Year after year, the third week of NFL preseason games is called the "dress rehearsal" by football fans and media alike.
For players trying to get on football's biggest stage, though, preseason is more like a "callback" audition, and they're pouring everything they have into putting on the best show they can.
At callbacks, directors trying to cast a new show have narrowed their unmade decisions to just a few roles and just a few actors trying out for them. Directors take a long, focused look at the final contenders for each role not yet cast.
Throughout training camp and preseason, rookies and veterans have been auditioning for this season's roles on the team. Whether it's a starting role, rotational spot, backup gig, special teams ace or even a practice squad slot, every player has been trying to prove he's the best fit for the role he covets.
Preseason games carry a lot of weight in the coaches' final judgments. They can watch a player practice every day for weeks on end, but they need to see how that player responds to game situations and pressure.
By the time the third preseason game rolls around, its competitive nature is the perfect test to see how rookies play with veterans, how second-stringers handle playing with (and against) starters and whether bubble players can contribute in multiple ways.
This season, a few players have impressed so much that they're not only assured of the roles they auditioned for, but they might even see their names go up in lights.
When the Baltimore Ravens drafted Arthur Brown, NFL observers everywhere penciled him in as the replacement for just-retired Ravens captain Ray Lewis.
Though no player—and certainly, no rookie—could truly replace Lewis, fans and media were excited for Brown's potential in the Ravens defense.
Instead, Brown is still stuck behind veteran Josh Bynes on the depth chart, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, and the role Lewis used to play has been given to Daryl Smith.
Smith's nine seasons of quietly excellent run-stopping haven't put his inconspicuous name up on a national marquee. Yet the 2004 second-round pick left the Jacksonville Jaguars as their all-time leading tackler. After fighting a groin injury last season, a fully healthy Smith had no trouble walking into Baltimore and securing Lewis' old spot.
Per The Baltimore Sun's Jeff Zrebiec, Smith is not only performing well, but "quarterbacking" the defense, wearing the radio helmet that allows him to relay play calls in from the sideline.
According to Zrebiec, Smith has done so well as the defense's figurative quarterback that when literal quarterback Joe Flacco was asked to name a defensive standout, Smith's name was right on the tip of his tongue.
Vince Young's stock—now that the former No. 3 overall pick was named the No. 2 quarterback by the Green Bay Packers—has gone way, way up this preseason.
That's a tough thing to have to point out: A quarterback who single-handedly dominated the 2006 BCS National Championship Game and has two Pro Bowl nods on his resume has earned a backup gig.
Young's story, though, could have ended much worse.
Young went through five wildly up-and-down seasons in Tennessee, including an explosive night that had the Titans frantically searching for a reportedly suicidal Young, which Young later denied to ESPN's Michael Smith (via USA Today).
When the Titans finally gave up on Young, that could easily have been the end. Instead, he soldiered on through a stint as Michael Vick's backup in Philadelphia and didn't stop trying even after being released by the quarterback-needy Buffalo Bills this time last year.
When the Super Bowl-contending Packers signed Young as a fourth quarterback, it seemed his chances of making the roster were slim. When three-year developmental quarterback Graham Harrell flopped during his extended audition in the third preseason game against the Seahawks, though, Young came in and completed six of seven passes for 41 yards and a touchdown.
Once again, Young—whose commitment to football has come into question many times—has refused to be written off.
When the Dallas Cowboys signed defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, heads around the NFL got a thorough scratching.
The Cowboys have the offensive talent to win now and a few defensive superstars who are a poor on-paper fit for Kiffin's beloved Tampa 2 defense. Worse yet, switching from a base 3-4 alignment to a base 4-3 alignment usually sets a defense back for a season while role players play unnatural roles (or are replaced by replacement-level players).
This kind of transition, though, is the best time for players on the margins to shine.
When the Cowboys drafted DeVonte Holloman in the sixth round, the potential for a quick impact was there. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller was immediately pleased by the fit, noting Holloman's skill in coverage on B/R's live draft show. Even so, all three of ESPNDallas.com's draft graders gave the Cowboys a "C" for Holloman's selection.
All Holloman has done in three preseason games so far is rack up nine tackles and two interceptions, including one he returned 75 yards for a touchdown. Though he'll stay behind free-agent signee Justin Durant on the depth chart, Holloman has taken every opportunity to prove he has a long-term future in Dallas.
When Terrelle Pryor announced his intention to attend Ohio State University, his stock literally could not have been higher. He was the consensus No. 1 overall football recruit in that class.
The combination of Pryor's incredible tools, multiple marquee schools in his final group and delayed announcement created unheard-of national buzz around his decision. Since then, though, his play on the field (and choices off it) has gradually silenced that national uproar.
However, Pryor's performance for the Oakland Raiders this preseason again has people buzzing about his potential. It started when Pryor told Jerry McDonald of InsideBayArea.com he "never really knew how to throw a football" before seeking out tutoring from throwing coach Tom House this offseason.
In the third preseason game, Pryor clearly outplayed presumed starter Matt Flynn and touted rookie Tyler Wilson, completing seven of nine passes for 93 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for 37 yards and a score on just four carries.
According to the Raiders' official site, head coach Dennis Allen said he'd "have to look" at the starting quarterback position, and that it was "obvious" Pryor gave the Raiders "a little bit of a spark."
It may seem odd to include a first-round pick in this list, especially one whose spot in the starting lineup was obviously being kept warm for him.
Kyle Long of the Chicago Bears, though, only needs to look at his brother Chris to know that even successful first-round draft picks don't always start out hot. Long's start has been nothing short of searing, leading Pro Football Focus' grades (subscription required) for all offensive guards after two preseason games, including a sparkling plus-5.7 against the San Diego Chargers.
Long's power and athleticism have been obvious, helping stabilize an offensive line that has struggled to find any consistency on the inside or outside for years. Head coach Marc Trestman told Fred Mitchell of The Chicago Tribune that Long "hasn't been making incremental increases in his play" but is "really ascending a little quicker than that."
How soon will he join his brother and father in the ranks of the NFL's best? It may not be long.
If Blaine Gabbert were almost any other No. 10 overall draft pick entering his third season, not only would it not be a story that he'd been named the starter, but it wouldn't have even been a question.
Gabbert, though, has been dogged by questions about his NFL readiness since before the Jacksonville Jaguars drafted him so highly—doubts that only grew stronger once they turned that draft card in. In two seasons on a poor Jaguars team almost devoid of talent or direction, Gabbert completed just 53.8 percent of his passes for a mere 5.6 yards per attempt, according to Pro Football Reference.
Yet Gabbert did show strong improvement from the first year to the second: He managed to raise his completion percentage by 8.3 points, improve his touchdown percentage from 2.9 percent to 3.2, cut down his interception rate from 3.7 percent to 2.2 and boost his average yards per attempt from 5.4 to 6.0.
However, none of these numbers are world-beating—though that 2.2 percent interception rate tied Matt Schaub for eighth-lowest in the NFL last year—and it looked like Gabbert's time as a starter in the NFL was done. The popular narrative wrote Gabbert off, especially when veteran Chad Henne stepped in and outproduced him. Critically, Henne connected with No. 5 overall pick receiver Justin Blackmon in a way Gabbert didn't.
This preseason, Gabbert "complicated" the easy story, as SI.com's Doug Farrar put it, of a new head coach benching his predecessor's draft bust. Gabbert complicated matters by going 13-of-16 for 165 yards and a touchdown against the New York Jets.
Despite Gabbert ending his night by suffering a thumb injury that will cost him the rest of the preseason, new Jaguars head coach (and former Seattle Seahawks defensive coordinator) Gus Bradley was so convinced by Gabbert's performance that Bradley named Gabbert the starter. Bradley even obliquely compared Gabbert to standout Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson in the process.
It was no secret the Indianapolis Colts needed help at outside linebacker this offseason. After star defensive end Dwight Freeney fit poorly into head coach Chuck Pagano's 3-4 defense, the Colts let Freeney walk in free agency, signed former Green Bay Packers linebacker Erik Walden to a hefty contract and drafted Florida State standout Bjoern Werner.
Then the Colts made one more addition most never noticed: Arena Football League sackmaster Caesar Rayford.
At 6'7", 267 pounds, Rayford terrorized the AFL with 29.5 sacks, 32 tackles for loss, 82.5 combined tackles and 10 forced fumbles in four seasons. He's more than made his case for a roster spot this preseason with six tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble in the first two preseason games.
Though official stats haven't yet been updated for the third preseason game, ESPN.com Colts reporter Mike Wells credited Rayford with a fourth sack on Twitter, mentioning that Pagano has already said Rayford will be tough to cut. Mike Chappell of The Indianapolis Star charted Rayford with a fifth and sixth sack on Twitter, but noted one was officially wiped out by offsetting penalties.
Regardless of the official total, Rayford's preseason performance has raised his stock from an interesting street free agent unlikely to make the roster to a potential contributor at an area of need.
It's no surprise that Christine Michael is working his way into the Seattle Seahawks' running back picture.
After workhorse tailback Marshawn Lynch got a career-high 315-carry workout last season, the Seahawks wisely added to their stable of power backs by drafting the talented but unreliable Michael in the second round.
Even so, 2012 fourth-round pick Robert Turbin figured to play a role in the Seahawks offense, and both were likely to sit and wait for Lynch to show signs of slowing before poaching significant carries from him.
Then, in the third preseason game, Michael shredded the Green Bay Packers for 97 yards on just 11 carries, including a 43-yard touchdown. Having sat out the second game with an injury, that brought Michael's two-game preseason total to 186 yards on 27 carries for a 6.9 yards-per-carry average.
Michael has not only bullied his way into the role of Lynch's primary backup, but he's also making his case for a recurring role in the primary offense.
When the Miami Dolphins lost a bidding war to keep franchise left tackle Jake Long in-house, the question of who would protect second-year starter Ryan Tannehill was a huge one.
Second-year tackle Jonathan Martin was the starter almost by default, and doubts weren't eased when Martin struggled in pass protection during the Hall of Fame Game.
Since then, though, Martin has played very well, sitting just behind the Baltimore Ravens' Bryant McKinnie as the top-graded left tackle on Pro Football Focus (subscription required). Star Dolphins linemate Mike Pouncey told the Dolphins' official site Martin is doing "a phenomenal job" in his new role.
Martin may never reach Long's All-Pro heights, but his days as the biggest question mark in Miami are over. As the Miami Herald's Armando Salguero said on Twitter, the only fan and media comments about Martin since that Hall of Fame Game have been that he's "been good."
Of all the players who've raised their stock this offseason, perhaps none have raised it higher than Tyrann Mathieu.
Like Terrelle Pryor and Vince Young, Mathieu was once the talk of the football world. His racing-stripe hairdo and propensity to "do what he wants" on and off the field earned him the nickname "Honey Badger," but his exploits got him kicked off the LSU football team.
Once the off-field problems overcame his on-field production, doubts about his maturity and motivation bolstered doubts about his size and speed. Measured, per NFL.com, at 5'9", 186 pounds, and having run a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, there were questions about whether he could play full-time cornerback at the NFL level.
The Arizona Cardinals have gotten around those doubts by lining him up at cornerback, free safety and returner.
In his preseason debut, Mathieu was "all over the field" in the estimation of Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians, per NFL.com—and he wasn't the only one who thought so. Mathieu had a sack, a big hit and a 24-yard punt return in the Cardinals' preseason opener.
In the third preseason game, Mathieu forced an interception when he hit San Diego Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers while he was throwing. Per Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Mathieu hasn't been a consistent performer in coverage just yet; it graded him plus-2.4 in coverage at Green Bay and minus-1.5 in the second game against the Dallas Cowboys.
That Mathieu is consistently making impact plays at the NFL level, though, raises his stock far beyond what it was when the only way he could attend LSU football games was by buying a ticket.