NFL Preseason Roundup: Baker Mayfield Looks Like the Real Deal in Debut
Three quarters of the NFL's 32 teams kicked off the 2018 preseason Thursday night.
And while it's too early to draw any substantial conclusions about what to expect between September and February, early-August developments could greatly affect what goes down when the games matter.
What can we take away from the first full slate of contests on the NFL preseason schedule? Here's a look at the top stories from Thursday night, along with our instant reactions.
Baker Mayfield Is Going to Make This Awkward, Isn't He?
The Cleveland Browns have reiterated exactly 637 times that Tyrod Taylor is their starting quarterback and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield will begin the regular season as a backup. Cool, but if Mayfield continues to perform the way he did against the New York Giants, it'll be hard for the Browns to keep him on the sideline.
The Oklahoma product averaged 10.6 yards per pass attempt while throwing two touchdown passes and rushing for 13 yards in a 20-10 road victory over New York.
And there were some beauts in there, including this under-pressure third-down completion on the sideline to rookie Antonio Callaway, this well-timed back-shoulder toss to Rashard Higgins and this tight-window touchdown throw to David Njoku. He also picked up two first downs with his legs and displayed veteran poise in the pocket.
Browns head coach Hue Jackson is lucky Taylor was 5-of-5 for 99 yards and a touchdown against first-teamers, because that'll make it easier to get through the next week as Mayfield Mania takes hold in Cleveland.
Which leads to the question: Do the Browns—after all those years of praying to the football gods for one good quarterback—now have two good quarterbacks?
As for Nick Chubb...
As a result of the Browns' quarterback approach, there's probably a much better chance second-round rookie running back Nick Chubb gets more opportunities than Mayfield early on. And fantasy poolies are undoubtedly watching Chubb this month.
Can't imagine they liked what they saw Thursday in New Jersey.
While Taylor and Mayfield were lighting it up, Chubb rushed 15 times for just 11 yards against the Giants. And while the Georgia product added a 12-yard catch on a screen, that 0.7 yards-per-attempt average won't help him chase down projected No. 1 Browns back Carlos Hyde.
"Chubb played in some big-time games in college," tweeted NFL draft analyst Dane Brugler during the contest, "but he's not running confident tonight in his NFL debut."
Hyde lost yardage on his only carry of the night, but the fact that the Browns had him out there for only three snaps is a good indication they view him as the top dog. Of course, they're paying him that way anyway.
Poor offensive line play was a factor for both Hyde and Chubb on Thursday night, but that won't assuage concerns regarding either player—or the Browns altogether.
Saquon Barkley Is Good at Football
We knew Giants rookie running back Saquon Barkley was good at college football. Now we know he can hold it down in the NFL. We aren't putting him in the Hall of Fame or even the Pro Bowl, but damn. Did you see that deception? Did you see that cut? Six Cleveland Browns defenders now need ankle surgery after the Penn State product toyed with that D on a 39-yard run on his first NFL play.
That's a hell of a first impression for the most highly touted running back to enter the league in a decade.
So yeah, Barkley is good. Very good. And if there was any doubt he could do what Ezekiel Elliott did when he led the league in rushing as a rookie in 2016 or what Kareem Hunt did when he did the same thing under the same circumstances in 2017, that was probably erased Thursday.
It doesn't matter that Barkley's other three carries went for just four yards. This was about the eyeball test. The dude is ready, and it's the dawn of a new era for Big Blue.
NFL Player Protests Won't Be Going Away
Maybe it happened because the NFL's anthem policy is in limbo right now, and maybe we only noticed some of it because this was the first relatively full slate of NFL games this year. Regardless, players protested during "The Star-Spangled Banner" in several cities Thursday night.
- In Miami, wide receivers Kenny Stills and Albert Wilson took knees, and defensive end Robert Quinn raised a fist.
- In Philadelphia, Eagles safety Malcolm Jenkins and cornerback De'Vante Bausby each raised a fist during the anthem.
- In Seattle, Seahawks offensive tackle Duane Brown, defensive end Branden Jackson and defensive tackle Quinton Jefferson went to the locker room during the anthem.
- In Jacksonville, four Jaguars players—linebacker Telvin Smith, cornerback Jalen Ramsey, running back Leonard Fournette and running back T.J. Yeldon—remained in the locker room during the anthem, according to ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco.
That caused the league to make a statement to clarify that players won't be disciplined for protests during the anthem while the NFL and NFLPA try to come to a compromise on a potential anthem policy, even though the policy adopted earlier this offseason is technically still in place.
"The NFL has been engaged in constructive discussions with the NFL Players Association regarding the anthem and issues of equality and social justice that are of concern to many Americans," the statement read, per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. "While those discussions continue, the NFL has agreed to delay implementing or enforcing any club work rules that could result in players being disciplined for their conduct during the performance of the anthem."
But here's the thing: This would be a story even if the policy weren't put on hold and even if Stills, Wilson, Quinn, Jenkins and Bausby didn't protest on the sideline. It was always kosher to remain in/retreat to the locker room, and one of the loudest critics of the protests, Donald Trump, has already suggested that policy is even worse than not having one at all.
Regardless of what happens now, the media and fans—and probably the president—will continue to take note any time a player isn't on the field during the anthem. This controversy isn't going anywhere.
Josh Allen Will Need Time
Buffalo Bills rookie and No. 7 overall pick Josh Allen has the exact physical makeup you want in a potential franchise quarterback (6'5", 237 lbs), but he enters the league as something of a project after completing just 56.2 percent of his passes at Wyoming.
And while working with and against a lot of second-, third- and fourth-stringers Thursday night in his preseason debut, Allen reminded us why he remains in the third spot on Buffalo's quarterback depth chart.
He went viral for all the wrong reasons when he appeared overwhelmed and ran back 20 yards while trying to escape pressure on a 4th-and-3 coming out of a timeout inside the red zone. He also completed just nine of 19 passes for 116 yards.
It was by no means a disaster—Rotoworld's Josh Norris provided video of one particularly stellar throw on a play that also featured smooth, poised movement in the pocket, and he did lead a nice fourth-quarter touchdown drive—but Nathan Peterman and AJ McCarron still outplayed him, and those guys had to face better defenders.
Allen's performance was a lot better than that one ugly play, but it became obvious in the preseason opener that the Bills shouldn't rush him into the starting role.
Cam, Kelvin Beef Is Very Real
Our first headline of the evening came before a snap had been made.
Earlier this week, former Carolina Panthers wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin basically dragged Panthers quarterback Cam Newton through the mud by questioning his knowledge of the game and criticizing his accuracy in an interview with The Athletic's Tim Graham.
Newton didn't originally bite in response to those comments, but it did appear as though he was willing to chat with Benjamin before the Panthers took on Benjamin's Buffalo Bills on Thursday night.
And then this happened.
That video—provided by Matt Walsh of the Charlotte Observer—shows a confrontation that would make Lauren Conrad and Heidi Montag proud (or Taylor Swift and Kanye West if you're in need of a more contemporary comparison).
0:03: Newton approaches Benjamin, interrupting a conversation with Thomas Davis.
0:07: Benjamin appears to shove Newton back with his left elbow.
0:09: Newton still throws his right hand out there for a handshake.
0:11: The hand is still hanging.
0:13: Still hanging.
0:14: Dismayed, Newton shoos Davis away and tries to engage Benjamin in a one-on-one conversation.
0:15-0:25: The two have a semi-heated discussion that we can only pray was caught by microphones.
0:26: Benjamin walks away. It sounds like Davis tells him he has something on his lip. He then brushes his mouth.
0:27-0:36: Newton follows Benjamin, who doesn't seem to be willing to chat. Newton keeps talking.
0:37-0:47: Benjamin looks pissed. He turns and faces Newton and the two go back and forth.
0:48: Benjamin again walks away.
0:49-0:52: Newton follows, making one more attempt.
0:52: Newton raises his voice.
0:54: Newton makes a gesture that essentially says "Screw this" as Benjamin walks away.
0:55: Newton leaves the field.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why yours truly got into sports journalism.
John Ross Is Still on a Milk Carton in Cincinnati
The Cincinnati Bengals surely know that star wide receiver A.J. Green needs more support, and a lot of that will fall on 2017 No. 9 overall pick John Ross, who was M.I.A. during an injury-plagued rookie season.
But Ross didn't inspire a lot of confidence in his first preseason game of 2018. He slipped on his first target from Andy Dalton, resulting in a pick-six. And while the speedster out of Washington did make a great play on a 20-yard catch-and-run later in the first quarter, that short completion was his only reception on five targets.
Ross is one of the fastest players in the league, but it's hard to imagine he'll play a major role in the Bengals' receiving corps this season. The problem is that with Brandon LaFell gone, Cincinnati doesn't have a lot of other good options.
If Ross doesn't redeem himself in the weeks to come, Green will likely find himself having to do all of the heavy lifting entering the 2018 season.
David Njoku Has Been Found
Ohio's other NFL team also received a disappointing season from a first-round pass-catcher in 2017, but Browns tight end David Njoku delivered in the first preseason game of his sophomore campaign.
Njoku caught just 53.3 percent of the passes thrown his way in a 386-yard rookie season, despite playing all 16 games. Yet on Thursday he caught two touchdown passes, including a 36-yarder against the Giants' first-team D in which he burned veteran linebacker Alec Ogletree.
Njoku is an athletic marvel with supreme speed who is ready to make a big leap coming off his first full NFL offseason. It's important to keep in mind that he had DeShone Kizer, Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler throwing to him last season and that Jarvis Landry wasn't there taking up attention in the slot.
Under substantially more favorable circumstances, the Miami product should shine in 2018.
Will Dez Wind Up in Cleveland?
But the emergence of Njoku probably won't prevent the Browns from chasing veteran free-agent wide receiver Dez Bryant.
The most intriguing non-game-related story of the day went down like this:
- Browns general manager John Dorsey told reporters Bryant wasn't returning the team's phone calls.
- Then Bryant tweeted that, although he "wouldn't mind" playing for the Browns, "I just want to be right first."
- Two hours later, Bryant took to Twitter again to announce he'd visit Cleveland next week.
But Bryant's approach has been odd. Why wasn't he answering Dorsey's calls? And why isn't he "right"? There's a reason he's lingered this long as a free agent, and it's possible it's related to his persona as much as it's related to his football skills. He did mention he's meeting with the Browns while "starting" his visits next week, which might suggest he still isn't willing to settle for a team that has won just a single game since the start of 2016.
Regardless, the Browns revealed their desperation Thursday. And even though Njoku looked good against the Giants, Corey Coleman and Josh Gordon weren't there. That could be a problem. Beggars can't be choosers, but the Browns look like bigger beggars than Bryant.
Injuries Happened, Mainly to 49ers Players
Injuries are an unfortunate but unavoidable reality this time of year, and several players went down Thursday night. And because life isn't always fair, most of those players belong to the San Francisco 49ers.
49ers DL Solomon Thomas: One of the most important young members of the San Francisco defense left Thursday's game against the Dallas Cowboys with what the team is calling a head injury. He did not return.
49ers RB Matt Breida: The underrated second-year back suffered a shoulder injury, according to Matt Barrows of The Athletic.
49ers LB Malcolm Smith: Barrows reports the veteran has a hamstring injury, which wouldn't be as concerning if he hadn't missed all of last season with an injury (albeit it was a pectoral injury last year).
49ers TE George Kittle: The quietly productive second-year fifth-rounder was sidelined in the first quarter by a shoulder injury, according to the team.
49ers OT Garry Gilliam: Barrows says the swing tackle has a possible concussion.
Washington Redskins RB Derrius Guice: It doesn't sound serious, but it's worth noting that NFL Network's Ian Rapoport reports the second-round rookie back will undergo an MRI on his knee Friday "just in case."
Tampa Bay Buccaneers CB Vernon Hargreaves: The 2016 first-round pick is entering a potential make-or-break year, but he was sidelined early Thursday night against the Miami Dolphins due to a groin injury, per Scott Smith of the team's official website.
Indianapolis Colts RB Marlon Mack: He's supposed to play a major role in the Indy backfield this year, but Mike Chappell of Fox59 reports that Mack went down with a hamstring injury in Seattle.
Colts WR Deon Cain: WTHR's Bob Kravitz reports that the camp sensation suffered a knee injury.