With the kickoff of Sunday night's Hall of Fame Game between the Cowboys and Dolphins, the 2013 NFL preseason is officially underway—and not a moment too soon for football-crazed fans all over the country.
The preseason is an important time for teams as they evaluate players, implement schemes and figure out who can contribute when live bullets are flying. It's a stark contrast to training camp practice and provides a much clearer indication as to what a player is capable of.
There are many players who have much to lose in the preseason, and it's time to highlight them. For some, their starting jobs are on the line. For others, a roster spot. And for a few, it could be their last, legitimate chance to prove they are capable of playing at a high level in the National Football League.
So, here are the eight NFL players with the most to lose this preseason.
This offseason, free-agent quarterback Kevin Kolb was signed to compete with the Bills' first-round pick, EJ Manuel, for the job of starting signal-caller. Unfortunately for Kolb, as is the case with most of his career, he has underperformed, and, by some accounts, trails Manuel in the battle to start Week 1 against the Patriots.
Then there was perhaps the most Kolb-esque thing of all time, when the quarterback slipped on a rubber pad and injured his knee. Even though the injury isn't serious and Kolb is expected to return soon, this instance definitely qualifies as "theater of the absurd" and will be featured alongside other recent Kolb box-office smashes, most notably his 2011 campaign in Arizona.
It's likely that Manuel will be the Bills' starting quarterback to open the season, and there's probably not much Kolb can do in the preseason to win the job, except if Manuel completely spits the bit. But, for a guy with designs on one day returning to the mantle of NFL starting quarterback, the preseason will provide Kolb with an opportunity to show other teams he is indeed capable of performing at the most important position at the game's highest level.
When former Dolphins left tackle Jake Long bolted in free agency for the St. Louis Rams, Miami was faced with a conundrum: How would they replace Long, the No. 1 overall pick of the 2008 draft?
The answer was second-year tackle Jonathan Martin, who manned the right tackle position in 2012. The team believed Martin to be athletic and talented enough to make the transition.
Well, early accounts of Martin have been overwhelmingly negative, with reports that he's been "manhandled" thus far at camp. Plus, he turned in a poor performance in Sunday night's Hall of Fame Game against the Cowboys, as quarterback Ryan Tannehill was under siege for most of his time on the field.
The good news for Martin? His presumed backup, rookie Dallas Thomas, was even worse on Sunday night, repeatedly getting beat by Cowboys end George Selvie. So, it appears Martin's hold on the starting job is secure—for now.
But if Martin continues to throw up stinkers in the preseason, coach Joe Philbin and general manager Jeff Ireland might look elsewhere for help in protecting Tannehill's blind side.
The last time we saw Patriots tight end Jake Ballard in a competitive game, he was helping the New York Giants defeat New England in Super Bowl XLVI. Ballard also caught the game-winning touchdown in Big Blue's regular-season win over the Pats in 2011.
In a delicious twist of irony, Ballard was expected to be quarterback Tom Brady's primary target at the tight end position once Rob Gronkowski's medical issues became problematic and Aaron Hernandez's legal issues spiraled out of control.
But Ballard hasn't shown the same speed in camp and is reportedly not a lock to make the team's 53-man roster, despite their myriad issues at the tight end position. Daniel Fells and Zach Sudfeld are the current beneficiaries of Ballard's poor showing.
If Ballard can't string together decent performances in the preseason games, he probably won't make the roster, which is a stunning fall from grace for a guy many assumed was in line for a huge year in the Patriots offense.
Jets quarterback Mark Sanchez is coming off of a heinous two-season run as the team's starter, having turned the ball over a staggering 52 times.
Now, take into consideration the situation of the Jets coaching staff. After two consecutive campaigns missing the postseason, head coach Rex Ryan is on the hot seat. His team must put forth a decent showing this year if he's to keep his job. He is going to play the quarterback who gives his team the best chance to win.
With all of that in mind, the team drafted West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith in the second round of April's draft to compete with Sanchez.
Thus far in camp, Smith has outplayed Sanchez—not a good sign for the incumbent.
Despite camp performance, Sanchez will have his opportunity to win the job in the preseason, and if he stumbles, Gang Green won't hesitate to turn the reins over to Smith. That would likely spell the end of the Sanchez era (error?) in New York at the conclusion of the 2013 season.
Word out of Jacksonville is that the quarterback competition between Blaine Gabbert and Chad Henne is a real one, and the team's first unofficial depth chart reflected that, with Gabbert and Henne both listed as the starters.
But reports state that the team internally prefers Gabbert, and that makes sense, given his obvious physical talents, which were strong enough to make him the 10th overall pick in the 2011 draft.
While Henne will be given the opportunity to potentially win the job in the preseason, he will very much need to turn in a sparkling performance, along with a few clunkers from Gabbert, in order for him to win the starting job.
At this point in his career, it's not clear how many more chances Henne will have left to start. He needs to make this one count.
Chargers wide receiver Vincent Brown impressed in limited time in 2011, his rookie year, and though an injury wiped out his 2012 season, he is expected to return and contribute this season.
In fact, it was even thought that he could replace Malcom Floyd as the team's starting receiver alongside Danario Alexander.
However, a hamstring injury has forced Brown to miss practice time, and Floyd appears to have a stranglehold on the job—for now.
But if Brown can make it back for a bulk of the team's preseason games and dazzle in the way he's capable of, he could earn a large chunk of playing time this season. It's very important for Brown to play well this preseason.
While reports out of Eagles camp suggest incumbent starter Michael Vick is leading the race to open 2013 as the team's starting quarterback, the competition is far from over.
With a new head coach, Chip Kelly, in place, and the team looking to get off to a fast start with the implementation of Kelly's offense, the preseason will serve as an ultra-important dress rehearsal.
Even though Vick is the odds-on favorite to win the starting job, a poor preseason showing could open up the door for second-year quarterback Nick Foles to potentially swoop in and be "the man." Vick will have to play well and show a command of Kelly's offense if he's to remain entrenched as the Eagles' starting quarterback.
The Packers possess the very best player in football, quarterback Aaron Rodgers. But the talent behind him at the position leaves much to be desired.
Graham Harrell serves as his primary backup and B.J. Coleman is the third option, and neither would provide confidence in the event of a Rodgers injury.
Complicating the situation is the team's signing of veteran signal-caller Vince Young. The man known as "VY" appears to be an odd fit in coach Mike McCarthy's offense, but it's safe to trust the Green Bay brain trust, one of the very best in football.
The signing of Young is likely a sobering proposition for Harrell, who has been splitting the backup reps with Coleman and had to watch as Coleman took snaps behind Rodgers at the team's scrimmage last Saturday night.
If Harrell can't perform well in the preseason, Green Bay could look at other options (i.e., Young, Coleman) to serve as Rodgers' main backup, and he could be in danger of losing his roster spot altogether.