Week 3 of the preseason is as close as we'll get to actual regular-season NFL football in the month of August, with actual stars playing meaningful minutes. Coaches may even do a little game-planning as a dress rehearsal for the next four months. Jobs will be won (or lost), depth charts will start to take shape and roster bubbles will be better defined.
With all this in mind, here are seven things to watch for in anticipation of the most exciting week of the preseason (yes, we know, that bar is exceedingly low).
1. Can Kizer lock up Browns' starting job?
The Browns announced Wednesday that Cody Kessler.. The rookie has been Cleveland's best QB through the first two weeks of the preseason, going 19 of 31 for 258 yards and a touchdown, and easily outperforming Osweiler and second-year passer
But Kizer has mostly played against backups. Can he hold his own against the Bucs' No. 1 defense? And will the Browns play it conservative and revert back to Brock Osweiler to start the opener vs. the Steelers? The best reason for starting Osweiler that we came up with: The Browns' first month of the regular-season include games against Pittsburgh, at Baltimore, at Indianapolis, and against Cincinnati. If the plan is to let Osweiler -- or second-year quarterback Cody Kessler -- face a pretty tough stretch and then ease Kizer into the job in Week 5 when the Browns host the woeful Jets, we can understand that.
Otherwise, Kizer deserves the job outright.
Yes, the Browns are younger, faster, stronger -- and more inexperienced -- than previous versions of this team. That's all part of the plan to fix the culture of losing in Cleveland. There's still a lot to do and realistically, if Cleveland wins six games in 2017, Hue Jackson should be up for Coach of the Year honors. But knowing that the Browns remain in full-on rebuild mode, there's really no reason not to give Kizer the keys to the offense and see what happens.
Kessler was serviceable as a rookie, but he certainly didn't show enough promise to keep the Browns from drafting Kizer, who was the fourth quarterback selected after first-rounders Mitchell Trubisky, Deshaun Watson and Patrick Mahomes. And if Kizer isn't the solution, the organization can turns its efforts to finding its next franchise quarterback in the 2018 NFL Draft, which could be one of the best classes to come along in a decade. In simple terms: As long as a franchise is without its franchise quarterback, losing will become commonplace.
2. Trubisky can still win the job in Chicago
Following a three-win season and the decision to release Jay Cutler, the Bears traded up to the second-overall pick to get Mitchell Trubisky. But unlike the Eagles' Carson Wentz, the No. 2 pick from 2016, there are no plans in Chicago to rush Trubisky onto the field -- despite the uneven play from veteran Mike Glennon, who was signed to a three-year deal in the offseason.
As it stands, Trubisky will continue to absorb the playbook while working with the second-teamers. And it doesn't look like that will change when the Bears face the Titans on Sunday.
"We haven't talked about [who will get first-team snaps]," coach John Fox said recently. "Obviously we're very, very early. We're not even into preparation for the Titans yet. We'll meet on that. We'll talk, and we'll keep you guys posted."
After a sterling preseason debut, Trubisky came back to Earth last week, finishing 6 of 8 for 60 yards and this touchdown:
The depth chart also includes Mark Sanchez, who is currently listed as Glennon's backup, though that order could change if Trubisky sees the field early and impresses against the Titans.
3. Watson fans better get comfortable
We understand why the Texans traded up in the first round to get quarterback Deshaun Watson. Do whatever it takes to erase the memory of the Brock Osweiler Experiment, which was as demoralizing as it was brief. And while coach Bill O'Brien is eager to turn the page on last season, he's in no hurry to rush an unprepared Watson onto the field and squander what should be an otherwise good offense and an even better defense. It's why O'Brien on Tuesday named veteran Tom Savage the regular-season starter.
"Tom has really had a good camp. He's only thrown three incompletions in two games. He's got a really good command of the offense."
O'Brien also made it clear that Watson, who has flashed at points during the preseason, will be the No. 2 quarterback behind Savage.
"Deshaun is a very, very good young player who has a bright future in this league," O'Brien said. "Let's put the cards on the table, but Tom has been here for four years. The way we want to play, the style relative to getting guys lined up, protection points, route reads, putting guys in the right spots, Tom's ahead of Deshaun."
The Texans visit the Saints on Sunday night and, barring the extraordinary, Watson will leave New Orleans as he entered it: As Savage's backup.
4. Mahomes fans better get comfortable too
Like the Bears and Texans, the Chiefs traded up in the first round of the 2017 NFL Draft to take a quarterback. In general, teams in today's NFL don't take franchise quarterbacks with explicit plans to sit them on the bench for a year or two before turning them loose.
We've seen the Chargers and Packers wait patiently on Philip Rivers and Aaron Rodgers but they were drafted in 2004 and 2005. In 2015, Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota earned starting jobs out of training camp, and last year, Carson Wentz was under center in Week 1 and Jared Goff graduated to the top of the depth chart in Week 11. But maybe this year is different. Neither Trubisky nor Watson is expected to start the regular season, and they'll be joined in the Clipboard Brigade by Chiefs rookie Patrick Mahomes.
Chiefs coach Alex Smith the starter., naming veteran
"That's not where we're at -- it's Alex's job, that's how we're doing it," Reid said.
There is a caveat, however.
"The next question is, what if Alex gets hurt?" Reid continued. "I'd never say that you can't do something [regarding starting Mahomes]," but "I would tell you in this case, it's Alex's job. There's no gray area with that."
To his credit, Mahomes has looked the part in two preseason games. He tossed a touchdown in Week 1:
And he showed off his athleticism in Week 2:
Now Mahomes just needs to wait patiently for his opportunity. The Chiefs travel to Seattle to face the Seahawks on Friday night.
5. What should the Jaguars do with Bortles?
Former NFL quarterback Chris Simms pithily encapsulated everything that is wrong with Bortles, the Jags' 2014 first-round pick who seems to get worse every year.
"The man was not put on earth to throw the football," Simms said during appearance on "PFT Live" last week. "He is something that I would call a made-up QB. ... He was a guy that in seventh or eighth grade they said, 'You're big, you're strong, you're fast, let's put you at QB; you look like a franchise QB,' and then it kind of stuck."
A decade later, Bortles is still trying to convince people that he's a quarterback and ... well, things are not going well. On the first day the team was in full pads, Bortles tossed five interceptions. And the Florida Times-Union's Ryan O'Halloran reports that Bortles and veteran backup Chad Henne are sharing practice snaps down the middle.
Coach Doug Marrone opened up the competition following Bortles' latest unimpressive outing, last Thursday's 12-8 loss to the Buccaneers in which the quarterback finished 8 of 13 for 65 yards and twice missed wide receiver Allen Robinson on deep throws.
Marrone hopes to settle on a starter for Week 3 of the preseason by Wednesday, a day before the Jags host the Panthers.
"I'm going to make sure I tell the quarterbacks in what I feel is a good amount of time to get themselves prepared, so it'll probably be when we're at the hotel the night before the game [is when] I'll probably talk to them about it," Marrone said. "I just want to get all the information. I want to make sure I'm comfortable with the direction I'm going. I just want to make sure I'm doing the best for the team."
But Bortles' fate may already be sealed; he's due $19 million in 2018, and all $19 million is guaranteed if Bortles suffers an injury that prevents him from passing a physical next year. Barring a complete turnaround in Bortles' game, he may be the latest young franchise quarterback to wash out in Jacksonville.
6. Does it matter who wins the Jets job?
In a word, no.
The Jets are not only the NFL's worst team, they could be all-time terrible by the time the 2017 season is in the books. Former Jets wideout Brandon Marshall put it best this summer when talking about his former team.
"Will they have enough people to line up? Man, that's the question," Marshall said in June. "I think eventually they'll be all right, but I don't know if they're gonna have enough men to line up."
Currently, the quarterback depth chart includes Josh McCown, Christian Hackenberg and Bryce Petty. One is 38 years old and has played for eight NFL teams, and the other two have a combined four starts since 2015. The hope was that Hackenberg, the Jets' 2016 second-round pick, would earn the job this preseason, but he's been outplayed by Petty, a 2015 fourth-rounder.
Hackenberg's struggles extend back to spring workouts, when McCown looked much more polished. This was also around the same time that Hackenberg's inability to hit the intended target took on a life of its own; during three OTAs, he hit reporters with errant throws on at least two occasions, threw two interceptions and could have thrown six others. Early in training camp, Hackenberg made news when he tossed four interceptions in two days. Coach Todd Bowles seemed unworried, however, perhaps because he already knew that the season was lost, the job would go to McCown, and the Jets would hope to land a quarterback in the 2018 draft, which is expected to be chocked full of talented passers.
7. When will we see Kaepernick?
The reality is that we might not, even in light of the gloomy quarterback situations with some of the teams mentioned above. Part of it, no doubt, has to do with Kaepernick's decision to take a knee during the national anthem last season to protest social injustice. To his credit, other players -- both black and white -- have since followed suit and continue to do so. But Kaepernick also remains a divisive figure for some fans and NFL owners, and because he's not as talented as Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers, he remains unemployed.
Last month, with Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco sidelined with a back injury and the team considering signing Kaepernick, Ravens owner Steve Bisciotti conceded that his team is "sensitive to [what bringing in Kaepernick might mean]. We're monitoring it, and we're trying to figure out what's the right tact. So pray for us."
Bisciotti added that he didn't like Kaepernick taking a knee during the national anthem last season, and he isn't convinced that adding Kaepernick to the roster makes the Ravens a better team. It's why the owner discussed possibly bringing in Robert Griffin III for a workout.
The Ravens eventually passed on Kaepernick and instead signed David Olson and later Thad Lewis to back up Ryan Mallet.
Another issue is that Kaepernick's style -- not comfortable in the pocket, quick to run -- isn't a good fit for every offense. New 49ers coach Kyle Shanahan touched on this in the spring. And this helps explain why former Redskins general manager Scot McCloughan would still stick with Bortles in Jacksonville -- though he concedes that Kaepernick could be a starter in the league.
"I played against [Kaepernick] a lot when I was in Seattle. He's got talent, there's no doubt about it, and he will be in the league," McCloughan told PFT's Mike Florio during a radio interview. "Depends on the situation he wants to go to and when it happens, but he has ability, he's still young enough, he's athletic enough, he's got enough arm strength, no doubt about it. The guy's won a lot of games. He went to three NFC championships, went to a Super Bowl, and there's credit to that. And I don't know where his mind-set is right now or where his agent's mind-set is, but you definitely kick the tires on it, for sure. I would, no matter what."
It doesn't look like Kaepernick will get a chance to sign with a team in the coming weeks, but this is the NFL, where injuries are as much a part of the game as blocking and tackling. And that might be Kaepernick's best chance to get back into the league.