Preseason Week 1 Takeaways: Mac Jones Is Patriots' Best Option at QB
The first full week of NFL preseason football since 2019 launched Thursday night with exhibition action involving the Washington Football Team and New England Patriots in Massachusetts and Pittsburgh Steelers and Philadelphia Eagles in Pennsylvania.
There was quite a lot to take away from that action, but the focus was predictably on the quarterbacks. The starting jobs in Washington, New England and Philadelphia still aren't completely locked up in everyone's eyes, while the backup job (which could be an heir apparent gig) in Pittsburgh appears to be up for grabs.
We'll start our reaction with the most celebrated and decorated team of the 21st century and their intriguing battle between a former MVP and a rookie first-round pick.
Mac Jones Looks Better Than Cam Newton
It's that simple.
Cam Newton was by no means a mess during his limited action Thursday night, but the veteran was limited to short stuff and he showed a glaring lack of awareness on a Chase Young sack early. The 2015 MVP still doesn't look like the quarterback he once was, and there's a good chance that never changes now that he's 32.
Meanwhile, it was telling that Pats head coach Bill Belichick gave rookie No. 15 overall pick Mac Jones significant reps with the starting offensive line in what appeared to be an extended audition. And it's hard to argue the Alabama product didn't deliver.
Jones completed 13 of 19 passes for 87 yards, but even that doesn't do justice to his performance. He had the look and feel of a veteran as he carried the New England offense confidently. And his numbers would have been better had Belichick challenged an obvious first-quarter catch by Jakobi Meyers, or if Kristian Wilkerson had pulled in a perfectly placed throw by Jones in the end zone in the second quarter.
I'm honestly not sure I'd have much confidence in Newton making that same throw at this point in his career.
All in all, Jones showed superb timing and anticipation, and very few mistakes—even against a quality defense with a lot of depth.
It's only one preseason game, but Jones' ceiling is so much higher than Newton's. Belichick is clearly going all-in on this season, and you wonder if he'd use a first-round pick on a quarterback with no intention of playing him when he could have drafted a Day 1 impact player at another position.
A rookie quarterback has never won a Super Bowl, but maybe that's the kind of history Belichick is thinking of making in spite of Tom Brady in 2021. You can't rule it out.
Maybe Washington's Offense Will Be in Good Hands After All
Meanwhile, both Ryan Fitzpatrick and Taylor Heinicke looked strong for a Washington team that is absolutely jacked on defense but entered training camp with a major question mark under center.
Fitzpatrick made some quality throws early behind a new-look offensive line against a strong defense, and it looks as though he's got some chemistry already with former teammate Adam Humphries. Washington committed $10 million to the streaky 38-year-old journeyman this offseason, which wasn't too exciting with so many big names potentially up for grabs, but this was a promising start.
Maybe he'll put it all together and become more consistent with plenty of support in D.C.
But if not, there might be something there with Heinicke. The 28-year-old doesn't have much experience or pedigree, but he looked impressive in a surprise playoff start against the eventual Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers in January and he kept that rolling Thursday.
Heinicke had complete command of the offense, was tremendous under pressure and had several "gamer" moments (particularly a sweet third-down throw under duress to Jaret Patterson to keep a scoring drive alive). His ball placement on a would-be touchdown toss to Ricky Seals-Jones in the second quarter was perfect.
It's possible the WFT has two decent options under center, after all.
A Special Target Could Be Emerging for Jalen Hurts
Sophomore Jalen Hurts faces an uphill battle with an unproven receiving corps in Philadelphia, but Carson Wentz's replacement performed well in limited action Thursday in Pittsburgh. Against some high-quality defenders, Hurts would have completed 5 of 7 passes if not for a pair of drops from second-year first-round pick Jalen Reagor.
It wasn't eye-popping, but it likely settled a lot of nerves in the City of Brotherly Love.
However, the most promising occurrence might have been the performance put forth by yet another 2020 Eagles draft pick, sixth-round speed demon Quez Watkins.
Watkins was hardly a factor with just seven catches during an injury-derailed rookie season, but, according to John Clark of NBC Philadelphia, veteran cornerback Darius Slay called Watkins the most improved receiver in training camp, and the proof was in the pudding at Heinz Field.
It could still be tough for Watkins to challenge Reagor and first-round rookie DeVonta Smith for consistent looks, but if he keeps delivering, I doubt the team would think twice about moving him ahead of Greg Ward Jr., JJ Arcega-Whiteside and/or Travis Fulgham in the wideout pecking order.
That could make up for the fact Reagor and Arcega-Whiteside are already fighting to avoid the bust label.
The Steelers Just Might Have Multiple Long-Term QB Options
It's entirely possible this will be Ben Roethlisberger's final season in the NFL, which gives more weight to the battle for the No. 2 quarterback job in Pittsburgh.
For what it's worth, both incumbent backup Mason Rudolph and former Washington bust Dwayne Haskins were excellent Thursday night.
Rudolph completed 8 of 9 passes for 77 yards, which was critical after he fumbled on the first series of last week's Hall of Fame Game. He hit Diontae Johnson on a picture-perfect deep ball in the first quarter this time.
Meanwhile, Haskins completed all but six of 22 passes for 161 yards and looked more smooth and comfortable than he ever did in Washington. His movement in the pocket on a third-and-long touchdown strike to Anthony Johnson was exactly what you want to see, and that was one of two touchdown drives led by the 2019 No. 15 overall pick.
It's important to keep in mind that Haskins is only 24, and he's with a much more functional organization now. It's still possible he'll live up to his draft hype in a better setting, and he's extremely well-supported in Pittsburgh.
Of course, he'll still have to leapfrog Rudolph, who also bounced back Thursday and has thus far taken the earlier reps.
The Steelers Bolstered Their Super Bowl Chances Thursday Night
Off the field Thursday night, the Steelers front office kept working toward the goal of capturing one more Vince Lombardi Trophy with Roethlisberger. They acquired highly-paid veteran linebacker Joe Schobert from the Jacksonville Jaguars, who, according to Pro Football Focus, will retain some of Schobert's salary.
That's a critical late-offseason move because the off-ball linebacker position next to Devin Bush Jr. is one of the weakest spots on the roster. In order to remain competitive in an increasingly challenging division with an increasingly weak offensive line, Pittsburgh's already fantastic defense might have to utterly dominate all season.
Schobert, who is one of the best coverage linebackers in the league and won't be asked to take on too much while surrounded by stars up front in Pittsburgh, could be a key puzzle piece. He's not a superstar, but he has been a Pro Bowler and he's still only 27 years old.
With the Steelers, he doesn't need to be a star. He'll be asked to do one job and there's plenty of evidence he can do it well. With more support than he had in Cleveland and Jacksonville, watch for him to come through for the Steel City.
Brad Gagnon has covered the NFL for Bleacher Report since 2012. Follow him on Twitter: @Brad_Gagnon.