Everything we learned from the 2023 NFL preseason: QB battles, rookies rising, contract drama

The NFL wraps up its three-week preseason slate on Sunday before an 11-day countdown to kickoff the 2023 season.

As expected through more than four weeks of training camp and preseason contests, most quarterback battles have been decided, while a few contract situations continue to loom.

We saw some teams provide full previews of what to expect this season as they marched out their starting lineups in exhibition contests, while other teams remain somewhat of a mystery as they reserved their stars for joint practices only.

The regular season kicks off Thursday, Sept. 7 when the defending Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs play host to the Detroit Lions, and Week 1 will wrap up with a Monday Night Football matchup with the defending AFC East champion Buffalo Bills traveling to play the New York Jets.

Here are six things we learned during the nearly completed preseason:



How the Cowboys-49ers Trey Lance trade came to be

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Clarity in quarterback competitions

It comes as no surprise in San Francisco that quarterback Brock Purdy retains the starting job after propelling the 49ers to the NFC Championship Game last season; the 2022 seventh-round pick only needed to prove his recovery from offseason right elbow surgery.

What was surprising, however, was the Niners naming sixth-year pro Sam Darnold as Purdy’s backup over Trey Lance — the Niners’ 2021 third-overall pick who they moved up to get after trading three first-round picks and a third-round pick to the Miami Dolphins.

About 48 hours after learning he was the third quarterback on the roster, Lance was traded to the Dallas Cowboys in exchange for a fourth-round pick.

“Really hard day,” Niners general manager John Lynch told the local CBS broadcast during a preseason finale hours after trading Lance, who played eight games for the Niners, the fewest games played by a top-five pick for the franchise he debuted with in the Common Draft Era (since 1967). “We took a shot and it didn’t work out. We own that and we take accountability for that.”

It will be interesting to monitor what Lance’s arrival means for Cowboys starter Dak Prescott and the future of the position in Dallas.

“Didn’t cross my mind, period, about an impact here regarding Dak,” Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones said Saturday.

In Tampa Bay, Baker Mayfield won the battle over Kyle Trask to succeed seven-time Super Bowl champion Tom Brady. After previous stints with the Cleveland Browns and Carolina Panthers, this will be the third consecutive Week 1 that Mayfield starts for a different team, which is tied with five other quarterbacks for the longest streak in NFL history.

In Washington, with a new era set to begin under the Josh Harris ownership group, the Commanders will roll with 2022 fifth-round pick Sam Howell, who won the job over eighth-year pro Jacoby Brissett. Howell is one of 12 quarterbacks to start for Washington since 2017, when Kirk Cousins last played there and was the last Commanders quarterback to start every game in a season.

And in Indianapolis, the Colts named rookie first-round pick Anthony Richardson, the fourth-overall selection, their starter over Gardner Minshew. With the 21-year-old Richardson starting, it becomes the eighth consecutive season opener where Indianapolis has had a different starting quarterback, which is tied for the second-longest such streak since quarterback starts were first tracked in 1950 and the Bears’ run of nine straight years from 1998-2006.



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Jury’s out on new Packers/Jets QBs

In a preseason finale against the New York Giants at MetLife Stadium, Aaron Rodgers made his Jets debut as fans cheered.

Entering his 19th season, Rodgers played two quick series. His first resulted in a stalled five-play drive that saw the Jets punt, and in his second, Rodgers led a four-play, 52-yard drive that was capped with a 14-yard pass to receiver Garrett Wilson for a touchdown.

As for the concerns Jets coach Robert Saleh raised during a lively team meeting featured on HBO’s “Hard Knocks,” protection did not appear an issue with Rodgers under center as he was pressured on one of eight dropbacks according to NFL Next Gen Stats.

Meanwhile in Rodgers’ former home of Green Bay, his Packers’ successor Jordan Love performed well in three preseason appearances, throwing a touchdown pass in each contest without an interception and had 193 passing yards with a 64% completion percentage (21 of 33).

The 2020 first-round pick, who has started one regular-season game for the Packers, now has his eyes set on his debut as the team’s full-time starter.

“I don’t think anything’s caught me by surprise,” Love told reporters. “My main thing is just focusing on day by day, just taking it one day at a time. Don’t look too far ahead. Don’t be looking in the past. Just take it day by day and keep growing.”

The rise of the joint practice

Joint practices continue to gain popularity as a preferred method of competition over preseason games for many teams during training camp.

This year, 27 teams scheduled joint workouts (although the Houston Texans and New Orleans Saints mutually opted to cancel theirs, as did the Tennessee Titans and New England Patriots) and 11 teams participated in joint practices against multiple preseason opponents.

When asked by local reporters if they get more out of the combined workouts than preseason games, Rams coach Sean McVay didn’t hesitate to answer “yes.”

“The best part about the joint practices is you get an opportunity to go against a different team, different schemes, different nuances relative to scheme,” said McVay, who in 2018 became a preseason trend-setter when he opted not to play any starters in preseason matchups before advancing to the Super Bowl. “All those types of things and you get it in more controlled settings.”

Teams like the controlled atmosphere of joint practices, the ability to script plays and work on certain areas of the game, like extra work in the red zone. And, especially with the quarterbacks being off limits to contact, it helps control the injury risk.

However, not all programs subscribe to joint practices or sitting established starters in the preseason.

“It’s difficult to box without sparring,” Steelers coach Mike Tomlin told reporters after a preseason finale that featured starters. “Preseason is an opportunity for us to spar and sharpen our swords for the battle.”



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Contract drama looms large

While the 49ers have figured out their quarterback plan, another situation is looming in San Francisco.

Defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year Nick Bosa has been holding out of training camp while his representation negotiates what is anticipated to be a record-breaking contract extension.

Negotiations have reportedly been amicable but there is a growing urgency to get a deal done and get Bosa with the team ahead of Week 1.

“I don’t like the situation,” Lynch told KNBR in San Francisco. “Since our tenure here we haven’t had a holdout anywhere toward this magnitude, so not something I’m comfortable with.”

And there’s a similar situation that’s been brewing in Kansas City, where defensive tackle Chris Jones also has been holding out of camp, and recently hinted on social media that he’s willing to miss games up until Week 8 this season, which would cost him about $1.1 million per paycheck, because he “can afford it.”

Jones indicated this on X, formerly known as Twitter, as he replied to fan comments on the social media platform. He also posted a photo that read, “If it’s out of your hands, it deserves freedom from your mind also.”

Both defensive players are attempting to chase down the contract of Rams defensive lineman Aaron Donald, who earns an average of $31.7 million per season.

Entering the final season of his five-year contract, Bosa is scheduled to earn $17.85 million and in the final season of a four-year deal, Jones is scheduled to earn $19.5 million.

And while running backs around the league have begrudgingly forged ahead despite expressing disappointment, if not anger, regarding their contract situations, in Indianapolis, the saga with running back Jonathan Taylor roars on.

The Colts have granted Taylor permission to seek a trade until Tuesday, but so far have yet to reach a deal.

Indy is reportedly looking for a first-round draft pick or a collection of picks that equate to one, but according to ESPN Stats & Information research, there isn’t much recent precedent for a running back to be traded in exchange for a first-round selection: It’s been nearly a decade since a running back was dealt for a first-rounder (when the 2013 Colts sent their 2014 first-round pick to the Browns for Trent Richardson).

According to ESPN’s Stephen Holder, six teams have reached out about Taylor, and two have made offers, including the Miami Dolphins.

Coaches finding new ways to help assistants

NFL coaches are continuing to explore ways to help elevate assistant coaches during exhibition games.

In recent seasons, several coaches have empowered non-playcalling coordinators or assistants to call plays in preseason contests.

But this year, Titans coach Mike Vrabel went a step further and had assistant head coach/defensive line coach Terrell Williams step in as acting head coach in the days ahead of and during a preseason matchup against the Chicago Bears.

“Mike Vrabel deserves a lot of credit,” Williams told local reporters. “Hopefully more coaches will give assistant coaches opportunities to do this because there’s nothing better than actually getting the experience.”



Bryce Young vs. C.J. Stroud: Who’ll have a better rookie fantasy season?

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First-round rookie quarterback report

Top overall pick Bryce Young is quickly finding out in Carolina how important a supporting cast is to success in the NFL — namely, an offensive line.

Working behind a line that struggled with protection, especially in the first two games, Young’s preseason saw many challenges, but the rookie improved in each appearance.

In his preseason finale, Young went 7 of 12 for 73 yards and a touchdown, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt with a 103.8 passer rating. Compare that to his combined performances in Week 1 and 2, which amounted to him also completing 7 of 12 pass attempts for an average of 4.7 yards per attempt and a passer rating of 70.1, and it’s fair to say the rookie is headed in a positive direction.

“He was sharp and productive and made plays and showed even more playmaking ability with his feet,” Panthers coach Frank Reich told reporters.

In Houston, first-year coach DeMeco Ryans has yet to name a starter as he watches Texans’ second-overall pick C.J. Stroud compete with two-year starter Davis Mills.

Stroud, who starred at Ohio State, has improved throughout the preseason, though the sample size has been small. In Week 1, Stroud completed 2-of-4 passes for 13 yards with an interception. In Week 2, he went 7-of-12 for 60 yards.

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