Analysis  

 

AFC preseason player grades, Week 2: Johnny Manziel flashes

Print

Wins and losses don't count in the NFL preseason -- but individual performances sure do. After each week's slate of preseason action, Bucky Brooks will shine the spotlight on one notable player from each team in the league, grading that player's performance and providing a snapshot of how he's doing in this critical dress-rehearsal phase of the 2015 campaign. The performance grading scale is as follows:

A: Masterful
B: Strong
C: Acceptable
D: Marginal
F: Unacceptable

EAST

Buffalo Bills: Tyrod Taylor, QB

GRADE: B+

Strengths: Taylor continues to impress evaluators with his athleticism and improvisational skills. He is an electric dual-threat playmaker with an uncanny knack for escaping pressure in the pocket, as evidenced by his nifty 10-yard scramble in the first quarter on Thursday. Most importantly, Taylor is a fairly accurate passer capable of delivering dimes from the pocket or on the move. After completing seven of his 10 passes for 65 yards against the Browns' starters, he is starting to show scouts he is more than just a "run-around" quarterback.

Weaknesses: Taylor's inexperience as a starter is reflected in some of his game-management gaffes. He took a costly sack on third down at the end of the Bills' first drive, forcing a long field-goal attempt (Dan Carpenter missed from 46 yards). With the Bills intent on playing a conservative style (ground game and defense), Taylor can't mismanage scoring chances.

What he needs to work on: Taylor must continue to show Rex Ryan that he has the management and leadership skills to be a starter. He certainly dazzles with his playmaking skills, but how well he manages critical situations ultimately will determine if the Bills can win under his direction.

Miami Dolphins: Damien Williams, RB

GRADE: B+

Strengths: Williams is a versatile back with a sneaky combination of quickness, balance and body control. He is fast enough to work the edges, but also excels on inside runs, as evidenced by his nifty touchdown run against the Panthers on Saturday. Additionally, he catches the ball out of the backfield (see: Williams' TD reception), which makes him a threat on passing downs.

Weaknesses: This second-year man, who went undrafted in 2014, has worked his way up the depth chart by displaying explosiveness and versatility. However, he needs to be consistent and continue to manage his ball security. Although his effort Saturday on a near-miss touchdown is commendable, fumbling in the scoring zone would obviously be costly in a regular-season game.

What he needs to work on: Williams needs to finish the preseason strong after opening eyes with his superb performance at Carolina. He will get extended action in the coming weeks and needs to post solid production to convince the Dolphins' staff that he can handle the backup duties behind Lamar Miller. If he can continue to dazzle as a runner/receiver, Williams could earn the job and become a contributor to Miami's up-tempo offense.

New England Patriots: Chris Harper, WR

GRADE: A-

Click on team name for full report; click here for a complete archive.

Strengths: It's uncommon for an undrafted rookie to come in and immediately crack the rotation, but that could be the case for Harper, based on his impressive route-running skills and strong hands. He not only shows excellent patience and savvy at the top of his routes, but Harper has a keen understanding of timing -- the young man just knows when he needs to get open within the route progression. Additionally, Harper shows impressive running skills and could make contributions as an emergency punt/kick returner.

Weaknesses: Harper has been the Patriots' best receiver during the preseason, but he lacks the speed to be a home-run hitter on the outside. Although he is a nice fit in the Patriots' quick-rhythm offense, the fact that he doesn't stretch the field as a vertical playmaker prevents him from separating from a competitive group of receivers fighting for a final roster spot.

What he needs to work on: Harper has shown up in each of the Patriots' first two preseason games, but he needs to make an impression in Week 3 to solidify a spot in the rotation. The third preseason game is considered a dress rehearsal; Harper can open the eyes of the coaching staff by making plays against the opponent's first-string defense in a regular-season-like contest.

New York Jets: Leonard Williams, DT

GRADE: B+

Strengths: Williams is as good as advertised, truly a disruptive force at the point of attack. The rookie rusher flashes explosive first-step quickness and excellent snap-count anticipation in one-on-one matchups in the trenches, which led to a sack/safety against Atlanta on Friday. With Williams also displaying a strong nose for the ball (four tackles and 1.5 sacks), the Jets' have another talented weapon up front.

Weaknesses: Despite Williams' remarkable athleticism and movement skills, he needs to refine his hand skills. He doesn't fully utilize his quick hands and length to keep defenders at bay, which allows blockers to grab and clutch the young defender in tight quarters.

What he needs to work on: Williams is making solid progress as a playmaker in the middle, but he must work on using his hands better at the point of attack. If he learns how to attack blockers quickly with his hands, he could be an unstoppable force in the middle by the end of the season.

NORTH

Baltimore Ravens: Bryn Renner, QB

GRADE: B

Strengths: It's important to keep the performance of a third-string quarterback in perspective, but Renner's play against the Eagles will create buzz in the Ravens' facility. The youngster showed outstanding poise and composure while directing the offense, completing 15 of his 21 passes for 158 yards and two touchdowns. Renner delivered a host of quick-rhythm throws on target to receivers running free on the perimeter, including a 28-yard touchdown strike to Daniel Brown on a pinpoint "hole" shot against two-deep coverage down the boundary. With Renner also displaying the ability to get to his second read in the progression, the young signal caller played like a savvy veteran from the pocket.

Weaknesses: Renner lacks the prototypical big arm associated with most franchise quarterbacks. As a touch passer, he relies on anticipation and timing, yet he hasn't played enough snaps to develop the full repertoire of throws needed to make up for limited range. Renner must be exceptional in this area to atone for his limitations as a deep-ball thrower.

What he needs to work on: After opening eyes with a game-winning drive in Week 1, Renner earned high marks for his play in the second half against the Eagles on Saturday. He showed poise, leadership skills and confidence. While it is unlikely that Renner can supplant veteran Matt Schaub as the backup in Baltimore, he certainly shows some promise as the team's No. 3 quarterback. If Renner continues to get the ball out of his hands on time in Week 3 -- and delivers strikes at short and intermediate range -- he could convince the Ravens that he is a worthy developmental quarterback prospect.

Cincinnati Bengals: AJ McCarron, QB

GRADE: B

Strengths: McCarron is a quick-rhythm passer with strong management skills and a high football IQ. He plays the game in an efficient manner and is willing to utilize each option in the route to move the chains. Against the Buccaneers on Monday, McCarron patiently distributed the ball to tight ends and running backs underneath soft zone coverage, particularly during the Bengals' lone touchdown drive. The patience and poise exhibited during that drive was surprising for a young passer making his first appearance in an NFL game. (McCarron missed the entire 2014 preseason and regular season with injury, and sat out the 2015 preseason opener with another health setback.)

Weaknesses: McCarron hasn't played much football in the last couple years due to various injuries. Thus, he needs more repetitions to acclimate to the speed and quickness of the pro game. From a playing perspective, McCarron is a touch passer with adequate arm strength and range. He didn't attempt to push the ball down field against the Buccaneers' umbrella coverage, but some scouts cited his limited range as a possible concern during the pre-draft process.

What he needs to work on: McCarron needs more repetitions at the position. He hasn't played a lot of snaps since leaving Alabama and the inexperience will lead to some miscues in the pocket. Thus, McCarron needs to get extensive playing time in the coming weeks to show coaches where he stands with his development as a potential starter. He got off to a good start against Tampa Bay, but he must build upon the solid performance with a strong effort in Week 3.

Cleveland Browns: Johnny Manziel, QB

GRADE: B+

Strengths: Manziel's athleticism and improvisational skills create problems for opposing defenses when he extends plays. He is shifty enough to evade rushers in the pocket, yet also displays the running skills to pick up first downs on impromptu scrambles. Most importantly, Manziel shows the ability to make pinpoint throws on the move, as evidenced by his 37-yard pass to Darius Jennings on a bootleg play to his left.

Weaknesses: Manziel remains a work in progress as a pocket passer. Although he delivered the ball on time for most of the game against Buffalo on Thursday, he is still working on tying his feet to his eyes on the pocket. If Manziel can keep his feet and eyes in sync within the pocket, he will consistently deliver accurate balls to his receivers on the perimeter. In addition, Manziel needs to do a better job identifying blitz pressure and hot reads at the line. The Bills threw a lot of different looks at the second-year pro, and he wasn't always on the same page as his receivers. (While some fault could lie with the receiving corps, it is important for the quarterback to make sure his perimeter players understand which guy is the first look against pressure.)

What he needs to work on: Despite making significant growth as a passer this preseason, Manziel still needs to improve his management skills and situational awareness. He must demonstrate a keen understanding of down and distance, time and score, and make sound decisions with the ball based on circumstances. Manziel has shown better management skills to this point, but he has to be consistent with his approach to earn the trust of the Browns' coaching staff.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Bud Dupree, OLB

GRADE: B

Strengths: Dupree is a high-motor player with outstanding athleticism and agility. He exhibits terrific first-step quickness and burst as an edge rusher pursuing the passer. Against the Packers on Sunday, he was relentless in his pursuit -- and the extra effort resulted in a sack.

Weaknesses: Dupree is a better athlete than pass rusher at this point. He doesn't have a feel for sequencing his moves to get free, winning on sheer effort and hustle. Dupree also needs to work on being more physical and stout against the run. He gets knocked around a bit at the line of scrimmage and fails to consistently set the edge against perimeter plays.

What he needs to work on: Dupree finally showed up against the Packers. However, the Steelers need him to be a more consistent threat. Dupree must develop an effective go-to move off the edge to become a real factor as a pass rusher.

SOUTH

Houston Texans: Kevin Johnson, CB

GRADE: A-

Around the NFL's Dan Hanzus is following the drama on HBO's Hard Knocks closely. Check out his takes on the entire season.

Strengths: Johnson was arguably the most versatile and technically sound corner in this year's draft class. The Wake Forest product continues to display a dynamic set of skills as a cover corner. Johnson showed outstanding footwork, movement skills and awareness playing on the outside against Denver, yet he was just as effective working in the slot as a nickel corner with the second team. He registered a breakup on a pass to Demaryius Thomas, exhibiting exceptional anticipation and footwork on the play.

Weaknesses: Johnson's ultra-competitive demeanor will lead to a few flags when he challenges receivers down the field. He received a questionable defensive holding penalty in the second quarter, but the rookie will avoid infractions in the future when he acclimates to the NFL rules restricting excessive contact on the perimeter.

What he needs to work on: Johnson is slated to serve as the Texans' CB3 heading into the season, but he needs to continue to hone his technique on the perimeter. Although his footwork and movement skills are nearly perfect, Johnson has to work on keeping his hands off receivers down the field.

Indianapolis Colts: Jack Mewhort, OT

GRADE: D

Strengths: Mewhort is a mauler/brawler-type blocker adept at moving defenders off the ball. He excels at creating movement in the run game and is a solid finisher at the point of attack. He plays a bit too high, but he's a scrappy blocker capable of generating a push at the line of scrimmage.

Weaknesses: Mewhort, who started 14 games at guard as a rookie last season, remains a work in progress as an edge blocker. He struggles with speed and quickness, as evidenced by Pernell McPhee's "blow by" sack early in Saturday's game against Chicago. The second-year pro later surrendered a sack to Will Sutton that also exposed his flawed technique and awareness. Although it takes time to transition to the edge after spending a season on the interior, Mewhort's struggles against the Bears could lead to concerns about his ability to hold up against elite rushers in the regular season.

What he needs to work on: Mewhort must improve in pass protection for the Colts to feel good about the fortress around Andrew Luck in the pocket. While the coaches are exhibiting patience during Mewhort's transition to right tackle, the fact that he struggled against speed and quickness on the edge is a major concern for Indy heading into the regular season.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Allen Robinson, WR

GRADE: B

Strengths: Robinson is a big-bodied pass catcher with all of the traits to develop into a true WR1. He flashed strong hands and outstanding ball skills against the Giants on Saturday, finishing with three catches for 63 yards. He is a strong runner in the open field, as evidenced by his 36-yard catch-and-run on a shallow crossing route in the first quarter. With Robinson performing thus far in the preseason, the Jaguars should feel good about the second-year pro anchoring the aerial attack.

Weaknesses: Robinson isn't a burner on the perimeter. Thus, he is limited in his ability deliver impact plays on vertical routes. While he is capable of winning on double moves or stutter routes, Robinson lacks the burst to run past defenders on straight speed routes (go-route or post).

What he needs to work on: Robinson is finding his groove as the Jaguars' WR1, but needs to continue to work on his timing and rhythm with Blake Bortles. The Jaguars need their young stars to hit the ground running in Week 3 of the preseason, to build up their confidence heading into the regular season.

Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota, QB

GRADE: A

Strengths: Mariota's athleticism and movement skills make him a dangerous weapon on the perimeter as a dual-threat playmaker. He is quick enough to turn the corner on bootlegs and waggle passes, but he also throws well on the run, as he demonstrated on a 35-yard completion to Craig Stevens in Sunday's contest against the Rams. Mariota showcased solid running skills in the zone-read. He masterfully executes ball fakes at the mesh point; his vast experience reading the defensive end (going back to his Oregon days) allows him to give or pull (QB keeper) without hesitation. Mariota only registered one carry in the game, but his ability to bluff the quarterback-keeper helped Bishop Sankey pick up yardage on the inside zone-read concept.

Weaknesses: For all of the progress Mariota has made transitioning into a traditional pro-style offense, the rookie still needs to work on making full-field or pure-progression reads from the pocket. Mariota rarely was asked to scan the field from sideline to sideline as a collegian, but the Titans' offense features a few passing concepts that instruct the rookie to read the entire field before getting rid of the ball. Although Mariota has shown glimpses of being able to execute pure-progression reads (see: Dexter McCluster's drop in the end zone), the rookie needs more reps and experience executing traditional drop-back passes.

What he needs to work on: Mariota continues to impress as a rookie starter. He got the ball out of his hands quickly against the Rams, exhibiting outstanding decisiveness and awareness in the pocket. Most importantly, he quickly diagnosed St. Louis' exotic blitzes and made the proper checks to get the Titans into the correct play. Although Mariota earned high marks for his performance in Week 2, the rookie must continue to work on going through his progressions in the pocket and delivering the ball on time. Given extended playing time in the next game, Mariota will get another opportunity to refine his skills as a pocket passer.

WEST

Denver Broncos: Shane Ray, OLB

GRADE: B

Strengths: Ray is an energetic pass rusher with exceptional first-step quickness and burst. He shows cat-like quickness attacking quarterbacks off the edge, yet he also flashes the ability to win with an assortment of power moves (bull rush and butt-and-jerk). Ray started to put it together Saturday against the Texans, notching a pass breakup and a half-sack.

Weaknesses: Despite Ray's activity as a pass rusher, he still struggles setting the edge on running plays. The rookie gets knocked off the ball a bit, and his lack of penetration could become a problem against teams intent on running to the edges. Although his competitiveness on the edge is admirable, Ray must continue to work on his run-stopping skills to be more than a situational player for the Broncos this season.

What he needs to work on: Ray must become a stouter presence on the edge against running plays. While he immediately can make contributions as a situational rusher, the Broncos need him to grow into an effective run defender to earn a role as an every-down player.

Kansas City Chiefs: Marcus Peters, CB

GRADE: B

Every game, all season

Strengths: Peters is a versatile cover corner with dynamic skills and outstanding instincts. He is most effective playing from a press alignment, but he is also capable of blanketing receivers from "off" coverage using a traditional backpedal or bail technique. Peters will challenge receivers on the perimeter when the ball is in the air, leading to knock-downs and breakups when he anticipates throws in his area. Overall, Peters' aggressive approach could make him a standout defender early in his career.

Weaknesses: The first-round pick must be more consistent and disciplined with his technique. Although he possesses all of the physical tools to snuff out elite pass catchers, Peters has to maintain his focus and concentrate on the little details (hash-split alignment, coverage assignment and technique utilization) to become a stable player on the edge. He only surrendered a single completion against the Seahawks on Friday, but he must continue to refine his technique to consistently challenge receivers on every pass attempt.

What he needs to work on: Peters has been a solid performer during the preseason. He has been close to receivers on nearly every pass attempt in his direction, which is a good sign for a young defender. Heading into Week 3, Peters needs to remain solid with his footwork and fundamentals to earn the trust of his teammates and coaches. He has shown flashes of greatness throughout camp, but he has to consistently play well in games to build confidence as a playmaker.

Oakland Raiders: Latavius Murray, RB

GRADE: B

Strengths: Murray is an electric runner with explosive speed and quickness. He is at his best working on the edges, but he flashes enough wiggle and burst to weave through traffic on inside runs. Murray has a knack for spotting creases on the back side, leading to big plays against fast-flowing defenses. The third-year pro had a limited workload Saturday against the Vikings, but he continues to flash impressive balance and body control.

Weaknesses: Despite Murray's size (6-foot-3, 230 pounds), he isn't necessarily a "grinder" between the tackles. He displays a finesse style (nimble and agile) with the ball in his hands and doesn't consistently run behind his pads or exhibit exceptional strength running through contact. Although he flashed some power on his 2-yard touchdown against Minnesota, Murray needs to exhibit that kind of power and explosiveness consistently as a feature back.

What he needs to work on: Murray is a dynamic player with great vision and quickness. He has surprising "pitter-pat" for a big back, yet needs to show coaches that he can run with force between the tackles. If Murray can display strength and power in Week 3, the Raiders' offensive staff will feel better about using him as the primary feature back going forward.

San Diego Chargers: Melvin Ingram, OLB

GRADE: A+

Strengths: Ingram is an explosive pass rusher with terrific first-step quickness and closing speed. He exhibits outstanding balance and body control turning the corner, but also flashes the awareness and versatility to vary his rushes off the edge. Against the Cardinals on Saturday night, Ingram used a fantastic spin move to register a sack on Carson Palmer. The maneuver showcased Ingram's unique body control and quickness while also setting up a traditional speed rush that he used later to register a second sack.

Weaknesses: Ingram is a "jump-around" pass rusher off the edge. Although his frenetic style can produce fireworks when he is on his game, power blockers with length can give him problems in one-on-one battles. Ingram must continue to develop a series of countermoves as a rusher to become a consistent force for the Chargers.

What he needs to work on: Ingram is finally starting to play like the destructive playmaker the Chargers envisioned when they selected him in the first round of the 2012 NFL Draft. He is in phenomenal shape (Ingram lost 20 pounds this offseason), exhibiting exceptional quickness coming off the edge. Given his limited production early in his career (six sacks in 29 games), Ingram needs to build upon the performance by continuing to display solid rush skills in Week 3.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

Print

Headlines

The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop