NFL Training Camp/Preseason Notes: The Cook Is Back In The Kitchen

A total of 12 teams did battle Friday night during what is traditionally the most relevant exhibition game as far as first-team units are concerned. Despite the established formula of most starting offenses playing a full half, injury concerns and other considerations specific to each team saw some straying from that formula. Nevertheless, as is typically the case in this week of the exhibition slate, there were extended previews of what some team’s skill players may be capable of during the regular season, and plenty of job battles that continued to unfold. With lots to review, let’s jump in without further ado!

Around the AFC

Broncos: Case Keenum has reportedly been progressively impressing as training camp has unfolded, and some of that momentum certainly carried over into Friday’s contest against the Redskins. Keenum led the Denver offense to two touchdowns and a field goal in five series, finishing 12-for-18 for 148 yards. While he didn’t throw any touchdown passes, Keenum showed excellent rapport with Emmanuel Sanders (four receptions, 61 yards) in particular. Keenum’s presence figures to do wonders for revitalizing the fantasy value of both Sanders and Demaryius Thomas, who were handicapped by the mediocre play under center in 2017… The battle to be Keenum’s backup was also a featured part of the proceedings Friday, but it was Chad Kelly who once again appeared to be trending heavily toward winning the job. The 24-year-old Ole Miss product finished 7-for-11 for 70 yards, playing the majority of the second half before Paxton Lynch finished up with a pedestrian line in limited action (3-for-7 for 39 yards)… The Broncos backfield is the site of another intriguing competition, and two hopefuls looked better than the incumbent Friday. Last year’s sixth-round pick De’Angelo Henderson led the way with seven carries for 35 yards and added another 31 on three receptions, while rookie Royce Freeman gained 26 yards and scored a touchdown on five rushes. Meanwhile, Devontae Booker, who came into camp as the starter, appears increasingly unlikely to hold on to that designation, carrying just three times for nine yards.

Jets: Gang Green has a legitimate quarterback job battle on its hands, with three potential candidates still in play as New York now heads toward its preseason finale. One of the hopefuls, last year’s starter Josh McCown, did not see action for a second straight preseason game Friday, but that shouldn’t necessarily be read as a sign that he’s out of the running to reprise his role. Rather, at 39 years of age and with a library of game tape, McCown has next to nothing to gain and much to lose by overexposing himself in the exhibition slate. Meanwhile, both Teddy Bridgewater and 2018 first-round pick Sam Darnold have plenty to prove for different reasons, which is why they split halves against the Giants. Both continued to essentially battle to a draw, with Darnold having the edge in points generated by throwing a touchdown pass, but Bridgewater’s 11-for-15 line serving as a more accurate one that the rookie’s 8-for-16 tally on the night. The hotly contested battle apparently comes down to next Thursday’s preseason finale against the Eagles. A number of potential scenarios could result, including the Jets deciding to keep all three quarterbacks, so stay tuned… A less publicized job audition has been unfolding in the Jets backfield, where rookie Trenton Cannon is battling Thomas Rawls for the third running back role behind the duo of Isaiah Crowell and Bilal Powell. Cannon has been outperforming Rawls all summer, and the disparity between their respective performances Friday may have sealed the latter’s fate. While Cannon racked up 124 all-purpose yards (23 rushing, 30 receiving, 71 return), Rawls didn’t log any rushing touches and failed to catch his one target… That Darnold touchdown pass we alluded to earlier? It went to none other than Terrelle Pryor, who finally got in some game action as a member of the Jets after battling multiple injuries throughout camp. The former quarterback appears destined for a No. 4 receiver role to open the season and is currently off the fantasy radar in all but the deepest of larger leagues, as he has the trio of Robby Anderson, Jermaine Kearse and Quincy Enunwa firmly entrenched ahead of him at present… Speaking of Enunwa, the 26-year-old appears to have rebounded nicely from last season’s scary neck injury and finished with two catches (on three targets) for 28 yards Friday.

Patriots: Bill Belichick held true to his word and gave Tom Brady plenty of playing time Friday, with the future Hall of Famer emerging from the contest against the Panthers having completed 12 of 18 passes for 102 yards. The Patriots will notably enter the season with a makeshift group of wideouts due to Julian Edelman’s four-game suspension and the recent releases of Jordan Matthews and Kenny Britt, but Brady’s production seems impervious to conditions that would affect every other quarterback’s numbers… Two of the wideouts that are expected to be on the Week 1 roster and could play relatively important roles are Cordarrelle Patterson and Phillip Dorsett, and both showed up well Friday. Patterson finished with five catches on a team-high nine targets for 37 yards, while Dorsett contributed four receptions for 36 yards. Patterson is also expected to draw double duty as the primary kickoff returner, so he could offer some sneaky value in larger leagues, especially those that factor in special teams production… Also on the receiving front, worth noting that rookie Riley McCarron logged four grabs for 49 yards, while veteran Eric Decker showed up on the stat sheet with two receptions for 12 yards. Decker has reportedly struggled in camp and has been critical of his own performances, although he figures to have a solid shot at a roster spot given the depleted nature of the Patriots receiving corps to open the season.

Raiders: The Silver and Black served as a good example of what was alluded to earlier regarding some teams not following the established formula of giving their starting offenses extended action in Week 3 of preseason. Head coach Jon Gruden afforded Derek Carr limited run, pulling him after one series despite originally stating he’d likely allow his starting offense to remain in until the second quarter. Carr finished 2-for-3 for 68 yards, with a chunk of that coming on a 49-yard completion to Amari Cooper on the first play from scrimmage. That play had to put a smile on the face of Raider Nation, Gruden, and fantasy owners for both players, especially considering the struggles Cooper endured last season. The duo’s previously lethal connection appears to be re-energized this season under Gruden, setting up a potentially favorable fantasy situation for both players in 2018… With the starters exiting quickly, reserves fighting for jobs had ample opportunity to make their case. One was undrafted rookie Chris Warren III, who has done nothing but impress with his opportunities. Warren turned 15 carries into 54 yards and a touchdown and added seven yards on one reception. While Doug Martin finally saw some meaningful playing time and rushed six times for 24 yards, Warren may be hard to keep off the final roster. Meanwhile, Martin may find that the combination of a contract with no guaranteed money and the presence of Warren, Jalen Richard and DeAndre Washington proves to be too much to overcome.

Around the NFC

Buccaneers: The Bucs were one of those teams Friday with some “special circumstances” in terms of the playing time they afforded starters. Head coach Dirk Koetter has essentially had to treat quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston as co-starters this preseason due to Winston’s three-game suspension to open the season. That continued to be the case against the Lions, with both players getting a similar degree of opportunity and turning in solid efforts. Fitzpatrick looks about as ready as he’ll ever be to lead the team through a vicious three-game gauntlet to open the season consisting of the Saints, Eagles and Steelers. Meanwhile, Winston has encouragingly been able to get plenty of work this preseason and looked very sharp while doing so, with Friday serving as the latest example (6-for-10, 60 yards and one TD along with two rushes for 13 yards)… Winston’s touchdown went to Chris Godwin, who has been one of the stars of training camp and has shown up well in preseason games in limited action as well. The emerging receiver is expected to make a considerable leap in Year 2, and he could see close to starter’s snaps by the time all is said and done… Notably, the guy whose playing time he’s directly affecting, slot receiver extraordinaire Adam Humphries, made the play of the night with a 109-yard missed-field-goal return for a touchdown. Humphries could well see his target share go considerably down this season, but he may serve as the primary punt returner, with Friday’s spectacular run-back a ringing endorsement for that job… The No. 1 running back battle has essentially been decided for now in Peyton Barber’s favor, but he continued to put his stamp on the role Friday with 34 yards on five rushes, including a 14-yard touchdown to cap off the opening possession… Meanwhile, Ronald Jones II found himself on the other end of the spectrum again, gaining seven yards on six carries. Jones’ preseason rushing tally — 18 carries for 18 yards — is one of the uglier ones you’ll ever see at the NFL level, but he was actually able to make an impact with a 37-yard reception on his one target against the Lions. Pass catching had been considered a significantly underdeveloped part of Jones’ skill set coming out of college, so despite another atrocious rushing night, the success through the air was certainly encouraging.

Giants: Eli Manning did see extended playing time Friday, and although he didn’t throw a touchdown pass, he was able to lead the offense to field goals on four consecutive drives to close out the first half. Considering he was playing without Odell Beckham, Jr. (rest) and Saquon Barkley (hamstring) — and that he also lost Evan Engram to a concussion during the contest — Manning’s 17-for-23, 188-yard stat line was more than adequate as a final tune-up for a Week 1, a contest in which he’s expected to have his full complement of skill players available… The backup running back battle between Wayne Gallman and veteran Jonathan Stewart might be all but over after Friday. While Stewart lost seven yards on three carries and also fumbled inside the Jets’ 10-yard line, Gallman gained 42 total yards from scrimmage and held on to the ball. The much younger Gallman essentially offers everything Stewart brings to the table save for experience, so it will be interesting to see what unfolds at final cuts… With plenty of talk surrounding Barkley, Beckham and even Engram to an extent, Sterling Shepard is seemingly somewhat of a forgotten man. However, he made a statement in what was likely his last taste of preseason action Friday, securing all seven targets for 78 yards. Shepard could certainly be the beneficiary of plenty of single coverage this season provided Beckham remains healthy, making him an underrated fantasy target overall.

Lions: Like his former boss Bill Belichick, Matt Patricia opted to give his first-team offense extended run Friday. The results were mixed, with Matthew Stafford completing only half of his 18 attempts and not throwing a touchdown pass. However, Golden Tate (two receptions, 23 yards),  Marvin Jones (one catch, 12 yards) and Kenny Golladay (one reception, 36 yards) were able to connect with the quarterback. LeGarrette Blount also turned in a solid 11-carry, 45-yard performance as the lead back… Ameer Abdullah, making a last-ditch effort for a roster spot, posted 30 yards on seven carries. One of the main reasons Abdullah’s standing is in jeopardy — rookie Kerryon Johnson — was impressive again while averaging 6.3 yards per rush on four carries… Also worth noting in Abdullah’s bid for a roster spot is that undrafted rookie Brandon Powell turned heads yet again with an 80-yard punt return touchdown, as well as team-high figures in catches (six) and receiving yards (45). The special teams aspect is particularly important with respect to Abdullah’s chances, as the return game would be one area that could earn him a spot on the 53-man if he proved to be the best alternative.

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Packers: There wasn’t an Aaron Rodgers sighting on the field for the Packers on Friday, as DeShone Kizer and Brett Hundley engaged in the latest chapter of what has been a surprisingly interesting battle for the backup quarterback job. Both players generated serviceable stats and each had fumbles that were recovered by Green Bay, so the competition presumably continues into next Thursday’s preseason finale… On the rushing front, Aaron Jones finally got some preseason work in after dealing with a hamstring injury for several weeks, finishing with five rushes for 18 yards. Backfield depth may be a concern for the Packers to open the season if the foot injury that forced Ty Montgomery from Friday’s contest turns out to be a multi-week issue, although that’s not presently believed to be the case — Jones is suspended for the first two games, while Jamaal Williams is dealing with an ankle injury.

Panthers: The Panthers’ projected starting offense continued to offer plenty of reason for optimism heading into the regular season with another impressive performance Friday. Cam Newton got extended action as expected versus the Patriots and completed 11 of 17 passes for 142 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions while adding 13 yards on two rushes. Just as important, Christian McCaffrey produced handsomely (in preseason terms) for the second straight week,  carrying 12 times for 48 yards, catching two passes for 16 yards and recovering a Newton fumble. The yardage was certainly solid on a per-touch basis for the second-year back, but his workload was equally encouraging. Head coach Ron Rivera has promised more volume for McCaffrey in the coming season, and the last two games have given fantasy owners plenty of hope in that regard… Curtis Samuel (3-58), Greg Olsen (4-44) and Devin Funchess (2-35) were three important pieces of the pass-catching corps that profiled well on the stat sheet versus New England.

Redskins: Although it’s only preseason, the somewhat ragged play of Alex Smith and the Redskins starting offense Friday was far from an ideal look for a dress-rehearsal game. Smith completed just three of eight passes for 33 yards, although he was at least able to wrap up his night on a positive note. Smith’s final drive was a 10-play, 63-yard march that culminated in a field goal, a possession in which he connected with Paul Richardson on two occasions for 31 yards. Smith didn’t have a full complement of pass catchers Friday (Jordan Reed and Chris Thompson were held out for precautionary reasons, while Jamison Crowder continues to nurse a groin injury), so Richardson’s contributions are certainly encouraging and Smith’s struggles are least partly explained by the short-handed nature of the first unit… The story of the night may have actually been one Adrian Peterson, who head coach Jay Gruden had stated he wanted to get an extended look at. He wasn’t kidding, as the multi-time Pro Bowler carried on seven straight plays at one point and finished with an impressive 56 yards on 11 carries. He wasn’t the only back to shine, either, as Kapri Bibbs continued to make a strong case for not only a roster spot, but a solid role once the season begins as well. Bibbs ripped off 41 yards on two carries, with all but three coming on an impressive 38-yard scamper. By adding another 20 yards on two receptions, Bibbs significantly outshined Rob Kelley, who managed just 19 yards on eight rushes and wasn’t targeted in the passing game. Looking ahead to final cuts, it could well be AP, Bibbs and the currently sidelined Samaje Perine (ankle) on the squad, with Kelley on the outside looking in. Next week’s exhibition finale should serve to flesh things out in much more definitive fashion.

Seahawks: Russell Wilson’s final passing line may have not been anything that stood out (11-for-21, 118 yards with no touchdowns or interceptions), but the Seahawks quarterback was reportedly very pleased with the time his starting offensive line gave him. Pass and run blocking have both been  areas of significant deficiency for Seattle in recent seasons, so good news about the unit that could have a major impact on the fortunes of the team’s skill players is certainly encouraging to hear from a fantasy perspective… One of those offensive pieces, Chris Carson, continues to look every bit deserving of the lead back role he’ll enter the regular season with. The second-year pro finished with a solid seven-carry, 26-yard, one-touchdown night on the ground and also contributed two receptions for 20 yards. Rashaad Penny will certainly get his fair share of touches when he recovers from a finger injury, but Carson could likely keep the workload balance in the backfield tipped at least slightly in his favor if he continues producing in the same way once the games start to count… It’s hard to think of Brandon Marshall as a player potentially on the roster bubble, but the last year-plus has not been kind to the veteran from a health standpoint. However, he’s been trending in the right direction for the last couple of weeks, and he finally gave Seahawks coaches and brass reason to believe he could help as a third wideout this coming season by contributing three grabs (on three targets) for 34 yards versus the Vikings on Friday.

Vikings: Kirk Cousins is ready for the regular season. The veteran offseason acquisition has been impressive throughout camp, and he culminated a strong first summer in Minnesota by completing 17 of 28 passes for 182 yards versus the Seahawks on Friday. Cousins was able to connect four times apiece with starters Adam Thielen and Stefon Diggs, while Laquon Treadwell, the 2016 first-round pick fighting to ward off a permanent bust label, managed three receptions for 44 yards… While the performance of the passing game was undeniably encouraging, an equally important storyline originated from the Vikings backfield. After lobbying heavily for it over the first two weeks of the exhibition slate, Dalvin Cook was able to get back on the field for the first time since suffering an ACL tear last October. Cook carried just twice for one yard and couldn’t bring in his only target, but as head coach Mike Zimmer said after the game, he just wanted his star running back to have the feeling of getting tackled again after such a long layoff. Cook exited the game early into the first quarter; however, consider his participation “mission accomplished” ahead of the regular-season opener, when he’s expected to be unleashed without restrictions.