Lead Draft Writer
This is it. After Sunday, the preseason will be over and the games start to count for real.
But just because we’re set to wrap up the exhibition season doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot at stake in these contests. This will be the final action prior to the major cutdown — from 80 rostered players to 53.
Many teams will hold out starters, but some clubs are planning to give their first-teamers extensive work. Here’s what’s at stake — and what you should be watching for — during the third and final week of the 2022 NFL preseason.
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CHIEFS: We know what Patrick Mahomes can do, and this spreading-the-ball-around thing is working well so far. But what’s the deal with the run game? And more specifically, the run blocking. The starting unit produced 14 yards on seven carries last week against Washington. The backups weren’t much better in this department. But will the Chiefs’ starters even get much work (if any) in this one? That’s the rub. Still, backup OL jobs are there for the taking. One blocker who needs a strong showing: fifth-round OL Darian Kinnard, who isn’t guaranteed a roster spot.
PACKERS: Green Bay seems to be tempering expectations for recently activated David Bakhtiari and Elgton Jenkins to be available as soon as Week 1. So with the early-season starting line in flux, every rep matters for players such as Yosh Nijman, the likely left tackle replacement for Bakhtiari. Could he also get reps at right tackle in case Jenkins isn’t ready? There’s also a battle at right guard between Royce Newman, Jake Hanson and rookie Zach Tom. How much — and when — they play versus Kansas City could tell us a lot.
49ERS: Is running back Trey Sermon guaranteed a roster spot? Not everyone is convinced he is. Sermon was a disappointment as a rookie, with the 2021 third-rounder struggling early to grasp the offense while sixth-rounder Elijah Mitchell took the lead role. But Sermon was believed to be in the running for expanded duties this season; so far, it just hasn’t happened. An ankle injury can explain some of that, likely sapping him of some juice. But Sermon might need to get healthy quickly — and perhaps for this game. Ty Davis-Price is believed to have a spot locked up, while fellow rookie Jordan Mason has looked good, too. So if Mitchell, Jeff Wilson Jr. and Davis-Price are in, we could see JaMycal Hasty, Sermon and Mason possibly battling for one or two of the final RB spots.
TEXANS: Can the Texans show more up front — specifically in the run game? Granted, last week they ran without rookie RB Dameon Pierce and two starting offensive linemen (Laremy Tunsil and rookie Kenyon Green), but the results weren’t great. That might have been more about the offensive line than the running backs, but if we assume Rex Burkhead, Marlon Mack and Pierce make the opening roster, Houston could end up with Dare Ogunbowale and Royce Freeman fighting for the final backfield spot in this game.
PANTHERS: By now, you know the big news: Baker Mayfield is starting Week 1 against his old Browns team. Funny how that worked out. Perhaps more surprising is that he’ll also start Friday against the Bills, but we must remember: Mayfield has been a Panther fewer than 50 days. He threw seven passes the first preseason game and zero the next. Sixteen days from Friday is the Cleveland game. Mayfield needs the reps and he needs them with the first-team offense in a game setting. Arguably no starting quarterback needs game action this week more than the former No. 1 overall pick.
BILLS: Most of the Bills’ starting jobs are sealed up now that they’ve gone down to one punter on the roster. But there’s a higher-leverage position — and a potential starting spot — very much in play. If Tre’Davious White can’t go Week 1, it appears that Dane Jackson will be one starting outside corner; the other job would be up for grabs. Right now, it’s down to first-rounder Kaiir Elam and sixth-rounder Christian Benford. Elam initially appeared to have an inside track at this spot, given his draft pedigree, but Benford has been one of the pleasant summer surprises in Buffalo. Just like last week, both Elam and Benford could be on the field a lot together on the outside. And the better man could start Week 1 versus the defending champion Rams.
COWBOYS: KaVontae Turpin is one of the best stories of the preseason. The journeyman has a unique CV, almost certainly the only man alive to have played for the FCF Glacier Boyz, Panthers Wrocław (of the European League of Football) and New Jersey Generals. Oh, yes, and the Dallas Cowboys. Turpin, the USFL MVP, also almost certainly locked up a roster spot with his two return TDs last week, adding a 7-yard run for good measure. Get to know him now. But we’d like to see what Turpin can do at receiver against Seattle. Let’s hope they give him more run on Friday than the four offensive snaps he had versus the Chargers.
SEAHAWKS: Well, here we go again? Drew Lock has played one half of preseason football in 2022, so if he has any designs on starting Week 1 against Denver, one might reasonably assume that he’ll need to play quite well on Friday. Or did Lock missing last week’s game with COVID already hand the job to Geno Smith (who, uh, struggled against the Bears)? Pete Carroll announced on Wednesday that Smith will start the preseason finale, but Lock will play most of the game. This is one of the odder QB battles in recent memory. Something strange happening in this game is a mortal lock.
CHARGERS: Two summer standouts for the Bolts, wide receiver Josh Palmer and rookie running back Isaiah Spiller, came out of the Dallas game with health concerns. Palmer, who looks like a real weapon for Justin Herbert this season, is in concussion protocol. Spiller, vying for the RB2 job, injured his ankle and is out for this game. That could change the final-roster math just a tad, perhaps forcing the Chargers to keep an extra man at one or both positions. That puts the spotlight on a few borderline players, such as RBs Joshua Kelley and Larry Rountree III and WRs Jalen Guyton and Michael Bandy, who has 15 catches through the first two preseason games.
SAINTS: What is going on with former third-round linebacker Zack Baun? After two seasons where he primarily contributed on special teams, the thought was that he might break out this fall. A hamstring injury has slowed him, but it was telling when the Saints gave recent signings such as Chase Hansen, Eric Wilson and Jon Bostic snaps in place of an injured Pete Werner, and Baun was seemingly buried on the depth chart. This is a player the Saints traded up for two years ago. Could he be on the chopping block? If so, this game could be his final shot to prove otherwise.
PATRIOTS: From Randall Gay (2004) to Quinn Nordin (2021), the Pats are riding an 18-season streak with at least one undrafted rookie making Bill Belichick’s opening 53-man roster. Will Brenden Schooler be the guy to keep the streak alive? The DB-turned-WR-turned-DB in college (at three schools) has opened eyes, but less so as a safety — that’s his defensive position — and more so on special teams. He checks off a lot of Belichick boxes (speed, competitiveness, hitting ability) and could ice a roster spot with another strong showing here.
RAIDERS: Is Alex Leatherwood already a lost cause? The 2021 first-round offensive lineman has struggled in the preseason, and it’s to the point where we just can’t imagine Josh McDaniels trusting him to protect Derek Carr’s front side at right tackle. It’s possible the Week 1 RT isn’t even on the roster yet. Could this week’s game against the Patriots clear that up any? One thought: Maybe the Raiders use the joint practices and Friday’s game to evaluate some of New England’s OT talent and either swing a trade (Isaiah Wynn?) or sign whomever the Patriots end up cutting.
FALCONS: First-round draft pick Drake London was held out of Monday night’s game because of a knee injury and likely won’t play Saturday. We know he’s one of the Falcons’ top receivers, but who are the others? Some of that could be sorted out in this game. Bryan Edwards, Olamide Zaccheaus and Damiere Byrd figure to have roster spots locked up. But a trio of other options — ex-lacrosse star Jared Bernhardt, KhaDarel Hodge and Frank Darby — can prove they belong on the opening 53. Darby figures to get a lot of reps here after mainly working with the reserves and could be running out of time.
JAGUARS: The Jaguars actually appear to have most of the major roles sorted out on offense, save for perhaps right tackle (Jawaan Taylor vs. Walker Little). But there are reserve jobs up for grabs heading into this game at running back (Ryquell Armstead vs. Mekhi Sargent for the final spot), receiver (Laviska Shenault, Laquon Treadwell, Tim Jones and Jeff Cotton Jr. could be battling for one or two spots) and tight end (Dan Arnold and Luke Farrell might not both make it). Can a strong showing here seal a few jobs for Week 1?
RAMS: The Rams love them some wide receivers. And the more you look at the position, the more it’s possible the team keeps seven — perhaps even eight — on the initial roster if they go lighter elsewhere (at tight end or keeping only two QBs). Cooper Kupp, Allen Robinson and Van Jefferson are roster locks, and Tutu Atwell and Ben Skowronek feel like pretty sure things to make it. That means Brandon Powell, Jacob Harris and Lance McCutcheon all could make the big cut. But eight is a big, big number, and you’d have to think that the latter three players will receive their final auditions in this game at Cincinnati before the Rams make some tough calls on cutdown day.
BENGALS: Has fourth-round pick Cordell Volson locked up the starting left guard job? Zac Taylor isn’t saying. But Volson has played well, with many arguing he’s been the more consistent performer compared to Jackson Carman, the 2021 second-rounder who started six games and saw postseason snaps as a rookie. Volson played mostly right tackle in college (and never played left guard), but has taken the opportunity and run with it. How the Bengals line up early in this game might give us a window into how they imagine the starting five will look against Pittsburgh in Week 1.
RAVENS: The longest NFL win streak of all time is 23 by the 2008-09 Indianapolis Colts. But that was merely the regular season. The Ravens can match that number — in the preseason — with a win on Saturday at M&T Bank Stadium. If they reach the mountaintop, one heavy lifter could be future preseason Hall of Famer/rookie tight end Isaiah Likely. Fantasy folks, if you’re not already on Likely, you might want to use this game to catch the bandwagon. After a promising preseason opener (four catches for 42 yards on four targets), Likely blew the roof off State Farm Stadium with eight catches on eight targets for 100 yards and a TD. We suspect the Ravens’ 12 and 13 personnel packages are back in business with Likely, Mark Andrews and Nick Boyle, which can really give opponents problems when they’re also trying to stop Lamar Jackson.
COMMANDERS: The Commanders’ offensive line, especially inside, is a growing concern. Even with Andrew Norwell and Wes Schweitzer back at practice, it’s not clear how much they or Trai Turner — who has basically been sidelined for a month — will play in the preseason finale. Of the reserve interior blockers, Saahdiq Charles appeared to stand out the most. But cleaning up some of the operation inside — while avoiding additional injuries — figures to be a prime objective in this game.
DOLPHINS: QB Skylar Thompson appears to be in an excellent position to make Miami’s opening roster after a strong camp and two impressive preseason games. With Tua Tagovailoa and Teddy Bridgewater on the roster, too, will the Dolphins keep three quarterbacks? That might be the only roadblock, although sneaking Thompson through waivers now feels unlikely. But he certainly could use this game — perhaps the last game snaps he receives for some time — to show the Fins that he deserves to eventually rise to QB2 status.
EAGLES: Philadelphia ended up with only a five-man draft class this spring, but Howie Roseman and Co. have to be thrilled with the (very) early return on investment. First-rounder Jordan Davis will play a lot this season. Second-rounder Cam Jurgens is everyone’s summer camp crush and Jason Kelce’s likely replacement. Third-rounder Nakobe Dean is playing — a big step, considering the health concerns that caused him to drop in the draft. Even sixth-rounders Kyron Johnson and Grant Calcaterra have shots of making the roster. Most of them (save Davis, you’d figure) will see ample action against the Dolphins and could help win or wrap up jobs. The final three picks figure to have the most at stake in this game.
CARDINALS: With the Cardinals likely to keep three quarterbacks on the opening roster, it takes one spot away from a non-QB — and it wouldn’t surprise us if the proverbial final cut is a running back. Just how many can the Cardinals afford to keep initially? Four is reasonable, but five is possible. James Conner is one. Darrel Williams might be another. So from afar, it would stand to reason that Eno Benjamin, Jonathan Ward and sixth-rounder Keaontay Ingram are competing for the remaining spots. Benjamin runs hard and seems to have his fans in the building. Ward is a core special teamer. Ingram has really opened eyes this summer. This game could provide the final clarity of who will make it and who won’t — unless they all do.
TITANS: What will the Titans do with the quarterback position at cutdowns? It’s possible they keep only Ryan Tannehill and third-rounder Malik Willis at first, considering the Logan Woodside experience has not gone well in preseason. But Willis’ theoretical ascension to QB2, frankly, has been as much about Woodside’s struggles as the rookie’s actual play. Willis must show more consistency after another up-and-down performance in the preseason. It feels like the Titans might not fully trust Willis yet as the one-snap-away option at QB. Perhaps a stronger showing versus Arizona can quell that a bit.
BEARS: Chicago’s starters will play the first half in Cleveland, head coach Matt Eberflus revealed — and yes, that includes Roquan Smith. The linebacker plans to bet on himself this season and play out his fifth-year option before trying to cash in on the open market in 2023. But is he ready to play? Earlier this week, the Bears appeared to exercise caution with Smith’s plan to return to action, not wanting him to get hurt while trying to do too much. Bears fans will want to see just how fluidly Smith moves against the Browns, with the season opener being 15 days away from Saturday.
BROWNS: Cleveland needs more answers at wide receiver. With Jacoby Brissett set to start the first 11 regular-season games, he appears to need more weaponry — or at least more consistency from the targets he has now. Amari Cooper, who almost certainly won’t play this Saturday, is the top option. After that, questions exist. How good can Donovan Peoples-Jones be? Will David Bell start cooking after a promising preseason debut? Is Anthony Schwartz past his struggles? What’s in store for Demetric Felton, Mike Woods and Mike Harley Jr. — and do they have a place on the squad? We’ll see if this game provides any clarity.
BUCCANEERS: With Tom Brady back in camp and the regular season looming, there might be only one shot for Kyle Trask to put out some quality tape in advance of what could be a very interesting 2023 offseason in Tampa at quarterback. It’s clear the Bucs are giving Trask ample opportunity — he’s attempted 57 of the Bucs’ 67 preseason passes so far. We figure that trend could continue Saturday in Indianapolis. Trask was strong in the opener, less so last week. The Bucs might not want to risk Brady getting hurt. They know what Blaine Gabbert offers. So it could be a lot more Trask this weekend before, assuming all goes according to plan, he resumes his role at QB3. Next year, that could change dramatically. Trask could be the starter, or he could be on another roster. This game matters significantly — for him and the Bucs — in that regard.
COLTS: Similar to Trask, one might figure this game carries some heft for the Colts’ third QB, Sam Ehlinger, too. He’s done everything that reasonably could be asked of him — likely more — since arriving in Indianapolis. In two preseason games, Ehlinger has completed 19 of 22 passes (86.4%) for 224 yards, four touchdowns and no interceptions, also adding 26 rush yards on five attempts. Yet unlike Trask in Tampa, it doesn’t appear there’s a guaranteed spot for him on Indy’s initial roster. Can he convince the Colts to keep him? If not, another QB-hungry team might be watching Ehlinger’s final preseason outing to see if he’s worth a roster claim.
BRONCOS: First-year head coach Nathaniel Hackett said that QB Brett Rypien would start against the Vikings on Saturday, with Josh Johnson getting the second half. Plainly put: QB2 honors appear to be on the line. It was hard to find too many silver linings from last week’s 42-15 loss to the Bills, but Rypien playing well in the second half (after Johnson struggled early) was one. Against the Cowboys the week before, Johnson was the better performer. Of the two, Johnson has received the better opportunities, but it’s clear that Rypien bought himself some time with his second-half performance last week. Can a strong showing against the Vikings win him the job behind Russell Wilson?
VIKINGS: It’s been a tough run here for 2021 fifth-round TE Zach Davidson, who failed to make the team out of camp a year ago and once again is in danger of getting cut. Although the 6-foot-7 tight end has intriguing athletic traits (and also can punt in an emergency), he hasn’t yet put it together. Last week’s preseason game was arguably his roughest patch as a Viking, punctuated by a bad drop late in the game. He’s not been able to make a lasting impact on offense or special teams. This might be his last shot to impress, assuming Irv Smith Jr. is good to go for Week 1 and the Vikings don’t need to keep an additional body in the tight end room.
JETS: Head coach Robert Saleh said this week that most of the starters will go against the Giants, with the Jets treating the game as a dress rehearsal for the opener against the Ravens. Technically, there’s a starting job open at corner, as Saleh has not yet made a choice between 2022 first-rounder Sauce Gardner and Bryce Hall, who has started 24 of his 25 NFL games to this point. After Hall’s struggles on Monday against the Falcons (missing a tackle, getting beat multiple times and being flagged for defensive holding in a tough two-drive stretch), it feels like a foregone conclusion Gardner will win that job. We might have a very good idea by the start of this game how that will end up.
GIANTS: The G-Men will want to come out of their crosstown matchup with a better idea of how their receivers stack up. After Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney, there are a lot of questions. (Some would argue there are some with Golladay and Toney, too.) Wan’Dale Robinson has been quiet of late, while Sterling Shepard is still working back from an Achilles injury. But they’re certainly far safer than the likes of Collin Johnson, Richie James, Darius Slayton and Alex Bachman, all of whom might be using this game to battle for the final WR roster spots — or trying to showcase their skills for 31 other teams. (UPDATE: After the publishing of this story, news broke that Collin Johnson suffered a torn Achilles.)
STEELERS: Has offensive guard Kendrick Green lost his starting role? Mike Tomlin said he won’t name a starting LG until after the game against the Lions, but Green has some work to do to beat out Kevin Dotson after Green struggled mightily early on against the Jaguars. Dotson replaced him for the second and third series, with Green returning once Kenny Pickett came in at QB late in the first half. This game could ultimately decide whether Green or Dotson starts the opener versus the Bengals. Really, the whole O-line must improve, though, as center Mason Cole and right guard James Daniels also have struggled.
LIONS: Detroit might be settling the QB2 battle with this game: David Blough vs. Tim Boyle for all the marbles. Or whatever marbles are left after starter Jared Goff. “I think it’s neck-and-neck,” head coach Dan Campbell said of the Blough-Boyle battle, adding that he expects Boyle to start Sunday in Pittsburgh. With the Lions believed to be favoring a two-QB initial roster, that means a job is on the line. Boyle struggled when he played for the Lions in 2021, and Blough seems to have the slight leg up if you count the practice-snap pecking order. But Blough hasn’t done much of note in the regular season since 2019. Their preseason performances have been fairly even, although Boyle’s numbers are stronger overall, and Blough’s conservative style and penchant for ill-timed turnovers could work against him. There’s a lot on the line Sunday.
Follow Eric Edholm on Twitter.
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