NFL Preseason Roundup: Sam Darnold Looks Like a Vet in First Start
The second week of NFL preseason games is a bit better in every way. The starters play a little longer. The competition ramps up a little more. And the league, as a whole, is a little closer to the start of the regular season—which means a tad more is on the line.
Three games took place Thursday and featured plenty to be decided beyond a meaningless final score.
The New York Jets are still trying to figure out who their starting quarterback is. At the same time, their opponents, the Washington Redskins, need to figure out how they can replace Derrius Guice after the running back suffered a season-ending knee injury.
In Green Bay, the Packers hosted the Pittsburgh Steelers. Who will emerge among Green Bay's young wide receivers? On the other hand, the Steelers still have questions throughout their defense.
Also, a Super Bowl LII rematch might not be as sexy during the preseason, but a Philadelphia Eagles-New England Patriots tilt is good anytime.
Some personnel questions may have been answered, while others linger into next week's slate. Either way, plenty occurred—on and off the field—at the onset of more preseason action.
Sam Darnold Is on His Way to Being an Opening Day Starter
The New York Jets have something special in Sam Darnold. That's clear in how he processes information, stays calm in the pocket and delivers the football. The organization seems to know the 21-year-old signal-caller is much further ahead than expected because he started the second preseason contest against the Washington Redskins.
Darnold completed of eight of 11 passes for 62 yards and an interception. Some will point to a sack he took by holding the ball too long and his first turnover as disappointing plays. But a bigger concern emerged from those moments. The Jets lack outside playmakers, and the rookie didn't have a single open receiver.
This issue became more apparent when Teddy Bridgewater entered the game and received little to no help from his targets during the second half's initial drive.
While receivers who lack the ability to create separation is a big concern, the clarifying quarterback picture is exciting.
Darnold started working more with the first-team offense Sunday after a standout debut performance.
"I think working with the first team, it just gets me more comfortable with those guys," the rookie said, per the New York Post's Brian Costello. "I think they get more comfortable with me and the way I like to play, all that kind of stuff plays into it. I think anytime I get the chance to be able to get those quality reps whether it’s with the ones, the twos or the threes, those are important reps.
It's easy to see the youngest quarterback in this year's draft class is being groomed as the first to start.
Isaiah Wynn Suffers Injury, Patriots Remain Unsettled at Right Tackle
While the Jets are excited about their recent first-round investment—and rightly so—their AFC East counterparts, the New England Patriots, are holding their breath regarding their top draft pick.
Medical personnel carted offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn off the field after he suffered an ankle injury against the Philadelphia Eagles, according to the Providence Journal's Mark Daniels.
Wynn gained traction in recent days after Trent Brown secured the starting left tackle spot earlier in training camp. Marcus Cannon's injury created an opportunity on the right side. According to The Athletic's Jeff Howe, Cannon, who started 41 games over his career, should be ready for the regular season. But the coaching staff didn't hesitate to place its first-round pick on the strong side despite his being a collegiate left tackle and guard.
"Yeah, it's definitely a different technique [on the right side]," Wynn said, per Erik Scalavino of the Patriots' official site. "It's still the same fundamentals, but it's like if you're right-handed and writing with your left hand. Just got to get used to it, just think or concentrate a little more on it."
LaAdrian Waddle opened Thursday's contest at right tackle before Wynn took over during the second series.
The severity and nature of Wynn's injury has yet to be revealed (and the Patriots are notorious for not divulging health-related information). Earlier this week it looked like he was well on his way to becoming a starter as long as he performed well. Now, the Patriots hope he'll return sooner rather than later.
Rob Kelley May Be Last Man Standing in Washington Redskins' Backfield
The Washington Redskins running backs want the preseason to end so one or two can remain healthy.
The team already lost second-round pick Derrius Guice to a season-ending knee injury in his debut against the New England Patriots.
Head coach Jay Gruden said just five days ago, per Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio:
"We have guys in here [that can] play, we drafted Derrius because he's the best player we thought at the time of the draft. ... So, with Rob [Kelley] and Samaje [Perine], and what Byron [Marshall] did the other night, the flashes he showed off and obviously Chris Thompson, Kapri Bibbs had a couple big hits. I think we are pretty good at the running back spot."
Kelley opened the second preseason contest against the New York Jets as the starting running back, and Washington had better place him in bubble wrap until the regular season. Kelley ran the ball seven times for 17 yards before giving way to Samaje Perine.
Third-down back Chris Thompson, meanwhile, is still working his way back from a fractured fibula he suffered in November.
At this point, Kelley and Bibbs are the team's only healthy options. Washington can lean on its physical offensive front, but the big boys can only do so much if the backfield lacks talent.
Oren Burks Solidifies Standing in Middle of Packers Defense
First- and second-round picks are always under the spotlight. If a third-round selection can contribute early, he's usually considered a pleasant surprise.
Oren Burks is exactly what the Green Bay Packers need in their defense after the team used the 88th overall pick in April's draft to acquire the linebacker's services and Jake Ryan suffered a season-ending torn ACL.
The rookie led the Packers in total tackles in each of the first two preseason contests, but his presence in the lineup means so much more.
"We were pleased," defensive coordinator Mike Pettine said after his initial performance, per Zach Kruse of USA Today's Packers Wire. "He competed, had some issues, but the mistakes he made were full speed, which was encouraging. For him to take charge of the huddle after Blake [Martinez] was out, he showed it wasn't too big for him."
Playing inside linebacker in Pettine's system isn't easy. The coordinator utilizes a complex scheme with many moving pieces to disguise blitz packages and coverages. Burks appears to be a natural as he picks his way through run fits. More importantly, the Vanderbilt product provides flexibility.
The 6'3", 233-pound defender with 4.59-second 40-yard-dash speed played safety and linebacker in college. His comfort level working in space is obvious. This allows him to stay on the field instead of coming off for certain sub-packages.
Ryan's loss is unfortunate. However, Burks' emergence might be what's best for the Packers D.
Dak Prescott Trusts Tavon Austin, Clicking with Entire Receiving Corps
Tavon Austin is well on his way to becoming a No. 1 target in an actual NFL offense. This isn't a bad thing, either.
The Dallas Cowboys are bereft of consistent playmakers at wide receiver, and Austin, despite being a failure with the Los Angeles Rams, presents a skill set that can create mismatches and may finally be used correctly in a receiver/running back hybrid role.
Quarterback Dak Prescott said when asked which receiver has stood out the most during training camp, per the Star-Telegram's Clarence Hill:
"I'd say Tavon for the simple fact, in the other place he was, I didn't know he was as good of a receiver as he was and could run routes as well as he does, and catch the ball every single time. For me, from that standpoint, he's not just a gadget, gadget guy. ... He's a guy you can put out there, inside, outside and trust he's going to get open."
Austin headlines a group of receivers that features Cole Beasley, Allen Hurns, Terrance Williams and rookie Michael Gallup. Finding out who would emerge in the passing game has been a concern throughout the offseason and into training camp.
The Cowboys' wide receivers may not have a star, but the group is building a rapport with its quarterback.
"We really click," Prescott said. ”We're starting to get it. As I said, when we have the changeover that we had and had a lot of new guys come in at receiver and play different positions, especially with a bunch of different guys, each of which has something different to offer to our receiving corps; it's all been good."
Cleveland Browns Host Dez Bryant, Talks Continue Between Both Sides
While the Cowboys are trying to replace Dez Bryant, the Cleveland Browns entertained the 29-year-old wide receiver Thursday. The sides haven't reached a deal, but everyone "will know more tomorrow," according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
Bryant arrived in Cleveland with plenty of fanfare as the top available free agent. The biggest issue is whether the eight-year veteran and his larger-than-life personality fit the Browns locker room. Clearly, the three-time Pro Bowler has no problem playing for a team that finished 0-16 last season.
"I"m happy to be here, you know excited, you know just trying to work out some things," Bryant said on Cleveland Browns Daily (via the Associated Press' Tom Withers). "It's a lovely place."
Obviously, there are those within the organization who are excited about the possibility.
"We're just trying to figure out if he wants to be here," Jarvis Landry said, per Withers. "Then obviously we're open arms, and we'd love to have him. He'd be a great addition to our team and our offense for sure. You look at the plays he's making down the field, underneath. He can really do it all, given the opportunities."
The 6'2", 220-pound Bryant has been an X-receiver throughout his career, and the Browns don't have anyone who fits the position's mold. Antonio Callaway (5'11", 200 lbs) and Rashard Higgins (6'1", 198 lbs) worked their way into prominent roles, but they're smaller and less physical options.
Plus, Josh Gordon's status remains in limbo. Bryant may not be what he used to be, but he can still help the Browns.
Expect an Uptempo Browns Offense
The Browns haven't had an offense rank in the top half of the league since 2007. Offensive coordinator Todd Haley and quarterback Tyrod Taylor aim to change this.
The front office already provided new weapons for Haley to exploit, starting with Taylor behind center along with Landry, Callaway, Carlos Hyde and Nick Chubb.
To maximize that newfound talent, Haley plans to vary tempo throughout contests to keep opposing defenses on their heels. During the team's second offensive series against the New York Giants, Haley used a no-huddle approach that resulted in an effortless 66-yard scoring drive.
This aligns both philosophically and personnel-wise with the Browns roster.
Taylor told Andrew Gribble of the Browns' official site:
"It's something we work a lot in practice. Just about every practice we get a chance to go through our no-huddle package. We have a couple different fast tempo packages and we were able to get some practice with some in-game reps. I’m comfortable in that mode, it’s something I've done before. (Offensive coordinator Todd Haley) has his trust in me to go out there and call those plays."
Taylor won't be the only quarterback to benefit from this method.
No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield is ideally suited to play in a wide-open scheme that resembles basketball on grass more than a traditional approach, since his game is predicated on quick decision-making and efficiently distributing the football.
The idea is as much about winning now as building toward the future.
49ers' Joshua Garnett Gets 1st-Team Reps at Right Guard
Joshua Garnett worked his way back into the mix to become the San Francisco 49ers' starting right guard.
Garnett experienced a lot to reach this point. The 2016 first-round pick missed all of the 2017 campaign with a knee injury. He reshaped his body to better fit Kyle Shanahan's offense this offseason only to deal with lingering knee issues earlier in camp, per the AP's Chris Biderman.
"Whatever coaches see on tape and whatever coach says, that's what I'm going to roll with," Garnett said, per NBC Sports Bay Area's Matt Maiocco. "Whether I'm going with the ones, twos or threes, I'll go out there and go as hard as I can. Every day is important, not just the games—every practice, every walkthrough, every install, every meeting. I've got to approach it with that mindset."
The battle to complete the 49ers offensive line fizzled through the first few weeks of camp. The 30-year-old Mike Person held onto the spot only to see Garnett and Jonathan Cooper (knee) finally get past their injuries and onto the field. With both competing, Person received second-team center snaps.
The 30-year-old veteran's versatility is a great asset, but, of course, he wants to start. Now, Person needs to earn his position since the real competition is ready to roll.