Every preseason provides clues about the regular season, this year especially. There are so many good storylines heading into this season after the most unusual offseason in years.
It's easy to quickly say that lack of OTAs prior to training camp has affected the play and potentially will affect the regular season, but only time will tell.
Here are six storylines I will be keeping an eye on based on my camp tour, the preseason trends and production, as well as the roster cuts to 53.
1. Was the rookie quarterback production any better or worse because of the lack of prep time?
You know practice makes perfect, and NFL coaches are the biggest believers in practice and repetition. Because of the lockout, valuable coaching time was lost, leading to the natural conclusion that this season will be a disaster for the rookies -- especially the quarterbacks. I don't think the quarterback class of 2011 had any advantages, but the truth is they really didn't perform much differently than the class of 2010 that had much more prep time. The top-10 quarterbacks of this year actually got more game experience than the class of 2010, which is a good thing. The 2011 class averaged 53 pass attempts to 36 for the 2010 class. The 2011 quarterbacks completed 55 percent of their passes to 56 percent for the 2010 group. This year's class averaged 5.89 yards per attempt to 6.0 yards for last year's group.
The biggest difference was in sacks. This year's rookies were sacked one in nine attempts compared to one in 12 the year before, which may have more to do with offensive line preparation. Last year's class produced starter Sam Bradford, and this year's class produced Cam Newton, who will start for the Carolina Panthers, and Andy Dalton, who will start because of Carson Palmer's contentious absence in Cincinnati. What's interesting about Bradford's first preseason compared to Newton's is that they both had very similar opportunities, with Bradford calling 60 pass plays to Newton's 61. Bradford completed 60 percent of his passes to 42 percent for Newton. Bradford threw three touchdowns to one for Newton. Neither threw an interception, while both crested at the 300-yard mark.
2. How should teams deal with the "Dream Team?"
During my camp tour, I asked many coaches how they would handle the supposed Philadelphia Eagles' "Dream Team," which is really a descriptive title for a group of three cornerbacks. Nnamdi Asomugha, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Asante Samuel are very good players, for sure, but they really are at the mercy of what offenses are willing to do. The most intriguing idea came from a coach who didn't play the Eagles in the preseason, and I can't wait to see if St. Louis employs any of his ideas in Week 1.
The offensive-minded coach was quick to say he would use a lot of 22 personnel (two tight ends, two running backs and one wide receiver) and build condensed formation packages that would keep the nickel defense off the field, consequently keeping one-third of the "Dream Team" on the bench and forcing at least one of the other two members to be in run support rather than coverage. The Rams have the running back in Steven Jackson, as well as the fullback and tight ends, to use this philosophy. As another coach said, "the Eagles want you to spread out your offense so they can match up; I wouldn't do it."
3. What is the one thing for sure that the preseason taught me?
The most glaring reality of the preseason -- and something that I'm sure will spill over into the regular season -- is the amount of pressure calls defenses are going to use. There is little doubt that offensive lines and pass protections in general are not up to speed yet with pressure calls. In the preseason, there were 314 sacks recorded and too many hits on quarterbacks to count.
Teams had better have a lot of quick shotgun passes in their game plans, because I could easily see a few quarterbacks getting blown up by free blitzers. Teams had better make sure they pick the right quarterbacks to be the No. 2 guy and have him ready to play. I don't want to sound like the sky is falling, but I do believe quarterbacks will be falling to the ground much more than the NFL prefers.
4. Should some players be rushed back on the field for the opener?
There will be much written after the first weekend about losing teams already being behind the eight-ball. Winning is important for sure, but it's not the end of the world if your favorite team doesn't win its opener. As a reminder, last year the Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, New York Jets, and Indianapolis Colts all lost on opening weekend and still made the playoffs. Teams have to be smart about risking further injury by putting players who aren't 100 percent on the field for Week 1. Keep in mind that almost every player will say he can go, and in his heart he believes he can.
There is such a sense of loyalty to teammates that drives players to feel they must play. Coaches and team doctors have to take the emotion out of the decision and do the right thing. I will be very interested to see if Peyton Manning, Adrian Wilson, Arian Foster, and Russell Okung, among others, suit up for opening day. I even wonder how much Chris Johnson and Maurice Jones-Drew should do in the first game.
5. Which team had a major setback because of preseason injuries, and what injury feels like an epidemic?
Injuries are part of the game, and roster depth is critical to success. Usually, roster depth is challenged in November and December, not August and September. Unfortunately, the New York Giants have been hit hard and making matters worse is the injuries come mostly on defense. The cornerbacks have been hit hardest, with Terrell Thomas and Bruce Johnson done for the year and rookie Prince Amukamara months away from returning. Add front-seven players Marvin Austin and Clint Sintim to the list, and the Giants will be challenged. Their first test is the Washington Redskins, and they impressed me on my camp tour. Look for the Redskins to attack with the passing game early and often, going after the secondary, especially in three- and four-wide receiver packages that will stress the roster depth.
As for the injury of the summer and no end in sight for slowing it down, the dangerous Achilles' tear usually ends the season for its victims, and it already has struck 17 players. I spoke with a number of medical experts about the rash of Achilles' injuries, and they do feel the lack of an offseason program contributed to the problem, which is usually caused when the front of the foot is forced upwards tearing the Achilles. The tear can happen just walking around, but the risk goes up in contact, where pressure on the feet is even worse. There are already 93 players on injured reserve before the regular season starts, and they can't return until the 2012 season. If you include the players on the physically unable to perform list that are unable to play for at least six weeks, there are already enough players out to fill up two football teams.
6. I would think about signing these guys.
There is always a ripple effect to the cuts that bring a roster to 53 players. Teams cut players that are better than players on other teams and hence a player will be claimed or signed (a veteran with four or more years) and that will cause someone else to be released. When I worked in pro personnel, players released on the final cut day were placed in categories for future decisions. Group one: make a decision to sign or claim immediately. Group two: put on the emergency list in case of injury. Group three: schedule for a future workout sometime in mid-September to check on health status or conditioning issues. Group four: no interest.
Some potential Group one candidates released and, of course, your team needs would dictate if they were "need" players for you: Tavares Gooden (ILB), Alex Hall (DE), Jacob Ford (DE), Chester Taylor (RB), Laurent Robinson (WR), Andre Gurode (C/G), Chauncey Davis (DE), and Leonard Davis (G).