There are a few quarterbacks who come into this season not in a battle for their starting job, but needing to prove they are the long-term answer for their respective teams.
Tampa Bay's Josh Freeman, Cleveland's Brandon Weeden and Tennessee's Jake Locker all fit that description. Of that trio, Weeden looked the best in Thursday's preseason action.
Weeden was shaky, to say the least, last year as a rookie. He's going to turn 30 years old in October, which is another strike against him. Because of his age, Cleveland and its new staff won't be as patient with him as it might be with any other second-year quarterback who was selected in the first round. But Weeden was very sharp against the Rams, who have a pretty good defense.
Weeden went 10-of-13 for 112 yards and a touchdown on a third-and-goal throw to running back Dion Lewis (who also had a very good night). Weeden looked strong and confident in the pocket. Perhaps he can build off this performance, because he's the biggest question mark on an otherwise solid Browns team.
Freeman and Locker were a little more uneven in their first 2013 action.
On Tampa Bay's first drive, Freeman was almost picked off on a bad throw as he rolled right, then took a sack on third down. He rallied a bit, going 4-of-7 for 34 yards, leading one field-goal drive, and his night would have been a little better had a nice Vincent Jackson catch not been overturned on replay review because he was out of bounds. But Freeman still showed the same inconsistency that he is becoming known for.
Locker started slow as well, holding the ball too long on a couple sacks. He calmed down a bit and finished 7-of-11 for 58 yards, playing it conservative most of the time.
A few series to start the preseason aren't going to determine the futures of any of the three quarterbacks, but all eyes will be on them this entire season.
There are a lot of intriguing storylines on the Rams this year. The quarterback is at a career crossroads, there's a full-blown running back competition, there were some key free agent signings and a bold pick of receiver Tavon Austin early in the first round. That's a lot to add to an up-and-coming team.
The Rams' preseason opener against Cleveland started poorly, but quarterback Sam Bradford saved it a bit with a nice final drive.
Here was the bad: Isaiah Pead, the second tailback in that competition, had a terrible fumble when he was stripped by defensive tackle Phil Taylor. The defense was picked apart by Weeden. And Cleveland's Travis Benjamin had a 91-yard punt return. The Rams' starters were down 17-0 when Bradford saved some face.
Receiver Chris Givens came on strong late as a rookie last season, and he looked very good Thursday. Givens caught a deep pass off play action for 59 yards. It was a tremendous throw by Bradford down the middle. Bradford made an even nicer throw to the back of the end zone to Givens for a 3-yard touchdown, capping the drive. Daryl Richardson, currently leading the tailback race, set up that touchdown with a couple nice runs to the 3-yard line. Richardson had 24 yards on four carries and probably strengthened his hold on the starting job.
St. Louis lost 27-19, but at least the Rams' starters could feel better after that final drive by Bradford.
Barkevious Mingo got his first unofficial NFL sack against the Rams, but had it taken away when the Browns decided to accept a penalty on the play instead. But Cleveland's prized rookie outside linebacker did just fine in his first preseason game.
Mingo wasn't perfect, but he flashed the skills that made him the sixth pick of the draft out of LSU. He had the look of a player who could play a big role for the Browns this year, and be a very good player for many years.
It's tough to put too much stock into one preseason game, and most of Mingo's work came against the Rams' second-team offense. Mingo didn't start against St. Louis, but he seems intent on pushing his way into the starting lineup.
Mingo showed a great motor and burst from his outside linebacker spot. Mingo had two quarterback hits, and the sack that was taken off the board. He even played on the kickoff team, and stood out there too, speeding downfield and picking up a tackle on one return.
The Browns have some good pass rushers, like Jabaal Sheard and offseason free-agent addition Paul Kruger. Mingo is currently slated to be a situational player as a rookie, and judging by his debut, he might make a name for himself pretty quickly.
Washington 22, Tennessee 21: Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins hasn't gotten good reviews for his performance in camp, but was just fine in game action. He was 6-of-7 for 52 yards and a touchdown to tight end Fred Davis, who was returning from an Achilles tendon injury that ended his 2012 season. Robert Griffin III was on the field before the game, moving well as he went through a workout. The Redskins saw once again that they'd be OK if Cousins had to fill in.
Cincinnati 34, Atlanta 10: Anyone who saw "Hard Knocks" this week saw undersized rookie running back Giovani Bernard get smacked around a bit in practice. That's why it was nice to see the second-round pick run hard on a couple occasions, when he lowered his shoulder into a defensive back on the sideline, and on a strong run up the middle for a 1-yard touchdown. Bernard had just 28 yards on 10 carries, but has time to improve.
Denver 10, San Francisco 6: The biggest play of the game came from a player who the Broncos have been waiting to break out. Middle linebacker Nate Irving, who is fighting for a starting spot at a position that's a huge question mark for the Broncos, shot through the line and blew up running back D.J. Harper. Harper fumbled and Shaun Phillips returned it 9 yards for the game's only touchdown. The Broncos hope that's a sign of things to come for Irving, a 2010 third-round pick.
Seattle 31, San Diego 10: In an otherwise forgettable game for the Chargers, quarterback Philip Rivers and running back Ryan Mathews played well. Rivers threw a lot of short passes (which is the best plan behind San Diego's porous offensive line) and completed 5-of-6 for 45 yards in his only series. Mathews, an oft-injured former first-round pick who has to show something this year, had 19 yards on three strong runs, including when he jumped over the line to convert on fourth and inches. Maybe new coach Mike McCoy can help turn the careers of Rivers and Mathews back around. On the other side, Seahawks rookie running back Christine Michael made a strong play for the second tailback job, gaining 89 yards on 16 carries.
Baltimore 44, Tampa Bay 16: Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco had a decent night, going 7-of-9 for 57 yards, but he also had a bad interception in which he stared down Jacoby Jones and tried to force a pass. That interception, by Danny Gorrer near the sideline, happened on third down – when Flacco will miss departed Anquan Boldin and injured Dennis Pitta the most.
• Many teams are going to increase the pace this season. Denver (which used some pistol formations with Peyton Manning) played very fast in the preseason opener. But the Broncos also pushed the pace last year. A more surprising no-huddle attack was Baltimore. The Ravens finished tied for ninth in the NFL with 1,042 plays last season, but seem intent on picking up the pace this season, as many of their plays with the starters came without a huddle.
• It's always a bit jarring to see veterans on new teams, but it'll be tough to top how weird it was to see longtime Rams running back Steven Jackson in a Falcons uniform. Jackson didn't have a great Falcons debut, with 8 yards on five carries, although that's nothing to worry much about.
• The Ravens are looking for receivers to replace Boldin and Pitta in the passing game, and LaQuan Williams obviously wants a shot. He has done very little in his first two seasons, but had a nice 21-yard touchdown. He also recovered a blocked punt in the end zone for another score. The Ravens could use some reliable receivers, and Williams at least stood out in the preseason opener.
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