As we head into the thick of the preseason, NFL Media's network of reporters gets you up to speed with the hottest news and notes from across the league, including:
On the surface, it might seem that Rams quarterback Jared Goff didn't show much in his team's 28-24 preseason-opening victory over Dallas, especially since Cowboys rookie QB Dak Prescott, a fourth-round pick, showed out as his team's starter.
Let's do everyone a service here and dig a little deeper.
Start with Goff's second throw of the game (his first was a dropped pass). Goff was drilled by Cowboys linebacker Derek Akunne on a blitz, in which Akunne came from Goff's right, untouched. Goff admitted he didn't see him, even though Akunne came from his front side. It was a cleverly executed blitz that left Goff exposed and his left (non-throwing) shoulder bruised after he was taken to the ground. On the Rams' next series, Goff returned with 3:37 remaining before halftime and the ball on his own 13-yard line -- not much time to march into scoring position. This is the type of situation in which coaches love to see how young players perform -- and if they possess the proper mettle.
Poise, clock management and football IQ all convened. Goff was fully exposed.
Goff's first pass, a quick out to rookie draft pick Mike Thomas, was dropped. On second down, he connected with rookie tight end Tyler Higbee, who already is Goff's on-field BFF (and camp roommate). On third-and-3, a 14-yard completion again to Higbee. Goff and the offense were in a groove. The 21-year-old QB later would say his first series was a bit of an eye-opener, but at this point, it felt like he was playing football again.
Later in the drive, Goff completed two more passes -- one a 14-yarder to Higbee. Two plays later, he drilled a beautiful pass inside the red zone on a post route to impressive rookie wideout Pharoh Cooper, who couldn't hang on after taking a nice pop from J.J. Wilcox.
On third-and-10 from the Cowboys' 37, the drive stalled when Goff was sacked. He knew he was doomed quickly and wisely took the temporary loss. Other than showing composure and field presence on the drive, Goff also learned something -- and we learned something about Goff.
He told me that, during the second drive, the Cowboys showed the same blitz look they used on the previous series -- in which he was sacked. Goff adjusted the protection, checked into a safe play, checked into hot passing routes and got the ball in play.
It might seem simple, but it's growth. Mental progress is what coaches want to see more than anything right now with Goff, and they've steadily seen it over the past few weeks.
I was told by someone with ties to Goff that he works best when he learns his own way and at his own pace, not when things are forced. The Rams have taken this approach and, according to some coaches I have spoken with, he is learning quickly and shaping into the player they hope that he will be.
Coach Jeff Fisher said Goff will be getting more reps with the first-team offense this Saturday against Kansas City. That only makes sense. Goff needs work with the crew he's going to eventually play with. Fisher also got to see first-hand why it is important for the backup QB to get significant reps with starters during the preseason, after watching Dallas' Prescott complete 10 of his 12 passes for 139 yards and two TDs in the first half against his defense.
Let's not overblow this. The Rams were playing as basic a defense as they could play, but Prescott was comfortable and in total control with the personnel he's been working with for weeks -- because starter Tony Romo gets days off and projected backup Kellen Moore is out with a fractured ankle.
Prescott looked far more polished than Goff in the opener, but he also was playing with Dez Bryant and the best offensive line in the NFL. That's not to take anything away from Prescott, because he made a great first impression and eased some concerns about the Cowboys' backup QB spot. If he follows things up with more impressive play, then Jerry Jones might have some insurance if Romo gets hurt -- or, at least, a developmental heir.
With Goff drafted to be anointed the starter at some point, getting him as much time with the first-team offense as possible is a must. As we get closer to the regular season and the Rams begin to game plan, backup reps shrink.
Speaking of backup reps, Rams second-year quarterback Sean Mannion led the second-half comeback against the Cowboys, completing 18 of 25 passes for 147 yards with three touchdowns and a pick.
Rams coaches speak highly of him, but if they honestly thought that much of him, they would not have given up a boatload of draft picks to select Goff first overall. That said, if Mannion continues to play well, he could draw suitors elsewhere that could bring some compensation in a trade.
If that were to take place, it won't happen before the 2017 draft period, according to someone with the Rams that I recently spoke with. If someone offers something too good for the Rams to turn down for Mannion, which is highly unlikely, they might reconsider. But if a team needed immediate help, quarterback Case Keenum would seem more likely a trade target.
I couldn't see the Rams moving Keenum before the 2017 draft period, if at all. Goff is going to go through ups and downs, and without a veteran in the quarterback room -- and frankly, there isn't a true veteran leader on the team -- Keenum is the type of pro who is needed for guidance and to play if necessary.
And now, the rest of this week's notes from NFL Media's reporters:
ARIZONA CARDINALS: Palmer's motivation. Veteran quarterback Carson Palmer played the worst game of his 2015 season at the worst possible time -- the NFC title game. But there might have been one blessing that came out of his six-turnover night in a 49-15 loss to Carolina.
"It's still motivation for him, even though it was behind him within a week," Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians said. "He's so resilient in that way. He's a big enough man that he'll just take all the blame. But there were 53 guys and a bunch of coaches who stunk that day. It wasn't just him."
The Badger is back. The Cardinals are excited to see All-Pro safety Tyrann Mathieu back on the field after offseason knee surgery led to him starting training camp on the physically unable to perform (PUP) list. They also didn't see the torn ACL he sustained at the end of last season as being a reason to not reward him for his productivity. Mathieu, who was cleared to practice Tuesday, became the league's highest paid safety earlier this month when he signed a five-year, $62.5 million deal.
"He's a fighter, which is why I had no concerns doing that contract," Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said. "There are some guys that you would be worried about, but he's the exception. You'd have to kill him to stop him. And I'm as proud of what he's become off the field. He's the leader in there, and our guys feed off him."
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CAROLINA PANTHERS: Benjamin progressing without knee brace. Wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin doesn't plan on wearing a brace to protect the ACL he tore in his left knee last summer. He says it feels uncomfortable, and his coach is backing him.
"If you put something on him and it prohibits him from being who he is, you don't gain anything," Panthers head coach Ron Rivera said. "I would like to see him wear it, but he says he feels good and the doctors say he's doing well. So we'll just keep our fingers crossed."
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CHICAGO BEARS: Trade winds blowing in the Windy City? After losing starting center Hroniss Grasu to a torn ACL early in camp, the Bears turned to veteran Ted Larsen as the most likely replacement for him. But Larsen could have some competition from the outside, because sources have told NFL Media that the team has spoken to a few other organizations about possible trades for a veteran center.
The clock is ticking on the preseason, so the Bears will need to move quickly if they want to give a new addition time to adjust to his new surroundings and offensive system.
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CLEVELAND BROWNS: Has the franchise finally found its captain? I visited a lot of training camps this year -- and I have hit plenty of camps in the past for teams with new coaches. And many times, the outlook is the same -- always positive in regards to the new coach. But I have never heard what I did in Cleveland. Full-throated, detailed, emphatic backing of Hue Jackson as the right man to right the Browns' ship. One person told me he didn't know there was a coach who could combine the Xs-and-Os acumen with the ability to rally a team. Another said he's never been around players galvanized like this.
Jackson hasn't played a game, but he's winning. The problem is, there are still some talent issues there. The Browns will struggle, but behind Jackson, they'll compete.
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DENVER BRONCOS: QBs benefitting from daily competition against this defense. As Gary Kubiak and the Broncos try to determine who will be their starting quarterback for the 2016 campaign, one element of the competition might be getting overlooked: Denver's top-rated defense.
Both Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian split reps with the first-team offense, which will begin going head-to-head with defensive coordinator Wade Phillips' unit on a daily basis. Both QBs look good at times and both have their struggles. But every quarterback struggled last season against the Broncos' stout defense. In Wednesday's joint practice with the 49ers, both quarterbacks looked almost better than they have all of training camp. Both threw deep touchdown passes and found success throughout team periods.
Sanchez told me not only are they going against a secondary that is one of the best in football every day, but this deep into camp, the defense knows all the calls, plays and makeup of the offense.
"Our guys know a lot about what we are doing," Sanchez said. "Our code words, routes and concepts, so especially when you play against good guys like we have, in cornerbacks Aqib] Talib, [Bradley] Roby, [Chris Harris [Jr.] and Kayvon [Webster], they are hunting our routes. They know exactly when that ball is supposed to be out. It's a refreshing day to go against somebody else."
I asked Siemian a different question, one about the pace of joint practices, and received a very similar answer to that of Sanchez.
"You're playing against guys who don't know your alignments every play and that don't know scheme quite as well as your own defense, so there's that element to it," Siemian said. "It's good to go full speed against another group."
Maybe the best defense in the league is playing a larger part in preparing who will play quarterback for the defending Super Bowl champions than people realize.
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DETROIT LIONS: Optimistic about life after Megatron. The offense we saw at the end of last season was cobbled together on the fly. Jim Bob Cooter was installed as coordinator, the team went 6-2 down the stretch and nearly became a playoff contender. It all worked. And even without Calvin Johnson in the mix this year, expect bigger things from the offense. Cooter and quarterback Matthew Stafford got together in the offseason to sort out the playbook, figure out what each liked or didn't like and then fine-tune it for 2016. Often, Cooter didn't even need to ask Stafford what he liked because he already knew -- that's how in tune he is with his quarterback. No one will replace Megatron, but the offense will be more balanced, with varied weapons, and with a better offensive line. You'll see more of the second-half offense than the one that struggled in the first half of last season.
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SAN FRANCISCO 49ERS: Arm fatigue keeping Kap on the sideline.Saturday against the Broncos, Colin Kaepernickwill miss his second preseason game due to arm fatigue, after not dressing for the 49ers' first preseason game. He was in full pads on the first day of joint practices with the Broncos on Wednesday in Denver, but again didn't throw. Kaepernick hasn't fully thrown since Aug. 10. The 49ers signal caller did throw with receivers on the side during special teams periods. It was essentially throws of about 10 yards, and that was about it. Kaepernick threw with receivers Thursday, but didn't participate in 7-on-7 or team drills.
Kaepernick is in a QB battle with Blaine Gabbert for the starting job. The problem is he isn't practicing and isn't healthy. The hope is he will be a full participant next week and play in the third preseason game. That game is usually the dress rehearsal for the regular season, and not normally used as a game to make your first impression to your head coach on why you should be his starting quarterback to start the season.