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8 takeaways from the recently completed NFL preseason

The NFL preseason is in the books, which means the fake games are over and the real ones set to begin. Just because the games didn’t count doesn’t mean we can’t learn from them, though. Here are eight takeaways from the preseason, and their potential impact moving forward.

1. Beware spending high draft picks on quarterbacks who haven’t played against elite competition.

The Trey Lance trade that saw the former number three pick in the 2021 draft shipped to Dallas for just a fourth-round pick in return is a cautionary tale for teams who fall in love with potential at the position over production. Lance, on whom San Francisco spent three future 1st Round picks to acquire, played at FCS North Dakota State. He participated in just 19 games in his college career, including one in 2020 due to the Covid pandemic. His lack of high-level college experience was a factor in his struggle to master the nuances of playing the position for the 49ers, as he was often overmatched in his effort to read and diagnose NFL defenses. The offense he played in at North Dakota State was built on the power run game, often basing out of 22-personnel sets and using the run to set up a fairly simple passing attack. San Francisco likes to pass off of the run too, albeit in a far more complex manner. The potential with Lance was there, and his athleticism was tantalizing. But without proper training against elite competition, he was unprepared for the NFL.

A similar story can be told about Tennessee’s Malik Willis. Willis wasn’t a Round 1 pick like Lance, but he was touted as one. He eventually fell to the Titans in Round 3 of last year’s draft, and has struggled ever since. Willis played at Liberty, a mid-major type school that ran a college-style spread offense predicated on single reads and a mirrored-route passing game. Neither the competition nor the scheme was NFL friendly, and Willis’s struggles can in part be attributed to that fact.

Carson Wentz preceded Lance at North Dakota State. The Eagles took him 2nd overall in 2016, and Wentz had some early success. But a knee injury derailed his progress, and he fell out of favor after Nick Foles led the Eagles to a Super Bowl title in 2017. Wentz was eventually traded to Indianapolis, where he repeated that process, and was then moved to Washington. Wentz’s struggles seem to be as much about personality, work habits and response to adversity as background, but he’s another high-profile quarterback from a smaller school in whom a team invested significant draft capital only to see it go to waste.

Brock Purdy’s success in San Francisco is seen as surprising by many considering he was the last overall pick in last season’s draft. But really, Purdy’s success should be less of a surprise than Lance’s failure. Purdy played in 48 games at Iowa State against Big 12 and NFL-ready competition. He threw for over 12,000 yards and had 81 touchdowns. Meanwhile, Lance completed 15 of 30 passes for the entire 2020 season against Central Arkansas. The potential and physical attributes were on Lance’s side, but Purdy had the experience and the training. It shouldn’t be shocking, then, that Purdy is the starter in San Francisco and Lance is trying to rebuild his career elsewhere.

Here are some other quick hits as we whip through some of the league’s more interesting stories:

2. Speaking of quarterbacks, no one played better this preseason than Kenny Pickett in Pittsburgh.

The Steelers signal-caller directed five drives over three games, all of which ended in touchdowns. He was 13-15 passing for 199 yards with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. Pickett looks ready to make a significant leap in year two for the Steelers.

3. On the opposite end of the quarterback spectrum, the plan on how to replace the injured Kyler Murray in Arizona seems murkier than ever.

The Cardinals appeared to be going with veteran Colt McCoy in that role, but traded last week for journeyman Josh Dobbs. Meanwhile, rookie Clayton Tune and David Blough piloted the team during their final pre-season game on Saturday. Arizona has four active QBs and none they appear to be comfortable with as the starter. It could be a revolving door at the position until Murray returns.

4. The performance of the wide receivers in Denver’s 41-0 rout of the Rams on Saturday had to make Sean Payton feel good.

It’s been a rough go at that position for the Broncos this summer. Jerry Jeudy has a balky hamstring, Tim Patrick tore his Achilles and K.J. Hamler was diagnosed with a heart condition. Yet the Broncos got big games from Marvin Mims and Brandon Johnson and threw the ball at will. They played largely against L.A.’s backups, but the performance represented some good news for a position group that has been snake-bitten for much of the pre-season.

5. The Jonathan Taylor situation remains unresolved at the time of this writing.

But with his trade request granted, and multiple suitors in the mix, its resolution could significantly alter the league’s power rankings. Miami is said to be making a strong bid for Taylor, while the Eagles are in play as well. I see Buffalo as a dark horse candidate, and the Cowboys could always come calling. It’s rare that one of the league’s top players is available just as the season is about to start. I’d love to be a fly on the wall in the Colts executive offices as the phones are ringing and the league’s top teams try to broker a deal.

6. With Taylor in mind, Raiders running back Josh Jacobs ended his camp-long holdout over the weekend, leaving 49ers star edge rusher Nick Bosa as the biggest remaining name on the so-called holdout market.

Bosa wants a contract extension that will make him the highest-paid player in the league at his position. San Francisco wants to get a deal done, too, especially with the season opener at Pittsburgh less than two weeks away. This one should end soon. Holdouts are nothing new in the NFL, but it feels as though there were a bunch of them this pre-season. Running backs Jacobs, Taylor and Saquon Barkley all held out at some point, as did Bosa and Chris Jones of Kansas City. Like Bosa, Jones remains a hold-out, but has indicated he’s willing to extend it into the regular season. It’s hard to say if players will use this as a more common negotiating tool moving forward, or if it’s simply a way for stars to cough up a little cash in return for skipping training camp. But it’s certainly something to keep an eye on.

7. Another interesting trend growing throughout the league is the joint practice.

More and more teams are spending a few days together going through drills, 9-on-7 and 7-on-7 periods, and quick-whistle team sessions to hone their competitive spirit and fine-tune their X and Os. Steelers coach Mike Tomlin issued a typically Tomlin-esque take on the subject — “It’s hard to box without sparring,” he said — while Rams coach Sean McVay suggested the joint practices are more valuable to teams than pre-season games. It will be interesting to see if the NFLPA attempts to write some language into the next collective bargaining agreement that would eliminate another pre-season game in favor of the increased use of these practice sessions.

8. Finally, as we close out the preseason, I’d like to pause to honor all of the players who are about to get cut.

With 90 or so players in camp, and only 53 allowed on active rosters, that’s about 40% of the league. It’s incredible how hard these young men work to try to make it, and how much they invest in chasing their dream. Some will catch on with other teams or will make practice squads, and some will keep chasing the dream overseas or in alternative leagues. But for those who decide now is the time to move on with their lives, congratulations on making it this far. Only about 6% of all of the young men who play high school football go on to play in college, and about 1% of college players reach the NFL in any capacity. Whether these guys make it or not, they are truly among the world’s elite in the sport of football.


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