The Complete Guide to NFL Preseason

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IAugust 6, 2014

The Complete Guide to NFL Preseason

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The NFL preseason might have kicked off this past Sunday in Canton, Ohio, as the New York Giants downed the Buffalo Bills in the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game, but it won't actually ramp up until this Thursday and through the weekend, as each team will hit the field and see live action.

    With that said, we here at Bleacher Report are kind enough to provide you with the complete guide to the upcoming festivities.

    To the naysayers who are reading this and thinking that the preseason stinks: You're certainly entitled to your opinion, but your opinion is wrong. The preseason might not be as exciting as the regular season or playoffs (OK, that's an understatement), but there are still tons of juicy storylines, players to be unearthed and questions to be answered.

    It's a fascinating month on the NFL calendar.

    Starting jobs will be earned and identities will be forged. Injuries will be incurred, and players will be thrust into important roles. New coaching staffs will seek to carry over momentum into the regular campaign, and each team will seek to lay the foundation for a season they hope ends with a Super Bowl victory.

    In this guide, we'll spotlight the quarterback battles sure to dominate headlines and provide a handy guide for the most noteworthy rookies, both passers and otherwise. We'll take a look at the seven new coaching staffs and point out what to look for from them over the next month.

    The most heated camp battles will be detailed, you'll learn who the most important player of the preseason is, we'll get you excited for Hard Knocks, and, most importantly, we'll lay out the 10 most intriguing games on the preseason slate.

    Here is the complete guide to the NFL preseason.

Quarterback Battles Will Dominate Headlines

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    Aaron Josefczyk/Associated Press

    As per usual, preseason quarterback battles will dominate headlines, and this year's crop of competitions is sure to entertain.


    Cleveland Browns: Brian Hoyer vs. Johnny Manziel

    When it comes to Brian Hoyer and the Cleveland Browns' starting quarterback job, I urge you to heed the advice of noted philosophers Chuck D and Flava Flav and don't believe the hype.

    It doesn't matter that Browns coach Mike Pettine has pumped up Hoyer at every turn. It's irrelevant that Hoyer has taken the lion's share of the reps with the first-team offense.

    "I feel like I'm the starter until someone tells me otherwise," Hoyer told reporters, as relayed by Josh Katzowitz of CBS Sports. However, Johnny Manziel is going to end up starting more games than Hoyer in 2014, and by a wide margin. 

    Why? Because Manziel is better. Period, end of story.

    There's a reason why Hoyer has played for three teams in five seasons: He isn't that good. If he were cut by the Browns tomorrow, there isn't a team in the league that would hand him a starting job. 

    Pittsburgh Steelers defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau, 76, has been around the block a few times and is a very intelligent cat. It means something that LeBeau told Tom Reed of that he expects Manziel to be the Browns' starting passer when they take on the Steelers in Week 1.

    The preseason schedule should look something like this: Hoyer will likely start on Saturday in Detroit, and Manziel should start in Week 2 against the Redskins. The winner of the competition would then start in Week 3 when the Browns host St. Louis.

    Maybe Hoyer will end up starting in Week 1 as the Browns try to mitigate expectations for the man known as Johnny Football. But Manziel will be "The Guy" before long.

    And that's the correct decision for the Browns to make.


    New York Jets: Geno Smith vs. Michael Vick

    The single-most important preseason battle features Geno Smith and Michael Vick competing to be named the starting signal-caller of the New York Jets.

    If the Jets are to find any success this year and coach Rex Ryan is to keep his job, Smith must win the job in convincing fashion. There's simply no other alternative for Gang Green.

    Vick has recently put forth his best impression of a hypochondriac China doll, missing games in each of the past four seasons. He's shown an inability to stay healthy and has failed to dazzle when on the field. At 34 years old, Vick is who he is (or, as Denny Green would say, he is who we think he is). 

    And while Smith didn't exactly conjure up memories of a young Dan Marino in his rookie campaign, he did play well down the stretch, tossing four touchdowns against only one interception in the final four contests (three wins).

    Smith has upside. Vick doesn't. Jets fans everywhere must hope and pray that Smith wins the job—and keeps it.


    Minnesota Vikings: Matt Cassel vs. Teddy Bridgewater

    Last season, the Minnesota Vikings trotted out the quarterbacking pu pu platter of Matt Cassel, Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman.

    In a related story, the team went 5-10-1, finished in last in the NFC North and the coach (Leslie Frazier) was fired.

    Even if the three had combined into one passerVoltron style—the Vikings would still have been horrendous.

    Only Cassel and Ponder remain, and your obnoxious co-worker with the onion breath has as good a chance of starting as Ponder does. That leaves Cassel, the best of the worst, to compete with the rookie Bridgewater to start.

    Vikings offensive coordinator Norv Turner has praised Bridgewater, per Brian Hall of Fox Sports, and coach Mike Zimmer won't hesitate to play the better passer.

    That means Bridgewater will be starting sooner rather than later in Minnesota. It might not be in Week 1, but the smart money is on Teddy Ballgame 2.0 ascending to "The Guy" status in the Twin Cities.

Rookie Quarterbacks to Watch

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    As per usual, there are a number of greenhorn passers sure to make waves in the preseason. Get yourself caught up on them here.


    Jacksonville Jaguars QB Blake Bortles

    The Jacksonville Jaguars shocked the world by selecting quarterback Blake Bortles with the third overall pick of May's draft, but the pick appears to be paying early dividends.

    As Jim Corbett of USA Today reported, Bortles is already impressing the Jaguars coaching staff and has "exceeded offensive coordinator Jedd Fisch's expectations."

    While the Jaguars have publicly stated that the plan is for Bortles to sit for the entire 2014 season, that simply isn't practical—especially when the current starter is the decidedly average Chad Henne.

    Keeping Bortles tethered to the bench would be like keeping a Mercedes in the garage while you continued cruising around in a Prius.

    Bortles should receive extended playing time in the preseason, and his progress is worth monitoring.


    Cleveland Browns QB Johnny Manziel

    As detailed in the previous slide, Manziel is the best quarterback currently on the Cleveland Browns roster. If he doesn't start the majority of games for the Browns this year, owner Jimmy Haslam should give Coach Pettine the Rob Chudzinski treatment.


    Minnesota Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater

    A favorite of draft pundits throughout the media (and Twitter), Bridgewater has a real opportunity to claim the starting job. He just needs to beat out Cassel, the incumbent starter.

    If Bridgewater is the player many think he is, that shouldn't be an issue. Why? Because Cassel stinks.

    Bridgewater will probably start Week 2's contest against the Cardinals, and that will provide a fascinating litmus test as it concerns his progress. His rapport with receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Greg Jennings and tight end Kyle Rudolph will be critical.


    Oakland Raiders QB Derek Carr

    The second-round pick of the Oakland Raiders, quarterback Derek Carr represents the future of the franchise.

    Once the team drops out of contention, he'll likely be installed as the starter, but until then, Matt Schaub will man the controls.

    At the collegiate level, Carr was criticized for not playing his best when under duress. It'll be interesting to see how he handles the pass rush at the NFL level.


    New England Patriots QB Jimmy Garoppolo

    If New England Patriots rookie quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo sees the field for one second in 2014, it will be an unmitigated disaster, as both starter Tom Brady and backup Ryan Mallett will have gotten injured.

    Garoppolo has almost no chance of playing this year but profiles as the long-term successor to the legendary Brady. He'll get his first taste of NFL action this preseason.


    Arizona Cardinals QB Logan Thomas

    Perhaps the biggest project of any quarterback in the league, Arizona's Logan Thomas will get a chance to shine in the preseason and show why he was once deserving of so much predraft hype.


    Cincinnati Bengals QB A.J. McCarron

    A.J. McCarron was surely irked to hear about fellow quarterback Andy Dalton's long-term extension with the Cincinnati Bengals. He had almost no chance of playing before that transaction and is firmly tethered to the backup role.


    Tennessee Titans QB Zach Mettenberger

    Don't sleep on Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger. He has outstanding size (6'5", 230 pounds) and has a Howitzer attached to his right shoulder. With incumbent starter Jake Locker having been unable to stay on the field and backup option Charlie Whitehurst being, well, terrible, Mettenberger has a chance to play this year, so his development during the preseason could be noteworthy.

Rookies to Watch (Non-Quarterbacks)

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    Pat Sullivan/Associated Press

    While the quarterback is the most important player on the field, there are 10 other rookies at other positions who will prove vital to their team's success (or lack thereof) in 2014. The non-quarterback neophytes to watch are:


    Houston Texans DE Jadeveon Clowney

    The No. 1 overall pick of this past May's draft, Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney has the talent to evolve into a transcendent player.

    If Clowney is as good as advertised, he'll combine with all-world defensive end J.J. Watt to form potentially the best pass-rushing duo in the NFL.

    And in a weak AFC South, that could be enough to vault the Texans back into playoff contention.

    The game to watch Clowney in will be Week 3 against the Broncos, as he'll get his first opportunity to bring down the great Peyton Manning.


    Buffalo Bills WR Sammy Watkins

    The Buffalo Bills paid a king's ransom (the ninth overall pick in this past May's draft and first- and fourth-round picks in 2015) to bring wide receiver Sammy Watkins to Western New York, and the pressure is on the young pass-catcher to thrive.

    The directive for the Bills is clear: Make the playoffs and end the club's 14-year postseason drought. If that's to happen, Watkins must sparkle.

    Expect the Bills to feed him the ball early and often in the preseason.


    Oakland Raiders LB Khalil Mack

    The fifth-overall pick of this past May's draft, Oakland Raiders linebacker Khalil Mack has a chance to be the franchise's most disruptive defensive player in a decade.

    It'll be fascinating to see Mack and fellow linebacker Sio Moore operate in coach Dennis Allen's defense. The preseason will be the perfect time for the two players to jell.


    Tampa Bay Buccaneers WR Mike Evans

    Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Josh McCown was surely salivating when the club tabbed wide receiver Mike Evans with the seventh pick in 2014.

    The 6'6" Evans profiles as a red-zone monster and has a real opportunity to catch eight to 10 touchdown passes as a greenhorn. It would be an upset if he didn't score once in the entire preseason.


    New Orleans Saints WR Brandin Cooks

    Perhaps no player has received more training camp hype than New Orleans Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks. 

    If the scuttlebutt is to be believed, Cooks is set for a monster campaign on the turf of the Superdome. He could end up as one of the most exciting players in the league, and you know coach Sean Payton will give him an opportunity to shine in the preseason.


    Philadelphia Eagles WR Jordan Matthews

    The all-time receptions leader in SEC history, Jordan Matthews draws the unenviable task of replacing the departed DeSean Jackson in the Philadelphia Eagles receiving corps.

    He could be a beast in coach Chip Kelly's offense, so his preseason rapport with quarterback Nick Foles will be noteworthy.


    Tennessee Titans RB Bishop Sankey

    The first running back selected (pick No. 54), Bishop Sankey projects as the workhorse for the Tennessee Titans.

    Titans fans (and fantasy players) are surely waiting with bated breath to watch Sankey run in the preseason. Tennessee possesses a very solid offensive line, so he has a chance to succeed right off the bat.


    Cincinnati Bengals RB Jeremy Hill

    While BenJarvus Green-Ellis is currently above rookie rusher Jeremy Hill on the Cincinnati Bengals depth chart, that's pretty meaningless at this point.

    Hill will end up splitting time with Giovani Bernard in the Bengals backfield and could emerge as a preseason star in the Queen City.


    San Francisco 49ers RB Carlos Hyde

    With San Francisco running backs dropping like flies (Kendall Hunter is out for the season and LaMichael James is recovering from a dislocated elbow), it looks like second-round rookie Carlos Hyde is set to receive a lot of preseason action.


    Atlanta Falcons RB Devonta Freeman

    One of the stars of the debut episode of Hard Knocks, fourth-round rusher Devonta Freeman will play early and often for the Atlanta Falcons, especially considering his main competition is the oft-injured Steven Jackson, who is already on the shelf with a hamstring injury.


    Jacksonville Jaguars LB Telvin Smith

    Telvin Smith, a fifth-round pick of the Jacksonville Jaguars, could easily end up starting at weak-side linebacker in Week 1. He's drawn rave reviews thanks to his speed and could very well emerge during the preseason.

New Coaching Staffs

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    Alex Brandon/Associated Press

    There are seven new head coaches (and staffs), who will attempt to garner momentum in the preseason to carry over into the regular campaign.


    Mike Pettine, Cleveland Browns

    Although the Browns seemingly interviewed everyone under the sun except you and me for their head coaching vacancy, they made the right choice in Pettine, the former defensive coordinator of the Jets and Bills.

    What to watch: Pettine has a number of defensive pieces to work with, and it'll be compelling to watch how he employs them. Also noteworthy will be how he handles the quarterback situation. Will he roll the dice with the rookie Manziel or opt for the veteran option in Hoyer?


    Bill O'Brien, Houston Texans

    The former offensive coordinator of the Patriots, new Houston Texans coach Bill O'Brien inherited the NFL's worst team from 2013.

    But there are pieces in place for a significant improvement, and O'Brien is a major reason why. 

    What to watch: It'll be interesting to see how much leeway he affords quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, or if the offense will be primarily geared around running back Arian Foster.


    Ken Whisenhunt, Tennessee Titans

    The Tennessee Titans are perhaps the most nondescript team in the NFL and are completely devoid of any discernible identity.

    It'll be up to new coach Ken Whisenhunt to change that, preferably in the preseason. The strength of the team appears to be the offensive line, and the Titans did a spend a second-round pick on a running back (Sankey), so it's possible that they'll try to pound opponents into submission on the ground.

    What to watch: Can Whisenhunt coax success out of Jake Locker?


    Jay Gruden, Washington Redskins

    New Washington Redskins coach Jay Gruden inherits the mess left behind by the deposed Mike Shanahan, and his first order of business needs to be getting quarterback Robert Griffin III back to the level of play Griffin displayed as a rookie in 2012.

    What to watch: What kind of offense will Gruden run? Will the team be more cohesive and disciplined? The preseason could hold early answers to these questions. 


    Jim Caldwell, Detroit Lions

    An uninspired hire, new Detroit Lions coach Jim Caldwell has two clear directives: elevate the play of quarterback Matthew Stafford and improve team discipline.

    What to watch: Lions fans should be pleased with the preseason if Stafford plays smart football and the team doesn't commit a ton of dumb penalties.


    Mike Zimmer, Minnesota Vikings

    The Minnesota Vikings probably won't contend for a playoff berth in 2014, but new coach Mike Zimmer does have a reasonably talented roster to work with.

    What to watch: Zimmer has a big decision to make on the club's starting quarterback, and Vikings fans should be excited to see how he deploys first-round pass-rusher Anthony Barr.


    Lovie Smith, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

    No NFL team went through an offseason overhaul like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and it started with the hire of new coach Lovie Smith.

    What to watch: Keep an eye on how Smith's Tampa 2 defense will look and play. Also watch whether Josh McCown can find success throwing to the titanic pass-catching trio of receivers Vincent Jackson and Evans and tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.

Heated Training Camp Battles Still Ongoing

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Every year, training camp battles extend into the preseason. Here are four sure to last throughout the next month, not including quarterbacks, which were already highlighted in a previous slide.


    New England Patriots Running Backs

    Stevan Ridley and Shane Vereen are the incumbent options atop the New England Patriots depth chart at running back, but rookie James White is coming on strong, per Shalise Manza-Young of The Boston Globe.


    Oakland Raiders Running Backs

    Free-agent signing Maurice Jones-Drew was listed as the starting running back on the Oakland Raiders' initial depth chart, but he'll still need to hold off Darren McFadden and Latavius Murray in the preseason.


    Indianapolis Colts Wide Receivers

    Reggie Wayne and T.Y. Hilton are set as the Indianapolis Colts' top-two options at wide receiver. But the depth chart behind them is nebulous, as the presumed third pass-catcher, Hakeem Nicks, has failed to dazzle, per offensive coordinator Pep Hamilton (via Tom James of the Terre Haute Tribune Star). Rookie Donte Moncrief is the player to watch.


    Dallas Cowboys Middle Linebacker

    Justin Durant, DeVonte Holloman, Rolando McClain and Anthony Hitchens are competing to see who will replace the injured Sean Lee at middle linebacker in Dallas. Durant is the favorite, but don't count out Hitchens, the team's fourth-round pick from this past May's draft.

The Most Important Player of the Preseason: Buffalo Bills QB EJ Manuel

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    Ron Schwane/Associated Press

    If Buffalo Bills second-year quarterback EJ Manuel lives up to the billing, the team will end its 14-year postseason drought.

    But if the team's first preseason contest—the Hall of Fame game against the Giants this past Sunday—is any indication, Manuel has a lot of work to do.

    Manuel completed two of seven pass attempts for 19 yards, often locking on to receivers as if a roster bonus depended on it. 

    Yes, it was only the first game of the preseason, and there's plenty of time for Manuel to round into form—but it was a disconcerting start for a player with the weight of a franchise (and city) on his shoulders.

    The New England Patriots will win the AFC East; print the hats and T-shirts now. But the rest of the division, like the AFC, is totally wide open. One could make an intelligent case for either the Bills, Jets or Dolphins to claim second place in the AFC East and potentially earn a wild-card berth.

    Out of those three teams, the Bills possess the most talent. There are playmakers at the skill positions. The defensive line is stacked. There are pass-rushers, and there is a shutdown cornerback (Stephon Gilmore).

    It's not an exaggeration to say the Bills' season rides on the right arm of Manuel. 

    He's the single-most important player in the entire preseason. If he gets it together and fashions a couple of sterling performances, Bills fans should feel very confident heading into the year.

    But if he continues to struggle or can't stay healthy, forget about it. The Bills will not only miss the postseason, but they'll send a top-10 pick in next year's draft to Cleveland.

Hard Knocks!

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    Jason Getz/Associated Press

    I'm convinced. The only people who don't like HBO's Hard Knocks also don't appreciate pizza or puppies.

    The 2014 iteration, starring the Atlanta Falcons, debuted this past Tuesday night, and it was awesome.

    From Liev Schreiber's superb narration to the leadership of running back Steven Jackson to coach Mike Smith's effortless impression of a Tony Soprano capo, it's a tremendously entertaining hour of television.

    Let's examine some of the highlights from Episode 1:

    • Rookie linebacker Tyler Starr's gorgeous fiance proved that no matter what happens in his football career, he's a winner at the game of life.
    • Receiver Harry Douglas burst onto the scene with some tremendously funny lines, including his love of women's deodorant.
    • Quarterback Matt Ryan was as awkward as expected, but as long as he throws touchdown passes in droves, Falcons fans won't care.
    • The sudden retirement of 2009 first-round pick Peria Jerry made for compelling television. We here at Bleacher Report wish Jerry well in his future endeavors.

    The Falcons are seeking to bounce back from a horrendous 4-12 campaign, and the Hard Knocks cameras will be at every preseason game ready to capture all the drama. 

    It's going to be amazing to watch.

Games to Watch

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    Ted S. Warren/Associated Press

    While it's not exactly the regular season or the postseason (that's the biggest understatement since my ex-girlfriend described Kate Upton as "cute"), the preseason is still capable of delivering quality entertainment and juicy storylines. 

    Here are 10 preseason games sure to wet the whistle of football fans across the country:


    Week 1

    Thursday, August 7, Indianapolis at N.Y. Jets: Smith gets first crack at claiming the Jets' starting quarterback job.

    Thursday, August 7, Seattle at Denver: A Super Bowl XLVIII rematch! I'm most excited for Denver's opening snap, which surely won't go as poorly as it did this past February. It'll be fun to watch Manning go against the Seahawks defense again, if only for a possession or two. The two clubs will meet again in Week 3 of the regular season at Seattle

    Thursday, August 7, Dallas at San Diego: The much-maligned Cowboys defense draws the Chargers and quarterback Philip Rivers. Good luck with that, Dallas.

    Saturday, August 9, Cleveland at Detroit: The preseason debut of Manziel. Need I say more?



    Week 2

    Thursday, August 14, Jacksonville at Chicago: Bortles will likely get a long look against the Bears' revamped defense.

    Saturday, August 16, Arizona at Minnesota: Bridgewater will probably start this contest, and if so, he'll face a major test in Arizona's swarming defense.


    Week 3

    Saturday, August 23, Tampa Bay at Buffalo: As noted earlier, Manuel is the most important player in the entire preseason. Week 3's contest against the Buccaneers provides his dress rehearsal for the regular campaign.

    Saturday, August 23, New Orleans at IndianapolisDrew Brees against Andrew Luck? Sign me up. With both quarterbacks likely to play into the second half, this one has serious point-scoring potential.

    Saturday, August 23, Houston at Denver: Manning could be running for his life against Texans pass-rushers Watt and Clowney.


    Week 4

    Thursday, August 28, Seattle at Oakland: With Raiders presumed starting quarterback Schaub likely to only play a series or two, Carr will see the bulk of the action.