Saturday night preseason preview: Players to watch


Gregg Rosenthal's list of players to watch Friday included one current New England Patriots backup passer, Ryan Mallett, and one former one in Matt Cassel, now with the Minnesota Vikings. Both saw the field, but neither came close to touching Tom Brady's handiwork.

Days removed from a knee tweak that nearly shut down American society, Brady was machinelike in the Patriots' 25-21 win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Completing his first 11 passes, Brady's play generated a fresh wave of suspicion: Is he, in fact, a robot patched together by Boston-area scientists to wreak havoc forever on the AFC East?

Maybe not, but Brady passed the test Friday, as we knew he would.

Here's a handful of players we're watching closely Saturday:

Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona Cardinals defensive back: The Cardinals have been a fascination to watch on offense. On the other side of the ball, Arizona's secondary deserves your attention. Patrick Peterson has morphed into one of the NFL's top cover corners, while Mathieu stole the show in the preseason opener against the Green Bay Packers. It will be fascinating to see how they handle Dez Bryant and the Dallas Cowboys.

Giovani Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals running back: We dug deep into the Bengals on Friday's Around The League Podcast. Bernard looms as an important cog in this offense. Coaches love his speed. Bernard won't be mistaken for a power runner, but it's been years since the Bengals had a back with his brand of quickness.

Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback: No way around it: Gabbert must deliver. The Jaguars have given the young passer plenty of chances to show he belongs. If Gabbert stumbles against the New York Jets, Chad Henne makes more sense heading into the season.

Tavon Austin, St. Louis Rams wide receiver: Austin was invisible against the Cleveland Browns in the preseason opener. As we mentioned on a recent podcast, the big question in St. Louis is if coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has the creative juices to make the most of Austin's gifts. We don't expect to see the veil pulled back in August, but it's important for the Rams to give Tavon some looks against the Packers.

Jonathan Martin, Miami Dolphins left tackle: I was stunned to discover Pro Football Focus has Martin ranked as the NFL's 14th-best offensive tackle. That includes a positive grade as a pass protector. We've seen him mightily struggle at times, and his biggest test comes tonight against Houston Texans behemoth J.J. Watt.

Mark Sanchez, New York Jets quarterback: Sanchez is staring at a prime opportunity to separate himself from hobbled rookie Geno Smith, who won't play. Maybe Jets brass, indeed, wants Geno to win this job, but a big night by Sanchez would accomplish two things: (1) Bring us that much closer to the conclusion of football's most overhyped quarterback duel; and (2) Have this precious ditty once again shower over the nation like a healing rain:

Don't forget, friends: It's Tripleheader Saturday. Cowboys at Cardinals, Jaguars at Jets and Broncos at Seahawks will be aired live on NFL Network. Translation: Cancel all meetings, take the phone off the hook and settle in for a grand football odyssey of the senses.

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