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The NFL preseason is never going to give us the whole story about what teams are going to be in the regular season. Simplified schemes and the constant presence of lower-tier talent mean we must take individual performances and raw statistics with a grain of salt.
However, we can still glean valuable information, as patterns, tendencies and truths will slip through the smoke.
Last preseason, for example, we learned that the Minnesota Vikings had a capable second option in quarterback Case Keenum (passer rating of 101.9). He proved as much in the regular season, helping lead the Vikings to the NFC title game after they lost starter Sam Bradford to injury.
We’re here to examine the one big thing we’ve learned about each NFL team in the 2018 preseason. These are the items we feel most certain about prior to the start of the regular season Thursday, with the caveat that meaningful games have yet to be played.
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Rookie quarterback Josh Rosen is the future of the Arizona Cardinals. However, his preseason performance wasn’t the most important for 2018. What we saw from fourth-year running back David Johnson was far more meaningful.
Johnson missed the majority of the 2017 season with a broken wrist, but he’s an MVP-caliber player and an offensive centerpiece when healthy—and that’s how he looked in the preseason. While Johnson didn’t see extensive action, he made the most of it, averaging 6.3 yards per carry, scoring for the first time since 2016 and catching one pass.
Two seasons ago, Johnson racked up a league-leading 2,118 yards and 20 touchdowns from scrimmage, and he appears to be poised to make a similar run in 2018. Rosen will eventually have his opportunity to be the face of the Cardinals offense, but for now, it’s Johnson. He looks ready to resume that role.
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Rookie Calvin Ridley didn’t have a perfect preseason for the Atlanta Falcons, but the 23-year-old wideout showed that he’s going to make an early impact.
While he had a couple of dropped passes, he finished the preseason with five receptions, 59 yards and a touchdown. More importantly, he carried himself more like a seasoned veteran than an inexperienced rookie.
“He’s really detailed and a really prideful guy,” head coach Dan Quinn said of Ridley, per Vaughn McClure of ESPN.com. “And I’m sure you guys have noticed too the way he practices. There’s an intensity about him that he brings that’s past maybe the age of him. So I really respect that part of his game.”
Along with Julio Jones and Mohamed Sanu, Ridley is going to help coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s offense make strides in its second year.
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The Baltimore Ravens drafted former Louisville signal-caller Lamar Jackson at No. 32 overall to be their quarterback of the future. While some fans likely hoped Jackson would replace a bland Joe Flacco under center sooner rather than later, we learned in the preseason why Jackson is going to have to wait his turn.
The 21-year-old rookie did have flashes of brilliance. He passed for 408 yards, rushed for 136 more and scored six touchdowns. However, he also completed just 50 percent of his passes, was sacked eight times and took several unnecessary hits.
Flacco, meanwhile, was poised, efficient (141.4 passer rating) and accurate (75.0 percent completion rate).
We may see some of Jackson as a change-of-pace quarterback and offensive weapon in 2018, but Flacco isn’t going to give way to the rookie anytime soon, barring injury.
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The Buffalo Bills offensive line did do some good things in the preseason—it allowed the team to rush for an average of 5.0 yards per carry—but protecting the quarterback was not one of them.
The unit allowed a whopping 16 sacks in four games, fourth-most in the league. It allowed 21 quarterback hits, and quarterback AJ McCarron (now with the Oakland Raiders) got injured in the second preseason game on one of them.
“Yeah, it was disappointing,” head coach Sean McDermott said of the starting offense after the third preseason contest, per Sal Maiorana of the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle. “We have a lot to learn from and a lot of work to do, that’s for sure.”
The Bills made some major changes to their offensive line in the offseason, parting with guard Richie Incognito and trading away tackle Cordy Glenn. The moves haven’t made it a better pass-blocking unit.
Buffalo recently announced that second-year quarterback Nathan Peterman will start over rookie Josh Allen in Week 1’s game against the Ravens at M&T Bank Stadium, but no matter who is under center, the Bills better be prepared to see their starter under pressure consistently.
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The Carolina Panthers spent a first-round pick on Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey in 2017, and they were rewarded with one of the league’s best receiving backs.
McCaffrey amassed 80 receptions for 651 yards and five touchdowns last year.
This preseason, McCaffrey has shown he is capable of being much more than just a pass-catcher. He has run hard between the tackles, made defenders miss with the ball in his hands and has averaged an impressive 7.2 yards per carry on 21 attempts. He also proved he still a worker in the passing game with eight receptions for 73 yards.
The Panthers added former 1,000-yard rusher C.J. Anderson this offseason. However, he’ll likely be relegated to a backup role, as McCaffrey appears to be ready to be Carolina’s every-down back.
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Sometimes, when a team hires a new head coach, the players don’t immediately buy into his strategy. This hasn’t been the case with the Chicago Bears and Matt Nagy.
We saw glimpses of his innovative and aggressive offensive scheme in the preseason, during which the Bears averaged the fifth-most yards in the league (352.8 per game). What we didn’t observe was players questioning Nagy’s decision to regularly sit starters during Chicago’s five-game preseason.
“I trust coach Nagy, and when I heard the news, I trusted him and believed him,” linebacker Sam Acho said, per Mark Potash of the Chicago Sun-Times. “He knows what he’s doing. He continues to tell us, ‘Guys, just trust me, and it’s going to work out.'”
For better or worse, Nagy has the power and the trust needed to make Chicago a different football team.
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To say ninth overall pick John Ross was a disappointment as a rookie would be an understatement. The Washington product didn’t produce a reception and fumbled on his only touch of the regular season, a 12-yard run, in 2017.
The jump from college to the NFL can be difficult for a wide receiver, but it looks like Ross is finally making the adjustment. The speedster shone in the preseason, logging 115 yards and a touchdown on just four receptions. More importantly, he looked more natural in his route running.
Ross set a combine record when he ran the 40-yard dash in just 4.22 seconds last offseason. He has the breakaway speed needed to change the complexion of the Cincinnati offense, especially with seven-time Pro Bowler A.J. Green playing opposite him.
Of course, Ross will have to get on the field and integrate himself into the game plan, which didn’t happen in 2017. He appears to be ready to make it happen.
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It’s been a long time since the Cleveland Browns have been elite at anything other than losing. However, defensive end Myles Garrett believes his team’s defense can be one of the best in the NFL.
“We can be [dominant] from day one,” Garrett said, per Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal.
This preseason, the defense has backed up what Garrett said. No team allowed fewer points (11.5 per game), and only three allowed fewer passing yards than Cleveland (170.0 per game). The Browns also forced three fumbles, grabbed three interceptions and amassed 13 sacks.
Garrett himself logged two sacks in a single game this preseason, and he looks to anchor one of the better defensive lines. The defense isn’t likely going to be enough to catapult Cleveland into the playoff conversation, but Garrett and Co. will at least make it relevant again.
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The Dallas Cowboys once boasted an offensive line that was the envy of practically every team. It helped then-rookie Ezekiel Elliott rush for a league-leading 1,631 yards and Dak Prescott look like a steal of a rookie quarterback in 2016.
We saw the line struggle when left tackle Tyron Smith was unavailable because of injury last season, though, and it has struggled even more this preseason. Smith has been dealing with a hamstring injury, guard Zack Martin has been out with a knee hyperextension, and center Travis Frederick is out indefinitely as he deals with an autoimmune disorder.
Dallas averaged just 3.3 yards per rush, and its quarterbacks were sacked 12 times this preseason. It’s important to note that Elliott didn’t have a rushing attempt, but an elite line shouldn’t need a star back to open up an effective attack on the ground.
The reality is that the Cowboys won’t be able to lean on their offensive line they way they did a couple of years ago.
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Keenum helped the Vikings reach the playoffs in 2017, and there’s an outside chance he’ll be able to do the same for the Denver Broncos this season.
Yes, Denver went just 5-11 last year, but it still has a playoff-caliber defense—one that allowed just 288.0 yards per game (ninth in the NFL) and logged 12 sacks in the preseason.
So far, Keenum has been the kind of game manager who can complement the defense. He didn’t make many wow plays, but he did complete 60.0 percent of his passes and didn’t throw an interception this preseason.
In the Week 3 dress rehearsal against Washington, he went 12-of-18 for 148 yards.
We probably won’t see Keenum slinging around the ball the way Derek Carr and Philip Rivers can in the AFC West, but it’s unlikely he will be killing drives, committing turnovers and wasting a top-tier defense the way Broncos quarterbacks did most of last season.
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Led by quarterback Matthew Stafford, the Detroit Lions consistently have one of the top passing attacks. When the franchise hired former New England Patriots defensive coordinator Matt Patricia as its head coach this offseason, many fans probably hoped there’d also be a dominant defense.
Those fans have surely been disappointed during the preseason.
At no point has the defense resembled a top-tier unit. In fact, it’s rarely looked like even an above-average one. It produced a mere two sacks (tied for last) and allowed the sixth-most yards (350.2) and the most points (27.8) per game in the league. The Lions produced just one interception as well.
They may eventually have one of the better defenses, but it isn’t going to happen in 2018. The real question is whether the unit can at least be good enough to get Detroit back to the postseason after it missed out last year.
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The Green Bay Packers will have quarterback Aaron Rodgers back and healthy this season, and that may be enough to make them playoff contenders. However, losing Rodgers wasn’t the only issue the team had in 2017. The defense was a problem (22nd in the league), and it appears to be the same heading into 2018.
The Packers yielded the fifth-most yards (353.2) and fourth-most points (24.2) per game this preseason. They also logged a mere five sacks.
The defense could round into form in time, and it’s not like the Packers didn’t take steps to improve it this offseason. They brought in new defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, added defensive lineman Muhammad Wilkerson and drafted cornerbacks Josh Jackson and Jaire Alexander.
Heading into the regular season, though, the Green Bay defense looks a lot like the below-average unit it was last season.
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Houston Texans quarterback Deshaun Watson was a surefire Offensive Rookie of the Year candidate before suffering a torn ACL in practice last November. In just seven appearances, he passed for 1,699 yards, rushed for 269 more and scored 21 total touchdowns.
This preseason, Watson has looked like the player he was before the injury. Though he only saw limited action, Watson completed 60.0 percent of his passes, threw a touchdown pass and carried the ball once for five yards. More importantly, he moved in the pocket as if the knee injury never occurred.
“I don’t even remember or think about the injury,” cornerback Johnathan Joseph explained, per Mike Jones of USA Today Sports. “Not once have we seen him favoring that leg.”
The return of a 100 percent Watson—along with J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus on defense—should help put the Texans back in contention in the AFC South.
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The Indianapolis Colts are undoubtedly a different football team when Andrew Luck is healthy and under center. Fortunately, Luck proved during the preseason that he will be both when the regular season opens.
Luck had his ups and downs to be sure—he tossed an interception and was sacked four times—but he never appeared to be hampered by his surgically repaired shoulder. That was the most important question heading into exhibition season.
“Other than making sure he was good physically, I really didn’t have very many questions,” head coach Frank Reich said of Luck at the end of last month, per Mike Wells of ESPN.com.
Luck finished the preseason with 204 passing yards (62.5 percent completion rate), 28 yards rushing and a touchdown. More importantly, he took some hits, bounced back and showed that he’s physically ready to handle the regular season.
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The Jacksonville Jaguars backfield looked special in the preseason.
Leonard Fournette appeared lighter and more nimble, and backup T.J. Yeldon ran for a solid 4.1 yards per carry. Receiving back Corey Grant caught a team-high nine passes for 93 yards.
As a result, Jacksonville will likely lean on the run once again in 2018.
Quarterback Blake Bortles made some impressive plays during the preseason, but he also showed his penchant for mistakes. He tossed three interceptions to go with four sacks and zero touchdowns. His passer rating of 67.5 fell below those of Cody Kessler (103.1) and Tanner Lee (71.7).
It doesn’t help that standout wide receiver Marqise Lee suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Jacksonville has a championship-caliber defense, but the offense is more of a question mark. For the Jaguars to make it to the Super Bowl, they’ll need to rely on their ground attack.
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Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes made only one start as a rookie in 2017. However, it seems as though it was enough to give the Texas Tech product the confidence he needed to take over for Alex Smith.
“The start last year has helped me a ton moving into this year,” Mahomes told reporters over the summer. “It really helped me get the speed and not being too panicked and just calming yourself down.”
Mahomes has looked like a starter in the preseason, and a quality one at that. He completed 72.1 percent of his passes, averaged 8.5 yards per attempt and posted a passer rating of 103.5.
It’s too early to tell whether Mahomes will be an upgrade over Smith or if he’ll even be effective when meaningful games are on the line. But Chiefs fans can rest easy knowing the game isn’t too big for Mahomes and that he’s up to the challenge of taking over as the face of the franchise.
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The Los Angeles Chargers may have the league’s best pass-rushing duo in Melvin Ingram and Joey Bosa. Each registered at least 10 sacks in 2017, and the Chargers had no need to see either in the preseason.
If this preseason is any indication, the Chargers have a pair of young pass-rushers who appear poised to contribute to the rotation. Third-year linebacker Chris Landrum and rookie second-round linebacker Uchenna Nwosu each logged 3.0 sacks in the preseason.
Landrum spent all of 2017 on injured reserve, but he appeared in 10 games as an undrafted free agent in 2016.
Having depth behind Ingram and Bosa is critical for two reasons. For one, it will help the two stars get some rest during games, making them fresher and more dangerous. Secondly, it will ensure the Chargers can still get to the quarterback when Ingram and Bosa are off the field.
That’s great news for the Chargers and terrible news for other quarterbacks in the AFC West.
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Plenty of teams enter each season believing they have the talent to win the Super Bowl. There are far fewer who believe in their own talent so much that they’re willing to forego chemistry building to ensure health.
The Los Angeles Rams are that sort of rare team. Starters like quarterback Jared Goff and running back Todd Gurley didn’t even sniff the preseason playing field.
“Want to get to that first game in Oakland healthy and ready to go,” head coach Sean McVay told reporters, last week. “And we’re giving ourselves a chance to do that.”
If the Rams didn’t believe they had a championship roster—and enough chemistry already established—they likely would have taken a different approach to the preseason. Instead, Los Angeles is exuding confidence heading into 2018.
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The Miami Dolphins lost some key players this offseason (including Mike Pouncey, Jarvis Landry and Ndamukong Suh), but they’re getting perhaps their most important one back.
On Sunday, quarterback Ryan Tannehill will take the field for his first regular-season appearance since 2016.
Tannehill missed all of last season after undergoing ACL surgery, but you wouldn’t know it based on his preseason performance. He moved in the pocket well, flashed his athleticism and was surgically accurate. He finished the preseason 29-of-39 for 247 yards and a touchdown, with a passer rating of 99.0.
The next challenge for the Texas A&M product will be showing he can operate Adam Gase’s offense at a high level and emerge as a top-tier quarterback. For now, though, he’s healthy and ready to start, which is a big development for a team looking to be relevant in the AFC East.
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The Minnesota Vikings decided not to retain Keenum this offseason, instead opting to bring in former Washington Redskins starter Kirk Cousins on an unprecedented three-year, $84 million fully guaranteed deal. In theory, Cousins could open up Minnesota’s passing attack in a way Keenum could not.
After the preseason, however, there’s no definitive sign that will be the case.
Cousins was fine in the preseason, but his numbers were eerily similar to what Keenum produced in Denver. Both completed exactly 60.0 percent of their passes. Keenum threw for 231 yards, while Cousins threw for 236. The notable difference between the two is that Cousins tossed a touchdown and Keenum did not.
We may see a different Cousins in the regular season once Vikings offensive coordinator John DeFilippo installs a more complex scheme. However, the preseason suggests Minnesota’s quarterback situation may not be all that different than what it was a year ago.
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New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is now 41 years old, and he finally admits that the end of his playing career is on the far horizon.
“I can see the end line now, but I still feel like I have a lot to play for, a lot left to do in my career, and a lot left in the tank,” Brady said, via TB12Sports.com. “It’s motivating to me to finish the right way.”
Instead, Brady looks as lethal as ever under center. The reigning MVP completed 70.5 percent of his passes in the preseason, tossed two touchdowns, didn’t take a sack and posted a passer rating of 101.9.
The Patriots are going to go as far as Brady can take them in 2018. Despite lingering questions about his supporting cast, Brady appears as poised as ever to carry them far.
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The New Orleans Saints leaned heavily on the backfield duo of Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara in 2017. With Ingram set to serve a four-game suspension to start the season, the Saints may have to focus a bit more on the passing game this season.
As long as Drew Brees remains healthy, that shouldn’t be a problem.
New Orleans made two big moves to help bolster its passing attack this offseason. It signed restricted free agent Cameron Meredith to a two-year deal and used a third-round pick on former Central Florida receiver Tre’Quan Smith.
Both Meredith and Smith have impressed in the preseason. Smith led all Saints players with 15 receptions and 189 yards, while Meredith caught two passes for 72 yards, including a 56-yarder.
Brees will make a lot of receivers look good, but he didn’t play much in the preseason. Meredith and Smith may be even better once they see consistent game action with their star quarterback.
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We don’t know what to expect from rookie Saquon Barkley and the New York Giants rushing attack this season. A hamstring injury limited Barkley to four preseason carries, and backup Jonathan Stewart mustered a miserable minus-five yards on 10 carries.
We do know, however, that the receiving corps is healthy a year after it lost both Odell Beckham Jr. and Sterling Shepard to injuries.
Shepard was a revelation in the preseason, catching 10 passes for 114 yards. While Beckham didn’t play a snap in the preseason, he proved healthy enough in camp to warrant a five-year, $95 million extension.
There’s no way the Giants would have given Beckham a record-setting deal if he didn’t appear to be the same playmaker he was prior to his injury.
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In mid-March, the New York Jets traded up to the No. 3 pick in the draft without knowing which players would be available there. After ending up with former USC quarterback Sam Darnold, it’s safe to say the franchise is grateful.
Darnold carried himself well in the preseason, completing 64.4 percent of his passes and tossing two touchdowns to only one interception. More importantly, he moved well in the pocket, surveyed the field quickly and never appeared overwhelmed.
He played well enough that the Jets were willing to trade Teddy Bridgewater and roll with Darnold as their Week 1 starter.
The Jets kept things simple for Darnold in the preseason, as he rarely pushed the ball downfield (he averaged 5.4 yards per attempt). He may struggle against regular-season competition at first.
However, for the first time since 2009, the Jets have a rookie quarterback they believe in.
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When the Oakland Raiders brought in Jon Gruden as head coach this offseason, they gave the former Super Bowl winner final say over roster decisions.
Gruden has made it clear he’s wielding that power.
The Raiders have made several curious roster decisions this offseason. They parted ways with former second-round pick Mario Edwards Jr., traded a third-round pick for Martavis Bryant and then released him only months later, and traded star pass-rusher Khalil Mack to the Chicago Bears for an underwhelming package of draft picks.
The Raiders have also gotten older since Gruden arrived. According to Jimmy Kempski of PhillyVoice, Oakland will field the NFL’s oldest opening-day roster since at least 2012.
We didn’t see much of Oakland’s starters in the preseason—Derek Carr, for example, attempted only seven passes. The lack of work for older players like Jordy Nelson, Marshawn Lynch and Doug Martin suggests Gruden plans to lean on his aging veterans in 2018.
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Philadelphia Eagles quarterback Carson Wentz still hasn’t been cleared for contact, which could be a problem for the defending world champions. Though Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles gives them a capable stand-in, Philly’s offense has been a mess without Wentz this preseason.
The Eagles averaged a mere 11.0 points per game in the preseason, the fourth-fewest in the league. They were shut out once, and the offensive line allowed a whopping 20 sacks.
While the offense as a whole struggled, Foles’ play was particularly worrisome. He threw two interceptions and no touchdowns, was sacked six times and produced a dreadful passer rating of 48.7.
No. 3 quarterback Nate Sudfeld posted a team-best 85.6 rating during the preseason, so Philadelphia may be inclined to turn to him if Foles struggles. The Eagles won’t want to rush Wentz back too early, but they need him under center sooner than later to return to the Super Bowl.
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Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le’Veon Bell still hasn’t signed his franchise tender, according to ESPN’s Adam Schefter, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be available or even on the roster in Week 1.
However, this doesn’t mean the Steelers won’t be able to field a functional running game.
While the ground game was mostly unimpressive this preseason—the team averaged only 3.6 yards per carry—second-year back James Conner performed well. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored one rushing touchdown, and he also caught seven passes for 61 yards.
Conner and Stevan Ridley (four receptions for 50 yards) should give the Steelers a capable backfield for as long as Bell is absent. Yes, Bell is a special talent, but Pittsburgh has enough other offensive weapons to thrive without him so long as it has a capable backfield in place.
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The San Francisco 49ers have their franchise quarterback in Jimmy Garoppolo. What they don’t have is a franchise running back.
They parted ways with Carlos Hyde in the offseason, and over the weekend, they lost free-agent acquisition Jerick McKinnon to a torn ACL.
Morris has been a 1,000-yard rusher before, but he hasn’t been a full-time starter since 2015. However, he looked the part of a leading rusher this preseason, averaging a solid 4.7 yards per carry. Along with second-year back Matt Brieda, Morris should keep San Francisco’s ground game functional.
Losing McKinnon hurts, but it shouldn’t wreck San Francisco’s playoff hopes in 2018.
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Despite putting together a stellar career at Central Florida and posting a blazing 4.38-second 40 at the scouting combine, linebacker Shaquem Griffin lasted until the fifth round of April’s draft. That’s largely because he’s missing his left hand.
However, the Seattle Seahawks didn’t think that would stop Griffin from being an effective pro.
It seems as though Seattle was right, as Griffin has been superb in the preseason. He led the team with 26 tackles, and he may start in place of an injured K.J. Wright in Week 1.
“At this point today, he’s got to be ready,” head coach Pete Carroll said of Griffin, per Liz Mathews of Seahawks Wire.
Any time a team gets a starting-caliber player in the fifth round of the draft, it’s a steal. That’s exactly what Griffin appears to be.
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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be without starting quarterback Jameis Winston for the first three games of 2018 due to his suspension after a sexual misconduct investigation. Fortunately, his absence shouldn’t significantly impact the passing game.
Tampa’s passing attack—which ranked first leaguewide during the preseason with an average of 284.5 yards per game—was effective almost regardless of who was under center. Journeyman Ryan Fitzpatrick, who is expected to start in Week 1, completed 60.7 percent of his passes and was sacked only once.
Fitzpatrick won two of his three starts in place of Winston last season.
Surviving Winston’s suspension shouldn’t be a major issue for the Buccaneers. In fact, there’s no guarantee the 2015 No. 1 overall pick will reclaim his job upon his return in Week 4.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say right now that he’s going to be the guy,” general manager Jason Licht told WFLA TV (h/t ESPN.com’s Jenna Laine).
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Shortly after being hired, Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel made it clear that he wanted to get more out of quarterback Marcus Mariota.
“There’s ways to win games in this league without a franchise quarterback,” Vrabel told reporters. “We got one, we’re going to develop him.”
Tennessee may have no choice but to lean on Mariota as a passer, as its once-dominant running game might take a step back. The Titans, who finished third in rushing two years ago, were expected to be able to rely on the tandem of Derrick Henry and Dion Lewis. However, both struggled rushing in the preseason.
As a team, the Titans averaged only 3.1 yards per carry during the preseason, and none of their backs averaged more than 3.5 yards per rush. If the ground game doesn’t significantly improve, it’ll be difficult for Tennessee to get back to the postseason.
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We don’t know exactly what to expect from the new-look Washington Redskins offense this season because we didn’t see much of the starting unit together in the preseason. Jordan Reed and receiving back Chris Thompson both missed all four games, and quarterback Alex Smith attempted only 14 passes.
What we do know is that the Redskins offense won’t feature an every-down running back. That may have been the case had rookie Derrius Guice remained healthy, but the former LSU star suffered a torn ACL in the preseason opener.
Guice’s injury leaves Washington with a backfield comprised of Thompson, Samaje Perine, Rob Kelley and former All-Pro Adrian Peterson. The 33-year-old Peterson shined in a tryout and eventually made the 53-man roster after averaging 5.1 yards per carry in the preseason.
This doesn’t mean Washington won’t have an effective backfield, as many teams employ a committee approach these days. However, it does mean the offense may be forced to pause drives to change personnel—and that fantasy owners are likely to be frustrated with Washington’s running backs.