Performances in the early days of preseason should always be treated with a fair amount of skepticism. For established veterans, these short appearances serve as nothing more than an aid to helping them get back into game shape, but for rookies and players on the roster bubble, these games provide them with the perfect stage to showcase their talents. It′s still early, and players have a few more opportunities yet to make an impression ahead of the regular season, but here are our winners and losers following the first games of preseason.
Rookie running backs: If the days of running backs going in the first round of the draft weren′t already over, they could well be after this season. Teams have been finding production at the position with second and third day picks recently, and that′s a trend which looks set to continue in 2014. Powerful, hard-running tailbacks such as Carlos Hyde, Lorenzo Taliaferro, Andre Williams and Terrance West all impressed in their debuts, whilst the more elusive, fleet backs such as Dri Archer De′Anthony Thomas also demonstrated their big-play potential.
Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars: It wasn′t a bad week for rookie quarterbacks, with Johnny Manziel, Teddy Bridgewater and Derek Carr all showing positive signs in their NFL debuts, but it was Bortles who stole the show. The third-overall pick threw for 117 yards on 7/11 attempts, but it was his calmness in the pocket and impressive accuracy that really stole the show. His chemistry with rookie wide receiver Allen Hurns, another player whose stock has been rising, shouldn′t go unmentioned, either.
San Francisco 49ers′ defensive line: With Justin Smith and Glenn Dorsey missing, the 49ers needed some of their young defensive line contingent to step up against the Baltimore Ravens, and they certainly answered the call. Quinton Dial, a fifth-round pick out of Alabama in 2013, was arguably the best player on the field, whilst Tank Carradine made a number of eye-catching plays. British Olympian Lawrence Okoye′s development has also been significant, and although he will likely spend another season on the practice squad, his potential seems even more frightening now that he has a firmer grasp of the game.
Brandin Cooks, New Orleans Saints: The rookie can′t seem to put a foot wrong. After impressing considerably in training camp up to this point, the receiver shone against the St Louis Rams, showing his consistency on shorter and intermediate routes, as well as his big-play ability. Cooks recorded 55 yards and a touchdown on five receptions, and NFC South defenses will already be busy thinking up ways of stopping him and the high-powered Saints′ offense.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Houston Texans: Houston′s new starting quarterback was not just bad against the Arizona Cardinals, but woefully bad. On 14 attempts, Fitzpatrick threw six completions for 55 yards, no touchdowns and two interceptions. Even beyond the fairly damning numbers, Fitzpatrick did not look comfortable in the pocket, or show any sort of poise and composure with his passing and decision-making respectively. Admittedly, the Texans were without Andre Johnson and Arian Foster, their two biggest offensive threats, but it would not be surprising to see Fitzpatrick playing second fiddle to Case Keenum or even Tom Savage come the regular season, especially if this form continues into next week′s game against the Atlanta Falcons.
Buccaneers′ offensive line: There′s no denying that Tampa Bay had issues on the offensive line last season, but in the last few months they′ve lost Carl Nicks, Donald Penn, Jeremy Zuttah and Davin Joseph. That loss of talent showed against the Jacksonville Jaguars, who despite finishing last in sacks last season, were made to look like an elite group of pass rushers by the Buccaneers′ misfiring unit.
New York Jets′ secondary: The Jets were fairly thin at corner before their game with the Indianapolis Colts, but after Dee Milliner (high-ankle sprain) and Dexter McDougle (torn ACL) both picked up injuries in practice on Sunday, the group looks dangerously under-equipped to keep up with their vaunted defensive front. Milliner could be back by the beginning of the regular season, but McDougle is almost certainly done for 2014. It′s also worth noting that veteran corner Dimitri Patterson has been missing practices with calf and ankle issues.
Dallas Cowboys’ defense: The Cowboys weren′t terrible against the San Diego Chargers, though they were a long way from good, either, but the game, if possible, left us with even more questions about how they will perform in 2014. The Cowboys′ defense was a mixed bag against the run, flipping from ˜stout′ to ˜sieve-like′ from play-to-play, whilst the secondary often struggle to keep on top of the Chargers′ receivers. Most concerning however, is the total lack of pass rush. The Cowboys were unable to record a single sack, and San Diego′s three quarterbacks (Phillip Rivers, Kellen Clemens and Brad Sorensen) completed a combined 14/16 passes for 243 yards and a touchdown, including 100% completion rates for both Rivers and Clemens. To add further insult to injury, DeMarcus Ware′s impressive cameo for the Denver Broncos against the Seattle Seahawks will certainly not have gone unnoticed in Dallas.
Image credit: Carlos Hyde via Facebook.com