SportsPulse’s Adam Woodard checks in with Lorenzo Reyes at New England Patriots training camp on how the team looks as it prepares for the season.

Context is everything in the NFL preseason.

For many stars and established veterans, the exhibitions have little value beyond breaking out of a training camp cycle. Yet for those trying to cling to one of the final spots on a 53-man roster or win a starting role, the stage could define the coming year.

Mining for the meaning of individual preseason performances can be tricky, but these 10 players are worth keeping an eye on:

1. Christian McCaffrey, RB, Carolina Panthers

Fellow running back Jonathan Stewart’s claim that no one can guard McCaffrey one-on-one will soon be put to the test. Clips of the former Stanford star shaking teammates Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis have raised the already lofty hype for the Panthers’ top pick. McCaffrey might not be fully unleashed in the preseason as Cam Newton recovers from a shoulder injury, but he stands out as one of the most important pieces in Carolina’s needed offensive transformation.

2. Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans 

While fellow first-round picks Mitchell Trubisky and Patrick Mahomes head for what looks to be redshirt years in their rookie seasons, Watson is in the thick of a legitimate quarterback competition with Tom Savage. Texans coach Bill O’Brien has spoken of his top selection in mostly superlative terms, saying he’s “ahead of any rookie quarterback I’ve ever been around.” But therein lies the rub: Watson still might need an outstanding preseason — as well as a few missteps by Savage — to earn the reins to a playoff team early in his first year.

3. Paxton Lynch, QB, Denver Broncos 

Time to see if the Broncos’ presumed future at quarterback is ready for the present. Lynch had the luxury of lowered expectations as he learned the intricacies of being an NFL quarterback in his rookie year, making two starts as a fill-in when Trevor Siemian was hurt. Now the 6-foot-7, 244-pound passer has to show Vance Joseph enough consistency and promise to convince the Broncos’ new coach to make a change behind center for the 27th-ranked offense in 2016.

4. Dalvin Cook, RB, Minnesota Vikings

With Latavius Murray still working his way back from an ankle ailment, the former Florida State star is atop the Vikings’ current depth chart and has an open runway to the starting job. Cook has drawn praise from coaches and teammates alike, including on the pass blocking that could make him a three-down threat. He’ll have to prove that his poor testing at the scouting combine was an aberration and won’t hinder his ability to be the same big-play weapon (48 total TDs in three years) he was in college.

5. Jamaal Williams, RB, Green Bay Packers

As the first of three running backs selected by Green Bay in April, the fourth-round selection from BYU has already separated himself from his fellow rookies and could make a play for a substantial role. Supplanting Ty Montgomery as a starter is a tall order, given that the former wide receiver averaged 5.9 yards per carry in limited work after transitioning to his new position. But Williams has already made his mark in training camp with his pass blocking, an area in which Montgomery still needs more polish.

6. Cooper Kupp, WR, Los Angeles Rams

Jumping from Eastern Washington to the NFL could make for a jarring transition, but Kupp is already on track to earn a spot as a slot receiver on the first-team offense. With both second-year quarterback Jared Goff still finding his footing as he adapts to Sean McVay’s offense, Kupp could be a valuable safety valve – if he can consistently create separation against cornerbacks.

7. Myles Jack, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars

No. 4 overall pick Leonard Fournette will be the center of attention for many as he moves into what could be a featured role at running back, but don’t look past Jack. The do-everything defender was limited as a rookie as he continued to recover from a knee injury suffered in his final year at UCLA, but he now takes over for veteran Paul Posluszny as the playcaller at middle linebacker. With last year’s No. 6 defense making personnel improvements elsewhere, Jack’s performance could be one of the key factors for this unit to join the league’s elite.

8. Taco Charlton, DE, Dallas Cowboys

Regardless of how long defensive end Tyrone Crawford is out with an ankle injury suffered Tuesday, the Cowboys’ deficiencies along the front four are evident. David Irving and Damontre Moore will both serve multi-game suspensions, while Randy Gregory remains banned indefinitely. Charlton is a project but can create havoc in the passing game, a needed feature for a Dallas defense that will lean on creating turnovers and big plays to help hide its shortcomings.

9. Robert Nkemdiche, DT, Arizona Cardinals

Having his work ethic criticized by Bruce Arians and recording one tackle in five games as a rookie raised concerns about Nkemdiche and the path he had set out on as a pro. But the former No. 1 overall recruit appears to be stepping up in the wake of longtime cornerstone Calais Campbell’s departure, as Arians and others have lauded him for a rededicated approach. Nkemdiche already showed some impressive flashes in the Hall of Fame Game, but a defense that lost five starters will need him to be the disruptive force he’s shown himself he can be in stretches.

10. Eddie Vanderdoes, DT, Oakland Raiders

Though much has been made of the Raiders’ ascension to expected contender status, last year’s 26th-ranked defense still has some significant unknowns – especially up front. A third-round pick, Vanderdoes has impressed in training camp by consistently establishing a push up front. Alongside fellow rookie Marquel Lee at middle linebacker, Vanderdoes is penciled in as a projected starter who will be counted on to give offenses more to worry about than reigning defensive player of the year Khalil Mack.

Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.

PHOTOS: Training camp action


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