The most celebrated rookie class of quarterbacks since 2012 is off to a seductive start. Everyone knows intellectually not to overrate a few series from the preseason opener, but good luck trying to prevent sunshine from filling a hope-starved fan in August. The heart wants what the heart wants.
All five quarterbacks selected in the first round made plays last week that hinted at the possibilities lurking in Sundays ahead. Baker Mayfield was the most impressive, looking preternaturally comfortable while delivering a few next-level throws for the Browns. Josh Allen completed two passes in his short stint on the field that few other starters could make. Lamar Jackson reminded fans why he could be the best running quarterback since Michael Vick. Josh Rosen must have been getting flashbacks to UCLA, making a few challenging throws under constant pressure, one of them pretty enough to inspire Cardinals announcer Ron Wolfley to compare the toss to "eating spicy beef jerky on the porch of your beach house."
Jets savior Sam Darnold probably had the most business-like performance of the group, taking what the defense gave him and hitting open receivers during a two-minute drill to close the first half. It was more about what he didn't do that stuck out. Darnold didn't give the Jets any reason to slow down their apparentplan to start him in Week 1. When the team reconvened for practice Sunday, Darnold got 10 of 12 first-team reps, with Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater splitting the other two. Coach Todd Bowles all but ended the Jets' competition with that move -- it's up to Darnold not to change Bowles' mind over the next two weeks.
Nothing that happened in this first full preseason week was ultimately too earth-shattering. (Although Mayfield's electricity was close -- if he backs it up.) Allen earned himself a few more reps with the first team in Sunday's practice, yet Nathan Peterman and AJ McCarron are continuing to get the lion's share. Rosen and Jackson are locked into backup roles. Darnold only completed 5.3 yards per attempt and led the Jets to one score on seven drives, but the preseason isn't about box scores. It's about Darnold stepping up in the pocket to deliver a scoring strike on third-and-long in a half-filled stadium and breaking down the papier-mache walls in the heart of any hardened Jets fan not daring to believe they may have finally found The One.
Perspective is no fun. There won't be five rookie Week 1 starting quarterbacks like in 2012, but this year's quintet is already making August far more watchable. That's a victory for everyone counting the days until the real games start.
Here are some other winners -- and losers -- from the first full week of preseason games:
Buffalo Bills fan morale: After a rough offseason stuffed with criticism for Buffalo's lackluster moves on offense, the preseason opener had to be soothing. Allen wasn't the only Bills draft pick to catch my eye, with third-round defensive tackle Harrison Phillips building on a big camp with a sack. He looks headed for starter snaps. 2016 first-round pick Shaq Lawson looks like a different player with 20 pounds off.
Last year's solid defense looks deeper at every level, especially with rookie middle linebacker Tremaine Edmunds running the show. Most importantly, the Bills' offense already looks more diverse schematically under new coordinator Brian Daboll than it was a year ago. Nathan Peterman and AJ McCarron both moved the ball well and found open receivers. Contract-year receiver Kelvin Benjamin might be ready to roll, making a few terrific plays in the opener. None of this changes the uphill battle the offense faces, but it's worth remembering that this coaching staff did a nice job maximizing its players' strengths on defense a year ago. Perhaps the offense won't have to do that much.
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Detroit Lions: I don't quite trust anything in the preseason except season-ending injuries and how young running backs look in live action. The Lions rookie came on the field after LeGarrette Blount and Ameer Abdullah, but he immediately showed a more complete skill set than either of them, able to be called upon in short-yardage situations, break tackles and excel in the passing game. Johnson made every snap count and didn't blow any pass-protection assignments (unlike Abdullah). It's becoming routine for young backs to come into the league with a sophisticated understanding of the passing game, a trait that should get Johnson on the field sooner rather than later.
Chad Kelly, QB, Denver Broncos: Kelly was decisive in his work as the Broncos' third-string quarterback, rifling in a number of completions. The analytics from his college days say that Kelly is willing to throw downfield, usually with accuracy. His second touchdown pass was tossed just before he was leveled.
Meanwhile, Paxton Lynch continued to look like a college quarterback who still hasn't adapted to the different requirements of the pro game. (The Broncos crowd, having lost patience, booed him off the field Saturday.) A scenario I wrote about to start camp that included Lynch being cut or traded for scraps looks very much in play.
Stories about Joe Flacco's newfound motivation: NFL Network analyst Steve Smith Sr. kick-started Motivated Joe season, saying minutes after Lamar Jackson was drafted that Flacco's time in Baltimore was short. There have been whispers about Flacco's leadership style, but it's worth noting he's no longer taking veteran days off at practice. The Baltimore Sun's Mike Preston notes a "different Joe Flacco," pointing to his cheering of Jackson and an increase in high-five ratio with his teammates as proof.
I'm more interested that Flacco looks fit. In his brief work against the Rams, Flacco outran a defender to the edge and made a gorgeous 30-yard throw downfield while moving to his left. This is where someone on Twitter writes, "But he was playing against Rams backups," which is the first response for the uncritical and brain-dead. It's possible to isolate players from their surroundings and their opponents, and it only takes two eyeballs to see Flacco looks better. His promising fist-bump analytics don't hurt, either.
Donte Jackson, CB, Carolina Panthers: Replacing the majority of the Panthers' secondary and then exceeding expectations is Ron Rivera's move. He's going to use it. Carolina's defensive backs looked particularly shaky entering this season, yet Rivera's praise of rookie cornerback Donte Jackson from LSU has me believing they will figure it all out again. Rivera said Sunday that Jackson's presence makes the coach feel more comfortable with the cornerback position than he has in two to three years. Rivera has already compared Jackson to former Panther Josh Norman, which may indicate the type of role he envisions Jackson playing on this team.
A tough week for ...
"The injuries weigh on me," Gruden said. "It feels like you're doing something wrong."
Davis and Garner were both in the mix for back-end roster spots, but the Guice injury changes the team's offensive outlook. The 'Skins will turn to "Fit Rob" Kelley or Samaje Perine as their big back, two players that Guice was drafted to replace. Third-down ace Chris Thompson is still recovering from a broken leg and said he probably won't feel 100 percent until November. Keep an eye on the Redskins potentially signing or trading for a back late in camp. In a big fifth year for Gruden with plenty to be excited about, Washington is a logical candidate to try something flashy like acquiring a veteran back (Carlos Hyde?) or signing Adrian Peterson.
The Tennessee Titans: Every team has its share of nagging injuries by this stage in camp, but the Titans are dealing with issues for an inordinate amount of key players. New coordinator Matt LaFleur hasn't been able to fully envision his offense because wideout Rishard Matthews and right tackle Jack Conklin remain on the PUP list. Presumptive No. 1 wideout Corey Davis has been in and out of practice, and missed the preseason opener.
First-round linebacker Rashaan Evans, expected to make a transformative impact in the middle of the defense, hasn't practiced since the third day of camp. Starting outside linebacker Brian Orakpo has been hurt since the second day of camp, while starting safety Johnathan Cyprien is out for the season with a torn ACL. This isn't an emergency yet, but I can see next offseason's articles coming from here: Coach Mike Vrabel's group never quite caught up after missing so many key players during his first training camp.
Penn has yet to return from his foot surgery, and the Raiders' offense is moving away from his power-blocking strengths. First-round OT Kolton Miller had a costly hold in his preseason debut, but Oakland's reliance on zone blocking for much of the game is a sign that Penn doesn't fit on this team -- even when he gets healthy.
Roquan Smith and the Chicago Bears: After this story was posted Monday, NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that Smith has agreed to terms with the Bears on his rookie contract. This ends a holdout that lasted nearly a month, spanning the Bears' entire training camp, which officially broke Sunday. There's still time for Smith and the Bears to prepare for the season, but this entire situation was befuddling as the team and Smith's representatives haggled over seemingly minor aspects to a slotted rookie contract that every other team figured out without an issue.