Panic Meter for NFL Teams, Players That Struggled in 2023 Preseason
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Broncos QB Russell WilsonAP Photo/Matt York
The 2023 NFL preseason has passed, and we’re going to get some clarity as all 32 clubs trim their rosters to a 53-man headcount by Tuesday, but we can’t ignore the warning signs with struggling teams and players.
Though we shouldn’t get caught up on preseason standings, team and individual performances matter in tune-up games for the regular season.
If a quarterback has a rocky summer in a new system or a rookie wide receiver with a history of drops continues to show inconsistencies with his hands, coaches must make adjustments to tie up loose ends.
Moreover, teams that struggled to move the ball or slow down opposing offenses—even with second- and third-stringers in the game—may want to address roster depth before Week 1.
With 2023 exhibition games in the books, we have a panic meter that indicates our concern for teams and players with a focus on preseason performances.
Ikem Ekwonu, OT, Carolina Panthers
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AP Photo/Rusty Jones
In 2022, the Carolina Panthers selected the first offensive lineman in the draft, taking Ikem Ekwonu with the No. 6 overall pick. Per Pro Football Focus, he committed 13 penalties and allowed six sacks last season.
The Panthers need the 22-year-old to clean up his penalties and tighten up on his technique in pass protection with quarterback Bryce Young, the No. 1 overall pick from this year’s draft class, under center.
Because of the spotlight around Young, Ekwonu will go under the microscope as he’s expected to protect the rookie’s blind side, which didn’t go well in the preseason.
Head coach Frank Reich told reporters that his confidence in the NC State product hasn’t wavered despite the left tackle’s miscues:
“Lot of confidence in Ickey. I have no concerns about him playing winning football and being one of the true anchors of our offensive line. After the year that he had last year, the training camp he’s had, not only is he going to be a really good player for us, he’s going to be a good leader. We have had a couple of miscues that he’s been involved in, but those things will get worked out.“
On multiple occasions, Young evaded pressure from his left side to buy time in the pocket or move the chains with his legs.
While a team’s pass protection isn’t the responsibility of one player alone, the Panthers will depend on Ekwonu to keep some of the league’s best edge-rushers away from their prized draft pick. Keep in mind that he’s a second-year player who may continue to experience growing pains.
Panic Meter: 8
Cade York, K, Cleveland Browns
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AP Photo/Charlie Riedel
Editor’s Note: Cade York is being released today, per NFL Insider Jordan Schultz.
Typically, kickers go through the same motions and routines in preparation for a big moment. You can see them on the sideline, kicking into a net before they take the field.
When a kicker loses his confidence, he may struggle to regain it even with habitual repetition. Even a young kicker who goes high in his draft class can flame out after an extended rough period—just take a look at Roberto Aguayo’s one-year NFL career.
Cade York may not go down the same pathway as Aguayo, but teams won’t hesitate to move on from a kicker in a slump if he costs them games.
In the preseason, York has converted just four out of eight field-goal attempts, and Kansas City Chiefs defensive tackle Phil Hoskins blocked his potential game-winning kick in Week 3 of the preseason.
However, the 22-year-old seems to have the right mindset for him to bounce back in the regular season, per Chris Easterling of the Akron Beacon Journal.
“I know how good I am,” York said. “That’s been the most frustrating thing the last month, struggling with that. So, the real games start soon. Just trying to take a running start into the season and just start putting them through all the time.”
On Monday, the Cleveland Browns acquired kicker Dustin Hopkins from the Los Angeles Chargers, per NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Perhaps York responds well to competition with his job on the line.
As a rookie last season, York went 24-of-32 on his field-goal attempts. With that success rate and his recent misfires, he’s not a lock to finish the 2023 season as the Browns kicker.
Panic Meter: 10
Russell Wilson, QB, Denver Broncos
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AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin
Following Russell Wilson’s worst statistical season as a passer, the Denver Broncos hired Super Bowl-winning head coach Sean Payton to help the signal-caller rediscover his Pro Bowl form and elevate an offense that finished last in scoring in 2022.
Thus far, the 34-year-old doesn’t look like a prime candidate to win Comeback Player of the Year. In two preseason outings, he went 10-of-19 passing for 117 yards and a touchdown, which raises some concern when you consider his 64.6 percent career completion rate.
Moreover, Wilson will open the season without two of his top wide receivers in Tim Patrick (torn Achilles) and Jerry Jeudy (hamstring). Yes, the latter could return at some point this season, but the quarterback’s supporting cast doesn’t look as good as it did a month ago.
Last week, Wilson said he believes it’s “all coming together” for the offense, but the Broncos may want to start out with a conservative approach on the ground until they see him click with his pass-catchers.
Remember, Denver signed running back Samaje Perine, who will join Javonte Williams to carry most of the rushing workload.
The Broncos lit up the scoreboard 41-0 against the Los Angeles Rams in their preseason finale with quarterbacks Jarrett Stidham and Ben DiNucci throwing for 342 yards and two touchdowns combined. Denver hopes to see the offense carry over that momentum into the regular season with Wilson, but he’s going to face starters as a work in progress within Payton’s system.
Fortunately for Wilson, he doesn’t have to carry the offense if the Broncos run the ball effectively.
Panic Meter: 4
Rashee Rice, WR, Kansas City Chiefs
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Norm Hall/Getty Images
The Kansas City Chiefs have depth at wide receiver, but in the best-case scenario, one of their young playmakers will emerge from the group to complement four-time All-Pro tight end Travis Kelce.
The Chiefs selected Rashee Rice in the second round of this year’s draft, and he had an opportunity to carve out a big role while Kadarius Toney is on the mend from knee surgery.
While the Chiefs take a “day-by-day” approach with Toney’s recovery, Rice could see snaps in three-wide receiver sets along with Marquez Valdes-Scantling and Skyy Moore, but he will likely split those duties with Justyn Ross, who’s had an impressive offseason.
Because of Rice’s drop issues, quarterback Patrick Mahomes may develop a stronger rapport with Ross early in the season.
On a positive note, the 23-year-old knows what’s caused his issue with drops.
“I’m known for running after the catch—yards after the catch—so I’ve just gotta figure out a way for me to fix trying to take off before I have the ball in my hands,” Rice said via Sam McDowell of the Kansas City Star.
If the SMU product sharpens his focus on securing the ball, he could become a big-play receiver for an offense that doesn’t need Mahomes to throw deep to rack up yards in bunches.
A rookie with inconsistent hands could easily lose the trust of coaches, but Rice knows how to address his fault, which reduces the level of concern on the panic meter.
Panic Meter: 3
Los Angeles Rams
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Rams head coach Sean McVayDustin Bradford/Getty Images
This offseason, the Los Angeles Rams have focused on developing their youngsters after jettisoning cornerback Jalen Ramsey, linebacker Bobby Wagner, edge-rusher Leonard Floyd and wideout Allen Robinson II. In the preseason, their star players didn’t take the field.
Defensive tackle Aaron Donald, quarterback Matthew Stafford and wideout Cooper Kupp, who suffered a hamstring injury at the beginning of camp, watched the rookies and unproven talent get valuable preseason snaps.
Based on the results of the exhibition games, Los Angeles may want to address its depth across the roster. The Rams’ backups had a rough preseason. Forget the team’s 0-3 record, it’s how the club lost all three contests that is concerning.
Los Angeles allowed 214 rushing yards to the Los Angeles Chargers in Week 1 of the preseason, gave up 342 passing yards to the Las Vegas Raiders in the following outing and lost 41-0 to the Denver Broncos in its final exhibition matchup.
Stafford and Kupp have a strong rapport, which helped lead the team to a Super Bowl title in the 2021 campaign, but other than Donald, the Rams don’t have a proven defender to thwart opposing offenses this year.
Los Angeles will put a lot of pressure on Stafford, who’s dealt with several injuries in the recent past, which may be a recipe for disaster.
Panic Meter: 9
New England Patriots
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Patriots head coach Bill BelichickCarly Mackler/Getty Images
The New England Patriots had to shake up their offense with a shift in philosophy after a failed experiment with Matt Patricia and Joe Judge calling plays with “influence” from head coach Bill Belichick last season.
While questions about quarterback Mac Jones’ work relationship with Belichick linger, the Patriots haven’t changed the narrative about their offense.
In the preseason, they scored one touchdown through the air, and they haven’t been able to trot out their starting offensive line in unison because of injuries.
ESPN’s Mike Reiss speculated that the Patriots would hold Jones out of the third preseason contest because of the offensive line’s issues in pass protection.
Early in August, left tackle Trent Brown practiced with limitations because of an injury.
According to Christopher Price of the Boston Globe, the Patriots are optimistic about guard Cole Strange’s return from injury for Week 1, but Mike Onwenu’s status remains uncertain.
“From what I’ve been told, fairly certain Strange will be back for Week 1…that’s why I had him slotted as starting LG,” he wrote. “Onwenu, not so much. As BB has said (and I’m paraphrasing), you can’t just run around a track a few times and jump into playing. You have to get callused up.”
The Patriots could feed running backs Rhamondre Stevenson and Ezekiel Elliott until the offensive line gets back to regular-season form, but new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has to find a way to elevate Jones, who regressed after a Pro Bowl rookie campaign.
If the quarterback builds a connection with newcomers JuJu Smith-Schuster and Mike Gesicki, New England’s aerial attack could gouge opposing defenses in the middle of the field, but we’ve yet to see it in live action in part because of a banged-up offensive line.
Panic Meter: 7
Isaiah Simmons, LB, New York Giants
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Christian Petersen/Getty Images
The Arizona Cardinals had seen enough out of Isaiah Simmons after his abysmal Week 2 preseason outing against the Kansas City Chiefs. Days after the game, they traded him to the New York Giants in exchange for a 2024 seventh-round pick.
Following his last outing with the Cardinals, the 25-year-old took accountability for his lackluster performance, which turned out to be his curtain call in the desert.
“I feel like I obviously need to play better,” Simmons told reporters. “I feel that way each and every single game. Explosives definitely are something we need to tone down because explosives are what leads you to winning the game.”
Head coach Jonathan Gannon highlighted Simmons’ coverage issues.
“A couple times in coverage he might’ve lost leverage,” he said. “But we will go back to the tape and get it cleaned up.”
To make matters worse for Simmons on the way out, the team had questions about his effort, per SI.com’s Donnie Druin.
“Through training camp and two preseason games, the Cardinals didn’t like what they saw both in terms of play and effort,” he wrote. “Simmons was again burnt toast in coverage and simply gave up on a few plays in the loss vs. Kansas City.”
Simmons may need a fresh start to change the trajectory of his career and reenergize his play on the field. In the first outing as a Giant, he nearly chased down Aaron Rodgers for a sack.
Nonetheless, Giants defensive coordinator Don “Wink” Martindale must find a way to unlock the Clemson product’s skill set.
According to The Athletic’s Dan Duggan, Big Blue might use Simmons in blitz packages and as a man coverage defender, which is appropriate for his capabilities.
However, the Giants didn’t sacrifice premium draft capital to acquire Simmons, so they don’t have much to panic about if he fizzles out.
Panic Meter: 2
San Francisco 49ers
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49ers head coach Kyle ShanahanThearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
This offseason, the San Francisco 49ers rode a roller-coaster ride filled with quarterback headlines.
Brock Purdy underwent surgery to repair a torn UCL; they signed Sam Darnold, who went No. 3 overall in the 2018 draft; and the front office traded Trey Lance to the Dallas Cowboys hours before the team’s final preseason game.
The 49ers have drawn criticism for the way they handled the first three years of Lance’s career, and they’ve looked just as clunky offensively in their preseason games.
San Francisco has turned the ball over seven times in three exhibition contests.
In their first preseason game against the Las Vegas Raiders, the 49ers only scored one touchdown, an ill-advised throw from Lance to wideout Chris Conley that ricocheted off multiple players into tight end Ross Dwelley’s hands. The Raiders picked off quarterback Brandon Allen and forced a fumble in a dominant 34-7 win.
The 49ers had a decent outing against the Denver Broncos in a 21-20 victory, but they turned the ball over three times.
In San Francisco’s final exhibition matchup with the Los Angeles Chargers, running back Jordan Mason tripped over Purdy near the goal line and then fumbled on the following play. The quarterback walked into the end zone on a five-yard run to cap off the 49ers’ second offensive drive, but the team finished with 12 points and two turnovers.
In three preseason contests, Purdy saw limited action, and he didn’t throw a touchdown pass. Darnold looked solid, but he went 6-of-11 passing for 89 yards and a touchdown against the Chargers’ backups. Allen only completed 50 percent of his passes and threw two interceptions in two outings.
The 49ers have put all their eggs in Purdy’s basket. Darnold could be a serviceable backup, but the team’s decision to trade Lance shows tremendous confidence in the final pick of the 2022 draft to lead a Super Bowl-contending squad.
Overall, none of the 49ers quarterbacks looked particularly impressive in the preseason, though Purdy has earned the benefit of the doubt after leading San Francisco to the NFC Championship Game last season.
Panic Meter: 1
Maurice Moton covers the NFL for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @MoeMoton.