Two teams kicked off the preseason last week, but NOW it’s officially preseason week 1. All 32 teams participated this week, albeit with few starters across the league. Since we switched to a 3-game preseason schedule, teams have been split on playing their stars in games 2 and 3, but most keep them out of game 1. That doesn’t mean we have nothing to cover, however. We had rookie debuts, new-look offenses, and an inspiring return (shoutout to Texans WR John Metchie and Bills S Damar Hamlin). Expect to hear a lot about rookies in the coming weeks, and enjoy my preseason week 1 takeaways!
Young/Stroud/Richardson Struggle in Debuts
This week, we got our first look at the first-round QBs from the 2023 draft. All 3 of them struggled. I say this not to bash them but to remind you of a concrete truth: in general, QBs do not enter the NFL ready to dominate, no matter how well they played in college. The NFL is a faster and stronger league, and it would take any player time to adjust. Bryce Young, the first pick, did not struggle on his own. In just 11 snaps, Young was sacked once and hit 3 times. This came with his starting offensive line in the game competing against New York’s backups. A 4/6 day for 21 yards doesn’t say much, but the lack of protection is scary.
CJ Stroud, the 2nd overall pick, completed his first pass, but that drive ended with an ugly INT. His debut was brief, and he finished 2/4 for 13 yards. He also took a 15-yard sack, something that just can’t happen in the NFL. The Colts’ Anthony Richardson, picked 4th overall, also saw his first drive end in an INT. He reminded us that he’s very raw when he tried to evade the rush and threw an off-balance throw with poor footwork that went right to a defender. After that, Richardson settled in and finished 7/12 for 62 yards, but there’s a lot of work to do. That’s true for all 3 of these QBs, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Sam Howell, Baker Mayfield Win Round 1 of QB Competitions
Washington and Tampa Bay are the two teams that seem to be having legitimate competitions for their starting QB jobs, and this was our first opportunity to see those battles play out on the field. The two players who seemed to be in the lead after training camp maintained their edges. Sam Howell had a rough start; his first two drives ended in a punt and a safety (a lineman committed holding in the end zone). Overall though, he looked good, guiding the team on an 80-yard TD drive on the next possession. He finished 9/12 for 77 yards and a TD.
Howell’s competitor, Jacoby Brissett, had the opposite night. He started with an immediate TD drive that ended in a 12-yard rush by the QB. That would be his only score, however, as he also threw an INT against Browns backups. Brissett finished 6/10 for 75 yards and added 16 yards on the ground, but I still think Howell is in pole position.
Over in Tampa, Baker Mayfield got the start and led two drives that ended with punts as Tampa still can’t run. Otherwise, he looked sharp, going 8/9 for 63 yards and a nice TD pass. He didn’t do anything crazy impressive, but he looked competent running the offense. More importantly for Mayfield, Kyle Trask did not fare as well. Under much more pressure than Mayfield alongside the backup offensive line, Trask went 6/10 for 99 yard and an INT, which was an ill-advised throw made under duress. Mayfield seems comfortably in front here, but Trask will get the start next week as predetermined by coach Todd Bowles.
Beck to Damar Hamlin for a Second…
Can we all agree on one thing? How great was it to see Hamlin back on a football field playing a real game? After collapsing on the field last season against the Bengals, Hamlin underwent a miraculous journey to be able to return. Furthermore, this isn’t just a feel-good story. He made an immediate impact. The Colts had 4th and 1 at the Buffalo 40, and Hamlin stuffed RB Evan Hull for no gain, ending the possession. Hamlin did not look tentative at all, and his football instincts took over during the play.
Obviously, his teammates and home fans were ecstatic, as they should be. However, from a football perspective, this is equally important. Hamlin is the primary backup for Buffalo’s great safety tandem of Jordan Poyer and Micah Hyde, and he plays alongside them in 3-safety sets. His snaps will be valuable for a team trying to make a Super Bowl run. Ideally, we’ll look at his cardiac arrest in Cincinnati as a blip on his career arc, and we hope he has a long career and a longer life.
Trey Lance Does Not Appear to be Showing Growth
I’ve been extremely consistent in saying that 49ers QB Trey Lance needed time to develop. I preached patience, noting his 1 year of FCS starting experience and his need to learn to play at an NFL level. As a result, I refused to judge him, no matter how poorly things went, through his first two seasons. With all that said, those two years are now complete, and Lance is entering his 3rd pro campaign. What I saw from him this week was nothing short of abysmal. It’s a case where you can’t simply examine the box score; 10/15 for 112 yards and a TD is a great line that belies Lance’s true performance.
For starters, he took 4 bad sacks in cases where but the protection wasn’t poor. His pocket awareness was minimal, and that was the least of the problems. Decision making and accuracy proved to be bigger threats. I counted 3 different passes that should’ve been picked off. One was actually his TD! Lance threw across his body and aimed right at a Raider. However, the defender failed to catch it, and it deflected right into the hands of TE Ross Dwelley. That incredible luck does not hide the fact that Sam Darnold looked better, not to mention Brock Purdy. Lance is quickly trending toward going down as a sunk cost, which is damning considering it cost 3 first-rounders to go get him.
We saw our first rookie standout on Thursday, when Texans WR Tank Dell looked practically uncoverable. Catching 5 passes for 65 yards and an incredible TD grab, he averaged over 3 yards of separation per route run. CJ Stroud may go to him early and often. In Dallas, diminutive 4th-round rookie RB Deuce Vaughn used his size to his advantage. Hiding behind his offensive linemen, Vaughn would then burst out for chunk gains, taking his 8 carries for 50 yards and a TD. We knew Vaughn would do great in space, but if he can sneak between the tackles, he’ll be a great complement to Tony Pollard as the latter recovers from injury.
During the battle for LA, we were introduced to WR/returner Derius Davis. The Chargers’ 4th-round pick out of TCU, Davis caught a punt and took it for an electrifying 81-yard TD. His change of direction looked fantastic, and if he keeps making those moves, he’ll be on my Top 10 Returners list in no time! Davis added 2 receptions for 21 yards just to remind everyone that he’s valuable in two phases of the game. Finally, our top rookie QB was Raiders 4th-round pick Aidan O’Connell. He started the game and played into the 3rd quarter, going 15/18 for 141 yards and a TD. O’Connell looked composed and accurate, throwing just 3 incompletions. Even DE Maxx Crosby noticed. I think we’ve found Jimmy Garoppolo’s backup!