32 teams, 32 takeaways: Lessons learned from Week 1 of the NFL preseason
- Standout rookies no one saw coming, a well-traveled defensive lineman earning his bargain-bin pay day yet again and more thoughts from all 16 games of the preseason's opening week.
Preseason action always provides a jam-packed current of information to pick through, especially when rosters are still being shaped and tweaked as they are early in August.
What did the first week of exhibition games teach us? An attempt to figure out the significant lessons, one team at a time:
Eagles 17, Buccaneers 9
Philadelphia: Zach Ertz continues to come along as a blocker, and the importance of that development as it pertains to Doug Pederson’s more traditional scheme (compared to Chip Kelly) cannot be understated. Ertz helped clear space in multiple ways Thursday, including as part of a three-tight end, overload set on Ryan Mathews’s early touchdown run. Later, he carried his block a good seven or eight yards downfield on a Kenjon Barner run. There has been definite progression from Ertz as a blocker during his career. If he can perform the way he did against Tampa Bay, he could make the leap to a Pro Bowl level.
Tampa Bay: Haven’t read much about DT A.J. Francis this off-season, but he showed up in this game to the point where if he cannot survive the Tampa Bay roster squeeze, another GM will come calling. While Francis did not record any stats, the 330-pounder collapsed the interior multiple times, helping to force a Carson Wentz interception in one case. Francis is on his fourth team in four years since going undrafted, so he may never stick as a starter, but there appears to be potential.
Falcons 23, Redskins 17
Washington: There is almost no question that Greg Toler will be on Washington’s Week 1 roster, barring injury. The ex-Colt has drawn consistent praise out of camp, and he was visible Thursday, too, his best play coming when he almost made an acrobatic interception deep in his own end. It’s rarely a coincidence when a cornerback repeatedly winds up in the vicinity of failed offensive plays, as Toler was against Atlanta. He should provide solid depth and could push for more than that, if the preseason opener was any indication.
Atlanta: Derrick Shelby played just shy of 20 snaps Thursday night, finishing without a tackle or sack. What he did do, however, was show why he will add value to a Falcons defensive line that is in need of pass rusher. Dropping down inside at a three-tech spot, Shelby managed to bull rush his way into the pocket to disrupt a Washington passing attempt. A lot of focus will fall on Vic Beasley, Adrian Clayborn and Atlanta’s DEs to collapse the edges, but the pressure must increase from the interior, as well. Shelby’s ability to slide inside on passing downs is important.
Ravens 22, Panthers 19
Carolina: Josh Norman’s exit obviously shines the spotlight on the remaining cornerbacks—a very young group that could feature as many as three rookie starters. The highest-drafted of the rookies was James Bradberry, a 6' 0" second-round pick out of Samford. He was not perfect against Baltimore, but he was solid. Better yet, he did not appear uncomfortable or out of place whether dropping in zone or stepping up to jam a receiver off the line. At least from a mental standpoint, he seems ready to handle the workload in front of him.
Baltimore: The Ravens rely on their outside linebackers to create the majority of their pressure. They still would love to have a body or two capable of causing havoc from the interior, and the rotation of interior linemen Thursday hinted that they’re still working to find the right combo. Rookie Carl Davis is on track to pick up a chunk of playing time—he was disruptive in spurts against Carolina. Less certain is the future of Kapron Lewis-Moore, a 2013 pick who produced five tackles while lining up at multiple slots.
Jets 17, Jaguars 13
Jacksonville: Kelvin Beachum remains out after a setback in his previously injured knee, so Luke Joeckel—a potential starter at guard when everyone is healthy—slid back out to his usual left tackle spot Thursday. And ... he was pretty good. Even in a preseason opener, that comes as a bit of a surprise given his history and the Jaguars’ move to add Beachum. Joeckel was aggressive in his protection against both run and pass vs. the Jets. Perhaps in a roundabout way, taking reps at guard has provided him a better understanding of his requirements across the board.
New York: Have to keep an eye on Charone Peake after his four-catch, 45-yard day highlighted by an outstanding TD catch just inside the pylon. The big-bodied rookie is far from a lock to make the 53-man roster come September, but he definitely has a coveted baseline—there just are not a ton of 6' 2" receivers with 4.45 speed out there.
Patriots 34, Saints 22
New Orleans: This was going to be the New Orleans note even before Sheldon Rankins broke his leg in practice Monday, but Nick Fairley looked well worth his one-year, $3 million contract against New England. Fairley, who proved to be a similar value last season for the Rams after they scored him on a one-year deal coming off a knee injury, Fairley stands to play a significant role on the first-team defense with Rankins sidelined. As has often been the case when Fairley is healthy and motivated, he was difficult to block Thursday, finding space and exploding through it along the interior of the New England line.
New England: Speaking of the Patriots’ interior O-line, Thursday’s game offered another example of why Shaq Mason is equal parts exciting and frustrating. The 2015 fourth-rounder is battling the likes of Jonathan Cooper and rookie Joe Thuney for a starting gig. There are times when he looks up to the task, like when he got out front to spring James White for a long gain on a screen pass. Other times? Not so much. Mason was among the many victims of the New Orleans pass-rush push in pursuit of Jimmy Garoppolo.
Broncos 22, Bears 0
Denver: Has the long-awaited Cody Latimer maturation occurred? (Speaking as a dynasty fantasy league owner of his, I hope so.) The third-year receiver was Trevor Siemian’s go-to target, finishing with seven catches for 82 yards. Most encouraging of all was a grab he made on a slant route downfield—he pinned the cornerback on his outside hip and maintained that leverage by using his 6' 3" frame to block out the defender.
Chicago: How good was rookie Deiondre’ Hall on Thursday? Wow. A Senior Bowl standout way back in January, Hall was all over WRs Bennie Fowler and Jordan Taylor on back-to-back incompletions in the end zone. He also forced another incompletion by breaking quickly on a slant pattern in front of him. It wasn’t perfect—Latimer got him once for a solid gain—but as far as debuts go, the Bears could not have asked for more of Hall.
Vikings 17, Bengals 16
Minnesota: The Vikings signed veteran Michael Griffin and then drafted Jayron Kearse, so the door for Antone Exum (a sixth-round pick in 2014) looked like it was closing a tad this off-season. Whether he needed to or not, Exum pushed back in the Vikings’ preseason opener with a very steady performance. He had a nice breakup on a pass up the seam and chipped in three tackles and a sack as Minnesota unleashed him in a variety of ways.
Cincinnati: Props to Cincinnati for creativity. One year after he entered the league as a linebacker, Jeff Luc saw a healthy dose of reps Friday as a fullback, leading the way in short yardage for the Bengals’s talented running backs. He very much looked the part. The scouting report on Luc out of the University of Cincinnati pitched him as a downhill hammer against the run. He carries the same mentality to his lead blocking, which could come in very handy if Ryan Hewitt has to play more of a pass-catching role at tight end.
Dolphins 27, Giants 10
Miami: The waiting period on Laremy Tunsil’s ascension to a starting role might be over soon. Miami’s starting offensive line was nonexistent in New York, despite what the final score may say. The Dolphins were held off the scoreboard during the first quarter, when their first-teamers were in there, and their inability to keep Ryan Tannehill clean was a huge reason why. The left-side tandem of guard Dallas Thomas and tackle Branden Albert represented the largest chasm. Thomas walked back into his QB on a power rush from Odi Odighizuwa; Albert was scorched multiple times, once by Olivier Vernon and again by Jason Pierre-Paul.
New York: Are we going to go down the Andre Williams road again? It would appear so based on the Giants’ preseason opener. Williams flopped badly last season, carrying the ball just 88 times for 257 yards. He produced 41 yards on nine attempts on Friday, displaying the patience to find his holes and the speed to hit them. If he can prove that’s more than just a one-time thing, it would not be a surprise to see him wind up with a decent number of carries again this season, even as Rashad Jennings and Paul Perkins claim their fair share.
Lions 30, Steelers 17
Detroit: The Lions’ roster features eight offensive linemen drafted since 2012, five of whom are penciled in as starters. Even with all those youngsters seemingly penciled in for roster spots, it’s hard to see veteran Geoff Schwartz getting squeezed out. Detroit’s young guards are a major question mark, an issue which was on display again in Pittsburgh. Second-year pro Laken Tomlinson turned in another hit-or-miss showing, and rookie Joe Dahl—as was expected of a fifth-rounder coming from Mike Leach’s scheme—is a work in progress. Schwartz is a known quantity, of which the Lions have few.
Pittsburgh: Like Schwartz in Detroit, receiver Demarcus Ayers, a seventh-round pick this spring, should be battling the numbers crunch this month. Pittsburgh will have a harder time bailing on its rookie (or trying to sneak him onto the practice squad) if he can follow up his first game action with bigger things. Ayers had one catch for five yards and a 14-yard run—that’s it, hardly eye-popping numbers. Yet, even in that brief cup of coffee, he flashed the electrifying potential that led Pittsburgh to spend a draft pick on him in the first place. Count on him to see a handful more return opportunities in coming preseason games, as the Steelers try to figure out just what they have here.
Packers 17, Browns 11
Green Bay: Was everyone too quick to write off Carl Bradford when talking about Green Bay's linebacker options this year? Based off Bradford's first two seasons, which featured zero regular-season games played and a trip to the practice squad, no. But the former Arizona State defensive end was more visible than usual in this one, notching three tackles and breaking up a pass. He has a lot of ground to make up behind Jake Ryan, Blake Martinez, Sam Barrington. For a team that is trying to solve its problems at linebacker, he could find a little momentum.
Cleveland: Part of Cleveland's plan, spanning multiple front offices now, has been to accumulate young pass-rushing talent. Some of the fruits of that labor were on display vs. Green Bay. Xavier Cooper and rookie Emmanuel Ogbah teamed up on a sack; Carl Nassib made a tremendous read-and-react play on a screen pass away from him; Nate Orchard and Barkevious Mingo had a pair of tackles each. This group could be rather formidable in 2016.
Raiders 31, Cardinals 10
Oakland: Judging from what they showed last season and again in the preseason opener, the Raiders could throw more fade passes in 2016 than any other team. Derek Carr has a knack for them—remember this Christmas Eve dime to Michael Crabtree?—and Oakland’s receivers possess the mix of size, speed and body control to turn those passes into big gains. Carr hit Crabtree on a similar pattern early against Arizona, then just missed wide to Amari Cooper on the same sideline (both came against Arizona rookie cornerback Brandon Williams). Later, Matt McGloin connected with Andre Holmes on another fade, for a touchdown.
Arizona: Not going to waste a ton of room here talking up RB David Johnson, because just about everyone is aware of what a stud he is on the field, but one key play he made early deserves mention as proof of what a well-rounded player he is. Johnson slid over to get in front of Khalil Mack, slowing the brilliant pass rusher’s progress and giving Carson Palmer time to find Michael Floyd downfield. The Cardinals can rely on Johnson on all three downs.
Seahawks 17, Chiefs 16
Seattle: To the surprise of no one who watched him play at Alabama, defensive tackle Jarran Reed opened his Seahawks career with an impressive performance. He stood up blockers at the line against the run and even helped blow up a screen with a nice read. More unexpected was how unfazed another rookie, Quinton Jefferson, played on the line after being pressed into the starting lineup by Michael Bennett’s absence. The 290-pounder is raw but loaded with potential.
Kansas City: Part of the speculation that the Chiefs could move on from Jamaal Charles and his hefty contract could be traced to the presence of Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware. If there is any lingering thought of bailing on Charles down the road, the Chiefs’ two primary backups likely added to it last week. Ware averaged 4.8 yards on five carries and scored a TD, while West rolled up 8.8 yards per carry. They both again confirmed they have the wherewithal to allow their blockers to get to their spots before looking for those holes upfield.
Colts 19, Bills 18
Indianapolis: There almost is no way around the Colts struggling up front to start the season, with Henry Anderson and Kendall Langford hurt and Arthur Jones suspended. Their only hope is to have everyone else overperform. Zach Kerr may be the best chance to do that, and he was a standout at Buffalo while seeing rather extended minutes. The 325-pounder offers some athleticism to go with his gap-plugging capabilities. He’ll have to be huge come the regular season.
Buffalo: Following Monday’s practice, Rex Ryan praised Duke Williams for his efforts against Indianapolis, and with good reason. Williams has been far from a reliable option during his first three seasons in Buffalo, but his play against Indianapolis represented what he can bring to the table. Williams showed wheels to hang with Phillip Dorsett on an incompletion, and he also was very willing to come down and defend the run. Now, can he do it again?
Titans 27, Chargers 10
San Diego: Branden Oliver bulldozed his way into relevance as a rookie in 2014, only to be slowed by a turf toe injury last season. While all eyes understandably were on Melvin Gordon in San Diego’s preseason opener, Oliver served up a little taste of his 2016 role with 19 yards on three carries. He’s an extremely hard runner and tough to bring down. The Chargers do have Gordon, Danny Woodhead and rookie Kenneth Farrow to compete for touches—Gordon and Woodhead will take the top two spots on the depth chart, if both are available—but don’t sleep on Oliver creeping back into the conversation again.
Tennessee: Of all the positives the Titans no doubt took away from their opening win, none should stand above the work Taylor Lewan and Quinton Spain did in tandem as run blockers on the left side. Spain, in particular, was impressive. He and Lewan each had a key block on DeMarco Murray’s big first run, then Spain successfully got out in front of a couple attempts as a pulling guard. A very strong start for that duo.
Rams 28, Cowboys 24
Dallas: There were glimpses throughout this game of Rod Marinelli’s plan to create a pass rush, notably a blitz that turned linebacker Derek Akunne free for a sack. If the Cowboys are hoping to cause problems in more than mere spurts, though, the front four has to get the job done. Which is why the early sack produced by the Jack Crawford/Tyrone Crawford combo on the right side of Dallas’s line had to be such a welcome sign. Those two arguably are the keys to getting the D-line rolling.
Los Angeles: Taking a bit of the easy route here, but Tyler Higbee’s performance deserves another mention before we move on to the second week of preseason action. He caught five passes for 49 yards, three of the connections coming courtesy of Jared Goff. Higbee’s skill set allows the Rams to move him all over the field, sideline to sideline, which they showed off throughout the game Saturday night. In a lot of ways, he has the potential to be everything the team once wanted Jared Cook to be.
Texans 24, 49ers 13
Houston: Christian Covington has the inside track on the starting D-line job left vacant by Jared Crick’s departure. That role takes on even more significance with J.J. Watt out of the lineup. Count Sunday as a step in the right direction for Covington, despite the occasional hiccup. Covington forced a fumble early, helping to collapse the 49ers’ line combo of Daniel Kilgore, Andrew Tiller and Trent Brown. He and John Simon combined later for a sack, and both players were very active in long stretches. The flip side: Covington was buried by a down block on a long Mike Davis run later on.
San Francisco: Chris Davis is most well known in football circles for being the hero of Auburn’s “Kick Six” vs. Alabama. He could make a name for himself beyond that in Chip Kelly’s secondary this season. Davis saw a lot of early snaps in the nickel, at one point tracking Braxton Miller to help force an incompletion. His three tackles added to a quietly impressive opener for the former college star.