I’m not one for watching how guys perform against third stringers so I limited myself to watching every snap these young bucks played in the first half of games. Naturally I came away impressed by some, and not so impressed by others. So let’s take a look at what I observed.
The only QB selected outside of the top 10 to play was Brandon Weeden. After a strong start, with a beautiful throw down the left sideline that hit his receiver in stride, things started to fall apart. His lack of awareness of the oncoming rush played a big part in him fumbling to end the first drive, and the worst was yet to come. A screen pass that was dangerously tipped was followed by not allowing for the fact that cornerbacks are allowed to jump routes. Twice Bill Bentley jumped routes and while Weeden got away with a dropped interception once, his fellow rookie eventually brought one in. He’s got a long way to go.
My first port of call was the Battle of Florida (with apologies to Jags fans). That meant watching the shifty Doug Martin. I came away thinking this is a guy who will partner up well with LeGarrette Blount, and make things happening. There was a bit of dynamism to him as he broke a couple of tackles and while I wouldn’t pencil in a 1,000 yard season, I expect him to do a lot of the things that don’t get noticed. In this game he was only into pass protect on one occasion and his mission (to slow Cameron Wake down with a chop block) was completed successfully. He featured far more prominently than David Wilson, who had a nice kick return then didn’t get another touch of the ball until the second half. Naturally I wasn’t interested in seeing how he performed against the third string and will wait to formulate some opinions on him.
The first wideout I got a look at was Michael Floyd who got on the field for nine first half snaps. On seven of these he ran routes (four of which were downfield) and was not targeted on any of these, while in the run game he looked less than happy to mix it with the bigger bodies.
I got a better handle on Kendall Wright. Now as a guy who doesn’t watch college football I was expecting a slot weapon, so imagine my surprise when he only lined up in the slot for two of his 28 first half snaps. He got open on more than one occasion, with the Seahawks more than happy to give him a big cushion, especially when their second team defense came in. The most interesting thing may have been that Tennessee actively ran to the opposite side he was on, and when he was put on his backside while attempting to block on a screen pass, it was easy to see why.
The last guy I looked at was A.J. Jenkins. I know a lot of people thought the 49ers reached for him and after a less than stellar camp people already seem on his back to a degree, where everything he does wrong has people saying ‘I told you so’. In truth the first half wasn’t all that bad. He dropped a ball on a quick hitch that was harder to catch than it looked (still something he should have secured) but did a good job gaining separation on a deep out that led to a first down. There wasn’t much evidence of his blocking but he wasn’t shy in initiating contact.
The first pre season game for rookies can be something of a lottery in how they perform. Nobody personified this more than some of the offensive linemen taken in round one. Up first was David DeCastro and I came away thinking this guy is the typical nasty linemen fans love. He’s eager to hit people and prepared to push the boundaries. His marginal dirty hit on Fletcher Cox at the end of the second half didn’t endear him to me, and he had a habit of trying to push linebackers at the second level rather than locking on his block and driving them out of the play. When he did, he showed his power, and he got better as the game went on (the only pressure he gave up was the first snap he had to deal with Cullen Jenkins).
If DeCastro didn’t wow me, then the performance of Kevin Zeitler was never going to. After he played the entire first half like DeCastro I walked away thinking that the game was moving too quick for him with him often looking unsure of where he was meant to be. On one play he was playing run while everyone else was playing pass and there were a number of times he got to the second level (at the expense of blocking a guy in front of him) and was forced to do a 180 as everything had passed him by. Even when he got someone to block at the second level he rarely impressed, with David Harris shedding him (not something that happens often) and his best play more the result of Josh Mauga taking a horrible angle than anything else. Bengals fans will be hoping for improvement when the regular season rolls around.
The last guy I saw is the only one not penciled into start; Riley Reiff. He had the advantage of the Browns second string defensive line when he replaced Jeff Backus at left tackle and did not disappoint. Sure he started slowly by getting driven back on his inside shoulder and then stood up to slow his runner down, but outside of that did a good job anchoring and riding the DRE upfield in the pass game, while dealing well head to head in the running game, containing the defensive end on a number of occasions. He did allow an almost pressure inside and outside so it was far from flawless but he looks like he’ll be able to contribute if needed
There were plenty of defensive linemen to take a look, so I started with the biggest; Donatri Poe. He was only on the field for nine snaps and didn’t really have a chance to show what he is capable of. The most interesting thing was the amount of attention the Cardinals paid to him, getting only one clear one on one pass rushing opportunity and earning the extremely rare triple team on another. Was able to show his strength by standing up Lyle Sendlein, but also showed some naivety by getting beaten off the snap by Sendlein who was able to take him to the ground when Poe tried working off the block.
I got to see more of Fletcher Cox who was on the field for 16 first half snaps as part of the Eagles rotation. He showed how much of an Eagle he was already, falling for a draw play that saw him get caught up field. I wouldn’t describe him as explosive in his debut, but he never let guards and centers anchor against him, making it harder for the QB to step up into the pocket. Trent Cole and Jason Babin will like seeing that.
The next defensive linemen off the board and who I looked at was Michael Brockers. I didn’t come away terribly impressed with the Ram who played all bar three snaps in the first half. All were at defensive right tackle, and nearly all of them saw him shading the left shoulder of center Samson Satele. He did show what he was capable of, as he got the left guard going backwards that forced a third down hurry of Andrew Luck, but for the most part he was engaged in some hand fighting that didn’t see him getting up the field.
Defensive Ends and Outside Linebackers
I was eagerly anticipating watching Bruce Irvin after the shock his selection caused. He played 19 first half snaps, nearly all with the second team defense and with his hand always on the ground. He’s a very busy linemen, and was always looking to beat linemen with double moves. This nearly worked on Michael Roos, who bit on the outside move and then found himself being driven towards his QB on a screen pass. Did make a nice tackle for a loss with a quick first step that befuddled Mike Otto, but was largely subdued in the first half as Roos, Otto and particularly David Stewart got to grips with him.
It was a different story with Quinton Coples who was clearly out to impress. It looks like Muhammad Wilkerson is the new Shaun Ellis who will play the every down role, so Coples found himself on first and second down duty, playing 16 snaps where he spent the majority of time at defensive end in three or four man fronts. He started off by making life very hard for Andre Smith, showing a quick burst to beat him on his inside shoulder on more than one occasion, and demonstrated his power by standing up and moving back elite left tackle Andrew Whitworth. It wasn’t perfect as he seemed to visibly slow when left on the field for a number of snaps, but there’s some extra explosion to his game that you don’t see from other members of the Jets starting front seven, an impressive start.
Saving me some workload I was able to watch both Nick Perry and Melvin Ingram play when the Packers travelled to San Diego. I came away more impressed with Perry who dominated Chargers right tackle Jeromey Clary, and had no problem overpowering tight ends when left one on one in the run game. Not really tested in coverage but neither man stood out in this regard, though Ingram was certainly asked to do this more. I was expecting an out and out edge rusher, but it’s clear he’ll spend a large part of his time dropping into coverage and interestingly came out in some nickel sets. Had the beating (power and speed) of Packers backup tackles which led to a hit causing an INT from Aaron Rodgers. Not a bad way to crown your debut.
As I watched Shea McClellin play I found myself irritated by the desire to promote him by the commentary duo. The truth is he got more pressure than any other rookie but did so against backups, and wasn’t without his flaws. He’s extremely active and always working to beat a tackle, and not afraid to chase plays down (it’s how he got his sack). But in the run game he has a way to go, as tight ends able to get the better of him, but if the Bears are going to use him as a situational rusher he could be in for a big year.
Over in New England Chandler Jones was making all sorts of headlines. But sometimes the headlines lie right? Well not so much here. Jermon Bushrod wasn’t up to the task of dealing with a guy who makes you draw comparison with Jason Pierre-Paul. A player with a relentless motor, even if Charles Brown had some joy slowing him down, he looks like an every down player who does a good job of reading where the run is going and reacting to it. A very exciting prospect and the best rookie I watched over the weekend.
The last pass rusher I saw in action was Whitney Mercilus who played with the second string Texans defense. He’s an interesting guy because it’s hard to see where his playing time is going to come from with two guys so entrenched ahead of him. He took his opportunity to flash his skill well though, lining up primarily on the weakside and picking up an impressive sack when he got the tackle upfield and cut in on his inside shoulder to bring Derek Anderson down. It will be interesting to see how Houston use him, with their two starters getting a lot of pressure courtesy of a scheme that gets people free as opposed to out and out beating tackles.
I was quite looking forward to seeing how Dont’a Hightower looked, but came away a little disappointed. I like aggressive linebackers Hightower just looked a little tentative; except on that missed tackle where he failed with a knock out shot. He didn’t look completely comfortable in coverage as he bit ever so slightly on a play fake, and it’s no surprise he’s not penciled in for dime defense duties on third down.
The Bengals Dre Kirkpatrick was not active so I’m as clueless now as I was before the game to what kind of player he is. Meanwhile I did get a look at Harrison Smith, but as is often the case he wasn’t involved a great deal. The 49ers didn’t attack him deep or trouble him when he was in the box in coverage. The only real thing of note was how well he reacted to an end around and didn’t hesitate in getting up field to make a tackle for a loss.