AFC preseason player grades, Week 4: Marcus Mariota poised

Wins and losses don't count in the NFL preseason -- but individual performances sure do. After each week's slate of preseason action, Bucky Brooks has been shining the spotlight on one notable player from each team in the league, grading that player's performance and providing a snapshot of how he's doing in this critical dress-rehearsal phase of the 2015 campaign. The performance grading scale is as follows:

A: Masterful
B: Strong
C: Acceptable
D: Marginal
F: Unacceptable

Week 4 presents a special case, as most key players typically do not see the field in the preseason finale. So this last edition of preseason grades is based on a broader overview of the preseason in general, with a focus on what to expect for each player as the regular season gets going.


Buffalo Bills: Ronald Darby, CB


Strengths: Darby is an explosive athlete with intriguing cover skills and a competitive demeanor. The rookie challenges receivers on the perimeter and has enough speed and quickness to run with speedsters down the boundary. Darby flashes adequate ball skills and makes plays on balls thrown in his area (see: his two-interception performance against Cleveland in Week 2).

Weaknesses: The second-round pick lacks discipline and awareness in coverage. He routinely falls asleep at the wheel, allowing receivers to run past him on vertical routes, as evidenced by his inability to stop the Steelers' Martavis Bryant, who piled up 138 yards on three catches in Week 3, or his struggles against Carolina (Devin Funchess and Ted Ginn burned him on vertical routes) in Week 1. In addition, Darby was flagged for three pass-interference penalties in four preseason games, including one against the Browns and two against the Steelers.

Expectations going forward: The Bills' depth in the secondary will allow them to bring Darby along slowly until he is ready for a bigger role. Look for him to play special teams during the first half of the season before cracking the lineup as a sub-defender.

Miami Dolphins: LaMichael James, RB


Strengths: James is a dynamic returner/runner adept at breaking off big plays on the perimeter. The fifth-year pro displays exceptional stop-start quickness and burst with the ball in his hands. James explodes through open creases at the line and shows instant acceleration getting to the second level. As a returner in particular, he shows some wiggle and elusiveness while making defenders miss in the open field.

Weaknesses: The 5-foot-9, 200-pound James lacks the ideal size or strength for the position. He gets knocked around a bit on inside runs and is unable to run through contact to finish runs falling forward. Thus, his offensive role is limited to that of a change-of-pace or third-down back.

Expectations going forward: James should play primarily as a return specialist for the Dolphins, as he is explosive enough to spell Jarvis Landry in that role. He is also a decent option as a change-of-pace back behind Lamar Miller.

New England Patriots: Jimmy Garoppolo, QB


Strengths: Garoppolo is an athletic quick-rhythm passer with a strong arm and deft touch. He makes throws to every area of the field with pinpoint accuracy and ball placement. Garoppolo shows a nice feel for hitting receivers on slants, options and short crossers in the Patriots' "dink-and-dunk" system. Most importantly, he gets the ball out of his hands quickly; his decisiveness is uncommon for a second-year pro still acclimating to the pro game. Against New Orleans in Week 2 (28 of 33 for 269 yards with one touchdown and one interception) and Carolina in Week 3 (13 of 17 for 126 yards and a score), he showcased his accuracy, judgment and decisiveness while picking apart the opposing defense with an assortment of pinpoint throws.

Weaknesses: Garoppolo is still adjusting to the NFL level. Although he made a number of precise throws and showed outstanding command of the offense, he forced a few balls into traffic and took more sacks (seven vs. Green Bay in Week 1) than he should've taken as a potential starting quarterback.

Expectations going forward: Garoppolo will enter the season as the Patriots' QB2, with Tom Brady's four-game suspension having been nullified in court. But as the backup, he must be ready to play at all times. He certainly flashed the ability to handle starting duties this preseason, but the jury is still out as to whether he could get it done in real action.

New York Jets: Leonard Williams, DT


Strengths: Williams is a disruptive force at the point of attack, exhibiting explosive first-step quickness and excellent snap-count anticipation. The rookie overwhelms opponents with his cat-like quickness, but he also shows the strength and power to collapse the pocket while utilizing a variety of power maneuvers. He showcased his potential during a dominant Week 2 performance against the Falcons that featured four tackles and 1.5 sacks, including a safety.

Weaknesses: Williams needs to refine his hand skills at the line. The No. 6 overall pick relies too much on his athleticism and movement skills at this stage of his career. Although Williams routinely wins with his slick moves, he needs to use his hands and length to keep blockers at bay to avoid the clutching and grabbing at the line of scrimmage.

Expectations going forward: Williams missed time during the preseason, suffering a strained muscle in his knee in Week 3, but he is expected to be in the lineup for the regular-season opener. He will be counted on to replace the disruptive production of the suspended Sheldon Richardson on the interior and complement Muhammad Wilkerson as a force on the inside.


Baltimore Ravens: Javorius "Buck" Allen, RB


Strengths: Allen has solid skills as a runner/receiver; he's a slippery runner with a knack for finding seams in the middle of the defense. The rookie fourth-round pick entered the NFL viewed as a versatile playmaker capable of delivering production in several areas following impressive back-to-back campaigns at USC.

Weaknesses: Allen doesn't display any blue-chip traits. He lacks the speed and quickness to excel as a change-of-pace back, and he doesn't show the strength or power to thrive as a pounder between the tackles. Thus, he might not surpass his paltry 2.5 yards-per-carry mark (35 attempts for 88 rushing yards) from the preseason. Yes, the Ravens' offense is still transitioning to a new play caller (Marc Trestman), but the fact that Allen mustered just one run of 10-plus yards is problematic for someone expected to fill a key role as a change-of-pace back.

Expectations going forward: It's hard to imagine Allen earning the trust of his coaches after his disappointing preseason. He's slated to serve as a backup behind Justin Forsett, but he needs to diligently work on his overall game to earn a jersey on Sundays as a special teamer/backup.

Cincinnati Bengals: P.J. Dawson, LB


Strengths: Dawson is a tackling machine with superb instincts, awareness and diagnostic skills. The rookie quickly shoots through gaps to hit runners in the backfield. In addition, Dawson has a feel for blitzing and creating disruption at the point of attack, as evidenced by his two-sack effort against Indianapolis in Week 4 on a pair of double A gap blitzes. The third-round pick also led the Bengals in tackles this preseason with 18. Considering his mix of instincts, awareness and production, Dawson will be hard to keep on the sideline.

Weaknesses: Dawson is not an explosive athlete or workout warrior, though he is able to overcome his physical deficiencies with his superb instincts and anticipation. Dawson's quick diagnostic skills allow him to play a step faster than his opponents, but he lacks the speed, quickness and burst to track down some plays as a sideline-to-sideline defender.

Expectations going forward: Dawson is slated to back up A.J. Hawk as a weak-side linebacker. Thus, Dawson will likely see action as a special teams player and rotation player as rookie. However, the Bengals' coaches could elect to give Dawson key minutes to add a spark to the unit at some point.

Cleveland Browns: Danny Shelton, DT


Strengths: Shelton is a dominant interior defender with exceptional strength, power and agility. The rookie plays with outstanding leverage and a low pad level, exhibiting extraordinary lower-body strength. In addition, Shelton shows strong hands and the ability to disengage attacking blockers and find runners in the backfield.

Weaknesses: Shelton is more of a pocket pusher than pass rusher on the interior. He collapses the pocket down the middle, utilizing brute strength and force to walk back the interior blocker. Although that kind of pressure can disrupt the timing of the passing game, Shelton's inability to register sacks could force the Browns to put a different defensive lineman on the field on passing downs.

Expectations going forward: The No. 12 overall pick was drafted to help the Browns improve their porous run defense, and Shelton immediately made his presence felt during the preseason, exhibiting a dominant game that eventually made Phil Taylor, who was released last week, expendable. With a rugged game ideally suited to two-gapping at the point of attack, Shelton could single-handedly upgrade Cleveland's defense.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Martavis Bryant, WR


Strengths: Bryant is an electric playmaker with phenomenal speed, quickness and acceleration. He is one of the top deep threats in the NFL, exhibiting a second gear that allows him to consistently run past defenders on vertical routes (see: Bryant's 63-yard reception against Buffalo in Week 3, or his 44-yard touchdown against Jacksonville in Week 2). Considering his production and knack for drawing pass-inference penalties as a legitimate deep threat, Bryant is a deadly big-play weapon in the passing game.

Weaknesses: Bryant needs to expand his route tree. He struggles getting in and out of his breaks on short and intermediate routes, limiting his ability to impact the game as a WR2.

Expectations going forward: The second-year pro will miss four games with a suspension, but he'll resume playing a major role as a big-play threat on the NFL's most explosive offense once he returns. The 6-4, 211-pound playmaker is too fast for opponents to contain, and that should lead to several big plays on the perimeter.


Houston Texans: Kevin Johnson, CB


Strengths: Johnson is a polished cover corner with outstanding instincts, awareness and ball skills. The rookie aggressively jumps routes when he diagnoses route concepts in his area (see: his breakup of a pass intended for Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomasin Week 2), yet he rarely falls for the double move on the perimeter. Johnson's savvy, discipline and patience -- uncommon for a young defender -- have the No. 16 overall pick poised to play a big role as a first-year pro.

Weaknesses: Johnson must continue to work on playing "hands free" beyond the contact zone, as he was flagged a few times in the preseason for his aggressive play downfield. Although most coaches encourage defenders to use their hands frequently in press coverage, Johnson must play with discipline and technique to avoid becoming a liability on the field.

Expectations going forward: Johnson is a nice fit as a nickel corner based on his versatility and football IQ. He appears to have a great feel for where he fits in coverage; the awareness should allow him to make a number of plays as a CB3. If he holds up well during the first half of the season, he could crack the lineup as a possible replacement for Johnathan Joseph on the perimeter.

Indianapolis Colts: Phillip Dorsett, WR


Strengths: Dorsett is a big-play weapon with extraordinary speed, quickness and burst. The rookie blows past defenders with ease on vertical routes, and he also shows the ability to get in and out of his breaks on intermediate routes. Dorsett showcased his diversity as a route runner in a four-catch, 51-yard effort against the Eaglesin Week 1, which featured a number of hitches, digs and crossing routes. If he can master the shorter routes to complement his skills as a "vertical stretch" receiver, the No. 29 overall pick could lift the blanket opponents will attempt to put on Colts receivers T.Y. Hilton and Andre Johnson.

Weaknesses: Dorsett remains a work in progress as a route runner. Although he gets out of his breaks quickly, he has to continue to work on adding stems and weaves to his routes to keep defenders from anticipating his cuts.

Expectations going forward: Dorsett should play a pivotal role as the designated deep threat on the perimeter. He has the speed to exploit defenders in one-on-one coverage, while his explosiveness should prevent opponents from loading up on Hilton and Johnson on the perimeter. If Dorsett can pick up 15-plus yards per catch, he'll have given Indy the big-play element needed to enhance the passing game.

Jacksonville Jaguars: Blake Bortles, QB


Strengths: Bortles is an athletic passer with a strong arm. He flashes excellent mobility within the pocket and on the perimeter, but he moves around with the intent to pass -- frequently putting the defense in a bind with his ability to find receivers at the end of impromptu scrambles. The second-year pro has also shown better timing and anticipation on his throws. He regularly connected with Allen Robinson, Allen Hurns, Marcedes Lewis and Clay Harbor on seam routes and skinny post patterns delivered on time. Bortles' improved decisiveness and accuracy allows him to exploit defenders vacating their designated zones on the second level, an area in which he struggled as a rookie. That improvement could signal a big year coming.

Weaknesses: Bortles committed too many turnovers (17 interceptions, one fumble lost) as a rookie, forcing the ball into traffic and failing to secure it in the pocket. Although he made strides this preseason, he did put the ball on the turf twice (against Pittsburgh in Week 1 and the New York Giantsin Week 2, though the Jags recovered it both times), and his carelessness remains a concern.

Expectations going forward: Bortles is poised to break out, having become a more decisive player from the pocket and exhibiting better timing, anticipation and ball placement on his throws to the perimeter. If he can continue to play with discipline and confidence, Bortles could help the Jaguars become a more competitive squad than most anticipate in 2015.

Tennessee Titans: Marcus Mariota, QB


Strengths: Mariota is an explosive athlete with outstanding arm talent and passing skills. He is at his best directing a quick-rhythm attack that allows him to get the ball out of his hands quickly in the pocket, as evidenced by his 59-yard touchdown pass to Harry Douglas against the Vikingsin Week 4. However, Mariota has also shown the ability to make effective throws from the pocket or on the move following play-action. He repeatedly delivered pinpoint passes to receivers on bootlegs rolling to his right or left. Most importantly, Mariota found open receivers between the hashes after turning his back to the defense while executing a play-action fake. Mariota has quickly acclimated to the Titans' traditional passing game, and the rookie could have the full playbook available to him when the regular season opens against the Buccaneers.

Weaknesses: Mariota was expected to struggle with the transition to a conventional pro-style offense, but he has adjusted to the scheme without issue during the preseason. In the regular season, however, the complex coverages and clever pre-snap disguises he'll face could disrupt his rhythm from the pocket.

Expectations going forward: Mariota has performed exceptionally well directing the Titans' offense. He has made timely throws to receivers on the perimeter and has displayed exceptional poise and composure in critical situations (on third downs, in the red zone and in the two-minute drill). With coach Ken Whisenhunt tailoring the game plan to suit Mariota's talents, the No. 2 overall pick could walk away with the Offensive Rookie of the Year award at the end of the season.


Denver Broncos: Shane Ray, LB


Strengths: Ray is a dynamic pass rusher with explosive first-step quickness and polished hand skills. The rookie has a natural feel for using counter moves, as evidenced by his ability to win on an inside move that resulted in a strip-sackin Week 4. Considering his relentless spirit and non-stop energy, Ray is an ideal situational rusher to incorporate into a sub-package.

Weaknesses: Ray remains a work in progress as a run defender. He occasionally struggles holding the point against rugged blockers, leading to soft edges on outside runs. Although his effort is admirable, he will need to play stouter as a run defender to earn more playing time as a three-down player.

Expectations going forward: The No. 23 overall pick has flashed big-time potential as a pass rusher throughout the preseason (11 tackles, 2.5 sacks and two forced fumbles). Thus, he should see immediate playing time as a sub-package addition on a defensive line that could feature three or four designated pass rushers on the field.

Kansas City Chiefs: Marcus Peters, CB


Strengths: Peters is a savvy corner with outstanding instincts, awareness and technical skills. He's capable of blanketing receivers in press or off coverage, which makes him a perfect fit in the Chiefs' attack-style defense, with its heavy man-to-man coverage principle. With Peters (two pass breakups in three preseason games) also exhibiting strong ball skills and route anticipation, he is ready to make an immediate impact as a rookie starter.

Weaknesses: Consistent focus and eye discipline are Peters' biggest issues at this time. The No. 18 overall pick is prone to mental lapses on the perimeter. Thus, he must work on paying attention to the nuances of each defense to prevent receivers from running free in his area. He has narrowly avoided surrendering big plays when he has been caught peeking into the backfield after the snap.

Expectations going forward: Peters will start the season as the Chiefs' CB1 based on his assignment as the starting LCB. He is definitely talented enough to play the marquee position, but he will be tested by the likes of Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkinsin Week 1, Broncos receiver Demaryius Thomasin Week 2 and Packers receiver Randall Cobbin Week 3. How well he fares during that baptism period could determine how the Chiefs deploy Sean Smith when he returns from his three-game suspension.

Oakland Raiders: Amari Cooper, WR


Strengths: Cooper is a natural WR1 with strong hands and superb route-running skills. The No. 4 overall pick routinely ties defenders in knots with his subtle fakes and changing tempos (see: Cardinals corner Patrick Petersonin Week 3), and he also understands the timing of the passing game and gets open in a timely fashion. Cooper's maturity as a route runner is uncommon for a rookie, which is why he could have a big season as the Raiders' top option on the perimeter.

Weaknesses: Cooper has all of the tools needed to become an elite receiver early in his career. However, he must learn how to defeat press coverage consistently to avoid the physical tactics premier corners will employ against him. He has the quickness and savvy, but he needs to learn how to stay on his line when defenders attempt to jam and harass him down the field.

Expectations going forward: Cooper is one of the most pro-ready receivers to enter the NFL in a few years. He will make an immediate impact as a WR1 and could top the 100-catch mark.

San Diego Chargers: Melvin Gordon, RB


Strengths: The rookie is an explosive runner with home-run potential. He flashes good stop-start quickness and acceleration in the hole. Additionally, Gordon shows adequate strength and power running through contact, as evidenced by his strong runs on third-and-short situations in Week 3.

Weaknesses: The No. 15 overall pick needs to become a more decisive runner in the hole. He repeatedly stops his feet at the hole; the hesitancy allows the pursuit to close quickly before he can pick up positive yards (Gordon finished the preseason with a paltry yards-per-carry mark of 2.2). Gordon also must display strong hands and solid receiving skills in the passing game. He caught the balls thrown in his direction in the preseason, but he is limited as a route runner at this point.

Expectations going forward: Gordon should key the Chargers' running game as the feature back in the lineup. He should receive the bulk of the carries on early downs before ceding third-down duties to Danny Woodhead. Although the role will limit his overall touches and impact, Gordon should get close to the 1,000-yard mark as the workhorse behind a revamped offensive line.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.

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