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Seven Things To Watch on Saturday

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Week 2 of the NFL preseason wraps up on Saturday with seven games putting 14 teams in action, including some afternoon games to whet your appetite for the regular season.

That said, watching preseason football can sometimes be a drag, a novelty that fades rather quickly after kickoff. But there are some important things that come out of these games to help each franchise shape their roster and depth chart for the forthcoming season. It’s also the first look at shining star rookies who could make their first NFL impact in 2016.

Here’s one reason to watch each of today’s seven exhibition contests.

The Titans Running Backs – Panthers at Titans, 3 p.m. ET: Running back has been a position of extreme weakness for the Tennessee Titans since Chris Johnson departed a few years ago. Last season’s leading rusher Antonio Andrews went for just 520 yards. But Tennessee addressed that area of need this offseason in a big way by trading for DeMarco Murray and drafting Derrick Henry. In the first week of the preseason, Murray looked fresh and re-focused after a lost season in Philadelphia, flashing his skill on a 71-yard touchdown run. Henry too looked good in his first NFL action, showing the vision, patience and most importantly lateral quickness he’ll need to succeed at the next level. Both players, and the Tennessee offensive line that will ultimately play a huge role in their success or failure, will be tested by a stout Panthers defense on Saturday.

Wide Receiver Sterling Shepard – Giants at Bills, 4 p.m. ET: Saturday will mark the 2016 preseason debut of Giants star wideout Odell Beckham Jr., but we already know what he can do. With Eli Manning under center for the first time this preseason as well and Beckham drawing some attention, the guy to watch will be rookie wide receiver Sterling Shepard. The second round pick made a highlight reel catch off a pass from Ryan Nassib last week, but wasn’t targeted much otherwise and later exited with an injury. However, he’s recovered and should be in Manning’s crosshairs this afternoon as the duo look to build quick chemistry in the same way Manning and Beckham have. Shepard looks like he can be a phenomenal complement to OBJ, but he’ll have to get familiar with Manning first.

Quarterback Andrew Luck – Ravens at Colts, 7 p.m. ET: Though it’s still unknown how long he’ll play for and his appearance could just be a flash before he takes back his spot on the bench, Colts star quarterback Andrew Luck is expected to see his first game action on Saturday since an injury ended his 2015 season early last November. Luck will have some rust to shake off as he gets back into the groove, which is the only reason he’ll be playing at all, but it’s important that he does. Perhaps no returning player in the league is more vital to their team’s success this season than Luck is to the Colts. That makes getting him ready for the season and back to full strength a vital goal for Indianapolis.

The Improved Jacksonville Jaguars – Buccaneers at Jaguars, 7:30 p.m. ET: When was the last time someone who wasn’t wearing a Jaguars jersey could say they actually wanted to watch Jacksonville play? Well the time has arrived to say it, because with a great core on offense and young talent on all three levels of their defense, the Jags are truly one of the teams worth watching in 2016. And with so many of their players still so young, Jacksonville coaches have to give them the opportunity to get reps, which makes their preseason games actual dress rehearsals, not third string showcases. On offense, Blake Bortles and Allen Robinson alone are worth the time and on defense, Dante Fowler Jr., Myles Jack and Jalen Ramsey (if he plays) are all impact rookies who offer more than enough reason to watch.

Wide Receiver Mike Thomas – Saints at Texans, 8 p.m. ET: In this era of wide open offense, the wide receiver, along with the quarterback of course, is king and with each new crop of rookie wideouts there are certain guys that start to standout and make you take notice from their first practice and first preseason game. New Orleans’ Mike Thomas is one of those players. After being taken as the sixth wide receiver off the board in this year’s draft, Thomas is approaching the preseason with something to prove and he showed it in Week 1 with some outstanding catches and plays. Watching young wideouts develop into star players is one of the best parts of the preseason and Thomas is one to keep an eye on.

Who Is The Quarterback? – 49ers at Broncos, 9 p.m. ET: It’s remarkable to have a preseason game, where not just one but both teams are so unsettled at the quarterback position. And it’s incredible how similar these situations are, especially with Colin Kaepernick unable to play at the moment for the 49ers. That leaves both squads with a starter who probably shouldn’t be starting in the league, but is probably their best option (Blaine Gabbert and Mark Sanchez) a rookie who has a lot of developing to do before he’s ready (Jeff Driskel and Paxton Lynch) and a guy who is kinda just there (Christian Ponder and Trevor Siemian). The rookies should be the fun ones to watch in this exhibition tilt, but there is also something to be said for just watching the trainwreck that is each team’s quarterback situation unfold.

Jared Goff – Chiefs at Rams, 9 p.m. ET: Speaking of rookie quarterbacks worth watching, cap off the evening with the No. 1 overall pick as he tries to progress toward the role of Week 1 starter that the Rams so badly want him to seize. Goff was only on the field for 13 plays last week and went 4-of-9 throwing the ball with an interception. He should see more time this week, perhaps even a whole quarter or half, as Los Angeles needs to start gauging whether he will be ready to assume the reins when they kickoff their season in just a few short weeks. The Kansas City defense provides a stiff test, making this a perfect opportunity for a dry run for the top pick in the draft and future of the franchise.

LE’VEON BELL HAS SUSPENSION REDUCED

Other than plenty of preseason action, the other big news out of the NFL on Friday was the reduction in the suspension of Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell from four games down to just three.

It’s the second straight year that the league has suspended Bell and then reduced that suspension by one game. Last year, Bell was initially suspended three games for violating the NFL Policy and Program for Substances of Abuse after an August 2014 arrest for DUI and marijuana possession. But he had that suspension reduced to just two games in July.

This time, Bell was originally suspended four games for violating the league’s substance abuse policy, by missing mandatory drug tests in December, January and April. But the league lightened the punishment again. The settlement Bell reached with the league has another bonus worth noting. Because the suspension was reduced, it keeps Bell in his current phase of the substance abuse program, and therefore, if he’s somehow suspended yet again for the same thing, that suspension would be just four games instead of the 10 game ban that would come with a move into the next phase.

In the short term, instead of missing the first four games for the Steelers, Bell will return in time for the team’s primetime showdown with the Kansas City Chiefs on October 2. In the meantime, DeAngelo Williams will again be asked to hold down the fort, which he did an excellent job of last season. The Steelers play the Redskins, Bengals and Eagles in the first three weeks of the regular season.

Getting Bell back, provided he can come back and stay healthy this season will still be a sizable boost for a Pittsburgh offense that will be missing receiver Martavis Bryant for the entire season. It’s unclear why Bell seems to be among the only guys who gets a break from the league on suspensions, but some of his peers should look into his defense strategy because something he’s doing is working in a way it hasn’t for almost every other player who has appealed a suspension across the board.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys