The results of the NFL pre-season may be ultimately meaningless, but it’s a crucial time of year for plenty of players across the league.
Whether they’re battling for starting job or a roster spot, the pre-season presents a opportunity for unheralded players to make their mark on a coaching staff and personnel department.
That’s how a player like Doug Baldwin can go from undrafted free agent to leading his team in receiving yards in the same season—and he’s far from the first to travel that sort of route. Here’s a look at six players to watch during the pre-season who are in line for a large jump in playing time in 2014:
Marquess Wilson, Chicago Bears: After releasing slot receiver Earl Bennett in the off-season, the Bears do not have a proven third wideout behind starters Brandon Marshall and Alshon Jeffery. So there’s a big opportunity for the 6-foot-4 Wilson, who is battling with Josh Morgan for the No. 3 receiver job. Wilson, a seventh-round pick by Chicago in 2013, has prototypical size and an outstanding catch radius, but he will need be productive in the pre-season after catching just two passes for a total of 13 yards in his rookie season. With a strong pre-season, Wilson has a chance to become a regular contributor.
Christine Michael/Robert Turbin, Seattle Seahawks: Marshawn Lynch carried the ball only five times during last year’s pre-season so even if he wasn’t holding out of training camp, he wouldn’t likely see much action in exhibition games. With Lynch’s future in question, the emphasis will be on the other running backs on the roster, but Christine Michael is the player to watch. He has an elite combination of speed and power and is considered to be the Seahawks’ running back of the future. Michael was one of last year’s pre-season stars, but struggled to see the field during the regular season due to issues in pass protection and immaturity concerns. The Seahawks will also consider giving more carries to Robert Turbin, the primary backup to Lynch over the past two seasons. Turbin doesn’t offer quite the same potential or explosion as Michael, but is a reliable player that has developed into a favourite of the coaching staff.
Gavin Escobar, Dallas Cowboys: Jason Witten is one of the most durable players at his position, but is beginning to slow down at age 32. The Cowboys plan to run a more wide open passing attack under new coordinator Scott Linehan so they could look to see increased snaps from second-year tight end Gavin Escobar. Escobar isn’t nearly as an effective as a blocker as Witten, but he offers intrigue due to his 6-foot-6 frame and speed down the field. If Escobar can improve on the mental side of the game, he will see his stats (nine catches and 134 receiving yards) drastically spike in 2014.
Nick Toon, New Orleans Saints: Marques Colston, Kenny Stills, and Brandin Cooks are locks for roster spots but the Saints typically keep five receivers so there are two spots up for grabs. With Lance Moore no longer in New Orleans, there’s a potential opening for Toon, even though the third-year receiver played just 205 snaps in which he recorded four catches for 68 yards last season. Toon has a chance at significant playing time in 2014 after impressing the Saints brass in OTAs and early in camp. He offers far more upside than a declining veteran such as Robert Meachem.
Bjoern Werner, Indianapolis Colts: With outside linebacker Robert Mathis suspended for the first four games of the season, the Colts need to find pass rush help on their roster. The most logical option is 2013 first round pick, Bjoern Werner, who has already been praised by coach Chuck Pagano for making a “huge jump” in terms of playing faster and picking up the scheme. But this is the same coach that has praised Trent Richardson all summer long, so we’ll believe it when we see it. He had just 2.5 sacks as a rookie and appeared lost in coverage as a rotational player last year. The Florida State product will see extensive time during pre-season games.
Darius Slay, Detroit Lions: Many wondered why the Detroit Lions weren’t aggressive to upgrade their secondary in the off-season, but a big reason was the team’s confidence in second-year cornerback Darius Slay. He will be replacing Chris Houston as a full-time starter this season even though the 23-year-old was struggled with zone coverage last year. Under new coordinator Teryl Austin, the team expects Slay to excel in a new scheme that focuses more on press coverage and his improved confidence and comfort level was noticeable following the team's first training camp practice on Monday.