For the first time in years, the biggest question facing the New England Patriots this preseason was the quarterback position. With Tom Brady set to serve his four-game DeflateGate suspension, backup Jimmy Garoppolo will be under center for the first quarter of the season. So far he’s shown he’s up to the task.
Like all of Brady’s previous backups, Garoppolo, 24, hasn’t seen much of the field up to this point. He’s only thrown 31 passes in two years, which is what happens when you’re behind an all-time great who seldom gets hurt (the last time Brady missed a game due to injury was when he tore his ACL in 2008). Though Garoppolo put up record-setting numbers at Eastern Illinois University, the world of professional football is a lot different than Division I-AA. There was no way to tell how he would fare until he was thrown into the proverbial fire.
That’s exactly what happened Thursday, when Brady reportedly cut himself with scissors shortly before game time. After sitting out the Patriots’ preseason opener, Brady was expected to start against the Chicago Bears. But the sudden injury forced him to the bench. Enter an unsuspecting Garoppolo, who went on to play his best football since the Patriots drafted him two years ago.
“That’s part of football,” Bill Belichick said afterwards, via WEEI. “Things happen that are unexpected and he’s been prepared for that the day he got here. I think all of our players are. Sometimes things happen and they change and you have to adjust to them. On offense and for the quarterbacks, we refer to that as an audible.”
Garoppolo completed 16 of 21 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown. He’s now 27 of 39 this preseason for 349 yards and a passer rating of 104.7. There’s no quarterback controversy –– Belichick put a kibosh to that nonsense during the first week of training camp –– but Garoppolo is proving he’s a bonafide NFL starter. In fact, he may even be a lot better than that.
In addition to Garoppolo, a number of other quarterbacks shined this week. They lead our latest list of Preseason All-Stars:
Jimmy Garoppolo: The most impressive aspect of Garoppolo’s performance in the Patriots’ win Thursday was the way he ran the two-minute drill. With a 1:43 remaining in the first half, the Patriots took over on their own 43-yard line and were down by two. Garoppolo completed three straight passes to bring New England to the Bears’ 36-yard line, which is where he worked the Pats into the red zone. The drive concluded when Garoppolo found tight end A.J. Derby for a 16-yard score with just 17 seconds on the clock.
Given the Patriots’ propensity to run the hurry-up offense, Garoppolo’s game management skills will be just as important as his passing ability. He excelled in both areas Thursday night.
Robert Griffin III: The Browns named RGIII their starter before the preseason even began. So far their faith is being rewarded.
Griffin followed up an encouraging preseason debut with a terrific outing this weekend, completing 6 of 8 passes for 96 yards and two touchdowns. In addition to that, he rushed for 36 yards.
It’s too early to say whether RGIII is back to his Rookie of the Year levels, but this is the closest he’s been in a long time.
Dak Prescott: It’s hard to believe, but Prescott followed his excellent Cowboys debut with an even better encore. The rookie out of Mississippi State was sensational in Dallas’ blowout win over the Dolphins, completing 12 of 15 passes for 199 yards and two touchdowns. He also added in another 28 yards and two touchdowns on the ground.
While it’s still ludicrous to say Prescott could soon supplant Tony Romo as the Cowboys’ starter, he’s seemingly all but locked up the No. 2 job at this point. For a team that went 0-8 without Romo last year and lost its backup, Kellen Moore, to an injury earlier this month, that’s no small detail.
Tyrod Taylor: The Buffalo Bills have cycled through more than a dozen different starting quarterbacks since they last made the playoffs in 1999. But it seems as if Taylor may stick around under center for years to come.
Just two weeks after inking a six-year extension worth more than $96 million, Taylor dazzled in the Bills’ 21-0 win over the New York Giants. The highlight was a 59-yard bomb that wound up in the arms of tight end Charles Clay.
In 2015, Taylor delivered the best season the Bills had seen from a quarterback in over a decade. His performance Saturday showed he’s ready to pick up where he left off.
Christian Ponder: The last time Ponder threw a pass in an NFL game was 2014, which is why he was available for the 49ers to sign last week. He won’t be the starting quarterback Week 1, but for a team that will likely have Blaine Gabbert leading it, he could get a chance if he replicates his performance from Saturday night.
Ponder went 7 of 8 for 86 yards and a touchdown in San Francisco’s 31-24 victory over the Denver Broncos. He also reeled off a 22-yard touchdown run.
Ponder has been a spectacular bust since the Vikings selected him with the 12th pick in the 2011 Draft. But all may not be lost yet. Maybe.
Andrew Luck: After Luck’s injury-riddled 2015 campaign, there was some speculation as to whether he had plateaued. That question won’t be answered until the games start for real, but the Colts’ brass must be breathing easier after his outing Saturday.
Luck completed all eight of his passes for 71 yards and led the Colts on two long drives. But perhaps most importantly, he didn’t get hit. Few quarterbacks have been punished more than Luck in recent years, which is why Indianapolis head coach Chuck Pagano was pleased to see his franchise quarterback get out of harm’s way.
“The greatest thing was he took off and he got his ass on the ground when he was supposed to get on the ground,” Pagano said, via Pro Football Talk. “They’ve worked really hard on that clock in his head. You can sit and wait and wait and wait and hold that thing too long.”
Luck will be defined by how he throws the football, but his newfound ability to slide and avoid tacklers could be the key to his success.
Alfred Morris: Ezekiel Elliott said recently running behind the Cowboys’ offensive line is the “easiest job in America.” While that may be true — in a football sense, at least — Morris showed on Friday it also takes a little bit of vision for a running back to take advantage of those holes up front.
Morris’ most noteworthy play against the Dolphins was his first quarter touchdown scamper. After starting his run up the middle, he quickly shifted to the left side. The veteran then burst through the hole for six.
With Morris playing alongside Elliott and Darren McFadden, the Cowboys could once again have one of the best running attacks in the league.
C.J. Anderson: The Broncos’ quarterback options are currently looking less than appetizing, so the onus falls on Anderson to generate some big plays. That’s exactly what he did Saturday.
The veteran back ripped off a 19-yard touchdown run, which gave the Broncos an early lead over the 49ers.
With a four-year, $18 million deal, Anderson is now one of the highest-paid players at his position. Unleashing more explosive runs like that would prove he’s worth the money.
Tajae Sharpe: One of the keys to Marcus Mariota’s maturation as a quarterback will be whether he connects with one of his wide receivers. Through two weeks of preseason play, Sharpe has emerged as his favorite option.
The rookie out of the University of Massachusetts has caught eight passes for 103 yards — including a six-catch, 68-yard performance in the Titans’ loss to the Carolina Panthers this weekend. Sharpe also converted two third-and-longs into first downs, which is the hallmark of a true No. 1 receiver.
With a refurbished running game, Mariota has the help he needs in the backfield. He may now also have a quality supporting cast at receiver.
Will Fuller: DeAndre Hopkins is the Texans wideout who typically commands all of the attention, and rightfully so. But if Brock Osweiler is going to succeed this season, he needs another receiver to step up. Fuller could be that guy.
The first-round pick out of Notre Dame caught four passes for 73 yards in Houston’s 16-9 win over the New Orleans Saints. He also brought in a touchdown pass on a beautiful floater from Osweiler.
The Texans’ defense carried them to a division win last season. This year, though, the offense seems positioned to pick up more of the slack.
Terrelle Pryor: For the second consecutive week, RGIII connected with Pryor on a deep pass. This time, it was a 50-yarder that went all the way for a touchdown.
RGIII’s and Pryor’s resurgences are intertwined.
Virgil Green: Green has largely been a blocking tight end during his first five NFL seasons. But now he seems ready to break out. He caught four passes for 57 yards Saturday, including two consecutive grabs for double-digit gains in Denver’s first drive.
If Green can emerge as a weapon in the passing game, the job for Denver’s quarterback — whether it’s Trevor Siemian, Mark Sanchez or Paxton Lynch — will be a lot easier.
Trent Brown: One of the hardest jobs in football is containing Von Miller, but Brown did exactly that for the 49ers Saturday. Miller, who didn’t record a tackle, was quiet in his first game action since the Super Bowl.
Jadeveon Clowney: Clowney showcased the talent this weekend that propelled the Texans to select him with the No. 1 overall pick in 2014. He overwhelmed the Saints’ offensive line, helping to hold Drew Brees to just 3.6 yards per attempt and Mark Ingram to 1.57 yards per carry.
It will take a lot more than just one preseason performance for Clowney to win Texans fans over, but his outing Saturday was quite a statement.
Aaron Donald: If the Los Angeles Rams are going to compete this year, it will likely be because of their dominant front seven. Donald led the way Saturday. In fact, his speed up the middle was so tantalizing that he managed to burst past Chiefs quarterback Alex Smith.
The Aaron Donald double team: Discards the guard so fast center pushes him into (and past!) his QB. Sustain... https://t.co/5U67tC65w4— Chris Sprow (@SprowESPN) August 21, 2016
Vernon Hargreaves: It’s difficult to leave a more indelible preseason impact than Hargreaves did in the Buccaneers’ 27-21 win over the Jaguars Saturday night. The No. 11 overall pick intercepted two passes, showing that he could be a starting corner as soon as this season.
As the preseason wears on, Hargreaves should get more time against the competition’s first unit to show what he can do.
Jon Ryan: Usually the Seahawks punter is the one kicking the football. But on Thursday night, he reversed his role.
There may not a more perfectly executed fair catch on the sidelines all season long.