Preseason NFL Week 1 Takeaways: Kenny Pickett Makes Case as Steelers' Starting QB
Who doesn't like this kind of party?
Football is football, and the NFL is back with a full slate of Preseason Week 1 games. Half the league was in action Saturday.
As is the case during glorified exhibition games, plenty of projected starters never took the field. But a couple of exceptions can be found. Furthermore, the reps that rookies and players lower on the depth chart receive are invaluable as they come to understand NFL speed and what it takes to make a roster.
Quarterback competitions continued among the Carolina Panthers, Pittsburgh Steelers and Seattle Seahawks. Of the three, some clarity can be found with the first and second, while the Seahawks simply don't look good enough to compete on offense.
The same can't be said in the Washington Commanders' backfield where a change at running back could be forthcoming.
The Indianapolis Colts tried something different, too, and the plan didn't go as planned.
Saturday's action drew plenty of attention with the following stories being the most noteworthy.
Let the Kenny Pickett Era Begin for Pittsburgh Steelers
The Pittsburgh Steelers have exactly zero reasons why Kenny Pickett shouldn't be pushed up the depth chart and announced as the team's starting quarterback next week.
Let's look at the facts.
1. Pittsburgh made Pickett the highest drafted quarterback in this year's class.
2. Pickett was the only quarterback prospect to hear his name called in the first or second rounds.
3. Last season's Heisman Trophy finalist turned 24 before the start of the regular season.
4. Pickett showed improvement throughout training camp after a slow start.
5. Upon taking an NFL field for the first time, the Pitt product completed 13 of 15 passes for 95 yards and two touchdowns, including the game-winning toss with only three seconds remaining.
On the last point, the first-year signal-caller stood tall in the pocket with oncoming pressure and still completed the out pattern despite getting hit. Even if the connection to Tyler Vaughns doesn't go for a touchdown, the quarterback found the right read, completed the pass and placed his team in field goal position.
The writing is on the wall.
Pickett is Pittsburgh's franchise quarterback and should be treated as such, not unceremoniously forced to work as the third-string quarterback due to outdated modes of preparing young players.
Mitchell Trubisky played well, too. As did Mason Rudolph. The Seattle Seahawks defense stunk Saturday night. In total, the three quarterbacks completed 70.3 percent of their passes with a 4-to-0 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
But Pickett was chosen for a reason. He's the future. He also needs to be the present. If not, something has gone terribly wrong in Pittsburgh.
Baker Mayfield Gains Edge as Carolina Panthers' Starting QB
Prior to the start of Saturday's meeting with the Washington Commanders, the Carolina Panthers announced Baker Mayfield would start the contest.
Typically, preseason rotations should be taken with a grain of salt. In the case of a quarterback competition, those prepared to start against a first-team defense is generally indicative of who the team wants to lead its offense.
That's not always the case, of course. Young quarterbacks are often tasked to "earn" their spot, even if they're a first-round pick. In this instance, Mayfield and Sam Darnold continue to compete after the Panthers acquired the former a month ago.
Mayfield getting the nod shows he's already starting to overcome the disadvantage of a late acquisition while learning a new offense, unlike Darnold, who's been with the team for over a year now.
As The Athletic's Joseph Person noted, Mayfield "has thrown the ball with more authority the past two weeks and made more splash plays than Darnold."
During the contest, nothing occurred to believe Darnold should once again take the reins. Mayfield completed four of his seven pass attempts and lead the offense into field goal position. A fumbled snap and miscommunication on a third-down pass point toward his continued learning curve. But Darnold didn't do much more.
Yes, Carolina scored a touchdown on Darnold's first series. The quarterback threw a nice touch pass to Rashard Higgins while facing down pressure. But the entire unit benefitted from a short field after an Antonio Gibson fumble. Because the quarterback's first series lasted only three plays, he returned to the field where the offense went three-and-out.
Unsurprisingly, head coach Matt Rhule didn't commit to Mayfield as his starter after the contest.
"No, that was for today, that was just for today," Rhule told reporters after the game. "So we'll go back and look at this tape. Obviously, Sam got us in the end zone. Baker led us down the field. Looked like both guys played well in terms of production. We'll go back and see where they are. That was just for today."
If the Panthers believe Mayfield is the guy, as their Saturday decision indicates, he should get all of the first-team reps moving forward so he can be fully prepared for the regular season.
Will Brian Robinson Overtake Antonio Gibson as Washington Commanders' Lead Back?
Antonio Gibson may not be the Washington Commanders' starting running back for long.
Gibson opened Saturday's contest against the Carolina Panthers as Washington's lead back. Two carries in two series may have been all head coach Ron Rivera needed to see after the third-year ball-carrier coughed up a fumble.
Third-round rookie Brian Robinson Jr. entered the game during the next series. Maybe Washington's coaching staff planned the rotation. But two things happened after the fact.
First, the 225-pound Robinson looked good in a featured role. He slammed the ball between the tackles and proved to be a natural receiver out of the backfield. This year's 98th overall pick ran the ball six times for 26 yards and a score, while snagging a pair of catches for 15 yards. Maybe Robinson is more than just a change-of-pace back in this lightning-and-thunder combo.
"I thought Brian Robinson showed why we drafted him today," head coach Ron Rivera told reporters after the 23-21 loss.
Second, Gibson returned to the field with Washington's second-string offense. He carried the ball twice more and managed two yards on four total carries.
Everyone situation comes with the disclaimer that it's preseason and those outside the organization shouldn't overreact. Of note, Gibson led all NFL running backs with six lost fumbles. A message seems to have been sent.
Either Gibson rectifies his fumble-itis, or the Commanders go with another capable option as their lead back.
Dameon Pierce's Emergence as Texans' Top Back Is Inevitable
Running back Marlon Mack opened the Houston Texan's first preseason game as the team's starter. Don't expect that to last.
Mack is only 26 with a 1,000-yard campaign already under his belt. That's all well and good, but the Texans appear to have a something special in fourth-round rookie Dameon Pierce.
As longtime Houston sports journalist John McClain noted, "rookie Dameon Pierce has been and continues to be the best running back on the team."
The 5'10", 218-pound bowling ball sure looked like it during Saturday's contest against the New Orleans. Pierce runs downhill after making crisp cuts and finishes runs. He's not going to be arm-tackled, that's for certain.
"If you in his way, he's going to run you over," fellow Texans rookie Jalen Pitre told reporters Wednesday.
As a result, Pierce accumulated multiple chunk plays during his first preseason action. The rookie quickly amassed 49 yards on his first five carries. He looked different than everyone else on the Texans' offense because of his explosive capabilities.
The rookie's emergence can be vital in the Texans' overall organizational development.
If/when Pierce takes over as the team's lead back, he can become the focal point, thus taking pressure off second-year signal-caller Davis Mills. Conversely, Mills can form a symbiotic relationship with his running game and gain more confidence with each passing week.
The Texans could realistically have their long-term backfield already in place.
Frank Reich's Plans to Play Starters Backfires
Since Frank Reich became the head coach of the Indianapolis Colts, his teams struggled at the start of the regular season.
In 2018, Indianapolis put itself in a 1-5 hole. The Colts were better the following year at 3-2. Last season, the group started with a 1-4 record. In fact, Reich's team has yet to win a Week 1 contest under his supervision.
Some changes to practices and the preseason have been applied to change the pattern. One of those is playing the team's starters in Week 1 of preseason much longer than others franchise.
"There's nothing like getting out there and playing live football," Reich told reporters last week. "There's just nothing like it. It's what's so great about this game. It really takes guys to another level. I think it's good for everybody to get out there and play."
Veteran quarterback Matt Ryan and Co. played into the second quarter, and neither side of the ball looked good doing so.
Ryan showed accuracy and willingness to take what the Buffalo Bills gave him. The offense managed 62 total yards and three points with their newly minted franchise signal-caller on the field. Defensively, the Bills' backups gashed the Gus Bradley's unit. Aside from four first-half turnovers, Case Keenum and Buffalo's second stringers moved the ball relatively well.
Obviously, the turnovers shouldn't be overlooked. But they're not a reliable predictor for future performance. The Colts staff should be agitated by the fact their top defenders weren't consistently winning one-on-one matchups, while the offense failed to establish any rhythm.
The only thing truly valuable about Saturday's performance is Reich and his coaches now have more film to evaluate and correct the mistakes than a team typically would after its first preseason contest.
George Pickens Looks Like Pittsburgh Steelers' WR1
The Pittsburgh Steelers track record of drafting wide receivers outside of the first round is impeccable.
Does the team always hit on those particular selections? Of course not. But the organization proved time and time again that it can pluck another target a little later in the process only to have them turn into elite targets.
George Pickens appears to be next in line. The Steelers used this year's 52nd overall draft pick to select the 6'3", 195-pound target.
Pickens looked like a surefire first-round selection until he tore an ACL during Georgia's spring practice last season. He barely played during the Bulldogs' national championship run, which caused his draft stock to take a hit. The receiver's natural skills have always evident, though.
Now a full year removed for a major knee injury, Pickens once again looks like an elite talent and it's showed up every day in training camp.
"Pickens has been a star," The Athletic's Mark Kaboly wrote. "... He can do more than run deep. His hands are good, his speed is good, his ability to contort his body is good. Honestly, I’ve never seen a rookie this good this early. We all know he has to transfer that to preseason games, but I would be shocked if he didn’t. "
Well, that ability transferred.
Against the Seattle Seahawks' pair of rookie cornerbacks—Coby Bryant and Tariq Woolen—Pickens didn't have any trouble becoming an available target after he beat both in coverage. The 21-year-old wide receiver caught three passes for 43 yards, including a spectacular 26-yard toe-tap touchdown in the corner of the end zone.
Obviously, Diontae Johnson just signed a two-year extension worth $18.4 million annually and Chase Claypool is an immensely gifted receiver unto his own right. Yet Pickens appears to be a true X-receiver and a traditional top target.