The 2023 NFL preseason is (blessedly) complete. Next up, the only benefit of the 17-game regular season – the empty weekend prior to Week 1, when players, fans, fantasy owners and those of us who cover the league can take one last intake of summer respite before the marathon truly begins.
But you’re not here to read about the demise of the dearly beloved Week 4 (pre). You’re here to learn who shone and who shattered in this year’s August finales. So I’ll do my best to make some sense of some largely meaningless exhibition football while trying to mine meaningful nuggets wherever possible:
Aaron Rodgers: Making his preseason return after a five-year layoff, the four-time MVP donned the Gotham Green and Spotlight White of the New York Jets for the first time in a game environment. On the trivial side, Rodgers basked in the love of the NYJ fans who were able to crash what was actually a Giants home game, and he also connected with WR Garrett Wilson on a 14-yard TD strike. But the 39-year-old adhered to his prime directive while playing two series: Emerge unscathed. “I got in, didn’t get hurt, scored,” Rodgers said. “It was a good night.” The Big Apple breathlessly awaits the encore.
First-round rookie QBs: None had what you’d call a buzzy preseason, but the trio continued showing steady improvements. No. 1 pick Bryce Young threw his first NFL TD pass Friday for the Carolina Panthers and showcased the mobility he might need after taking more than his share of rib-rocking hits in recent weeks … though his lack of a baseball background was apparent given his attempt at a “slide.” C.J. Stroud, taken second overall by the Houston Texans, also notched his first TD strike in a brief appearance at New Orleans on Sunday night – which was apparently enough to officially solidify himself as the club’s starter. The Indianapolis Colts’ Anthony Richardson continued to display the dual-threat athleticism that got him drafted fourth … and the accuracy issues that dogged him at Florida. He flashed again Thursday, but you’d really feel better if he had RB Jonathan Taylor were around to take heat off the rookie.
Fifth-round rookie QB: A five-year starter at UCLA, Dorian Thompson-Robinson is now one snap away from starting for Cleveland after looking so good that the Browns traded previous QB2 Josh Dobbs to the Arizona Cardinals.
Kenny Pickett: Did anyone have a better preseason? The Pittsburgh Steelers’ second-year signal-caller finished with a perfect 158.3 QB rating, connecting on 13 of 15 throws for 199 yards and a pair of scores. His five August drives produced five touchdowns and stoked serious enthusiasm for a team that ended the 2022 season on a four-game heater and went 3-0 this month.
Jordan Love: Only slightly less impressive than Pickett, Love collectively threw for 193 yards and three TDs while generally looking sharp throughout his three appearances. Coming off an 8-9 season under Rodgers, the Green Bay Packers may not miss a beat with Love … and could add a few after a highly disappointing 2022 campaign.
DJ Moore: The Chicago Bears’ new No. 1 wide receiver, a position they’ve rarely filled in their century-plus existence, caught a 40-yard pass from QB Justin Fields on Saturday – giving Moore 102 yards on a pair of preseason receptions. This offense very much looks as if it’s ready to go to a new level after its passing attack ranked dead last in 2022.
Tom Brady: He’s baaack … sort of, TB12 patrolling the Las Vegas Raiders’ sideline as a minority owner alongside former New England Patriots buddies like QBs Jimmy Garoppolo and Brian Hoyer, DE Chandler Jones and HC Josh McDaniels. One of the guys who now works for Brady, All-Pro RB Josh Jacobs, even decided to come back to work over the weekend courtesy of a sweetened contract for 2023.
Ryan Tannehill: He’s baaack … sort of. The Tennessee Titans’ starting QB handed off three times Friday night, his lone appearance of the preseason. We should all need such a “workload” to sufficiently tune up for the tougher aspects of our employment.
Cleveland Browns defense: OK, so it wasn’t facing MVP Patrick Mahomes on Saturday at Arrowhead Stadium. But the Brownies still looked quite formidable – breaking up 11 passes, swiping three, returning two for touchdowns and recording three sacks. Just wait until new coordinator Jim Schwartz unleashes DE Myles Garrett, who didn’t suit up this month.
Teddy Bridgewater in No. 17: The Detroit Lions’ new backup QB looked far better in his new jersey number than he did donning No. 50 a week ago. The 10-year vet led his team to 20 second-quarter points Friday in Charlotte and appeared perfectly capably of stepping in if Jared Goff goes down for any stretch of time.
Will Grier: The Dallas Cowboys’ reserve passer accounted for four TDs against the Raiders, passing for 305 yards and two scores and rushing for 53 more while finding the end zone twice on the ground – all with QB1 Dak Prescott calling plays for him.
Kirk Cousins: Amazing handlebar, boss.
Kirk Cousins: No way your wife is letting you keep it, “boss.”
Will Grier: Saturday’s effort will very likely be Grier’s last in a Dallas uniform, his role as QB3 almost certainly going to newly acquired Trey Lance while getting Grier a one-way ticket out of Texas. And he knew it. “The hardest part on me is just leaving this place, to be honest,” Grier said. “Got really close with the team. That’s the toughest part about what we do.”
Los Angeles Rams: They capped a winless preseason with an uwatchable 41-0 loss to the Denver Broncos’ backups. And the score wasn’t even completely indicative of how disgraceful LA’s “performance” was. Rookie DB Tre Tomlinson was tossed for an egregious facemask violation. Rookie QB Stetson Bennett IV completed four of nine passes for 14 yards with two picks. The Rams were outgained 494-159 … again by a ton of guys who likely won’t make Denver’s final roster. In fairness, the Super Bowl 56 champs didn’t use their key players, either, but you wonder if HC Sean McVay would just forfeit the preseason if he could – while offering Saturday, “That was a humbling night.” Uh, yeah.
Baltimore Ravens: The sky is falling! After reeling off 24 consecutive preseason victories, they’ll carry a two-game skid into 2024 after falling in Tampa on Saturday.
Minnesota Vikings: The sky has cratered across the Land of 10,000 Lakes! The Vikes dropped their 10th straight exhibition contest Saturday, a skid that dates to 2019.
Ryan Jensen: The left knee injury the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Pro Bowl center suffered a year ago – costing him the entire 2022 regular season – has now sent him back to injured reserve and could very likely end his career. A shame for a beloved teammate. And a shame for an offensive line that seems to have very few answers aside from LT Tristan Wirfs – and he’s in unfamiliar territory, too, after flipping from the right side.
Jakeem Grant: The Pro Bowl returner’s 2022 campaign was ruined by a preseason Achilles tear. He won’t play for the Browns in 2023, either, after injuring his knee Saturday.
Lamar Jackson: The former MVP didn’t take a preseason snap this summer for Baltimore, which normally wouldn’t be that big a deal. But given coordinator Todd Monken is installing an entirely new offense for the Ravens, one reliant on spread passing concepts, just a bit mystifying that all of Jackson’s in-game OJT will be conducted in games that count? (OK, admittedly, that Week 1 date with the Texans feels a little preseason-ish.)
Dee Eskridge: A second-round pick by the Seattle Seahawks in 2021, he has 17 career catches, will begin the 2023 season with a six-game suspension for violating the personal conduct policy and may be fifth-string – at best – after undrafted WR Jake Bobo concluded his first NFL preseason by leading the team with seven catches, 125 yards and a pair of TD grabs.
San Francisco’s specialists: Lost amid the attention of Lance’s departure is the fact that the 49ers’ kickers – Zane Gonzalez and rookie Jake Moody – both have leg injuries and may not be ready for Week 1. (And punter Mitch Wishnowsky showed Friday he’s not up to the task of kicking extra points after Gonzalez hurt his calf in pregame warmups.) Maybe the Niners should have traded Lance for a kicker … though that’s not an area where Dallas could have helped them.
Cade York: Does it feel like kickers are in shorter supply than quarterbacks? A fourth-rounder a year ago who didn’t exactly have a sterling rookie season, York saw his final kick of the preseason – a 43-yard attempt that would have won Saturday’s game for Cleveland – partially blocked. He went 4-for-8 this month, including 3-for-7 beyond 40 yards.
Another terrifying injury: This time it was immobilized Miami Dolphins WR Daewood Davis who was carted off the field after a frightening collision – one that drew an unnecessary roughness flag and left him on the turf for what seemed an eternity – in Jacksonville on Saturday. And, for the second week in a row, an inconsequential preseason game was (correctly) suspended in the fourth quarter after both teams opted not to continue with one of their brothers in obvious distress. By our count that’s five players on backboards with loss of movement the past two weeks, a trend obviously no one wants to see persist. Fortunately, the positive trend is that everyone seems to have recovered, the Dolphins tweeting after the game that Davis regained full movement in his extremities and was discharged from the hospital.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL preseason winners, losers: Aaron Rodgers, rookie QBs stand out