I used to do this every year, so why not write this once and be done with it?
1. Ignore the score. It doesn’t mean anything– especially if the same units aren’t competing. They used their first string for one possession– you used them for a quarter. You look better, but it says nothing about how strong you are.
Yes, it’s always better to win than it is to lose. I’m with the guys who say that any win builds character and moves you (in at least some small way) towards the Super Bowl. But if you lose because their fourth-string players are better than yours, it doesn’t matter.
It’s reasonable to break a score down by units– to say “When both our first teams were on the field, we won 7-3, but their second team beat us 17-3 and our third team won 10-7.” But a lot of coaches don’t slice things that neatly– there will be a couple of players who play more or less, because the coaches want to giove them work or rest them.
2. Adjust for experience. If one team ios using second or third-year players– who have been through camp before and know the system– they’re going to look a lot better than the other team’s rookies.
For example, Meowkevious Mingo was here in 2013, when Ray Horton was the coordinator. It would not be shocking– him being a fourth-year player and knowing the system– if he has a really good game.
If that happens, refrain from excessive Plutoism– shouting “HOO-HOO-HOO!!!” and saying that maybe Mingo is about to show us why he was a first-round pick. It’s probably meaningless.
3. Vet for skills, not plays. if Shon Coleman or Spencer Drango gets a really big block, that’s nice. What would be better if he/they show good footwork, If your pick wipes out a two-time Pro Bowl playerm, that’s one thing. But beating a sixth-round pick on a pattern and catching a 30-yard pass is what these new receivers are supposed to do. A penalty for illegal procedure or a false start is probably more meaningful.
Similarly if Kessler’s “Smooth As Silk” Whiskey seems confused by the defense and struggles to make throws due to lack of arm strength, that is much more significant than one pass rifled to a a receiver in the flat who went 70 yards.
4. Avoid Crowell Sydrome. In every season, there are players who come out of nowhere and win spots on a team. That is especially true if you have a really bad team– like this one. But Isaiah Crowell is probably not an All Pro– and while Taylor Gabriel has been a very helpful spare part, if you start him, you’re probably going 4-12.
I’m sure 2-3 players nobody has ever heard of will have big games. Don’t get too excited about it– it is probably nothing.
5. Look for development. This is the flip side to point #2. You don’t want to give a player too much credit for getting older and more experienced. But if a player is doing something that he did not do the year before– and has never done in college– pay attention to that.
The next time Nate Orchard plays run defense will be the first. It’s not what he likes to do and nobody (including the Browns) has ever required it. So if he were to come out and tackle six ballcarriers– two behind the line of scrimmage– that would be very meaningful, because it is new territory. If he has two sacks, that is no big deal.
The same would be true of Ibraheim Campbell, who does not play pass defense. Two interceptions from him would be a major step forward. Danny Shelton getting consistent pass pressure against the first team offensive line would be cause for celebration.
6. Watch for mental errors. Any time a team puts in a new system, you should expect mistakes and screwups. This is especially true when the team has also changed played.
The Browns dumped C Alex Mack, who called the line signals. They ditched both inside linebackers who called signals (Karlos Dansby and Craig Robertyson). If the team looks confused, that’s a sign that Cam Erving, Chris Kirksey and Demario Davis are screwing up.
Davis should be expected to make mistakes. When he was with the Jets, Rex Ryan loved how active he was. When Todd Bowles arrived last year, he found the missed assignment exasperating. My expectation would be a lot of mistakes.
7. Be on the lookout for hype. All of these coaches– and the entire front office– are very confident in their judgment, and love to tout players. In reality, their judgment isn’t that great and they make statements about players that suggest they smoke crack.
Crowell and Duke Johnson are not the best backfield in the league, the most talented backfield in the league– anything more than two guys with talent who haven’t been that impressive is hype.
The plays to look for– the stuff that will matter– are the ones that undercut what they have been saying. WR Jordan Payton doesn’t have speed, but he is supposed to have an uncanny ability to get open in traffic, to catch any ball in his area, and to get at least a few yards after the catch. If he isn’t open and all he does is catch 7-yard passes on 3rd & 9, that is a bad thing.
Whether #2 pick Carl Nassib— who was a DE but was going to be shifted to linebacker until injuries forced him back to line– can handle that job will be important. He’s 6’7″ and 277– too tall and too light to be a 3-4 end. If he can’t do the job, the browns have a problem.
Unless they’re willing to go to a 4-3, of course. That would make more sense, but Horton doesn’t know how to coach a 4-3, so he’s likely to resist it unless there is no other alternative.
8. Watch for matching injuries. A sore ankle, a gimpy hamstring or an aching elbow can last the whole season.
If a player isn’t playing, that can be a good thing. The Indians always aggravate medical conditions by trying to bring people back too soon. Hue Jackson deciding that neither Corey Coleman (the #1 pick) nor Andrew Hawkins (their best veteran) should play in the first exhibition games makes very good sense.
But if you see a player having a pre-season like Shawn Lauvao used to– couldn’t play in some practices, day to day for next game, might sit out this or that– the safe bet is to assume that it will continue indefinitely. You might, in short, have a problem you did not expect to have.