Just like that, and six months have flown by. College football made its return two weeks ago. Now it’s time for the pros to take the stage. The NFL preseason is through and, from here on out, each win or loss takes on significant meaning.
Panthers’ TE Greg Olsen dealt with foot problems from the start of the 2018 regular season until they ultimately required him to undergo surgery. The face of Tight End U returns for his 13th season in the league. Injuries have plagued Olsen for much of the past two seasons, so his production has also dipped as a result. From 2014 to 2016, Olsen recorded three straight seasons of 1,000+ receiving yards. He then recorded 482 yards combined in 2017 and 2018. His penchant for the endzone is still there, however. He also scored five touchdowns! Against a Rams’ defense that will harass Panthers’ QB Cam Newton, Olsen will be an excellent safety valve in Carolina’s passing game.
Somebody, anybody, has to knock the New England Patriots from the AFC East throne. No team has done so since the 2008 Miami Dolphins. This game will be the first step in separating the contenders from the pretenders in this division. You don’t have to worry about RB Frank Gore acting as anyone aside from himself. The NFL’s fourth place all-time leading rusher is just over 600 yards from passing Barry Sanders on the all-time rushing list. However, the rushing record may pale in comparison to Gore’s desire to return to the Super Bowl. After the Bills released RB Lesean McCoy, Gore became the workhorse of Buffalo’s backfield.
The running backs will try to carve out yardage behind a makeshift offensive line. C Mitch Morse remains in concussion protocol after a preseason hit. That means that ProCane G Jon Felciano will begin the year as the Bills’ starting center. The 5th-year veteran started a total of eight games during his four seasons with the Oakland Raiders. He’ll have his work cut out for him against a Jets’ defense that will trot out Quentin Williams and Leonard Williams — no relation — for a majority of the afternoon. There are certainly no easy matchups in the NFL.
Jets’ TE Chris Herdnon will begin to serve his four-game suspension to start the new league year after violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy last year.
The Falcons will hope to use punter Matt Bosher as little as possible on the road against Minnesota this week. The former Canes’ kicker sports a career average of 45.8 yards-per-punt. The soon to-be 32-year-old will begin his ninth NFL season this year and will continue to bring the boom to the Falcons’ special teams.
The most fascinating ProCane storyline from this game is Falcons’ LB Jermaine Grace. The former UM linebacker made the Falcons as an undrafted rookie in 2017, but was waived after five games into the season. He would end up being claimed and waived by the Colts, Browns and Seahawks from 2017 to 2018. After signing as a practice squad player with the Falcons last fall, Grace has worked his way up to the active roster last week. Grace will start his second stint with the Falcons as a rotational LB, seeing most of his action on special teams.
DE Allen Bailey was brought in to start on the defensive line for the ATL. After spending the first eight seasons of his career as a Kansas City Chief, Bailey begins a new chapter with the Falcons on Sunday. Known for his strength at the point of attack, Bailey addresses Atlanta’s need to improve against the run after allowing 124.9 yards-per-game a year ago. Pitted against a Vikings’ team that struggled to move the ball (93.3 rushing yards-per-game in 2018), one of these teams will turn around their ineptitude this afternoon.
Baltimore Ravens vs Miami Dolphins 1PM EDT
I really want to be able to talk about rookie DT Gerald Willis III in this game preview. That won’t be the case, as Willis currently finds himself a practice squad member. Instead, our focus turns to Dolphins’ running back Mark Walton. After running into legal trouble as a member of the Cincinnati Bengals, Walton’s fresh start with the Dolphins looks promising. The return of Kenyan Drake to lineup means that most of Walton’s snaps will come as a third-down back and on special teams. Squaring off with a Ravens’ defense that aligns in multiple fronts and formations, it’ll be interesting to see how Miami will establish a run game.
Quietly, Jaguars C Brandon Linder has to be ecstatic that he will be snapping the ball to QB Nick Foles as opposed to Blake Bortles to start the year. Foles, a Super Bowl winning quarterback, will try to turn around a Jacksonville offense that ranked 27th overall last year. Only the Cincinnati Bengals gave up more total yards than the Chiefs last season. However, it’s a new league year and the Chiefs still have reigning MVP Patrick Mahommes at the helm. DL Calais Campbell and the Jaguars’ defense will try to accomplish what most of the league struggled to a year ago — contain Mahomes. Alongside his new apprentice, rookie DE Josh Allen, the pair will spur their defense to pressure KC’s QB. Can Jacksonville’s defense find its swagger against the Chiefs’ super-charged offense? If King Calais has anything to say about it, that would be an emphatic yes!
Tennessee Titans vs Cleveland Browns 1PM EDT
How could we have gone through so many games without discussing the ‘Cleveland Canes’. The Browns have generated much offseason conversation after trading for WR Odell Beckham and ProCane DE Olivier Vernon. Many NFL analysts project the team to win the AFC North based on the talent they’ve amassed over the last few years. But games are not won on paper. You have to go out and earn those wins.
TE David Njoku enters 2019 with high expectations. After recording 639 receiving yards on 56 receptions for four touchdowns in his second year, Njoku should be able to exceed those totals as a third-year breakout star. The Browns still need to figure out a pecking order with Beckham, Jarvis Landry and Tommie Lee Higgins. They also might want to feed the ball to their Ford-tough running back Nick Chubb. But with QB Baker Mayfield entering his second year in the league and a full season of head coach Freddie Kitchens, the opportunities are there for Njoku to shine.
If you checked out the ProCane primer, you already know that Olivier Vernon is one of the breakout candidates for the season. He’s not the only ProCane on the defensive side of the ball, though, as Chad Thomas serves as a depth piece at defensive end. Rookie safety Sheldrick Redwine will begin the season on special teams.
Indianapolis Colts vs Los Angeles Chargers 4:05PM EDT
With DE Jabaal Sheard dealing with an injury, DE Al-Quadin Muhammad is set up to see meaningful snaps to start the year. After being released by the New Orleans Saints his rookie year, AQM appeared to catch on as a member of the Colts. His ability to get by blockers is considered an ideal fit for the Colts’ defense. He’ll try to build on his 28 tackles and five tackles-for-loss from last year against QB Phillip Rivers and the Chargers’ offense.
Barring a surprise return from RB Melvin Gordon, who is holding out for a new deal, Rivers will have a full arsenal of weapons within his reach. TE Hunter Henry returns this year after his season-ending injury and WR Keenan Allen will play now that the lower-body injury he suffered in camp has healed. Of course, Belle Glade, Florida native Travis Benjamin is ready for his third season with the Chargers. Benjamin’s 12 receptions for 186 receiving yards and a touchdown in 12 games is meager in comparison to his production in previous seasons. The 29-year-old still possess that take-the-top-off-the-defense speed that can open up the downfield passing game for LA.
After Andrew Luck announced his retirement from football, QB Jacoby Brissett became the Colts’ starter. He’ll have to fend off a defense sparked by the return of middle linebacker Denzel Perryman. Plagued by injuries throughout his career, DP’s return provides the Bolts with a heavy-hitting presence in the middle of the defense — one that should terrorize Indy RB Marlon Mack. Perryman is listed as questionable with an ankle injury. In the secondary, Los Angeles will miss the presence of S Derwin James, especially after making an impact last year as a rookie. With the development of ProCane S Rayshawn Jenkins, the chess match between the Colts’ offense and Chargers’ defense should be enticing.
Chargers K Michael Badgley is listed as doubtful for the game with a groin injury.
The warm ups are done with as these two NFC East powers meet in a high stakes divisional matchup. For the rest of the country, the conversation will circle around the Giants’ decision at quarterback and the impact of Cowboys’ running back Ezekiel Elliott’s holdout. It’s the young up-and-comers that have our attention,however. DE RJ McIntosh will be part of the Giants’ defensive rotation as they make the switch to a 3-4 base defense. After dealing with a lingering ailment, McIntosh finally got his chance to make an impact late last season. After taking part in offseason activities, the former Cardinal Gibbons Chiefs’ star has a chance to make a name for himself on a Giants defense considered to be a work in progress.
DE Joe Jackson may need some more time to round out his game, but the rookie edge rusher has displayed his talent since being drafted by the Cowboys. Impressing everyone from the locker room up to the front office, Jackson’s penchant to get into the backfield has been applauded. Those claps will become thunderous on Sunday night if he’s able to secure a sack. In a game that will have lingering ramifications in the divisional race, Jackson’s ability to pick the game up quickly will be vital to his playing time in his NFL debut.
Pittsburgh Steelers vs New England Patriots 8:20 PM EDT
The Patriots will hang yet another banner at Gillette Stadium. New England Patriots’ QB Tom Brady will have that serious GQ expression on his face as the cameras zoom in. At this point, the script writes itself. The one thing we’re having trouble predicting is who Brady will turn to come game time. New England is notorious for being flexible with its game plans both on offense and defense in years past. But they had a much younger Tom Brady and blunt force object in Rob Gronkowski.
St. Thomas Aquinas HS graduate Phillip Dorsett caught 32 receptions for 290 yards and three TDs as an insurance policy for the Pats. WR Josh Gordon adds another dynamic weapon to the receiving corp alongside Julian Edelman — if healthy. Combined with Sony Michel at RB, New England will once again be a formidable offense. Yawn!
The Steelers’ offense loses a couple of Bs in Le’Veon Bell and Antonio Brown, yet still have Big B, QB Ben Rothlisberger. Defensively, the addition of rookie LB Devin Bush provides Pittsburgh with speed in the middle of the defense that they’ve been lacking since the unfortunate injury to LB Ryan Shazier. LB Anthony Chickillo is no rookie, but he looks like a new guy after cutting down weight this past offseason. He’s back in his familiar role as a rotational piece for the Steelers. CB Artie Burns has turned the page after getting benched midway through the 2018 season. The third corner for the Steelers, Burns appears to have tuned out the noise, re-focused on becoming a better corner this year. He will certainly be put to the test by Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels Sunday night.
Monday Night Football
Houston Texans vs New Orleans Saints 7:10pm EDT
Seantrel Henderson was the Texans’ starting right tackle to begin opening week a year ago. A season-ending leg injury robbed him of a redemption story. A year later, Henderson is once again the starting right tackle in Houston. The Texans feel that they have a competent line that should be able to protect franchise QB DeShaun Watson and generate a running game.
Losing RB Lamar Miller to a torn ACL was a tough blow for the Texans in the preseason. ProCane RB Duke Johnson was brought in to be a complement in Houston’s running game. RB Carlos Hyde’s acquisition means that Johnson won’t be a high-volume carry back this season. Duke is expected to be a change-of-pace back this year in Houston. The Texans are going to find out quickly if their renovation along the offensive line is any good. The Saints’ defense was second in the NFL against the run (80.2 yards allowed per game).
News from around the league
Berrios takes flight with the Jets
After being released by the Patriots last weekend, WR Braxton Berrios found a nice landing spot with the New York Jets. After being claimed by the NYJ cutdown day weekend, Berrios was signed to the 53-man roster. Head coach Adam Gase named the Berrios the primary punt returner ahead of week one.
Adam Gase says WR Braxton Berrios will be the Jets' punt returner.— Eric Allen (@eallenjets) September 2, 2019
Gase cites the familiarity some members of the staff had with the Miami product. Also cites the system parallels between what he does and what McDaniels does in NE.
"Historically he gets open in the slot."
Jaquan making a good impression
Jaquan Johnson made the Buffalo Bills final roster with ease, despite being a sixth round selection. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report discussed his skyrocketing stock in his latest Scouting Notebook.
”This one surprised me because he just seemed too small, but his physicality and experience show up on the field. Now we need to see him against 1s and not 3s.”
Sixth-round picks aren’t even expected to make the team in most cases, but rookie Jaquan Johnson has looked very good in the preseason and is likely to earn a big role as a nickel defender and special teams ace. He’s not close to replacing Micah Hyde as the starting strong safety, but with more teams running six and seven defensive backs regularly, Johnson has value thanks to his ability to play both safety spots and even some nickel cornerback.
He also brings immediate value as a tough special teams player. To be a depth safety, you better be willing and able to get dirty on fourth down, and that’s something Johnson has done very well throughout the preseason.
Harris makes the Phins roster
After the Dolphins claimed DE Trent Harris, the former Hurricane finally found his path to making the final 53-man roster. Listed as a linebacker, Harris rejoins former Pats coordinator Brian Flores in South Florida. Harris is questionable for today’s game against the Baltimore Ravens with a foot injury.
Filling out the practice rosters
Last weekend, we updated you on the players who were released following cutdown day, as NFL teams trimmed their preseason 90-man rosters down to the final 53-man version. Several former Hurricanes were casualties of that process. The positive news is that some of them found their way onto practice rosters in the days to follow. Here’s a list of who landed where:
CB Michael Jackson Sr. — Dallas Cowboys
CB Corn Elder — New York Giants
DL Ufomba Kamalu — New England Patriots (link)
The Miami Dolphins released DT Gerald Willis III on Wednesday due to injury.
OL Tyree St. Louis was released by the Patriots after initially being named to the Patriots practice roster.
ProCanes Fantasy Player of the Week
There are plenty of options to choose from in the first week of the season — especially since there are no teams on byes. The safe bet would be to go with old reliable Frank Gore. The Tank will split carries with Lesean McCoy, but should get some goal line carries against the Jets. His upside is low, but if you’re looking for safe option, Frank is your guy.
IT’S ALWAYS ABOUT THE U!