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What to Watch For During Friday Night’s Preseason Games

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Dress rehearsal week in the National Football League preseason rolls on Friday night with five more games on the schedule, putting 10 teams into action, including five that went to the postseason last year.

For each of these teams, and the other five aiming to get where they were as well, Friday marks perhaps the most important day of the season. It’s the day their starters will get their longest run, they’ll continue to sort out their depth charts and one where they’ll make some decisions necessary to cut the roster down by 15 in the coming days. With the biggest weekend before the regular season upon us, here are some things to watch in tonight’s preseason matchups.

The Garoppolo Show, New England at Carolina – After Tom Brady was scratched from last week’s preseason game following a scissors-related incident, Jimmy Garoppolo got an even longer look for the Patriots than was expected. The third-year signal caller, who will be New England’s starter for weeks 1-4, continued to impress and inspire confidence that the Pats may not skip a beat as Brady serves his upcoming suspension. But Brady is expected to play for at least a little while tonight, in what should be his last game action before Week 5. When and for how long the future Hall of Famer is on the field remains to be seen. But in a dress rehearsal games such as this, it’s probably important for New England to give Garoppolo one more extended look as well. That could mean playing into the second half against a stout Carolina defense.

Carolina’s Secondary, New England at Carolina – Speaking of that Panthers defense, they’re still in the process of sorting things out on the backend, where they’re looking right now at starting a pair of rookies, James Bradberry and Daryl Worley, at cornerback. That makes this game crucial for the young Carolina secondary as they’ll be tested, likely for the final time before things get real. Facing Brady, even for a little while, is a heck of a challenge for that youthful unit and one Carolina would certainly like to see their rookie duo step up to. Additionally, the Panthers aren’t thrilled with their depth at safety and had veterans Donte Whitner and Stevie Brown in for visits on Friday, that’s not a great sign for the guys in that unit already fighting to make it through the first round of cuts. But those incumbents can step up tonight and change minds.

Sammy Watkins and the Bills Receiving Corps, Buffalo at Washington – The bumbling Buffalo Bills are having one of the worst preseasons in recent memory, but one thing that could quickly make people forget about that is a breakout year from Sammy Watkins. The fourth overall pick in the 2014 Draft has been good when he’s been on the field for Buffalo, but not great, and certainly hasn’t reached the ceiling the Bills expected when they spent that draft pick on him. But Watkins is back healthy now, and he’ll make his only preseason cameo on Friday night prior to a very important season in his career. Watch Tyrod Taylor try to get the ball in his hands and allow his top target to shake off some rust. It’s vitally important that happens, because beyond Watkins, the Bills receiver position is kind of a wasteland, so they’ll be looking for someone, anyone, in that group to stand out tonight.

Redskins Running Backs, Buffalo at Washington – In this age of running backs by committee, it often quite hard to determine who will get the bulk of the carries week to week on the teams that don’t have a true stud at the top of the depth chart. That’s going to be more true in Washington this year than most other places. Matt Jones in some ways seized the job from Alfred Morris last year, though he never actually started a game, and when Morris walked this offseason, Jones looked to be the guy. But he’s spent the preseason giving it back, due in large part to injuries and now that he’s set to miss the rest of the preseason, the situation in Washington’s backfield is muddled. With Chris Thompson also out Friday, running duties will be left to rookies Keith Marshall and Robert Kelley, who will look to further establish themselves as potentially important pieces is the murky Redskins backfield.

Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh at New Orleans – The running back situation is significantly more clear in Pittsburgh, where Le’Veon Bell is the unquestioned lead guy, except when he’s suspended and DeAngelo Williams is instead that guy. That will be the case for the first three games of the season, and Bell’s preseason debut on Friday night is likely to be the last time we see him on the field until Week 4. In addition to dealing with a suspension for the second straight season, Bell is coming off a significant knee injury that ended his 2015 campaign early. That makes Friday’s preseason action that much more vital for the 24-year-old, who has proven to be arguably the best running back in the league when healthy. How he and his knee respond to his first and only real workload of the season, is worth monitoring.

Saints defensive tackle Nick Fairley, Pittsburgh at New Orleans – Once touted as the next big thing among interior defenders, things haven’t gone the way of Nick Fairley. The former first round pick fell out of favor in Detroit, spent an uneventful year in St. Louis as a rotational piece on a great defensive line. Now he’s in New Orleans, where he was again expected to be a rotation piece, that is until Saints 2016 first round pick Sheldon Rankins went down for the season. Now Fairley will be undertaking arguably the most important role of his career as a huge starting piece on that New Orleans defensive line. Reports out of NOLA on Fairley have been great, and perhaps the sixth-year vet is ready to step up.

Terrelle Pryor and Corey Coleman, Cleveland at Tampa Bay – Rumors have started to circulate that now that Josh Gordon has been reinstated by the league and is therefore movable, the Browns might entertain the prospect of trading their star wideout. Fueling that speculation is the fact that Cleveland has two great rookie talents at wide receiver in first round pick Corey Coleman and third round pick Terrelle Pryor. The young and dynamic duo has been developing a solid rhythm with new Cleveland quarterback Robert Griffin III, especially Pryor, who has looked at ease in his transition to wideout and already on the receiving end of a few deep balls from RG III in the first two preseason games. If Coleman and Pryor continue to flash and progress, Gordon could be packing his bags for a new destination soon.

The Buccaneers offense, Cleveland at Tampa Bay – After a strong rookie season from first overall pick Jameis Winston, expectations have started to mount in Tampa Bay, with many expecting big things out of the Buccaneers on offense. But so far this preseason it’s been anything but for the Bucs first team offense. Winston and his receivers have looked out of sync, Doug Martin hasn’t been asked to do much, Tampa has been a bit turnover prone and rookie kicker Robert Aguayo is completely lost. But Tampa will have an opportunity to undo all of that bad tonight in a dress rehearsal against a bad Browns defense. Look for Winston, Martin, Mike Evans and many other starters to play into the third quarter on Friday night as they get one last chance to shake off the rust and get on the same page before the games begin to count.

Tight End Jared Cook, Green Bay at San Francisco – As we’ve seen in recent years, chemistry with Aaron Rodgers is the most important part of being a successful part of the Packers offense and Cook gets his first in-game chance to build some of that on Friday night in San Francisco. Green Bay isn’t needy for contributors in the passing game, especially if Jordy Nelson can come back healthy, but Jared Cook brings talent to the table at tight end that the Packers have lacked, even with the connection between Rodgers and Rodgers. Cook has been good, and quite underrated in Tennessee and St. Louis but if can develop a rapport with the league’s best quarterback, that could elevate him to a level that makes him one of the most productive tight ends in the league this year.

Colin Kaepernick, Green Bay at San Francisco – If this one seems obvious, that’s because it is. The 49ers aren’t going to be a good football team this year. They may be the worst in the league, but they can make progress toward a brighter future by figuring out some things, like if Colin Kaepernick can rediscover his talent in Chip Kelly’s offense. The first step toward finding that out comes on Friday, and the 49ers quarterback competition is still wide open for Kaepernick to seize, despite all the time he has missed. It seems highly unlikely that Kaepernick suddenly figures it out, but in what’s going to be another lost season in San Francisco, maybe figuring out that it’s time to finally move on, and tanking in the process, is good enough.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys