Just like that, the preseason is over. It goes by quickly with only 3 games! Starters have had their chance to get in sync, camp battles have been won and lost, and roster spots have been secured. Players now await the decisions of their front offices. Each team must go from 90 players to just 53 by tomorrow (only one cutdown day this year). Some will be re-signed to the practice squad or even poached by other teams, but it’s generally a rough day for all involved. Fortunately we’re focusing on happier things in this article: the games! Here are my 2023 preseason week 3 takeaways, and it’s an XL edition!
USFL Stars Show Out
The main knock on USFL and XFL players has been the notion that they will be completely exposed once they compete against NFL teams. That thinking was supposed to hold even versus backups on NFL rosters. This week, the USFL players fought back against that narrative. Several of them played across the league, and I’m pleased with what I saw. Defensively, the guy who stood out was LB Frank Ginda, formerly of the Michigan Panthers. Now with the Falcons, even though his team got demolished 24-0, Ginda led all players with 10 tackles. They weren’t just cleanup plays; he was all over the field and always near the football.
A trio of Birmingham Stallions offensive players also had good weeks. QB Alex McGough (4/5, 69 yards) led the Packers on a go-ahead (and eventually game-winning) drive, outdueling rookie Holten Ahlers in a battle of backups. WR Deon Cain started for Philadelphia and played for much of the night. He led all receivers with 6 catches and 62 yards. Better yet, the former Clemson Tiger looked like he belonged. Finally, another Stallions WR, Davion Davis, played a key role for the Cardinals. His 3 catches for 43 yards led the team, and his TD was one of only 2 the team scored on the day. Like KaVontae Turpin a year ago, these USFL players could surprise you during the season.
QBs Malik Willis and Bailey Zappe Aren’t What Their Fans Hoped For
If the yawn-inducing game between the Patriots and Titans taught us anything, it’s that a pair of mid-round QB picks from last season don’t look like future starters. The Patriots’ offense still looks broken despite the addition of Bill O’Brien as OC, though we haven’t seen much of Mac Jones yet. What we did see was Bailey Zappe looking limited. He doesn’t have a great arm, and he waits too long for plays to develop as if he were still at Western Kentucky. Zappe went 8/15 for just 57 yards, led just 1 scoring drive (when he got the ball in Tennessee territory), took 4 sacks, and lost a fumble.
Tennessee’s Malik Willis didn’t fare a ton better. He couldn’t move ball after the aforementioned Zappe fumble, settling for a field goal. On the next drive, Willis got away with an incompletion when he was sacked (NE should’ve won their challenge). Karmically, he threw an inaccurate INT on the next play. To his credit, Willis bounced back with a 10/10 stretch after that INT…only to break that streak with an even uglier INT where he didn’t see the field at all. Some good things were mixed in, and he finished 15/20 for 211 yards and 2 TDs. This is the best he’s looked in the NFL, and that’s saying a lot given the bad picks.
Neither of these quarterbacks looks like the answer their fans wanted. Last year, Patriot fans wanted Zappe to replace Mac Jones, but it’s clear why Bill Belichick didn’t budge. Though Jones is a bit limited himself, he has much more upside than Zappe, whose ceiling is an average backup. Titans fans also wanted Willis to supplant Ryan Tannehill, but the latter is improbably seeing his contract to completion. Willis was a known project entering the NFL (thus his slide to round 3), and though we’ve seen growth, he looks nothing like a solid starter. At the end of the season, both teams may be looking for entirely new options at QB.
Aaron Rodgers FINALLY Makes Jets Debut
It seems like we’ve been waiting months for Aaron Rodgers to play in his first game as a Jet. Oh wait, it has been months. Anyway, the moment finally arrived, and Rodgers played two full series with the starting offense. Keeping in mind that the Giants did not play their starters, his debut was encouraging. His first pass was a completion to Garrett Wilson, who should be a frequent target. A couple of throws sailed over receivers’ heads, likely due to some nervousness. In typical Rodgers fashion though, he didn’t let the noise bother him for long.
The new franchise QB diced up the Giants on his second drive, hitting Wilson on a perfectly placed pass for a 14-yard TD. Rodgers finished 5/8 for 47 yards and that TD. Tellingly, after he left the game, the Jets did not score another point during the first half. As long as the offensive line holds up, this offense should be vastly improved. We already know about the swarming defense led by DT Quinnen Williams and CB Sauce Gardner. Rodgers already has the Jets thinking about Super Bowls, and if his first appearance is any indication, he’s fully capable of taking them to those heights.
Trey Lance Trade Has Invigorating Effect…on Will Grier
I spoke at length on what the Trey Lance trade meant for the 49ers and Cowboys. I obviously discussed how it affected Lance himself, and I even considered the impact on SF starter Brock Purdy. There was one player that I failed to account for: Cowboys’ 3rd-string QB Will Grier. Likely safe prior to the trade because of the new emergency QB rule incentivizing teams to keep 3 signal callers on the 53-man roster, Grier suddenly became the most probably odd man out due to the addition of Lance. With starter Dak Prescott and backup Cooper Rush getting the night off, plus Lance being too new to the team to play, Grier got all the snaps.
Boy did he take advantage. Wisely treating the Cowboys’ game against the Raiders as an extended audition for the 31 other NFL teams, Grier put the game of his life on film. He finished 29/35 for 305 yards and 2 TDs through the air, adding 10 carries for 53 yards and 2 more TDs rushing. In a 31-16 victory that was never really in doubt, Grier looked completely in control. Dallas is going to cut Grier, because you have to think that Prescott, Rush, and Lance aren’t going anywhere. The Cowboys would love Grier on the practice squad, but he may have just played himself into a roster spot…somewhere.
Rams, Vikings Display Their Lack of Depth
Going 0-3 in the preseason really doesn’t matter in the long run. You probably won’t even remember your team’s 2023 preseason record this time next year. It can, however, indicate a team’s depth. Since most of these are decided by backups playing against backups, playing competitive games (even without winning them) can let you know how your team’s reserves stack up. Three teams went 0-3 this preseason. One of them, Carolina, doesn’t even have a good starting lineup, so they obviously don’t have depth. The other two, the Rams and Vikings, are supposed to be talented; LA won the Super Bowl 2 seasons ago, and Minnesota was a 13-4 division winner.
The Rams are actually pretty easy to diagnose. GM Les Snead’s philosophy of “f*** them picks” helped the team win a Super Bowl, but it also created a roster with no depth. When injuries hit those starters last year, the team crumbled. LA ended the 2022 season with the worst record ever by a defending champion. A team that hasn’t possessed a first-round pick in years can’t rebuild home-grown talent. Their bloated salaries left them with minimal cap space. They had to cut players like LB Bobby Wagner and WR Allen Robinson while trading CB Jalen Ramsey. No space remained to sign quality free agents.
Minnesota is a bit more curious. Their cap space isn’t the best, but this team has primarily relied and drafting and developing their talent. Former coach Mike Zimmer oversaw an incredible period of failure developing secondary players. Picks like Mike Hughes, Jeff Gladney, and Cameron Dantzler all went bust, leading to wasted draft picks. That in turn left fewer resources for other positions. The Vikings have a good starting roster, but they’re paying for it. The bottom of the depth chart still needs work, and it might take a couple of good drafts for that to come to fruition.
Second Game This Preseason Cut Short Due to Harrowing Injury
Before moving on to our rookie watch, I wanted to comment on a disturbing occurrence that has now occurred twice this preseason. Two games have now ended prematurely in the past 2 weeks because players were forced to witness scary injuries. Last week, Patriots CB Isaiah Bolden collided with a teammate and could not move for several minutes. He was stretchered off the field, and the game against the Packers was abruptly ended. This week, Dolphins WR Daewood Davis had his neck twisted during a play, and he too was stretchered off before the game ended with 8:35 still on the clock.
These types of injuries are always scary, and it’s worse in the preseason because the games don’t “count”. Because of that latter point, I like the fact that the players made it known that they didn’t want to continue. In this week’s case, credit the Jaguars for making a classy move. They were having the better game and would likely have been the primary beneficiaries of some extra reps. None of that mattered. Both teams’ players and coaches gathered around Davis and supported him. Their concern was only the man lying on the ground, which is a really heartwarming thing to see.
As with the cuts due tomorrow, let’s not forget the human side of all this. These players are not mere cogs in machines. They’re people, teammates, family members, and friends, and they have feelings. We saw it with the Damar Hamlin situation last season, but it’s always reassuring to see that even though the game of football is the passion and livelihood of these men, the well-being of their peers comes first. Just as it should.
To start our last rookie watch of the preseason, let’s start by taking another look at our first-round QBs. First overall pick Bryce Young threw his first TD for Carolina, saving his best game for last. He went 7/12 for 73 yards and the score, plus 21 rushing yards. It’s no coincidence that his improved performance came with his line providing better protection against Detroit backups. The second pick, Houston’s CJ Stroud, threw his first TD as well, but he did so with an open receiver and a short field. His 2/4 line for 16 yards does not convince me of anything.
Newly anointed starter Anthony Richardson, the Colts’ 4th overall pick, is being oddly praised by the media despite a terrible outing. He completed just 6 of 17 (!) passes for 78 yards. The inaccuracy we saw from him at Florida was on full display, and his mechanics broke down whenever he was pressured. I’m still really worried about how much damage starting Richardson too early can do. Honestly, the best rookie QB this preseason has been fourth-rounder Aidan O’Connell. The new Raider backup has looked sharp in all 3 contests, demonstrating the value of his lengthy college career.
Moving on to other positions, Lions WR Antoine Greene showed serious speed taking a mid-range shot from Teddy Bridgewater 70 yards to the house. The 7th-rounder out of UNC had 3 catches for 97 yards and that TD. RBs Owen White (12/89/1) and Jaleel McLaughlin (10/48/1) of Baltimore and Denver, respectively, showed nice burst and vision. Both players did their best to prove their worth as reserves. We also have love for a fullback! Dallas’ Hunter Luepke, out of NDST, earned 58 yards on 18 carries but also racked up 60 yards and a TD through the air. Jerry Jones loves a throwback player like this, so Luepke may be safe.
Eagles LB Ben VanSumeren was unbelievably active, making a ridiculous 17 tackles. If he wanted to attract attention, he succeeded. Vikings S Jay Ward and Rams S Quindell Johnson demonstrated their great versatility. Each made 8 tackles, earned a sack, and broke up a pass. The more you can do, the better your odds of making a roster. Titans OLB Caleb Murphy earned a sack for the third straight game. He was a sack artist at D-II Ferris State and might be learning to be the same in the NFL. Finally, Lions CB Stephen Gilmore (brother of Stephon if you were wondering) had a pick 6, but he has been starring all preseason and appears to be a roster lock.