NFC West Pre-Preseason What to Watch
What is the preseason? What is it’s value? For the fan, it is the sign of things to come. It’s the wonderful embrace of a new NFL season. Best of all, nobody knows how things will work out when the regular season kicks off. During the preseason, every team has hope and every team has a chance at the ultimate prize; the Super Bowl. Yeah, it’s mainly because backups play most of the game and general team depth is really what decides these games, but it also, more specifically, is a time where players must prove themselves. While the starters sit, the bench players fight for playing time, recognition, or a roster spot. These roster battles go well into the 4th Quarter while even the most die-hard fans struggle to remain focused. To counter that, I am providing what I will be watching this preseason, as our beloved sport makes it’s way to the regular season.
What to Watch: The QB competition – Simply put, this is a competition where nobody wins. QB Kevin Kolb is the guy who was brought in last summer to take over the position after Kurt Warner retired. To this point… he hasn’t. In fact, he has been so underwhelming that he is in a position battle with QB John Skelton, a 5th-round pick out of Fordham. Kolb never seems to be healthy and Skelton just doesn’t seem to have what it takes to be a legitimate starter in the league. Either way, it doesn’t really matter considering Arizona’s poor offensive line play.
Short Term Question: What is going to happen with the running backs? – While the QB situation gets all the attention, and rightfully so, the running back situation is actually pretty murky in its own right. There is RB Beanie Wells, who can’t stay healthy, but is a big guy with deceptive speed and there is 2nd year player, RB Ryan Williams, who was highly touted when he was taken in the 2nd-round in last spring’s NFL draft. Williams hasn’t really been the vision of perfect health either though as he is coming off of a rookie season, in which he spent all but one carry on IR with a ruptured patella tendon. Both running backs could be used in a “running back by committee” (something they will most certainly do to some extent), but it will be interesting to see if either distances themselves as starter with the regular season approaching. The bigger question may be if they are healthy come the regular season.
Long Term Question: What does the QB situation mean for Arizona’s season? – The quick answer to that is… nothing good. Kolb seems to be flustered. I personally believe that he has more physical ability than Skelton and I think that Kolb could be a capable QB at some point (don’t get me wrong… he’s awful right now). He just seems to be losing all confidence and things keep getting worse. Skelton doesn’t appear to be any better than Kolb, especially in terms of pure ability, but he seems to be forgetting his mistakes better. This is all my personal observation, but that’s what I’m seeing. With all that said, they need to be smarter with the ball and stop throwing the ball to the other team. Heck, you have WR Larry Fitzgerald. Throw it in his general direction and let him go get it. That could be the deciding factor in who gets the starting job. Who gives Fitzgerald chances? Last season it was Skelton who could get the ball to Larry. If Kolb doesn’t follow suit, he will probably be sitting the bench come the regular season.
Rookie to Watch: WR Michael Floyd – Floyd has all the physical tools to be a number one receiver. He has surprising speed for his size, tremendous catching ability and runs solid routes, but that was against college competition. This preseason will be used to catch him up with the pro game. If he can push past WR Andre Roberts on the depth chart and maximizes his potential, him and Fitzgerald could make a dynamic receiving core. Then it may not matter who is the QB.
Veteran to Watch: RB Ryan Williams – I’m putting Williams here because I really want to see him play after spending last season on IR. He was supposed to push Beanie Wells for the starting spot last season before Williams’ injury and if Williams can regain his form, he could be very fun to watch. I would also watch WR Andre Roberts because he is trying to hold off the rookie, Floyd, as the number two receiver.
San Francisco 49ers
What to Watch: The running game in San Fran. – The 49ers have Frank Gore, Brandon Jacobs, Kendall Hunter, LaMichael James and Anthony Dixon as their running backs. They also have QB Colin Kaepernick who is very mobile in his own right. Gore is beginning to slow down because of injuries, but he still is a superstar for this team. Jacobs was brought in as a power back after years with the Giants and Hunter, James and Dixon all are young talents who will most likely see situational playing time as the regular season picks up. Either way, it appears that head coach, Jim Harbaugh, wants to have even more capable running backs for his run first offense. It will be interesting to see how they are all used this preseason.
Short Term Question: What’s going on with the wide receivers? – San Fran drafted Illinois WR, A.J. Jenkins in the first round of April’s draft. They also went out and signed Mario Manningham from NYG and took a flier on the 34-year old Randy Moss. Those players are added to a receiving unit that included Michael Crabtree and… ok… nobody else really. With the new additions, I think it will be interesting to see how each player is utilized. Jenkins has size and speed, but will need time to adjust to the NFL. Manningham has been playing well early on, but has never really been a number one receiver as a pro. Moss has, but he is definitely on the backside of his career and may not even have enough left in the tank to really contribute. I feel like this is the year that they begin giving QB Alex Smith more freedom with the offense and that could largely depend on how the receivers are used around him.
Long Term Question: Is Alex Smith enough at QB? – Alex Smith was solid last season, but honestly wasn’t asked to do much. He didn’t turn the ball over, made smart decisions when he did have to pass and allowed the run game and defense to dictate the game. The question over the course of this season is if he will be asked to do more and if he is capable of being the QB that San Francisco expected when they took him 1st overall back in 2005. After and offseason where there was some speculation that Smith wouldn’t even be resigned when he became a free agent, the 49ers signed him to a 3-year deal. Smith will need to show that he is worthy of the investment and that he can do more than game manage.
Rookie to Watch: RB LaMichael James – He is explosive, electric and elusive. He is everything that you would want your change of pace back to be. The Oregon star is just one of many in the 49ers backfield, but it will be interesting to see how they use his tantalizing skill set.
Veteran to Watch: QB Colin Kaepernick – He is the backup behind Smith, but Kaepernick is a second year guy who was drafted last year as the eventual QB of the future. He is still very much developmental, but he is athletic and possesses a strong arm. Both of which make him one to watch this preseason.
What to Watch: The new Nike uniforms – Ok, so the uniforms aren’t the only reason to watch Seattle during the preseason, but it’s a little intriguing to see how they look on an actual field. To be honest though, I’m watching to see how position battles play out. QB and WR are anything, but decided and if those two positions are worked out, Seattle could be a factor when we are getting to the playoffs come season’s end. More than many teams, Seattle’s preseason will genuinely affect their regular season.
Short Term Question: What happens with the QB situation? – It’s really only between the rookie, Russell Wilson, and the expensive free agent signing, Matt Flynn. Flynn is coming from Green Bay where he made a lasting impression throwing for 480 yards and 6 touchdowns in Week 17 before hitting the market. He is currently signed to a contact worth $26 million and $10 million guaranteed. Wilson is the 3rd-rounder out of Wisconsin. He dropped in the draft because of his 5’11” frame, but I personally don’t think that his height is that big of an issue. Normally, the QB has to be able to stand tall, and look over his OL, which averages 6’5″ and taller. There are exceptions though. Saints QB, Drew Brees, is only 6 feet tall (with a modest measurement) and he is still highly effective because he moves in the pocket finding lanes for him to throw between his blockers as opposed to over them. Wilson has similar experience after playing at Wisconsin where their lineman are annually the size of NFL lineman. Then factor in Wilson’s athleticism and arm strength and I think Wilson will be the starter. Flynn is certainly a factor due to his experience and contract, but head coach, Pete Carroll, has done crazier than start a rookie QB like Wilson.
Long Term Question: What is a realistic outlook for Seattle this season? – The defense is solid. The run game is at least formidable and the passing game, while a work in progress, should be much better than last years model. Despite what we think of when we talk about the Seattle Seahawks, they have a very real shot at the playoffs. They are, by far, the 2nd best team in the NFC West, which isn’t saying much, but they do have the talent to compete with tougher NFC competition. With that said, they could be left out at the end because of the tremendous depth that the NFC has this season. There are so many teams that have legitimate shots at the playoffs that Seattle could get just left out. They should be better than last season though.
Rookie to Watch: RB Robert Turbin – I already mentioned Wilson as a rookie to watch, but I also really like Robert Turbin from Utah State. He is a big, powerful back who has solid speed considering his size. If Marshawn Lynch faces suspension, I fully expect Turbin to fill in well. In fact, Turbin has a very similar running style to Lynch. I would also watch DE/OLB Bruce Irvin, who was a bit of a reach with Seattle’s first draft pick, and LB Bobby Wagner, who has drawn comparisons to 49ers LB Patrick Willis. Pretty favorable comparison.
Veteran to Watch: QB Matt Flynn – I’m taking the easy way out here, but Flynn is a guy to watch. After all, he is the QB who has the big contract, the experience and the momentum heading into the preseason. It will be interesting to see if he maintains it.
St. Louis Rams
What to Watch: Head Coach, Jeff Fisher’s regime. – The Rams have only won 15 games over the last 5 YEARS. Green Bay matched that last season in 16 GAMES. St. Louis has been awful as of late and Fisher has been brought in to change that. He has QB Sam Bradford, DE Chris Long and DE Robert Quinn. The Rams also signed CB Cortland Finnegan in free agency from Tennessee. Fisher has some young talent, but it will be interesting what he can get out of a roster lacking talent overall.
Short Term Question: Is the improvement from QB Sam Bradford? – As a rookie, Bradford led St. Louis to a respectable 7-9 record, just missing out on the playoffs. Last year, in his second season, he fought injuries throughout and he struggled. He never really had receiving threats, but it is important that he shows some improvement this year. He has talent and could be a great QB in this league, but a lot of that will come down to how he is developed this season. It will be interesting to watch here in the short term.
Long Term Question: Will questionable draft picks pay off? – In the first 4 rounds, St. Louis had 6 picks. Out of those picks, 4 had question marks surrounding them. DT Michael Brockers and WR Brian Quick were their first two picks and both are considered developmental players. Brockers is a physical specimen who needs to polish his skills to find success in the pros. Quick is from Appalachian State, so his development is more about him adjusting to the speed of the NFL game. If he does successfully adapt to the NFL, Quick has been compared to Terrell Owens because of his combination of size and speed. The other two question marks are the CBs, Janoris Jenkins and Trumaine Johnson. Both are players who have had run ins with the law off the field. Jenkins has actually had so many problems (and has so much talent) thatSt. Louis is checking in on him daily. If these risks pan out, there is a lot of talent in this draft class. If they never make the adjustment to the NFL or they revert to the habits that got them in trouble off the field, St. Louis could be looking at yet another rebuild in a couple years.
Rookie to Watch: RB Isaiah Pead – The Cincinnati product has size and speed. He played in a spread offense in college, which limited wear and tear, but also showcased his ability as a complete back. Pead is very quick and has drawn comparisons to Titans RB, Chris Johnson, and Eagles RB, LeSean McCoy. If either is accurate, St. Louis has a great compliment and eventual successor to star RB, Steven Jackson. Pead is one to watch early on this year.
Veteran to Watch: WR Steve Smith – Not the Carolina Steve Smith, but the former New York Giants Steve Smith. After a couple years of injuries, Smith is back and healthy, hoping to make a difference for St. Louis. He may be able to. The Rams don’t have a clear cut top receiver and I should remind you of Smith’s 2009 season where he had 1,220 receiving yards and 7 touchdowns. If Smith returns to that form, he may be able to provide Bradford with the receiving threat he needs.