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Preseason Week 2: Five Things to Watch For

Will the rookie quarterbacks—Kizer, Watson, Trubisky—continue to roll? Does Jaylon Smith finally see the field for the Cowboys? Will somebody win the Denver QB job? Just some of the questions this weekend in the NFL

The NFL’s burgeoning love of joint practices has made preseason games even less meaningful than they used to be. The Patriots and Texans, Panthers and Titans, Broncos and 49ers, and Jaguars and Buccaneers were among the teams taking advantage of the opportunity this week.

However, the preseason must go on. The bulk of the game action this week has been reserved for Saturday, with scattered contests on Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Monday.

Each team has storylines worth watching. Here are five of the most pressing matters headed into the weekend:

Will the rookie QB momentum continue?

Check the numbers from last week’s preseason action:

Mitchell Trubisky: 18 of 25 for 166 yards and a touchdown. Deshaun Watson: 15 of 25 for 179 yards, plus a rushing TD. DeShone Kizer: 11 of 18 for 184 yards and a game-winning 45-yard bomb. Patrick Mahomes: seven of nine for 49 yards and a touchdown, in limited action. The quarterback class of 2017 showed out in its first game action (and that’s without even mentioning C.J. Beathard’s two-touchdown performance or Cooper Rush’s hot start).

Just like that, those wait-and-see plans in Chicago, Houston and Cleveland may be on their way to the curb.

Kizer may be closest to ascending to QB1. He easily was the best of the Browns’ three quarterbacks (Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler the others) in last week’s victory over the Saints. That performance came in the second half, against the basement of New Orleans’ depth chart, so Kizer’s Monday night outing vs. the Giants will be more telling—he’s scheduled to be second on the field, after only Osweiler.

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“Brock deserves the opportunity to walk out there first,” Cleveland coach Hue Jackson said this week upon announcing the rotation ... and that’s the exact same thing he said about Kessler prior to training camp. Kessler’s now running with the third team.

Watson also appears to have a definite shot at a Week 1 start. The Texans’ rookie reportedly took first-team reps as Houston rolled through joint practices with the Patriots this week. He draws those same Patriots, at home, this Saturday night.

The Bears’ plan all along has been to ride free-agent pickup Mike Glennon for as long as possible while easing Trubisky into the fray. A repeat of last week, in which Glennon turned in a ghastly outing while Trubisky jump-started the entire offense, could force the Bears to decide just how desperate they are to compete in 2017. Chicago is at Arizona late Saturday night.

Mahomes is not scheduled to see the field until the second half on Saturday, as projected starter Alex Smith lines up for extended action versus Cincinnati. Regardless of what happens there, the heat figures to be on Smith all season long.

Jaylon Smith’s debut

The 2016 draft pick will finally see some action (albeit likely limited) when the Cowboys host the Colts on Saturday. Smith last played in the Jan. 1, 2016, Fiesta Bowl against Ohio State, a game he exited early after blowing out his knee. There was some doubt that he ever would be able to play again, given the nature of that injury—including some nerve damage—so his first action marks a significant step.

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The Cowboys will keep the expectations in check, but there’s clearly an opportunity for Smith to play a role in 2017 if he can prove he’s healthy. Aside from Sean Lee, little is really set in stone within the Dallas linebacking corps.

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The Broncos’ quarterback battle

Denver coach Vance Joseph said it would be “ideal” if he could name a starting quarterback before next week’s exhibition with the Packers. That he has not called the fight in favor of Trevor Siemian already indicates that Paxton Lynch still has a shot to swing the result.

Neither QB lit the world up in last week’s trip to Chicago—Siemian connected on six of seven passes but for a paltry 8.5 yards per completion; Lynch’s numbers were even less inspiring: six of nine for 42 yards. As was the case for Denver last year, the offensive line did not help matters much. (The most exciting of Denver’s quarterbacks was little-known third-stringer Kyle Sloter, who connected with Isaiah McKenzie on a 47-yard score.)

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The reason coaching staffs like to have major decisions made by the preseason’s third week is that typically that’s when the starting lineups see their most action. The fourth week tends to be reserved for guys fighting for roster spots or destined to be cut—coaches will have even more of those players at their disposal this year, now that the NFL has eliminated the first roster cut-down period.

So whichever QB starts for Denver against Green Bay is likely to be under center when the Chargers visit in Week 1. Siemian has to cement that gig.

Martavis Bryant returns

The NFL still has not reinstated Bryant fully, following his indefinite suspension, but he has been cleared for practices and preseason action. The Steelers chose to hold him out of last week’s opener; he’ll be in the starting lineup Sunday afternoon when Pittsburgh hosts Atlanta.

When last Bryant played in a game (Jan. 17, 2016, in a division-round loss to Denver), he caught nine passes for 154 yards. The Steelers did not see anywhere near that level of impact from their complementary pieces in the passing game last year. After Antonio Brown (106 catches for 1,284 yards), the next leading receiver was RB Le’Veon Bell (616 yards) and only one other player, Eli Rogers (594), topped the 600-yard barrier.

Tracking the impact of holdouts

Injuries continue to be an issue leaguewide, too—the Colts for one are scrambling now with center Ryan Kelly joining QB Andrew Luck on the shelf. A handful of high-profile players are missing action by choice, though, and teams are running out of time to put any contingency plans in place.

Two teams facing off late Saturday, the Rams and Raiders, are dealing with contract headaches. In Los Angeles’s case, it’s DT Aaron Donald, who has yet to report as he attempts to land a massive, long-term contract. His stalemate could have a direct effect on the Kelly-less Colts come the regular season, because Indianapolis visits the Rams in Week 1. The Rams also lost DT Dominique Easley to injury this month, so they’re low on impact performers up front.

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On the opposite side Saturday will be a Raiders team sans starting left tackle Donald Penn. The fallback plan in Penn’s absence has been to slide Marshall Newhouse from right to left and use Vadal Alexander on the right. Any formula is a dropoff from having Penn out there.

Also still holding out: Texans OT Duane Brown and the Steelers’ Bell. Chris Clark started at left tackle in place of Brown last week, but the line-shuffling results won’t let Houston’s coaching staff sleep easy.

Bell reportedly will rejoin the Steelers before the regular season. Considering his injury history, a little extra rest in August might not be the worst thing.

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