Preseason Week 2 Takeaways: Watson and Hopkins Look Primed to Explode in 2019
Ten more NFL teams were on the field Saturday for the second time this preseason, which enabled fans to get slightly closer reads on players who are fighting for starting jobs, roster spots and in many cases their football lives.
What went down in Indianapolis, Nashville, Pittsburgh, Houston and Honolulu?
We learned plenty from those five games involving the Colts, Cleveland Browns, Tennessee Titans, New England Patriots, Steelers, Kansas City Chiefs, Texans, Detroit Lions, Los Angeles Rams and Dallas Cowboys.
Here are the key takeaways from another hot summer Saturday of exhibition action.
Don't Sleep on the Texans Offense
Two years ago at this time, Deshaun Watson was a rookie more focused on a silly quarterback battle with Tom freakin' Savage than anything else.
Last year at this time, Watson was understandably focused on his recovery from a torn ACL.
This year, Watson is healthy. It's year three, which often serves as a breakout season for quarterbacks. He doesn't have to worry about winning a job or protecting a vulnerable knee. He only has to worry about establishing chemistry with arguably the best wide receiver in the game.
So far, so good.
In Watson's preseason debut Saturday against the Lions, he completed five of seven passes on a game-opening scoring drive, which included two perfect connections to top target DeAndre Hopkins. The budding superstar also added a seven-yard scramble, and the sharp performance was all Texans fans needed to see.
The short but exhilarating performance was a notice to those who think the Colts or Jaguars should be viewed as favorites in the AFC South, or that the Patriots, Steelers or Chiefs will run away with the conference.
With all due respect to T.Y. Hilton, JuJu Smith-Schuster, Odell Beckham Jr., Julian Edelman and their batterymates, nobody in the AFC aside from maybe the Chiefs with Patrick Mahomes and Tyreek Hill has a quarterback-receiver duo like Watson and Hopkins.
Watson doesn't draw headlines like Andrew Luck in that division, Hopkins isn't a prima donna like Antonio Brown in Oakland, and the Texans haven't won like the Patriots or Steelers. They're not even the most talked about or popular team in their state.
But Watson's career passer rating is equal to that of Aaron Rodgers, who happens to be the highest qualified passer in NFL history. And Hopkins is coming off his second consecutive season with more than 1,300 yards and double-digit touchdowns.
Watson is still only 23 years old, and Hopkins is 27. They're rising, fast. And although we saw them for just a few moments Saturday, we were reminded not to sleep on the often-overlooked Texans and their breathtaking offensive battery.
Andrew Luck Warmed Up!
There is at least some concern that the Colts won't have franchise quarterback Andrew Luck to start the regular season. He's missed practice all month due to injuries to his calf and/or ankle, and he hasn't played in either of the team's preseason games.
But the 29-year-old Pro Bowler did at least take part in pregame warm-up Saturday at Lucas Oil Stadium, and in a video posted by ESPN.com's Dan Graziano, Luck looked good.
I know—it was, like, a four-second video. But it's nice to see Luck moving, seemingly without issue. He doesn't look like he's far off from a return, which lends credence to this week's report from ESPN's Chris Mortensen that the Colts have "guarded optimism" about Luck's chances of starting Week 1.
You won't be faulted for distrusting the Colts in this situation, but it feels as though this won't be a repeat of 2017, when the team kept telling us Luck was fine before he eventually missed the entire season because of an injured shoulder.
The Colts Offense Is (Temporarily) in Good Hands with Jacoby Brissett
Still, with Luck's status causing some concern, it was a good sign that in that second Indy preseason contest Saturday against the Browns, Luck's backup, Jacoby Brissett, provided a reminder that he's one of the NFL's top understudies.
The 2016 third-round pick and former New England Patriots reserve completed eight of 10 passes for 100 yards, and he led an impressive first-half scoring drive that culminated in a rocket touchdown throw to tight end Eric Ebron.
He's still got a sub-60 career completion percentage and might not be capable of carrying the Colts to the playoffs as a season-long starter. He certainly wasn't when he started in place of Luck in 2017. But the 26-year-old has plenty of starting experience and looks ready to carry the load as an interim starter if called upon.
That has to provide some relief to Colts fans who are feeling the stress that's stemming from Luck's unexpectedly long absence.
Ryan Tannehill Continues to Turn Up the Heat on Marcus Mariota
There's been chatter this offseason that veteran quarterback Ryan Tannehill could make a run at Marcus Mariota's starting job in Tennessee, even if the team has insisted Mariota is the top dog and Tannehill is No. 2.
It doesn't help that Tannehill clearly outplayed Mariota in the Titans' preseason opener last week, completing 12 of 16 passes for 130 yards and two touchdowns in a turnover-free performance while the incumbent starter completed just four of eight passes for 24 yards.
The good news for those who still believe the 2015 No. 2 overall pick can become a long-term franchise quarterback is that Mariota, 25, put together a better performance Saturday against the Patriots, completing six of nine passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. He also rushed for an impressive yet dangerous two-point conversion.
But two of Mariota's three series were three-and-outs, and he didn't complete a pass beyond 20 yards. Meanwhile, Tannehill completed a beautiful 22-yarder despite a bad snap on his first attempt and led a touchdown drive right out of the gate. He also led an eight-play drive later in the first half and finished with a higher yards-per-attempt average (7.6) than his younger cohort (7.0).
That alone won't be enough to change the team's tune on Mariota's status, especially because the 31-year-old Tannehill has played against backups in both preseason games. But if he keeps it up, there won't be a large margin for error for Mariota early this season.
This Patriots Rookie Class Could Help with Another Super Bowl Run
There are myriad reasons the Patriots are consistently dominant, but a big factor is the team's ability to continually outsmart and outperform its competitors in the NFL draft.
Saturday's preseason game against the Titans provided evidence that the Pats might once again have an especially strong rookie class on their hands. And if you're wondering how they might get back to the Super Bowl despite again losing several key weapons in the offseason, look at rookies Damien Harris, Joejuan Williams, Chase Winovich, Byron Cowart and Jakobi Meyers.
All five stood out against the Titans.
- Harris, a third-round running back out of Alabama, rushed for 80 yards on 14 carries and added 23 more through the air in a fantastic preseason debut.
- Williams, a corner drafted in Round 2 out of Vanderbilt, had several pass breakups and provided near-perfect coverage against Tennessee's first-team offense.
- Winovich, a third-rounder out of Michigan, was all over the field with four solo tackles, a sack, two tackles for loss and a pair of quarterback hits.
- Cowart, a fifth-round selection out of Maryland, bullied veteran Rodger Saffold on his way to a jaw-dropping sack of Mariota.
- Meyers, who's been making headlines all summer as a UDFA at wide receiver, caught all six of the passes thrown his way for 82 yards. That comes a week after he caught two touchdown passes in his preseason debut.
Winovich also recorded a sack-and-a-half in his debut, Williams was active with four solo tackles, and Cowart was also in on a sack. So this is no fluke. New England looks like it again has some rookie gems in 2019.
Young Chiefs Offensive Weapons Shine Again
Chiefs rookies Mecole Hardman and Darwin Thompson shined so brightly last week in their preseason debuts that it caused yours truly to write a column suggesting they might make the Kansas City offense unstoppable in 2019.
In their second preseason game Saturday, both offensive weapons proved their maiden performances weren't anomalies. Hardman's lone reception was a 17-yard touchdown catch that took place within about two feet of three Steelers defenders, while Thompson gained 30 yards on just four carries.
It's a given that Hardman will have plenty of opportunities as a second-round pick, even in a pass-catching corps featuring Hill, Travis Kelce and Sammy Watkins. But it's becoming easier to imagine he'll play an even larger role than Watkins.
Even more interesting is Thompson's potential role. Damien Williams and Carlos Hyde have seniority and more depth-chart clout than the rookie sixth-round pick, but Chiefs head coach Andy Reid has already made it clear there'll be a committee in the offensive backfield. Thompson outplayed Hyde on Saturday, while Williams is far from invincible.
The surging youngsters in Kansas City should make the rest of the team's preseason intriguing.
Tony Pollard Makes His Case
Nobody knows if or when Ezekiel Elliott will return to the Cowboys, which means every other running back on the Dallas roster will be scrutinized closely as the preseason progresses.
Veteran Alfred Morris will likely get some work if Elliott's holdout continues into the regular season, but he's on the wrong side of 30, and we know his ceiling. Instead, the focus is on rookie fourth-round pick Tony Pollard, 2016 sixth-round pick Darius Jackson, rookie seventh-rounder Mike Weber and sophomore UDFA addition Jordan Chunn.
None stood out in last week's preseason opener, but Pollard got the start for the second consecutive week Saturday. And he impressed.
The Memphis product accounted for 51 yards on six touches on a first-quarter scoring drive out of the gate, which he capped with a stellar 14-yard touchdown run.
Meanwhile, Morris settled for six yards on three carries, and Jackson, Weber and Chunn combined for just 34 yards on 13 attempts.
Elliott isn't likely replaceable, but that performance will probably relieve some tension in Dallas. It could also cost Elliott some leverage in his contract dispute.
This Other Browns Running Back Named 'D. Johnson' Isn't Too Bad
Three months before the Browns traded versatile running back Duke Johnson on August 9, they quietly signed another back with the same first initial and surname. D'Ernest Johnson might have entered training camp as a long shot to make the Cleveland roster, but the Alliance of American Football alumnus and USF product put on a show in the team's second preseason game Saturday in Indianapolis.
With Duke Johnson gone and Kareem Hunt slated to miss the first half of the season due to a suspension, D'Ernest might have made a case for a roster spot with 79 scrimmage yards on 13 touches, including a nifty touchdown grab in the second quarter.
The newer Johnson has averaged 5.1 yards per carry on 15 attempts this preseason, and now he's flashed his ability as a receiver. That's a small sample, but maybe he can fill the void left by Duke.
Second-year undrafted back Dontrell Hilliard probably entered August with an edge over D'Ernest Johnson, but the latter made up some ground while Hilliard was dealing with a hamstring injury this weekend. He could get more work in Cleveland's third preseason game Friday against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.