Preseason Week 2 Takeaways: There's No Ceiling for Jets' QB Zach WilsonAugust 22, 2021
Preseason Week 2 Takeaways: There's No Ceiling for Jets' QB Zach Wilson
The best part of NFL preseason football is seeing young players—whether they're high-round draft picks or fighting for roster spots—take the field and really compete for the first time.
Potential is easily the most alluring aspect of the game.
The idea of those individuals showing what made them so intriguing in the first place is a reason to be excited. In Week 2 of the preseason, the attention turned to yet another of the five first-round quarterback prospects.
The New York Jets received an A-plus effort from this year's second overall pick, Zach Wilson, in his second preseason start, but Wilson wasn't the only one to shine across the league.
Fellow Jet Bryce Huff, Pittsburgh Steelers tight end Pat Freiermuth, the Carolina Panthers wide receivers and more showed out as teams participated in the de facto dress rehearsal for the new three-game preseason schedule. Meanwhile, the Chicago Bears' Justin Fields may have taken a slight step back after an outstanding Week 1 performance.
Not every team bought into the new norm with multiple starters sitting out across the league. Those who did perform provided significant developments from another week of exhibition games.
Zach Wilson Shines, Jets See Bright Future
Zach Wilson must have seen all the positive reviews the Chicago Bears' Justin Fields, San Francisco 49ers' Trey Lance and New England Patriots' Mac Jones received.
The difference between the latter three compared to Wilson is they're all fighting for starting jobs with nothing guaranteed at the onset of the regular season. This year's second overall pick is in a different spot. He's more in line with Trevor Lawrence, whom the Jacksonville Jaguars chose first overall. The New York Jets are already committed to Wilson as their QB1.
Still, a solid, albeit unspectacular, first preseason performance didn't exactly stoke the fires of excitement. His second appearance provided something altogether different.
Wilson completed 9-of-11 passes for 128 yards and two touchdowns during a 23-14 victory Saturday over the Green Bay Packers.
"He can throw the heck out of it," Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers said during the telecast.
The 22-year-old's arm talent was obvious. Wilson threw ropes while on the move, feathered passes between defenders and ripped tosses into windows. The Jets staff was more impressed with how the rookie handled the offense and how quickly he's come along in a short amount of time.
"His process is light years ahead of what a normal rookie's process will be," head coach Robert Saleh told reporters. "For him, the results sometimes will be good, sometimes they will be bad. He has to continue to find ways to get better when he sees both."
To be fair, Saleh contradicted himself in consecutive sentences. All rookie quarterbacks will have some good and bad moments. Even so, understanding where to go with the ball on a down-by-down basis can be a long process. Wilson showed drastic improvement just between two preseason contests. He has the potential to be so much more once the regular season begins with a few live contests against top competition under his belt.
Jets' Bryce Huff Fills Void Left by Carl Lawson
Carl Lawson's torn Achilles tendon dealt a serious blow to the New York Jets' defensive plans this season.
The organization signed the edge-defender to a three-year, $45 million free-agent contract. He was to become the centerpiece of the Jets' defense under Robert Saleh's supervision.
"You could not ask for a more perfect big-money free agent who came in and just does things the right way," the head coach told reporters after Saturday's victory over the Packers. "Despite getting paid, he still wanted more... I just feel bad for him."
The Jets may have found a diamond in the rough with Bryce Huff, though. The former undrafted free agent registered two sacks last week against the New York Giants.
"I learn a lot from Carl," Huff told reporters earlier in the week. "He's always teaching me stuff, whether it’s recovery or pass-rush technique, how to turn the edge better, something like that, so I learned a lot from Carl."
Huff continued his strong performance in Week 2. He started at defensive end and registered a quarterback hit. More importantly, he's grown in his ability to set the edge while retaining his burst and flexibility to turn the edge against offensive tackles.
Lawson's loss looms large, but the Jets stumbled upon an emerging player who appears to be ready for a bigger role at a premium position.
Maybe the Bears Are Doing the Best Thing for Rookie Justin Fields
Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy doubled—wait, what is it at this point? Tripled? Quadrupled? Quintupled? What even comes next?—down on Andy Dalton as the team's QB1 to enter the 2021 campaign.
Dalton will be under center when the Bears face the Los Angeles Rams on Sunday Night Football to open the regular season.
"We need to see him in the regular season," Nagy told reporters after Saturday's 41-15 preseason loss to the Buffalo Bills.
The coach's explanation is a cop-out. The Bears don't need to see Dalton in the regular season. Nagy and Co. can go back and watch 10 years' worth of Dalton film to understand what type of player he is. Furthermore, the entire point of preseason is to give players the necessary reps to evaluate the roster and see how to mold it.
A week ago, everyone frothed at the mouth, making their case why rookie Justin Fields should start, including this very writer. Fields didn't perform as well in his second stint but flashed his ability to drive the ball downfield and create as a runner. Consistency may be the biggest issue, though that shouldn't be enough to keep him off the field.
A bigger issue continues to develop with each passing week. The Bears could very well protect this year's 11th overall draft pick by not playing him early. Chicago's offensive line is a significant weak spot since second-round rookie Teven Jenkins required back surgery, further injuries created a mishmash front five and recent signee Jason Peters needs time to acclimate himself. The idea of facing Aaron Donald in Week 1 is rather scary.
Plus, Fields had some issues setting the protection against the Bills and admitted he needs to improve in that area. Andre Smith's clean shot became a "learning moment" for the rookie.
Fields is clearly more talented and capable than Dalton. However, Chicago keeping its first-year quarterback upright and healthy for an extra week or two may be the smart move.
Pat Freiermuth Adds Another Dimension to Steelers Offense
If the Pittsburgh Steelers front five can keep quarterback Ben Roethlisberger upright this season, the team's offense features an embarrassment of riches that gets deeper with each passing week.
A concentration has been placed on the team's run game, specifically first-round running back Najee Harris. Alabama's all-time leading rusher will be a featured part of Pittsburgh's offensive this fall, as he should be. But a significant difference could be seen at tight end if Saturday's performance is any indication.
This year's second-round selection, Pat Freiermuth, is a weapon in the red zone. Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger targeted the rookie in the end zone twice, once from the 11-yard line and once from the eight-yard line. Freiermuth showed excellent body control and leverage over the defender to come down with a pair of touchdown receptions.
A sense of excitement should reverberate throughout Steelers nation.
Eric Ebron is talented, but drops have plagued his entire career. Freiermuth is known for glue-like hands, especially in the endzone. As Pro Football Focus noted, the former Penn State tight end didn't experience a single drop when targeted in the red zone during his collegiate career.
Considering Pittsburgh's talent at wide receiver with Chase Claypool, JuJu Smith-Schuster and Diontae Johnson, a big, reliable target over the middle of the field will make the Steelers' passing attack nearly impossible to stop—as long as pressure doesn't affect the offense's rhythm.
Carolina Panthers' Dynamic Duo About to Become a Trio
The Carolina Panthers don't know exactly what they have in quarterback Sam Darnold or their suspect offensive front. But they have two outstanding options at wide receiver to stretch the field and make defenses pay if Darnold (or whoever is behind center) can get it to them.
Of the two, Robby Anderson is already a proven target. He hasn't needed to show much during the preseason. While not much is happening on the field, plenty appears to be occurring behind the scenes.
According to The Athletic's Joseph Person, the Panthers are "deep in talks on a multiyear extension" with Anderson.
Anderson led the team last season with 95 receptions. He finished second behind D.J. Moore's 1,096 yards. The sixth-year veteran already has a good rapport with Darnold since the two previously played together with the New York Jets. Plus, Anderson's history with head coach Matt Rhule dates back to Temple.
With Anderson and Moore, the Panthers already featured two 1,000-yard receivers. The team's third option, Curtis Samuel, signed with the Washington Football Team during free agency.
Second-round rookie Terrace Marshall Jr. brings a completely different skill set compared to Samuel. But the first-year receiver could be just as effective, if not more so. Marshall has been on a tear through the preseason. He led the Panthers Saturday with three receptions for 50 yards against the Baltimore Ravens. The performance built upon the 88-yard effort he posted against the Indianapolis Colts in Week 1.
Marshall is a serious deep threat. He's an outside receiver who can stack cornerbacks and physically overwhelm defenders.
"Terrace, to me, he's a big fast, strong, athletic guy," Rhule told reporters. "I think his best football is ahead of him. He's got a very humble spirit about him. A very quiet kid. When I say quiet, I mean, he's just here to learn."
Tua Tagovailoa Takes Command of Dolphins Offense
The Miami Dolphins made a statement this offseason when the organization chose to trade out of this year's third overall draft pick a month before the event occurred.
As soon as the front office made that move, it fully committed to Tua Tagovailoa as its franchise quarterback. The fact it remained in question says a lot by itself. The 23-year-old even admitted later he didn't previously have a full grasp of the Dolphins' playbook.
"I wasn't comfortable calling plays," Tagovailoa told reporters in May. "I think the guys that were here last year were phenomenal. I just didn't have the comfortability of checking plays, alerting plays and doing that. I just rode with the play, even if I knew it wasn't going to work. I was going to try to make it work still."
His admission further brought the team's position into question. That's no longer the case. Now as Miami's starting quarterback, the second-year signal-caller now has a completely different feel for the game and it's showing up in the preseason.
Tagovailoa completed 16-of-23 passing for 183 yards and a touchdown Saturday against the Atlanta Falcons. The Dolphins quarterback was decisive, accurate and efficient.
"We moved it effectively," head coach Brian Flores said after the contest. "We had a pretty good time of possession and Tua was a good part of that."
Confidence appears to be growing as each week passes. Timidity is no longer a part of Tua's game. He's now in charge of the offense with no reason to look over his shoulder if he does make a mistake.
Cowboys' Micah Parsons Looks Like Strong Defensive Rookie of the Year Candidate
The Dallas Cowboys are just glad rookie linebacker Micah Parsons is on their team. Seriously, just ask them.
"He's the real deal. I'm glad he's on my team," Tony Pollard told reporters Friday. " ...His 4.3 (speed) is legit. You see it every day at practice. He's sideline to sideline."
The running back's words echoed what fellow linebacker Leighton Vander Esch said the previous week.
"I'm glad he's on our team and not somebody else's," Vander Esch said, per the Dallas Morning News' Michael Gehlken.
The reasoning behind these statements is becoming abundantly clear during the preseason.
Parsons isn't just going to be the Cowboys' starting middle linebacker; he will be a defensive chess piece defensive coordinator Dan Quinn can use all over the field.
He's been used at multiple spots along the defensive front, including a standup 1-technique in a third-down sub-package. Parsons has the speed and explosiveness to roam sideline-to-sideline. No one can deny his raw physical tools and range. Yet, he's even better when playing forward as a run defender or pass-rusher.
Nine tackles in three preseason games don't seem like a lot. But his disruptive nature makes him a constant presence opposing offenses must account for at all times.
Quinn's usage plans will help or hurt Parsons' candidacy for NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year. Early returns are quite promising, though. This year's 11th overall pick should be all over the field making plays as the crown jewel of the rebuilt Cowboys defense.