After a false start caused by the Hall of Fame Game’s cancellation last week, the NFL preseason begins for real Thursday night. All 32 teams will be in action over the weekend, with six games set for national television.
What are the storylines to track? A quick game-by-game breakdown of the preseason’s opening weekend:
Washington Redskins at Atlanta Falcons (Aug. 11, 7 p.m. ET)
The Falcons will undoubtedly want to take their revamped offense for a test drive—WR Mohamed Sanu must produce in 2016 and C Alex Mack was the team’s single most important addition during the off-season. A great deal of intrigue sits on the other side of the ball, though, where two rookie LBs (Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell) will make their cases to join fellow newcomer Keanu Neal in the starting lineup. As for Washington, its draft pick to keep an eye on is seventh-rounder Keith Marshall, who is pushing Chris Thompson and Matt Jones for reps. The Redskins have issues to sort out among their front seven, with Junior Galette lost for the year and Trent Murphy shifting back to outside linebacker.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Philadelphia Eagles (Aug. 11, 7 p.m. ET)
Rookie QB Carson Wentz is slated to take most or all of Philadelphia’s second-half snaps Thursday. Eagles coach Doug Pederson seems set on a depth chart with Sam Bradford starting and Chase Daniel as the backup, so Wentz has to make the most of this opportunity. His fellow rookie, Tampa Bay CB Vernon Hargreaves, could be on the field at the same time should the Bucs’ coaching staff give him second-team reps outside. Defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz will be making his Eagles debut, too, offering the first in-game look at how the 4–3, wide-nine look fits this group.
New Orleans Saints at New England Patriots (Aug. 11, 7:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network)
No secret plot here: It’s all eyes on Jimmy Garoppolo as he prepares to stand in for Tom Brady in Weeks 1 through 4. Garoppolo reportedly has struggled of late, including in this week’s joint practice with the Saints. Tom Brady is sitting out of the first preseason game entirely, so the Patriots would obviously love to see Garoppolo get on track early. They also wouldn’t mind a strong preseason from OLB Shea McClellin, a bust in Chicago who could find himself with an important role while Rob Ninkovich is out with a torn triceps. This will be a nice challenge for New Orleans, on both offense and defense. Will the opener provide any clarity to the Saints’ jumbled receiver situation?
Carolina Panthers at Baltimore Ravens (Aug. 11, 7:30 p.m. ET)
This is the case for a number of teams in preseason games, but the Ravens’ opener is as noteworthy for who is not playing as who is. Joe Flacco, about nine months removed from a knee injury, isn’t expected to go. Neither are WRs Steve Smith, Breshad Perriman, Chris Moore and a handful of tight ends. Carolina’s first-team offense should provide a measuring stick for the Eric Weddle-Ladarius Webb combo Baltimore has at safety, however brief those starters are out there for. Kelvin Benjamin will play, which will be his first game back after tearing his ACL last August. He and Devin Funchess have suited up together just once since Funchess was drafted in 2015, for the Panthers’ preseason opener last year.
Jacksonville Jaguars at New York Jets (Aug. 11, 7:30 p.m. ET)
Not sure Chris Ivory’s return to New York moves the needle enough—Ivory signed with Jacksonville as a free agent this off-season—so we’ll keep it moving. There are more important matters for the Jaguars anyway, like how Dante Fowler and Myles Jack perform in their preseason debuts. John Oesher of the Jaguars’ team website says to “look for Jack to play extensively.” The Jets listed rookie LB Darron Lee behind Erin Henderson on their first (rather meaningless) depth chart, but Lee could flip the order as early as this week with a standout showing. Deeper into the ranks, Bryce Petty finds himself in a tough spot. The Jets do not figure to keep four quarterbacks on their 53-man roster, and Petty appears to be the odd man out with Ryan Fitzpatrick, Geno Smith and Christian Hackenberg all holding value.
Denver Broncos at Chicago Bears (Aug. 11, 8 p.m. ET)
It’ll be Mark Sanchez in the first quarter, Trevor Siemian in the second and Paxton Lynch after halftime for the Broncos, as they try to solve their quarterback dilemma. By the way, Brock Osweiler also made his first start last season against Chicago, a 17–15 Denver win. The Broncos probably would not mind if Chicago DC Vic Fangio dials up some exotic looks with his defense, which now features rookie Leonard Floyd. Any test for the Sanchez-Siemian-Lynch trio is a good test at this point. Speaking of tests, Denver’s defensive front will put Bears center Ted Larsen (and backup Cornelius Edison) through the ringer. Larsen fell into a starting job just this week when Hroniss Grasu was lost for the season to an ACL injury.
Detroit Lions at Pittsburgh Steelers (Aug. 12, 7 p.m. ET, NFL Network)
The Lions will see less of the Steelers on Friday than they did during this week’s joint practices (the Darius Slay-Antonio Brown matchup reportedly was terrific)—Brown, Ben Roethlisberger and Le’Veon Bell are among those expected to sit. Detroit’s offensive tackles and Pittsburgh’s pass rush are keys to each team’s season, so take note of how Detroit’s OT combo of rookie Taylor Decker and Riley Reiff fare against Bud Dupree, Jarvis Jones and others. Hopes are very high for Pittsburgh’s young outside linebackers. Another spot where two question marks meet is outside, where Pittsburgh’s receivers will test Detroit’s second CB spot. The Lions still have to find a starter opposite Slay; the Steelers are deciphering what they have beyond Brown with Martavis Bryant suspended.
Miami Dolphins at New York Giants (Aug. 12, 7 p.m. ET)
Victor Cruz’s return likely will have to wait another week after he tweaked his groin in practice Tuesday. Instead, Giants fans can enjoy their first glimpse at WR Sterling Shepard, who is a dark horse option for Offensive Rookie of the Year. Another new face, DE Olivier Vernon, will face his old teammates as part of a New York defense that received a significant boost this off-season. It’s not an ideal opening matchup for a Miami offense eternally trying to nail down its identity. RB Arian Foster is not expected to play Friday, nor is rookie Kenyan Drake, so it’s Jay Ajayi and then the depth guys. Early returns on an Adam Gase offense can be a bit clunky, as was the case in Chicago during August and September of 2015. The highlight Friday could be seeing rookie offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil with the second-team offense, provided Gase does not give Tunsil a sudden boost up the depth chart.
Minnesota Vikings at Cincinnati Bengals (Aug. 12, 7:30 p.m. ET)
The Teddy Bridgewater buzz has been positive this summer, sparked by early indications that Minnesota may try to stretch the field more than it has in the Bridgewater era. Let’s see how the reviews read after Bridgewater faces a Cincinnati defense capable of collapsing the pocket and disrupting receiver releases. Let’s not forget that Minnesota addressed its O-line this off-season in the form of veterans Andre Smith (an ex-Bengal) and Alex Boone. Meanwhile, Tyler Boyd is the man of the hour for the Bengals. He has excelled in camp and the door is very much open for targets behind A.J. Green. Cincinnati recently lost its 2016 first-rounder, CB William Jackson, to a torn pectoral muscle. Its 2015 first-rounder, OT Cedric Ogbuehi, has the right tackle job in his grasp but the Vikings will come after him.
Cleveland Browns at Green Bay Packers (Aug. 12, 8 p.m. ET)
No one touch the field! The Packers are probably going to make their preseason debut, one week after their Hall of Fame matchup with Indianapolis was canceled due to a botched paint job. Aaron Rodgers was going to sit that one out, and he won’t be out there much—if at all—on Friday, either. That’s fine, because the Packers can address a few of their concerns without him, like their WR depth chart (the never-ending Davante Adams watch continues) and how they will arrange their linebacking corps. In all honesty, Cleveland is the real headliner for this game, thanks to Robert Griffin III. Unfortunately, he may have to dig deep for a little help in the passing game, with Corey Coleman and Josh Gordon expected to sit. Terrelle Pryor, who reportedly injured his calf Wednesday, may do the same. Can we interest you in a couple RGIII-to-Rashard Higgins looks?
Oakland Raiders at Arizona Cardinals (Aug. 12, 10 p.m. ET, NFL Network)
The Raiders continued their impressive roster revival this off-season, both via free agency and the draft. Rookies Jihad Ward, Karl Joseph and Shilique Calhoun—especially the first two—stand to play substantial minutes come the regular season. Arizona certainly has an offense capable of breaking those newbies in, but don’t be surprised if Bruce Arians uses Friday’s game to really put his run game to work. Evan Mathis’s addition up front gives the Cardinals even more athletic punch than they already had. Rookie CB Brandon Williams has worked his way into a starting role on defense, and a strong series or two vs. Amari Cooper, Michael Crabtree and the Raiders’ first-team offense would help him solidify that standing.
Seattle Seahawks at Kansas City Chiefs (Aug. 13, 4:30 p.m. ET, NFL Network)
Justin Houston and Tamba Hali both are on the PUP list, and Dontari Poe won’t play much, so if the Seahawks cannot keep the Chiefs’ defense out of their backfield, the concern over Seattle’s O-line will elevate. The NFC West power has no such issues along its defensive front, which means the Chiefs will be able to take a welcome look at their own offensive line (now featuring RT Mitchell Schwartz and rookie guard Parker Ehinger) against a sturdy opponent. The battle of the backup QBs will be worth sticking around for, too—it is preseason football, after all. Trevone Boykin has the inside step for Seattle’s No. 2 job behind Russell Wilson; Nick Foles should see action for the Chiefs, mere days after signing with them.
Indianapolis Colts at Buffalo Bills (Aug. 13, 7 p.m. ET)
The dream is to reach the preseason with most position groups, if not all 22 starting jobs, in good order. The Colts are a long way from the finish line up front on defense, with Art Jones (suspension), Henry Anderson (PUP) and Kendall Langford (knee injury) all out. There are jobs to be won. Ditto for the Buffalo defense, which has taken two significant hits of its own this summer: rookies Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland are out for extended periods, with Ragland likely to miss the entire year. Their absences will thrust players like IK Enemkpali and Zach Brown into the first-team conversation. Count on seeing several different combinations when Buffalo is on defense, as Rex Ryan tries to sort things out.
Dallas Cowboys at Los Angeles Rams (Aug. 13, 8 p.m. ET, ESPN)
The first Monday Night Football broadcast of the year takes place on a Saturday. (It was supposed to happen last Sunday but for that Hall of Fame Game cancellation.) Greeting new play-by-play man Sean McDonough and Jon Gruden is the NFL’s return to Los Angeles. If that’s not enough, the Rams also at some point during this game will trot out QB Jared Goff, the No. 1 pick from this year’s draft. Goff currently sits behind Case Keenum, but he will have a chance to do some damage with a talented group of young backups: Tyler Higbee, Pharoh Cooper, Mike Thomas, etc. Tony Romo will not play, leaving most of the Cowboys’ snaps for fourth-round pick Dak Prescott. Will he play well enough to keep Dallas from seeking out a veteran quarterback? Dallas’s front seven has been shredded this off-season by injury and suspension, so the remaining players should deliver a spirited effort in a fight for playing time.
San Diego Chargers at Tennessee Titans (Aug. 13, 8 p.m. ET)
Year Two of the Marcus Mariota era (and Year 1.5 of the Mike Mularkey era) opens at home, where the Titans will unleash what they hope is a formidable run game. Tennessee added DeMarco Murray, Derrick Henry and first-round OT Jack Conklin to the mix over the past few months, all in an effort to balance its offense. How comfortable is Mariota with his new mates in Mularkey’s system? Oh, and in case you’ve forgotten or didn’t notice in the first place, Andre Johnson is a Titan now. The Chargers also are desperate to improve their run game, and this is step one toward a Melvin Gordon redemption year. A big pickup this off-season that went a bit under the radar was Brandon Mebane signing in San Diego, a move meant to bolster a 27th-ranked run D. If the Titans gash the Chargers on the ground, consider it a very bad sign for the AFC West residents.
Houston Texans at San Francisco 49ers (Aug. 14, 7 p.m. ET, NFL Network)
The first week of preseason play builds to this Sunday night showdown: Chip Kelly’s first game patrolling the San Francisco sidelines and Brock Osweiler’s opening salvo as the new QB in Houston. Osweiler’s offense is bursting at the seams with exciting weapons, although one of the most important, RB Lamar Miller, dinged up his ankle over the weekend. Watch for WR Jaelen Strong, the 2015 third-rounder who has been a star of Texans camp. Houston will be without J.J. Watt, for this game and potentially into the regular season. What changes does that absence force? We know the 49ers will look much different than they did a season ago, at least from a scheme perspective. Kelly’s main goal this preseason will be to settle the Colin Kaepernick-Blaine Gabbert battle at QB.