Top takeaways from the NFL preseason

By Vincent Frank

The 2018 NFL preseason was strange in that starters played a lot less than we’re accustomed to. That was magnified during a Week 3 slate that saw teams sit their first teams on a consistent basis.

Even then, there’s a ton of takeaways we can check in on. The rookie quarterback class was pretty darn impressive, with Sam Darnold earning the New York Jets’ starting job. The defending champion Philadelphia Eagles struggled in a huge way. And at running back, injuries to star youngsters opened the door for former Pro Bowlers to latch on and show themselves in a big way.

These are among the top takeaways from the recently-concluded NFL preseason.

Rookie quarterback class impresses

Sam Darnold pretty much earned a starting job outright. He didn’t rely on other quarterbacks too struggle. Instead, the Jets’ rookie took it upon himself and simply looked better. Darnold started the New York Jets’ two most important preseason games, showing himself incredibly well in the process. He now enters Week 1 with high expectations and an expert understanding of New York’s offense.

In Cleveland, No. 1 pick Baker Mayfield will almost assuredly open the season as the Browns’ primary backup behind Tyrod Taylor after a pretty electric exhibition performance. Meanwhile, Lamar Jackson put everyone on notice with a brilliant outing in Baltimore’s fourth preseason game. We will see some major struggles and inconsistencies from these rookies in 2018. That doesn’t mean this rookie class isn’t among the best in recent memory.

There’s some problems for the defending champs

Through the first three preseason games, starting quarterback Carson Wentz had not even been cleared for contact after suffering a torn ACL late last year. His backup, reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles, also dealt with numerous injuries. That doesn’t even take into account just how horrible Foles looked when he was on the field during the preseason slate. A 5-0 loss to the Cleveland Browns in Week 3 was the latest example of this futility.

A lot has been made of the so-called Super Bowl hangover. In general, it’s overblown. But Doug Pederson’s squad did absolutely nothing to dispel this during an uninspiring preseason run. Whether that translates to Week 1 agianst the Falcons remains to be seen. But it certainly is a concern.

Seahawks preparing for NFC West cellar?

Earl Thomas held out throughout the entire preseason slate, lending credence to the idea that Seattle’s pass defense is going to struggle this year. Seeing the Los Angeles Chargers, and of all people, Geno Smith, blitz this unit, was a clear reminder that the Legion of Boom was no longer. Losing the likes of Cliff Avril, Michael Bennett, Sheldon Richardson, Richard Sherman and Kam Chancellor will certainly do that.

On offense, Germain Ifedi and the right side of the line continued to act as a turnstile in front of Russell Wilson. That was brought to a whole new level in the third preseason game when Vikings defenders hit Seahawks quarterbacks a whopping nine times. To make matter worse, rookie first-round pick Rashaad Penny suffered an injury and the Seahawks’ running game was non-existent. This leads us to believe that Pete Carroll’s squad could conclude the 2018 campaign in the NFC West’s cellar.

Injuries lead to opportunities for veteran backs

When Darrius Guice went down to a season-ending torn ACL, it threw the Redskins for a loop. A top-15 talent heading into the 2018 NFL Draft, Guice was expected to be Washington’s primary ball carrier. His talent is something Alex Smith has needed throughout the quarterback’s career. Where would Washington turn? Mocked for even considering it, Washington signed a 32-year-old Adrian Peterson after the second preseason game. And in his first appearance in the burgundy, Peterson looked like the 2010 version of his old self. We’re not sure if that will translate to the regular year, but it was a sight to behold.

In San Francisco, the 49ers seemingly had depth and a ton of talent at running back. The team backed up the Brinks truck for Jerick McKinnon in free agency. He’s the perfect fit in Kyle Shanahan’s system. With Matt Breida having come on strong as an undrafted rookie, things were looking up. Unfortunately, both went down to preseason-ending injuries early in the slate. It led to San Francisco signing Shanahan’s former pupil in Washington, veteran Alfred Morris. All Morris did in his debut with the 49ers was show his violent running tendencies en route to putting up 84 yards on 17 attempts. He’s now a lock to make the 53-man roster and could be the eventual starter.

Packers’ youngsters impress big time

New Green Bay general managerĀ Brian Gutekunst sought to upgrade a horrible secondary in his first draft in that role. In doing so, the Packers picked up Jaire Alexander and Josh Jackson with their first-two selections. The obvious concern here was that both talented youngsters would struggle out of the gate. It’s been a never-ending theme for rookie cornerbacks in an NFL.

This was never a problem for either youngster during the preseason. Both showed out in a big way, redefining Green Bay’s pass defense in the process. It’s this elite-level coverage ability coupled with the signing of veteran Tramon Williams that has Green Bay thinking its pass defense will turn around in a big way this coming regular season.

So do the Steelers’ youngsters

Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner

We pretty much already knew what JuJu Smith-Schuster brought to the table heading into his second summer in the NFL. The former USC star stood out in a big way as a rookie last season and looks to be a star in the making. His preseason performance did nothing to dispel that.

Instead, it’s what we saw from second-year running back James Conner and rookie receiver James Washington that should scare opposing AFC North defenses. Replacing holdout Le’Veon Bell, Conner put up a total of 100 yards and a touchdown on 19 attempts. On the other hand, Washington showed the big-play ability that made him an electric force with Oklahoma State. Both lend credence to the idea that Pittsburgh is in good hands moving forward. Add in rookie quarterback Mason Rudolph and the above-mentioned Smith-Schuster, and that’s brought to an entirely new level.

Panthers’ offensive line concerns

For the better part of the past four seasons, starting left tackle Matt Kalil has acted as a turnstile. That’s why it was such a shock to see Carolina hand him a five-year, $55 million contract prior to last season. Fortunately, Kalil played pretty well in his first action with the Panthers. Unfortunately, he’s now dealing with yet another injury. Kalil just recently had a procedure done on his knee and is considered week-to-week.

For a Panthers team that has had major issues protecting Cam Newton, that’s a big deal. But it’s not even the worse news from the preseason. Instead, it’s the torn MCL and dislocated kneecap that All-Pro right tackle Daryl Williams suffered. That’s going to be an absolutely devastating loss for Carolina, and could lead to even more struggles in pass protection ahead of Mr. Newton.

Jameis Winston takes that next step

While Winston still faces that three-game suspension to start the regular season, he looked like an improved version of his former self during the exhibition slate. Seeing more playing time than other unquestioned starters, Winston completed 30-of-41 passes for 388 yards with three touchdowns and zero interceptions in three games. He also led Tampa Bay to 34 points on eight drives. That’s a solid ratio if we’ve ever seen one.

There’s no other way to put it. This is pretty much a career-defining season for Winston. Should he remain out of the news once returning to the team, there’s every reason to believe Winston will continue his excellent play into the regular season. If so, talk of the Bucs somehow deciding to move on from him can be thrown out the window.

Marcus Mariota doesn’t

Super Mario has been anything but recently. Fresh of a 2017 campaign that saw him struggle to the tune of 13 touchdowns and 15 interceptions, this former Heisman winner stunk it up big time during the preseason. His last preseason outing, at home against a good Steelers defense, saw Mariota put up 28 net passing yards while leading the Titans to zero points and 57 yards on four drives.

It’s pretty darn clear that Mariota has yet to masterĀ Matt LaFleur’s offensive system. Does this mean we should panic? Probably not. But given the talent around him, it’s unacceptable to see Mariota struggle at such a high level after his disastrous performance last season. If it continues into the regular season, both the quarterback and his team will be in big trouble.

Khalil Mack situation a black eye for the Raiders

Khalil Mack

With Week 1 a mere few days away, this former NFL Defensive Player of the Year candidate still has not reported to camp. There’s reports surfacing that he might holdout through the start of the regular season, adding to the millions he’s already received in fines. Meanwhile, there’s been no substantive talks between Mack and a front office that’s for all intents and purposes headed by head coach Jon Gruden. Making matters more interesting, some around the league believe Mack is available in a trade.

This situation is not on Mack. Instead, it’s the Raiders unwillingness to pay him a salary he’s worth. He’s among the best players in the game. He’s coming off three consecutive double-digit sack seasons. Outside of Derek Carr, he’s Oakland’s most valuable player. And the Raiders are treating him like chop liver. Yeah, it’s been a black eye for Mr. Gruden and Co. How this plays out over the next several days will certinaly be telling.

We have a problem, Jacksonville

It’s actually a Blake Bortles problem. Imagine that. The embattled starter was downright atrocious in limited playing time during the preseason, throwing three interceptions on 53 pass attempts. That’s impressively bad, especially given that one interception came against the Atlanta Falcons’ backup defense in Week 3 of the exhibition slate, showing Bortles to still be among the most inaccurate quarterbacks in the NFL.

Thoughts on a possible Teddy Bridgewater trade have now given in to the reality that the Jaguars will be relying on Bortles during what is a Super Bowl or bust season. After his preseason performance, there can’t be much confidence that the Jags will take that next step.

49ers are still very much a work in progress

San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan

Paved in gold. The second coming of Joe Montana. Better than Tom Brady. Ready to lead San Francisco back to the promised land. These are the overreactions we heard surrounding Jimmy Garoppolo during the offseason. Recently extended, he’s seen as the next great young quarterback. That’s fine and it might very well be true. Though, that also doesn’t mean these 49ers aren’t a work in progress.

We saw it come out in droves during the preseason. In the first two games, San Francisco’s defense yielded touchdown-scoring drives to open. Running backs Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida suffered injuries. Dumb penalties and red-zone failures plagued this squad. Sure there’s talent here. Sure Kyle Shanahan is already among the best coaches in the NFL. Again, that’s fine. But anyone believing this team is anywhere near a legit Super Bowl contender is gullible as all get out. Playoffs? Maybe.

Saints are a well-oiled machine

Realistically, New Orleans might be the most-talented all-around team in the NFL. It has a Hall of Famer at quarterback, two Pro Bowl-caliber running backs and a young receiver in Michael Thomas who has been historically productive in his first two NFL season. On defense, the likes of Marshon Lattimore, Cameron Jordan, Marcus Williams and rookie Marcus Davenport fill out one of the most-talented units in the game.

This showed itself in a big way during the preseason. The Saints’ defense continues to fly to the ball, with Williams showing out in a big way. Following that disastrous mistake in last year’s playoffs, he’s on the road to making good on Brees’ prediction for the young safety. Should Williams take that next step in 2018, New Orleans secondary will be among the NFL’s best. In turn, the Saints won’t be relying as much on Brees and the offense. If so, we could be looking at a special season in the Bayou.

Hue Jackson still isn’t good

This almost feels like beating a dead horse. Jackson is 1-31 as the Browns’ head coach and is coming off just the second winless 16-game season in NFL history. He’s been disastrous in the handling of Cleveland’s quarterbacks, his decision to play Tyrod Taylor after an injury in Week 3 being the latest example.

It’s certainly a problem. Everything else is looking golden for the long-downtrodden Browns. Taylor and rookie Baker Mayfield represent the best quarterback room this team has had in decades. The running back group is potentially dominant. Josh Gordon has returned to team up with Jarvis Landry. Meanwhile, Myles Garrett leads what should be a good defense. None of that will matter if Hue Jackson remains Hue Jackson. In fact, it could lead to offensive coordinator Todd Haley replacing him rather early in the season.