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NFL preseason winners and losers: Raiders delightfully chaotic

The Raiders are saying goodbye to Oakland the only way they know how: with a soap opera worthy of prime-time TV. The Antonio Brown late-week segue from frostbitten feet to helmet drama is like a modern remix of so many Raiders stories of the past, not unlike the sensational intro to HBO's "Hard Knocks," where NFL Films' John Facenda's classic reading of "The Autumn Wind" is dropped lovingly into the show's theme song.

I love the Raiders' veneration of history. From the team's use of John Madden's favorite seven-man blocking sled, to players wearing Cliff Branch's No. 21 jersey the day after the great receiver passed away, to their singular owner, the Raiders are unlike every other NFL franchise, and they embrace that legacy. They have long sought out renegades and oddballs rather than ignore them. AB is just continuing a tradition started by Al Davis of a Raider making the NFL league office feel uncomfortable.

Brown's absence has overshadowed an otherwise fascinating Raiders camp on the field. It looks like Vontaze Burfict is on track to become a team captain. There isn't a rookie non-quarterback with more pressure to produce than No. 4 overall pick Clelin Ferrell, considering the Raiders' relative paucity of pass-rushing options.

Speedster J.J. Nelson's strong month and the insistent reports about tight end Darren Waller's impending breakout have only added to the excitement about Derek Carr's arsenal. Gruden falling in love with fifth-round slot receiver Hunter Renfrow is the least surprising story all month. Once you account for starting wideout Tyrell Williams and rookie runner Josh Jacobs, the Raiders suddenly have six legitimate threats for Carr to throw to.

Those stories will inevitably get buried behind the daily chronicles of AB, as Gruden enacts his vision for the Raiders on reality television, alongside his made-from-TV general manager. This may sound like a chaotic way to start the organization's 60th season and second exodus from its birthplace, but it all sounds to me like a fitting tribute to Al Davis' particular brand of football anarchy.

The third week of camp and first full week of the preseason is in the books. The rest of my winners and losers are below:

On the upswing

Devin Bush, the next great Steelers linebacker: Asking a rookie to call plays in the huddle, not to mention live up to the tradition of Steelers inside linebackers, is usually asking too much. However, Bush looks fully assembled straight out of the box. He flew around the field in the preseason opener against the Bucs, dominating the backups around him like a plus starter should. In just one half, he recorded 10 tackles, including five "stops," a Pro Football Focus stat measuring solo tackles that constitute an offensive failure. Because of the position he plays and the opportunity in front of him, he's my early favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year.

Steelers receiver depth: The sudden passing of Steelers wide receivers coach Darryl Drake on Sunday is a tragic blow to the entire organization, but the work he did with this group of wideouts will live on. Rookie Diontae Johnson got the early publicity in training camp, but second-year pro James Washington is making a push now. Washington followed up a strong stretch of practices with a four-catch, 84-yard performance in the preseason opener that included two impressive plays down the field and a textbook back-shoulder touchdown. Those were the types of plays Washington often failed to convert as a rookie.

Whether Washington or free-agent pickup Donte Moncrief starts opposite JuJu Smith-Schuster is almost beside the point, because the Steelers will play them both plenty. The following two things can both be true: 1) The Steelers' receivers are not nearly as good without Antonio Brown. 2) The Steelers' receivers are plenty good enough, and the unit looks deeper than it did a year ago.

Jarrett Stidham fever: Perhaps Patriots fans are just wishcasting at this point, but they are starting to believe they've found their next Jimmy G. Stidham, the fourth-round rookie QB from Auburn, has looked ahead of schedule with surprising accuracy since the start of OTAs. That's continued into training camp, where he's been trusted with more first-team reps than Jacoby Brissett or Garoppolo saw at their respective rookie camps, according to Jeff Howe of The Athletic. It is particularly delicious that Stidham was drafted, in part, with the bounty of picks that the team acquired by parlaying the Jimmy G. trade into more assets. (Just don't mention the similarly acquired 2018 second-round cornerback Duke Dawson, who may not even make the team.)

Stidham built on his camp buzz with a sharp performance in the preseason opener in Detroit, completing 14 of 24 passes for 179 yards and one touchdown, a statline that could have been bigger if not for a few key drops. As crazy as it sounds, it may only take a few more impressive outings for Stidham to look like a candidate for 2020 if the lingering contract weirdness with Tom Brady takes any unforeseen turns.

Chiefs second-round rookies: The Chiefs traded up to draft receiver Mecole Hardman as an insurance policy for Tyreek Hill. Now that they'll have both players on the field together -- at least for the 2019 season -- it's safe to expect coach Andy Reid to make life difficult on opposing defenses.

Hardman may only be a garnish on football's best offense for now, but it wouldn't be a surprise if the other Chiefs second-round pick, safety Juan Thornhill, plays an even bigger role for this year's team. A splashy camp from Thornhill has Chiefs fans dreaming of a playmaking safety tandem including Thornhill alongside Tyrann Mathieu.

Preston Williams and Josh Rosen, Miami Dolphins: On one hand, I've learned not to get too excited about an undrafted rookie wideout blowing up the first week of the preseason. On the other hand, DID YOU SEE WHAT PRESTON WILLIAMS DID TO THE POOR FALCONS?

Williams, who made four grabs for 97 yards against Atlanta, is no random camp story. He's 6-foot-5, 218 pounds and made more eye-opening plays in one game than some recent first-round receivers (John Ross, Laquon Treadwell, Corey Coleman) have made in their entire careers. He fought for contested passes, showed great footwork on a sideline toe-tap and displayed serious juice on a one-handed grab down the sideline. Xavien Howard called Williams a future No. 1 receiver. While it feels too early to go that far, it won't be a surprise if Williams winds up playing starter snaps by the end of the season. The same is true for Williams' partner-in-crime Josh Rosen, who overcame one ugly pick and comical pass protection to deliver a handful of gorgeous throws and 17 points in six drives, despite a teammate's fumble in the red zone early in the fourth quarter.

Duke Johnson's fantasy owners: The Browns made it clear they didn't envision a bigger role for Johnson, despite him leading all NFL running backs in receiving yards since he was drafted in 2015. The Texans should offer more opportunity after acquiring him for a conditional fourth-round pick. While Lamar Miller should start early in the season, Johnson's ability to excel on every down in a wide-open offense may be difficult for Texans coach Bill O'Brien to ignore. After seeing just 87 touches a season ago, Johnson has a chance to nearly triple that in Houston.

Tony Pollard's chances of having a significant Week 1 role: The Cowboys quickly turned to the fourth-round pick as a starter in camp with Ezekiel Elliott holding out, and Pollard's responded well, by all accounts. All four of his carries in the preseason opener were up the middle, as if they were trying to test the rookie's ability to take a pounding.

In a comment so transparent you can see right through it, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones said after the game that Pollard is capable of "carrying the load." I don't expect that to be necessary, but Pollard could get those one or two-dozen touches that Tavon Austin never did last season, if Zeke needs any extra time to get up to speed.

The legend of Kyler Murray: Kudos to the Cardinals fans who rose as one in Arizona to greet their new savior before his first drive on Thursday, in hopes of witnessing the first step of desert football history. Murray responded by getting rid of the ball quickly and coolly avoiding way too many free pass rushers in his only drive. I'm more in awe about how his teammates are in awe of a rookie.

"You ever meet a guy who's been cool his whole life?" tackle D.J. Humphries told Scott Bordow of The Athletic. "And with certain stuff it's like, 'I've been the man since I was 4, brother. You don't have to tell me I'm going to have a great game Thursday. I know that.' "

As a former first-round pick who was humbled in his rookie year, Humphries believes Murray is wired differently.

"His confidence is true confidence," Humphries said. "Mine was I thought I was better than I was. His is, 'I know who I am and this is what it's going to be.' "

New York back page headline writers:Daniel Jones only made five throws in his preseason debut, but they were all on point, including a touchdown toss that threaded the needle. Every strong preseason week by Jones will only make it easier for fans -- and tabloids -- to push for a changing of the guard at QB after a few regular-season losses under Eli Manning.

The Saints' quarterback room: Given a chance to go through his first full offseason in Sean Payton's offense, Teddy Bridgewater has looked razor sharp by all accounts in camp practices. That carried over to the preseason opener, where Bridgewater was his usual unflashy, professional self. He executed a perfect two-minute touchdown drive, notably sticking in the pocket to deliver a pass down the field as a defender went low at his knees. He didn't flinch.

Bridgewater, who signed a one-year deal in March, could play elsewhere next season, but Payton sounds like he'd be fine with moving Taysom Hill up a notch on the depth chart. The Saints still talk about Hill like a future starter and believe he's come a long way as a true quarterback in his third NFL offseason, rather than the special teams demon and changeup artist he was a year ago. (That's for the regular season.) Hill's emergence was a fun story that is not going away, another ingredient to the best quarterback room in football.

Trending down

The San Francisco 49ers: It seems that every year includes at least one team that suffers a rash of August injuries, scaring analysts away from predicting regular-season glory. The 49ers are that team this year.

Dee Ford and Nick Bosa were supposed to be the symbols of this team's defensive renaissance. Ford, who has a history of injuries, is out after a procedure to his knee. Bosa is highly uncertain to be ready for Week 1 due to an ankle injury, following the hamstring issue that forced him to miss OTAs. Cornerbacks Jason Verrett (ankle) and K'Waun Williams (knee) may also be out for the opener, depleting a cornerback group full of questions after Richard Sherman. Projected starting slot receiver Trent Taylor (foot) is expected to miss the start of the season. Swing tackle Shon Coleman (ankle) is likely out for the year, while starting center Weston Richburg (knee) hasn't practiced once all offseason after a disastrous first season in San Francisco. Running back Jerick McKinnon (knee) could start the year on injured reserve, although that's one position where the 49ers have plenty of depth. At least for now.

That's a lot of significant injuries for one team, and I didn't even include some of the other defensive concerns that sound more week-to-week.

Perhaps the injury luck will correct itself, but I wouldn't blame Kyle Shanahan for wondering what he did to anger the football gods at halftime of Super Bowl LI. It's hard enough for him to build the offense he wants with an inexperienced quarterback and a young group of wideouts that hasn't had anyone step up. An avalanche of injuries like these make Shanahan's degree of difficulty that much tougher.

T.J. Yeldon's chances of making the Bills' roster: Signed to a two-year, $3.2 million contract in March, Yeldon has endured a desultory training camp, by all accounts. With rookie Devin Singletary displaying a similar but superior skill set, I expected Yeldon to get cut even before he fumbled one of two carries in the team's preseason opener. Only an injury in front of him or a trade of LeSean McCoy can save Yeldon now. The Bills will eat the $500,000 signing bonus already paid to Yeldon if they cut him.

Anyone looking for rest at Browns camp: Freddie Kitchens is not messing around. In a league where teams are increasingly prioritizing rest and recovery, the Browns have practiced in full pads in 10 out of 13 practices, which includes the first two days, when full pads are not allowed. His practices have included a great deal of live tackling, and the Browns will remain in pads for two joint practices with the Colts this week before the second week of the preseason.

Explosive Bengals plays: One of the more remarkable notes I read this past week came from The Athletic's Paul Dehner Jr., who wrote that Andy Dalton connected on the first Bengals explosive touchdown in all of camp (which began in late July) on Thursday. New head coach Zac Taylor figures to run a station-to-station offense, which was on display during a 14-play, 7:15-long touchdown drive to begin the Bengals' preseason opener. That drive included Dalton underthrowing a wide open Josh Malone six plays before the eventual score. Malone has emerged as the favorite to start opposite John Ross in Week 1, with Tyler Boyd in the slot, assuming Ross gets healthy.

Dwayne Haskins' chances of starting in Week 1: Haskins' first preseason outing mirrored the reviews that his first training camp have received. There were a few sensational throws, a few big mistakes (two interceptions) and some inaccurate tosses on routine throws. This is typical rookie stuff, but it has at least one Redskins observer believing Haskins is a "long way off" behind Colt McCoy and Case Keenum.

Head coach Jay Gruden didn't quite go that far, but he did tell The MMQB that the veterans have a "leg up" on Haskins in the QB competition, and he'd like for the battle to be decided by the third preseason game. Ideally, Gruden would eliminate McCoy or Keenum from contention sooner rather than later so that Haskins could split reps with the starter, rather than practice being sliced up three ways. This is what it's like to live in quarterback purgatory.

The Jaguars' backup quarterback situation: If you aren't familiar with the Jaguars' current backup quarterback, it's Gardner Minshew, a sixth-round pick from Washington State who led the team to five first downs in six possessions against the Ravenson Thursday. On a night when Nick Foles did not play, the Jaguars' quarterbacks combined to complete 10 of 25 passes against the Ravens for 65 yards with two interceptions, a performance not totally out of line with the practice reports coming out of Jacksonville. If Tom Coughlin was going to spend more than $16 million in cap space to get rid of Blake Bortles, maybe they just should have kept him around to be Foles' backup?

The Cowboys' defensive line: Projected starter Robert Quinn will be suspended for the first two games of the season, which gives him time to recover from a broken hand. The Cowboys have displayed a lot of confidence that DeMarcus Lawrence will be back for Week 1, but the reality is, no one knows for sure when he'll be back from shoulder surgery. Another starting lineman, Tyrone Crawford, is also on the PUP list. This should be the time that the Cowboys' youth steps up, but 2017 first-rounder Taco Charlton hasn't earned the team's trust yet, and it appears 2019 second-round pick Trysten Hill is coming along slowly. With cornerback Byron Jones also on the PUP list coming off hip surgery, the Cowboys' defense is unlikely to be at full strength early in September.


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