USA Today

Five key lessons from the NFL preseason

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)     —-  The NFL preseason is effectively over. Yes, all 32 teams will be in action Thursday night to officially close out the exhibition lineup, but very few starters or key players will be exposed to further injury in what will amount to glorified tryouts for those clinging to roster spots.

But last weekend’s games helped crystallize takeaways we’ve gleaned throughout August. Here are five key observations likely to carry over into opening day:

1. Ezekiel Elliott is ready to go

Despite nursing a tweaked hamstring for much of training camp and reportedly being a touch overweight, the Dallas Cowboys’ prized rookie tailback appeared ready for prime time during his pro debut Thursday when he rumbled for 48 yards (on just seven carries), displayed nice vision, looked solid in pass protection and turned the tables by laying the lumber to hard-hitting Seattle Seahawks strong safety Kam Chancellor. It’s obviously a small sample, but the Cowboys will desperately need Elliott to build on that kind of effort as he’s likely to become the focal point of their offense as long as fellow rookie Dak Prescott is filling in for injured quarterback Tony Romo. Even when Romo returns, Elliott (and fellow backs Alfred Morris and Darren McFadden) must allow Dallas to win the time of possession battle in order to shield a suspension-riddled defense from additional exposure.

2. Lingering QB questions

The summer spotlight has been predictably directed at quarterbacks. Yet few have provided satisfactory answers to the questions surrounding them.

— Prescott has been a revelation, looking like the steal of the draft. But how will he fare once defenses begin gearing up to stop him?

— New England Patriots seat warmer Jimmy Garoppolo had his shakiest outing Friday, underscoring how unproven he is as he embarks on a bid to do a month-long Tom Brady impersonation.

— The Denver Broncos and San Francisco 49ers were hoping one of their signal callers definitively emerged as the clear-cut starter. Didn’t happen. The Los Angeles Rams would have liked No. 1 draft pick Jared Goff to show he’s ready to take the reins. Nope. Barring something unexpected, all of these teams will almost surely remain in QB flux much of the season.

— The Cleveland Browns’ Robert Griffin III, Houston Texans’ Brock Osweiler and Miami Dolphins’ Ryan Tannehill are all facing lofty expectations while adapting to new teams and/or new coaches. Stay tuned after weeks of mixed results.

— The Baltimore Ravens’ Joe Flacco and Indianapolis Colts’ Andrew Luck are coming back from major 2015 injuries, and Luck is once again processing a new scheme. Rust could be an issue for both.

— The left ACL tear suffered by Teddy Bridgewater at Tuesday’s practice casts a pall over the Minnesota Vikings’ season. With Bridgewater’s year already over, Minnesota will almost certainly look to obtain a veteran passer. But with opening day than two weeks away, Shaun Hill — the definition of a journeyman backup and guy who’s started eight games (all in 2014) in the previous five seasons — must take the reins … and that likely means plenty more handoffs to Adrian Peterson.

3. Offensive line play is a concern

The amount of hitting permitted in the offseason and training camp has been governed since the new collective bargaining agreement went into effect in 2011. But classroom environments and walk-throughs are not nearly as conducive as live practices in forging cohesive O-line play. And several teams expected to have issues with their front five haven’t mitigated those concerns.

— The Browns are breaking in two new starters (plus Griffin) but surrendered five sacks of RG3 on Friday and still aren’t effectively running the ball.

— Jay Cutler was sacked five times in 36 preseason dropbacks while working behind an extremely inexperienced group that currently lacks Pro Bowl guard Kyle Long (shoulder). The Chicago Bears’ starting offense has produced all of 11 points this month.

— The Seattle Seahawks are again playing mix and match in front of Russell Wilson, who was sacked four times in the second preseason game and forced into some of his best jailbreak improv Thursday. The Seahawks don’t have a single starting linemen from their 2013 title team.

— Luck went down three times in the Colts’ dress rehearsal Saturday, when starting guard Jack Mewhort sustained a knee injury that could cost him a month.

4. The NFC East is a mess

A division that already looked like a toss-up may be spiraling into further chaos. The Romo-less Cowboys’ problems have steadily mounted throughout the offseason. The Washington Redskins running backs are not only unproven but already significantly banged up. The Philadelphia Eagles are breaking in a new coaching staff — and that means major schematic departures on both sides of the ball — and poised to lose right tackle Lane Johnson to a 10-game suspension.

But no team seems to be in more disarray than the New York Giants. Their $200 million free agent investment into a defense that allowed the most yards in the league in 2015 has flashed early returns. But the offense, even when evaluated with the preseason asterisk, has been shockingly inept. The Giants’ 185.3 yards per game are nearly 40 yards fewer than the next-worst team, and their 31 points ranks only ahead of the Bears (29). Saturday, New York’s starters played into the second half, yet produced zero points, three first downs and 61 yards in eight drives. Quite a foreboding start given the heightened expectations on this team, rookie head coach Ben McAdoo and embattled GM Jerry Reese.

5. Concerns for franchise players

Nine players received the franchise tag in the offseason. Four (the Broncos’ Von Miller, Ravens’ Justin Tucker, Buffalo Bills’ Cordy Glenn and New York Jets’ Muhammad Wilkerson) eventually signed long-term extensions. But Miller, the $114.5 million-dollar man, must fulfill the expectations of being the league’s highest-paid non-quarterback — on a team with major QB issues. Meanwhile, Glenn’s training camp was short-circuited by a high ankle sprain, and Wilkerson just appeared in his first game since his 2015 season ended with a broken leg.

Josh Norman also cashed in, becoming the league’s best-compensated corner (five years, $75 million) courtesy of the Redskins after the Carolina Panthers rescinded his rights. If Norman’s bank account didn’t put a target on his back, he’s invited one courtesy of a motormouth that has lobbed barbs at Odell Beckham, the Panthers, Commissioner Roger Goodell and others. Carolina and Beckham (twice) will get to test Norman’s claim that he’s the NFL’s top cornerback on the field, an assertion that’s been hotly debated elsewhere.

Finally, four of the tagged players will suit up without the comfort of long-term security, entering what amounts to another contract season. Will the pressure get to them?

— Bears wideout Alshon Jeffery battled hamstring issues (again) in camp and had a case of the drops in Chicago’s third preseason game.

— Kansas City Chiefs safety Eric Berry ended months-long isolation from the team Sunday, when he finally signed his one-year tender. How he’ll look Week 1 (he won’t play in the final exhibition game) is anyone’s guess.

— The Rams’ Trumaine Johnson must prove he’s worth a lengthy financial commitment while taking over No. 1 corner duties from departed Janoris Jenkins.

— And, most notably, Washington quarterback Kirk Cousins is most definitely in a “prove it” scenario (and with those non-descript backs lining up behind him) as the Redskins opted for proof that he can replicate his 2015 breakout season rather than mint him as a franchise passer.

***

NASCAR: Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss races at Michigan, Darlington

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(PhatzRadio Sports / USA Today)    —   Dale Earnhardt Jr. will miss at least the next two races as he continues to recover from a concussion, according to a release from Hendrick Motorsports Wednesday.

Earnhardt was not cleared to race at Michigan International Speedway this weekend or Darlington Raceway on Sept. 4 after being re-evaluated Wednesday at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Sports Medicine Concussion Program.

Alex Bowman will make his second start of the season this weekend at Michigan. Jeff Gordon will return to the car at Darlington, where his seven wins lead active drivers.

“We know how hard Dale is working to get back,” team owner Rick Hendrick said in the release. “He’s following what the doctors are saying, to the letter, and doing exactly what he needs to do. Everyone wants to see him in a race car, but his health is first and foremost. We’re behind him.”

Earnhardt last raced at Kentucky Speedway but subsequently complained of nausea and balance problems stemming, it was discovered, from concussions sustained earlier in his career. He has missed five races so far, with Michigan and Darlington extending his absence to seven.

He reasserted at a press conference two weeks ago that he intended to return to the series and honor his contract with HMS — which runs through next season — but said timetables were premature until he was healthy. Hendrick had been working on a contract extension for Earnhardt earlier this year.

Bowman replaced Earnhardt at New Hampshire Motor Speedway  — finishing 26th because of a cut tire and late crash — before former teammate Gordon came out of retirement to contest four races, with a best finish of 11th Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Gordon was unable to race at Michigan because of a prior commitment.

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