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Sunday, August 3, 2008

NFL Preview: Pre-Season Edition - Part 1

Instead of continuing with the division previews, I’ve scrapped the entire idea and will instead write one massive NFL preview right before the season starts. It’s the only way to do it.

Since we’re on the precipice of the pre-season kickoff Hall of Fame game, I decided to do an article of sorts related to the pre-season. I don’t know why I always write introductions like this in my articles, especially since everyone could probably piece things together just fine and get where I was going -- but whatever. Stop your bitching, I’m almost done.

Most people are usually excited for the first three downs of the first pre-season game and then find their interests wean off completely until the actual season starts. However, if you’re aware of some key position battles and storylines to monitor then you may just remain interested longer than you think.

Anyway, without further ado, here’s some key things to keep your eye on and hold your interest until the actual season starts. It‘s broken down by team and is in alphabetical order since you can never go wrong ranking things with the help of our friend the alphabet. Bon appetit!

Arizona Cardinals

Position battle(s): Matt Leinart vs. Kurt Warner (QB)

Keep an eye on: Anquan Boldin’s hamstring and contract negotiations

The Cardinals have made it clear that they want Matt Leinart to be the starter this year, but that’s a no-brainer. Kurt Warner has shown he’s capable of giving them a shot to win games, but not enough games to keep them in playoff contention. Plus he’s 37. However if Leinart plays like he did last year then the Cardinals would be forced to replace him with Warner once again.

If the Anquan Boldin situation doesn’t play out well, it won’t matter who’s at QB. The only thing that has kept the offense respectable these past few years is the Larry Fitzgerald/Anquan Boldin combo. Having them both on the field takes the offense to an entirely different level and while they could both still succeed by themselves the offense would definitely lose a step if without Boldin on the field due to injury. Or even if he’s out there but upset with the organization’s handling of his financial situation. An unhappy wide receiver is never an effective one.

Atlanta Falcons

Position battle(s): Joey Harrington vs. Chris Redman vs. Matt Ryan (QB), Laurent Robinson vs. Michael Jenkins (WR2)

Keep an eye on: Jerious Norwood’s efforts to show he deserves more carries

In an ideal world for the Falcons organization, Matt Ryan would blow everyone away with his raw skills and leadership ability and stake his claim as the starting QB before the start of the season. Unfortunately for the Falcons organization, we live in something called the real world. I guess they’ll have to wait and see whether or not the small fortune they spent on a rookie QB will prove to be smart or not. While Ryan learns the intricacies of an NFL offense, it will likely be either Harrington or Redman under center for Week 1.

Following Warrick Dunn’s departure, Jerious Norwood was the apparent heir to the throne. That is, until the Falcons signed perennial sloppy second backup-RB extraordinaire Michael Turner. Although Turner is certain to get most of the carries, a couple typical J-Wood performances in the pre-season and the touches scale could be altered a bit.

Baltimore Ravens

Position battle(s): Troy Smith vs. Joey Flacco vs. Kyle Boller (QB),

Keep an eye on: Ray Rice winning over the entire Ravens organization

While Kyle Boller has proven by now he’s not starting QB material, the Ravens may have to go with him as the temporary starter until either Troy Smith or Joey Flacco prove that they’re ready.

Reports out of Ravens camp are suggesting that the powers that be on offense have taken quite a liking to rookie RB Ray Rice. Rice was underrated in college due to playing at Rutgers and was underrated coming out of the draft for generally the same reason. It’s just another reason for us to take all of the NFL Draft coverage with a grain of salt. Or several shakers.

Buffalo Bills

Position battle(s): Trent Edwards vs. J.P. Losman (QB), Josh Reed vs. Roscoe Parrish vs. James Hardy(WR2), Fred Jackson vs. Dwayne Wright (RB2)

Keep an eye on: Trent Edwards reaction to being the clear-cut starter

Although Trent Edwards proved last year that he has what it takes to be the Bills starting QB, the mere presence of J.P. Losman promises some type of battle. While Edwards will likely dwarf Losman in regards to talent, he is still young and learning the ropes. Unless the Bills have a ton of patience, there’s going to be talk of giving Losman another shot.

From what was seen of Edwards last season, he should have no problem taking over the reigns permanently. But one of the most important traits of a good QB is his ability to bounce back after he’s made mistakes and never leave doubt over the fact that he‘s the starter. We should learn a lot more about Edwards in the wee moments of his second season. Have I sold you on the pre-season yet?

Carolina Panthers

Position battle(s): Jake Delhomme vs. Matt Moore (QB), DeAngelo Williams vs. Jonathan Stewart (RB1), Muhsin Muhammad vs. D.J. Hackett (WR2)

Keep an eye on: Jake Delhomme’s elbow

While everyone and their mother’s plumber have agreed that rookie Jonathan Stewart will be the Panthers starting RB, I say let’s wait a few more weeks. I’ve never understood the logic of claiming a rookie, who has never played an NFL down, will surpass a mediocre veteran who has played many NFL downs. It’s all based off of that rookie’s performance in college and I don’t think I need to elaborate on the college and pro games being dramatically different. Let’s just wait and see.

Opinions have been split on Jake Delhomme. Some are concerned about his age and his recent Tommy John surgery. Elbows are important to QB’s, after all. The other half are optimistic and reference the Panthers poor offensive play without him. The key to the whole situation is how well Delhomme responds to the surgery and how much the offensive line can protect him. If not, then Matt Moore will need to step in and learn how to utilize the weapons he has on offense -- which is something he failed to do last year. But let’s give him a break, the kids going into his second year. So critical we can be sometimes..

Chicago Bears

Position battle(s): Rex Grossman vs. Kyle Orton (QB), Desmond Clark vs. Greg Olsen (TE), Earl Bennett vs. Mark Bradley vs. Devin Hester (WR2)

Keep an eye on: The sorry excuse for a QB battle Chicago is engaged in

Out of all of the position battles across the NFL, the Bears QB battle is the most blatant and wide open. It can literally go either way and the Bears have expressed approval that they will be okay with whoever wins.

Although many (me included) have joked that the situation shouldn’t be called a battle, since each is so mediocre, the identity of the offense will be directly hinged to whoever ends up winning the job. They will either be explosive yet mistake-prone with Grossman or conservative yet lacking oomph with Orton. Neither sounds great, but it’s worth keeping an eye on to get a feel for what direction the Bears offense will go this year.

Cincinnati Bengals

Position battle(s): Rudi Johnson vs. Kenny Watson (RB1), Andre Caldwell vs. Jerome Simpson (WR3)

Keep an eye on: The chemistry that will develop between Carson Palmer and Ben Utecht

Whether or not 2007 was just an off year for Rudi Johnson, Kenny Watson proved he had what it takes to carry the load in the backfield. Chris Perry has also been impressive when given the chance but will likely battle for the RB2 spot in 2008.

Carson Palmer, who is arguably one of the most talented QB’s in the NFL, has never had a capable pass-catching TE during his career. While Utecht isn’t one of the top tier TE’s in the game, he and Palmer both should benefit from one anothers presence.

Cleveland Browns

Position battle(s): Derek Anderson vs. Brady Quinn (QB), Joshua Cribbs vs. Joe Jurevicius (WR3)

Keep an eye on: Which Derek Anderson will show up for 2008: The beginning of the 2007 season stud or end of the year choking dud

Even though Derek Anderson is 110% likely to be the starter come Week 1, I can’t help but think that there will be trouble brewing for the Browns at some point this season. Although Anderson had a great breakout year last year and got himself a nice little contract renewal, the bad thing about it is he will need to keep performing at that level. He showed everyone last year that he has talent, but how many times have we seen players drop off -- unable to perform at a level they exhibited in the past.

It will all be well and great as long as the Browns keep winning and Anderson remains impressive. But what’s going to happen when the Browns are losing and Anderson is partially to blame? It’s a shame that Anderson has to deal with such a situation after finally breaking out last year -- but we will have to wait and see how he responds to the whole thing. Still, many teams would kill to be in the situation the Browns are in, so it’s no use being pessimistic. Time holds all answers. I actually just made that phrase up but it’s actually sounds quite wise and knowledgeable. I tend to spout such things out sometimes.

Dallas Cowboys

Position battle(s): Sam Hurd vs. Isaiah Stanback vs. Whichever veteran WR the Cowboys pick up before the season starts (WR3)

Keep an eye on: What percentage of Marion Barbers carries the Cowboys will decide to give to Felix Jones

Rumor has it that the Cowboys are interested in Joe Horn after releasing Terry Glenn. Rumor also has it that they’re interested in some other veteran wide receivers. No matter, they will be competing for the third receiver spot and any team with Terrell Owens and Jason Witten doesn’t need to worry too much about such trivial things.

It’s common knowledge that Jerry Jones is very high on Felix Jones. It’s also common knowledge that Jones does well in a supplementary role as evidenced by his performance as the RB 1 ½ behind Darren McFadden in Arkansas. The question is, how many carries will Jones take away from The Barbarian and how similar will it be to when Julius Jones was in town?

Denver Broncos

Position battle(s): Selvin Young vs. Ryan Torain vs. Any breathing player who is physically able to run forward (RB1), Darrell Jackson vs. Keary Colbert vs. Brandon Stokley (WR2)

Keep an eye on: Anyone who lines up in the Broncos backfield

Although Selvin Young showed flashes of greatness last year, everyone knows Mike Shanahan likes to utilize every piece that he has, no matter how inferior some of the pieces are to the best piece. Some think Shanahan likes to mess with fantasy football players because he doesn’t like the game. I for one just think that Mike just doesn’t like things go to waste. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t like to throw anything away just in case he needs to utilize it for whatever reason. Too much of a good thing? What are you crazy?

I like to compare Shanahan’s usage of his running backs to the mixtures of cereal. Say you have some Cocoa Puffs, Frosted Flakes and Kix. Sure, there each delicious in their own individual way -- but why commit yourself to just ONE each morning? Why not mix them all together to make one delicious smorgasbord of fantastic cereals. Sure, not one stands out but all of them together equal an acceptable and tasty whole. Yes, I realize I’m not normal.

Detroit Lions

Position battle(s): Jon Kitna vs. Drew Stanton (QB), Kevin Smith vs. Tatum Bell vs. Brian Calhoun (RB1)

Keep an eye on: The Lions offensive stats as they plummet with Mike Martz’s departure

If you take a look at Jon Kitna’s stats, he’s only had three really good seasons. Two of those came the past two years under the offensive genius that is Mike Martz. The third came in 2003 which is almost six years ago and sure enough is making me feel awfully old beyond my mere twenty-one years. Through common sense, without Mike Martz and with it being the year 2008, Jon Kitna will probably not have a good year this year. It’s also worth mentioning that he’s 35 years old. I’m just saying..

I still haven’t heard a logical reason why the Lions would let go of Mike Martz. He was the best thing to happen to that team in a very, very long time. It’s comforting to just assure ourselves that some people just don’t have any common sense.

Green Bay Packers

Position battle(s): James Jones vs. Ruvell Martin vs. Jordy Nelson (WR3), Ryan Grant vs. Brandon Jackson (RB1)

Keep an eye on: The length of Ryan Grant’s holdout

Ryan Grant was perhaps the biggest surprise of the entire 2007 season, second only to the realization that Odell Thurman might actually like plants more than money. With Grant’s head becoming a tad too large due to his 2007 success, he is currently holding out for a contract renewal. While all of this drama has unfolded, Brandon Jackson has been quietly and impressively showing what he offers to the Packers offense. And he offers a lot.

The longer Grant holds out, the longer Jackson has to win over the coaches and prove to them that he has what it takes to be the Packers RB. Keep an eye on this one.

UPDATE: The Packers have reportedly signed Ryan Grant to a 4-year, $30 million dollar contract. I guess we'll now see just how high on Jackson the Packers really are.

Houston Texans

Position battle(s): Ahman Green vs. Darius Walker vs. Steve Slaton vs. Chris Brown (RB1), Jacoby Jones vs. Andre Davis (WR3)

Keep an eye on: The trio of RB’s behind Ahman Green

Ahman Green has progressively declined the past couple years and barring a miraculous turnaround, he will likely have to turn over the Texans starting RB spot and do it soon. Walker, Slaton and Brown are all young, talented RB’s.

Should one pull away from the rest and prove that they are the best of the bunch, we very well could be seeing the blossoming of the running back who will be the Texans starter for many years to come.

Indianapolis Colts

Position battle(s): Dominic Rhodes vs. Mike Hart vs. Kenton Keith (RB2)

Keep an eye on: How Peyton Manning bounces back after knee surgery

Even though the Colts have one of the best RB’s in the game in Joseph Addai, they also have capable substitutes who could fill in for both short and long term situations. It will mainly be between Keith and Rhodes for the RB2 but if we’ve learned anything about Mike Hart while he was in college, it’s that he has heart. Yes, Mike Hart has heart. I actually said it.

It’s probably nothing, but I still can’t get over the fact that the invincible, unflappable, aspiring actor trapped in a Hall of Fame QB’s body may be affected by his recent surgery a little more than people may think. It was knee surgery. Something had to have been wrong and the older Peyton gets, the more susceptible he’ll be to these types of injuries. Am I overreacting? Probably. Will I shout it to the world if I end up being right and Peyton has an off-year in 2008? ABSOLUTELY!

Jacksonville Jaguars

Position battle(s): Troy Williamson vs. Dennis Northcutt vs. Reggie Williams (WR2), Fred Taylor vs. Maurice Jones-Drew (RB1)

Keep an eye on: David Garrard getting acquainted with his new receivers

Fred Taylor is an absolute machine. I will never deny that. But it’s becoming more and more likely that he’ll begin to decline with each passing year. Luckily for the Jaguars, Maurice Jones-Drew is ready to take his spot. MJD had impressed many despite somewhat limited touches in his first two years in the league. With his quick, talented game breaking ability and powerful when need-be running style, Jones-Drew could very well put himself in the conversation of top RB in the game should he get more touches. It very well could be his breakout year this year. Write that down.

Garrard proved last year that he could not only be a starting QB, but also effectively manage a game and make plays when he needed to in order to win. Although he had one of the best running games in the league -- the same couldn’t be said for his receiving corps. Through some off-season signings, Garrard now has even more weapons to utilize in 2008. Pay attention to how the bonding is going.

Kansas City Chiefs

Position battle(s): Brodie Croyle vs. Damon Huard (QB), Kolby Smith vs. Jamaal Charles (RB2),

Keep an eye on: How Brodie Croyle bounces back after an incredibly disappointing 2007

Had the Chiefs second option been anyone but Damon Huard, it would be unlikely Brodie Croyle would be getting such a second chance after such a poor 2007 season. Thankfully for Croyle, he’s the best bet the Chiefs currently have -- but he’ll be on a short leash and is on his last legs in proving his worth as a starting QB.

Croyle has the talent, he just needs to translate it into the pro game -- which is something not all players can do. The most important trait he needs to have is being able to wipe the 2007 season completely from his mind and come through when his team needs him. As with every team in this feature, we’ll be learning a lot more through some pre-season play.

Hopefully I’ve educated you enough for you to want to watch a game or two this pre-season. If you really think about it, the pre-season is a prologue to the actual season. Sure, the records don’t matter, but you can get a feel for all of the players and make some educated guesses as to how the season might go. Stay tuned for Part 2!

And of course, a congratulations to the 2008 NFL Hall of Fame inductees: Fred Dean, Darrell Green, Art Monk, Emmitt Thomas, Andre Tippett and Gary Zimmerman

Fiending for Part 2? Then click here..

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