NFC preseason report card
The school year has just begun, but final grades for the NFL preseason are upon us.
Here is a breakdown of how all 32 teams fared:
NFC | AFC
QB play: No quarterback posted more impressive preseason statistics than Matthew Stafford. He was flawless with five touchdown passes, no interceptions, a 75.8 completion percentage and gaudy per-catch average of 12 yards on his 25 strikes.
Breakout player: Stafford. After his first two NFL seasons were truncated by injury, a healthy Stafford is on the verge of emerging as one of the league’s top young signal-callers.
Biggest concern: A toss-up between a so-so running game and the secondary. The Lions no longer have a solid big-back option with second-round pick Mikel Leshoure (Achilles’ tendon) out for the season. Detroit also may struggle to match up defensively against teams that deploy spread offenses like division rival Green Bay.
Summary: Let’s not get too excited yet, long-suffering Detroit fans. The 2008 Lions also finished undefeated in the preseason before embarking on the NFL’s only 0-16 regular season. This Lions squad, though, seems far more legitimate with second-year defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh leading the way.
QB play: As evidenced by his five touchdown passes, Sam Bradford has taken to new offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels’ system faster than expected.
Breakout player: Tight end Lance Kendricks. The 2011 second-round pick capped a strong preseason with three catches for 73 yards and a touchdown in a 24-17 win over Jacksonville on Sept. 1.
Biggest concern: Cornerback depth. The Rams have little beyond starters Ron Bartell and Bradley Fletcher after losing nickel cornerback Jerome Murphy to a season-ending ankle injury.
Summary: Don’t expect the Rams to remain perfect for long in the regular season. St. Louis, though, is already proving itself the class of the NFC West.
QB play: Super Bowl XLV MVP Aaron Rodgers is at it again. Rodgers led all starters in preseason completion percentage at 78.7 while throwing four touchdowns and no interceptions in three outings. Matt Flynn also has cemented himself as one of the NFL’s top backups.
Breakout player: Tight end Jermichael Finley. Having recovered from the knee injury that prematurely ended his 2010 campaign, the 6-foot-5, 247-pound Finley is back wreaking havoc in coverage mismatches. Finley had four catches in each of Green Bay’s second and third preseason games.
Biggest concern: The offensive line. Left tackle Chad Clifton had a rough outing in game three against Indianapolis while T.J. Lang has to settle in at left guard in place of the departed Daryn Colledge (Arizona). The six sacks that Rodgers took in the preseason were too many for a player who suffered two concussions in 2010.
Summary: No team has repeated as Super Bowl champions since the 2003 and 2004 New England Patriots. A young Packers squad bursting with talent has a legitimate shot.
QB play: Donovan McNabb already looks far more comfortable with the Vikings than he ever did last season in Washington.
Breakout player: Defensive end Everson Griffen. Arrested twice in a three-day span last winter, Griffen has gotten his life in order, and it’s reflected by his on-field play. He will team with Brian Robison to replace departed end Ray Edwards (Atlanta) and, even at 6-foot-3 and 273 pounds, is nimble enough to play outside linebacker in some defensive packages.
Biggest concern: McNabb. There aren’t just doubts about how much the 34-year-old McNabb has left in the tank. The Vikings also have inexperienced backups in second-year quarterback Joe Webb and 2011 first-round pick Christian Ponder.
Summary: Buoyed by running back Adrian Peterson — who is in a contract year — don’t be surprised if the Vikings emerge as a dark-horse playoff contender.
QB play: After last year’s 10-6 season, Josh Freeman is no longer the NFL’s best-kept quarterback secret. Freeman, though, had a nondescript preseason in his limited work.
Breakout player: Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. Now that he has settled at the “under-tackle” position once manned by Warren Sapp, McCoy is starting to become the difference-maker expected when drafted last year with the No. 3 overall pick.
Biggest concern: Backfield speed. Starting running back LeGarrette Blount is a bruiser while jack-of-all-trades backup Earnest Graham was never fleet of foot even as a rookie in 2004. The Bucs could use a change-of-pace option to better diversify their offense.
Summary: Tampa Bay’s commitment to youth paid quicker-than-expected dividends in 2010, but the team’s lack of free-agent spending may limit just how much progress will be made this season.
QB play: Tony Romo (70.3 completion percentage) has made a successful return from the clavicle injury that prematurely ended his 2010 season. Third-stringer Stephen McGee got plenty of preseason work and led the NFL in attempts (81), completions (52) and passing yards (610).
Breakout player: Wide receiver Dez Bryant. Bryant teased how dominant a player he can be at times as a rookie. Bryant has taken even more steps to reach an elite level during the preseason.
Biggest concern: Special teams. The Cowboys entered the Sept. 1 preseason finale with three kickers on the roster (veterans Shayne Graham and Dave Rayner and rookie Dan Bailey) along with kickoff specialist David Buehler. Whoever gets chosen must help Dallas improve what was the NFL’s 30th-ranked field-goal percentage the past two seasons.
Summary: The Cowboys are still adjusting to Rob Ryan’s new defensive scheme and major offensive line changes, but Dallas is emerging as an under-the-radar playoff contender.
QB play: The Eagles must hope that Michael Vick’s preseason struggles aren’t a sign of things to come, especially after signing him to a major contract extension that included $36 million guaranteed. Vick completed only 52.8 percent of his passes and was intercepted three times by Pittsburgh in game two. Vince Young suffered a hamstring injury Thursday night against the New York Jets, which should temporarily push Mike Kafka into the backup role.
Breakout player: Running back Ronnie Brown. Considering the struggles of their backup running backs, Miami should have tried harder to keep Brown in the fold. Brown looks like a brilliant niche addition to Philadelphia’s offense as a much-needed larger running back who also can run the Wildcat packages sometimes deployed by head coach Andy Reid.
Biggest concern: Middle linebacker and the offensive line. 2011 fourth-round pick Casey Matthews may not be ready to man the starting “Mike” position, but there is no better veteran option on the roster. Philadelphia’s offensive line shuffling doesn’t bode well, especially considering Vick’s history of struggling with blitz pickups.
Summary: The Eagles have plenty of work remaining before being able to justify their “dream team” proclamation.
QB play: Matt Ryan had a ridiculous 42 passing attempts in a Game 3 outing against Pittsburgh. Think the Falcons want to throw the ball more effectively in 2011?
Breakout player: Wide receiver Harry Douglas. Now two seasons removed from a major knee injury, Douglas showcased his regained speed with a 76-yard touchdown catch in game two against Jacksonville. Douglas can burn teams that focus too much on starting wideouts Roddy White and rookie Julio Jones.
Biggest concern: Pass defense. Crafty general manager Thomas Dimitroff was concerned enough about his secondary to sign two veteran free agents (safety James Sanders and cornerback Kelvin Hayden) within the past week. Defensive end Ray Edwards was signed earlier to boost the pass rush, but he has missed more of the preseason while recovering from knee surgery.
Summary: A repeat of last season’s 13-3 record will be tough, but the Falcons show signs of being a more dynamic team in 2011.
QB play: Drew Brees looked exceptionally crisp with a 15-of-23 passing day in New Orleans’ game three outing against Oakland. Chase Daniel has made huge strides as Brees’ backup.
Breakout player: Running back Mark Ingram. The 2009 Heisman Trophy winner is quickly making his mark in New Orleans with three rushing touchdowns. Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles will all fill a niche in the Saints’ rushing attack.
Biggest concern: Run defense. Don’t blame the backups for New Orleans’ No. 30 overall ranking. Free-agent defensive tackle pickups Shaun Rogers and Aubrayo Franklin have yet to make their expected impact as interior run-stuffers.
Summary: Despite the defensive hiccups, this Saints team is looking a lot like the one from 2009 that won Super Bowl XLIV.
QB play: Bears offensive coordinator Mike Martz described Jay Cutler’s preseason performance in games two and three as “exceptional.” While his passing numbers indicate otherwise (25 of 42, one interception), Cutler was still given the night off for the Sept. 1 preseason finale against Cleveland.
Breakout player: Defensive tackle Henry Melton. It’s taken two-plus seasons, but the light bulb is finally coming on.
Biggest concern: The offensive line. Although the unit didn’t surrender a sack in one half of a dress rehearsal game three performance against Tennessee, there are still major questions as to whether Cutler will receive the protection he needs to excel in Martz’s system.
Summary: Despite reaching last season’s NFC championship game, there is no Super Bowl buzz surrounding the Bears. It’s easy to understand why, after an uneven preseason and locker-room turmoil stemming from contract disputes.
QB play: Rex Grossman got a slight nod over John Beck.
Breakout player: Running back Tim Hightower. With rookie running back Ryan Williams (knee) lost for the entire season, Arizona is probably regretting the trade that sent Hightower to the Redskins for defensive end Vonnie Holliday and an undisclosed 2012 draft pick. Hightower, who had spotty production in his first two NFL seasons for the Cardinals, looks like the prototype one-cut rusher that head coach Mike Shanahan was missing in 2010.
Biggest concern: Quarterback. Grossman and Beck have done little to show that either can be a playoff-caliber passer.
Summary: The Redskins have shown marked improvement from the 2010 preseason, but Shanahan may be fooling himself into thinking he can win with a reclamation project like Grossman or Beck.
QB play: New starter Kevin Kolb completed only 55 percent of his passes, but the encouraging part was his ability to target wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald, who had an 80-yard touchdown reception among his four preseason receptions.
Breakout player: Running back Chris “Beanie” Wells. With promising rookie Ryan Williams (knee) out for the season, the Cardinals need Wells to continue looking like a workhorse back for the first time in his three NFL seasons.
Biggest concern: Cornerback. Having traded Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie to Philadelphia as part of the package to land Kolb, the loss of Greg Toler to a season-ending knee injury will likely push 2011 first-round pick Patrick Peterson into a starting role he might not be ready for. Unproven second-year cornerback A.J. Jefferson is the other starting option barring a roster move.
Summary: The Cardinals have added so many new faces that it will take significant time for this team to start jelling.
QB play: Eli Manning says he deserves to get ranked among the NFL’s elite quarterbacks, but his preseason play hasn’t reflected that. Manning is completing 49.1 percent of his passes and was intercepted twice in game three against the New York Jets (although one came on a tipped pass).
Breakout player: Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Paul teased his upside as a rookie by registering two sacks in back-to-back games against Jacksonville and Washington. Paul should be an even bigger pass-rush contributor in 2011 teaming with Justin Tuck, Osi Umenyiora and Mathias Kiwanuka.
Biggest concern: Defensive injuries. The Giants already have lost defensive tackle Marvin Austin, linebacker Clint Sintim and three cornerbacks (Terrell Thomas, Bruce Johnson and Brian Witherspoon) for the season. Umenyiora (knee) also is out for at least the Sept. 11 season-opener at Washington.
Summary: On the bright side, nobody believed in the 2007 New York Giants either before their Super Bowl run.
QB play: Tarvaris Jackson has spent much of the preseason scrambling for his life while trying to help teammates learn Darrell Bevell’s new offensive system.
Breakout player: Cornerback Brandon Browner. A 6-foot-4 cornerback who can run with frontline wide receivers somehow slipped through the NFL cracks and landed in the Canadian Football League for four seasons. The 27-year-old Browner has ideal size to jam wide receivers at the line of scrimmage, plus he has held up in man coverage throughout the preseason.
Biggest concern: Not even Hall of Fame quarterback Warren Moon could flourish with the lack of protection being provided by Seattle’s offensive line. Left tackle Russell Okung has missed almost all of the preseason because of another ankle injury. 2011 first-round pick James Carpenter is on the verge of being benched at right tackle. And the interior line is shaky enough that Seattle recently kicked the tires on free-agent center Andre Gurode.
Summary: Another year of massive roster turnover by Seahawks coach Pete Carroll and general manager John Schneider could result in a slow start for the defending division champions.
QB play: The only preseason bright spot for starter Alex Smith was an 8-of-10 outing in the Sept. 1 preseason finale against San Diego.
Breakout player: Inside linebacker NaVorro Bowman. The second-year player looks ready to fill the shoes of Takeo Spikes, who is now with the Chargers. The athletic Bowman may be more disruptive on blitzes as evidenced by the forced fumble he caused with a Thursday night sack of San Diego’s Billy Volek.
Biggest concern: San Francisco’s passing game is a mess. The 49ers averaged a league-low 108.8 yards with a league-high eight interceptions. Smith and rookie backup Colin Kaepernick also failed to throw a touchdown pass.
Summary: First-year 49ers head coach Jim Harbaugh looks like he may have the chance to reunite with Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck with the No. 1 overall pick of the 2012 draft.
QB play: Cam Newton has shown little to indicate he is ready to become an NFL starter. But with no other viable options, the Panthers are willing to take their lumps now to accelerate Newton’s development as their franchise quarterback.
Breakout player: Tight end Greg Olsen. Acquired in a preseason trade with Chicago, Olsen’s pass-catching skills should be put to much better use. Olsen had six catches for 105 yards and one touchdown in preseason action.
Biggest concern: Besides Newton? The defensive tackle position is a mess with Ron Edwards (triceps) already out for the season. That adds even more pressure on a defense that will be forced to carry the load while Newton experiences his growing pains.
Summary: Not even Panthers owner Jerry Richardson’s wild player-spending spree can lead to a drastic one-year improvement from last season’s 1-15 record.