Two weeks of preseason are now in the books, almost, and people are starting to form opinions on the season ahead. Fans and media members alike are fully aware that preseason is not uniformly indicative of regular season performances, but that doesn’t stop us from getting excited about outstanding efforts or worried about those underwhelming showings.
That sense of optimism and pessimism is magnified for the Top 10 picks in the draft as we resume our preseason look at the players taken at the top of 2012 NFL Draft. These picks can make or break a franchise, though with the revised rookie pay structure failed Top 10′s won’t be quite such a handicap anymore, and everyone is always eager to get an early read on the relative success and failure that awaits these players.
Last week, the quarterback pairing of Andrew Luck and Ryan Tannehill stole the show with a solid cameo from Matt Kalil. This week we got a first look at three players who missed Week 1 through injury, so let’s not wait any longer to see what they have to offer.
1) Andrew Luck
This week was a step up in competition for Andrew Luck as we learned a bit more about the current level of the No. 1 overall pick. Last week’s two touchdowns turned into two interceptions this time out as Dick LeBeau’s defense extracted some big plays from Luck rather than the other way around. One of those interceptions was entirely on the receiver but the pick six was a particularly bad one. Ike Taylor was sitting on the hip of Reggie Wayne the whole way and Luck forced the pass allowing Taylor to drive on the route and take the interception back for a touchdown.
Still there was more good than bad from Luck who again showed poise and control in the face of the blitz–displaying more ability to move around and through the pocket this week rather than rolling away from pressure. You don’t often get to practice game situations in preseason but Luck did just that and engineered a five-play, 31-yard drive to finish his participation in the game. Maybe not the headline-grabbing display of last week, but another encouraging game for Colts fans.
2) Robert Griffin III
After a bit of tease performance in Week 1, we got a better look at Griffin in this game–and he got a better look at his offensive line. Neither was an especially pleasant view for Redskins fans. Washington’s offensive line was poor for the most part last season and looked leaky in pass protection against the Bears on Saturday night, that pressure rubbed off on Griffin who put in a fairly sketchy performance. Griffin was spooked early by pressure and didn’t look comfortable in the pocket from that point forward. His lack of comfort in the pocket led to some off target throws as he failed to set his feet for a number of them.
The only real bright spots were a solid toss to Santana Moss on a post route for a first-quarter third-down conversion and a scramble where Griffin exhibited his athleticism to exploit Israel Idonije losing contain on his pass rush. Griffin’s poise under pressure and ability to reset was a supposed strength but that didn’t shine through this week. Still, plenty more questions to answer for the No. 2 overall pick heading into Week 3 of preseason when we should get another long look at the Redskins’ starters.
3) Trent Richardson
Now the only member of the Top 10 draft picks from April yet to make his NFL debut. Browns’ head coach Pat Shurmur has said that Richardson is ahead of schedule which should fuel some optimism among Browns fans. Lost preseason carries may be no bad thing in terms of mileage for a back who figures to be a workhorse, but it would still be nice to see him get some work, which seems increasingly unlikely.
4) Matt Kalil
A different challenge awaited Matt Kalil in his second preseason start. After struggling with some early pressure from Aldon Smith he was largely left to match up with Ricky Jean-Francois last week, which exposed some weaknesses as a run blocker. This week, Kalil was left to go one-on-one with Mark Anderson and Chris Kelsay, in a more customary LT vs. 4-3 DE battle in which he looked more comfortable. He still didn’t look like a natural run blocker but did appear more at home as a blocker sealing contain than actively trying to create gaps against defenders aligned directly over him.
The test this week came in pass protection and by and large he provided positive answers to the questions asked of him. He gave away very little to Kelsay and Anderson and the only blot on his copybook was a botched pickup on a stunt by Kyle Williams which resulted in a sack to his outside. What you expect from Kalil will color your opinion on his preseason to date. If you expect an LT coming it at the No. 4 overall pick to be immediately dominant, you will be a little disappointed. If you expect a solid player who will provide a big upgrade of Charlie Johnson, you will be happy enough with what you’ve seen.
5) Justin Blackmon
If first impressions are everything, then Jacksonville fans should be extremely happy with their first pick in the 2012 draft. He was an active and willing blocker and, more importantly, looked to make up for lost time and deliver as a receiver. At Oklahoma State, Blackmon had a reputation for being a threat after the catch and he has wasted no time doing that in the NFL. Blackmon broke tackles on three of his four catches while showing strong hands and body control to box a defender out of his fourth catch. Blackmon should’ve had a fifth reception, for another first down, if the pass hadn’t hit Marcedes Lewis on its way through to him. Blaine Gabbert should be looking for Blackmon early and often in the regular season if he continues to show an ability to make defender’s miss and extend short easy passes into intermediate gains.
6) Morris Claiborne
Saturday night was Claiborne’s big night, the NFL debut of the next great cover corner. Well, if that was the case then the Cowboys’ other big acquisition at corner, Brandon Carr, stole the show. However, if this is what is to come from Claiborne, Cowboy fans won’t be overly disappointed as Claiborne had a quiet night: no mistakes, a good thing for a cornerback.
Slightly disappointing was that Claiborne wasn’t particularly active at coming up to meet plays. On his first target, a wide screen to Michael Spurlock, he wasn’t especially quick to close and make the tackle, then on a sweep in his direction later in the second quarter he was easily run off of the line and kept out of the play. On his other target, he closed well enough (after being beaten on the route) to prevent any yardage after the catch. There was no big play, no break on the football, but he wasn’t found wanting either; a solid starting point. An interesting note was that the Cowboys’ coaching staff kept Claiborne against their sideline throughout the first half. Claiborne lined up at left corner during the first quarter then flipped over to right corner for the second quarter, keeping him on the Dallas sideline close to the Cowboys’ coaching staff.
7) Mark Barron
Solidity was something that the Bucs needed at safety and from his first snap of the preseason Barron looks to have already provided an upgrade at the position. For starters, he made a tackle on a running back on that first snap, rather than missing it which was customary for Buccaneer for defenders last season. The life of a safety can be a quiet one and Barron didn’t buck that trend on Friday night as he was not overly involved in the quarter-and-a-half that he was on the field before Cody Grimm entered the fray.
Barron’s most positive play was in coverage as he maintained close trail on an out route by Jared Cook and made a physical play on the big-bodied tight end to prevent a third-down completion. Plays like that will quickly endear Barron to the Bucs’ fan base, however plays like his angle to Chris Johnson on his touchdown rush up the right sideline won’t. Barron was quick up to fill the gap inside of Nate Washington, but as Johnson cut around to the outside, the rookie out of Alabama stumbled across the back of Aqib Talib and was beaten up the sideline to the pylon. Bucs fans will hope this was an isolated play and that Barron is the much needed strengthening force for the Tampa Bay secondary.
8) Ryan Tannehill
Last week I cautioned against excessive enthusiasm over Tannehill’s preseason debut, he was up against the Bucs’ second-string defense, after all. The Panthers’ defense showed the difference between first- and second-string D’s in the NFL as Tannehill had trouble with both pass rushers and coverage defenders. While Tannehill may, as many observers have opined, have done little to “win” the Dolphins’ starting job he should also be credited with doing little to prove that he would wilt under the pressure of starting in the NFL.
There were still glimpses of solid play and only a couple of really ill-advised throws, one of which could have ended in an interception for Luke Kuechly and another that put his receiver in physical danger on a post route. Ironically, that followed a post that was well positioned to not only pick up a completion, but also collect a first down conversion. Tannehill is not helped by a receiving corps that still has no identity, no consistency, and at times seemed to lack the ability to really draw the best out of their rookie gunslinger. Considering that and the fact that he was under severe pressure from the Panthers’ outside pass rushers for the entire half that he played, it is to his credit that he didn’t fold or look to panic in the pocket. Tannehill may not have stood up and claimed this team as his own, but this was a far from disastrous first appearance against an opposing first-string defense.
9) Luke Kuechly
After finishing his preseason debut with a splash play, Kuechly nearly began his second game with another: almost snagging a pick from Ryan Tannehill on the opening drive. Certainly it was a very sharp chance, but it was one. Kuechly struggled a little to make an impact in this encounter, but looked at home in a three-down role for the Panthers’ defense. He made a couple of nice plays in run defense, in particular knifing inside of Richie Incognito to make a tackle for no gain on Daniel Thomas, a play nullified by an offsides penalty. Aside from that, he was a little on the fringes of things and his only other notable play was failing to get enough depth on a 20-yard completion to Jeff Fuller that went over his head. Kuechly aligned to fake a double A-gap blitz and just missed cutting off the route as Tannehill got one of his better completions over Kuechly, a bit of payback for the near pick on the first drive.
Kuechly came into and out of the draft as one of the safest picks and while he doesn’t appear to do a great deal wrong, I will be looking closely to see if he does enough work close to the line of scrimmage and close enough to receivers during the regular season to be worth such a high pick from a Panthers’ team with so many clear deficiencies away from the linebacker position.
10) Stephon Gilmore
Once again, Gilmore lined up against an offense featuring a fellow Top 10 draft pick, this time Minnesota’s Matt Kalil. And once again he had another quiet night, in spite of more extended playing time. Gilmore was targeted twice in primary coverage and the two plays were almost polar opposites in terms of his quality in covering Jerome Simpson. The first, a slant, showed up some poor recovery and tackling skills form Gilmore. He was not in poor position, but got his feet in a mess and didn’t close efficiently as Simpson beat him upfield for a 33-yard gain (helped by his hurdle of Jairus Byrd). The second was an attempted end zone fade that Gilmore shutdown by turning and pressing Simpson to the sideline to prevent him any sort of a play on the ball. Outside of that, Gilmore stuck well enough to his coverage assignments, so long as the play he allowed to Simpson doesn’t become a regular occurrence in covering slant routes, Bills fans will have seen little to worry them in preseason from Gilmore.
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