We've waited six months for this. It may be exhibition football, but its football, and NFL fans across the nation are locked in for tonight's Hall of Fame Game between the Bears and the Ravens, the first live game action in 179 days. Here's how much we love football as a society – last year's preseason opener pulled in 7.8 million total viewers. Compare that to baseball, where excluding the World Series, the 2017 MLB postseason averaged 4.8 million viewers per game (which was the most since 2011).
There's plenty of intrigue between these two teams, with the primary headline involving Bears rookie linebacker Roquan Smith, who is the only first-round pick yet to be signed. The issue revolves around Smith being docked "guaranteed" money if he were to be suspended for outlawed on-field behavior, such as delivering a late hit, being involved in a fight or bumping an official. Chicago has conceded that they will not void game checks if Smith were to be ejected under the NFL's new rule for lowering of the helmet, but the team still wishes to hold the rookie liable for other detrimental behavior that may occur during the course of the game, often in the blink of an eye.
On the other side, fans are getting their first look at college football's most electrifying player of the past two years in Lamar Jackson. Since leading Baltimore to a Super Bowl XLVII win and signing a six-year, $120.6 million deal, Joe Flacco has turned in a .517 winning percentage, which pales in comparison to the .646 clip that he established during his first six seasons as the Ravens starting quarterback. With limited cap space to assemble a winning roster around Flacco's monster contract, Baltimore is experimenting with the idea of transitioning to a new signal caller with the acquisition of Jackson. The 2016 Heisman Trophy Winner hooked up with fellow first-round pick Hayden Hurst for an eight-yard touchdown pass midway through the third quarter of his first preseason game. Jackson completed four-of-10 pass attempts for 33 yards with one touchdown and one interception, adding 25 yards on the ground.
The Bears and Ravens aren't the only show in town on this inaugural Thursday of August, as there are a number of storylines from around the league that will help define this highly-anticipated 2018 season.
Down in Tennessee, there was a devastating blow for the Titans as the team received word that starting safety Johnathan Cyprien will miss the season with a torn ACL suffered during Wednesday's practice. Cyprien is not known as a ball hawking defensive back (two career interceptions), but he does come up and enforce in the run while providing overall supreme tackling abilities. Selected with the 33rd selection of the 2013 draft by Jacksonville, he picked up at least 102 tackles in each of his four years as a Jaguar, compiling 14-plus starts during each of those campaigns. Upon the expiration of his rookie deal, Cyprien inked a four-year, $25 contact to join AFC South rival Tennessee, but his debut season in Nashville was marred by injury as he missed a chunk of early-season action with a pulled hamstring. Now without the services of one of their most impactful defensive players, the Titans will look to the free agent market for a substitute, where Eric Reid, Kenny Vaccaro and Mike Mitchell serve as potential suitors.
In other safety-related news, Earl Thomas released a candid and frankly, somewhat emotional statement on his relationship with the Seahawks organization Thursday. "If the Seahawks don't plan on having me around for the long-term, then I understand... All I ask, though, if that's the case, and they don't want me anymore - just trade me to an organization that does," Thomas said Thursday in The Players' Tribune. "Please trade me to an organization that wants me so that I can give my all to them for the rest of my career."
The Chargers' first-round pick is back on the field, as Derwin James has gained clearance to participate in practice. James was activated from the Non-Football Injury list Thursday, now nearly fully recovered from a tweaked hamstring. The Chargers deployed a cautious approach in bringing James back as a full participant, with the young safety carrying injury concerns with him upon his entrance into the NFL (missed all but two of Florida State's games in 2016 with a torn meniscus). Cornerback Jason Verrett was officially placed on injured reserve Thursday with a torn Achilles, making it nearly impossible to believe that the Chargers will repeat as a top-three pass defense should James fail to live up to his first-round stock.
On the wide receiver front, a triad of updates came out Thursday regarding veteran pass-catchers from Dallas and New England.
Cowboys receiver Terrance Williams will not face further charges from his May arrest after paying $2,680 to the City of Frisco and participating in an alcohol awareness class for a public intoxication offense, The Dallas Morning News reports. There is still a possibility that the 28-year-old Williams will face discipline from the league, but from a pure football perspective, his presence in the Cowboys' receiving corps is substantial. He and Cole Beasley provide Dak Prescott with familiar faces on the perimeter, as Dez Bryant was released by the team over the offseason, and Jason Witten retired to the Monday Night Football booth.
There's another receiver down for the Patriots as Jordan Matthews has been placed on the injured reserve with a hamstring injury. Matthews had a very successful introduction to the league through his first three professional seasons (all in Philadelphia), with an average stat line of 75 receptions, 891 yards and six touchdowns between 2014 and 2016. Last year with Buffalo he missed nearly half the season with a knee injury, and now he may be nearing an injury settlement with New England, facing another substantial lower-body injury.
In response to Matthews' ailment, the Patriots acquired a player with three 1,000-yard, 11-touchdown seasons in Eric Decker, a veteran target most recently of the Titans. With Julian Edelman on the shelf for the first quarter of the regular season due to a violation of the league's policy on performance-enhancing substances, Decker could have deep league late-round value, with two matchups against bottom-10 pass defenses from last year (Houston in Week 1, Detroit in Week 3).