(Special to Digital Sports Desk by The Sports Xchange) – The days dwindle down to a precious few as all NFL teams except Dallas and Houston played their preseason finales Thursday night. That will be followed by several manic days in which:
- Rosters will be reduced by 90 to 53 on Saturday, which mathematically translates to 1,961 players no longer on active rosters. Of course, not all will be waived or terminated. That total number includes several players that will begin the season serving suspensions, along with those placed on reserve/injured, reserve/physically unable to perform or reserve/non-football injury.
- One of the most inaccurate words used to describe Saturday’s chaos is final. No, these are hardly final cuts. Numerous players will rejoice on Saturday, believing they made the team only to be cut the following day when the team claims someone on waivers.
- Also on Sunday, teams will place players on reserve/injured that have the chance of returning later in the season. Only players that are on the 53-man roster Saturday are eligible to eventually be designated for return.
- Sunday is also the day that teams can begin filling their 10-player practice squads, but none of that can officially occur until players cut Saturday clear waivers.
- Last night was an opportunity for some players to make a final push for a roster spot either with the team they are on or being noticeable for other teams.
Additionally, many teams still have competition at positions along with players in the hunt for the final roster spots available.
Following is a team-by-team look from TSX correspondents with an analysis of the issues they hope are resolved Thursday night or in the days leading up to the season opener.
It appears that undrafted rookie Cooper Rush will win the backup quarterback job behind starter Dak Prescott after a seemingly flawless preseason. Rush has simply outplayed Kellen Moore, the presumed target for the No. 2 job because of his relationship with offensive coordinator Scott Linehan. What needs to be determined is whether the Cowboys will keep two or three quarterbacks on the active roster or will they attempt to slide Moore to the practice squad. He still has practice-squad eligibility.
NEW YORK GIANTS
Head coach Ben McAdoo made good on his promise to alter the team’s offensive line configuration to “push” underperforming starters such as right guard John Jerry and left tackle Ereck Flowers. The question, though, is will McAdoo stick with the original line configuration that features, from left to right, Flowers, Justin Pugh, Weston Richburg, Jerry and Bobby Hart, or will he make any permanent changes? If he does, the biggest change would be at Jerry’s right guard position. McAdoo gave third-year man Brett Jones several snaps with the starting offensive line, and the unit looked more cohesive with Jones in there at right guard. As usual, McAdoo was tight-lipped about his personnel plans, but the situation certainly bears watching this coming week as the Giants prepare to wrap up their preseason slate at New England.
With just one preseason game left, there still is a great deal of uncertainty at the cornerback position. The starters are set: Ronald Darby and Jalen Mills. And rookie third-round pick Rasul Douglas will make the roster, but probably not get much playing time early on. Still up in the air is who will be the team’s slot corner. The possibilities: veterans Patrick Robinson and Ron Brooks and former All-CFL player Aaron Grymes. The Eagles also gave safety Jaylen Watkins a ton of snaps at corner last week against the Dolphins, and acquired another corner, Dexter McDougle, from the Jets on Sunday.
The biggest pressing issue facing the Bears now may be decided in the fourth preseason game since Cameron Meredith’s season-ending ACL tear opens up a starting spot for either Kendall Wright, Victor Cruz or Deonte Thompson. Markus Wheaton would be in that group, as well, but injuries have prevented him from practicing virtually all training camp. Cruz had the job for his taking, but has been mistake-prone, while Wright has looked more dependable in preseason games. It’s likely the Bears will be scouring the waiver wire for a proven veteran receiver when cuts occur.
With Prince Amukamara hobbled by an ankle injury and possibly out for the opener, the defense will look closely at cornerbacks in the fourth game to see if either Bryce Callahan or Cre’Von LeBlanc can take away a starting spot from inconsistent veteran Kyle Fuller. The second starting safety spot would appear up for grabs in the final preseason game, with rookie Eddie Jackson needing to prove he can be more physical after missing a tackle on a big gainer in Sunday’s win over Tennessee. It’s possible Adrian Amos may retain the starting spot if it’s determined Jackson hasn’t yet progressed enough. Running backs Jeremy Langford and Benny Cunningham could be vying for either more playing time or a roster spot, as well.
Lions safety Glover Quin guesstimated that three to five roster spots remain up for grabs heading into Thursday’s preseason finale against the Buffalo Bills. On offense, the Lions need to decide if they’re going to keep four or five wide receivers, and who the fifth receiver is if they do, and whether Cole Wick or Tim Wright merits a spot as the fourth tight end. At wide receiver, TJ Jones seems like the best bet for the No. 4 job. He’s played with the first-team offense most of the summer and can handle punt returns if necessary. Jace Billingsley, who plays primarily in the slot like Jones, Jarred Abbrederis and return man Keshawn Martin are vying for the No. 5 receiver job. Billingsley leads the Lions with eight catches for 104 yards this preseason. Defensively, the Lions have a surplus of cornerbacks, with seven worthy of jobs including Quandre Diggs, DJ Hayden and fifth-round pick Jamal Agnew. If the Lions keep all seven corners, they might do so at the expense of an extra linebacker (Steve Longa?) or fifth safety (Charles Washington?).
GREEN BAY PACKERS
Rookie Taysom Hill and second-year man Joe Callahan continue to battle it out for the third-string quarterback job. And Green Bay’s fourth and final preseason game against the Los Angeles Rams Thursday will go a long way toward determining a winner.
Callahan, an undrafted free agent in 2016, was on the roster as the Packers’ third quarterback for eight games last year. Callahan was one of the stars of Green Bay’s training camp last year, but has a 72.9 passer rating this summer.
Hill is the better athlete and runs the 40-yard dash in 4.44 seconds. Hill also has more arm strength than Callahan and has a 105.7 passer rating this summer.
Neither player saw any action in the third preseason game, but both are expected to play a great deal Thursday.
“They’ll play. Yeah, they’re going to play this week,” head coach Mike McCarthy said Monday. “So, I just would like to hopefully get these two quarterbacks just plays. They need to play.”
For the majority of McCarthy’s 11 years in Green Bay, there have been just two quarterbacks on the roster. But the Packers kept three last year, and appear to be leaning in that direction again.
“When you keep a third quarterback, he has to earn it,” McCarthy said. “It’s really about the 53-man roster. I’d like to have four quarterbacks here in the building at all times. That would be the preference. But that 51, 52, 53, wherever that third quarterback would fall in your thinking, those are positions that need to be earned.”
The Vikings are still grappling with the leap of faith it would take to replace incumbent kicker Kai Forbath with the younger, stronger-legged and completely inexperienced Marshall Koehn. Koehn is the better kickoff guy and extends the field-goal range significantly. In Sunday night’s 32-31 win over the 49ers, Koehn slammed a 58-yarder with room to spare. But he also was wide right from 47 yards. He has no regular-season NFL experience, so choosing him over Forbath is a risky move. Forbath stabilized the position last season after Blair Walsh’s continuing mental meltdown forced the Vikings to cut him. Forbath came in and didn’t miss a field goal the entire season. In a sign the Vikings are seriously considering keeping Koehn, they gave him all the kicking duties against the 49ers. Besides going 1 for 2 on field goals, he made all three extra points.
With Falcons linebacker LaRoy Reynolds out with a chest injury, rookie Duke Riley appears to have a shot at the starting weak-side linebacker spot. “We’ve been very encouraged by where he’s at, at this point,” Falcons head coach Dan Quinn said. “We see him taking on a big role for us at this linebacker spot.” Riley was selected in the third round (75th overall) of this year’s draft out of LSU. He played 32 snaps on defense in the 24-14 loss to the Cardinals and spent some time with the first unit. He had two tackles, a tackle for a loss and a fumble recovery.
“This week we felt that Duke made a really big jump,” Quinn said. “It started back in practice in terms of the speed (and) the physicality that showed him playing even more downhill.”
The Panthers are feeling good about the mix along the defensive front, but the quantity of snaps that will be divvied up among the veterans and younger players might need some attention. With veterans such as defensive ends Julius Peppers and Charles Johnson in the same position on the left side, it figures they’ll largely split time. But the younger players have been more active in the preseason, and that has been by design, but it remains unclear if the extra repetitions have made a positive impression on the coaching staff.
NEW ORLEANS SAINTS
Time is running out for Corey Fuller to snatch one of the final two wide-receiver spots from either Tommylee Lewis or Brandon Coleman. Bryce Harris has passed up Khalif Barnes in the competition to be the backup tackle. The last defensive tackle spot is a battle between Darryl Tapp and Tony McDaniel. Former No. 1 draft choice Stephone Anthony (2015) is in danger of being released as he tries to edge out Adam Bighill for the last linebacker spot. Bighill has made big plays in each of the last two preseason games while Anthony has been sidelined by an undisclosed injury. The last offensive line spot could go to John Fullington or Landon Turner.
TAMPA BAY BUCCANEERS
Bucs linebacker Riley Bullough has been a tackling machine and the undrafted rookie was called out by head coach Dirk Koetter early in training camp for his leadership. But the Bucs are very deep at linebacker and Bullough may not earn a spot on the 53-man roster. Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David, Kendell Beckwith and Adarius Glanton are virtual locks. The Bucs also have second-year pro Devante Bond, who has been injured. If he is healthy, Bullough is probably out. He also has to beat out Cameron Lynch. If he were cut and cleared waivers, the Bucs would likely try to sign him to their practice squad.
Two lost fumbles during Saturday’s preseason game at the Falcons have made the Cardinals think about hitting the reset button on veteran running back Chris Johnson. After back-to-back years of early season-ending injuries and some internal concerns as to whether the speed is still there, the turnovers now make it impossible to guarantee him a spot on the 53-man roster and in the four-person running back room. It’s clear Kerwynn Williams has moved up to No. 2 on the depth chart behind David Johnson, leaving Chris Johnson to have to beat out Andre Ellington, Elijhaa Penny and/or rookie James Summers to win one of the final spots. And on that topic, here’s what head coach Bruce Arians had to say on Monday: “It’s going to be a tough decision for that spot.”
LOS ANGELES RAMS
SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS
C.J. Beathard vs. Matt Barkley for backup quarterback. Several roster spots will be up for grabs when the 49ers finish the preseason Thursday night against the Los Angeles Chargers. The highest profile of the openings is at quarterback, where the rookie Beathard is challenging the veteran Barkley for the spot behind starter Brian Hoyer. Both are expected to play against the Chargers.
Trying to figure out who to keep at the wide receiver position will be a massive chore for the Seahawks following the final preseason game. While Doug Baldwin, Tyler Lockett, Paul Richardson and Jermaine Kearse all appear to be locks for the roster, the battle for the remaining two or three spots remains heated. Kasen Williams leads the team in receiving this preseason. J.D. McKissic can contribute as a receiver, running back and kick returner. Tanner McEvoy has the most size of any receiver on the roster and third-round pick Amara Darboh continues to draw praise, though he’s lacked for opportunities in games.
The Bills are hoping, perhaps praying, that left tackle Cordy Glenn will be able to return in time for the season opener. He has missed virtually the entire offseason, training camp and preseason due to a lingering foot injury, and with Seantrel Henderson not available for the first five games due to a substance abuse suspension, the team has a serious dilemma if Glenn isn’t ready. Saturday in Baltimore, rookie second-round pick Dion Dawkins started at left tackle – he’d been working mostly at right tackle in camp – and he played 48 snaps and held his own. Dawkins is being counted on to someday start at right tackle, but at least he showed that he could flip over to the left side if need be.
The Dolphins are hoping newly-signed middle linebacker Rey Maualuga can shed 10 pounds or so, get in shape and begin practicing this week. But right now head coach Adam Gase isn’t certain that will happen, and he’s not certain Maualuga, who has been inactive for five months, will be ready for the Sept. 10 opener against Tampa Bay.
Miami, which was 30th in run defense last year, drafted MLB Raekwon McMillan in the second round but he sustained a season-ending knee injury in the preseason opener against Atlanta, and backup Mike Hull has been inadequate.
The left-guard position isn’t as much of a concern, but Miami would like to get it settled among Anthony Steen, Jesse Davis and Jake Brendel.
As for the run defense, part of that has to do with the middle linebacker vacancy, and part of that has to do with hoping upgrades such as SLB Lawrence Timmons, veteran DE William Hayes and rookie DT Davon Godchaux make them better.
NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS
The biggest question facing the Patriots is how the team will move on offensively without wide receiver Julian Edelman in his reliable role in the slot. But that won’t be figured out in the final preseason game or likely even by the time the season kicks off Sept. 7 against the Chiefs. What will be determined between now are the bottom-of-the-roster decisions that head coach Bill Belichick and his staff must make heading toward the cuts to 53 players. Spots such as backup swing tackle and the roster spots at cornerback, safety, tight end, linebacker and running back are all up for grabs. Guys like third-year former second-round safety Jordan Richards and second-year former second-round cornerback Cyrus Jones are fighting for their roster lives. The bulk of the starting roles and roster spots are locked down at this point, but there are still a few guys who could play themselves onto or off of the roster in the coming days.
NEW YORK JETS
Center and right tackle. Even with the quarterback quagmire finally settled, there are no shortage of jobs to be won with the Jets. It appeared as if the Jets had a decent replacement for future Ring of Honor inductee Nick Mangold in center Wesley Johnson, as well as a possible building block in second-year right tackle Brandon Shell. But both have struggled this preseason, which may have opened the door for Jonotthan Harrison and/or Ben Ijalana to win the Week 1-job(s).
The Ravens have been forced to shuffle the offensive line throughout the preseason because of injuries and the sudden retirement of John Urschel. With the exception of Alex Lewis and rookie Nico Siragusa, who are both out for the season, the offensive line should have most of the players back for the regular-season opener Sept. 10 against the Cincinnati Bengals. The biggest question is whether Ryan Jensen or Jeremy Zuttah will start at center. Baltimore also must decide whether to keep another running back in addition to Terrance West, Danny Woodhead and Buck Allen. At this point, it appears undrafted rookie Taquan Mizzell is headed to the practice squad. Head coach John Harbaugh has used defensive lineman Patrick Ricard at fullback, which does not bode well for Lorenzo Taliaferro or Ricky Ortiz making the final roster. Finally, Lardarius Webb appears poised to take over the starting spot at slot cornerback, but he is being pushed by undrafted rookie Jaylen Hill, who could still play his way into that job. Receiver/returner Keenan Reynolds also is fighting for one of the final roster spots and might need a big game against the Saints to make the team.
The field-goal kicking competition likely will drag into the final week of the preseason, as predicted by head coach Marvin Lewis. In Sunday’s preseason loss to the Redskins, Randy Bullock distinguished himself with a 53-yard field goal on his only attempt, making him 5-for-5 in the preseason. Rookie Jake Elliott went wide right on a 45-yard attempt. It was the first miss by either kicker in the preseason. Elliott is 3-for-4.
Typically, the Bengals would carry six receivers into the regular season, but that might change this year, particularly with rookie John Ross now healthy and rookie Josh Malone having a standout preseason. The question is, if the Bengals go with seven wideouts, which position loses out – defensive line, offensive line or running back?
The kicking job is going down to the final preseason game on Thursday in Chicago. Incumbent Cody Parkey kicked field goals of 38 and 47 yards against the Buccaneers. In between those two kicks, rookie Zane Gonzalez missed from 55, but Gonzalez made the only field goal of the first two games. Both have hit booming kickoffs and competition in practice has been close. “I don’t know if anybody has taken the lead,” head coach Hue Jackson said on Sunday. “That thing is really close. We feel good about both of the players and it’s going to come down to the wire. Both have done a tremendous job. We’re going to look at that very closely this week as we go through this game on Thursday.”
Head coach Mike Tomlin made it known last week that incumbent starter Ross Cockrell and free agent Coty Sensabaugh would compete for the starting job at right cornerback over the remainder of camp. Cockrell started the third preseason game against the Colts, but he alternated with Sensabaugh every other series. It was another rough game for Cockrell, who allowed a 32-yard pass a week after giving up a 44-yard completion. Tomlin said after the game the competition will continue this week, but Sensabaugh seems to be trending upward and Cockrell downward entering the final preseason game at Carolina.
Who will be the starting tackles? Kendall Lamm is the front-runner at left tackle with Duane Brown still holding out, but Chris Clark is hurt. Breno Giacomini could start at right tackle. The Texans need Brown back, but the three-time Pro-Bowl blocker is in a contract dispute with the team and is on the reserve/did not report list.
Who will start at quarterback against Los Angeles on Sept. 10? While head coach Chuck Pagano and general manager Chris Ballard have yet to officially rule out Andrew Luck from the Rams game, or to say how many regular-season games they expect Luck to miss, it looks like Scott Tolzien will be the starter to begin the season. Tolzien, signed as a free agent from Green Bay prior to the 2016 season, has worked with the No. 1 offense throughout OTAs, minicamp, training camp and the preseason. And while he has been inconsistent during the preseason schedule, he did have a good performance in the team’s win at Pittsburgh Saturday night. Stephen Morris had slipped to the No. 3 role behind undrafted rookie Phillip Walker early in the preseason but moved to No. 2 for the Pittsburgh game. Morris doesn’t have a lot of regular-season game experience, but he has been the most consistent quarterback in training camp and the preseason.
Who will be Jacksonville’s starting guards for the regular-season opener in Houston on Sept.10? The Jaguars thought they had the answer in Patrick Omameh at left guard and A.J. Cann on the right side. Both players started the team’s first two preseason games. But Omameh played poorly in the second game against Tampa Bay, re-opening the door for others to compete for the starting spot. Luke Bowanko won out and started against Carolina, but didn’t play particularly well and alternated with Omameh at that spot. Cann may have a battle to save his starting spot after a poor showing in the Carolina game in which he was cited for three penalties and didn’t block particularly well. One new consideration Jaguars coaches will explore this week is moving starting center Brandon Linder (easily the team’s best offensive lineman) to one of the guard spots and insert Bowanko at center, a position that Bowanko started at for 14 games in his rookie season in 2014. Another possibility, and likely to happen, the Jaguars may look for a released veteran guard when NFL teams make their 53-man roster cuts next weekend.
The Titans are still rotating several players in the middle of their defensive line trying to find a starting nose tackle. Free agent Sylvester Williams was signed to play the role, but he has been getting serious competition from undrafted second-year player Antwaun Woods, who got into one game a year ago after being elevated from the practice squad. Then, on Sunday, the Titans shifted end DaQuan Jones into the middle and put Austin Johnson in Jones’ end spot on the line. It will be interesting to see how things shake out and whether this is a motivational ploy to fire up Williams, or if Woods and/or Jones can wrest the job away from the veteran offseason pickup.
The Broncos still haven’t settled on a starting left guard — and might not finalize that position until sometime in the regular season. Head coach Vance Joseph said that he might use both Max Garcia and Allen Barbre into the regular season. Garcia had an up-and-down performance against the Packers; he had a key block on C.J. Anderson’s 16-yard touchdown run, but also got beaten for a pressure that could have led to a massive hit on quarterback Trevor Siemian if running back Jamaal Charles had not stepped in with a quick pickup of the rush.
KANSAS CITY CHIEFS
All of the starting jobs appeared locked down for Kansas City, but some difficult cuts remain on the horizon, particularly on defense. The most competitive position group remains at inside linebacker, where the Chiefs carry four players who earned starts for the team last season. The club also used a fifth-round selection on Ukeme Eligwe, re-signed veteran Josh Mauga and acquired Kevin Pierre-Louis via a trade. Derrick Johnson and Ramik Wilson have started all three preseason games. Justin March-Lillard and Terrance Smith played exclusively on special teams in preaseason Week 3 against Seattle. The Chiefs also have tight battles at wide receiver and cornerback. Demarcus Robinson and Seantavius Jones appear to have the upper hand at receiver, but undrafted rookies Marcus Kemp and Gehrig Dieter continue charging. The Chiefs may face a tough decision at cornerback with veterans Kenneth Acker, D.J. White and De’Vante Bausby in the mix for the final spots.
LOS ANGELES CHARGERS
Would the Chargers really go into a season with a backup known as a project over a 12-year veteran? That’s likely to be figured out on Thursday night, when youngster Cardale Jones has one last chance to wrestle the No. 2 quarterback role away from Kellen Clemens. It would appear Clemens would be the favorite between the two players, and that might still be the case. Clemens is in his fourth year with the Chargers and has won elsewhere as a starter. But he’s also 34 years old, and with Philip Rivers turning 36 before the season ends, the Chargers have to address their quarterback situation for the future at some point. But does that future include Jones? Especially with him being a late addition to the team and having about a month to learn the offense? Hard to say, but what isn’t is that head coach Anthony Lynn, who was with Jones in Buffalo last year, remains intrigued by Jones’ upside. The final question is whether Lynn might be compelled to keep three quarterbacks, even though Rivers has been remarkably durable during his long career.
EJ Manuel has lost ground to Connor Cook in the battle to be the backup quarterback to Derek Carr. In his last two games, Manuel is 5-for-13 for 20 yards and hasn’t looked like the smooth operator he was earlier in training camp. Cook, on the other hand, got the Raiders in the end zone against the Rams and engineered a drive to inside the Dallas 10 when time ran out in the third preseason game. Their play Thursday night against Seattle could determine the winner