The Hall of Fame Game gave us our first taste of NFL action since the Super Bowl, and it's only whetted our appetite. The full spread of Week 1 preseason games hits our tables on Thursday, Aug. 7. We'll have meaningful NFL football on Friday and Saturday, too.
Wait, "meaningful"? Preseason games? Yes: For rookies and veterans, newcomers and stalwarts, free agents and players in contract years, preseason games mean the world.
Training-camp battles have a huge impact on the final roster, from the final 53 to the starting lineup. Across the NFL, players are using precious practice reps to win a bigger role in the real thing.
With every passing day, team fans and fantasy football players have more anxiously awaited the daily reports. Soon, though, the preseason games will settle the scores, and spots on the depth chart will be written in ink. Some, like the New York Jets quarterback spot, are already settled, per Manish Mehta of the New York Daily News. Others are only now heating up—and won't be finalized until they face off against other teams' defenses.
As we tuck into the first feast of pigskin this weekend, we should be keeping an eye on the crucial competitions.
Minnesota Vikings Quarterback: Matt Cassel vs. Teddy Bridgewater
When a team trades up into the first round to snag a highly touted quarterback prospect, it's taken for granted that quarterback has the inside track on the starting gig.
Not so in Minnesota, where rookie Teddy Bridgewater's falling stock was one of the biggest stories of the draft cycle. Long assumed to be the top quarterback prospect in the draft, if not the top prospect overall, Bridgewater's stock suffered a death of 1,000 cuts after an unimpressive pro day.
Bridgewater entered training camp firmly behind veteran Matt Cassel. In fact, the Star Tribune's Chip Scoggins said he thought Cassel was a "slam dunk" to start the season. Instead of battling 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder for the backup gig, though, Bridgewater has been giving Cassel all he can handle.
"Teddy's been really, really impressive," offensive coordinator Norv Turner told Mike Wobschall of the Vikings' official site before training camp, "and a lot further along than I expected him to be." National reporters like Fox Sports' Jay Glazer and NFL Media's Albert Breer have come away with the same feeling.
"My sense for it is Cassel still leads," Breer tweeted on July 30, "but Teddy's closed the gap."
At the time of this writing, Scoggins says he "won't be surprised if Bridgewater is the starter in Week 1." Whether Bridgewater can limit his mistakes in preseason and Cassel can make positive plays downfield should determine which of these two quarterbacks starts the games that count.
Friday, Aug. 8, both quarterbacks will take their opening shots against the reloaded Oakland Raiders defense.
Indianapolis Colts Wide Receivers: Reggie Wayne, T.Y. Hilton, Hakeem Nicks, Donte Moncrief, Da'Rick Rogers, Griff Whalen
In Indianapolis, quarterback is the only offensive position without questions.
There, Andrew Luck is firmly installed as the starter, leader, captain and franchise.
Injuries and performance have thrown monkey wrenches into the works at running back, tight end and offensive line, but no group is in wilder flux than wide receiver.
T.Y. Hilton's breakout season was hampered by the loss of Reggie Wayne and the flameout of veteran free agent Darrius Heyward-Bey. Firmly established as a weapon and field-stretcher, Hilton has to prove he's a complete No. 1 receiver. That means regularly beating press coverage and double coverage and running the whole route tree well.
To that end, according to Craig Kelley of the Colts' official site, offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton has "challenged" Hilton to master "all four spots."
The Colts' incumbent No. 1 receiver, Reggie Wayne, hasn't yet ridden off into the sunset—despite suffering an ACL tear just weeks before his 35th birthday. Wayne's already full-go after a rehab and recovery head coach Chuck Pagano called "incredible," per Mike Chappell of The Indianapolis Star.
"I haven't had any pain. Nothing has set me back," Wayne told Chappell. "Just go out there and be the Reggie of old."
Still, according to Mike Wells of ESPN.com, Wayne will be held out of the Colts preseason opener as a precaution. That leaves plenty of reps up for grabs, but it looks like free-agent signee Hakeem Nicks won't get many of them.
Tom James of the Tribune-Star tweeted out Hamilton's pessimistic outlook on Nicks:
Hamilton on Nicks: "Yeah, I don’t know if I can say that I’ve seen enough. I think he is still working to get himself in game shape...— Tom James (@TribStarTJames) August 3, 2014
What about Da'Rick Rogers, the talented-but-troubled undrafted prospect for whom NFL fans everywhere have been rooting? Wells wrote Rogers is off to a "slow start" in camp, and Griff Whalen has "definitely outplayed" him.
That leaves the door wide open for third-round rookie pick Donte Moncrief to make noise against the New York Jets on Thursday, Aug. 7. Moncrief has been "very impressive" in camp so far, per Josh Wilson of the Colts blog Stampede Blue, and has a chance to challenge Nicks for the third receiver spot.
Baltimore Ravens Inside Linebacker: C.J. Mosley vs. Arthur Brown
It's no surprise that Ray Lewis' shoes have been hard to fill, but the Baltimore Ravens have had a lot more turnover at his old position than anyone expected.
When his presumed replacement, Dannell Ellerbe, left as a free agent and Rolando McClain's career began imploding, the Ravens drafted Arthur Brown in the second round of 2013. Brown, McClain, 2011 fifth-round pick Pernell McPhee, longtime backup Jameel McClain and free-agent transplant Daryl Smith were all thought to be in the mix at inside linebacker, yet undrafted third-year veteran Josh Bynes ended up with the second-most snaps, per Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Smith had a strong first season in Baltimore, per Pro Football Focus, grading 14th overall out of 55 qualifying inside linebackers. As per his minus-11.2 run-stuffing grade, though, Smith wasn't the thumper the Ravens usually have at the spot. With both McClains off the roster and McPhee transitioned to outside linebacker, the Ravens needed even more reinforcements inside.
Enter C.J. Mosley, a 6'2", 234-pound rookie taken No. 17 overall in the 2014 draft. Mosley opened training camp next to Smith at the top of the depth chart, per Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun, with Brown behind him. Mosley might have the early advantage, but if the second-year veteran outplays Mosley during preseason action, it wouldn't be the first time a pencilled-in rookie doesn't hang on to the job in camp.
Throughout all this, Bynes still hasn't gone away. Per Jamison Hensley of ESPN.com, Bynes got first-team reps when Smith picked up a groin injury, and Bynes has made a habit of succeeding when everyone else assumes he'll fail.
New England Patriots Running Backs: Stevan Ridley vs. Shane Vereen vs. James White
The Patriots are synonymous with consistency: Consistency at coach, consistency at quarterback and consistency on defense.
At running back? The only thing consistent is inconsistency.
The Patriots have had 18 different rushers rack up at least 50 carries in a season since Bill Belichick took over in 2000, per Pro-Football-Reference.com. Only the Denver Broncos have had more contributors, with 21.
Talented tailback Stevan Ridley has averaged 4.5 yards per carry in his first three seasons on the Patriots squad and racked up 20 touchdowns in the process. Yet, his ball-security issues kept forcing Belichick to bench him. With LeGarrette Blount gone, the job was supposed to be Ridley's, but fourth-round rookie James White is mounting a challenge.
ESPN.com's Mike Reiss noted White's been getting a "notable" number of practice reps, "especially on the goal line." Together with 2011 second-round pick Shane Vereen, who's averaged 53 attempts over the past two seasons, Ridley will have stiff competition for carries.
If Ridley fumbles against Washington on Thursday, Aug. 7—or White dominates—he could lose his grip on the starting job.
Cleveland Browns Quarterbacks Johnny Manziel vs. Brian Hoyer
Without a doubt, it's the highest-profile battle this season has to offer. Johnny Manziel, college football sensation and force of media nature, now a first-round pick of the quarterback-starved Cleveland Browns. The only thing standing in between Manziel and professional success is Manziel's ability to be as electric on the field as he is off it.
Oh, and Brian Hoyer.
An Ohio native who played high school ball at Cleveland's St. Ignatius, per Pro-Football-Reference.com, Hoyer's biggest claim to fame had been making the Patriots roster each of his first three seasons in the NFL. In his fifth year, 2013, Hoyer led his hometown Browns to three of their mere four wins.
Hoyer, in a sense, is the anti-Manziel. In college, Hoyer was a capable, pocket quarterback who only started the last two of his five seasons. In the pros, he has been an undrafted free agent who clawed his way onto four different rosters.
Hoyer entered training camp as the No. 1 quarterback, but how long he holds on to that title appears more up to Manziel than Hoyer. Head coach Mike Pettine said Hoyer was "securely ahead" of Manziel heading into training camp, per Ryan Wilson of CBSSports.com, but the equal split of first-team reps we've seen so far is "part of the plan," per Pat McManamon of ESPN.com.
Pettine claimed that "if nothing else changes," Hoyer will start the preseason Great Lakes Classic against the Detroit Lions on Saturday, Aug. 9, per Jon Breech of CBSSports.com, and refused to commit to Manziel starting any subsequent preseason games. "That will have to be earned," Pettine said—earned by showing well in his first NFL action.