The preseason preparations going into the 2021 NFL season are quickly progressing. All of the league’s thirty-two teams have kicked off their campaigns with their first games of the year. The goal remains the same as always – narrowing the roster down to the best 53 players en route to the mid-September start of the 2021 NFL regular season.
Therefore, some players have headed into training camp with aspirations of snatching either a roster spot or a starting job. These players will attempt to strengthen the resumes within their roster battles in the second of three weeks of preseason football, which is already underway. The aforementioned slate of games began on Thursday and is set to continue through Monday’s showdown between Jacksonville and New Orleans at the Ceasars Superdome.
Here are the three players to watch on Saturday as they battle try to battle their way towards a better position.
(Note: The lists in this article do not include the three games contested on Thursday and Friday.)
Andy Dalton, Chicago Bears
The NFL preseason rarely gives the audience enough storylines to make the entirety of a given game worth watching. However, the Chicago Bears are amongst the few teams whose complete preseason slate will be beyond intriguing. This is mainly due to their unresolved battle at quarterback which involves not two but three contenders for a starting job.
The opening scenes of this race were observed last Saturday, when the Bears defeated the Miami Dolphins, 20-13, behind rookie Justin Fields audition for the post. The Ohio State alum led Chicago’s offense under center for the better part of the Week 1 home clash. Fields was accurate on fourteen of his twenty passing attempts, accumulating 142 yards through the air with a touchdown pass. Moreover, these figures amounted to a 70% completion percentage and a passer rating of 106.7.
According to Bears head coach Matt Nagy, the long-time Cincinnati Bengal is set to get the nod in Week 2. Dalton has been noted to be in great shape, per CBS Sports. This means a successful outing significantly increases his chances of warranting a starting spot. The Bears would prefer to patiently develop Fields as he attempts to make his transition into the professional game. However, a bad performance will probably put an end to his hopes of starting at QB for Chicago. Meanwhile, neither he nor Foles is likely to get cut as either move would result in more than $10 million in dead cap and nearly no freed-up space.
Should the latter of the two aforementioned possibilities come to reality, Andy Dalton would experience the first campaign as a backup of his ten-year career. Dalton was a second-string option for the Cowboys last year. However, a Dak Prescott injury gave him enough playing time to increase his market value. That was apparent by the $10 million in guarantees Chicago committed to in order to get Dalton aboard.
With Dallas across nine starts during the 2020 season, Andy Dalton posted a completion percentage of 64.9%, his highest since 2015. Furthermore, he turned in his best passer rating in three years and his lowest interception percentage in two years. If he could replicate these figures, this would be the perfect scenario for the Bears. Nick Foles has had problems turning his situational brilliance into a trend. At the same time, Justin Fields might be better off beginning his career on the bench. Nevertheless, Dalton will have to prove that on Saturday when the Bears face the Buffalo Bills at Soldier Field.
Devin Funchess, Green Bay Packers
The 2015 second-round pick has played just one game in the past three NFL campaigns. The Michigan alum began the 2019 season with the Indianapolis Colts. Funchess had just signed a one-year, $10-million deal after two years as a heavily relied-on weapon for the Panthers. He recorded 111 and 79 targets in 2017 and 2018, respectively. In contrast, his efficiency was not nearly as immense. Funchess had a catch percentage around 55% in each campaign while averaging under 15.0 yards per reception in both years. Yet, that did not hold the Colts back from giving him a hefty one-year contract ahead of the 2019 campaign.
However, this move ended up being hugely disappointing as Indy placed Devin Funchess on the Injured Reserve list after Week 1. The following year, his season came to an even earlier finish as he opted out of the 2020 season after signing with the Packers. That way, his $2.5-million deal for 2020 turned into a $1.5-million 2021 contract. Moreover, Funchess is set to receive $300,000 for every game he plays in this upcoming season.
However, this task is not going to be easy. Currently, the trio atop the Packers’ depth chart at wide receiver is not anything less than locked down. Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling, and Allen Lazard are set to lead Aaron Rodgers‘s air raid. Funchess’s spot is, entering training camp, behind the said three and the likes of Randall Cobb and Amari Rodgers. Seemingly, even the task of beating out the latter two names is impossible on paper.
Even if that might be true, Devin Funchess started to begin the struggle for an uphill climb in a very decent way last week. Green Bay lost to Houston behind Jordan Love‘s debut. Yet, Funchess was amongst the best players for the Packers on either side of the ball. The sixth-year pass-catcher caught six of his eight targets for 70 yards. Out of his direct opponents for a better depth-chart position, the rookie Rodgers had three receptions for fifteen yards.
Devin Funchess remains the sixth-stringer even after one good turnout. However, solidifying those numbers into a tendency could earn Matt LeFleur’s trust and, ultimately, a bigger chunk of the pie.
Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Cleveland Browns
The Cleveland Browns‘ roster seemed to have no major needs just eight days ago. Now, the team has to hope Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah can live up to his reputation. That is if the worst predictions as regards starting linebacker Mack Wilson become reality.
Heading into the 2021 NFL season, Wilson was preparing to be amongst the trio of starting linebackers in his third year on the NFL level. Mack Wilson was drafted in the fifth round in the 2019 NFL Draft but managed to start fourteen games over his rookie year. Furthermore, the Alabama alum kept that role during his sophomore campaign but missed almost half of it due to injury woes.
Unfortunately, this familiar problem then carried onto the current preseason period. Mack Wilson was the top option for Cleveland at weakside linebacker in the Browns’ win over the Jaguars last week. However, the Montgomery native left the game with shoulder issues. After the conclusion of the matchup, an MRI revealed a Grade 1 AC joint sprain, per ESPN. As a result, Wilson’s status is “day-to-day”.
If there are any long-term problems regarding Mack Wilson, the attention would then turn to the 2021 second-round draft pick. Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah joined Cleveland with the 52nd overall pick out of Notre Dame and put his potential on display no later than his first preseason appearance.
Last week in Florida, the Virginia native led the Browns with seven solo tackles and eight total tackles. Moreover, these numbers were accompanied by a sack and three tackles for loss. Those values were also the best on the field out of either team. Owusu-Koramoah was also very solid throughout his last two years as a Fighting Irish. In two campaigns after becoming a starter, he put on 54 and 42 solo tackles, respectively, without missing a single game.
With Wilson out, Owusu-Koramoah could get an even more significant portion of the workload at linebacker. Should Mack Wilson’s shoulder heal quickly, the Notre Dame alum will remain on the bench. However, Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah’s performance here should indicate whether the Browns need to be concerned if they have to use him during the regular season. Part One of this “try-out” was fairly successful but it is not enough to prove a positive trend by itself. He will have to solidify his name against the New York Giants on Sunday afternoon.
Kaden Elliss, New Orleans Saints
One of the most intriguing position groups this training camp season for the New Orleans Saints is the linebacker unit. During free agency, New Orleans general manager Mickey Loomis brought back former Niner and Saint Kwon Alexander. Alexander joins Demario Davis as two of the three potential starters in the linebacker trifecta. The third spot, however, is nowhere near as high-profile.
Kaden Elliss currently has the edge at that post. Elliss was drafted in the seventh round in 2019 out of Idaho. His jump up the depth chart from a seventh-round selection to a starting hopeful has been remarkable. Yet, he has little to show for it – Elliss has started none of his eighteen appearances as a professional thus far. Even worse – he has just five defensive snaps against his name in two seasons. The rest of his playing time has come primarily on special teams.
Nonetheless, he is now the Saints’ best option at strongside linebacker, according to ESPN’s depth chart. Since Zack Baun fits the description of a “Will” linebacker in a 4-3 defensive scheme, he is not in competition with Ellis. Instead, the Wisconsin alum will compete with Alexander for more snaps on the weak side. This means that there is no better alternative to Kaden Elliss – he simply has to reach the form that would justify a season as a starter.
Moreover, it is possible that Zack Baun, in his current form, is a better option than Alexander. Should he be named the starting WLB, Elliss might have to compete with the former 49er if he is moved to SLB. On the other hand, Pete Werner, a Saints second-round pick in 2021, is closer to a Sam than to a Will. However, he did not receive much playing time in Baltimore.
He did just that against the Baltimore Ravens last Saturday. The Ravens defeated the Saints and won their 18th straight preseason game. However, Elliss was still the best defensive player out of either squad. The Idaho alum turned in eight solo tackles, nine total tackles, a fumble recovery, and a tackle for loss.
The battles at WLB and QB are not just interesting but also vital to New Orleans’s performance across the 2021 NFL season. Nonetheless, Kaden Elliss’s outlook is not far off in terms of importance as it is too late to replace him if he disappoints. However, he has shown he is ready to improve but needs to back this statement up.
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