After two weeks of mostly meaningless football, Week 3 of the preseason is when we'll get an extended look at some familiar faces; starters play more than a handful of snaps, and coaches may even do a little game-planning as a dress rehearsal ahead of the regular season. 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 eight things to watch for in anticipation of the most exciting week of the preseason (yes, we know, that bar is exceedingly low).
1. Can Robert Griffin III continue to play like he did as a rookie? The hope was that Hue Jackson, noted quarterback guru, would be able to take broken, demoralized Robert Griffin III and return him to his 2012 Offensive Rookie of the Year form. RG3, the former No. 2 pick, didn't sniff the field last season in Washington, and the season before, he was benched for both Kirk Cousins and Colt McCoy. Skeptics don't doubt Griffin's arm strength or athleticism, but whether those skills can translate when it matters. The knock on Griffin is that he can't read defenses, is unnecessarily harried in the pocket, and takes too many hits. The good news; RG3 has looked solid in his two preseason appearances, though he won't see such simplified defenses in the regular season.
2. This should make RG3's life easier: Josh Gordon returns. Gordon was one of the NFL's most dangerous receivers before he was suspended for part of 2014 and all of 2015 for violating the league's substance abuse policy. But he was reinstated earlier this month, and the hope is that he'll take the field Friday for the first time in nearly two years. In 2013, Gordon had 87 receptions for 1,646 yards and nine touchdowns. And despite the layoff, he looks very much like the player he was then.
"He still looks the exact same and it's just crazy,'' cornerback Joe Haden said this week. "He looks a little bigger. I don't know how that happened, but he's still out there running around, looking the same, running his routes, floating. It still looks effortless.''
Great news for Griffin, terrible news for the rest of the league -- assuming Gordon can stay out of trouble. Along with the emergence of Terrelle Pryor, rookie first-rounder Corey Coleman and tight end Gary Barnidge, RG3 could have plenty of playmakers to choose from.
3. Who ya got: Trevor Siemian or Paxton Lynch? (Notice we didn't mention Mark Sanchez? We'll explain below.) We know that coach Gary Kubiak has named Siemian the starter for Week 3 after a solid performance against the 49ers -- the second-year quarterback completed 10 of his first 11 passes and finished 10 of 14 for 75 yards; the only blemish was a pick-six to safety Eric Reid.
"I think Trevor did a good job the other night," Kubiak said. "Obviously he has one play he'd like to have back, or it probably would, it would have, been as good as it could be. So, I'm going to go back and give him a chance to do that again."
There's also Lynch, the team's 2016 first-round pick, who is in the running for the starting gig.
"[Lynch has] always been in the mix," Kubiak said over the weekend. "I just told you guys that he's behind the other two from a knowledge standpoint, but we've been out there competing every day. Everybody is in competition to play."
Which brings us back to, Sanchez, a former first-round pick of the Jets who has bounced around in recent years. This may have been his last best chance to win a job, though those plans went off the rails against San Francisco.
"I just squandered a great opportunity to separate myself and I put the team in a bad situation," Sanchez said of an effort that included two turnovers. "There's no excuse for that, poor, poor quarterback play."
4. Should we take Tyrod Taylor and the Bills seriously? The Bills' offseason -- and part of the preseason -- was one big rough patch. Draft picks Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland suffered serious injuries, and Marcell Dareus is headed to rehab. But for all the scrutiny coach Rex Ryan gets (given all the gum-flapping, much of it is deserved), we should also praise him for his decision to bring the previously unknown Tyrod Taylor to Buffalo last offseason.
Taylor has blossomed into a legit franchise quarterback and the Bills agreed earlier this month when they re-upped him to the tune of six years and $90 million. Given his performance last season -- 20 touchdowns and just six interceptions -- and how well he's played this August, there's every reason to believe that Taylor will only get better.
Which got us to thinking: If Taylor can carry this offense, and the defense can overcome the loss of several key players (the unit dominated the Giants last Saturday, which may say more about the Giants than anything else; we'll find out soon enough), maybe they can give the Patriots a run in the AFC East. Perhaps we'll have a better idea after the Bills face the Redskins on Friday night. Of course, if Ryan pulled that off we'd never hear the end of it.
5. Jimmy Garoppolo doesn't need to be Tom Brady. Not only do the Patriots remain favorites to win the AFC East, they're still favorites to represent the conference in the Super Bowl. That's how unconcerned Vegas is about the Bills, Jets and Dolphins, or that Brady will spend the first month of the season on his couch. And while it's easy to assume that Patriots backup-turned-de facto-starter Jimmy Garoppolo will be nervous when the season begins, he shouldn't be. New England could go 1-3 and still be fine.
For some perspective, think about it this way: Back in 2008, when Brady was lost for the season midway through the first game, an unknown Matt Cassel came in and helped the Pats to 11 wins. If you think Garoppolo is more poised, more polished, more developed than Cassel was eight years ago, then it's not a leap to think New England can weather games against the Cardinals, Dolphins, Texans and Bills. Of course, Garoppolo won't be throwing to Wes Welker or Randy Moss, but he does have Julian Edelman and Rob Gronkowski -- and more importantly: Unlike '08, Brady's coming back.
6. Limited seating remains for the Dak Prescott Hall of Fame train. This is how good Dak Prescott has been through two preseason games: He's made Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones forget about Johnny Manziel. Prescott has completed 22 of 27 passes for 338 yards and four touchdowns to go along with two rushing touchdowns.
This should be on a T-shirt:
Dak Prescott's preseason: 6 TDs, 5 incompletions.— Gregg Rosenthal (@greggrosenthal) August 20, 2016
And this is probably playing on a loop in Jones' office:
If someone told you that Prescott was the fourth-overall pick, and not a fourth-round pick you'd believe it without hesitation, right? Luckily, there's no fear he'll be rushed into the lineup; 36-year-old Tony Romo is healthy after missing all but four games last season. And if Romo can remain upright in 2016 -- while Prescott learns by watching -- all the better for the Cowboys both now and in the future. The biggest benefit to Prescott's surprising start: It's one less thing the team has to worry about.
Specifically, the backup quarterback situation last season proved to be an unmitigated disaster; when Romo went down neither Cassel nor Brandon Weeden were the answer. And when backup Kellen Moore broke his ankle early in training camp, rumors swirled that the Cowboys would trade for Josh McCown, the Browns veteran who will play behind Griffin. But Prescott changed all that in a few short weeks, and if he continues along that path, we could be talking about him challenging Romo for the job in a year's time.
7. From too many quarterbacks to not enough. The Cowboys have a good problem -- a franchise quarterback in the twilight of his career, and a rookie understudy who appears poised to be his successor. The Jets, meanwhile, have Ryan Fitzpatrick on a one-year deal and ... well, that's about it. There's Geno Smith and Bryce Petty and Christian Hackenberg. Those are names that will keep you up at night as a head coach. Smith, a former second-round pick, has had a disappointing career; Petty, a 2015 fourth-rounder played well ... last week; and then there's Hackenberg, drafted in the second round in May: He has yet to take a single snap this preseason.
Coach Todd Bowles doesn't seem interested in talking about the depth chart behind Fitzpatrick, but the No. 2 job will likely come down to Smith and Petty with the loser getting axed, while Hackenberg spends the year on the sidelines. The Jets face the Giants on Saturday, and if Smith struggles, not only could he be done in New York, but that could be it for his NFL career too.
8. Big Ben and Antonio Brown will finally see the field. It feels like this preseason, more than previous ones, has seen the big names relegated to the sidelines during the first two games. It's certainly understandable; there's virtually nothing to gain and everything to lose, but we also wonder if this will renew calls for an 18-game regular-season schedule because "fans hate the preseason." Everybody hates the preseason, but it's a logical leap to suggest more regular-season football is the answer.
But that's a conversation for another time. Meanwhile, it looks like the Steelers will trot out Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, Le'Veon Bell and DeAngelo Williams for the first time this preseason. This is important not because they necessarily need the work but because it should give us an indication about just how potent this offense can be. During the offseason, offensive coordinator Todd Haley talked seriously about averaging 30 points a game. That sounds ridiculous until you consider that the Steelers averaged 26.4 points last season, and that was without Big Ben for four games.
This group would be even more explosive with wideout Martavis Bryant, who will miss the 2016 season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy. But Roethlisberger, Brown and Bell (who will serve a three-game suspension) remain, and this group could be more dangerous if second-year receivers Eli Rogers and Sammie Coates grow into their roles. (The Steelers are especially high on Rogers, who could win the No. 3 job.)
This all matters because it's unclear if Pittsburgh's defense, which was surprisingly efficient last season, can maintain that success in 2016. The secondary remains thin, and if the sacks or turnovers aren't there, Big Ben and the offense won't have a choice but to light up the scoreboard on a weekly basis.