It’s safe to say that fans are excited to have football again, especially the 43,235 that took in Justin Fields’ preseason debut on Saturday afternoon. Or the capacity crowd that cheered on the Raiders in Allegiant Stadium for the first time.
Fans that watched either on TV or in person witnessed several glittering performances from some high-profile members of the 2021 rookie class. There were other standout efforts from veteran players who are hoping to either earn starting jobs or simply survive the next round of roster cuts, as NFL teams have to whittle roster sizes from 90 to 85 on August 17. Rosters must be down to 53 players by August 31.
Let’s take a look at some of the winners and losers of the first week of the preseason.
Winner: Broncos quarterbacks
There’s a quarterback battle in Denver, and from the early look of things, the Broncos are in a win-win situation. Both Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater played well in their preseason debuts. Lock recorded a perfect passer rating while going 5 of 7 passes with 151 yards and two touchdown passes. Bridgewater went 7 of 8 for 74 yards that included 4-yard touchdown pass to Trinity Benson as the Broncos crushed the Vikings 33-6.
“I thought they both played very well,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said, via The Denver Post. “They kind of validated what I’ve been saying all camp, that they’re ‘Even Steven.’ … I don’t think any separation happened in this game if anybody is looking for it.”
Loser: Taysom Hill/Jameis Winston
Things didn’t go nearly so well in a different QB1 battle. Neither Saints quarterback did anything to get a leg in their quest to replace Drew Brees as the Saints’ starter. Hill — who got the start against the Ravens — went 8 of 12 passing for 81 yards with an interception. The Saints came up empty on each of Hill’s three possessions, with Hill’s night ending after a third-down sack by Patrick Queen.
Winston’s night ended with an interception, but he did manage to lead the Saints to two touchdown drives in his five possessions. In all, Winston went 7 of 12 passing for 96 yards that included an 8-yard touchdown pass to Lil’Jordan Humphrey. Saints coach Sean Payton was in no mood to break down his quarterback situation following his team’s sloppy 17-14 loss.
“I’m not making comparisons with the quarterbacks right now,” Payton said, via ESPN. “It doesn’t matter who [played better], really, with six turnovers, right?”
Winner: Justin Fields
Fields recently elevated the hype around him after scoring four touchdowns during a recent scrimmage with Miami. The 11th overall pick pumped up the buzz even more on Saturday, as he went 14 of 20 passing for 142 yards that included a 30-yard touchdown pass to Jesse James. Fields also rushed for 33 yards and a score on five carries that included a 21-yard run.
Fields was anything but overwhelmed in his first NFL game.
“It was actually kind of slow to me, to be honest,” Fields said, via the Chicago Sun-Times.
The No. 1 overall pick’s night started with a sack and a fumble. Lawrence responded well to his early adversity, as he hit Laviska Shenault Jr. for eight yards and Marvin Jones for 10 yards on the next two plays. On his second and final drive, Lawrence was sacked again before hitting Jones on a 35-yard completion. Lawrence definitely showed flashes of his potential, but he will have to do a better job of protecting himself moving forward. Lawrence held the ball too long on his first sack, and his second sack came on a blitz by Browns rookie linebacker Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah.
The numbers wren’t jaw-dropping, as the No. 3 overall pick completed just 5 of his 14 attempts with four sacks. But three of those incompletions were drops, while the high sack total could be at least partly attributed to the 49ers playing without starting linemen Alex Mack and Trent Williams. And while Kyle Shanahan broke down a few of things his young quarterback could have done better (Shanahan specifically pointed to Lance’s decision making on a few plays as well as having a couple of throws “sail on him”), the 49ers’ coach overall called it a “a good first day.” The clear highlight was Lance’s 80-yard touchdown pass to Trent Sherfield.
“It was awesome,” fellow quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo said of Lance’s touchdown pass, via ESPN. “We kind of saw it coming. Knowing the play and everything, I was watching Trent the whole time, and he broke the guy off and Trey put a beautiful pass out there. It was really cool.”
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Loser: Cowboys defense
Dallas was unable to get out of its second preseason game without a significant injury. Second-year defensive tackle Neville Gallimore suffered an elbow injury during Friday night’s loss to the Cardinals. While his recovery timetable was initially slotted at 6-8 weeks, it appears that Gallimore’s injury will have him out closer to a month, according to the team’s website. Gallimore’s injury should lead to more snaps for third-round pick Osa Odighizuwa, who saw considerable playing time against the Cardinals.
The Patriots’ fourth-round pick had a memorable NFL debut. Against Washington, the rookie running back rumbled for 127 yards and two touchdowns on just 10 carries that included a 91-yard touchdown run. Stevenson is in the middle of a tough position battle that also includes Damien Harris, Sony Michel, James White, J.J. Taylor and Brandon Bolden.
Lawrence wasn’t the only rookie who had a tough debut. Trask completed just 4 of his 15 attempts for 35 yards Saturday night against the Bengals. The former Florida Gator was also sacked five times in Tampa Bay’s 19-14 loss to the Bengals. Trask, who did have two well-thrown deep passes dropped by receivers, said that the Bengals’ defense was intent on giving him short passes while trying to take away the big play. Buccaneers coach Bruce Arians said Trask was just a few caught passes away from possibly having a big night.
“No doubt, a couple of those deep balls, especially,” Arians said, via the Tampa Bay Times. “The one thing I really like about him is he’s shown it in practice every day: when the rush gets up in his face, there’s no panic. He’s really accurate. I mean, he threw that ball about 60 yards downfield with guys right up in his face. I love where he’s growing every day. The game is not too big for him, and he’s going to be fine.”
Haskins called Pittsburgh’s second preseason win his most fun experience since entering the NFL in 2019. The former first-round pick strengthened his case to supplant Mason Rudolph as the Steelers’ No. 2 quarterback. With Pittsburgh trailing the Eagles 13-0, Haskins directed four consecutive scoring drives that included a 22-yard touchdown pass to Anthony Johnson. Haskins finished the night with 161 yards on 16 of 22 passing.
With a chance to strengthen his case as Matt Ryan’s primary backup, McCarron went just 5 of 12 passing for 36 yards with an interception in Atlanta’s 23-3 loss to the Titans. And while Feleipe Franks had even less success through the air (he was just 2 of 9 passing for 16 yards), his 52-yard run — and 76 yards on four carries in all — improved his odds at moving up the depth chart.
“With AJ, the operation was a little cleaner, but there were no results behind that because of the entire picture of the offense the first half,” Falcons coach Arthur Smith said, via the team’s website. “The second half, with Feleipe, we want to be a little better operationally. What Feleipe clearly showed was that he can extend plays. So that was good to see.”
After catching just 30 passes as a rookie, Hamler looks primed to have a breakout season in 2021. On Saturday, the former Penn State star caught both of his two targets for 105 yards that included an 80-yard touchdown.
“He had good practices here against Minnesota, he had good practices prior to that,” Broncos coach Vic Fangio said of Hamler, via The Denver Post. “And there’s the result. I showed the entire team a play or two from practice where he ran some great routes that would be hard to cover for anybody.
“That’s been validated here today with the touchdown. He’s a fast, quick guy who’s hard to cover, and hopefully we can keep him healthy. He can be a big part of our offense.”
Loser: Packers offensive line
With Aaron Jones watching from the sideline, Green Bay’s rushing attack was virtually nonexistent Saturday against the Texans. While Houston rumbled for 170 yards on 37 carries, the Packers rushed for just 49 yards on 21 carries. Green Bay rushed for -1 yards on six carries with quarterback Jordan Love in the game.
“They won the battle in the trenches,” Packers coach Matt LaFleur said of the Texans’ defense. “Basically Houston played two coverages all night; they played Tampa 2 and they played Cover 2. Obviously, if they’re going to play a lot of man, we’d like to throw the ball, and we were pretty effective on that [scoring] drive. If they’re going to play Cover 2, you’ve got to be able to run it. We tried running the ball a little bit … and we just weren’t very effective. … They flat won the battle up front.”
The second cornerback taken in the 2021 draft, Surtain looked like a savvy veteran on Saturday. Surtain’s preseason debut included a 30-yard interception return for a score. The former Alabama standout also broke up two passes in Denver’s 33-6 blowout win in Minnesota.
Loser: Rams running game
Los Angeles needs someone to step up with Cam Akers out with a torn Achilles. The Rams’ running backs did little to instill confidence on Saturday against the Chargers after rushing for just 73 yards on 24 carries, a 3 yards-per-carry average. Bryce Perkins led the Rams with 23 yards on four carries but over half of his yards came on a single carry.
While Moore didn’t score a touchdown against the Cowboys, the Cardinals’ new No. 85 put forth an effort Rod Tidwell would be proud of. A second-round pick, Moore was brought to the desert to help complement fellow receivers A.J. Green, DeAndre Hopkins and Christian Kirk. Moore turned in an impressive debut against the Cowboys, as the former Purdue Boilermaker caught three of four targets for 23 yards. He also had two carries for 16 yards in the Cardinals’ 19-16 win.
The Seahawks put forth an uninspiring effort with Russell Wilson and several other prominent players in street clothes. Quarterbacks Alex McGough, Geno Smith and Sean Mannion combined to throw for just 126 yards while directing one scoring drive. Seattle’s defense surrendered 26 points, 26 first downs, 385 total yards and 158 rushing yards. They also allowed the Nate Peterman-led Raiders offense to convert on 11 of their 17 third down situations.
The weekend’s final game had a notable performance from Marshall, the 59th player taken in the 2021 draft. The former LSU standout caught three passes for 88 yards that included a 60-yard catch-and-carry on a reception from P.J. Walker. Unfortunately for the Panthers, no other receiver had more than 26 receiving yards in the team’s 21-18 loss in Indianapolis.
Coach Mike Zimmer pretty much nailed his assessment of his team halfway through Saturday’s 33-6 home loss to the Broncos. While he did receive a 100-yard rushing yard rushing effort from A.J. Rose Jr., Zimmer’s team allowed 33 points and nearly 400 yards, completed just 11 of their 26 pass attempts, and were 0 of 3 in the red zone.
“It was a very poor performance,” Zimmer said with his team trailing 26-6 at intermission. “We didn’t tackle well. We made the wrong checks on defense with the safeties. We threw an interception for a touchdown. Go three-and-out on the first two series. Terrible punts. So, other than that, it’s been great.”