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Biggest Surprises from NFL Preseason Week 1

Stephen WhiteAnalyst ISeptember 12, 2016

Biggest Surprises from NFL Preseason Week 1

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    There is no such thing as "just" the preseason around these parts. After seven long months without NFL football, I will take anything I can get—and I'm sure most NFL fans agree.

    The great thing about preseason in the NFL is seeing guys, who may have been unheralded at the beginning of camp, show everyone that they belong on the big stage. On the flip side, unfortunately, are those guys who come in with high expectations and fall far short of them, at least initially.

    And the absolute worst part of the preseason are the injuries which rob the players of valuable time on the field. In the worst-case scenario, those injuries can even end their season before it gets started. 

    Let's take a look at some of these "surprises" of the first week of the preseason. If you have others I may have missed, feel free to leave them in the comment section as well.

    Remember these are surprises, though, not guys who we already expect to do well—or poorly for that matter—or situations that were entirely predictable.

The Robert Griffin III Era Is Here

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    As the No. 2 pick in this year's draft, you could say that expectations were already high for Robert Griffin III's debut in the NFL.

    Still, knowing that he was facing an upgraded Buffalo Bills defensive line with the likes of free-agent acquisitions Mario Williams and Mark Anderson, I thought he might struggle a bit in the face of a big-time pass rush. 

    Instead, all Griffin did was complete four out of the six passes he threw for 70 yards and led his Redskins on an 80-yard touchdown drive. Of his two incompletions, one was a questionable call ruling that the receiver caught the ball out of bounds, and the other was a drop. 

    All was not perfect, however, as his first two drives stalled with the aforementioned out-of-bounds ruling on third down, and the second drive ended with a fumble. Still, he showed remarkable poise and went through his progressions to deliver the ball on target down the field. 

    In short, he looked like he's everything the Redskins thought he would be when they traded up to get him—and then some. 

Tiquan Underwood Takes a Big Step Forward

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    Many NFL fans remember Tiquan Underwood because of his signature high-top fade hairstyle and because the Patriots cut him the day before the Super Bowl. In Tampa, however, fans are getting to know Underwood as a big-play threat at wide receiver.

    After camp reports that Underwood was besting the Buccaneers secondary on a fairly regular basis, everyone wanted to see if he could carry that over into a game situation. On Friday against the Miami Dolphins, he did not disappoint

    It wasn't just that Underwood caught three passes for for 76 yards for a gaudy 25-plus-yard average, it was how he made those yards. He went up one time and caught a 44-yard bomb in double coverage, snatching the ball from the safety.

    He had another 23 yards on a go route up the sideline. These weren't late-game catches against third-teamers, either. The 23-yarder was against one of the Dolphins' starting cornerbacks, Vontae Davis.

    There is still quite a bit of time before the regular season starts, but if he can keep it up, Underwood looks like he'll have a significant role on offense for the Bucs this year. That would be a huge leap forward for a guy with only 11 career receptions.

Willie Young Is Ready to Start

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    I'm not prone to hyperbole when it comes to defensive linemen, but Detroit Lions defensive end Willie Young was unblockable on Friday against the Cleveland Browns.

    I'd heard that he was having a great camp while starting left end Cliff Avril was holding out before signing his franchise tag, but I wasn't prepared for him to beat the right tackle on the pass rush every single time. He is so good with his hands and burst off the line that I don't think it was an anomaly, either.

    The question for the Lions now is whether they would be better served with Young continuing to come off the bench or if they should consider moving Avril to right end, benching Kyle Vanden Bosch and allowing Young to start. It is a good problem to have, and I'm glad I am not the one who has to make that decision. 

    What I can say is that Willie Young showed he is definitely good enough to start with his outstanding play against the Browns.

Quinton Coples Quiet No More

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    New York Jets defensive end and first-round pick Quinton Coples had a lot of baggage surrounding him prior to the draft. Many scouts thought he was lazy and that he had focused on protecting himself for the NFL rather than playing hard his last year at UNC.

    I never bought into that talk. When I watched Coples play, I saw a big, athletic guy with poor technique. He should have been more productive, yes, but in my opinion, it wasn't because he was lazy. He just didn't know the proper way to escape off of blocks. 

    After a relatively "quiet" start to training camp, many people were just waiting for Coples to fall on his face Friday against the Cincinnati Bengals. Had he gone out and stunk up the joint, I'm sure the word "bust" would have been thrown around liberally.

    Coples didn't follow their script, however.

    In his first NFL action, Coples notched two tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble, a pass defensed and five total tackles. That's a full game's worth of plays that he made in limited playing time. 

    What's scary is that Coples still hasn't learned to consistently use his hands and arms properly to keep blockers off his body. When he does, he will be even harder to block. That's the old defensive lineman in me talking. 

    For now, he got the haters off his back, even for just one week.

Matt Cassel Starts to Erase Doubts

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    The Kansas City Chiefs have a roster full of talent, but many people are still skeptical about their quarterback, Matt Cassel. After an injury-plagued 2011, fans and sports media alike openly questioned if he is the franchise quarterback the Chiefs thought he was when they signed him in 2010. 

    If his performance Friday night against the Arizona Cardinals is any indication, those questions will be erased fairly quickly. Cassel completed five of his six passes, including one touchdown. He led the offense down the field for a touchdown in each of the two series he was in. And he did all that without his No. 1 receiver, Dwayne Bowe, who is holding out over his franchise tag.

    That is a very strong debut for a guy so many people have questions about. 

Darius Reynaud Is Electrifying

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    Darius Reynaud is a return man/wide receiver/running back who last appeared in a regular-season game in 2010 with the Giants.

    On Saturday night with the Tennessee Titans, however, he was electric against the Seattle Seahawks, rushing for one 21-yard touchdown and scoring another on an 85-yard punt return.

    Talk about making the most of your opportunities.

    With Chris Johnson starting at running back and Javon Ringer as his backup, Reynaud doesn't figure to get a bunch of carries during the regular season. He did show that he has plenty of potential should the need ever arise, though.

    I think it's safe to say he is the early leader to handle punt returns.

David Garrard's Injury Shakes Up the Dolphins' Quarterback Competition

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    Miami Dolphins quarterback David Garrard appeared to be in prime position to win the starting quarterback job during training camp. On Friday morning before their first preseason game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, however, it was revealed that he needed knee surgery and would be out for two to four weeks. 

    That likely leaves last year's starting quarterback, Matt Moore, to battle it out with rookie first-round pick Ryan Tannehill to be the opening day starter. 

    Most people assumed that the Dolphins would bring Tannehill along slowly while Garrard or Moore began the season as the starter. With Garrard's injury and Tannehill's good play against the Bucs, that plan may change in a hurry. 

    If Tannehill continues to improve, I would look for him to go into the season as the starter. And he probably will have Garrard's injury to thank.

Chandler Jones Takes Them to School

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    The New England Patriots have been looking for someone who could upgrade their pass rush on defense for the past several years. It appears they have found just the man for the job in their rookie first-rounder, defensive end/outside linebacker Chandler Jones.

    On Friday, Jones was all over the New Orleans Saints' quarterbacks, notching seven total pressures. In addition, he drew two holding penalties on left tackle Jermon Bushrod, who is a pretty good player in his own right.

    Jones, the little brother of Baltimore Ravens defensive tackle Art Jones and UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, was thought to be somewhat of a project coming out of Syracuse. That he is doing this well so early is pretty surprising to most talent evaluators. 

    It's also a good sign for the Patriots, because he hasn't even begun to scratch the surface of his full potential. 

Bengals Injuries Pile Up Against the Jets

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    One of the worst-case scenarios of preseason games is losing a quality player to injury in a game that doesn't technically count. The Cincinnati Bengals had several worst-case scenarios play out against the New York Jets

    The most serious injury appears to be to starting offensive guard Travelle Wharton, who was lost for the year to a knee injury. Starting defensive end Carlos Dunlap and starting middle linebacker Rey Maualuga also sustained knee injuries, but theirs are thought to be less severe. Projected starting safety Taylor Mays was thought to have sustained a concussion.

    That's four starters lost in one game, one of them for a season. For a team that appears to be on the rise, that's a huge blow to their momentum. Of course, now other guys will get opportunities they wouldn't have before. But there's usually a good reason why one guy is a starter and the other guy isn't.

    Just saying.

The Ravens Secondary Torched by Julio Jones

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    I'm not usually one to get in the next man's pocket, but the Baltimore Ravens have a $50 million cornerback in Lardarius Webb. They also employ a future first-ballot Hall of Famer in free safety Ed Reed, an above-average strong safety in Bernard Pollard and a solid No. 2 corner in Cary Williams.

    Webb himself has boasted this offseason that the Ravens have the best secondary in the NFL.

    So how do you explain Atlanta Falcons receiver Julio Jones getting loose for six catches, 106 yards and a touchdown?

    Did I mention that that was all done in one quarter? 

    Julio Jones being dominant shouldn't surprise anybody. Doing so against the Ravens secondary is another thing, however.

    I realize that Williams, not Webb, was the one matched up on Jones for most of those plays. I also realize that Williams is supposedly nursing a stiff back. That's still embarrassing for a secondary of that caliber.

    Who knows, maybe we will find out that Jones is just that good by the time this season is in the books. The Ravens had better hope so; if not, they have some major issues to fix. 

Replacement Referees Need to Be Replaced

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    I'm a huge critic of the regular referees when they get things wrong. My reason for that is they are paid to get it right, and because they do most of the time, when they don't, it really stands out.

    These replacement refs are something else entirely, though.

    I realize some media members said replacement refs wouldn't be a big deal, so some fans who can't see all the games just accepted that. But what I saw this weekend wasn't just bad judgement calls or honest mistakes. These were situations where it appeared the referees didn't even know the rule book. 

    Since when was it "unsportsmanlike conduct" to celebrate after a play when that celebration is not excessive and not aimed at an opposing player?

    How in the world do you rule that a punt obviously downed at the 4-yard line is a touchback? How do you force a team to burn a challenge to correct that mistake?

    How can a player get called for fair catch interference of a punt after said punt has already been muffed?

    Look, this is all cute and funny now when the games don't technically matter, but people won't find it so humorous if it continues after the regular season starts. The NFL is also losing public perception leverage every time they show a replay of a preseason game on their network.

    At some point, the decision makers are going to have to admit there is a problem and move forward to fix it. I can't tell them how to do their business, but if they don't do something to bring the regular referees back, they risk alienating a lot of fans—as well as players and coaches.

Trindon Holliday's House Call

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    At all of 5'5'' and 170 pounds, Houston Texans prospective return man Trindon Holliday's prospects in the NFL have long been questioned. To date in his career he has suited up for one game with one punt return and no yards.

    But the former NCAA champion sprinter made the most of his return opportunities Saturday night against the Carolina Panthers. Early in the first quarter, he took a kickoff 90 yards to pay dirt and likely gave himself a leg up in the competition to start the season as the Texans' top return man.

    Even with that, Texans special teams coach Joe Marciano had this to say: “Let’s not anoint him just yet. He’s a big talent with a lot of room to grow. The touchdown was great, but …”

    Such is the life of an undersized, yet-to-be-established player. But no matter what anybody says, Holliday proved that he can make house calls if given the chance. 

Andrew Luck Was Cooking

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    When you're the No. 1 pick in the draft, you know that everyone is going to scrutinize your every move. Nobody knew what to expect from Indianapolis Colts rookie Andrew Luck on Sunday, but few could have predicted the show he put on.

    You can note that he was playing against a Rams defense that looked a step slow all day. But it won't take away from the fact that Luck made a first-string NFL defense look silly.

    The first play of his first drive ever was a screen that went for a touchdown. That's fine, you say, but running back Donald Brown did most of the work.

    What about the third drive, when he threw a perfect 17-yard corner route for another touchdown? How about the beautiful 32-yard seam pass he threw for a completion that set up another score on his fourth drive?

    Not only did Luck look like he belonged in the NFL, he appeared as if he had already been there a while. All hyperbole aside, it's incredibly impressive for a rookie quarterback to lead his team to touchdowns on three of his first four drives ever in the NFL. 

    I don't care who he was playing. 

    He finished up completing 10 of his 16 passes for 188 yards and two touchdowns. He also made plays with his legs—not only avoiding the pass rush but also running for nine yards on one play. Hollywood couldn't have scripted a better start to his career.

    So for a guy who already had high expectations, he managed to far exceed them—and then some.

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