The NFL preseason kicks off for real Thursday night, ushering in a month-long smorgasbord of mostly sloppy football being played at weird times by a few too many backups. It’s still worth watching — there are tons of intriguing story lines and depth-chart battles to monitor — and it will help if you have a roadmap to some of the most interesting or watchable matchups. Here are the preseason games I’ve got circled on my calendar over the next four weeks.
Week 1: It’s All About the Rookies
While it’s undeniably awesome that a full, meaty slate of sorta-real football games is upon us, preseason Week 1 is generally light on star players — or even starters, for that matter. If they play at all, the league’s most recognizable names might see just a handful of series before heading to the bench: A quick perusal of last year’s preseason Week 1 gamebooks tells us that Matt Ryan threw a total of three passes before he was done for the night; Russell Wilson outdid him, tossing four; and Todd Gurley carried the ball four times for 2 yards. Oh, and Cam Newton, Odell Beckham Jr., Antonio Brown, Aaron Rodgers, and Tom Brady didn’t even suit up.
Still, the opening salvo of preseason matchups should provide a sneak peek of some of the future superstars in this league.
Browns vs. Giants: Thursday, August 9, 7 p.m. ET
If a tweet had an aura — its own energy; a life force, if you will — I think this one’s below would manifest as a glowing orange light, that, upon coming into focus, emanates from a fire-breathing Robosaurus, wreathed in strobes and gnashing a cleaved jalopy with its terrible mandibles of death.
Expect the Browns first team offense to play 1 to 2 series. This first preseason game against the Giants will be tons of Baker Mayfield. So get ready. Told the plan is to play him 2 quarters. #Browns— Dianna Russini (@diannaESPN) August 6, 2018
Put another way: Let’s. Fucking. Gooooooo!
With Tyrod Taylor still comfortably in command of the Browns’ quarterback competition, top pick, and (for now) backup Baker Mayfield is expected to get a solid chunk of playing time in Thursday night’s matchup with the Giants. Reports out of training camp have indicated that Mayfield’s looked outstanding, demonstrating accuracy and poise both in the pocket and on the run, and it’s gonna be fun as hell to see how he commands the offense and moves the ball when the red no-contact jersey comes off.
If there’s any player I’m looking forward to watching more than Mayfield, it’s Giants rookie back Saquon Barkley. It’s not clear how much action the no. 2 overall pick will get in this game (if it were up to him, he’d probably take 35 carries), but we shouldn’t have to wait too long to see him to break his first tackle.
And don’t forget about another trio of Browns rookies in Nick Chubb, Antonio Callaway (though he’s not certain to play following a citation for possession of marijuana), and Denzel Ward, the latter of whom will have a chance to show off his sticky coverage chops.
Panthers vs. Bills: Thursday, August 9, 7 p.m. ET
We’ve talked about Josh Allen’s rocket arm — and his alarming lack of accuracy, even on simple screen pass throws — an awful lot over the past five months or so. Now it’s time to see how the rookie signal-caller out of Wyoming looks throwing against a real NFL defense (in an almost-real game). GM Brandon Beane indicated late last month that Allen’s performance against Carolina could determine the number of first-team reps the rookie gets the rest of camp — so there’s certainly some real consequences for how Allen plays in this one.
On the other side, keep an eye out for explosive Panthers rookie first-round receiver D.J. Moore, who’s shown off some of his deep speed in training camp. Another Carolina rookie to watch is tight end Ian Thomas, who’s drawn rave reviews in camp as well.
Rams vs. Ravens: Thursday, August 9, 7:30 p.m. ET
Lamar Jackson had an up-and-down first outing in last week’s Hall of Fame game — he admitted after that the speed of Chicago’s defense caught him a little off-guard — but Thursday’s matchup with the Rams gives us the chance to see how he adapts. We should get a few more looks at running back Gus Edwards, too, a rookie out of Rutgers who ran well last week, gaining 35 yards on 10 carries while adding a 23-yard reception scamper.
As for the Rams, I’m looking forward to watching John Kelly get his fair share of totes. The rolling ball of butcher knives out of Tennessee has turned heads in joint practices with the Ravens in Baltimore, and while he’s still sitting well down the team’s depth chart heading into preseason action, bowling over a few defenders could give him a chance to leapfrog Justin Davis and Malcolm Brown.
Falcons vs. Jets: Friday, August 10, 7:30 p.m. ET
This game gives us our first chance to see just how bad Sam Darnold’s face really is. The third overall pick arrived at camp late after a brief holdout, but he’s apparently hit the ground running, drawing praise from coaches for his ability to quickly pick up the team’s offense. And while Josh McCown and Teddy Bridgewater have both impressed, New York’s reportedly still open to starting the rookie out of USC for its Week 1 opener. He’d sure get a boost by lighting up the Falcons on Friday.
For Atlanta, we’ll get our first glimpse at rookie Calvin Ridley in live game action, and be on the lookout for cornerback Isaiah Oliver, the team’s second-round pick. Oliver has a chance to earn himself a role in the team’s starting secondary rotation if he can impress in preseason matchups.
Chargers vs. Cardinals: Saturday, August 11, 10 p.m. ET
Cardinals veteran starter Sam Bradford is unlikely to play much, meaning we could get a few quarters out of current backup and former UCLA star Josh Rosen. Rosen was generally regarded as the most polished and pro-ready passer in this year’s excellent quarterback class, so this game should give us a good look at his advanced footwork, timing, and accuracy in action. Oh, and he’ll be throwing to fellow rookie Christian Kirk, an electric playmaker with short-area speed and the ability to get deep in a hurry.
On the other side, I can’t wait to see how Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley deploys first-round safety Derwin James. James showed off a unique and versatile skill set at Florida State, playing all over the defense — in coverage, against the run, and as a pass rusher. He came into L.A.’s camp a little late because of a hamstring injury, so it’s unclear how much time he’ll see. But keep an eye out for no. 33.
Week 2: There Are Actually a Few Good Matchups
Preseason Week 2 can still be a little bit light on starters and stars (it varies team to team), but with backups and role players dominating the action, it gives us a chance to evaluate the depth of a few potential playoff teams. There also happens to be a few fun matchups on the slate.
Eagles vs. Patriots: Thursday, August 16, 7:30 p.m. ET
Hey look, it’s a Super Bowl rematch! Kinda!
While Carson Wentz eyes a Week 1 start, his status for the preseason remains in doubt, meaning New England’s going to get another crack at Nick Foles. And look, I know teams run vanilla schemes in the preseason, so there won’t be another Philly Special in this game, but it’s going to be interesting to see whether Foles plays with the killer instinct and poise we saw in the playoffs, especially considering there’s still a chance he starts the year under center for the defending champs.
I’ll also be watching Philly corner Sidney Jones closely. The second-year pro missed most of last year with an Achilles injury but has impressed in camp and will be competing for the now-vacant nickel corner role that Patrick Robinson played last year. As for the Patriots, Tom Brady’s not likely to play much, but the team’s competitions at both receiver and running back make this game one to watch. The most intriguing story line has to be the potential breakout from former first-rounder Cordarrelle Patterson, who’s been a surprising standout at New England camp.
Steelers vs. Packers: Thursday, August 16, 8 p.m. ET
With Martavis Bryant gone, there’s an opening in Pittsburgh’s downfield passing attack and rookie James Washington will duke it out with Justin Hunter, Darrius Heyward-Bey, and a few others for that job. For the Packers, it’s the same story: With Jordy Nelson gone, it opens up an opportunity for Geronimo Allison, DeAngelo Yancey, Trevor Davis, and the team’s three rookie pass catchers, J’Mon Moore, Equanimeous St. Brown, and Marquez Valdes-Scantling, to step into a bigger role. Worth monitoring: Aaron Rodgers was not happy with the effort he got from that rookie trio this week.
Jaguars vs. Vikings: Saturday, August 18, 1 p.m. ET
This matchup features two of the best starting defenses in the NFL, but this game could tell us a little bit about which squad has more depth behind all those stars. One player in particular to watch is first-round pass rusher Taven Bryan, a high-upside but raw defensive tackle that Jacksonville hopes can develop into a reliable pro quickly. The Jags aren’t going to be able to keep their high-priced defensive line together forever, so the rookie figures to be an important long-term piece on that defense.
Week 3: It Starts Getting Real
Preseason Week 3 is generally treated like a dress rehearsal: Starters will play well into the third quarter as they knock off the rust and round into regular-season form.
Broncos vs. Redskins: Friday, August 24th, 7:30 p.m. ET
This game’s all about new quarterbacks. For the Broncos, we’ll get a glimpse at what to expect from Case Keenum as the former Viking takes the helm of a much less talented and balanced Denver offense. For Washington, Alex Smith will get his first opportunity to show, for real, what he can do in a Jay Gruden–designed scheme.
Oh, and rookie playmakers Derrius Guice and Bradley Chubb should provide a nice little sideshow.
Seahawks at Vikings: Friday, August 24, 8 p.m. ET
This game should give us an early indication as to whether Seattle’s offensive line is going to be a dumpster fire again in 2018. The Seahawks fired assistant head coach/run game czar Tom Cable and offensive coordinator Darrell Bevell over the offseason, swapping in offensive line coach Mike Solari and coordinator Brian Schottenheimer, but otherwise did very little to improve a porous group up front. Against Minnesota’s elite pass-rushing front — an already-top-tier unit that added former Seahawk Sheldon Richardson in free agency — Seattle’s line will get a challenge. If they can keep Russell Wilson upright, it could portend good things.
This game also gives us an early look at what the Vikings’ offense under Kirk Cousins is going to look like.
Packers vs. Raiders: Friday, August 24, 10:30 p.m. ET
East Coasters are going to have to stay up late to catch this one, but the Rodgers-led Packers first-team offense isn’t even the main draw. No, I’m more looking forward to how the Raiders’ Jon Gruden era will start, because right now, I’ve got so many questions: Does Derek Carr have a chance to bounce back? Will Jordy Nelson still be an elite pass-catcher? What does Amari Cooper’s weight gain mean for his performance? Oh, and what the hell is this Oakland defense going to look like?
Chiefs vs. Bears: Saturday, August 25, 1 p.m. ET
We’re going to get three-odd quarters of Patrick Mahomes vs. Mitchell Trubisky. Need I say more?
Titans vs. Steelers: Saturday, August 25, 4 p.m. ET
I just want to see Marcus Mariota in something other than the exotic smashmouth. New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur isn’t going to unleash anything but the basics of his new scheme in this one, but it’d be great if this game points to a system that better fits Mariota’s skill set.
Texans vs. Rams: Saturday, August 25, 4 p.m. ET
Come for the Deshaun Watson and J.J. Watt show and stay for a glimpse of the Rams’ new additions in Marcus Peters, Aqib Talib, Ndamukong Suh, and Brandin Cooks.
49ers vs. Colts: Saturday, August 25, 4:30 p.m. ET
The main draw for this game is the chance to watch Andrew Luck. I’m looking forward to seeing how his accuracy, velocity, and aggressiveness hold up after his year off rehabbing a shoulder injury. It doesn’t hurt that Jimmy Garoppolo and the upgraded Niners offense is going to be on the other side in this one, either.
Cardinals vs. Cowboys: Sunday, August 26, 8 p.m. ET
Tavon Austin. Give him two dozen touches and see what happens.
Week 4: Only for the Brave
Even the most hardcore NFL fans might have a hard time concentrating on these games, and it doesn’t help that all 16 of them happen in one night. For the most part, teams sit starters and use the final exhibition to make decisions on the back end of depth charts. I’m not going to try to invent story lines here, I’m just going to give you one or two players I’ll be focused on in a few of these games.
Redskins vs. Ravens: Thursday, August 30, 7:30 p.m. ET
Robert Griffin III. Look, I’m just rooting for the guy. If he plays well, he could earn himself a roster spot behind Joe Flacco and Lamar Jackson or a chance to catch on with another team. He looked pretty spry in the Hall of Fame Game last week, and if he can stay healthy, he’s got a shot at resurrecting his career.
Cowboys vs. Texans: Thursday, August 30, 8 p.m. ET
The Cowboys might have the most interesting running back depth chart in the league. Rod Smith is explosive. So is Darius Jackson. And Bo Scarbrough should give both of those guys a run for their money. I’m looking forward to watching how that battle plays out.
Seahawks vs. Raiders: Thursday, August 30, 10 p.m. ET
For the Seahawks, I’ll give you two names: Shaquem Griffin and Michael Dickson. For the Raiders, Martavis Bryant may be the man to watch: He’s spent most of training camp well down the team’s depth chart at the position, but has turned it on lately. This game might end up as his last shot to earn a roster spot and a place in the team’s offense.