The Biggest Winners and Losers from the 2021 NFL Preseason

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2021

The Biggest Winners and Losers from the 2021 NFL Preseason

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    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    NFL fans know all too well that earning an offseason "winner" label—even during preseason games—doesn't mean much once the regular season starts.

    But the summer stretch gives certain hints at great things. Think: key rookies looking good under fire or injured players getting back into the mix.

    The other side of the coin remains true, too. Whether it's a team suffering an injury bug, a notable player missing the cut or something else, warning signs for several of the summer's biggest losers could provide a glimpse of what's to come.

    Below, we take a look at who's up and who's down, spanning teams and individuals, ahead of Thursday's Week 1 kickoff.

Winner: 1st-Round Rookie QBs

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    A year after top-six picks Joe Burrow and Justin Herbert looked great without the benefit of a preseason, it sure seems like the 2021 rookie class will perform similarly after a regular offseason schedule.

    First pick Trevor Lawrence has looked great from the jump in Jacksonville, capping his preseason with an 11-of-12 mark for 139 yards and two touchdowns. It's a similar story for second pick Zach Wilson, as he went 9-of-11 for 128 yards and two touchdowns in the New York Jets' second preseason game before resting in the third.

    Even No. 3 selection Trey Lance, thanks to some creative usage by San Francisco 49ers coaches, looks like he'll see snaps in an effective-looking quarterback rotation with Jimmy Garoppolo. And don't forget 15th pick Mac Jones, who bested veteran Cam Newton for the New England Patriots' starting gig.

    The exception among first-round QBs is 11th pick Justin Fields, but four of five isn't bad, and it's hard to imagine the Chicago Bears can keep him off the field long in favor of Andy Dalton after a strong preseason showing.

Loser: Indianapolis Colts

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Indianapolis Colts can't catch a break.

    Receiver T.Y. Hilton, one of the team's top offensive weapons, underwent neck surgery last week and will miss at least three weeks while on injured reserve. He's one of 11 Colts on the list.

    Also of major note is quarterback Carson Wentz and elite offensive linemen Quenton Nelson both suffering foot injuries that left their Week 1 statuses uncertain. Both surprisingly returned and participated in some fashion before stints on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Left tackle Eric Fisher and Pro Bowl center Ryan Kelly have also gone on the list.

    Complicating things further, both head coach Frank Reich and defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus tested positive at different points during camp. Wentz has made several headlines regarding his vaccine status, as has elite linebacker Darius Leonard.

    Wentz told reporters he's "optimistic" he'll play in Week 1, but training camp has not been smooth for a Colts team attempting to break in a new starting quarterback. The lack of coherent, consistent reps for first-team offenses and defenses will show up on the field, and the injury bug and other factors making players unavailable could derail the season in a hurry.

Winner: Denver Broncos

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    Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

    The Denver Broncos look like a team getting healthy and more effective at the right time.

    Denver will go with Teddy Bridgewater under center over Drew Lock, which isn't the most exciting news after the former threw for just 15 touchdowns and 11 interceptions over 15 games last year in Carolina.

    But the surrounding pieces should provide excitement. The Broncos boast a stacked running back room led by Melvin Gordon III, and the passing game features first-rounders Noah Fant at tight end and Jerry Jeudy at wideout. Courtland Sutton, a Pro Bowler in 2019 who scored six times and posted 1,112 yards before playing in a single game last season because of a torn ACL, is back and caught a preseason score from Bridgewater.

    Speaking of injury comebacks, elite edge-rusher Von Miller had a trio of tackles in a recent preseason game, signaling he's healthy after an ankle injury kept him off the field last year.

    Adding stability at quarterback to an offense littered with top-end talent and a guy with eight or more sacks in eight of his last nine healthy campaigns to a strong defense has the Broncos looking viable in a tough AFC West.

Loser: Cam Newton

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    Noah K. Murray/Associated Press

    It seemed unlikely that Cam Newton, a one-time league MVP and only 32, would lose a starting gig to 15th overall pick Mac Jones, the fifth and final rookie quarterback drafted in April's first round.

    Now Newton's off the New England Patriots roster.

    His play last year wasn't inspiring, hence the Patriots drafting a quarterback. He threw for eight touchdowns and 10 interceptions while rushing for 12 scores, but excuses such as his being a late signee helped explain the so-so year. New England spent big in free agency to seemingly retool the offense around his skill set this offseason before drafting Jones.

    Newton wasn't bad in the preseason, although his availability hurt. Because of a COVID-19-related "misunderstanding," he missed four practices, which is when Jones might have cemented things in late August. Before that, Jeff Howe of The Athletic wrote "it would be a stunner" if Newton wasn't the Week 1 starter.

    Since, Newton has remained in the free-agent pool while would-be interested teams like Dallas have found other ways to fill depth behind starters, as the Cowboys claimed Will Grier from waivers. Seemingly being unwilling to settle for a backup role is what kept Newton on the market so long last year before he joined the Patriots on July 8.

    Even though Undisputed's Shannon Sharpe reported Newton is willing to be a backup this year, the 2015 MVP could be in for a long wait. The NFL Network's Ian Rapoport noted: "Sometimes you don't want a backup quarterback to overpower or over-star the starter. That may happen with Cam Newton just because of his reputation. This is a guy who a lot of the players in the locker room grew up worshipping."

Winner: San Francisco's QB Platoon

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    Jed Jacobsohn/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers getting Jimmy Garoppolo back on the field consistently in 2021 would constitute a win.

    Pairing him with the No. 3 pick in a platoon is just an exclamation point.

    Offensive guru Kyle Shanahan debuted this look in the final week of the preseason, working both Garoppolo and Trey Lance into the first-team attack during a 34-10 win over the Las Vegas Raiders. The veteran threw for 64 yards on seven attempts and rushed for a TD on two carries, while the rookie threw for 46 yards on 13 attempts and also rushed for a score. Lance suffered a minor finger injury during the performance but it shouldn't majorly disrupt the team's Week 1 plans.

    Regarding the possibility of using the tandem in the regular season, Shanahan said: "Yeah, it is an option. So, whether it's in their mind or not, that's up to them, but we've got two guys who can play. And we've been doing [it] in practice a little bit, wanted to do it out there in the game, and I think it's always going to be an option."

    Unlike past quarterback one-two punches that took both guys out of rhythm and generally didn't function, this one deserves patience, as Shanahan is the type of mind who can make it work.

    And besides giving defenses nightmares during the week of prep leading up to the game, this serves two other noteworthy purposes: It limits Garoppolo's exposure after he's missed 24 games in the last three years, and it satisfies fans wanting to see their prized rookie on the field.

Loser: Baltimore Ravens

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    On one hand, running back remains a devalued position, so a team losing a starter not named, say, Saquon Barkley, doesn't seem like that big of a deal.

    But the Baltimore Ravens' loss of J.K. Dobbins comes close.

    The 22-year-old suffered a season-ending ACL tear in Baltimore's preseason finale, putting an end to breakout whispers. As a rookie last year, the second-rounder turned just 134 carries into 805 yards (6.0 average) and nine touchdowns, and he caught 18 passes.

    The Ravens will give the majority of the workload to Gus Edwards, who scored six times last year on a 5.0 average, but he has just 414 attempts since 2018. Undrafted Ty'Son Williams and 2019 fourth-rounder Justice Hill are the only names behind Edwards and have combined for just 70 regular-season attempts.

    This is an especially concerning development in Baltimore, where Lamar Jackson has attempted at least 147 rushes in each of his first three seasons, leading the team in rushing yardage in each of the last two. Ideally, Baltimore would reduce his carries to better protect him for the long term, but Dobbins' loss will put more strain—and risk—on him.

Winner: Buffalo Bills

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    Joshua Bessex/Associated Press

    MVP contender Josh Allen made his preseason debut in the Buffalo Bills' finale and casually went 20-of-26 for 194 yards and two touchdowns.

    Why stop there? Gabriel Davis caught five passes for 75 yards and a score, and Cole Beasley caught four for 52. That offense will include Stefon Diggs and Emmanuel Sanders at wideout, plus Devin Singletary and Zack Moss at running back for Week 1.

    Plus, a solid defense that generated 38 sacks last year and helped Buffalo to the AFC title game didn't allow more than 15 points all preseason (highlighting quality depth, if nothing else) and boasted the arrival of 30th pick Gregory Rousseau.

    The rookie looks like an instant-impact star early after tallying two sacks over three exhibitions and the highest quarterback pressure percentage of any player during the preseason at Pro Football Focus.

    A quarterback with top-five potential, an elite supporting cast and a rich-get-richer pick near the end of the first round have the Bills riding high into the 2021 season.

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