With the NFL preseason set to begin Sunday with a matchup between the New York Giants and Buffalo Bills in the annual Hall of Fame Game, plenty of rookies and new acquisitions will be fighting for playing time (and starting spots in some situations) for the upcoming season.
As with most preseason games, the starting units for both teams will only play a drive or two in the first quarter.
And, going along with what Bleacher Report’s Matt Bowen wrote this week, each team will likely keep play calls simple, throwing inexperienced players in to examine technique and see how they play at NFL speed within their base schemes.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at some of the bigger positions/players to watch Sunday.
A less “offensive” Giants offensive line
Following a 2013 season in which the Giants posted the second-lowest pass-blocking efficiency grade in the league and a pedestrian run-blocking grade, per Pro Football Focus, the Giants made a flurry of moves in free agency and the draft to improve the unit.
At left tackle, they signed former New Orleans Saints left tackle Charles Brown to push incumbent starter Will Beatty.
Brown, a former second-round pick, really struggled to perform consistently during his time with the Saints, but he actually was a more efficient pass-blocker compared to Beatty.
|Charles Brown vs. William Beatty|
|Sacks Allowed||QB Hits Allowed||Hurries||Total Pressures|
|Pro Football Focus|
After a solid season in Kansas City, the Giants acquired Geoff Schwartz to bolster the left guard spot.
At center, free agent signee J.D. Walton looks to have the starting nod early, but that could change by time the regular season opener rolls around, thanks to rookie center Weston Richburg.
Richburg, a second-round pick out of Colorado State, might need a little time to adjust, but he will make an impact early on in his career.
There will also be a battle brewing at right guard between third-year man Brandon Mosley and former Dolphin John Jerry.
Jerry is a solid athlete who was an efficient overall player last season, specifically in the pass game. It would not be a surprise to see him lock up the starting spot midway through the preseason.
At right tackle, Justin Pugh is set to hold down the starting spot for the second straight season.
The unit won’t see much time together, especially Sunday, but it will be interesting to see how it meshes together heading into the Giants regular season opener against the Detroit Lions.
Weakness on the Bills strong side?
Last year in the Bills' 3-4 base defense, Manny Lawson and Jerry Hughes split time at the strong-side outside linebacker spot, with Lawson starting 15 of the 16 possible games.
Right now, the Bills have Hughes listed as the starting defensive end opposite Pro Bowler Mario Williams. This could be attributed mainly to Hughes producing 11 sacks (seven more than Lawson’s four) despite appearing in 101 less snaps.
The fit for both players in the new 4-3 base defense is slightly questionable.
The 3-4 strong-side outside linebacker position is similar to the strong-side defensive end spot in the 4-3.
While the strong-side end needs to have the ability to wreak havoc in the running game, he also has to be able to get to the quarterback in a hurry.
Both are a bit undersized for a defensive end spot as Hughes comes in at 6’2”, 255 pounds while Lawson 6’5”, 240 pounds.
In addition, Lawson has never had a primary role as a defensive end, playing nearly all of his snaps since joining the league in 2006 as a linebacker.
Hughes, while having more experience in this role, hasn’t been exactly productive playing primarily with his hand in the dirt.
After being drafted by the Indianapolis Colts in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft, Hughes made a minimal impact playing as a five-technique defensive end in the 4-3/Cover 2 Indianapolis ran until the 2012 season.
Here is how Hughes' statistics varied from his role in the Colts' 4-3 base (although they switched during Hughes' last season with the team) and the Bills' 3-4 base from the previous two seasons.
|Jerry Hughes Performance 4-3 vs. 3-4|
|Pass Rush Snaps||Sacks||Hurries||Total Pressures|
|4-3 (Two seasons)||98||1||4||5|
|3-4 (Two seasons)||530||15||56||86|
|Pro Football Focus|
As you can see despite the difference in the amount of snaps, Hughes was more effective more frequently as a rush linebacker than he was as a defensive end.
Regardless, it will be interesting to see how the position battle shakes out.
A pair of Day 3 rookie linebackers pushing for early playing time
Devon Kennard, Giants
Despite spending most of his time at USC rushing the passer from the edge, rookie fourth-round pick Devon Kennard has reportedly been impressive during Giants minicamp, despite adjusting to a middle/strong-side 4-3 linebacker role.
Kennard was expected to start at the SAM linebacker spot (or strong side), but an injury to the recently acquired Jameel McClain has pushed Kennard into the middle of the linebacking corps.
It will be interesting to see how Kennard handles his responsibilities in coverage.
At USC, he was a factor rushing the passer, but he appeared stiff while dropping into coverage. He lacks elite speed, so the Giants will likely opt to drop him into short zones and even send him on blitzes in the A and B gaps while he is playing the middle.
When McClain returns, it will allow Kennard to kick back outside into a more natural spot.
Despite being a third-day draft pick, don’t be surprised to see Kennard make a large impact immediately in the Meadowlands, regardless of his role.
Preston Brown, Bills
This offseason hasn’t been exactly kind to the Bills' linebacking corps.
After bringing in Brandon Spikes and Keith Rivers to be primarily run-stuffing, two-down linebackers to play with Kiko Alonso, the Bills thought they were well on their way to boasting one of the league’s best defenses again.
As you have probably heard, the Bills lost Alonso to a torn ACL, leaving a gaping hole in their coverage scheme, as I wrote here.
Alonso’s expected replacement at the weak-side linebacker spot, Nigel Bradham, will miss the season opener because of a suspension due to a violation of the NFL’s substance abuse policy.
Despite all of the bad, there is a bright spot with the position group in 2014 fourth-round selection Preston Brown.
Brown, the Louisville product, projects best as a Mike (or middle) linebacker, but Bradham’s suspension could open up an opportunity for him to see the field sooner than expected.
He struggles a bit in coverage due to some tightness in his hips, ability to only drop and cover small zones and he doesn’t have the athleticism to stick to athletic tight ends. However, he is a good tackler and has good instincts to get to the ball-handler in a hurry.
Brown’s struggles in coverage could be fixed with the right coaching and, if he shows improvement during the preseason, he could see time early and push for one of the starting spots (likely the one in the middle currently belonging to Brandon Spikes).
NFL questions or thoughts? Follow and communicate on Twitter @Dan_Matney.