This article could be titled "who to watch," but that would be setting unreal expectations. Summer is waning. The pool and beach are beckoning, and life marches on: you probably do not want to sit and watch a bunch of Week 1 preseason games, including several that will not even be televised.
It's my job to watch these games. So this article is about who I am looking forward to watching. This collection of rookies, veterans, and role players will all get real playing time this weekend, and they are all interesting for different reasons. Some might be fantasy sleepers, others are players who will shape their teams' immediate future. A few can shed light on how their team's schemes will look. All bring a little storyline with them. So they are worth watching, sort-of.
So watch these players if you like, but don't worry if you decide to watch baseball or play catch with your kids or power-wash the vinyl siding instead. You can just read Mandatory Monday to get the gory details.
Geno Smith, Quarterback, Jets
When we last saw Geno last year, he looked like a random incompletion generator. There are rookie mistakes and rookie "league has adjusted" slumps, and then there is playing quarterback like you are blindfolded and are trying to throw a greased cast-iron football. Geno fell into that third category.
Michael Vick said yesterday that Geno is going to be "10 times better" than he was last year. One of the great things about this new version of Vick is that he actually trolls himself: Tell him he doesn't deserve a starting job, and he'll agree a little too convincingly. Vick may be overstating matters, but Geno was so bad last year that it is actually possible for him to become 10 times better. If Tom Brady became 10 times better, he would have telekinetic powers and eye-beam energy blasts. If Geno improves by an order of magnitude, he may complete 62.5 percent of his passes.
Their increased overall talent level on offense will make Jets preseason games much less dire than they have been over the past two years. It also increases expectations and pressure for Geno, who has not been an "increased expectations and pressure" kind of guy so far. Maybe he has gotten 10 times more mature as well. It happened to Vick, so anything is possible.
Teddy Bridgewater, Quarterback, Vikings
The Browns are staging a mass-produced domestic light beer quarterback controversy. The Vikings are crafting more of a microbrew. Johnny Manziel (and Brian the Destroyer, the Lionhearted, the Bradyesque, the Wild Hoss of the Osage Hoyer) enters the preseason schedule with a collectriomanufactured and focus-tested debate topics. "Manziel is too short! He scrambles too much! He's a whiskey rock 'n' roller!" Bridgwater-versus-Brian Hoyer-2009 (Matt Cassel's street name) has subtler charms. "Bridgewater, um, has small hands! He had a bad Pro Day once, back when we were shoveling snow! Um … real scouts don't like him as much as those stinkin' media scouts!"
As a media scout, I take umbrage. I hope Bridgewater goes 11-of-12 so I can proclaim absolute, final victory in the Twitter debate of our time. If he goes 1-of-12, I will scoff at critics who attack him by saying it is just one game and jumping to conclusions is silly. I plan whole weekends around matters like these.
Bridgewater is more likely to start opening day than Manziel. He will have a better offense around him than Manziel when he does start. In other words, he is more likely to have an immediate impact. Bridgewater has been promised some first-team reps on Friday: no Adrian Peterson, but Cordarelle Patterson, Greg Jennings, Kyle Rudolph, and the line. He will probably look pretty good. And compared to Manziel, he will inspire a fraction of the chatter.
Christine Michael, Running Back, Seahawks
Even before our brief July journey to the center of Marshawn Lynch's mind, there were rumors that the Seahawks planned to split carries between Lynch and Michael. Now that Lynch has been given some extra shiny buttons and milkshake gift certificates to return to work, it appears that Michael may have to wait his turn for at least one more season: You don't boost a running back's short-term earnings, then cut his carries.
But appearances can be deceiving. The Seahawks are planning for a 19 or 20 game season, and they don't want to rush Lynch 366 more times (his 2013 total, counting playoffs) just to risk him running out of gas in late January or February. They also know Michael needs game experience to move smoothly into a featured role in 2015.
Michael has reportedly looked great in camp, which may have swayed Lynch to return from his holdout. (Lynch may also have forgotten his Netflix password). Michael received seven carries and scored a touchdown Thursday. A good performance may be more of a 2014 preview than a 2015 tease.
Shaun Draughn, Running Back, Bears
All backup running backs are created equal, except for Michael Bush: he was really terrible last year. Bush backed up Matt Forte and produced some downright remarkable statistical splits. Here is the best one: at the one-yard line, Bush carried nine times for negative-four yards and just two touchdowns. Overall, Bush averaged 2.53 yards per rush, with one 40-yard run nudging his average to a still-terrible 3.1. The Bears released Bush, though at the rate he gains yards, he is still in the team parking lot.
The Bears drafted Ka'Deem Carey in the fourth round as Forte's breather back, but it is now time to start speaking in head coach press conference tongues. If a running back cannot protect the passer, he cannot play. Draughn is a veteran who had a semi-productive 59-233-2-plus-receptions season as Jamaal Charles' pinch hitter in 2012. Draughn has been generating camp buzz, is ahead of Carey on the almighty unofficial depth chart, and has the blocking and receiving chops to stick.
Draughn also has some 11-carry-for-11-yard skeletons in his Chiefs closet. Is he Michael Bush Mark II? A motivator for Carey? A fantasy handcuff? Let's see how he fares against the Eagles.
Gavin Escobar and Cole Beasley, Tight End and Receiver, Cowboys. Escobar is the Cowboys' No. 2 tight end behind Jason Witten. Beasley is the team's slot receiver. Beasley caught 39 passes last year and has a knack for short third down conversions. Escobar caught just nine passes but averaged 14.9 yards per catch. Both are useful role players. The Cowboys are figuring out how to get them both on the field. That kind of intellectual puzzle is tough for them.
"As of right now, if Escobar is out there, most likely I won't be out there," Beasley told the Dallas Morning News last week. "So he's either going to be in or I'm going to be in. [The coaches] have got two options and two different ways they can go."
Two options! Have you ever heard of an NFL coach limited to two options? Bill Belichick does not have these kinds of problems, because he does not see NFL strategy as a zero-sum game. Also, he gets to make his own decisions.
The Dallas Morning News article quotes Jason Garrett hinting that Escobar could be used as a slot receiver in a 12 personel package. The 12 stands for one (1) running back and two (2) tight ends. One of the tight ends can be split out as a wide receiver. That would be Escobar. Are we going too fast for you? Do you get the impression that Garrett himself just thought of this? Do you remember how we spent weeks of the offseason trying to classify Jimmy Graham? That was fun.
But … if Escobar lines up as a slot receiver, where does that leave Beasley? Don't try to explain concepts like "empty backfield" or "H-back" to the Cowboys. Be content with the baby steps.
This being a preseason game, Beasley and Escobar will get to be on the field together with the second team. Doing a shot every time Beasley is compared to Wes Welker would be a fun drinking game if it weren't so depressingly obvious. You should at least propose a toast, however, if the telecast features one of Escobar's paintings.
The Ravens Offensive Line
Still feeling a little icky about watching Ray Rice -- and cringe-worthy postgame interviews seem like they could be the norm. Focus on the offensive line instead. There are several new faces, including center Jeremy Zuttah and right tackle Ricky Wagner. And there is a whole new zone blocking scheme, courtesy offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak.
Coaches do not like showing off their schemes in preseason, but you don't have much choice with zone blocking. The coaches who commit to it -- Kubiak and the Shanahan family are the fundamentalists -- commit to it fully, making it the drive train of the whole offense. So Zuttah, Wagner, Eugene Monroe and the others will be bucket stepping laterally, creating cutback lanes, using the "four hands four eyes" principle, and doing all the other things football writers like to explain every single year as though it were new information.
No one likes to explain strategies as much as Mike Mayock, who is likely to be calling the game. And Mayock may not be as comfortable toeing the company line on Rice as he is saying things like "bucket step." Turn the telecast up, and enjoy the deepest dive into the explanation of zone blocking in television history. "There's the tandem block on the 5-tech defensive end right there. Notice how Wagner strikes the end just above his left jersey number while making sure to keep his helmet outside the end and his eyes on the strafing linebacker. LALALA RICE IS GETTING A STANDING OVATION BUT I AM NOT LISTENING LALALA."
Chris Boswell and Randy Bullock, Kickers, Texans
Kicker battle! Kicker battle! Kicker battle! Bullock is the incumbent, and he was awful last year: 13-of-22 from beyond 40 yards. Boswell is the big-legged local kid from Rice. It is supposed to be a pitched battle, with each kicker alternating days in practice, yet all the web browsing and Tweet harvesting I could muster did not produce their practice statistics. It's almost as if there is more to worry about in Texans camp than a kicker battle, like a new coach, new quarterbacks, injured running backs, angry veteran receivers, Jadeveon Clowney and so on.
C'mon Texans writers and bloggers! You have an obligation to tell us that Bullock was 3-of-4 one day and Boswell 2-of-3 the next. I have been part of those beat reporter verification sessions. How far was that? Where was the ball spotted? Which hash mark? Why can't they practice on this field, instead of the one on the other side of the prairie? Was that kick even good? One ball boy signaled good, the other kinda scratched his butt.
In Saturday's preseason game against the Cardinals, Boswell and Bullock will have no place to hide.