0 of 7
Norm Hall/Getty Images
NFL preseason is built for young players. They’re on display getting quality reps in their first or second seasons while aging, established veterans step aside and prepare for the regular season.
Sure, everyone would love to watch Aaron Rodgers in Matt LaFleur’s offense, but it’s OK if the Green Bay Packers’ medical staff holds the quarterback out of the lineup as a precaution, which they did after he experienced back tightness, according to NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Odell Beckham Jr. is likely to get the same precautionary treatment Saturday, as he’s doubtful to make his Orange and Brown debut due to an unspecified hip malady, per Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Cabot.
Instead, young quarterbacks dominated Thursday’s action.
The Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, New York Jets’ Sam Darnold and Cincinnati Bengals’ Ryan Finley showed exactly why their respective organizations are excited about them. The Arizona Cardinals’ Kyler Murray and Washington Redskins’ Dwayne Haskins, meanwhile, are dealing with some inconsistencies.
1 of 7
Ralph Freso/Associated Press
Welcome to the NFL, rookie.
A week ago, Arizona Cardinals quarterback Kyler Murray was nearly flawless in his preseason debut. This year’s No. 1 overall pick completed six of seven passes. The Cardinals offense looked crisp, and Murray showed signs of a star in the making.
Things change quickly at the professional level.
The Oakland Raiders befuddled Murray by blitzing and applying significant pressure. As a result, the rookie signal-caller struggled to identify oncoming blitzers and even took a safety. The mental mistakes piled up as officials called Murray for a delay of game and two false start penalties, and the mechanics of the quarterback’s clap to snap the football will almost assuredly be discussed at length in the coming days and weeks.
Murray ran for his life and struggled to complete a pass. He finished 3-of-8 for a meager 12 yards.
It’s easy to forget even elite talent requires developmental time. A good showing early in the process often makes it seem like a player is way ahead of the learning curve. But all rookies experience rough patches.
The Cardinals, like Murray, are a work in progress. Head coach Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid scheme is under the microscope. The offense regressed in each of the Cardinals’ five first-team possessions, as Sharp Football’s Warren Sharp noted.
Arizona’s inability to protect Murray against last year’s worst pass rush (by a wide margin) doesn’t bode well. Part of Kingsbury’s approach is spreading the field, including wider splits for the offensive linemen, to make defenses guard every blade of grass. If defenders get to the quarterback before he can release the ball, the approach won’t matter.
One poor preseason effort doesn’t define the Cardinals’ season, but it does show how far Murray and Kingsbury still have to go.
2 of 7
Gail Burton/Associated Press
Last week, Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson told WNST’s Luke Jones the team’s preseason offense is “not close at all” to the one everyone will see during the regular season.
How could it be? Head coach John Harbaugh set the bar so high anything less than a revolutionary approach will be a disappointment, per The Athletic’s Dan Pompei:
“I expect this to change the way offensive football is played in the National Football League. Not that everybody is going to take on this style. But I expect us to create something that hasn’t been seen before. It’s elements and concepts that aren’t new to football. But the way we apply them and put them together and decide how much we use in the course of a game or a season—five-step, three-step, seven-step, play action, RPOs, double options, triple options, downhill runs, all the audibles you can run, directional runs—all of that is part of it. I think we’re going to be in more elements than any team has ever been.”
Jackson is already a dynamic dual-threat quarterback. That hasn’t changed. He juked a Green Bay Packers defender before leaping over another to score an 18-yard rushing touchdown on an impressive third-down play that, unfortunately, officials called back due to a penalty.
But Jackson’s supposed passing improvements haven’t come to light. The second-year signal-caller completed six of 10 passes for 58 yards.
Everyone in Ravens camp continues to gush about his development.
“I’m telling you, you heard it here first,” safety Tony Jefferson told ESPN’s Josina Anderson. “No lie, Lamar has been pinpoint accurate in practice. I’m talking about on the money. So all these questions about him being able to throw are out the window. I’m standing firm on that.”
The Ravens are building the entire offense around Jackson’s unique skill set. He has two more preseason games to show he is an improved passer before the games count.
3 of 7
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
New York Jets quarterback Sam Darnold continues to benefit from head coach Adam Gase’s offensive scheme.
So much attention fell on last year’s classmates, particularly the Cleveland Browns’ Baker Mayfield and Baltimore Ravens’ Lamar Jackson, that Darnold’s progression got overlooked to a degree. But a strong preseason performance has Darnold among the league’s most exciting young quarterbacks.
A coach’s primary job is positioning his players to succeed. Under Gase’s supervision, the Jets offense appears to be operating with high-octane fuel.
The unit already showed an up-tempo, no-huddle approach in both preseason contests. Darnold is 9-of-12 passing through two preseason games and on point. The team has now scored touchdowns in both games’ opening drives.
New York is doing this without Le’Veon Bell in the lineup. Instead, it has leaned on 11 personnel and the versatile Ty Montgomery at running back.
If the Jets stay healthy, this group has a chance to be quite potent, especially when Bell is inserted into the lineup.
4 of 7
Patrick McDermott/Getty Images
Washington Redskins rookie quarterback Dwayne Haskins produced Thursday’s play of the night with an exceptional 55-yard touchdown toss to wide receiver Robert Davis.
Don’t let one excellent throw fool you, though.
Sure, Haskins dropped a dime to Davis in a critical 3rd-and-8 situation with one member of the Cincinnati Bengals defense applying pressure off the edge and another oncoming rusher in the rookie’s face. It was a doozy of a first career touchdown pass.
However, the inconsistency seen in Haskins’ first preseason performance appeared in his second showing. The gunslinger finished only 7-of-14 for 114 yards with just the lone touchdown.
To be fair, veteran Case Keenum wasn’t any better. The journeyman completed three of his seven passes.
But the ongoing quarterback competition has nothing to do with how Keenum performs. It’s all about Haskins’ natural progression.
Head coach Jay Gruden told MMQB’s Albert Breer a decision will “come probably sooner than later.” Haskins is a superior talent compared to Keenum and Colt McCoy. However, the coaching staff can’t rush his development. The rookie will play when he’s ready.
“I’m nowhere near close,” Haskins said. “I want to be a Hall of Fame-type of guy. That’s a process. I know that. I know it’s not going to happen overnight. I mean, I see flashes in myself every day, where I feel like I’m getting it. And then, you have one bad play, and you tell yourself, I just gotta keep pushing. It’s just a process.”
5 of 7
Scott Taetsch/Getty Images
Rookie quarterback Ryan Finley is playing his way into Andy Dalton‘s thoughts.
Dalton became the Cincinnati Bengals’ starting quarterback as a rookie in 2011, and his standing with the team has never truly been threatened. Finley is entering the conversation, though.
The eight-year veteran isn’t going to change. He’s a competent starter with limited natural abilities, whereas Finley presents some growth potential.
In his second taste of NFL action, Finley completed 20-of-26 passes for 150 yards and two touchdowns. The 24-year-old rookie efficiently ran the offense while showing good anticipation and pocket movement.
“At no point have we ever been discouraged with him,” head coach Zac Taylor said Wednesday, per The Athletic’s Paul Dehner Jr. “We’ve always seen his traits as a passer and his football IQ. He’s more than capable of doing it, and he showed that in the game the other day. He’s in a good rhythm, and he’s very comfortable.”
The first-year head coach’s words could come back to haunt him. Taylor didn’t sound like he was describing a rookie. If Finley is “more than capable” and “comfortable,” then he should be given an opportunity to win the starting job. Let the best option win in an open competition.
Meanwhile, Dalton identified the areas in which Finley still needs to improve.
“He understands concepts, he understands what we are doing, but making sure he matches it up with his footwork, it’s the little details he’s getting used to,” the veteran said.
6 of 7
Harry Aaron/Getty Images
The Philadelphia Eagles backfield is loaded. Last year’s leading rusher, Josh Adams, isn’t guaranteed a roster spot. The organization traded a conditional 2020 sixth-round pick for Jordan Howard, who averaged 1,123 yards per season through his first three campaigns and is the logical starting option.
Not so fast.
Eagles general manager Howie Roseman also drafted Miles Sanders in this year’s second round. Sanders dealt with a hamstring injury during the spring, but he now looks the part of a future feature back.
“I kind of got that vibe today,” Sanders said last week of splitting carries with Howard, per the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Jeff McLane. “That’s how they told us it was going to be today, rotating in and out. One of us would start the job, and the other would rotate in.”
Sanders’ Thursday performance against the Jacksonville Jaguars showed exactly why an even 50/50 split between the two runners should start skewing toward the rookie. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry in his second preseason contest after a slow start in his first NFL action.
Yes, Howard is an effective no-frills downhill runner. Sanders, on the other hand, already showed dynamic vision, quickness and lateral movement. Plus, the first-year back is a capable receiver out of the backfield.
Sanders is an every-down back. Howard isn’t. If he was, he’d still be with the Chicago Bears.
7 of 7
Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Neither the Indianapolis Colts nor the Los Angeles Chargers know exactly where they stand with their star players.
The Colts seem a little more certain of Andrew Luck‘s status than the Chargers are with running back Melvin Gordon III.
According to ESPN’s Chris Mortensen, the Colts have seen enough progress in Luck’s recovery from a high-ankle sprain to warrant “guarded optimism” regarding his status for Week 1. However, a source told Mortensen the team won’t know exactly where its quarterback stands until he’s back on the field practicing.
The Chargers organization should be far less hopeful after the latest report regarding Gordon.
The two-time Pro Bowl running back wants to return by the regular season, but he’s willing to sit out if a new deal isn’t reached, per ESPN’s Adam Schefter.
“I know Melvin knows I’m pulling for him,” Chargers quarterback Philip Rivers said, per ESPN.com’s Eric D. Williams. “And in saying that, that means you want what’s best for him. You want him to feel great. You want him to be at peace with how it all ends, and hopefully it’s right here.”
Both the Colts and Chargers should slow-play their situations. In the Colts’ case, Luck’s health remains at the forefront. The Chargers, meanwhile, have a legitimate alternative to Gordon in Austin Ekeler.