Published 6:25 AM EDT Aug 26, 2019
For many NFL coaches, one of the highest priorities for the preseason often is to emerge relatively unscathed.
And while the exhibition slate is largely a platform for younger players and end-of-roster hopefuls, several teams further minimized risks this season by sitting out swaths of starters or limiting their snaps more than usual. That approach trained the spotlight on some of the league’s top rookies, but it didn’t fully safeguard teams from injuries. And while several franchises addressed key questions in the last month, others still have several concerns lingering.
With many notable players around the league expected to sit out Thursday’s finales, here’s our look at the winners and losers of the NFL preseason:
Patriots’ depth: A receiving corps that once looked to be one of the biggest vulnerabilities for the defending champions might end up being a point of strength. While Bill Belichick has remained expectedly tight-lipped regarding Josh Gordon’s future after his reinstatement from an indefinite suspension, the wide receiver’s return reshapes the outlook for Tom Brady and the passing game. Not only might Gordon’s big-play ability and downfield speed open things up for Julian Edelman and the rest of the targets who typically thrive underneath, his presence also could also allow the offense to be less reliant on promising but inconsistent rookies N’Keal Harry, the first-round pick hampered by injuries, and Jakobi Meyers, the undrafted upstart.
Additionally, several of New England’s picks from the past two draft classes have emerged as standouts who should either play significant roles or bolster depth this season. Defensive end Chase Winovich and running back Damien Harris both have made more plays than expected from third-round rookies, and left tackle Isaiah Wynn looks on track to take over as Brady’s blindside protector after sitting out all of last year with a torn Achilles.
Giants QB Daniel Jones: The No. 6 overall pick in this year’s draft is still a long way from giving general manager Dave Gettleman sufficient reason to declare victory on his much-criticized selection this past April, but “Danny Dimes” at least briefly shifted the prevailing narrative surrounding his own entrance into the league. Through three games, Jones has completed 25 of 30 passes for 369 yards and two touchdowns, including some impressive downfield strikes. And while facing more enigmatic defenses that someday await him in the regular season will be a challenge, the rookie likely can enjoy an extended adjustment period as he waits behind Eli Manning and avoids having to scrape by with an underdeveloped receiving corps.
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Steelers LB Devin Bush: Pittsburgh finally might have patched the hole in the middle of its defense. Since Ryan Shazier suffered a devastating spinal injury in December 2017, the Steelers have been in need of a linebacker to provide both range and leadership. The undersized (5-11, 234 pounds) but speedy Bush has demonstrated plenty of both and could be an early front-runner for defensive rookie of the year.
Panthers OLB Brian Burns: Recording four sacks in three games should be ample evidence that Carolina’s first-round rookie can get after NFL quarterbacks. Burns is still a work in progress against the run, but his speed and bend off the edge are difficult to counteract. With opposing offensive lines also having to account for Kawann Short and Gerald McCoy, Burns shouldn’t have trouble finding opportunities as a pass-rush specialist in the Panthers’ new 3-4 scheme.
Unheralded rookies: Though the top picks frequently garner much of the attention at this time of year, some of the top performers in the preseason didn’t create much of a buzz in April. Chiefs sixth-round running back Darwin Thompson positioned himself as a potential backup to Damien Williams by showing off his elusiveness and savvy in pass protection. At 6-5 and 218 pounds, Dolphins undrafted wide receiver Preston Williams has routinely overwhelmed defensive backs in jump-ball scenarios and could push for significant playing time. And Redskins seventh-round cornerback Jimmy Moreland has shown a knack for tracking down passes thrown in his direction.
Colts: Near the opening of training camp, owner Jim Irsay said this year’s team was “one of the best” in franchise history, likening it to the Peyton Manning-era groups. Less than a month later, the Colts find themselves scrambling to prepare for a new starting quarterback after the abrupt retirement of Andrew Luck.
In the immediate future, the loss is devastating. Indianapolis had one of the AFC’s most formidable rosters, and the offense will have to discover different ways to win under Jacoby Brissett, who went 4-11 as a starter in 2017 but could experience a breakthrough with a much-improved supporting cast. Where Luck’s retirement takes the biggest toll, however, is in the long term. General manager Chris Ballard and coach Frank Reich had taken a measured and patient approach in building a team that already looked like a contender. Now, however, the pair is saddled with one of the most challenging undertakings in football: identifying, acquiring and developing a quarterback around which to build.
Chargers: If not for Luck’s decision, the Bolts would be the runaway choice for the franchise with the roughest summer. Derwin James’ foot surgery landed the Pro Bowl safety on injured reserve, ensuring he’ll miss at least half the season. His absence places significant stress on a secondary that also has been without second-round safety Nasir Adderley, who has missed all three preseason contests with a hamstring injury.
On offense, left tackle Russell Okung’s pulmonary embolism leaves Trent Scott as Philip Rivers’ primary blindside protector, and the 2018 undrafted free agent has struggled. Meanwhile, standout running back Melvin Gordon’s holdout could extend into the season. In the so-called “fight for Los Angeles,” the Chargers already seem to have taken a few haymakers before the bell.
Texans QB Deshaun Watson: One year after Watson was sacked a league-high 62 times, Houston doesn’t appear to have afforded him any additional comfort with its left tackle options. Matt Kalil was expected to take on the starting role after signing with the team in March, but he has missed a string of practices and floundered during the preseason. Promoting a backup or swinging a trade shouldn’t be out of the question. The loss of running back Lamar Miller to a season-ending torn anterior cruciate ligament also poses a significant problem for a backfield that has little depth beyond summer trade acquisition Duke Johnson Jr.
Cardinals’ defense: Kliff Kingsbury contends Arizona is deliberately withholding much of its offense prior to the regular season, so perhaps it’s best to reserve judgment on No. 1 pick Kyler Murray and Co. until then. The other side of the ball, however, should give the first-year coach some pause. Cornerback Robert Alford will miss a “significant” amount of time with a leg injury, Kingsbury said, leaving Arizona with rookie Byron Murphy and Tramaine Brock as its potential early-season starters until Patrick Peterson returns from a six-game suspension. If the likes of Matt Ryan and Russell Wilson take advantage of the Cardinals’ depleted secondary in that stretch, Murray might find himself under even more pressure to generate points in a hurry.
International audiences: The league’s August trip north of the border went about as well as the previous attempt to the south. Last Thursday’s Packers-Raiders game in Winnipeg was shifted to an 80-yard field due to holes from the goal posts in the end zone, an issue that shouldn’t have necessitated such a bizarre solution. After field issues prompted the NFL to move last season’s Chiefs-Rams record-scoring fest from Mexico City to Los Angeles, the league needs to demonstrate it can take care of basics abroad.
NFL fans: Expectations of the preseason vary, and maybe the mere presence of competitive football is enough to satiate some fans. But anyone who wants to watch star players or an intense atmosphere would likely be better off taking in a joint practice than an exhibition slog.
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.