The Schein Nine  

 

Wes Welker, Tavon Austin among premium preseason draws

Football. It's here!

Yes, I know. It's "just" the preseason. But the first full week of games starts Thursday night, and I'm ready.

I never pay attention to scores and wins and losses. I don't care about results when games are decided by fourth-stringers and other never-will-be players. But I am champing at the bit for live action and craving various storylines.

I never like to overreact to what I witness in August, but there are opportunities to learn. And preseason football certainly whets the appetite.

Here are nine things that I'm foaming at the mouth to see in the six preseason games scheduled for Thursday night.

1) Wes Welker as a Denver Bronco

Honestly, this is still weird. Sure, Welker played elsewhere before joining the New England Patriots, but his NFL career has been defined by catching passes from Tom Brady. It's going to be odd seeing Welker wearing Denver Broncos colors.

And of course, he's teaming with another living legend in Peyton Manning. I'm fascinated to see if there will be any early rapport with Manning, who is a stickler for timing. I think the adjustment is going to be a process.

Also, Welker apparently has a short memory. He ended what had been a great career in New England on bad terms, with his agents becoming very unhappy with the Patriots and owner Robert Kraft. Since then, Welker has taken some shots at the "Patriot Way," telling Sports Illustrated he "put up with" coach Bill Belichick.

Welker seems to have forgotten how Brady and Belichick made his career. He caught more than 100 balls in five of the six seasons he was with New England, becoming a true Pro Bowler and a star after being jettisoned by the San Diego Chargers and having a few merely solid years with the Miami Dolphins.

All the pressure is now on Welker, starting with Thursday night's matchup with the San Francisco 49ers. He left. He talked. Now it's time to back it up.

2) Tavon Austin's speed

I've seen NFL Network's Mike Mayock get so excited when talking about Austin's game on air that it looked like he was literally going to combust -- and I don't think he was overreacting. Austin is worthy of the hype.

Usually, rookie wide receivers face a learning curve. It takes them a while to learn an offense and adjust to the speed and physicality of the NFL. But I think Austin is way ahead of the curve. Barring anything unforeseen, I expect that the St. Louis Rams' receiver will be my pick for offensive rookie of the year.

The reviews of Austin's practice work, study habits and play with the Rams have been stellar and eye-opening. General manager Les Snead was smart to trade up in April's draft to nab him.

I think he's going to instantly become quarterback Sam Bradford's go-to-guy, a true home-run hitter. I can't wait to watch him against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday night ; I think it will be the start of something special.

The Rams have a great opportunity to be a true sleeper team this year, and Austin is a big reason for that.

3) Josh Freeman vs. Mike Glennon

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Greg Schiano have gone out of their way to make sure people don't perceive a quarterback controversy, but let's jog the mental Rolodex. Freeman's play has been up and down, and he has yet to win over the coach. He's also in a contract year.

Meanwhile, after drafting Glennon, Schiano seemingly left the door ajar to the possibility that the N.C. State product will see the field this year. Phil Simms and Rich Gannon told me this summer on a special "NFL Monday QB" on the CBS Sports Network that they thought Glennon was the best quarterback in the draft.

Whether Freeman struggles in Week 1 or later, I'll bet that Glennon plays for Tampa Bay this year. The Bucs are vastly improved on defense and loaded on offense. They aren't going to let Freeman sink their season. If Glennon acquits himself well against the Baltimore Ravens, watch a controversy rightly mushroom.

4) Colin Kaepernick and Vernon Davis

In truth, I'm just amped to watch Kaepernick, even though I know he won't be on the field for long.

Last season, Davis seemed to have a better rapport with former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Alex Smith than he did with Kaepernick. Both Kaepernick and Davis have told me on SiriusXM radio that that was a coincidence. Regardless, the duo needs to get off to a good start.

We can't forget that the Achilles tear receiver Michael Crabtree suffered in organized team activities was a big injury. Davis is one of the best tight ends in the NFL, and he must be a featured weapon in San Francisco's passing attack. I'd like to see that begin against the Broncos on Thursday.

5) The Chargers' defense

I've focused this offseason on the changes that the San Diego Chargers have made at head coach (hiring Mike McCoy), general manager (hiring Tom Telesco) and offensive coordinator (tapping former Arizona Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt). I think one of the smart things McCoy did was to retain defensive coordinator John Pagano. But this defense is going to look different.

The Chargers astutely inked former Indianapolis Colts defender Dwight Freeney, who has plenty of gas left in the tank. As a result, San Diego's defense will play both a 4-3 and a 3-4. Freeney is more comfortable in the 4-3 as a defensive end.

Oh, by the way -- Manti Te'o hits the field against the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday. Fake girlfriends? Real speed problems? I'll bet Te'o has a strong campaign as an NFL neophyte.

6) The Falcons' cornerback battle

Osi Umenyiora isn't the only Atlanta Falcons defender to draw praise from quarterback Matt Ryan. During a recent appearance on my SiriusXM Radio show "Schein on Sports," Ryan said that the Falcons' rookie defensive backs, Desmond Trufant and Robert Alford, have really stood out.

Falcons defensive coordinator Mike Nolan has said that Trufant and Alford -- the team's top two draft picks -- are competing for a starting job. I think they'll both contribute this year. I can't wait to watch them get tested against the Cincinnati Bengals.

7) Gio running

Another youngster to keep your eye on Thursday is Cincinnati Bengals rookie running back Giovani Bernard. He can run it. He can catch it. He can line up all over the field. The hype is real. I can't wait to watch.

8) Bernard Pierce

This cat is an absolute monster. The second-year running back is going to get major burn with the Baltimore Ravens this season.

I've argued that Baltimore can be better this year, even with all the injuries and roster turnover. I think Pierce is going to get many more carries and pound the opposition. He has an incredible blend of power and speed.

9) Horton working his magic

There's not too much to be optimistic about Thursday if you are a Cleveland Browns fan, especially since oft-injured running back Trent Richardson won't play in the team's first preseason game.

But allow me a rare occasion to stress the positive and explain why I am excited to watch the Browns take on the Rams: Ray Horton is coaching the Cleveland defense.

I think Horton is one of the great defensive coordinators in the NFL. He's smart and tough, and players love playing for him. He demands accountability. I think he's a future NFL head coach.

Follow Adam Schein on Twitter @AdamSchein.

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