The Debrief  

 

The Debrief: Winners and losers from Week 1 of NFL preseason

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In five drives, Mitchell Trubisky deleted five months of hot takes about his worthiness. The No. 2 overall pick stopped being a talking point and started becoming an NFL player, however early in his development Trubisky might be.

The best result any rookie can hope for in this organized tease called the preseason is to make his coaches want to see more. Even John Fox must be intrigued after Trubisky's opening statement. Before diving into the rest of the winners and losers of Preseason Week 1 below, I wanted to highlight seven rookies who made me want to see more this month.

Buzzworthy rookies

Mitchell Trubisky, QB, Chicago Bears: One Bears reporter noted that Trubisky was better in his first game action than any practice, which the rookie attributes to having a play sheet he could study ahead of time. Trubisky had the luxury of exclusively facing man-to-man defense and the Bears made him comfortable against the Broncos, cutting the field in half by rolling him out and using play action.

The qualifiers to Trubisky's excellent debut shouldn't erase the talent he displayed. Months after Chicago Bulls fans booed him, Trubisky displayed uncanny accuracy on the move and one gorgeous third-and-long conversion from the pocket. Trubisky is not necessarily competing with Mike Glennon to start in Week 1, but could be battling the scuffling Week 5 version of Glennon. Fox has never met a promising rookie he couldn't bench, but Trubisky could be tough to ignore if he piles up more performances like this one.

Joe Mixon, RB, Cincinnati Bengals: Mixon made three defenders miss on his first reception against the Buccaneers. One play later, he hesitated like Le'Veon Bell, waited for a hole to open, then jumped laterally before heading downhill for a gain. Jeremy Hill remains ahead of Mixon on the depth chart for now, but Mixon will be impossible to keep off the field because he has rare skills that anyone can see.

Kenny Golladay, WR, Detroit Lions: All three of his catches Sunday, including two touchdowns, were contested. Golladay is a great example of a rookie who built buzz in OTAs, training camp and has now backed it up in the preseason. The third-rounder is playing with a quarterback in Matthew Stafford who is unafraid to give his receivers 50-50 balls. Golladay is showing he can tilt those odds.

Reuben Foster (LB) and Solomon Thomas (DL), San Francisco 49ers: Diehards watching deep into the third quarter of the 49ers' preseason opener in Kansas City were treated to Thomas sprinting from the right hashmark to the left sideline so he could hammer a Chiefs ball carrier and force a punt. The No. 3 overall pick, who lined up at defensive tackle and defensive end, also ended a drive with a pressure that led to an interception.

Foster started at weakside linebacker, making plays against the run and in pass coverage with a breakup near the goal line. These were general manager John Lynch's first two draft picks, his declaration of intent about what type of 49ers team this will be.

Deshaun Watson, QB, Houston Texans: Watson reminds me of Alex Smith as a scrambler because he knows just when to slide. One big difference is that Smith was clearly overwhelmed during his rookie preseason. Watson looked like an old pro in his first game, honking at defenders and campaigning with officials for calls. Watson missed a few vertical throws, but it's a great sign that coach Bill O'Brien ran some Clemson-like small ball with five receivers and Watson playing point guard, complete with the occasional jump pass.

Justin Davis, RB, Los Angeles Rams: A rookie has to run with serious chutzpah to fumble twice in one drive and keep getting the ball. After running for 70 yards on nine carries with breathtaking explosion, the undrafted Davis was singled out for praise by Sean McVay despite the fumbles.

Winners

Marcus Mariota, QB, Tennessee Titans: The third-year quarterback had a nondescript pair of series, including a near-interception on a poor pass. But Mariota was one of the big winners of the week for playing at all, displaying the wheels he had before his broken leg/ankle suffered last Christmas Eve. While Cam Newton and Andrew Luck slowly return from their offseason surgeries, Mariota is getting in valuable work.

Thomas Rawls, RB, Seattle Seahawks: Preseason results matter less for veterans than how a player is used. Rawls lined up with the starting Seahawks offense Sunday night like he has throughout a standout training camp, while Eddie Lacy continued to work strictly with the backups. Both players should get the ball plenty during the season, but it shouldn't be a surprise that Rawls is coming out of the gates faster, with Lacy coming off surgery.

Those other kicker battles: Roberto Aguayo's dramatic Saturday ouster in Tampa felt merciful, ending a character's agony early in his "Hard Knocks" run instead of making the audience witness his torture for five straight weeks. Aguayo's arrival in Chicago should be a fresh start, but part of it feels familiar. He'll try to take the job of Connor Barth, who was released to make room for Aguayo in Tampa back in 2016.

If nothing else, Aguayo's departure should allow more airtime for the other kicker battles which have slipped under the radar. Mike Nugent vs. Aldrick Rosas with the Giants AND Randy Bullock vs. Jake Elliott in Cincinnati deserve your strange kicker-battle attention, too.

Rob Kelley, RB, Washington Redskins: Rookie Samaje Perine struggled in the preseason opener with a fumble, drop and poor pass protection. "Fat Rob" has solidified his starting job over Perine and it's worth wondering if former general manager Scot McCloughan's favorite player, Matt Jones, could get back in the mix for the backup job.

Losers

Ryan Mallett and the Baltimore Ravens (again): Remember when the Ravens and national reporters shot down NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport's three- to six-week timeline for Joe Flacco's recovery from his back injury? Coach John Harbaugh later said Flacco would definitely play in the preseason.

Well, Rapoport's report was almost three weeks ago and the Ravens have now confirmed that Flacco is out for the preseason. The team's weakness at backup quarterback grows more glaring by the week. Mallett completed nine of his 18 passes for 58 yards against the Redskins and looked worse than the numbers indicate, missing open throws and playing at a deliberate pace. Poise is an overused term when describing quarterbacks, but no one ever uses it to describe Mallett's play.

If owner Steve Bisciotti was holding out hope for Mallett to improve before picking up the red Kaepernick phone, that time has run out. This Ravens season can still be saved, but the team needs to me more proactive. Baltimore lost its starting guard Alex Lewis for the season last week, its third potential O-line starter who won't play in 2017. Nine players since June 1 have been knocked out for the season because of injury, suspension or retirement. Nine!

If these don't qualify as desperate times, nothing will.

Dallas Cowboys: The 2017 NFL season was jolted awake Friday afternoon when Ezekiel Elliott was suspended six games and Sammy Watkins was traded to the Rams in a 45-minute span. (I wrote about the fallout from the Rams, Eagles and Bills trades Friday, but the Cowboys story is not over yet with Elliott appealing his suspension.)

It's remarkable how flat-footed the Elliott suspension caught the Cowboys. Owner Jerry Jones told a national audience less than two weeks ago that "the domestic violence is not an issue" for Elliott.

The Cowboys are hopeful that Darren McFadden can be as effective in his age-30 season as he was in 2015, and that the re-organized offensive line remains dominant. They are also hoping that backup Kellen Moore's dispiriting preseason play doesn't leave the team as thin at quarterback as Dallas was in that 4-12 season.

Christian Hackenberg Hot Take Artists: Anyone drawing major conclusions, good or bad, from Hackenberg's 43 snaps on Saturday is telling on themselves. The Jets cautiously pushed him into the pool with floaties on, hoping to build some comfort before testing him later this month. Hackenberg has undeniably progressed since a season ago, but that doesn't say much. He struggled when he was asked to display some advanced quarterback skills, like going through his reads or keeping his eyes downfield. He was 0 for 3 on throws of more than 10 yards, and the Jets didn't score in eight possessions with him at the helm. Let's hold off on the Hackenberg redemption stories for another week, but there's no need to bury him for this outing, either.

Paying customers for preseason games: NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell wants to shorten the preseason because he knows the coaches have already shortened it for him. NFL teams have mostly turned the preseason into a two-game schedule for quality starters, with the only significant action in Preseason Weeks 2 and 3. The NFL handed the Cowboys five preseason games this season and coach Jason Garrett essentially responded by saying, "Thanks, we'll take two." (Top-line starters like Dak Prescott, Dez Bryant and Jason Witten were rested for the first two preseason games and will almost certainly sit out the finale.)

I am hopelessly in love with watching football games, yet the stakes in these games are so low, even for diehard fans. My biggest takeaway from Thursday's Jaguars-Patriots game was that Dion Lewis is healthy and should have locked up the team's No. 4 running back job. The biggest headline from two Cowboys games is that long-term project tight end Rico Gathers is looking more like a short-term project. In Arizona on Saturday night, the lead stories for Raiders and Cardinals writers concerned backup quarterback battles. These are the top stories.

Defenses are often ahead of the offenses early in the preseason, which exacerbates the unwatchability problem. The Cowboys-Rams game Saturday night had nine fumbles and only 21 first downs combined. Rams fans who showed up hoping to see Jared Goff saw only eight plays from the 22-year-old, as if he couldn't use more work. The Titans-Jets game had 28 drives, 24 first downs, 20 punts and roughly 20 fans left in the stadium by the end.

Reducing the preseason will have to be collectively bargained with the players, but this is one issue that Goodell and fans agree on.

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter @greggrosenthal.

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