The fourth preseason game is quite often the worst of the bunch. Any confirmed regular-season starter is resting or playing such an insignificant role that it provides plenty of ammo to those who want to shorten the preseason altogether. But there is a hidden beauty in the finale. For example, a lot of teams experiment with blitzes and other play calls. The Jets, under former coach Rex Ryan, used to let all of their assistants leave the booth and roam the sideline.
More than that, though, the final preseason game is about players trying to hang on, make a statement or, for the first time in months, catch the eye of the coaching staff. That's why tonight's slate of games will have some tangible effect on your opening day roster for the 2015 season.
And that's why we're here to give you one player to watch from each matchup:
Niners running back and former rugby star Jarryd Hayne has done all the right things this preseason, including shutting the door on a rumor that suggested he'd already made the 49ers' 53-man roster. While it looks like he's well on his way, flashing more of his elusive footwork couldn't hurt against the Chargers.
The Falcons' running game has been abhorrent this preseason, then again, the preseason is a poor time of year to judge physicality. Still, we're billing Falcons third-round pick, running back Tevin Coleman, as our player to watch tonight if only because he can earn some significant time in the opener with a strong performance. The team is still playing it safe with projected starter Devonta Freeman (hamstring), which means Coleman could carry the load against a backup -- but still talented -- Dean Pees defense from Baltimore. At the moment, the Falcons are averaging less than two yards per carry this preseason, with the longest being a 12-yard scamper by Jerome Smith.
The Saints look like a team quietly building up the next generation of weapons for Drew Brees, at least that is what we've been led to believe throughout camp. One of those potential targets is Brandon Coleman, an undrafted free agent out of Rutgers back in 2014. Coleman ascended from the team's practice squad and ended up making a strong case for a 53-man spot during training camp this season, and at 6-foot-6, 220 pounds, he's hard to ignore. While Brees might not be throwing to him, Coleman still needs to find a way to dazzle.
Still not interested? How about watching veteran running back Tim Hightower try and make the roster (or someone else's). Hightower has made it back from the FXFL Florida Blacktips and, at 29, is trying to give it one more go.
If you traveled to the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, this year and knew nothing about college football, there were three players who would have immediately jolted you with their size, build or speed. One was Auburn's Sammie Coates, now a wide receiver with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Another was Browns first-round pick Danny Shelton. And one was Yale running back Tyler Varga, easily the most ripped prospect in Alabama that weekend.
But Varga, who is trying desperately to make the Colts' roster, is more than just muscles. The 5-foot-11, 225-pound back survived acute compartment syndrome and a torn peroneal tendon in high school, which nearly resulted in the loss of his leg. The Indianapolis Star has a great piece on it. If nothing else, he'll be able to string some carries together and make himself harder to cut with a more wide-open format to tonight's game.
While Dolphins quarterback Matt Moore is still the obvious choice to back up Ryan Tannehill this season, there's a small groundswell forming in support of Josh Freeman, who has managed to make the most out of his second chance with Miami. If nothing else, tonight will provide the former first-round pick with an excellent platform to audition for openings around the league. With such a pronounced shortage of quality players at the position, Freeman's raw talent still stands out. He was, after all, the architect of two really impressive seasons in Tampa Bay. That kind of talent just doesn't wash away.
We're tempted to just copy and paste Tim Tebow 100 times, because isn't that what everyone will take away from this? Chip Kelly has a fantastic battle for the third-string QB job brewing and it's drawing some curious eyes from around the league. Matt Barkley can be a legitimate No. 2 somewhere and will be if the Eagles decide to get rid of him or trade him. Tebow, on the other hand, remains a curiosity. His throwing motion has improved and his mechanics look better than ever. The problem, though, has always been parsing an NFL defense. If he can take a step in the right direction with some extended snaps tonight, how might that change the conversation?
Matt Simms is taking all the snaps at quarterback for Buffalo tonight, which is a more-than-generous parting gift from long-time supporter Rex Ryan. Simms could very well land a backup job somewhere. But our focus will be on the Bills running backs, a cadre of backups who will need to replace LeSean McCoy's production should he miss the first week of the NFL season. At the moment, it looks like Boobie Dixon,*Cierre Wood,*Bryce Brown and Bronson Hill will all get playing time. Can anyone separate themselves?
Giants head coach Tom Coughlin almost always plays his starters in the preseason finale, a controversial decision that has led to some injuries in the past. But his intentions are good, and he wants the Giants' offense to look like a professional NFL offense. Eli ManningandOdell Beckham have struggled a bit this preseason and with their defense resembling a timid matador throughout training camp, their relationship needs to be the edge that saves their season. Can Manning and Beckham dazzle in Foxborough?
The Michael Vick Show is back for a second performance. Vick was stellar in his first action as a Steeler and has a chance to lock up the No. 2 job and throw away the key on Thursday night against the Panthers. If nothing else, Vick is still a joy to watch when he's on, and at this point in his career, he might be having more fun than he ever has.
Let's just pretend you're not a Colt McCoy fanatic. The Jaguars' running back situation is actually pretty interesting considering how many quality contenders there are for a few spots. (Side note: Quality is a relative term here). One name to look out for? Bernard Pierce. Sandwiching himself into a rotation with Toby Gerhart, Denard Robinson and T.J. Yeldon might not be easy, especially with fellow rookie Corey Grant getting in the mix as well. But Pierce, like a lot of veterans tonight, might just be looking to put some film out there.
All eyes will be on Browns quarterback-turned-receiver Terrelle Pryor tonight and it's not even close. The former Ohio State star has ideal size and speed for the position, and started out camp looking like a natural. Since then, some minor injuries have hampered the process. Pryor said he's at about 70 percent heading into his only live action this summer. Will it be enough to get him on the roster? Overwhelmingly, this is looking like a "no," but stranger things have happened in this finale. If nothing else, he should get ample playing time to make his case.
Texans cornerback Charles James endeared himself to a new fan base after his story -- one I was privileged enough to write for The Star-Ledger a few years back -- was told on Hard Knocks. During his time with the New York Giants, he was one of the team's most beloved players and his release sparked some outrage from the more tenured members of Tom Coughlin's secondary. Tonight, he will get the chance of a lifetime one more time: Houston has six cornerbacks potentially slated ahead of James on the depth chart. Can he outplay one of them and realize his dream of becoming an everyday NFL player?
The Chiefs extended undrafted free agent Tyler Bray on Thursday morning, and although he won't be healthy enough to have an immediate impact on Kansas City's roster, it does make us wonder what, exactly, Andy Reid is trying to do with his backup situation. Chase Daniel signed a fairly hefty backup deal and Aaron Murray was a fifth-round pick in 2014. Daniel has one of the highest hits among NFL backups, and after Thursday night, the market for quality spot-starter talent will start buzzing again. This could be nothing more than Reid pushing for depth to fortify a typically fickle position, but it will be interesting to see how he rotates his backups and who will play.
Marcus Mariota will be taking snaps, and even if there are just a few, they will be worth watching. The Titans have been pushing for consistency and Mariota has delivered for the most part. Ending on a high note is always important and, as we mentioned above, is the reason why Coughlin likes to play his starters through the finale. Titans head coach Ken Whisenhunt feels the same way.
Look no further than Montee Ball, the maligned former second-round pick who has not been happy with his preseason workload. Against the Cardinals, Ball could see regular-season starting minutes and a regular-season workload. While it might not increase his regular-season time right away -- or his fantasy value, as I'm sure so many have wondered -- this will be a good chance to show the Broncos that he has internalized a lot of their concerns and made a valid effort to get better.