The NFL preseason is a marriage of overreaction and boredom. Teams that look good often fall apart once real games start, and vice versa. The second half of every game is played by guys nobody has ever heard of while the starters sit. Twitter explodes when a rookie makes a big play, then falls asleep once the second-stringers come in. It’s easy to argue — and has been argued almost constantly — that preseason should just be stopped, or at minimum cut down to three games.
But that’s not happening anytime soon. As of now, we’re going to have four of these exhibitions masquerading as football games per year. And that means we have no choice but to take them into account. That doesn’t mean we should act like these are anything more than exhibitions, but even exhibitions matter on some level. If nothing else, there are still four games worth of NFL reps being taken by NFL players. That data may not be half as valuable as the regular season, but it’s something.
Here are the winners and losers of the NFL preseason.
Winner: DeShone Kizer, quarterback, Cleveland Browns
Kizer came into training camp as the underdog to become Cleveland’s starting quarterback. He comes out of preseason with the job in hand.
Kizer isn’t expected to shepherd the Browns to the postseason anytime soon, but if he plays to his ceiling, Cleveland’s front office may think twice about taking a quarterback in the draft next year. At his best, Kizer is an absolute flamethrower who hits tight windows, throws deep, makes good decisions and keeps defenses off balance by running. The only reason he fell out of the first round was inconsistency. If he’s found a way to cut down on that, Kizer could easily be the Browns’ long-term solution at quarterback. This preseason was Step 1 to that end.
Loser: New England Patriots
The Patriots have enough depth to withstand it, but they suffered a lot of injuries this preseason. The biggest, without a doubt, was wide receiver Julian Edelman tearing his ACL. Edelman was Brady’s most trusted target at wide receiver. He would have been a huge part of one of the best offenses in football this year.
But the Pats also lost defensive end Derek Rivers and cornerback Cyrus Jones for the year. Without Rivers, the Patriots become very thin on the edge. That was their weakness last year when they ranked 27th in adjusted sack rate, and will be this year. As for Jones, his loss will make a difference in New England’s depth at corner and on special teams. He wasn’t going to be a featured player, but losing depth early in the year will come back around to make a difference.
Winner: Reuben Foster, linebacker, San Francisco 49ers
The 31st pick in the draft was all over the field during the preseason. Foster had eleven tackles in total and frequently looked like an impact player. It’s only the preseason, but Foster already looks ready to live up to his massive potential. If this was any indication, he will be a stud in the middle of the Niners’ defense. Foster can do it all. He plays good run defense, man or zone coverage, makes plays, dishes out hits — the whole nine yards. And it was on display over the past four weeks.
Loser: Tyrod Taylor, quarterback, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo’s lack of faith in Taylor is certainly odd, but it’s also clearly become something that could cost the quarterback his job sooner rather than later. He didn’t exactly endear himself during the preseason, throwing two interceptions in just 29 attempts. But the fact that what Taylor did during the preseason is worth talking about makes this a loss. This job should have been his without question. Instead, he got himself a concussion and looks to be on a ticking clock when it comes to the starting job. It would almost be surprising if Nathan Peterman didn’t start at some point this year after what we’ve seen this preseason.
Winner: Trevor Siemian, quarterback, Denver Broncos
Not one, but two years in a row did Trevor Siemian — a former seventh rounder — take on a first round pick in a training camp battle and win. The breadth of that achievement should not be lost on anybody. Siemian isn’t especially good and Paxton Lynch probably shouldn’t have been a first-round pick in retrospect, but it’s a huge deal that the former beat out the latter twice. That will buy Siemian a long career in the NFL, either as a starter or backup, which is way more than most seventh-round picks can say.
Loser: Christian Hackenberg, quarterback, New York Jets
Speaking of disappointing early-round picks, Christian Hackenberg had himself a preseason. Given a chance to win the starting job on the league’s worst team, Hackenberg fell flat on his face. He looked more like an amateur who walked onto an NFL field by accident than a quarterback. The Jets — who spent a second round pick on Hackenberg in 2016 — gave the job to Josh McCown instead. And the competition was a landslide. To call Hackenberg’s career to this point a failure would be a massive understatement. If things continue to go this way, he may be one of the worst second-round picks of all time.
Winner: Brandon Beane, general manager, Buffalo Bills
Buffalo’s new GM made some eyebrow-raising moves, trading Sammy Watkins and Ronald Darby for draft picks and minimal players. Beane could be criticized for the specifics of those trades. However, one thing is clear: he has a plan and he’s sticking to it. Whether that plan works is an entirely separate discussion, but Beane clearly knows exactly what he wants to do. More than that, he’s been given leeway to carry it out. Maybe it works and maybe it doesn’t. But somebody coming in with an idea of how to build the Bills into a contender is more than the franchise has had in a long time.
Loser: Jared Goff, quarterback, Los Angeles Rams
Goff, last year’s No. 1 overall pick, has yet to look the part with any kind of consistency, even the preseason. Despite playing well in Week 2 of the preseason against Oakland, Goff fell back to Earth in a big way. He committed two bad turnovers against the Los Angeles Chargers the next week, a redux of the problems that plagued him throughout his rookie year. There are few excuses left for Goff to look this bad. This season is a huge chance for him to show some promise after the Rams went out on a limb and traded the farm to get him in 2016. If he fails to do that, the organization may have to start thinking about what comes next.
Winner: Kyle Shanahan, head coach, San Francisco 49ers
Shanahan is an offensive guru and the 49ers looked the part at times this preseason. San Francisco’s offense won’t be near the top of the league, but if the preseason was any indication we should expect a huge improvement from a team that was near the bottom of the barrel last year. When the starters were on the field, quarterback Brian Hoyer frequently looked to be in rhythm. Carlos Hyde and Matt Breida ran the ball with success, and though he didn’t play much, Pierre Garcon had seven catches on nine targets. The bar for success in San Francisco isn’t especially high, but Shanahan looks poised to meet it.
Loser: Jacksonville Jaguars
The Jaguars went all-in this offseason. They spent big money in free agency, took a big swing on Leonard Fournette with the fourth pick in the draft and installed Doug Marrone as head coach in order to make a postseason run for the first time in a decade. Their quarterback situation may tank that plan before it gets off the ground. Blake Bortles was atrocious during the preseason, temporarily losing the starting job to Chad Henne, then getting it back because, well, Chad Henne is atrocious. Regardless of who is under center, the Jaguars may have one of the worst passing offenses in the league thanks to the quarterback situation. That was only made more clear this preseason.
Winner: Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins seemed like the preseason’s biggest loser when quarterback Ryan Tannehill went down for the year with a torn ACL. However, Miami was able to convince Jay Cutler to come out of retirement and replace Tannehill. In the blink of an eye, their season was resuscitated. More than that, Cutler has looked good during the preseason. Making the playoffs again is a tough ask — it was with Tannehill under center as well — but the Dolphins certainly have a chance. Given that their season was over just a few weeks ago, we can chalk that up as a win.
Loser: Indianapolis Colts
Health problems have hit the Colts yet again, this time where it hurts. Quarterback Andrew Luck didn’t see the field during the preseason. If owner Jim Irsay is to be believed, Luck probably won’t start in Week 1. Exactly when he returns from a shoulder injury sustained during the 2015 season is extremely unclear. Indianapolis doesn’t want anyone to know the extent of it, which implies that the injury may be worse than we think. Without Luck, the Colts are one of the worst teams in football. This team has no viability if he’s gone for long, and right now, that could be the case.
Winner: Colin Kaepernick, quarterback, free agent
Before you reflexively yell, consider this: Kaepernick went unsigned, but he got more people to his side than ever. Each quarterback that gets signed before him invites even more growing pressure on teams, and the league, to bite the bullet and give him a contract. This preseason has made it clearer than ever that politics are the biggest reason he’s gone unsigned. Kaepernick may not be on a team, but even if that never happens he’s in a good position. He could easily make a career out of a speaking circuit. Any publishing company would pay him seven figures for a book. The possibilities are endless. In potentially losing his football career, Kaepernick built a post-retirement career and furthered his message in a big way.
Everyone who sits through the preseason should get a medal. It’s not good football. It ceases to be fun after the novelty wears off, and it drags on for an entire month. The preseason may be necessary for teams, but fans could do without it. As an entertainment product, the preseason simply falls flat. For fans, it’s more of a chore than anything else. Luckily, real football starts in just a few days.