NFL1000 Biggest Preseason Winners and Losers
You hear it every year: You can’t take anything out of the preseason and make it gospel.
Teams are running vanilla versions of their schemes, starters and scrubs flow in and out of games, stars are focused more on trying not to get hurt than anything else, and this is a time for coaches to try things out without the fear of regular-season ramifications.
That’s all true, to a degree. Still, there are indeed things you can take away from the preseason. Rookies who show up early. New coaches who either define their teams quickly or appear overwhelmed in the process. Unexpected stars who take that status into the regular season and build careers.
In addition, the preseason is where you start to see all the hypothetical team-building exercises of the offseason come to fruition…or not.
So, while the scores and win-loss records aren’t definitive at all, focuses and trends make every preseason fascinating. Here are a few examples of teams and players who have gotten it right in the 2017 preseason, and a few more examples of teams and players who might like a do-over.
Winner: Cleveland’s Front Office
When the Browns cut cornerback Joe Haden and traded offensive lineman Cameron Erving to the Chiefs for a 2018 fifth-round pick on August 30, it was the continuation of a unique record of draft futility for one franchise. From 2009 through 2015, the Browns had 10 first-round picks, and only nose tackle Danny Shelton, taken 12th overall in the 2015 draft, is still with the team. The other names compile a laundry list of draft busts or players the team couldn’t (or wouldn’t) retain: Alex Mack, Haden, Phil Taylor, Trent Richardson, Brandon Weeden, Barkevious Mingo, Justin Gilbert, Johnny Manziel, Shelton and Erving.
When you lose out on that much premium draft capital, it’s no wonder the Browns went 1-15 in 2016—there just wasn’t enough home-grown talent established to put up a fight. However, the new Browns front office, led by executive vice president of football operations Sashi Brown and head coach Hue Jackson, seem to be doing things the right way. They assembled three first-round picks in the 2017 draft via trades with the Texans and Packers as well as their own first overall pick, and early returns on those three draftees are quite good.
First pick Myles Garrett has everything you want in a great edge-rusher—speed, strength, bend around the edge and the ability to close to the pocket. He’s been dominant at times against first-string NFL offensive tackles. Jabrill Peppers, the 25th selection, picked off a pass against Jameis Winston and has proved valuable in the return game. The do-it-all defensive back in college has been relegated to free safety for the most part, but defensive coordinator Gregg Williams loves versatile safeties, and you can bet Peppers will be all over the field.
David Njoku, the 29th pick, hasn’t seen as much of the field because of injury, but the surprise has been second-round quarterback DeShone Kizer, who wrested the starting spot away from veterans Brock Osweiler and Cody Kessler. That’s not a Murderer’s Row to beat, but Kizer has shown flashes of greatness on deep passes even as he works to refine the little things.
It may take a while for all these draft picks to pay off completely, but the initial results are good, and that’s a balm for a franchise that hasn’t been able to get it right for a long time.
Loser: New York Jets
The NFL is a highly competitive league, and no franchise likes to hear talk it's “tanking”—intentionally setting up a team to lose to get higher draft picks—whether it’s true or not. But when you take a look at the 2017 Jets, it’s hard not to ascribe the talent drain to either tanking or rank incompetence, or both.
Head coach Todd Bowles and general manager Mike Maccagnan have presided over an offseason in which the Jets parted ways with Ryan Fitzpatrick and released Darrelle Revis, Brandon Marshall and Nick Mangold. Revis and Mangold were just about done, and Fitzpatrick is a backup-level guy, but Marshall is still a good possession receiver. They also cut linebacker David Harris and receiver Eric Decker despite the fact their 2017 salaries were fully guaranteed.
The draft hasn’t helped. Maccagnan’s first draft as GM was in 2015, and outside of Leonard Williams, it’s been a disaster. Devin Smith, Lorenzo Mauldin and Bryce Petty, all taken in the first four rounds, have contributed little. But it’s the selection of former Penn State quarterback Christian Hackenberg in the second round of the 2016 draft that has proved most problematic.
Hackenberg looked awful in his first preseason and never took a snap in the 2016 regular season. The team is hoping he’ll improve in his second year, but Hackenberg’s 2017 preseason has been even worse. He threw two pick-sixes against the Giants in Week 3 of the preseason, meaning that he produced more points for the opponent (13) than for his own team (9). Josh McCown will start at the position, primarily because there’s nobody else qualified to do it.
Add it all up, and for whatever reason, the Jets look like the worst team we’ve seen in some time. And there doesn’t seem to be a plan to bail them out of it anytime soon.
Winner: Jared Goff
There’s no other way to put this: Jared Goff’s rookie season was a disaster. The first pick in the 2016 draft came out of Cal and stepped right into the offensive version of a horror movie. He was in a poorly designed offense with few targets and an underdeveloped offensive line, and the results played out as you would expect for a quarterback not ready for the rigors of the NFL with nothing around him. Goff struggled with his accuracy, failed to make big plays with his arm and often looked underwater as he tried to make completions in play designs that would have taxed far more experienced quarterbacks.
Exit former head coach Jeff Fisher and enter new head coach Sean McVay, the former Washington Redskins offensive coordinator. The first thing McVay did upon his arrival to Los Angeles was implement the same kind of passing schemes that made Kirk Cousins a Pro Bowler in 2016—easy, defined reads out of motion and play action, and route concepts favorable to the quarterback that Goff took advantage of in preseason Week 2 against the Raiders.
In addition, the Rams reinforced their offensive line, drafted receivers Cooper Kupp and Josh Reynolds, signed Robert Woods and traded for Sammy Watkins. Goff hasn’t been world-beating this preseason, and he still has a lot of developmental work to do on his response and accuracy under pressure, but McVay’s system has given him a leg up, and he now has the talent around him to make that progress a possibility.
Loser: Kirk Cousins
Correspondingly, based on his 2017 preseason, Kirk Cousins will miss Sean McVay a lot. The Redskins waved goodbye to their primary offensive designer and let Cousins’ two best receivers—DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon—walk in free agency. Cousins was one of the most accurate passers last season and one of the most prolific deep throwers, and it was the combination of McVay’s play designs and Jackson’s dangerous deep speed that allowed Cousins to transcend his ordinary talents. Cousins doesn’t throw with anticipation, he’s late at times to make the right pass against more advanced coverages, and he’s not great when asked to throw into tight windows.
In three preseason games without McVay, Jackson and Garcon, Cousins has been entirely ordinary, completing just 25 of 44 passes for 258 yards, one touchdown and one interception. But more than that, he’s looked shell-shocked even when he’s presented with open receivers and favorable concepts. To date, Cousins hasn’t progressed past his status as a “see it and throw it” player who predetermines his reads far too often and struggles to adjust when things go south.
The Redskins signed former Browns receiver Terrelle Pryor to be Cousins’ new alpha dog, but Pryor doesn’t stretch defenses the way Jackson does, and though the combination of head coach Jay Gruden and new offensive coordinator Matt Cavanaugh can still give Cousins schematic advantages, he looks to be gobsmacked by McVay’s absence at this point. Not a good thing for a quarterback in his sixth season who wants a top-level deal at his position. Regression seems inevitable, and Cousins’ career is in the crosshairs.
Winner: Patriots' Preseason Plan
What do you do after you win your fifth Super Bowl, and in doing so, present the most impressive comeback in NFL history? If you are the New England Patriots, you do not rest on your laurels—you get players who can help you make the rest of the league look foolish all over again.
Trading their 2017 first-round pick for Saints receiver Brandin Cooks looked brilliant at the time; now, with the season-ending injury to Julian Edelman, it looks like the kind of move that could save Bill Belichick’s passing game. Cooks is one of the most dynamic deep threats in the league, and with him on board, the Pats can use fellow deep threat Chris Hogan in some of the intermediate option routes in which Edelman has excelled.
In addition, former Bengals do-it-all back Rex Burkhead can help in the short passing game. And former Bills running back Mike Gillislee is a true sleeper acquisition who should thrive in this offense. Add in the undrafted Austin Carr, who led the team in receptions (14) and receiving yards (153) this preseason and showed great route-running ability.
On defense, the team that looked completely overwhelmed by Atlanta’s offense for three quarters in Super Bowl LI has a new star. The addition of former Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore should be a major one for this team, because the Pats are smart enough to let Gilmore do what he does best: play tight coverage through the route and trail a primary receiver. Gilmore will pair with Malcolm Butler to form one of the league’s more formidable cornerback duos.
So far, so good.
Gillislee has looked strong when on the field—his one-cut style is a perfect fit for New England's hybrid blocking concepts. Gilmore hasn't played a lot yet, but he's already looking like a more confident cornerback in press schemes. You know Belichick isn't going to put him on the field to do things that don't best suit his style, as the Bills did too often last year when they had him play more off-coverage. Cooks caught two passes for 15 yards in the preseason, but you can expect a lot more when the regular season starts.
You would expect nothing less from the smartest and most adaptable team of the 21st century, but here the Patriots come again—loaded at nearly every position and ready to be better than before.
Losers: Blake Bortles and the Jaguars’ Otherwise Talented Roster
Over the last few seasons, the Jacksonville Jaguars have done an estimable job putting together a roster full of talent, a job made complicated by the almost complete lack of talent when owner Shahid Khan bought the team in 2011. They have two outstanding receivers in Allen Hurns and Allen Robinson. They have a top rookie running back in Leonard Fournette. Yannick Ngakoue and Calais Campbell present a great pass-rushing duo, and if former Texans cornerback A.J. Bouye isn’t a one-year wonder, he and Jalen Ramsey could present the league’s finest duo of outside pass-coverage defenders.
Still, most of that will not matter when it is time to decide the games. Because the Jaguars are perhaps the NFL’s most prominent negative example of the truism that the modern NFL is a quarterback-driven league. And when the Jags decided to pull the trigger on Blake Bortles’ option in early May, they set themselves up for a season of disappointment.
Since he was selected with the third overall pick in the 2014 draft out of Central Florida, Bortles has struggled with just about every aspect of professional quarterbacking. He’s had difficulty making advanced reads, his accuracy has been questionable, his mechanics are seemingly always a work in progress, and outside of a surprising season in 2015 when he threw 35 touchdown passes (and still led the NFL with 18 interceptions), he’s not shown the consistent franchise-caliber combination that makes above-average quarterbacks assets to their teams.
Jacksonville’s coaching staff gave Bortles the starting nod over veteran Chad Henne to start the 2017 regular season despite a preseason that was questionable at best. And though head coach Doug Marrone continues to talk up Bortles’ potential, it’s just as true that unless Bortles takes some major steps forward in 2017, Marrone’s talented roster will waste another year without postseason participation.
Bortles was howlingly inaccurate on several throws in Week 2 of the preseason against the Buccaneers, at which point he was demoted to see what Henne could do. Bortles looked better against Carolina's backups in the second half of the Week 3 preseason game, but the decision to start him Week 1 against Houston's stellar defense smacks of desperation to validate a bad draft decision made years ago.
Bortles is not up to this task.
Winner: San Francisco’s Offense
Matt Ryan was the 2016 NFL Most Valuable Player, and he may well have been the Super Bowl MVP had the Atlanta Falcons held on to defeat the New England Patriots in Super Bowl LI, but if the Falcons had one true MVP in 2016, it was offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan. Shanahan put together a brilliant series of game plans that befuddled nearly every defense Atlanta faced, with its lethal combination of pre-snap movement, running backs and fullbacks all over the formation, boot-action principles designed to get the quarterback out of the pocket and zone-blocking concepts sure to make offensive linemen as effective as possible.
That Super Bowl season got Shanahan the head coach position with the San Francisco 49ers, and while the team still has a pretty serious talent drain after the multiyear mistakes of former general manager Trent Baalke, Shanahan’s offensive genius has already started to pay dividends in his first preseason as a head coach.
Against the Vikings in Week 3 of the preseason, Shanahan had his offense humming with the starters in the first half, as Brian Hoyer threw touchdown passes on his first two drives, and the normally stingy Minnesota defense seemed to be opening holes exactly where Shanahan wanted them to, providing easy slants and downfield routes for Hoyer’s targets.
It will take Shanahan and new general manager John Lynch a few years to build the roster back up to its recent heyday in the Jim Harbaugh era, but even without a great deal of top-level talent, Shanahan’s offense is going to be a blast to watch.
Losers: Colin Kaepernick and the Teams Passing Him By
Josh McCown. Blake Bortles. Brian Hoyer. Mike Glennon. Trevor Siemian. Jay Cutler. Tom Savage. These are seven names of potential NFL starting quarterbacks to begin the 2017 season. None of them, with the possible exception of Cutler, has proved he has the raw tools to be top-level professional quarterback, and Cutler had to be pried from the announcer’s chair to sign with the Dolphins after Ryan Tannehill’s season-ending injury.
Based on potential injury situations, Scott Tolzien may get the Week 1 start for the Colts if Andrew Luck can't go, and Ryan Mallett may start for the Ravens if Joe Flacco isn't ready. Not good news for two more potential playoff teams.
To be sure, there are unimpressive quarterbacks in the league every year, but it’s exceedingly rare that an entire NFL season will go by with one free-agent quarterback unsigned who has proved he can play at a level beyond at least the bottom third of starters at the position. This is the weird state Colin Kaepernick finds himself in.
Whether you believe Kaepernick has been blackballed by the league, or by certain teams, after his anthem protests, his continued unemployment makes little sense. The Texans, Jaguars, Broncos and Dolphins have legitimate playoff chances with good-to-great quarterback play as an additional factor, but none of those teams would seem to prefer Kaepernick to Savage, Bortles, Siemian and Cutler, respectively.
Some coaches and executives will tell you that Kaepernick has no pocket presence and needs a specific zone-read offense around him to play at the NFL level. This is categorically untrue—based on my own charting, 13 of Kaepernick’s 16 touchdown passes in 2016 came from the pocket, and he’s played in three different offensive systems over the last three seasons. That he managed 16 touchdown passes and just four interceptions last season with perhaps the worst collection of talent around him in the NFL would seem to indicate that he has enough on the ball to be a starter, or at least a highly paid backup.
But it hasn’t happened. And if Kaepernick goes unsigned through the 2017 season even if a playoff-level team loses its starting quarterback in season because of injury, it will be further indication that, perhaps, the fix is in, and the league wasn’t going to give him another chance after he offended the political sensibilities of a few of its most powerful constituents.