With the first week of preseason games behind us, NFL teams have begun trimming their rosters. And with the preseason peeled back from four to three games for all but the Steelers and Cowboys -- who played in the Hall of Fame Game -- exhibitions this week figure to carry a bit more of a veteran presence, notwithstanding a few exceptions. Half the slate -- eight games -- will air live on NFL Network, beginning with Thursday night's Patriots-Eagles game in a rematch of Super Bowl LII combatants.
Here's one thing to watch for from all 32 teams in Week 2 of the NFL preseason.
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If you're Eagles WR Jalen Reagor, this would be a good time to shine. After a disappointing rookie season, the 2020 first-round pick's role isn't altogether clear. What's more clear is that Philly's latest first-round receiver, DeVonta Smith, is quickly nearing a full return from a knee injury, and WR Quez Watkins is looking more than ready to take on a larger role. A big night from Reagor, who made a spectacular grab in practice this week, could help ensure he doesn't get lost in the club's receiving mix. ... Pull your attention from the Cam Newton-Mac Jones battle long enough to notice how the Patriots' linebacker corps is taking shape. Dont'a Hightower is back from a 2020 opt-out and Kyle Van Noy is back after a year with the Dolphins, two stalwarts from a 2019 New England defense that allowed the fewest yards in the NFL. Without them, the 2020 Pats plummeted to 15th in that metric. Free-agent addition Matt Judon completes a new/old look.
We know it will be the Bengals' backup show at quarterback, with Joe Burrow sitting once again. Might the offense at least turn a bit more toward the top of its running back rotation than it did against the Buccaneers last week? Joe Mixon and Samaje Perine combined for just four carries in that game. ... Fresh off the physically-unable-to-perform list, Curtis Samuel's WFT debut could be at hand, and his versatility could greatly benefit this offense. To the extent that groin injuries demand caution, it's no certainty, but coach Ron Rivera has been clear about his willingness to play starters in the preseason.
The most exciting player in the game will see a bit more action for the Chiefs. Patrick Mahomes threw just two passes in Kansas City's preseason lid-lifter, but coach Andy Reid has indicated he wants his star player to get more game reps against the Cardinals. It might still be brief, but it should be more than a blip. ... More Rondale Moore, please. That Arizona gave the electrifying rookie two carries along with a few passing targets last week suggests the coaching staff has quickly recognized both his instincts and physical strength as a runner -- though small (5-foot-7, 180 pounds), he can be tough to bring down. We've seen the Cardinals take a shot on a smallish receiver before (Andy Isabella). Moore could be the one they've been waiting for.
Common sense says to keep Bills QB Josh Allen sidelined in the preseason, so for now, enjoy Davis Webb's push to win the No. 3 QB job behind backup Mitch Trubisky. Well-liked by the coaching staff, Webb is trying to stick with his third NFL team after completing 11 of 16 passes, including the Bills' lone TD, in a narrow win over Detroit last week. ... Injuries and absences haven't done anything to help the Bears' offensive line jell in training camp, yet the unit managed to put forth a nice effort last week against the Dolphins. Can they patch it together again? Rookie Teven Jenkins is out after undergoing back surgery, and veteran Jason Peters might not debut this week given the five-day waiting period for new signees per COVID-19 protocols.
Jets pass rusher Bryce Huff will try to put together back-to-back performances worthy of the evening highlight reel in his bid to not only make the team but carve out regular playing time. He logged a pair of sacks against the Giants last week, drawing high praise from coach Robert Saleh after seeing limited action as an undrafted rookie in 2020. ... Versatility for NFL offensive linemen means the ability to swing between center and guard, or guard and tackle. Unless you're Elgton Jenkins, who can do it all. The Packers' marvel, who logged starts at all three spots last season, will be at left tackle against the Jets with David Bakhtiari recovering from the ACL tear he suffered late last season. This, from a guy who was a college center just three years ago.
If you're looking for an up-and-comer in Baltimore, watch CB Anthony Averett. An undersized former fourth-round pick with seven career starts who has yet to record an interception in his career? Well, defensive coordinator Don Martindale believes the Ravens could have a late-blooming All-Pro on their hands. ... The linebacker position is of concern in Carolina. Denzel Perryman is still recovering from a lower-body injury, and last week, the club signed LB Josh Bynes on Wednesday and started him just four days later in a loss to the Colts. He's an experienced stop-gap, but the unit needs an emergence from someone else. Luke Kuechly isn't walking through that door.
Defense is seemingly a Groundhog Day question for the Falcons, and the 2021 preseason is no different. One of the biggest concerns is in the secondary -- who can be counted on beyond talented young CB A.J. Terrell? And how well will it hold up when blitz-happy coordinator Dean Pees leaves it exposed? ... The Dolphins' offensive line warrants attention for multiple reasons. It struggled last week, and its pass protection is integral to the development of QB Tua Tagovailoa. Will new trade acquisition Greg Little see action just a few days after joining the team?
With free-agent addition Bud Dupree still working his way back from the ACL tear he suffered late last season, the Titans figure to take another lengthy look at rookie OLB Rashad Weaver, who logged 1.5 sacks against the Falcons last week. If available to play -- an NFL spokesperson recently said an assault charge against Weaver remained under review -- the fourth-round pick could give Tennessee an effective early season boost should Dupree be a bit slow out of the gate. ... In what is expected to be a sit game for Tampa Bay starters, rookie QB Kyle Trask should see plenty of reps. Does he have starter potential in the NFL, or is he a fringe pro? A preseason game won't answer that, but at least there's an onion to peel. There's really nothing more to learn about veteran Bucs reserves Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin.
Expect Lions veteran Trey Flowers to see more action this week than the 11 snaps he saw against the Bills last week. Injury prevention aside, he's transitioning to play a stand-up OLB position in a 3-4 scheme after spending his career to date in a three-point stance. The value of game reps in his new role can't be duplicated in practice. ... The Steelers' running game floundered last season at an NFL-worst 84.4 yards per game, and that won't do in Pittsburgh. Can the offensive line, revamped in the offseason, start opening holes again? Rookie RB Najee Harris can't do it alone.
The Colts' defensive line gets a boost this week with the returns of All-Pro DT DeForest Buckner and first-round rookie DE Kwity Paye, who've both been out with minor injuries. Paye figures to see more action. The coaching staff already knows what Buckner can do, whereas Paye has a chance to show he can translate a strong pre-injury camp showing to game conditions. ... How about some action for starters this week for the Vikings? Coach Mike Zimmer took a Rams-like approach to Week 1 of the preseason, using a game against the Broncos to evaluate reserves with unsurprising results: a 33-6 loss that was the biggest scoring margin of preseason Week 1.
The offensive line was a big problem for the Texans in 2020, and the club addressed that in low-budget fashion in the offseason. Minus outstanding left tackle Laremy Tunsil, now out for a second consecutive game under COVID-19 protocols, Texans brass will be looking for any signs of consistency up front. ... This could be the lone chance for Cowboys fans to see RB Ezekiel Elliott in the preseason. He didn't go against the Steelers in the Hall of Fame Game or last week against the Cardinals, and coach Mike McCarthy has said Dallas' last preseason game against the Jaguars on Aug. 29 will be used to evaluate backups. That leaves this week's game for the team's star running back, and who knows how many other starters. Don't blink -- if he enters, his exit could come quickly.
For a good example of first-year struggles that can be overblown, particularly after COVID-19 disrupted acclimation for all NFL rookies, witness Broncos center Lloyd Cushenberry. He's been a bright spot in training camp entering his second pro season after a rough rookie campaign. He's shoring up what had been the biggest question mark on an offensive line that needs to improve significantly. ... While the Broncos have a question answered, another lingers in Seattle at the cornerback position. The Seahawks' first preseason game did little to quell concerns about the unit. It might look better this week if Ahkello Witherspoon plays more (31 snaps last week), but others need to establish themselves.
Let's raise the preseason curtain on the tight end duo of Darren Waller and Foster Moreau, even if it's just for a series or two. Waller, one of the NFL's elites at the position, returned to practice this week after missing a large chunk of training camp with an injury. Coach Jon Gruden has been effusive in his praise of Moreau, who could be one of the team's breakout performers, even as a TE2. ... With Rams coach Sean McVay's hard stance against playing starters in the preseason, excitement will be hard to find. But look closely, and Rams rookie receiver/punt returner Tutu Atwell might provide some. It's easy to root for one of the NFL's smallest players (Atwell is listed at 5-foot-9 and 165 pounds, which the eyeball test finds generous) to make a big splash.
Is this the week the Giants unveil first-round rookie WR Kadarius Toney for some game action? The team would love to get the slot-suited dynamo in sync with QB Daniel Jones as quickly as possible, but his practice participation has been hit and miss, and he missed the preseason opener with an aggravation of an undisclosed injury. ... The Browns' vaunted starting offensive line figures to make things easy for Cleveland's gifted playmakers this year, but they sat out the preseason game against the Jaguars. If they get a series or two in this one, don't be surprised if the offense marches no matter who else is in the game at the time.
UPDATE: With Toney ruled out, keep an eye on the two new faces at cornerback for the Giants -- Keion Crossen and Josh Jackson – who were both acquired via trade at minimal expense in the past week. Another round of cuts is coming Tuesday, so despite the brief acclimation, the Giants will likely want to get at least a quick look these two. These were depth moves that could've been made as much for special teams help as any defensive boost, so don't be surprised if both -- particularly Crossen, who was a special teams staple in Houston -- see the field at least in that capacity.
49ers pass rusher Arden Key, a reclamation project whose three years with the Raiders were an abject failure, is looking rejuvenated. He applied his share of pressure against the Chiefs last week, albeit without a sack. He's lamented his time with the Raiders as a bad fit in a bad system. So far, this looks like a better one. ... It's hard to put much stock in preseason special teams woes, given how much personnel won't even reach Week 1 with a uniform. But it was also hard to forget the Chargers' 2020 special teams calamity as the Rams rang up 67 yards on four punt returns against them last week. This is an area in definite need of cleanup.
On the Jaguars' side, who else but Trevor Lawrence? The No. 1 overall pick's first preseason performance offered a glimpse of both his youth and his talent, holding the ball too long at times but flashing a perfectly placed deep ball to Marvin Jones. Coach Urban Meyer must weigh the value of experience against the risk of injury in deciding how quickly to pull a cornerstone draft prize. ... Are the Saints content with their personnel at the cornerback position? Reportedly not. How will the cast of corners opposite three-time Pro Bowler Marshon Lattimore look? And will the Jaguars' CJ Henderson be auditioning for both teams?