Finally, it’s quarterback week.
In most preseasons, that’s what this week’s third exhibition game amounts to, the truest litmus test of where a quarterback situation stands, and the most impactful opportunity to make a pitch for a starting job. As expected, this week could have significant ramifications all over the NFL. And the most seismic shifts promise to be on quarterback depth charts. Certainly they won’t be the only situations working themselves out in the third preseason games. But they’ll definitely be the most entertaining.
Among the quarterback situations (and other storylines) worth watching in the most important game of the preseason …
The draft’s No. 1 pick likely to hold a clipboard in Week 1
After talking to several team sources, I got a strong sense in Los Angeles Rams camp that the franchise was leaning toward starting Case Keenum for at least the first four games of the season. The thought being that such a timetable wouldn’t throw Jared Goff into the teeth of what should be two of the NFL’s best defenses (the Seattle Seahawks in Week 2 and the Arizona Cardinals in Week 4) in his first month on the job. After seeing Goff’s first two preseason games, that timetable seems more plausible than ever. The natural assumption was that coach Jeff Fisher and general manager Les Snead were blowing hot air when they suggested a patient approach would be taken with Goff. After talking to both, I came away convinced it was a legitimate approach. Goff would have to light up the Denver Broncos’ defense on the road in the third preseason game to take the starting job in the season opener.
Speaking of the Broncos …
This was the worst-case scenario for Denver when both Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler departed in the offseason. The defending Super Bowl champs enter the most meaningful stage of preseason still unsure of the starting quarterback. The Broncos are measuring the trio of Trevor Siemian, Mark Sanchez and rookie Paxton Lynch. One week ago, it looked like coach Gary Kubiak was leaning toward Siemian. But both Siemain and Sanchez were bad enough in the second preseason game that it may have cracked open an opportunity for Lynch to get a look. This is the least predictable starting quarterback call in the league. With the Broncos facing a tough Rams defensive front on Saturday, any one of the Broncos trio could take hold of this job with a strong performance. Siemian will get the start against Los Angeles.
Colin Kaepernick, where are you?
Something isn’t right with the Colin Kaepernick situation. I was in camp with the San Francisco 49ers when it was suddenly announced that he had a tired arm and that he’d be taking a break. Both coach Chip Kelly and Kaepernick were vague about the quarterback’s arm being “tight.” Now Kaepernick is slated to start ramping it up again … maybe. Kelly dropped a completely non-committal approach in a conference call with reporters, saying, “We’ll see how it goes once he starts throwing.” So maybe Kaepernick plays Friday against the Green Bay Packers and finally competes meaningfully with Blaine Gabbert. Maybe he doesn’t. Maybe Kaepernick never sees the field again for the 49ers. It could go any way at this stage. One thing seems clear: If Gabbert gets the majority of starting snaps against Green Bay, it would be nonsensical to continue portraying this situation as an open competition for the starting job.
How injured is Teddy Bridgewater?
Much like the Kaepernick situation in San Francisco, the sudden unavailability of Bridgewater with the Minnesota Vikings is getting odd. Head coach Mike Zimmer appeared to either lie (or stretch the truth to an extreme level) over the weekend, when he said there was “no concern” over the health of Bridgewater in Minnesota. If that were the case, Bridgewater wouldn’t have missed the second preseason game and then followed that up with subsequent missed practices – and both of those things happened. So something is not 100 percent right with Bridgewater. What is the problem and how bad is it? An ESPN report pegged it as shoulder soreness. If that’s the case, it will be telling to see if Bridgewater is shut down for the remainder of the preseason. If Zimmer pulls the plug on Sunday against the San Diego Chargers, there’s virtually no chance Bridgewater plays in the exhibition finale.
How long will Tony Romo be put at risk?
Romo played last week’s preseason game against the Miami Dolphins and lasted for only two series (throwing five passes). That’s not much. It looks a little like the 2014 preseason, when the Dallas Cowboys played Romo roughly two quarters. Few Cowboys fans can forget what happened after that: Romo started the regular season looking rusty, with a three-interception dud in a 28-17 home loss to the 49ers. That’s certainly not a mistake the Cowboys want to repeat. It’s worth noting that Romo absorbed a solid hit against the Dolphins and likely will take several more on the road against a ramped up Seahawks defense on Thursday. It’s important to get Romo the necessary reps to start the season sharp. But it’s also important to remember that risking some rust in the season-opener might be worth saving Romo from getting knocked around.
Five other interesting players/storylines
• The panic button shouldn’t be pushed on upper-tier quarterbacks in the preseason. Largely because the quarterbacks who fall into the NFL’s top 10 at the position understand more than anyone that the third exhibition is the most legitimate tune-up before the season starts. So it’s not time to get bent out of shape about stars who have struggled. But a few could use a solid final exhibition performance to get off on the right foot. Among them? The Cardinals’ Carson Palmer (38.9 exhibition passer rating); Seahawks QB Russell Wilson (44.0); the New Orleans Saints’ Drew Brees (48.6); Atlanta Falcon Matt Ryan (57.1); and Eli Manning (59.5) of the New York Giants. And while he hasn’t locked himself into top-10 material yet, throw the Oakland Raiders’ Derek Carr (48.3) on that list.
• Starting quarterbacks aren’t the only guys worth watching. Plenty of backup QBs are teasing some glimpses at the future, both good and bad. Dak Prescott is putting on a show in Dallas. And that should continue right through the fourth preseason game as he puts a stranglehold on the backup spot.
There’s the suddenly uncomfortable drama of Christian Hackenberg with the New York Jets. It’s unthinkable that a second-round rookie quarterback could be healthy and sit out the first three preseason games. It could happen with Hackenberg, who seems to be consistently losing ground behind second- and third-stringers Geno Smith and Bryce Petty.
Trevone Boykin has been on a roller coaster in Seattle, but he is also the only guy who has had some (very) raw flashes of Michael Vick in the preseason. He’s got a long, long (and fun) journey ahead.
Lastly, 2015 third-round pick (and potential Brees successor) Garrett Grayson has been a disappointment in the preseason. He’s not making the strides head coach Sean Payton hoped for. If he doesn’t show something quickly, the Saints are going to be using another high draft pick on a quarterback next offseason.
• Running backs worth noting in Week 3 of preseason: If he’s going to carry the load in Dallas, Ezekiel Elliott needs to get on the field and get himself into game shape. The longer he goes without experiencing a live game, the bigger the danger he gets injured early in the season. …
DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry have been an exciting tandem to watch for the Tennessee Titans. That pair could end up taking a load off quarterback Marcus Mariota. …
The AC sprain for Washington Redskins running back Matt Jones looms large. The Redskins had monster expectations of him putting it all together this season. This would be a tough blow if his shoulder, which knocked him out for the remainder of the preseason, is a season-long issue (and the ones that get sprained in camp often are).
• Other names to watch closely in Week 3 of preseason: Chicago Bears wideout Kevin White. He has caught two passes and hasn’t been a significant part of the offense. Confidence was a huge part of his success in college and also his NFL draft evaluation. He’s got to get going early. … Jacksonville Jaguars defensive end Dante Fowler hasn’t registered a tackle or sack in the preseason, but he got a hit on Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston. Still waiting for that “wow” bounce back moment after missing his rookie season. … Houston Texans outside linebacker Jadeveon Clowney looks like he’s on the verge of finally exploding as a pass rusher. He looks like he could finally be a transformative piece for the Texans. And if he does it with J.J. Watt still sidelined, the Texans’ defense could become scary as the season goes on.
• Kickers don’t make much of a national story in the preseason. But you also don’t see many NFL kickers get drafted in the second round, either. That’s why Roberto Aguayo is being scrutinized so closely in the preseason. After being nearly a perfect college kicker – and maybe even a rightful second-round pick – he has missed one extra point and two field goals (from 32 and 49 yards) in the preseason. Again, it’s the exhibition season, so this is where those kinks get worked out anyway. But kicker is not one of those patient positions, either. There is almost never a “development phase” for them. Either they come in with the ability to make NFL kicks or they don’t. In the regular season, the makeable field goals Aguyao is missing are often the difference between wins and losses. If this is more than just a nervous blip in two preseason games, Tampa Bay will be trolling for a veteran who can come in and compete before long. Thanks to his draft position, Aguyao already has a contract paying him an average of over $1 million per year. He starts earning that now, not in a few seasons.