Preseason Week 3 Takeaways: Patriots Offense Is In Trouble With Shaky Mac Jones
With training camps now in the rear-view mirror and the preseason winding down, decisions must be made.
All 32 teams must cut their active rosters to 53 by Tuesday, Aug. 30. Choices and compromises are forthcoming, and Friday's action will help in those matters.
The Carolina Panthers apparently made the smart choice by naming Baker Mayfield their starting quarterback. The Seattle Seahawks, meanwhile, look to have an easy decision on their hands between Geno Smith and Drew Lock.
Elsewhere, changes appear necessary.
The New England Patriots must find a way to get their stagnant offense on track. The Las Vegas Raiders have lots to think about regarding last year's first-round pick, Alex Leatherwood. The New Orleans Saints may be in a bad spot with their left tackle, Trevor Penning.
Another preseason came and went for 12 of the league's 32 teams. Friday's action isn't the end of the process, though. It proved to be an indicator of what might be .
Baker Mayfield Looks in Control as Carolina Panthers' QB1
On Monday, the Carolina Panthers named Baker Mayfield as the team's days later. Four days later, the fifth-year veteran certainly looked the part.
"When we started the process, we said we were looking at three things," head coach Matt Rhule told reporters earlier this week. "No. 1, mastery of the offense; No. 2, situational football excellence; and No. 3, moving the ball and getting guys involved.
"Baker has made a lot of improvement, a lot of growth in all three areas in a short amount of time."
That version of Mayfield showed up Friday against the Buffalo Bills, albeit against the AFC favorite's second-team defense.
Granted, the Panthers went three-and-out during their initial offense series. All three were short, simple out patterns and first-round rookie cornerback Kaiir Elam sat on the third-down play to prevent Rashard Higgins from catching the ball.
From there, the Panthers scored touchdowns on their next two drives before Mayfield was done for the night. During those series, the quarterback showed he could thread the needle and work off his initial read to find the open backside route for a 19-yard touchdown to Shi Smith. These are important flashes after the quarterback struggled with post-snap reads and accuracy on his throws during an injury-plagued 2021 campaign.
Ultimately, Mayfield finished 9-of-15 passing—which included a pair of drops by running back Chuba Hubbard—for 89 yards, two touchdown passes and a 116.4 quarterback rating.
An injury to Sam Darnold during Friday's 21-0 victory over the Buffalo Bills further cemented Mayfield's newfound status. According to NFL Network's Ian Rapoport, Darnold is believed to have suffered a high-ankle sprain.
A promising start, albeit in the preseason against backups, should help settle the entire Panthers organization. The 2018 No. 1 overall pick may still be facing an uphill battle to become the franchise's long-term starter but, right now, he's the proper guy for the job.
Pete Carroll Names Geno Smith as The Seattle Seahawks' Starting QB
Geno Smith won the Seattle Seahawks' starting quarterback for Week 1 by default.
The 31-year-old veteran started all three preseason games and didn't turn over the ball. He's the kind of steady presence Pete Carroll likely wants at the position as the Seahawks transition away from Russell Wilson.
"He's earned it. He won the job," Carroll told reporters after Friday's 27-26 loss to the Dallas Cowboys
The team's previous backup quarterback completed 59 percent of his passes during his three appearances and held down the fort while Drew Lock wasn't available.
Lock returned to practice Sunday after missing several days because of a positive COVID-19 test. The illness cost him the opportunity to start Seattle's second preseason game and possibly the job.
Clearly, more upside exists within Drew Lock's skill set. He's only 25 years old with ample arm talent. But his performance Friday shows exactly why he's not exactly the right guy for the job at this point in time.
The 2019 second-round draft pick entered the lineup and immediately threw an incompletion and then an interception, which was late and too far outside. Lock responded with a beautiful 35-yard touchdown pass to Penny Hart on the following series. Late in the first half, he completely misread the Dallas Cowboys defense and threw a pass to a wide open Dallas defender set up with underneath coverage. A third happened well into the third quarter.
These mistakes add to the earlier one Lock made during Seattle's first preseason contest against the Pittsburgh Steelers when he lost a fumble.
The potential found in Lock's game is tantalizing. The mistakes aren't easily forgivable, though. The Seahawks' offense can open up more if Lock could prove himself to be a more reliable and consistent passer. But he hasn't. The valleys are just as low, if not lower, than the highs of the peaks within his play.
Whereas Smith did just enough not to lose the job.
Mac Jones, New England Patriots Offense Continue to Struggle
The New England Patriots have been given the benefit of the doubt for so long that everyone just assumes they'll turn it around with Bill Belichick leading the way.
The dynasty is done. Tom Brady is gone. The organization is a shell of itself, particularly on offense.
Of course, the team was going to take a step back after losing one of the game's best offensive play-callers. The idea of taking a defensive-minded coach in Matt Patricia and longtime special teams assistant in Joe Judge and expecting them to replace Josh McDaniels, who left his post at offensive coordinator to coach the Las Vegas Raiders, reeks of hubris.
Granted, preseason play isn't the time to get hysterical about a team not performing well. Obviously, coaching staffs aren't rolling out their entire scheme for regular-season opponents to pick apart. Yet a lot of signs are pointing toward a difficult year for the Patriots offense, starting with quarterback Mac Jones.
As Sharp Football's Warren Sharp noted, Jones posted a negative-0.33 EPA and a 35 percent success rate during his two preseason appearances. The second-year quarterback isn't pushing the ball down the field or getting it into a position for his receivers to create after the catch, with 3.3 air yards of completion on average and 3.0 yards after catch on average.
Jones outperformed all other rookie quarterbacks last season and even earned a Pro Bowl nod. But he's not seeing the field particularly well, and he's clearly frustrated. He can only do so much, though.
"The thing with Mac Jones is that he's going to be the same player," an NFC personnel executive told Heavy's Matt Lombardo. "He's the same guy he was last year, and he'll be the same guy 10 years from now."
The new offensive scheme is a work in progress, the wide receivers remain unsettled and the offensive line is a growing concern.
“We need to have some better fundamental execution … this is going to happen, unfortunately, in this league," center David Andrews told reporters after Friday's 23-6 loss to the Raiders at Allegiant Stadium. "You have to flush it and move on.”
According to NFL Network's Mike Giardi, both offensive tackle spots are an issue. On top of the unit learning to be a heavier zone-blocking group in a new system, Isaiah Wynn has been the subject of trade talk, and Trent Brown's pass protection hasn't been up to snuff throughout training camp.
Maybe the Patriots have something up their sleeve for the regular season, or Belichick could galvanize his team as the weeks progress. Whatever the case may be, New England hasn't helped itself during the preseason and looks like the third-best squad in the AFC East.
Saints LT Trevor Penning Suffers Injury, Requires Cart to Get to Locker Room
The New Orleans Saints felt they were a couple of pieces away from remaining a playoff squad in the weaker NFC. They still might be missing one for some time.
Prior to April's draft, the Saints swung a deal with the Eagles in which they sent Philadelphia first, third, and seventh-round draft picks this year, a 2023 first-round selection and a '24 second-round pick in exchange for this year's 16th, 19th and 194th overall picks.
In the 19th hole, New Orleans chose Trevor Penning as a long-term replacement for Terron Armstead, who signed with the Miami Dolphins in free agency.
Unfortunately, Penning suffered a toe injury during Friday's 27-10 victory over the Los Angeles Chargers at the Caesars Superdome. Initially, the tackle went to the team's injury tent before being carted to the locker room, according to ESPN's Mike Triplett.
The severity of the injury is not yet known. But Penning had been establishing himself as a tone-setter along New Orleans' offensive front. The rookie plays with a nasty streak. He loves to instigate and bury defenders.
"It's like, when you think he's done, he's not done," teammate Cesar Ruiz told reporters three weeks ago. "He definitely has that finishing mentality you love in an offensive lineman."
Penning is a work in progress, and his technique still needs significant development. Any missed time will set him back to some degree.
Fortunately, the Saints have an experienced veteran alternative in James Hurst, who can protect Jameis Winston's blind side until Penning is healthy and ready to take over the spot. Hurst is also dealing with a foot injury, but he's expected back "sooner rather than later," per ESPN's Katherine Terrell.
Did Alex Leatherwood Play His Final Game with the Las Vegas Raiders?
Few offensive linemen were under the spotlight that Alex Leatherwood had to endure throughout training camp and the preseason. By the time the Las Vegas Raiders played the New England Patriots on Friday, that spotlight bordered on glaring.
According to ESPN's Jeremy Fowler, teams around the league had their eye on Leatherwood's performance with the idea he may be traded or even released.
Leatherwood's struggles aren't a secret.
Last season, the Raiders initially played the rookie 17th overall pick at right tackle only to move him quickly to guard. The new regime placed him back at right tackle, and the issues have continued.
"[Leatherwood's] biggest mechanical problem is he punches too low," longtime NFL right tackle Mitchell Schwartz told The Athletic's Ted Nguyen. "When the defender does anything to his right arm, he's got no leverage and no pressure going upwards. It makes him top-heavy, and he's susceptible to falling on his face."
Balance is an integral part to playing in space as an offensive tackle. It's hard to say one preseason game can make or break a recent first-round pick, yet getting pushed back directly into the quarterback certainly doesn't help matters.
In reality, Leatherwood could have won most of his snaps, and it may not have mattered. He's clearly not comfortable playing right tackle and appears to be better suited at guard. By releasing the lineman, the Raiders would eat an extra $4.6 million of his contract this year, according to Over the Cap. A trade is far more feasible if a suitor thinks its offensive line coach can correct Leatherwood's technical deficiencies.
The fact that Leatherwood came off the bench while Jermaine Eluemunor started at right tackle may be all that needs to be said about the situation. If a trade doesn't materialize, the Raiders should once again shift Leatherwood back to guard.