NFL Preseason Week 2 Roundup: Christian McCaffrey a Superstar in the Making

Brent SobleskiNFL AnalystAugust 20, 2017

NFL Preseason Week 2 Roundup: Christian McCaffrey a Superstar in the Making

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Don't get too hyped. Yet don't completely overlook what happens during the preseason, either. 

    The NFL preseason is a progression, and Week 2 is a buildup for the following weekend's "dress rehearsal." Teams begin to ramp up their preparation with first-team units playing into the second quarter and even until halftime. 

    After barely playing (or not at all) in Week 1, starters get their first real test to string together multiple drives. Many questions start to be answered. 

    Can the offense piece together sustained possessions? Will the defense create turnovers or play well when needed? Are certain players taking advantage of their opportunities? 

    And, of course, there are always those competing for each team's final roster spots. 

    Even in the preseason, there is plenty to closely watch as teams provide glimpses of what they can be in 2017.

Carolina Panthers' Christian McCaffrey Looks Unstoppable

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    Christian McCaffrey is opening eyes and the Carolina Panthers offense all at the same time. This year's eighth overall draft pick has been one of the most impressive performers among the entire NFL through his first two preseason contests. 

    The hybrid running back carried the ball three times for 33 yards and a touchdown against the Tennessee Titans. 

    The score proved an important point regarding McCaffrey's game: He can be a legitimate option even in a downhill running attack. Why? Because the Stanford Cardinal used this exact approach when he was their featured back. 

    So it's not surprising he rumbled 17 yards for a touchdown after offensive coordinator Mike Shula called a simple power run. 

    Yes, McCaffrey is only 5'11" and 205 pounds, but he's a tough runner and is just as effective between the tackles as he is stretching a defense horizontally. This is what makes him dangerous, because he's so effective in the passing game, too. 

    He runs routes like a receiver. He also caught two passes for 39 yards. 

    His continued usage will help dictate how successful the Panthers are during the preseason and into the regular season. 

Titans Hype Train Picks Up Steam

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    Mark Zaleski/Associated Press

    The Tennessee Titans are a chic pick to win the AFC South and make the playoffs a year after finishing 9-7. 

    But Mike Mularkey's squad didn't get off to a resounding start. His offense gave up eight sacks to the New York Jets during a 7-3 loss in Week 1. Some claimed it was nothing more than an uneven preseason performance, but the Titans' offensive front took it to heart and decided to dominate against the Carolina Panthers. 

    The Titans' first-team offense operated efficiently and effectively. 

    Marcus Mariota finished 6-of-8 passing for 61 yards and a touchdown toss to tight end Delanie Walker. The former second overall pick didn't display any ill effects from last season's leg injury when he ran the zone read for nine yards, either. 

    More importantly, the Titans offensive line set the tone with its physical play against a talented Panthers defensive front. The left side overwhelmed at the point of attack. Running back Derrick Henry only averaged 2.3 yards per carry, but he scored twice. 

    The combination of a talented offensive line, a deep running back stable, numerous weapons in the passing game, a turnover-happy defense and one of the game's best young quarterbacks makes the Titans one of the league's most impressive teams, even in preseason.

Dallas Cowboys LB Jaylon Smith Doesn't Disappoint in Debut

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    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    The Dallas Cowboys' Jaylon Smith made his return to the gridiron after 19 grueling months away from football due to a devastating knee injury. He started at middle linebacker Sunday against the Indianapolis Colts. 

    He wasn't perfect in his return, but his return is the perfect scenario for the Cowboys.

    The organization used a second-round pick to acquire the Dick Butkus Award winner. Dallas took a chance on a player whose career remained in question—due to nerve damage—in the hope he would one day return and resemble the performer he once was. 

    Smith participated in 12 snaps, per the Dallas Morning News' Brandon George. He only registered a single tackle, yet his presence provides hope. 

    Sure, there's still a slight hitch when he runs, but Smith at 80 or 90 percent is still more talented than most linebackers. 

    "It was great to see him out there," head coach Jason Garrett said, per the Fort Worth Star-Telegram's Drew Davison. "He's worked so hard to earn this opportunity to go play. He looked like he was around the ball, looked like he played with a great spirit. We'll check out the tape to see how he actually played, but it was fun for all of us to see him out there."     

Cowboys Provide Resounding Answer to Ezekiel Elliott Question

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Running back Ezekiel Elliott didn't play in Saturday's 24-19 win over the Indianapolis Colts, and the Dallas Cowboys didn't need him on the field. 

    Many questions arose when the NFL handed Elliott a six-game suspension due to a violation of the league's personal conduct policy. Elliott's status remains uncertain since he's appealing the ruling. But Dallas must still prepare as if he won't be in the lineup Week 1 against the New York Giants. 

    The Cowboys offense sent a message when it opened the contest in a no-back set, and quarterback Dak Prescott flawlessly completed a slant pass to Dez Bryant for a 23-yard gain. The initial drive ended with a Prescott-to-Bryant back-shoulder completion for 32 yards and a score. 

    The team's franchise quarterback stayed on the field for two series. He completed seven of his eight pass attempts for 106 yards and the aforementioned touchdown. 

    Dallas' proficiency in the pass game was impressive, but the offensive line's dominance drove the unit's success. It features two new starters in La'el Collins and Jonathan Cooper, yet continued to open gaping holes for Darren McFadden and Alfred Morris. Both backs averaged at least 5.4 yards per carry. 

    Elliott is a special talent. However, the Cowboys still feature enough weapons behind an elite offensive line to score plenty of points without him. 

Christian Hackenberg Gives Jets Nothing as Starting Quarterback

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    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    New York Jets quarterback Christian Hackenberg finally got his first opportunity start Saturday, and the Detroit Lions pummeled the second-year signal-caller. 

    How bad was it? 

    First, his name was trending on Twitter after being crushed by defensive end Cornelius Washington. Whether a breakdown in protection occurred or Hackenberg simply didn't know he had a free rusher coming off the edge, either speaks volumes. 

    Life didn't get much better.

    The Jets managed three offensive yards in the first quarter with Hackenberg completing zero throws and being sacked twice. The former second-round pick finished his night 2-of-6 passing for 14 yards. 

    Everyone besides Jets fans expects New York to be awful this season. The team's preseason performance so far hasn't changed anyone's mind. Without a quarterback, the Jets will be at a disadvantage every week.

Patriots TE Rob Gronkowski Experiences 1st Preseason Action in 5 Years

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    New England Patriots tight end Rob Gronkowski was 23 years old and entering his third NFL season the last time he played in a preseason contest. Five years later, he did so again against the Houston Texans. 

    Gronkowski didn't have a target or reception in either series he was on the field. He played 15 total snaps, according to ESPN.com's Mike Reiss

    Yet his inclusion in the starting lineup isn't a small thing. Injuries have a been a primary reason behind the tight end's preseason absence. The organization also wanted to protect its four-time Pro Bowl tight end, because he plays such a physical game. 

    However, the Patriots have a lot of moving parts in the offense right now.

    Wide receiver Brandin Cooks, tight end Dwayne Allen and running back Rex Burkhead are all expected to become big parts of the offense after being acquired this offseason. Getting everyone out on the field together helps build cohesion even if someone such as Gronkowski has to play a few preseason snaps. 

Houston Texans RB D'Onta Foreman Displays Versatility

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    Running back D'Onta Foreman caught 13 passes during his three seasons with the Texans Longhorns. The Houston Texans have different plans for their recent third-round pick. 

    This became obvious when the 233-pound back lined up in the slot against the New England Patriots defense, ran a slant, caught a DeShaun Watson pass, broke through two tackles and rumbled 63 yards to set up a Texans touchdown. 

    Foreman will never be a pass-catcher the caliber of Christian McCaffrey, Joe Mixon or Alvin Kamara, who were all drafted before him. But the threat of a back his size in space must be accounted for on a down-by-down basis. 

    Obviously, Lamar Miller is the Texans' lead runner. Foreman has the potential to be a solid backup and changeup during the early portions of his career. 

    The 21-year-old showed his value in two preseason games. Foreman averaged 8.4 yards per carry in Week 1 against the Carolina Panthers. He created a big play after the catch as a slot receiver. Plus, he ran through multiple tacklers in a short-yardage scenario to find the end zone against New England.

    Houston may have a problem at quarterback, but running back is developing into a team strength. 

Chiefs Rookie QB Patrick Mahomes May Be Ready Sooner Than Later

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    How well the rookie quarterbacks have played so far developed into the overarching storyline for the entire preseason. 

    The Kansas City Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes kept the ball rolling during his second performance.

    This year's 10th overall pick was supposed to be a long-term project. He came out of Texas Tech's Air Raid offense and often resorted to creating outside the scheme's structure while there. Yet he's adapted well to the professional game, albeit in preseason performances. 

    In Saturday's appearance against the Cincinnati Bengals, Mahomes attempted 14 passes and completed 10 with a pair of touchdown tosses. The quarterback ran three times for 29 yards, too. 

    His arm talent and overall athleticism are obvious and have been for a long time. After all, Mahomes combined for 819 total yards and seven touchdowns against the Oklahoma Sooners last season. 

    As talented as he is, it's the little things that have been impressive. His pocket presence, in particular, is growing with each week. Mahomes avoided pressure multiple times against the Bengals and created positive plays.

    Alex Smith remains atop the depth chart because he's played well, too. If Smith falters or gets injured, the Chiefs appear to be in good hands with Mahomes.

The Sammy Watkins Effect

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    Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

    Sammy Watkins recorded two receptions for eight yards during his first appearance with the Los Angeles Rams, yet the Oakland Raiders defense felt his presence. 

    Defenses have a tendency to roll coverage toward an offense's top target. Watkins is supposed to serve as the top receiver in Los Angeles after the organization traded a second-round pick and cornerback E.J. Gaines to acquire the former top-five selection. 

    Watkins has the ability to create near the line of scrimmage, after the catch and as a vertical threat. This provides diversity within the Rams' passing attack. It also opens up the rest of the field for other targets. 

    Cooper Kupp proved to be the biggest beneficiary Saturday. Kupp is an ideal possession receiver out of the slot or out wide. He snatched six receptions for 70 yards and a touchdown. 

    Quarterback Jared Goff began to look like a former No. 1 overall pick, too. The second-year signal-caller completed 16 of 20 passes for 160 yards, albeit against a porous Raiders defense. 

    With Watkins in the lineup, Goff has multiple options, and the pieces fit together nicely. A healthy Watkins is a big-play threat and a dynamic player with the ball in his hands. Kupp can be the quarterback's security blanket. Rookie tight end Gerald Everett is an athletic mismatch.

    Once the team works veterans Robert Woods and Tavon Austin into the mix, the Rams' passing game has a chance to be explosive.

Trevor Siemian Slams Door on Broncos' QB Competition

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    Eric Risberg/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos' quarterback competition is kaput. 

    The coaching staff provided former first-round pick Paxton Lynch with a chance to take the reins as the starter in preseason Week 2 against the San Francisco 49ers, and he underwhelmed. 

    Yes, the second-year quarterback completed 69.2 percent of his passes while playing through the majority of the first half, yet he averaged three yards per pass attempt. To put that number into context, Brock Osweiler finished dead last in 2016 at 5.8 yards per attempt. 

    Of course, the Broncos want to put Lynch in a position where he can gain confidence. But the team's primary goals are to win games and return to the postseason. A reliable option is needed behind center. 

    Trevor Siemian may not be the most talented option. He's still the Broncos' best quarterback, though. In his first drive against the 49ers, Siemian connected with Jordan Taylor for a 19-yard score. The dichotomy in how each QB orchestrated the offense was startling. 

    With the all-important third preseason game looming, head coach Vance Joseph will be best served by naming Siemian his starting quarterback Monday.