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The key to the NFL preseason is caution.
Teams must take care in trying to minimize their most important contributors' exposure to potential injury. Coaches, meanwhile, remain vigilant not to tip too much about plans that could become important in the regular season.
But where caution is really needed in the preseason is in the consumption of games themselves.
The return to action inevitably lends itself to wild reactions from football-starved fans, and the contests quickly become fodder for way-too-early assessments on draft classes, team weaknesses and more. But with swarths of players sitting out and teams holding plenty back, there's only so much to be gleaned from the exhibition slate.
Still, even if the contests play a limited role in specific scenarios, the slate can shape position battles and other meaningful dynamics.
With that in mind, here are our winners and losers from the first week of the NFL preseason:
Week 1 winners
Veterans sitting out
Unless a player is fighting for his job or needs to audition for other teams, the easiest way to win in the preseason is to simply not play. Plenty of teams decided to go the safe route when it came to their proven products, with the Rams, 49ers, Packers, Colts and Vikings among the franchises that sat approximately two dozen (or more) veterans. Leaving the reps to the younger players is win-win.
The biggest buzz from Week 1 no doubt belongs to Fields after a sterling debut against the Dolphins in which he passed for 142 yards and one touchdown while rushing for 33 yards and another score. More important than any individual throw or play, however, was the overall command of the Bears' offense that Fields exhibited just months after becoming the No. 11 overall pick in the NFL draft. The signal-caller even said the speed of the game felt "kind of slow." If Fields can prove that processing speed will hold up against starters, coach Matt Nagy will have to weigh how much leeway he's willing to give Andy Dalton as his Week 1 starter.
While Fields might have earned the most praise of any player for his overall performance, Lance likely took the crown for best single play. His 80-yard bomb to Trent Sherfield on a bootleg pass highlighted why the 49ers gave up a bounty to move up and select the former North Dakota State quarterback with the No. 3 overall pick in this year's NFL draft. Yes, Lance was just 5-of-14 passing overall against the Chiefs. But he was also plagued by several drops by wide receivers. Kyle Shanahan has remained committed to Jimmy Garoppolo as his starter, and Lance might not be able to change that by the opener. This performance, however, reinforced that a change is coming – and perhaps not too far off – because Lance looks capable of igniting things in this offense that are beyond Garoppolo's reach.
The other first-round QBs
While Fields and Lance commanded the spotlight, the other three first-round passers each had their moments. Mac Jones looked consistent and in command of the Patriots' offense, keeping himself in the quarterback battle with Cam Newton thanks to his sharp and quick decision making. No. 2 pick Zach Wilson, meanwhile, also was sharp for the Jets and showed off a quick release. And while Trevor Lawrence didn't enjoy the debut one might expect for one of the most touted No. 1 picks in some time, the Jaguars signal-caller still threaded the needle on a few tight-window throws and escaped his first action without incident.
Rookie edge rushers
A laundry list of first-year defensive ends and outside linebackers took advantage of shaky offensive line play. Among those to make waves were the Bills' Greg Rousseau, the Buccaneers' Joe Tryon, the Patriots' Ronnie Perkins and the Titans' Rashad Weaver. But special recognition goes to the Bengals' Joseph Ossai, the third-round pick out of Texas who sacked Tom Brady and recorded five pressures – most among all rookies this week, according to Pro Football Focus.
Discarded by Washington less than two years after being selected as the team's first-round pick and quarterback of the future, Haskins now finds himself clawing for the Steelers' backup spot behind Ben Roethlisberger. Thursday's outing against the Eagles served as solid evidence that he deserves a closer look, as he completed 16 of 22 passes for 162 yards and a touchdown while leading four scoring drives in five series. Haskins still had his shaky moments and proving he's trustworthy enough to unseat Mason Rudolph won't be easy. But for a Steelers team that needs to consider its post-Roethlisberger options, it's worth seeing what he can do playing along with and against starters.
A sixth-round pick by the Eagles in 2020 who logged just 20 offensive snaps as a rookie, Watkins won't be as easily written off this year after he showcased his 4.35-second 40-yard dash speed on Thursday when he took a screen 79 yards for a touchdown against the Steelers. His stat line would have been even more impressive had quarterback Jalen Hurts not overthrown Watkins on what otherwise would have been a 98-yard touchdown. The 6-0, 193-pound target certainly left an impression on Hurts, who said of Watkins: "He's not a secret anymore." Already a training camp standout, Watkins could parlay his strong summer into a meaningful role for a team that lacks an established pecking order at wide receiver.
His career to date defined by Aaron Rodgers' falling out with the Packers, Love finally got the chance to demonstrate what he can do after never suiting up for a game as a rookie. The second-year quarterback responded by completing 12 of 17 passes for 122 yards and a touchdown against the Texans before exiting the game when he sustained a shoulder injury on a strip-sack shortly before halftime. Love didn't receive much of a challenge from Houston's vanilla defensive looks, and both the quarterback and coach Matt LaFleur said he needed to be more self-assured. But Love did earn praise from Rodgers, who said on the TV broadcast, "I thought Jordan did a really nice job."
Terrace Marshall Jr.
Viewed for much of last fall and winter as a mortal lock for the first round, the LSU product fell to the Panthers near the end of the second round amid questions about his injury history. The wide receiver didn't look inhibited Sunday, however, as he led the Panthers with 88 receiving yards on three catches. Targets might be difficult to come by in an offense that features Christian McCaffrey, DJ Moore and Robby Anderson, but Marshall could be a big play-threat from the early going, particularly given his familiarity with offensive coordinator Joe Brady's scheme from the duo's time together in Baton Rouge.
Highlighted as one of USA TODAY Sports' top 10 undrafted free agents this spring, Patterson made a strong case to stick on Washington's roster, as he tallied 70 yards from scrimmage on 14 touches (10 carries, four catches). He was already a proven ball carrier after a prolific career at Buffalo, but his comfort as a pass catcher helped answer questions about his versatility that lingered after he logged just 20 catches in three years, with none in 2020. If the 5-8, 195-pound back doesn't make the cut with Washington, he should get a strong look elsewhere.
Brian Flores has thrown his full support behind his second-year passer, so the preseason opener meant little to Tagovailoa in the grand scheme of things. Still, given his uneven run after taking the starting reins midway through his rookie campaign, the Alabama product inspired confidence with his 8-of-11 passing performance against the Bears. Tagovailoa's final throw – an end-zone interception that was late and over the middle – was regrettable, but a more aggressive mindset likely will serve him well as he looks to exert more control in the offense.
Week 1 losers
Lawrence's spot on this list isn't a product of his 6-of-9 passing performance. Rather, it's a reflection of the overall state of the Jaguars' offense. Coach Urban Meyer bemoaned the unit's languishing pace, saying he didn't want to be "one of those slow, wallowing offenses." There's also some cause for concern with Lawrence's supporting cast. Offensive tackles Cam Robinson and Jawaan Taylor exposed the quarterback to far too much pressure, and Lawrence exacerbated the problem with his tendency to hang onto the ball too long while seeking big plays. Jacksonville still can address these issues in the coming weeks, but the early look is a reflection that the franchise's turnaround might take longer to get going than Meyer likely hoped.
Offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell told USA TODAY Sports' Jarrett Bell in training camp that the 34-year-old former quarterback is facing an "uphill battle" to make Jacksonville's roster as a tight end. On Saturday, Tebow made little progress toward the summit. In 16 snaps, he was held without a catch, and his lackluster blocking went viral. Meyer has tried to tamp down the hype surrounding the tryout for his former star pupil, calling Tebow "one of 90." Given his current level of contribution, combined with his lack of special teams value, it's difficult to envision Tebow earning his place as "one of 53."
It's been a truly turbulent summer for the Patriots' 2019 first-round pick, whose agent requested a trade on his behalf in July. Since then, Harry said he hoped to remain in New England and became a training camp standout. But on Thursday, he logged just one catch on 36 snaps, a workload that suggests his place on the roster is far from assured. With just 414 receiving yards in two seasons, Harry still has to prove to the Patriots he can deliver in games.
Leave it to the Vikings' unflinchingly blunt coach to hold his team accountable, even after sitting 21 starters in a 33-6 loss to the Broncos. A first-quarter coverage bust that resulted in an 80-yard touchdown from Drew Lock to KJ Hamler set the tone for what Zimmer termed a "really poor performance." Zimmer also called out a pick-six to Patrick Surtain II and defensive penalties among the problems he saw. "Just really disappointing with the guys who played today," Zimmer added. Maybe things will improve when the starters step in, but this was not the performance the coach was looking for, especially from the defense after he said last year's edition was the "worst one I've ever had."
Jameis Winston, Taysom Hill
From a zero-sum perspective, maybe neither Saints passer truly lost this week if no one gained ground in the race to replace Drew Brees. Yet neither Winston nor Hill have much reason for confidence after each contributed one interception in the Saints' six-turnover night against the Ravens. Coach Sean Payton afterward refused to analyze the state of the quarterback competition, saying, “It doesn't matter really with six turnovers, right?”
Follow Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL preseason Week 1 winners, losers: Justin Fields, Trey Lance lead