The Spotter’s View: Preseason Week 1

Careers will be made, dreams will be forfeited. This is why the NFL Preseason matters.

Every NFL team has made changes this off-season. There’s new coaches in Philadelphia, Chicago, San Diego, Jacksonville, Buffalo, Cleveland and Arizona. Hope abounds in these cities as is usually the case when fresh ideas replace stagnant ones. There’s also a new rookie class looking to make its’ mark on the league and some big name free agents trying to get comfortable in unfamiliar surroundings. The league, as a whole, is taking shape through training camp and the pieces will begin to fall into place tonight as the preseason kicks off in full swing.

The first preseason game, historically, is when we can expect to see the bottom-third of the roster battle it out for their spots on the team. The lower round draft picks, the undrafted rookies, disappointing second and third year players who have yet to make a name for themselves – these are the players who will be competing for their livelihood tonight. It’s always great drama to witness this part of the roster-building process as one play – one missed assignment or a single terrific effort – can make or break the dreams fostered by these young men. Who will step up and do something worthy of remembrance by the coaching staff when they begin to trim this roster down as the regular season approaches? On the flip side…who will play timid and make a game-changing mistake? It’s inevitable. It’s captivating. And it’s what makes the NFL preseason worth watching.

Here is The Spotter’s View on the season before THE season and what to watch out for as teams begin to formulate their identities:

  • I’ve been told that over 100 undrafted rookies played in the NFL’s regular season in 2012 and over 30 made it onto teams that participated in the post-season. Those guys made their names known to their respective coaching staffs during the preseason last year. These games absolutely do matter. This is where depth comes from and special teams contributions. The NFL season, after all, is most times a war of attrition. How many healthy bodies will your team have come December and January? No doubt there will be holes to fill. A third TE, a backup safety, a swing interior lineman…sometimes, it’s an undrafted player that helps to save a sinking ship. Think about all the injuries we’ve seen so far through training camp. Dennis Pitta, Jeremy Maclin, Bryan Buluga….unproven, no-name guys will get an opportunity to fill those voids during the preseason.
  • Each year there’s a whole slew of guys that enter their “sophomore” campaigns with high expectations. Some falter. Others rise up. The progress – or lack thereof – begins to show up on film during the first few weeks of the preseason. Who will emerge as the next group of NFL stars? Who will make “The Leap”? Can it be Lamar Miller in Miami? Perhaps Morris Claiborne in Dallas. Chandler Jones (New England, Courtney Upshaw (Baltimore), David Wilson (NY Giants), Alshon Jeffery (Chicago), Michael Floyd (Arizona) and Brandon Boykin (Philadelphia) are all worth keeping an eye on as well. Someone from this group will burst onto the scene as a premier talent. The first signs of that transformation will take place during the preseason. Watch accordingly.
  • There’s more than a few teams switching their base defensive schemes this season. Philadelphia is believed to be going to a 3-4 alignment from a 4-3 while Dallas is doing the exact opposite. This is important for two reasons. One, it’s a steep learning curve as new responsibilities emerge. There’s new run fits, new coverage assignments, guys playing in different spots who are doing different things. It takes time to get comfortable with any new scheme but a huge switch in philosophy makes the task that much more daunting. And two….the personnel challenges can present some pretty big obstacles for a team making this sort of change. For starters, there’s an existing roster with an existing salary cap in place. Which means some players that aren’t suited for a new scheme will be staying despite their less than ideal fit. Troublesome. Making matters worse is the hit or miss nature of the NFL Draft. Typically when switching schemes defensively, front offices will reach for a guy to plug a perceived need. If you’re planning to employ a 3-4 and you need a large bodied individual to play the nose….a space eater….you’re gonna target one at some point during Draft weekend. But what if there isn’t a guy deserving of a first round grade and only one or two in the second? What if both of those guys are gone before you pick at #58? You NEED to plug that newly created role with a guy that fits the mold of a zero-technique. Do you reach? Do you wait? Do you move someone not as ideal from your existing roster and hope they can handle the nose? A free agent still out there? The point is….if you reach and miss or wait and miss….you’re then presented with the same problem a year later. At which point you’ll be presented with the same set of issues. A front office guy told me long ago that it takes two years to effectively switch from a 4-3 to a 3-4 but it’s easier for teams going the other way. In this example, the Cowboys would have an easier time than the Eagles. Philly needs to find a zero-technique, a couple of 285+ lb DEs to man the five-techniques and  two OLBs comfortable playing in space. They drafted for these needs and signed free agents accordingly but the odds are strong that they missed on at least half of those decisions. That’s the nature of NFL talent evaluation. It’s inexact and mistakes are made. Which is why they’ll need second year to effectively fill the roles and make the transition.
  • There are some people out there that believe the read-option will go the way of the Wildcat. I am not one of those people. This is a legitimate offense with legitimate principles that will continue to create havoc for opposing defenses. Here’s why….it forces defenses to play assignment football. You take the RB, I got the QB. Defend your assignment and things will work out in our favor. We can stop this read-option thing if we just play our assignments. Fine and dandy. Except offensive coordinators know that too. And they’ll use the play-action off of the read-option to devour teams playing assignment football. In a game of inches…would one false step by the outside linebacker create enough space for a guy like Fred Davis to exploit down the middle? Yes. It’s why RGIII will continue to be a nightmare for opposing DCs. Whoever has him on assignment will eventually be torched downfield. And when he gets torched, that player will then be less aggressive in his assignment against the option. If he’s slow there… out. It’s not the read-option itself that’s unstoppable. Clearly, that can be schemed away. It’s the reaction to the reaction that makes the total package of the read-option an absolute nightmare.
  • I feel bad for the young defensive backs in this league that are put into an impossible situation. They’re asked to defend blazing receivers without being able to slow them down through contact while making snap decisions as to how and when they can contact an opponent in a blink of the eye type moment. There’s a reason behind all the massive yardage marks put up by WRs and QBs over the past four or five years. There’s a reason we had a rookie class of QBs dominate last year….defensive backs are lost. The young ones are beyond the help of a GPS.
  • Joe Flacco and Matt Ryan have a chance to emerge as the new faces of the NFL moving forward. They’re both young, talented, marketable and their play on the field has been improving each and every season. As time moves on and this season progresses, these two guys could move up into the top 3 conversation.
  • The no-huddle offense will be on display in 2013. Of course there’s Chip Kelly and his warp-speed version of it. But the Patriots, Broncos, Ravens, Falcons, Bears and Saints will all employ it consistently throughout the season as a part of their base offense. In fact, the number of no-huddle snaps in the NFL has doubled since 2010 and the trend only appears to be growing. The preseason will give defenses their first look at the no-huddle in a live setting. Keep an eye on the number of blown coverages you’ll see when this happens as the inexperienced and youthful defenders that typically play the majority of snaps in the preseason are caught out of position.
  • Finally, player safety is back in the limelight with the introduction of the new rules focusing on preventing a ball carrier from lowering his head into a defender. Most people view this as a softening of the game they love. I do not. Earl Campbell can barely walk. Mike Webster suffered from dementia. Steve Smith and Steve Gleason are dying from Lou Gehrig’s disease. Andre Waters shot himself after battling with depression as did Dave Duerson. It’s believed that one of every three NFL players at some point after retiring will have to deal with cognitive disabilities. These are real injuries to real people that must be addressed through rules and penalties. There is no way around it. Lawsuits and liability linger over every decision made by corporate America these days and the NFL is not immune to it. Besides, it may also be the right thing to do. Even if you have to protect players against their will. Head trauma is a serious issue with lasting side effects that impact everyone associated with the person. Parents, children, siblings, friends….if these rules help to eliminate some of the punishment these guys take every game – week after week, year after year….dating back to Pop Warner for most of them….then I’m all for it.

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