The NFL preseason officially kicked off with a football-like experience at the 2019 Hall of Fame Game. But even if the Falcons–Broncos preseason opener wasn’t especially eventful, training camps across the country have left no shortage of drama across the league.
Stars like Ezekiel Elliott and Jadeveon Clowney have avoided practice while posturing for new contracts. Others like Michael Thomas and Robbie Gould walked away from the bargaining table with lucrative deals. Position battles pit veterans against newcomers for the honor of announcing their names and alma maters on Sunday Night Football.
So what have we learned so far this summer? What are the biggest questions that still weigh heavily across the league? We gathered SB Nation’s NFL team to gauge the early run-up to the 2019 regular season.
How would you describe the 2019 preseason, using five words or fewer?
Christian D’Andrea: Catch man got paid.
Michael Thomas has emerged as one of the league’s brightest stars and the perfect complement to see Drew Brees through to retirement. And after making 229 catches the past two seasons, he was set to earn … $1.148 million this fall. That led to a holdout of which the Saints wanted no part, and Thomas returned to practice in July having secured the richest contract an NFL wide receiver has ever seen: a five-year, $100 million extension with $61 million in guarantees.
Adam Stites: Run men don’t get paid.
Ezekiel Elliott and Melvin Gordon each have two Pro Bowl nods and a strong argument as a top-five running back in the NFL. They’re both sitting out of training camp in an attempt to get a new contract. Neither appears to be making much headway. The Chargers reportedly don’t want to give Gordon any more than $10 million per year, while the Cowboys don’t appear to want to give Elliott Todd Gurley-type money.
Which training camp storyline are you following most closely?
Not much about Jones’ college career at Duke suggested he’s ready to take the reins of an NFL team as a rookie. But the thing about big, talented quarterbacks with cannon arms is that they can wow in practice — even if they’re not quite ready to handle all the things that come with a live game.
Jones is getting rave reviews so far in camp for his deep ball. That means you can count on people to start calling for Jones to replace Eli Manning once the Giants’ 2019 season inevitably looks like the last two Giants seasons. How loud those chants for Jones will be, and the likeliness that the Giants listen to them, depend on how good Jones is the rest of August.
Sarah Hardy: What are the Cowboys going to do about their Dak Prescott-Ezekiel Elliott-Amari Cooper trio?
It always seemed like a foregone conclusion that Jerry Jones would give each a new contract before the season started. That could still be the case, but as we inch closer to Week 1, no deals have been reached and Elliott is threatening to miss time during the regular season.
But let’s say that it all gets worked out as expected and the “Big 3” are extended as September rolls around. By the time the situation is resolved, how much time will Elliott have missed in practice? And will it affect their rhythm on offense at all? Two years ago, Le’Veon Bell sat out the entire preseason before returning for the Steelers’ first game of 2017. He carried the ball 10 times for just 32 yards and it took him weeks until he found his stride.
The Cowboys don’t want the same thing to happen with Elliott, the backbone of their offense.
D’Andrea: The small-scale changing of the guard for the Patriots’ offense.
Tom Brady will be working with a sparse cupboard of targets thanks to Rob Gronkowski’s retirement, Josh Gordon’s indefinite suspension, and a shallow group behind them. The team’s offensive line has to replace its left tackle following Trent Brown’s departure and will be without one of the league’s top run-blocking tight ends now that Gronkowski’s gone.
The good news for New England is there’s reason to believe the replacements it’s got can be plug-and-play additions to a championship roster. Isaiah Wynn was a first-round pick in 2018 and could provide an easy transition from Brown after missing all of last season with a torn Achilles. N’Keal Harry, a 2019 first-round pick, has the chops to lift the receiving corps, but it’s been undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers who’s shown out in camp so far.
I’m still not sure what’s going to happen at tight end, however. Especially with a 38-year-old Ben Watson set to miss the first four games of the season due to a PED suspension.
More importantly, is the offensive line going to be able to protect Murray? The Cardinals — whose offensive line has been in shambles for years — at least improved in the offseason by trading for Marcus Gilbert and signing J.R. Sweezy.
Murray has dazzled so far in training camp, but how much of that will translate into real action? Consequently, is Kingsbury going to be able to have the same type of success that Sean McVay has had with the Rams?
Charles McDonald: All eyes are on Lamar Jackson.
The Ravens went 6-1 with Jackson as their starting quarterback last year and now he’s fully in the driver’s seat. If the reports at training camp are any indication, Jackson appears to be ready to take that next step as a passer:
I’m excited about the potential of this offense if Jackson can take flight as a passer. We’ll see how it goes in the actual games, but the Ravens have the look of a team that can get a lot better on offense.
Which early-season NFL injury has you most concerned?
Stites: How can you not be worried about Andrew Luck’s calf, considering how the last few years went for him? He had the nagging shoulder injury from hell, which started in 2015 and then cost him his entire 2017 season. Now he has a calf injury that’s been bothering him for three months. Luck thinks he’ll be back in time for Week 1, but recent history has provided Colts fans reason to hold their breath.
Hardy: While I’m definitely worried about Luck, the Giants are also quickly running out of receivers. Dave Gettleman made his bed by trading away Odell Beckham Jr., who perhaps put a curse on the position on his way out.
Sterling Shepard is dealing with a fractured thumb, Corey Coleman is out with a torn ACL, and Golden Tate is facing a four-game suspension to start the season. The rest of their depth chart includes Bennie Fowler, Cody Latimer, Russell Shepard, Alonzo Russell, Brittan Golden, Reggie White, and Da’Mari Scott. Did I make up one of those names? You decide!
McDonald: I think Antonio Brown might have the strangest training camp injury I can remember. His feet are absolutely shredded with blisters — or frostbite?! (Google a picture, if you’d like.) Either way, he’s been unable to practice in camp up until this point.
Normally, a player of Brown’s caliber missing practice in August wouldn’t really matter. However, he is is trying to ingratiate himself with a new quarterback, coach, and system — the reps are actually pretty valuable this time around. We need to find out exactly what happened to his feet and exactly how long he’ll be out.
Which position battle is the most interesting?
When I was at practice, Haskins showed the most talent, but he had some inconsistencies taking snaps under center that need to be ironed out. McCoy and Keenum don’t have the raw talent that Haskins does, but they have a little better control of the offense without the “wow” plays.
How Washington’s season unfolds will likely determine how fast it takes Jay Gruden to put Haskins in the lineup. If things start to go south and the team takes a nosedive, Haskins could end up getting the nod during the season.
D’Andrea: The entire Texans’ offensive line battle. Houston has the chops to be a legitimate Super Bowl contender, questions about Bill O’Brien’s postseason record (1-3) notwithstanding. It won’t get there without a healthy Deshaun Watson in the lineup. In 23 career games, the dual-threat passer has been sacked 81 times. This includes an NFL-high 62 sacks last season.
The Texans haven’t come up with much of a solution yet. They signed Ryan Kalil and drafted two more linemen this year, including 2019 Day 1 pick Tytus Howard. But no one’s quite sure how the Houston offensive line will look once the curtain opens on Week 1. Will Howard begin his career on the interior of the line as he ramps up his weekly schedule from FCS foes to NFL ones? Does Kalil have enough left in the tank to be an above-average pocket protector? Where will Julie’n Davenport wind up?
The Texans’ offensive line is still a mess, but there’s a fair amount of raw talent there. The question is whether Houston can mold those raw ingredients into a proper wall.
Hardy: No one is going to pay much attention to the Dolphins this year (or maybe ever), so I’ll throw them a bone and go with the competition between Ryan Fitzpatrick and Josh Rosen. Fitzpatrick has been the favorite all along to start the season opener, but Rosen has made strides recently. Can he fight off the Fitzmagic now, or have to wait until the fairy dust wears off in, like, Week 3 or 4?
And whenever Rosen does start, will he look like the rookie who struggled with the Cardinals, or like an invigorated former first-round pick ready to make his old team regret ever letting him go?
Which team helped itself the most this offseason?
D’Andrea: The easy answer here is the Browns, who gave Baker Mayfield an All-Pro receiver by trading for Odell Beckham Jr. and made things easier for Myles Garrett by adding Olivier Vernon and Sheldon Richardson to the team’s pass rush. They aren’t the only team to make strides — but aside from maybe the Raiders, they’re the team that made the biggest splash.
Stites: Yep, it’s the Browns by a comfortable margin. The Raiders did some much-needed work on their defense in the draft and got Antonio Brown, but the clear winners of the offseason were the Browns.
Which camp moment got you most hyped for the upcoming season?
D’Andrea: As a classically educated professional, I had always been taught the proper way to punch a hole in the side of an about-to-be-shotgunned beer was with a key. Baker Mayfield, however, that a sturdy incisor will work just fine.
The man did this to hype up a team he doesn’t even play for, and they rallied for the win. Imagine what he’s going to do in the huddle this fall.
Vijay Vemu: Unlike last season, Khalil Mack will actually play in training camp for the Chicago Bears. Now in his first full offseason with the team, Mack is making even more plays in training camp. He’s giving the Bears’ first-team offense fits and is just making things look too easy. He also showed off his unreal strength in this simple drill.
Landry: Drew Brees throwing to tight ends!
The Saints’ offense doesn’t lack production, but they haven’t had a true threat at tight end since Jimmy Graham was traded to the Seahawks in 2015. The Saints signed tight end Jared Cook in March and he and Drew Brees have connected on more than a few touchdowns in training camp so far.
What’s been the funniest moment of the preseason so far?
Stites: Just Quinnen Williams being delightful.
Hardy: Never tweet, unless you’re Jen Vrabel weighing in just how much her husband wants to coach the Titans to a Super Bowl:
Landry: Cam Jordan wearing socks with his own face on them. I can only hope to ever love myself that much.
D’Andrea: Malcolm Jenkins got the DJ at Eagles practice to hype the team up by playing some Grateful Dead. The playlist ran through six songs, which by Dead standards suggests practice was at least eight hours long.
McDonald: Colts quarterback Jacoby Brissett and Steelers quarterback Josh Dobbs had a hilarious exchange on Twitter. Brissett asked, “If the sun is hot how is outer space cold?” and got a response from Dobbs, who majored in aerospace engineering at Tennessee. Dobbs told him that space is a vacuum and doesn’t have air and Brissett replied with this beautiful tweet:
How is Twitter free?
Any good fights yet?
D’Andrea: Oh, totally. Jordan Lasley earned his release from the Ravens for fighting multiple teammates and then chucking a football into a pond:
Because subtlety is dead, the Raiders claimed him off waivers and will now make him a weekly fixture on Hard Knocks.
Lonnie Johnson also got kicked out of a joint Packers-Texans practice for balling too hard and running head-first into opposing receivers at approximately 140 mph, so expect him to get a nice long look in Oakland if Houston releases him at the cut-down date.
McDonald: When I was at Washington camp, there was a brawl after pass-rush one-on-ones. Jon Allen and Tim Settle were popping off at a few offensive linemen and then a fight broke out afterwards. The players involved said there are no hard feelings though; this stuff just happens when it’s hot outside.
Which Week 1 matchup are you most looking forward to?
Stites: Are the Browns for real? I wanna know, you wanna know, we all wanna know. A Week 1 matchup against the Titans — presumably with a healthy Marcus Mariota — will be a good litmus test. And hey, it’d be nice to find out if the Titans are going to be an actual contender, finally.
It’s also possible that neither of those questions gets answered.
Vemu: The one I’m looking forward to is when the Colts head west to the face off against the Chargers. Both teams have some questions to answer in their opening game, especially if the Chargers are without Melvin Gordon.
The Colts bounced back last season thanks to the return of Andrew Luck, and we even saw a Pro Bowl season from Eric Ebron. Darius Leonard was an All-Pro and anchored a defensive unit which finished 10th in points allowed. All eyes will be on Luck’s health and if Indianapolis can take another step forward. There are a lot of more marquee matchups in Week 1, but this Colts-Chargers game will feature two teams that made surprising playoff runs last year and are looking to do the same this year.
D’Andrea: Last year’s Packers-Bears opener saw a hobbled Aaron Rodgers lead Green Bay back from a 20-0 third quarter deficit and put an early stain on Chicago’s slate. This ultimately meant nothing — the Bears still pushed forward to the NFC North title while the Packers went an underwhelming 6-9-1 — but that opening night showdown stood out as one of 2018’s most exciting games.
These two sides will run it back on Thursday night to kick off the season Sept. 5, giving the world a chance to see if the Bears’ success is sustainable and if the Packers’ decision to spend big on defense — while making few major offensive changes — was enough to push Green Bay back into contention. It’s only Week 1, but this primetime showdown in Wisconsin could set the tone in the division for the rest of the year.
Landry: My immediate thought was Packers-Bears, but then I looked at the entire slate of games and that made me want to sit around for days on end to watch football. I think the one I’m most interested in watching is Chiefs-Jaguars. The Chiefs are coming off a great season and AFC Championship Game appearance, while the Jaguars are … not.
But, the Jaguars did sign Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles, who is a considerable improvement at quarterback over Blake Bortles. Even the dangerously truthful Jaguars corner Jalen Ramsey has been impressed with him. I think Week 1 will tell us what to expect from the Foles-led Jaguars and show us just how good the Chiefs still are.
Hardy: After gorging on football all Sunday, it’s easy for withdrawal to kick in the next day, so there’s nothing quite like the feeling of “oh right, MORE FOOTBALL” on Monday night.
We’ll get a doubleheader of Texans-Saints and Broncos-Raiders, but it’s the first one I’m especially curious about. Last season, both teams began slowly before turning things around and cruising to the playoffs (where their fate was, uh, not kind). Neither team can afford that kind of start this year with the schedule it’s staring down, though. The Texans have to play the Chiefs, Patriots, Ravens, and Colts (twice) in 2019. The Saints’ next three opponents after Houston are the Rams, Seahawks, and Cowboys. Yikes.
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