Week 1 of the NFL preseason is in the books.
While it’s folly to jump to conclusions based on preseason action, there’s legitimate reason for some teams to be encouraged by the weekend’s games. Others, not so much. Here’s what stood out from the preseason openers.
San Franciso 49ers
After a season of conditioning from the bench, the Trey Lance era is underway. The second-year quarterback got the start under center against the Green Bay Packers on Friday. So far, so good.
Lance played two drives against Green Bay and looked very much the part of the athletic, big-armed prospect that made him the No. 3 pick in the 2021 draft. He led the the 49ers to a field goal on his first drive before putting his arm on full display on his second.
On third-and-nine from San Francisco’s 24-yard line, Lance looked deep down the left sideline to find receiver Danny Gray breaking free from coverage. He launched a perfectly placed pass that Gray corralled in stride over midfield and took the rest of the way for a touchdown.
It’s the exact kind of play San Francisco had mind when it drafted Lance. While Jimmy Garoppolo delivered five seasons of mixed results as a game manager, the 49ers view Lance as a difference-maker with big-play ability. Here on third down, he didn’t just try to move the chains. He saw a shot. He took it. And he delivered with a 76-yard touchdown pass.
He finished his brief appearance completing 4-of-5 passes for 92 yards and the touchdown. Questions linger about his consistency from training camp, but he’s basically a rookie getting his first turn with the starters. Friday’s game was a step in the right direction.
New York Jets
Vibe: Not again
Thanks to injury and generally poor play, Zach Wilson’s rookie season fell well short of the expectations placed on 2021’s No. 2 draft pick. 2022’s off to an ominously familiar start.
Wilson came up limping against the Philadelphia Eagles on Friday after a non-contact injury to the same knee that sidelined him for four games last season.
The good news is that he avoided ACL damage and is reportedly expected to miss 2-4 weeks. Though a trip to see a specialist could alter that timeline. The bad news is that his right knee is now a recurring problem and requires surgery to repair a torn meniscus. Meanwhile his play prior to his injury didn’t inspire much optimism.
The same quarterback who threw 11 interceptions and nine touchdowns as a rookie threw a bad pick on his third pass of the game, completely overlooking Eagles linebacker Kyzir White in zone coverage.
Wilson needs all the reps he can get. Now he’s missing the rest of the preseason in a best-case scenario. Meanwhile, New York’s defense is producing gems like this irresponsible late hit from Quincy Williams on Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts.
As usual, it’s hard to find reason for optimism around the Jets.
Despite four years of on-field action clearly demonstrating that Baker Mayfield is the more capable NFL quarterback, the Panthers are engaging in what they insist is a genuine quarterback battle between Mayfield and Sam Darnold.
Mayfield got the start on Saturday against the Washington Commanders. He didn’t do much, but looked fine in his single scoreless drive of action while completing 4-of-7 passes for 45 yards. He threw a deep incompletion into double coverage that was fortunate to not get intercepted. Darnold converted a short field off a turnover into a touchdown pass to Rashard Higgins while completing 2-of-3 passes for 16 yards and the score in a likewise short appearance.
In the end, there wasn’t much to glean from limited action of two players allegedly engaged in a position battle. Presumably, head coach Matt Rhule will give them both more reps against the Patriots next week after targeting the game to re-evaluate the quarterback position. It’s difficult to imagine either player elevating the Panthers into competition in the NFC South.
Vibe: Guarded hope
After a full offseason to wash off the stink of the Urban Meyer era, the Jaguars have a clean slate under first-year head coach Doug Pederson. This is perhaps most important for quarterback Trevor Lawrence, whose rookie-season hope was overshadowed and overwhelmed by Meyer as he threw a league-worst 17 interceptions.
Lawrence looked sharp in his start against the Cleveland Browns on Friday, completing 6-of-12 passes for 95 yards and a touchdown. His first pass of the game — a 32-yard strike to Zay Jones in single coverage — was the type of play that made him the most coveted quarterback prospect in years.
He’s now joined by fellow 2021 first-round pick and Clemson Tiger Travis Etienne in the backfield after the running back missed 2021 with a foot injury. Etienne flashed his speed and his power with an explosive 13-yard run on the same drive.
“I felt like we were just back in the old days,” Etienne said after the game.
Meanwhile 2022 No. 1 pick Travon Walker recorded a single tackle in limited action. But he got his first sack out of the way last week in the Hall of Fame Game against the Las Vegas Raiders with a first-quarter takedown of Jarrett Stidham.
It all adds up to cautious optimism in Jacksonville — that the Jaguars can finally show some signs of progress and avoid landing the No. 1 pick for a third straight season.
Vibe: Dumpster fire
As the Browns await Deshaun Watson’s fate amid the NFL’s appeal to increase his six-game regular season ban, Watson’s getting in his reps, for better or worse. Worse was the case on Friday as Watson struggled against the Jaguars and heard it from a Jacksonville crowd eager to remind him of the 24 women who accused him of varying degrees of sexual assault and sexual misconduct.
Watson started and looked very much like a quarterback who hasn’t played since 2020 instead of a three-time Pro Bowler. The Browns failed to pick up a first down in Watson’s three drives that ended with two punts and a lost fumble by running back D’Ernest Johnson. He finished the day completing 1-of-5 passes for 7 yards.
More telling than his play was the profane reception by some Jaguars fans — one that’s a certain precursor to the welcome he should expect around the league whenever he’s permitted to play in the regular season.
Vibe check: Help, please
It’s hard to find much to like about the Bears heading into the season. Saturday’s game against the Kansas City Chiefs didn’t offer much reason reason for hope in terms of the product on the field — or the field itself.
Chicago did little to build around second-year quarterback Justin Fields this offseason, leaving little reason to anticipate a significant step forward for the offense. Fields’ first three drives of the preseason produced a grand total of zero points as the Bears struggled to move the ball. This isn’t an indictment of Fields, who had a pair of passes dropped and looked good on some throws, including this downfield connection with Darnell Mooney for 26 yards.
Mooney emerged as Fields’ top target last season in a 1,055-yard receiving campaign. Their chemistry is Chicago’s best hope on offense. But it didn’t produce any points on Saturday as Fields finished his day completing 4-of-7 passes for 48 yards without advancing the offense beyond the Chiefs’ 43-yard line.
Meanwhile, Soldier Field itself was the laughing stock of the NFL weekend. After kicker Cairo Santos admitted that he intentionally seeks out shoddy turf to practice for Solider Field, the turf for Saturday’s game was in shambles before a single snap was played. The conditions drew the ire of NFLPA president JC Tretter, who wrote on Twitter that “the NFL can and should do better.”
It’s looking like a long season ahead in Chicago.
More positive vibes:
Patrick Mahomes saw some preseason action and connected on six passes to six different receivers on a touchdown drive. Just how much will the Chiefs miss Tyreek Hill?
Rookie quarterback Malik Willis was electric in his Tennessee Titans debut, making plays with his feet and his arm against Baltimore Ravens backups. Barring injury, the Liberty product likely won’t supplant Ryan Tannehill this season. But the Titans have to be encouraged by what they saw.
Kenny Pickett likewise shone in his NFL debut for the Pittsburgh Steelers, completing 13-of-15 passes against Seattle Seahawks reserves. Mitchell Trubisky and Mason Rudolph also looked good as all three Steelers quarterbacks threw touchdown passes.
Washington Commanders rookie quarterback Sam Howell also impressed in action against Panthers reserves, completing 9-of-16 passes for 145 yards and scrambling for a touchdown.
The North Carolina quarterback once touted as a first-round prospect fell to fifth round after a disappointing junior season. Could he mount an eventual challenge to Carson Wentz?