The NFL preseason is back, and that means hundreds of jobs are on the line across the league.
Although most teams only play three preseason contests, the Las Vegas Raiders and Jacksonville Jaguars -- last week's Hall of Fame Game participants -- suit up for four games.
GAMES ALREADY COMPLETED
Brian Daboll's Giants have struggled offensively early in camp in what appears to be a pivotal year for Daniel Jones, Saquon Barkley and others. Daboll said he anticipated "all of our guys" playing against New England, but we'll be particularly interested to see if 2021 first-round WR Kadarius Toney can make some noise after a trying rookie season. How will Daboll and the Giants use Toney and his array of video-game moves? Can he earn a major role on offense this season? ... Mac Jones and most of the Patriots' starters won't play Thursday night, but the team's new-look offense will still be dissected in what likely will be our first chance to see how Matt Patricia calls plays. DeVante Parker has had some moments in camp, but we might get longer looks from wideouts such as 2021 seventh-rounder Tre Nixon and 2022 second-rounder Tyquan Thornton. There is some quiet concern over the Patriots' offense; it needs all the playmakers it can find.
A nation will settle in to witness the Ravens put their all-time best 20-game preseason win streak on the line. And while Lamar Jackson's contract is the biggest issue Ravens fans are fretting, that won't really factor into this one. Instead, we'll be looking to see how the receivers, the left side of the offensive line and the secondary fare. If Ja'Wuan James plays versus Tennessee, he could be at left tackle -- showcasing as a possible Week 1 replacement for Ronnie Stanley if the starter's ankle isn’t healthy by that point. ... The Titans continue to back Ryan Tannehill at QB, but inquiring minds want to know how Mailk Willis fares in his pro debut. Can he contribute along the way in 2021, or is Willis raw enough to be in line for a redshirt year? We expect a fun play or two from Willis, who has a knack for generating excitement on the field.
This one is easy for the Falcons. Their offensive rookie trio of QB Desmond Ridder, RB Tyler Allgeier and WR Drake London should see plenty of run in this game, as head coach Arthur Smith has said every healthy player will play in the preseason -- much to the delight of fantasy managers out there. All three rookies could get cracks to start this season, with London expected to vie for a starting gig immediately. ... For Detroit, it will be our first look at No. 2 overall pick Aidan Hutchinson in a preseason game, so he certainly will be a popular player in this one. But we'll also have eyes peeled on the defenders behind him, too. The Lions have a lot of jobs up for grabs at linebacker and in the secondary. The team seems to love sixth-round LB Malcolm Rodriguez, a kneecap-biter in training.
The Browns announced on Wednesday that Deshaun Watson is scheduled to start the preseason opener. As of this writing, he's suspended for the first six games of the regular season for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy but is able to play in the preseason. How much will the Browns play Watson in Jacksonville while the league's appeal of that suspension is ongoing? He hasn't thrown a pass in a game setting in nearly 600 days. Cleveland also must get presumptive early-season starter Jacoby Brissett up to speed. ... It appears Trevor Lawrence might also get a series or two after both he and sidekick Travis Etienne sat out the Hall Of Fame Game. After watching that dud, the Jaguars will want to see some fireworks -- can the two 2021 first-rounders deliver a dose of hope?
I want to see the new offensive weapons for two teams that have legitimate hopes of improvement this season. The Eagles might not showcase wide receiver A.J. Brown in this one, but the Jets figure to give their two rookie playmakers -- WR Garrett Wilson and RB Breece Hall, both of whom are in the Offensive Rookie of the Year discussion -- some action. QB Zach Wilson has reportedly been up and down in camp, but there's no question the offensive talent surrounding him has improved. Wilson is one receiver to watch, but the same goes for Elijah Moore right now. Moore has been a star in camp and could be the offense's big-play threat in 2022. Let’s see him work against the Eagles' secondary.
What might have been a matchup of the top overall picks from 2019 and 2020 drafts is expected to be a battle of the backups. Joe Burrow currently remains in limbo following appendectomy surgery, and Cardinals head coach Kliff Kingsbury has announced Kyler Murray and Colt McCoy won't play in the preseason opener. Trace McSorley will get an extended run while he battles for a roster spot. ... This could be A.J. Green's first game ever against the Bengals, although it's not yet known if the seven-time Pro Bowl selectee will play.
About seven months ago, these teams were battling for an NFC Championship Game berth in a snowy meat grinder of a game at Lambeau Field. The stakes are significantly lower here. However, this actually rates fairly high on the preseason watchability scale given that 49ers QB Trey Lance and Packers QB Jordan Love figure to receive decent snaps. Lance has been the talk of Niners camp and is one of the bigger X-factors in the NFL this coming season. Love remains something of an enigma, but he's reportedly been stacking quality practices. Another practice standout is Packers rookie WR Romeo Doubs, who could be playing his way into a notable role with Green Bay as it tries to replace Davante Adams. This game could be a window into tomorrow for these two successful franchises in semi-transitions.
The Panthers' QB situation remains murky. Although Baker Mayfield remains the favorite to start the regular-season opener against his former Browns team, it's possible Sam Darnold could get the first crack here. He's played well in camp, per reports, holding serve while Mayfield absorbs a new scheme. There's also third-round QB Matt Corral, who could play most of the second half. Mayfield and first-round OL Ikem Ekwonu, arguably Carolina's two biggest acquisitions this offseason, have yet to be named starters. This game is seemingly big for both. ... For the Commanders, seeing a sound performance from their new QB, Carson Wentz, would ease minds. After all, this coming season could be Wentz's final shot to be a starter in the league. Washington also has a young QB I'm interested to see in fifth-rounder Sam Howell, who hasn't looked out of place in camp.
The Byron Pringle-Deon Bush revenge game! OK, perhaps not, but Pringle is one of several receivers vying to earn targets from Justin Fields after the Bears quarterback's up-and-down rookie season. Chicago's WR group takes a lot of Twitter trash talk, so this will be a great chance to quiet the haters a bit. In addition to Pringle, there's Darnell Mooney, rookie Velus Jones Jr., Equanimeous St. Brown, Dante Pettis, Isaiah Coulter and others who could stand to put some quality tape out there. ... We're not sure if Frank Clark or Carlos Dunlap will suit up, but the Chiefs' pass rush figures to be a hot topic in the first exhibition game. First-rounder George Karlaftis, who grew up a few hours down the road from Soldier Field, might get plenty of snaps in this one.
Frank Reich indicated that many Colts starters are expected to suit up in the preseason but that their workload will be an "incremental" increase. That could mean short nights for players like Matt Ryan and Jonathan Taylor, but I would expect the wide receivers not named Michael Pittman Jr. to be in full competition mode. The injury-plagued Parris Campbell is in the final year of his rookie deal. Ashton Dulin has been one of the standouts of camp. Second-rounder Alec Pierce also figures to be in the mix. ... For the Bills, how the RB rotation shakes out will be interesting. Second-rounder James Cook reportedly has opened some eyes in camp, but Buffalo could use a three-man rotation, with Zack Moss appearing to keep pace with presumed starter Devin Singletary for early-down duty.
If there's a preseason game this week featuring more QB uncertainty -- with both franchises seeking to replace future Hall of Famers -- we're not aware of it. In Seattle, Geno Smith and Drew Lock are battling for the starting spot. Smith will start against Pittsburgh, but Lock's performance (with the second-team offense versus the Seahawks' top defense) in last Saturday's scrimmage appeared to indicate that the battle might not be close to over. For the Steelers, Mitchell Trubisky's uneven camp performance has raised the concern level a notch or two. He's still the favorite to start come Week 1 and will get the nod in Saturday's game. However, with Mason Rudolph putting his best foot forward and first-rounder Kenny Pickett appearing to rebound following a slow start to camp, the performances of all three passers figure to be hotly debated after this contest.
With Tom Brady stepping away from the team through next week's preseason game (Aug. 20 at Titans), the three other quarterbacks on Tampa Bay's roster find themselves in the spotlight. The one whom we think could use a big outing here is Kyle Trask. The 2021 second-rounder has some work to do, with vet Blaine Gabbert appearing to be Brady's top understudy now. Plus, we'll get looks at the center replacement options for Ryan Jensen (Robert Hainsey, who left practice with cramps on Wednesday, is your clubhouse fave) and a slew of talented receivers who could be looking at a numbers game. Receivers such as Tyler Johnson, Breshad Perriman, Jaelon Darden, Scotty Miller and Cyril Grayson could be auditioning for their future teams because the Bucs can't keep all of them. The roster already has Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Russell Gage and Julio Jones. ... For Miami, let's sidestep the Tua talk and muse: How will the RBs be unleashed? Mike McDaniel has a glut of candidates, and the sorting begins in this game. Myles Gaskin could be the odd man out, so his playing time here might be revealing.
One of the stars of Saints camp on offense has been first-round wide receiver Chris Olave, who not only appears to be a Day 1 starter but could also be an Offensive Rookie of the Year favorite if he keeps up his play in the regular season. Even with Jameis Winston sitting out against Houston due to an injured foot, Olave will be one of the star attractions. ... We almost certainly won't see him matched up with Texans rookie DB Derek Stingley Jr., who is still working his way back from injury. But Olave might have to cross paths with the team’s third draft pick in 2022, safety Jalen Pitre, who already has made some early waves.
Russell Wilson's first game as a Bronco comes against America's Team; whether he plays or not remains a mystery. But many are interested to see head coach Nathaniel Hackett and the Denver offense, especially after losing one of their best weapons (Tim Patrick) for the season. As for playmakers we’ll be eying, we've heard rave reviews on fifth-round WR Montrell Washington, and TEs Albert Okwuegbunam and Greg Dulcich, who might be asked to replace Patrick's red-zone prowess. ... How the Cowboys replace Randy Gregory (who remains on the physically unable to perform list and isn't expected to play for the Broncos versus his old teammates) is an ongoing story. Yes, having Micah Parsons helps, but Dorance Armstrong, second-rounder Sam Williams and Dante Fowler have a chance to earn some of Gregory's vacated reps with a strong performance here.
Justin Herbert has never played a preseason snap, and that apparently won't change anytime soon, according to head coach Brandon Staley. We're also not expecting to see snaps for Matthew Stafford, who has dealt with elbow discomfort and seldom plays in August anyway. But that doesn't mean there aren't some intriguing offensive playmakers who could showcase their skills in this one. We'll go with one really tall pass-catcher -- and one on the other end of the spectrum. You might know about the Chargers' Donald Parham, a 6-foot-8 tight end who has made six TD catches on 30 career grabs and reportedly is having a standout camp. He could be in line for more work. And following a redshirt rookie year where he didn't play after Week 8, the Rams' Tutu Atwell has begun to show some skill more befitting of a second-round pick. The diminutive blur of an offensive and special-teams weapon figures to receive a lot of snaps, especially with Van Jefferson and Jacob Harris out.
The talk coming out of the Raiders' Hall of Fame Game win was about how much Josh Jacobs played against the Jaguars, leading to speculation that his future with the team might be even shorter than we imagined after the team declined his fifth-year option for 2023. Head coach Josh McDaniels said this week that the team has "no desire" to trade Jacobs, but his usage against Minnesota will almost certainly be a matter of conjecture. We’ll also be keyed in on the Raiders' other backs, fourth-rounder Zamir White and journeyman Austin Walter, both of whom ran effectively against Jacksonville. ... The Vikings will be the last NFL team to hit the field this preseason, and we likely won't see much of Kirk Cousins, if he plays at all. But that's just fine because the Vikings quietly might be fearing life without Cousins, who has had a strong camp. His backups? The word on Sean Mannion and Kellen Mond hasn't been nearly as good. Mond really needs a strong preseason to win over new head coach Kevin O'Connell after the man O'Connell replaced, Mike Zimmer, showed no interest in giving Mond snaps in the final game of last season even though the Vikings had been eliminated from contention. Seldom a good sign, even with a new staff in place.
UPDATE: O'Connell announced on Friday that Cousins tested positive for COVID-19, and the QB did not play in Sunday's game.
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