Romo, Cowboys underdogs in preseason test against Seahawks

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Week 3 of the NFL preseason is as close as it gets to the real thing, since teams will test their units for at least a full half.

Among the week’s more notable matchups is Tony Romo and the Dallas Cowboys visiting the Seattle Seahawks on Thursday. Seattle is listed as a 5-point betting favorite at sportsbooks monitored by OddsShark.com, with a total of 44.5 points.

For Dallas, it’s a chance to see whether Romo, rookie RB Ezekiel Elliott and their offense can have sustained success against an above-average NFL defense. Likewise, Seahawks QB Russell Wilson will try to get in better rhythm with his supporting cast after being shut out in the first half against Minnesota in Week 2.

Each team is breaking in a rookie backup QB, and the Cowboys’ Dak Prescott and Seahawks’ Trevone Boykin are each scramblers who can make big plays.

Dallas is 1-9 against the spread and 3-7 straight-up in their last 10 preseason games as a road underdog according to the OddsShark NFL Database. As a home favorite, Seattle is 8-2 both SU and ATS in its last 10 preseason games.

Jimmy Garoppolo, understudy to suspended Tom Brady, leads the 3.5-point underdog New England Patriots into a road game against the Cam Newton-led Carolina Panthers on Friday. The total is 45 points.

New England, which held TE Rob Gronkowski out of practice on Monday, is 5-5 SU and 5-3-2 ATS as a road underdog in its last 10 preseason games, while Carolina is 7-3 SU and 6-4 ATS as a home favorite. Seven of those 10 Carolina matchups went over the posted total.

Two former No. 1 overall picks are under a microscope in the Cleveland Browns-Tampa Bay Buccaneers matchup. Robert Griffin III has showed flashes of his 2012 rookie of the year form thus far for Cleveland, which is a four-point underdog. Tampa Bay’s Jameis Winston was only 3-of-9 in his first preseason game but should be more settled into the Bucs’ system.  The total is 41.5.

Tampa Bay is 3-7 SU and ATS in its last 10 preseason games as a home favorite, including a loss to Cleveland in 2015.

Saturday, the New York Giants are one-point underdogs against the New York Jets in their annual preseason game, with a total of 42.5 points. Giants QB Eli Manning had scarcely little pass protection in his first preseason outing, and the Jets possess a strong defensive line, although stuffing the run is their strength. Over the last 10 years, the Jets have the edge in this exhibition matchup at 6-4 SU and 5-4-1 ATS.

In spite of some turnover issues last week, QB Trevor Siemian will get the whole first half when the Denver Broncos host the Los Angeles Rams on Friday. Denver is a five-point favorite, with a total of 42.

The Rams are 6-4 ATS in their last 10 preseason outings as a road underdog, and eight of those matchups went over. The Broncos are on a run of just 2-8 ATS when favored at home in August, and seven of those games went over the posted total.

The Houston Texans are a one-point favorite against the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday in a matchup of teams with Super Bowl aspirations. Texans OLB Jadeveon Clowney showed his potential as a pass rusher last week against New Orleans, and the former top draft pick will get a taste against the Cardinals’ strong line.

The Cardinals are 6-4 SU 5-4-1 ATS in their last 10 preseason road games, while Houston is 7-3 both SU and ATS at home.

Five NFL players who could become stars in 2019

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By Sam Monson, PFF Senior Analyst

One of my favorite aspects of PFF data and grading is how it can spot the obvious coming when it’s still some ways off on the horizon—getting ahead of the curve and identifying talent before it becomes self-evident. Every year there are players who excel in limited snaps before ultimately being handed a larger role and workload for their teams. When they continue dominating, we wonder how they were ever seen as anything other than superstars.

Case in point: When Joey Porter was a star and the sack leader for the Miami Dolphins back in 2009, coming off a 17.5-sack season, we at PFF were clamoring for his backup –- a former undrafted pass-rusher who had not long before been playing in Canada -– to get more snaps because he was generating pressure at a far greater rate than Porter. Cameron Wake ultimately went on to be one of the best pass rushers of the past decade and looked it from Day 1 if you were seeing beyond the box score numbers.

Such examples are everywhere, and each year it’s always an interesting exercise to take a look through the PFF grading and predict the players that could take that next step if they get the right opportunity. This past week we unveiled our PFF 50—a list of the best 50 players in football entering the season—but in this case let’s look a year from now and predict some players who could make that list in 2020.

Levi Wallace, CB, Buffalo Bills: If there’s a player with the backstory to rival Wake’s, it’s Wallace. With precisely zero scholarship offers coming out of high school, Wallace walked on at Alabama, and eventually earned a starting job. Then he had to do it all over again when he went undrafted before signing as a collegiate free agent with Buffalo. As a rookie in 2018, he earned the highest PFF grade of any first-year cornerback, along with the highest coverage grade, and wasn’t beaten for a catch longer than 29 yards all season. Though he played far fewer snaps than first-round selection Denzel Ward of Cleveland, Wallace looks like a potential star in the making if he’s given greater opportunity in year two.

Vita Vea, DL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: At the other end of the scale, you’ve got Vea, a player who went in the first round in 2018 but fell off the radar a little because he began the season injured, then took a little while to get going and ultimately didn’t produce the box score production people want to see. Vea ended up with only three sacks, but had 23 additional pressures as a pass-rusher, 17 of which came in the final six weeks of the season. Over that stretch of play, his overall PFF grade was 86.4, and he had a top-20 grade at his position, hinting at what’s to come.

Mackensie Alexander, CB, Minnesota Vikings: Changing positions in the NFL can be a significant adjustment, and sometimes it takes time. The Vikings drafted Alexander in 2016’s second round and moved him inside to the slot after he principally played outside at Clemson. His transition wasn’t smooth, but he has now seen his overall PFF grade improve each year of his NFL career: from 47.5 as a rookie, to 54.1 in 2017, climbing to 78.1 last year. Over the final half of the season, he was the highest-graded cornerback in the league at 88.2, surrendering just 80 receiving yards in a seven-game span. Alexander could emerge as a force with the right opportunity in 2019.

O.J. Howard, TE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Another former first-round pick, Howard has yet to top 600 receiving yards or 35 receptions in a season, even while tight ends are breaking receiving records across the NFL. Dive deeper into the numbers, however, and Howard looks primed for a huge season with an uptick in opportunity. His overall PFF grade last season was 89.4, higher than any other tight end outside of San Francisco standout George Kittle. And on a yards per route basis, he was third behind only Kittle and Kansas City star Travis Kelce. His average depth of target was 11.3 yards downfield, a top-five mark in the league, and now the vertical threat he brings is being linked up with new Bucs coach Bruce Arians and an offense that lives down the field.

Jon Halapio, C, New York Giants: The Giants are revamping their offensive line in a major way, but one of the unsung components of the rebuild is at center, where Halapio could emerge as a foundation piece to the new-look front. He began last year as New York’s starter before going down with an injury after just 116 snaps of action. But in those snaps, he didn’t allow a single pressure, despite almost 50 pass-blocking snaps against the Jaguars and their array of pass-rushing weapons. With vastly improved players beside him, Halapio could prove to be a significant upgrade as a player who isn’t being talked about much heading into 2019.

Why Jameis Winston could win NFL passing title in 2019

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By Pro Football Focus

We think Jameis Winston will challenge for the passing yardage title in 2019. Last year he trailed only Josh Allen in average depth of target. These throws put Winston in a position to do great things at times (he was second among quarterbacks in the percentage of throws we grade as “positive”), as well as bad things (he was 21st in limiting negatively-graded throws). New Bucs head coach Bruce Arians has a track record of succeeding with high-variance quarterbacks like Winston.  In 2015 Carson Palmer had an MVP-caliber season under Arians, posting roughly the same average depth of target as Winston in 2018 and leading the league in percentage of positively-graded throws.  With Mike EvansChris Godwin and O.J. Howard a very capable trio of pass catchers, look for Winston to either make good on his 2015 draft position or give the Bucs no other option but to find his replacement the following year.