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3 things to look for in this weekend’s slate of NFL preseason games

It’s preseason Week 2, which means teams are getting closer to making the decisions that will inevitably shape their rosters. Cuts are coming, and depth charts are being determined, which means this weekend’s games are crucial to both bubble players hoping to make a roster and players further up the chain battling for starting jobs. Here’s a look at three such storylines throughout the league that will be interesting to track throughout the weekend.

1. Brock Purdy’s progress in San Francisco

As David Lombardi reported for “The Athletic,” Purdy threw two more interceptions at practice on Wednesday, running his pre-season total to 10 picks in 197 attempts. First, yes, someone has been keeping Purdy’s practice stats, which underscores the degree to which we now microscope NFL quarterbacks; and second, isn’t that too many picks? Even for pre-season practice? Should the 49ers be worried?

According to head coach Kyle Shanahan, not at all. Shanahan was asked about it in Wednesday’s media session and he said all the things you’d expect — it’s better to have interceptions in practice than in games, Purdy did a good job protecting the football last season (4 picks in 233 attempts), and he wants to encourage Purdy to let it rip rather than to be tentative in the pocket. Purdy’s 5.1 interception rate this training camp is actually lower than the 5.9 rate he posted last pre-season (again, yes, someone is tracking this stuff). So, it stands to reason the Niners trust Purdy’s judgement on when to be aggressive with the ball and when to pull back.

Purdy is expected to be the starter when San Francisco opens their season at Pittsburgh in Week 1, but many believe veteran Sam Darnold — not Purdy or Trey Lance — has been the best quarterback in camp this summer. With Purdy coming back from off-season elbow surgery, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll be the same player he was last season or if the injury will affect him in some way. There isn’t yet concern about Purdy in San Francisco. But a strong showing in Saturday night’s home game against Denver would make the 49ers. and their fans, feel better about the quarterback situation.

2. The tight end revolution

The NFL is a game of cat-and-mouse. Offenses innovate, defenses respond, offenses respond the response, and so on. The most interesting seismic shift in this process occurred about a decade ago when the so-called “spread offense” matriculated up from the lower levels of football into the NFL. Teams ditched their fullbacks in favor of a third wide receiver, prompting defenses to counter by putting an extra defensive back on the field. The 11-personnel offense versus the nickel defense became the league’s base match-up, and it remains so today. Except now, as a game of cat-and-mouse dictates, there is movement again.

In recent seasons, offenses have sought to take advantage of the smaller personnel defenses are using by acquiring “move” tight ends. These are tight ends with both size and speed who can be used in a multitude of ways — as in-line blockers, as slot receivers, as H-backs, even split wide as receivers. Travis Kelce of Kansas City remains the prototype for the modern “move” tight end, but just about every other NFL team has attempted to find one of their own. Players such as George Kittle, Dallas Goedert, T.J. Hockenson, Pat Freiermuth, Dalton Schultz and Darren Waller are all employed as Swiss Army knives capable of lining up anywhere in the formation.

Several more of these versatile tight ends were added to NFL rosters this spring during the draft. Most notably, Luke Musgrave in Green Bay, Sam LaPorta in Detroit, Dalton Kincaid in Buffalo, and Darnell Washington in Pittsburgh have drawn attention for their impressive training camps. Musgrave has been running end-arounds and bubble screens for Green Bay, which are plays normally reserved for slot receivers rather than 6’6-253-pound tight ends. LaPorta is drawing comparisons to Kittle and will occupy a huge role in the offense of head coach Dan Campbell, who was himself an NFL tight end. Kincaid and Josh Allen are said to have developed immediate chemistry in Buffalo, and Kincaid is being used extensively in the slot like a very large Cole Beasley. And Washington, all 6’7-270 pounds of him, has been a red zone dynamo for the Steelers and a menace as a run-blocker.

If you love tight ends, these guys are worth tracking. They’ll all be in action on Saturday. Musgrave and the Packers host New England, LaPorta and the Lions play Jacksonville and Kincaid and Washington oppose one another as the Bills travel to Pittsburgh.

3. Anthony Richardson: Staring quarterback, Indianapolis Colts

Fans weren’t the only ones surprised when the Colts announced on Tuesday that Richardson would be their starting quarterback this season. Richardson himself said he was “shocked” when head coach Shane Steichen delivered the news. Most expected Steichen to name veteran Gardner Minshew the starter while he brought Richardson along slowly the way he did with Jalen Hurts when he was the offensive coordinator in Philadelphia. But Steichen opted for stability over the continuation of the quarterback carousel that has been the case in Indianapolis for years, even if that means throwing a largely inexperienced Richardson to the wolves.

Last year, the Colts made four quarterback changes, oscillating between Matt Ryan, Sam Ehlinger, back to Ryan and then to Nick Foles. Over the past six years, they’ve had six different opening day quarterbacks. Richardson will make that seven-for-seven. Most observers feel Richardson needs time to learn the nuances of playing quarterback in the NFL and that spending some time on the bench behind a veteran like Minshew would be beneficial. To Steichen, however, creating stability and the position, and providing Richardson on-the-job training, matters more.

Richardson showed enough in his debut last weekend to convince Steichen to make the call. He completed 7 of 12 passes for 67 yards, bouncing back from an early interception to lead two long drives. To Steichen, providing clarity on the situation will allow the Colts to put the issue to rest and move forward with everyone knowing their role and what is expected of them. You can’t blame him for desiring that sort of clarity given Indy’s recent history at the position. And if Richardson struggles and the Colts have a miserable season? It stands to reason Steichen has been given a fairly long leash by owner Jim Irsay, who has preached patience and stability this off-season to anyone who will listen.

Richardson makes his starting debut Saturday night at 7:00 pm at home against the Bears.

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