Preseason football is usually a tease.
We wait months for football to come back and when it finally does with the first week of preseason, we have to settle for a few drives by the starters before the second, third and fourth-stringers take over the rest of the game.
Aside from a glimpse here or there – which mostly come in the dress rehearsal third week – it’s one big appetiser before the main course of the regular season.
But appetisers can be tasty and filling too, and this year’s preseason features plenty of storylines that should whet your appetite before the real games begin.
Here’s what to keep an eye on.
Try your Luck
For the first time in 585 days, Andrew Luck will be in uniform for an NFL game when the quarterback takes the field on Thursday night for the Indianapolis Colts’ preseason opener against the Seattle Seahawks.
An injury to his throwing shoulder forced Luck to miss all of last year as the Colts finished just 4-12 in what was ultimately a lost season.
But now, Luck is ready to go and is expected to play about a quarter on Thursday in his much-anticipated return. There will undoubtedly be some rust to work through, but it will be interesting to see how Luck’s shoulder responds to hits.
“Nervous? I’ll be very nervous,” Luck told NBC Sports.
Luck isn’t the only big-name quarterback returning from injury in the AFC North.
In Houston, Deshaun Watson is back after an ACL tear limited to seven games in his sensational rookie season.
The Texans’ ceiling with a healthy and fully-functional Watson is high, considering the juice he brings to the offence with both his arm and legs.
Watson is likely to play in the preseason opener and one thing to watch with him is how comfortable he is running the ball. There’s no need to take risks in preseason, but Watson is at his best when he’s putting pressure on the defence with decisive decisions to leave the pocket.
Even though he’s heading into only his second season, Watson is already established as a premier playmaker.
In Kansas City, Mahomes has the chance to be the next Watson thanks to his absurd arm. Aside from last year, the Chiefs have mostly been a dink-and-dunk offence under Alex Smith. But with Mahomes now taking the reins after serving as a back-up, the downfield attack is expected to go to another level.
Trubisky, on the other hand, has already been a starter for the majority of a season as he took charge of the Bears in 12 games last year with mixed results. With Matt Nagy now at the helm as head coach, Trubisky should have a more open offence to work with. His weapons will also be greatly improved with the additions of Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Trey Burton.
Both Mahomes and Trubisky should get more work in the preseason than the standard entrenched starting quarterback because of their lack of experience, so the Chiefs and Bears will be worth tuning in for.
First look at rookies
One of the most exciting parts of preseason, if not the most exciting, is it gives us an initial look at all the new rookies.
Skill players in particular will be fun to watch, whether you’re preparing for your fantasy league draft or not.
Among quarterbacks, first-round picks Baker Mayfield, Sam Darnold, Josh Allen, Josh Rosen and Lamar Jackson should all get significant time under centre.
In the case of Mayfield, Darnold and Allen, the door may be open for them to seize the starting spot if they impress. Rosen and Jackson will almost surely sit behind Sam Bradford and Joe Flacco, respectively, in the regular season, but they’ll also have opportunities to show off their talent in preseason.
Aside from the quarterbacks, there’s quite a few rookie running backs to follow after seven were taken in the first two rounds of the draft.
Saquon Barkley is the biggest name, but playmakers like Nick Chubb, Rashaad Penny and Derrius Guice should be fun to watch as their teams figure out the best ways to utilise them as runners and receivers.
Aaron Donald is in it for the long haul with his holdout.
The star defensive tackle continues to be absent from the Los Angeles Rams’ training camp in an attempt to pry a lucrative long-term deal that would reportedly make him the highest-paid defensive player in the league.
Tuesday was a deadline of sorts for Donald to report in order for him to accrue a season towards free agency. Because he remained away from the team, he will now be a restricted free agent next offseason.
While that distinction would make the deadline seem important, the impact, at least in this case, is inconsequential.
If Donald were tendered by the Rams at the highest restricted free agent level, that would require a team to hand over a first-round pick to sign him. There would be no shortage of teams willing to pay that price for the Defensive Player of the Year, all while handing him a rich contract.
Los Angeles would rather not lose one of the pillars of their team, so if they didn’t want to match the deal – or couldn’t for some reason, due to the structure – they could simply slap Donald with the franchise tag.
Essentially, that would land Donald and the Rams right back in the same place they are now, with the sides unable to reach an agreement on a long-term contract.
Which is why both sides are willing to be patient and wait for the other to give one. It could be some time, possibly even into the regular season, before that happens though.
Even though Aaron Donald would have to report to Rams’ camp by Tuesday to make sure this counts as an accrued season and he wouldn’t be a restricted free agent next off-season, he has no plans to rejoin the team, per sources. He will not be there Tuesday, nor anytime soon.— Adam Schefter (@AdamSchefter) August 6, 2018
“I don’t think anything is going to change with that in the near future,” Rams coach Sean McVay said Monday. “I’ve had a little bit of dialogue with Aaron and we’re hopeful that we’ll get something done, but I don’t think there’s any realistic deal to August 7th being a date that changes really anything, but you never know.”
Donald is set to earn $6.9 million in the final season of his rookie deal, but he would lose out on game checks if his holdout continues into the regular season.
He’s reportedly seeking an average salary over $20 million, which would clear the benchmark set for defensive players by Denver Broncos linebacker Von Miller, who makes $19m per year.
Donald also held out last year and didn’t report until September 9, which forced him to sit out the first week of the regular season. The absence didn’t appear to affect him, however, as he recorded 11.0 sacks and five forced fumbles to earn Defensive Player of the Year.
Since then, the Browns have gone 1-31 and received little production from the quarterback position, which they addressed by taking Baker Mayfield first overall in this year’s draft.
With the way the careers of Coleman and Wentz have transpired so far, Cleveland’s decision in the 2016 draft looks like a disaster in hindsight.
But if anything, Coleman’s early struggles reinforce the thought process behind the Browns opting for a package of picks in exchange for the second overall selection.
None of 11 first-round picks Cleveland made from 2009 to 2016 are still on the team, with all but one (Alex Mack) either cut or traded.
Their issues with player evaluation and the general crapshoot nature of the draft is exactly why the Browns were smart to trade one shot at the board for multiple swings, even if the results say otherwise.
In return for Coleman, Cleveland received a seventh-round pick in 2020, according to reports. That’s extremely low compensation for a player that was taken in the first round just two years ago and is still on his rookie contract.
However, with the Browns expected to feature several talented receivers this season, Coleman may not have had a significant role to continue his development.
In Buffalo, the 24-year-old should have much more of an opportunity to play.
The Bills were in need of help at wide receiver after posting the second-fewest receptions in the league last year (289), ahead of only Indianapolis (285).
Aside from Kelvin Benjamin, who is situated as the top receiver on the depth chart, Buffalo have plenty of uncertainty at the position.
Following his rookie season in which he caught 33 passes for 413 yards and a touchdown, Coleman posted 23 catches for 305 yards and two scores in nine games last year.