NFC Preseason Wrap
August 29, 2014
By Tony Mejia
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Dallas Cowboys: Dez Bryant provided the highlights in preseason, often looking unstoppable. He even got himself a new contract just to keep him happy. At least owner/GM Jerry Jones knows where his bread is buttered. If Tony Romo has any hope of overcoming the first few weeks after offseason back surgery, he'll need Bryant locked in and productive, so Jones did his part. He's also tried to dampen expectations, calling the season an uphill battle when addressing fans at the kickoff luncheon. You would think the Cowboys went undefeated in the preseason or something.
New York Giants: Eli Manning completed another pass in the fourth preseason game, matching his output in Games 1 and 2 combined. It went for 0 yards. So there's that. There were obviously positives to draw upon from the team's first unbeaten August since 2006, but the new West Coast offense isn't one of them, at least among the starters. There were some near-misses from Manning to Victor Cruz, so the answers probably start with stretching the field through him to help gain some confidence, help other guys find a rhythm and get this attack some teeth.
Philadelphia Eagles: The starters shined against Pittsburgh, pulling away for an easy win in the Week 3 dress rehearsal. The guys most likely to be cut trounced the Jets future cast-offs, basically running up the score because they were fresher and executed better. Philly has this exhibition thing down. New coach Chip Kelly's did a nice job in his second preseason and didn't have to deal with as many distractions as he did in his maiden voyage, so there's no reason the Eagles shouldn't be stronger with Jeremy Maclin back and most of the roster familiar with their coach's formations and philosophies. Nick Foles wasn't as sharp in games as many would've liked, but his familiarity with the system should lead to an improvement, too. If he regresses or gets hurt, super backup Mark Sanchez looms as an unlikely safety net so long as he retains his regained confidence.
Washington Redskins: Kirk Cousins outplayed Robert Griffin III. There's no denying that. RG III remains the more dynamic choice, but the fact team observers like Joe Theismann aren't alone in their opinion that the more conventional Cousins is a better fit for a team with a standout running back and dynamic receiving threats seems like a debate that won't be going away. Every loss will be met with what-ifs, so the only way for Griffin to stop the chirping will be to win. Most have conveniently forgotten that Cousins struggled mightily last season, throwing four touchdowns against seven interceptions and finishing with a QB rating of 58.4. That doesn't seem to matter, and won't, if Griffin falters. No NFC team has a more compelling and potentially divisive quarterback situation.
Atlanta Falcons: Steven Jackson is a 31-year-old running back who wanted no part of participating in preseason games, so there is no real concern that he did August his way. What does bear watching is whether he's lost any further juice from where he left off last December, when he at least looked like he could still contribute at a reasonably high level. His first season in Atlanta was a lost cause, seeing him tear his hamstring in Week 2 after an encouraging debut at New Orleans, slowly regaining his form after rushing back to return six weeks later. There was some burst displayed there at the end, at least enough to be encouraged about the possibility he can again be a 1,000-yard back, but his streak of consecutive seasons reaching that benchmark ended at eight. Odds are he's done being that type of back, but it's important that he's easing back into a return. He'll likely need a few weeks under his belt to see whether he can knock off the rust from this preseason's hamstring issue, but it's too early to write him off just because he's decided to return on his timetable. Backup Jacquizz Rodgers and FSU products Antone Smith and Devonta Freeman have looked capable thus far and may all be a factor in the season opener at New Orleans given the need to keep Drew Brees off the field.
Carolina Panthers: Panthers got to see Cam Newton, though clearly limited and rusty, move around some. Considering where we were coming into this month, that's probably a victory. They were right to be especially cautious after his ankle surgery, but needed to see glimpses of Superman. Quite frankly, they were few and far between and he fractured a rib, never fun, but he gained the confidence he'll be able to function when the lights come on. His throws were off and there will be timing issues until he fully sheds the rust, but the unproven wide receiving corps fared reasonably well, too, especially rookie Kelvin Benjamin. There's hope this season won't yield a drastic decline, but a lot has to come together, including the new-look offensive line that didn't look so hot.
New Orleans Saints: The Saints were counting on Kenny Stills being their deep threat since they got so many other intriguing options working the middle of the field. Rookie Brandin Cooks is the team's fastest weapon, but his lack of size means he's better suited to turn short passes up field as opposed to going up to get it over an opposing corner. Jimmy Graham, Marques Colston and Robert Meachem can each be wildly productive, but don't stretch a defense like Stills, who aggravated a quad injury that has kept him out most of training camp. Joseph Morgan or rookie Brandon Coleman may find themselves in Stills' role until he's able to go.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Adding guard Logan Mankins to lead the offensive line may wind up being more important than the drafting of top WR Mike Evans or the acquisition of new QB Josh McCown. That's no exaggeration, since there are other capable players on the roster at those positions, but the Bucs were going to see their season go down the tubes due to their porous interior line. Tampa's offensive pieces are young, which means Mankins walks into an immediate leadership position due to his championship pedigree and experience. If he's got a chip on his shoulder over being dumped by the Patriots, that would be ideal. His presence could mean at least a couple more wins than they would've managed without him, making him critical to Lovie Smith's restoration project.
Chicago Bears: Preseason results don't matter, but sometimes individual plays do. It just depends which ones you choose to accentuate. It was impressive to see Jay Cutler run a masterful two-minute drill down 28-0 in the dress rehearsal game at Seattle, beating Richard Sherman on a nice route run by Brandon Marshall and hitting Martellus Bennett on a gorgeous back shoulder throw just short of the goal line. He even executed in getting Dante Rosario a short touchdown that was nullified, but then struggled with timing on the next snap and carelessly threw an interception to complete a horrid half. Good Cutler has thrived more of late, but bad Cutler still exists. The Bears season will ride on whether Cutler continues that upward trend in Marc Trestman's system or reverts to being counterproductive. Week 1 supplies an interesting wrinkle in that new Bills backup Jordan Palmer will be supplying key information to his new coaches and teammates, placing additional pressure on Cutler to be judicious.
Detroit Lions: Rookie linebacker Kyle Van Noy, a second-round pick from BYU, was already opening eyes in camp and preseason games with his instincts and athleticism, but had surgery for a sports hernia and should miss at least a couple of games. At some point this season, Van Noy was likely to emerge as a three-down player on the outside, so it remains to be seen whether this is an obstacle halo overcome or a setback that helps spoil his potential first-year impact. Considering all the close games the Lions played last season because they failed to get stops, his contributions could make a major difference.
Green Bay Packers: Eddie Lacy had a brilliant camp, complete with shining in the preseason games he participated in. After 1,178 rushing yards as a rookie, it's likely he's in for a monster year behind what's expected to be a stronger offensive line if they stay healthy. Aaron Rodgers has never had a better running back next to him, so it's going to be telling to as to where this offense is against the NFL's best defense on the road in Seattle come Thursday night. There's no shame in struggling, but if they manage to win or march up and down the field in a loss, the potential for this attack would be frightening.
Minnesota Vikings: The Vikings are encouraged by their defensive improvement and Adrian Peterson being healthier than he was last season, but the Matt Cassel-Teddy Bridgewater QB battle remains the most riveting thing to watch from this bunch. To their credit, both had excellent camps, putting together the level of competition they would have loved to have seen in Cleveland, so you get the sense that the rookie's grasp of the offense is strengthening and he'll be a factor at some point. Making a call on when to turn the team over to the young guy appears to be Mike Zimmer's biggest impending call as a first-year head coach.
Arizona Cardinals: Veteran John Abraham was a major surprise last year, displaying great form with 11.5 sacks and four forced fumbles after coming over from Atlanta. He's 36 years old and didn't report to training camp until mid-August due to a DUI and subsequent stint in rehab, so there are more questions than there already would be about an aging defender, although it's unknown whether he'll miss games this season as the judicial process plays out. He'll start at weakside linebacker as he did a season ago, but it remains to be seen whether he can remain a consistent force.
St. Louis Rams: Shaun Hill has put together decent numbers in his career, but hasn't prepared his mind for the task of being the starter from week-to-week since 2010. Matthew Stafford's rise and durability has limited him to four games and 16 pass attempts over the past three regular seasons, so Hill's approach and ability to put games, good or bad, behind him to focus on the next one, will determine how successful he'll be in replacing Sam Bradford. It bears mentioning that the former No. 1 overall pick did look impressive before his latest ACL tear, complicating the Rams plans at QB going forward. Hill may not be more than a stopgap, but he'll presumably have the whole season to prove himself given the presence of Austin Davis and rookie Garrett Gilbert behind him.
San Francisco 49ers: The perception has been that the 49ers were planning to limit Frank Gore's workload as he enters his 10th season, but he's coming off a season where he had the third-highest total of carries in his career and looked fresh a drive spry this August. Rookie Carlos Hyde and LaMichael James are going to get work, but Gore should still be a significant part of the offense, especially early given the instability displayed early from Colin Kaepernick and the offensive line.
Seattle Seahawks: We'll get to see what Percy Harvin's effect on Russell Wilson and this offense truly is. After one regular-season game where he caught a single pass, he was used primarily as a decoy in the postseason, remaining relatively quiet coming up with the exception of a couple of explosive plays. Harvin told reporters that he's as healthy as he's been since "maybe before college," though the Seahawks are smartly still easing him back given his history of hip and leg injuries. If he's right, he's the home run hitter that's been lacking in this attack, so they may score a few more points and cover a few more spreads.
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