Week 3 of the NFL preseason is "the dress rehearsal" for the regular season. It's the most interesting -- and most crucial -- game of August, for each and every NFL team. In fact, Week 3 features nine nationally televised games (including some of the contests spotlighted in this piece).
Thus, we have our first true "pressure cooker" of the 2016 campaign!
Here are the players with the most to prove this week, Schein Nine style:
1) Trevor Siemian, QB, Denver Broncos
Denver is rightly starting Siemian in the dress rehearsal. And Siemian has two attributes they don't test for at the NFL Scouting Combine:
Siemian spent all of last season learning coach Gary Kubiak's offense, while Sanchez was over in Philly as part of the Chip Kelly experience. And we all know how the Sanchez movie ends, anyway: with turnovers -- at soul-crushing times.
Just be steady, Trevor. Stay within yourself. And whatever you do, don't buttfumble. Earn the right to keep the seat warm for talented rookie Paxton Lynch. (Yes, I think the neophyte could take over this job by the end of September.) Prove that you're the guy to open up the season as quarterback of the defending Super Bowl champs.
2) Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas wisely kept Zeke in bubble wrap earlier this month after a mild hamstring injury. Now back at practice, Elliott is ready for his first game action as a Cowboy. The No. 4 overall pick has to prove he is ready to carry the load.
Touted as the most complete running back to enter the NFL in recent memory -- a true three-down guy who does everything from run to catch to pass block -- Elliott adds sizzle and explosiveness to Dallas. He gives a healthy Tony Romo the kind of offensive balance that should allow the Cowboys to hit double-digit wins again. Given the quarterback, the playmakers and the offensive line, the Cowboysmust be a juggernaut on offense. (Especially considering all the questions -- and suspensions -- this team faces on defense.)
3) Roberto Aguayo, K, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
OK, honestly, I loved the pick. I really did. It made sense. Bucs general manager Jason Licht worked the war room during the draft, made a series of trades and eventually took the most reliable kicker in NCAA history with a late second-round pick. The Bucs lost a fair amount of close games last year. I've argued the kicker is more important now than ever, given today's competitive balance, as well as the longer extra point.
But you gotta make kicks!!!
During his three seasons at Florida State, Aguayo never missed a kick -- field goal or extra point -- inside 40 yards. Yet, in two preseason games with the Bucs, he's missed two makeable field-goal attempts and an extra-point try. Suddenly, he can't even consistently make kicks in practice.
This is now a thing. That's not good. And we haven't even reached games that count!
4) Joe Flacco, QB, Baltimore Ravens
Heading into training camp, I wrote that Flacco's recovery from a season-ending injury was one of the most significant storylines in the league. After all, Flacco just tore up his knee nine months ago. Despite amazing advances in medicine over the last decade, the rehab timeline still put the start of the 2016 season in question for the franchise QB. But Flacco stayed in Baltimore all offseason and had an intense rehab regimen to make sure he was ready. It paid off with participation in training camp.
On Tuesday, Flacco joined my SiriusXM radio show, "Schein on Sports," and gave Ravens fans the news they wanted to hear: After not playing in the first two preseason games, Flacco is going to suit up and be under center on Saturday night. It's a huge deal.
Flacco needs to show, in game action, that he's really ready for the regular season. He needs to show it to the Ravens -- and to himself.
"You need to get back out there, you need to get your mind used to getting ready for a game," Flacco told me. "And then, yeah, I need to get over that last hurdle, which is going out there and being a live target for guys to hit and see how I react to it."
5) Jared Goff, QB, Los Angeles Rams
Just showing that he belongs on an NFL field is the first step. And then, eventually, he has to prove to be better than Keenum, right?
6) New York Giants' offensive line
We've heard plenty of chatter about Victor Cruz (who can't be relied upon) and the dearth of receiver depth in for the Giants. And yes, many folks have pointed out that the Giants lack a legit starting running back, as well. But here's one thing that's getting lost in the shuffle a bit: The Giants' offensive line was absolutely dreadful against Buffalo.
The unit couldn't pass protect. It couldn't open up holes in the ground game. It was a sieve.
Will it get better? Color me skeptical. Left tackle Ereck Flowers, the No. 9 overall pick in 2015, has yet to inspire much hope. And he's not alone there.
"The first-string offense wasn't very good, to put it politely," coach Ben McAdoo told the assembled media after the Bills game. "We had a lot of free runners at the point of attack, and they took it to us."
7) Dante Fowler Jr., DE, Jacksonville Jaguars
I'm very high on the Jaguars this year, and Fowler's return to health -- after missing his entire rookie season with a torn ACL -- is a big reason why. But after hearing rave reviews about his play early in training camp, we haven't seen him do much of anything this preseason.
I'm not pushing the panic button, but this is a highly pressured year in Jacksonville -- and Fowler is a crucial piece of coach Gus Bradley's defense. This is the No. 3 overall pick of the 2015 draft. Show us some of your worth in this nationally televised Sunday night affair.
8) Colin Kaepernick, QB, San Francisco 49ers
Now, I believe that Colin Kaepernick needs Chip Kelly, and Chip (who's had a nice, strong, drama-free first camp in San Francisco) needs Kap.
But is Kaepernick healthy? Does he know the playbook? Still have the arm? Athleticism? Prove it!
9) Carolina Panthers' rookie cornerbacks
Now, coach Ron Rivera and defensive coordinator Sean McDermott have done a brilliant job making do with what they have in the secondary for years -- thanks in large part to a spectacular front seven. But starting two rooks on the outside is risky business, to say the least. I think this represents a serious step back from last season's Norman-led group. Prove me wrong.