The final week of the NFL preseason is upon us. Great!
The league is going to have to look at preseason games beyond this year because the system is broken.
Everyone knows established players don’t love the preseason games and would rather sit them out. Well, many teams have now turned their three preseason games into glorified scrimmages for their back-of-the-roster players.
Veterans and stars, meanwhile, get the majority of their regular-season preparation done in practice, and often in dual practices with other teams where one actually finds first-team players competing against first-team players.
This happens out of the view of most fans and television.
And the NFL doesn’t love being out of the view of most fans and television.
It’s not a money-making formula.
Fans, meanwhile, are paying top-dollar for the preseason games when they purchase season tickets but mostly miss the dual practices that include actual top players.
So the NFL is going to have to address this after the season. As to the end of this 2021 preseason, here’s what we should consider:
Colts at Lions: Carson Wentz is recovering from foot surgery but threw 70-plus practice passes in 7 on 7 work this week. So the Colts have already won the week regardless of this game’s outcome. Wentz is actually on track to start the regular-season opener, which is a mild surprise. Lions coach Dan Campbell said this week he’s concerned running back D’Andre Swift and tight end T.J. Hockenson — both nursing injuries — haven’t played in the preseason and, in Swift’s case, hasn’t had a ton of activity in practice. The problem? It’s hard to expect them to play in this game, either.
Eagles at Jets: These two teams are going to be bad. There, I said it. They don’t have enough pieces. Their defenses are incomplete. Their depth is bad. The only reason to be interested is to gauge the quarterbacks. Zach Wilson is a promising rookie who can make a lot of outrageous throws because of his arm talent. But he’s a rookie and it’s going to be a learning year for him. Jalen Hurts, meanwhile, feels a lot like a place holder in Philly. He’ll have moments. If he and rookie receiver DeVonta Smith get it rolling, it’ll be exciting. But not exciting enough to make the Eagles a good team.
Steelers at Panthers: Dwayne Haskins starts and gets his chance to solidify himself as Ben Roethlisberger’s backup. “Don’t screw it up” is his assignment. The Panthers are a team (still) in transition so they need to settle some things. They have to settle on a kicker. They need to know if Cam Erving is the real deal at tackle or already something of a free agency misstep.
Vikings at Chiefs: With most starters expected to play about a half, the Chiefs still need to identify the replacement for departed Sammy Watkins. And they need to find a returner. One thing you probably won’t see from the Chiefs is Demarcus Robinson as a returner. As special teams coach Dave Toub told reporters, “He drives me nuts!” The Vikings will play some but not all their starters for a quarter or a little longer. But Dalvin Cook, Danielle Hunter, Patrick Peterson, Justin Jefferson, Harrison Smith and Adam Thielen are not expected to play.
Packers at Bills: Josh Allen is starting for Buffalo. That means the entire starting offensive line is starting and the top priority for the entire Bills’ organization, while Allen gets his final tune-up, is to make sure he comes out of that game completely healthy.
It would not surprise if these two teams meet in the Super Bowl at season’s end.
Ravens at Washington: The Washingtons have had six first-team offensive possessions this preseason and scored a whopping three points. No wonder Ron Rivera has been reticent about revealing his starting quarterback. Ryan Fitzpatrick, of course, is the obvious choice. Seriously, what’s Rivera going to do, select Kyle Allen or Taylor Heinicke to start the season? There would be a collective gasp in the locker room. Bottom line, Fitzpatrick needs to produce some points to seal the job. The Ravens? They’re good. Don’t worry about the Ravens.
Bears at Titans: The Dolphins remember what it’s like not to have Ryan Tannehill as the starter because he missed the final month of 2016 and all of 2017 with a knee injury. Well, Tannehill is on the COVID-19 reserve list and not expected to play against the Bears. This will be a good, and necessary, opportunity for Matt Barkley to get some game action because he would be the guy in Tennessee if Tannehill were ever to miss games. The Bears have decided on Andy Dalton as their regular-season starter but rookie Justin Fields starts this game behind perhaps one of the worst offensive lines in the NFL. Godspeed, Justin Fields.
Buccaneers at Texans: Tampa Bay coach Bruce Arians promises to keep his players virtually hermetically sealed on the road, even the vaccinated ones, so as to avoid COVID-19 exposure. That’s interesting because the NFL and NFL Players Association negotiated the protocols that all teams must keep for travel, and Arians is going beyond those. This will be a test for the league before the game is even played. The Texans, meanwhile, are still searching for a viable trade partner for Deshaun Watson. Nope, that story has not died.
Cardinals at Saints: Coach Sean Payton has now officially named Jameis Winston his starting quarterback for the 2021 season, regardless of anything that happens in this game. For the Cardinals, this is one final opportunity to tighten up an offense that has been inconsistent. Coach Kliff Kingsbury has to make that unit look great and win this season — or else.
Rams at Broncos: For the Broncos, the first team offense, including newly named starting quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and running back Melvin Gordon, is expected to play a couple of series. OLB Von Miller, WR Courtland Sutton, who hasn’t played since the second game of 2020, and TE Albert Okwuegbunam will make their preseason debuts. TE Noah Fant, dealing with some sort of leg injury, will not play. The Rams typically don’t expose many of their star players in the preseason. This game is probably not going to be the exception.
Chargers at Seahawks: The Seahawks have so far held Russell Wilson, Tyler Lockett, Duane Brown, Bobby Wagner, Jamal Adams and others out of the preseason but coach Pete Carroll said this week he’s going to ramp up the use of his veterans to get them ready for the regular season. The Chargers have similarly kept quarterback Justin Herbert and safety Derwin James under wraps so far this preseason and they apparently plan to stick with that plan in this preseason finale.
Jaguars at Cowboys: Dak Prescott is ready for the regular season opener at Tampa Bay, according to the Cowboys. That doesn’t mean he’s going to be exposed this game. This game will be the last opportunity for the Jaguars’ stale preseason offense to find some cohesion. I get it, they’ve been running bland plays so as to not give away secrets. That’s smart. But at some point, these guys need to function with fundamental stuff before they can make their go-to plays work.
Dolphins at Bengals: Joe Burrow vs. Tua Tagovailoa, right? Nope. Burrow is scheduled to play at least some in what will be his preseason debut. That means his starting offensive line will play. Jamar Chase, suffering from drops this preseason, needs a confidence rebuilding day before the real games. But they’ll face a Miami team content to sit as many starters as possible, including Tagovailoa who had one good and one so-so outing in the preseason. Coach Brian Flores is obviously gearing up for the regular-season opener against New England and doesn’t want to expose any of his players, especially some fragile ones at wide receiver, to injuries.
Raiders at 49ers: San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan has played a cat-and-mouse game with the media before naming his starting quarterback. But, let’s be real, the 49ers will open with Jimmy Garoppolo at quarterback in the regular-season opener, even if rookie Trey Lance is inserted to run some sort of package against unsuspecting defenses. These facts will be blared as breaking news by national media types not named Salguero in the coming days.
“I’m pretty happy with where I’m at and everything and just the offense as a whole,” Garrapolo said.
He should be because he’s going to be the starter in the opener.
Patriots at Giants: Everyone in New England is hyperventilating about whether Cam Newton or Mac Jones is the QB. That’s important, but not the biggest concern right now because both have performed well in the preseason. Meanwhile, star cornerback Stephon Gilmore has been on the physically unable to perform list and with only two weeks to be ready for the season-opener, the odds are stacking against Gilmore being able to play at season’s start. Giants fans, meanwhile, are obsessed with quarterback Daniel Jones, who needs more playmakers around him, and running back Saquon Barkley, who won’t play this game, but seems on track to play in the season opener. But I suggest you pay attention to … cornerback Darnay Holmes and guard Kenny Wiggins. Holmes had a rough practice week against the Patriots and needs to recover. Wiggins is a backup lineman who is becoming something of a coach favorite and is on the ascent if he can stack a good preseason outing to a solid practice week.
Browns at Falcons: This one is actually going to be interesting for a while because names we recognize are playing for both teams. The Browns have limited their playing time for starters this preseason but coach Kevin Stefanski said quarterback Baker Mayfield will start and other vets will play, with their snap counts depending on what the coaching staff thinks is necessary to be ready for the regular season. The Browns have decided on Chase McLauhlin as their kicker after they put Cody Parkey on injured reserve. Don’t screw it up in the final preseason game, Chase. The Falcons will also let their starters get some run. It would be interesting to see if former first-round pick Josh Rosen, signed last week, gets a chance to play. The Falcons are hoping coach Arthur Smith can rehabilitate Rosen’s career the same way he did for Ryan Tannehill in Tennessee. Problem is Rosen is no Tannehill for various reasons, including a lack of leadership, and Smith will probably see that soon enough.