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NFL preseason: Top AFC players to watch in game 3

By
Frank Cooney, Sports Xchange

Here is a closer look at TSX's Showtime nominees on each AFC team, followed by a schedule for the games in which they will play, which includes five that will be nationally televised as the networks put their respective lineups on display for the first time this year.

BALTIMORE RAVENS: Matt Judon, LB

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The fifth-round pick from Grand Valley State led the nation with 20 sacks last year. That ability to get to the quarterback is the primary reason he was selected by Baltimore at No. 146 overall.

So far, Judon has justified that pick. After earning a sack in the first preseason game against the Carolina Panthers, Judon had two more against the Colts on Saturday. He will look to maintain that big-play ability this Saturday against the Detroit Lions.

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"He's a gamer, I guess," Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said. "He's playing pretty good in practice, but he's playing really well in the games. I think kind of what I'd like to do next week, is put him in against some starting offensive tackles and see how he does."

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BUFFALO BILLS: Glenn Gronkowski, FB

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The younger brother of Patriots star tight end Rob Gronkowski has been considered a longshot to make the 53-man roster and seems destined for a spot on the practice squad.

However, Jerome Felton hasn't stood out in camp and he lost a fumble against the New York Giants. Gronkowski has the versatility to line up at fullback, tight end or H-back, and he can play special teams.

So the next two games will be important for him. If Felton is on the team, his cap hit is $2.3 million and if he's not, the dead cap hit is $1.9 million, for those who focus on numbers over production.

CINCINNATI BENGALS: Derron Smith, S

He provided the defensive highlight of Thursday night's preseason game at Detroit when he anticipated a route, picked off a pass from Lions quarterback Dan Orlovsky, and sprinted 60 yards down the sideline for a touchdown.

The second-year pro out of Fresno State is looking to secure a spot in a Bengals secondary that is deep and experienced.

"He had an opportunity last week and didn't make the play on the ball," head coach Marvin Lewis said after the last game. "This week he converted, which was good. That's what he's got to keep doing. These young guys, we're expecting a lot out of them. They just have to keep rising up."

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CLEVELAND BROWNS: Josh Gordon, WR

Photo by David Tulis/UPI
Gordon is getting one chance to make a huge impression on Browns head coach Hue Jackson. Gordon did not play in either of the first two preseason games. He is suspended for the first four regular-season games as part of the condition for being reinstated by commissioner Roger Goodell.

Jackson plans to play Gordon extensively against the Buccaneers in the third preseason game so he can get an idea of how to use him when Gordon's suspension ends. Gordon led the NFL with 1,646 receiving yards in 2013, but has been his own worst enemy since.

DENVER BRONCOS: Cody Latimer, WR

After languishing through his first two seasons, the 2014 second-round pick is finally poised for a breakthrough. He struggled to pick up the offense in 2014 and 2015 and admitted he was "nervous" around quarterback Peyton Manning as he feared making a mistake.

But this summer he is more relaxed and leads the Broncos in yardage and receptions through two games. Bennie Fowler's elbow injury also gave Latimer more time, and he appears to be leading in the race for the No. 3 receiving position.

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HOUSTON TEXANS: Tyler Ervin, RB

The fourth-round draft pick from San Jose State needs to show more explosiveness as a return specialist and out of the backfield.

Ervin hasn't flashed the big-play capabilities he displayed in college with the exception of his work on the Texans' practice field. A lot is expected from Ervin and he needs to start making more plays on offense and special teams.

INDIANAPOLIS COLTS: Quan Bray, WR/Kick Returner

Indianapolis Colts' Quan Bray (11) jump over Houston Texans' Kurtis Drummond on December 20, 2015. Photo by John Sommers II/UPI
Bray has been the primary kickoff and punt returner for the Colts during the preseason. In order to have a better chance to make the team's regular season-roster, however, the former Auburn standout needs to be more consistent in his role as a backup wide receiver.

Head coach Chuck Pagano said that he wants to see more production from Bray as an offensive player.

"The more that you can do, the better chance you have to make the team," Pagano said.

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Indianapolis has several undrafted rookie receivers who are pushing Bray. That includes Chester Rogers and Tevaun Smith, who have both shown the ability to also return kicks if needed. Bray has two more preseason games to make his best impression on the Colts' coaching staff.

JACKSONVILLE JAGUARS: Kelvin Beachum, T

If Beachum expects to open the season as the Jaguars' starting left tackle, he must have a good week of practice and it must transfer to Sunday night's game against the Cincinnati Bengals.

Since the Jaguars signed Beachum to a free-agent contract last March, the talk was that he would be the starting left tackle when the season began ... if he was healthy. Less than three weeks before the opener on Sept. 11 against Green Bay, Jaguars fans, coaches and Beachum's teammates are still waiting for his return. Beachum made progress in recovering from last year's ACL surgery, but he is limited in practice.

Beachum didn't take part in live action in two practice sessions with Tampa Bay last week, nor was he healthy enough to dress for Friday's game against the Bucs.

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Jaguars head coach Gus Bradley said the day after the game that "our hope is that everything goes smooth in practice this week, so he has a chance to play on Sunday. We will see. He has made really good progress. He got some practice reps. We hope everything falls into place this week."

That wasn't a resounding endorsement for Beachum being in the lineup against the Bengals. If he's not, chances are he won't be there for the start of the regular season, either.

KANSAS CITY CHIEFS: Mike Williams, WR

Photo by Gary C. Caskey/UPI
The sometimes-troubled 29-year-old receiver from Syracuse appeared in only 15 games over the last three years with Tampa Bay and Buffalo. Williams sat out the entire 2015 season that began with an NFL suspension and the Bills cut him loose.

In his first three NFL seasons, all with the Buccaneers, the fourth-round selection in the 2010 draft caught 193 balls for 2,731 yards and 23 touchdowns. Williams missed the Chiefs' offseason field work because of a hamstring pull, and he has not received a lot of playing time -- just 23 snaps in two games. He was targeted four times, catching two passes for 18 and nine yards.

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The depth chart at receiver is tight. Jeremy Maclin, Albert Wilson, Chris Conley, Rod Streater and rookie Tyreek Hill appear to be locks. That would leave possibly one spot open, with Williams battling De'Anthony Thomas, Frankie Hammond and rookie Demarcus Robinson.

MIAMI DOLPHINS: Griff Whalen, WR

The veteran had one punt return for nine yards last week against Dallas, but needs to show he can also be factor as a slot receiver.

Whalen is battling rookie Jakeem Grant, who serves as first-team punt and kickoff returner, and rookie third-round pick Leonte Carroo for a roster spot. The odds appear to be against Whalen unless Miami decides to keep six receivers. Starters Jarvis Landry, DeVante Parker and Kenny Stills are on the team, and Grant and Carroo are draftees.

NEW ENGLAND PATRIOTS: Cyrus Jones, CB

New England's top pick had an up and down summer. He muffed too many punts on the practice field, only to get the job done cleanly in preseason action. His coverage in the secondary is spotty at times and tight on others. He made a nice break on an interception in last week's win over the Bears.

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Jones still has a shot not only to be the primary punt returner, but also to earn the No. 3 cornerback job right out of the gates. He will face a strong test in that area in this week's battle with MVP quarterback Cam Newton and the Panthers passing attack.

N.Y. JETS: Jace Amaro, TE

By declining to upgrade the worst tight-end corps in the league, the Jets all but gifted the starting job to Amaro, the unproven 2014 second-rounder with remarkable measureables.

However, Amaro is trying to give the job back. He had two key drops in Friday night's exhibition game against the Redskins and watched from the sideline as Zach Sudfeld caught a 19-yard touchdown pass. All the Jets want from their tight end is someone who can block and catch what is thrown to him. If Amaro can't do that against the Giants on Saturday, it may be his last chance.

OAKLAND RAIDERS: George Atkinson III, RB

He burst into contention for a roster spot on the strength of 53- and 35-yard touchdown runs in the preseason opener against Arizona. The son of the former Raiders safety by the same name (without the III), Atkinson had only three yards on three carries against Green Bay.

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With Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington guaranteed spots, Atkinson may be competing with Jalen Richard, an undrafted free agent. Two things in Atkinson's favor: He can cover kickoffs, and fullback Marcel Reece will spend the first three games of the season under suspension for violating the league's PED policy last year.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS: Eli Rogers, WR

This former undrafted free agent out of Louisville is pushing for playing time and could be a big addition to an offense that is already stacked with talent.

Rogers, a shifty slot receiver, had a strong training camp. Against the Eagles last Thursday night, he caught four passes for 39 yards from backup quarterback Landry Jones.

In the third preseason game at New Orleans, Rogers will get another chance to show off his work in the slot. Rogers understands angles and how to get open from the slot, and he demonstrated the ability to get yards after the catch. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger's main target will be Antonio Brown, but don't be surprised if Rogers becomes one of Big Ben's favorite targets.

SAN DIEGO CHARGERS: Travis Benjamin, WR

Travis Benjamin with the Cleveland Browns on November 15, 2015. Photo by Shelley Lipton/UPI
Everyone raves about Benjamin's speed and how it can lengthen the field for the Chargers. But Benjamin's practice time with quarterback Philip Rivers has been spotty and he dropped some passes as well.

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Benjamin was actually brought in to give the return game a boost, but he looked tentative in the second preseason game. He needs a good game at Minnesota Sunday (on FOX) for his confidence and also to earn more faith from Rivers.

TENNESSEE TITANS: Quinton Spain, G

He held the left-guard spot throughout the offseason and into the first two preseason games for the Titans. Still, the team has not yet awarded him the starting job, noting that Spain still has some technique and hand placement issues that have to be fixed.

Spain is now getting a challenge from former starting center Brian Schwenke and rookie sixth-round pick Sebastian Tretola for the spot. This week against the Raiders on Saturday in Oakland (on CBS), Spain needs to solidify his hold on the starting job or risk losing it.

WEEK 3 - AUGUST 25-28

Thursday, August 25

Game, Network (if nationally televised), Time (EDT)

Atlanta at Miami (Orlando, FL), NBC, 8:00p

Dallas at Seattle, 10:00p

Friday, August 26

Game, Network (if nationally televised), Time (EDT)

New England at Carolina, 7:30p

Buffalo at Washington, 7:30p

Pittsburgh at New Orleans, 8:00p

Cleveland at Tampa Bay, CBS, 8:00p

Green Bay at San Francisco, 10:00p

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Saturday, August 27

Game, Network (if nationally televised), Time (EDT)

Kansas City at Chicago, 1:00p

Detroit at Baltimore, 7:00p

Philadelphia at Indianapolis, 7:00p

New York Giants at New York Jets, 7:30p

Tennessee at Oakland, CBS, 8:00p

Los Angeles at Denver, 9:00p

Sunday, August 28

Game, Network (if nationally televised), Time (EDT)

San Diego at Minnesota, FOX, 1:00p

Arizona at Houston, FOX, 4:00p

Cincinnati at Jacksonville, NBC, 8:00p

--Frank Cooney, founder and publisher of The Sports Xchange and NFLDraftScout.com, is in his sixth decade covering football and 26th year on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.

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