2021 NFL preseason Week 1: What we learned about each AFC team

There is so much football-nugget goodness to get to after the first week of the preseason that we're going with team-by-team notes. Here is what we learned about each AFC squad:

Baltimore Ravens
Baltimore Ravens
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The Ravens have had a dour August. Lamar Jackson returned from his second nasty bout of COVID-19 just in time for his rookie first-round receiver, Rashod Bateman, to undergo groin surgery, which knocked Bateman out through start of the season. The Ravens hope he's back in September, which sounds like Week 3 at best. Coach John Harbaugh announced Monday that backup quarterback Trace McSorely is out a few weeks with a back injury. Marquise Brown has also missed nearly all of camp, elevating Sammy Watkins to WR1 status. Miles Boykin might go from possibly getting released to starting again.


Starting center Bradley Bozeman's injury in the preseason opener against the Saints was another obstacle in getting the Ravens' offensive line together. Now four of the teams' starters, including former All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley, are in some stage of rehab. None of these injuries are devastating on their own, but they are a growing concern taken together. ... Tyler Huntley's late touchdown against the Saints kept alive one of the most improbable and storied streaks in all of sports. The Ravens have won 18 straight preseason games, one away from Vince Lombardi's record, according to Rick Gosselin.

Buffalo Bills
Buffalo Bills
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First-round pick Gregory Rousseau's splashy training camp was consolidated with a flashier sack against Lions top-10 pick Penei Sewell. Rousseau should be a big part of an improved Bills pass rush. Efe Obada is reportedly having a standout camp and can play multiple positions. A.J. Epenesa has made strides in Year 2. Sean McDermott experimented in the opener against Detroit with a fun all-pass rush lineup consisting of the three names above and second-round pick Boogie Basham, whose development is coming along slower, according to The Athletic. Replace Basham with veteran Jerry Hughes, and that's a frightening group. ... Former Panthers first-round pick Vernon Butler may not make the team.

Cincinnati Bengals
Cincinnati Bengals
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The decision to draft receiver Ja'Marr Chase fifth overall was part of a calculated gamble that the Bengals could get enough offensive line help in the second round of a deep draft. But their second-round pick, guard Jackson Carman, has lost his snaps with the starting unit and was the fourth guard to enter Saturday's game against the Bucs, also behind fourth-round pick D'Ante Smith. The starters at guard now appear to be free-agent pickup Quinton Spain and last year's starter, Michael Jordan, who struggled all of 2020. ... Chase's admittedly slow camp isn't helping the Bengals in this area of conversation. Chase caught one screen pass in the opener that he thought he could have gained a lot more yards on. (I agree.) ... On the plus side, I'm buying a modest amount of Bengals defensive improvement stock. Cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, a free-agent pickup from Dallas, is one player to keep an eye on.

Cleveland Browns
Cleveland Browns
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2017 first-round pick David Njoku is reportedly in the midst of the best camp of his career. We've heard Njoku hype before, but his big playoff performance against the Chiefs (four catches, 59 yards) is something to build off. He provides a physical and explosive element the other Browns tight ends don't. ... Takk McKinley, signed to potentially be the Browns' third pass rusher, has been away from the team for personal reasons for weeks. Coach Kevin Stefanski says he's "hopeful" McKinley will be ready for the season, which sounds ominous. ... While rookie Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah plays a different position than McKinley, "JOK's" preseason debut added juice to the Browns' defense. After missing the start of camp on the COVID list, he could threaten for starting snaps, especially with linebacker Mack Wilson banged up. ... First-round pick Greg Newsome and Greedy Williams, who missed all of 2020, are competing for a starting outside corner job. The team's secondary depth is so much better than it was.

Denver Broncos
Denver Broncos
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Quarterback Drew Lock made an excellent opening statement during his nine dropbacks in the Broncos' preseason opener against the Vikings, but the depth of Denver's offensive talent stood out even more. Second-year pro K.J. Hamler, nominally the team's fourth wideout, is going to be a problem in single coverage. His speed pops off the screen, as does rookie running back Javonte Williams' vision. Williams is such a classic zone runner, and his instincts for finding the soft spot of the defense stood out, like it did in college. He had a great touchdown run called back because of a penalty and will team with Melvin Gordon to make one of the better 1-2 punches in football.

Lock is on a roll after a strong intrasquad scrimmage, although veteran QB Teddy Bridgewater was sharp, too, leading the Broncos' backups to 10 points in two possessions. He had a second touchdown called back because of a penalty and will start the Broncos' second preseason game. ... The Broncos played a ton of heavy personnel packages, which could be a sign of where this offense is going. (And a warning to fantasy owners.) At tight end, Noah Fant is due for a Pro Bowl season, while second-year pro Albert Okwuegbunam is the most talented backup in football. ... Denver's endless search for a right tackle isn't over, with Bobby Massie and Cal Anderson battling for a job that figures to be an offensive weak spot.

Houston Texans
Houston Texans
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If rookie third-round pick Davis Mills is auditioning for playing time in December, recent practice reports and a solid enough preseason debut against Green Bay was a cautious step in the right direction. He is playing ahead of Jeff Driskel, who Aaron Reiss of The Athletic has struggled during camp. That indicates Mills is in line for the backup job behind Tyrod Taylor. ... Recently acquired receiver Anthony Miller’s shoulder injury could sideline him for a while, as head coach David Culley would only commit Monday to Miller returning sometime this year. Even when he does, Brandin Cooks, Chris Conley, rookie Nico Collins and probably Keke Coutee are all ahead of Miller for snaps. Conley looks like a starter, while veteran running back David Johnson does not. Even though he's guaranteed money, it wouldn't be surprising to see him behind Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram for touches. ... The Texans traded for former Patriots tackle Marcus Cannon, but he has yet to practice. He's due nearly $7 million and is at risk of not making the team.

Indianapolis Colts
Indianapolis Colts
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You wouldn't have known second-year pro Jacob Eason was struggling through a rough training camp by watching his preseason debut. While he has a Bortlesian tendency to only throw fastballs and missed high a few times, his best four to five throws of a 15-of-21 performance rivaled those of any quarterback who played this weekend. He wasn't great in the rare times he was pressured, but he was decisive overall, and his two-minute drill was sharp. ... Eason is competing with rookie Sam Ehlinger, who started splitting first-team reps with him last week. The sixth-rounder overcame an ugly interception to lead the Colts on two nifty scoring drives filled with improvisational highlights. There's a potential scenario here where the Colts fall for fool's gold in the preseason and decline to acquire a veteran to pair with Carson Wentz (out after undergoing foot surgery) until it's too late, but my guess is the next two preseason games won't go so well for the quarterbacks.


One reason to worry about any Colts quarterback, including Wentz, is the left tackle situation. Eric Fisher isn't expected back in Week 1, and the in-house options to hold the fort (Sam Tevi, Will Holden, Julie'n Davenport) have been predictably uninspiring. It was ugly at times Sunday against the Panthers. ... The Colts didn't play many defensive starters in their preseason opener, so it was notable that the No. 2 cornerback competition between Rock Ya-Sin and T.J. Carrie continued on the field. Carrie was ruled out following a knee injury early, and Ya-Sin reportedly hasn't taken hold of the job. The offseason losses along the Colts' defensive line and the questions in the secondary are a bad combination. ... The Colts did get good injury comeback news, with running back Marlon Mack in action again after missing most of 2020, while annual tease Parris Campbell also made a big play down the field. The oft-injured receiver stands to add a much-needed explosive element to the offense in Year 3.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Jacksonville Jaguars
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It was a tiny sample size, but Trevor Lawrence vacillated between looking uncomfortable and making a few splashy plays in his two series against Cleveland. He could probably use more work in the next two games, but it was notable that he out-played Gardner Minshew. ... C.J. Henderson has had a wild camp, going from the COVID-19 list to an absence for personal reasons to trade rumors to 29 excellent snaps in the preseason opener. If the Jaguars are trying to showcase the 2020 first-round pick, it worked. It's also a reminder he still has a chance to be Jacksonville's best cornerback. ... Speaking of tiny sample sizes, tight end Tim Tebow ranked 38th out of 40 Jacksonville offensive players in Pro Football Focus' grades during his 16 snaps. He played almost exclusively on passing downs. ... Inside linebacker Joe Schobert, who was signed last offseason by the previous regime, will wind up getting paid $18 million by the Jags for one season of work, including the reported part of his 2021 salary that was apparently required to essentially give him away to the Steelers via trade. This is what happens when a new staff takes over, but I'm curious to see if there will be any other abrupt transactions.

Kansas City Chiefs
Kansas City Chiefs
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After spending a lot of money and resources on their offensive line this offseason, the Chiefs are looking likely to start three players with zero experience to open the season: 2021 second-round pick Creed Humphrey at center, 2021 sixth-rounder Trey Smith at right guard and 2020 third-rounder Lucas Niang (who opted out of 2020) at right tackle. Two bigger names (guards Kyle Long and Laurent Duvernay-Tardif) are hurt, which is helping to usher in quite a youth movement on the line, to go with veteran trade acquisition Orlando Brown at left tackle and signee Joe Thuney at left guard. ... Veteran Jerick McKinnon says he finally feels fully recovered from the knee problems that dogged him for much of the last three years in San Francisco, and he looked like it in preseason action, showing some of his old short-area explosion. He's always been a smart runner and could wind up getting more touches this season than expected. ... It's clear, based on practice and preseason usages, that third-year pro Juan Thornhill is battling just to keep a primary backup spot at safety, with Daniel Sorensen the obvious starter opposite Tyrann Mathieu.

Las Vegas Raiders
Las Vegas Raiders
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Fifth-round pick Nate Hobbs is in line to start at slot cornerback as a rookie in Week 1, while last year's first-round pick, Damon Arnette, an outside corner, probably comes off the bench. ... Tight end Darren Waller last took part in practice on Aug. 2. I don't want to watch this offense without Waller in it, but the Raiders don't seem worried. ... Vic Tafur of The Athletic notes that Carl Nassib appears to have locked up the team's No. 3 pass-rusher role, behind Yannick Ngakoue and Maxx Crosby. That leaves former top-five overall pick Clelin Ferrell fourth in the rotation. ... Not only is second-year pro Bryan Edwards starting ahead of veteran John Brown, Edwards is getting the "preseason isn't necessary" treatment of an established starter.

Los Angeles Chargers
Los Angeles Chargers
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Chris Harris is playing the "star" role with the Chargers that Jalen Ramsey made famous in new coach Brandon Staley's scheme, back when Staley was the Rams' defensive coordinator. I love Harris, but he's coming off a relative down year in Denver in 2019, then an injured one with the Chargers in 2020. He's 32 years old. ... Safety Derwin James, meanwhile, appears slated to play a lot of snaps near the line of scrimmage in a "money 'backer" type role, something he did well in college, too. ... Asante Samuel Jr. appears on track to get the starting job opposite Harris by Week 1, but it's not decided yet. 


My takeaway from attending the Chargers-Rams preseason game was that rookie wideout Josh Palmer was the most significant player on the field for either team. (This was a low bar to clear.) Palmer is headed for the Chargers' No. 3 wideout role, which is bigger than ever, with tight end Hunter Henry gone and Mike Williams always an injury risk. ... The team could have a great linebacker group if Drue Tranquill and Kyzir White hit close to their ceiling, while second-year pro Kenneth Murray takes a leap. 

Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins
0-1

Jaylen Waddle sure doesn't look like someone still struggling to regain his quickness coming off an injury-abbreviated 2020. The No. 6 overall pick's one touch in the preseason opener was a punt return where he made two players miss badly and safely cruised out of bounds without a tackler getting anywhere near him. The practice reports have been increasingly encouraging as camp has ramped up. ... Will Fuller has been absent throughout camp, and DeVante Parker is banged up, two statements that sound familiar. Albert Wilson may wind up having a bigger role in this offense than expected. ... Tua Tagovailoa has more weapons this year and should have better protection. That was the case in his performance against Chicago, which contained a lot of good decisions and throws, until a red-zone interception

New England Patriots
New England Patriots
1-0

First-round pick Mac Jones' preseason debut backed up all the practice reports; he looks like he belongs. His quick footwork and decision-making against Washington were a lot more impressive than the numbers showed. Bill Belichick's decision to play Jones one series with the starters was telling, as was Jones' ability to run a two-minute drill in his first appearance. Jones has a chance to start Week 1. Even if Cam Newton keeps the QB1 gig, his job security figures to last only until the next bad performance. ... Despite making some noise at training camp, 2019 first-round pick N'Keal Harry still appears more likely to get cut or traded than he does to make a huge impact. He disappeared in the team's preseason game (one catch for 4 yards) while playing against backups. 


Sony Michel is another former first-round pick to keep an eye on. He's clearly behind Damien Harris in the team's pecking order and has no special teams value -- the team, meanwhile, is deep at running back. .. The lingering Stephon Gilmore injury/hold-in is nearing an inflection point. If he doesn't practice soon, he may not be fully ready for Week 1. The Patriots have cap space, and they seem likely to use some of it to make the cornerback happy. ... The ascension of second-year pro Josh Uche, along with the returns of Kyle Van Noy (who spent 2020 with Miami) and Dont'a Hightower (who opted out last season), has turned linebacker from a liability to a big strength. This is a top-10 defensive roster. 

New York Jets
New York Jets
1-0

Zach Wilson's solid, if short, preseason opener should quiet down the daily overreaction to his up-and-down training camp. He showed good anticipation and serious pop on his fastball on a few third-and-long conversions. With that said, I don't understand how the Jets are entering the season with Mike White as his backup. My guess: In the end, they won't! ... This Jets team is so young. Rookie fourth-round running back Michael Carter looks like the unquestioned starter unless the team picks up a veteran later in the month. There should be at least six first- or second-year starters to open the season. ... Robert Saleh's defensive bona fides will be tested with Blessuan Austin and Bryce Hall, two recent late-round picks, slated to be the starting cornerbacks. ... Quinnen Williams came off the PUP list on Monday, which is welcome news. If Carl Lawson is half as good as his August press clippings, the Jets should have a devastating duo up front. ... While this roster is full of youth, the defense especially is relying on some mid-tier veteran free-agent pickups with up-and-down histories: linebacker Jarrad Davis, defensive back Lamarcus Joyner and defensive tackle Sheldon Rankins.

Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers
2-0

Running back Benny Snell, the hero of the regular-season opener one year ago, looks like the odd man out at running back this season with Anthony McFarland the clear No. 2 and Kalen Ballage likely to make the team. ... The Dwayne Haskins reclamation project is ahead of schedule. He looked to be in control in his second preseason outing with the Steelers, allowing his natural accuracy and touch to shine. At this point, I would not be surprised to see Haskins play in the regular season over Mason Rudolph if Ben Roethlisberger were to get hurt. ... The acquisition of inside linebacker Joe Schobert from Jacksonville was a sign that the Steelers know they have coverage problems. Schobert is an upgrade Pittsburgh acquired for virtually nothing, but he also was on the outs in Jacksonville for a reason. Devin Bush is coming off major surgery and remains more promise than production at this stage. ... The Steelers' front seven has to remain elite because the secondary looks shaky. Pittsburgh doesn't really have a slot cornerback. ... Look for T.J. Watt's hold-in to become a bigger story soon. It may be the NFL contract dispute most likely to go down to the regular-season wire.

Tennessee Titans
Tennessee Titans
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For those keeping score at home, Logan Woodside threw some pretty passes in the preseason opener and is going to keep the Titans' backup job over Matt Barkley. ... Julio Jones has not practiced much at Titans camp, in case you were wondering if that trend would change with a change of locale. ... Marcus Johnson is getting a lot more hype as the Titans' No. 3 receiver than free-agent pickup Josh Reynolds. ... Rookie fourth-round pick Rashad Weaver is shaping up to be the team's third edge rusher at a thin position after a huge performance on Friday. Weaver is facing assault charges after being accused of pushing a woman to the ground in a bar and is scheduled for an Oct. 5 preliminary hearing.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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