It's the third week of the NFL preseason, which means that all 32 teams are preparing for what is commonly referred to as their "dress rehearsal," or the one game of the summer in which starters get at least some playing time together as a way to tune up the band for regular-season work. Off-site training camps are over, but intrigue that peppered much of the summertime practice sessions isn't. Here are five major storylines that have emerged, which could have a big impact on the regular season.
Even late into the summer, eight teams -- or a quarter of the NFL -- needed to figure out their starting passers for Week 1. And it wasn't pretty.
The Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins had to respond to injuries. For the Colts, starter Andrew Luck's ongoing recovery from shoulder surgery has led the team to turn to backup Scott Tolzien. The hope was that the Tolzien era would be brief, but now that the Colts have admitted there is "no timetable" for Luck's return, Indy may find itself in bad shape to open the season. Thus far, the Colts have managed to score only three points in the preseason when Tolzien has seen in-game action. In Miami, starter Ryan Tannehill suffered a season-ending knee injury early in camp. The team's response was to sign the recently-retired Jay Cutler rather than pivoting to backup Matt Moore.
Five other teams had more traditional quarterback battles play out over the course of the summer -- the New York Jets, Cleveland Browns, Houston Texans, Denver Broncos and the Chicago Bears -- with four of them currently settled. In Cleveland, head coach Hue Jackson named rookie DeShone Kizer the team's starter for the third preseason game and ostensibly also for Week 1, edging out veterans Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan for the opportunity. Now, the Browns must figure out what to do with Osweiler, either finding a willing trade partner in the weeks prior to the season's start (while eating some of Osweiler's fully-guaranteed $16 million salary) or keep him on the bench as the league's most expensive backup.
Kizer may be the only rookie QB to get a starting opportunity this year, at least to open the season. The Texans' first-round draft pick, Deshaun Watson, has been beaten out by 2014 fourth-rounder Tom Savage, while Mike Glennon maintains a tenuous grasp on the Bears' job, though Mitchell Trubisky is rapidly breathing down his neck. Another former first-rounder, Paxton Lynch, is also beginning the year on the bench, with the Broncos instead opting for 2015 seventh-round pick Trevor Siemian to serve as their starter.
The only remaining questions to be solved involve the Jets and the Jags. New York seems ready to name veteran journeyman Josh McCown its starter over the younger Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty, but an official decision won't come until Monday. And, after three years, Jacksonville has realized that Blake Bortles may not present the team with the best chance to win. Backup Chad Henne got the start in the Week 3 preseason game against the Carolina Panthers on Thursday (going 8 of 14 for 73 yards), with a final decision on the regular season to follow.
Meanwhile, Colin Kaepernick remains unemployed.
Waiting for the Ansah
The success of the Detroit Lions' secondary this year doesn't hinge on the presence of just one man, but it certainly feels that way as the team awaits the return of starting defensive end Ziggy Ansah from a high ankle sprain that marred his entire 2016 season. Ansah is currently on the physically unable to perform list and, while head coach Teryl Austin isn't worried about Ansah's ability to make an impact despite missing all of training camp, he also doesn't know exactly when the pass-rusher will return.
It doesn't help that fellow starting end Kerry Hyder suffered a season-ending tear to his Achilles tendon in the preseason opener and talented backup Armonty Bryant will open the year with a four-game suspension. Cornelius Washington has proven a capable next-man-up this summer, but behind him are a trio of rookies. Ansah's talent and experience are needed desperately to help ease the pressure on the other units. Also, he is in a contract year and can ill afford to have his ankle issues linger into a second regular season.
No help for Tyrod?
The Buffalo Bills pulled off two trades earlier this month: They traded wide receiver Sammy Watkins and a 2018 sixth-round draft pick to the Los Angeles Rams for cornerback E.J. Gaines and a 2018 second-round draft pick; they also sent cornerback Ronald Darby to the Philadelphia Eagles in a trade for receiver Jordan Matthews and a third-round pick in 2018.
The head-scratching transactions turned out to be even more confounding upon Matthews' arrival in Buffalo. The receiver fractured his sternum in his first practice, and though he believes he'll be ready to play by the regular-season opener, it doesn't change the fact that he has yet to get any on-field work with his new quarterback Tyrod Taylor.
To make matters worse for Taylor, he's had his share of struggles during the preseason thus far. Through two games, he's completed only 50 percent of his 26 passes thrown, has scored zero passing touchdowns and has been picked off twice -- including once by former teammate Darby.
The Bills also signed free agent veteran wideout Anquan Boldin, but he has since chosen to retire. This leaves Taylor with Matthews (when healthy and up to speed) and Andre Holmes as the most promising passing targets in the receiving corps. While Buffalo can also lean on running back LeSean McCoy, this is not an ideal setup for Taylor, who is essentially working on a one-year deal in Buffalo after restructuring his contract in March. It also doesn't help that his head coach, Sean McDermott, needed to make a public vote of confidence in Taylor following vague comments regarding needing to evaluate the quarterback position. It could get ugly quickly in Buffalo.
Three big-name players chose to hold out this summer in hopes of getting the money they believe they are worth: Pittsburgh Steelers running back Le'Veon Bell, Oakland Raiders left tackle Donald Penn and Los Angeles Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald. And, as of now, only Penn has rejoined his team.
Bell, who was given a $12.12 million franchise tag, is reportedly going to return to his team on Sept. 1 and ready himself for the regular season, without a long-term deal. Donald, meanwhile, could extend his holdout into the regular season.
Donald is set to make a total of just $3.2 million this year despite being one of the top defensive players in the NFL. And though the Rams hold his rights for 2018 and can franchise tag him in the seasons that follow, he is choosing to bet on himself, and play hardball at that. According to ESPN's Adam Schefter (via Business Insider), "Donald is going to miss the start of the regular season. He's going to miss multiple games into the season. And I think there's every chance that he misses about half a season."
L.A. has just about $5 million in salary cap room, which means that the Rams will have to release, trade or restructure contracts of other high-priced veterans to get Donald the money he's looking for. Sean Wilkinson at Turf Show Times estimates such a deal to be worth $110 million over six years, with an $18.3 million per-year average.
Penn, meanwhile, chose to return to the Raiders on Wednesday, an act of good faith on the part of the left tackle in response to general manager Reggie McKenzie's unwillingness to negotiate with players who are not present. Whether this spurs action is unknown, but it is a step in the right direction for the Raiders and Penn to move forward with contract talks. He has a base salary of just $5.8 million but is hoping to earn a top-10 contract at his position.
The end for Aguayo?
It was already a head-scratching move when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded up for kicker Roberto Aguayo in the second round of the 2016 draft. It then quickly became one of the most misguided draft picks of all time, though, when Aguayo struggled throughout his rookie year. Last season, Aguayo made only 22 of his 31 field goals attempted, and made just four of 11 in attempts of 40 yards or more.
In response, the Bucs brought in veteran Nick Folk to serve as competition for Aguayo during the 2017 offseason. And the differences between the two were immediately clear; Aguayo missed an extra point and a field goal in the Buccaneers' preseason opener. Tampa cut Aguayo just days later. Folk has since gone on to make three of his four field goal attempts in the preseason, though he also missed an extra point.
Aguayo has been given a second chance, having been picked up off waivers by the Chicago Bears almost immediately. But the change in scenery hasn't improved Aguayo's accuracy. He missed on his one field goal attempt in the team's second preseason game against the Arizona Cardinals, while his competition, Connor Barth, made his lone field goal attempt as well as two extra points in the game. Barth was perfect in Chicago's preseason opener as well, converting one field goal and two extra points.
The lesson here, though, is beyond "never draft a kicker," or even "never draft a kicker with an early pick." It is more an indictment of the Buccaneers and their general manager Jason Licht's process for evaluating kickers, as Setting the Edge's Justis Mosqueda thoroughly broke down following Aguayo's release. That poor evaluation process has thus turned Aguayo into a punchline as his NFL career approaches its presumptive end.