All 32 teams are in action this week, beginning with a matchup between the the Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers. Wednesday’s tilt marked the highly anticipated NFL debuts of two first rounders. Carolina prevailed 27-17.
Here’s what we learned:
1. The Texans made the playoffs last season despite an inept offense that accounted for fewer points than their defense and special teams combined. The question this summer is whether alleged camp phenom Tom Savage or rookie Deshaun Watson can lead an offensive attack viable enough to complement one of the league’s stoutest defenses. Neither quarterback answered that question with authority in the preseason opener.
Savage’s two regular-season NFL starts late last season featured a disturbing penchant for holding the ball too long in the pocket and failing to sense pressure. Slow to process, Savage showed the same weaknesses on the opening possession versus Carolina. His second series ended when he failed to set his feet, overthrowing checkdown receiver Lamar Miller in the flat on third down. Shifting gears to an uptempo offense with defined reads (bubble screens, boot action, quick passes), Savage salvaged his evening with a touchdown drive once the Panthers removed their defensive starters on the third possession.
A poised Watson stood in contrast to Savage with his ability to buy time and extend plays with his legs. Whereas Savage is a slow-motion mover in the pocket, Watson’s athleticism enables him to create passing opportunities through improvisation. He also showed a willingness to throw the ball away rather than forcing throws that weren’t there. With the exception of a few otherthrows to open receivers, Watson enjoyed a promising pro debut versus Carolina’s backups and third-stringers. Will he need more seasoning before he can duplicate that performance against NFL starters?
Our expectation: Until Savage proves that he can handle pressure and consistently move the chains, he’s going to continue to feel heat from the hotshot rookie.
2. So far, so good for J.J. Watt in his return from back surgery. The three-time Defensive Player of the Year played just one series at Carolina, pushing the pocket and fighting through a double team. NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported early in camp that the Texans are already seeing the Pro Bowl version of Watt.
3. Panthers rookie tailback Christian McCaffrey worked in a rotation with veteran Jonathan Stewart, rushing seven times for 33 yards. McCaffrey’s best runs were grinding out 12 yards through the teeth of Houston’s defense and beating tacklers to the edge for a 7-yard scamper. As impressive as the draft’s No. 8 overall pick has been in the passing game, offensive coordinator Mike Shula is unlikely to tip his hand on McCaffrey’s route concepts in preseason action.
4. Rookie D’Onta Foreman worked behind Lamar Miller and Alfred Blue as Houston’s No. 3 runner. Although Foreman had a nice breakout run for 41 yards, his failure to lower his shoulder and pick up a first down after bouncing a third-and-1 run outside was a disconcerting sign for an alleged power back.
5. Keep an eye on Damiere Byrd as the Panthers audition speedy deep threats to replace the now-departed Ted Ginn and Philly Brown at wide receiver. Building on a strong training camp, Byrd toasted Texans cornerback Robert Nelson for a 50-yard touchdown in the second quarter and added a 12-yard score to open the third quarter.
6. One of the best stories in football is Texans offensive lineman David Quessenberry, who returned to game action Wednesday night after a three-year battle with leukemia.