First Down/Fourth Down: Garoppolo, Bortles shine in preseason openers
The NFL preseason is prime time for overreactions and nitpicky analysis. Yet there is still plenty to be learned from finally seeing teams in game situations, even if the finished products will not be on display until the regular season arrives next month.
Every team now has at least one exhibition game under its belt, with three more weeks to come. We highlight some of the best (First Down) and worst (Fourth Down) from Week 1 of the preseason:
File this together as one entry ... and possibly one headache for the Patriots. Garoppolo was a bit of a surprise draft pick by New England given the presence of Mallett and some guy named Tom Brady on the depth chart. He made New England look prescient with his debut performance: 9-of-13 for 157 yards and his team's lone TD on the night.
But the Patriots' hope (reportedly) was to showcase Mallett for a potential trade down the road. If there was any interest in Mallett before Thursday night, it might have waned in light of a sluggish 5-of-12 showing as the starter. While the offensive line -- OT Nate Solder, in particular -- did little to help Mallett or the run game, throws like this one will be etched in the memory of any general manager taking a look. Mallett did not look ready for an NFL gig, so it's difficult to see any team crafting a trade in hopes of giving him one.
Three rookie skill-position guys who could play critical roles, to varying degrees, in their teams' offenses this season.
Benjamin had just one grab in Carolina's 20-18 loss to the Bills, but it provided exactly what Carolina drafted the former Florida State Seminole to do: score touchdowns. On the pass from Derek Anderson (starting in place of Cam Newton), Benjamin fought through tight coverage by Stephon Gilmore and made a tumbling grab in the end zone for six. The Panthers absolutely need Benjamin to be their big-play weapon in the receiving game, and this was a good start. (Sammy Watkins, by the way, bounced back from a catchless Hall of Fame Game to turn in a solid effort: three catches for 21 yards, including a leaping grab over the middle.)
Also on Friday night, Cooks announced his presence as a possible Rookie of the Year darkhorse. The 5-foot-10 receiver made five catches on eight targets, for 55 yards and a touchdown. Perhaps more importantly, the Saints shifted him all over their offense, an early indication that they plan to be creative with Cooks this season.
And then on Saturday night in a 20-16 Giants win, Steelers rookie Dri Archer displayed his potential, taking a screen pass from the slot and jetting his way for 46 yards. His other three touches (two carries for nine yards, another catch for four) won't make any highlight reels, but Archer put enough on tape in that first grab to force defenses to account for him once the regular season begins. He can fly.
Fourth Down: The Houston Texans
Obviously, the Cardinals deserve some props for delivering a 32-0 Saturday night whitewashing of the Texans. Aside from a powerhouse play by Jadeveon Clowney against a run attempt and the expected J.J. Watt sack, though, Bill O'Brien's debut as the Houston head coach was a disaster.
The offense was missing Arian Foster, Andre Brown and Andre Johnson, leaving virtually no help for QB Ryan Fitzpatrick. Still, Fitzpatrick hardly eased the minds of those questioning his ability to lock down the starting job, finishing 6-of-14 with a pair of interceptions. The Texans were not any better on the other side of the ball, save the flashes from Clowney and Watt. Carson Palmer carved them up early, to the tune of 5-for-5 passing and a TD, then both Drew Stanton and Logan Thomas moved the ball at will in Palmer's stead.
It's just one preseason game, so things should get better for the rebuilding Texans moving forward. For this particular night, though, they still looked every bit like a 2-14 team.
First Down: The Gary Kubiak experience
Houston's former head coach enjoyed a much more promising preseson opener. Matched up with a depleted San Francisco defense (one that will be at least slightly depleted when the regular season begins), Kubiak unveiled his adjustments to the Ravens' scheme. There was nothing unfamiliar for those who had seen Kubiak in Houston -- one-cut power running mixed with sharp play-action. That the Ravens and especially QB Joe Flacco (5-for-6 for 52 yards) should offer Baltimore ample hope of moving past last year's offensive nightmare.
Fourth Down: Nick Foles
Foles' 2013 regular season was nothing short of remarkable. He stepped in for Michael Vick and proceeded to help lead Philadelphia to an NFC East title while throwing 27 touchdowns and just two interceptions. Foles matched that INT total in a 34-28 loss to Chicago, showing little of his 2013 form. Both INTs were on Foles -- the first, a pass over the middle that Ryan Mundy easily swiped; the second, an ugly toss on the move into traffic, where Sherrick McManis picked it off.
Chip Kelly said afterward that he wasn't overly concerned with Foles' showing. A repeat performance or two might change that opinion.
First Down: Blake Bortles
Johnny Manziel may have inched ahead in the Browns' QB race and Teddy Bridgewater at least held serve in Minnesota, but it was Bortles who carried the torch for the top rookie quarterbacks this weekend. In doing so, he may have pushed open the door to his own starting job, one currently held in Jacksonville by veteran Chad Henne.
The stated plan all along from Jaguars coach Gus Bradley has been to start Henne for as long as it takes to get Bortles ready. The timeframe might be shorter than anticipated, thanks to a solid 117-yard passing performance by Bortles in a 16-10 win over Tampa Bay.
"I thought he played with good poise and good command," Bradley said of the No. 3 overall draft pick. "It’s a little bit unrealistic, because there was one blitz from Tampa the whole day, one pressure -- so, it was all four-man rush and good protection. I think it’s what we had hoped to see from him."
As a result, we might see a lot more of Bortles moving forward.
Fourth Down: Tampa Bay's line
Following the Buccaneers' loss, folks were quick to connect the dots between Tampa Bay and San Francisco guard Alex Boone, who has been a holdout so far. If Boone does not become a realistic option, the Buccaneers will need to move quickly onto Plan B because their offensive line was demolished by the Jaguars -- guards Oniel Cousins and Jamon Meredith at the forefront of the problems.
Jacksonville only notched three sacks but generated constant pressure and snuffed out any Buccaneers run game. For the Lovie Smith era to arrive with a boom, Tampa Bay has to find some answers up front.
First Down: Kansas City's big-play ability
The Chiefs were an opportunistic bunch last season, chalking up 11 touchdowns combined on either defense or special teams en route to a surprising playoff berth. They picked up this weekend where they left off in 2013, using two pick-sixes -- one from Sean Smith, another from Malcolm Bronson -- and an electrifying 80-yard punt return by rookie DeAnthony Thomas to outslug the Bengals, 41-39.
Only Seattle forced more turnovers (39) than the Chiefs (36) in 2013. The Chiefs also led the league in yards-per-kick return, thanks to Quintin Demps and Knile Davis, while Dexter McCluster (who joined the Titans in the offseason) returned two punts for touchdowns. With Thomas taking McCluster's place, Kansas City has not lost a step.
Fourth Down: The emphasis on defensive penalties
NFL officials have heeded the call from the league to keep a closer eye on illegal contact and defensive holding, so far to the detriment of the actual in-game product. According to Brian McIntyre's research, there already have been 105 penalties for defensive infractions in pass coverage -- 53 for holding, 27 for illegal contact and 15 for pass interference. Last preseason, there were 126 such flags thrown ... total, over the entire preseason (72 pass interference, 36 holding, 18 illegal contact).
The officials have yet to find the middle ground between too much and not enough.
In this clip from the SI.com Audibles Podcast, Ben Eagle, Doug Farrar and Chris Burke discuss which players have jumped out to them during the preseason and how they will impact their respective teams.