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Broncos, Rams head preseason watchability rankings

The regular season is about the team. The preseason is about the individual. This is the month for rookies and running backs. It's about position battles and injuries. The next four weeks are a pale imitation of the real thing, but you can still learn plenty if you know what to look for.

Below, you'll find my watchability rankings for the preseason, powered by science and analytics. During the regular season, this column will detail the teams and players that are most intriguing in a given week. The qualifications are much different in the preseason.

Information matters more than results. We'll look for clues on player usage and traits while understanding that August is a mirage usually conjured up by thirsty football takesmen. Teams don't truly game-plan in the preseason, which makes it a different sport. Stable teams take a backseat for now; the preseason won't tell us much about the Panthers and Packers. This month is all about the players and teams we don't know.

Quarterbacks battling

Quarterback curiosity trumps all in the preseason. Three of the teams I want to watch most over the next month have open starting jobs, with No. 2 overall pick Carson Wentz's Eagles thrown in.

This entire Broncos quarterback situation is unprecedented. The 2001 Ravens are the only other defending champions to replace their top two quarterbacks, but they didn't hold an open competition in camp. Baltimore simply handed the job to Elvis Grbac, a decision that proved even the best general managers make big mistakes. John Elway hoped to avoid that in Denver by trading for veteran Mark Sanchez (who is signed to a modest deal) while drafting Paxton Lynch in the first round. Lynch isn't believed to be a candidate to start due to an erratic camp, although a red-hot preseason could always change the picture. Sanchez will start Denver's preseason opener, with Trevor Siemian very much in the mix.

It's a terrible sign for Sanchez that he has failed to gain any separation in practice against Siemian, a second-year pro drafted in the seventh round in 2015. The tie should go to the younger player. It is all reminiscent of 2013 in New York, when Sanchez struggled to beat out then-rookie Geno Smith. The difference here: Siemian's careful playing personality makes him less likely than Sanchez to commit a game-crushing mistake. Perhaps that's all Denver coach Gary Kubiak wants. The Broncos have the biggest range of potential outcomes of any team in football this year. They could repeat as champs or finish under .500 -- nothing would surprise. That makes them a must-watch team, even in August. (Rookie safety Justin Simmons and rookie running back Devontae Booker are also players to keep an eye on.)

August is Chip Kelly season. Sam Bradford threw roughly 10 well-placed passes last year around this time under Kelly in Philly, and suddenly the Eagles became a trendy playoff pick. Now, of course, Kelly is in San Francisco, and the coach indicated the preseason will largely decide the battle between Colin Kaepernick and Blaine Gabbert, which has looked tight in practice. It has also inspired actual headlines like: "Kap vs Gabbert: 49ers fans will likely hate the winner and loser."

Put aside the cynicism for a minute, and you'll see two quarterbacks with raw skill and a coach unafraid to be aggressive. The 49ers are such a strange team, but Kelly makes them fascinating. The defensive front seven is better than you think, especially if rookie DeForest Buckner makes good on his camp buzz. Two of the three starting receiver jobs are open, as is the tight end job. The football dork in me loves it all.

Bradford, meanwhile, remains in Philadelphia. He's the Eagles' starter after a solid camp, so the team's placement in this tier is all about Wentz. Since the rookie won't get many practice snaps during the regular season, this month will likely comprise Wentz's resume for 2016. The job he's applying for: November starting quarterback when the natives get restless in Philly.

Unlike Wentz, Jared Goff was not always expected to sit as a rookie in Los Angeles. His "plug-and-play" potential was one reason the Rams took him No. 1 overall. All reports, not to mention the first episode of "Hard Knocks," indicate Goff's progress is coming along slowly.

This is hardly cause for alarm. It has happened to rookie quarterbacks from Aaron Rodgers to Eli Manning to Alex Smith. It is a surprise, however -- no matter what kind of spin comes out of L.A. about veteran Case Keenum's "proven ability" to beat the Seahawks. Other recent Rams starters to beat the Seahawks: Austin Davis and Nick Foles. The Rams should take their time with Goff if he's not ready, but this has never been about Keenum. It's Goff vs. Goff, and we get four games to watch his progress. Bonus points for this tier: The Rams and 49ers both play Denver this month.

Plenty of intrigue

Robert Griffin III was signed by Cleveland on March 24, more than two weeks after he was released by the Redskins. It was hard to imagine him starting for any team as he languished on the free agent market, much less having a job locked down before the preseason starts. That takes some juice out of the Browns' preseason, but not much. We still want to see how RGIII looks against a live pass rush. We want to see if first-round pick Corey Coleman can live up to those Steve Smith comparisons, and whether Terrelle Pryor can finish his improbable journey from college quarterback to starting NFL wide receiver. We want to see running back Duke Johnson begin to make the leap. Browns homers can also enjoy open starting jobs up for grabs across the defense, but this preseason will be all about new coach Hue Jackson's offense. Are the Browns sneaky exciting?

Jimmy Garoppolo's test drive as a starting quarterback would put the Patriots higher on this list if we hadn't seen itbefore. He should prove to be solid, but September is his month now. The team's open questions at running back (could LeGarrette Blount be cut, and when will Dion Lewis be back?) and the development of rookie receiver Malcolm Mitchell are just as interesting. It will also be fun to see Tom Brady treat these games like the regular season, taking down third-string cornerbacks while Boston radio stations lose their minds after Brady plays three quarters in the fourth preseason game.

Marcus Mariota amps up the preseason curiosity factor for the Titans despite that gnawing suspicion coach Mike Mularkey could ruin everything by turning back the clock to 1991. Rookie running back Derrick Henry is one to watch after a strong showing in camp, and it would be great to see juice back in veteran DeMarco Murray's legs. Fifth-round pick receiver Tajae Sharpe is looking to cement his starting receiver job, while second-year pro Dorial Green-Beckham and veteran Andre Johnson battle just to earn snaps in a deep fight at the position.

Before he pulled his hamstring, fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott's burst and propensity for making linebackers look foolish at Cowboys camp was something to behold. He makes Dallas appointment viewing once he recovers, while Tony Romo's mobility is something to watch. There should be some level of concern that Romo's back stiffness seems to require him to take so many days off at camp. The Cowboys also still need to figure out both starting defensive ends this month.

Catch them weekly

The Saints feel strangely fresh for a team that has had the same coach and quarterback for a decade. They finally rebuilt their offense with fun young talent around Drew Brees. Michael Thomas has made more noise than any rookie receiver this year. I've fallen for the hype in Saints camp that competent coaching and improvements through the defensive line and secondary could make this defense respectable. At running back, C.J. Spiller could earn the backup spot over Tim Hightower or get released, based on how he looks in the preseason. ... The Jaguars made news for their free agency splashes, but we'll be watching their rookies more closely this month. At least four defenders -- Jalen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Sheldon Day and Yannick Ngakoue -- have a chance to have big roles right away.

Stable teams rank low on this list -- and the Ravens are as unstable as they've been in awhile. Five key starters are coming back from injury. Starting jobs at running back, wideout, tight end, defensive end, inside linebacker and safety are open this month. Everyone is just assuming 37-year-old veteran receiver Steve Smith is still Steve Smith coming off an Achilles injury. There's a lot that could go wrong. ... Houston is similarly in flux. The Texans have up to nine new offensive starters, including quarterback Brock Osweiler and first-round receiver Will Fuller.

Seattle is the exception to the rule when it comes to established teams ranking low. Just watch one of the Seahawks' games. They often play so hard in the preseason that it feels like a real game. Their backfield should be among the most fun to watch this month, with Christine Michael teasing fantasy writers again. They also drafted three running backs trying to make an impact while Thomas Rawlsreturns from a broken ankle.

Middle of the pack

The Giants' preseason isn't about rookie receiver Sterling Shepard vs. veteran Victor Cruz -- that battle is over; Shepard has won. The battle is Cruz vs. his old explosiveness, with the waiver wire a possible destination for Cruz. (And that battle will distract everyone from what's happening at linebacker for New York.) ... Atlanta has been threatening to start up to four defensive rookies, including first-round pick Keanu Neal, and the preseason will show how serious coach Dan Quinn is about turning over his group. ... The Steelers were ranked low in this exercise until I realized how much I wanted to see Sammie Coates and slot receiver Eli Rogers build on their camp hype. Pittsburgh coaches are also hoping outside linebackers Bud Dupree and Jarvis Jones finally establish themselves as clear starters, while they work in two rookies (first-round pick Artie Burns and second-round pick Sean Davis) in the secondary. These aren't former defensive coordinator Dick LeBeau's "wait and develop" Steelers.

There isn't a ton at stake with the Colts this month, but an angry Andrew Luck coming off a disastrous season can't be ranked low. The same reasoning applies for the Buccaneers' Jameis Winston, who is going to my one of my favorite weekly watches when the real games start. Look to see if he feeds unheralded tight end Cameron Brate to help Brate win the starting job. ... This is a big month for Bears receiver Kevin White. Early reports in camp indicate that last year's No. 7 overall pick is coming along slowly after losing all of 2015 to injury. Fantasy drafters assuming that second-year pro Jeremy Langford will just dominate carries in the Chicago backfield also need to watch out for how rookie Jordan Howard and veterans Jacquizz Rodgers and Ka'Deem Carey are used. ... The Chargers are one of the teams we're most anxious to see in the regular season, but they don't offer a ton of intrigue this month. Keep an eye on whether second-year pro Melvin Gordon looks all the way back at running back after reportedly undergoing microfracture surgery on his knee in January. His hesitant preseason a year ago started his rookie campaign going the wrong way.

The Jets have a roster of established stars for whom the preseason doesn't matter much. We don't expect to see a ton of Matt Forte, even when he gets healthy. They only rank this high on the off chance Geno Smith plays like Joe Namath and makes my heart sing. Second-round pick Christian Hackenberghasn't seen many snaps in camp and might not even be ready for preseason action. The Jets definitely have the most compelling battle for a No. 3 quarterback job, with 2015 fourth-rounder Bryce Petty hoping to show progress. He says he plans to "Brett Favre it" in the team's first preseason game. We just want to see what that means. ... The Bills would have been a lot more interesting this month before losing their top two rookies (Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland) to injury. Former Olympic hopeful Marquise Goodwin is making believers (again) in Buffalo camp, and he has a solid chance to start if he shows out in August. ... ... Arian Fosterwill sit out the preseason opener for the Dolphins. It's worth watching how he and Jay Ajayi look this month, and if both can escape August healthy.

Lower stakes

These four teams range from good to potentially great, yet we're unlikely to learn a lot new about them in the preseason. Raiders fans have to be thrilled that they have such a stable, young offense that returns nearly all its starters. Rookie DeAndre Washington is a player to watch -- can he establish himself as a true threat to Latavius Murray?

Carolina is set to give three rookie cornerbacks major snaps, barring an August meltdown. No. 1 receiver Kelvin Benjamin's return from his ACL injury is just as important. Second-year receiver Devin Funchess and running back Cameron Artis-Payne also want to solidify their strong training camps.

Aaron Rodgers is a treat any time of year, and he'll want to re-establish connections with Jordy Nelson and his No. 3 receiver to be named later, which currently figures to be Davante Adams. Like the Packers, the Cardinals are a team we know well. They'd be better off just fast-forwarding a month, because only injuries could mess with this squad.

Save for Game Pass

Fans of the five teams above should mostly see landing in this tier as a compliment, so save the emails. They just aren't generating many high-stakes storylines this preseason to capture the casual fan. Minnesota's best player (Adrian Peterson) will barely play, if at all. However, their two most recent first-round picks -- receiver Laquon Treadwell (2016) and cornerback Trae Waynes (2015) -- could use big months to earn regular playing time.

The Lions will take a massive breath before the preseason starts, then exhale in a month if running back Ameer Abdullah's shoulder goes unscathed. The Bengals similarly can't handle more skill-position injuries; with their stacked roster, they don't truly need many of their young players to step up. Even Redskins beat writers admit camp this year is boring, which is a nice change of pace for them. Washington's first-round receiver Josh Doctsonmay not make it back on the field in time to play in the preseason, although we'll keep an eye on buzzy rookie runner Keith Marshall and second-year pro Matt Jones, who already wowed us in the preseason once. The Chiefs have a mostly veteran roster with intrigue at backup running back (Spencer Ware vs. Charcandrick West) and watching Chris Conley as the team's new starting wideout.

There will be a moment during this preseason when we all just want to move forward to the fun stuff. This is not that moment. Addicts that make it this far down a "Preseason Watchability" column have a football problem. We complain about the preseason, but we watch it. We are grateful to have any live tackling and actual scores back in our lives. Now there are just 26 weeks left until it goes away once again.

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