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Why Preseason Games Still Matter

There’s a reason the National Football League doesn’t like it when games played in August are called “exhibition games,” and the league’s PR department does what it can to convince the media not to use that term. But it’s not just a PR thing. Generally speaking, the intensity level both on and off the field isn’t ratcheted up until the regular season begins. But make no mistake: NFL preseason games still matter.

Just ask Victor Cruz. The undrafted free agent receiver got some notice at Giants training camp in 2010, but it was his breakout performance in a preseason game against the Jets – in which he caught six passes for 145 yards and 3 TDs – that clinched his spot on the active roster and led to a seven-year NFL career. Cruz’s story is not uncommon.

“Preseason’s very important to both coaches and players because it’s more reps -- and that’s what football is all about,” said NFL Films producer Greg Cosell. “It’s the reps. Obviously players who are either late-round picks or undrafted, it’s extremely important, because they get limited reps and every single one takes on a greater value. So it’s extremely important to the players.”

And it’s not just the late-round picks and undrafted players. Take the case of 2020 first-round pick Jordan Love. He had no preseason games as a rookie due to Covid, then watched form the sidelines as Aaron Rodgers had another MVP season for the Packers. The 2021 preseason schedule has been reduced to three games – but they are three games in which the Packers coaching staff and front office can finally see what they have.

“These are playoff games for Jordan Love,” said front office insider Mike Tannenbaum.

NFL preseason games still matter, as they always have.

Mike Giddings, president of ProScout Inc., cited several undrafted players who demonstrated multiple “blue traits” – his color grade for an elite player – in their first preseason game. Among them:

  • DT John Randle
  • WR Drew Pearson
  • HB Priest Holmes
  • HB Adrian Foster
  • Slot Wes Welker

“And there are many more,” said Giddings.

Giddings also offered this list of current NFL players who started their careers as undrafted free agents who made a good first impression in the preseason:

  • LT Jason Peters
  • OG Andrew Norwell
  • WR Adam Thielen
  • CB Chris Harris
  • HB Austin Ekeler
  • CB Malcolm Butler
  • RT Ladell Collins
  • OT Alejandro Villanueva
  • Edge Mario Addison

Ekeler was sixth on the depth chart when he got to the Chargers in the 2017 preseason. Last year, then-head coach Anthony Lynn acknowledged that if the pandemic had struck then – and there were no preseason games – they would not have kept Ekeler.

Here are some former UDFAs who have gotten paid big money over the last two seasons:

  • Edge Shaq Barrett
  • QB Taysom Hill
  • WR Robbie Anderson
  • CB Justin Coleman
  • CB Mike Davis
  • DS Anthony Harris
  • LB Corey Littleton
  • CB Kenny Moore
  • Edge Romeo Okwara
  • CB Jonathan Jones
  • WR Cole Beasley
  • WR Kendall Bourne
  • OG Matt Feiler

Entering the 2021 season, here are some former UDFAs who are heading for a possible big payday:

  • TE Robert Tonyan
  • CB J.C. Jackson
  • WR Alan Lazard
  • TE Dan Arnold
  • HB Josh Robinson
  • LB Ben Niemann
  • LB A.J. Johnson
  • CB Nik Needham
  • CB Emmanuel Moseley