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AFC preseason player grades, Week 3: Khalil Mack dominates

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


Buffalo Bills: Tyrod Taylor, QB


Strengths: Taylor continues to torment defenses with his athleticism, mobility and improvisational skills. The fifth-year pro is like a magician in the pocket, escaping the clutches of pass rushers with slick moves and electric cuts in traffic, as evidenced by his 20-yard touchdown run against the Steelerson Saturday. Taylor routinely creates big plays with his impromptu scrambles -- and yet, he's shown the poise and patience to pick apart coverage with timely throws delivered on target on the perimeter. It's little wonder the Billswill be going with him as their starter when the regular season commences.

Weaknesses: Despite Taylor's sensational work throughout the preseason, he remains an inexperienced player at the position (zero regular-season starts in four seasons with the Ravens). He is still learning how to manage the game as the offensive leader. From making the proper calls against the blitz to exhibiting sound judgment in key situations, Taylor needs to continue to grow as a quarterback by learning through each experience.

What he needs to work on: Taylor has earned the respect of his coaches by putting together solid performances on the field, but he needs to assume the leadership duties for the squad by setting a strong example in the locker room. From his study habits in the film room to taking a more vocal role in the huddle, Taylor needs to step up his approach as the starter. If he can continue to work diligently in those areas, he could strengthen his hold on the starting job going forward.

Miami Dolphins: Jarvis Landry, WR


Strengths: Landry is a tenacious receiver with strong hands, outstanding ball skills and a punishing running style. He runs through arm tackles on the perimeter, and he also exhibits the elusiveness and wiggle to make defenders miss in traffic. Landry's 46-yard "catch-and-run" play in the first quarter against the Falcons on Saturday showcased his running skills, but it was a nifty 14-yard gain on a "now" screen that shed light on how he might be featured in the Dolphins' offense as a "RAC" (run after catch) specialist.

Weaknesses: The second-year pro remains a work in progress as a route runner. Because he lacks the speed and acceleration to run past defenders on vertical routes, he needs to master the subtleties and nuances of route running to consistently get open against top cover corners.

What he needs to work on: Landry is a dangerous threat as a slot receiver, but he must continue to round out his game to become a complete player for the Dolphins. Although he probably won't see much action in Week 4 of the preseason, Landry can work on his craft when he does get on the field. He would benefit from adding a move that allows him to win against elite competition on the perimeter.

New England Patriots: Dominique Easley, DT


Strengths: Easley is an explosive athlete with outstanding first-step quickness, agility and burst. He complements his terrific athleticism with superb snap-count anticipation and instincts, resulting in disruptive plays against the run. Easley lived in the backfield during the first half against the Panthers on Friday, particularly in the second quarter, when he notched a tackle for loss and a sack in the same series. With Easley showing solid skills as a run defender and pass rusher, he figures to serve as a versatile, athletic defender on the Pats' D-line with the potential to wreak havoc on the interior.

Weaknesses: Easley's durability and reliability are concerns based on his injury history. The second-year pro missed most of his final season at Florida with a knee injury, and various ailments prevented him from making a major impact as a rookie last season. Although he looks primed and ready to go heading into 2015, Easley must remain healthy and continue to clean up his technique (hand usage and leverage) to become a steady force in the middle.

What he needs to work on: Easley has shown big-time potential as a destructive playmaker on the inside, but he must show coaches that he can produce splash plays consistently. He needs to make a play or two in Week 4 to fortify his confidence and earn the trust of coaches counting on him to be a difference maker along the front line.

New York Jets: Zac Stacy, RB


Strengths: Stacy is a hard-nosed runner with a no-nonsense style. He doesn't show a lot of wiggle in the open field, but he has enough balance and body control to maneuver through traffic. Stacy is also a solid pass catcher out of the backfield, exhibiting soft hands and decent route-running skills. He scored on a 24-yard screen passagainst the Giants on Saturday, showing better-than-anticipated speed and burst on the way to the end zone.

Weaknesses: Stacy's game lacks flash or pizzazz, and he doesn't show a lot of creativity with the ball in his hands. He lacks the top-end speed and burst to deliver home-run plays, which limits his impact and potential as a feature back.

What he needs to work on: Stacy has been a productive runner in his two NFL seasons, including his rookie campaign with the Rams, when he recorded 1,114 yards from scrimmage and eight total touchdowns, but the third-year pro has to earn a role in a crowded Jets backfield. He seems to lack the explosiveness to be a change-of-pace back and isn't quite rugged enough to be a "pounder," but he could change opinions with another strong performance in Week 4.


Baltimore Ravens: Javorius "Buck" Allen, RB


Strengths: Allen is a versatile back with solid running and receiving skills. Although the rookie lacks elite speed, he is a crafty runner with a knack for finding creases in traffic. Allen struggled to get untracked against the Redskins on Saturday (12 rushes for 24 yards), but he was a standout variety player at USC during his final two seasons as a collegian.

Weaknesses: Allen is a jack of all trades ... but a master of none. He lacks the quickness to excel as a dynamic change-of-pace back, nor does he show the power to handle "grinder" responsibilities for the Ravens. Plus, he demonstrated poor ball security with his fumble against the Redskins.

What he needs to work on: Allen was expected to add depth to the Ravens' backfield when was selected in the fourth round of the 2015 NFL Draft, but he hasn't impressed in game action thus far. Thus, he needs to make a standout play to convince the coaches that he is capable of filling in for Justin Forsett as a key sub. If he can break off a few 10-yard gains and catch the ball well out of the backfield in Week 4, he could alleviate the concerns sparked by his ho-hum performance in the preseason to date.

Cincinnati Bengals: AJ McCarron, QB


Strengths: McCarron is a superb game manager with outstanding instincts, awareness and anticipation. He routinely throws receivers open with pinpoint tosses; his accuracy and ball placement on intermediate routes is uncommon for a young passer. The second-year pro isn't afraid to fire the ball into tight windows, as evidenced by his 31-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jonesagainst the Bears on Saturday, yet he rarely puts the ball in harm's way. With McCarron showing he can string together completions, the Bengals have an intriguing quarterback prospect to groom for a bigger role down the road.

Weaknesses: McCarron doesn't possess a big arm. He is a quick-rhythm passer with limited range on deep balls. Thus, McCarron must get the ball out and up early to connect on deep throws to speedy receivers on the perimeter. It takes time to master the skill, but McCarron will need to add it to his repertoire to attack the deep parts of the field.

What he needs to work on: McCarron has been impressive in preseason action. He needs to continue to show coaches he can string together completions while also taking enough risks to keep opponents off balance. If McCarron plays well in extended action in Week 4, he could convince the Bengals' staff to keep Andy Dalton on a shorter leash in the regular season.

Cleveland Browns: Travis Benjamin, WR/PR


Strengths: Benjamin is an electric playmaker capable of delivering big plays as a pass catcher or kick returner. He is slippery and elusive with the ball in his hands, and he also has the straight-line speed and quickness to run away from defenders in the open field. Benjamin certainly put those traits on display during his 53-yard punt-return score in the first quarter against the Bucs on Saturday. He also flashed soft hands and solid route-running skills in snagging four receptions for 39 yards.

Weaknesses: The fourth-year pro's slender frame (5-foot-10, 175 pounds) prevents him from carving out a bigger role as a WR3. He lacks the strength to consistently handle the rigors of fighting through jams and excessive contact from aggressive corners in coverage. Although his speed and quickness can overwhelm bigger corners lacking elite movement skills, Benjamin must develop a series of unstoppable finesse moves to win against tight coverage.

What he needs to work on: Benjamin is likely entrenched as the Browns' punt returner, but he needs to refine his skills as a receiver to earn playing time in sub-packages. If he can continue to impress as a pass catcher in Week 4, Benjamin could be in line for a more prominent role as a playmaker this season.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Martavis Bryant, WR


Strengths: Bryant is already one of the best deep-ball threats in the NFL. The second-year pro flashes explosive speed, acceleration and burst on vertical routes. Despite running a limited route tree, he consistently gets behind the defense to produce big plays or pass-interference penalties. Against the Bills on Saturday, he torched Ronald Darby on a go-route for a 63-yard gain and drew a pair of penalties on the rookie defender. With Bryant adding a 39-yard touchdown reception and turning a short pass into a 36-yard gain, it's easy to see his impact as a home-run threat on the outside.

Weaknesses: It's hard to knock Bryant's one-dimensional game when he produces 138 yards on three catches, but he remains a work in progress as a route runner. He needs to master the short and intermediate routes in the playbook to give the Steelers more options for incorporating him into the game plan.

What he needs to work on: Bryant, who is facing a four-game suspension to start the regular season, needs to continue improving his game while he's sidelined. He should find a trainer or private coach to work on his conditioning and route-running skills. The Steelers will miss his big-play ability on the outside, but when he returns, he could spark an offense that is already regarded as one of the NFL's best.


Houston Texans: Jaelen Strong, WR


Strengths: Strong is a long, rangy pass catcher with sticky hands and outstanding ball skills. The rookie excels at snatching the ball out of the air with his big mitts, as evidenced by his 6-yard touchdown reception on a slant pattern in the second quarter against the Saints on Sunday. In addition, Strong is an improving route runner with sneaky stop-start quickness and body control.

Weaknesses: Strong lacks elite speed and acceleration. He must win on vertical routes through deception (double moves or creative play design) or maximizing his superior physical dimensions (6-2, 217 pounds) against smallish defensive backs.

What he needs to work on: The third-round pick finally broke through with a strong performance in Week 3. He showed the Texans' coaching staff that he could thrive as a possession receiver and earned another look as a WR4 heading into the season. He needs to sustain the momentum he built by making more critical conversions (third-down plays or red-zone scoring chances) in the preseason finale.

Indianapolis Colts: Henry Anderson, DE/DT


Strengths: Anderson is an energetic defender with a game built on strength and power at the point of attack. The rookie outworks blockers with his relentless spirit while also flashing enough athleticism and agility to slip through cracks along the line. He frequently created penetration against the Rams' offensive line Saturday, exhibiting awareness and instincts with his quick diagnosis of the blocking scheme. Anderson also displayed impressive versatility by logging a few snaps at defensive tackle following Art Jones' injury.

Weaknesses: Anderson is a limited pass-rushing threat. Although he possesses the size and length to wear blockers out with a variety of hand-to-hand combat sequences, the third-round pick hasn't learned how to put together effective combinations to win consistently on passing downs.

What he needs to work on: Anderson is the kind of blue-collar defender every defense needs along the line. He works with great effort and tenacity at the point of attack, resulting in disruptive plays in the backfield. Anderson needs to continue to improve his hand skills in Week 4 to become a more effective pass rusher against stout offensive tackles.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB


Strengths: Bortles is an athletic quarterback with impressive physical tools. He has the arm talent and range to capably make every throw in the book. Most impressively, Bortles has shown better accuracy and ball placement with his throws at intermediate and deep range, as confirmed with his feathery 13-yard touch-pass to Allen Hurns for a touchdown against the Lions on Friday. With Bortles also improving his timing and anticipation on several intermediate throws (check out a few of his tosses to Marcedes Lewis, Nic Jacobs and Clay Harbor on seam routes), the Jaguars should feel good about the progress of the second-year pro.

Weaknesses: Bortles, who was plagued by turnovers as a rookie (17 picks, one fumble lost), remains a work in progress as a decision maker. He didn't put the ball in harm's way against the Lions, but ball security is an issue he must manage for the Jaguars to improve in 2015.

What he needs to work on: Bortles has improved dramatically as a playmaker and leader for the Jaguars. He appears to have learned the importance of stringing together completions to sustain drives, though he'll still push the ball downfield when opportunities arise. If Bortles can continue to improve his ability to manage risk, he could spark a surprising resurgence in Jacksonville.

Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota, QB


Strengths: Mariota is an athletic playmaker with a combination of speed, quickness and mobility that creates problems for defensive coordinators. He is a dual-threat passer capable of making pinpoint passes from the pocket or on the move. Although he is at his best executing movement-based play-action passes, Mariota has shown superb timing and anticipation on traditional dropback throws, including a 30-yard dime to Kendall Wright on a deep crossing route against the Chiefs on Friday. With Mariota also displaying excellent poise and awareness executing the two-minute drill, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt should come away pleased with his young quarterback's progress through the preseason.

Weaknesses: Mariota is still working through growing pains as a young passer. He occasionally gets a little sloppy with his footwork, resulting in errant throws from the pocket (see: an underthrow to Delanie Walker and a short-hop to Harry Douglas). Mariota has made significant strides with his footwork fundamentals, but he needs to continue refining his technique to become a more accurate passer from the pocket.

What he needs to work on: Mariota has exceeded expectations during his transition from spread quarterback to traditional signal caller. He shows a strong command of the offense and exhibits excellent poise managing the game from the pocket. If he can continue to work through the rough parts of his game while understanding the defense's intentions, he could have a strong rookie season as the Titans' franchise player.


Denver Broncos: Montee Ball, RB


Strengths: Ball has a patient running style and nice instincts. He is a bit of a straight-line runner, but he has just enough wiggle and burst to get to the second level when he spots a crease. On one play Saturday against the Niners, he was given sufficient blocking at the point of attack, and he carved out an 8-yard run.

Weaknesses: Ball lacks elite speed, quickness and creativity. He rarely shows pitter-pat or the ability to make a lateral jump-cut to slide out of trouble; his inability to slip and slide prevents him from turning minimal gains into positive plays. In an offense predicated on quick decisions and efficient runs, Ball's lack of explosiveness makes it hard for him to pick up positive yards when blocking falters at the line of scrimmage.

What he needs to work on: Ball must prove to coaches that he can be a dependable option in the backfield. Given that he's struggled mightily throughout the preseason (16 carries for 41 yards), he needs a strong effort in Week 4 to salvage a spot in the rotation. If Ball fails to show the hard-nosed running style that made him a productive player at Wisconsin, the third-year pro could be on the outside looking in on opening day.

Kansas City Chiefs: Marcus Peters, CB


Strengths: Peters is a gritty cover corner with exceptional instincts and a versatile skill set. He capably employs press and "off" techniques while maintaining tight coverage on receivers down the field. The rookie shows outstanding footwork, balance and body control at the line, but he also flashes strong hands with his violent jams against receivers early in routes. Most importantly, Peters shows exceptional diagnostic skills and ball awareness, as evidenced by his pass break-up against the Titans' Delanie Walkeron Friday, and when he forced quarterback Marcus Mariota to overthrow Hakeem Nicks when he undercut the route.

Weaknesses: Peters' biggest issues stem from his inconsistent focus in coverage. He has all of the tools to lock up elite receivers on the perimeter, but he needs to stay locked in and engaged on each play. He was on his game against the Titans, but he nearly let Walker beat him down the sideline on the aforementioned break-up when he paused for a moment before engaging in coverage.

What he needs to work on: Peters is one of the most polished cover corners to enter the NFL in years. The 18th overall pick has all of the traits needed to develop into a premier playmaker, but he needs to remain focused on each play. Despite making strides in this area throughout the preseason, he needs to take it up a notch in Week 4 to prepare for extensive action during the regular season.

Oakland Raiders: Khalil Mack, DE


Strengths: Mack is a backyard bully off the edge, exhibiting exceptional strength, power and explosiveness on contact. He runs over blockers on the way to the ball as a run defender, and he employs similar tactics to attack the quarterback on pass plays. He showcased his skills in spectacular fashion against the Cardinals on Sunday, posting a forced fumble and a pair of sacks in a half of play. The numbers clearly reflect Mack's dominance off the edge. He also relentlessly harassed Arizona QB Carson Palmer, utilizing a variety of power maneuvers and a wild spin move to create penetration.

Weaknesses: Though he provided sensational play on a big stage, the second-year pro needs to refine his game as a rusher. The fifth overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft remains a bit one-dimensional (power rush) with his approach, and elite blockers will take away his fastball during the regular season. Although his relentless energy will allow him to notch sacks when his power moves are nullified, Mack must add to his arsenal to generate more sacks in 2015.

What he needs to work on: It is easy to see the Raiders' plan for Mack as a defensive end. Defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. unleashed his star player in a variety of fronts, allowing him to collapse the pocket from both sides and work against the Cardinals' overwhelmed edge blockers, particularly Bradley Sowell. While Mack's power maneuvers completely disrupted the flow and timing of Arizona's offense, he must develop a refined game that enhances his chances of winning against elite left tackles in the regular season. Remember, the Cardinals' offensive line surrendered six sacks in Week 2 of the preseason, including a pair to Melvin Ingram on an assortment of speed rushes, so it is important to keep Mack's scintillating performance in perspective. If he can continue to tweak his game to add a speed or finesse rush to the mix, Mack can register more takedowns than pressures going forward.

San Diego Chargers: Melvin Gordon, RB


Strengths: Gordon is an electric runner with excellent speed and quickness. He flashes stop-start wiggle in the hole, but he's at his best when he attacks a crease at 100 mph. Gordon flashes adequate strength, power and toughness on inside runs. He repeatedly carried tacklers for an extra yard or two at the end of his runs against the Seahawks on Saturday, including a critical third-down conversion in the first quarter. With coaches stressing the importance of finishing runs with power, Gordon's strong exhibition alleviated some concerns about his toughness between the tackles.

Weaknesses: The 15th overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft needs to be more decisive with the ball in his hands. He frequently hesitated in the hole looking for a bigger crease instead of attacking the game with speed and quickness. Consequently, Gordon finished with a few minimal gains instead of the 4- or 5-yard bursts that were available in the hole. For Gordon to be an effective runner for the Chargers, he has to eliminate the hesitancy in his game and attack the first crease that develops at the line of scrimmage.

What he needs to work on: Gordon's pedestrian numbers during the preseason have raised some concerns about his effectiveness as a rookie starter, but he can eliminate any doubts about his potential with a strong performance in Week 4. Although he likely will see limited snaps in the preseason finale, it is important for Gordon to show more decisiveness with the ball in his hands on inside runs. Additionally, he needs to continue to exhibit soft hands and receiving skills on the swing passes and screens thrown in his direction. He has caught the ball well to this point, but evaluators would like to see more explosive plays from him in the passing game.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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