Training camp is in the rear-view mirror and roster cuts are right around the corner as we move into NFL preseason Week 2. With those cuts looming, the pressure is on for players to step up their games or be sent packing.
Those are the players we’re focusing on today. Guys who are already on the roster bubble and need to keep proving they belong. Guys who have done it before in this league but who are being chased by youngsters behind them on the depth chart. Guys who are supposed to be starters but who haven’t impressed the manner in which they should.
These players all need to prove they can hang with the big boys in Week 2.
Arizona Cardinals: Elijhaa Penny, running back
David Johnson is the clear No. 1 back on this team. But the rest of the pecking order is very much in question. Penny is a player who generated some buzz leading up to training camp. Unfortunately he’s not done much to back up that buzz early on. With a poor outing in the Hall of Fame Game, he needed to bounce back last weekend. While Penny did improve (54 yards on 14 carries), he still has a long ways to go to make Arizona’s roster. Clearly, the Cardinals are interested in the powerful running back, given he got the most carries in Week 1. Now it’s time to take advantage of his opportunity.
Atlanta Falcons: Matt Simms, quarterback
Last season, Simms’ older brother Chris made a big deal out of how he wasn’t getting chances in the NFL because of his last name. It’s been since 2014 that Matt played in the NFL, but he’s got a chance now with the Falcons. Unfortunately, his first action back after the extended absence didn’t go very well. Completing just 10-of-20 passes for 104 yards, Simms did little to impress. The one positive is that he didn’t turn the ball over. But he’ll have to do better than that to earn a roster spot, or even a spot on the team’s practice squad this year.
Baltimore Ravens: Ryan Mallett, quarterback
It’s pretty well documented at this point that Mallett isn’t a good NFL quarterback. Yet he’s the best one the Ravens have to offer right now as Joe Flacco is still sidelined with his back injury. Mallett got (by far) the most work of the three Ravens quarterbacks in Week 1. But what he did with his time on the field was barely worth mentioning — 58 yards on 9-of-18 passing. It really says something that former Arena League quarterback Josh Woodrum passed for more yards on just four attempts.
Buffalo Bills: T.J. Yates, quarterback
Rookie Nathan Peterman was elevated to second string after the team’s Week 1 loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Peterman showed some good things, especially on his first drive of the game, which resulted in a touchdown. But he didn’t exactly light it up the rest of the way. Instead, the rookie’s promotion might have had more to do with Yates’ poor play. The journeyman struggled to complete half his passes and failed to generate a scoring drive. One or two more performances like that will likely lead to Yates being released ahead of the 2017 season.
Carolina Panthers: Damiere Byrd, wide receiver
Unlike many players on this list, Byrd earns a spot on this list because of the incredible game he had in Week 1, not because he stunk. Catching four passes for 98 yards and two touchdowns, Byrd showed up on highlight reels nationally. Originally an undrafted free agent out of South Carolina in 2015, Byrd has spent the past two seasons on Carolina’s practice squad. With Ted Ginn Jr. now in New Orleans, there’s a possibility Byrd could find his way onto the active roster, but it’s still a slim chance. He’ll have to continue putting on a show this preseason to give himself the best chance to stick.
Chicago Bears: Mike Glennon, quarterback
Glennon’s first action as a member of the Bears was ugly. He managed a 0.0 passer rating, threw an ungodly pick-six and failed to generate points. It wasn’t until rookie Mitchell Trubisky entered the game that Chicago’s offense perked up, and he proceeded to vastly outplay his veteran teammate with an impressive overall performance. Glennon is still the team’s starting quarterback…for now. But you don’t have to be brilliant at this football stuff to know he’s going to be on the bench if he doesn’t shape up quickly.
Cincinnati Bengals: Jeremy Hill, running back
Depending on who you ask, Hill is either still the favorite to be Cincinnati’s lead back, or he’s about to be supplanted by rookie Joe Mixon. Based on the way both running backs played in Week 1 of the preseason, we’re leaning towards the latter. Mixon shined in his first NFL game ever, while Hill plodded his way to a 26-yard, 3.7-yards-per-carry performance. With the impressive rookie breathing down his neck for playing time, Hill needs to prove he’s worthy of still being called top dog in Cincinnati’s backfield.
Cleveland Browns: Brock Osweiler, quarterback
Despite what the Browns would have you believe, Osweiler really was as bad as his stat line suggests (6-of-14 passing for 42 yards). Sure, he could have seen those numbers tick up if Kenny Britt had been able to get both feet in on a failed touchdown attempt. But throwing high has always been at the crux of Osweiler’s problems as an NFL passer. The Browns are probably just trying to get him traded to a quarterback-needy team before training camp ends, which is why he’s the “starter” right now. But one more tepid performance will ruin all that, for good.
Dallas Cowboys: Rod Smith, running back
The Cowboys are in need of running backs who can step into the lineup and make plays, especially early in the season because of Ezekiel Elliott’s suspension. Smith is a player who’s been targeted by the DallasCowboys.com staff as a player who has excited during camp. But he didn’t get many opportunities in Week 1 after showing up huge in the Hall of Fame Game. He gained just seven yards total against the Los Angeles Rams and needs a couple of big showings to stay relevant as a potential rotational back in the regular season.
Denver Broncos: Paxton Lynch, quarterback
Unless Lynch can turn on the jets and show the Broncos he’s clearly better than Trevor Siemian, he’s going to be the backup once again in 2017. What’s gone down so far this offseason and during training camp hasn’t been a good look for Lynch, whom the Broncos traded up to land No. 26 overall in 2016. Siemian has been hailed as the better leader by a teammate, and there have been concerns about Lynch’s work ethic. A lackluster preseason opener didn’t help him at all. Now he gets the chance to start in Week 2, so that the competition is “fair.” No pressure, kid.
Detroit Lions: Anthony Zettel, defensive end
With Kerry Hyder out of the picture following an Achilles tear, the Lions are suddenly talent poor at defensive end. It’s a position that was already weak before Hyder’s injury. Now that last year’s sack leader is gone, Zettel has to step up his game in a big way to fill the void. A player with tremendous athletic abilities, Zettel still needs to put it all together on a consistent basis. He recorded 13 tackles and one sack as a rookie. Suddenly he’s the team’s best hope.
Green Bay Packers: Ty Montgomery, running back
Already being pushed by rookie Jamaal Williams, Montgomery didn’t help himself at all in Week 1. In addition to the fact he gained no yards on his three carries, the former receiver put the ball on the turf on his first series. Given that the coaching staff has been gushing about Williams’ ability to protect the passer on third downs, it sure looks like the job is no longer Montgomery’s to lose, but Williams’ to gain. Of course, if Montgomery can right the ship and shows he’s the clear-cut top running back, then all the better for Green Bay.
Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson, quarterback
Watson shined in his first ever NFL game last week. He didn’t turn the ball over, passed for 179 yards and ran in a score, looking every bit the part of a first-round quarterback, minus the pocket-awareness issues. But he wasn’t the only Texans quarterback who played well. Tom Savage only missed on two of his nine attempts and engineered an impressive 13-play touchdown-scoring drive of his own before he was done. If Watson has any chance of unseating Savage, he has to keep the pedal to the metal and avoid turnovers. Things get interesting this week, because he’ll be facing the New England Patriots, a team that is notoriously tough on rookie quarterbacks.
Indianapolis Colts: Scott Tolzien, quarterback
Colts fans have to be sweating the start of the season. Andrew Luck might not be ready to go, per owner Jim Irsay, and Tolzien is the team’s best quarterback not named Luck. The journeyman backup got three series of work in during the team’s first game. He personally went 2-of-5 passing for 24 yards. The offense went three-and-out twice before a five-play drive that ended in a punt on those three drives. Did we mention Colts fans might be a bit freaked out? Yeah. It’s not pretty.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Keelan Cole, wide receiver
If you saw Cole make the play of Week 1 (watch here) and wondered, “Who is that guy?” don’t worry — you weren’t alone. An undrafted free agent out of Kentucky Wesleyan, this rookie flew way under the radar. Cole finished Week 1 with just two catches, but he ended up with 108 yards and a touchdown. ESPN’s Michael DiRocco noted after the game that Cole is fighting two other receivers for what is likely the sixth, and final roster spot available to receivers. It’s going to take a few more big plays for this small-school product to secure that spot.
Kansas City Chiefs: De’Anthony Thomas, wide receiver
A player who has had some serious ups and downs already in his short career, Thomas doesn’t do any one thing particularly well but can offer value in a number of different ways. After just squeaking onto the roster last year, Thomas disappointed throughout the 2016 season. During the team’s first preseason game, he barely registered as a blip on the radar, however. This does not bode well for his future. It’s going to be interesting to see if this former Oregon star has what it takes to make the roster this time around.
Los Angeles Chargers: Kellen Clemens, quarterback
Philip Rivers was magnificent in the one drive he engineered Sunday night against the first-team Seattle Seahawks defense. Then Clemens came in and reminded the world that the Chargers are absolutely doomed if Rivers gets injured. Unless, of course, Clemens can somehow find it within himself to do better. We certainly saw some good mixed in with the bad, such as the consecutive throws by Clemens that went for a pick-six and then a 74-yard touchdown. Overall, though, going 3-for-9 for 26 yards (other than that touchdown) and three turnovers is just nasty.
Los Angeles Rams: Justin Davis, running back
Davis had quite a breakout game in Week 1 against the Cowboys, going for 70 yards on just nine carries (7.8 yards per carry) and adding another seven yards on one reception. At one point he broke off a 32-yard scamper, showing off the explosive potential he has for big plays. Unfortunately, the former Trojan also put the ball on the ground twice, losing one of those fumbles. Ball security issues get even the best runners shelved. So if Davis is going to stick on the roster this summer, he’s got to hold onto the ball.
Miami Dolphins: Jay Cutler, quarterback
Cutler probably won’t play a ton when the Dolphins host the Baltimore Ravens Thursday. But he’s expected to at least play a little bit, and nobody in the NFL who isn’t fighting for a roster spot has more pressure on his shoulders than this man right now. Brought in to play for a playoff team that lost its starting quarterback, Cutler has the power to either save Miami’s season or doom it to failure. And the first step comes now.
Minnesota Vikings: Laquon Treadwell, wide receiver
Drafted No. 23 overall last year out of Ole Miss, it’s safe to say the Vikings had high expectations for Treadwell. Injuries held him back a bit, but even when he was healthy Treadwell failed to make an impact for Minnesota. In the end, he caught just one pass for 15 yards all season. Now entering Year 2, Treadwell is trying to overcome a thigh injury. He missed the first preseason game but is back practicing with the team and appears to be ready for Week 2. Treadwell desperately needs to show the Vikings he’s not a bust. Like right now.
New England Patriots: D.J. Foster, running back
The Patriots are stacked at the running back position. Rex Burkhead, Mike Gillislee, Dion Lewis, James White and Brandon Bolden will all likely make the roster. This means that the former undrafted free agent out of Arizona State could be the odd man out. But he’s not going to make it easy for the coaching staff to cut him. In Week 1, Foster totaled 40 yards on seven touches and rushed in a score. Though, being the odd man out already, he’ll need to do more of that to secure a roster spot.
New Orleans Saints: Ryan Nassib and Garrett Grayson, quarterbacks
The Saints have their quarterback (Drew Brees) and their backup (Chase Daniel), but they might not have a third quarterback by the time preseason ends. It’s going to be up to the play of Nassib and Grayson to determine whether that happens. Based on their first game last week, the Saints will look to fill that roster spot elsewhere. They both completed a high percentage of passes, but Grayson endured four sacks, losing a fumble, and Nassib also lost a fumble. Turnovers are quarterback killers. These guys have to do better in Week 2.
New York Giants: Geno Smith, quarterback
We heard lots of good things about Smith this summer. He’s done everything asked of him and said all the right things. But once he got back onto the field against the Pittsburgh Steelers, it was apparent that Smith’s game remains the same as it’s ever been. He still struggles with pocket awareness and was sacked three times. He still struggles to read the field properly and threw an interception. Those issues corrupted what was otherwise a decent performance. And if he doesn’t get his issues fixed, then Smith might find himself unemployed before the end of the preseason.
New York Jets: Christian Hackenberg, quarterback
Hackenberg wasn’t awful in Week 1. He actually completed a high percentage of passes (18-of-25), but he only managed 127 yards through the air. Hackenberg also took a sack, fumbled twice and lost one of them. Reports out of practices have consistently pegged Josh McCown as the better quarterback (more on that here), which isn’t really much of a compliment. The Penn State product did some positive things last week, but he’ll need to do a heck of a lot better than that to ascend to the starting role.
Oakland Raiders: Connor Cook, quarterback
Remember last year when Derek Carr went down with the broken leg? Cook stepped into his shoes and was awful, especially in the playoff game. All told, he passed for 311 yards in two games, throwing two touchdowns and four interceptions. The start of the preseason wasn’t good for Cook, either. He was vastly outplayed by former Bills quarterback EJ Manuel, finishing with just 82 yards on 10-of-21 passing. Cook looks like he’s going to be the odd man out this summer, with Manuel taking over as Carr’s backup, barring a swift turnaround.
Philadelphia Eagles: Donnel Pumphrey, running back
One of the most entertaining, explosive college football players last year with the San Diego State Aztecs, Pumphrey’s initiation into the NFL did not go smoothly in Week 1. The diminutive running back was only able to gain 17 yards on nine touches, and he put the ball on the ground twice — once on a run and once on a punt return. Even more troubling is the fact that Pumphrey took his fumblitis into practice over the weekend, too, causing head coach Doug Pederson to take notice.
Pittsburgh Steelers: Martavis Bryant, wide receiver
It’s been a while since Bryant played in an NFL game. Well over a year, in fact. Bryant is finally cleared to practice and play after being conditionally reinstated by the NFL for multiple failed drug tests. The Steelers have not yet said if Bryant is going to play in Week 2, but he’s working hard to make that happen. Regardless of his status for the team’s upcoming game against the Falcons, it’s not a stretch to say Bryant is under tremendous pressure to prove himself.
San Francisco 49ers: Kendrick Bourne, wide receiver
This undrafted rookie out of Eastern Washington had himself quite an NFL debut last weekend. Leading all receivers in the game with 88 yards on four receptions, Bourne managed to score on a gorgeous double move and run after the catch. He also hauled in a two-point conversion worth watching at least a few times. Still, it’s going to take some more work on Bourne’s part to stick on San Francisco’s roster this fall, being that he’s one of the final receivers on the depth chart.
Seattle Seahawks: Alex Collins, running back
We already know the Seahawks will keep Thomas Rawls, C.J. Prosise and Eddie Lacy, barring injury. So the final roster spots for running backs are being highly contested. Collins was a fifth-round pick by Seattle last year, but he didn’t do much outside of a role in special teams in the 11 games he played. None of the Seahawks running backs generated much on the ground in Week 1, but Collins managed just nine yards on six carries and needed three tries to punch it into the end zone at the goal line for his lone touchdown. He’s got to do better than that in his second year to remain on this team.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Jeremy McNichols, running back
If you watched the first episode of HBO’s Hard Knocks, then you know Tampa Bay’s coaching staff is all over McNichols to get his head into the playbook so he can play as fast as he’s capable. One of the more talented receiving running backs to come out of the 2017 NFL Draft, there’s most certainly a spot on the active roster for this Boise State product. In order to shine, he needs to play without needing to worry about his assigments. In last week’s game against the Bengals, he barely got a chance to show his stuff (12 yards on two carries, one target in the passing game), largely because he’s just not ready.
Tennessee Titans: Adoree Jackson, cornerback
When the Titans used the No. 18 overall pick to land Jackson, it came as a surprise to some. He’s talented, to be sure. But Jackson isn’t your prototypical shut-down cornerback, coming in at 5-foot-10 and 186 pounds. Jackson is currently locked into a battle with LeShaun Sims for the starting cornerback spot opposite free-agent acquisition Logan Ryan. In the first preseason game, Jackson made three tackles and returned two punts for a total of six yards. We’ll be keeping a close eye on this first-rounder to see if he proves as valuable to Tennessee as the Titans thought he would.
Washington Redskins: Samaje Perine, running back
In general, all Washington running backs are worthy of this list. Nobody played well in the running game last week. But Perine stands out because he is a highly regarded rookie who really got off to a rough start. Perine carried the ball more than any other Redskins player in Week 1, but he could only generate 15 yards on six attempts. He also put the ball on the ground, earning some criticism from head coach Jay Gruden after the game.