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Week 1 of the NFL preseason is here, with all 32 teams in action over the next few days.
While there is no shortage of storylines, here are some of the players who can certainly help themselves over the next few weeks. From rookies looking to carve out a roster spot, to veterans trying to lock down a starting role, here are some players to watch as preseason games get underway.
Puka Nacua, WR, Los Angeles Rams
The Los Angeles Rams might not call it a “rebuild,” but there is a transition of sorts playing out this season. General manager Les Snead described their approach to the 2023 campaign as “a step back in terms of how we acquire players,” and outlined earlier this summer that the Rams might view 2023 as the “year it’s best to utilize our draft picks on younger players so we can grow and evolve.”
One younger player that can certainly help himself the next few weeks? Rookie wide receiver Puka Nacua out of BYU. The fifth-round selection has been drawing praise from teammates and coaches alike, and was getting time with the first-string offense before wide receiver Cooper Kupp suffered a hamstring injury. A solid slate of preseason games could see him lock down the WR3 spot with the Rams.
Demario Douglas, WR, New England Patriots
Speaking of rookie wide receivers, a time-honored tradition among New England Patriots fans is falling for a late-round or UDFA rookie wideout during training camp. Some players went on to make the roster, such as Kenbrell Thompkins and Jakobi Meyers, helping keep New England’s streak of 19-straight seasons with a UDFA making the roster out of camp.
This year the rookie WR drawing the bulk of attention is Demario Douglas, a sixth-round pick out of Liberty. Douglas has been causing New England cornerbacks problems lots of problems in one-on-one drills, and has been getting more and more time with Mac Jones and the rest of the starting offense.
New England is expected to be one of the teams this season that leans into bigger personnel. With the return of Bill O’Brien as offensive coordinator, and the acquisition of Mike Gesicki this offseason, 12 personnel is likely going to be a common sight around Gillette Stadium. Still, if Douglas continues to impress, he might carve out an increased role in the Patriots offense, whether they are in 12 or 11 personnel.
The rookie quarterbacks
Let’s face it. Quarterbacks move the needle. (It’s the whole reason Mark has a job after all, but we digress.) During training camp, the quarterbacks that tend to move that needle most are the rookies.
You know the names at the top of the draft: Bryce Young, C.J. Stroud, Anthony Richardson, and Will Levis. Young has already been named the starter, and Houston seems on the verge of naming Stroud their QB1 ahead of the season. Richardson might have the inside track on the job ahead of Gardner Minshew, but a strong preseason slate would lock down that spot for the Colts rookie. As for Levis, a good preseason likely gives him the QB2 spot ahead of Malik Willis.
But these are not the only four rookie quarterbacks that can help themselves during preseason. In Arizona, buzz is building about fifth-round pick Clayton Tune. With Kyler Murray recovering from a knee injury, and veteran Colt McCoy dealing with a neck injury, there is a window for Tune to not just solidify a roster spot, but perhaps put himself in position to start Week 1.
Out in Las Vegas, some Raiders fans are wondering if fourth-round pick Aidan O’Connell could beat out Brian Hoyer for the backup job, and maybe put himself in position to start a game — or more — this year. Dorian Thompson-Robinson was one of the highlights of the Hall of Fame Game, and could be in line to earn a roster spot with the Browns, and Jake Haener has reportedly been “lighting it up” with the New Orleans Saints.
In addition, we cannot forget about Stetson Bennett. The Rams rookie QB has impressed during training camp, and may have the edge in the QB2 battle with Brett Rypien.
Quarterbacks move the needle, and there are a number of rookie QBs that can help themselves over the next few weeks.
Trey Lance, QB. San Francisco 49ers
Then there is a — slightly — more experienced QB that needs a strong preseason of his own.
The quarterback room in San Francisco is a fascinating storyline this summer. When the 49ers announced that Brock Purdy had been cleared for training camp, Kyle Shanahan outlined that he would get all of the QB1 reps, which has played out these past few weeks.
But the team added Sam Darnold in the offseason, and let’s not forget, they moved up in the 2020 NFL Draft to select Trey Lance. If Purdy indeed locks down the starting gig, what happens with Lance and Darnold? Does Lance play himself into the QB2 job? Does he play himself into a trade with another team?
A strong preseason from Lance can only make his life easier.
D.J. Chark Jr., WR, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers are in love with D.J. Chark Jr. What began as a mid-free agency signing to add support to a woeful receiving room, Chark has shined and quickly emerged as a player who could cement his place as the WR1 for Carolina.
Up to training camp the assumption was that Adam Thielen would be a lock as the No. 1, largely because there wasn’t anyone else for the job. However, the chemistry that’s developed between Chark and Bryce Young is real, and has reached the point that it’s gotten the attention of head coach Frank Reich, who called their budding relationship “exciting.”
As a result Chark was named WR1 in the Panthers’ first depth chart of the season. A big performance in preseason could lead to a permanent WR shuffle that sees Chark lay claim to WR1, in turn allowing Thielen and Jonathan Mingo to split reps between the outside and slot. This would be a momentous boost to the Panthers’ passing attack.
Kyle Trask, QB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Does anyone want to be the starting quarterback for the Buccaneers? I’m not sure they really do. Tampa Bay’s QB room is embarrassing, and right now there’s nothing separating Baker Mayfield and Kyle Trask, both of whom have been equally terrible.
Mayfield’s NFL story is more or less set at this point, but Trask is in a position where his NFL future could be defined this year. In order to convince the front office that he can be the QB, he needs to win the job, then go on and have a successful season — otherwise it’s guaranteed the team will draft a QB in 2024.
A big preseason could work wonders for Trask winning the job and starting the process of establishing his career.
Breece Hall, RB, New York Jets
This is an interesting one, because everyone knows the starting RB job in New York is Hall’s. However, as he returns from injury, paired with the team reportedly being interesting in Dalvin Cook — it’s enough to give pause about the team’s plans at RB this season.
Essentially what Hall needs to do is show that he’s back to full-strength and doesn’t need another back to be part of a committee with him. At least, not someone with the prowess of Cook, who could lay claim to the RB1 spot.
I don’t think this is much of a threat, but it’s something to watch.
Derek Stingley Jr., CB, Houston Texans
The Houston Texans are a team that has a little bit of a groundswell building up for them in terms of hype this season. Led by new head coach Demeco Ryans, the defense has a lot of young talent on the roster, including second year CB Derek Stingley. Lost among all of the hype Sauce Gardener got is Stingley having a fairly good year despite the injuries he had.
Going into year two with a much more stable head coach in Houston this time around, Stingley should be able to show what made him the third overall pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. The new defense should allow him to be more aggressive and use his athletic talents, while helping to lift a defense that can very quietly be better than expected.
Evan Hull, RB, Indianapolis Colts
The former Northwestern Wildcat made a lot of fans in Mobile at the Senior Bowl, leading to him being drafted on Day 3 by the Colts. However, with Jonathan Taylor injured/might not want to be there, and Zach Moss sidelined by a broken arm, the preseason could be his chance to show off when paired with the first team offense.
Hull isn’t the biggest or fastest back, but he has great contact balance and burst, and can also work in the return and receiving game as well. With the Colts RB room getting thin, Hull can use this chance as an opportunity to move up the depth chart and earn touches in the regular season.
Chase Young, EDGE, Washington Commanders
Young is entering a pivotal year. The former 2nd overall pick has battled through a torn ACL to get back to being fully healthy, but didn’t have his fifth-year option picked up by the Commanders. He has to play well in order to earn an extension, but before that, he has to regain the explosiveness he had at Ohio State and in his first NFL season. NFL Network’s Kevin Patra reports that Young has taken off the knee brace that he wore for almost two years since the injury, and that now he feels explosive again. This is a huge development for him, because his game was so reliant on explosion.
The preseason might not be the most in-depth judgement of high quality play, but for Young it can be a chance to move at 100% for the first time in two years. It’ll be important to see how he moves during this time.