We’ve nearly made it. The football addict will tell you Week 3 of the preseason is essentially real football, but the game doesn’t count. There is no doubt we will see more of the first-team lineups. Sadly, only for a half in most cases. No team has made concrete decisions on who is playing each of the moving roles in today’s complex offenses. Whether it is a rookie trying to play into a slot role, or veteran backs trying to unseat their younger counterparts, this week’s games hold a lot of value for names that will go off the board in the middle and later rounds.
Thursday, August 24th
Miami Dolphins @ Philadelphia Eagles
Jay Cutler will take on a greater workload in his second appearance with the Dolphins. The veteran handled two drives in his debut, both ending with punts. This will be our most complete sighting of the offense given Cutler’s time to adjust and (presumably) improved chemistry with the receivers. Playcalling will be a key element as the second and third team saw a heavy dose of tight end involvement, something the Bears found favor in with Cutler and Martellus Bennett.
Everyday we seem to have new reports surrounding the Eagles backfield. Whether LeGarrette Blount will be cut or Wendell Smallwood is starting, there are no guarantees at present. No one expected Blount to thrive as an outside runner, so it will be important to see how Philadelphia manipulates their stable of mediocre backs.
Carolina Panthers @ Jacksonville Jaguars
Cam Newton is coming into the year less than 100% and the easiest solution to that is strong play from the team’s first two picks. Christian McCaffrey has made a handful of impressive plays through the first two weeks. Second-round pick Curtis Samuel is back in full pads and may see his first exposure against the Jaguars.
The quarterback position is up in the air for the Jacksonville as neither Blake Bortles nor Chad Henne are living up to starting standards. Bortles’ 8/13 performance last week was remarkably underwhelming and helped feed the anti-Blake media storm. Regardless of personal opinion, Week 3 may be the deciding factor in determining the Week 1 starter. Henne has been given the nod though both players will work with the first team.
Friday, August 25th
New England Patriots @ Detroit Lions
Mike Gillislee continues to climb draft boards despite recent troubles in camp. A hamstring injury briefly sidelined the newly acquired back earlier this week. His proven red zone success makes him an attractive target following Blount’s landmark season in 2016. This will be a telling game in how Bill Belichick plans to use the recent favorite in combination with James White, Dion Lewis, Rex Burkhead, and Brandon Bolden.
Golden Tate and Marvin Jones may be the top options in Detroit, but it remains a mystery beyond that. T.J. Jones exited last week’s game with a hamstring injury opening the door for rookie Kenny Golladay. Presumed alternates Jace Billingsley and Jared Abbrederis both drew multiple targets against the Jets and will be battling for that bubble receiving role.
Kansas City Chiefs @ Seattle Seahawks
Spencer Ware was put on notice last week as Charcandrick West and Kareem Hunt both delivered noteworthy performances. Ware only played one snap (a three-yard run) before yielding to the rookie Hunt. Kansas City has proven to be valuable hub for backs. Now, we must wait for the smoke to clear before knowing the full potential of these runners.
Thomas Rawls was the initial favorite in Seattle, taking first-team reps ahead of bowling ball Eddie Lacy. A nagging ankle injury forced him to miss Friday’s game and has owners concerned about his health entering the year following seven missed games in 2016. Lacy has improved his weight, but he needs to perform on the field to cement himself ahead of C.J. Prosise and Alex Collins.
Saturday, August 26th
Indianapolis Colts @ Pittsburgh Steelers
Injuries have marred the Colts’ offense even before the season gets underway. Scott Tolzien’s close to the line-of-scrimmage offensive game plan has limited a team carried by Andrew Luck in recent years. A major part in weathering the early storm will be finding the elusive running game. Rookie back Marlon Mack has flashed potential and could threaten Frank Gore for reps if Father Time finally shows up.
Pittsburgh’s offense remains a mystery in 2017 as the trio of Ben Roethlisberger, Le’Veon Bell, and Antonio Brown have not appeared in preseason games. Rookie James Conner has impressed during Bell’s hold out and is stepping into DeAngelo Williams’ role of the past two years. Sorting out the backfield may provide early season opportunity (Bell first reporting this Friday), but identifying which receivers are vying for the secondary and tertiary roles will be as important.
Buffalo Bills @ Baltimore Ravens
Identifying Tyrod Taylor’s top two options (one presumed to be Zay Jones) will tell a lot about Week 1 targets. Jordan Matthews expects to be back, but he’s lacked any chance to build necessary chemistry. Corey Brown has moved up the depth chart following Anquan Boldin’s retirement, though his career production has come more on deep routes than out of the slot.
Terrance West is the best running back in Baltimore and he is carrying an ADP around 100. If he cements himself as the primary runner against Buffalo he will be worth a look for value. Danny Woodhead is expected to be a strong third down option, but he whiffed in three chances last week. Joe Flacco remains a question mark for the start of the year, pushing the ground game to new priority.
New York Jets @ New York Giants
There is not a single position without question in New York. Josh McCown is the default starter because Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg are terrible. Matt Forte continues to nurse a hamstring injury and may not be available. Receivers have been depleted after the team parted ways with Brandon Marshall and Eric Decker. Look for any bright spot if you have to fulfill the urge to roster a J-E-T Jet.
Top receivers Odell Beckham Jr. (ankle) and Brandon Marshall (shoulder) are both nursing injuries . News has surfaced that Beckham’s injury may linger into the regular season. Tavarres King, Roger Lewis, and Dwayne Harris will all find ample opportunity as they battle for the fourth and fifth spots on the roster. Sterling Shepard has been limited in production this preseason, but is expected to maintain a steady role in the offense.
Arizona Cardinals @ Atlanta Falcons
One of the more interesting storylines in Atlanta has been the absence of John Brown from practice. He’s suffered from a hamstring injury tied to his sickle-cell trait. Bruce Arians claimed that if he was unable to keep himself on the field, he may not have a spot on the team. The fourth year receiver has since returned to practice, but it is unclear if he will play in the team’s third preseason game. Jaron Brown and JJ Nelson will press for the second position if Brown continues to struggle.
A major piece in the Falcons’ success last year came as a result of Alex Mack and the team’s offensive line. The team struggled in the trenches in both the passing and running game against the Steelers as Matt Simms was sacked four times and the team averaged 2.7 YPC. Matt Ryan went unscathed in his limited action, something that needs to be repeated this time around.
Cleveland Browns @ Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Brock Osweiler is not expected to appear in the Browns’ third preseason game. This either means Cleveland is looking to move the $18 million man, or are protecting him for the start of the season. Regardless, DeShone Kizer should find an opportunity to play this season and this week is his truest dress rehearsal. He will see higher levels of defense and more complex schemes/blitzes thrown at him.Expectations are low in Cleveland, but the offense has potential weapons if utilized correctly.
The annual Doug Martin hype-train is picking up steam as the regular season draws near. Martin, who will miss the first three games of the season due to suspension, carried the ball five times for 30 yards and a touchdown the last time out. Peyton Barber also impressed with nine carries for 42 yards in a team-high effort. The team ran by committee in Martin’s absence in 2016, and while that is expected to be the case again, one name is likely to emerge going into Week 1.
Los Angeles Chargers @ Los Angeles Rams
Philip Rivers boasts one of the more accurate arms in league history, and he has a deep receiving arsenal to go along with it. Los Angeles may not see first round pick Mike Williams until late this season. Instead of the young man from Clemson, owners will need to redirect focus to veterans Keenan Allen, Dontrelle Inman, Travis Benjamin, and Tyrell Williams. Williams and Allen are presumed to be the top options, but history has proven that the Chargers need depth.
While many believe the ship has sailed for Jared Goff after less than half a season, the former top pick has a chance to state otherwise. Goff was strong against the Raiders. Completing 16/20 passes for 160 yards and a touchdown, he may be able to make the most of a questionable receiving corps. Perhaps most important is his early comfort with Sammy Watkins who has the potential to revitalize Los Angeles’ air attack.
Houston Texans @ New Orleans Saints
Tom Savage may be Houston’s quarterback to start the season, but it is not so certain he will finish the year in the huddle. Rookie Deshaun Watson has been given ample opportunity with the first team already. His results have been mixed (expected for a rookie). Watch for him to continue making strides and whether or not Savage appears poised enough to win over the fans and the locker room.
A complementary ground game to Drew Brees’ passing attack may take some of the strain off the 38-year-old. Mark Ingram is expected to stand as the feature back, but Adrian Peterson’s role remains a bit of a mystery as neither have recorded a carry in the first two games. Rookie Alvin Kamara has impressed while standing in, another variable that casts uncertainty over the individual backs.
Oakland Raiders @ Dallas Cowboys
The Raiders are one of the more interesting committee possibilities this season. Marshawn Lynch’s return to the field has likely been overstated and his role may be more limited to short-yardage situations. Watch for Oakland’s game planning with Lynch, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington early in the game.
Not only does Dallas offer the best offensive line in football, but one of the deepest running back groups as well. Darren McFadden is expected to take over the majority of Ezekiel Elliot’s lost reps. Alfred Morris may be able to make a play for more action as well. Given McFadden’s red zone fumble last week, early struggles may result in a new opportunity for the former Redskin.
Green Bay Packers @ Denver Broncos
Ty Montgomery’s leg injury has granted rookie Jamaal Williams vital practice reps. Green Bay offers a valuable opportunity given trips to the red zone, and the feature back will find scoring chances. Montgomery will remain a valuable asset out of the backfield, but success from the rookie Williams may result in more frequent carries early in the season.
Trevor Siemian has been named the starter in Denver after establishing a clear advantage over Paxton Lynch. Though he is currently leading the offense, Siemian will need to continue performing in order to fend off Lynch (should Lynch improve himself). Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders offer reliable targets on the outside, keeping Denver as an attractive situation with improvement.
Sunday, August 27th
Chicago Bears @ Tennessee Titans
It remains a bit of a mystery who Mike Glennon and Mitchell Trubisky will be targeting on the outside this season. Cameron Meredith established himself as a reliable name in 2016, but there are questions beyond him. Kevin White is yet again attempting a return to the field while Victor Cruz and Kendall Wright try to revitalize their careers. With Markus Wheaton nursing a broken finger, there will be a number of targets to go around for fringe players.
A major piece in Tennessee’s offensive will be the team’s performance in the trenches. The team struggled against the Panthers last week in the run game, though their success in passing persisted. Watch for the team to re-establish itself with one of the stronger lines in football.
Cincinnati Bengals @ Washington Redskins
Cincinnati may be one of the backfields to avoid this season despite immense talent. The Bengals add Joe Mixon to the duo of Jeremy Hill and Giovani Bernard. Mixon has gained a lot of attention with his performance in camp and the Redskins offer him a strong chance to prove himself. If he does work his way into regular, successful carries, this backfield may be among the most cluttered in football.
San Francisco 49ers @ Minnesota Vikings
Tight end is a surprisingly crowded position in San Francisco. So much so that Kyle Shanahan is considering keeping four on the roster. Brian Hoyer found regular success with Zach Miller last season, totaling three touchdowns and 24 receptions in four games. Vance McDonald is currently the favorite to start, but George Kittle, Logan Paulsen, and Garrett Celek may all contribute.
Minnesota remains a mystery as there are so many moving parts. The offensive line is already becoming a revolving door with injuries, and there is little guarantee elsewhere. Stefon Diggs and Adam Thielen appear to be the top two options, but the third spot is up in the air. Dalvin Cook has a firm grasp on the running back position at present with Latavius Murray sidelined by his ankle. Murray hopes to return this week, something he expressed prior to last week’s game.