Analysis

2021 NFL Preseason, Week 3: 1 thing to watch for from all 32 teams

The final week of the NFL preseason is upon us, and just two days after Sunday's action, NFL clubs have a deadline to make deep cuts to their rosters. This won't be the minor trimming that the NFL's rules on roster reduction demanded after Week 1 and Week 2 of the preseason -- this will be a slashing, from a maximum of 80 to 53, and performances this week will go a long way in determining who makes the cut. Also, quarterback battles in San Francisco, New England and elsewhere will get their final exhibition stanza. NFL Network will air seven games this weekend, including three each on Saturday and Sunday. Here's one thing to watch for from all 32 teams in Week 3 of the NFL preseason.

NOTE: The previously scheduled Cardinals-Saints game was removed from this file after the Saints announced the game had been canceled due to the impending impact of Hurricane Ida.

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The holes on the Colts' offensive line are finally starting to get filled in, a welcome sight for an offense that's also been without QB Carson Wentz in the preseason. C Ryan Kelly and G Quenton Nelson, one of the NFL's best interior tandems, returned to practice this week. Kelly could be more ready to play than Nelson, whose injury required surgery. If either of them takes the field against the Lions, expect it to be Kelly. (UPDATE: The Colts placed Nelson on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday.) ... A lot of eyes will be on Lions rookie Penei Sewell, who has struggled, albeit in limited action, through two preseason games. He's moving from left tackle, where he anchored the Oregon line in college, to right tackle. He opted out of the 2020 season, which could be another factor in his slow start. Coach Dan Campbell wants Sewell to get as much seasoning as possible, so don't be surprised if Sewell sees more extensive playing time against the Colts.


It still sounds weird to say the Steelers can't run the ball, several months after they finished 2020 with the NFL's worst rushing attack. In three preseason games this month, not much has changed as Pittsburgh has mustered just 3.1 yards per carry (99 for 310). Yes, it's been with a wide assortment of offensive linemen, and yes, first-round pick Najee Harris has only received 13 of those 99 totes. But it'd be nice to see the Steelers' front drive some people off the ball and show some cohesion before the scores begin to count. ... It looks like the Panthers' first-team offense will take the field for a full half on Friday, per head coach Matt Rhule, with one very notable exception: RB Christian McCaffrey. Rhule has said his star rusher will be very limited, if he plays at all. That means Carolina fans can expect to see some of rookie RB Chuba Hubbard behind the first-team line. Hubbard has broken off a 59-yard run and a 29-yard reception so far in the preseason.


Time to unveil the Jalen Hurts-DeVonta Smith connection. Hurts played the preseason opener without Smith, who was recovering from a knee injury, and Smith played last week without Hurts, who fell ill shortly before a loss to the Patriots. Their familiarity as college teammates at Alabama is nice, but also overblown -- their time as full-time starters for the Tide didn't overlap, and the step up in competition brings a whole new set of challenges anyway. Hurts' ability to extend plays combined with Smith's ability to separate should generate some big off-schedule gainers this fall, but that chemistry needs to be built, not dusted off. ... Rookie Jamien Sherwood will get fire-tested this week. Already dealing with a transition from college safety to pro linebacker, he'll now try to do so in the Jets' starting unit as the best-option-for-now replacement for injured LB Jarrad Davis, who will be out a couple months. A fifth-round pick in this year's draft, Sherwood will need all the reps he can get in this one.


How much does Everson Griffen have left in a 33-year-old tank, and will there be any visible rust from spending an offseason as a free agent? After splitting 2020 between the Cowboys and Lions, he's back with the Vikings upon agreeing to a deal this week with the club that sent him to four Pro Bowls. Coach Mike Zimmer said the pass rusher will be a situational player. ... The Chiefs' defensive line is looking scary good. Even without Frank Clark, who has been sidelined with a hamstring injury, the starting unit maintained tight-fisted control of the line of scrimmage last week in a first half of action. Chris Jones logged a sack, as did free-agent signee Jarran Reed. The Vikings' starting offensive line, which also played the first half a week ago, will have its collective hands full if starters on both sides start again.


Rookie RB Kylin Hill appears well on his way to making the Packers' roster as a seventh-round draft pick, if he can keep making plays like his 12-yard run to the end zone last week. He's not especially fast, and character questions popped up after he abruptly left Mississippi State at midseason last year, although he later explained that concerns around COVID-19 and the health of his family members factored into his decision. But he's making the most of his opportunities in Green Bay, having scored a TD in each preseason game so far. The RB3 role behind Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon could be his for the taking. ... Was the Bills' dominant pass rush against the Chicago Bears last week more telling about the Bills or the Bears? The club invested early draft picks in DEs Gregory Rousseau and Boogie Basham, who each had a sack among four for the team last week. Veteran Bills DEs Mario Addison and Jerry Hughes didn't even suit up, while the Bears' offensive line was particularly thin at tackle. The Packers should provide a better test for the rookies.


How will the Ravens' depth at inside linebacker look without L.J. Fort, who will miss the season with a torn ACL? He wasn't projected as a starter, but he was Baltimore's immediate backup to starters Patrick Queen and Malik Harrison. The coaching staff will want to come away from this game with some sort of handle on who can enter the season ready to step up if needed. ... Washington DE Chase Young is a dominant pass-rushing force and one of the most promising young defenders in the entire league. Coach Ron Rivera even said this week that he could've played for the fabled '85 Bears, and Rivera should know as a member of that squad. If first units collide in this one, Young should get some fun-to-watch reps against Baltimore LT Ronnie Stanley, a 2019 All-Pro who returned to practice from injury this week


The Bears' offensive line woes of the preseason are supposed to be getting a boost now from a pair of tackles in Germain Ifedi, who was activated from the physically-unable-to-perform list on Monday, and free-agent signee Jason Peters, who is 39 and now five years removed from his last Pro Bowl season. Last week, the Bills exposed the Bears' front much more than the Dolphins did the week prior. It remains to be seen how much Ifedi and Peters play, but it's worth watching whether they stabilize things when they do. ... Two key rookie DBs made their Titans preseason debuts last week, but it wasn't first-round pick Caleb Farley who turned heads. That would be third-rounder Elijah Molden, who was all over the field in making eight stops with a sack and two tackles for loss from the nickel-back spot. Even Chiefs All-Pro Tyrann Mathieu is a fan. Farley is returning from back surgery and might need more time to work his way into the lineup, but with another strong showing against the Bears, Molden could be primed for a quicker impact. 


If Joe Tryon-Shoyinka is as good as the preseason praise of him from coach Bruce Arians and teammates, the Super Bowl champs might have struck gold with the No. 32 overall pick in this year's draft. The outside linebacker notched a sack against the Titans last week, and even though the Bucs have two established edge rushers in Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaquil Barrett, it's becoming clear the Bucs will find a way to get the rookie on the field. He could feast against the Texans' offensive line, especially if LT Laremy Tunsil, who remains on the reserve/COVID-19 list as of this writing, doesn't play. ... Last year, Texans DB Lonnie Johnson didn't look too comfortable in switching from cornerback to safety. He provided an encouraging signal last week, though, delivering a second-half pick-six against the Cowboys that helped carry the scoring load for a dismal offense. There'll be no better test for him than Tom Brady, should the G.O.A.T. see action in the game.


How will the Rams juggle their evolving picture at running back? Cam Akers is out for the season with an Achilles injury, the club waived Raymond Calais following a foot injury and now Darrell Henderson is dealing with a thumb injury. The club picked up Sony Michel in a trade this week. Other healthy options for what could be an all-hands-on-deck approach against the Broncos: Xavier Jones and rookies Otis Anderson and Jake Funk. ... Expectations are high for WR Jerry Jeudy's second season after a rookie year that alternately flashed big potential with frustrating drops. His route-running and elusiveness after the catch aren't in question, and he caught both of two targets last week, including a 35-yarder. Given the Rams' steadfast refusal to play starters in preseason, Jeudy might put on a show Saturday. But drops don't have as much to do with the defense, so the best sign for Jeudy this week is simply to secure all catchable targets.


There's a budding star to watch in Chargers LB Kenneth Murray. He played 21 snaps in his preseason debut last week, and drew high praise from coach Brandon Staley for both his play and his pre-snap communication with the front seven. He's building on a rookie season in which his 107 tackles set a franchise rookie record. ... Seahawks CB D.J. Reed returned to practice from a groin injury this week with a vote of confidence from coach Pete Carroll as a guy who can be ramped up for a starting role despite missing most of training camp. Like a lot of clubs, the Seahawks have sat starters in preseason games thus far, but at a position where Seattle is thinnest, it might behoove the coaching staff to gauge Reed's readiness with some playing time.


The Jaguars lost first-round pick Travis Etienne to a season-ending foot injury on Monday night. He was to have been the lightning to James Robinson's thunder, and backup Carlos Hyde isn't a lightning kind of player. Might we see Urban Meyer give Laviska Shenault Jr. a rush or two? He's always liked having a RB/WR hybrid (see Etienne's camp reps as a slot receiver, and Meyer's use of Percy Harvin and Curtis Samuel at the college level). Shenault even got 18 carries as a rookie under the previous Jaguars regime. ... Former Atlanta Falcons safety Keanu Neal is making a seamless transition to linebacker with the Cowboys, a la Mark Barron, who extended his NFL career with the same position switch when he left the Bucs for the Rams. Neal is working with the first-team defense and provides Dallas with the sort of third-down coverage skill that's hard to find in linebackers but should be expected of a former defensive back.


Nothing like a four-sack game to solidify your roster spot. That's what Dolphins LB Sam Eguavoen posted last week against the Falcons, including one sack for a safety. The former Canadian Football Leaguer showed a high motor, and after making only one start in 2020, he could be on the brink of becoming a much more valued member of the Dolphins' D. Another big game against the Bengals would be a strong step toward that end. ... How about a turnaround performance from rookie WR Ja'Marr Chase as he reunites with LSU teammate Joe Burrow in the QB's first game action of 2021? It's been a tough preseason for Chase. Even before he dropped all three of the balls thrown his way against the Washington Football Team last week, his camp performance had been spotty at best. He did make one catch in the club's preseason opener against the Buccaneers, but a lot more is expected of a No. 5 overall pick.


Can just one star player on the Raiders roster get some preseason snaps? Two games in, Derek Carr hasn't thrown a pass and Darren Waller hasn't caught one. Josh Jacobs hasn't got a carry, and Maxx Crosby hasn't made a tackle. Obviously, the Raiders are sorting out the bottom of the roster, like a lot of teams. But to whatever extent some cohesion is needed, especially on offense, this is the week for it. ... While coach Kyle Shanahan maintains that Jimmy Garoppolo remains the 49ers' No. 1 quarterback, he also declined to name him the Week 1 starter after rookie first-round pick Trey Lance fired two TD passes -- two more than Garoppolo -- in a win over the Chargers. Shanahan's window to sit on the QB fence is closing quickly, and this game could tip his hand a bit. 


Patriots coach Bill Belichick probably won't officially name a Week 1 starting QB any sooner than he has to, but one has to wonder whether Cam Newton's five-day sit following a misunderstanding of COVID-19 protocols has given rookie Mac Jones a chance to gain ground in the competition. To review: Both Newton and Jones have been impressive thus far, although Jones has seen more reps. How will Belichick split reps between these two under the circumstances? Which will see action behind the first-team line? It could be telling. ... The Giants are expected to play QB Daniel Jones for at least a half in this one, which will be his first preseason action entering a pivotal year in his career. He's been without some of the Giants' key skill players on offense in training camp, but he doesn't need playmakers around him to take care of the ball. Cutting down turnovers is what's crucial for Jones -- so for his first (and last) tune-up, a zero in that column is paramount.


What does Malik McDowell have in store for us next? The former second-round pick of the Seahawks who never even got on the field for Seattle has cleared the first two rounds of cuts with the Browns. Playing in a game for the first time as a pro, the defensive tackle notched five tackles and a sack against the Giants last week. If he makes the 53-man roster, he'll be the comeback nobody saw coming. ... The Falcons lost backup QB AJ McCarron for the season to a knee injury last week. They responded by signing Josh Rosen, who will try to stick to the roster of his fourth team in four years. Is it possible that Feleipe Franks could position himself for the QB2 role as an undrafted free agent? Coach Arthur Smith's decision on how to split the QB reps in this one will be interesting.

Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter.

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