• A healthy Baker Mayfield looked like a different quarterback this offseason for the Panthers, winning a quarterback battle that now seems as though it was all but a formality.
• The Indianapolis Colts continue to be a safety prospect factory, with rookie Nick Cross the latest to stand out after finishing as one the highest-graded players this preseason.
• Trey Lance is officially the starter in San Francisco, but his lack of preseason “wow” coupled with the fact that the 49ers retained Jimmy Garoppolo for 2022 aren't positive signs.
Estimated reading time: 17 mins
NFL preseason is now in the books, along with an entire offseason of team building and gearing up for another run at a Super Bowl. Before we focus on Week 1 action, there’s just enough time to look back at what we learned about each team in training camp and preseason.
JUMP TO A TEAM:
What we learned: Andy Isabella isn’t a lost cause yet
As a former second-round draft pick, Andy Isabella has been a disappointment so far, catching 31 passes in three years. But he showed this preseason that he can still be a factor in the offense. He caught 14 of 22 passes thrown his way for an impressive 2.3 yards per route run. With Christian Kirk leaving in the offseason, there is a vertical slot role within the offense available if Isabella can consistently bring that speed to bear.
What we learned: Atlanta’s offense may be much better than expected
The Falcons finally pressed the reset button this offseason when they traded away quarterback Matt Ryan, not long after making him virtually untradeable with a contract restructure. It was assumed the team would languish in turmoil for a while, but the pieces added on offense, in particular, could yield solid results. Marcus Mariota was the best-graded quarterback in the entire league this preseason if you set the playing time threshold low enough. He brings a rushing threat that gives any offense a very high floor. Added to the dynamism of Cordarrelle Patterson and Kyle Pitts, there is a solid nucleus in Atlanta. Top pick Drake London barely featured due to an injury, but if he can make an impact, the Falcons could surprise some people.
What we learned: The Ravens are unbeatable in the preseason
There might not be a more impressive yet pointless record than Baltimore’s run of 23 straight preseason victories. They closed out another undefeated preseason despite starting almost nobody of regular-season consequence in at least one game. An optimistic interpretation would be to suggest this speaks volumes of the team’s depth and ability to draft in the mid-rounds, but we saw last season how little that can mean when injuries strike in volume. Baltimore may simply take preseason games more seriously than everybody else.
What we learned: Buffalo still has depth everywhere on offense
The Bills have made calculated moves over the past season or two to let players leave and replace their production with youth. Gabriel Davis looks like he’s going to step into a larger role this season and continue to dominate, while rookie Khalil Shakir caught all eight passes thrown his way for 3.5 yards per route run. The Bills still have what looks like one of the best stables of talent in the NFL with Josh Allen leading the charge.
What we learned: Baker Mayfield is a different QB with a functioning shoulder
It seems hard to believe now that we actually had to go through a “competition” for the starting job in Carolina between Baker Mayfield and Sam Darnold, but the Panthers wanted Mayfield to earn the job once they traded for him. He was comfortably the better player during training camp after some early mishaps and was solid enough in preseason games to lock up the job. Mayfield’s completion rate wasn’t great (59.1%), but three drops and a throwaway boost that up to an 80.0% adjusted completion rate. Mayfield was written off after gutting through last season badly hurt. He should be a different player in 2022.
What we learned: Justin Fields looks much more comfortable than he did as a rookie
Justin Fields flashed playmaking ability as a rookie, but everything felt like it was happening through athletic talent alone. This preseason, Fields seemed much more in command of the offense, and the results showed through. He was one of the best-graded quarterbacks in the league (the best with 15-plus dropbacks) and did not make a turnover-worthy play. Fields doesn’t have a good supporting cast around him, but the offense looks better tailored to his abilities.
What we learned: Nobody stood out to win the left guard spot
Cincinnati overhauled its offensive line this offseason, bringing in three new starters in free agency to go along with the capable Jonah Williams at left tackle. That left the Bengals hoping somebody would emerge to win the one remaining starting spot at left guard in the preseason. None of the candidates did, with second-year Jackson Carman earning a 52.9 PFF grade (25.8 pass-blocking) and rookie Cordell Volson a 58.6 mark (32.7 pass-blocking). No matter who earns the bulk of regular season work, the team can’t feel good about that spot on the line.
What we learned: David Bell is a very important player to this team
Amari Cooper was an excellent addition to a team lacking receiving talent, but that was at least somewhat offset by Jarvis Landry‘s departure. Second-year speedster Anthony Schwartz led all receivers in the preseason with five drops, and Donovan Peoples-Jones remains inconsistent. Rookie David Bell may be leaned on to provide that secondary threat alongside Cooper. In the preseason, Bell lined up almost exclusively in the slot and caught six of the seven passes thrown his way to earn a team-best 80.0 PFF grade.
What we learned: The Cowboys are rolling the dice in several areas this season
It was a curious offseason for Dallas that consisted of trading away Amari Cooper, losing Randy Gregory due to a last-minute contract disagreement and neglecting to add any major pieces in an offseason where contenders loaded up with reinforcements. With the injury to Tyron Smith, rookie Tyler Smith suddenly needs to step in at left tackle — where he has yet to see any real snaps. Jalen Tolbert needs to perform well at receiver until Michael Gallup returns 100% healthy, and neither player excelled in preseason (55.4 and 51.4 PFF grades in preseason, respectively).
What we learned: Young pass-rushers will be a factor
Rookie Nik Bonitto tore into the Minnesota Vikings in the team’s final preseason game with a pair of sacks and a 90.7 PFF pass-rushing grade. He tallied five total pressures on 57 rushes this preseason overall, but other young pass-rushers were also productive. Second-year player Baron Browning led the team with nine pressures this preseason and a 90.3 pass-rushing grade across his three games. Fellow sophomore Jonathan Cooper even had three pressures in each game. The Broncos paid big money to Randy Gregory this offseason, but they have a stable of young talent at the position looking to contribute.
What we learned: The Lions needed a better backup quarterback
Cutting David Blough surprised some, but he had posted a 58.9 PFF grade across 93 dropbacks while facing largely backups. His 4.6 yards per attempt was a problematic level of play the team felt needed to be addressed, and so they added Nate Sudfeld, whose 70.0 PFF grade reflects a far better preseason for the 49ers. Whether it's Blough, Sudfeld or even Jared Goff, quarterback remains a weakness for the Lions, but they have improved at the backup spot with that move.
What we learned: Romeo Doubs is for real
Romeo Doubs, a fourth-round pick this year, was already lighting up training camp consistently before the preseason started, but he proved that he can continue to impress in real action. Three drops didn’t help his cause, but his route running and ability to separate was obvious, and Doubs scored two touchdowns from eight receptions. He is already expected to have a significant role within the starting offense this season and has a leg up on fellow rookie receiver Christian Watson, a player drafted two rounds ahead of him.
What we learned: Dameon Pierce is already entrenched as the starter
Preseason on this occasion only solidified what was already on the cards: that Dameon Pierce was winning the starting running back job despite being just a fourth-round draft pick. Pierce dominated when he touched the ball — 7.8 yards per attempt, 6.1 after contact and the best PFF grade this preseason — but it was the fact that he was withdrawn so early each game that spoke to his position on the roster. The Texans were protecting their starter.
What we learned: The Colts keep finding quality safeties
The latest off the Indianapolis scouting production line appears to be rookie Nick Cross, a third-round pick from Maryland who now looks set to start. Cross was one of the best-graded players of the preseason, playing 57 snaps and breaking up as many passes (one) as he allowed to be caught in his coverage. Cross didn’t earn a below-average game grade in any facet of play this preseason.
What we learned: Arden Key has become a legitimate pass-rusher
Arden Key was a dominant college pass-rusher who flamed out quickly in the NFL due to a lack of bulk and physicality in his game. But he has rebuilt himself — both physically and existentially — and now looks like a viable threat to get to the quarterback. Key notched five pressures for the Jaguars this preseason and an 80.7 PFF pass-rushing grade. The former LSU product could feature heavily in the Jags' pass-rush rotation to complement their recent group of former first-round picks.
What we learned: The Chiefs might have found a schematic way to fight back
How Kansas City fights back against all of the two-high safety looks they saw last season will be interesting to monitor this year. They showed in the preseason they might be prepared to proactively force defenses out of those looks with heavier formations on offense. The Chiefs gave fullback Michael Burton snaps with the first-team offense in all three games and had 36 snaps with two tight ends on the field over the course of the preseason. They have done this in the past, but it is very difficult for defenses to maintain a two-high look against those personnel groups.
What we learned: The offensive line is a major concern
Alex Leatherwood‘s release a year after being selected 17th overall highlights a broader problem the Raiders have along the offensive line. Leatherwood looked little, if any, better entering Year 2, but he wasn’t alone. Nobody slated to start earned an above-average PFF grade overall (left tackle Kolton Miller did not play) across the preseason, and there is no true viable replacement options on the roster. The Raiders made some big plays this offseason, but the offensive line could undermine all of it.
What we learned: The Chargers are happy with Trey Pipkins III at right tackle
The Chargers made huge strides in overhauling their offensive line a season ago, but they haven’t been able to solidify the right tackle spot. This season, they appear content to let Trey Pipkins III take over the spot as the starter. He allowed just one hurry across three preseason games but played only 173 snaps all last season.
The Rams played virtually nobody from the top 30 spots on their roster in the preseason, but that doesn’t mean that those who do play have nothing to gain. Evans handled 139 preseason snaps, and even though his PFF grades were ugly, they appear to have earned him a roster spot over AJ Arcuri. Lance McCutcheon led the league in preseason receiving yards (259) and gained over 3.0 yards per route run. He was an impressive playmaker in the preseason, and the Rams took note.
What we learned: All Tua Tagovailoa needed was a viable supporting cast?
Tua has been heavily criticized and scrutinized since entering the league, but little attention has been given to the fact that he has been operating behind a historically bad offensive line. With additions to that group in the offseason, the introduction of a proven NFL offensive system alongside an injection of blazing speed in the form of Tyreek Hill, Tua finished the preseason with an 88.8 PFF grade and the fifth-best passing grade in the league. Maybe all he needed was a viable platform to work from.
What we learned: Mike Zimmer was right about Kellen Mond
Former Vikings head coach Mike Zimmer was criticized at times for players landing in his doghouse, but he may have simply been correct that backup quarterback Kellen Mond wasn’t going to succeed. Last year’s third-round draft pick was cut loose by the new regime after a preseason in which he made as many turnover-worthy plays (three) as big-time throws. Mond passed for 6.0 yards per attempt across two years of preseason play in Minnesota and now looks to try and resuscitate his career elsewhere, with the Browns claiming him off waivers.
What we learned: Offensive coordinators are important
There’s probably a good reason that teams have a highly coveted and well-paid coach installed as offensive coordinator each year rather than treat it as some kind of prize in a coaching talent competition over training camp the way the Patriots seem to have done. New England’s offense looked lackluster across the various units this preseason, ranking 29th in EPA per play and 31st in scoring drive percentage. With Mac Jones entering a critical year, his lack of offensive coaching seems to be a massive concern.
What we learned: Trevor Penning will be worth the price of admission
Rookie left tackle Trevor Penning played 113 snaps this preseason, and it would have been more had he not been taken out by his own tight end and removed from the game. Penning earned a 91.8 PFF run-blocking grade, showing that his power still plays at this level. He also struggled in pass protection, coughing up six pressures from 57 plays. Penning will be a rollercoaster ride in his rookie season, but it’s a very fun one to watch.
What we learned: Rookies don’t always provide immediate fixes
The Giants had an excellent first round of the draft in securing Evan Neal and Kayvon Thibodeaux with their picks. Even good NFL players don’t always hit the ground running, though, and each player showed signs of that in limited preseason action. Thibodeaux recorded just one hurry before he was injured with a cut block he took on with incorrect technique, and Neal endured some struggles — particularly in pass protection — in his two games. Both players may improve the team significantly, but it might not happen early.
What we learned: Quarterback can undermine it all
The Jets have done an excellent job of roster construction over the past few seasons under general manager Joe Douglas, but it could all come to nothing unless they find viable quarterback play. Zach Wilson lost valuable development time with a needless knee injury and was looking poor before that happened. Veteran Joe Flacco can make some nice plays every now and then but will also inevitably pitch the ball to the defense if given enough opportunities. He finished the preseason with a 29.1 PFF grade. If Wilson can’t take a big step forward in his second season, the Jets will still languish at the bottom of the division.
What we learned: Nakobe Dean should feature heavily as a rookie
Nakobe Dean could prove to be one of the best value picks of the 2022 NFL Draft. The best player on one of the best college defenses of all time, Dean slipped to the third round of the draft due to some combination of concern about injuries, lack of size and relatively average measurables. He played 62 defensive snaps across three preseason games and was one of the best-graded players on the team. Linebacker has become a difficult position to succeed at early, but Dean looks well capable of it and would upgrade what's been a long-term problem spot for the Eagles.
What we learned: Kenny Pickett doesn’t need to sit and develop
Arguably the biggest concern for Kenny Pickett’s prospects of starting early in his NFL career was the speed of his process. In college, Pickett averaged 3.2 seconds per throw, a glacially slow time that typically gets longer for young quarterbacks entering the NFL. In the preseason, Pickett showed he could speed that up significantly and still efficiently lead the offense. He averaged 2.43 seconds per throw and had an average depth of target 6.6 yards downfield. Those quick passes earned him a 124.7 passer rating and three touchdowns. Pickett likely won’t begin the season as the starter, but he doesn’t look like he needs time on the bench.
What we learned: Trey Lance has not ‘wowed’ as a starter
Trey Lance wasn't bad in the preseason, but it’s difficult to believe that the 49ers would have treated the Jimmy Garoppolo situation the same way if Lance had blown the organization away with his performances so far. Lance averaged 8.8 yards per attempt but with a 59.4 PFF grade this preseason. The fact the team was willing to risk splitting the locker room by retaining Garoppolo as a backup can’t speak positively to their analysis of Lance as the starter.
What we learned: Geno Smith might be a capable starter
Geno Smith versus Drew Lock was arguably the most uninspiring quarterback situation in the NFL this offseason, but Smith played well throughout the process and may have a better baseline than given credit for. He was tied for the league lead in preseason PFF grade (90.4) and recorded the best PFF passing grade (88.1). Smith averaged only 6.6 yards per attempt, but it’s because he suffered a ridiculous seven drops from his receivers. He made five big-time throws over just 39 attempts, the most of any quarterback.
What we learned: Missing training camp is, in fact, no big deal
As it turns out, the greatest player to ever play the game can miss 11 days of training camp, and the world keeps turning. Tom Brady was given the unusual leave of absence, but the Bucs' biggest issue isn’t with any rust he may have, it’s with an offensive line that is having its depth chipped away at by injuries. Brady, even at 45, is likely to be one of the best passers in the league this season. Yet, the Bucs' backup offensive linemen struggled in the preseason, and the unit can’t afford too many losses.
What we learned: Treylon Burks needs to be featured on offense
Treylon Burks didn’t appear to have a particularly good preseason. He gained just 0.8 yards per route run and made just one catch for four yards after two games. But the issue was more to do with backup quarterbacks failing to get the ball in the air when he was open deep, which happened in every game he played in. Burks is a dynamic athlete who needs Ryan Tannehill and the starting offense on the field with him to reach his true potential.
What we learned: The defense may still be a problem
Last season’s Washington defense was a major disappointment, one unusually bad in high-leverage situations. They gave up the worst passer rating by a full 10 points on third downs and seemed constantly on the brink of a coverage bust. They were by far the worst team in the league on third down in the preseason in terms of EPA per play and conversion rate, an issue that suggests there is a schematic problem that isn’t being addressed.