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Pushing the Pocket - Preseason Week 1 Winners

Fahey looks at three players who stood out for the right reasons in Preseason Week 1.

Evaluating preseason football can be difficult. It's important to keep everything in perspective so you don't overstate the positive performances or overreact to the negative ones. Generally if a player is thriving in the second half of a game or games it's because he's going against opponents who won't even be on practice squads when September rolls around. That doesn't mean those performances don't matter but it does mean you should remain skeptical. That's the clear and obvious context that anyone can see. it's tougher when you look at how teams treat the first halves of games.

Some teams play their starters more than others, significantly so in some cases, and even those teams may still be running a bland scheme that doesn't feautre creative and deceptive elements. It's hard to react to opponents who are using their whole playbook when you've only been in training camp for less than two weeks.

That doesnt' mean these performanes are worthless for evaluation, they just need to be treated properly and received with a grain of salt. As such, here are three players who stood out for different reasons in Week 1.

Trevor Siemian

Trevor Siemian introduced himself to the NFL landscape in Week 1 of the preseason. Siemian has been one of the biggest curiousities of the offseason, someone who is surprisingly competing for the vacant spot atop the Denver Broncos' quarterback depth chart. It's hard to find a less-inspiring competition between two quarterbacks over recent years. Mark Sanchez remains the favorite simply because he is a known commodity with experience as a starter in the playoffs. Yet Sanchez has obvious flaws, particularly with taking care of the football.

Sanchez started the Broncos' first preseason game against the Chicago Bears. He had one impressive touchdown throw but was inconsistent besides that. Siemian shared his inconsistency but announced himself with one outstanding drive.

Siemian started the drive at midfield. He dropped back in the pocket and deliver the ball with accuracy and timing to the correct receiver. it was a simple drive starter that put the offense in a good position on second down.

The Broncos are expected to be a run-first offense but they asked Siemian to move the chains from the start of this drive. On second down, he correctly diagnosed the coverage and delivered a perfectly timed and perfectly played pass to Cody Latimer. Latimer was tightly covered by the cornerback assigned to him and there was a safety arriving from deep. It doesn't matter who this throw was against, the precision and timing required gave it a high degree of difficulty.

Siemian followed that up on First-and-10 with another good read that led to a well-timed, well-placed throw. These plays are important for Siemian to make because they are the foundation of an effective offense. They weren't eye-opening plays, but they did set up the opportunity for an eye-opening play.

It was a perfect opening drive from the quarterback. He was under pressure to perform, to announce himself in this competition and he answered that pressure in the best possible way. His receiver dropped the touchdown pass in the above play, but it was again a perfectly-placed, perfectly-timed throw deep downfield. On the following play, Siemian arched a pass into the same spot of the endzone for his receiver to make a play on the ball in the air, once again the receiver let him down.

Siemian wasn't perfect. He should have been intercepted on a deep throw into double coverage in the second quarter and we don't know how expansive his skill set is. However, as far as introductions go, this one will have undoubtedly enthused his coaching staff.

Tyler Higbee

It's hard to argue that the Los Angeles Rams passing game has a better outlook now than it did two weeks ago. Jared Goff's scrutinized performances in practices carried over into his preseason debut. Goff threw a bad interception and took a sack that turned a field goal into a punt before sitting down because of shoulder pain. The Rams needed Goff to be further ahead now than he is because they can't afford to enter another season with questions at his position.

While the short-term outlook of the passing game remains bleak, the long-term state of the skill positions saw some reasons for optimism. Those reasons didn't come from expected places either.

Mike Thomas and Pharoh Cooper were the players to watch against the Dallas Cowboys. Both receivers opened their performances with drops and failed to make the expected impact. Nelson Spruce played against a lower caliber of competition in the second half but he came away as the big winner from the wide receiving corps. Spruce drew comparisons to Danny Amendola for his ability to make plays over the middle of the field and move the chains. Spruce is still closer to a long shot than a sure thing though. He is unlikely to get snaps on offense once the regular season begins.

Tight end Tyler Higbee is in position to get snaps. Higbee was the other big winner for the Rams in Week 1. He still lies behind Lance Kendricks on the tight end depth chart but saw time with the first-team offense as the second tight end on the field. Kendricks is a favored player for the Rams coaching staff but it's already emanently clear that Higbee has more talent. Kendricks is versatile and consistent with his blocking, but he lacks above average traits. The ease with which Higbee perforned in the passing game should make him a focal point of the Rams passing game over the coming years.

Higbee will give the Rams something they don't currently have, a possession receiver and mismatch option over the middle of the field. The first of the two above plays shows off the one target that Higbee received with the Rams' first-team offense. If you watch the tight end from the beginning of the play, you can see how he manipulates the cornerback sitting in zone coverage by leaning into him then quickly turning towards the sideline. Case Keenum is late with the ball so Higbee prioritizes protecting himself and the catch while keeping both feet inbounds.

In the second gif, Higbee catches a simple curl route over the middle of the field before taking a hit from behind. The speed and balance that Higbee shows off on this play is what stands out for future evaluation. He emphasized that speed and balance a few plays later.

On this play, Higbee is split wide to the right working against safety J.J. Wilcox. Wilcox backs off the line of scrimmage even though it's Third-and-3. The ideal route for Higbee in this situation is a slant. With his quickness he could get his body between the safety and the ball past the first down marker very easily. Instead, Higbee releases vertically upfield and is forced to run the route that Wilcox wants him to run.

Despite the safety being set up for it, Higbee's route is too precise and too fast for the safety. The ball arrives somewhat awkwardly, high on his inside shoulder, but that doesn't bother the tight end as he comfortably pulls the ball in for the first down.

As a tight end, you don't need to run complex routes. You do need to run routes with timing and quickness in space. That is something that Higbee does with ease. His curl route against Wilcox on this play is easy once again. This time Higbee takes advantage of the space the safety gives him by setting him up for YAC with how he catches the ball. Higbee leans back into the ball and pushes towards his quarterback as the safety dives desperately to try and counter his size and athleticism.

Higbee is 6'6" and 249 lbs. Expecting your average NFL linebacker, safety or cornerback to comfortably match up to him in the passing game is unrealistic. He can work in tight spaces and will have big play ability based on the athleticism that he has shown off to this point.

Derrick Henry

On the very first play of the game, DeMarco Murray took a pitch outside left tackle and went untouched past the line of scrimmage for an easy 15-yard gain. That play set the tone for the game. The Tennessee Titans ran for 288 yards against the Joey Bosa-less San Diego Chargers. Murray accounted for 93 of those yards on just six carries, he cut back on a power play for a 71-yard touchdown. Cutting back on power is typically a bad idea, but such was the play of the Chargers defense that it didn't really matter what the Titans backs tried to do, it was going to work.

After Murray went out, Derrick Henry came in and continued to be just as effective.

Henry carried the ball 10 times for 74 yards and a touchdown. His numbers were startling, especially considering the polarizing nature of his skill set and the skeptical reports about his performances that emanated from the offseason. Henry played well. There is no doubting that. His production was unfairly bloated though. The Titans left their first-team offense in the game longer than the Chargers left their first-team defense in. Not only that, Mularkey was running his full offense, an offense that couldn't be further from the vanilla looks that most offenses rely on at this time of the year. Henry even started the game as the team's fullback who ran the other way on that 15-yard run for Murray.

Despite all of the qualifiers and Murray's positive play, this game was still a big positive for Henry's fantasy outlook. When he entered the game, the Titans put the offense on his back. He didn't look like Murray's backup, he looked like a back the Titans intend on using often.

Henry's first snap in place of Murray saw the offense throw off of play action. They then followed with six straight running plays for the rookie.

His first run was bounced outside early but the defender setting the edge collapsed in on himself. His second run was very similar, with the defensve edge setter getting crushed again by a block from fullback Jalston Fowler. Both of those runs weren't ideally executed from the running back because you don't typicaly want your big back to move laterally. Against NFL-standard run defenses, these plays are more likely to go for no gain or a loss than turn around the edge.

The above gif shows off Henry's third run when he worked up the middle of the defense. The positive from this play is the initial burst of acceleration he shows off to avoid getting caught behind the line of scrimmage. That lack of burst is what ruined Toby Gerhart's NFL career, so as a big back it's important for Henry to show it off.

What this play didn't ask Henry to do was adjust in any way before the line of scrimmage. he had plenty of space and a clean hole to run through directly in front of him. That vaulted him onto the second level where he could attack smaller defenders in space. Henry spun off the first defender and maintained his balance to scramble forward for an extra three or four yards. Henry's next play was largely similar as he went up the middle and was given a huge amount of space to work in once again.

The Titans had a nine play drive and Henry carried the ball seven times. While the questions about his ability will remain until he performs in tighter spaces against first-team defenses, the number of touches he received is very comforting to Henry owners.