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Newton needs work as passer; Hightower poised to break out

Here are some of my observations after watching the Thursday night's preseason games:

» Cam Newton is a great athlete, but needs to make significant strides as a passer. There is no doubt the No.1 overall pick is one of the finest athletes to play quarterback at the NFL level. His combination of size, speed and agility is uncommon for the position and he displayed how those traits can lead to explosive plays against the Bengals. Newton rushed four times for 49 yards, including a 16-yard touchdown run and 26-yard scamper.

As a passer, though, Newton continues to be inconsistent in the pocket. He struggles with the timing and precision of the passing game, is frequently late delivering the ball off five-step drops and his hesitancy suggests he is uncomfortable working through his reads. Granted, some of those issues are common for a rookie quarterback, but Newton needs to do a better job of utilizing the checkdown receiver. Once he starts stretching the defense horizontally by taking the underneath receiver, big plays down the field will open up as defenders clamp down on shorter routes.

To his credit, Newton so far has avoided the big mistake of creating turnovers. Considering the impact of turnovers on the outcome of games, his ability to maintain ball security is a positive sign of his development as a game manager.

» The Bengals' strong running game benefits Andy Dalton. It often has been said that a strong ground attack is a young quarterback's best friend, and it certainly looked that way for Bengals rookie Andy Dalton. The Bengals were successful running the ball during the early stages of the game with Cedric Benson (16 carries, 68 yards, one touchdown) and Bernard Scott (six carries, 63 yards, one touchdown) sharing the load. Their effectiveness grinding out yardage between the tackles forced the Panthers to use eight-man fronts, which left receivers in isolated matchups on the outside. The opportunity to throw against a single-high safety look makes it an easy game of pitch and catch for Dalton.

Dalton, who finished 11 of 17 for 130 yards with one touchdown, picked apart the soft coverage with quick throws. He was also able to take a few selected shots down the field against the outside one-on-one coverage, including his 40-yard touchdown to A.J. Green on a go-route.

Dalton finally showed he's a capable starting quarterback, and it was the strong rushing attack that provided him the opportunities to thrive.

» Tim Hightower will be a star in Mike Shanahan's offense. Hightower has been phenomenal during the preseason as the featured runner in the Redskins' zone-based system, rushing for 170 yards on only 25 carries (6.8 yards per carry) with two scores. Although those numbers are skewed due to the nature of preseason football, it is the way he has looked while compiling the gaudy numbers that suggests he will continue to produce. Hightower has shown outstanding speed, quickness and vision. He attacks the line of scrimmage quickly, but also has enough patience to identify the soft spot of the defense. His ability to work his way to the backside of plays has led to big gains, and the Redskins' offense has shown more pop as a result.

Shanahan earned a reputation for transforming unheralded runners into stars during his time in Denver, and he has another sleeper poised to experience a breakthrough season in Washington.

» The race between John Beck and Rex Grossman remains too close to call. Both signal callers were effective against the Ravens and their strong play has been consistent throughout the preseason as they compete for the Redskins' starting job. Grossman, who started against Baltimore, has a stronger arm than his counterpart and has been effective distributing the ball on quick-rhythm throws. He is playing with poise and patience in the pocket, and avoiding the risky throws that led to numerous turnovers during his career. Grossman also has shown a solid grasp of the offense by accurately connecting to receivers on hot routes against the blitz. Overall, his effort was solid in every aspect and he certainly didn't do anything to diminish his bid to become the starter.

Beck also put together a strong effort against the Ravens. He efficiently moved the offense by stringing together a series of short throws that exploited the soft spots in coverage. His quick release and excellent anticipation kept the offense on schedule despite facing difficult field position and circumstances. He led scoring drives of 97 and 70 yards while showing good poise, accuracy and awareness. Given his efficiency, it is difficult to argue against Beck as a potential starter.

Shanahan was heavily criticized for failing to address his quarterback situation during the offseason, but the strong play of Beck and Grossman suggests the 'Skins are just fine.

» The Ravens have uncovered a gem in Tyrod Taylor. The Ravens' sixth-round pick flashes the potential to be an effective NFL quarterback. Although he lacks prototypical size (6-foot-1, 215 pounds) for a quarterback, he is an exceptional athlete with better than advertised throwing skills. He has been effective working from the pocket and his ability to make plays as a runner or thrower puts tremendous pressure on defenders.

Taylor showcased his ability to connect the dots as a passer with the game on the line against the Redskins. He distributed the ball effectively to multiple receivers and displayed the poise of a veteran while guiding the Ravens to the game-winning score without a timeout available. Taylor's savvy and awareness was excellent, and his ability to raise his game in adverse situations is an admirable trait teams look for in quality backups.

The Ravens seem willing to gamble on Taylor's ability to serve in that capacity, and his solid development throughout the preseason indicates he might be the right man for the job.

» The Eagles would be wise to hold onto Asante Samuel. Samuel was deemed expendable when the Eagles picked up cornerbacks Nnamdi Asomugha and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie in the offseason. But as he showed against the Browns, Samuel is one of the game's biggest playmakers at the position.

Samuel, who has 36 interceptions since 2006, is an exceptional cover man with instincts and ball skills that rate off the charts. He has an uncanny knack for baiting quarterbacks into mistakes, which was illustrated by his clever pick of Colt McCoy in the second quarter. On a third-and-14, Samuel anticipated a switch between two receivers and jumped an out-route prior to the throw. His awareness and gambler's mentality frequently produces game-changing plays like this.

Although he will sometimes incorrectly guess on a route (he gave up a touchdown to the Steelers' Antonio Brown a week ago when he incorrectly jumped a route), Samuel's tremendous production should outweigh those miscues and prompt the Eagles to move forward with a secondary that features three stars at cornerback.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks

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