Welcome to the Starting 11. This NFL season, we’ll be collecting the biggest story lines, highlighting the standout players, and featuring the most jaw-dropping feats of the week. Let’s dive in.
1. Week 3 featured seven quarterbacks who didn’t open the season as their team’s starter, and Sunday’s results were illuminating. No team has more reason to celebrate than the New York Giants, who got their first win of the season with Daniel Jones under center. The Giants were widely mocked after taking Jones with the sixth overall pick in this year’s draft, and plenty of people—myself included—were left eating crow for breakfast Monday morning. Jones was excellent in his first career start while guiding the Giants to a 32-31 win over the Buccaneers. The 22-year-old QB finished 23-of-36 for 336 yards, with a pair of passing touchdowns and two rushing touchdowns. Several aspects of Jones’s performance stood out, but the most impressive part of his debut was how well he dealt with shaky pass protection. The Bucs pressured Jones on 55.6 percent of his dropbacks—the highest rate of any QB in Week 3, according to Pro Football Focus. Jones was masterful with defenders in his face. He completed 73.7 percent of his passes when pressured and finished with 243 yards on 19 pressured dropbacks. His ability to get throws off in crowded pockets and calmly navigate the traffic around him showed a kind of control that you’re more likely to see from a 10-year veteran than a QB making his first career start.
Plenty of Jones’s completions—including a 75-yard catch and run by Evan Engram for a third-quarter touchdown—came on underneath passes that took advantage of the Bucs’ blitz-heavy tendencies. But Jones also made a handful of excellent throws down the field. His two most impressive passes came on the same drive, about midway through the third quarter. On a first-and-10 from the 50-yard line, Jones executed a play fake before drifting left to evade pressure and tossing a perfect throw 45 yards in the air to wide receiver Darius Slayton. Four plays later, Jones finished the drive by lofting a well-placed ball to Sterling Shepard in the front right corner of the end zone for a 7-yard touchdown.
On two other Giants drives, Jones’s rushing ability proved to be a valuable red zone weapon. He capped his first career touchdown drive with a 7-yard run on a designed QB keeper, and Jones scored the Giants’ game-winning TD on a 7-yard scramble up the middle. At 6-foot-5 and 221 pounds with 33.5-inch vertical leap, Jones is an underrated athlete whose mobility gives the Giants a completely new dimension near the goal line.
The main takeaway from Jones’s debut against a solid Bucs defense is that he makes the Giants a compelling watch for the first time in years. It’s telling that an injured Saquon Barkley left the game in the second quarter and the Giants were still entertaining. Jones doesn’t have a receiving corps full of dynamic field stretchers, but the combination of Engram, Shepard, and Golden Tate—who’ll return from suspension after Week 4—is more than enough for the Giants to have a successful passing game. Engram in particular has a chance to develop into one of the league’s most impactful pass-catching tight ends. It’s a shame that the first couple months of Jones’s tenure likely won’t feature Barkley, whose high-ankle sprain should keep him out for at least the next four to eight weeks. But that injury is much easier for Giants fans to stomach with Jones now in the fold. Through one game, Jones and the Giants have made a lot of critics look pretty silly for their draft day ridicule.
2. If his performance in the Panthers’ 38-20 win over the Cardinals is any indication, Kyle Allen should allow Carolina to be patient with Cam Newton’s lingering foot injury. Allen completed 19 of his 26 passes for 261 yards and four touchdowns, and the Panthers offense looked fully functional with him at the controls. On a third-and-goal early in the second quarter, Allen escaped to the right to avoid pressure off the edge from Terrell Suggs and fired a laser to Curtis Samuel in the back of the end zone for a 5-yard score. Typically backup quarterbacks lower an offense’s ceiling because they’re less aggressive and more hesitant to push the ball down the field, but that wasn’t an issue with Allen, who regularly uncorked throws to intermediate areas while using play-action. He already seems to have a solid rapport with Greg Olsen, who shredded the middle of the Cardinals defense with six catches for 75 yards and two touchdowns.
Arizona has one of the weakest secondaries in the NFL, so it’s difficult to say whether Sunday’s performance from Allen is an outlier. But after two promising career starts—Sunday and Week 17 last year—Allen looks like the rare backup quarterback who can actually create plays and lift an offense. Sunday’s showing should give the Panthers confidence in keeping Newton on the shelf a bit longer and ensuring that he’s fully healthy when they decide to bring him back. Carolina has a tough game against the Texans next week, but after that, the Panthers have two winnable contests against the Jaguars and the Bucs. If Allen can somehow guide the Panthers to a 2-1 finish in his next three starts, and a healthy Newton can rejoin a 3-3 team, Carolina should still have a chance in a watered-down NFC South.
3. Teddy Bridgewater didn’t play nearly as well as the scoreboard might indicate in the Saints’ 33-27 win over the Seahawks, but the game did show how New Orleans could tread water while Drew Brees is out. Bridgewater finished 19-of-27 for 177 yards and two touchdowns, but the Saints’ passing game was actually worse than even that modest stat line suggests. The QB narrowly avoided a pair of interceptions, and New Orleans had absolutely nothing available down the field. Bridgewater’s average throw traveled only 3.3 yards in the air, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, and his average completion traveled only 1.8 yards. He completed just one pass of 20-plus yards, which came on a dump-off that Alvin Kamara broke open for 29 yards in the second quarter. The Saints’ strategy seemed to revolve around flipping short throws to Kamara and letting him go to work, and he’s talented enough to make that a viable plan. Kamara finished with 25 touches, broke 12 tackles, and ultimately accounted for 161 of the Saints’ 265 yards from scrimmage. New Orleans won’t be able to rely on a pair of touchdowns from the defense and special teams every week, but it’s clear that head coach Sean Payton is going to lean on Kamara’s play-making ability to carry the offense with Brees out for at least the next month or so.
4. The Jaguars gave Nick Foles $50 million guaranteed this offseason to be their starting quarterback—only to stumble into Gardner Minshew II for next to nothing. Since being thrust into action in Week 1 after Foles broke his collarbone, Minshew has been better than anyone could have imagined. The sixth-round rookie has completed 73.9 percent of his passes while averaging 7.9 yards per attempt, and Jacksonville’s passing offense has shown plenty of life with him under center. Minshew has done most of his work underneath, but he isn’t only relying on short, easy throws. His expected completion percentage is actually 2.1 percentage points lower than his actual completion rate, which indicates that he’s getting even more out of the Jags offense than his receivers’ separation would suggest.
Minshew has shown excellent accuracy to all levels of the field, and his ability to place deep throws outside the numbers has unleashed Jacksonville’s ultra-athletic receiving corps. Combine superstar DJ Chark added two more catches of 20-plus yards in the Jaguars’ 20-7 win over Tennessee last Thursday. The second-year receiver has averaged a robust 18.5 yards per catch, which currently ranks 11th in the league among players with at least 10 targets. Chark was a nonfactor as a rookie last season, but so far, his connection with Minshew has given the Jaguars offense a new dimension.
It’s still way too early to suggest that Minshew deserves a shot at being Jacksonville’s quarterback of the future, but if he continues to play this well, it may create a dilemma. There would be no easy way for Jacksonville to move on from Foles after this season. If Foles is traded next spring, he’d carry an $18.8 million dead cap hit. Considering Foles would cost the Jags $22.1 million if he were on the roster, they could decide they’d rather save a bit of cash and take whatever meager draft capital they’d get in a trade. If Foles were to get traded, he’d carry only a $15.1 million cap hit for his new team in 2020, which is more than palatable in a league where Jared Goff will cost the Rams $36 million next season. All of this will be moot if Minshew eventually turns into a pumpkin, but the mustachioed man has already opened plenty of eyes in his short tenure as the starter.
5. Josh Rosen was erratic in his first start with the Dolphins, a 31-6 loss to the Cowboys, but it’s next to impossible to really evaluate him in this awful offense. Rosen had some accuracy issues early on and finished with a brutal 18-of-39 line for just 200 yards, but his teammates didn’t give him much help. He was under siege the entire game, as the Cowboys got pressure on 42.2 percent of his dropbacks and finished with 11 quarterback hits. Miami’s receivers also let a handful of accurate throws hit the turf, including a picturesque toss to Preston Williams in the back corner of the end zone that cornerback Chidobie Awuzie wrestled away. It’s going to be a long season for Rosen with this supporting cast, but even with the constraints of the Dolphins offense in mind, his debut left a lot to be desired.
6. The most positive thing anyone can say about the Luke Falk era in New York is that it should be over soon. Falk was dreadful in the Jets’ 30-14 loss to the Patriots on Sunday. Taking into account the five sacks that New York allowed, the offense finished with an abysmal 69 net yards passing. Falk completed 12 of his 22 passes for just 98 yards and looked completely out of his depth. The Jets mercifully get a bye next Sunday, and current reports say Sam Darnold’s on track to be over his mono and back in the lineup for the team’s Week 5 game against the Eagles. It wouldn’t be a moment too soon.
7. A few long completions helped massage his box score stats, but Mason Rudolph had a rough time in his first start. Aside from the 76-yard catch and run by JuJu Smith-Schuster late in the third quarter and Diontae Johnson’s fourth-quarter touchdown catch that was made possible by a busted coverage, the 49ers held Rudolph to 59 yards passing on his other 25 attempts in a 24-20 San Francisco win. Pittsburgh’s defense created five turnovers, and it still wasn’t enough to give the team its first victory of the season. That’s downright troubling, especially since every Steelers loss is a reminder that they sent their first-round pick to the Dolphins for cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick last week. Fitzpatrick had an interception off a deflected pass in the first quarter and a nice strip of running back Raheem Mostert for one of the Steelers’ four forced fumbles. But even if Fitzpatrick continues to show out for the rest of the year, with a struggling Rudolph replacing Ben Roethlisberger, Pittsburgh may have just handed the Dolphins a top-10 pick.
8. The 49ers offense was expected to determine their ceiling in 2019, but the defense has actually done most of the heavy lifting in San Francisco’s 3-0 start. With quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo returning from injury and top-tier scheme lord Kyle Shanahan calling the shots, the 49ers had plenty of offensive potential coming into the season. The same couldn’t be said about San Francisco’s defense, which had struggled in two previous seasons under coordinator Robert Saleh. Even after swinging a trade for Chiefs sack master Dee Ford and using the no. 2 overall pick on Ohio State pass rusher Nick Bosa, there were still legitimate questions about the rest of this group. But through three games, at least some of those questions have been answered.
In Sunday’s 24-20 win over the Steelers, Saleh’s unit helped keep the Niners in a game that would have easily slipped away in the first two years of Shanahan’s tenure. The 49ers lost three red zone fumbles, including one at the Pittsburgh 7-yard line while trailing 20-17 with just 6:53 remaining. But just like it had all afternoon, the Niners defense was there to bail the offense out. Three plays later, defensive tackle Arik Armstead stripped Steelers running back James Conner to set up the game-winning touchdown drive. More encouraging than the contributions of offseason additions like Ford, linebacker Kwon Alexander, and Bosa, who spent plenty of time in the Steelers’ backfield on Sunday, has been the development of homegrown players like Ahkello Witherspoon. The third-year cornerback has been excellent this season, and overall, the secondary had another strong showing. If the defense continues to play this well while Shanahan schemes up huge chunk gains for Garoppolo and the offense, the 49ers could suddenly become very interesting within the NFC playoff picture.
9. Patrick Mahomes is just toying with opposing defenses at this point. Mahomes has been so brilliant this season that it’s easy to take his greatness for granted. The Chiefs quarterback completed 27 of his 37 passes for 374 yards and three passing touchdowns in Kansas City’s 33-28 win over the Ravens on Sunday. Mahomes had his standard collection of jaw-dropping throws, but his most impressive move of the day wasn’t even a pass. On a second-and-11 in the first quarter, Mahomes took a shotgun snap, faked a handoff to LeSean McCoy, and hid the ball behind his leg before hitting a wide-open Travis Kelce in the middle of the field. We’ve gotten to a point where Mahomes is so damn good that he’s riffing just to keep things interesting.
A) this is next level ball handling— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) September 23, 2019
B) the entire Ravens defense thought this was a screen to the left. pic.twitter.com/rs9XZ70Cba
Through three games, the reigning MVP is averaging a mind-boggling 398 passing yards per game. He’s currently on track to throw for more than 6,300 yards and 53 touchdown passes on the season. The Chiefs are making this stuff look easy—and it’s decidedly not.
10. This week’s line-play moment that made me hit rewind: Brian Burns is going to be very, very scary. The Panthers’ rookie defensive end finished with five total pressures against Arizona, including this nasty in-and-out move on a sack in the fourth quarter.
Dude, Brian Burns was unblockable today. pic.twitter.com/qzir8m080O— Austin Gayle (@PFF_AustinGayle) September 23, 2019
At 6-foot-5 with a 36-inch vertical leap and 4.53-second 40-yard dash speed, Burns has the sort of explosiveness you’d expect from a first-round edge-rushing prospect. What sets him apart, though, is his flexibility. The ability to make such a sudden inside-out move and then instantly redirect his path back toward the quarterback shows rare change-of-direction skills for a player his size. This guy has a chance to be a dominant force on the edge for years to come.
11. This week in NFL players, they’re absolutely nothing like us: Football is just better with Josh Gordon.