NFC preseason player grades, Week 2: Jameis Winston steps up

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


Dallas Cowboys: Randy Gregory, DE


Strengths: Gregory is an ultra-athletic pass rusher with explosive speed, quickness and agility. He is also a long, rangy athlete with the ability to convert speed into power, making him a nightmare to block on the edge. Against the 49ers on Sunday, he relied on his first-step quickness to notch a sack and force a pair of holding penalties. With Gregory increasingly using his exceptional arm length to keep blockers at bay via a straight arm (stab maneuver), the rookie rusher is beginning to impose his will on opponents as a disruptive force off the edge.

Weaknesses: Despite Gregory's impressive sack production this preseason (two sacks in two games), he remains an unpolished rusher off the edge. He is still developing a go-to move and must continue to work on using his length to his advantage. Gregory had his way with the 49ers' second-teamers, but experienced edge blockers will get into his chest and negate his athleticism by making it a fistfight on the edges.

What he needs to work on: Gregory needs to refine his moves as a pass rusher. He has all the tools to develop into a dominant player, but he has to learn how to set up and sequence his maneuvers to win consistently off the edge. With extensive work against the Vikings in Week 3, Gregory should be able to build a game plan for attacking opponents during the regular season.

New York Giants: Odell Beckham Jr., WR


Strengths: There is no disputing Beckham's explosiveness or acrobatic skills as a WR1. He is an exceptional pass catcher with strong hands and outstanding ball skills. Additionally, Beckham is a polished route runner with superb balance and body control. He possesses rare stop-start quickness and shows uncommon burst out of his breaks. Most importantly, Beckham has the savvy to use a variety of dekes and fakes to set up defenders on the perimeter.

Weaknesses: Beckham truly took the NFL by storm last season -- racking up 1,305 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns in just 12 games -- but he must adjust to the way opponents defend him in 2015. On Saturday, the Jaguars rolled up the coverage to his side and instructed the safety to play the deep half over the top. These double-coverage tactics are intended to take away deep-ball opportunities down the boundary. Additionally, the Jaguars frustrated Beckham by having multiple defenders jam, bump and hit the second-year pro at every turn. With Beckham unable to make any sort of impact against the ultra-aggressive tactics (zero receptions on five targets), more teams are sure to employ similar strategies against the Pro Bowl wideout.

What he needs to work on: After Beckham's remarkable rookie season, he will be the focus of defensive game plans. Facing constant harassment and excessive contact at the end of plays, as well as rolled coverage with safety help over the top, Beckham must keep his composure and work with his coaches to build a better plan to handle the different ways opponents will challenge him. Beckham will get a chance to work on his game and chemistry against a stout Jets defense in Week 3, and I want to see how the 22-year-old bounces back.

Philadelphia Eagles: Walter Thurmond, FS


Strengths: Thurmond is an instinctive playmaker with a strong nose for the ball. He brings cover corner-like skills to the position, and he's versatile enough to drop down into the slot to man the nickel corner role. Thurmond exhibited his ball skills and awareness Saturday when he picked off Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco on a deflected deep ball in the end zone. The play showcased Thurmond's playmaking skills as an "MOF" (middle of field) rover.

Weaknesses: Thurmond's size and speed deficiencies could prove problematic at free safety. He will need to come downhill to hit runners in the hole while also roaming from numbers to numbers and eliminating deep balls over the top of the defense. Despite coming down with that spectacular interception, Thurmond was slightly out of position on the play and was fortunate to snag the ball on the deflection. Thurmond must do a better job playing over the top of deep throws in the future.

What he needs to work on: Thurmond needs to work on his angles and range as a deep-middle player. He must make sure that he is capable of eliminating the deep throws between the numbers and protecting his cornerbacks on vertical routes. With a matchup against the Packers on tap in Week 3, Thurmond will have a chance to work on his deep-ball skills against the top quarterback in the NFL.

Washington Redskins: Brandon Scherff, OG


Strengths: Scherff is a gritty mauler/brawler in the trenches. He is a rugged run blocker adept at moving defenders off the ball. Although he needs to watch his hands and avoid clutching jerseys on the shoulder (it's acceptable to grab and hold onto the chest plate), Scherff is a solid road-grader at the point of attack.

Weaknesses: Scherff struggled mightily in pass protection against the Lions' first-teamers last Thursday. He lacks the movement skills to shadow quick defensive tackles at the line, and he failed to anchor against power rushers intent on overwhelming him (see: Tyrunn Walker's sack in the first quarter). Scherff's inability to hold up in pass protection prompted the team to move him inside to guard, to limit his exposure to speed and quickness, yet he continues to struggle keeping defenders off the quarterback.

What he needs to work on: Scherff must make significant improvements as a pass protector to earn the trust of Robert Griffin III. The veteran signal caller has been under siege throughout the preseason; he must receive better protection in the pocket to have an opportunity to develop as a passer. Scherff has been part of the problem to this point. Now the Redskins will want to see if he can be part of the solution in Baltimore this weekend.


Chicago Bears: Jeremy Langford, RB


Strengths: Langford is a shifty, downhill runner with outstanding balance and body control. He eludes and evades tacklers in traffic, but he also flashes the strength to run through contact in the hole (see: this impressive touchdown run against the Colts on Saturday). With Langford also showing outstanding vision and awareness in the open field, as he displayed on a 46-yard run in the third quarter, the Bears appear to have a home-run hitter in the stable.

Weaknesses: For all of Langford's explosiveness and big-play ability, questions persist as to whether he can carry the load as a workhorse back. Although he finished Saturday night with nine carries for 80 yards, for his long-term prospects, Langford has to show the coaches he can handle 20-plus carries in a contest. (Matt Forte's clearly the bell-cow back in Chicago this season, but he's turning 30 in December and won't last forever.) Despite putting together a six-carry sequence during the Bears' scoring drive in the third quarter, the fact that he subbed out following a long run could lead to concerns about his overall stamina.

What he needs to work on: Langford has caught the eyes of coaches and scouts, but he still has some work to do to carve out a role on the team. He must continue to excel on the kicking teams (Langford has played well on the punt and kickoff coverage units) while also shining as a change-of-pace back for the Bears. If he can keep up the stellar play in Cincy this weekend, Langford could earn a spot on the 46-man active list when the team suits up in the regular season.

Detroit Lions: Laken Tomlinson, OG


Strengths: Tomlinson is a gritty blocker with strong hands and a powerful punch. He moves defenders off the ball in the run game, yet he also possesses the strength to anchor against power rushers in pass protection. He dominated Redskins' defenders for most of Thursday's contest, exhibiting the kind of power that should make him a solid run blocker down the line.

Weaknesses: Tomlinson has limited athleticism and range in pass protection. Ricky Jean Francois slipped past him for a sack when Tomlinson stopped his feet and tipped over while engaging in hand-to-hand contact. Of course, Jean Francois's maneuver was a perfectly executed technique by a veteran defender. Still, Tomlinson needs to work on playing with good balance and body control in tight spaces.

What he needs to work on: Tomlinson has been impressive as a first-year pro throughout the preseason. He has been a rock-solid run blocker and pretty effective in pass protection. Against the Jaguars in Week 3, Tomlinson needs to show better body control battling defenders at the point of attack in pass protection. If he can continue to make strides in that area, Jim Caldwell will feel better about inserting him into the lineup as an interior protector for Matthew Stafford.

Green Bay Packers: Jeff Janis, WR


Strengths: Janis is an explosive athlete with exceptional speed, quickness and leaping ability. He has the ability the blow the top off the defense with his burst and acceleration, yet he also shows improving skills as an intermediate route runner.

Weaknesses: Janis is an inconsistent pass catcher with questionable hands and ball skills. Against the Steelers on Sunday, he had a drop on an easy throw and failed to keep his feet in-bounds on a 50-50 ball. Additionally, Janis didn't flash returning kicks (one return for 15 yards) and badly misjudged a punt, nearly costing the Packers a possession in the process.

What he needs to work on: With Jordy Nelson sidelined for the season, the Packers are counting on the second-year pro to fill an important role in the passing game (Janis ran with the 1's after Nelson's injury). Janis must display better consistency as a route runner and pass catcher to become a viable option for Aaron Rodgers on the perimeter. Most crucially, he needs to exhibit big-play ability when he gets his hands on the ball in the open. Given the catch-and-run nature of the Packers' passing game, it is important for Janis to flash against the Eagles in Week 3.

Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, QB


Strengths: Bridgewater is quickly developing into one of the premier quick-rhythm passers in the NFL. He is a decisive playmaker adept at swiftly getting the ball out of his hands and into the clutches of his playmakers on the perimeter. Bridgewater's efficient work from the pocket leads to few negative plays in the passing game. He keeps the offense on schedule by making sound decisions with the ball on early downs. With Bridgewater showing a deft touch -- as evidenced by his pinpoint pass to Charles Johnson on a fade pattern from the slot that resulted in a 10-yard score -- the Vikings' passing game could complement a powerful running game featuring Adrian Peterson.

Weaknesses: Bridgewater still needs to work on his ball placement and accuracy on intermediate and deep throws. He missed an open Kyle Rudolph on a crossing route in the opening drive, which should've been akin to a layup for the second-year pro.

What he needs to work on: It's easy to nitpick when evaluating quarterbacks, but Bridgewater raised expectations when he finished last season with a series of strong performances. He needs to continue to play efficiently from the pocket while adding the deep ball to the mix. Although he has picked apart defenses with quick-rhythm throws throughout the preseason, Bridgewater has to connect on vertical throws to punish opponents for crowding the line in an effort to stop the Vikings' potent ground attack.


Atlanta Falcons: Vic Beasley, DE


Strengths: Beasley displays rare first-step quickness and snap-count anticipation off the edge. He exhibits cat-like agility off the ball -- and he quickly turns that speed into power when he engages with blockers. Beasley's athleticism and burst gave Jets left tackle D'Brickashaw Ferguson problems on passing downs Friday night, which is exactly what the Falcons expect from the rookie pass rusher.

Weaknesses: Beasley remains a work in progress as a run defender. He has a tendency to overrun the play at times, and he lacks the strength to consistently set the edge. Although he crashed hard on an inside run in the first quarter on Friday, Beasley has to be a bigger threat against the run to become an every-down player for Atlanta down the road.

What he needs to work on: Beasley must continue to balance out his game to become a complete player for the Falcons. Although he is already penciled in as a designated pass rusher, he needs to show that the can effectively drop into coverage and play against the run to be a three-down player for Dan Quinn. He has shown those skills in spurts, but needs to demonstrate more consistency.

Carolina Panthers: Corey Brown, WR


Strengths: Brown is a big-play receiver with fantastic speed and quickness. He is a bit of a straight-line playmaker, but his acceleration and burst make him a dangerous deep threat on the perimeter. Brown has shown the ability to win on vertical routes against one-on-one coverage, giving the Panthers a potential home-run hitter in what is clearly a run-heavy offense.

Weaknesses: Brown's inconsistent hands and ball skills are problematic for a team in need of a WR1 following Kelvin Benjamin's season-ending injury. Brown dropped a pair of passes against the Dolphins on Saturday, including a potential big-play touchdown -- that suggests he is not quite ready for a bigger role in the offense.

What he needs to work on: Brown has to become a consistent threat on the perimeter for the Panthers. He is the most explosive pass catcher on the roster; Cam Newton developed a rapport with Brown down the stretch last season that helped energize the passing game. If Brown is going to win a starting job, he must catch the ball consistently and make a handful of plays vs. New England in Week 3 to alleviate any concerns about his ability to be the team's designated deep threat.

New Orleans Saints: Brandin Cooks, WR


Strengths: It's hard to find an explosive playmaker with superb route-running skills, but Cooks is looking like the total package in his second NFL season. He blows past defenders on vertical routes, as evidenced by his 45-yard touchdown on a crafty post, but also displays the savvy to win on a host of short and intermediate routes. Cooks is nearly indefensible in one-on-one matchups, which is why he is a potential star in the Saints' revamped passing game.

Weaknesses: Cooks lacks the size to act as a prototypical WR1 in most offenses. He could struggle winning 50-50 balls against tall cornerbacks; quarterback Drew Brees could have a tougher time finding him between the hashes with big bodies roaming around. It hasn't been an issue during the preseason, but it is something to watch when the regular season kicks off and teams pay closer attention to Cooks' whereabouts.

What he needs to work on: Cooks needs to continue building off the momentum created by his four-catch, 117-yard outing against the Patriots last Saturday. The Saints are feeling better about his chances of anchoring the passing game, and he is starting to gain confidence as the team's WR1. If he can put together another strong showing in the team's dress rehearsal vs. Houston on Sunday, Sean Payton will have more confidence in scripting a game plan around Cooks' talents.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jameis Winston, QB


Strengths: Winston is a strong-armed passer with outstanding arm talent. He capably makes every throw in the book with zip and velocity, yet he also shows the ability to throw with touch between the hashes. Winston complements those traits by throwing with impeccable timing and anticipation, as evidenced Monday night by his 22-yard toss to Russell Shepard on a seam route. He also hit Vincent Jackson on a crossing route that required him to throw the ball to a spot downfield in the void of the zone. Given the importance of timing and accuracy, Winston's willingness to let the ball go prior to the receiver's break says a lot about his confidence as a passer.

Weaknesses: Winston still struggles with his footwork and mechanics in the pocket. Although his arm talent overshadows the sloppy footwork, he will become more accurate with his ball placement when he ties his feet to his eyes on his drops.

What he needs to work on: Winston must continue to improve his attention to detail within the pocket. From his basic mechanics to his post-snap reads, Winston can make the game easier by mastering the fundamentals. He took a major step in Week 2, but he needs to continue improving his basic QB skills in the Buccaneers' next contest (against the Browns on Saturday).


Arizona Cardinals: D.J. Humphries, OT


Strengths: Humphries is a talented athlete with impressive physical tools. He possesses the length that scouts covet in a franchise-caliber tackle and displays the agility to shadow pass rushers on the edges. When he is locked in and focused, Humphries can dominate at the point of attack as a run or pass blocker.

Weaknesses: Humphries is maddeningly inconsistent with his technique and focus. He doesn't bring the energy and effort on every snap, leading to breakdowns and miscues in pass protection. His lack of effort and fight in Saturday's game enabled several Chargers defenders to drive him back into the quarterback on pass plays.

What he needs to work on: Humphries has to step up his game in several aspects. He needs to master his assignments and refine his technique at the line. Most importantly, Humphries needs to show better fight and consistently compete against rushers on the edge. While he will certainly experience growing pains as a rookie, the first-rounder has to show coaches that he will battle.

St. Louis Rams: Lamarcus Joyner, CB


Strengths: Joyner is feisty cover corner with impressive instincts, awareness and movement skills. He is an ideal sub-corner with a versatile set of skills that allows him to play multiple spots in the secondary. Additionally, Joyner displays the toughness and physicality to drill receivers and runners on the edge. He made a nice stop on Titans RB David Cobb in the backfield on Sunday, exhibiting anticipation, awareness and toughness making the TFL (tackle for loss) near the Rams' goal line.

Weaknesses: Joyner's size is a major concern when examining his prospects as a starter. Checking in at 5-foot-8 and 184 pounds, Joyner was at a significant disadvantage when matching up with Dorial Green-Beckham (6-5, 237) on the perimeter. Joyner always competes, but the size disparity is tough to overcome on 50-50 balls down the boundary.

What he needs to work on: Joyner must earn the confidence of Rams coaches by being in the right spot at the right time in coverage. His discipline and awareness are critical to playing solid coverage in the back end. He must continue to play his assignments with energy and effort to make plays on balls headed in his direction.

San Francisco 49ers: Jarryd Hayne, RB/PR


Strengths: The Australian rugby star has been a pleasant surprise for the 49ers as an electric punt returner and backup runner. He shows outstanding hands and ball skills snagging punts, including an over-the-shoulder circus catch that turned into a 27-yard return. Hayne also had 34- and 23-yard punt returns against the Cowboys on Sunday, exhibiting sneaky quickness and explosive power weaving through traffic. With the 27-year-old also tallying 54 rushing yards on eight carries, the rookie is making a positive impression as a two-phase player.

Weaknesses: Despite Hayne's impressive production as a runner, he must show coaches that he can be trusted in pass protection. Hayne must identify potential rushers and stone linebackers at the edge of the pocket.

What he needs to work on: Hayne is squarely in the mix to make the 49ers' roster as a returner/runner. He shows special skills as a playmaker in the kicking game, which could make him irreplaceable on cut day. If he continues to impress as a returner at Denver in Week 3, the Aussie could crack the opening-day roster as a specialist.

Seattle Seahawks: Dion Bailey, S


Strengths: With Pro Bowl safety Kam Chancellor holding out, Bailey is working with the starting defense. He is a spirited hitter with range, instincts and anticipation. He has flashed big-play ability as an "MOF" (middle of the field) enforcer; Bailey's presence between the hashes could discourage receivers from venturing over the middle. He is an active player near the box and his skills as a run stopper give the Seahawks an extra defender to utilize on eight-man fronts. Most importantly, Bailey is a sure tackler in the open field, as evidenced in Friday night's game in Kansas City.

Weaknesses: If Chancellor's holdout continues into the regular season, Bailey will have enormous shoes to fill. Despite his solid performance throughout the preseason, Bailey's limited game reps could lead to mental errors when the real bullets start flying in September.

What he needs to work on: Bailey has earned the trust of his teammates and coaches through his steady development. He appears ready to take on a bigger role, and he could earn that right by putting on a solid showing at San Diego in Week 3. If Bailey continues to get around the ball on short and intermediate throws while acting as an enforcer against the run, he could walk out of the tunnel as the Seahawks' starter when the regular season begins.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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