Top 10 storylines for Week 2 of the NFL preseason

By Vincent Frank

Week 1 of the NFL preseason didn’t give us much to write home about. The top two rookie quarterbacks got their feet wet on a professional field for the first time with mixed results. Meanwhile, a second-year signal caller in New England struggled to make the most of his opportunities. All this came with a backdrop of multiple serious injuries occurring during meaningless football games.

First and foremost, let’s all hope that no significant injuries occur this week. That has to be the primary goal for the league’s 32 teams.

Outside of that, there is no shortage of storylines around the NFL heading into Week 2 preseason action. From Tyrod Taylor getting the nod for the Buffalo Bills to Tim Tebow and Matt Barkley battling for a roster spot with the Philadelphia Eagles, here are your top-10 storylines for this week in the preseason.

1. Tyrod Taylor gets the start for the Buffalo Bills

Matt Cassel received the first opportunity to prove to head coach Rex Ryan and offensive coordinator Greg Roman that he should be given the key to the team’s offense last week. The veteran quarterback responded by dinking and dunking his way to 45 yards on 7-of-8 passing. It wasn’t necessarily a stellar performance from the veteran. Then again, he did everything that was asked of him.

In attempting to see what Taylor has in him this week, the Bills have made it clear that their quarterback competition is now between two guys—furthering the idea that EJ Manuel’s roster spot could be in jeopardy.

Taylor, a sixth-round pick of the Baltimore Ravens back in 2011, has attempted a total of 35 career regular season passes in four seasons. The Virginia Tech product completed 5-of-8 passes for 49 yards while leading Buffalo to two touchdowns in three possessions last week.

If Taylor performs at a high level against the Cleveland Browns on Thursday, the writing could be on the wall here. He’s reportedly been the most impressive quarterback in camp thus far:

“It’s a production-based business,” Bills general manager Doug Whaley said earlier this week, via the Buffalo News. “He (Taylor) produced with the twos so we’re excited for him to get in there Thursday with the ones to see what he can do. Everybody knows what he can do with his feet. But I’m impressed with a couple of his throws. He’s got everything you’re looking for. We just have to make sure he can produce when his time’s called.”

If Taylor does impress Bills’ brass with his arm on Thursday, he could very well start the team’s third preseason game next week. That would be the biggest indication yet that Buffalo is intent on going with the upside of Taylor over the known quantity of Matt Cassel.

2. Seattle Seahawks offensive line on the road against tough Kansas City Chiefs front seven

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Seahawks quarterbacks were sacked a whopping seven times in their preseason opener against the Denver Broncos, including two sacks of Russell Wilson in just five dropbacks. While just a preseason game, this has to be worrisome to head coach Pete Carroll and company.

At this point, there appears to be just two starter-caliber offensive linemen on this unit right now. When healthy, Russell Okung is one of the best left tackles in the game. Guard J.R. Sweezy also looks pretty legit out there. Outside of that, there’s a whole heck of a lot to be desired here.

If the season were to start today, Alvin Bailey and Lemuel Jeanpierre would join Sweezy inside. They have a combined 16 career starts between them, and struggled a great deal against Denver. In addition to this, second-year player Justin Britt would be starting at right tackle. The former second-round pick from Missouri started all 16 games last season, grading out as the fourth-worst pass-protecting tackle in the league (via Pro Football Focus, subscription required).

Russell Wilson has proven he can have success while facing a ton of pressure. The issue here has to be injury. If the Super Bowl-winning quarterback finds himself hit a lot this season, there’s a chance he is going to go down at some during the team’s 16 games. That could derail Seattle’s hopes of winning a third consecutive conference title. Going up against the Chiefs in Kansas City this week, Seattle’s offensive line will be facing its biggest test of the preseason. It will be interesting to see how the unit responds after a disastrous preseason opener last week.

3. Potential quarterback battle brewing in D.C., again?

In our takeaways piece from last week, we drew the conclusion that Kirk Cousins was auditioning for other teams in what was a stellar performance against the Cleveland Browns. Not once did it cross our minds that Cousins may be auditioning for Redskins head coach Jay Gruden and company.

The situation here can’t simply be summed up by pointing out that Robert Griffin III is due to make $16.2 million next season. While that type of financial commitment will definitely play a role, on-field performance will be the determining factor here. RGIII has won just five of his past 20 starts—a mark that simply can’t be considered acceptable in D.C.

What if (and there’s a lot of what ifs involved here) Cousins continues to outperform his counterpart during the preseason slate? What if that then translates to continued struggles from RGIII during the early part of the regular season? Gruden can’t sit idly by as his opportunity to remain the Redskins head coach is slowly slipping away from him while he continues to throw Dan Snyder’s golden boy out there on a weekly basis. At some point, this will all come to a head. It’s really just a matter of time.

Now, RGIII can take this narrative and throw it out the window by playing like the elite-level quarterback he thinks he is. Last week’s preseason opener might have been a start. But he now needs to go out there and show more on the field during live-game action.

4. Let’s talk about Martavis Bryant

A second-year receiver from Clemson, Bryant jumped on to the scene to the tune of 26 receptions for 549 yards as a rookie. After what has been a tremendous off-season stretch for Bryant, it appears that he’s fully prepared to take that next step and be a standout receiver in the NFL. That was magnified this past week against the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 6-foot-4 receiver made multiple Jaguars defenders look silly, going for 55 yards on three receptions, including a 44-yard touchdown from Ben Roethlisberger to open the scoring early in the first quarter.

Interestingly, Pittsburgh appears ready to roll with third-year wide receiver Markus Wheaton as the team’s No. 2 option behind Antonio Brown. For his part, Wheaton showed flashes last season after playing sparingly as a rookie. This doesn’t mean that Big Ben and the Steelers are higher on Wheaton than Bryant. It’s all about personnel packages. When the team goes to three-wide sets, which it does a whole heck of a lot, Wheaton will play in the slot with Bryant lined up outside opposite Brown. If that’s not a nightmare matchup for opposing defenses, this one scribe has no idea what is.

Back to Bryant for a second. Last week’s performance was a culmination of what has been a tremendous one-year stretch for the young receiver. The lofty praise being thrown his way from those within the Steelers organization cannot be overstated. If he continues to gain the trust of Roethlisberger, it doesn’t matter whether he breaks camp as the team’s No. 3 wide receiver, Bryant will put up some monstrous numbers this year.

5. Sense of urgency for Jimmy Garoppolo in New England

Wildly inconsistent would be the best way to describe Garoppolo’s preseason debut against the Green Bay Packers last week. He showed flashes at times, but seemed to struggle in key areas of the game that will need to improve if he’s going to help the Patriots tread water with Tom Brady potentially out for the first four games of the season.

The second-year quarterback struggled stepping away from pressure, which played a role in him going to the turf seven times in 37 dropbacks. He also struggled with intermediate accuracy on a consistent basis, failing to put the ball in a position where only his receiver could come away with a catch. That came to a head early in the third quarter when a pass attended for Josh Boyce was picked off by rookie defensive back LaDarius Gunter. These are mistakes that simply can’t happen at the NFL level.

Now going up against a relatively weak and thin New Orleans Saints defense Saturday night, Garoppolo has a chance to prove that last week’s performance was nothing more than a mirage. If he can do that, the Patriots will sleep better knowing he might be able to hold down the fort while Brady serves his suspension. If not, there are going to be some potential question marks heading into the regular year.

6. Potential last shot for multiple Philadelphia Eagles quarterbacks

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Matt Barkley was the most impressive of the three quarterbacks that played last week against the Indianapolis Colts. He completed 12-of-20 passes for nearly 200 yards with zero touchdowns and one interception. Meanwhile, Tim Tebow finished his Eagles debut 6-of-12 passing after completing his first four attempts. Though, the much-maligned signal caller did add a seven-yard touchdown run late in the fourth quarter.

Conventional wisdom seems to suggest that these two quarterbacks are battling for the No. 3 spot behind presumed starter Sam Bradford and veteran backup Mark Sanchez. And while some had concluded Tebow was a long shot to make the team after signing during the spring, his running ability could play a major role here. That’s only magnified by the likelihood that head coach Chip Kelly will lean towards going for two more often this season. His chances of making the roster are also improved by the fact that whatever trade market that might exist surrounds Barkley, not himself.

It’s going to be interesting to see how snaps are divided between Barkley and Tebow this week. If Tebow gets a vast majority of the reps behind Sanchez (and potentially Bradford), it will be seen as a sign that he’s in the lead for the third spot. If Barkley gets most of the reps, it could be seen as the Eagles showcasing him for other teams.

7. The Carolina Panthers wide receiver situation

With news that Kelvin Benjamin tore his ACL in practice on Wednesday and is out for the season, the Panthers find themselves behind the proverbial eight-ball heading into the season. The whole idea behind selecting former Michigan standout Devin Funchess in the second round was to team him up with Benjamin to form an elite receiver tandem for the newly extended Cam Newton under center. Now that Benjamin is out for the season, this plan will have to wait until 2016.

More than that, Newton loses his clear No. 1 receiving option from last year—a player that put up over 1,000 yards as a rookie. With Benjamin sidelined for the entire season, Carolina’s wide receiver group is alarmingly thin. Philly Brown, Ted Ginn Jr and Jerricho Cotchery sit atop the depth chart. Meanwhile, Funchess will likely be relied on to take over the role Benjamin held last year. That’s a whole heck of a lot to ask of a rookie receiver who has dealt with his fair share of injuries over the past couple years.

Needless to say, general manager Dave Gettleman will explore the watered-down trade and free-agent markets here. But as you might be able to guess, there are not a lot of options there. Reggie Wayne becomes the likeliest option on the market. Outside of that, Carolina will have to scour other team’s depth charts to see if there are any potential under-the-radar trade candidates. Pure conjecture here, but New York Giants receiver Rueben Randle and former Minnesota Vikings first-round pick Cordarrelle Patterson could be options.

Internally, Philly Brown offers the most upside outside of Funchess. The Ohio State product put up 21 catches on 36 targets as an un-drafted rookie free agent last year. He will likely take on a larger role during the preseason, starting this week against the Miami Dolphins.

8. Derek Carr vs. Teddy Bridgewater

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Sorry Johnny Manziel fans, but the debate regarding the top quarterback from the 2014 NFL draft class starts and ends with these two players. And in reality, it’s a debate that has been more contentious than most people think. Teddy Bridgewater supporters will point to Derek Carr’s ridiculously low yards per attempt average. Meanwhile, Carr apologists (this scribe included) will point to the Raiders lack of talent a season ago.

Either way you spin it, both Bridgewater and Carr have a lot to prove after what were impressive rookie campaigns.

For the Vikings starter, it’s all about finding a comfort level with Adrian Peterson back in the fold. The first-round pick from a year ago will not be asked to be the focal point of the offense—something that he’s likely never dealt with dating back to his Pop Warner days. He’s going to have to do so without the services of right tackle Phil Loadholt for the season and a struggling Matt Kalil protecting his blindside.

In Oakland, Carr has an opportunity to prove that he’s the franchise quarterback for a team that has not had one since the Rich Gannon days. Flush with new receiving targets in Amari Cooper and Michael Crabtree, Carr now has a ton of talent at the skill positions. This should help with his progression.

Saturday’s game in Minnesota won’t only allow each quarterback an opportunity to prove himself heading into the regular year, it will give both a chance to succeed against some elite-level pass rushers. Vikings defensive end Everson Griffen is among the most underrated players at his position. Meanwhile, second-year stud Khalil Mack should wreak havoc on Bridgewater early on. It will be interesting to see how both signal callers handle the pressure we all know Jack Del Rio and Mike Zimmer will draw up here.

9. Breakout preseason performers

Most of the time, standout preseason performers find themselves stuck behind etched-in-stone starters once the regular year comes calling. August is the time for these lesser-known players to make a name for themselves in hopes of either catching on with another team or proving to their current squad that they can make an impact down the road. There are, however, exceptions to this rule on an annual basis. While we aren’t sure who might continue their stellar training camp and preseason performances to the regular year, there are a couple names to keep an eye on.

San Francisco 49ers running back Jarryd Hayne may be the most intriguing player still on a NFL roster right now. Last week saw the former Australian rugby player impress a great deal exactly one year after announcing his intention to play American football. Acting as San Francisco’s No. 2 running back with Reggie Bush sitting, Hayne put up a 53-yard run and did a tremendous job in the return game. He seems to have the “it” factor when it comes to playing football at the highest level—something that the brass in Santa Clara has hinted at for some time now. It will be interesting to see how much action Hayne gets against the Dallas Cowboys Sunday night with Carlos Hyde slated to play more and Bush potentially ready to go. The rookie remains in a battle for a roster spot with Kendall Hunter and rookie Mike Davis.

Ameer Abdullah’s roster spot is locked up in Detroit. It just remains to be seen whether the Lions plan on him being the primary ball-carrier when the regular season starts next month. The rookie second-round pick has impressed in both camp and the preseason. With Joique Bell still out of action and Theo Riddick failing to impress, we can be pretty sure that Abdullah will see a fair amount of action Thursday night against the Washington Redskins. If he’s able to build off a strong NFL debut from last week, the Lions’ decision might not be that difficult moving forward. Giving someone of Abdullah’s electric play-making ability a big role in the team’s offense could be huge this season.

Tennessee Titans quarterback Zach Mettenberger is also someone to keep an eye on this week. Playing second-fiddle to rookie Marcus Mariota, the former LSU standout put up impressive numbers in his 2015 preseason debut against the Atlanta Falcons last week, completing 8-of-11 passes for 129 yards with a touchdown and an interception. While Tennessee’s primary goal will be to get Mariota reps this week against the St. Louis Rams, the team will want to display Mettenberger for any teams potentially interested in trading for him.

10. Injuries

This has been an absolute disaster. Not only are players going down during games, important performers are finding themselves lost for the season during simple practices. On Wednesday alone, Miami Dolphins safety Louis Delmas and Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin were lost for year to torn ACL’s. Meanwhile, Arizona Cardinals guard Mike Iupati is out six-to-eight weeks with a knee injury. This comes on the heels of Washington Redskins tight end Niles Paul being lost for the season in the team’s preseason opener last week. Heck, the Jacksonville Jaguars find themselves without big free-agent signing Julius Thomas for the remainder of the exhibition slate.

As we mentioned before, the primary goal for all 32 teams must be to keep their players healthy during meaningless preseason football. Though, with injuries, comes the possibility of other players stepping into starting roles. It’s going to be interesting to see how past injuries impact what teams plan to do this week.