With the NFL preseason (mercifully) coming to an end on Thursday night, Audibles' Chris Burke and Doug Farrar take a look at where things stand with Week 1 rapidly approaching:
1. The preseason's biggest winner was ...
Burke: Washington. And it only has a little bit to do with what happened on the field. Robert Griffin III made it through camp without any setbacks, building up to his being cleared for game action Thursday night. Getting RGIII into the lineup for the start of the regular season makes the Redskins a contender again, in the NFC East and possibly beyond.
But their QB play sans Griffin this preseason was pretty encouraging. Kirk Cousins did his thing before suffering an injury of his own, Rex Grossman looked plenty competent and even Pat White put on a show. Washington can sit with what it has, knowing there's help should Griffin fall again. Or the Redskins can explore a Cousins trade, if they so choose.
Farrar: Chip Kelly, and the Eagles' new offense. Kelly didn't show everything he'll unleash on the NFL this season, but what we saw proved that his multiple-option, heavy-fake schemes will force defensive coordinators to spend extra time in the film room. It's not so much the speed no-huddle aspect -- that's already a part of the NFL. Kelly's most imposing systemic trait is a zone run game that creates multiple and movable mesh points. If you take last year's Redskins offense and put it on skates, that seems to be the best version of what Kelly wants to do.
2. The preseason's biggest loser was ...
Burke: Anyone who plays for Buffalo. EJ Manuel, Kevin Kolb, Stephon Gilmore, Doug Legursky ... the list of injured personnel for the Bills goes on and on. Now, the Bills have to ready themselves for a Week 1 showdown with the Patriots, possibly with an undrafted rookie quarterback at the helm and definitely without Gilmore, one of their top young defenders. Every preseason, one or two teams get hammered by injuries. This year, Buffalo drew the short straw.
Farrar: Clearly, the Jets. Not only is this team's quarterback situation tenuous (to put it kindly), I believe that Rex Ryan has finally proven once and for all that he is an absolutely brilliant defensive mind, but he lacks the ability to oversee an entire team and evaluate everything in context. The roster is a mess (we knew this), ownership is involved in football decisions in ways it probably shouldn't be (knew that as well) and first-year GM John Idzik is learning the hard way that running a roster is a bit tougher than managing the salary cap (well, duh). This is a disaster waiting to go off.
3. Which team or player has been most surprising so far?
Burke: Kenbrell Thompkins. Apparently, New England is better at finding wide receiver talent after the draft than during it. I'm sure the Patriots knew they had a couple of guys who could compete for roster spots in Thompkins and TE Zach Sudfeld. I highly doubt even Bill Belichick believed Thompkins might develop into a top-two receiver for his team before the regular season hit. And yet, here we are -- Thompkins has quickly formed a rapport with Tom Brady and appears to be second in the pecking order, behind only Danny Amendola.
Farrar: Since you mentioned Thompkins, I'll go with two other receivers playing well for teams in need of their particular attributes. Quinton Patton of the San Francisco 49ers was derided by some for his lack of speed, but I liked what I saw of him during Senior Bowl week -- he displayed an excellent understanding of the little things required to succeed in a complicated passing offense. He caught a touchdown pass in each of his two preseason performances, and I think he will surprise in the open field.
Seattle's Stephen Williams was an undrafted standout for the Arizona Cardinals in 2010, but injuries affected his progression, and he's found new life with the Seahawks. He's an outstanding deep receiver who uses his height and leaping ability to make contested catches on the run down the sideline. He suffered a concussion in Seattle's preseason finale against the Raiders, but he's proven to be the deep threat this team needs.
4. Which team did we learn the most about in the preseason?
Burke: Cleveland. Not in a "The Browns are going to win the division" way, or even in a "Man, this team is ready to take the next step" sort of way. But what the Browns proved is that they should be far more competitive in 2013, from QB Brandon Weeden right through a defense that has some serious talent. Going 3-1 in the preseason hardly matters (Detroit finished 4-0 in 2008 prior to an 0-16 regular season), but Cleveland's arrow finally is pointing up.
Farrar: The Arizona Cardinals. I was concerned about the switch in defensive coordinators, from Ray Horton to Todd Bowles, but the new defense certainly seems opportunistic enough. More importantly, the Cards have a functional NFL quarterback for the first time since Kurt Warner retired, and you saw that in Arizona's preseason with the number of impressive connections on deep passes. Look for new head coach Bruce Arians to use Larry Fitzgerald as he used Reggie Wayne in Indianapolis in 2012, and Hines Ward in Pittsburgh before that -- from the slot to out wide, and dangerous with his opportunities.
5. Which team did we learn the least about?
Burke: Detroit. Ndamukong Suh and Nick Fairley are primed to have a dominant year up front. The Lions also still have that Matthew Stafford-Calvin Johnson combo. And ... that's where we are.
Stafford failed to develop a connection with any other receiver in the preseason, counting a miserable performance Thursday in Buffalo in which he overthrew Patrick Edwards multiple times and was charged with an INT on a ball Nate Burleson missed. The defense still has the same question marks: Is the secondary any good? Will anyone other than Suh and Fairley deliver? Detroit also spent its Week 3 win over New England racking up personal fouls, a troubling sign for a team fighting perceptions of discipline problems.
Farrar: The Patriots. Yes, that offense looked like hot garbage at times through the preseason, and that's to be expected -- Tom Brady has a new set of targets (including Thompkins), and the complexity of New England's route concepts insure that it will take time for this to work. Historically, Bill Belichick doesn't show his hand in exhibition games, and in past years, it could be argued that he thought the hay was in the barn for the most part. Now? There are a lot of questions, and we won't see whatever the real answers are until the season starts and everyone is on the same page.
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