WHERE: Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium (Canton, Ohio)
WHEN: 8 p.m. ET | NBC
NFL (preseason) football is back!
The New York Jets and Cleveland Browns are set to clash Thursday in the shadow of the hallowed halls of Canton’s Pro Football Hall of Fame.
The Browns, who are making their sixth appearance in the Hall of Fame Game, will see franchise legend Joe Thomas enshrined two days after their showdown with New York. Meanwhile, the Jets were selected to play in Canton for the first time since 1992 in honor of the upcoming enshrinements of cornerback Darrelle Revis and defensive lineman Joe Klecko.
Both teams have had a longer camp and are partaking in four preseason games compared to the rest of the league’s three, so they are expected to rest a good number of starters on Thursday.
That doesn't mean the game is without intrigue, though. From rookies making their introductory mark to hidden gems potentially emerging, the first NFL contest since Super Bowl LVII promises to hit the spot for any football-starved fans.
Here are five things to watch for when the Jets and Browns meet Thursday night:
- Zach Wilson has first chance to show what he’s learned. New Jets quarterback Aaron Rodgers hasn’t taken a preseason snap since 2018, and he won’t break the streak against Cleveland. That means Wilson is starting. He should receive plenty of run to showcase how far he’s already come in his new role as Rodgers' mentee. The 2021 No. 2 overall pick has disappointed thus far in his short NFL career, throwing for 4,022 yards, 15 touchdowns and 18 interceptions with an 8-14 record in 22 starts. New York’s blockbuster trade for a four-time Associated Press Most Valuable Player forced Wilson to the bench, but it also provides him an opportunity to reset and mold his game after one of the all-time greats. We’ll soon see what lessons he’s absorbed in the early going.
- Browns backup QBs in battle for positioning. Much like Rodgers, Deshaun Watson won’t make an appearance. The Browns are instead taking a deep dive into the competition behind him. Kellen Mond, the former 2021 third-round pick of the Vikings, will get the start, head coach Kevin Stefanski told reporters on Tuesday. Stefanski also confirmed that he expects to debut rookie fifth-rounder Dorian Thompson-Robinson at the beginning of the second half. Thompson-Robinson has a ton of experience with 49 games played in five seasons at UCLA. However, NFL speed hits differently, so it figures to be a whole new world for the 23-year-old. He’ll be thankful for an extra game to prove his mettle during the ongoing jostling for position with Mond and Joshua Dobbs behind Watson.
- New York’s O-line bears watching. Mekhi Becton will play 20-25 snaps, head coach Robert Saleh told reporters on Tuesday. A 6-foot-7 behemoth at offensive tackle, Becton is on a mission to regain a starting role after missing all but one game since 2021 due to injuries. His next step in that journey requires rebuilding strength and confidence through game action. New York’s second- and fourth-round draft picks, Joe Tippmann (No. 43) and Carter Warren (No. 120), are also slated to take the field. The linemen suiting up Thursday will be ones competing for jobs rather than locked-in starters, but the overall unit's performance rolling into the regular season is of great importance to Rodgers’ inaugural campaign in Gotham. No spring chicken, the QB enters Year 19 with a 40th birthday on the calendar in December.
- Jim Schwartz era begins. Regardless of how many No. 1s or fringe starters end up taking the field for Cleveland’s defense, Jim Schwartz will be steering the ship. The former Lions head coach boasts 19 years of experience as a defensive coordinator. The Cleveland brass hired him in January with the expectation that his savvy will help reverse a trend of eight seasons ranked 20th or worse in defensive scoring over the last decade. Although it's important to note that schemes are routinely vanilla in preseason games, Schwartz, whose fiery demeanor is known to carry over to his players, can still pass the eye test with how his guys attack the opposition.
- Kicking off the new kickoff. Back in May, NFL owners agreed to pass a one-year rule that places any fair catch off a free kick (safety or kickoff) that occurs behind the receiving team’s 25-yard line at the 25. The change, which was proposed with player safety in mind, doesn’t necessarily guarantee that every single kick in that designated area will result in a fair catch. Players can still take the risk of trying to beat coverage past the 25 for a bigger return, and returners will begin experimenting with those pros and cons in live action on Thursday night. This also happens to be one instance in which the learning curve might be steeper for older players than the young guns -- the league’s new rule now matches the one used in the college game since 2018.