By Steve Silverman
(CBS) — There are a lot of fallacies surrounding preseason games and practices in the NFL.
The biggest is that it doesn’t matter, and it’s just about surviving until the regular season starts.
Preseason football does not matter to individual star players who are biding their time until the regular season starts. If your name is Calvin Johnson or Adrian Peterson, you don’t have to prove your talent or ability to anyone. You merely have to stay healthy.
But for nearly everyone else, it matters. Individual players who are trying to build their reputation want to get started with a good showing in the preseason. New head coaches like Mark Trestman of the Bears or Chip Kelly of the Eagles want to establish their gameplans and build a winning atmosphere.
With preseason reaching the halfway point this weekend, a number of players around the NFL have had excellent camps and are on their way to establishing themselves.
Rookie Kyle Long of the Chicago Bears is one of those players. The first-round draft choice was a reach by general manager Phil Emery because he had a very limited track record as a college player, even though his bloodlines (son of Hall of Famer Howie Long and brother of Rams DE Chris Long) made him look like a potential standout.
Long has improved significantly in camp and appears to be the Week 1 starter at right guard. He’s got the strength, balance and intelligence to be a productive offensive lineman who can be a plus player throughout his rookie season.
If he keeps on progressing, Long has a chance to be a standout players.
He’s not alone in the NFL. Here are five other players who are having excellent camps and demonstrating the preseason does matter.
FS Tyrann Mathieu, Arizona – College football fans heard a lot about the “Honey Badger,” but most of it had to do with his off-the-field problems at LSU. That’s why the Cardinals took him in the third round instead of the first round. But he has appeared to have his mind on nothing but being a productive football player in the early part of his career. He has been sharp in camp as a tackler and with his speed to the ball. He had two tackles, a sack and a pass deflection in his first preseason game vs. Green Bay and he is expected to start in the second game. Nothing is proven yet, but if Mathieu stays on track, he has a chance to be an impact player in the NFL.
LB Kiko Alonso, Buffalo – There are few better opportunities for a young player in the NFL than playing defense for the Bills. They simply have been awful on defense, and they have been particularly inept against the run. They ranked 31st last in rushing yards allowed per game, and they have been a bottom five team in that category for four years. Alonso, a second-round selection from Oregon, has been flying to the football since the start of camp. He had three tackles and a pass break up against the Colts in the first preseason game. He did not play against the Vikings in the second preseason game because of shoulder discomfort. Head coach Doug Marrone knows he has a potential playmaker in Alonso and didn’t want to take a chance on losing him. Alonso could lead the Bills in tackles this year.
LB Daryl Smith, Baltimore – This ex-Jaguar linebacker signed with the Ravens after their post-Super Bowl housecleaning. In addition to the retirement of Ray Lewis, linebackers Daniel Ellerbe and Paul Kruger left through free agency. Smith has the look of an impact player as he had five tackles and a pass deflection in his first preseason game against Tampa Bay and he followed that up with six tackles against Atlanta.
WR Cordarrelle Patterson, Minnesota – The Vikings need to find someone who can make up for the loss of Percy Harvin, who was traded to the Seahawks. Patterson, the Vikings’ third first-round draft pick this year, needs to become that player for head coach Leslie Frazier. Patterson has caught six passes in his first two preseason games and he returned his first kickoff for 50 yards. That’s an essential part of his game, since Harvin was one of the best kickoff return men in the league.
DT Tommy Kelly, New England – Kelly was one of the savviest pickups of the offseason. This former Raider will play next to All-Pro Vince Wilfork and he has the pass-rush ability and knack for destroying the run to become a legitimate stud. Kelly stood out in preseason scrimmages against the Bucs. Since the Pats are razor-thin at defensive tackle, they cannot afford an injury to Wilfork or Kelly. But if they stay healthy, this pair will be dynamic.
Steve Silverman is an award-winning writer, covering sports since 1980. Silverman was with Pro Football Weekly for 10 years and his byline has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Playboy, NFL.com and The Sporting News. He is the author of four books, including Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Football — The Top 60 Players of All-Time. Follow him on Twitter (@profootballboy) and read more of his CBS Chicago columns here.