NFL Preseason Week 1: What to Watch for in Friday's Matchups

Nick Kostos@@thekostosContributor IAugust 8, 2014

NFL Preseason Week 1: What to Watch for in Friday's Matchups

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    While many (incorrectly) dismiss the preseason as nothing more than a month's worth of fodder before the regular season begins, there is much knowledge to be gleaned from the proceedings.

    In some instances, it's a specific player, but in others, a position group could be key to a team's performance. There are rookie quarterbacks on display, and revamped areas of need will be put to the test.

    Even though the result of each game ultimately doesn't matter, the process does, and it provides a tremendous indicator as to the development of certain players.

    Here is what to watch for in Friday night's NFL preseason matchups.

Can Bills QB EJ Manuel Improve on His Hall of Fame Game Performance?

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    Earlier this week, I wrote that Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel is the most important player of the entire preseason.

    With the roster looking as strong as it's been in quite some time, even above-average play at the quarterback position should be enough to end Buffalo's 14-year postseason drought. It's not an exaggeration to say the Bills' playoff hopes ride on the right arm of Manuel.

    Unfortunately for Bills fans, if Manuel's performance in the Hall of Fame Game this past weekend against the Giants is any indication, not only will the playoff dreams dissipate into nothingness, but the team will be sending a top-10 pick in the 2015 draft to the Cleveland Browns (as part of the draft-day trade that netted receiver Sammy Watkins).

    Manuel went 2 of 7 for 19 yards against Big Blue and had more passes batted away (three) than completions (two). He stared down receivers with the zeal of a fat dude at Krispy Kreme and had the glazed-over look of a neophyte, despite having started 10 games last year.

    And then there's this, coming from Joe Buscaglia of on Wednesday:

    For the second straight day, Manuel was apprehensive, indecisive and mostly inaccurate. His most common course of action on any given play was to look for his first read to be open, pat the ball in the pocket and either take a sack or throw an inaccurate pass. The inconsistency in going through his progressions has to be the most maddening part for the coaching staff.

    That's the kind of criticism normally levied at a rookie passer or one in the first year of a new system. This is Manuel's second year under the same offensive coordinator (Nathaniel Hackett) and in the same system. There's no excuse for him to not be further along.

    Manuel has four more preseason games to right the ship, starting Friday night in Carolina.

Vikings QB Teddy Bridgewater's Performance with the 1st Team

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    The Minnesota Vikings quarterback competition kicks into overdrive on Friday night when they host the Oakland Raiders, as veteran Matt Cassel will attempt to hold off rookie Teddy Bridgewater.

    While Cassel will get the start, coach Mike Zimmer told Matt Vensel of the Star Tribune that Bridgewater would also see action with the first team.

    At this point in his career, the 32-year-old Cassel is who he is. He was the best of a terrible trio of signal-callers a year ago in the Twin Cities (which also included Christian Ponder and Josh Freeman) and doesn't possess much upside.

    Bridgewater, on the other hand, has impressed coaches and teammates alike throughout the offseason and offers legitimate hope to a franchise seeking to ascend out of the NFC North basement.

    This week, Zimmer praised Bridgewater, telling Rich Gannon of SiriusXM NFL Radio (via Vensel):

    (Bridgewater) has so much talent, so much ability. He’s such a good kid. He works so hard. It will come. We’ve been giving him a lot of looks on defense and honestly that’s by design. When he’s in there, I try to give him a lot of things because I know that’s what he’s going to see. He’s handled it well.

    Vikings fans are hoping Bridgewater plays well against the Raiders and carries over that performance into a likely preseason Week 2 start at home against Arizona.

    If Bridgewater claims the starting job and dazzles as a greenhorn, the Vikings could be one of the NFL's surprise teams.

Miami's Rebuilt Offensive Line

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    Last season, the Miami Dolphins couldn't protect quarterback Ryan Tannehill, allowing a ridiculous 58 sacks.

    New general manager Dennis Hickey smartly realized that Tannehill, his franchise quarterback—and the Dolphins as a whole—would have no chance of success in 2014 unless the offensive line was overhauled.

    And overhauled it was.

    Hickey signed tackle Branden Albert and guard Shelley Smith in the free-agent period and drafted tackle Ja'Wuan James in the first round. Onetime Miami center Samson Satele was brought back to South Beach to hold down the fort until Mike Pouncey, the team's starter at the position, is fully recovered from his torn hip labrum.

    The revamped line faces its first test on Friday night in Atlanta, and while the Falcons don't possess a fearsome pass rush, it would still count as progress if Tannehill were afforded the opportunity to stand tall in a clean pocket, even if only for one or two possessions.

    If the offensive line plays well this year, the Dolphins have a chance at making the postseason. They hope to get off to a flying start against the Falcons.

The Revamped Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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    No team in the NFL underwent a more dramatic offseason overhaul than the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

    The club features a new head coach (Lovie Smith), general manager (Jason Licht) and starting quarterback (Josh McCown), and that's just the tip of the iceberg.

    The Buccaneers went wild in free agency, signing tackle Anthony Collins, defensive end Michael Johnson and cornerback Alterraun Verner, among others. Plus, the draft netted a bevy of young talent at the skill positions, highlighted by wide receiver Mike Evans (first round), tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins (second round) and running back Charles Sims (third round).

    As a result, they are an extremely intriguing team as the regular season draws nearer. Some (including yours truly) believe they are a playoff-caliber squad despite coming off a disastrous 4-12 campaign in 2013.

    But there are questions: Is McCown good enough to lead the Buccaneers to the playoffs? Will Smith's Tampa 2 defense slow down the high-powered offenses inside the NFC South? Can the new players jell and form a cohesive unit?

    The new-look Buccaneers get their first crack at answering those queries on Friday night in Jacksonville. 

Can the Panthers WRs Step Up?

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    Let's take a moment to remember the 2013 Carolina Panthers receiving corps. Take whatever drink is closest to you, pour a little out and nod your head in remembrance of players like Steve Smith, Ted Ginn Jr. and Brandon LaFell.

    Now let's examine the receivers currently on the Panthers' depth chart.

    What I see is first-round rookie Kelvin Benjamin and a bunch of journeymen. Quarterback Cam Newton won't exactly be throwing to a galaxy of talented pass-catchers.

    Benjamin will be joined by veterans Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant, Tiquan Underwood, Tavarres King and Marvin McNutt. 

    Yes, that is disgusting, and yes, you should feel badly for Newton.

    The Panthers are coming off a 12-4 season that netted them the NFC South title and a first-round bye in the NFC playoffs but appear likely to regress this year, and the pithy receiving corps is a major reason why. Tight end Greg Olsen is excellent, but he can't get it done by himself. Benjamin will need to be a beast in his rookie year, and the receiver position is notoriously tough on rookies.

    The receivers will see their first action on Friday night against the Bills, and Benjamin is clearly the player to watch. If he turns out to be a stud, the Panthers could very well find themselves back in the discussion for the division crown.

The Rams' Fearsome Defensive Line

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    Imagine you're a quarterback getting ready to face the 2014 St. Louis Rams.

    You'd be staring down the barrel of long, sleepless nights paralyzed by fear. You'd be drenched in sweat, fretfully imagining the three hours of pressure you'd soon be under. And when you finally fell asleep, your dreams would turn to nightmares, with the principal antagonists being Rams defensive ends Robert Quinn and Chris Long and defensive tackles Michael Brockers and rookie Aaron Donald.

    That's how good the Rams defensive line could be. That's how good the Rams defensive line should be.

    Quinn is an absolute beast, a living, breathing heat-seeking missile aimed at opposing passers. His 19 sacks last year set a franchise record. Long and Brockers are both fearsome players (thought the latter isn't expected to play Friday, per Howard Balzer of Fox Sports West), and Donald has the potential to wreak havoc as a neophyte. Those four players give the Rams their best chance of achieving a winning season for the first time since 2004.

    The first quarterback group they'll attempt to terrorize belongs to the New Orleans Saints, the Rams' opponent Friday night.

    So please forgive Drew Brees and Co. if they don't get a full eight hours of shuteye before the game.

Electrifying Saints Rookie WR Brandin Cooks

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    There's hype, there's over-the-top hype and then there's the hype swirling around New Orleans Saints rookie receiver Brandin Cooks.

    Cooks has sparkled throughout the offseason with his electrifying speed and dynamic playmaking ability, drawing praise from teammates and causing fantasy players to salivate. Saints cornerback Keenan Lewis recently told NFL Media's Ian Rapoport, "When you're guarding a guy like (Cooks), you've got to make sure that your shoes are very tight, because he will probably leave you out of your shoes."

    With running back Darren Sproles now in Philadelphia, Cooks will be afforded the opportunity to make an immediate impact.

    His first meaningful action comes on Friday night as the Saints play in St. Louis, and Cooks could shine on the turf of the Edward Jones Dome.

Debuts of Jags Rookie QB Blake Bortles and Raiders Rookie QB Derek Carr

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    The Jaguars (home against Tampa Bay) and the Raiders (visiting Minnesota) both make their preseason debuts on Friday night, and those games will be noteworthy for the debuts of their rookie passers: Jacksonville's Blake Bortles and Oakland's Derek Carr.

    Bortles and Carr aren't competing for starting jobs, and as a result, they won't play with the first-team offense. But both signal-callers represent the future of their respective franchises and will be watched closely as a result.

    While neither will start in Week 1, it's very likely both will see action during the season. Regardless of what Jaguars GM David Caldwell says about wanting to "redshirt" Bortles this year, their tune will surely change once they drop out of playoff contention. And once the Raiders do the same, it'll make sense to inject Carr into the starting lineup.

    Their NFL journeys will both embark on Friday night.

2 NFC Playoff Contenders Square Off in Chicago

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    Friday night's contest in Chicago between the Bears and Philadelphia Eagles will provide a glimpse of two teams sure to compete for playoff spots in the NFC.

    The Eagles are coming off a 10-6 campaign and NFC East championship in coach Chip Kelly's first season, and they appear to once again be the class of the division. Quarterback Nick Foles serves as the triggerman of the team's devastating offensive attack, and running back LeSean McCoy is a star. If the defense improves, the Eagles will be a legitimate Super Bowl contender.

    Last year, the Bears missed the playoffs in heartbreaking fashion, dropping a Week 17 decision to the Packers that eliminated them from contention.

    But the defense has been overhauled, with defensive ends Jared Allen, Lamarr Houston and Willie Young joining rookie cornerback Kyle Fuller as new faces in the unit. The offense is sure to be explosive with quarterback Jay Cutler, running back Matt Forte and receivers Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery.

    While the starters won't play for long, there's no denying this is the marquee contest on Friday night, as both the Eagles and Bears will seek to get off on the right foot and garner momentum into what they hope will be a season that ends with a postseason berth.

Falcons Rookie RB Devonta Freeman

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    One of the stars of the debut episode of HBO's 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.

    And the club clearly likes Freeman. In speaking to's Vaughn McClure after the draft concluded, Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff waxed poetic about Freeman and gushed over his ability:

    He's a versatile back. He has the ability to tote the rock as a lead back. He's a strong guy. He runs with some authority and some anger to his running style. He can catch the ball well. And for us, we thought he was just a real versatile addition to our running back group.

    Falcons offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter did recently tell Michael Cunningham of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Freeman is experiencing "growing pains," but that isn't out of the ordinary for a rookie running back being inserted into the starting lineup.

    With Jackson out, Freeman will see a ton of action on Friday night as the Falcons open up their preseason slate against the Dolphins. 

    Falcons fans and fantasy football enthusiasts will surely be monitoring his progress.