The NFL’s preseason is halfway done, which means roster cuts from 90 to 53 are inching closer. It also means that head coaches have to make decisions on starters.
Rookies continue to draw both the excitement and ire of fans, so we’ve included four on this list, including two who are trying to turn around two of the league’s longest playoff droughts. Here are the five players we’ll be watching in the third week of the preseason, the games that are generally seen as the dress rehearsals for the regular season:
Mitchell Trubisky QB Chicago Bears
We may as well feature Trubisky every week, because few storylines across NFL training camps have been more intriguing. Through two preseason games, Trubisky has shown us why the Bears gave up so much to get him with the second overall pick in April’s draft. His strong arm and athleticism are easy to see, as is his football acumen. Trubisky’s ability to properly adjust his protection before the snap – albeit in limited action – is arguably more impressive than his robust physical tools. Can he do it on every drive? Thus far, he’s gone a healthy 24 for 33 for 226 yards, two touchdowns and zero interceptions for a 135.4 passer rating (that’s just a tad better than Glennon and Mark Sanchez). Expect the 23-year-old to play a lot against Tennessee on Sunday – head coach John Fox won’t say if that means he will earn first-team reps – and watch to see how Trubisky reacts to different coverages.
DeShone Kizer QB Cleveland Browns
Kizer, an Ohio native, has been every bit as impressive as Trubisky and head coach Hue Jackson shrewdly named him the starter for this week’s game against a quality Tampa Bay defense.
— Jordan Schultz (@Schultz_Report) August 23, 2017
Kizer’s tremendous arm strength and capacity to extend plays as both a runner and a passer is not something we often see from young quarterbacks. The Browns, like the Bears, are trying to build something for the long haul (Cleveland hasn’t been to the postseason since 2002, while Chicago hasn’t been since 2010). Both teams have taken on sizable contracts for unproven veteran quarterbacks in Brock Oswelier and Mike Glennon, neither of whom have looked particularly good in preseason action. If Kizer wants to earn the regular-season starting job, he needs to display the steadiness and leadership ability that Osweiler is so clearly lacking.
Russell Wilson QB Seattle Seahawks
Wilson isn’t used to having much protection from his offensive line, but the season-ending injury to starting left tackle George Fant is still an absolute killer. Fant was playing good football – he had put on over 20 pounds of muscle and was being tasked with protecting Wilson’s blind side. Head coach Pete Carroll would prefer to keep free-agent acquisition Luke Joeckel at left guard, which means Fant’s replacement could be Matt Tobin (whom Seattle just traded for), but most likely seldom used second-year man Rees Odhiambo. All of this brings us back to Wilson. Maybe Wilson won’t play quite as much this week against Kansas City, but we should still be able to gauge how comfortable he is with his new left tackle. From a pre-snap perspective, how much protection will he add to that side? Will he be prone to scrambling a bit quicker? Wilson is as smart as anyone and won’t mess around. This is what Seahawks fans will be watching more than anything else. They know from experience that their season depends on it.
Dalvin Cook RB Minnesota Vikings
Cook has looked every bit the part thus far in preseason. The former Florida State standout is extremely shifty and elusive coming out of the backfield, but also possesses the power and physicality to excel as a running back. Against Seattle, he amassed 40 yards on seven carries, including a terrific 15-yarder in which he made one man miss and gained extra yardage by keeping his legs churning. However, what has really separated the rookie has been his pass protection and pass-catching ability. Having one of the two is often a reach for young backs – Cook has both. That means he can remain on the field on obvious passing downs and be an every-down player. Latavius Murray, who has been out with an ankle injury, could make his preseason debut this week but Cook should continue to flourish. The Vikings host San Francisco on Sunday night.
James Conner RB Pittsburgh Steelers
Conner did not disappoint in his long-awaited debut for his hometown team. The rookie running back flashed a nice burst of speed, as well as the patient running and deft vision which made him so successful as a collegian. While it appears superstar Le’Veon Bell is close to ending his holdout and reporting to the Steelers, it would behoove Pittsburgh if Conner remains effective. He can catch the football, he’s tough and at the very least should be a quality complement to Bell. Pay close attention to how he responds this week against Indianapolis. How does he hold up in pass protection? Can he continue making the correct reads as a runner? Those are the key factors for him maintaining a role in the Pittsburgh offense.
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