Sports Pulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Lindsay H. Jones is on site at Raiders camp and tells us how Oakland’s new running back is fitting in with his new team.
USA TODAY Sports
The NFL’s preseason is more than just a stage for quarterback competitions.
After highlighting the notable passers with something to prove, we also took a look at players in other positions who will be closely monitored in the second set of exhibition games.
Here are 10 non-quarterback players in the spotlight this week:
Jaylon Smith, LB, Dallas Cowboys
The former second-round pick’s year-plus wait appears to be over after a knee injury in his final game at Notre Dame left him with nerve damage and significant questions about his future. Smith is set to make his NFL debut Saturday against the Indianapolis Colts, though executive vice president Stephen Jones said the team will have him on a “pitch count.” This is the start of what could be an extended process as Smith re-establishes his on-field instincts, but he could be an important asset on a Cowboys defense with a dearth of playmakers.
Sammy Watkins, WR, Los Angeles Rams
Just eight days after a stunning trade by the Buffalo Bills sent the fourth-year wide receiver across the country, Watkins will get his first in-game run with his new Rams teammates Saturday against the Oakland Raiders. The former No. 4 overall pick gives Los Angeles the outside threat it sorely needed, but Watkins has a lot of ground to make up before the regular season. Beyond learning Sean McVay’s offense, he’ll have to establish timing and trust with quarterback Jared Goff, who relied heavily on checkdowns last year.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
The most important offseason addition for Philadelphia’s offense was sidelined by a shoulder injury for the preseason opener, but he should see limited action Thursday against the Buffalo Bills. It might be difficult to judge Jeffery’s impact during the preseason, but he brings a downfield threat to an attack that cratered without one down the stretch last season. Cornerback Ronald Darby also could square off against his former team after being traded last Friday.
Roberto Aguayo, K, Chicago Bears
It’s rare for a kicker to elicit the attention of the entire league, but few can match the early-career trajectory of Aguayo. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers waived their second-round pick just one year after drafting him, and now he’ll get a fresh start after being claimed by the Bears. If he is to beat out Connor Barth, who was released by the Buccaneers in 2016 after they drafted Aguayo, a solid performance Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals could be an important first step.
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T.J. Watt, LB, Pittsburgh Steelers
Although he was a first-round pick this April, the younger brother of Houston Texans defensive end J.J. Watt once looked slated to max out as a rotational contributor as a rookie. But after recording two sacks, a hit and a pass deflection in his preseason debut, Watt is now on track for a starting job opposite Bud Dupree, with Steelers outside linebackers coach Joey Porter saying James Harrison would likely take on a “relief pitcher” role. Superseding one of the most popular players in recent franchise history will spike expectations for Watt, and fans will be hungry for more when he takes on the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday.
Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions
Training camp hype translated to preseason production for the touted third-round rookie, who hauled in two touchdowns in the opener against the Indianapolis Colts. Ahead of Saturday’s showdown with the New York Jets, Golladay worked with the first-team offense as Golden Tate slid to the slot. Targets could be difficult to come by in Detroit’s offense, but Golladay offers such value in the red zones and on jump balls that he may be difficult to keep sidelined.
Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals
It remains unclear when first-round pick John Ross will see his first action, but Mixon is the clear focus of Cincinnati’s rookie class. The second-round pick looked fluid and comfortable last week in picking up 42 total yards against the Buccaneers. If he continues to look comfortable Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs, he should be on track for a significant role within Cincinnati’s offense to start the regular season.
Darren McFadden, RB, Cowboys
A 30-year-old running back not on the roster bubble seldom finds his every move tracked closely in the preseason, but that’s where McFadden finds himself amid the uncertainty regarding Ezekiel Elliott’s six-game suspension. Though Dak Prescott and others will be counted on to pick up the slack if Elliott misses time, McFadden will be the central figure in keeping the running game on track. McFadden finished fourth in the NFL in rushing in 2015 with 1,089 yards despite shaky quarterback play, but many will be watching him Saturday against the Colts to see if he’s capable of handling a starting workload again.
Vernon Hargreaves, CB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Dirk Koetter demanded last year’s No. 11 overall pick be more aggressive after a rookie season in which the cornerback recorded only one interception. The message appears to have been received, as Hargreaves had an impressive break on a goal line pick of Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton last week. Generating turnovers was a critical point in last season’s success for the Buccaneers, who finished tied for fourth with 17 interceptions, and the team will be counting on Hargreaves to continue making plays on the ball in Thursday’s contest against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
Jabrill Peppers, S, Cleveland Browns
No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett has earned the early plaudits out of Cleveland for so far measuring up to expectations, but he may not be the lone rookie to be an early contributor on defense. Peppers has impressed while filling in for injured safety Ibraheim Campbell, and coach Hue Jackson has said he’s “growing and getting better every day.” Viewed as something of a square peg when making his transition to the NFL, Peppers can bolster his case Monday against the New York Giants that the league might have focused too much on his positional fit and not enough on his overall ability
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
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