FOX Sports South takes a whimsical educated guess at projecting the top seven storylines for Week 1 of the NFL preseason -- a ho-hum weekend when most teams intentionally limit star players to a few reps, here and there. Of course, there are some notable exceptions to that process -- particularly with young quarterbacks. (Photos: Rich Barnes/Andrew Weber/Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports)
Toby Gerhart's Moment In The Spotlight
RANKING: 7 ... MATCHUP: Bucs @ Jaguars ... SKINNY: Ever since Jacksonville's front office prioritized free agent Toby Gerhart as its primary successor to longtime tailback Maurice Jones-Drew (now with Oakland), the Jaguars coaches and players have talked glowingly about how Gerhart (1,305 career rushing yards, eight TDs with the Vikings from 2010-13) has the requisite size, instincts and speed to be a "workhorse" back. That's a bold proclamation for a franchise that only once posted a winning record during Jones-Drew's eight-year run with the club. It's also risky to build around Gerhart ... and a pedestrian rushing corps that includes Jordan Todman, Denard Robinson and rookie Storm Johnson.
Opportunity Knocks For Falcons Backups
RANKING: 6 ... MATCHUP: Dolphins @ Falcons ... SKINNY: With Steven Jackson (out for the preseason) incurring yet another hamstring injury, the pressure's on for the Falcons to quickly develop a primary tailback over the next few weeks ... and one who could very well be the Week 1 starter. The candidates include three backs with reasonably same builds, but varying levels of speed and power: Jacquizz Rodgers (left -- four TDs for Games 5 and 6 last year), promising rookie Devonta Freeman (middle -- potential franchise back) or Antone Smith (right), perhaps the most explosive asset in the Atlanta backfield. That includes a healthy Jackson. (Photos: Kim Klement/Gary A. Vasquez/Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)
An Apples-To-Apples Comparison
RANKING: 5 ... MATCHUP: Bills @ Panthers ... SKINNY: OK, so Sammy Watkins (right) got a head-start on his fellow rookie receivers on Sunday (three targets), thanks to the Hall of Fame Game. In essence, though, Watkins and Panthers wideout Kelvin Benjamin (left) are on similar planes with their respective clubs: In the long term, both ACC-bred talents are projected to be dynamic receivers, with All-Pro potential. In the short term, Watkins (101 catches, 1,464 yards, 12 TDs with Clemson last year) and Benjamin (1,011 yards, 15 TDs with Florida State in 2013) are expected to be top options for Buffalo and Carolina on Day 1. No pressure, huh? (Photos: Jim Dedmon/Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports)
The Geno & Vick Show
RANKING: 4 ... MATCHUP: Colts @ Jets ...SKINNY: In recent years, whenever Michael Vick (right) was embroiled in a so-called quarterback controversy during the preseason, he would respectfully, but stealthily declare himself the better option for the season. But this summer, Vick has noticeably taken a backseat to Geno Smith (left) -- even though Nick Foles and maybe even Kevin Kolb (before a litany of concussions) were more viable long-term prospects. As a rookie, Smith accounted for 3,046 yards and 18 total TDs (12 passing) in 16 starts. But it'll be interesting to see how the second-year passer fares with Vick waiting in the wings -- especially since this could be a make-or-break season for Jets head coach Rex Ryan. (Photos: Rich Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)
A Sort Of Super Bowl Homecoming
RANKING: 3 ... MATCHUP: Seahawks @ Broncos ... SKINNY: Peyton Manning (left) and his Broncos teammates are mired in a layered conundrum for the weekend: Do they go all-out in seeking redemption for the blowout loss in the Super Bowl, or does the club nonchalantly treat this meeting with Richard Sherman (right) and the defending champs as just a ho-hum preseason opener? The crowd at Denver's Sports Authority Field will obviously want their pound of flesh for last February's humiliation ... but the Broncos have to be prudent here, since they'll encounter the Seahawks -- in Seattle -- for Week 3 of the regular season. (Photos: Ron Chenoy/Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)
To Play ... Or Not Play Ray-Ray?
RANKING: 2 ... MATCHUP: 49ers @ Ravens ...SKINNY: Ray Rice has already been suspended for the first two weeks of the regular season, a consequence of the alleged assault of his then-girlfriend/now wife during the offseason. In the meantime, Rice is free to practice with his team and dress for Baltimore's four preseason outings. But will he play during the August games? Should he play? From an off-field perspective, the Ravens are keenly aware of the national outcry regarding Rice's light suspension. Between the lines, however, it's imperative for the club to help Rice (just 660 rushing yards last year) become a franchise fixture once again, routinely rolling for 1,800 total yards and double-digit touchdowns. (Photos: Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports)
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
Johnny Manziel Gets His First Taste Of NFL Life
RANKING: 1 ... MATCHUP: Browns @ Lions ...SKINNY: We understand the 24/7 demand for news involving Johnny Manziel (2) and his high-profile competition with Browns quarterback Brian Hoyer (6). But let's keep things in perspective here: Whether Manziel (one Heisman Trophy and nearly 10,000 yards of total offense in two years at Texas A&M) succeeds or flounders on Saturday night, we believe he's still a good bet to start Cleveland's regular-season opener (at Pittsburgh) -- or at least experience a slew of scripted plays in the first half. Bottom line: If owner Jimmy Haslam wants to see his shiny, new toy on the field ... it's going to happen. (Photos: Andrew Weber-USA TODAY Sports)