Preseason Week 3 Takeaways: Andrew Luck's Retirement Rocks the NFL Landscape
Granted, the third full week of the NFL preseason is usually the most impactful. It's "dress rehearsal" week—when the starters see their most extensive action before the games begin to count.
Impactful doesn't begin to describe what happened to the AFC South on Saturday. There was an impact, all right—from an asteroid.
Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck's stunning announcement that he's retiring from football has turned the league on its head. One of the best young players at the game's most important position for a Super Bowl contender is walking away—just before the season begins.
We've never seen anything quite like it.
And that's not even all that happened in the division. The team that stands to benefit from Luck's retirement the most has issues of its own—two potentially serious injuries to offensive starters in a Texas-sized drubbing by Dallas chief among them.
There were other happenings of note around the NFL on dress-rehearsal Saturday. But all that happened in all seven games combined paled next to where we'll begin this look at the day's takeaways.
The Bombshell to End All Bombshells
I was prepared for the lead entry in Saturday's roundup to be the disastrous game the Texans had in Dallas. We'll get to that in a moment, but something much bigger happened in the AFC South on Saturday evening. A bombshell the likes of which I can't ever remember covering.
Andrew Luck retired.
ESPN's Adam Schefter was the first to report it, and Luck since confirmed it in a press conference. The first pick in the 2012 NFL draft and reigning Comeback Player of the Year is "mentally worn down," per Schefter, and is finished playing football.
At 29 years old.
Less than two weeks before the regular season starts.
To say the AFC South (and the conference as a whole) has been thrown into chaos is an understatement. There were more than a few people who believed that with a healthy Luck, the Colts were the team to beat in the AFC. Jacoby Brissett is a capable backup, but he's just that—a backup.
Had we not just watched the Texans implode in Dallas, Houston would be the clear favorite to repeat as division champs. But given the problems that team displayed Saturday, nothing's clear anymore.
As a matter of fact, the Jacksonville Jaguars—in the span of 24 hours and despite a winless exhibition season—have gone from an afterthought to a team that has to be considered a legit contender…
In a division that just got run through a wood chipper.
The Houston Texans Have Problems
Overreaction to preseason games is an annual NFL tradition. Ninety percent of the time, Chicken Little-ing over poor performances in contests that don't matter is just that—overreacting.
Then there's the waking nightmare that was Houston's dress rehearsal against the Dallas Cowboys.
On his first series of the preseason, Texans tailback Lamar Miller suffered a gruesome-looking knee injury on a hit from Cowboys lineman Maliek Collins. He was carted off the field with his head in his hands, and Schefter reported the Texans fear his ACL is torn.
And that may not be the worst thing that happened to Houston on Saturday—at least from a roster standpoint.
It's not just that the Texans offensive line looked worse than the unit that surrendered a league-leading 62 sacks in 2018. It was also so bad that after Deshaun Watson suffered two sacks (one of which was wiped out by a penalty) and lost a fumble, his night was over less than halfway through the first quarter.
It got worse from there.
Miller wasn't the only Texans starter carted off the field against the Cowboys. So was starting guard Zach Fulton—and as bad as losing Miller is, losing one of the team's better linemen for any stretch would be exponentially worse.
Trade for Trent Williams. Trade for Melvin Gordon. Do both. Do something.
Otherwise, the defending AFC South champions are in big trouble—just like the fantasy drafters who selected Miller hours before this happened.
I'm not bitter. Really, I'm not.
Fantasy Implications of the AFC South Shock Waves Saturday
With draft season in overdrive, I'll try to make some sense of the latest news.
Luck started this offseason as the No. 2 QB on many boards but fell toward the back of QB1 territory as his injury woes dragged on. Now he's out of the picture. And Brissett? Two years ago as a starter he was 28th in fantasy points per game among quarterbacks in NFL.com default fantasy scoring. He's a so-so QB2 at best.
The rest of the Colts' skill position players take a sizable hit. Tailback Marlon Mack goes from high-end RB2 to uninspiring flex option given all the loaded boxes he'll see. Wide receiver T.Y. Hilton falls from WR1 to low-end WR2 or higher-end third starter. Complementary wideouts Devin Funchess and Parris Campbell are all but undraftable.
If there's one player who might see a boost, it's tight end Jack Doyle. Brissett targeted Doyle more than any player save Hilton in 2017—he has a level of comfort with the veteran tight end. That value comes at the expense of Eric Ebron, who goes from last year's fantasy hero at the position to this year's fantasy zero.
In Houston, Miller's injury vaults the recently acquired Duke Johnson into lead-back duties—and Johnson's average draft position is sure to skyrocket as a result. Before you jump on that bandwagon, consider this: Johnson's never been a featured back in the pros, Houston will all but surely add another back and the team's O-line is horrible.
Because of that line, I'm dropping Watson a spot or two as well. He's still a higher-end QB1 with tremendous fantasy upside, but I don't know how he'll make it through 16 games while playing behind that mess.
Ezekiel Elliott's Leverage Took Another Hit
ESPN's Ed Werder reported earlier this week that the Dallas Cowboys offered tailback Ezekiel Elliott a contract that would make the 24-year-old the second-highest-paid player at his position in the NFL.
Assuming that's true, Elliott should just sign the deal and report.
It's not getting better from here.
Elliott's leverage dissipated even more Saturday when the Dallas starters laid waste to the defending AFC South champions at AT&T Stadium. The defense was dominant at the line of scrimmage. The offense was efficient—without Elliott or receiver Amari Cooper on the field.
Rookie back Tony Pollard continued to reassure his new team that he's capable of filling in for Elliott as well, running hard and averaging 4.3 yards per carry.
This isn't to say Dallas doesn't need Elliott. Or that the Cowboys aren't better with him. Elliott's arguably the game's best tailback—a player who has led the league in rushing in two of three pro seasons.
The Cowboys made the playoffs each of those years.
But Dallas doesn't need Elliott right away. This isn't 1993, when Emmitt Smith held out into the season, the Cowboys started 0-2 and owner Jerry Jones caved. In Week 1, the Cowboys host the downtrodden New York Giants. In Week 2, Dallas travels to face a Washington team that no one is afraid of. Then Dallas returns home to host the Miami Dolphins, who might be the worst team of that trio of terrible.
Elliott won't reset the market at his position. He'll get a fat raise, though.
It's time to accept the reality of the situation and show up.
Kyler Murray Better Against the Vikings...Sort of
After Kyler Murray's first exhibition start, the No. 1 overall pick was being fitted by some for a bust in Canton. After he struggled in a big way in his second game, some of those same people saw fit to call him a bust.
The truth lies somewhere in the middle.
Arizona's dress rehearsal was an exercise in the reality of Murray's transition to the pros.
Murray's numbers were better against the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday—14 completions in 21 attempts for 137 yards. Murray made a couple of nice throws, including a beauty to Damiere Byrd for 33 yards in the first quarter.
But Murray also sailed a couple of end-zone tosses, didn't do much with his legs and the team was once again hit for false starts because of their college-style "clap" snap cadence.
The thing is: Murray hasn't worked a ton with Arizona's first-team receivers in game action. Rookie head coach Kliff Kingsbury isn't about to tip his hand regarding his Air Raid scheme by offering a real preview in contests that don't matter.
Murray may be fantastic. Or terrible. It's probable he'll fall in between, because while he's talented, he's also green.
Anyone who claims to know with confidence one way or another based on the preseason is kidding themselves.
Dalvin Cooked the Cardinals, but Kirk Cousins Was Raw as Heck
There was good news and bad news for the Minnesota Vikings in Saturday's 20-9 win over the Arizona Cardinals.
The good news came in the form of tailback Dalvin Cook. After a 2018 season in which Cook's inability to stay healthy was a big reason Minnesota finished the season 30th in rushing (and missed the playoffs), Cook looked great against the Redbirds.
That is, if 85-yard touchdowns and a yards-per-carry average north of 40 strike you as great.
That whooshing sound you hear is Cook's average fantasy draft position shooting up.
Yes, it was only two carries, but that long score showed a dimension of the Vikings offense that was sorely missing in 2018: explosiveness on the ground.
The bad news is, that explosiveness might be needed more than we realized—because Minny's $28 million quarterback was bad.
Sure, Kirk Cousins didn't have No. 1 receiver Adam Thielen against the Cardinals. And he did connect with Stefon Diggs on a 29-yard pass. But of Cousins' 12 other attempts, two were completed—for four yards.
It's important not to overreact to any exhibition game, and Cousins looked much better in the first two preseason contests.
But a measure of concern is warranted after Cousins stunk up the dress rehearsal. The Vikings can't afford a slow start in the NFC North, and if he plays like that in Week 1, Minnesota will get shellacked by the Atlanta Falcons.
The Saints Are Good
We haven't seen much of Drew Brees and Michael Thomas in the preseason—which is to say Brees hadn't played at all before Saturday's tilt with the Jets, and Thomas had all of one reception for seven yards.
The two didn't look rusty against New York. In fact, they were in midseason form—much to the chagrin of every other NFC team.
Brees was brutally efficient in leading the Saints to a touchdown, completing four of six passes for 68 yards and that score. His passer rating was 144.4.
Thomas reeled in that touchdown—one of two catches for 39 yards on two targets.
Of course, Alvin Kamara only had four yards rushing—that bum.
In addition, the defense looked good. New Orleans shut out the Jets out in the first quarter, allowing just seven rushing yards on five carries (albeit with Le'Veon Bell sitting it out).
New Orleans is loaded with offensive talent and led by a no-doubt first-ballot Hall of Famer under center. The defense will be much better than the Saints are given credit for—especially if defensive end Marcus Davenport takes a step forward opposite Cameron Jordan in his second season.
The Saints might be the NFL's most complete team.
On a weekend where many teams that fancy themselves contenders scuffled, the Saints looked ready for Week 1.
Damien Williams Made His Case to Be the Chiefs' No. 1 RB
It's the height of draft season in fantasy football. If you selected Lamar Miller (like I did) on Saturday afternoon, my condolences.
You would think the lead back for the NFL's scariest offense would be a sought-after commodity. But interest in Damien Williams has waned of late. Partly it was a matter of his missing practice time with a sore hammy. Partly it was a matter of rookie Darwin Thompson's emergence. And partly it was a function of Andy Reid's assertion that the Chiefs would use all their backs—a plan Williams told reporters he supports.
"At the end of the day, we are all here to compete. You know, no one is here to chill or feel like you're safe. Those are my guys," Williams said.
Those may be Williams' guys, but that didn't stop him from staking his claim to the No. 1 job in emphatic fashion in Saturday's dress rehearsal against the San Francisco 49ers. On his team's third offensive play of the game, Williams reeled in a pass from Patrick Mahomes, turned on the jets and was gone…62 yards to the house.
The hamstring looks OK now.
In related news, Mahomes is just unfair. Like Bo Jackson-in-Tecmo Super Bowl unfair. He looked like a cat playing with a mouse he's about to eat.
The Chiefs Defense Will Let the Team Down...Again
With Williams, Mahomes, Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce, the Chiefs have the league's most dangerous offense. Holding Kansas City to 31 points in a game is half an achievement.
But for all that offensive firepower in 2018 (and an MVP season from Mahomes), the Chiefs came up short of the Super Bowl—because of a putrid defense that was one of two in the league to surrender over 400 yards per game.
That defense underwent a major offseason overhaul. A new scheme. A new coordinator in Steve Spagnuolo. New personnel in edge-rusher Frank Clark and safety Tyrann Mathieu.
But there's been little indication that this Chiefs defense will have any more success with stopping teams than the last one.
For most of training camp and the preseason, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo had been horrific. He threw five straight interceptions in a practice and completed just one of six pass attempts in his first exhibition action.
OK, two—if you count the pick he tossed.
Against the Chiefs? In the first half, Garoppolo completed 70 percent of his passes for 188 yards and a score with a passer rating of 116.3.
A great offense will lead to a playoff berth, but the season will end in bitter disappointment when a more balanced team takes advantage of a porous defense and knocks off the Chiefs.
It feels like we've seen that movie before.
Forget the Preseason
I'm not saying forget the preseason because Miller got hurt—again, I'm not bitter.
I'm also not piling on the preseason because teams like the New York Jets and Detroit Lions lost impact defenders in linebackers Avery Williamson (torn ACL) and Jarrad Davis (ankle). Williamson's season is over. Davis is out indefinitely. But injuries are part of football.
Not saying it because the Los Angeles Chargers will be without Pro Bowl safety Derwin James for most of the season, either—his foot injury happened in practice, not a game.
Again, injuries are part of football.
I'm saying forget the preseason because NFL teams are essentially saying it.
The third preseason game used to matter. It was, as I've referenced more than once here, the "dress rehearsal." Starters would play most of the first half—if not more.
On Saturday night, the Chicago Bears sat their starters in their win over the Colts—who also sat theirs.
Indy didn't even get Brissett any more reps. Chad Kelly played quarterback most of the night.
The matchup between the Denver Broncos and Los Angeles Rams was a who's who of "who?" No Todd Gurley. No Jared Goff. No Joe Flacco.
Ditto for the nightcap between the Seattle Seahawks and Chargers—at least for the home team. Russell Wilson got some work in, racking up 104 yards of total offense. But he was opposed by Tyrod Taylor.
More and more NFL clubs are writing off live game action in August as not worth the risk. On an evening where a division champ lost a key piece on offense (if not two), it's kind of hard to argue with them.
Does this mean that the four-game preseason is going away? No—not without something that will replace the revenue lost by shortening it.
Like, say, an 18-game regular season.
It's about money, because everything is about money.
What it does mean is that the third week of the preseason is soon going to be every bit as meaningless as all the others.