From the very moment that Tom Brady's pass fell beyond Rob Gronkowski’s extended fingers, NFL fans have been anxiously counting the seconds until they could hear the clacking sounds of pads slamming against each other in the trenches of the gridiron.
For the truly die-hard fans, that day is upon us.
There is a large majority of the viewing public that don’t consider football to be back until the games actually “matter”. Over the last decade, more fans have become aware of the drama of the preseason. As the NFL has lapped every other sport in popularity in the US, the fans have indulged themselves into every detail of their favorite pastime. They realize now how much the preseason really does matter.
any of them can remember Victor Cruz’ three touchdown performance on HBO’s “Hard Knocks”. Cruz has become just one of many success stories that got their start in the battles that ensue in the midst of August. The NFL preseason has become one of TV’s best reality shows. These contestants will have to perform in the hottest conditions, in hostile territory, under the utmost pressure, and you get to pull for your favorite each week in hopes that they don’t get sent home.
Watching a preseason game is much different than enjoying your average September-January regular season affair. What should you watch for? It’s actually like watching several different shows. Early on, fans get to enjoy the known commodities. No one is tuning in to see if Drew Brees can compete at this level, but getting to see him possibly link up with Jimmy Graham down the seam for a big gainer is a must watch.
Both of these teams will play in 5 preseason games, which is one more than every other NFL team. Due to the extra “meaningless” game, fans can expect to see the starters for only a series or two at most, usually. Some big name players, like Ryan Williams, will actually not see any time, as the team chooses to go conservative with the second year player, who missed all of his rookie campaign after an injury in a preseason game.
I’m going to give you a few players to watch for from both teams, the New Orleans Saints and the Arizona Cardinals. Don’t get caught up in the stats or even what the announcers are saying. Pay attention to the match ups. Just because a player catches 6 passes for 80 yards doesn’t mean that he had a great game. He might be getting covered by the guy who will be bagging your groceries in three weeks.
Also, just because a rookie pass rusher isn’t getting pressure against a veteran, starting offensive tackle, doesn’t mean the backup outplayed him. In these games, you always have to be conscious of who’s on the field. Not only who made the play, but who he beat to make the play. When it comes to realizing who had a great game in the regular season, it’s as easy to figure out as checkers, but in the preseason it’s more like chess because there are too many moving pieces and they aren’t all created equal. Don’t get impressed by a rook beating a pawn while missing the queen taking the king.
Arizona Cardinals – What to Watch For?
- Rob Housler - MVP! This is who I’m predicting to have the best game of the night. It’s a tough thing to predict in the preseason, but Housler is a stud, second year player that desperately needed the lockout time from last season that he missed. He only had 12 receptions in 2011. The Cards will be looking to see what Kevin Kolb and John Skelton can do and Housler should reap the rewards. They won’t risk Larry Fitzgerald too much, Todd Heap is proven, and their top two backs aren’t playing. Housler should shine in this game, but don’t think it’s a fluke. He’s primed for a big season. He’s a 6’5 target that could serve as an underneath security if Arizona doesn’t fix their line.
- Kevin Kolb – John Skelton - This is such a given. The team has to get answers from their most important position. I would be surprised if Kolb doesn’t take this job by the throat at some point. He’s capable of playing far better than what was on display last season. If the line can play better this year and they keep either Ryan Williams OR Beanie Wells heathy for 16 games, Kolb will surprise fans with how well he can perform.
- Michael Floyd - I can’t write about the Cards and not mention a 6’3 receiver that runs fluid routes and has reliable hands and doesn’t wear the #11 jersey. For the most part of the last sentence, I could have been talking about Larry Fitzgerald. Adding Floyd to field opposite of Fitz could be deadly for defenses, but young receivers are the furthest thing from an exact science. Each of them learn at their own pace, it’s not a declaration to their talent. There are Hall of Fame receivers that were stellar as a rookie and there are others that fought to make the squad. This game should give us a peak of where Floyd is at currently.
- Young Offensive Lineman – I keep hearing people say that the Cardinals didn’t address their offensive line. While I believe that they should have considered David DeCastro or Cordy Glenn in the first round, it’s not a true statement to say that they neglected the position entirely. They drafted Bobby Massie, Senio Kelemete, and Nate Potter. I honestly feel that each of them could have a long term role on this team. The one that gets me most excited is Potter. I had Potter ranked a lot higher than most, leading up to the 2012 NFL Draft. Nate was ranked as my 5th best offensive tackle. I felt his best fit was in a zone system, but that he could play in any. He will be a starter for the Cardinals and I look forward to watching him tonight. Kelemete’s college film was less than impressive when he was playing outside. During the times that I was able to watch him at guard, he was a completely different player. That’s where Arizona will play him.
- Secondary - I wrote earlier this week about the “Prototype” Patrick Peterson and I can’t wait to see what he has planned for a follow-up to his rookie season. Peterson will be joined by William Gay this season and it’ll be great to see how the two pair up. AJ Jefferson, Greg Toler, and Michael Adams provide veteran depth. Toler and Jefferson are both starter quality. If Toler can stay healthy, he could push Gay out of the starting lineup. Jamell Fleming may lack experience, but don’t bury him on the depth chart just yet. His physicality jumps off the tape. This team needs his bully mentality on this talented defense. Arizona got great value with Fleming in the 5th and his secondary counterpart, Justin Bethel, in the 6th. This is what I wrote about the two shortly after the draft “Jamell Fleming is an aggressive cornerback that can contribute immediately. A player of his talent is usually gone by the mid third round but Arizona benefits from a deep cornerback draft and now have another young and talented corner to place in the secondary with last year’s pick of Patrick Peterson. Justin Bethel was a sixth round selection that reminds me of the Buster Skrine pick from last year. Both guys lit up the combine and teams found a spot to select each that didn’t involve a lot of risk but could come back to pay tenfold. Bethel is a raw talent but he’s fast, explosive, and could develop into a nickle corner or at least a solid special teams player.” Arizona has been playing Bethel at safety due in large to their talented depth at cornerback. While Arizona’s NFC West rival, Seattle Seahawks, deserve all the praise that they have received for their young secondary, don’t take the Cardinals unit lightly, as Bethel’s counterparts are Adrian Wilson, Kerry Rhodes, James Sanders, and Rashad Johnson. The Saints passing attack against this secondary should be enough to get you excited for this game.
- Quick Notes – Dan Williams and Sam Acho are two defenders that could push this defense over the top from being good to being scary. Andre Roberts and Early Doucet aren’t just going to roll out the red carpet for Michael Floyd. He will have to scratch and claw for that starters’ position. Lastly, watch how many 6’3 or taller receivers come into the game for Arizona throughout the four quarters. Tough match ups if the offensive line can protect.
New Orleans Saints – What to Watch For?
- Johnny Patrick - Defensive MVP! Leading up to last year’s draft, I couldn’t talk enough about Johnny Patrick. He may have not become a household name last season, but I expect him to start the 2012 preseason off with a splash. He’s got excellent coverage skills and should see extended playing time in this game as the coaches will want to see what he’s capable of against live ammunition. He will more than likely face Kolb and Skelton.
- Wide Receivers - Robert Meachem has left Drew Brees and headed to catch passes from Brees’ understudy in San Diego. Like any athlete or hip hop artist when they hear that Kim Kardashian is single, the Saints’ receivers are lining up for Brees attention. The eligible bachelors that are hoping to catch Drew’s eye and replace his affection for Meachem are Adrian Arrington, Joe Morgan, and rookie Nick Toon. Arrington and Morgan have time served, as they have spent the last 2-3 years courting Brees. Each bring a different element of their game to the table and it could come down to whether Drew is an ass (size) or breast (speed) man. We will have to wait and see what Toon can do, as he recovers from a mild injury. It’ll be hard to keep him off the field when healthy. The bloodlines to Al Toon can be seen is his style of play and should force him into live game action soon.
- The Usual Suspects - Jimmy Graham and Marques Colston are going to have monster seasons. Brees is known for spreading the ball around, but I believe that he will lean more heavily on his go-to guys this season. I wouldn’t be surprised to see this basketball sized duo of 6’4 & 6’7 targets, each record 100 receptions.
- Cameron Jordan – I felt that Jordan was drafted out of position last year and that he was neck and neck with JJ Watt as the best 3-4 defensive end prospects coming out of college. Regardless, he’s in a 4-3 and trying to make the best of it as he’s changed his body style this offseason. The Saints are desperate for a pass rush and will need Jordan to mesh the role the team drafted him for. I’m highly interested in seeing how the transformation is going.
- Linebackers or Not-Linebackers - Martez Wilson was drafted as a linebacker out of Illinois last season. The team is pass rush needy, so they have shifted Wilson over to defensive end. Much like Jordan, I can’t wait to see how Wilson plays the defensive end position after a full offseason preparing for his new role. The Saints weakened their divisional foe, Atlanta Falcons, by signing away middle linebacker Curtis Lofton this offseason. It was win-win as the Saints made the move as a preventive measure in case Jonathan Vilma was suspended and to upgrade the position. The Falcons also saw Lofton’s replacement, Lofa Tatupu, go on injured reserve. Jonathan Casillas was a monster last preseason. He’s a specialist, due to his 227 pound frame. The additions of Chris Chamberlain and David Hawthorne ensure that he remains a specialist, but a fresh, healthy Casillas is deadly.
- Quick Notes - Ben Grubbs comes over from Baltimore and replaces Carl Nicks. As talented as Grubbs is, Nicks left some big shoes to fill. How will the Saints split up the carries this year. Pierre Thomas, Mark Ingram, Darren Sproles, and Chris Ivory all want more touches. Sean Payton isn’t around to keep everyone happy and this situation could get sticky. Brodrick Bunkley and Sedrick Ellis could help the defensive ends by forcing so much focus from the offensive line on the interior. Bunkley had no help in Denver last year and could perform even better with Ellis beside him.
We may or may not get answers to these questions, but the one thing that is for certain is that we will get football in a few short hours…and that’s the first time we can say that in 6 months. Enjoy the show!
Jayson Braddock is an NFL Scout / NFL Writer & On-Air Personality. Jayson is also a football insider for the Dylan Gwinn show on 790 AM in Houston, TX - Listeners NOT in the Houston metropolitan area can hear Jayson on iheart radio or sports790.com. You can also catch Jayson on Sirius XM Fantasy Sports Radio with Scott Engel and the morning crew every Thursday at 10:30am ET. You may email Jayson directly @ email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @JaysonBraddock