Preseason games are largely meaningless, but they can provide us with clues when it comes to usage, depth chart position, and performance quality after we sift through the trash. Cam Newton's 2011 preseason stats and ball movement were pathetic, but he stood tall in the pocket and didn't run when his first read was covered. Coming out of Auburn's read-option, run-first offense, that was a hidden, but promising sign. If you watched Jimmy Graham's 2011 preseason, you knew he was poised for an explosion. Graham was a fixture in New Orleans' first-team offense all August, and emerged as Drew Brees' favorite target when the real games began.
Each NFL team has at least one preseason game in the books. (The Cardinals and Saints have two.). I picked four quarterbacks, three running backs, three receivers, and two tight ends to review for this column. I watched and charted every snap they played and made observations.
Let's get to them:
Robert Griffin III, Redskins
Stats: 4-of-6 for 70 yards and a touchdown; one rush for no yards.
Recap: NFL.com charged Griffin with a fumble on a botched handoff, although the ball bounced off Evan Royster's belly and was clearly his running back's fault. Royster acknowledged as much after the game. Griffin played 13 snaps against the Bills, showing composure, not once leaving the pocket to scramble, and getting the football out quickly on pass plays. RG3 targeted Pierre Garcon four times, completing three. The fourth should have been good for a first-down pickup, but Garcon failed to drag his second foot in bounds along the left sideline. (On second thought, Garcon did get two feet down and the bad call was on the replacement refs.) Griffin also hooked up with Leonard Hankerson for a 12-yard gain. The two incompletions were the fault of others; the fundamental Garcon referee error and a drop by Niles Paul accounted for the only "missed" throws. Griffin's 20-yard touchdown to Garcon came on a nifty wide receiver screen.
Takeaways: The sample size was small and the game plan simplistic, but RG3 impressed most by doing everything right he's allegedly done wrong in camp. He didn't hold onto the ball too long once, and displayed accuracy and touch on short to intermediate throws. Griffin showed tremendous velocity on a 20-yard rocket ball to Garcon over the middle, after a play-action fake. I want to see more of Griffin, but this was a nice first impression. He looks ready to play in the NFL.
Jake Locker, Titans
Stats: 7-of-13 for 80 yards; no rushes.
Recap: Matt Hasselbeck completed 5-of-9 attempts for 45 yards and two interceptions. Hasselbeck didn't play as poorly as the box score suggests, but the Titans left their first-team offense in for Locker's first series, getting him action with the starters. All in all, Locker played 17 snaps. Locker's ball placement can be erratic, but he continued to demonstrate impressive zip on intermediate throws, hooking up with Kendall Wright for gains of 15, 14, and 18, as well as Marc Mariani for 13 yards. Two passes were dropped by receivers, one by blocking TE Craig Stevens and another by Chris Johnson. The Titans noticeably ran more empty-back sets with Locker in the game than they did with Hasselbeck, frequently sending four and five players into pass routes.
Takeaways: Locker earned the opportunity to start Tennessee's second exhibition game by avoiding turnovers in the opener, an area in which he's also outperformed Hasselbeck in camp. Whereas Locker has thrown just two interceptions in team drills, Hasselbeck has thrown eight, not including preseason stats. Locker brings more big-play potential to the offense because he has superior arm talent and athleticism. If Locker is also playing more efficiently, the starting job will be his.
Ryan Tannehill, Dolphins
Stats: 14-of-21 for 167 yards and a touchdown; one five-yard rush.
Recap: Tannehill relieved Matt Moore (7-of-12 for 79 yards and an interception) after two possessions in Miami's preseason opener. Albeit against Bucs backups, the rookie was terrific on 27 snaps. He stood coolly in the eye of the storm, not reacting to pressure and easing calmly through his progressions. Perhaps most impressively, Tannehill elevated the performance of his teammates, consistently giving Julius Pruitt, Roberto Wallace, and Charles Clay considerable run-after-catch opportunities. Tannehill would have had a second touchdown if not for official overturn of his seven-yard scoring pass to Wallace, made on a missile throw between three defenders.
Takeaways: Tannehill has a big arm and big-time athleticism, and the big leagues aren't too big for him, if the exhibition opener was any indication. He made Pruitt look like a slot machine inside the numbers, and Clay look like Antonio Gates down the seam. It's only a matter of time before Tannehill ascends into the starting lineup. I think that will happen sooner rather than later.
Peyton Manning, Broncos
Stats: 4-of-7 for 44 yards and an interception; no rushes.
Recap: Manning played 11 snaps in Denver's preseason opener at Soldier Field. For a 36-year-old battling back from four neck surgeries, he looked pretty good. Manning put mustard on a third-and-17 pass to Eric Decker that went for a gain of 19, and his interception probably should have been handled by intended target Brandon Stokley, although the throw was a hair behind the Broncos' slot receiver. Manning got sound protection from his offensive line, but he did not challenge Chicago's defense deep. He targeted Decker twice and Jacob Tamme twice.
Takeaways: Manning showed that he can still rip it on throws to intermediate sections, and that's a positive sign. We still haven't seen him connect on vertical passes downfield. He had an 11-yard hookup with Demaryius Thomas called back by penalty, and later overshot Thomas in the back right corner of the end zone. Manning looked alright at Chicago. I still want to see more.