Commentary

What we've learned so far

Mailbag: Injuries, quarterback races have defined first half of preseason

Originally Published: August 18, 2013
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

The NFL reached the halfway point of the preseason this week, and there was plenty of drama.

The New England Patriots got a scare when Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn drove tackle Nate Solder into Tom Brady's left leg. Injuries put starting bids by rookie quarterbacks EJ Manuel and Geno Smith on hold. Miami Dolphins tight end Dustin Keller suffered a horrible knee injury.

Coming up this week is the final dress rehearsal for teams in the preseason, with starters expected to play at least three quarters. Looking back, though, here is what we learned over the past week:

1. Kevin Kolb and Mark Sanchez are struggling to lock up starting jobs. Just when it appeared Buffalo found its starting quarterback in Manuel, the Bills' first-round choice needed a minor knee procedure that ended his preseason. Manuel is out two to four weeks, but he goes on a day-to-day evaluating status after the Bills' final preseason game. Kolb, meanwhile, has done little to show he's good enough to be the starter. He has two weeks to wrestle the job away from Manuel, who has clearly looked better in Doug Marrone's fast-paced offense. Smith's ankle injury opened the door for Sanchez to take control of the New York Jets' offense, but he was predictably inconsistent against the Jacksonville Jaguars on Saturday night. The competition remains open, but you still get the idea Rex Ryan would like Sanchez to open the season as the starter.

2. Blaine Gabbert, Brandon Weeden and Michael Vick are locking up starting jobs. After two years of struggles, Gabbert is stepping up and starting to claim Jacksonville's starting job over Chad Henne. Even though the Jaguars lost to the Jets 37-13, Gabbert moved the chains and looked confident as the starter. Weeden has grown tremendously under Cleveland Browns offensive coordinator Norv Turner. Weeden has been strong in back-to-back games. Turner praised his ability to get the ball downfield along with his accuracy. Vick admits he has fallen back in love with football in Chip Kelly's offense with the Philadelphia Eagles. Even though Nick Foles has moved the ball well, Vick is making faster decisions and getting the most out of the offense.

[+] EnlargeDustin Keller
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesThe Dolphins were counting on Dustin Keller to upgrade their production at tight end, but they'll have to go in a different direction.

3. The Keller injury is a serious blow to Miami's offense. Last year, nine of the 12 playoff teams had at least one 50-catch tight end. The three that didn't -- Seattle, San Francisco and Washington -- had great running games and mobile quarterbacks, which minimized the need for big numbers at tight end. But those three teams all had tight end threats. The Dolphins signed Keller with the idea of upgrading their pass-catching at tight end. Keller tore three knee ligaments and dislocated a kneecap Saturday night, and his loss for the season could dislocate the Dolphins from a playoff spot. Now, Miami is worse at tight end than it was a year ago when Anthony Fasano was the starter. Coming up with a 50-plus-catch tight end who can score five to eight touchdowns won't be easy.

4. Brady should be named the 2013 preseason MVP. In dual practices and preseason games against Philadelphia and Tampa Bay, Brady has been unstoppable. What's amazing is how quickly he's developing the Patriots' young pass-catchers. He's made undrafted receiver Kenbrell Thompkins and tight end Zach Sudfeld look like veterans. Thompkins jumped slightly ahead of second-round choice Aaron Dobson, and the Pats appear set to go into the season with three rookie receivers in their top five at the position.

5. There is no protection for pass-catchers this summer. Defenders are taught not to hit receivers high for fear of concussions. Texans safety D.J. Swearinger understood that rule and took out Keller low. It's been a brutal summer for receiver and tight end injuries. ACLs and Achilles tendons have been popping at an alarming rate.

6. A great story might have a sad ending. Atlanta Falcons linebacker Brian Banks didn't get on the field over the weekend, making you wonder if he's not going to make the team. His football career was delayed because he served five years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. Paul Worrilow, an undrafted linebacker, has moved ahead of Banks in the linebacker rotation and has made plenty of tackles during the first two games. Banks needs a comeback this week to make the team.

From the mailbag

Q: Why don't offensive linemen win awards like Offensive Rookie of the Year or Offensive Player of the Year or even MVP? I understand that there is a lack of easily measurable statistics like there are for the skill positions, but NFL experts can still evaluate a player's performance. Left tackle is one of the highest paid positions in the league. Obviously teams wouldn't give that much money to players they aren't able to effectively evaluate. I think the same goes for tight ends. Their contributions extend well beyond receptions and yards. If NFL experts can evaluate these players for their teams, why can't they do it for handing out awards?

Peter in New York

A: Not a bad suggestion. Many of the postseason awards are voted on by reporters. Prior to the past two years, getting access to tape to evaluate blockers wasn't easy. Now any reporter can watch and re-watch games and break down tape of blockers to determine who is good and who isn't good. With that in mind, it might not be a bad idea to consider some kind of offensive line award. Still, it is hard for a blocker to top a skilled offensive player such as a quarterback, halfback or wide receiver for many of the other honors. On the flip side, tight ends are getting respect. You can see it in their salaries. You can see it in voting.

Q: Is it possible that the NFL could use the Pro Bowl to both reward the players and reward the fans of the two cities being represented in the Super Bowl? I'm not the fan that feels like any of the pro leagues owe me anything. After all, you can only be a die-hard Lions fan by choice. But I do think it's a crime that we spend all year supporting our respective teams but when they reach the pinnacle (I just realized that the Lions are the only NFC team to not appear in the SB, so this may not apply to us) of all pro sports we're left out in the cold. So could the NFL meet us halfway? My suggestion is to still name Pro Bowl teams but instead of them playing head to head, maybe you reward military veterans, cops, firefighters, teachers, or any other deserving walk of life by sending them to Hawaii to be coached and trained by the respective players/coaching staffs chosen. Maybe you choose captains from the two cities represented in the Super Bowl and let them each "draft" 10 of the pros (a QB, a couple of skill positions, an OL or two, five on D) and fill out the rest of the rosters with the other amateurs chosen to play in the game. Allow three or four pros on the field at a time. Maybe you make it flag football to keep it as safe as possible. I don't know if people would watch it. I don't know if it would make for an aesthetically pleasing game. But I think it would be a great way to pay fans back for the variety of ways we support our teams and the sport as a whole. I know it's not a perfect plan, but what do you think about it?

Will in Detroit

A: The question is going to be viewership. Would anyone watch it? Would there be enough time for the military and other heroes to be coached up enough to draw an audience? There are enough complaints about the lack of time devoted by players to preparing for the regular season under the new collective bargaining agreement. Can the players coach them up in a week or two? All ideas to save the Pro Bowl should be on the table, but I don't know if the future of the Pro Bowl is bright.

Q: Why do we keep having to see headlines about Donovan McNabb talking about Robert Griffin III? His opinion seems misguided and resentful for how he left Washington and how his football life ended (many seem to agree with me). He seems to add nothing of value or possible insight, but rather ramblings about how RG III is not going about his business correctly and how he should be doing things. That the two don't talk on any level, as RG III made clear, leads me to believe that McNabb has no idea what RG III is doing or going through and therefore should focus on talking about things he can provide insight into, as he adds value to the game, just not on this matter.

Jacob in Cuiaba, Brazil

A: McNabb has an interesting perspective because he had a strained relationship with Redskins coach Mike Shanahan and won't hold back on his opinion. He has insight from the meeting rooms and from the field, but that doesn't mean you have to agree with it. McNabb can discuss what he thinks Griffin is going through. His is an educated opinion. But like all commentators, McNabb isn't just a one-topic person. He spends plenty of time talking about non-Griffin subjects. For what it's worth, I disagree with McNabb on how Shanahan has handled Griffin this summer. Shanahan made the right decision keeping him out of preseason games.

Q: Does Washington rookie safety Phillip Thomas' injury make Tanard Jackson's return more likely? Any idea on whether he'll be reinstated? Would the Redskins put him on the non-injury reserve?

Jon G. in Washington, D.C.

A: Jackson, who was suspended indefinitely last year for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, has to be cleared by the league before he can return. No one can guarantee that will happen. I kept hearing throughout the offseason he was getting closer to being reinstated. It hasn't happened yet. Jackson is on the suspended list, so he doesn't have to be classified. His salary doesn't count against the Redskins' salary cap. The longer he isn't reinstated, though, you'd have to figure at some point the Redskins would move on. For the moment, they haven't.

Q: I am emailing you because I feel there are not enough high-profile football matchups on a weekly basis. I mean, nobody cares to watch the Broncos play the Titans, but everyone will die to watch the Broncos play the Patriots. Why can't the NFL schedule elite teams to play twice a year? I feel it would be a lot more fair because each team would get one game at home, instead of the home team having a huge advantage toward also getting home advantage in the playoffs. Plus, the media and the fans can go nuts knowing they get to see classic matchups like Manning vs. Brady twice a year. I think it's an amazing idea!

Adam in Tucson, Ariz.

A: The schedule is designed to do that, but if a conference doesn't have enough "elite" teams, then it's hard to work out. As you know, teams within each division play 14 common games based on a predetermined rotation of divisions. That leaves two games in which a first-place team can match up against other first-place teams in the same conference. This year, for example, the 49ers play the Packers and the Redskins. Because of the salary cap, there might be a lack of elite teams; the AFC had only six teams with winning records last year. It may not be a perfect schedule, but it works and doesn't need to be changed.

Emmitt Smith
Tim Roberts/AFP/Getty ImagesEmmitt Smith was a starting running back for all 15 of his NFL seasons.

Q: Maybe I'm overthinking this, but as regards to running backs and receivers, it seems running backs' careers are getting shorter. We don't see too many Emmitt Smith types anymore. I figure durability is a big part of that; the game is faster and harder than it was back then. However, the league has become very pass-heavy, and the load isn't quite as big as it used to be for running backs. Yet, they seem to be having shorter careers while in a pass-heavy league receivers seem to be having full careers. This may be only isolated circumstances, but your thoughts?

Ryan in Indianapolis

A: Blame the salary cap. It's hard for any running back to get three contracts in this league. It's hard to get a second contract. Teams have found you can find good backs in the second, third, fourth or lower rounds and match them up with other backs to get a solid running game. Only five backs had 300-plus carries last year, and the number isn't expected to increase this year. The days of the workhorse back are ending. Once a back gets to 27 or 28 years old, teams feel as though he is entering the downward cycle of his careers. It's sad, but that's the reality.

Q: In the new Pro Bowl rules, leading teams have to gain a yard after the two-minute warning to keep the clock running. How about expanding this to the regular season and playoffs? It's being done in Arena Football and makes the end game much more exciting. Also, isn't taking a knee the weakest play in football and the cheapest way to win? If you want to run the clock out, you should have to run the clock out! Give defenses a chance to make a final stand.

Steve in San Jose, Calif.

A: I could see that helping if the NFL had problems with the closing of games. The NFL has enough good quarterbacks who can turn a scoring drive in 30 seconds. The ends of games are great now. Andrew Luck had seven fourth-quarter comebacks as a rookie. What more is needed?

Q: Chip Kelly and his offensive system has been one of the biggest headlines in the offseason. Many people are looking at this season as a rebuilding year in Philly with the hope that the Eagles will be contenders in a few years. Do you think the Eagles have a chance to have more success this year than in the following years based on catching the league by surprise before defensive coordinators will have more preparation in the upcoming years?

Sean in Philadelphia

A: From the looks of the offense, they should be OK. Whether it's Vick or Foles behind center, the offense should be able to move. The team has enough weapons to drive defenses crazy. It's their defense I worry about. I shouldn't overreact to seeing Brady shred the Eagles' secondary in dual workouts and a preseason game, but I am not sold on the pass rush and have serious questions about the pass coverage. That's my biggest worry this year.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer

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