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Football is back — sort of. The first week of preseason games is finished, so here are some key storylines from Saturday’s and Sunday’s games.
>> READ: Thursday, Friday Preseason Takeaways
Deuce Vaughn Helps Himself in Pro Debut
Rookie sixth-round pick Deuce Vaughn took a big step Saturday in convincing the Dallas Cowboys he can be the primary backup to RB Tony Pollard.
The shifty 5-foot-6, 176-pound Vaughn, who was the 14th back taken in April’s draft despite rushing for nearly 3,000 yards his last two seasons at Kansas State, rushed for 50 yards and a touchdown on eight second-half carries in the Cowboys’ 28-23 preseason loss to Jacksonville.
“It’s a question mark coming in when you’re about to play your first NFL game,’’ Vaughn told reporters after the game. “It’s not college, so you wonder if you can go to the speed [of the NFL] and be successful. It gives me a lot of confidence, but I also understand that this is just a preseason game.’’
After releasing Ezekiel Elliott in the offseason, the Cowboys need a reliable second back behind Pollard, who has had more than 14 carries three times in 62 NFL games.
If Vaughn was four inches taller and 20 pounds heavier, he likely would’ve been a first- or second-day pick last spring. But he’s not. And in the size-obsessed NFL, that’s a problem.
But the fact that his father, Chris, is the Cowboys’ assistant college scouting director, Vaughn might not even have gone in the sixth round. Never mind that he was one of the most productive players in college football. Never mind that he was MVP of the Big 12 championship game, rushing for 130 yards and a touchdown in an upset of TCU.
Vaughn’s primary competition for the Cowboys’ No. 2 running back job is second-year man Malik Davis. Davis had 161 yards on 38 carries as a rookie. Against the Jaguars on Saturday, Davis had three yards on four carries.
Derek Carr Outshines Patrick Mahomes
The Las Vegas Raiders needed a scapegoat for their 6-11 finish last season, and Derek Carr drew the short straw. Carr didn’t play particularly well. His passer rating (86.3) and completion percentage (60.8) were his lowest since his rookie year. His 14 interceptions were the third most in the league.
There was plenty of blame to go around in the Raiders locker room, their coaching staff and their executive offices. But it made things less, uh, complicated just to blame it all on Carr.
He was unceremoniously benched in favor of Jarrett Stidham late in the season and was eventually released after nine years and 142 mostly good starts for the Raiders.
The 32-year-old Carr wasn’t out of a job for long. The New Orleans Saints signed him to a four-year, $150 million deal. His Saints career got off to an impressive start Sunday when he outperformed two-time league MVP Patrick Mahomes in the Saints’ 26-24 victory Sunday against the Kansas City Chiefs.
Both Carr and Mahomes played just one series in the game. Carr engineered a 12-play, 80-yard touchdown drive with the Saints’ first-team offense against the Chiefs’ first-team defense. He completed six of eight passes for 70 and a touchdown to WR Keith Kirkwood.
On the drive, he completed 18- and 11-yard passes to TE Juwan Johnson, connected with RB Alvin Kamara on a nicely executed 17-yard screen, and then double-pumped and found Kirkwood in the back of the end zone on the touchdown pass.
Mahomes hardly stunk up the joint in his short stint. He was 2 for 2 for 15 yards. But a direct snap to tight end Blake Bell on a fourth-and-one near midfield came up short, and Mahomes’ day was over after six snaps.
Great Start for Justin Fields
Justin Fields’ preseason got off to an impressive start Saturday. The Chicago Bears’ third-year quarterback played the first two series of his team’s 23-17 win against the Tennessee Titans and engineered touchdown drives on both possessions.
On the first, he connected with his new teammate, WR DJ Moore, on a screen pass Moore took 62 yards for a touchdown.
On a third-and-eight on the second series, Fields eluded a blitzer, rolled to his left and deftly dumped the ball off to running back Khalil Herbert, who took it 56 yards for a score.
Last season, the Bears had just 38 pass plays of 20 or more yards, the fifth-fewest in the league. They averaged a league-worst 130.5 passing yards per game.
Fields rushed for 1,143 yards last season, which was the second most ever by a quarterback. But he struggled throwing the ball. He finished 25th in passing (85.2), 17th in yards per attempt (7.1), 31st in completion percentage (60.4) and 32nd in interception percentage.
But on Saturday, Fields was perfect, completing all three of his pass attempts against the Titans for 129 yards and two touchdowns.
The acquisition of Moore was a big offseason pickup for Fields and the offense. Moore has averaged 77 catches a season the past four years and has put up 1,100-plus receiving yards in three of those four years. Last year, he had seven touchdown catches on a Carolina team that started three different quarterbacks and had the league’s sixth-lowest team passer rating (80.2).
They picked him up, along with a slew of draft picks, when they traded the first overall pick in the April draft to the Carolina Panthers. Carolina selected Alabama quarterback Bryce Young with the pick.
Colts’ QB Richardson Shows Resilience
Anthony Richardson made just his 14th start since high school Saturday in the Indianapolis Colts’ 23-19 preseason loss to the Buffalo Bills.
Richardson, the fourth pick in the April draft, is battling Gardner Minshew for the Colts’ starting quarterback job. Richardson played the first three series of the game, completing seven of 12 passes for 67 yards and throwing an interception. Minshew, who followed Richardson, was six for six for 72 yards with no TDs or interceptions.
Richardson’s interception came on the first series of the game. He overthrew wide receiver Isaiah McKenzie, and the ball landed in the hands of Bills cornerback Dane Jackson. The Colts scored no points with Richardson at quarterback, but two of the three possessions started inside their 10-yard line. On the third possession, he engineered a 14-play, 83-yard drive that ended with Matt Gay missing a 28-yard field goal attempt.
“[Richardson] bounced back [from the interception],’’ Colts’ first-year coach Shane Steichen said. “He gets the pick there on the first drive of the game, and he comes back, and we started moving the ball pretty good. He had some nice touch passes and showed good calm — he commanded the huddle, all those different things. I thought he did a nice job.’’
The Colts took a sizeable gamble last spring when they selected the inexperienced Richardson with the fourth overall pick. The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder has a rocket for a right arm to go with freakish athletic ability for someone his size. He ran a 4.43 forty and had a 40 ½-inch vertical jump at the scouting combine.
But he’s raw. He only threw 17 touchdown passes and had nine interceptions in 12 starts at the University of Florida last season. While many have suggested that the smart move would be to have Minshew, who has 24 career NFL starts, open the season as the Colts starter and let Richardson develop behind him, the team’s owner, Jim Irsay, seems to favor inserting the rookie into the starting lineup as quickly as possible. However, he made it clear the decision would be Steichen’s.
“He has to play to get better,’’ Irsay said before the start of training camp. We have to get Anthony on the field.’’
Minshew will start the Colts’ next preseason game against the Bears.
Mariota’s Mobility Appealing to Eagles
Philadelphia Eagles general manager Howie Roseman always has understood the importance of a backup quarterback.
It’s why he retained Super Bowl LII MVP Nick Foles after Carson Wentz returned from his knee injury, and it’s why he signed veteran Josh McCown in 2019. It’s even why he selected Jalen Hurts in the second round of the 2020 draft.
And it’s why he signed Marcus Mariota in the offseason to be Hurts’ backup in 2023.
Mariota, who started 13 games for the Atlanta Falcons last season, not only gives the Eagles a backup with a lot of experience (74 career starts). He also gives them one with a similar skill set to Hurts.
Mariota, like Hurts, is a dual-threat quarterback who can beat you with both his arm and legs. Hurts’ running ability was a big part of the Eagles’ offensive success last season. He finished third in the league in rushing first downs (67) last season, and his 23 rushing touchdowns the past two seasons are the most ever over a two-year period by an NFL quarterback.
With two days of joint practices with the Cleveland Browns scheduled for Monday and Tuesday, Hurts didn’t play in Saturday night’s 20-19 preseason loss to the Baltimore Ravens. Mariota started and showed why Roseman wanted to bring him in to back up Hurts.
While his passing numbers were so-so — he completed seven of 11 passes for 58 yards with no touchdowns in two series — he ran the ball four times for 29 yards and picked up two first downs.
He eluded a blitz on a third-and-13 play and ran for a 15-yard gain. On the same drive, he gained three yards on a fourth-and-one run. The first drive resulted in a 45-yard Jake Elliott field goal. The second drive also would have produced points but for a pair of pre-snap penalties that ruined a third-and-1 at the Baltimore 24.
Paul Domowitch covered the Eagles and the NFL for the Philadelphia Daily News and Philadelphia Inquirer for four decades. You can follow him on Twitter at @pdomo.