Game four of the NFL preseason, with the bulk of playing time dedicated to non-starters, is arguably the least watchable game on the NFL calendar. As the Browns prepare to face the Bears Thursday night, it is likely that Colt McCoy, Peyton Hillis, Montario Hardesty and many other starters will not be on the field. Here are a few roster battles and key performances to watch to get you through it:
Filling Eric Steinbach’s shoes: Watch the rotation at left guard and the performance of Jason Pinkston and John Greco – Pat Shurmur and Tom Heckert will be.
Depth in the backfield: Armond Smith and Quinn Porter are battling for the last backfield roster spot. If Smith can demonstrate good ball security, his explosive speed would be tough to part with. This battle bears extra watching with Brandon Jackson’s return from injury in doubt. If the front office is truly concerned with Jackson’s status I believe we will see a veteran runner brought in as an insurance policy after Saturday’s cut-downs.
Fifth and sixth wide receiver spots: The mainstream thought here is that after Mohammed Massaquoi, Greg Little, Brian Robiskie and Josh Cribbs, the final two spots will go to Carlton Mitchell and Jordan Norwood. I don’t disagree with this, but Demetrius Williams has caught some eyes in camp. Williams faces an uphill battle, though, as the front office is invested in Mitchell (a sixth-round Heckert pick last year), and Norwood can contribute in the return game.
Back end of the defense: Undrafted rookie free agent James Dockery has impressed since day one and in most opinions has earned a roster spot. The pressure is on Coye Francies as he looks to potentially be the odd man out at cornerback. Ray Ventrone is a big contributor on special teams, but a liability in the secondary – this could be a concern with the nagging injuries to starters T.J. Ward and Usama Young.
Young linebackers: Kaluka Maiava seems to have cemented his spot in the rotation and Titus Brown has been a pleasant surprise (despite his current injury). Thus far in the preseason Brian Smith has out-performed Eric Gordon, though I would expect to see both get extensive final looks for the last linebacker roster spot. This is another position that could be solidified by a veteran addition after Saturday.
In the end, every NFL squad would be happy to simply escape this week’s games without significant injury. Let’s face it – the best thing about preseason game No. 4 is that the regular season is only ten days away.