(Author's note: This is a new feature that will run on Mondays, looking back at the weekend's action in quick-hitting form on a variety of topics. It will run weekly through the entire NFL season.)
The kids are getting their chances.
When a veteran coach talks to the media about a rookie without being asked specifically about him, ears perk up. It's not common, but it is meaningful.
As former Redskins defensive coordinator Greg Blache once said (special thanks to CSNWashington.com's Ryan O'Halloran for digging up this gem), "I would rather fall in love with a stripper than a rookie, because they will break your heart."
Blache's successor with the Redskins, Jim Haslett, broke that rule earlier in the preseason when he talked about second-round DE Jarvis Jenkins. Haslett lit up. He beamed about the rookie.
All signs pointed to Jenkins supplanting starting DLE Adam Carriker, the 13th overall pick in the 2007 draft, sooner rather than later. That was before Jenkins suffered a torn ACL in the preseason win over the Ravens.
Big loss. Huge.
Mike Shanahan piled on the love after the rookie's injury.
"(He's) everything you look for in a person and everything you look for as a football player," Shanahan said. "It always hurts to lose a potential great player like that."
And when you look around the NFL, it's stunning — especially following the 4½-month lockout — just how many rookies are being counted on right away.
Andy Dalton and Cam Newton, who squared off in Thursday's preseason game in Cincinnati, are likely to be starting in Week One for the Bengals and Panthers, respectively. Blaine Gabbert still could start for the Jaguars early, if not Week One, if for no other reason than David Garrard could make it tough on Jack Del Rio with his injuries and subpar play.
It's pretty noteworthy that any rookie, especially a quarterback, could come in and win a job with about a month's worth of work. It's also interesting to note that the rookie QBs could be leaning heavily on fellow rookies — first-rounder A.J. Green for the Bengals is almost sure to start, and WR Cecil Shorts (who last played at Mount Union, aka Pierre Garcon U.) is making a name for himself in Jacksonville.
But those are higher-round picks. In a way, it's not stunning they are contributing. So how do we account for a sixth- and seventh-rounder starting for two contending teams in the Eagles and Cowboys?
C Jason Kelce reminds Eagles OL coach Howard Mudd of another unheralded guy coming out of college, Jeff Saturday, who was undrafted back in 1998. He turned out pretty well. Kelce is learning on the job, and spies say he was pretty down on himself after having a bad game against the Browns on Thursday, allowing a sack and some pressures on Michael Vick. But there is a good chance that Kelce — and not veteran Jamaal Jackson — is the Week One center.
In Dallas, it's even more stunning that Bill Nagy, who was the third-from-last pick in the draft, has a great chance to be the left guard when the Cowboys face Rex Ryan's Jets in Week One. Nagy started 11 games in college, all as a junior, and was essentially a blocking tight end, a sixth lineman if you will, as a senior. Getting drafted and making the team appeared to be long shots not long ago. But we're way past that point, says Cowboys OL coach Hudson Houck.
"Nagy is the guy right now (at left guard)," Houck told me by phone last week. "Billy is really doing a great job learning our offense. He's a really intelligent kid. He's a savvy football player. It doesn't appear to be too big for him. When he makes a mistake, he knows it and generally doesn't make it twice.
"I feel really good about him."
The list of other amazing rookie revelations around the league goes on.
Kelce could be one of four Eagles rookies expected to start this season — six if you count PK Alex Henery and P Chas Henry — along with MLB Casey Matthews, SS Jaiquawn Jarrett and ORG Danny Watkins.
Nagy probably will join first-rounder Tyron Smith in the starting five on the Cowboys' O-line. The Seahawks could be the third NFL team to start a pair of rooks up front with ORG John Moffitt and ORT James Carpenter.
ORT Gabe Carimi already might be the Bears' best O-lineman. Colts OLT Anthony Costanzo will be the man in the spotlight, protecting (we think) the tender neck of QB Peyton Manning. C Mike Pouncey is a key figure up front in Miami.
Defensive linemen will be instant-impact players, too. NT Phil Taylor and DE Jabaal Sheard appear to be Day One starters up front in Cleveland. The Panthers could turn to two rookies as their first-string defensive tackles, Sione Fua and Terrell McClain. Even contenders will lean on first-year defensive linemen with DE J.J. Watt impressing in Houston and DE Corey Liuget doing the same in San Diego. The arrival of DE Muhammad Wilkerson pushed Jets fixture Shaun Ellis out the door. Adrian Clayborn will start at right end for the Bucs, and Da'Quan Bowers might not be far behind him in the lineup at left end.
We haven't even mentioned the draft's big names such as Denver OLB Von Miller, Buffalo DE Marcell Dareus, Arizona CB Patrick Peterson, Atlanta WR Julio Jones and New Orleans RB Mark Ingram. They all have flashed in the preseason.
Thirty-four draft picks started at least 10 games in 2010. I think we'll pass that number this season. Pretty amazing when you think about it.
Three teams that could surprise early this season
One of the trickiest things to do, year to year, is pick out the teams that will go from out of the playoffs to in. It happens every season, sometimes at an alarming rate: single-digit-win clubs go to double digits and catch people off guard.
So how to pick these teams out? Start with the schedule. If you look at the slates of some of the worst teams — and the three we'll mention won a combined 14 contests in 2010, the same as the Patriots — they are not fearsome.
Could these teams pull off gutter-to-glory runs? Maybe not, but don't be shocked if they catch fire early:
Browns — Yes, the Browns. Look at their early slate: vs. Cincy, at Indy, vs. Miami, vs. Tennessee, at Oakland, vs. Seattle, at San Fran. If we call the Colts game a loss — and that's not given with Peyton Manning still not back in action as of this writing — then the Browns (seriously) could (no joke) go 6-1 before a big matchup against the Texans in Week Eight. The Colt McCoy-led offense will score points. You can bookmark this page and come back to it. Yes, the West Coast system needs time to develop, but it's the defense that carries the most questions. And with this opening schedule, Dick Jauron's unit will have time to shed its old skin — switching back to a 4-3 front — and hope to make the proper improvements in time for the meatier games.
Broncos — John Fox stunned the NFL in 2002 when he led the Panthers to a 3-0 start just a year after they set a league mark with 15 consecutive defeats to end '01. In Denver, Fox has a big challenge, but he has a chance for one simple reason: He has a quarterback. Kyle Orton has shined in the preseason, proving the team was smart for not trading him. And he could dice up the Broncos' first three opponents — the Raiders, Bengals and Titans. The first two opponents lost big-name corners (Nnamdi Asomugha and Johnathan Joseph), and the Titans featured the 29th-ranked pass "D" a year ago. The Broncos' defense is going through a transition, but it will be on the field less with an improved run game, and the opening trio of games features three less-than-fearsome offenses
Cardinals — The schedule beefs up in the middle, but the early part isn't brutal: the Panthers in Week One (possibly Cam Newton making his first start), the Redskins (either John Beck or Rex Grossman) and the Seahawks (Tarvaris Jackson, but Charlie Whitehurst is making a push). None elicits fear. Eli Manning and the Giants remain strong despite a painful offseason, but the Vikings (in Week Five) are weakened and the Cards could steal the matchup of former Eagles QBs — Kevin Kolb vs. Donovan McNabb. If Kolb consistently can find Larry Fitzgerald and the defense can show some semblance of improvement under coordinator Ray Horton, the Cardinals might be able to get an early leg up on the division and stay in the NFC West race.
Are these teams ready for prime time? That remains to be seen. Ready to steal a few wins early? Don't be shocked.
Controversial call of the week
On Thursday, Browns LB D'Qwell Jackson ran free at Eagles QB Michael Vick on a rush, unblocked, and hit Vick just as he released a pass that would be intercepted by Browns S Michael Adams. The hit was great; the throw by Vick was pretty bad.
But what was worse was the official's call: roughing the passer. Replays showed there was no way in heck Jackson could have stopped from hitting Vick. The hit occurred a split second after Vick released the ball, and if it happened in the regular season, we'd have a mini-controversy on our hands.
Instead of the Browns taking over on the Eagles' side of the field, Vick led a TD drive six plays later.
Almost the same play happened in Saturday's Broncos-Seahawks game when another famous lefty QB — Tim Tebow — was dropped like a bad habit, by Seahawks rookie LB K.J. Wright, just as he released the ball. The pass was almost picked. No call.
That was the right call. The Vick play was not.
Is Vick getting the benefit of the doubt? We'll see, but for now we'll assume it was an isolated play — and just one bad call.
The wow factor
This section is named after my new favorite TV show (one of the few I have time to watch), "Auction Hunters," in which one of the buyers always says he's looking for hidden treasure in storage lockers, and what he is looking for, he says, is the "wow factor," that buzz-worthy item that blows back his hair.
And while we're on the subject of rookies and locating treasure, Von Miller looks outstanding. Were you wondering if he has it? Wonder no more. Miller had two sacks against the Seahawks, bringing his preseason total to three, and hit QB Tarvaris Jackson (a pretty quick, nimble guy) a total of four times.
On his best move, Miller bull-rushed fellow rookie James Carpenter, got him on his heels, pushed him upfield and then ripped inside to take down Jackson for a five-yard loss.
Miller will be a star. It won't take long, either. I expect the Broncos' defense to be far better this season, with Miller on board, Elvis Dumervil back on the field and some surprise contributions from players such as DT Jeremy Jarmon.
Entertainers and icons
The inaugural edition of this section, naturally, will include the young man who so famously said those words before he was drafted.
Cam Newton: Yeah, he struggled with his accuracy against the Bengals and absolutely has not been able to get the ball to his wide receivers in the preseason. But boy, is it fun to watch him run. If you get a chance, check out his 16-yard TD run as well as his 26-yard jaunt through the Bengals' defense. As a passer, he's very unpolished and likely will hover around 50 percent completions this season. But it's hard not to like the potential.
Antonio Brown: As PFW AFC Norther Mike Wilkening has pointed out, Brown's ascension up the Steelers' WR depth chart (as perhaps the most dangerous member of the "young Money" crew there) has been one of the undersold stories of the preseason. The second-year receiver out of Central Michigan added two more long TD catches on Saturday. His 77-yard catch-and-run against the Falcons was his latest strike, and it is notable for two reasons: First, it shows just how freakishly athletic he is, but second, it also shows that the kid could use a small dose of humility. As much as Brown impressed the team with his maneuverability on the score, the coaches and veterans likely were less than thrilled with his celebration routine at the end, which drew a 15-yard unsportsmanlike penalty. Getting knocked down a peg or two might be what the doctor — and Mike Tomlin — ordered for Brown. Still, Tomlin was impressed: "He is a highly conditioned guy. Because of that he's able to take a lot of reps. Because of that he's able to improve and reap the rewards of it. He's consistently been a spark plug here for us throughout the preseason and he's put himself in a position for that to continue as we push toward the regular season." It was good to hear Brown talk after the game about the work he continued to need doing.
Doug Baldwin: A real, live kickoff return! For a touchdown! For all the talk about how the new rules will increase the number of touchbacks, I will be tracking two other byproducts: One will be how onsides kicks are affected, if at all, with the five-yard run-up restriction. The other will be the number of kickoffs that returners will bring back from five, six, seven and more yards deep out of the endzone — territory that once was taboo. Baldwin did just that. He was five yards deep and took Matt Prater's kickoff the distance, stringing together a few nifty moves and escaping would-be tacklers in a very impressive effort. One note, however: That kickoff came from the 30, not the 35, because of a five-yard offsides penalty on the first kickoff attempt. Oh well. Back to your normal programming.
Ten takeaways of the week
Here are 10 things I took away from the third — and they say the most important — week of the preseason:
1. Andy Dalton is going to be good. Eventually. He's smart and he has poise and a short memory, coming back from two bad preseason performances to play well against the Panthers. That might be the best thing you can say about him, but it was very important he showed the Bengals' coaches something prior to the regular-season opener against Cleveland.
2. I don't know how Ryan Fitzpatrick, aka "The Amish Rifle" according to his teammates, is going to stay upright behind that Bills offensive line this season. But when he is standing tall, he is fearless and dangerous. The young receivers are fun and don't have a clue how young they are, and neither does Fitzpatrick — he just keep feeding them the ball and asking them to make plays. The Bills will be a more entertaining and — I think — successful team this season.
3. More rookie observations: Patrick Peterson is just starting to show us how good he could be. His instinctive and athletic interception of Philip Rivers showed how good a ball thief Peterson can become, and the subsequent return for a touchdown shows just how ridiculously gifted the kid is. He kept his eyes in the backfield in cover-2 and broke off his coverage to make the play, something many veterans are not capable of doing. Ken Whisenhunt hates to play rookies, and A.J. Jefferson (whom the Cardinals actually kind of like) was the starter in the game at left corner. But it won't be long before Peterson is in the lineup for good … for the next 10 years, I am guessing.
4. Bernard Berrian is not dead yet. Neither is Donovan McNabb. Both men had forgettable 2010 seasons, and now both are being asked to replace big figures. Berrian is the Vikings' deep threat again a season after being largely forgotten, and it was widely speculated that he would be out on the street, but that was before Sidney Rice bolted town for Seattle. On Saturday, Berrian ran a nice corner-post route to split Cowboys safeties Gerald Sensabaugh and Abram Elam for a 49-yard rainbow TD pass from McNabb. Don't be surprised if this passing connection opens a few more eyes than expected this season.
5. The Texans' defense is starting to impress me. With its improvement and all the bad vibes going around the Colts in recent weeks, I have been leaning toward picking the Texans not only to win Week One but also to take the AFC South. But it was Saturday night's performance against the 49ers (three sacks, constant harassment of 49ers QBs) that makes you think that the defensive improvement could be wholesale. This is not a team that is just going to allow 28 points while the offense scores 31 or more every week. I believe Wade Phillips is the kind of coach who knows how to carry out big scheme changes quickly, which he has, and he and this defense appear to have handled the shortened offseason better than other clubs. The front seven is improved, there is better competition at a few positions and the secondary is getting contributions from unknowns such as Troy Nolan, which only can help.
6. I want to like the Jaguars' defense more, but that secondary is giving me pause. Major pause right now. Still withholding final judgment.
7. The Bears, Saturday's tape will show you, should get the ball into Matt Forté's hands 5-7 more times per game than they did last season. Eighteen touches per game, his average last season, just isn't enough. Twenty-three to 25 sounds much, much better. It's either that or throw pointless slants to Roy Williams for those plays. Which do you think has a better chance for success?
8. The Rams are starting to look like a legit contender. All three elements of the team appear improved and very, very solid. Rookie TE Lance Kendricks is a name to remember. I immediately thought an 11-5 record was possible this season after watching them Saturday night, although if the Cardinals are improved, they might take one of those contests. I just love the direction of the Rams under Steve Spagnuolo. Want a Week One upset? Take them over the Eagles. The betting public almost certainly will be on the Michael Vick side of things more than it should be.
9. The polls are not closed in D.C., but I still think John Beck is the Week One quarterback when all is said and done. I know Rex Grossman started the third preseason game (and played pretty well) and I know Grossman threw for 336 yards against the Giants in Week 17 last season. But he also was picked once and lost two fumbles in that game, and I think Mike Shanahan won't pick Grossman unless he concludes that he's significantly better than Beck. A few areas where Beck has the edge is that he throws better outside the numbers and deep ("I love to throw deep," he said after the game) better than Grossman. Beck also is better at escaping pressure it appears, although Grossman stood up fairly well against duress vs. the Ravens' starters after the first few drives. Shanahan reportedly has told some people close to him that he thinks Beck is the more talented quarterback. For me, that's enough to put him out there Week One against the Giants. And by delaying his decision on who the QB is, Shanahan makes it tougher for the Giants to prepare. That's just one more reason to start him: There is far less scoutable tape on Beck than there is on Grossman, although that clearly won't be the deciding factor on whether to start him.
10. Bill Belichick isn't entirely mad, I am guessing, about his team's throttling at the hands of the Lions on Saturday. There had been a lot of "better than the 2007 team" talk after the Patriots waltzed through the first two preseason games, and I am sure Belichick didn't mind the teaching point/humbling defeat. Expect him to have railed against his team for the loss, which exposed a few things. As for the team doing the railing, the Lions started to flex their muscles a little bit. I don't think they will find the going to double-digit wins as easily as everyone around the league seemingly wants it to be for this talented squad, but I do think by season's end we'll be talking about a dangerous and well-coached unit.
Early preseason Week Four teasers
The top story lines heading into the next week: