Commentary

Arian Foster continues ascension

Houston running back among Week 3 preseason winners; Steelers' Dixon stumbles

Originally Published: August 30, 2010
By John Clayton | ESPN.com

Arian Foster & Dennis DixonIcon SMI, AP PhotoArian Foster, left, is zeroing in on the Texans' starting running back job. Dennis Dixon appears destined for backup duty in Pittsburgh.

Dress rehearsals are over in the NFL as 32 teams completed the critical third week of the preseason, the week in which starters generally play until the second half.

The biggest loser of Week 3 was clearly the decision to place the referee behind the offense for safety reasons. After 49 preseason games, the positioning change looks messy.

Peyton Manning was clearly affected by how slow umpire Garth DeFelice set the ball before plays and then tried to move to the right spot behind him. DeFelice isn't to blame. In retrospect, the mechanics didn't seem to be well thought out because in this age of no-huddle offenses and quick calls by quarterbacks, the game shouldn't be slowed by umpires trying to get into position.

Fortunately, officials have one more tuneup this week to fix the problem.

There were plenty of losers on the field, too. Pittsburgh QB Dennis Dixon made enough blunders against the Broncos on Sunday night to show why the Steelers -- who have no margin for error during Ben Roethlisberger's suspension -- need to go into the regular season with Byron Leftwich as the starter. Cardinals quarterback Matt Leinart did better Saturday night against the Bears, but he may not have done enough to wrestle the starting job away from Derek Anderson, who shows a little more spark in running the Arizona offense. Tough decision for Ken Whisenhunt.

Bears quarterback Jay Cutler was a loser for his decision-making in throwing two interceptions against the Cardinals, but that can be fixed. What Cutler must worry about is an offensive line that allowed four sacks. Vikings quarterback Brett Favre may have received a partial win with word from wide receiver Percy Harvin that doctors may have identified reasons for his migraine headaches, but Favre took a few extra hits and has extra worries knowing wide receiver Sidney Rice is out until midseason.

But enough about the negatives. Plenty of positives came out of Week 3. Texans halfback Arian Foster, undrafted a year ago, continues his amazing rise to the team's starting halfback job by rushing for 110 yards on 18 carries against the Cowboys. Rookie runners C.J. Spiller of the Bills, Jahvid Best of the Lions and Ryan Mathews of the Chargers all had a great week.

Matthew Stafford of the Lions looked particularly sharp against the Browns. Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco looked downright scary in the no-huddle offense, completing 21 of 34 passes for 229 yards against the Giants. No quarterback has looked better in the preseason than Aaron Rodgers of the Packers. Whether he's throwing short or deep, Rodgers is already in a zone.

Falcons coach Mike Smith must be pleased with how well his defense played against the Dolphins. The Carolina Panthers' defense has quietly had good performances and has shown a better pass rush than expected. The only debate about the starting quarterback job in St. Louis is when the Rams want to announce Sam Bradford is the starter. He picked apart the Patriots' secondary and already looks like a new version of Matt Ryan

From the inbox

Q: Will Wes Welker be the wide receiver he was before his injury or is he going to struggle? Is he going to produce numbers like he did in the past or should I expect lows for him this year?

Justin in Sacramento, Calif.

A: You would have to think there is going to be a drop-off, even though he looked pretty mobile in his first two preseason games. He's only about eight months off a major knee surgery. Normally, players coming off that type of operation lack explosion in their first year back. I would have to think he's going to have a significant drop in his yards after the catch, which is his strength. There will be times his knee will swell and he might miss a game or two, giving Julian Edelman playing time. Could he play this year at the 123-catch level? I don't think so. But I could easily see him getting 80 or more and having a decent season.

Q: I was just wondering if I could get some insight on whom you believe is the best DB in the NFL. I have always been a huge fan of Nnamdi Asomugha, but Darrelle Revis did have a huge statistical season last year. Thoughts?

Skylar in Los Altos, Calif.

A: Though it's more popular to go with Revis, I'm going to stick with Asomugha because he's been doing it longer. Remember a couple years ago when Asomugha held receivers to 65 yards against him in about 15 games? The guy has been shutting down wide receivers for years, which is why he received the three-year, $45 million contract to stay in Oakland. The Jets' Revis, no doubt, has exploded on the scene and has played at a Defensive Player of the Year level. The Nnamdi-Revis debate is almost like the Joe Montana-Dan Marino debate. I'll favor Nnamdi for longevity but would take either one. They are pleasures and joys to watch.

Q: Seeing as how an 18-game regular season is a foregone conclusion, how long after that before the owners start talking about expanding the playoffs to allow more teams in?

John W in Tacoma, Wash.

A: I think you can probably count on an expansion of the number of playoff teams. Owners can't vote on expanded playoffs until they talk to the network partners about adding more playoff games, but you can figure they would expand the playoffs because it would mean more revenue for the league and more money for the players. A lot of things will be on the table once the league gets a new CBA. Although it may cheapen the playoffs to add two or four more games and risk the potential of getting 8-8 or 7-9 teams in the playoffs, there will be a strong push to do that. Owners in support will look at it as an update of something that has been needed. Most sports tend to have 40 percent of their teams make the playoffs. The NFL is currently at around 37 percent, so you would think adding one playoff game per conference would be the number.

Q: After watching the preseason games, I have become painstakingly aware that Zack Follett is not ready to be a full-time starter. Is it too late for Detroit to find a competent veteran linebacker who can either take his spot or at least give him a push? I know that there are some solid veterans still available or in the doghouse on their current teams: Adalius Thomas and Derrick Johnson.

Bobby in Minnesota

A: Bobby, as a Lions fan, you know the team is always bringing in new players, particularly on the defense and the offensive lines. Follett is one of those great special-teams players who has the opportunity to start because of the Ernie Sims trade. I still never understood the Sims trade. The Eagles love him. Good talent evaluation identifying Johnson. He fits the weakside linebacker role. I wouldn't go the Thomas route because then the Lions would have Julian Peterson and Thomas on the outside, and that's a little too much age for a defense that is trying to rebuild. I like your thinking, though. Let's put you in personnel, Bobby.

Q: I am sure you deal with this all the time, but I want to talk about your criteria for elite quarterback. I agree with it for the most part with one exception. There needs to be a level of consistency for someone to be elite. One season of those milestones is not enough. It needs to be over two or three seasons. It looks foolish to be taking guys on and off the list. Jay Cutler had one good year, but last year he proved he is clearly not elite. Your thoughts?

Brian in Boston

A: You raise an interesting dilemma. You are correct in the sense that I gave Cutler elite status in 2008 and took it away in 2009. I leave the option open for him to return to elite status in 2010 now that he's working with Mike Martz. Remember, my elite status is statistical, but it's also visual. A small portion of this is trying to identify an elite quarterback as he starts to show he's at that level. Right or wrong, I identified Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco as elite as rookies and have stuck by them. I don't see them dropping off the list. As much as this is a passing league, you must have some special qualities to be able to throw for more than 4,000 yards or more than 25 touchdown passes, and Cutler sure has the look of an elite QB, although if he keeps throwing as many interceptions as touchdowns, he'll be on and off the list like Jeff George. Understand that one of the reasons I use the elite quarterback list is it gives me guidance into how to further break down schedule difficulty for teams. Elite quarterbacks win four of five games when they play teams with non-elite quarterbacks, but you raise a good point about Cutler and any other quarterback who goes on and off the list.

Q: Over the years kickers have increased their proficiency to the point that a field goal try of under 40 yards is almost a given to succeed. To make this part of the game more exciting, would the NFL ever consider narrowing the goalpost gap to entice coaches to go for it more frequently on fourth down?

Grant in Buffalo, N.Y.

A: In time, the competition committee might consider doing that, but I don't think this is the time and I don't see that time occurring in the next few years. I'm a little concerned how moving the referee into the offensive backfield will affect scoring and offenses this season because it could lead to more holding penalties, which in turn could cut down on scoring. If you pile on those possibilities with narrower goalposts, you could have a one-two punch in taking scoring below 40 points a game and having the football equivalent of the 2010 baseball season in which pitchers are dominating and scoring is at its lowest level in decades. Kickers have been penalized for years for getting better and more efficient. This isn't the time to be taking away points from games.

Q: For years I have been a proponent of a rookie salary cap, and after this past draft I am even more certain that rookies who have not proved a thing on this level must have a tiered salary structure. I mean $50 million guaranteed for Sam Bradford is ridiculous. He may turn out to be a great QB, but … look at JaMarcus Russell or Ryan Leaf. I feel every player chosen in the first round should be slotted. How do you feel?

Ricky in Springdale, Md.

A: More than $500 million in guarantees went to rookie draft choices this year, and you are right, that is ridiculous. I do feel the league will go to a solid rookie salary cap, taking half the excess and giving it to retired players and putting the other half of the excess into some form of a performance pool that will go exclusively to veterans, not rookies. The rookie pool does work after the first half of the first round is completed, but the big guarantees at the top have ruined chances of getting trade value for those picks. It will change. I guarantee it.

Q: I'm a big Steelers fan and I have a quick question that I'm not sure if anyone asked already. How sold are you on Rashard Mendenhall being the guy at running back? I'm not suggesting that Isaac Redman or Mewelde Moore are the answer either, but do you think the Steelers should have at least considered some other options?

Ken in Washington, D.C.

A: It's time for Mendenhall to live up to his full potential and I believe he will this year. He is running at his best. He reported to camp in great shape and I love his downhill style of running. Fumbling is a problem, but I think that is a problem the team will have to live with. The Vikings are living with Adrian Peterson's fumbles. Redman and Moore are backups. I actually think Moore is one of the more valuable backups in the league because he's so versatile. Whether it's quarterbacks or running backs, a great portion of fans tend to favor the backups. Mendenhall is the only legitimate starting back the Steelers have, and that is good enough for me.

John Clayton, a recipient of the Pro Football Hall of Fame's McCann Award for distinguished reporting, is a senior writer for ESPN.com.

John Clayton

NFL senior writer