After six long months, NFL football is back. A week after the Browns and Jets kicked things off in the annual Hall of Fame Game, the NFL's first full slate of preseason games will commence on Thursday night and won't end until the final snap of Sunday's late afternoon tilt between the 49ers and Raiders.
There are reasons to watch each preseason game. Each will feature rookies making their NFL debuts, fringe players looking to increase their odds at making the roster and veterans who are just trying to stay sharp. And, in the case of one upcoming preseason game, there is a possible future Hall of Fame quarterback who is surely looking to make a good impression on his new, Super Bowl-winning coach.
Here's a rundown of the top five preseason games to watch over the coming days.
What other game will feature a possible future Hall of Fame quarterback and coach? That's what will unfold in Arizona when Russell Wilson takes his first snaps under new coach Sean Payton.
This is an important season for both Wilson and Payton. Wilson is looking to remove the stench of a 2022 season that saw him record career lows in just about every category, including touchdown passes (16) and completion percentage (60.5). Payton is hoping to end the Broncos' playoff drought, which has lasted since Peyton Manning rode off into the sunset after winning Super Bowl 50.
The former Saints coach perhaps applied more pressure to himself after his recent public criticism of Nathaniel Hackett, the Broncos coach last season who has resurfaced in New York as the new Jets offensive coordinator.
2. Jets at Panthers (Saturday, 4 p.m. ET, NFLN)
"He's everything we thought he would be in the draft process," Panthers QB coach and former NFL quarterback Josh McCown recently told The Athletic. "That's why we drafted him No. 1. From a character standpoint and work-ethic standpoint, he puts the time in and has a strong desire to maximize his potential every day. We felt that in the draft process and (after) three, four months now of working with him, we've seen that every day."
This game would move up to the top spot on this list if Aaron Rodgers makes his Jets debut. But Robert Saleh has yet to publicly announce his plans for Rodgers. Either way, the Jets quarterback situation will be something to watch, as former first-round pick Zach Wilson -- who played well in three series of work in the Hall of Fame Game -- would start if Rodgers watches the action in street clothes.
3. Steelers at Buccaneers (Friday, 7 p.m. ET)
A rivalry renewed? Baker Mayfield, who went 3-5 against the Steelers during his time with the Browns, will face Pittsburgh on Friday night as he looks to get the edge in his position battle with Kyle Trask. For the Steelers, fellow former first-round pick Kenny Pickett will look to build off of what has been an impressive training camp so far.
Pickett will get a chance to continue to build on his rapport with George Pickens, who has made a handful of jaw-dropping catches this summer. Other notable players to keep an eye on in this matchup is Steelers rookie cornerback Joey Porter Jr., fellow rookie and first round-pick Broderick Jones and Buccaneers top draft picks Trey Palmer and Cody Mauch.
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No. 2 overall pick C.J. Stroud will make his NFL debut against defensive guru Bill Belichick. The former Ohio State standout will be the first Texans rookie quarterback to start the preseason opener since David Carr during the team's inaugural season.
Stroud will surely look to lean on his supporting cast that includes wideouts Nico Collins, John Metchie III, Robert Woods and running back Dameon Pierce. Davis Mills, the Texans starting quarterback the past two seasons, will also get extended time.
Belichick has been tight-lipped regarding his personnel plans for Thursday night. Regardless, Patriots fans will want to keep an eye on rookie quarterback Malik Cunningham, who saw more reps under center this week after spending most of the early portions of camp at receiver.
A four-year starter at Louisville, Cunningham made plays with his arm as well as his legs for the Cardinals. He threw for nearly 10,000 yards with 70 touchdowns and just 29 interceptions. Cunningham also rushed for 3,179 yards and 50 touchdowns. In 2021, Cunningham threw for nearly 3,000 yards and 19 touchdowns while also rushing for 1,031 yards and 20 more scores.
Rookie first-round pick Anthony Richardson will also make his NFL debut this weekend. The fourth overall pick in April's draft, Richardson is currently listed alongside Gardner Minshew as the Colts starting quarterback.
The Colts have high hopes for another young offensive player in second-year wideout Alec Pierce, who averaged 14.5 yards per catch during his rookie season. Another young skill Indianapolis player who will likely receive a big workload on Saturday is rookie running back Evan Hull, a versatile player who amassed over 1,500 all-purpose yards during his final season at Northwestern.
Making his highly anticipated debut for Buffalo is rookie first-round pick Dalton Kincaid, who has developed a quick rapport with Josh Allen. The 6-foot-4 tight end caught 16 touchdowns during his final two seasons at Utah.