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NFC preseason player grades, Week 3: Aaron Donald rolls

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: Byron Jones, CB


Strengths: Jones is an athletic defender with excellent physical tools and versatile skills. The rookie is a rare defensive back with the footwork and movement skills to comfortably play outside (cornerback), yet he also displays the instincts, awareness and toughness to thrive between the hashes at either safety spot. The Cowboys are certainly tapping into the first-round pick's hybrid skills by using him at various positions (cornerback, nickel and free safety) to maximize his athleticism and ball skills. Against the Vikingson Saturday, he not only moved around to multiple positions in the back end, but he showed solid cover skills in one-on-one coverage and mixed it up in the run game as a willing tackler from the slot. Additionally, he crashed aggressively off the edge on a nickel blitz against a running play. He didn't make a splashy play, but his aggressiveness is a positive sign for a team that could employ the tactic down the road.

Weaknesses: The constant reshuffling prevents Jones from settling into one position and mastering the nuances of the spot. Thus, he remains a work in progress at each position, requiring a little more seasoning as a press corner (with regard to footwork and hand usage), nickel corner (understanding which leverage to use in each coverage) and free safety (anticipating throws as a deep middle defender).

What he needs to work on: Jones deserves a ton of credit for juggling multiple roles in the secondary. It is hard for a young player to bounce between various spots and understand the responsibilities of each position within the scheme. Yet, Jones has done it well and made solid contributions as a hybrid defender. In Week 4, Jones needs to continue to work on understanding the technical responsibilities of each position, particularly free safety and nickel corner, to prepare for a key role as a sub-defender when Dallas opens the regular season against the New York Giants.

New York Giants: Ereck Flowers, LT


Strengths: Flowers is an athletic mauler/brawler on the edge. The No. 9 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft aggressively moves defenders off the ball on running plays, providing a clear path for runners on inside or outside runs to his side. Although the Giants directed most of their runs to the right against the Jetson Saturday, Rashad Jennings' 12-yard run to the left in the second quarter showcased the success the team could find when running behind the young left tackle. In pass protection, Flowers is at his best when using a short set (quick setup with a strong two-hand shock) to slow rushers down off the edges. He possesses the length to get into rushers before they can get into their moves, nullifying their efforts early in the down. He routinely stifled Jets outside linebacker Trevor Reilly on pass downs with his aggressive approach at the line of scrimmage.

Weaknesses: Despite a solid outing against the Jets, Flowers needs to continue to work on his footwork and fundamentals in pass protection. He occasionally loses his balance against speedy rushers off the edge, leading him to grab or horse-collar defenders when they attempt to turn the corner. Additionally, Flowers must play with better leverage to handle bull rushes from power rushers and exhibit better awareness diagnosing stunts (the Jets notched a sack when Flowers didn't recognize or successfully pass off a stunt at the line). If Flowers doesn't work to improve his footwork on the edges, namely his kick-slide, he could struggle against the elite pass rushers in the NFC East.

What he needs to work on: Flowers is successfully transitioning to left tackle in the NFL despite possessing a game that is ideally suited for the right side. He held up pretty well against the Jets' vaunted defensive line, exhibiting outstanding strength and power in the running game.

Philadelphia Eagles: Tim Tebow, QB


Strengths: Tebow is a rugged dual-threat quarterback with a tenacious running style on the perimeter. The veteran lacks the speed and quickness to run away from defenders, but his superior strength and power allows him to run through arm tackles on designed QB runs and impromptu scrambles. Tebow was on the field for two attempted two-point conversions against the Packerson Saturday, running a QB power play on the first -- and while he didn't score, the fact that he bowled over a few defenders stood out.

Weaknesses: Tebow struggles to execute traditional dropback throws from the pocket. He also struggles to deliver the ball on time; the late reactions allow defenders to close quickly on the play. For instance, his timing was off on the Eagles' second failed two-point try on Saturday, allowing Packers cornerback Casey Heyward to step in front of intended receiver Nelson Agholor on the quick slant. The fact that Tebow -- who didn't get many opportunities to throw the ball in the fourth quarter -- fails to pull the trigger quickly on passing plays remains one of his biggest issues as a passer.

What he needs to work on: Tebow must throw the ball better to win the QB3 job. He needs to show coaches that he can make accurate throws to various areas of the field in a timely fashion. Thus, he needs to process information quickly and get the ball out of his hands when the read takes him to an open receiver. He has repeatedly struggled in this area throughout his career, but he must show signs of improvement in Week 4 to earn a roster spot. If Tebow is going to make the team as the designated two-point specialist, he needs to flash some electric playmaking skills with the ball and, unlike last Saturday, punch it in successfully against the Jets on Thursday to justify his value as a specialist.

Washington Redskins: Matt Jones, RB


Strengths: The rookie is a big, physical power back with outstanding vision, balance and body control. He consistently runs through arm tackles in the hole and shows impressive pop finishing runs in the secondary, as evidenced by his punishing runs against the Ravenson Saturday. The 6-foot-2, 231-pound Jones also displays nimble feet and impressive agility for a big back. He catches the ball well out of the backfield, displaying soft hands and adequate receiving skills (see: his 17-yard reception on a flat pass from Kirk Cousins). With a versatile set of skills that could make him a quality option as a third-down back, Jones could steal some minutes from starter Alfred Morris during the regular season.

Weaknesses: Jones is strong enough to take on rushers squarely, but the third-round pick is still mastering the art of pass blocking in the backfield. Young running backs routinely struggle with "double reads" in pass protection; how well Jones masters this tactic could determine whether he plays a significant role for the Redskins as a third-down back.

What he needs to work on: Jones has been one of the Redskins' top performers during the preseason. He has shown tremendous potential as a power runner, yet he also displays the receiving skills coaches covet in workhorse backs. Jones needs to finish off the preseason with a strong Week 4 performance that showcases his impressive skills as a "grinder" between the tackles. If he continues to run well and can make a few plays in the passing game, Jones could carve out a big role going forward.


Chicago Bears: Shea McClellin, LB


Strengths: McClellin is an energetic linebacker with adequate instincts and awareness. He is a sneaky athlete capable of making sideline-to-sideline plays when he quickly deciphers and processes information at the snap. He plays hard and gives tremendous "snap-to-whistle" effort when he is on the field.

Weaknesses: McClellin struggles mightily in pass coverage. He is uncomfortable in space and lacks the awareness to sort out route concepts on the move. Consequently, he is frequently out of position when quarterbacks attack the middle of the field, as we saw on Saturday, when the Bengals repeatedly attacked the Bears between the hashes in the void directly in front of or behind McClellin (see: AJ McCarron's 31-yard touchdown pass to Marvin Jones). With the fourth-year pro struggling to sort out receivers in his area, the Bears could have a tough time defending the pass-happy teams within the NFC North.

What he needs to work on: McClellin must improve dramatically in coverage. He needs to close down some of the windows between the hashes to prevent quarterbacks from targeting tight ends and receivers on an assortment of digs and crossing routes over the middle. Although he is a bit out of his element as a Mike linebacker (McClellin spent time at defensive end and outside linebacker early in his career), McClellin must play better in coverage, or he'll end up carrying a bull's eye on his chest.

Detroit Lions: Zach Zenner, RB


Strengths: Zenner is an instinctive runner with adequate vision, balance and body control. He runs well between the tackles, exhibiting surprising strength and power running through arm tackles at the point of attack. The rookie's 21-yard run against the Jaguarson Friday showcased his ability to spot creases and run through contact, which is why coaches should be excited about what he could bring as a backup and special-teams contributor.

Weaknesses: Zenner needs to be a consistent pass catcher out of the backfield. Though he entered Friday's contest as one of the Lions' top receivers, Zenner dropped an easy pass in the fourth quarter; the miscue could lead to some concerns about his dependability as a receiver.

What he needs to work on: Zenner is definitely making a strong push to secure a roster spot after a pair of solid performances in consecutive weeks, but he must put the cherry on top of the sundae with a brilliant showing in Week 4. The undrafted rookie needs to run with authority between the tackles to convince coaches he can handle the workload as a potential grinder. Most importantly, he must show strong hands and solid receiving skills in the passing game. With the Lions poised to throw it around behind Matthew Stafford, Zenner must be able to contribute in that area if he is to stick with the team.

Green Bay Packers: Brett Hundley, QB


Strengths: Hundley is an athletic playmaker with a strong arm and high football IQ. He quickly processes information at the line of scrimmage and rapidly distributes the ball to his receivers on the perimeter. Hundley's effectiveness as a quick-rhythm thrower fits the Packers' offense ideally, as evidenced by his pinpoint pass to Ty Montgomery on an under route against the Eagleson Saturday that netted a 52-yard gain. Hundley also displayed better-than-anticipated accuracy and ball placement on a series of throws during a two-minute drill at the end of the first half that culminated with a 36-yard scoring toss to Rajion Neal. In addition, Hundley flashed the ability to escape the pocket and make plays with his feet without taking a shot from a defender.

Weaknesses: Hundley entered the NFL as a fifth-round pick largely due to his accuracy issues and hesitancy in the pocket. During his tenure at UCLA, his failure to get the ball out of his hands quickly when his first read was covered led to a number of sacks. Despite making tremendous strides in this area during training camp, he needs to continue to quicken his process from snap to throw as a pocket passer. Hundley mostly avoided pressure, though he did take one sack Saturday, and his distribution speed remains an issue to watch in the preseason.

What he needs to work on: Hundley performed well in his first NFL start for the Packers in Week 3. He exhibited tremendous poise and confidence directing the offense and tossed the ball accurately to receivers at every level. Although Hundley will likely occupy the QB3 spot for the team, he can showcase his improvement as a decision maker with a strong effort in Week 4.

Minnesota Vikings: Teddy Bridgewater, QB


Strengths: Bridgewater is an exceptional pocket passer with superb touch and anticipation. He gets the ball out of his hands quickly and rarely forces the ball into traffic after diagnosing coverage. Bridgewater's willingness to hit the second and third option in the progression stretches the defense horizontally, leading to big-play opportunities when defenders jump short routes later in games. Against the Cowboyson Saturday, he showcased his excellent deep-ball skills with a teardrop to Mike Wallace down the sideline. With Bridgewater efficiently "connecting the dots" from the pocket, the Vikings' young star is looking like a franchise player heading into his second pro season.

Weaknesses: Bridgewater doesn't show elite arm strength. He pushes the ball downfield effectively by getting the ball "up and out" (releasing the ball early with a high arc to allow receivers to run under it, à la Peyton Manning). While he has been effective with his early release during the preseason, Bridgewater needs to sustain his deep-ball success to exploit defenses loading the box to stop Adrian Peterson.

What he needs to work on: Bridgewater will likely sit on the sidelines in Week 4, but he can continue to progress by diligently preparing in the film room and on the practice field. If he puts in the pregame work and assists the backup quarterbacks on the sidelines, Bridgewater will be ready to play when the regular season starts.


Atlanta Falcons: Tevin Coleman, RB


Strengths: Coleman is a dynamic straight-line runner with explosive speed and quickness, capable of going the distance from anywhere; he only needs a small crease to flip the field with an explosive run. Against the Dolphinson Saturday, Coleman couldn't find a crack at the point of attack, but his speed and explosiveness jumps off the tape when he moves around.

Weaknesses: The third-round pick lacks the lower-body strength and power to run through contact. He struggles breaking tackles in the hole; his inability to bounce off hits prevents him from picking up the hard yards up the gut. The Dolphins' defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage on Saturday, and Coleman's suspect power resulted in two minimal gains on the night for a total of 2 yards (on four carries).

What he needs to work on: Coleman needs to show toughness and fight with the ball in his hands in Week 4. He needs to have a better day against the Ravens than he did in Week 3 to show coaches he can handle the responsibility of being a feature back. If Coleman can pick up positive yards and run through a few arm tackles against a stout defense, the Falcons will feel better about Coleman playing a key role in the rotation.

Carolina Panthers: Shaq Thompson, LB


Strengths: Thompson is an ultra-athletic linebacker with sound instincts and awareness. The rookie has a knack for finding the ball as a sideline-to-sideline player, exhibiting good quickness and burst in pursuit. Additionally, Thompson is an active player in pass coverage, as evidenced by his "bang-bang" hits on Patriots players Jonathan Krause (since released) and Dion Lewis on short passes last Friday. With Thompson also showing better-than-anticipated tackling skills in the hole, the Panthers' undersized linebacker might be a perfect fit alongside Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis on the second level.

Weaknesses: The first-round pick lacks the size (6-0, 228 pounds) and strength to take on blockers squarely in the hole. He must slip or dodge lead blockers, which could result in open gaps in a defense predicated on proper "fits" (defenders assigned to designated holes) at the line of scrimmage.

What he needs to work on: If he suits up in Week 4, Thompson must continue to show physicality and toughness in his play. He is an instinctive playmaker with a feel for finding the ball, but he will need to work through traffic to create disruption for the Panthers as a rookie starter.

New Orleans Saints: Josh Hill, TE


Strengths: Hill is a sneaky athletic pass catcher with speed and crafty route-running skills. The third-year pro is capable of creating mismatches with his size-speed combination on the perimeter. Although he finished with just one catch for 5 yards against the Texanson Sunday, he nearly hauled in a touchdown on a cleverly designed red-zone play in the first quarter.

Weaknesses: Hill was expected to fill the void created by veteran Jimmy Graham's departure this offseason, but he lacks the special skills to demand extra attention from defensive coordinators. He failed to separate from defenders consistently on downfield routes (see: Drew Brees' red-zone incompletion) and he hasn't shown elite qualities as a playmaker on the perimeter. Hill is a capable TE2, but he lacks the "it" factor Graham provided in the passing game.

What he needs to work on: The buzz surrounding Hill prior to training camp raised expectations. However, he needs to provide a bigger presence in the passing game to upgrade the Saints' aerial attack. Hill must find a way to get open consistently against the Packers' backups in Week 4 to build up his confidence heading into the regular season.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Donovan Smith, LT


Strengths: Smith is an intriguing edge blocker with average athletic traits for the position. He is capable of winning on the edge with strong jams, but the rookie is at his best when he quickly gets into defenders at the point of attack. He flashes a sticky grip and is an adequate finisher on the edge.

Weaknesses: Smith struggled with speed and quickness off the edge on Saturday. The Browns' edge rushers repeatedly ran past the second-round pick on passing downs, leading to constant harassment of Jameis Winston in the pocket. Smith's questionable balance and body control was not only exposed in pass protection, but it showed up in his struggles in the run game. Smith failed to consistently finish on the second level, limiting the big-play opportunities for the Buccaneers' runners.

What he needs to work on: Smith must improve his recognition and awareness during the pre-snap phase. He needs to anticipate probable rushers in his area to improve his ability to lock onto the proper defender following the snap. Although he will see limited action in Week 4, Smith will benefit from extra repetitions in game action.


Arizona Cardinals: Brad Sowell, OT


Strengths: Sowell is a long, rangy edge blocker with decent blocking skills. The fourth-year pro flashes a decent punch and adequate body control, but wins with grit and guile over athleticism. Sowell's approach isn't always pretty, but he has been effective enough to crack the starting lineup for the Cardinals.

Weaknesses: Sowell struggles with speed, strength and power off the edge. He was overpowered by Raiders pass rusher Khalil Mack throughout Sunday's game, surrendering a pair of sacks in the second quarter. In addition, Sowell struggled creating a push in the running game, which prevented the Cardinals from picking up significant rush yards against a rugged Oakland defense. With Sowell unable to win in either phase, the Cardinals walked away with more questions than answers after Week 3.

What he needs to work on: Sowell must play better in Week 4 to earn the trust of the Cardinals' coaching staff prior to the regular-season opener. He needs to be stouter at the point of attack in pass protection and flash better strength in the run game. If Sowell struggles again, the Cardinals will need to find another option at right tackle.

St. Louis Rams: Aaron Donald, DT


Strengths: Donald is an absolute monster as an interior defender. He wrecks offensive schemes with his first-step quickness, agility and burst at the point of attack. In addition, the second-year pro is a strong run defender with the power and explosiveness to walk blockers into the backfield. Most importantly, Donald is a proven playmaker adept at creating disruption on inside plays. Against the Coltson Saturday, he showcased his immense talents as a run defender by notching three consecutive tackles in the second quarter. Donald takes those aforementioned traits and creates chaos as a pass rusher. He shows excellent snap-count anticipation, and he wins with speed, power or finesse on the interior. With Donald also displaying exceptional hand skills at the point of attack, the Rams have a dominant young defender to build around.

Weaknesses: It's hard to knock the 2014 Defensive Rookie of the Year after watching him dominate the Colts. He can improve his hand usage and leverage, but Donald is such a destructive player that he can overcome his technical flaws.

What he needs to work on: Donald likely will see a limited amount of snaps in Week 4, but coaches would still surely love to see him make a few splash plays. Coach Jeff Fisher would be thrilled to see Donald get into a groove and hit the ground running when the regular season opens.

San Francisco 49ers: Bruce Ellington, WR


Strengths: Ellington is a dynamic playmaker with speed, quickness and burst. The second-year pro has explosive stop-start acceleration in the open field, and he also flashes wiggle and body control in traffic. Ellington is a natural pass catcher with strong hands and outstanding ball skills. He easily snatches the ball in traffic and is a terrific runner in the open field. He finished Saturday night's contest with the Broncos with three receptions for 29 yards and drew a pass-interference penalty on a deep route that resulted in a first-and-goal at the Denver 9-yard line.

Weaknesses: Ellington's size (5-9, 197 pounds) could be an issue when it comes to his ability to be the 49ers' potential WR3; it could limit the quarterback's ability to spot him between the hashes. Other diminutive slot receivers have carved out big roles elsewhere, but Ellington has yet to make enough plays to become a primary weapon over the middle of the field. Granted, injuries have kept Ellington from getting on the field consistently, but he has to showcase his leaping ability to overcome his inferior size on the perimeter.

What he needs to work on: Ellington needs to continue to refine his route-running skills in Week 4 to become a factor as a WR3. He has entered the competition as a viable threat, but he needs to make more plays to convince coaches that he deserves the job.

Seattle Seahawks: Tyler Lockett, WR


Strengths: Lockett is an electric returner with exceptional speed, quickness and vision. He has a knack for spotting creases in the middle of the coverage team, resulting in a big gain when he has sufficient blocking at the point of attack. Lockett flashed outstanding vision and cutback skills on his 67-yard touchdown return against the Chargerson Saturday. He hit the seam with burst, yet displayed enough patience and awareness to slip to the back side when he sensed that the coverage team was out of position. Lockett is firmly established as a dangerous playmaker in the kicking game, and the Seahawks have upgraded their special teams with his insertion into the lineup.

Weaknesses: The Seahawks would love to get the rookie to work on his decisiveness in the open field. He needs to maintain his discipline as a north-south runner while continuing to push the envelope as a creative playmaker. Lockett has consistently delivered big plays in limited opportunities, but the challenge will increase when the regular season starts.

What he needs to work on: Lockett has already earned high praise for his return skills. He is dynamic and explosive with the ball in his hands; he can take distance from anywhere on the field when he spots a crease in the middle of the coverage team. Although Lockett will see limited action in Week 4, the rookie can build on his efforts.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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