The Baltimore Ravens and Chicago Bears are set to unofficially kick off the 2018 NFL season in Canton on Thursday night. As the league inducts new members into the greatest club in football history, those on the field at Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium have other concerns.
Does rookie Lamar Jackson have an actual shot to beat out Joe Flacco for the Ravens’ starting job? The former Heisman winner will get his first opportunity to show what he’s worth in live in-game action Thursday evening.
Meanwhile, in Chicago, it will be Mitch Trubisky’s first ever game under rookie head coach Matt Nagy. While the second-year quarterback might not play much, it will be interesting to see how he performs. These are among the top storylines for the 2018 Pro Football Hall of Fame Game.
Ravens’ new crop of receivers
Baltimore will feature a new group of pass catchers for whoever is under center this season. That includes free agent signings Michael Crabtree, John Brown and Willie Snead. It’s certainly going to be intriguing to see how they mesh with the quarterbacks who will see action Thursday evening. In fact, said relationships could determine who starts under center this season.
Early reports from Owings Mills indicate that Brown has been Joe Flacco’s favorite target during summer sessions. That could be absolutely huge for the Ravens this season. The 28-year-old Brown struggled during his final two seasons in Arizona, recording a combined 60 receptions for 816 yards. That came on the heels of a 2015 campaign that saw him put up north of 1,000 yards. Any indications of early success Thursday could be something to watch moving forward.
Matt Nagy’s coaching debut
The former Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator has talked Ad nauseam about changing the culture in the Windy City. As with every first-year head coach, that starts during offseason activities and training camp itself. With a talented young team, Nagy’s first opportunity to prove he’s the man to replace John Fox long term will be Thursday evening in Canton.
More so than that, we’re intrigued to see how the Bears’ first-team offense performs in this new scheme. It’s much more quarterback friendly than the offense we saw Mitch Trubisky struggle in as a rookie under then coordinator Dowell Loggains. Meanwhile, a new group of skill-position players will look to make their mark immediately. Nagy’s debut might not tell us a whole lot, but there will be certain takeaways.
Is Alex Collins a true three-down back?
Collins flashed big time with the Ravens last season after being cast off by the Seattle Seahawks and Minnesota Vikings. The former fifth-round pick recorded nearly 1,000 rushing yards and averaged a robust 4.6 yards per attempt. This came after both Terrance West and Kenneth Dixon suffered injuries. With West no longer on the roster and Dixon again suffering through injuries, it seems that Collins could be Baltimore’s three-down back this season.
As reports from Ravens camp indicate Collins is the featured back during summer sessions, the third-year player seems to be excited about the possibility. “I want to be the guy, I have that fire in me,” Collins told Jason La Canfora of CBS Sports. Given his likely role, we wouldn’t be surprised to see Baltimore provides Collins with early touches Thursday evening in Canton.
Roquan Smith holdout
First-year Bears head coach Matt Nagy indicated earlier in the week that nothing is happening on the contract front. As both the Bears’ brass and their first-round pick settle in for what promises to be a prolonged stalemate, Smith will not be in Canton with his team on Thursday.
It really is a black eye for a Bears team that was seemingly headed in the right direction during the offseason. Nagy brought a change of culture with him from Kansas City. Despite some uneven performances, second-year quarterback Mitch Trubisky was looking like a true veteran leader. But because they’re worried about new NFL tackling rules and how Smith plays linebacker, the relationship between the two just isn’t good. That will be a storyline during the HOF Game.
Lamar Jackson’s NFL debut
All eyes have been on Jackson during training camp. Whether that means he’ll actually earn a starting role as a rookie remains to be seen. What we do know is that the former Heisman winner will see substantially more reps than veterans Joe Flacco and Robert Griffin III in his preseason debut. That’s enough to get pretty much every NFL fan excited.
Thus far in camp, Jackson has flashed big time (watch here and here). Now that he’s going to be seeing his first in-game NFL action, it’s going to be interesting to see if Jackson can take these practice reps and turn them into consistent performances during game action. If that does indeed happen, we’re likely going to be hearing about a real quarterback competition in Owings Mills ahead of Week 1.
The Jordan Howard, Tarik Cohen dynamic
While Howard won’t see action in the Hall of Fame Game, we’re expecting to see a bit of Cohen following a brilliant rookie season. Utilized as the third-down back while also being lined up at receiver, Cohen recorded north of 700 total yards last season. He also caught 75 percent of the passes thrown in his direction. It was something to behold, watching this electric play maker do his thing.
The great thing here is that Cohen should excel even further in Matt Nagy’s offensive system. It’s the same scheme that saw a similar player in Tyreek Hill break out big time last season. Given what Cohen can do in both the running game and through the air, his initial game under Nagy, however limited it might be, could provide an electric moment or two (like this).
Robert Griffin III
RGIII could very well start the Hall of Fame Game. Of course, that’s dependent on Flacco not suiting up. As of right now, the former Washington Redskins Pro Bowler is considered Baltimore’s No. 2 signal caller. Given how the above-mentioned Jackson has looked, things could change in a big way moving forward this summer.
Not only is the onus on Jackson to prove his worth during the preseason, RGIII needs to show that he’s capable of seeing regular season action as Flacco’s primary backup. Having tossed a total of six touchdowns compared to nine interceptions since the end of the 2013 campaign, this could very well be RGIII’s final opportunity to prove he belongs in the NFL in any role.
Mitch Trubisky’s command
Trubisky has been erratic at times during camp. That’s the best way to describe a quarterback who many figured took the next step under first-year head coach Matt Nagy during the offseason. It now becomes vital that Trubisky both take command of the Bears’ offense and prove himself to be more consistent.
Last year is over. Sure Trubisky struggled under then head coach John Fox. But that was more a product of inept coaching. Based on how widely respected Nagy is, that won’t be an excuse for the former No. 2 pick as a sophomore this season. He needs to show that he’s upped his game. Period. That starts with whatever reps he’ll see in the Hall of Fame Game.