Apologies for the amount of takeaways this week. As the regular season gets closer, the nuggets continue to multiply like fights in a joint practice.
1) The most common phrase during Steelers preseason games the last two weeks has been "Trubisky back to pass, pocket collapses." It's been hard to evaluate Mitch Trubisky under constant duress, but he's held up pretty well. Considering that he's still taking all the first-team reps in practice, it's hard to imagine Kenny Pickett taking his job.
Then again, Pickett has done everything possible in the preseason to shorten Trubisky's leash. Pickett only had eight snaps Saturday and most of them involved excellent quick decisions where he read the defense and delivered an on-target throw. He's shown touch and good situational awareness. It's curious coach Mike Tomlin gave Mason Rudolph the entire second half (29 snaps) this week rather than get Pickett more experience. All three quarterbacks have great preseason numbers. The Steelers offensive line has been so bad throughout camp and in the preseason that Tomlin may be wary of putting a rookie behind it in Week 1, but it's a matter of time now before it's Pickett's team.
2) Greg Rousseau has locked up the Bills' starting edge rusher job opposite Von Miller, if there was any doubt. With Miller and Ed Oliver attracting attention, Rousseau is set up for a jump. A.J. Epenesa appears to be the top reserve, according to Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic.
4) The Panthers installed No. 6 overall pick Ikem Ekwonu as the starting left tackle a few weeks later than expected. Practice reports indicate Ekwonu has been better as a run blocker than pass protector so far and that showed against the Patriots on Friday, when he gave up two quick sacks. In theory, the move should upgrade the Panthers at two positions, with Brady Christensen sliding inside to guard.
5) Geno Smith's first drive ended on a perfect throw that was dropped. His second drive ended on a batted ball at the line of scrimmage. His third drive had a fourth-down conversion nullified by penalty, and his fourth drive included another killer drop near the goal line. I'm in the bag for Geno, but I don't think Pete Carroll will ding Smith much for this performance, which earned the 10-year vet an 80.7 grade from PFF -- second-highest of any Seahawk on Thursday. Drew Lock missed the game after testing positive for COVID, with Carroll telling reporters afterward that Lock, who returned to practice on Sunday, was "really sick." Lock's absence changed Carroll's plans, and Smith and Lock rotated first-team reps at practice. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported Sunday the hope was that Lock could get his preseason start this week, so this battle isn't quite over yet.
6) Dontrell Hilliard appears locked in as the Titans' third-down back, according to PaulKuharsky.com. After Derrick Henry's injury last year, it will be interesting to see if Mike Vrabel backs off his workhorse's workload a bit this year.
7) The Patriots are trying to solve their cornerback shortcomings in a creative way. Jonathan Jones, one of the league's better slot corners, is now set up to start on the outside opposite Jalen Mills. This will help keep their best players on the field. Myles Bryant is the leading candidate for the slot spot.
8) Bill Belichick is the latest coach that believes he can unlock Ty Montgomery as an offensive weapon. The 29-year-old is the expected replacement for James White and the most likely candidate to be a thorn in the side of Rhamondre Stevenson fantasy owners.
9) Your weekly Justin Watson update: With JuJu Smith-Schuster banged up, Watson was the Chiefs' starter opposite Marques Valdez-Scantling in two-receiver sets. While MVS was not on the same page as Mahomes on one potential big play and dropped another pass, Watson had two grabs for 53 yards in two drives before Mahomes left the game.
10) It's good to see Titans 2021 first-round pick Caleb Farley healthy and playing football again. The amount of football he's played in the preseason indicates he's behind rookie Roger McCreary, making Farley fourth on the depth chart. He looks a little stiff. The Titans' young corners -- their top four players at the position were all drafted in the first three rounds since 2020 -- could make or break their defense.
11) Former Eagle Matt Pryor is set to take over the Colts' starting left tackle job. Along with questions at right guard and an overall lack of depth, this group is clearly inferior to the one that Philip Rivers got to play behind two years ago.
12) I will admit to being unfamiliar with undrafted Steelers rookie running back Jaylen Warren a month ago. Now he appears to be the favorite for the backup job behind Najee Harris, according to Mark Kaboly of The Athletic. The man is 5-foot-8 and the cousin of "Fast" Willie Parker. What's not to love?
13) Mack Hollins has emerged as the Raiders' No. 3 receiver. He's not quite a fantasy sleeper, but it's impressive how Hollins took hold of a job in a deep group.
14) Antonio Gibson did not have a special teams role in Ron Rivera's first two seasons as Washington coach. Gibson returned the opening kickoff Saturday, moments before rookie Brian Robinson started the game at running back. Gibson had two carries and three catches in the game, mostly playing with backups. While I don't think the two runners have flipped roles, Rivera flatly said last week he is going to go with the hot hand at running back and that Gibson needs to "run harder." After Gibson received 206 touches as a rookie and 300 last season, it's safe to expect a reduced workload from the 24-year-old.
15) Before Malcolm Rodriguez stole America's heart on Hard Knocks, he got a crucial stamp of approval in this column two weeks ago. This is not a manufactured storyline, but a surprise position battle result being documented in real time. Rodrigo's rise could also say a lot about the Lions' still-lacking linebacker depth chart, where Derrick Barnes and Jarrad Davis are also vying for snaps. I love the Lions' defensive coaching staff, but there are a lot of questions for this group at linebacker and cornerback.
16) In a modest surprise, 2020 No. 3 overall pick Jeff Okudah is trending toward winning a starting job opposite Amani Oruwariye, per Kyle Meinke of MLive.com. While this is at least partly based on the up-and-down play of Will Harris, it should be a welcome development for the Lions.
17) It's cool to see a young player realize a lifelong dream in real time. USFL MVP KaVontae Turpin returned a punt and kickoff for touchdowns during the Cowboys' win Saturday night. By the second half of the game, he was asked to take his shoulder pads off, and Dallas coach Mike McCarthy confirmed Turpin will be their returner to start the season. Considering how thin the Cowboys are at wideout, don't be surprised to see Turpin worked into the mix as a gadget player.
(The Chargers special teams, meanwhile, is clearly in midseason form giving up two touchdowns in one half.)
18) According to Nick Eastman at the Cowboys’ team website, 2021 second-round pick Kelvin Joseph is not a lock to make the final roster. That would be a surprise, but he clearly hasn't cracked the top rotation of Cowboys corners: Trevon Diggs, Anthony Brown and Jourdan Lewis. With Lewis (hamstring) possibly out for Week 1, fifth-round rookie DaRon Bland may be next in line after getting love throughout camp.
19) A Sunday headline from the OG site Pewter Report: "Bucs' (Kyle) Trask Experiment Is All But Over." While that feels harsh, Trask likely sunk his chance to be the Bucs' backup QB this season with a rough outing against the Titans. Tom Brady, who returned to practice on Monday, should be backed up by Blaine Gabbert again.
20) Before Aaron Stinnie tore his ACL and MCL on Saturday, it appeared the veteran was going to win the team's starting left guard spot by default. Nick Leverett is now expected to get the gig over second-round pick Luke Goedeke, according to Scott Reynolds of Pewter Report. Tom Brady makes offensive lines look better, but the Bucs have endured a worst-case scenario camp after also losing center Ryan Jensen for the season. Right tackle Tristan Wirfs is also struggling with a strained oblique muscle.
21) Kellen Mond threw two grisly picks in the Vikings' second preseason game. While Sean Mannion may be better, picking up the team's backup from a different roster makes sense. On Monday, Minnesota made a trade with the Raiders for Nick Mullens, who is probably now the favorite for the job, unless the team can find someone better. The Rams can't cut John Wolford or Bryce Perkins when they know Vikings coach (and former Rams offensive coordinator) Kevin O'Connell is right there, waiting to swoop in.
22) The Cardinals cornerback situation is a concern, with the Chiefs looming as Week 1 opponents. Early in camp, Kliff Kingsbury made it clear the starting job opposite Byron Murphy was not necessarily Marco Wilson's. Antonio Hamilton, a seventh-year pro with four career starts, is the leader in the clubhouse, according to the team's website. The Cardinals will keep an eye on the waiver wire too.
23) The Bears' 2021 second-round pick Teven Jenkins, reported by NFL Network Insiders Ian Rapoport and Mike Garafolo to be on the trade block earlier in camp, has moved to right guard and immediately was installed with the starting unit. If Jenkins winds up starting, it could be next to Larry Borom. Veteran pickup Riley Reiff was the expected starter, but he's struggled to stay on the field.
25) One of the early egregious errors of the Urban Meyer era in Jacksonville was misusing second-round pick Tyson Campbell as a rookie, trying to make Campbell into a slot corner until late September last year, when C.J. Henderson was traded. With Campbell on the outside for good now, the daily practice reports from the excellent John Shipley at Jaguar Report indicate he already looks like the team's No.1 cornerback, and like one of their best defensive players overall. Campbell backed up the love by shutting down Steelers wideout George Pickens on Saturday. The Jaguars need foundational pieces on defense, and Campbell is shaping into one.
26) While I'm stealing Shipley's takes, it's been fascinating to read that veteran journeyman Zay Jones has outperformed high-priced free agent Christian Kirk and former first-rounder Evan Engram in Jaguars camp, emerging as Trevor Lawrence's favorite target in August. Kirk did have a nice effort (five catches for 54 yards) in the Jags' second preseason game.
28) Saints coach Dennis Allen said dual-threat running back Alvin Kamara looks "exceptionally explosive" and has had as "good a camp" as Allen has seen. I usually don't get too excited about campspeak, but Kamara's talent is otherworldly, and no injury news is great news for him.
29) Courtland Sutton wins in the areas of the field that Russell Wilson loves best. While the Broncos' starters won't play in the preseason, the practice reports cite Sutton and Wilson's chemistry as undeniable. More importantly, Sutton is by all accounts moving better and playing with more confidence than he did a year ago, when he was fresh off a torn ACL.
30) Chargers second-year pro Joshua Palmer's improved practice reports have been backed up by flashy preseason play. Look for a leap for the promising young third wideout behind Keenan Allen and Mike Williams.
31) 49ers 2020 first-rounder Javon Kinlaw, coming off ACL surgery in 2021, is noticeably slimmer and looks healthier than he has as a pro. He's set to start and could be the skeleton key to making the 49ers' front seven the best in football.
32) No news is mostly good news when it comes to the Vikings' pass-rushing duo of Za'Darius Smith and Danielle Hunter. Both players are healthy. Noted big-nugget-number wannabe Arif Hasan observed that Smith was the Vikings' defensive standout in joint practices with the 49ers, matching Nick Bosa's performance. Minnesota's defensive line could be nasty, with the edge duo complemented by Dalvin Tomlinson and Harrison Phillips stopping the run in the middle.
33) Tashan Reed of The Athletic reports that the Raiders are interested in Ndamukong Suh, who is seeking $9 million per year. That number explains why the 35-year-old Suh is still a free agent despite showing he can still play as a Buc last year. If Suh is willing to take half that much, he should be with a team by Week 1. The Raiders, Browns and Cowboys all have too much cap space and could use a big body up front.
THOUGHTS APPROACHING CUTS
34) Bills tight end O.J. Howard was playing late in the fourth quarter of the preseason opener. He did not appear to be moving that well. The guaranteed money in Howard's contract and the lack of depth at the position should keep the former Bucs first-rounder safe, but he may not have much of a role.
35) The Rams aren't even using 2021 second-round pick Tutu Atwell in the preseason, which is wild. His roster spot appears safe even though he's a 151-pound fourth (at best) receiver who doesn't play special teams. Undrafted rookie Lance McCutcheon, meanwhile, was turning around Texans cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., drafted third overall this year, on Friday night and has a shot to win the preseason triple crown in yards, catches and TD catches. Watch out, Cooper Kupp!
36) Texans defensive tackle Ross Blacklock, the No. 40 overall pick of the 2020 NFL Draft, appears to be on the outside looking in for a roster spot.
37) Former Bucs second-round running back Ronald Jones figures to be on a roster to start the year, but he is looking unlikely to make the Chiefs.
39) Complicating Shaquille Leonard's return from back surgery is that he's coming back to a new system, with Gus Bradley stepping into the defensive coordinator role for the Colts after Matt Eberflus left to coach the Bears. Zak Keefer of The Athletic noted that the plan was for Leonard to man the middle linebacker role, with Bobby Okereke on the weak side. That is a bit of a shift for Leonard, who does not sound close to returning, based on coach Frank Reich's quotes. It almost feels like the minimum amount of time Leonard will miss is the four games he'll have to be out by virtue of being on the PUP list.
40) Pete Carroll was surely hoping his quarterback competition would be rendered irrelevant by the Seahawks' status as one of the most run-heavy teams in football. But the procedure second-round pick Kenneth Walker recently underwent to repair a hernia could complicate matters. Carroll was initially optimistic about Walker returning for Week 1, but he said Sunday there is no timeline on his recovery. Carroll wants his 1-2 punch, with Walker and Rashaad Penny, to drive the offense, but it could wind up being the two runners taking turns while the other is hurt. Why does this always happen to the Seahawks' backfield?
41) The Rams are that team that will play it safe. They are expressing no serious concern with Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson's soft-tissue injuries. Past precedent -- including this month -- suggests it is unlikely, however, that both running backs will stay healthy through an NFL season.
43) There are lots of different paths to recovery from a torn Achilles. Jets pass rusher Carl Lawson's is apparently on the one where he immediately resumes his role as one of the team's best players in practice. The timing of his injury last August gave Lawson, a high-profile signing last offseason, a better chance to be all the way back right away in 2022.
44) It's starting to look like 49ers right tackle Mike McGlinchey won't be back for the start of the season. (He will miss this week of practice.) Kyle Shanahan held out Colton McKivitz from the team's preseason game because he's the starter right now. It's hard to overstate how new and inexperienced the non-Trent Williams members of the 49ers' line are. San Francisco could be debuting four new starters in Week 1, all of whom have meager NFL pedigrees.
45) 2021 second-round pick Levi Onwuzurike missed most of last year's training camp with a back injury and lasted one padded practice this year before suffering another back injury. Detroit's front is deep. It's just not as deep as expected if Onwuzurike doesn't contribute and Romeo Okwara (coming back from an Achilles injury) isn't ready for the start of the season.
46) The Packers activated David Bakhtiari, who missed most of last season after tearing his ACL in 2020, from the PUP list Sunday so that he could start doing individual drills at practice. While coach Matt LaFleur cautioned that that doesn't have anything to do with the left tackle's Week 1 status, it's a nice show of optimism. Staying on PUP through next week would have ruled out his chances of playing in the first four weeks. Second-round receiver Christian Watson also took part in his first team drills of camp Sunday.
48) Dolphins cornerback Byron Jones remains on the PUP list after undergoing surgery this offseason, and his status for Week 1 is clearly in question. Miami is thin at the position, and three depth players were hurt on Saturday.
49) It was nice to see Ravens cornerback Marcus Peters, who missed all of 2021 with a torn ACL, come off the PUP list earlier than expected last week. His status for Week 1 remains uncertain, while All-Pro left tackle Ronnie Stanley is a total mystery. He still hasn't practiced because of an ankle injury and has played seven games since 2019. This would be the week for Stanley to return to make it back in time for the opener. If not, Ravens fans can look at their offensive line and start to panic a bit.
50) Everyone (raising hand) wants to see what James Cook can do in the Bills' offense. A resurgent summer from Zack Moss and some reported struggles in pass protection from Cook could have his role smaller than expected to start the season, according to Joe Buscaglia of The Athletic.
51) It's probably a good sign the Texans didn't use rookie running back Dameon Pierce in their second preseason game. While the NFL cognoscenti overreacts to preseason usage (ahem), I saw what I saw last week. Lovie Smith saw it, too.
53) San Francisco's second-round pass rusher Drake Jackson has earned notice from beat writers throughout camp, and his explosion is obvious in the preseason. The NFC West can't be excited about the 49ers uncovering yet another edge rusher.
54) It appears based on preseason usage that Saints first-round left tackle Trevor Penning has lost his battle for a starting job behind James Hurst. Penning did have a better outing in his second preseason game. Hurst has a foot injury, however, which is supposed to be minor. With Terron Armstead gone, the Saints' offensive line has way more question marks than it did in the Drew Brees era.
55) For much of the offseason, the Cowboys and their fans acted like their receiver situation was fine, slotting in third-round rookie Jalen Tolbert into a huge role as if that's easy for most third-round rookies. Reality has hit during Tolbert's understandable ups and downs in camp and the preseason. (A mental error cost him a touchdown Saturday) Dallas' other options for snaps outside of CeeDee Lamb are ... Noah Brown and Simi Fehoko? This is the week the Cowboys should bring in a veteran receiver, but they've been too stubborn so far.
56) Packers fourth-round rookie sensation Romeo Doubs has a little young T.O. in him in that every game (and practice apparently) includes outrageous catches and multiple killer drops. I love how Doubs responded to Aaron Rodgers calling out his receivers for drops with confidence.
"It's no big deal," Doubs said via The Athletic. "I know I can catch the football. I know I'm confident enough with the hands that I have."
57) Rookie speedster Tyquan Thornton was one of the few pleasant surprises of Patriots camp until he hurt his collarbone Friday night, as first reported by NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport. The surprise second-round pick had earned a big role and had something (speed!) the rest of the offense lacks. NFL Network's Mike Giardi said Thornton could return in eight weeks.
58) The Panthers gave up a fourth-round pick and their 2023 third-rounder to draft quarterback Matt Corral, who suffered a season-ending foot injury in the team's second preseason game. It's worth wondering if the next Panthers regime will now be missing that pick while inheriting a quarterback they didn't select. Corral landed in a brutal spot. He barely got any snaps in training camp as the Panthers went through with the Baker Mayfield-Sam Darnold competition charade -- a battle Mayfield not so surprisingly won.
"Garrett has got elite body control and hands. He's a dude that has freakish route-running ability, what he can do with his body when trying to shake (corners). What he's got to do is he's gotta get stronger and understand that all that work at the line of scrimmage, you don't have so much time," Saleh said. "So he's gotta move faster. But love his mindset ... he's going to be a good one, for sure."
Imagine that: A coach giving an incisive scouting report for his own player!
60) Malik Willis has had the ultimate rookie quarterback preseason. The flashes are mouthwatering. The struggles to run the Titans' offense consistently are real. I like how much the Titans are playing him. Willis is clearly hearing his coaches about not leaving the pocket. About his touchdown throw, Willis told reporters, "I finally stood in there for once."
Logan Woodside has thrown three interceptions in limited work and will probably make it through waivers to be kept on the practice squad. If the Titans were truly uncomfortable with Willis as the team's backup to Ryan Tannehill, Woodside wouldn't be the guy to keep ahead of Willis.
61) At the risk of overhyping Kyle Philips, the Titans' rookie slot receiver looked the part with a nice sideline grab and fantastic punt return. Once again, he left the game well before first-rounder Treylon Burks. Each rookie wideout only had one reception in a game the Titans struggled to do much offensively.
62) The Dolphins' fourth-round rookie Erik Ezukanma had a monstrous game against the Raiders (six catches, 114 yards) and is shaping up to be Miami's fourth receiver. He's taking Preston Williams' spot as a downfield threat that can win with physicality. Williams, Mo Sanu and possibly Lynn Bowden are interesting names on the bubble in Miami, too.
63) It's a positive that Vikings cornerback Andrew Booth's ankle injury suffered Saturday night doesn't appear to be serious. It's less of a positive that the second-round pick was out there playing with deep reserves, and that this injury was a recurrence of a previous known issue, according to coach Kevin O'Connell.
64) Bengals fourth-rounder Cordell Volson might have taken the starting job at left guard from last year's second-round pick, Jackson Carman. The Bengals need some good news on the line, with La'el Collins still failing to take team reps at right tackle. Asked about all the shuffling up front, Zac Taylor depressingly said he's "dealt with it for four years, so it's nothing new."
65) The Seahawks are on track to start two rookie tackles, with third-round pick Abe Lucas impressing in the preseason opener. No. 9 overall pick Charles Cross had five penalties at left tackle in Seattle's second preseason game, which is less than ideal. Pass rusher Boye Mafe has flashed in the preseason, and the Seahawks also like their rookie corners Coby Bryant and Tariq Woolen; Carroll's team could wind up leading the league in rookie snaps.
Woolen, the 6-foot-4 product who ran a 4.26-second 40-yard dash, was lining up as a starter when the Seahawks started to prepare for their third preseason game. I know there are injuries ahead of him on the depth chart, but his rise is getting serious.
66) Rookie Giants edge rusher Kayvon Thibodeaux will miss three to four weeks after suffering a sprained MCL on Sunday. While that's better than any worst-case scenario for the No. 5 overall pick, the injury raises more questions about a talent-poor Giants defense. Coordinator Don Wink Martindale is as blitz-mad as ever, based on practice reports and the preseason, but that approach may not work without quality cornerbacks to hold up in the back end.
67) Bills rookie Khalil Shakir has looked so good that I wonder if the team is considering going even younger at the wide receiver position. If Shakir can fill the No. 4 role and be a backup to Isaiah McKenzie, the Bills might see if anyone would give up a draft pick for veteran Jamison Crowder.
68) Something odd is going on with Patriots wideout Kendrick Bourne. He did not participate in the team's second preseason game after being kicked out of practice Tuesday and playing with the team's backups on Wednesday. Bill Belichick just curtly said Bourne "wasn't available." Bourne had 800 yards and five scores last year, inspiring some belief he'd crank it up in Year 2 with the Pats. Instead he's barely been targeted by Mac Jones in camp. Jakobi Meyers and DeVante Parker look like the safest picks for big roles. If not for Tyquan Thornton's injury, Bourne trade chatter would make sense this week. Considering it's Belichick, I still wouldn't rule out anything.
69) The Dolphins kept Mike Gesicki with the franchise tag this year and will pay him $10.9 million, but he could be a square peg in a round hole in Mike McDaniel's offense. Gesicki has spent the offseason trying to learn how to block and has reportedly seen few targets in practice. On Saturday night, fellow tight end Durham Smythe left the game, while Gesicki continued to play with backups.
I wonder if the Dolphins would consider trading Gesicki either now or during the season if he's not going to have a big role. He showed he can be a dynamic slot receiver, even if he's not a fit in this offense.
70) Last week in this space, I noted how the Browns could afford to deal running back Kareem Hunt because of their deep backfield if they found a taker. The comedy duo Bo Wulf and Zach Berman of The Athletic noted Friday that Eagles coach Nick Sirianni introduced himself to Hunt at joint practices in the same week that Miles Sanders hurt his hamstring. Another route would be trying to trade a spare Eagles receiver for D'Ernest Johnson. It wasn't so long ago the Browns were deep at wideout and the Eagles were scrambling for options, but the analytical tables have turned.
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