Mayfield debuts, Luck returns as NFL preseason gets in gear
Welcome to the NFL, Baker Mayfield.
And welcome back to the league, Andrew Luck.
While the opening preseason game for most teams carries little intrigue as players from the back end of the roster try to strut their stuff, several story lines will be worth following Thursday night.
Start in the New Jersey Meadowlands and in Seattle.
Top overall draft pick Mayfield will see some action against the Giants, who have their own prized rookie in second overall selection Saquon Barkley. The Browns might not be counting on too much from Mayfield early on as veteran Tyrod Taylor is Cleveland's starter, but New York expects a huge boost for its offense from the Penn State running back.
On the other coast, the Colts plan for their recently luckless quarterback to take some snaps against the Seahawks. Luck hurt the right shoulder in September 2015 against Tennessee, missed two games, then returned to make four more starts before sustaining a season-ending lacerated kidney. He played through shoulder pain in 2016, then had surgery that sidelined him for all of last season.
It's been roughly 600 days between starts for the Colts star.
Elsewhere on the first full night of preseason games, it's Carolina at Buffalo, Chicago at Cincinnati, New Orleans at Jacksonville, Tampa Bay at Miami, Pittsburgh at Philadelphia, the Los Angeles Rams at Baltimore, Washington at New England, Tennessee at Green Bay, Houston at Kansas City, and Dallas at San Francisco.
What to look for Thursday night around the league:
BAKER AND BARKLEY
Brimming with optimism coming off a 0-16 season, Cleveland's plan is to have Mayfield sit and learn as a rookie behind Taylor, who will start at MetLife Stadium and play one or two series before giving way to Mayfield, who is expected to play two quarters.
"When you get the energy level up, you've got to be able to execute, so that's why I'm excited about Thursday as well," Mayfield said. "You get people hyped up, you actually get some contact in and you can focus in and do your job when there are distractions around."
New Giants coach Pat Shurmur, who led the Browns in 2011-12, hasn't indicated how much Barkley will play.
"I am hoping I am good to go for that game," Barkley said. "I am more than capable to playing now. I am just happy inside to play in my first NFL game. Hopefully I can maximize every rep."
Luck is expected to play most of the first quarter, likely one or two series playing in a revamped offense with an overhauled offensive line.
"I'll be excited and a little nervous," Luck said. "There were one or two moments where I wondered if, 'Am I ever going to be able to do this again?'"
Seattle is also revamped. The names Sherman, Avril, Bennett and Chancellor that used to don the backs of jerseys are no longer around. It'll be the first look at an overhauled defense where the big questions center on the secondary — star safety Earl Thomas is holding out — and what kind of pass rush can be generated.
Mike Vrabel says he really hasn't spent much time thinking of any pregame speech in his debut as Titans coach.
"Never really got a great motivational speech as a professional athlete," Vrabel said. "Just had a job to do, was prepared, knew the game plan and went out and played."
Another man with Patriots ties, cornerback Malcolm Butler, plays his first game for Tennessee. He most memorably was benched on defense for the Super Bowl in February even as New England's secondary was torn apart by Philadelphia.
A season-ending knee injury to Packers inside linebacker Jake Ryan left a hole in the run defense. Third-round pick Oren Burks will get the first chance at replacing Ryan in the base defense.
Miami's eyes will be on Ryan Tannehill, who like Luck sat out last season when injured. He'll make a brief appearance against Tampa Bay, which won't have top draftee DT Vita Vea (calf injury).
Two teams with Super Bowl possibilities, though the regulars barely will get on the field.
Pittsburgh, of course, is without outstanding running back Le'Veon Bell, who is holding out. All-Pro receiver Antonio Brown and QB Ben Roethlisberger will sit.
With Carson Wentz still not cleared for contact and Nick Foles, the Super Bowl MVP, sidelined by muscle spasms in his shoulder and neck, third-year pro QB Nate Sudfeld starts.
No, the Cowboys don't call California home. They do spend a few weeks there in the summer, and now they'll visit the 49ers.
Dallas is searching for leadership with tight end Jason Witten gone to ESPN and WR Dez Bryant cut.
San Francisco's Jimmy Garoppolo, 7-0 as a starter in his four-year career, will be taking his first snaps in a game since signing a five-year, $137.5 million contract. He's looked good during training camp.
POUNDING THE ROCK
New Orleans and Jacksonville expect to get a brief look at their revamped ground games.
Saints running back Terrance West is trying to prove he's the guy to fill in for Pro Bowl starter Mark Ingram, who will serve a four-game suspension to start the regular season.
Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette dropped more than 15 pounds since the start of last season and will have a retooled line with All-Pro left guard Andrew Norwell.
"I feel healthier," said Fournette, down to 223 pounds thanks partly to 50 push-ups a night. "I want to be great. That is my weight I felt best in college."
Chicago already has played, using backups and losing the Hall of Fame game to Baltimore. This visit to Cincinnati, though, is the first chance to see Mitchell Trubisky operate the new offense of coach Matt Nagy in game conditions. The Trubisky to Allen Robinson connection started to show up more in practice this week.
Cincinnati overhauled its porous line, bringing in veteran tackles Cordy Glenn and Bobby Hart and drafting center Billy Price in the first round.
WATCH WHAT YOU SAY
Bills starting receiver Kelvin Benjamin will face his former team for the first time since asking the Panthers to trade him in October. Benjamin was reprimanded by coach Sean McDermott on Sunday for questioning why Carolina drafted him and criticizing Panthers quarterback Cam Newton's accuracy.
Newton will play about 10 snaps in his first action under new offensive coordinator Norv Turner.
When Kansas City traded starting QB Alex Smith to Washington, the job was handed to 2017 first-rounder Patrick Mahomes. He'll get his first turn as the Chiefs' No. 1 quarterback against Houston.
"We are going to try to win. That is the first thing coach (Andy) Reid said when we were game planning for this week is he doesn't like losing," Mahomes said. "We're going to do whatever it takes."
PRACTICE, THEN PLAY
Joe Flacco makes his preseason debut for Baltimore after watching three other quarterbacks run the offense against Chicago. Flacco will likely be paired with a new flock of receivers that includes John Brown, Willie Snead, Michael Crabtree and first-round draft pick Hayden Hurst. The Rams will be playing their first preseason game following a pair of joint practices with the Ravens earlier this week.
WHO GETS THE BALL?
The Redskins' running back competition will be front and center at the Patriots. Second-round pick Derrius Guice will get an opportunity to show he can be No. 1, with third-down back Chris Thompson and Rob Kelley seeing action. The likes of Samaje Perine, Byron Marshall and Kapri Bibbs figure to compete for a roster spot.
New England WR Julian Edelman made several rounds of apologies when his four-game suspension was handed down by the NFL for violating the league's policy on performance enhancers. He plans to use what's left of training camp to make sure his surgically repaired knee will be ready when he returns. Edelman missed the entire 2017 season with a torn right anterior cruciate ligament.
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