With Week 1 of the NFL preseason behind us, we have live football to analyze for the first time in six months. As such, I decided to break down 12 of my biggest takeaways from the first batch of preseason games including impressive quarterback performances, defenses poised for success, and more.
As always, it’s important not to overreact to preseason football. Sample sizes are miniscule and the opposition is weaker than it will be when the regular season starts next month. Still, there are important lessons to be learned with an eye towards handicapping matchups in the coming weeks. Let’s get to work.
Is Kenny Pickett Poised for a Second-Year Breakout?
The Kenny Pickett drum beat started early this offseason when pictures circulated of his frame with an additional 13 pounds of mass. The “Kenny Thickett” moniker was penned shortly after, and in his team’s Friday preseason game, he showcased his improvement on the field.
The raw numbers in his rookie season weren’t very impressive – he had seven touchdowns to nine interceptions – but the peripheral metrics show a quarterback who excelled over the back half of the season.
From Week 10 on, Pickett was second in big time throw rate at 6.3%. He was also tied for the third-highest time to throw at 3.16 seconds on average, but his pressure to sack rate was 17.4%, which was 25th. In simpler terms, he extended plays with his legs and made big-time throws downfield while minimizing the number of sacks he was taking.
That same profile showed up in the team’s preseason game as he completed six of seven passes for 70 yards and a touchdown, looking like a seasoned pro in the process. His look-off touchdown pass to George Pickens was especially impressive as he hit his fellow second-year pro in stride and let him do the rest.
Kenny Pickett and George Pickens will be a DYNAMIC DUO this year pic.twitter.com/NhWlJgIl8B
— Robert Griffin III (@RGIII) August 11, 2023
That might be the last we see of Kenny Pickett in the preseason, but I believe he’s going to surprise a lot of people this fall. Consider taking the Steelers ATS in Week 1 as a home underdog against the 49ers.
Do the Jets Have the Best Defensive Line in the NFL?
The Jets might have the best defensive line group in the NFL. New York registered a whopping 19 pressures on Saturday with six sacks, four QB hits, and nine hurries per PFF. It was a dominant showing made all the more impressive by the absence of the team’s four projected starting defensive linemen – Carl Lawson, Quinnen Williams, Al Woods, and John Franklin-Myers.
Bryce Huff and Jermaine Johnson both started the preseason game, and each had three pressures and a sack. Rookie Will McDonald IV had four pressures and a sack. Even 2018 UDFA Bruce Hector, currently projected as a fourth-string defensive tackle, had two pressures and a sack.
— JOSE ALVARES (@Alvaresjose11) August 12, 2023
Robert Saleh’s elite defenses in San Francisco were built on dominance up front, and he certainly has the pieces to make that work in New York. I still have questions about the Jets’ offense, particularly the line and receiving depth, but this defensive line is going to be a problem, particularly in a division where the Bills and Dolphins have concerns on their offensive lines.
Is Houston Ready for a Defensive Resurgence?
The headlines following the Texans’ preseason outing surrounded rookie C.J. Stroud’s rough first outing – he completed just 2 of 4 passes for 13 yards and an interception. It’s important not to overreact to such a small sample size, but it might take some time for him to be up to full speed in his new surroundings.
However, Houston’s defense quietly had an excellent outing. The Texans allowed just 180 total yards for the full game, and they got impressive performances from young talent across the board, including a team-leading five tackle outing from rookie linebacker Henry To’oTo’o.
New head coach DeMeco Ryans oversaw the top defense in the league last year by DVOA, and he’ll be looking to bring the same productivity to his new team. I added a bet on the Texans +10 in Week 1 against a Ravens’ offense implementing an entirely new scheme, and I like this defense to keep games close against top teams this season.
Is Sam Howell the Commanders’ Best Quarterback Since Kirk Cousins?
Since Kirk Cousins left in free agency following the 2017 season, the Commanders have suffered through five losing seasons in six years with last year’s 8-8-1 record the only slight reprieve. Over that six-year span, Washington has started 11 different quarterbacks without finding a long-term solution. Can Sam Howell be that guy?
He looked the part in the team’s first preseason game, completing 9 of 12 passes for 77 yards and a touchdown. A 26-yard pass to second-year wideout Jahan Dotson was a major highlight, and I loved how new offensive coordinator Eric Bienemy used Howell on bootleg, roll out plays. Check out the breakdown from the QB School’s J.T. O’Sullivan below.
Sam Howell w/ one of my fav move the launch point plays. I'm used to calling it venus twist. Good choices at different levels even with half the field closed. #HTTC
Full video: https://t.co/l3eJvRquwV pic.twitter.com/3kO3UnNiBL
— The QB School (@theqbschool) August 13, 2023
Howell was pressured on 6 of his 14 dropbacks, but he only took one sack and got rid of the ball in timely fashion for the most part. Previously seen as a first-round talent, Howell fell to the fifth round of the 2022 draft, but Washington may have found a steal in the former North Carolina passer.
Did the Patriots Finally Nail the Draft Again?
The Patriots might have struck gold in the draft this year, landing multiple rookie defenders who can make an immediate impact. Rookie edge Keion White was a one-man wrecking crew in the team’s preseason game, registering three pressures and three run stops on 27 snaps per PFF. He and third-year pro Anfernee Jennings terrorized the Houston offensive line.
New England’s first-round pick, cornerback Christian Gonzalez, also looked strong. The Oregon product had three tackles and a forced fumble on four drives. He allowed just 2 catches for 20 yards on 13 coverage snaps, per PFF. Marte Mapu didn’t play as he’s working through a pec injury, but it was a great sign to see him working with defensive coordinator Steve Belichick on the sidelines.
Perhaps more importantly, the addition of Gonzalez allows Jalen Mills to transition back to safety, a position he’s clearly more comfortable in. Mills had the interception on Stroud and a tackle for loss on his way to an excellent performance. The Patriots were third in defensive DVOA last season, and have the pieces for a similar finish in 2023.
Does the Baker Mayfield Story Have one Final Chapter?
I’ve been burned by Baker Mayfield multiple times both as a bettor and a fan, but lord help me, I might be ready to get hurt again. Things are quiet on the Baker front as he’s fallen out of the national media cycle for the most part, but he’s poised to be the Buccaneers’ starting quarterback this season.
Currently engaged in competition with Kyle Trask for the starting role, Mayfield excelled in his preseason opportunity, completing 8 of 9 passes for 63 yards and a touchdown. He earned a passer rating of 132.9 in the process.
The talent is there – Mayfield broke the rookie touchdown record and led the Browns to an 11-5 record and a playoff win. The consistency hasn’t been as he’s onto his eighth head coach in six seasons with Todd Bowles in Tampa.
Kyle Trask will get the start for Tampa in Week 2 with the opportunity to make his mark in the competition. He needs to perform better after leading four drives that gained a combined 59 yards and resulted in three punts and an interception.
Buccaneers’ offensive coordinator Dave Canales helped turn Geno Smith into a high-caliber starting quarterback as the Seahawks’ passing game coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Can he do the same for Mayfield? Crazier things have happened, and if Baker is named the Week 1 starter, I’ll likely be backing the Bucs ATS against the Vikings.
Is Jedrick Wills Jr. a Starting-Caliber Left Tackle?
I don’t want to put any specific player on blast for a preseason showing – plenty of elite NFL talents have had a rough outing in these glorified exhibition games. However, I’m starting to have genuine concerns about the Browns’ fourth-year left tackle Jedrick Wills Jr.
Browns’ fans have been highly critical of Wills’ lack of competitiveness throughout training camp against Myles Garrett. Wills also got embarrassed by Chase Young on the rep included below, and he registered a rough 40.5 PFF pass-blocking grade in the game. It was excusable for Wills to have issues at left tackle after playing solely on the right at Alabama, but his lack of improvement is concerning.
The Browns picked up Wills’ fifth-year option for $14.175 million this summer, keeping him under contract through the 2024 season, but his future past that point is murky. It’s too early to dismiss Wills taking a jump this season, but the Browns need a major bounceback from Deshaun Watson and that isn’t happening without consistent blindside protection.
Will the Broncos’ Offensive Line Prevent Russell Wilson’s Bounceback?
The Russell Wilson memes were beaten to death last season as the former nine-time Pro Bowl quarterback suffered the worst season of his career by far. It didn’t take long for those memes to resurface on Friday night, but I thought Wilson was mostly solid as two drops by Denver receivers hurt his final stat line.
Wilson was also limited by an awful showing from the Denver offensive line. The Broncos allowed Wilson to be pressured on 64% of his dropbacks, the highest of any quarterback in Week 1 of the preseason. Denver was missing right tackle Mike McGlinchey, but the other four starters were on the field, and it’s not like Arizona has a dominant pass rush.
Even the backups struggled as the team’s reserve offensive linemen committed four total penalties and backup Jarrett Stidham’s 59% pressure rate was third in the league. Garret Bolles was playing for the first time since suffering his ACL tear last year and the two pressures and a sack surrendered by right tackle Isaiah Prince theoretically don’t happen if McGlinchey is starting.
— FTB VIDS (@anotherFTBacct) August 12, 2023
However, in order for Wilson to bounce back in his first year with Sean Payton, he must have consistent pass protection in front of him. The Denver offensive line is a major storyline to monitor, and we’ll learn more on Saturday when they face the 49ers’ deep defensive line group.
Is Malik Willis the Titans’ Quarterback of the Future?
I tuned into the Titans-Bears game to watch Justin Fields, but I came away very impressed with Malik Willis. It seems a switch has been flipped for the second-year quarterback, and his feel for the game and poise in the pocket looked far ahead of where he was last season.
Willis completed 16 of 25 passes for 189 yards and an interception in the game, but that line doesn’t do justice to how much more comfortable he seemed on the field. Watch him keep his eyes downfield in the play below and calmly find the open receiver for the big play despite pressure in his face.
Malik Willis szn is so back on pic.twitter.com/zvbllRkVsJ
— The Zim Zone4️⃣ (@TheZimZone) August 13, 2023
Willis needed a redshirt year with his incredibly raw profile, and when he was forced into action last year for an injured Ryan Tannehill, he did so behind an injury ravaged offensive line and receiving corps that didn’t do him many favors. It was too early to write him off given those circumstances.
None of this matters for now as Tannehill remains the starting quarterback, but at 35 years old, it’s fair to wonder how many more years that will be the case. If Willis can continue this upward trajectory, he might be the man for Tennessee long term. Your turn, Will Levis.
Why do People Hate Justin Fields?
The discourse surrounding Justin Fields amazes me. Twitter lost its collective hive mind when he threw three passes behind the line of scrimmage on Saturday – those three passes went for a combined -7 air yards and turned into 129 yards and two touchdowns. It feels like deja vu with the trite “he’s a running back, not a quarterback” narratives that plague viewers with guys like Lamar Jackson, Jalen Hurts, and Fields.
Last season, Justin Fields ranked fourth in percentage of passes thrown 20+ yards downfield and fifth in percentage of passes thrown 10+ yards downfield. Nothing was made easy for him in the offense. The Bears ranked dead last in YAC last year (1,132 yards) and didn’t have a single play rack up 50+ YAC.
Fields had an average time to throw of 3.45 seconds which led the NFL last season. Only four other quarterbacks were over 3 seconds. With improved pass-catching talent, it won’t take as long for receivers to get open. That’s especially true with D.J. Moore, who caught the 62-yard pass for a touchdown.
DJ Moore will do for Justin Fields what AJ Brown and Stefon Diggs did for Jalen Hurts and Josh Allen.pic.twitter.com/AlLCNq9vSd
— Dave Kluge (@DaveKluge) August 12, 2023
It’s been evident throughout training camp that Luke Getsy has been emphasizing the quick passing game, and the next level of evolution for the dynamic Fields is learning to take what the defense is giving him and make the easy passes when they’re there. That will only allow him to further showcase his elite rushing abilities and excellent deep ball passing. Fields is poised for a massive breakout season.
Can the Panthers’ Offense Support a Functional Rookie Season for Bryce Young?
The buzz around Bryce Young has been highly encouraging all summer as the poise, precision, and polish he showed at Alabama should quickly translate to the NFL. However, the #1 overall pick might struggle in his rookie season through no real fault of his own.
Young was pressured on 3 of his 7 dropbacks in the preseason game against the Jets, and he averaged just 3.5 yards per attempt as the offense was incredibly vanilla. The Panthers won’t have to face the Jets’ elite pass rush every week, but I have serious heartburn about the supporting cast in Carolina.
Left tackle Ikem Ekwonu allowed two pressures on just seven pass-blocking snaps, and he must be better for Young to find success. Beyond the offensive line, I have concerns about a wide receiver trio of Adam Thielen, D.J. Chark, and Laviska Shenault Jr. Perhaps Jonathan Mingo emerges as a consistent threat, but his production profile isn’t one that indicates early success in his career.
Panthers fans should be very excited about the future with Bryce Young, but Carolina might have a bottom five offensive line and receiving corps this season. That’s a tough combination to overcome, and it will have me looking to fade this team early, perhaps starting against the Falcons in Week 1.
Are We Sure the 49ers Aren’t in Trouble?
The clock seems to have struck midnight for Trey Lance. An incredibly raw quarterback who badly needed reps, Lance only has 102 pass attempts in two NFL seasons, and he simply hasn’t been given the freedom to work through mistakes that his scouting profile always suggested he needed.
On Sunday, he looked like a quarterback with just 420 total attempts in live games over the last five years as he struggled to find consistency with the team’s starting offensive line and skill position players on the sideline. It’s evident that Brock Purdy will be the starter, but coming off a gnarly UCL injury suffered just seven months ago, can the former Mr. Irrelevant be trusted?
The 49ers’ offensive line also gives me pause as the unit on the whole is rather average outside of future Hall of Famer Trent Williams. However, Williams is now 35 years old, and he can’t elevate a mediocre group on his own forever. Despite a star studded group of skill position talent, the Niners have a lot to figure out on offense before the season begins.
Quick Hitters – Players that Shined
QB Aidan O’Connell, Las Vegas Raiders: The Purdue product was electric in his Raiders debut, completing 15 of 18 passes for 141 yards and a touchdown and earning a pristine 117.8 passer rating. Jimmy Garoopolo has started a full season once in his career and is dealing with a foot injury, so O’Connell needs to be ready to see the field this season.
OT Anton Harrison, Jacksonville Jaguars: I didn’t have a super strong grade on Harrison coming into the draft, but I came away from the Jaguars’ first preseason game very impressed with their rookie tackle. Harrison didn’t allow a pressure on 11 pass-blocking snaps. The competition level only goes up from here, but that was a nice start for the rookie.
TE Jake Ferguson, Dallas Cowboys: Ferguson played 100% of the snaps with the starters in the preseason game and looked good doing it. He caught all three of his targets for 38 yards and earned a pristine 91.5 PFF grade in the process. After a strong season as an in-line blocker last year, Ferguson is starting to show some receiving upside, and he’s poised for a big season with Dalton Schultz off to Houston.
WR A.T. Perry, New Orleans Saints: A sixth-round pick out of Wake Forest, rookie wideout A.T. Perry showed why he could be a major steal for the Saints as he caught all six of his targets for 70 yards and a touchdown. It’s unclear why he fell so far in the draft, but Perry had a combined 152 catches for 2,389 yards and 26 touchdowns over his final two collegiate seasons. In a wide receiver room that’s relatively open after Chris Olave, Perry could become a big time playmaker in the Saints’ passing game sooner than most expect this season.
— Jacob Hester (@JacobHester18) August 13, 2023