Players with the Most on the Line in the Final NFL Preseason Game
If the third preseason game is the dress rehearsal, then Week 4 often provides the blooper reel.
Generally speaking, most teams want to play their starters as little as possible in Week 4 and make sure everyone is healthy for the regular season. This leads to extended time for not only the backups, but also for the deep reserves, and it results in some of the least watchable football of the entire league year.
In the most positive terms, some teams will use this final exhibition game to help sort out the final couple spots of their roster, but for the most part, these are games that most players, coaches and executives would rather be able to hit that same "simulate" button most people do when this game comes up on Madden.
Still, some teams still have work to be done and some players still have cases to make—rookies who haven't quite stepped up as expected or veterans thrust into position battles they didn't expect. Maybe it isn't just a defined roster spot or role they're fighting for; it's also a matter of making a case to the rest of their teammates that they can be trusted.
These guys have one more week to state their case to the entire league.
Bleacher Report Lead Writers Erik Frenz, Andrea Hangst, Zach Kruse, Rivers McCown and Chris Hansen contributed to this report. Quotes from them were collected firsthand.
Jimmy Garoppolo (QB New England Patriots)
The New England Patriots are hoping quarterback Ryan Mallett becomes trade bait for them this season and, according to NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, are holding him out of this week's game, likely to make sure he's healthy.
This gives rookie passer Jimmy Garoppolo a chance to show Patriots fans and the league at large that he's to be taken seriously as Tom Brady's backup—something he's already done well this preseason. In fact, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required), Garoppolo has been the 10th-best quarterback during this exhibition slate and the second-best rookie after Jacksonville's Blake Bortles.
Thursday's contest against the New York Giants will give Garoppolo a chance to play with a limited amount of the starters against a limited amount of starters, and there will be far more tape on him after this game than just the 81 snaps he has right now.
In terms of career-long NFL success, I actually prefer Garoppolo to Mallett and think his footwork and lightning-quick release give the Patriots a perfect building block in the post-Brady era if they can refine Garoppolo's mechanics and take his game to the next level.
Brady still has plenty of time left, but this week's preseason games could be a nice preview of what is to come.
Bishop Sankey (RB Tennessee Titans)
Tennessee Titans running back Bishop Sankey was already behind the eight ball due to the University of Washington's late graduation. Fumbling the ball—both in practice and in game action—won't help him make the case that he deserves to be the Titans' lead back.
Maybe Week 4's contest against the Vikings will help him make that case.
Sankey, physically speaking, is the most talented guy in the stable of backs.
Shonn Greene may offer some short-yardage power, but Sankey showcased better power than Greene in college and runs better between the tackles. Dexter McCluster—whom the Kansas City Chiefs preferred at wide receiver—may be a shifty gadget back, but Sankey is a talented pass-catcher and has plenty of speed as well.
After being selected in the second round of this past year's draft, Sankey should be the guy, but he's failed to take hold of his spot. This is another chance.
Da'Rick Rogers (WR Indianapolis Colts)
Bleacher Report's brand-new AFC South Lead Writer Rivers McCown suggested Indianapolis Colts wide receiver Da'Rick Rogers for this list, saying: "Rogers and Griff Whalen could be competing for one roster spot." While that's a testament to Whalen's steadiness and work ethic, Rogers is spotlit here because he shouldn't even be in this position.
A few years ago, Rogers was a superstar on a Tennessee wide receiving corps that also included the Minnesota Vikings' Cordarrelle Patterson and Tennessee Titans' Justin Hunter. Rogers, though, ended up at Tennessee Tech in 2013 after failing three drug tests during his time as a Volunteer.
Frankly, things have just failed to click for Rogers in the NFL. One moment, he'll flash some of the brilliance that made him such an enticing player before the draft. The next, he'll go long stretches with sloppy route running and failing to get open.
Whalen has been the better receiver—marginally speaking—this preseason, but a strong Rogers performance in Week 4 could invite the Colts to take a gamble and use a roster spot on this diamond in the very deep rough.
Jake Matthews (OT Atlanta Falcons)
If Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Jake Matthews was struggling on the right side, then quarterback Matt Ryan is in for a rough season with the rookie protecting his blind side. And that's where Matthews will have to play, following a season-ending injury to tackle Sam Baker.
Rewind just a year, and Matthews' stock could not have been higher. When former teammate and fellow tackle Luke Joeckel was selected in the first round of the 2013 NFL draft, the caveat was: Well, Joeckel is good, but he's no Jake Matthews. Then, Matthews kicked over to the left side for the Texas A&M Aggies and solidified his status as one of the top tackles in the 2014 draft class.
Though, ironically, many are now intimating that: Matthews is good, but he's no Cedric Ogbuehi.
This preseason, Matthews has struggled with both the speed and strength of NFL-caliber athletes. Moreover, he looks lost on the field at times as he transitions from the wide-open Air Raid offense of the Aggies to a more traditional NFL pro set with smaller splits and more defined and diverse linemen roles.
In Week 4, Matthews will get a little more seasoning that will hopefully allow him to transition quicker than it appears he has. Ryan needs better than what he has had from this position for a long time.
Gabe Jackson (OG Oakland Raiders)
This would be a pleasant surprise.
Bleacher Report's AFC West Lead Writer Chris Hansen suggested Oakland Raiders guard Gabe Jackson for this list, saying that he "could steal a starting spot." In my opinion, though, Jackson has earned this role with his fantastic play this preseason.
When the Raiders drafted Jackson in the third round this past May, I actually anointed him as the potential starter in my draft grades, giving the Raiders an A for the selection. While I admitted that Jackson would likely make plenty of mistakes along the way and has questionable athleticism against NFL speed-rushers, I've always been impressed with his strong hands and ability to finish plays.
According to Pro Football Focus, Jackson has been the fourth-best guard in the entire NFL during this preseason and has graded out far higher than I've expected in pass blocking.
To be clear: The regular season will be a whole new ballgame for Jackson as teams start to roll out more complicated line stunts and blitzes, but he's earned his shot over guys like Khalif Barnes and Austin Howard. In Week 4, Jackson should have one last chance to show he belongs on the field to start Week 1.
Nate Burleson (WR Cleveland Browns)
The Cleveland Browns could use a positive headline at the receiver position.
In the offseason, the consistent drumbeat was that the Browns had failed to adequately prepare for starting wideout Josh Gordon's absence. The supremely talented Gordon was arguably the best receiver in football last season, but he is currently appealing a yearlong suspension.
Bleacher Report's AFC North Lead Writer Andrea Hangst suggested Burleson for this list, saying:
"He has been sidelined with a hamstring for most of camp, hasn't played in the preseason and is just now practicing. Though the Browns are thin at wideout—especially veterans—that whole ability/availability thing comes into play here, especially since hamstrings can be a nagging injury. He needs to prove he can go."
Burleson doesn't replace Gordon's athleticism or production, but he can be a steady presence for starter Brian Hoyer. Burleson has long won matchups he had no business winning with excellent route running, sure hands and a fantastic work ethic.
If the wideout can show he's ready for Week 1, Hoyer may have himself a new best friend.
Knowshon Moreno and Lamar Miller (RB Miami Dolphins)
The Miami Dolphins should know who their starting running back is by now.
According to ESPN's James Walker, they don't. They are still evaluating the position, which may mean that they're going to go over everything they see, or it may mean that they use Week 4 as a sort of final exam for two guys who have failed to truly grab hold of the brass ring.
Moreno is the leader in my personal clubhouse, as he was brought in from the Denver Broncos this offseason because he is a well-rounded, veteran back. He is the better overall runner (though he is admittedly far less explosive). He pass blocks and receives better than Miller. He already looks like he gets the offense better than Miller.
Miller has long had fans—vocal ones—in media draft circles who couldn't understand (like me) why Daniel Thomas got featured above the speedster when Thomas clearly had neither the athleticism nor the skills of his counterpart.
This Dolphins regime has made mistakes at the running back position for a while now, but bringing Moreno in was a good choice. Hopefully after Week 4, we'll know if they've figured things out.
Derek Carr (QB Oakland Raiders)
You're up, kid.
Oakland Raiders rookie quarterback Derek Carr is just outside the top tier of passers who people really like to talk about from this past draft class. Drafted 36th overall, he's not quite as enticing or buzzworthy as the Johnny Manziels of the world, but he may end up as the first rookie quarterback of the class to start.
This offseason's free-agent acquisition quarterback Matt Schaub was slated for starter's duty, but he's dealing with a case of elbow tendinitis, via NFL.com's Ian Rapoport, which has sapped him of his already-shaky arm strength.
It's Wally Pipp time.
Carr's NFL readiness was always in question thanks to Fresno State's college-style offense and Carr's sub-adequate decision-making and mechanics, but the physical tools are all there. Frankly, it's difficult to watch the two of these guys play the game and wonder why Carr hasn't gotten a shot sooner.
Maybe with a big performance in Week 4, Carr can show head coach Dennis Allen and the Raiders coaching staff that he truly is the best man for the job.
The New York Jets Cornerbacks
Originally, New York Jets cornerback Dimitri Patterson was going to be in this spot, but he was suspended indefinitely, via Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith, after leaving the team because he was upset with the pecking order at cornerback and losing his role due to injury.
If that doesn't scream "toxic player" and/or "toxic atmosphere," I don't know what does.
The Jets were right to suspend Patterson and to try to get this thing under wraps, but they have no idea who their starter is. 2013 first-rounder Dee Milliner is still sidelined by a high ankle sprain, and the Jets "remain non-committal on [his] status for the opener," according to ESPN New York's Rich Cimini.
Bleacher Report's AFC East Lead Writer Erik Frenz suggested widening this slide's purview to the entire Jets cornerback unit, because each and every one of them might be able to use this game to make their case.
Shaun Hill (QB St. Louis Rams)
Longtime journeyman quarterback Shaun Hill may not be the future, but he's definitely the St. Louis Rams' present.
When starting quarterback Sam Bradford went down in Week 3 of the preseason and re-injured the ACL that sidelined him in 2013, via ESPN's Chris Mortensen on Twitter, speculation abounded as to whom the Rams could turn to. Some thought Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Mark Sanchez could reunite with his old offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer (not going to happen); others thought Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins or New England Patriots quarterback Ryan Mallett could be options.
In all honesty, the best man for the job is already suited up and ready to go.
Hill has been one of the more talented backup quarterbacks in the league for years, but he's rarely been pressed into action. He's never wilted against pressure and has often had better statistical outings than the starters who sat in front of him (Alex Smith in San Francisco and Bradford are two that fit that description).
The Rams likely weren't getting anywhere with Bradford that they couldn't hypothetically also get with Hill, but the real moral of the story here is that the Rams will almost certainly need to address the quarterback position in the upcoming 2015 NFL draft. There's no reason to mortgage the future in any way by trading for a quarterback like Cousins or Mallett.
Frankly, neither of those guys would be more ready than the talented Hill, who has already taken plenty of reps in this offense. Week 4 is a great chance for Hill to silence anyone who doesn't believe that.
Michael Schottey is an NFL National Lead Writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff on his archive page and follow him on Twitter. Unless otherwise cited, quotes were obtained firsthand by the author.