NFL Preseason Week 3: What to Watch for in Friday's Action

Sean Tomlinson@@SeanGTomlinsonNFL AnalystAugust 26, 2016

NFL Preseason Week 3: What to Watch for in Friday's Action

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    Bills WR Sammy Watkins
    Bills WR Sammy WatkinsTimothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

    I can only assume that if you use the words "dress rehearsal" inside the New England Patriots locker room in reference to Week 3 of the preseason, then dressing isn't something you'll be doing at all.

    Patriots head coach Bill Belichick tried to throw dirt on an expression you'll hear repeatedly all weekend, telling WEEI (via ESPN.com's Mike Reiss) that Week 3 of the preseason isn't in the "same universe" as regular-season football.

    He's not wrong. Even though starters will generally play the entire first half and often into the third quarter, a blandness is still spread throughout each game. The basic offensive and defensive schemes are trotted out, with little to no game-planning involved.

    But it's the playing time that matters most, as this is often the one and only time we're going to see certain marquee players get preseason tuneup snaps in. And that's the case throughout the five games Friday night.

    We'll see the Pittsburgh Steelers' three core offensive studs on the field together. Witnessing that has often been on par with seeing Halley's comet.

    The Cleveland Browns will similarly get their top three wideouts on the field at the same time. Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins will also get his first preseason action as he goes about the business of trying to save his head coach's job. And Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers will likely make a brief appearance, too.

    So key players will dress, though how much they'll actually be rehearsing for the regular season is debatable.

    Let's dive into that and more as we look ahead to what's teed up for Friday night.

Can Colin Kaepernick Make It an Actual QB Competition in San Francisco?

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    49ers QB Colin Kaepernick
    49ers QB Colin KaepernickAssociated Press

    There was a time earlier in the offseason when it seemed like the San Francisco 49ers would have the league's only true quarterback competition. Then Colin Kaepernick's arm rolled over and played dead as he recovered from surgery.

    The 49ers and new head coach Chip Kelly have been left with Blaine Gabbert as the almost certain Week 1 starter. Gabbert hasn't won the job with his 52.6 completion percentage over two preseason games. He just hasn't lost the top spot, because losing something is impossible when no one is around to take it from you.

    But there's a faint chance that could change in Week 3 of the preseason. And any chance to not call Gabbert your starting quarterback is warmly welcomed.

    Kaepernick's arm was woken from its slumber on Monday when he threw  in practice for the first time since Aug. 10. He went through a full practice and then declared his arm is "back to normal," according to Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee. The 2011 second-round pick has now been splitting first-team snaps with Gabbert.

    How well he's truly progressing in terms of being in game shape remains to be seen. But the fact Kaepernick has been progressing at all is encouraging, and that he's already able to throw his standard laser beams is a bonus.

    "It was a great throw," 49ers safety Jimmie Ward said after Kaepernick connected with wide receiver Bruce Ellington on a pinpoint corner route against him, per Cam Inman of the Bay Area News Group. "I couldn't get my hands on the ball. Kap was making some good throws today."

    Kaepernick will make his preseason debut Friday night. When he enters the game and how much the 28-year-old plays will be the focus for some. But those details matter less than the essentials, like how he's adjusting to being immersed in game speed for the first time since November 2015, and how well his supposedly fresh arm can deliver deep downfield while navigating a pass rush.

    If he can pass those tests, Kaepernick may plant the seed for eventually returning to his starting role.

A Trio of Steelers Stars Are Making Their Preseason Debuts

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    Steelers QB Ben Roethlisberger
    Steelers QB Ben RoethlisbergerJustin K. Aller/Getty Images

    A number tied to the 2015 Pittsburgh Steelers is either amazing or terrifying depending on which color you paint your face (and other body parts?) each Sunday. That number? Two.

    The core of Pittsburgh's offense is quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, wide receiver Antonio Brown and running back Le'Veon Bell. Those three were on the field together during the 2015 regular season a grand total of two times due to injuries and suspensions.

    Yet the Steelers still won 10 games, then went to the playoffs and won a game there too. Their depth at multiple offensive skill positions was enough to still average 395.4 yards per game (third) and 6.3 yards per play (tied for first).

    So just imagine if Bell, Brown and Roethlisberger can stay healthy and off the league's naughty list for a prolonged stretch. Your imagination will be fueled Friday when all three are expected to take their first (and likely only) preseason snaps together against the New Orleans Saints.

    Most starters will play at least the first half in Week 3. But the best guess for Roethlisberger's exit is shortly after the first quarter.

    It's important to dust off some rust before games matter and, as a quarterback, face a pass rush that will physically punish you. But the Steelers will surely put Roethlisberger back in his bubble wrap before long. He's a 34-year-old who missed four games in 2015 due to a knee injury and then had to hobble around while basically playing on one leg during several other games.

    If the Steelers had the foresight to get their own version of Dak Prescott—a promising quarterback for the future and a quality short-term backup behind an oft-injured starting veteran—then there wouldn't be the need for a protective preseason shield around Roethlisberger.

    Instead, Landry Jones is still the next man up behind Roethlisberger. Yes, the Landry Jones who threw four interceptions in Week 2 of the preseason.

Just How Much of a "Work in Progress" Is Coby Fleener?

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    Saints TE Coby Fleener
    Saints TE Coby FleenerGeorge Bridges/Associated Press

    Coby Fleener should excel immediately with the New Orleans Saints. The tight end should quickly enjoy his new life filled with precision from quarterback Drew Brees. And he should happily soak up an offense that's often centered around his position.

    All of that could happen in time. But for now there's still a learning curve and a getting-to-know-you phase.

    Fleener has caught just three balls for 23 yards over the Saints' first two preseason games. Usually we'd be able to brush those sputtering totals aside and call them a product of limited playing time. And that's true, but a collective shrug becomes more difficult when there's talk of Fleener still struggling to adjust to his new surroundings late in August.

    "It's an ongoing progression," head coach Sean Payton told Josh Katzenstein of the Times-Picayune. "I think, man, there's some plays that are real good, and then there's some plays where we've got to be a little bit more detailed and that's something that I know he's got to work on."

    There's certainly no need for panic here, as what Payton describes seems like the standard preseason inconsistencies of a new player adjusting to his new offense with a new quarterback. But as the days tick down to September, it's fine to let some concern creep in.

    Fleener is a young (27), athletic pass-catcher who just escaped the shackles of the Indianapolis Colts' dual-tight end system. Now he has an opportunity to establish himself as one of the league's premier talents at his position, and do it in an offense that treats tight ends as the golden ticket to the end zone. Jimmy Graham scored 51 touchdowns over his five seasons in New Orleans, and even a 35-year-old Benjamin Watson recorded a career-high 825 receiving yards in 2015.

    Fleener is next in line, and proving he belongs among that group starts Friday against the Steelers.

Are the Panthers' Rookie Cornerbacks Progressing Well?

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    Panthers CBs Daryl Worley (left), James Bradberry, Zack Sanchez
    Panthers CBs Daryl Worley (left), James Bradberry, Zack SanchezAssociated Press

    The NFL salary cap can lead to both lost players and lost hair as difficult decisions are made. For the Carolina Panthers this offseason, that process ended with cornerback Josh Norman playing elsewhere.

    The next step was to further fortify an already ferocious front seven that finished 2015 with 44 sacks (sixth). Using a first-round pick on defensive tackle Vernon Butler quickly took care of that.

    The hope, of course, is to make Norman's departure matter less because opposing quarterbacks will resemble fluffy pancakes. But for the few times those quarterbacks do get a pass attempt off, the Panthers still need trustworthy corners.

    That is a problem, because starting two rookies is always a problem.

    After drafting Butler, the Panthers then turned their attention to their swirling vortex at cornerback. Of their remaining four picks, three were used on cornerbacks. Essentially, general manager Dave Gettleman bought as many cornerback lottery tickets as he could in an effort to avoid paying megamillions for Norman.

    That gamble gave him James Bradberry (second round), Daryl Worley (third round) and Zack Sanchez (fifth round). It's a play that may pay off in the long term, especially if the Panthers defensive line keeps giving quarterbacks quality views of the sky and/or ground.

    But in the short term, the growing pains are throbbing, particularly for Worley.

    He's projected to start opposite Bradberry, and in Week 2 of the preseason, he allowed 67 yards on six receptions. Worley also finished the game with a passer rating in coverage of 113.2, according to Pro Football Focus.

    “I’d like to see him, obviously based on what the call is, to play the techniques a little bit better,’’ Panthers head coach Ron Rivera told David Newton of ESPN.com. “He had an opportunity to make a couple of plays, and he didn’t. One time we felt he could have been tighter in his coverage and another time he was off and we should have had a guy underneath him."

    Worley's next test comes Friday against the always dangerous New England Patriots offense, even without quarterback Tom Brady.

Can James White Step Up After Dion Lewis' Surgery?

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    Patriots RB James White
    Patriots RB James WhiteDavid Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

    A shifty and slippery pass-catching running back has been a staple of New England Patriots offenses going all the way back to Kevin Faulk in the early 2000s.

    In 2015, that role briefly belonged to Dion Lewis, and he frequently donned an invisibility cloak while weaving through would-be tacklers in the open field. He created 24 missed tackles as a receiver, per PFF, which ranked seventh among running backs even though Lewis appeared in only seven games.

    Lewis suffered a torn ACL, and now he's needed another surgery, which will keep him shelved until around midseason. That means there's an opening at the cornerstone role of pass-catching running back in New England, and James White could be the guy to fill it.

    White already has experience with the gig after stepping into the hole left by Lewis in 2015. From Week 10 onward, he caught 33 passes for 358 yards and four receiving touchdowns. That all came after a college career at Wisconsin, where he recorded 670 receiving yards on 73 catches over four years.

    He was the latest running back Patriots head coach Bill Belichick plucked from his pocket, going from NFL obscurity to key role player. Now he may be asked to do it all again for the first half of the season, and the 24-year-old is off to a fine start after his 56-yard catch in Week 1 of the preseason.

    Another tough test comes Friday against a swarming Panthers defense.

Is Sammy Watkins His Usual Speedy Self?

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    Bills WR Sammy Watkins
    Bills WR Sammy WatkinsElsa/Getty Images

    Buffalo Bills wide receiver Sammy Watkins has been exciting and maddening throughout his two NFL seasons, with both supplied in equal measure.

    He's teased and taunted with his talents, leaving us knowing the 23-year-old is capable of so much more. Watkins has missed three games and limped around in many others, which has left his already impressive enough production (2,029 receiving yards over two seasons and an average of 16.2 yards per catch) lower than he's capable of with a high talent ceiling.

    The Bills invested deeply in Watkins by trading up to get him in the 2014 draft, shipping first- and fourth-round picks in 2015 to the Cleveland Browns. The future employment of head coach Rex Ryan and general manager Doug Whaley rests in part with Watkins playing up to his potential and staying healthy.

    That's why the hope is that offseason foot surgery has finally fixed his ailing wheels so that even more explosiveness will be injected into his downfield burst. We'll see what the new and possibly improved Watkins looks like when he briefly steps into a 2016 preseason game for the first time Friday night against the Washington Redskins.

    Watkins was a shell of himself for nearly the entire first half of his 2015 season, which is when he missed those three games. He was mostly reduced to decoy status when playing during that time.

    Then in Week 9 he returned to something close to full health and recorded 900 receiving yards over the next nine games, which included three weeks with 130-plus yards. Yes, he's that damn good.

You Probably Don't Want to Miss Another Field Goal, Roberto Aguayo

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    Buccaneers K Roberto Aguayo
    Buccaneers K Roberto AguayoKim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    The point when you start to feel genuinely bad for Tampa Bay Buccaneers rookie kicker Roberto Aguayo is different for everyone. Or maybe it will never come for you, but I'm just about there.

    There's a simple but fundamental truth you have to remember: It's not his fault the Buccaneers drafted a kicker two rounds early, at minimum.

    If he was a Day 3 draft pick, as most kickers are if they're drafted at all, then nothing happening with Aguayo would be all that remarkable. Sure, we'd probably still note that the Buccaneers were an awful field-goal kicking team in 2015 and that this new guy isn't exactly giving his coaching staff much confidence. But Aguayo would mostly be another kicker struggling in a job that's the loneliest and most thankless in football.

    And more generally, he'd also be another rookie whose performance is sluggish to begin his career, which isn't out of the ordinary regardless of your position.

    Too often we focus on the physical aspects of football and gloss over the massive mental hurdles lining the developmental road for young players. Kickers can have the most mentally straining position.

    Quarterbacks have an obvious mental mountain to climb too while learning pro-style offenses and progressing through the right reads, all while avoiding pass-rushers who only look like blazing flashes of color. The difference, however, is that the quarterback who throws an interception gets an opportunity to atone for his mistake mere seconds later.

    A kicker could wait an entire quarter. Or an entire half. Or an entire week.

    The mind can easily become fractured fast, which is one of many reasons why investing highly in the position as an NFL general manager is a good way to get fired.  

    The Bucs did draft Aguayo far too high. Now he's gone from being one of the most accurate kickers in NCAA history, to avoiding hecklers by not kicking in practice after missing three preseason kicks, including an extra point.

    So for your own sanity, Roberto, don't miss again Friday. Or ever.

The Browns Are About to Give Us a Peek at Their Future

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    Browns WR Josh Gordon
    Browns WR Josh GordonAndrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports

    The Cleveland Browns suddenly have the makings of a young three-pronged wide receiver flamethrower that can be cranked to 10 at any moment.

    And for the first time all threeTerrelle Pryor, Josh Gordon and Corey Coleman—will be on the field at the same time Friday night.

    That's assuming the injury concerns settle down, and everything has been trending positively for Gordon and Coleman. Gordon returned to practice recently and has already been running with the first-team offense. Coleman told ESPN.com's Tony Grossi he's fully recovered from a hamstring issue that kept him out of practice at the start of training camp.

    The table is set for what we'll see starting in Week 5 once Gordon returns from his four-game suspension. You might not see a whole lot unless your eyelids are stapled open—blinking isn't recommended.

    Pryor's rapid career transformation came with an exclamation point in Week 2 of the preseason. He left Atlanta Falcons cornerback Desmond Trufant trailing him by two yards on his way to a 50-yard touchdown reception. Over just two games in August, he's logged 107 yards on three catches.

    He'll keep growing as a receiver alongside Gordon, who's one of just 16 receivers in NFL history to top the 1,600-yard mark in a single season. Toss in Coleman, who finished his final season at Baylor with 1,363 receiving yards and 20 touchdowns, and suddenly there's legitimate reason for genuine, real hope in Cleveland.

    Assuming, of course, that quarterback Robert Griffin III is able to keep righting himself. Every positive thought hovering around the Browns right now comes with that caveat.

We'll Get Our First (and Only) Preseason Aaron Rodgers Sighting

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    Packers QB Aaron Rodgers
    Packers QB Aaron RodgersMatt Kartozian-USA TODAY Sports

    The Green Bay Packers haven't exactly been overjoyed at the thought of quarterback Aaron Rodgers playing in a preseason game this August, and beyond the obvious (the preseason is meaningless), it's easy to understand why.

    Rodgers has plenty of productive years left to carve up defenses with both his mind and arm. But he's approaching a vague age territory for quarterbacks. He's not young anymore, though still not quite old for his position. He'll turn 33 in December, which means there's a danger of hits and pocket punishment accumulating.

    Rodgers will make his preseason debut Friday against the San Francisco 49ers, though how much he will play is uncertain. Packers head coach Mike McCarthy recently filled his comments on Rodgers' potential playing time with the standard preseason coach-speak, and he wouldn't commit to any specifics while talking to ESPN.com's Rob Demovsky.

    How much Rodgers is exposed to pressure will be monitored regardless of his total snap count. The Packers may conduct an experiment of sorts Friday and reassure themselves that a healthy offensive line can keep Rodgers upright.

    There's little reason to doubt that because the core pieces of Green Bay's offensive line have proved themselves in the past. Still, it will be nice to see that protection demonstrated on the field before snaps matter.

    In 2015, starting Packers offensive linemen missed a combined 10 games. The result was often painful to watch, as Rodgers was sacked 46 times, the league's second-highest total. Rodgers has spent eight seasons as the Packers' starting quarterback, and he's been sacked 45-plus times in three of them.

    He's managed to stay healthy though, with only a broken collarbone in 2013 resulting in significant missed time. But at some point as his age keeps climbing, it gets concerning if Rodgers' sack count does the same.

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