Under-the-radar NFL players frequently use the preseason to etch their mark in the pursuit of a team roster spot. Whether it’s a middle-round pick looking to rise up the depth chart or an undrafted free agent trying to make the final 53, the preseason itself is designed for hidden gems to showcase their talents during live football action.
However, the opposite can be true, too. If a veteran or former high draft pick is at the brink of a career exodus, how they perform under the line of preseason fire can help determine how much is left in the tank and where they stand in tight positional battles.
Here are five NFL veterans who would stand to benefit the most from strong preseason performances this season.
Career-Worst PFF Passing Grade (62.4) and Offensive Grade (63.6) in 2021
The Baker Mayfield to Carolina trade was conducted by two very desperate parties. The Panthers needed some level of signal-caller competency to maximize a make-or-break year for head coach Matt Rhule, while Mayfield needed a change of scenery to resurrect a now-dormant career following his fallout with Browns management. Both sides will know for sure if they get the biggest bang for their buck by seeing quality performances from the former top overall pick.
The only thing standing in the way of Mayfield securing the starting job is former top-three overall pick Sam Darnold. Darnold posted a career-worst 54.7 offensive grade in 12 starts this past year with the Panthers and hasn’t been lighting it up during training camp, per multiple social media reports. Here’s an observation from Ellis L. Williams of The Charlotte Observer documenting Darnold’s latest trials and tribulations:
“Even when he outperforms Mayfield, eventually he’ll make a mistake that reminds everyone he is still Sam Darnold. Working with the second team, Darnold picked up a first down by completing a pass to slot receiver Shi Smith. As the clock ticked under two minutes, Darnold ran a quick play and threw a pass intended for Jared Scott, but it was intercepted by safety Sean Chandler as Darnold threw into double coverage.”
Carolina will be deciding on its starting quarterback sooner rather than later, and Mayfield’s performance in the preseason can put the finishing touches on the seemingly lopsided signal-caller competition.
Lowest Receiving Grade on 55-plus targets (63.1) in 2021
Allen Lazard has the unique opportunity to win the WR1 position as a fifth-year undrafted free agent product. With 2022 second-round selection Christian Watson currently on the PUP list, the competition to obtain the majority of Davante Adams’ 177 vacated targets is heating up.
Lazard’s connection with Aaron Rodgers is the second strongest behind Randall Cobb, which has given him a slight leg up on the competition throughout camp. Rodgers spoke earlier this offseason about Lazard's readiness to take that next step since Adams’ departure:
“He’s capable of a lot,” Rodgers said. “And the way things have gone with the reps and the guys that we’ve had here and the targets that we’ve doled out, he hasn’t had a ton of opportunities. Since his first day here, he’s turned heads, so it’s not surprising for him to go out and have a really consistent day today. But he’s been working hard. He has a lot to prove, to himself, to other people, to the team as well. I like a hungry Allen Lazard. It will be an adjustment for us, but I’m happy with Day 1.”
For now, rookie Romeo Doubs has been making the latest waves throughout practice. His vertical speed as a field-stretcher has resulted in highlight-reel plays that have impressed the Packers’ players and coaching staff. Heading into the preseason, Doubs is Lazard’s strongest competition for the lead role.
While Lazard received the most targets of his career (60) this past year, Lazard registered the second-lowest receiving grade of his NFL tenure. For him to win the job, he’ll have to change that narrative against opposing teams' top defensive backs.
59.9 Offensive Grade in 2021
Second-year quarterback Trey Lance has showcased his arm talent during training camp, amplifying why general manager John Lynch took the plunge and selected the FCS standout third overall in last year’s draft. He registered only two starts as the team’s signal-caller in 2021, but his skill set was evident in his brief on-field stints despite a lack of polish.
With Jimmy Garoppolo on the way out in San Francisco, it’s officially Lance’s job. While the reports from multiple 49ers beat writers have varied during training camp, there’s been a common theme of awe about the third overall pick’s natural ability and command of the team from management and coaching staff:
“He is everything we thought he was and a little bit more,” Lynch said. “Quarterbacks in this league who are playing for the first time, they go through their struggles, too, so we're fully aware that those are going to come. But we believe enough in his makeup, what he brings to the table in terms of abilities, but also just his mental makeup, who are you as a person, how are you going to work through adversity. We believe in Trey and all those things.”
One of Lance's recent camp practices was a beauty, per the Santa Rosa Press Democrat's Jack Hammer. He completed 13 of his 17 passes without an interception while also scoring three total touchdowns. If the production from the sophomore carries over into the preseason, the sky's the limit for the Niners' offense.
Lowest Pass-Blocking (31.3) and Offensive Grade (45.2) by an o-linemen with over 1,100 snaps in 2021
Leatherwood was an unquestionable reach during the 2021 NFL Draft, and the concerns of his inconsistencies as an interior lineman were legitimized at the pro level. While he started in every game the Raiders played a season ago, he had six matchups where he failed to register at least a 50.0 offensive grade and 11 games where he didn’t muster a 50.0 pass-blocking grade.
The Raiders' right tackle competition is between Leatherwood, fifth-year talent Brandon Parker and rookie seventh-round Ohio State product Thayer Munford. Both Leatherwood and Munford received right tackle snaps during the Hall of Fame Game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, with Leatherwood gaining the upper hand in offensive grade and run-blocking grade (72.2 and 78.9, respectively) while Munford starred as the slightly better pass blocker (63.5).
The hope is that Leatherwood can potentially carve out a role as a serviceable right tackle with high-end run-blocking ability. If he can continue to do that throughout the preseason, the job is his to lose.
Second-lowest offensive grade of his career (69.3) in 2021
The recent narrative surrounding Ezekiel Elliott has been a common one in many NFL circles. The once premiere back is no longer a reliable bell cow and may be more suited as a committee back within the 2022 Dallas Cowboys offense.
Owner Jerry Jones still feels Zeke should be the team’s feature back but had a unique way of spelling it out to NFL Network’s training camp reporters:
“Zeke's gotta be our feature, and he is our feature,” Jones said. “We can feature him in a lot of different ways. We all recognize what he does in the passing game because of his protection ability. Don't ever underestimate that, especially with Zeke. “
Ideally, what Jones is saying is a decent compromise. Elliott being more of a passing game factor to diversify his usage isn’t a bad alternative, but he hasn’t recorded a receiving grade north of 60.0 since 2018. If anything, that’s where backup Tony Pollard has thrived in two of his past three seasons.
Elliott’s recovery from a partial PCL tear while also slimming down during rehab are all promising steps this offseason toward a career resurgence. This preseason will be all about showcasing the hard work he’s put in behind the scenes and its legitimacy toward future success.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that Raiders tackle Brandon Parker tore his triceps. No official information has been reported about Parker's potential injury status.