I generally abide by the rule that you can learn a lot about a player during NFL preseason action, but less about a team. Every season, some teams will thrive in the preseason just to falter once it really matters, and vice versa. But generally if a dude can ball, a dude can ball.
When tasked with identifying the AFC preseason “winners,” this means that identifying individual players is the easier task. However, sometimes it’s the play of a group that elevates a different player. Sometimes, it’s the downfall of others that propels a team or unit.
I’ve identified three preseason “winners” from the AFC, one because of his play this Summer, one because of how his surroundings have improved, and one team whose outlook has improved due to the struggles of their rivals.
Being drafted in the sixth round by the Baltimore Ravens felt like a blessing for Trace McSorley, and the immediate returns have felt similar. The Ravens are in the midst of building their offense around second-year quarterback Lamar Jackson, and held on to veteran backup Robert Griffin III in order to have continuity in skillset between starter and reserve. McSorley is relatively close to that mold of quarterback, making him an ideal match with Baltimore.
Even with his fit into the Ravens scheme, not many could have predicted the success that he would have this preseason from a passing standpoint. McSorley improved his accuracy and touch outside of the numbers from when we last saw him, thriving with downfield ball placement. His decision making to avoid mistakes has also taken a step forward upon entering the NFL. Dare I say, McSorley may have showed starter-level traits for some team down the line. due to the other teams in their division going through difficult times.
Only a short while ago, it was unclear how the Patriots wide receiver depth chart would shake out this season. With the departure of future hall of fame tight end Rob Gronkowski, the burden would seemingly fall on the receiver room to pick up the slack.
Well, the preseason couldn’t have gone much better for the greatest quarterback of all-time. The NFL reinstated Josh Gordon from suspension, who was on the cusp of stardom last season during his stint with the Patriots. Additionally, veteran receiver Demaryius Thomas got healthier earlier than expected and finished off the preseason with a two touchdown performance. Undrafted rookie Jakobi Meyers emerged as a potential top 3 receiver for the team in the future, showing inside-out versatility and nuanced route running. Add in mainstay Julian Edelman, Phillip Dorsett and first-round rookie N’Keal Harry, and the wide receiver depth chart is already strong with top of the league potential.
For a unit that could have been labeled an “uneasy” just a few weeks ago, they’ve had a lot go right for them this Summer.
What exactly is going on with the rest of the AFC South?
Andrew Luck’s retirement due to injuries taking a toll on his physical and mental health means that Jacoby Brissett is the Colts starting quarterback this season. While he’s proven capable in the past, Brissett is an obvious downgrade from the level that Luck played at last season.
Houston is looking to move Jadeveon Clowney, and even willing to part with assets to get that done. While that move could strengthen the glaring weakness that is their offensive line, that unit is going to be below average once again. On top of that, the loss of Clowney will be a significant blow to both their run and pass defense.
I don’t mean to beat a dead horse, but Tennessee needs to quickly accept the fact that Marcus Mariota is not elevating the team. He has abysmal passing numbers in his last 30+ starts, and has looked even worse in the preseason. He doesn’t seem ready to handle their offensive system, despite being in a make or break year. The fact that the Titans have had solid seasons despite his lackluster play should motivate Tennessee to find the actual answer at the position, rather than make excuses for his play because of a few wins.
With all of that said, the Jaguars might be returning to the top spot in the division. Now, they’ve lost all four preseason games, but they’re the only team in the AFC South not going through a major turning point in their franchise right now.
As long as Nick Foles improves on the play of Blake Bortles, which seems reasonable given the low bar, this team should compete for the division title given the downgrades their rivals have suffered.