Six months after the Seahawks dismantled the Broncos in the Super Bowl, we finally have games. Yes, they may be of the preseason variety, but they’re sweet, beautiful games nonetheless. Although the exhibition season can be wholly meaningless for some — Adrian Peterson can spend August waxing his Maserati — it means everything for others. It may not count in the standings, but the preseason can help prove you’re over an injury-ruined campaign, or ready to climb the next rung of the depth chart. Going team by team, here are 32 players worth keeping an extra eye on this summer.
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Eagles, Zach Ertz: We know Ertz is going to be a bigger part of the offense as a sophomore. The only question is, how much bigger? Coach Chip Kelly is on the record as expecting a second-year leap, but Ertz’s blocking could be a key factor. If he can prove it’s improved in August, he’ll rarely come off the field in September.
Cowboys, Gavin Escobar: A second-round dud as a rookie, Escobar spent the offseason bulking up in a bid to become a better blocker. A 6-foot-6 mismatch with soft hands, the Cowboys are determined to get Escobar more involved, and have been splitting him out wide in training camp. At the very least, a strong preseason could earn Escobar early-season looks in the red zone.
Giants, Andre Williams: Operating as the Giants’ goal-line back since the early days of camp, Williams should secure the role for the regular season as long as he can build on his impressive performance in the Hall-of-Fame game (7/48/1). Williams has serious vulture upside behind 29-year-old starter Rashad Jennings.
Redskins, Robert Griffin III: The “eye test” has (rightfully) lost its luster in sports evaluation, but it will be all important for RGIII this August. Will he look like the lightning bolt he was as a rookie, or the tentative nightmare he was as he rushed back from injury as a sophomore? The answer should go a long way toward forecasting his fantasy value.
Packers, Davante Adams: The No. 53 pick of May’s draft begins his rookie year at No. 4 on the depth chart, but could put serious heat on Jarrett Boykin for No. 3 duties with an impressive preseason. Adams offers PPR upside as a possession receiver with big-time YAC ability. He’s already worth a flier in 14-team leagues.
Bears, Ka'Deem Carey: Matt Forte has been durable throughout his six-year career, but missed four games with a knee injury in 2011, and one with an ankle ailment in 2012. Now 28, Forte is coming off his biggest workload since his rookie year. In other words, he’s a player who might need some spelling this season. Carey will be the one to do it provided he makes his expected pass of Shaun Draughn and Michael Ford on the depth chart.
Lions, Theo Riddick: Buzzed about all offseason, Riddick nevertheless opened camp behind Mikel Leshoure on the depth chart. No one expects that to hold, but the implication is clear: Riddick has to prove his pad-less practice wizardry translates to the playing field. If it does, he’ll be a player worth aggressively targeting in Dynasty leagues.
Vikings, Teddy Bridgewater: With Bridgewater, it’s simple: Show the coaches what they’re looking for in August, and he’ll be starting in September. What OC Norv Turner is looking for is decisiveness. No one wants to start Matt Cassel if they don’t have to.
Saints, Nick Toon: Toon spent the offseason running past defenders in shorts and T-shirts. That’s good, because he didn’t do much of anything in pads as a sophomore. The No. 122 pick of the 2012 draft, Toon missed his entire rookie year with a foot injury. Toon is in the driver’s seat for No. 4 duties behind Marques Colston, Brandin Cooks and Kenny Stills, but won’t have the job handed to him. He has to earn it on the exhibition field.
Panthers, Kelvin Benjamin: Benjamin’s practice reports have been breathless, with one even declaring he hasn’t dropped a ball all camp. That’s great, but won’t mean anything if he starts muffing passes in the preseason the way he did as a redshirt sophomore at Florida State. Benjamin is ticketed for a big role regardless, but it could be massive if he lights up exhibition action.
Falcons, Devonta Freeman: Ideally, Freeman would open the year as part of a committee, doing a Shane Vereen or Darren Sproles impression (emphasis on impression). But with Steven Jackson battling yet another leg injury, Freeman has a shot at a much bigger role. It’s one the Falcons will feel more comfortable with if Freeman shows well in August, particularly as a pass protector (he was an able one at Florida State). Jacquizz Rodgers is in a failed state, while Antone Smith is a change-of-pace back. Touches are there for the taking for Freeman.
Bucs, Doug Martin: You could argue the answer is actually Charles Sims, but Sims’ role as a pass protector and catcher already seems set in stone. The question is how firm Martin’s grip is on early downs. The answer should be “very” provided he impresses his new coaching staff in exhibition action.
Seahawks, Christine Michael: Michael has been a practice darling for so long that it can be hard to remember this is only his second season. Although most signs point toward an expanded role for Michael as a sophomore, Marshawn Lynch’s recent $1.5 million raise is an indication he’s going to remain among the league leaders in carries. Michael’s preseason prowess could directly affect how many touches he’s allowed to siphon from Beast Mode’s tank. Deep leaguers also need to keep an eye on TE Luke Willson, who could earn a weekly role in the offense by building on last year’s strong finish.
49ers, Carlos Hyde: This is an obvious answer, but there aren’t many other question marks for San Francisco’s offense. Injuries to Hyde’s would-be competition have left him as Frank Gore’s de facto No. 2, but the size of his early-year role could still be determined by the preseason. A bowling ball August could earn Hyde battering-ram duties in short-yardage situations, which would mean immediate fantasy value, not just handcuff status.
Cardinals, John Brown: Brown has been un-coverable in training camp. Those aren’t the words of a Cardinals blogger, but GM Steve Keim. A 5-foot-10, 179-pound lid lifter in the mold of past Bruce Arians receivers T.Y. Hilton and Antonio Brown, Brown has the opportunity to force his way into a big-time rookie role if his preseason performances are anything like his practices.
Rams, Kenny Britt: Going on 26, Britt caught 11 passes in 12 games last season. He was a healthy scratch two of the final three weeks. Not the résumé of a No. 5 receiver, let alone a No. 1. And yet, here we are. Looking like a “changed man” in Rams camp, Britt inexplicably has the opportunity to follow through on his December boast that he’d be somebody’s No. 1 in 2014. A gifted player before his 2011 knee injury, Britt could become the living embodiment of the “stranger things have happened” principle with a strong August.
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