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Why previously irrelevant preseason gains significance in 2011

Brett Davis/US Presswire
Mario Williams' switch from defensive end to 3-4 outside linebacker is worth monitoring this preseason.


Typically, the third preseason game was the only one that meant much. Starters compete through the first half, coaches stretch their playbooks a little bit, and we get a glimpse at what players are poised to play ball –- and strike it big for fantasy football players.

More than any time in the recent past, the four preseason games that typically don’t mean much -– remember, the NFL flirted with only playing two because they seemed so irrelevant -- will have significant importance this year.

The lockout stripped coaches from working with players and kept players from getting optimal medical advice and, in some cases, treatment from team trainers. It also didn’t allow free agent movement or trades, keeping players that have to learn new systems, new teammates, new addresses. These players are going to need to play in the preseason. Maybe it's not extended time in every game, but it should be more than they typically would play because of the limited practice time.

Rookies such as Cam Newton, Jake Locker and Marcel Dareus, who haven’t had offseason work with their teams, will need to be put to the test from Week 1 to see how quickly they can adapt. Potential new acquisitions, such as free agent Nnamdi Asomugha or trade target Kevin Kolb or possible cap casualty Reggie Bush, will have to learn new schemes and teammate tendencies. Some key veterans also are going to need some additional time to get in optimal "football" condition.

Let’s take a look at some preseason games that could provide a snapshot of what could be going on league-wide once the exhibition season kicks off:

Arizona at Oakland, Week 1: If the Cardinals follow through with a trade for Kolb or Kyle Orton or sign Matt Hasselbeck or Marc Bulger in free agency, he’ll likely get some key minutes despite the typical lack of preseason Game 1 irrelevance. The new quarterback needs to get timing with his receivers. He also has to mesh with other players, like second-round draft pick Ryan Williams, who’s learning the ropes at running back. The development of huddle presence also will be important. Raiders rookie guard Stefan Wisniewski also needs to get in as much work as possible, and facing a multiple-front team learning a new scheme under a new coordinator should be nice initiation of what’s to come.

Lockout coverage on NFL Network
Tune into to NFL Network for complete coverage as owners and players enter the final phase of labor negotiations to end the NFL lockout. Albert Breer, Steve Wyche, Scott Hanson and Jason La Canfora are providing live coverage from Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

Minnesota at Tennessee, Week 1: The Titans, who drafted quarterback Locker No. 8 overall, and the Vikings, who selected quarterback Christian Ponder 12th overall, have to get these players on the field as much as possible. The loss of time in the offseason will force teams to get the rookie QBs some experience, even if they’re not opening game starters. Both can gain some confidence at this early point because teams won’t be throwing exotic blitz packages, and they probably won’t be facing first-team defenders for very long -– if at all. Both teams also are expected to add veteran quarterbacks who will need to get acclimated in a hurry.

Carolina at Cincinnati, Week 3: If either team is going to open the season starting a rookie quarterback, this should be affirmation time. The Panthers' Newton and the Bengals' Andy Dalton should have given enough indication by this point if they’re ready. If there’s any indecision, this is the game in which they prove themselves -- or open the door for someone else. Cincinnati also needs to forge the QB-WR relationship with whoever is going to be throwing the ball to first-round pick A.J. Green.

Houston at San Francisco, Week 3: This should be a nice showcase to see how the Texans’ 3-4 defense and outside linebacker Mario Williams are coming together. Making the switch from a 4-3 to an odd front -- Williams moving from DE to OLB could be the biggest adjustment -- takes time. The inability to learn the scheme in mini-camps and OTAs could set the Texans back in the short term. Facing a physical 49ers offensive line that could be pretty strong in this game could expose flaws and strengths that can be tweaked over the following few weeks. For the 49ers, quarterback Alex Smith (he’s expected to be re-signed) should be able to show his grasp of the offense against this defense in transition. It’s not the end of the world if he struggles, but he’s got to step up or rookie Colin Kaepernick’s learning curve could be accelerated.

Washington at Baltimore, Week 3: There won’t be a ton of rookie intrigue here but for the Redskins, we should know if Rex Grossman, John Beck or a mystery quarterback will be taking the snaps. Regardless of that player, facing the Ravens’ defense will be important. Not only to see if the quarterback is set but also to determine if the offensive line has gotten any better and if there are any receiving threats on the edges that might be able to provide some help.

Follow Steve Wyche on Twitter @wyche89

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