Like a weekly lunch buffet special, the NFL preseason will give you plenty to chew on. To whet our appetites, here is a brief outline of what to watch for in the coming weeks. Reason? Well there’s value in paying attention to the preseason and training camp battles. If not, you may become last year’s fantasy owner who drafted Donald Brown and Darrius Heyward-Bey and overlooked Ray Rice and Miles Austin.
Let’s discuss the NFC North’s Bears, Lions, Packers and Vikings:
- Martzing into town A new offense should translate into new production. Whether it ends up being for better or for worse, we won’t know until the regular season begins. However, it won’t hurt to kick the tires before we buy this car. Seeing how the passing game evolves will be essential to making an accurate projection of Jay Cutler’s effectiveness this season, including who he will target and rely on in the red zone. Never underestimate the value of comfort. Plus, this new attack could be a blessing in disguise for Matt Forte.
- Step by step Learning Martz’s scheme won’t be easy, and it may spell bad news for Greg Olsen. Tight ends have traditionally disappeared in this offense. And for the Bears to systematically erase their best receiver would be offensive suicide. Are we going to see the first steps of a new wrinkle to Martz’s frantic passing attack? Only those paying attention this preseason will know heading into their fantasy drafts.
- Cutler your enthusiasm Just like a year ago, everything revolves around Cutler’s right arm and his decision making. This includes the running game, but more importantly the pecking order of the wide receivers — even more so with Martz calling the shots. Devin Aromashodu has gained momentum coming off a nice last month of the season. Does he fit Martz’s system? Johnny Knox has the speed. Can he grasp Martz’s route scheme quick enough? Earl Bennett has the college ties with Cutler. Is he athletic enough? Devin Hester seems to have a little bit everything needed to excel in this offense. Does he have enough to be consistent?
- The Stafford Stamp Will there be signs of improvement? This would’ve been much easier to put into focus had Matthew Stafford stayed healthy. We’ll need more than 10 starts and one heroic game against the Browns to begin forming an honest assessment, but at least the preseason will give us some early evidence of Stafford’s growth, mainly with his accuracy. He did lead the Lions to twice as many wins as the previous year, so that’s a good start.
- Best in show There is a lot for Jahvid Best to hurdle in order to leap into the fantasy spotlight many pundits are calling for. He has injury concerns (elbow and foot in ’08 and two concussions in ’09) and a No. 1 man, Kevin Smith, to battle. With Best on board, Smith has something to prove in addition to coming back from knee surgery. Best will probably inherit the starting position, but how well he plays in (and survives) the preseason will be telling of how long he’ll keep that No. 1 position. My advice is for Best to work on pass protection. Ask Donald Brown how that worked out for him last year.
- Johnson & Johnson It has a certain ring to it. However, without a second Johnson there isn’t much of a brand. Detroit will be hoping this preseason produces a running mate for Calvin Johnson, even if it means squeezing every ounce of moisture out of the Nate Burleson sponge. Luckily for us, football performance isn’t weighted on the size of contracts so everyone has ample opportunity to step up this preseason. That means you Derrick Williams.
Green Bay Packers
- Sands of time Donald Driver is entering the season at 35, which ended up being the Berlin Wall for Marvin Harrison, Terrell Owens, Torry Holt, etc. So, is it time for Greg Jennings to shine? I’m thinking the “Wait til next year. …” for Jennings has arrived. If not, James Jones would be more than willing to step forward. And there’s Jordy Nelson, Chastin West, Shawn Gore and Charles Dillion, who we’ll meet this preseason.
- Granting approval There aren’t many options for the Packers in the backfield, so it’s safe to assume Ryan Grant will get the bulk of the carries again this year. Last year, he was one of only eight backs to tally more than 250 carries. Plus, he is the go-to runner in the red zone, which Green Bay plans to visit often this season. With the Packers already displaying an addiction for throwing, where does that leave Grant who has hands as soft as concrete? James Starks, a rookie from Buffalo who collected more than 35 receptions in each of his three years on the field, may be a suitable candidate. However, how he looks in the preseason after missing all of last season with a shoulder injury will be imperative to how much playing he may get in the regular season.
- Spencer for hire Despite being a converted linebacker, Spencer Havner was getting more attention from Aaron Rodgers than his ascending star counterpart, Jermichael Finley, for a four-game stretch in late October into November, especially in the red zone. Although the spotlight was restored back to Finley, the evidence is there that Spencer could be a sneaky play from time to time. A good, solid preseason could mean even more attention from Rodgers this season as defenses focus on taking Finley away.
- Twin peaks It will very interesting to see how the Vikings plan to use Toby Gerhart. In his two years as a starter at Stanford, he proved he was capable of moving the chains and breaking the goal line having averaged more than 5 yards a carry and more than 15 touchdowns each season. We’re probably not going to see any specific packages, but if Gerhart shows he can gain yardage even on the simplest running plays the odds of him getting carries in key situations during the regular season are more probable. This is especially true if he shows he is capable of not fumbling, but don’t look for him to be a factor in the passing game. Despite playing in a pro-style offense in college, Gerhart had only 24 receptions total in the past two years.
- Turning the corner As we witnessed last season, Percy Harvin can turn the corner on a defense. More importantly, can he turn the corner on progress and become a more developed receiver. If not, he will continue to be an enigma for fantasy owners. We’ll get the first glimpse of any potential breakout receiving ability this preseason, especially when the big guns are resting on the sidelines and he has his own opportunity to shine on center stage.
- Checkmate Doubt we’ll see much of Brett Favre, if at all, this preseason. What we do know is it’s gospel that once in the red zone Favre checks through the same trio, almost in order each time — Visanthe Shiancoe, Sidney Rice and then Harvin. But like us, Favre will be watching this preseason to see who wants to step forward to be his No. 4 man in the red zone. A fourth option on the Vikings might be equal to a second option on the Browns and Lions, so it’s definitely worth paying attention to.
Jay-Mo’s other preseason previews: