$.01— The new officiating emphasis on initiating hits with the helmet has already met with controversy. It’s not going to go away even as much as old-school fans are going to complain about it.

One of the plays getting a lot of attention came from the Lions/Raiders game Friday night. A nationally televised game saw a textbook example of exactly what the new rule is hoping to curb, thanks to Karl Joseph hitting Ameer Abdullah.

I was fortunate to be at Lions camp when referee Brad Allen and his crew gave a seminar to the team, as well as to us in the media, about the new emphasis of enforcement. This hit checked two of the main boxes. Joseph lowered his head and led into the tackle with his head first and down, a definite violation. He also hit a runner who was already on the way down and could have avoided contact, another major point of emphasis.

The players saw the same video and got the same presentation, as well as the opportunity to ask questions about the rule. Allen informed us several Lions players and coaches asked very detailed and specific questions and there was a great back-and-forth on what the officials are looking for. We got the same in the media session, where Allen and his staff didn’t shy away from critical inquiries.

The bottom line here is the NFL is getting a lot more serious about protecting the players. The Ryan Shazier injury last season, where the Steelers linebacker was rendered motionless and partially paralyzed for weeks after a head-first tackle, scares the hell out of the NFL. It scares the hell out of a lot of players too, and it should. Emphasizing the post-football quality of life is something the NFL and the NFLPA have found rare agreement on, and these new points of emphasis are an extension of that. If players like Joseph can’t adapt their style, there might not be a place for them in the NFL anymore. That’s what happened to Shamarko Thomas of the Colts, who was cut after being ejected from Indy’s preseason opener for a similar hit. 

$.02—Perhaps the most impressive team debut came in Denver…but it certainly wasn’t the Broncos. The visiting Minnesota Vikings showed they are ready to maraud once again with a dominating 42-28 victory in the opener for both.

The contest wasn’t nearly as close as the final score would indicate. Kirk Cousins was a perfect 4-for-4 with a TD in his Vikings debut. The man he replaced, Case Keenum, completed just 1 of his 4 passes with his new team in Denver. The Broncos didn’t manage a drive that lasted more than 3 plays in the first half. Minnesota’s balanced attack produced 14 first downs to Denver’s one, which happened to be a Royce Freeman 23-yard TD run. Denver did add a punt return TD too, but the first half was all Minnesota.

It sure seemed like a statement game from Mike Zimmer’s crew. Playing later in the weekend, the Vikings took the opportunity to show the rest of the league, particularly their NFC North division foes, just how strong the Viking ship remains. Cousins looked comfortable in purple. The young playmakers on both sides of the ball showed up and appeared in regular-season form. The NFC appears to be quite top-heavy this year, and the Vikings belong in that hefty top group. That was true well before their massacring the Broncos. But what they did on the road showed focus, determination and a whole lot of potential for another deep playoff run.

$.03—The No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks squared off in New York on Thursday night. Baker Mayfield led the Browns into Giants Stadium to face Saquon Barkley and the host Giants.

Mayfield took over for Cleveland’s starting QB Tyrod Taylor after two drives and looked like he belonged. His poise, his pinpoint accuracy and his ability to manipulate and move in the pocket to get clean throwing lanes and dodge pressure was nothing short of fantastic. Not every throw was perfect, but the Heisman winner from Oklahoma didn’t make any mistakes or put his receivers in peril. Compared to the ghastly exhibition that was New York’s quarterbacks in the game, Mayfield shone bright. He had chemistry with dynamic second-year TE David Njoku and fellow rookie, troubled wideout Antonio Callaway.

Njoku caught two TD passes, the first from Taylor on a play where he sprinted past Giants LB Alec Ogletree like New York’s top coverage LB was, well, an ogling tree. That was part of the point for Hue Jackson and the Browns in coming off a winless season, to prove they can make plays. Mayfield proved adept at getting the ball when and where the playmakers need it, something that bodes very well for the surprisingly talented Browns.

Barkley’s brief performance also bodes well for New York. His first carry set social media ablaze and demonstrated why Giants fans have made his jersey the No. 1 in sales.

His other 3 carries netted just 4 yards, but that’s the cost of doing business with a dynamo like Barkley. As he often did at Penn State, Barkley piddles along and even loses yards often, but he’s capable of hitting home runs on every snap with one missed assignment or a great block. That very real threat makes the inevitable halves where he gains 16 yards on 11 carries worth it, when he erupts for 89 on the next two. The Giants appear to badly need it, as their receivers behind Odell Beckham Jr. (sitting out) were dreadful and the overall depth remains near the bottom of the league. One great play was enough for Barkley to show he’s worthy of the excitement. 

$.04— Mayfield and Barkley weren’t the only prominent rookies who impressed in their first looks. Several of their first-round brethren joined them.

Among them:

  • Jets QB Sam Darnold sure looked like a Week 1 starter with his efficient work in New York’s shutout win over an uninspired Falcons team. The No. 3 overall pick completed 13 of his 18 passes, though they netted just 98 yards. One of my favorite 2018 draft sleepers, sixth-round RB Trenton Cannon from Virginia State, also looked good for the Jets.
  • Colts guard Quenton Nelson was an unusually high selection at No. 6 overall for a natural guard. But man he looked fantastic in the opener, notably in the run game. Nelson was my top overall player regardless of position in this draft class and he looked it. Was nice to see Andrew Luck back in action too, and the Indy QB looked none worse for wear from his devastating shoulder injury.
  • Oakland OT Kolton Miller played pretty well in the Raiders win over Detroit. He got (rightfully) flagged for a hold that wiped out a Marshawn Lynch 60-yard TD run, but his pass protection held up nicely and he appeared to have a better understanding of how to use his 6-8 length as an asset and not an unbalanced detriment like it was far too often at UCLA. Raiders second-round DT P.J. Hall was better than any Lions DT, and that includes heralded veteran A’Shawn Robinson.
  • Also from that game, Detroit saw a lot of great things from both first-rounder Frank Ragnow and second-round pick Kerryon Johnson. Ragnow is the team’s starting left guard and is already better at both run blocking and pass protection than the last first-rounder in Detroit at that spot, Laken Tomlinson. A lot better. So is Kerryon at running back. He lost a 57-yard scamper to an iffy holding penalty, but Johnson showed a lot of promise with his vision, balance, gliding speed and aggressive attitude.
  • Panthers wideout D.J. Moore fluidly moved and got open reliably. He led Carolina with 4 catches for 75 yards and appears poised to be Cam Newton’s top wideout target quickly.

$.05-- Injuries are an unfortunate byproduct of the preseason action. For rookies it’s especially hurtful. Injuries rob teams of guys who are being counted upon to improve the team.

Sadly, Washington will play all of 2018 without second-round pick, and expected starting RB, Derrius Guice. The hard-charging slasher from LSU tore his ACL in Washington’s preseason opener and will be lost for the season. The Skins depth chart took a serious hit from what didn’t appear to be a serious hit. Guice was one of the more popular choices to win Offensive Rookie of the Year honors, but now the Skins backfield reverts to being Rob Kelly getting handoffs from Alex Smith.

Washington can look to Minnesota last season as an example of how to manage losing a prominent rookie running back. The Vikings saw Dalvin Cook, a similar type of runner and talent, go down in their fourth game last year. The Vikings adapted and wound up nearly making the Super Bowl. Washington isn’t necessarily as deep or talented as last year’s Vikings, but they’re not without hope even sans Guice.

Guice isn’t the only important player lost for the year. The Chargers already lost starting tight end Hunter Henry and top cornerback Jason Verrett even before the preseason started. Arizona will be without starting center A.Q. Shipley, a bigger loss than it might appear on first glance. The same is true for Jake Ryan in Green Bay, particularly given the Packers recent struggles with middle-of-field defense.

It's a bummer for fans all juiced up for action to not see the prominent players getting much, if any, reps in preseason games. Injuries like Guice’s are why teams would be foolish to risk it.