There were 24 NFL teams doing work Thursday night in Week 1 of the preseason, the first time since the playoffs that multiple games took place in a single day.
Starters didn’t play a ton for most teams, but we did see a few really interesting things develop when they were on the field.
For the most part, Thursday night’s preseason action was all about the players who are fighting for roster spots and position on the depth chart.
Here are the biggest winners and losers from the action.
Winner: Saquon Barkley is still ridiculous
All it took was one play — the first from scrimmage for New York, no less — for Saquon Barkley to announce his arrival on the NFL stage. And what an arrival it was.
The rookie out of Penn State showed off his full repertoire of moves and skill in one single play. He avoided would-be tacklers with smooth lateral moves and exceptional vision, then hit the accelerator and left them in the dust for a 39-yard gain (watch here).
All told, Barkley rushed for 43 yards on five carries, so he didn’t do much outside of that one breakaway play. But it’s his ability to do that on any given play that makes him so valuable to New York’s offense.
Loser: Denzel Ward struggles with discipline
The No. 4 overall pick of the 2018 NFL Draft had some rough moments during the early going against New York Thursday night. Mainly, those moments centered around discipline, both physical and mental.
First, Ward did not contain the aforementioned Barkley on the edge, allowing him to spring outside for his big run on the first play of the game from scrimmage. Then he earned a 15-yard taunting penalty for standing over receiver Hunter Sharp after a big hit. Those two mistakes by the rookie had a lot to do with the Giants scoring their first three points.
Winner: Nathan Peterman and Kelvin Benjamin catch fire
Kelvin Benjamin has been in the news for all the wrong reasons the past week or so, and he made headlines once again just before Thursday night’s game as well. None of that had any negative impact on his performance against his old team, however.
Working with Nathan Peterman, who is battling AJ McCarron for the starting quarterback job, Benjamin went off on the first offensive drive of the game, catching four passes for 59 yards and a touchdown (watch here).
Peterman couldn’t miss, going 7-of-7 for 75 yards and the touchdown on that drive. Based on the struggles Buffalo has had offensively so far in camp, it was a pleasant surprise, to be sure.
Loser: Bears barely play Trubisky, who didn’t do much
The Chicago Bears, having been one of the two teams in last weekend’s Hall of Fame Game, understandably did not play Mitch Trubisky in the first of five total preseason games. On Thursday night, we figured he’d get a chance to stay in the game at least long enough to do something positive.
That did not happen.
Trubisky appeared in the first two offensive series for Chicago. He ended up completing just 2-of-4 passes for a total of four yards. The Bears gained just one first down (on a Cincinnati penalty) in those two series, and Trubisky was sacked once and generally just looked uncomfortable.
Winner: Cincinnati offense had some juice
The Cincinnati Bengals have some serious playmakers on offense, and the biggest question we have right now is whether Andy Dalton can ever be better than mediocre. One preseason game isn’t going to tell us much, but what we did see from Cincinnati’s first-string offense was darn encouraging.
Big plays. Chunks of yards. We saw a bunch of that, and the Bengals jumped on the board with two early touchdowns while Dalton led the charge. Unfortunately, he also showed he’s still capable of throwing some ghastly interceptions (like this one). But overall, Bengals fans have to be encouraged by what they saw from this offense against Chicago.
Loser: Davis Webb lays an egg
When the Giants opted to select Saquon Barkley instead of Sam Darnold, I was personally very much against the move because it was a short-sighted move that could doom the franchise long term. No matter how good your running back is, it’s your quarterback that will determine whether you can win titles.
The Giants have said all offseason that they’re excited about what Davis Webb brings to the table. And in the long run he may prove the organization right. But on Thursday night, he looked like a quarterback who is way out of his depth at the NFL level.
Webb finished the game with just 70 yards on 9-of-22 passing, and he missed a wide-open receiver in the end zone late in the second quarter. It was not an encouraging showing by the second-year quarterback.
Winner: Baker is legit, and so is Njoku
The long-awaited NFL debut of Baker Mayfield got off to a rocky start as he went three-and-out on his first drive. But he more than made up for it with a scoring drive on his second possession that culminated with a touchdown strike to tight end David Njoku.
Overall Mayfield looked comfortable in the pocket, made plays with his feet and always kept his eyes downfield. He finished with 212 yards on 11-of-20 passing with two touchdowns (including this absolute gem to Antonio Callaway) and no interceptions.
Njoku, who’s a player we recently targeted to become a star in his second year, caught just two passes but went 46 yards and hauled in two touchdown passes. Go ahead, Browns fans. Get excited.
Loser: Pats’ offense stuck in the mud
Okay it’s no secret that the New England Patriots are much less impressive whenever Tom Brady is on the sideline. And it’s also no secret that Brian Hoyer is a significant step down compared to the GOAT.
But my goodness New England’s offense was putrid in the first half Thursday night. Hoyer led six offensive drives in that half, converting just four total first downs while tossing for 65 yards on 6-of-12 passing, most of which came late in the half.
All told, the Patriots managed just 100 yards and three points on 22 first-half plays, making Washington’s defense look darn good in the process. Things picked up in the second half, but that’s expected as the level of competition was far inferior.
Winner: JuJu back to his old tricks
The Pittsburgh Steelers have the most loaded offense in the entire NFL, and second-year receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster is one of the reasons why.
The Pittsburgh offense was explosive in general Thursday night, and we could highlight many players (including Josh Dobbs and Landry Jones). But the play of the night belonged to Smith-Schuster, who ripped off a glorious 71-yard touchdown strike in the first quarter against many of Philadelphia’s starters (watch here).
That was the only ball that came his way, but he only needed one to remind us he’s quickly becoming one of the league’s most dangerous receivers.
Loser: Not a good start for Bucs RB Ronald Jones
There’s been some talk that Ronald Jones could unseat Peyton Barber as the starting running back for Tampa Bay. Well, it’s early, but at this point that seems a bit far fetched.
Jones did have a rushing touchdown on a well-blocked play near the goal line. That’s the good. Unfortunately, he only gained nine yards total on eight carries, and he badly dropped a pass on his only opportunity in the passing game.
The second-round rookie out of USC has explosive talent. But it takes more than that to make it big in the NFL. Clearly he still has some work to do.
Winner: Sans Marcus Davenport, Devaroe Lawrence shines
The Saints gave up an arm and a leg to move up in the draft and select Marcus Davenport, but he’s been down with a groin injury recently and wasn’t playing Thursday against the Jacksonville Jaguars.
While Davenport remained sidelined, another young defensive lineman, Devaroe Lawrence, emerged as a playmaker for New Orleans. He tallied five tackles, including three solo tackles, and two sacks.
Lawrence missed all of his rookie year on IR. He’s probably going to have to continue impressing all preseason to maintain a spot on the team’s roster come cut day. This was certainly a good start.
Loser: Rams have serious QB depth issue
There aren’t many really great quarterbacks in the NFL. We get that. But the Los Angeles Rams might want to go scrounging for one after witnessing the horror show put together by backup quarterback Sean Mannion Thursday night on the road in Baltimore.
Jared Goff took the night off, as did many of Los Angeles’ starters. In his stead, Mannion passed for 16 yards (SIXTEEN!!!) on 3-of-13 passing with no touchdowns and one interception.
That’s 1.1 yards per attempt, folks. That’s nightmare fuel. And Mannion is the best quarterback on the roster not named Goff.
Winner: Joe Flacco continues to shine
There’s been plenty of talk about rookie Lamar Jackson in Baltimore, and for good reason. But perhaps the biggest takeaway from Jackson’s arrival is how it’s spurred Joe Flacco to show up at his absolute best this summer.
Working with a totally revamped receiving corps, Flacco looks like a new man. On Thursday, he completed 5-of-7 passes for 71 yards and a touchdown pass, marching Baltimore’s offense down the field on a 10-play drive to open the game. That’s all we saw of Flacco, who gave way to Jackson. But honestly, that was enough.
Loser: Josh Allen shows he is nowhere near ready to start
Accuracy. Ball placement. Decision making. These are all areas of weakness for the quarterback who easily has the strongest arm we’ve seen come into the league in recent years.
They all were on display Thursday night, too. Allen struggled to put the ball where his receivers could haul them in, completing just 9-of-19 passes, and at one point he ended up running backward about 20 yards before nearly throwing the ball right to the Panthers (watch here).
Allen did show off his signature gun and threw a touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter. But overall, all he really did was prove he’s nowhere near ready to start for the Bills.
Winner: Brett Hundley shows improvement
The Green Bay Packers had no chance last year when Aaron Rodgers went down with his collarbone injury. As a result, they traded for DeShone Kizer, who has been pushing Brett Hundley in camp.
On Thursday night, Hundley really looked improved compared to last year. In particular, his 48-yard dime to Davante Adams, under pressure, was a thing of beauty.
Hundley did throw an interception and lost a fumble on a magnificent sack/strip by rookie Harold Landry, but both of those were at least partly due to poor offensive line play. He’ll learn from those mistakes, and if he can continue building off his performance he’ll remain the backup in Green Bay.
Loser: 49ers watch three starters exit with injury
Injuries are inevitable, and they are always hard to deal with. But injuries suffered in the preseason are maddening for both players and their teams, and on Thursday night the 49ers watched three starters get bit by the bug.
Defensive lineman Solomon Thomas got tangled up and left with what could end up being a concussion. Linebacker Malcolm Smith suffered a hamstring injury. Tight end George Kittle suffered a shoulder injury. Then backup running back Matt Breida also took a shot to the head/neck area and had to leave the game.
This all happened well before the first quarter had ended.
Winner: Dak Prescott has much-needed success
Prescott has been much maligned throughout the offseason and into training camp. He had a down second season after bursting onto the scene with an amazing rookie campaign, and then the Cowboys lost two top targets in Dez Bryant and Jason Witten.
A lot had been made out of the fact that, until just a few days ago, Prescott hadn’t even thrown a touchdown in training camp during 11-on-11 drills. Pressure was on for him to break through, which is why he was playing at all Thursday to begin with.
Well, Prescott only threw three passes and was gone after one drive. But he made all three count, completing them for 39 yards, including a gorgeous 30-yard touchdown throw to rookie Michael Gallup. It was exactly what the young quarterback needed to do.
Winner: Andrew Luck looks like himself again
Heading into this offseason, Andrew Luck hadn’t been fully healthy since early in the 2015 NFL season. He’s been making consistent progress in his recovery from shoulder surgery since early in the year as the Colts brought him along extremely slowly.
On Thursday night, Luck not only looked healthy, but he looked like himself again. He had a smile on his face and delivered strikes to his receivers, finishing with 64 yards on 6-of-9 passes while leading two consecutive scoring drives.
If he stays healthy this year, the Colts will be a team to be reckoned with in the AFC once again. Fingers crossed.