Gridiron Digest: Rookie Quarterback Extravaganza
From "generational talent" Kyler Murray to deep-throwing Dwayne Haskins to the newly minted "Danny Dimes" (Daniel Jones), rookie quarterbacks are on everyone's mind as the preseason heats up. And this week's Gridiron Digest takes you past the headlines, quotes and poorly-thought-through nicknames to get the scoop on questions about this year's big-name rookies:
• Is Jones overtaking Eli Manning in Giants camp? And if so, will the team owner allow it?
• Was there more to Haskins' big game on Thursday night than one big throw?
• Is Murray's biggest fan also his biggest problem?
• A look at non-quarterback rookies making waves, including the kid who gave Jerry Jones amnesia
• Season previews of the Chargers (everyone is injured) and Vikings (common sense has taken a leave of absence)
• Point-Counterpoint, Transaction Spin Zone and all your other favorite segments
But let's not slow our roll with any more introductions. It's time to overreact to some rookies!
Rookie Quarterback Spotlight, Part 1: Kyler Murray, Cardinals
Murray's preseason debut against the Chargers two weeks ago was like a punk band blowing the roof off some underground dive bar with 10 minutes of energy and attitude. Thursday night's travesty against the Raiders was like listening to that band's whole debut album and realizing it barely knows how to tune its guitars.
Murray's athleticism and ability to sling accurate passes downfield are evident whenever he's not being buried beneath an avalanche of penalties and unblocked defenders. Unfortunately, the forecast in Arizona calls for avalanches to continue throughout most of the next few months.
Murray is 9-of-15 for 56 yards with zero TDs, zero interceptions, three sacks, one safety and one rush for four yards through two starts. That's not good.
Cardinals general manager Steve Keim called Murray a "generational talent" in an interview with Robert Mays of The Ringer. That phrase set off some alarms here at the Gridiron Digest think tank, not just because it's a silly expression (there seem to be a dozen "generational talents" each year; football players must gestate like gypsy moths), but also because personnel experts aren't supposed to talk and think like overexcited fans.
Murray may indeed be a rare talent, but so far he looks like a shorter, faster Josh Rosen: a novice saddled with a rookie coach and an AAF offensive line who's lucky if everyone lines up correctly and blocks a defender without holding him for two plays in a row. Kliff Kingsbury's offense may turn out to be the next step in NFL innovation, as advertised, but as Murray's false start penalties for improper pre-snap hand claps illustrate, the rookie coach has as much to learn as the rookie quarterback.
The Cardinals are bound for another year of growing pains. Keim reacted to the last season of growing pains by firing everyone, becoming infatuated with Murray and trading the 10th overall pick in 2018 (Rosen) for a second in 2019 and fifth in 2020. The Cardinals need their general manager to stop trying to outsmart the rest of the NFL and start building a decent roster. Until then, the "generational talent" will be just another rookie running for his life.
Rookie Quarterback Spotlight, Part 2: Dwayne Haskins, Redskins
Haskins' 55-yard touchdown bomb to Robert Davis against the Bengals was one of the most spectacular plays of the preseason: a gorgeous throw under pressure that led the receiver away from his defender. Unfortunately, it was essentially Haskins' lone highlight among two preseason games' worth of interceptions, fumbles, overthrows to open receivers and underthrows that led to bizarre offensive pass interference penalties.
Haskins is 15-of-28 for 231 yards, one touchdown, two interceptions, five sacks, one lost fumble, with three rushes for 23 yards.
Colt McCoy was listed as the starting quarterback on the "official" depth chart the team released in August. Those league-mandated depth charts are just a mixture of coded coach messages and PR-department scribbles, but listing McCoy as the starter was clearly the former and not the latter. At any rate, McCoy promptly aggravated the leg injury that sidelined him last year. That left Case Keenum as the starter and Haskins as the backup who also received a few starter's reps during a recent Gridiron Digest camp visit.
Haskins handles himself well and has flashed moments during drills; he's not the "over his head" rookie type. But Keenum offers both experience and a bit of creativity when things break down, and things are likely to break down an awful lot in Washington, where left tackle Trent Williams is AWOL, the receiving corps is loaded with injury cases and perma-prospects, and Ereck Flowers is likely to start somewhere on the offensive line.
Factor in a brutal early schedule that features the Eagles, Cowboys, Bears and Patriots defenses, and Keenum should handle stunt-double duties until Haskins proves he's ready to string together more than one highlight at a time.
Patience is a virtue in Washington, anyway. When this franchise anoints a savior, bad things happen.
Rookie Quarterback Spotlight, Part 3: Daniel Jones, Giants
The folks who were expecting a Christian Hackenberg-level megabust who bounces practice throws off sideline reporters must be disappointed. But the rest of us are pleasantly surprised.
Jones followed up his impressive preseason debut with a mix of highs and lows against the Bears JV squad on Friday. The lows included a pair of fumbles, one a botched snap and the other a strip when Jones held the ball too loose and too long. The highs featured a pair of sideline teardrops: a 40-yarder to Cody Latimer and an elegant 16-yard touchdown to TJ Jones in the corner of the end zone.
Jones even has a new nickname: Danny Dimes. Hey, I went to school with a kid we called Danny Dimes. He ended up getting arrested outside Laser Pink Floyd at the planetarium. Jones and the Giants may want to rethink this one.
Jones is 16-of-19 for 228 yards, two touchdowns, zero interceptions, two fumbles and a quarterback rating—if you are into that sort of thing based on 19 preseason throws—of 151.8.
Pat Shurmur ordered beat reporters to "Slow your roll" before declaring any quarterback controversy on a conference call after the preseason opener. It sounded like something a parent says to a kindergartner who has had too much sugar, which was probably the intent.
Giants owner John Mara said during the week that he hopes "Eli has a great year and Daniel never sees the field." When asked after Friday's game if the quarterback situation has changed, Shurmur said, "John owns the team, right? And we're on the same page."
The organization sure is doing a swell job tamping down that quarterback controversy, isn't it?
Shurmur probably isn't ready to hand Jones the starting job just yet, though he's probably bristling on the fact that the big boss publicly stomped on his toes. Manning enjoyed some exceptional practices during Gridiron Digest's early-week visit, and Jones' preseason fumbles are a reminder that he is still mastering the very basics.
Still, Jones has demonstrated some refined skills, both in practices and games: anticipation, pinpoint ball placement (some of the time), the ability to look off receivers and reset his feet, the gumption to bounce back from mistakes. He is the most polished and ready-to-play of the three first-round rookies right now, and it's not close. He would be starting in Arizona or Washington, and it shouldn't require a Supreme Court ruling to get him into the huddle in New York.
The Giants look like they have found a quarterback of the future. Now we just have to wait for a future that's about two years overdue.
Rookie Quarterback Spotlight, Part 4: The Rest of the Field
Jones, Haskins and Murray aren't the only rookie quarterbacks who have gotten attention this preseason. Here's a roundup of some good, bad and borderline comical efforts.
Ryan Finley, Bengals: Finley is 33-of-44 (75 percent) for 259 yards, three touchdowns and one interception over two games and looked poised, decisive and accurate against Washington on Thursday night. A three-year starter in a talent-laden North Carolina State offense, he is the kind of tall, strong-armed prospect who can fool you against backups in the preseason. He might represent an upgrade over the smoldering embers of Andy Dalton in the not-too-distant future, but the Bengals make decisions the way a Pandora channel left running for four days chooses songs, so get ready for another year of Nickelback.
Will Grier, Panthers: The Panthers' third-round pick threw a pinpoint touchdown pass to Kevin Johnson on Friday night. Johnson is a Bills cornerback, unfortunately. Everything Grier threw beyond 10 yards downfield after that pick-six sailed wildly away from his targets. He was fun to watch in a wide-open West Virginia offense, but he looked overmatched Friday.
Tyree Jackson, Bills: Jackson, a size-speed-arm prospect who left University of Buffalo a year too soon, still looks like he's strapping on a helmet and touching a football for the first time. Let's check back on him in a year or so.
Gardner Minshew, Jaguars: An undrafted rookie and Mike Leach Air Raid creation wearing the mustache my uncle grew after his divorce in 1977, Minshew is getting an extended look as the Jaguars backup (two preseason starts) because they are short on cap space and need some guys who will play for minimum wage. If they're also looking for someone who looks like he's using every ounce of strength in his body to throw a 10-yard out, Minshew is the guy.
Clayton Thorson, Eagles: The Inspector Clouseau of rookie quarterbacks, Thorson has had a very shaky camp but got through extended action against the Jaguars (the other Eagles backups are injured) by launching underthrows to random spots on the field and benefiting from leaping grabs. If he parlays sheer luck and can-do spirit into a 10-year career as a backup, he will owe Chase Daniel a beer.
Non-Quarterback Rookie Spotlight
We can't let the rookie quarterbacks have all the fun, can we? Here's a look at some players at other positions who stood out over the weekend.
Tony Pollard, running back, Cowboys
Pollard was heavily featured with the Cowboys starters against the Rams irregulars in the opening drive Saturday night, rushing five times for 42 yards with one 14-yard touchdown, a nine-yard reception and an impressive, no-nonsense, low-center-of-gravity running style.
When asked about Pro Bowl holdout Ezekiel Elliott after Pollard's performance, Jerry Jones quipped "Who? Now Zeke who?" Jones quickly added that he was "having some fun, not at [Elliott's] expense." LOL. yeah Jerrah, publicly yukking about an employee's expendability during dicey contract negotiations is hysterical. Elliott must be laughing his head off as he digs his heels further into the sand in Cabo.
The Cowboys owner/roastmaster did notice that Pollard missed a block that got Dak Prescott pulverized near his own end zone. Maybe Jerrah has found the solution to two financial problems at once. Ha ha, it's funny because the Cowboys could get their franchise quarterback injured if the not-quite-ready Pollard is forced to play because of Elliott's holdout!
Chase Winovich, edge-rusher, Patriots
The second-round pick out of Michigan followed up a sack against the Lions last week with a sack, a near- sack (Ryan Tannehill ejected the ball while Winovich dragged him to the ground) and a tackle for a loss against the Titans.
Winovich has displayed bend, initial quickness and overall athleticism in his preseason appearances, but Bill Belichick mentioned his "high motor," so all of the stories about Winovich mention his high motor in the headline. Like, all of the stories. Guys, can we stop doing this? Please?
Winovich also posted some Shakespeare quotes about humility on his Instagram. Tom Brady responded by telling him to study his playbook. "Yes dad right away!" Winovich wisely responded.
Let's hope Jerry Jones never figures out Instagram.
Andre Dillard, offensive tackle, Eagles
Dillard appeared to completely space out on the play that knocked Cody Kessler out of the game and Josh McCown out of retirement. But as this breakdown by former NFL lineman Geoff Schwartz illustrates, Dillard was actually handling his assignment properly.
Dillard, the Eagles' first-round pick and heir apparent to Jason Peters, has been solid in camp and in games, so the Eagles are now loaded with depth at tackle. The Texans general managers should call them. No, not all at once! Now you've all gone straight to voicemail, and no one checks voicemail anymore. No wonder the Texans can't get anything done.
Josh Jacobs, running back, Raiders
Jacobs rushed four times for 21 yards in the opening series against the Cardinals. He looked quick and rugged during those four carries, which represented roughly half of his typical weekly college workload.
Christian Wilkins, defensive line, Dolphins
Wilkins recorded his first sack of the preseason against the Buccaneers and has flashed both quickness and the versatility to line up all over the defensive line in early action. But Dolphins coach Brian Flores may be trying to send Wilkins a subtle message:
"He's got to play with better pad level, for sure," Flores said, per Kyle Crabbs of Dolphins Wire. "I hope he reads this. Somebody make sure that he reads that. He has got to play with better pad level … that'll help you!"
Er, Coach, the message-through-the-media stuff is usually for guys who aren't trying hard enough. If you want to talk to a rookie about his pad level you have, like, an office. It's literally your job to tell him things like that personally.
Tune in next week when Flores remembers what Bill Belichick taught him and just starts mumbling incoherently.
Preseason Spotlight: Los Angeles Chargers
Throughout the preseason, Gridiron Digest will highlight a pair of teams per week with news, notes, observations and predictions. Let's start this week by visiting the Chargers and hope we come away unscathed.
Heading into 2019
The Chargers are poised for a Super Bowl run. Their defense is led by Derwin James, the next phase in the evolution of the all-purpose defensive playmaker. Their offense is laden with weapons like Keenan Allen and Melvin Gordon. Philip Rivers is protected by a line anchored by veteran left tackle Russell Okung. What, oh what, could possibly stand in the Chargers' way?
Notes from camp
• James suffered a stress fracture in his foot, which will require surgery. He is expected to miss three to four months. His absence will limit the effectiveness of six- and seven-defensive-back packages the Chargers like to deploy, sometimes as their "base" unit.
• Okung is still recovering from a scary offseason pulmonary embolism and has been little more than a spectator during training camp. There's no timetable for his return, because it's a pulmonary embolism, for heaven's sake, not an ankle sprain. Trent Scott, a 2018 undrafted free agent, is the likely starter if Okung isn't ready for the season opener.
• Allen suffered an ankle injury and is out for the remainder of the preseason, per ESPN's Adam Schefter.
• There has been no news or movement on the Gordon holdout front, which is no surprise, because no one ghosts on contract negotiations like the Chargers.
• Seriously, is this some Marvel Phase Four storyline? Are the Chargers getting poofed? Has anyone checked on Rivers to make sure he's not a cloud of dust?
• Ian Rapoport of NFL.com reports that Rivers and the Chargers have agreed to let the final year of Rivers' contract play out and then renegotiate in the offseason. Drew Brees and (now) Tom Brady have similar gentlemen's agreements with their teams, but...c'mon Philip. The Chargers are under an Aztec curse! A piano is going to fall on your head or something as you walk in to sign that next deal. You have literally hundreds of children counting on you. GET YOUR MONEY NOWWWWW.
Player to watch: Nasir Adderley, Defensive Back
Adderley, a second-round pick out of Delaware, is the cousin (twice removed) of Hall of Fame cornerback Herb Adderley. He's a cornerback-safety hybrid with an intriguing mix of physicality, athleticism and awareness. Adderley isn't a hybrid enforcer like James, but he can provide some versatility in the secondary, and...
Oh, it seems Adderley has missed nearly all of training camp with a hamstring injury. Sigh.
The Chargers' archrivals are not the Raiders, Chiefs and Broncos but themselves, the schedule makers and cruel, cruel fate.
Fate has already ravaged the roster with injuries, as illustrated above. The schedule fiends moved a Chargers home game against the Chiefs to Mexico City and made sure they will spend September criss-crossing the continent for road games against the Lions and Dolphins, turning two winnable games into early-morning travel traps. And the Chargers will play one more season in Dignity Health Sports Park, which is just the new name of that folk-festival side-stage road fans have taken over for two straight years but sounds like a place where senior citizens go for low-impact yoga.
The Chargers should be fun-to-watch contenders. But it's just not meant to be, and it never is.
Preseason Spotlight: Minnesota Vikings
Throughout the preseason, Gridiron Digest will highlight a pair of teams per week with news, notes, observations and predictions. Let's turn our attention from the sunny outskirts of Los Angeles to the gorgeous (when not frozen solid) Twin Cities area.
Heading into 2019
The Vikings are a veteran team with expensive, quality talent at nearly every position. They almost need to go out of their way to manufacture problems. And boy, have they risen to the occasion.
Notes from camp
• Vikings coach Mike Zimmer wants Kirk Cousins to scramble more. That's right: After decades of shackling dynamic dual-threat quarterbacks to pocket-passing roles, coaches now want 30-year-old quarterbacks with 502 career rushing yards and $57 million in guaranteed compensation over the next two years to risk their bodies and showcase their wheels a little more.
Per Pro Football Talk, Cousins says he's amenable to running more because legendary Vikings scrambler Frank Tarkenton told him he only ran a 4.90-second 40. Yes, and Tarkenton played in an era when players still held offseason jobs, knee surgery was performed with hacksaws and leeches and "proper hydration" meant Scotch on the rocks instead of straight up on the night before a game. Defenders may be just a smidge faster now these days, guys.
• Kicker Dan Bailey has had a very shaky camp, prompting the Vikings to trade a fifth-round pick (!!!) to the Ravens for Kaare Vedvik. Vedvik can also punt, so there is speculation that he could also replace Matt Wile. Meanwhile, the Vikings noticed that their operation was a potential problem, so receiver and "fan favorite" (Ugh. Don't blame Gridiron Digest. Blame the St. Paul Pioneer Press) Chad Beebe has seen some work as a holder. If Beebe holds, Wile becomes even more expendable. Tune in come late December, when the Vikings miss the playoffs because Vedvik is forced to snap and hold for his own game-winning field-goal attempt.
• The Vikings defense is stacked at all three levels, but Zimmer was concerned after some early-camp practices that the group had grown a little complacent. "I think, as I've told a few of them, they've been together for quite a while now, and they think they're pretty good so maybe we just go out and practice and it's not the intensity level or whatever that we need to do," he said. Yep, nothing worse than a unit full of guys who know precisely what they are doing.
Player to watch: Dalvin Cook, running back
Cook has averaged 4.7 yards per carry over his injury-riddled career, and Zimmer has displayed a willingness to fire any offensive coordinator who doesn't establish the run the way he publicly orders them to. The Vikings plan to keep Cook as fresh as possible in the hope that 2019 is their breakout season. That's the most logical thing they've done or said in this entire segment.
Jokes aside, the Vikings are a quality team top to bottom and should be in the thick of the playoff hunt. There's just a sense that the organization is run by guys who think 20-hour workdays are a good idea (typical NFL coaches and execs, in other words), and if they all just got eight hours of shuteye, they would wake up and say, "OMG, we're trying to turn Kirk Cousins into Michael Vick and some guy off the Ravens bench into Ray Guy-meets-Jason Elam. WHAT THE HECK ARE WE THINKING?"
Let's hope the franchise snaps out of it before something foolish ends their Super Bowl run. There's a first time for everything.
Gridiron Digest's Transaction Spin Zone
NFL conditionally reinstates Patriots wide receiver Josh Gordon: Gordon proved last year that he can still be impossible to cover at times, and we hope he has finally turned the corner on his personal issues. We've also been in this holding pattern since 2014, which is an awful long time. Hope for the best, plan for the worst and brace for the unfortunate likelihood that we will be writing the very same things about Gordon next offseason.
Eagles sign quarterback Josh McCown: McCown will quell a quarterback emergency behind Carson Wentz—rookie Clayton Thorson is the only healthy backup right now—and is likely to remain on the team when primary backup Nate Sudfeld returns from a wrist injury. McCown has only played for one playoff team during his 17-year NFL odyssey: He knelt at the ends of some games for the 2008 Panthers. If he earns a Super Bowl ring for doing next to nothing for the Eagles, it will almost literally be the textbook definition of karma.
Falcons claim quarterback Danny Etling from the Patriots: The big story out of Atlanta this weekend is that Matt Ryan played all but one series in the first half against the Jets, absorbing three sacks and about 6,000 knockdowns. The Falcons don't need a quarterback of the future just yet, but they could sure use a stunt double, and Etling fits the bill as well as anyone.
49ers sign cornerback Quinten Rollins: Rollins was a Packers second-round pick in 2015. He was a starter and a player on the rise before Achilles and hamstring injuries ended his Green Bay career. He spent a chunk of last season on the Cardinals inactive list. In the NFL, it only takes a few years for someone to go from being a young impact player to a guy available on the waiver wire in mid-August.
XFL signs Landry Jones: Upstart football leagues always start with lots of fresh ideas and enthusiasm. Then they sign the quarterbacks who make us turn off our televisions before halftime of preseason games.
Giants release and then immediately re-sign tight end Scott Simonson: Simonson's brief release turned out to be some sort of bookkeeping error, but it still appears on the NFL's transaction page. That's right, the Giants now sometimes chalk up cutting veterans to accident. Don't tell John Mara. Oh, so Daniel Jones thinks he can challenge the immortal Eli Manning, does he? Whoopsie! I seem to have accidentally terminated his contract. Oh, clumsy me. Enjoy the waiver wire, you impudent whelp!
Something called the International Brotherhood of Running Backs, led by executive director Veronica Patton, files a petition to be certified as a union independent of the NFLPA.
Point: Their initial demands include higher starting salaries, greater guarantees against injury and a cease-and-desist order to stop analytics geeks from saying that they "don't matter."
Counterpoint: Has anyone checked to verify that Veronica Patton isn't a pseudonym for Eric Dickerson?
Point: "See, I like cheap beer, so I'm a regular guy!" Rodgers added, taking careful mental note of anyone who didn't immediately nod in agreement.
Counterpoint: Rodgers also added that he wants beer vendors to double down on ID checks, because he gets a kick out of watching Matt LaFleur get carded.
After multiple fights break out in joint Browns-Colts practices, Browns head coach Freddie Kitchens says, "We're not gonna take nothing from anybody" and "you've gotta stand up for yourself."
Point: Go get 'em, Coach. Nothing instills a culture of discipline and success like turning special teams drills into WrestleMania X.
Counterpoint: If Gregg Williams was still coaching the Browns, there would be subpoenas.
NFL's new partnership with Jay-Z's Roc Nation entertainment company draws intense criticism.
Point: Hova just isn't as serious and committed to social justice as me, the guy who tweets "Colin Kaepernick?" whenever a backup quarterback gets injured.
Counterpoint: I hate the millionaires who talk out of both sides of their mouths about racism almost as much as I hate the millionaires who talk exclusively out of the worst possible side of their mouths about racism.
Point: If Brown is going to recycle the same scandal from last week, can we recycle the same gags we used last week?
Counterpoint: Brown is also getting sued for not paying a $38,000 food bill. There are only two public figures in America so outlandish that a major lawsuit can be the third most controversial story about them in a given week. Keep going, AB; you'll be president before you know it.
Gridiron Digest Sportsbook
We're finally close enough to Week 1 to take a look ahead and see if any of the spreads catch our eyes. Here are some bets to keep an eye on:
Patriots -6 vs. Steelers (-110): The Patriots are 26-10-2 against the spread as home favorites since 2015. That's ridiculous: Not even the point spread can keep up with them. The Patriots won the last three meetings with the Steelers in Foxborough by scores of 55-31, 28-21 and 36-17. It's one thing to predict, or even wish for, the Patriots' demise. It's quite another thing to put money on it in Week 1.
Bills at Jets to go over 39 (-110): The house and public still view this as a clash between awful teams with bad quarterbacks but pretty good defenses. It's really a clash between .500-ish teams with pretty good quarterbacks and one great defense (Bills) and one awful one (Jets). This won't be a shootout, but a 24-21 final either way is likely.
Bengals +9.5 at Seahawks (-110): The Seahawks are just 3-4-1 ATS in nonconference games and 4-6-1 as home favorites over the last two seasons, signs that the public may overreact to the 12th Man mystique. The Seahawks defense looks weaker than it has since before the Legion of Boom days, and the near-anonymity of the Bengals may have them undervalued. This is a classic Week 1 reputation-based spread, and the chance for a 27-20 Seahawks win and Bengals cover (if not an outright upset) is appealingly high.
Lions -2.5 at Cardinals (-110): This line opened as a pick 'em but has drifted now that folks have gotten a look at the Cardinals. It will probably drift another point further once the public figures out that the Lions have one of the NFL's best defensive lines and Kyler Murray is still figuring out what to do with his hands before the snap. Don't lay much more than a field goal when wagering the Lions, though, because they are still the Lions.
Chargers -3 vs. Colts (-120): This game is off the board at some books and will probably vanish from most boards if the Andrew Luck injury situation deteriorates further. Despite their own injury cataclysm, the Chargers make solid field-goal favorites against the Colts even if Luck is healthy. But if you want a favorable spread for a playoff team at home against Jacoby Brissett, now is the time to lock it in.