For most of NFL history, preseason is when things were settled for teams. Starters played, at least for a few quarters over the first three games. Jobs were won and lost.
Then some teams decided the preseason doesn't matter. With a new wave of coaches, led by Los Angeles Rams coach Sean McVay, teams are rarely, if ever, playing their starters in the preseason anymore. Avoiding injuries has become the goal.
Still, there are some key things we'll see over the next three weeks of the preseason (it was cut from four games to three in 2021). Here are the five biggest storylines that should unfold between now and Week 1.
The Panthers' weird QB competition
The Carolina Panthers tried replacing Sam Darnold a few times this offseason. When they finally landed Baker Mayfield in a trade from the Cleveland Browns, they promoted a competition between Mayfield and Darnold. It was a bit strange.
It's hard to find anyone who truly believes Darnold will start Week 1, but let's play along with that game. Theoretically, Darnold could have a huge preseason and win the job. Panthers coach Matt Rhule said no decision will be made until after the team's Aug. 19 preseason game against the New England Patriots.
"The Patriots week is a true litmus test for us," Rhule said. "That will really show us where guys are."
Who's the Seahawks' starter?
Another unsettled quarterback situation is with the Seattle Seahawks, who traded Russell Wilson and now get to pick between Drew Lock and Geno Smith.
Late last week, Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said Smith still leads the competition.
“Geno continues to be on top,” coach Pete Carroll said after last Friday’s practice. “He’s ahead. He’s been in the lead for all of the obvious reasons and he’s holding on to it and doing a really good job of battling."
Wilson won the Seahawks' QB job as a rookie in 2012 with a fine preseason. Smith could secure the job with a good preseason, but Lock will have the chance to surpass him in the coming weeks.
Steelers look at Kenny Pickett
When the Pittsburgh Steelers released their depth chart last week, Mitchell Trubisky was the starter, Mason Rudolph was No. 2 and rookie first-round pick Kenny Pickett was third. Team-issued depth charts in early August mean very little, but there's still a lot of intrigue. Most of it surrounds Pickett, the lone quarterback selected in the first round of the NFL draft this year.
Reviews weren't great for Trubisky or Pickett through the first few training camp practices. The job hasn't been decided and perhaps the preseason will give coach Mike Tomlin some clarity. The highlight will be seeing Pickett get his first snaps on an NFL field.
Aidan Hutchinson makes Lions debut
We already saw No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker take his first NFL game snaps when the Jacksonville Jaguars played in the Hall of Fame Game. And Walker looked very good rushing the passer.
Hutchinson was the second overall pick, and many thought he should have been first. The Detroit Lions are planning to play starters in the first preseason game so we should get a decent look at Hutchinson, who has had some highlights in camp practices. We'll see many first-round rookies over the next few weeks, and Hutchinson is one of the most anticipated debuts for a Lions team that needs a foundational star.
Deshaun Watson probably back on the field
Deshaun Watson's future for this season is up in the air as his six-game suspension is being appealed by the NFL. Watson won't play a regular season game until at least late October, unless there's an unforeseen twist in the appeal process, but he will likely be on the field for the Browns in August. He is eligible to play in the preseason, though a decision on his appeal before Friday could change that according to Pro Football Talk.
According to reports from Pro Football Talk and the Plain Dealer's Mary Kay Cabot, the expectation is Watson will play in the preseason. Cabot specified that Watson could play a series or two in the Browns' preseason opener against the Jaguars this week. However, Browns coach Kevin Stefanski would not say what his plan was with the quarterbacks.
Watson hasn't played since the end of the 2020 season amid his trade request with the Houston Texans last year, when he also faced a number of sexual misconduct and sexual assault accusations. Watson is an infamous figure after the off-field headlines of the past two years, and he'll be one of the most-watched players in the preseason. We don't know at the moment when his regular season debut will come.