Inside peek: Players to Watch in preseason games

The Sports Xchange

August 10, 2016 at 12:05 pm.

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd (83) makes a catch during training camp at Paul Brown Stadium. He's been turning heads in camp. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Tyler Boyd (83) makes a catch during training camp at Paul Brown Stadium. He’s been turning heads in camp. Photo Credit: Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports

After a false start when the Hall of Fame preseason opener was whitewashed last Sunday, National Football League fans will finally see teams and players in action beginning Thursday when six of this week’s 16 games are scheduled to play.

Until then, only those who attended workouts at training camps were able to watch any NFL action and maybe pick a Player to Watch.

Reporters covering every NFL camp and every practice for The Sports Xchange each selected a Player to Watch. They are presented here as fans prepare to take a look for themselves at this week’s games.

So here is list of games and times followed by hints from TSX team insiders as to whom might be worth an extra look:

Thursday, August 11
Game, local time, Eastern Time
Washington at Atlanta, 7:00p (ET), 7:00p
Tampa Bay at Philadelphia, 7:00p (ET), 7:00p
Carolina at Baltimore, 7:30p (ET), 7:30p
New Orleans at New England, 7:30p (ET), 7:30p
Jacksonville at New York Jets, 7:30p (ET), 7:30p
Denver at Chicago, 7:00p (CT), 8:00p

Friday, August 12
Game, local time, Eastern Time
Miami at New York Giants, 7:00p (ET), 7:00p
Detroit at Pittsburgh, 7:00p (ET), 7:00p
Minnesota at Cincinnati, 7:30p (ET), 7:30p
Cleveland at Green Bay, 7:00p (CT), 8:00p
Oakland at Arizona, 7:00p (MST), 10:00p

Saturday, August 13
Game, local time, Eastern Time
Seattle at Kansas City, 3:30p (CT), 4:30p
Indianapolis at Buffalo, 7:00p (ET), 7:00p
Dallas at Los Angeles, ESPN, 5:00p (PT), 8:00p
San Diego at Tennessee, 7:00p (CT), 8:00p

Sunday, August 14
Game, local time, Eastern Time
Houston at San Francisco, 4:00p (PT), 7:00p

Players to Watch as selected by reporters covering each team (teams listed alphabetically, first within the NFC, then the AFC):


–Wide receiver Chris Hubert: An undrafted rookie free agent out of tiny Fayetteville State, the even tinier Hubert caught a break when his father, a former equipment manager at North Carolina State, convinced alum Steve Keim, the Cardinals’ general manager, to take a look at his son while Keim and area scout John Rich were working out players this past spring in Raleigh. Hubert opened their eyes during a later tryout in Arizona and won Keim and the coaches over. “So far in camp they can’t cover him,” Keim said. The 5-foot-9 Hubert would have to beat out a handful of other receivers, namely Brittan Golden, and excel in special teams to have a shot at making the team as the sixth wideout.


–Cornerback C.J. Goodwin: Goodwin, a former receiver turned cornerback, is making plenty of noise in training camp. With Desmond Trufant held out of Friday night’s practice at Grayson High School because of a hip injury, Goodwin manned the starting job at left cornerback. Goodwin spent 2014 as a receiver on Pittsburgh’s practice squad and joined Atlanta’s practice squad last November. Last year in practice, Falcons head coach Dan Quinn wanted to see what would happen if he lined up Goodwin at cornerback a few times opposite All-Pro receiver Julio Jones. Goodwin made enough plays on the ball for Quinn to move him to defense earlier this year. On Tuesday in practice, he snatched a ball away from receiver Eric Weems on a contested deep pass. “We know Goodwin has the ball skills,” Quinn said. “We’re anxious to see him this preseason.”


–Wide receiver Damiere Byrd: This spring, when receivers coach Ricky Proehl predicted Byrd would “be a force to be reckoned with,” many figured it was just coach-speak. It wasn’t. After a solid spring, Byrd has been one of the most dynamic players at Carolina’s training camp. The 5-foot-9 speedster spent all of last season on the practice squad, and now he is making a real push for a roster spot.


–Safety Deon Bush: The fourth-round draft pick has impressed coaches with better range than anyone expected. What Bush was really known for in college is an ability to hit, but he obviously doesn’t get to show that in scrimmage at practice. He did put receiver Cameron Meredith down to the ground with one hit for an incompletion, but this will be his first real chance in live fire to show his abilities. The staff and personnel decided after OTAs that they liked Bush enough that they could dispatch Omar Bolden, who signed in free agency. With a good game, Bush might even be able to establish himself as a threat to Harold Jones-Quartey’s starting job or even to Bryce Callahan at nickel corner.


–Wide receiver Andy Jones: An undrafted free agent from tiny Jacksonville University, Jones has been the most impressive receiver in camp not named Dez Bryant, Cole Beasley, Terrance Williams and Brice Butler. And it might be a tie with Brice Butler. Jones played at a school that doesn’t give away scholarships. Now he is almost a lock to make the roster if he continues to show up and stand out in preseason games as he has done in practice. The Cowboys already know he will not get to the practice squad. They can’t stash him.


–Wide receiver Jay Lee: When the Lions signed Anquan Boldin to a one-year contract before the start of training camp, it seemed like Lee, an undrafted free agent out of Baylor, was destined for the practice squad. That still may be his eventual landing spot, but not quite three weeks into camp, Lee has made a compelling case for a job as the Lions’ No. 5 receiver. He shined in the team’s mock game, catching a touchdown pass among a half dozen or so receptions, and has become a favorite target of backup quarterback Dan Orlovsky because of his combination of size (6-foot-2, 211) and speed. Both TJ Jones and Andre Caldwell have been nursing injuries of late, so Lee, one of the Lions’ few true deep threats, should get plenty of snaps Friday against the Steelers.


–Inside linebacker Blake Martinez: One hundred thirty players were selected ahead of Martinez in this year’s draft. Not many of them, however, will be in the esteemed position Martinez could have in about a month when the Packers open the season at the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sept. 11. The fourth-round draft pick from Stanford drew rave reviews from coaches shortly after arriving in Green Bay in May and hasn’t disappointed. He’s been a staple in the middle of the Packers’ first-string defense since the spring workouts and looks to be a natural fit with the pads on early in training camp. A hard-working and savvy Martinez will have his belated first NFL preseason game (following the cancellation of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Game on Sunday night) to show he is a rookie keeper in the starting lineup when the Packers host the Cleveland Browns on Friday.


–Tight end Tyler Higbee: A rookie from Western Kentucky, Higbee has been making plays all camp and now hopes to translate practice success into games. The 6-foot-5 Higbee is getting snaps with the first team and has shown an ability to get open and hold onto the ball – a component the Rams have missed from their tight ends over the years. If his skill-set can carry over to preseason games, he has a chance to make a case for immediate playing time as a rookie.


–Wide receiver Moritz Bohringer: The 22-year-old rookie became a national story on draft day when the Vikings used a sixth-round pick to make Bohringer the first European-born player to be drafted with no college football experience. The Aalen, Germany, native figures to get a lot of playing time on Friday in the Vikings’ preseason opener vs. Cincinnati. Unfortunately for him, most of it could come alongside Joel Stave, an undrafted rookie quarterback who struggled throughout camp. Bohringer became interested in American football five years ago when he saw YouTube clips of Vikings running back Adrian Peterson. His only experience is three years in the German leagues, but he has flashed some speed, athleticism, strength and soft hands to go along with his 6-foot-4, 225-pound frame. Watching him against live NFL game competition, even against fellow third-stringers, will be one of the reasons to keep watching late into the game.


–Wide receiver Tommylee Lewis: An undrafted free agent from Northern Illinois, the 5-foot-7, 168-pound dynamo started turning heads in OTAs and the full-squad minicamp and hasn’t slowed down in the first two weeks of training camp. Lewis faces long odds with the top four roster spots at the position likely set with Brandin Cooks, Willie Snead, Michael Thomas and Brandon Coleman. But Lewis made a big move to perhaps nail down the fifth spot last Thursday when he scored on a jet-sweep in the red zone before latching onto a long TD pass from Garrett Grayson. Lewis, who has been playing as a gunner on special teams, will likely get a chance to return kicks in the preseason opener at New England — which, if successful, could help him make a move on incumbent return man Marcus Murphy in his bid to earn a roster spot.


–Running back Paul Perkins: The rookie fifth-round pick out of UCLA missed most of the spring OTAs, but you wouldn’t know it watching him on the field these days. Perkins is speedy and shifty, and has shown some home-run potential with some of his outside runs. While he will probably be the bottom man on the totem pole this year once the coaches sort out the depth ahead of him, Perkins could be contributing to the Giants’ running game a lot sooner than anyone anticipated, particularly if the running game gets off to a slow start this season.


–Cornerback Jalen Mills: Mills, a rookie seventh-rounder, has had an excellent camp so far and already has moved ahead of 2015 second-round pick Eric Rowe, who started the final five games last season.


–Defensive back Rashard Robinson: The fourth-round pick will play in his first game since Oct. 25, 2014 when the 49ers open the preseason Sunday against Houston. Robinson, a freshman startER at LSU in 2013, was suspended for the final four games of 2014, before getting kicked off the team prior to the start of last season. The 49ers nonetheless took a flyer on the talented defender with the No. 133 pick in April, and he’s been impressive early in training camp.


–Defensive tackle Brandin Bryant: An undrafted free agent out of Florida Atlantic, Bryant has quickly made himself a contender for a roster spot. He was initially signed as a fullback and defensive tackle as the team was uncertain about his best fit. However, Bryant handled defensive tackle so well the team abandoned the fullback idea altogether. Bryant has been working with the second-team defense for the majority of camp and appears to be the favorite to win the backup job at three-technique tackle. His speed and strength play well as an interior pass rusher.


–Wide receiver Jonathan Krause: The former Vanderbilt receiver spent time on the practice squads of the Browns and Patriots before finally seeing action in two games last season with the Eagles. Krause picked up the playbook in a hurry and has a chance to earn a spot on a thin receiving corps that is looking for a fourth and fifth receiver.


–Cornerback Dashaun Phillips: The nickel back worked with the starters throughout OTAs and minicamp, but now is locked in a heated battle with third-round draft pick Kendall Fuller for this spot. It’s possible Washington will keep as many as six corners so Phillips is a good bet to make the final roster. But he and Fuller have traded reps for much of camp with the first-team defense. An undrafted free agent from Tarleton State in 2015, Phillips landed on Washington’s practice squad last year and eventually appeared in six games.


–Running back Terrance West: The Baltimore native is on track to resurrect his career with the Ravens after being signed to the team’s practice squad in November. West lowered his weight to about 215 pounds, which is about five pounds lighter than he was in college. He has also shown explosiveness when hitting holes and catching balls out of the backfield. West could unseat Justin Forsett as the starter with a strong showing in the preseason games. “I feel good,” West said. “I feel powerful – more explosive. I can hit more big runs.”


–Wide receiver Marquise Goodwin: When the diminutive, injury-prone Goodwin skipped all of the offseason program while attempting to make the U.S. Olympic team as a long jumper, it appeared like his NFL career was in jeopardy. During his first three years in the NFL, Goodwin had missed 24 of 48 games due to injury, and with so many receivers in camp, it was thought to be a tough task for Goodwin to rejoin the team late in the preseason and make the team. Well, he didn’t qualify for the Olympics, and he’s been in camp since Day 1 looking like a rejuvenated player who has positioned himself near the top of the depth chart behind starters Sammy Watkins and Robert Woods.


–Wide receiver Tyler Boyd: One of the big storylines entering camp has been the young receivers and who would emerge to help fill a void left by the departures of free agents Mohamed Sanu and Marvin Jones. Veterans A.J. Green and Brandon LaFell are the anchors, but Boyd might be playing his way into a starting role with sensational play after sensational play. Boyd now just needs to establish some consistency and translate his practice performances to the playing field. “So good to see,” offensive coordinator Ken Zampese told the Cincinnati Enquirer. “He’s been doing a nice job. He’s been coming on. We need more urgency on a consistent basis from him. We just need him to bring it all the time.”


–Tackle Spencer Drango: Drango can play left or right tackle, but with nine-time Pro-Bowl player Joe Thomas firmly entrenched on the left side, Drango has been seeing time with the first unit on the right side. He has a feisty mentality and once he gets in front of the defender the fifth-round draft pick from Baylor doesn’t give in. Drango is battling Alvin Bailey, Shon Coleman and Austin Pasztor for playing time. Drango is listed as the starter for the preseason opener in Green Bay. Ultimately, the job might go to Pasztor because of experience, but even if that does happen, Drango is showing he can back up both tackle spots.

–Offensive lineman Michael Schofield: He struggled at times working at right tackle last year, particularly in a Week 14 loss to Oakland when he allowed four of the five sacks racked up by Khalil Mack. But he has shown improvement this offseason and through training camp, and is on track to be at least the top backup offensive lineman. Schofield is listed as a co-No. 1 right guard along with the injured Ty Sambrailo, but will start Thursday at left tackle in place of Russell Okung, who is being eased back from a shoulder injury. A strong performance could give him confidence that he could apply to his bid to be the starting right guard.


–Running back Tyler Ervin: Ervin bears watching as a versatile third-down back. He doubles as a dangerous kick returner. The fourth-round pick from San Jose State could figure into the Texans’ plans as a valuable reserve behind starter Lamar Miller. The Texans like his elusiveness and quickness.


–Guard/tackle Joe Haeg: The Colts’ fifth-round draft pick last spring, Haeg has caught the attention of the coaching staff. Haeg played tackle last season as a senior at FCS power North Dakota State, but has done a nice job of moving inside to guard during OTAs and minicamp work. His progress at guard has continued during training camp and he has seen work at both left and right guard slots. With the injury last week to starting right tackle Joe Reitz, the 6-foot-6, 304-pound Haeg was slated to start in his place in last Sunday night’s cancelled Hall of Fame Game.


–Defensive end Yannick Ngakoue: The rookie from Maryland has been a standout in training camp thus far. He’s had the upper hand in one-on-one battles with Jaguars tackles. In Monday’s practice, he was a perfect 4-0 in one-on-one pass rushing drills, twice beating Luke Joeckel and twice getting by Josh Wells. Joeckel and Wells were alternating as the starting left tackle. “He’s been impressive. His motor is the big part of it,” Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley said about Ngakoue, a third-round draft pick earlier this year. “The question with him out of the draft was how he was going to play the run. We have been pleasantly surprised with how he has been doing in that aspect. He is playing with a certain level of maturity as a rusher.” Ngakoue figures to get plenty of playing time against the New York Jets on Thursday in his backup role at defensive end. With the starters likely limited to just the first quarter, Ngakoue will see a lot of time in the second and third quarters.


–Linebacker Justin March: Listed at 6-foot, 222 pounds, the first-year linebacker from the University of Akron is on the small side, especially for a player that works the inside in a 3-4 defense. Signed last year as an undrafted free agent, March made a big impression in training camp, but then sustained a knee injury in a preseason game that required surgery and he did not get back on the field. He’s picked up this August right where he left off last year. “Justin is a very instinctive player,” said defensive coordinator Bob Sutton. “He’s got some of that natural feel for the ball and that’s a great trait to have, particularly as an inside player. You can’t tell where the ball is going all the time — whether it’s staying inside or bouncing back out. He’s always had that sense of nature since he’s been here. He’s got great energy, he plays really hard and he gets his hands on a lot of footballs. If he just keeps coming, he’s going to be a real plus for us.”


–Wide receiver/punt returner Jakeem Grant: This 5-foot-6 ball of energy has made everyone ooh and ahh with his slick moves in 1-on-1 drills and punt and kickoff returns. But Grant, the sixth-round pick from Texas Tech, has to show his hands and routes are NFL-worthy. That could happen Friday at the New York Giants. Expect Grant to get a good look on special teams and some snaps at slot receiver. If they get him in space, and he runs a good route and actually catches the ball, he could be dangerous. And a lot of fun.


–Running back Tyler Gaffney: After two years on injured reserve to open his NFL career, former Stanford star Gaffney is looking to take advantage of his reps in a pretty open running back battle this summer. The big back has shown nice burst and elusiveness in practice — including intra-squad scrimmages and joint sessions with the Saints. But there is a big difference between practice rushing yards and those that come in live game competition and Gaffney will be looking to take the next step in his drive toward a potential roster spot in the preseason opener against New Orleans on Thursday.


–Wide receiver Kyle Williams: The Jets have having a wide-open competition in search of a kickoff and punt returner, and head coach Todd Bowles said he would like to see a handful of candidates audition Thursday during the preseason opener against the Jaguars. Williams, who missed the last two seasons with shoulder and Achilles injuries, averaged 24 yards per kickoff return and 8.1 yards per punt return from 2010 through 2013 with the San Francisco 49ers and Denver Broncos. He could vault onto the radar Thursday.


–Running back Jalen Richard: An undrafted free agent out of Southern Mississippi, Richard has been breaking off some big runs during camp and opening eyes. At 5-foot-8, 207 pounds, Richard has fallen under the radar behind fifth-round pick DeAndre Washington but has been nearly as effective during practice. The Raiders are seeking complementary backs for Latavius Murray — as quarterback Derek Carr was their second-leading rusher las season — and Richard stands a chance at making the 53-man roster. The Raiders will open the season down one back, as Marcel Reece will be on the suspended list for the first three games for violating the NFL’s policy on performance enhancing drugs.


–Linebacker Tyler Matakevich: A rookie seventh-round pick from Temple, Matakevich is having a strong camp, but he plays a position where the Steelers have lots of depth. If the Steelers keep five inside linebackers, it will be between Matakevich and L.J. Fort, who also has been a standout early in camp. Against the Lions Friday night, Matakevich will have a chance to show he can do in the NFL what he did in college – make lots of tackles. He’s done that in practice, but he’ll have to prove he can do it in game if he wants to earn a roster spot.


–Wide receiver Tyrell Williams: With Malcom Floyd’s retirement and the serious camp knee injury suffered by Stevie Johnson, Williams has been able to be on the field more. He hasn’t disappointed with his reliable hands and a quick connection he’s forming with Philip Rivers. Among his three touchdown catches in Monday’s practice was a fade to the back corner, with him and Rivers clicking beautifully. Williams can continue his solid camp with a good showing on Saturday against the Titans. Williams is listed behind Travis Benjamin on the depth chart.


–Nose tackle Antwaun Woods: The Titans needed help behind starter Al Woods at nose tackle. So they drafted Austin Johnson with a second-round pick. However, the Titans have a surprise in the race for the backup nose tackle spot, as undrafted Antwaun Woods of Southern Cal has moved past Johnson for now on the depth chart. Woods, 6-foot-1, 318, plays with good leverage and has such a big body that offensive linemen have had trouble getting their hands on him and moving him out of the way.