability to lead an offense, and here's betting Cleveland gives him every chance to do so, beginning next Friday in Detroit.
Everette Brown, DE, Detroit Lions
Sticking with the redemption theme, Brown had a stellar final year in 2008 at Florida State, finishing with 13.5 sacks, 21.5 tackles for a loss and second-team All American Honors. Originally projected as a first-round pick, he fell to the Panthers in the second. But after two mediocre seasons in Carolina, Brown was shown the door, eventually landing with San Diego in November for a couple of months (three games, two tackles). Now on his third team in Detroit, with a well-stocked D-line rotation, there's no real reason to expect Brown to suddenly find the "on" switch, even if he makes the team. But with Jim Schwartz and Gunther Cunningham pushing his buttons, this could be the opportunity Brown has been waiting for. We'll see if he takes advantage.
Vontaze Burfict, LB, Cincinnati Bengals
Staying on defense, the story of Burfict is one that has two completely, diametrically opposed possible endings. One, he can take his head out of his ass and use his incredible physical skills to dominate and become the centerpiece of the Bengals' defense (I am not a Rey Maualuga believer). Or two, he can keep being an a-hole, which caused him to drop from a high draft position to undrafted free agent, burn out of the league, and wonder what could have been for the rest of his life. The very early returns seem favorable, so we'll see if Burfict can keep it up. Having defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer in his ear will help tremendously.
Bryce Brown and Chris Polk, RBs, Philadelphia Eagles
If Brown's name sounds familiar, it's because he was once a top 10 national recruit, behind only Trent Richardson among high school running backs in the Class of 2009 according to the ESPN 150. But whereas Richardson went on to stardom, winning two national championships at Alabama and becoming the third overall pick by Cleveland in April's NFL draft, Brown bounced from the University of Tennessee to Kansas State (104 total collegiate rushing attempts) and was selected in seventh round, the 229th overall pick. Still, Brown is a big kid and I'm fairly sure those 104 carries didn't sap away the skill that made him one of the most sought after recruits just three years ago.
Polk, meanwhile, logged nearly 800 carries for more than 4,000 yards in his four-year career at Washington. (You may recall his 30-carry effort for 149 yards and a TD in the classic Washington/Baylor Alamo Bowl that served as Robert Griffin III's farewell to amateur athletics.) With injury concerns pushing him out of the draft, Polk comes in as the classic undervalued talent. The Sporting News even went so far as to rate him the top overall undrafted free agent in this year's rookie class.
Third-string RB battles may not make SportsCenter, but considering the diminutive Dion Lewis (23 carries as a rookie in 2011) is all that stands between Brown/Polk and the starting job for the Eagles should starter LeSean McCoy go down, this is a battle of unknowns you might want to keep your eye on.
Other guys to keep an eye on: WR/PR Joe Adams (Carolina Panthers), QB Kellen Moore (Detroit Lions), WR Jeff Maehl (Houston Texans), WR Ty Hilton (Indianapolis Colts), RB Vick Ballard (Indianapolis Colts), WR Emmanuel Arceneaux (Minnesota Vikings), WR Nick Toon (New Orleans Saints), DE Justin Tratto (New York Giants), WR Marquis Maze (Pittsburgh Steelers), WR Chris Owusu (San Francisco 49ers), QB Kirk Cousins (Washington Redskins)