It’s always dangerous to read too much into the NFL preseason, but it’s hard not to get excited when a rookie leaves a strong first impression.
That’s exactly what Baker Mayfield did on Thursday in his first showing as a pro as the first overall pick flashed his talent and potential for the Cleveland Browns in the 20-10 win over the New York Giants.
Tyrod Taylor received the start and looked impressive in his own right, completing all five of his passes for 99 yards and a touchdown. If Mayfield is going to leapfrog the veteran on the depth chart, he’ll need Taylor to look a lot worse than he did in his debut.
That’s not something Mayfield can control, but what he can do to win the job is play so well that head coach Hue Jackson has no choice. And in his first appearance, Mayfield passed with flying colours.
After coming in at the end of the first quarter, Mayfield showed off his arm and legs with the kind of plays he made with regularity during his Heisman Trophy season at Oklahoma.
His decision-making was relatively sound and his passes displayed a nice touch. When he couldn’t find anyone open, he scrambled out of the pocket for methodical gains.
Overall, Mayfield completed 11-of-20 passes for 212 yards and two touchdowns – the first to tight end David Njoku on a 10-yard hook-up and the second on a 54-yard catch-and-run by wide receiver Antonio Callaway.
It’s still early, but the Browns have reason to be enthusiastic about the future.
Work in progress
Mayfield aside, it’s important to remember that for most rookie quarterbacks, there’s a steep learning curve.
The facet of Allen’s game that’s undeniable is his arm strength and on Thursday, he zipped some eye-catching passes, including his 14-yard touchdown connection with Ray-Ray McCloud III.
However, he was also off-target on several other throws and had one play where he ran nearly 20 yards backwards in an attempt to escape pressure before flinging a pass as he was falling down that was almost picked off.
Allen, who finished 9-of-19 for 116 yards, wasn’t helped by the performances of the two players ahead of him on the depth chart. Nathan Peterman was 9-of-10 for 119 yards with a touchdown and interception, while A.J. McCarron was 7-of-10 for 116 yards with no touchdowns or picks.
It’s possible Allen doesn’t play much at all in the regular season, but considering his rawness, that might be better for his development anyway.
Taking it slow
For Watson, it was his first game from an ACL tear that cut short his stellar rookie season, but he threw all of one pass in his lone drive before being replaced.
The Houston Texans already know what they have in the 22-year-old after his success last year, so there’s no need to push him hard in the preseason.
Mahomes, meanwhile, played the first two drives for the Kansas City Chiefs and completed 5-of-7 passes for 33 yards. Somewhat surprisingly, he didn’t unleash his arm with any deep balls and instead looked more like Alex Smith with his efficient throws.
Unlike Watson, Mahomes has started just one regular season game, so it makes sense for Kansas City to keep him on the field more as the preseason goes on.
The fireworks by Watson and Mahomes will likely come sooner rather than later.
NFL players resumed their demonstrations during the national anthem in the first week of preseason on Thursday.
In Miami, Dolphins receivers Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson took a knee during the national anthem, while defensive end Robert Quinn raised his right fist.
Stills, who kneeled during the anthem the past two seasons, said he and Wilson didn’t plan the protest together beforehand, but was comforted to see his teammate join him.
“Being a part of this protest hasn’t been easy,” Stills said. “I thought I was going to be by myself out there. Today I had an angel with me with Albert being out there. I’m grateful he sees what’s happening, and he wants to do something about it as well.”
Quinn, meanwhile, raised his fist as he did last season with the Los Angeles Rams.
“As a black man in this world, I’ve got an obligation to raise awareness,” Quinn said. “If no one wants to live in unity, that’s why we’re in the situation we’re in.”
Colin Kaepernick, who started the movement of protesting during the anthem and is currently a free agent, showed his support for Stills and Wilson on Twitter.
My brother @kstills continued his protest of systemic oppression tonight by taking a knee. Albert Wilson @iThinkIsee12 joined him in protest. Stay strong brothers!✊🏾— Colin Kaepernick (@Kaepernick7) August 10, 2018
📸 @footcandles#imwithkap #imwithereid #takeaknee pic.twitter.com/LimoadfUcW
Philadelphia Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins again raised his fist during the national anthem, with teammate Chris Long putting his arm around him to show support, as he often did last season. Cornerback De’Vante Bausby also raised his fist.
In Jacksonville, four Jaguars players – Telvin Smith, Jalen Ramsey, Leonard Fournette and T.J. Yeldon – weren’t on the field during the national anthem.
Three Seattle Seahawks players – Branden Jackson, Quinton Jefferson and Duane Brown – left the field before the playing of the anthem in their game against Indianapolis.
In Baltimore, Ravens linebacker Tim Williams stood alone in front of the bench with his back towards the field during the anthem.
The league issued a statement on Thursday night reiterating that ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ will continued to be played before games and everyone is expected to stand, or remain in the locker room.
“There has been no change in the NFL’s policy regarding the national anthem,” league spokesman Brian McCarthy said in a statement. “The anthem will continue to be played before every game, and all player and non-player personnel on the field at that time are expected to stand during the presentation of the flag and performance of the anthem. Personnel who do not wish to do so can choose to remain in the locker room.
“We remain committed to working with the players to identify solutions and to continue making progress on important social issues affecting our communities.”
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.