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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The most important leg of the NFL’s preseason (supposedly) is nearly complete, with seven matchups taking place Saturday. 

    Before all 32 franchises start looking toward the regular season with one pesky final preseason game remainingwhich means next to nothing—some questions can still be answered.

    The time is now for an individual to make his final case, because the majority of rosters are already decided. Those battling for starting positions are basically guaranteed spots, while a handful of others want to earn those last two or three openings. 

    “You want to make the team, you’ve got to make a block, you’ve got to make a tackle,” Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh said earlier in the week, per the Baltimore Sun‘s Jonas Shaffer. “Go make the team. Show us.”

    Teams, meanwhile, want to create a positive atmosphere with crisp, solid performances…if they played their starting units, and not everyone did. (Looking at you, Chicago.)

    Some succeeded in the venture. Others failed.

    How each approaches the looming season is based on what occurred during each exhibition. 

    “It’s just a series of opportunities to improve your team to get ready for the regular season opener, to get ready for the regular season schedule,” New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick said, per MassLive.com’s Nick O’Malley.

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    Gregory Bull/Associated Press

    Rookie Derwin James completes an already-potent Los Angeles Chargers defense.

    The Chargers owned a top-three pass defense before the team chose the safety with the 17th overall pick in April’s draft. James earned his first professional start Saturday against the New Orleans Saints, and his usage showed exactly why the Chargers defense will be greatly improved due to the positional flexibility he presents. 

    His first series was the stuff of legend. 

    While facing a prolific passing attack and a shoo-in future Hall of Fame inductee in quarterback Drew Brees, James buzzed to the deep third, came over the top of Saints wide receiver Ted Ginn Jr. and snagged an interception three plays into his starting career. 

    His impressive play extended beyond the turnover and provided an indication of how he’ll be used throughout the regular season. 

    Last year, defensive coordinator Gus Bradley relied on Tre Boston to play the deep third. The veteran free safety excelled in this role, yet he didn’t perform well in any other area. James can do so much more. 

    In the first half, the rookie lined up as a free safety, roamed the deep half in Cover 2, played in the box, covered tight ends (both in-line and the slot), mirrored running backs out of the backfield, lined up against wide receivers, blitzed and hurried Saints backup quarterback Tom Savage and took on blocks from offensive linemen. 

    James is a weapon within the scheme, because he can do all of these things and excel at each. His addition makes the Chargers one of the NFL’s most interesting squads.

    Head coach Anthony Lynn’s defense also features a ferocious pass-rush duo in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. The linebackers are athletic and fast. The offense, meanwhile, features an elite quarterback in Philip Rivers, weapons everywhere and an improved offensive line after adding Mike Pouncey and Forrest Lamp. 

    James and Co. should create waves in a weakened AFC. 

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    Fred Vuich/Associated Press

    Marcus Mariota’s play against the Pittsburgh Steelers can’t be viewed as a positive for the Tennessee Titans. 

    Saturday’s performance featured miscommunication between the quarterback and his receivers, a few missed throws, poor pocket presence and an inexcusable decision that resulted in an interception

    “I should have made that throw on third down, and given Corey [Davis] a chance to go score,” Mariota said when asked about missing the wide-open receiver in the first quarter, per ESPN.com’s Turron Davenport. “They busted a coverage, and we should have made the most of that one.” 

    Normally, this wouldn’t be a major concern. However, new offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur is supposed to build his scheme around Mariota’s skill set. Yet the quarterback appears to have regressed. At best, he hasn’t shown improvement over last season’s disappointing performance. 

    “We’ve shown flashes of stuff that we can do,” Mariota said, per Jim Wyatt of the Titans’ official site. “We’ve shown flashes of potential. But potential means nothing. We have to go out there and continue to get better. Looking at this game, it leaves a bad taste in your mouth. … It’s a process for us and we continue to build.

    Mariota’s preseason play means nothing if he performs well at the start of the regular season. His issues could be growing pains as he adjusts to expectations from LaFleur and head coach Mike Vrabel. 

    A starting quarterback is supposed to be efficient before calling it a night, though. Mariota wasn’t against the Steelers, which creates concern. 

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    The third week of preseason is supposed to serve as the league’s “dress rehearsal.” Usually, teams play their starters longer this week than any of the others. It’s supposed to be the closest thing to real football before playing the games that count. 

    Yet, Chicago Bears head coach Matt Nagy chose not to play his starters Saturday against the Kansas City Chiefs. 

    “I’m doing what’s best for [the fans], and I’m doing what’s best for them because I’m going to have us in the right spot for Week 1,” Nagy said, per The Athletic’s Kevin Fishbain. “They may not feel it today, but hopefully they feel it Week 1. Hopefully.”

    The Bears did compete in the Hall of Fame Game so, technically, Chicago is in its fourth week of preseason play, when most teams don’t utilize any of their starters. However, Nagy didn’t play most of the starters during that contest, either. 

    Quarterback Mitchell Trubisky has attempted only 18 passes this preseason. But Nagy’s emphasis isn’t on what happens during game action. 

    “We’re at almost 2,000 snaps in practice,” the coach said, per Fishbain. “For somebody telling me 25-30 reps is going to make [Trubisky] better Week 1, Week 2, Week 3, it’s not going to happen.”

    The pretense is starting to fade. The idea preseason contests actually matter holds less weight with each passing year, because some coaches clearly don’t place the same emphasis on exhibition play. 

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    Nam Y. Huh/Associated Press

    While everyone wanted to know why Nagy didn’t play his starters, some good came of the Bears contest. Kevin White finally scored his first pro touchdown after being the seventh overall pick in the 2015 NFL draft. 

    “I root for underdogs,” Nagy said, per 670 The Score’s Chris Emma. “I love underdogs. And when you have an underdog that fights his tail off to improve, and when people don’t believe in him and he proves the people that do believe him right, then there’s nothing better than that.”

    The fact White went from elite draft prospect to an underdog speaks of the difficulties he had to overcome to even reach this point. The wide receiver has played in five regular-season games over the past three years due to multiple injuries. 

    So, White’s stutter-and-go, which left Kansas City Chiefs cornerback Orlando Scandrick in the lurch, to finally find the end zone is something to rejoice, even if the veteran defensive back decided to pooh-pooh the performance. 

    “Zero,” Scandrick answered when asked about any impressions White made, per Pro Football Weekly‘s Arthur Arkush. “It was more about what I did than what he did.”

    Despite Scandrick’s shade, the 29-yard score may prove to be a watershed moment in White’s career.

    The fourth-year receiver is still battling for a roster spot. Seventh-round rookie Javon Wims continued to excel with four receptions for 114 yards and a touchdown against the Chiefs. Allen Robinson, Taylor Gabriel and Anthony Miller are set as the team’s top three wide receiver options, with decisions yet to be made beyond that point. 

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    Tony Dejak/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns activated Josh Gordon from the non-football injury list on Saturday. He’s now cleared to participate in practice and games. 

    “Josh Gordon is going to go into the second phase of the process that we have him on,” head coach Hue Jackson said, per Patrick Maks of the Browns’ official site. “He is definitely getting into the next process for us.”

    Gordon can now participate in walkthroughs once he’s healthy. Unfortunately, the wide receiver strained a hamstring during a conditioning test.

    Jackson already said Gordon isn’t likely to play in the preseason finale against the Detroit Lions, but the goal is to have him on the field during the regular-season opener against the Pittsburgh Steelers, according to the Akron Beacon Journal‘s Nate Ulrich

    “He’ll be back out there sooner than later, that’s for sure,” the coach stated, per the team

    The 27-year-old receiver hasn’t played in a Week 1 contest since his rookie campaign six years ago due to a multitude of league suspensions. 

    His presence in the lineup completely changes the Browns offense, though. At 6’3″ and 225 pounds, Gordon is a physical specimen. On the field, he’s a true deep threat who can open up the entire scheme and create more space for Jarvis Landry, Rashard Higgins and Antonio Callaway. 

    With Gordon, the Browns own one of the league’s most dangerous wide receiver corps. Now, the team is one step closer to making that a reality.

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Gordon isn’t the only star dealing with hamstring problems. New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley tweaked a hamstring Aug. 13 and didn’t return to practice until Wednesday, according to ESPN.com’s Jordan Raanan. 

    Barkley told ESPN’s Josina Anderson he feels “good” and expects to be on the field Week 1 against the Jacksonville Jaguars.    

    “If I’m not, that would be a problem,” the rookie said. 

    The Giants will be 100 percent certain Barkley’s ready and won’t rush the process. But he’s desperately needed in the lineup since the team’s other backs have struggled to gain yards during the last two preseason contests when the offense averaged 3.5 yards per carry. 

    “It’s a team thing when you run the ball well, and when you don’t run the ball well it’s also a team thing,” head coach Pat Shurmur said, per NJ.com’s Ryan Dunleavy. “We’ve just got to go back and look at it, and I think it’s important that we’re running the right paths and blocking the right guys.”

    Barkley’s skill set allows the offensive line to make mistakes since he’s capable of creating when nothing is available. As long as he’s ready, the Giants will have a playmaker in the backfield even if the offensive line isn’t blocking well or the passing game isn’t clicking.

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    Bruce Kluckhohn/Associated Press

    Could the Seattle Seahawks finally feature a functional offensive line?

    The unit’s effort against the Minnesota Vikings’ vaunted defense indicates Seattle may have found a starting five worthy of blocking for quarterback Russell Wilson after it allowed 85 sacks the last two seasons. 

    “I had all day,” Wilson said of the offensive line’s performance, per the Seattle TimesBob Condotta

    Building a healthy, cohesive unit is no small task, but the Seahawks appear to be settled.

    First, Duane Brown’s involvement throughout the offseason after he was a trade-deadline acquisition last October solidified the blind side. Ethan Pocic, who struggled as a rookie in 2017, found a home at left guard. Justin Britt is a constant at center. D.J. Fluker is experiencing a career revival at right guard. Only right tackle is somewhat unsettled, but 2016 first-round pick Germain Ifedi played well against the Vikings. 

    “I’m more worried about how we play as a group and how we execute as a group,” Ifedi said about the competition between himself and George Fant, per Condotta. “But me personally, I felt OK out there. It was cool. It was a good third preseason game.”

    Confidence is building within the group. 

    “I believe we’re going to be really good,” Britt said, per Liz Mathews of USA Today‘s Seahawks Wire. “We’ve just got to keep working. We’ve done well this preseason with the ones up front, and we’ve just got to keep building and working, but we’re finding ourselves and our identity.”

    Wilson will be the happiest man in the league if his offensive line continues to play at this level. 

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    The San Francisco 49ers expect far more from last year’s top pick, Solomon Thomas, and his play has led the team to believe he’s ready to become a primary pass-rusher. 

    “The thing with Solomon is, I don’t think he had a bad year,” defensive coordinator Robert Saleh said, per The MMQB’s Robert Klemko. “The second-hardest job for a rookie is pass-rusher, quarterback being first. J.J. Watt had five or six sacks as a rookie [Watt had 5.5 sacks in 2011]. There are things he can [be] better at but I thought he was productive overall.”

    As a result, the coaching staff will move Thomas from big end to “Leo” linebacker this year to allow him to rush primarily from the interior on obvious passing downs. While Thomas didn’t finish the 49ers’ only sack of Indianapolis Colts quarterback Andrew Luck, he made the play by creating initial pressure in the backfield. 

    “For him, everything’s been focused on his get-off, and really, his second move when the first one doesn’t work,” Saleh said. “So he’s gotten a lot better in both of those areas. He’s understanding how to work, when that first move doesn’t work, to recreate an edge.”

    The coordinator’s explanation is exactly how Thomas created pressure during Saturday’s contest. With proper usage and consistent effort, the second-year defender can be a 10-plus-sack performer this fall. 

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Marqise Lee is about to become the poster boy for the league’s much-discussed new tackling rule after suffering an injury when Atlanta Falcons defensive back Damontae Kazee initiated contact on Lee’s left knee with the crown of his helmet. 

    At this point, Lee’s status remains unknown, but the angle in which his leg twisted doesn’t portend a positive outcome.

    “It looked bad,” Jaguars head coach Doug Marrone said, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. “I’m waiting for the doc to tell me so I can tell you guys. … But it looked bad.”

    Lee’s absence will create a void, with Dede Westbrook, Keelan Cole, Rashad Greene and rookie D.J. Chark completing the team’s wide receiver rotation. 

             

    Injuries of Note

  • Reuben Foster, San Francisco 49ers: The linebacker suffered a concussion against the Indianapolis Colts and isn’t likely to return until Week 3, after he serves a league-mandated two-game suspension, according to Bay Area News Group’s Cam Inman
  • Harold Landry, Tennessee Titans: The rookie edge defender left Saturday’s contest due to a tweaked ankle, per The Athletic’s Travis Haney, and did not return. 
  • James Washington, Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers’ third wide receiver suffered an abdominal injury and didn’t return to action, according to the team’s official site
  • Marcell Dareus, Jacksonville Jaguars: The Jags played it safe with their defensive tackle after he injured his pectoral muscle, per a team release

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