October 16, 2018

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N.F.L. Preseason: What We’ve Learned So Far

N.F.L. Preseason: What We’ve Learned So Far
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Some of the best players don’t play, and some players about to be cut do. Coaches hide the bulk of their playbooks. Intensity is low.

N.F.L. preseason games often bear little resemblance to the high-stakes football that follows them. But that doesn’t mean that the first bunch of games on Thursday night didn’t teach us something about teams, players and the season ahead. Here are some highlights.

Saquon Barkley: One Run, Millions of Believers

Barkley, the No. 2 overall selection in this year’s draft, had one run against the Browns on Thursday night that set Giants fans dreaming. On the game’s first play, he took the ball from Eli Manning, briefly looked stuck, then found a hole and dashed for 39 yards.

The rest of Barkley’s runs were pedestrian. And some Penn State runners have not carried their college form over into the N.F.L. (Blair Thomas, Ki-Jana Carter, Curtis Enis). “Just a run, you know?” Manning told reporters. “Let’s not go berserk yet, all right?”

It may be too late. Berserk mode is already activated.

The Rams: Second String Not So Great

The Browns were 4-0 in the preseason last year, and the Patriots were 1-3. That didn’t teach us much. But that doesn’t stop people from looking at the exhibition scores and drawing conclusions.

Most of the games Thursday night were close, but there was one exception: the Ravens thumped the Rams, 33-7. Start off with the caveats: Almost no key Rams players got in the game, including quarterback Jared Goff. The signal calling was handled instead by Brandon Allen (a sixth-rounder in 2016 who has had no-regular season snaps) and Sean Mannion (one N.F.L. start in three years).

And the Ravens were playing their second preseason game and seemed to have less rust.

The Rams had been attracting a lot of preseason buzz after a breakthrough 11-5 season. They have some work to do when the starters begin to play.

Lamar Jackson: Dangerous Legs

Jackson’s passing numbers didn’t amaze (7 for 18, 119 yards), but he got Ravens fans excited with his running game. Jackson avoided a sack, scrambled away, dodged some defenders, and scored a 9-yard touchdown.

“I made a guy miss and tried to do what I do best, tried to get in the end zone,” Jackson told reporters. “It was excellent.”

For now, he is still listed third on Baltimore’s depth chart, behind Joe Flacco and Robert Griffin III.

Baker Mayfield: Quality Start

Baker Mayfield won the Heisman Trophy last season and was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. But skepticism about him remains, especially since he was joining the hapless Browns.

After one preseason game, Cleveland fans are breathing a bit easier. Mayfield was 11 for 20 for 212 yards, with two touchdowns and no interceptions. And the Browns beat the Giants, 20-10.

As for the other member of the heralded quarterback rookie class in action Thursday, Josh Allen of the Bills was 9 for 19 for 116 yards and a touchdown — weaker numbers than his competition, Nathan Peterman (9 for 10) and A.J. McCarron (7 for 10). Sam Darnold of the Jets plays Friday and Josh Rosen of the Cardinals makes his debut on Saturday.

Helmet Rule: Refs Know the Rule

No one is quite sure how the N.F.L.’s new rule on helmet hits will affect the season. We got a hint on Thursday when Shamarko Thomas of the Colts was ejected after making helmet-to-helmet contact with David Moore of the Seahawks.

“I’m very disappointed,” Colts Coach Frank Reich told reporters. “We don’t teach that. That was a good call, that was the appropriate call, he should have been ejected.”

Andrew Luck: He’s Back

Remember him? One of the top signal-callers in the game missed all of last season with shoulder problems. Not coincidentally, the Colts were 4-12.

On Thursday, Luck started the preseason opener, completing 6 of 9 passes for 64 yards. It was a careful start, but a welcome one for Colts fans.

Ryan Tannehill also made a return after missing 2017 with a knee injury. He was 4-for-6, playing just one series for the Dolphins.

Newton and Benjamin: Not So Friendly Any More

Bills receiver Kelvin Benjamin stirred up a little tempest earlier in the week by disparaging his former teammate, Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, telling The Athletic that: “It was a bad fit from the get-go. You would have put me with any other quarterback, let’s be real, you know what I’m saying? Any other accurate quarterback like Rodgers or Eli Manning or Big Ben — anybody!”

Newton approached Benjamin before the Panthers-Bills game on Thursday, but Benjamin showed a disinclination to chat.

“I wasn’t even trying to listen,” Benjamin told the Panthers website.

Protests: They’re Not Going Away

It doesn’t look like the controversy over national anthem protests is over, as a handful of players knelt or raised fists again, drawing the ire of the president.



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