3 NFL Takeaways Ahead of Preseason Week 1

Tim Kelly
August 05, 2019 - 9:33 am

However NFL fans may feel about Thursday Night Football during the regular season, complaints about football this Thursday will be few and far between when the NFL preseason officially kicks off with 11 preseason games scheduled to be played.

Before Week 1 of the preseason, here’s three early thoughts on the 2019 NFL season.

Ezekiel Elliott is right to hold out

Never mind that Ezekiel Elliott can’t become a free-agent until after the 2020 season. Even after the 2020 season, the chances of Elliott actually hitting the open market are slim at best. The Dallas Cowboys could place the franchise tag on him in 2021 and again in 2022 if they are unable to reach a long-term deal. And teams have around the league have taken advantage of this - the Steelers had Le’Veon Bell play on the franchise tag in 2017 and tried to have him to do the same in 2018, before he sat out the entire season.

The current CBA is a disaster for star running backs. It assumes that teams will operate under good faith when handling elite running backs, as opposed to having them play out their entire rookie deal, franchising them a time or two and then letting them walk. Someone like Elliott actually is hurt even more by the current CBA than Bell, because Elliott was a first-round pick, so his rookie contract is five years. When you add on an extra two years of being able to be franchise tagged, Elliott could be entering his age-28 season before he gets a chance to become a free-agent.

With the short lifespan that running backs have in the NFL, Elliott, who has rushed for over 4,000 yards in his first three seasons, isn’t going to wait for it to be his turn. Nor should he. He’s at the height of his powers, and he’s trying to capitalize on that financially right now.

Is there a case to be made that the Cowboys should attempt to call Elliott’s bluff? Perhaps, because much as it may be unethical to run your running back into the ground on his rookie deal, it’s a systematic loophole that’s much bigger than one organization. Both Dak Prescott and Amari Cooper are closer to free-agency, and while Elliott is unquestionably the best player of those three, the nature of his position makes him less of a safe investment long-term than Prescott and Cooper.

The problem is that the Cowboys are the defending NFC East Champions, have a quarterback on the final year of his rookie deal and Jerry Jones, desperate to win another title, is approaching his late-70s. This is as good of a chance as they’ll have to make a postseason run as any year, assuming Elliott is in the fold. Those circumstances are not conducive to the Cowboys calling his bluff, they’re conducive to him getting a long-term deal when he has the highest value.

The team fans can’t wait to see? The Cleveland Browns

Jon Gruden and the Oakland (for now) Raiders should make for must-watch television when they are chronicled on this season of HBO’s Hard Knocks. But showhead Ken Rodgers told Jimmy Traina of Sports Illustrated that the network did ponder the idea of running it back for a second consecutive year with the Cleveland Browns - and just about every potential viewer would have been here for that.

Instead, we’ll have to wait for Thursday night, when the Browns welcome the Washington Redskins to FirstEnergy Stadium, to get our first look at the 2019 Browns. And perhaps for the first time in since the Browns re-entered the league in 1999, excitement around the Browns extends well outside of the state of Ohio.

“I just feel like it’s going to be scary,” Browns new wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. told Cleveland.com’s Mary Kay Kabot about how he feels the team’s offense will look when he gets on the same page with 2018 No. 1 overall pick Baker Mayfield.

Beckham’s quote isn’t just Training Camp talk. He’s a three-time Pro Bowler that is joining an offense that already included his former college teammate Jarvis Landry, Nick Chubb, David Njoku and the aforementioned Mayfield, who has +1100 odds to win the NFL MVP in his sophomore season. The Browns also took a chance on former Kansas City Chiefs running-back Kareem Hunt, who will be suspended the first eight weeks of the season, but ran for 1,327 yards in 2017, his rookie season.

There’s an it factor that Mayfield possess that makes him must-watch television. Beckham, as much as he may rub some the wrong way, remains a Hall of Fame talent. Those two on the same offense alone would make any team an intriguing watch. When you factor in the depth of offensive skill position players, you start to see a scenario where by the second-half of the 2019 season, the Browns offense could indeed look “scary.”

Is there a part of you that wonders if things are too good to be true for the Browns, a team that went 0-16 just two years ago? Perhaps, but this just feels different. The Browns have a franchise quarterback for the first time in the lifetimes of most NFL fans and have done a very good job of starting to build around him.

The AFC South may be the most intriguing division in the NFL

The AFC South was the only division in football in 2018 that had three teams post winning records. It’s hard to imagine that happening two years in a row, but if there’s any division where it could in 2019, it’s probably this one.

The Indianapolis Colts won their final four regular season games in 2018 and snuck into the playoffs is Frank Reich’s first season as head coach. In theory, they should have quite a bit of momentum heading into 2019, but Andrew Luck is dealing with a calf injury and given his injury history, it’s hard not to at least wonder how that will affect the Colts season.

This will be Bill O’Brien’s sixth season as Houston Texans head coach. While the Texans went 11-5 in 2018 - the third time they’ve made the playoffs under his watch - the jury is largely still out on what he is as a head coach in the NFL. Unlike last year, quarterback Deshaun Watson isn’t returning from an ACL injury, so there’s reason to be optimistic he and DeAndre Hopkins can guide the Texans to a second straight AFC South title, assuming the Texans questionable offensive line is able to keep Watson healthy.

Meanwhile, Mike Vrabel, entering his second season as the Titans head coach, left no doubt about his desires to win a Super Bowl title as a head coach this offseason. The Titans have gone 9-7 three straight seasons, and in a contract year for Marcus Mariota need him to stay healthy and take a major step forward to reach the postseason in 2019.

Finally, the Jacksonville Jaguars were perhaps a more aggressive gameplan away from playing in the Super Bowl two seasons ago. The man who won Super Bowl MVP two years ago, quarterback Nick Foles, joined the team this offseason on a four-year/$88 million deal. What he is in his second stint away from Philadelphia, Leonard Fournette’s ability to stay healthy and the Jaguars ability to post a top-five defense for the third consecutive season will go a long way in determining if Doug Marrone’s team is able to bounce back from a 5-11 campaign in 2018.

Whether there’s a team in this division capable of making a run in the AFC playoffs remains to be seen. Certainly, though, you can make a case for every team in the AFC South reaching the postseason in 2019, which makes you think they’ll again send multiple teams to the playoffs in 2019.