The first week of the NFL preseason brings lofty expectations for each team. Those who will find themselves in the cellar when January rolls around are on the same level as the defending champion New England Patriots. It’s the start of a new season, and anything can happen.
With that comes excitement among the league’s 31 cities, along with plenty of questions.
Will this be the year the Buffalo Bills break a playoff drought that’s existed since Bill Clinton was in office, or will their quarterback situation doom any chance they have? San Francisco 49ers may have lost a whole bunch of talent and a successful coach, but will their new schemes make the team more exciting? All this with the backdrop of Jimmy Garoppolo starting under center for the New England Patriots with the Tom Brady situation still up in the air.
In what will continue to be a weekly feature here at Sportsnaut, here are the top 10 storylines for Week 1 of the 2015 NFL preseason.
1. Jimmy Garoppolo vs. the Green Bay Packers
— New England Patriots (@Patriots) August 11, 2015
We honestly have no idea if Tom Brady will be on the field when the New England Patriots take on the Pittsburgh Steelers to open the season. Heck, the Patriots are about as much in the know as we are. This makes Garoppolo’s early preseason performance that much more important. He’s going to need some first-team reps in live game action for the Patriots to prepare for the possibility that Brady will in fact be out for the season opener.
The unfortunate thing here is that the second-year quarterback doesn’t appear to be anywhere near ready to start a meaningful football game at the professional level. He’s received a small percentage of first-team reps throughout camp, but reports indicate a lack of consistency as a big issue. Showing flashes from time to time is one thing. Being able to consistently make the contested pass in real game action is a completely different thing.
It will be interesting to see how the former second-round pick performs against the Green Bay Packers under the lights at Gillette Stadium on Thursday night.
2. Jameis Winston’s preseason debut vs. Teddy Bridgewater
By all accounts, Winston has been mighty impressive in his first camp as a NFL player. It normally doesn’t make sense to make much out of how a quarterback performs during the summer months, but that all changes when we are talking about a rookie first-round pick that had some pretty major question marks heading in.
To the surprise of few, Winston has answered these questions and more over the past two weeks.
“I’ve only been around two other quarterbacks,” Buccaneers offensive lineman Evan Smith told Yahoo Sports recently. “I played with one who was really good. He reminds me of a very young version of him.”
Smith, who played with Aaron Rodgers in Green Bay, wasn’t necessarily comparing Winston to today’s version of the NFL MVP. Instead, his comparison was to how Rodgers performed shortly after taking over for Brett Favre as the team’s starting quarterback. It’s mighty high praise, but there are some resemblances there. Anticipation and accuracy being two of the biggest:
In the limited videos we have seen from Buccaneers camp, these are the two things that stand out the most. What will be more interesting to see in Winston’s preseason debut is if he’s improved on the shoddy decision making that saw him throw 18 interceptions at Florida State last year.
3. A new era in San Francisco: Jim Tomsula’s coaching debut
It’s finally time for the 49ers to move past what has been one of the most disastrous offseason stretches for a team in modern NFL history. While expectations are nowhere near as high as they have been over the past three years, there is still plenty of talent on this roster.
With fresh new faces on both sides of the ball and new schemes to match, it’s going to be extremely interesting to see how this year’s version of the 49ers come out of the gate.
The expectation here is that starters will play for the first quarter against the Houston Texans on Saturday night. If so, we are going to be able to see how Colin Kaepernick looks with a completely re-designed throwing motion and in a completely new offense.
On the defensive side of the ball, Eric Mangini’s unit is looking to put together a blitz-heavy package to mask what has to be considered major concerns at cornerback. With Aldon Smith now off the team, the onus will be on second-year player Aaron Lynch and rookie Eli Harold to provide a pass rush opposite Ahmad Brooks at outside linebacker. Both should see ample opportunities against Houston.
4. Two teams playing their last season in their current cities?
News that the NFL doesn’t see a viable stadium plan in Oakland came mere days before the Raiders open their preseason slate at home against a St. Louis Rams team that is rivaling the Northern California franchise as it relates to potential relocation to Los Angeles. The backdrop of potential relocation comes 20 years after both the Rams and Raiders moved from Southern California—an ironic twist of fate for both franchises.
Raider loyalists will be out in full force at O.co on Friday night. There will likely be a decent amount of Southern California-based Rams fans prepared to cheer on their team as well.
5. With Geno Smith out, all eyes turn to Bryce Petty in New York
Not really, but you get the point.
Just days after Smith was knocked out (not literally) for at least the next six weeks after a locker room spat, the Jets are left wondering what is going to happen at the quarterback position.
While veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick will get the first crack at the starting job with Smith out, all eyes will be on rookie fourth-round pick Bryce Petty. At this point, it’s well known that the Jets don’t see Petty as being anywhere near ready to start as a rookie.
Before you go down this road, Jets source says Bryce Petty is not ready — "not even close" — to assume starting role. Not the answer here.
— Jeff Darlington (@JeffDarlington) August 11, 2015
This doesn’t mean the team won’t give him extensive reps during the exhibition slate—far from it. The Jets already know what they are going to get from Fitzpatrick. It makes too much sense to let Betty display his skills and gain valuable experience at the NFL level. Doing so with the first-team offense would be a nice start.
6. Sam Bradford’s Philadelphia Eagles quarterback debut
Knowing Chip Kelly, the Eagles are unlikely to hold Bradford back during the preseason. In reality, the team wants to see the injury-plagued quarterback prove he can withstand a few hits on his surgically-repaired knee. The best way to get a first-hand view of this is during the preseason. The Eagles certainly want to see if Bradford shows some hesitancy in the pocket, as we have seen in the past few years with the likes of Carson Palmer and Robert Griffin III returning from ACL injuries.
It’s not yet known whether Bradford will play Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts, but we do know fellow new acquisition Tim Tebow will. The former Heisman winner has seen his ups and downs in camp thus far, and he is competing with Matt Barkley for a roster spot. That’s likely going to be the biggest thing to take away from this otherwise meaningless game. Who plays better against the Indianapolis Colts could tell us who will be on the final roster when all is said and done.
7. Johnny Manziel vs. Robert Griffin III
Here’s a matchup of embattled young quarterbacks in a game that would normally be the most meaningless on each team’s schedule. When the Washington Redskins travel to Cleveland to take on the Browns on Thursday night, all eyes will be on these two quarterbacks.
While RGIII will get the start and doesn’t face any competition for the job in D.C., Manziel will begin his attempt to climb over Josh McCown on the Browns’ depth chart. The second-year signal caller will receive first-team reps this preseason, and could potentially make Cleveland’s decision at quarterback extremely difficult if he performs at a high level early in the preseason.
From all accounts, Manziel is a changed man after spending a lengthy stint in rehab. Those changes have reportedly extended to the football field as well.
RGIII’s situation is much different in Washington. He’s the presumed starter heading into the preseason—a fact that was magnified when the team picked up his $16.2 million option for the 2016 season. While the Browns aren’t relying on Manziel, Washington is either going to live or die with RGIII under center.
Gruden says "at least a quarter" for QB @RGIII in Thursday's preseason opener against the Browns.
— Washington Football Team (@WashingtonNFL) August 10, 2015
Considering the Redskins want to get their former first-round pick more reps in the preseason, it shouldn’t be a surprise that he’s slated to play at least a quarter in the opener. Going up against an elite-level Browns secondary, this will most definitely be a good test for him.
8. New starting running backs in San Diego and Dallas
The San Diego Chargers made Melvin Gordon a first-round pick back in May—somewhat of a rarity for a running back in today’s NFL. Needless to say, he’s going to be the featured back in Southern California. Meanwhile, in Dallas, Joseph Randle appears to be the guy the Cowboys will call on to replace reigning NFL Offensive Player of the Year DeMarco Murray. Thursday’s game represents an opportunity for Randle to prove naysayers wrong. However, he may not suit up after suffering a minor oblique injury on Monday.
With Gordon, the issue early on might be pass protection. Like most young running backs, that’s an area he’s struggled with:
Melvin Gordon is gonna have tons of yards, be exciting … But thru 3 days it's clear he's not playing 3 downs w/o much improvement blocking
— Kevin Acee (@sdutKevinAcee) August 1, 2015
More recently, Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers addressed perceived protection issues as it relates to Gordon:
“He’s still having to adjust to protections and to the route running, but the good thing is he catches it well, catches it naturally,” the veteran quarterback said, via CBS Sports. “And protections, shoot, it’s like not that I’ve had to sell it to him, but I said, hey, you pick up the right guy on third down and pick up the protection, and there’s two reasons you’ve got to love that.”
Picking the right guy to protect Rivers from is one thing. Actually being able to use plus-level technique to protect the quarterback is a completely different thing. Until Gordon gets that down, he’s not going to be a three-down running back in the NFL. Regardless, the talent is most definitely there for him to have a breakthrough rookie campaign.
As it relates to Randle, there really isn’t much competition for the starting job. Darren McFadden—predictably so—has frustrated the Cowboys with his continual injury issues. Lance Dunbar has also seen himself hobbled by injury. Meanwhile, the Cowboys released another injury-plagued running back in Ryan Williams prior to camp. Randle should see a nice amount of action with the first team during the preseason, if he does play.
9. The quarterback situation in Buffalo
Manuel gets third team in 2-minute drill. Throws his first pass into the Bills' corporate hospitality tent.
— Mike Rodak (@mikerodak) August 12, 2015
While Matt Cassel is slated to get the start Friday against the Carolina Panthers, it looks like EJ Manuel has become somewhat of a joke around Bills camp this summer. That leaves Cassel vying for the starting job with free-agent signing Tyrod Taylor, who has thrown a total of 35 regular season passes in four seasons. For the Bills, it’s going to be come down to which quarterback can avoid turnovers and manage the game. That’s magnified by what promises to be a dominating defense.
We know what Cassel brings to the table. It’s nothing we haven’t seen since he took over for an injured Tom Brady with the New England Patriots back in 2008. The real wild card here—and I use that term loosely—is Taylor. The arm talent is most definitely there. It’s now going to be about him making the necessary progressions and handling himself in the pocket during the preseason. In reality, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Taylor win the job.
10. Other Rookie debuts
I personally want to see Oakland Raiders wide receiver Amari Cooper strut his stuff for the first time in a real game come Friday night against the St. Louis Rams. The rookie top-five pick has been dazzling onlookers during training camp in Napa. Already seemingly etched in stone as Derek Carr’s favorite target, even after less than two weeks of camp, Cooper is primed to have a beastly first year.
Marcus Mariota will also be taking first-team reps in his initial action as a NFL player against the Atlanta Falcons. Playing with the Tennessee Titans first-team offense, we can only hope head coach Ken Whisenhunt will afford Mariota the ability to throw to fellow rookie Dorial Green-Beckham, who is already getting first-team reps this summer.
How about New York Jets rookie defensive tackle Leonard Williams? The top-five pick may become even more of a focal point on that side of the ball with the recent off-field issues Sheldon Richardson has gone through. Williams should be lining up against star Detroit Lions guard Larry Warford. Talk about two beasts lining up in the trenches against one another. That’s not usually a sight we see in August.
Overall, there are more than 300 rookies making their NFL debuts this weekend. It’s the moment they have all been working hard for over the past decade-plus. Let’s hope a few under-the-radar first-year players stand out.
*Check out more of Vincent Frank’s work on eDraft.com