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Saturday preseason wrapup: Marcus Mariota, Lamar Jackson and a sneaky-big injury

August 26, 2018

Here’s a look around the league during Saturday’s NFL preseason action:

• Check out our Chicago Bears-Kansas City Chiefs coverage here.

Middle of the road

Anyone worried about Marcus Mariota? Not panicking. Not giving up. Just ... wondering intently what he might be this season?

He just didn’t look quite right to me in the Tennessee Titans’ 16-6 loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. Accuracy, pocket poise, comfort level — none of it was there in the third preseason game. Just one game, sure, and a meaningless one. But ...

Mariota underthrew Corey Davis by three yards on a wide-open crosser, then overthrew Davis on a wide-open slant. The worst throw of Mariota’s night was when he stared down Steelers rookie S Terrell Edmunds on a ball intended for a fully covered Taywan Taylor that turned into a bad pick.

For the game, Mariota was 5-of-8 for 43 yards and the pick by Edmunds. Overall this preseason Mariota’s numbers are good: 11-for-18 passing, 165 yards with two TDs and just the one interception. But he hasn’t run much yet (three times for nine yards), so it’s a good reminder how dialed back preseason scripting can be.

New offensive coordinator Matt LaFleur’s recent work is above reproach. In 2016, he worked closely with MVP Matt Ryan, and some wondered how much LaFleur leaving might have stunted Ryan last season in a fallback year. He joined Sean McVay’s staff with the Rams and helped turn Jared Goff from presumptive rookie bust into robust passer.

Now, LaFleur has been arrived — in what was viewed as a home-run hire by new head coach Mike Vrabel — to tap into Mariota’s deep well of talent and bring out the best in him. We’ve been waiting on his elevation for a few years now, and there’s no doubt last year was bizarrely bad. That the Titans won a playoff game, even thanks to a few heads-up plays by Mariota against the Chiefs, almost underscores how below-average the QB was for the breadth of the season.

Can Mariota thrive? Absolutely. They have an interesting early-season schedule, including two division games, and the Titans’ surrounding cast looks better on paper. But I can’t escape the feeling that Mariota will have enough games where he looked like he did on Saturday, a bit flummoxed and uncomfortable, to where he doesn’t have that Ryan-Goff level campaign.

The Titans need them. This division could be awfully plucky before long if all four teams’ quarterbacks stay healthy, which hasn’t been the case. At its peak, though, the AFC South might be one of the deeper and more competitive divisions out there this season. If Mariota flat-lines this season, it could be a rough debut for Vrabel’s team. With a peak Mariota, the Titans can overcome not having a great defense to take a run at the division crown.

Lamar’s revenge

We know that Lamar Jackson won’t be starting anytime soon, but he had a good performance Saturday night against the Miami Dolphins. It easily is the best he’s looked in the Ravens’ first four preseason games, playing with the kind of loose bravado that so defined his college experience.

Jackson ran for a great 19-yard score, keeping a read-option run and maintaining his balance after being tripped up around the 10-yard line, diving into the end zone. He also threw for a TD on a pretty throw to DeVier Posey from 21 yards out. Jackson finished the 27-10 win over the Dolphins completing 7-of-10 passes for 98 yards and ran three times for 39 yards.

It was the kind of performance the Ravens have been waiting for — and expecting. In my camp visit last week, I could tell they were excited about his upside but certainly worried about his accuracy, his penchant for taking too many hits and his indecisiveness at times. But Jackson also had impressed the coaches with his willingness to be coached and improve some mechanical things with his feet and his alignment.

Still, there’s a package for him, even if Robert Griffin III might be the de facto backup to Joe Flacco. If that’s the way the Ravens go, and they have all three active on game days, it’s going to be vital that John Harbaugh uses Jackson so as to not waste a valuable top-46 roster spot. Could the red zone be a heavy part of Jackson’s usage? Perhaps. The Ravens absolutely have put him on the field in a variety of ways in camp — with Flacco out there, too.

The Ravens were moderately efficient in the red zone (when they got down there) last season, but this offense has been far too Justin Tucker-reliant for a few years now. Adding Jackson’s playmaking ability in that part of the field could be a nice little boost.

Just one more thing Ravens opponents don’t really want to game plan for — and many might not even be equipped to prepare for him. How many teams have players who can mimic his skill set in practice?

Meet Mr. Kelly

It’s entirely possible that Los Angeles Rams rookie RB John Kelly gets about as much work in his rookie season as, say, Malcolm Brown did as Todd Gurley’s understudy last season: 63 carries, nine catches. Or maybe Brown’s workload plus some of Tavon Austin’s touches (71) from last season.

The point is not to ask whether Kelly, a fifth-round pick, is going to cut into Gurley’s share of touches. It’s that Kelly looks good enough that you wonder if some NFL teams are already regretting letting him fall. Kelly led the way for the Gurley-less (and Jared Goff-less) Rams with 15 carries for 64 yards and two touchdowns against the Houston Texans.

We had Kelly ranked 76th overall in our pre-draft top 100, and wrote this at the time about the Tennessee prospect: “Easily one of the most fun backs to watch on tape in this class, Kelly might never be a workhorse back because of his size, but he will win over fans, coaches and teammates with his hard running and underrated playmaking ability.”

He was never a full-fledged star In Knoxville, but he had so many big games and big moments, it became something of a joke locally for how much former head coach Butch Jones didn’t use Kelly, often subbing him out immediately after knifing his way through another team’s defense. Kelly had at least one breathtaking run per game, even after having to wait his turn behind Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara until last season.

Kelly is now up to 46 carries for 197 yards (4.3-yard average), with a long run of 40 yards and three TDs, also catching six passes in three games. It’s important to protect your best assets, and the Rams frankly got lucky Gurley was so durable last season. If he goes down this season, though, I don’t think it would be a massive dropoff with Kelly in there. He’s not nearly as good, of course, but the Rams have upgraded the backup spot — no question — in a big way.

He’s somewhere on the Devonta Freeman spectrum to me, that kind of player. That’s a good place to be. Had Kelly gone a few rounds earlier, he might have landed somewhere where he was in line for a 150- or 200-touch rookie season. That only happens in L.A. if Gurley goes down.

Big loss for Jaguars?

Wide receiver Marqise Lee was carted off the field in the first quarter Saturday night after getting hit on the left knee in what could be a very scary injury for a Jacksonville Jaguars team in need of all the offensive contributors it has. That Lee was injured on an illegal hit by Atlanta Falcons safety Damontae Kazee made it all the more painful for the Jags.

Lee was the Jaguars’ presumptive No. 1 receiver prior to the injury, even with the higher intrigue in younger Dede Westbrook and Keelan Cole coming on. Lee’s numbers have been tame (171 catches, 2,166 yards, eight TDs in four seasons), but he had earned the role of the reliable target for Blake Bortles, a man who hasn’t looked great this preseason.

Yes, this was always going to be a receiver-by-committee approach for a run-based Jaguars team. But they’re still going to have to move the sticks on 3rd-and-mediums, and Lee was expected to be part of that solution. It’s not as if there isn’t talent there — don’t forget about Donte Moncrief and second-rounder D.J. Chark — but losing Lee could sting a bit.

Opponents will stack boxes and dare the Jaguars to throw it all season. Bortles is under the microscope on a team that has a Super Bowl-caliber defense, a quarterhorse runner in Leonard Fournette and an offensive line that has had a ton of assets poured into it. Last season, they had only three touchdown catches longer than 20 yards.

Perhaps this forces the Jaguars to integrate Chark more heavily. Reports have suggested that the late-blooming but immensely talented second-rounder has been the most gifted receiver in Jaguars camp. It was easy to see his potential late in his LSU career (and ask why Les Miles didn’t ever seem to use him).

For now, though, there’s legitimate concern while we wait to learn Lee’s fate.

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