The sultry heat from the summer still lingers, but the midway point of the NFL preseason signals the feeling of fall in the air.
It’s that wonderful time of the year when boisterous fans all around the world dust off their old team jerseys, fire up the rotel dip-making crockpot and settle in for a day of screaming at the television screen.
Oh yes, football is back.
The third week of the preseason is typically the most exciting time of exhibition football. Teams around the league generally treat it like a legitimate dress rehearsal with most of the starters seeing the field and actual game plans being implemented.
It’s the week where fans get a taste of real football rather than salivating over the tease from vanilla schemes with mostly backups running them.
Here are five things to watch for around the league in Week 3 of the preseason.
JuJu Smith-Schuster is the new sheriff in town
Fortunately for the Pittsburgh Steelers, JuJu Smith-Schuster’s helmet fits just fine.
The 22-year-old former second-round draft pick is preparing to embark on his first year in the NFL as a true No. 1 receiver. His success is key as the Steelers transition to life without All-Pro wideout Antonio Brown and running back Le’Veon Bell. The Killer B’s have officially been grounded, leaving Ben Roethlisberger, James Conner and Smith-Schuster to pick up the pieces.
It’s would be a bit naïve to assume the offense will be equally as dominant minus two future Hall of Fame players. Yet, Smith-Schuster will have an opportunity to carve out his own path to greatness outside of Brown’s enormous shadow. That path will consist of tougher match-ups against No. 1 cornerbacks and routinely seeing double coverage.
The Tennessee Titans boast one of the league’s most underrated defenses, and they should offer a good starting point for the Steelers to test their new-look offense on Sunday. Considering how well the Steelers tend to draft at receiver, I’d wager the offense being in good hands with Smith-Schuster.
Tom Brady’s new toys
For the first couple weeks of joint practices, New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady was throwing to undrafted rookies and receivers that probably won’t even make the team. Granted, no one is ever going to feel sorry for a six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback, but Brady’s lack of passing options were getting a bit ridiculous.
Fast forward to Monday and the outlook at receiver for the Patriots is completely different.
They’ve essentially gone from having one of the worst looking receiving corps to one of the deepest. Julian Edelman and Demaryius Thomas have both been cleared to return to action after recovering from injuries. Yet, perhaps the biggest news was the conditional reinstatement of former All-Pro receiver Josh Gordon.
Throw first-round draft pick N’Keal Harry into the mix, and Brady might have his most versatile group of receivers ever.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t plenty of questions. Can Gordon stay out of trouble? Will Edelman start to decline at age 33? How quickly can Harry catch onto the offense? Is Thomas a shell of his former self coming off an Achilles injury?
The Patriots can work towards answering those questions when they suit up on Thursday against the Carolina Panthers. Gordon, who is still listed on the non-football injury list, isn’t expected to play this week.
Eli Manning’s last game as a starter?
New York Giants president Jim Mara has already set the groundwork for quarterback Eli Manning’s inevitable benching at some point in the season.
“I hope Eli has a great year and Daniel [Jones] never sees the field,” Mara told reporters last week, via CBS Sports. “That would be an ideal world. You’d like to see that. Again, at the end of the day, it’s going to be a decision by the head coach as to when or if Daniel ends up playing this year.”
Jones, the sixth overall pick of the 2019 NFL Draft, was taken too high for the Giants to simply leave him on the bench as a mere spectator to the continued cliff dive by Manning.
Unless Manning lights the world on fire in Thursday’s preseason game against the Cincinnati Bengals, one would think Jones would have a real shot at winning the starting quarterback job with another standout performance.
That would essentially signal the end of Manning’s time as the starter for the Giants.
Playoff contention is a pipe dream for the Giants this season, and they could use this as a transitional period with Jones as the starter. As for Manning, his performance in the preseason could potentially land him a job elsewhere with another team desperate for a veteran quarterback. If retirement is off the table, it’s unlikely he’ll stick around as merely a backup option behind Jones.
More drama for Jerry Jones and Ezekiel Elliott?
The ongoing circus feud between Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and disgruntled running back Ezekiel Elliott makes for train wreck television of the “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” and “Jersey Shore” sort. Both sides are digging in on their contract proposals, while Jones continuously stoops to taking pot shots aimed in Elliott’s direction through the media.
Don’t think for one second that Jones is merely projecting through deep-seeded emotion, either. He’s been at this game before Elliott was even born. These are tough negotiating tactics that will continue if rookie running back Tony Pollard has another strong outing in Saturday’s preseason game against the Houston Texans.
Jones has never suggested Pollard is a better football player than Elliott, but his goal is to convince the All-Pro running back his perceived value is grossly overrated. If Elliott chooses to sit out the season, however, that goal could end up costing the Cowboys a shot at a Super Bowl.
Can Kyler Murray and Jimmy Garoppolo bounce back?
Arizona Cardinals rookie quarterback Kyler Murray came crashing back down to earth in Week 2 after an impressive preseason debut. The Oakland Raiders feasted on Cardinals coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, which is anchored by one of the league’s worst offensive lines. Murray spent most of his time on the field running for his life.
He was sacked twice and went 3-of-8 passing for 12 yards—a seriously disappointing night for the No. 1 overall draft pick.
The redemption gods could smile heavily on Murray, however, in Saturday’s slated preseason meeting with the Minnesota Vikings. He is expected to get more playing time, and he’ll be facing a talented defensive front with a pair of ferocious pass rushers in Danielle Hunter and Everson Griffen.
Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo hopes to erase a long and troubling week. After reportedly throwing six interceptions on six consecutive passes at practice, he went 1-of-6 passing for zero touchdowns and an interception in the Week 2 preseason game against the Denver Broncos.
There may not be enough buckets to contain the amount of sweat pouring from 49ers general manager John Lynch and coach Kyle Shanahan after signing Garoppolo to a five-year, $137.5 million deal in 2018. Saturday’s road game against the Kansas City Chiefs will give us the best look at the 27-year-old quarterback’s ability to handle pressure and adversity.