Why preseason O-line play is a mess, and what to make of Russell Wilson and Trey Lance's extended outings

One week down, two more to go before we get games that count, but the first week of the NFL preseason still gave us games that matter in their own way. The football was predictably a bit sloppy and there were a handful of bloopers, but beggars can’t be choosers here. It’s certainly better than nothing.

With the return of football comes the return of the critically acclaimed Four Verts column, starting off with a request of all football fans after watching the first week of the preseason.

Denver Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson played well into the second quarter of the team's first preseason game against the Cardinals. That's a rare sight for an established veteran like him. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

Russell Wilson playing into the second quarter doesn’t mean much, but it is funny

The preseason is all about tinkering for teams that have new pieces fitting together for the first time. Sometimes, entities that have been around the NFL for a long time find themselves in a new marriage and it takes time to work the kinks out before productive football can be played. The latest entry into this hyper-specific category that was created for the sole purpose of this article is the new duo in Denver: Sean Payton and Russell Wilson.

Both of these guys have been around the NFL forever, becoming established figureheads within this era of professional football. For the first time, they work together in a partnership where they really need each other. Payton needs Wilson to return to form so that the team has a prayer to compete with Patrick Mahomes and the Chiefs within their own division. Wilson needs Payton to use his rolodex of offensive knowledge to get Wilson back on the right track after a dismal 2022 season that saw a one-and-done head coach in Nathaniel Hackett.

The first iteration of this partnership came in the first week of this preseason — and it was a bit longer than people might have expected given Wilson’s NFL experience. Wilson played until he led the Broncos down the field against a Cardinals defense that is firmly in rebuild mode. With 6:54 left in the second quarter, Wilson and Payton locked in that elusive touchdown drive with a 21-yard strike to Jerry Jeudy before Jarrett Stidham and Ben DiNucci took over for the rest of the game at quarterback.

Look, this doesn’t actually matter. The preseason is for reps. The games don’t count. A team can use its allotment of plays in these games however it likes. Still, it is funny. Come on, Broncos fans. Let’s have a laugh together.

No one knows how this season will turn out for Wilson and the Broncos and one half of a preseason game is certainly not enough information to ascertain how this team will perform. However, considering all the details that have leaked about Wilson’s power within the team during the worst season of his career — namely, having his personal quarterback coach at the facility — it has been funny to see Payton establish dominance on his new team.

First, they came for the Gilligan hats; then the in-game preseason player interviews; and then they played their franchise quarterback into the second quarter of the first preseason game. “Power struggle” is far too strong a word for what this is because there hasn’t been any indication publicly that Wilson is unhappy with Sheriff Payton implementing his program onto the rest of the team, but this is a major shift from where the Broncos were last year. For example, Wilson didn’t even play in the preseason a year ago! Now, he’s scratching and fighting with the Zombie Arizona Cardinals in preseason Week 1!

It’s good content. Wilson may go on to have a wonderful season, but one thing is painfully obvious: This is Sean Payton’s team.

Cherish the offensive linemen around the league

Every year, the same piece of information becomes painfully apparent at the start of preseason: The offensive line depth around the league is thin. So much of preseason play is bogged down by the fact that a lot of these teams can’t block without their starters in the game. It's not a groundbreaking revelation, but the sheer quantity of blown blocks, missed assignments and general inability to stay in front of a defensive lineman is breathtaking to watch.

It should give football fans a greater appreciation for the skill level of players who are not just great at playing offensive line, but even guys who are just average. As the preseason routinely shows, most teams are an inch away from catastrophe as far as offensive line talent is concerned. It should be noted that the first preseason game is usually going to be tough from an execution standpoint because these guys haven’t spent much time together. There are going to be mental gaffes and easy mistakes to fix before the regular season comes.

This is really about the quality of play that’s being displayed at the bottom end of rosters right now. It’s rough to watch players who are fighting for roster spots along the defensive line smoke their offensive line counterparts who find themselves in the same precarious situation as far as their NFL careers are concerned. These are players who are in reasonable range of actually getting onto the field in the regular season. That’s alarming for a lot of teams.

However, this probably isn’t a problem that can be fixed or really needs to be fixed. Playing offensive line in the NFL right now is extremely difficult. Nowadays, there are guys who fall to the third day of the draft who look like they’ve been built in a lab to rush the passer. On the flip side, there are very few humans who have the requisite size and athleticism to be top-flight offensive linemen — that’s why these guys are still going high in the draft. It’s a rare skill to be able to move like a skill position player at 300+ pounds. It should create a greater appreciation for just how talented the top-end guys are because there just aren’t many body types that meet the requirements for a consistently startable NFL offensive lineman.

There are going to be a ton more sacks before the preseason is over, but viewers should take a glass half-full approach when watching their team’s favorite backup quarterbacks get repeatedly pummeled: At least it won’t happen to the starter! Maybe.

Panthers' offensive line could use a mulligan

Zoinks! That did not go well for the Panthers’ offensive line in its debut blocking for the first overall draft pick, quarterback Bryce Young.

The Panthers’ starting linemen got their tails whipped by a group of Jets that didn’t even have their best player, Quinnen Williams, suiting up for the game. The Jets aren’t exactly a standard preseason team because they have invested first-round draft picks into the defensive line over recent seasons, but the projected starting offensive line for the Panthers started and struggled mightily in their first preseason performance.

Young had to show toughness while he was the quarterback for Alabama considering he was much smaller than every player trying to tackle him. That toughness was immediately put to the test in his first NFL action, where he took a few big shots in limited action due to the faulty play of his big guys up front. That’s concerning for what the Panthers want to accomplish this season.

It’s not like Carolina has overwhelming offensive line talent, but Ickey Ekwonu and Taylor Moton are the blue-chip players among this group. Ekwonu had a rough start, getting beat in ways that resembled the early portions of his rookie season before he rebounded and played some strong football by the end of the year. This is only one game and should be taken with a grain of salt considering the Panthers' offensive line had some quality performances in the back half of last season.

Carolina Panthers rookie QB Bryce Young was under siege in his first preseason game as his offensive line didn't do him any favors. (Photo by David Jensen/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

It could just be a bad performance, but what should be a smidge worrying is that it resembled the performances of some of the backup offensive lines over the first week of the preseason. Or maybe the Jets are just going to recreate the New York Sack Exchange this season with the talent they’ve stockpiled there.

Regardless, the first game showed that Young might need to put his trademark escapability, toughness and ability to throw on the run earlier and more often. Rookie seasons are almost always tough on quarterbacks, so hopefully for Young this is just a flash in the pan and not what the entire season is going to be like for him. The Panthers’ offensive line is certainly more talented than it showed during that game and they’ll have the benefit of actually game-planning for their opponents in the regular season, but the performance was bad enough to take note of for now.

Trey Lance desperately needs reps that are going to be hard to come by

As 49ers quarterback Trey Lance enters Year 3 of his career, one thing is certain: He needs to play as much football as he can before Brock Purdy returns to the starting lineup. Lance hasn’t played a full season as a starter since his 2019 season at North Dakota State. Due to playing behind Jimmy Garoppolo and suffering a broken leg at the start of last season, Lance has thrown only 102 regular-season NFL passes, an impossibly small amount of attempts for a player who had three first-round draft picks traded for the chance to acquire him.

Now, Lance finds himself fighting for his NFL future as the potential backup quarterback behind Brock Purdy (even that isn’t guaranteed given Sam Darnold’s performance in the 49ers’ first preseason game). When Lance took the field against the 49ers, he looked like a quarterback who has barely had any meaningful live action since before the pandemic started. Unfortunately for Lance, the 49ers are committed to Purdy as the starting quarterback and Lance's performance against the Raiders on Sunday shows he isn’t a threat for the starting job right now.

Lance needs to play if he’s ever going to actualize the talent that made him the third overall pick in 2021, but this doesn’t appear to be a situation where he can get real regular-season snaps to get better. This is a spot where the preseason is of magnified importance because Lance isn’t going to walk into the season as the starter like he did last season. These preseason games are going to be the only shot he has to play — and potentially audition for another team.

Even the touchdown that Lance threw to Ross Dwelley shows how far Lance still has to go as a passer. He fired a pass into the end zone that should have been an easy interception for a Raiders defensive back, but it was dropped and landed in Dwelley’s hands for a touchdown. It’s good that Lance has the arm strength to test a tight window and the athleticism to get a throw off under pressure, but he’s still prone to make a mistake like that.

It wasn’t all bad. Lance ripped off a nice throw on a third-and-long for a conversion. Lance has 420 passing attempts combined between college and the NFL, a college career that started in 2018. Lance's first preseason game highlighted how unusual a career he's had — and how much he still needs reps that might not come in San Francisco.