Football is back.
Yes, it’s just the preseason, but with rosters still left unsettled, NFL preseason games can answer questions for teams’ fans. It’s important not to overreact to what we see tonight, but information will abound from these preseason games. It’s where fantasy sleepers are born!
Washington @ Buffalo, 7:00 PM EST
All eyes will be on new quarterback Robert Griffin III, but the roles of the Redskins’ wide receivers are still up in the air. Washington signed three receivers in the offseason, and is also paying incumbents Leonard Hankerson and Santana Moss.
You can forget about learning which running back is going to separate himself from the others in the Redskins’ backfield.
Buffalo still has questions to answer at the wide receiver position as well, and there is less secrecy surrounding the team’s running backs.
Who will emerge as the number two option opposite Steve Johnson? How will Fred Jackson look? What will C.J. Spiller’s role be as Jackson returns to the lineup?
Baltimore @ Atlanta, 7:30 PM EST
The main question I have for Baltimore is whether 2011 and 2010 second-round linebackers Courtney Upshaw and Sergio Kindle can manufacture a pass rush like that seen by 2011 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, Terrell Suggs.
Offensively, it’s safe to assume that the starting wide receivers, and their roles, have been decided (Torrey Smith and Anquan Boldin).
Running back, however, is less clear.
Is Ray Rice in game shape after spending much of the offseason avoiding the franchise tag (and by extension, Ravens’ team activities)? Is Bernard Pierce a legitimate NFL backup?
The Falcons’ offensive lineup is also expected to be full of familiar faces.
But how will the defense fare with the addition of Asante Samuel and loss of Curtis Lofton? The team signed Lofa Tatupu to a one-year deal this offseason, but had to let him go after he suffered an injury to his pectoral muscle.
New Orleans @ New England, 7:30 PM EST
The Saints have already shown an ability to get after the quarterback this preseason in the Hall of Fame Game. We know Drew Brees is Drew Brees, and we know the Patriots’ Tom Brady likely won’t play more than a couple of series tonight.
The Saints’ best position of strength is the running back. Can running back Travaris Cadet replicate his performance last week? He didn’t gain any yards on the ground (-3 yards on six carries), but Cadet recorded eight catches for 80 yards and a touchdown in addition to 49 kick/punt return yards on two attempts.
If he shows an ability to make plays on a weekly basis, he should find himself on an NFL roster in September even if he can’t stick around in the Saints’ crowded backfield.
New England’s Brandon Lloyd is familiar with offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, and should be able to get open downfield for the Patriots. I’m interested to see what his chemistry level with Tom Brady looks like at this point.
Pittsburgh @ Philadelphia, 7:30 PM EST
How will Pittsburgh’s offense look without Mike Wallace? Can Antonio Brown improve on his numbers last season as the number one receiving option in the offense? Will Emmanuel Sanders succeed as a starter in Wallace’s absence?
Those are all questions for Pittsburgh’s passing game.
The Steelers are also without last year’s team rushing leader in Rashard Mendenhall, and have to figure out how they will keep defenses honest with the ground game. Will Isaac Redman or Jonathan Dwyer seize control of the starter’s spot?
Or will it be someone else?
The Eagles’ defense should be improved over last year as the team added players who should fit specific roles for the club rather than intending to piece together a “dream team” like last year.
But will the offense continue to run through LeSean McCoy? How will it look when Michael Vick opts to stay in the pocket more frequently in an effort to preserve his health? Can DeSean Jackson finally return to the magic he created in 2010?
Green Bay @ San Diego, 8:00 EST
The Packers’ offense is dynamic. The only real question I have for it is: What will the final depth chart at wide receiver look like? Where are the targets going this year?
San Diego also has wide receiver depth chart questions. Can Malcom Floyd record double-digit touchdowns? Robert Meachem, same question. How will Vincent Brown improve in his second year?
Is tight end Antonio Gates really in the best shape he’s been in in the last five or six years?
Finally, who will step up in Mike Tolbert’s absence as the goal-line back/backup to Ryan Mathews?
Denver @ Chicago, 8:30 EST
Ah, the Broncos’ offense post-Tebow.
Or is it the Manning era in Denver?
Either way, there will be more passes thrown in the Mile High City this year.
Peyton Manning has experience with Jacob Tamme, a touted route-runner in Eric Decker and a physical freak in Demaryius Thomas. Who will get the most of his attention?
Better yet, is Peyton really Peyton?
Can Ronnie Hillman push Willis McGahee for the starting tailback job? How much (less often than last year) will the running backs be used?
How much has their chemistry stayed intact since they last played together? Denver should provide a perfect test for that, since star cornerback Champ Bailey was in a Bronco uniform, practicing against Brandon Marshall plenty of times when Marshall and Cutler also wore orange and blue.
Who will step up as the Bears’ No. 2 WR? Will the Bears need a clear second option at the position? Remember, Brandon Marshall holds the NFL record for receptions in a single game.
The first week of the preseason won’t answer all of these questions. The entire preseason won’t answer all of these questions. But these are the things I’ll be watching for as the weekend approaches.