NFL Preseason Report Card Grades for Every Team
The NFL preseason operates in a vortex in which results mean nothing, yet what happens throughout those contests means everything.
Every coach publicly downplays what occurs during August only to talk up the importance of the process behind closed doors.
A successful preseason is built on two factors: key contributors remaining healthy and how a team comes together in an attempt to be as cohesive as possible.
Of course, coaching staffs aren't game-planning for preseason opponents. But the basic template of success versus failure emerges.
How each team grades throughout the preseason is based on numerous factors. Performance, rookie development and early returns from offseason additions were considered. As with every preseason, execution by a team's projected starting units was far more important than that of second- and third-string standouts (unless, of course, those lower-rung individuals worked their way into significant roles).
Numerous teams look better than expected, while others still have some problem areas to address as the regular season looms.
Surprisingly, the most discussed injury in Arizona Cardinals camp is to a quarterback, but it's not Sam Bradford. Josh Rosen injured the thumb on his throwing hand and didn't play in the team's third or fourth preseason games.
So, any thoughts of Rosen usurping Bradford's standing in the lineup after the veteran completed 72.7 percent of his passes in limited opportunities this preseason will have to be put on hold for now.
Bradford benefits from two major positives in the Cardinals offense.
First, David Johnson is healthy and once again looks like the back who gained 2,118 total yards from scrimmage during the 2016 campaign before missing 15 games last season due to a wrist injury. Also, head coach Steve Wilks now considers the offensive line a strength after Justin Pugh and Andre Smith's additions, according to the Associated Press' Bob Baum. Although, the team will rely on a rookie center, Mason Cole, since incumbent A.Q. Shipley suffered a season-ending ACL tear.
A few questions still linger on the roster, with a second wide receiver and pass-rusher (until Markus Golden is cleared to play) needed. Also, cornerback opposite Patrick Peterson still isn't completely settled.
The Atlanta Falcons took a step back in 2017 after representing the NFC in Super Bowl LI. The biggest issue originated with Steve Sarkisian taking over as offensive coordinator.
Sarkisian looked out of his depth, and this year's preseason has been about building a much stronger rapport between the play-caller and his entire unit.
"I always think when you're on the same page with someone like that where I'm anticipating something coming in and then it comes in and I know exactly why he's calling in, those are the times in my past we've been really good," quarterback Matt Ryan said, per Kelsey Conway of the Falcons' official site. "I feel like we're getting there."
Julio Jones' usage remains in question. The offensive line has a question mark at right guard. The group needs to work rookie receiver Calvin Ridley into the mix as well.
The Falcons offense didn't establish much of a rhythm this preseason, scoring just 13 points with Ryan at the helm.
"I think the veterans and the experienced guys that we have make you feel good about what we are going to be and who we are going to be as we move forward throughout the year," Ryan said, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution's D. Orlando Ledbetter.
For the Falcons' sake, hopefully Ryan is right.
Nearly everything has worked out in the Baltimore Ravens' favor this preseason.
At quarterback, Joe Flacco is having the best camp of his 11-year career, according to NBC Sports' Peter King. Rookie backup Lamar Jackson flashed tremendous potential, and the coaching staff plans to use the rookie quarterback as part of certain offensive sub-packages.
Up front, the offensive line is settled, with Matt Skura as the starting center, per Ryan Mink of the team's official site, and rookie Orlando Brown overcoming his horrendous draft lead-up to become the Ravens' right tackle.
At wide receiver, Michael Crabtree and John Brown form a nice complementary duo after the Ravens claimed one of the worst skill positions groups going into this offseason. Crabtree gives the team a reliable No. 1 target, while Brown has the speed to stretch the field.
Finally, the Ravens defensive front is loaded. As a result, the front office took advantage and turned a breakthrough preseason performance by Kamalei Correa into a 2019 sixth-round draft pick—and the linebacker hadn't even been projected to make the roster.
The Bills have enough to be competitive, yet too many questions still exist at key positions.
First, Sean McDermott won't name a starting quarterback.
"We're still working through that with our situation, which is to be expected a little bit with drafting Josh Allen this year and having a young player in Nate Peterman and then AJ McCarron coming in through free agency," the Bills head coach said, per the Buffalo News' Jay Skurski. "There's been good competition there and all three have played at a high level."
It's not to be expected, nor are any of the three playing at a high level. Josh Allen got the nod in Buffalo's third preseason contest. This usually indicates the team's preferred starting choice. But the Cincinnati Bengals overwhelmed the rookie and his offensive front.
The blocking, or lack thereof, is arguably a bigger concern. The organization's plight to replace three starters is not going well. Dion Dawkins' eventual return from a hip injury will help. The rest of the unit is subpar, though.
On the other side of the ball, the Bills need more from 2016 first-round pick Shaq Lawson, and the competition for the cornerback spot opposite Tre'Davious White is still wide open, according to WKBW's Joe Buscaglia.
Cam Newton and the defensive front seven are the Carolina Panthers' two constants. Building around those two elements continues to be the franchise's biggest obstacle. However, the ancillary pieces seem to be coming together under new coordinators Norv Turner and Eric Washington.
The skill positions, in particular, are exciting.
Turner appears to have a plan for Christian McCaffrey to become a lead back. Last year's eighth overall pick averaged 7.2 yards per carry this preseason. Wide receiver is also far more potent, with Torrey Smith, first-round pick D.J. Moore and a healthy Curtis Samuel in the mix.
"The speed is the difference," cornerback Captain Munnerlyn said, per ESPN.com's David Newton. "I don't know if Cam's had this much speed in the receiving corps since he's been here. ... I remember looking at those guys' 40 times and nobody is slow in that room. That's scary."
The organization moved on from fellow cornerback Daryl Worley this offseason and found another young standout in Donte Jackson, who could start opposite James Bradberry.
The offensive line appears to be the only holdup since right tackle Daryl Williams and left tackle Matt Kalil are both recovering from knee injuries, which creates some upheaval along the front five.
A give-and-take can be found in the Chicago Bears' preparation leading up to the regular season.
Excitement builds over a new coaching staff, Mitchell Trubisky's development and a new-look wide receiver corps. All of those things were on display during the preseason.
However, the organization's stubbornness regarding Roquan Smith's rookie contract cost the team and this year's eighth overall pick valuable time. Smith suffered a slight hamstring pull not long after his arrival and didn't play a single preseason snap.
"I don't want to get to a spot to where we quote/unquote rush him back and then all of a sudden he comes back and, boom, you just lost another whatever, six to eight weeks," head coach Matt Nagy said, per ESPN.com's Jeff Dickerson. "I don't want that. I lean more towards ... the cautious side."
Smith didn't sign until Aug. 14 and received little practice time before his injury.
It's not entirely fair to place so much emphasis on one player, yet the Georgia product is supposed to be the franchise's new defensive centerpiece. As exciting as the Bears offense could be—and it should make drastic improvements over last season's 30th-ranked unit—how the front office handled Smith's situation cast a shadow over the entire preseason.
The Cincinnati Bengals are wasting some of the league's best talent because the team lacks a solid foundation. A.J. Green is among the league's top wide receivers. Geno Atkins is a dominant force along the defensive interior. Carlos Dunlap is hard to handle off the edge. Yet, a suspect offensive line continues to plague the Bengals, and it appears the team didn't do enough to solidify its front five.
John Ross displayed his record-setting speed by scoring a 57-yard touchdown against the Buffalo Bills. It's a fantastic sign after all of his rookie struggles, but it won't mean much if the Bengals can't keep Andy Dalton upright.
The left side is now set after some offseason maneuvering. Cordy Glenn is an accomplished left tackle, as long as he remains healthy. Clint Boling is a rock-solid left guard. Rookie Billy Price, meanwhile, came into this year's draft class as the top-rated center prospect before the Bengals selected him.
The right side remains unsettled without reliable starting options.
Trey Hopkins and Bobby Hart are listed as the team's starting right guard and tackle. Alex Redmond and Cedric Ogbuehi are still competing for those jobs, though. None of them have stood out during this competition, which creates more trepidation.
The Cleveland Browns are a much better team than last year's 0-16 squad. But they're far from being good.
Plenty of positives occurred in August.
Tyrod Taylor and No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield both look like competent quarterback options. Joel Bitonio's move to left tackle has gone smoothly. Carlos Hyde looks like a legitimate lead back, and Duke Johnson and rookie Nick Chubb appear ready to contribute. At wide receiver, Jarvis Landry has quickly become a leader, and the team has benefited from the development of Rashard Higgins and Antonio Callaway. Once Josh Gordon is ready to be a full participant, the unit will be counted among the league's most dangerous.
Defensively, though, is where Cleveland looks the most improved.
Defensive end Myles Garrett is well on his way to becoming a game-changer. The overhauled secondary is far more aggressive and capable of playing press man, which is a staple of Gregg Williams' defense. Plus, the team is deep at linebacker with Christian Kirksey, Joe Schobert, Jamie Collins and emerging rookie Genard Avery. However, Mychal Kendricks' release while facing federal indictments didn't help.
The team's primary preseason downfall has been the number of mental mistakes—35 penalties for 350 yards.
The Dallas Cowboys' greatest strength is now its biggest question mark.
The team's vaunted offensive line isn't as sturdy as it once was. Second-round rookie Connor Williams is still trying to establish himself at left guard. All-Pro right guard Zack Martin missed nine days of practice with a hyperextended knee, but he told reporters Tuesday he "feels great" and is "ready to roll" for the regular season.
Center is the real concern after medical personnel diagnosed Travis Frederick with an autoimmune disease. A timetable for Frederick's return is not yet known. Thus, Joe Looney steps into the lineup.
"He's played a lot of football, been in our system for three years now, so we're very, very comfortable and confident in what he brings to us," Martin said of Looney.
The forced reshuffling of Dallas' offensive front took emphasis off other key positions. Wide receiver remains a question mark with little clarity. Cole Beasley, Michael Gallup, Tavon Austin and Allen Hurns are the top four options, but none of them is a true No. 1 option.
Defensive end Randy Gregory developed into the organization's biggest preseason positive. Now cleared, Gregory looks like the perfect edge complement to Demarcus Lawrence.
The Denver Broncos settled their quarterback questions when they signed Case Keenum to a two-year, $36 million free-agent deal. The team could then concentrate on other areas of the offense.
The right side of the offensive line needed to be rebuilt. Connor McGovern and Jared Veldheer now lock down the strong side. Veldheer, in particular, allows the offense to move on from last year's right tackle disaster.
"He's helped us [by] having a tackle who has played at a high level with some consistency," head coach Vance Joseph said, per ESPN.com's Jeff Legwold.
The group, as a whole, is bigger and more physical, which creates more opportunities in the running game. Third-round rookie Royce Freeman looked like a starting-caliber back, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and scoring three touchdowns during the preseason. Joseph doesn't plan to name a lead back, though.
"If we call a power play against Seattle on 1st-and-10, it's probably going to be Royce," Joseph told reporters. "If we go empty and throw a quick pass, it may be [Devontae Booker]."
Stopping the run is another matter altogether based on the team's subpar performance.
"As a whole, when our ones and twos were out there—as far as preseason, outside of, I think, Week 1—[we] have given up two big runs that were concerning," Joseph said, per Mile High Report's Tim Lynch. "I think against Chicago and Minnesota we had a couple issues there, but I'm not concerned because the things that we did wrong we can fix."
New Detroit Lions head coach Matt Patricia is already tempering expectations before the games count since his team didn't excel during the preseason.
"I mean, look, we're going to come in, and we're going to work hard every single day," Patricia said, per ESPN.com's Michael Rothstein. "We're going to get better every day. We're going to try to do the best we can. Those guys are coming in, working real hard, and that's a positive from my standpoint."
Working hard is great. Results matter, though. Preseason records mean nothing, of course, but the actual performance, especially by the team's projected starters, does. Detroit finished among the bottom eight in total offense and defense during Patricia's first four contests.
Obviously, every new coaching staff requires an adjustment period, and not everything turned into a negative.
The Lions have a more potent rushing attack with LeGarrette Blount and Kerryon Johnson leading the way. First-round pick Frank Ragnow played well at guard and center. Tracy Walker helps an already impressive rookie class as a critical part of the secondary rotation.
Patricia doesn't have all the pieces in place to implement his full approach, particularly on defense, but the team attacked and improved in certain problem areas.
Green Bay Packers
Mike Pettine's impact as the Green Bay Packers defensive coordinator can't be overstated.
"I think communication," former Packers safety Johnnie Gray said when asked about changes in the defense, per the Appleton Post-Crescent's Brett Christopherson. "Keeping it simple for these guys to go out there and just line up and play. To be able to see the [rookie] corners, you drafted them for a reason—because you see them making plays."
Josh Jackson and Jaire Alexander are making plays with one interception apeice.
Jackson in particular has been spectacular. The Iowa product outperformed every other cornerback this preseason by allowing a minuscule 16.7 catch rate, according to Pro Football Focus.
The pass defense has served as a counterbalance to Green Bay's explosive offense with Aaron Rodgers under center. The team is improved in the secondary, and Rodgers' long-term future is no longer an issue after he signed a record-breaking four-year extension potentially worth $180 million in total value.
With Rodgers' situation settled, the coaching staff can concentrate on how to maximize the offense's potential, like getting the ball to tight end Jimmy Graham.
"He can do it all over the field," Rodgers said of Graham, per the Associated Press (h/t FoxSports.com). "He's an incredible athlete, he's got a wide, wide catch radius, and there's a lot of things he can do."
The Houston Texans decided to revamp their offense this offseason by building the scheme around quarterback Deshaun Watson and a new-look front.
"I think you have to be willing to change in this league relative to the talent you have," head coach Bill O'Brien said on PFT Live in April, per Pro Football Talk's Michael David Smith.
A healthy Watson is a big step in the right direction after he suffered a torn ACL in November. The second-year signal-caller attempted only 15 passes this preseason even though O'Brien expanded the playbook.
"I wouldn't say he's trying to change something that wasn't broken, but he's just saying that we were very simple last year," Watson said, per ESPN.com's Sarah Barshop. "And with me being in the system for a whole year and having an offseason, there's a lot more that we can do with the offense than we did last year."
A reworked offensive line allows the Texans to do more. Nick Martin returns at center. New additions Senio Kelemete and Zach Fulton are solid at guard. Seantrel Henderson, who also joined the team this offseason, can handle right tackle duties. It falls on Julie'n Davenport to secure Watson's blind side. Houston's front five isn't a star-studded group, but it's an improvement over last year's debacle (54 sacks allowed).
As long as J.J. Watt is ready—which he appeared to be during the third preseason contest—the Texans defense should be just fine.
All eyes have been on quarterback Andrew Luck every time he's taken the field and rightly so. Luck responded by improving with each passing week. More importantly, he didn't experience any soreness in his surgically repaired shoulder.
"My arm feels awesome," he said after the Colts' second preseason contest, per the Associated Press. "I'm not going to lie to you guys. I actually feel very good and strong. My shoulder felt alive."
Keeping Luck healthy is a vital part of the Colts' plan. In order to do so, the offensive line must develop into a strength, and it's on its way with Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly anchoring the middle. Right tackle hasn't been decided, though, with Joe Haeg and rookie Braden Smith still in the mix.
Otherwise, the team can turn its attention toward a more pressing matter: The Colts defense doesn't scare anyone. It lacks consistent edge-rushers. Starting-caliber cornerbacks are scarce. Last year's first-round pick, Malik Hooker, may be forced to erase plenty of mistakes.
"Have [young guys] come in, learn the system and have them play right away and play pretty effective," defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus said, per ESPN.com's Mike Wells. "It's a simplistic way to teach, and it turns guys loose, and it should be fun to watch and fun to play in. We aren't there yet, but that is what we are searching for."
Everyone places so much emphasis on quarterback Blake Bortles and whether he can lead the Jacksonville Jaguars to a Super Bowl that they overlook his supporting cast, specifically wide receiver.
The team's options at the position are less promising today than the start of preseason after Marqise Lee's season-ending knee injury.
"I still [see] it as competition there," head coach Doug Marrone said, per ESPN.com's Michael DiRocco. "We're not settled on some of the spots at receiver, but we feel that we're good enough to go into the season with the guys that we think can make the team."
Jacksonville features an elite defense. The offensive line will be even more physical this fall after adding top free-agent guard Andrew Norwell. Finally, the running back position is loaded with Leonard Fournette leading the way.
The NFL is a passing league, and the Jaguars can't lean on any of their receivers.
Instead, the offense will go into the campaign hoping Donte Moncrief will live up to his one-year, $9.6 million contract. Keelan Cole will have to build upon last year's surprise performance. Rashad Greene and Dede Westbrook can work out of the slot. DJ Chark Jr. is a vertical threat but a rookie. Running back Corey Grant actually led the team with nine preseason receptions.
Kansas City Chiefs
The Kansas City Chiefs have been an established playoff squad since Andy Reid became the head coach in 2013. Whether this changes depends on second-year quarterback Patrick Mahomes.
Mahomes' maturation defined the Chiefs' preseason after the franchise dealt Alex Smith to Washington. Last year's 10th overall pick clearly provides something different with his electric arm talent. Smith won't be completing 69-yard dimes for his new team.
But Kansas City can't easily replace the veteran's understanding of schemes and pre- and post-snap reads. How Mahomes progressed in limited opportunities is important to the organization.
"He's going to make some [big throws]," Reid said, per ESPN.com's Adam Teicher "... The long ones will come. But those intermediate throws ... that's important, the possession throws that kind of keep the chains moving are as important or more so than even the big ones."
Mahomes completed 72.1 percent of his passes this preseason. It's a positive sign he can move the offense like Reid prefers, while his arm strength adds a new element.
With the offensive set, the same can't be said of the secondary, where the Chiefs are struggling to find a reliable cornerback opposite Kendall Fuller, who is at his best covering the slot.
Los Angeles Chargers
Philip Rivers enters his 15th season with arguably the best supporting cast of his career. The Los Angeles Chargers feature a deep wide receiver corps with Keenan Allen, Tyrell Williams, Travis Benjamin and a healthy Mike Williams.
Allen is Rivers' favorite target, but the Chargers staff sees something special in Mike Williams.
"He's shown us throughout the course of camp all of the different things he can do," offensive coordinator Ken Whisenhunt said, per ESPN.com's Eric D. Williams. "Whether it's running a shallow crossing route or a curl, you felt like he could catch some of the balls down the field and make the contested catches."
When running backs Melvin Gordon and Austin Ekeler are added to the mix, the Chargers will be hard to stop, especially behind an improved offensive line featuring Mike Pouncey and Forrest Lamp, who missed all of last season because of a torn ACL.
All of this means nothing if the game is on the line and the Chargers can't confidently attempt a field goal. The competition between Caleb Sturgis and Roberto Aguayo has gone down to the wire.
"We brought Caleb in to be our kicker," head coach Anthony Lynn said Thursday, per the Los Angeles Daily News' Jack Wang. "Last couple of weeks, he showed that he could do that. ... Roberto, I take my hat off to him. He came in. He competed. He was consistent."
Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams roster is stacked at every position but one. Outside linebacker remains a major question mark, but the team may have found a solution from an unlikely source.
Defensive coordinator Wade Phillips named Samson Ebukam a starter in June, but the other side remains a question mark. The team lists Matt Longacre as Ebukam's bookend, yet an interesting alternative developed.
Dominique Easley is making the transition from defensive line to linebacker. The move makes sense for two reasons. First, the Rams must find someone who can add an edge presence and provide some pass-rushing capabilities. Second, Easley's extensive injury history with three ACL tears plays a factor.
"Because of his history, I think it's easier outside," Phillips said, per ESPN.com's Lindsey Thiry. "You're not pounding against a 300-something-pound guy every day—which he did normally—he played a lot of inside, but I think this gives him a little more freedom to utilize his ability."
The edge-rushers will be helped tremendously by Aaron Donald's return to the lineup after he secured a six-year, $135 million extension Friday, according to ESPN's Adam Schefter.
With Donald's contract demands satisfied, the Rams feature the NFL's deepest and most talented roster. If Easley is the answer as an edge-rusher, all of the team's changes will have worked out in its favor.
The Miami Dolphins need a new identity.
The organization tried to force the situation this offseason by trading Jarvis Landry to the Browns and releasing Ndamukong Suh and Mike Pouncey. The front office then signed established veterans from winning programs—Danny Amendola, Frank Gore and Josh Sitton—to change the locker room's mindset.
Drastic changes aren't always the answer. Some things must happen organically.
The Dolphins, for example, became a playoff squad in 2016 when they built their identity around a physical running game featuring Jay Ajayi. A similar approach seems to be the best course this season based on preseason performances.
Miami tied for second overall by averaging 4.7 yards per rushing attempt. Kenyan Drake isn't the same type of back as Ajayi, but he's developing into the offense's focal point. The 2016 third-round pick creates chunk plays a runner and receiver.
"He really makes us dynamic whenever you have a guy that can take it the distance at any point," quarterback Ryan Tannehill said, per ESPN.com's Cameron Wolfe.
The Dolphins haven't been nearly as effective stopping the run. In fact, their defense finished the preseason dead last by allowing 151.5 yards per contest at 4.9 yards per attempt. The unit is soft along the interior as it breaks in two new starting linebackers in Raekwon McMillan and Jerome Baker.
The Minnesota Vikings accomplished more from the start of the offseason to the end of preseason than any other other organization. The investments in quarterback Kirk Cousins and defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson paid immediate dividends. Cousins in particular provides a much-needed level of consistency.
"He does an excellent job of understanding different things that you're doing coverage-wise, then be able to play off the leverage of corners or DBs, whoever is on the leverage on coverage and being able to get the ball down the field," defensive coordinator George Edwards explained, per ESPN.com's Courtney Cronin. "To put it accurately where they're not having to adjust many routes with his arm."
Cousins will receive plenty of help from the skill positions. The wide receivers are locked and loaded with Adam Thielen and the recently extended Stefon Diggs. More importantly, Dalvin Cook looks like the running back who accumulated 354 yards in four games last season before suffering a torn ACL, according to CBS Sports' Pete Prisco.
The offensive line is a sticking point, though. Center Pat Elflein still resides on the PUP list, so the organization traded for Brett Jones. Left guard Nick Easton is out for the season after requiring neck surgery. Tom Compton is listed as the starter between left tackle Riley Reiff and whoever is at center.
New England Patriots
The New England Patriots entered training camp with significant question marks at left tackle, the defensive front and cornerback. None of those was considered a problem by the preseason's end.
The 6'8", 380-pound Trent Brown addressed the biggest issue when he secured Tom Brady's blind side.
"As you can see, he has some dynamic skills, and he's working hard to be a really good player on every down," offensive line coach Dante Scarnecchia said, per ESPN.com's Mike Reiss. "I think that's something that's been encouraging as we've gone."
On the other side of the ball, Adrian Clayborn, Derek Rivers and Deatrich Wise Jr. provided some pass-rushing punch the Patriots lacked since trading Chandler Jones to Cardinals two years ago. Danny Shelton and Malcom Brown also proved to be stout along the interior.
Malcolm Butler's departure left a void at cornerback—despite his mystifying non-Super Bowl appearance. Eric Rowe didn't miss a beat stepping into the role, and the organization found another undrafted gem in J.C. Jackson, who capped the preseason with a two-interception performance against the New York Giants.
Wide receiver is the one position filled with uncertainty. But a true top target isn't necessary when Rob Gronkowski and a versatile running back rotation define the scheme.
New Orleans Saints
The New Orleans Saints own one of the NFL's deepest rosters, and it showed during the preseason.
The wide receiver position is loaded, and Tre'Quan Smith's big-play potential and a now-healthy Cameron Meredith make this group even more interesting. The Saints can keep six and still cut Tommylee Lewis and Austin Carr.
Running back is nearly as deep—which will play a major factor since Mark Ingram II will miss the first four games after violating the policy on performance-enhancing substances. Obviously, Alvin Kamara is the reigning Offensive Rookie of the Year, but a rotation will commence with Trey Edmunds, Jonathan Williams and Boston Scott.
Eleven-time Pro Bowler Drew Brees orchestrates the offense, and the franchise has a long-term quarterback plan in place after acquiring Teddy Bridgewater from the New York Jets on Wednesday. Bridgewater has a one-year deal, yet it's unlikely the Saints will let the 25-year-old signal-caller leave after this season.
The New Orleans defense may not be as deep, but it's improved after the additions of linebacker Demario Davis, nickel corner Patrick Robinson and first-round defensive end Marcus Davenport. Free safety Marcus Williams' continued development shouldn't be overlooked either.
"He's going to put the league on notice for who he is," Cameron Jordan said of Williams, per USA Today's Jarrett Bell.
New York Giants
The New York Giants' potential flashed before everyone's eyes during the team's first preseason snap.
Saquon Barkley burst through the Browns' defensive front for a 39-yard gain on his first professional carry. The second overall pick managed four more yards on his next three carries. After that flash of brilliance, Barkley suffered a hamstring injury during practice and didn't take another preseason snap.
"I don't want any setbacks at all," the rookie said last week, per ESPN.com's Jordan Raanan. "That's why I've just been trying to be a team player there. Just listen and follow instructions."
Attention then shifted toward other areas on the roster.
The offense found a new starting center in Jon Halapio and traded the previous starter, Brett Jones, to the Minnesota Vikings. Ereck Flowers hasn't been awful in his transition from left to right tackle. The front office found a third-round gem in defensive lineman B.J. Hill, who is slated to start alongside Damon Harrison and Dalvin Tomlinson.
Free safety has been a revolving door, but Curtis Riley appears to be the favorite to start Sept. 9 against the Jaguars at MetLife Stadium.
Oh, the Giants also signed Odell Beckham Jr. to the richest wide receiver deal in NFL history. So, they have that going for them.
New York Jets
The New York Jets appear to have found their franchise quarterback after Sam Darnold's impressive preseason performance. This year's third overall pick showed a calmness in the pocket and the ability to diagnose defenses post-snap.
"He learns from his mistakes—that's the biggest thing," head coach Todd Bowles told The MMQB's Albert Breer. "He learns from his mistakes, and he rarely makes the same mistake twice. Any rookie can only get better by playing, so we're pleased with the progress he's making week-by-week. That's been exciting."
Technically, the Jets have yet to name their starting quarterback, but Darnold's starts during the second and third contests and Teddy Bridgewater's trade to the Saints says pretty much everything that needs to be said.
The fact that general manager Mike Maccagnan turned a minimal offseason investment in Bridgewater into a future third-round pick is spectacular value.
Darnold isn't the only rookie set to make a big impression either. Third-round pick Nathan Shepherd has been designated a starter next to Leonard Williams. The 6'4", 315-pound defensive tackle, who turns 25 years old in nine days, is physical at the point of attack.
Everything from those two points is icing on the cake.
Khalil Mack's holdout continues to define the Oakland Raiders' direction. While the 2016 Defensive Player of the Year has yet to report to the team, his absence created a significant positive.
Three rookies along the defensive front—P.J. Hall, Maurice Hurst and Arden Key—have blossomed early in the process.
"The rookies in our room are really going to help us," defensive end Bruce Irvin said, per ESPN.com's Paul Gutierrez. "They really have no choice; we need them. Those guys are picking it up good and learning. They're coming out here and working their butts off. They're doing really good with their rookie duties."
Key's emergence is the most surprising after a disappointing junior campaign at LSU caused him to fall to the third round. His performance may be part of the reason the organization doesn't seem concerned about Mack, according to the San Jose Mercury News' Dieter Kurtenbach.
The team handled a similar situation well when Donald Penn restructured his contract before making the switch from left to right tackle. First-round pick Kolton Miller is now Derek Carr's blindside protector.
The Raiders roster features an odd mix of over-the-hill veterans working alongside numerous rookies. Mack undoubtedly makes Oakland a better team. But the squad appears to be progressing faster than expected under new head coach Jon Gruden.
The reigning champion Philadelphia Eagles need Carson Wentz to return in the worst way. The offense hasn't clicked throughout the preseason, and Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles has regressed while trying to lead the first unit.
Foles orchestrated 10 drives in his two appearances, which led to zero points.
"I don't know," head coach Doug Pederson said when Fox Sports' Erin Andrews asked him about Foles' performance during halftime of Aug. 23's 5-0 loss to the Browns (via Yahoo Sports' Ryan Young). "It's very disappointing. He was calm before this game. I thought he'd settle in. Not the case."
Pederson said he meant the entire offense and wasn't singling out his quarterback, per Mike Florio of Pro Football Talk. Either way, the Eagles offense hasn't looked anything like the unit that moved the ball up and down the field with ease during Super Bowl LII. Nine turnovers and 17 sacks surrendered are atrocious numbers through three preseason contests.
The organization is awaiting Wentz's return to action after last December's season-ending ACL tear, but it's not a guarantee the medical staff will clear him in time for the season opener against the Falcons on Thursday.
"It's gonna be close," Wentz said about playing Week 1, according to Breer.
Since Le'Veon Bell and Antonio Brown have been sidelined because of a contract holdout and a quadriceps injury, respectively, the Pittsburgh Steelers' preseason emphasis fell on the defensive side of the ball.
Up front, the team has two dominant defenders in Cameron Heyward and Stephon Tuitt.
"We know the damage we can do," Tuitt said recently, per ESPN.com's Jeremy Fowler. "If we can build and continue to work together, we can have a big season."
The next two levels aren't settled.
Jon Bostic's emergence as the starting inside linebacker next to Vince Williams is the biggest development of the Steelers' preseason. Yet, he isn't guaranteed a spot beyond the regular-season opener against the Browns, since undrafted rookie Matthew Thomas continues to make a favorable impression.
"A lot of linebackers don't have a lot of speed," Thomas told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ray Fittipaldo. "I'm blessed to have some speed. I can tackle. I can cover. I don’t feel like I have a lot of weaknesses. I just have to work on techniques and learning the defense."
The secondary continued to make mistakes due to miscommunication and bad angles. But each of those areas should improve. Joe Haden and Morgan Burnett are in the lineup, and first-round pick Terrell Edmunds will be gaining a better understanding of his assignments.
San Francisco 49ers
The Jimmy Garoppolo era is officially upon the San Francisco 49ers. Early returns are positive but not overwhelmingly so.
Garoppolo completed only 59.5 percent of his preseason passes with a touchdown and interception. Granted, the receivers didn't always help with multiple drops, but the 26-year-old quarterback understands the offense is a work in progress.
"There are a lot of little details that we need to get fixed up before we get back out there," Garoppolo said, per ESPN.com's Nick Wagoner. "There are a lot of good things. We moved the ball well, but it’s just the little details like that that I think we need to fix up."
Generally speaking, Garoppolo appeared to be collected in the pocket and in control of the offense. It'll take time, though, for the entire group to build a rapport. Even so, the 49ers averaged a league-leading 411 yards through the first three weeks of preseason competition.
Defensive coordinator Robert Saleh, meanwhile, figured out some things on his side of the ball. The staff moved 2017 third overall pick Solomon Thomas from "big" end to "Leo" end and utilized him as an interior rusher in sub-packages alongside DeForest Buckner. This will allow the 49ers to collapse the pocket, even if the unit lacks true edge-rushers.
Plenty can be said of the Seattle Seahawks' reworked defense and Earl Thomas' continued holdout, yet the semblance of a competent offensive line defines this year's preseason performance.
The combination of Duane Brown, Ethan Pocic, Justin Britt, D.J. Fluker and Germain Ifedi solidified the one-time sieve in front of quarterback Russell Wilson.
"I think the guys are really working together very well," head coach Pete Carroll said, per the Seattle Times' Bob Condotta. "And we've had the good fortune of keeping them solidly connected through the offseason, and it's helped."
Brown looks at home on the blind side after the Seahawks acquired the veteran at last year's Oct. 31 trade deadline. Pocic is in his second season and at one position after bouncing between multiple spots last year. Britt continues to be the group's centerpiece. Fluker is experiencing a career revival after being a disappointment with the Chargers organization and New York Giants. Ifedi remains the wild card as the right tackle.
"He's really cleaned up his game," Carroll said of Ifedi. "He's playing hard. He's got some technique things that he's working on that show up that you can tell that he is."
With Chris Carson also emerging as the lead back, Wilson may not be running for his life this season.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers desperately needed a new identity on defense after allowing a league-worst 378.1 yards per game last season.
Enter Jason Pierre-Paul to provide both leadership and a pass rush. The former is more important than the latter even though Tampa managed only 22 sacks a year ago (also an NFL-worst).
"It's his team now. We're his brothers now, and we felt that—[and] we want to play for him," cornerback Vernon Hargreaves said, per ESPN.com's Jenna Laine. "His passion isn't fake. Pro players, we have a good gauge of real and fake—and he's all real."
Unfortunately, Vita Vea's injury has offset the additions of Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry. The rookie first-round pick is nursing a calf injury he suffered during the first week of training camp.
Much like the defense, the offense has shone yet experienced its share of disappointments.
Jameis Winston graded as the league's best quarterback through three preseason contests, per Pro Football Focus, but expectations remain tempered as Tampa's QB1 prepares to serve his three-game suspension. Winston's absence is exacerbated by running back Ronald Jones' disappointing preseason performance and left tackle Donovan Smith's knee injury.
The Bucs finished the preseason with one of the best offenses (365.8 yards per game), but those numbers aren't a true indicator of the unit that will take the field at the Superdome against the Saints on Sept. 9.
A transition period occurs any time a new coaching staff is implementing its philosophies and schemes.
On one hand, the idea of Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur building his scheme around Marcus Mariota's skill set is an exciting proposition. On the other, it hasn't been a smooth adjustment because entire offense isn't on the same page.
"As players, you kind of need to be like the quarterback, you got to be in his shoes," tight end Delanie Walker said, via PaulKuharsky.com. "I don't think that's where we're at yet."
The group is coming together, though. The offensive line is already counted among the league's best. More importantly, last year's fifth overall pick, Corey Davis, looks more and more like a true No. 1 wide receiver with each day.
"Corey does a great job of finding open windows. I think it's progressing," Mariota said, per ESPN.com's Turron Davenport. "That's why you do camp—you are out here to build that chemistry for the season."
Head coach Mike Vrabel's defense will benefit once first-round pick Rashaan Evans is healthy and a full participant after missing the entire preseason with a mystery ailment. Evans' absence allowed second-year linebacker Jayon Brown to emerge alongside veteran Wesley Woodyard.
The Washington Redskins may have suffered the biggest injury of the preseason when running back Derrius Guice went down with a torn ACL during their opener. The team rebounded by signing Adrian Peterson, who gained 56 yards on 11 carries in his debut against the Broncos.
"He surely doesn't look like he lost a step," left tackle Trent Williams said after the Aug. 24 contest, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com).
Peterson's addition is significant, since he should help the play action to take pressure off Alex Smith. The team's quarterback won't have to use his legs as much either if a traditional ground game exists.
His presence can create more opportunities in the passing game too. Washington's wide receivers are unproven in many ways, although Josh Doctson and rookies Trey Quinn and Cam Sims played well to provide options beyond Jamison Crowder and Paul Richardson.
Furthermore, Guice's injury overshadowed the strong performance by Washington's defensive front. Daron Payne and Jonathan Allen are going to be a problem for opponents.
"When they played, it was a difference," cornerback Josh Norman said, per ESPN.com's John Keim. "They moved men. They'd get to a quarterback, and he was able to throw it blind sometimes and get it out of their hands faster than they wanted to."