Football is back! And not a moment too soon!
I have no idea which teams won last week's preseason games. I never pay attention to this aspect of August football, as the results mean nothing. Rather, I like to watch individual players and units -- to see if they outkick or underwhelm, based on my expectations.
Maybe it just feels like we haven't had football in forever, but I'm foaming at the mouth after getting a taste.
I particularly loved watching the following nine players -- and can't wait to see more of them as the preseason ramps up:
1) Johnny Manziel, QB, Cleveland Browns
Saturday was my wife's birthday. We had a great dinner reservation in New York City. Then, I realized Manziel was making his preseason debut. Plans change.
NFL Network rightly covered the Browns-Lions contest like a playoff game, with in-depth pre and postgame analysis and live press conferences. Twitter was set ablaze by armchair analysis of Manziel's every move.
And Johnny looked the part.
Manziel can throw -- and throw with accuracy. He ran around with a purpose and made plays. It was all rather exciting, a nice little snapshot of what Manziel is capable of in Kyle Shanahan's offense.
Now, I want more. I need more. I believe Johnny can play and is exactly what Cleveland needs. He won't be intimidated by a Week 1 trip to Pittsburgh; he won't shrink in the face of those division rivals Cincinnati and Baltimore. There will be growing pains, of course, but Cleveland needs to let Manziel work through them. The Browns, down for so long, need Johnny Football's confidence and swagger.
Watching his postgame press conference live on the NFL Network, Manziel provided intelligent answers on his play and the quarterback battle with Brian Hoyer.
Yes, Mr. Hoyer ... He's a nice guy. The media loves him. You would want him to marry your sister. But Brian Hoyer's a backup.
As I've written many times this year, if Manziel gets the chance to play -- and especially if Josh Gordon avoids a season-long suspension -- Cleveland can surprise a lot of people in 2014.
Saturday night was exciting and just the beginning. Let Johnny play!
2) Barkevious Mingo, OLB, Cleveland Browns
Manziel wasn't the only promising youngster on display for the Browns. In a recent "Instant Debate" here at NFL.com, we were asked to identify one top-10 pick from the (largely disappointing) 2013 draft who could enjoy a breakout sophomore season. I backed Barkevious Mingo.
It was one game. It was one sack. But I love what Mingo can be in Mike Pettine's defense this season. The Browns' new coach will move around his explosive pass rusher, putting him in positions to succeed. Don't be surprised if he doubles his rookie sack total (5).
3) DeMarcus Ware, DE, Denver Broncos
It was weird seeing the longtime Cowboy in an orange uniform, but that odd feeling didn't last long, as Ware stuffed the run on the Seahawks' first play from scrimmage. And then, to announce his presence with authority, Ware sacked Russell Wilson, which is exactly what John Elway brought him over to do -- and exactly what the Broncos' defense missed early in Super Bowl XLVIII.
The key is for Ware to stay healthy and play 16 games. But the vet showed on Thursday night that he has plenty of gas left in the tank. This is a significant upgrade for Denver.
4) Ryan Clady, LT, Denver Broncos
Denver also could've used some help slowing down the Seattle pass rush in February. With Peyton Manning's greatness last year, it is easy to forget that Denver played all but two games without arguably the best left tackle in the NFL. Now healthy, Clady was a rock against the Seahawks.
It's scary, but in theory, Peyton has better surrounding talent this year than last. Ware's arrival and Clady's return are two of the reasons why the Broncos are the favorites in a wide-open AFC.
5) Brandin Cooks, WR, New Orleans Saints
I raved about Cooks in the pre-draft process, when NFL executives were telling me his on-field talent resembles that of DeSean Jackson. And then New Orleans drafted him, and I began salivating while thinking about Cooks in Sean Payton's offense, with Drew Brees as his quarterback. And then I interviewed Saints general manager Mickey Loomis, who couldn't stop gushing about his rookie receiver.
And then Cooks took the field against the Ramson Friday night -- and caught five balls for 55 yards, including a 25-yard touchdown.
Suddenly, I feel even better about my predictions that the Saints will have the best offense in the NFL, Cooks will win Offensive Rookie of the Year, and New Orleans will go deep in the playoffs.
I'm in man crush mode with this rook.
6) Ladarius Green, TE, San Diego Chargers
Normally, I wouldn't make a big deal about two catches for 26 yards in a preseason game against the porous Cowboys defense. But it is just so darn exciting looking into the crystal ball with this emerging matchup nightmare.
I wrote a column this offseason arguing that the Chargers are the best-kept secret in the NFL. I expect them to be a wild-card team, better than last year's squad that snuck into the playoffs. Green's emergence -- and budding rapport with Philip Rivers -- is a big reason why. Green is a great athlete, a 24-year-old weapon who oozes upside.
7) Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
Last Thursday, I explained why Carolina is bound to take a step back in 2014. My reasoning? A lack of depth and talent at receiver -- and the fact that Benjamin, the Panthers' first-round pick, might have to be the entire show.
Well, in preseason game No. 1, he was.
Benjamin made an acrobatic touchdown grab that had the fans in the Carolinas -- and me -- yearning for more.
8) Carlos Hyde, RB, San Francisco 49ers
With Kendall Hunter done and LaMichael James banged up, the Niners would be wise to keep Frank Gore in bubble wrap this August to preserve him for the season. So, hello, Carlos Hyde!
Suddenly tasked as the main man to spell Gore and log meaningful carries in the coming season, Hyde looked the part on Thursday, with his bowling-ball style eating up 39 yards on just five carries against the Ravens.
I am a fan. And Hyde's going to get a lot of opportunities to shine this preseason.
9) Logan Thomas, QB, Arizona Cardinals
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Some draft gurus and members of the media elite think Logan Thomas has no future in the NFL at quarterback. Those folks are wrong. On the other hand, my guy Phil Simms -- who said on our CBS draft preview show that Thomas was the true QB sleeper in this class -- is oh so right.
The wise Cardinals organization plucked him on Day 3 of the draft to develop in Bruce Arians' vertical scheme. The initial returns? Not too shabby. Thomas shredded the Texans on Saturday, completing 11 of 12 passes for 113 yards and a touchdown. File this performance in the mental rolodex, to be revisited a few years down the road.