Across the league, players are fighting for jobs. Young players are trying to steal jobs from veterans, and those experienced players are trying to make sure their jobs are secure.
There are numerous battles on all 32 teams, and it’s nearly impossible to keep track of every player that’s had a strong training camp and preseason.
That’s why Eric Galko and myself will be reviewing each team’s preseason, and highlighting some of the best performances out of each camp.
First up is the AFC North. It’s one of the most competiive divisions in the league, and although it’s also one of the most experienced there is a surprisingly strong group of young players making a splash this summer. Who is standing out the most?
WR Deonte Thompson: During his time as a Florida Gator, Deonte Thompson flashed incredible physical potential (6’0, 4.3 speed). Unfortunately, he also displayed inconsistency catching the ball and dealt with numerous mental lapses. Statistically, his worst season was his senior year (21 catches and one touchdown), and his overall lack luster performance led to his going undrafted in the 2012 draft.
Once he was signed by the Ravens however, the light bulb appeared to come on for Thompson. As soon as he arrived to minicamps his performances began to garner rave reviews. He kept up those strong performances during training camp, and has made highlight worthy plays in his first two preseason games. In his first game he caught three passes for 53 yards in a touchdown, and in game two he returned a kickoff for a touchdown (the play was negated by a holding penalty on Sergio Kindle).
Thompson’s strong play has even led to him being mentioned as someone who could threaten draft pick Tommy Streeter. Thompson won’t likely push for a starting role, but he could easily be the Ravens’ fifth receiver and fill in for Jacoby Jones on offense and special teams if Jones were to go down. Would that leave room for Streeter on the the Ravens’ 53 man roster?
LB Paul Kruger: When the Ravens drafted linebacker Courtney Upshaw, most people assumed that Upshaw would quickly slide into a starting role in Baltimore’s defense. Don’t count Paul Kruger among those who thought Upshaw’s job was nearly guaranteed.
With Upshaw struggling with both injury and the speed of the game, Kruger was on top of the depth chart and to this point he’s performed well. Although he’s never started a game in his career, Kruger has looked comfortable in both training camp and during preseason games.
Kruger has gotten time both rushing the quarterback from the weakside and also as the strong side linebacker. It looks that he’ll most likely be playing on the strong side, but either way it will be a big upset if Kruger isn’t a week one starter on the Ravens’ defense.
OG Kevin Zeitler: David Decastro was the interior offensive lineman that NFL draft followers couldn’t get enough of leading up to the draft, but ever since the preseason has gotten started it’s been Kevin Zeitler who’s looked like a future All Pro player at guard.
Zeitler has been playing powerful football, engaging opposing linemen well and hardly looking like a rookie. As an offensive guard his play won’t likely ever get the attention it deserves, but he’s been one of the best rookies this preseason nonetheless.
WR Marvin Jones: One of the most interesting situations in the league is the Bengals’ wide receiver situation. Cincinnati drafted Mohammed Sanu ahead of Marvin Jones, but even before the draft was complete there was speculation around the league that Sanu wouldn’t see the field as early as Jones would.
Jones brings plenty to the Bengals on the offensive side of the ball: he’s had multiple receptions of over 40 yards during the preseason, but he’s not limited to just contributing there. He’s shown value on special teams as well, and at times has looked to be Cincinnati’s best option at punt returner. By all accounts, the post draft speculation was correct and Jones will be seeing a greater amount of playing time over Sanu early in their careers.
WR Travis Benjamin: Fellow rookie wide out Josh Gordon has garnered more attention from the media during his first NFL training camp, but Travis Benjamin could very well be making more plays for the Browns in 2012.
The speedster has continuously improved through out the summer, and in preseason games he’s consistently made plays. He flashed his speed on specials teams with a 33 yard kick return and a 36 yard reception in his first preseason game. His speed will add a vertical threat the Browns lack on offense as it appears that Benjamin will be their starting slot receiver.
CBs Buster Skrine and Trevin Wade: Due to the fact that cornerbacks Buster Skrine and Trevin Wade were selected in the fifth and seventh rounds of their respective drafts, neither player was expected to make much of an impact early in their careers. However, due to uncertainty in the rest of the Browns’ defensive backfield, both young cornerbacks have been thrust into the spotlight and are capitalizing on their chances.
Wade has been undervalued for his entire playing career. Whether it was being a two star recruit in high school or barely getting drafted, for one reason or another he’s always been somewhat overlooked. It’s no longer possible to look past his talent, however. He’s worked his way up the depth chart and is now a considered the front runner to be the Browns’ nickel back in 2012.
Skrine was initially thought to be the leader in the clubhouse for the nickel role, but the looming suspension of star Joe Haden, as well as an injury to Dimitri Patterson has left Cleveland with some shuffling to do in the secondary. Skrine is now seeing more action on the outside, and when Haden was dismissed from practice recently is was Skrine who took over in his absence.
RB Jonathon Dwyer: Heading into training camp, Isaac Redman figured to be Pittsburgh’s starting running back as a result of Rashard Mendenhall’s knee injury. And even though Redman may still be listed as the week one starter, Jonathon Dwyer will be getting many more carries than what he was expected to a month ago.
Redman has struggled to get through training camp healthy, and that’s left Dwyer as the man shouldering the load in Steelers’ backfield. He’s started the preseason with ten carries for 83 yards, an 8.3 ypc average that reflects what he was able to do in 2011 (7.7 ypc average on 16 carries).
Dwyer isn’t particularly flashy as a running back – he’s not exceptionally fast or elusive, but he is consistent, decisive, and reliable. With the rest of the Steelers’ running backs struggling to stay healthy, Pittsburgh needs a back they can count on. Thus far, Dwyer has shown he can be that guy.
WR Antonio Brown: Steelers’ wide receiver Mike Wallace refused to report to camp in order to demonstrate his value to Pittsburgh’s front office. But instead of proving his point, Antonio Brown has taken advantage of Wallace’s absence, and he may have shown that the Steelers don’t need Wallace as badly as Wallace needs Pittsburgh.
To see what a weapon Brown is, you need to look no further than Brown’s 57 yard touchdown catch and run he had against Indianapolis. His ability to elude defenders, paired with his consistent hands and route running give him the potential to be an elite receiver.