Winners and losers from 2018 NFL preseason

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey during the NFL preseason

The 2018 NFL preseason is officially in the books and we can all now turn our attention toward games that actually count.

Though, as a way to prepare for these games, it’s always smart to reflect on what has transpired en route to the regular season. With that in mind we’re taking a spin around the league to identify some of the biggest winners and losers from the preseason.

From a team that’s long been bereft of quarterback talent finally scoring big, to a mess of a quarterback situation on another long-suffering team — and everything in between — these are the players and situations that impressed us the most, and those that did not.

Winner: Jets finally make smart QB decisions

The New York Jets haven’t done much right when it comes to the quarterback position in a long time. But this year, they finally have nailed it. Drafting Sam Darnold No. 3 overall was a gimme. He’s done nothing but impress ever since and is almost certainly going to open the season as the starter.

But perhaps the most impressive thing the Jets did was bring in Teddy Bridgewater on the cheap. They featured the heck out of him during the preseason, pretty much keeping Josh McCown on ice in the process until the fourth game. In the end, they were able to essentially buy a third-round pick in 2019 for the young quarterback and a sixth-round pick in a trade with the New Orleans Saints. It was some smooth work by general manager Mike Maccagnan.

Loser: Raiders doing Khalil Mack dirty

Regardless of what head coach Jon Gruden says publicly, the Oakland Raiders need Khalil Mack a lot more than he needs them. Oakland’s defense was awful last year, despite Mack’s best efforts, and it will struggle again in 2018 if he’s not part of the solution.

Yet here we are, just days away from the start of the season and not only is Mack not with the team but there reportedly hasn’t been any real discussions about a contract extension since February.

Mack’s decision to hold out — and there’s every indication he’ll hold out into the regular season — is justified. His salary for 2018 on the franchise tag is $13.86 million, which is relatively a lot of money for most of us. However, it pales in comparison to the amount of guaranteed money he’ll receive whenever he does sign a long-term contract. And in a profession where every play could be your last, the risk does not match the reward for the star pass rusher.

Winner: Colts get their captain back

Jacoby Brissett is a fantastic backup and really does deserve a chance to carve out a starting role in the NFL. With that being said, he simply does not compare to Andrew Luck, who was one of the most promising young quarterbacks in the NFL before suffering a shoulder injury in 2015.

Following surgery and an entire 2017 season out of the game due to complications, Luck is finally back and looking like the same guy who was the consensus top quarterback of the 2012 NFL Draft class. He sandwiched a poor performance in between two very strong showings in the first and third preseason game. But quite aside from stats, Luck is confident, clearly has his arm back and isn’t showing any indication he’s mentally still hung up on his shoulder.

That’s a huge win for him, and for the Colts.

Loser: QB kerfuffle in Buffalo

Before training camp ever began, we predicted the Bills would featured the worst offense in the league this year. The reasoning is simple. Even if rookie Josh Allen did enough to win the starting job, there just isn’t enough talent on the offensive line or the receiving corps to protect him, or whomever ends up under center this year.

And for a week or so, it looked like Allen might actually convince the Bills to start him. He put together some solid tape in the first two preseason games and ended up starting the critical third game. Unfortunately, the wheels came off in a big way. Allen was a punching bag and ended the first half with negative-five passing yards.

Now the Bills are right back where they were at the start of camp. It has to be either Nathan Peterman or AJ McCarron under center to open the season — starting Allen would be completely irresponsible. Yet neither of them has gotten consistent work with the first-string offense, either in camp or during games. This is already starting to look like a lost season in Buffalo.

Winner: Just maybe, Jameis Winston has turned a corner

Ever since Winston was suspended three games by the NFL and made his public statements on the matter, he’s been pretty much staying out of the public eye and putting his nose to the grindstone. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have had veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick working with the first-team offense in practice and during preseason games. Winston has come off the bench.

It’s the correct approach, as the Bucs have to prepare for the first three games without Winston. It also seems to have had a profound impact on the young quarterback, who has looked as sharp on the field as we’ve ever seen since he was selected No. 1 overall back in 2015. Winston completed 73.2 percent of his passes for 388 yards (9.5 yards per attempt) with three touchdowns and, most importantly, no interceptions.

After a frustrating 2017 season in which Winston continued to make rookie mistakes, this is a very promising development.

Loser: Blake Bortles looks to be regressing…again

The Jacksonville Jaguars came ever so close to making it to Super Bowl LII. In the end, it was the team’s ill-conceived approach on defense against Tom Brady that doomed that dream, rather than the person most assumed would be the reason for failure — Blake Bortles.

Instead of being a liability last year in the playoffs, Bortles played very well. Unfortunately, whatever magic he had discovered then appears to have dissipated into thin air, because Bortles is once again doing things that make everyone shake their heads and chuckle. He threw three interceptions this preseason and could have easily had five on record if not for some bad drops by defenders.

The Jaguars have a team that could take the next step in 2018. But if Bortles continues to throw the ball to the other team, that’s not going to happen.

Winner: Christian McCaffrey ready to explode

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey

Those who play fantasy football take note: McCaffrey is going to be one of the most heavily utilized running backs in the NFL this coming year.

Norv Turner has big plans for McCaffrey, and if the preseason was any indication he’s going to thrive in Turner’s system this season. The dual-threat running back totaled 224 yards and two touchdowns on just 29 touches, averaging 7.7 yards per touch. He also showed off his game-breaking speed on a 71-yard scamper that had our jaws on the floor.

Blessed with the ability to excel both as a traditional between-the-tackles runner and a pure receiver, the former Stanford product is ready to break out in a big way.

Loser: Defending champs looking sluggish

Carson Wentz is probably not going to open the season under center as the starter as he continues to come back from a torn ACL, suffered less than nine months ago. On top of that, Alshon Jeffery is likely to miss the first two games of the season, and starting running back Jay Ajayi is currently dealing with a lower body injury.

Then there’s the simple fact that the Philly offensive line has been struggling this preseason. Which has led to Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles reverting back to the shadow version of himself.

All this to say, the Super Bowl hangover could hit hard once the regular season opens up.

Winner: Joe Flacco and the Ravens ready to fly

Lamar Jackson is an exciting young player, and one day he might lead the Ravens into the next era of prosperity. However, his arrival in Baltimore also appears to have ushered Flacco into a better place as well. The veteran reportedly had the best camp of his career, and the results on game days speak for themselves.

Working with an entirely revamped receiving corps, Flacco has been nearly flawless. He’s completed 12-of-16 passes for 143 yard with two touchdowns and no interceptions. If the Ravens — already blessed with one of the best defenses in the league — get this type of production from Flacco this year, then they’ll be a dangerous team in the postseason.

Loser: Mitch Trubisky shaky, at best

Can Mitchell Trubisky now win Bears starting QB job? NFL preseason Week 1

It’s going to be fascinating to see how Trubisky performs in his second year. On paper, he has all the tools he needs to excel and make a Jared Goff-type leap in 2018. That being said, given what happened during training camp and the preseason, that’s hard to envision.

Trubisky reportedly threw two interceptions a day on average during camp, and he didn’t get much action this preseason. When he did play, the second-year quarterback looked awfully sketchy.

With all this in mind it was especially strange that head coach Matt Nagy didn’t play Trubisky at all in the third preseason game after what we saw in his first two games this summer.

Winner: Tyreek Hill looks unstoppable

Heading into his third year as a pro, Hill is still very much on an upward trajectory. He had a breakout 2017 season, catching 75 passes for 1,183 yards and seven touchdowns. Now that big-armed second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes is under center for the Kansas City Chiefs, those numbers should swell in 2018.

Hill is clearly Mahomes’ preferred target in the passing game. He’s caught 14 passes for 182 yards, including a gorgeous 69-yard touchdown, on just 16 targets. Meanwhile, fellow receiver Sammy Watkins, whom the Chiefs paid a fortune to in free agency, has been downright invisible by comparison.

Loser: Titans’ offense far from Titanic

At this point, it’s safe to say we have no idea what to expect from Marcus Mariota in Year 4. He is coming off an awful 2017 campaign in which he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, and it’s still unclear if the Titans really know how to best utilize him and his weapons.

Even more troublesome, perhaps, is the way that Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis have underwhelmed this preseason, along with the team’s offensive line. The two backs have combined to rush for 50 yards on 17 carries, averaging 2.9 yards per attempt. If the Titans can’t run the ball effectively, that spells doom for Mariota.

There’s no reason to panic yet. It’s just the preseason after all. But Titans fans would be justified in being nervous about what to expect.

Winner: DeShone Kizer carving out a spot in Green Bay

Talk about your soft landings. Kizer had it about as rough as it comes in his rookie season playing for the winless Cleveland Browns. Then he was traded to the Green Bay Packers, where he was given a chance to learn from one of the best. On top of that, his new team made a trade to send Brett Hundley to Seattle, which solidifies Kizer’s spot as the No. 2 man behind the new highest-paid player in the league.

Kizer had a strong training camp and preseason. He only completed just a touch over half of his passes this preseason, but he threw three touchdowns and just one interception. The Packers have him for three more years before his contract runs out, and based on comments made by head coach Mike McCarthy earlier this year they have high hopes for him in the future.

Loser: Paxton Lynch looking more and more like a bust

Paxton Lynch

There was a ton of hype surrounding Lynch when he came out of college in 2016. So much so that the Denver Broncos ended up trading up to No. 26 overall to land him ahead of the Dallas Cowboys, who also wanted him in a bad way.

Heading into his third year, the hype had worn out in a big way, however. His first two seasons were marred by mediocre play and reports that he didn’t do the little things to become great. Then came the preseason, and Lynch not only failed to banish the bust label but had perhaps his worst showing since being drafted.

Before looking great against bottom-of-the-roster guys in the final preseason game, he was awful this preseason. In the first three games, Lynch completed just 14-of-29 passes for 102 yards with zero touchdowns and one interception.

That bust label is starting to stick.

Winner: Chris Warren goes from undrafted rookie to preseason star

There are a lot of players who make NFL rosters after failing to be selected in the draft. It happens every year. However, it’s definitely worth highlighting what Chris Warren has done this preseason for the Oakland Raiders.

Warren was hardly utilized at all during his three years at Texas. But this preseason he’s been the workhorse back for Oakland and has led the entire league with 267 yards rushing, along with two touchdowns.

Not only is Warren looking like a lock to make Oakland’s active roster, but he looks like a future star in this league.

Loser: Dolphins’ defense putting up little resistance

The revamped Miami defense isn’t looking great overall right now.

Here are some shocking stats. Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston, Cam Newton, Robert Griffin III and Lamar Jackson have combined to complete 42-of-58 passes for 388 yards this preseason against the Dolphins’ starters and second-string units. Christian McCaffrey romped for 120 yards and a touchdown on just nine touches against this same defense.

In the first three preseason games, opponents averaged 7.3 yards per passing attempt, 5.17 yards per rushing attempt, and Miami allowed seven rushing touchdowns.

Tom Brady must be licking his chops.

Winner: Andy Dalton has been on fire

Andy Dalton

Red Rocket looks pretty good right now. And by pretty good, we mean he looks amazing.

Appearing in each of the first three preseason games for the Cincinnati Bengals, Dalton has been razor sharp in every one. He finished the exhibition season having completed 22-of-31 passes for 324 yards with four touchdowns and one interception, which wasn’t his fault.

Even more encouraging is that he’s starting to build chemistry with speedy second-year receiver John Ross, who finally scored a touchdown in the team’s third preseason game. It’s too early to get too excited, but Dalton has been electric.

Loser: NFL game seems too fast for speedster Ronald Jones 

While many of his peers are finding their footing with standout performances, rookie running back Ronald Jones has been one of the biggest duds of the entire preseason.

The undersized speed demon out of USC has struggled to find holes in the running game, oftentimes showing his impatience and running into a brick wall. As a result, he managed less than one yard per carry (22 yards on 28 carries).

Perhaps even more frustrating is that Jones’ issues with drops have continued to plague him this preseason. He’s dropped two of the three passes that came his way, earning some well-deserved criticism from his coach.

Winner: Maybe we don’t have to worry about Dak Prescott, after all

Dallas must be thanking its lucky stars that John Elway leapfrogged the ‘Boys to land Paxton Lynch. Because the aftermath of that move was that the Cowboys “settled” for landing Prescott in the fourth round of the same draft.

Coming off a disappointing sophomore season, Prescott has a ton of pressure on his shoulders to succeed. There’s been a lot of talk about how he doesn’t have the weapons to make it happen, but based on his preseason that appears to be nothing more than hot air.

Prescott completed 13-of-18 passes for 125 yards with two touchdowns and no interceptions. Even better, the Cowboys scored 17 points in four possessions with Prescott under center, and he was doing this all without Ezekiel Elliott.

Loser: Lions looking impotent on offense

Overall, Detroit’s offense isn’t looking good. For the sake of this argument, we’re focusing solely on the drives that have been led by Matthew Stafford this preseason.

In the two games Stafford played, the Lions scored a total of nine points on seven offensive possessions. That’s not the most concerning aspect of what transpired, however. The Lions quite simply could not protect Stafford, who completed less than half his passes while taking a beating and was sacked five times.

In the same vein, Detroit’s running game has been lackluster as well. The Lions haven’t been getting any push up front, and as a result  the team averaged 3.79 yards per carry through three games in the preseason.

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