Here we are, the final preseason game just hours away, after which we can safely look ahead to the regular season in anticipation of Week 1. Believe it or not, some important battles still have to be settled heading into Week 4 of preseason NFL action, including a couple of quarterback competitions around the league.
Here are five players to keep an eye on Thursday night, as their performance could have significance that carries over into the regular season for each of the five teams listed below.
1. Nathan Peterman, QB, Buffalo Bills
With Tyrod Taylor still in the concussion protocol, Peterman is in line to start Week 1. The rookie has been adequate during preseason action, completing just 50 percent of his 68 passes for 372 yards and a touchdown with no interceptions. He’s a safe, conservative quarterback who will likely live in the short-intermediate areas of the field but won’t take a lot of unnecessary risks either. That’s what you want in a backup quarterback, but Peterman could be slated for a bigger role than that in Buffalo.
Taylor hasn’t been great this preseason, and the new regime drafted Peterman and would undoubtedly like to see what he offers at some point. That point could be sooner than expected if Peterman shows out in the fourth exhibition game and if he plays well should Taylor remain in the concussion protocol through Week 1. For the record, I believe Taylor to be a far superior quarterback to Peterman, but the Bills staff may not feel the same way, or may believe that Taylor’s abilities have taken Buffalo as far as they can and that the time could be ripe for a change.
2. Stephen Morris, QB, Indianapolis Colts
With Andrew Luck’s recovery from surgery to repair a torn labrum threatening to carry over into the regular season, it looks like either Scott Tolzien or Morris will be taking the snaps for the Colts Week 1. Morris has been the superior player this preseason, completing 70 percent of his 51 passes for 348 yards, a touchdown and zero interceptions. He has stretched the field when he needs to and shown the ability to maneuver the pocket and find new throwing lanes. Tolzien hasn’t been terrible, but Morris represents more upside and neither player has officially been named the starter yet. A strong performance by Morris to cap off an impressive preseason could be enough to vault him into the starting lineup for Week 1.
3. Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
Henry came into this offseason getting a lot of hype, as many believed he would wrestle away the starting job from DeMarco Murray. He has been largely unimpressive this preseason, despite ample opportunity to shine. Henry has managed just 89 yards on 33 carries for an average of 2.7 yards per carry in three games, stats which obviously deserve context, but aren’t suggesting a back that is maximizing his touches. If Henry still has a chance to earn playing time over Murray, Thursday night may be a crucial opportunity for the big back to put on a show against Kansas City.
4. Laremy Tunsil, OT, Miami Dolphins
Tunsil is making the move to left tackle this offseason, but despite his incredible tools and movement skills, he looked like a man who hadn’t worked on his craft much during last week’s contest against Philadelphia. This week Miami faces off against the Vikings, and while few starters will likely play, Minnesota’s depth at edge rusher will be a good challenge for Tunsil, who you’d imagine would get at least a couple of drives. Tunsil’s ability to play at a high level this season is absolutely crucial for Miami’s offense to succeed, especially when you consider the massive weakness at left guard next to him.
5. Ross Cockrell, CB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Cockrell was one of the Steelers’ most improved players last season, playing at a high level during the vast majority of the season. But the Steelers are looking to transition to more of a man-coverage scheme, and Cockrell has been absolutely obliterated on the field, both in camp and in preseason action. Despite limited playing time, Cockrell has been vertically torched and whipped off the line of scrimmage in the red zone, consistently showing weakness when asked to mirror opposing wide receivers on the outside.
Mike Tomlin had made it clear that Coty Sensabaugh and Cockrell were in a battle for the No. 2 cornerback spot opposite Artie Burns, but with the recent addition of Joe Haden, Cockrell will suddenly go from the guy who matched up against A.J. Green and Brandon Marshall last season to a guy fighting for his spot on the roster. Sensabaugh offers more as a special teamer, so Cockrell will have to prove that his struggles at corner were an aberration if he has any hope of clinging to a roster spot.