NFL preseason winners, losers: Who helped themselves the most in final tune-ups?

Nate Davis

The abbreviated NFL preseason, which turned out to be more concise than expected – even after the league and players agreed to lop off off the fourth week to offset each team's 17th regular-season game moving forward – is officially a wrap.

With the real games starting in less than two weeks, every club's record now reverts to 0-0 – though the exhibition slate gave several organizations reason for optimism while quite a few more should probably be harboring significant concerns heading into Week 1.

This past weekend conveyed final dress rehearsal impressions, and another round of winners and losers – before the wins and losses actually count ... 


Joe Judge: Very classy touch by the New York Giants head coach to wear a U.S. Marine Corps hat on the sideline Sunday evening. Preseason can be an anxious time for NFL veterans hoping to make a 53-man roster ... but it's currently a far more stressful period for military veterans, so many trying to come to grips with the situation in Afghanistan after they sacrificed so much there over the past two decades. "Obviously we lost 13 soldiers this past week in Afghanistan," Judge said. "I get pictures all the time of people wearing Giants hats, people wearing Giants T-shirts, letters from all over, soldiers overseas, letting us know, ‘Hey, we're overseas, but we're rooting for you.’ It's great that they’re rooting for our team, I think it's more important we all acknowledge we're on the same team and that we're supporting them as well."

Top-tier quarterbacks: No sign of reigning league MVP Aaron Rodgers in uniform this preseason, but the other three quarterbacks from last season's conference championship round shone over the weekend. Recently voted the league's top overall player by his peers in an NFL Network survey, the Chiefs' Patrick Mahomes hit on eight of nine throws Friday against the Vikings, totaling 117 yards, two TDs and a perfect 158.3 passer rating. The Bills' Josh Allen saw his first game action this month Saturday against the Packers, going 20-for-26 for 194 yards and two TDs. And in his final tune-up of this preseason, reigning Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady led a pair of touchdown drives exceeding 90 yards in the Buccaneers' win at Houston. 

Injured Broncos: Perennial Pro Bowl OLB Von Miller, who missed the entire 2020 season with an ankle injury, recorded three tackles Saturday, his first on-field snaps since 2019. Denver WR Courtland Sutton, a Pro Bowler in 2019 who missed all but one game last year with a torn ACL, caught a TD from new QB Teddy Bridgewater while making his own 2021 debut.

Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Trevor Lawrence (16) rolls out to throw a pass in the first quarter against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.

Trevor Lawrence: To the surprise of no one, he was officially installed as the Jacksonville Jaguars' starting quarterback last week. To the relief of many in DUUUVAL County – namely greenhorn NFL head coach Urban Meyer – Lawrence played like a No. 1 draft pick Sunday, connecting on 11 of 12 passes for 139 yards and his first two professional TDs ... even if it occurred backup Dallas Cowboys defenders. Lawrence will probably face a similar caliber defense on Sept. 12, when the Jags host the Texans in the opener.

Terez Paylor's legacy: A highly respected NFL writer, and veteran of the Kansas City Star and Yahoo! Sports, Paylor died suddenly in February at 37. But the Chiefs helped ensure he won't be forgotten, retiring his press box seat at Arrowhead Stadium while donating $10,000 to a scholarship fund honoring Paylor at Howard University, his alma mater. Mayor Quinton Lucas proclaimed Aug. 27 as “Terez Paylor Day” in Kansas City.

Justin Reid: The Texans starting safety, a former soccer player who routinely kicks in practice, kicked off three times for Houston and even made a tackle after one of them. "I had the time of my life," said Reid, who was in line to try a field goal had the offense gotten within range. "I've been looking forward to this moment for so long."

Joe Burrow: Lawrence's predecessor as the league's top draft pick, the Cincinnati Bengals quarterback took his first game reps since tearing the ACL and MCL in his left knee Nov. 22. Burrow, welcomed by chants of "Joey, Joey" at Paul Brown Stadium, only got three snaps Sunday – more on those later – though shaking even a touch of rust off was definitely a step in the right direction.

Fringe tight ends: Undrafted Jets rookie Kenny Yeboah caught four passes for 100 yards and two TDs on Friday, including a 49-yard Hail Mary at the end of regulation that allowed New York to salvage a tie against the Eagles. Meanwhile, the Bears' Jesper Horsted, who wasn't drafted out of Princeton in 2019, had a TD trifecta Saturday, finishing with five grabs for 104 yards in his closing statement to Chicago brass as he tries to stick around.

Unvaccinated Bills receivers: After being shelved last week by COVID-19 protocols, Buffalo's Gabriel Davis and Cole Beasley – unapologetic vaccine holdouts – combined for nine grabs, 127 yards and a TD upon returning Saturday. Still, many – namely Buffalo coach Sean McDermott – would feel better if they followed the lead of teammate Isaiah McKenzie, who finally relented and got a shot, citing the "greater good" on a social media post.

Sam Darnold: In his first extensive action of preseason, he passed for 162 yards and two TDs as his new team, the Panthers, rolled past the Steelers 34-9.

Baltimore Ravens: They established a modern record by winning their 20th consecutive preseason game, eclipsing a mark held by Vince Lombardi's Packers. Backup QB Tyler Huntley looked awesome, accounting for five TDs (4 passing, 1 rushing) in a 37-3 rout of Washington. Sadly, Baltimore's Battle of the Beltway win was largely overshadowed ...


Baltimore Ravens: They suffered perhaps the most significant injury of preseason, losing starting RB J.K. Dobbins, who averaged a gaudy 6 yards per carry as a rookie in 2020, to a torn ACL. Gus Edwards, who's rushed for at least 700 yards in all three of his NFL seasons while averaging 5.2 yards per carry himself, is a capable replacement. But expect the run-reliant Ravens, who waived veteran Mark Ingram in January, to be on the lookout for depth. Adding insult to injury, the first-team offense and QB Lamar Jackson didn't look great, the 2019 MVP getting sacked twice on his only series of preseason.

Sam Darnold: Hard to figure why Carolina didn't give the Jets castoff more actual game snaps this month as the No. 3 pick of the 2018 draft seeks to resurrect his career. Playing against Pittsburgh backups Friday – and the beneficiary of multiple Steelers turnovers – Darnold was under duress far too often and continued to exhibit carelessness with the ball that bedeviled him at USC and in New York.

Daniel Jones: Sacked twice and threw another ugly INT in his first game since end of last season. You wonder if more reps would've helped as Jones tries to avoid Darnold's Big Apple fate entering Year 3.

Ja'Marr Chase: His nightmarish rookie preseason is mercifully over. The fifth overall pick of the 2021 draft by Cincinnati, Chase, who dropped all three passes thrown to him in the previous game, couldn't hang on to Burrow's only pass Sunday. Chase is a highly regarded prospect, and it's been widely believed he and Burrow will rekindle the chemistry they displayed in LSU's record-setting ride to the 2019 college football national championship. But Chase's August performance suggests he doesn't currently belong on the field. "Not worried about it," said Burrow. "I know the kind of guy Ja'Marr is. The kind of player he is. He'll be ready to go Week 1."

Cam Newton: Shaky end to a week when the Patriots' presumed QB1 missed several practices due to mishap with COVID-19 protocols. Sunday, Newton completed two of five passes for 10 yards against the Giants and was charged with an INT that wasn't entirely his fault. Bill Belichick was mum after the game, and first-rounder Mac Jones has certainly created a dilemma for the New England head coach heading into the opener against the Dolphins.

Fantasy value of 49ers QBs: San Francisco coach Kyle Shanahan platooned veteran Jimmy Garoppolo and rookie Trey Lance in Sunday's win over the Raiders, toggling between them within drives depending on the situation. Remains to be seen if this continues into the regular season, but beware fantasy owners.

Jordan Love: Saturday was only his second career preseason action, but missing a receiver on fourth down and heaving an interception into the end zone off his back foot will hardly make Packers fans believe the 2020 first-rounder will be ready to replace Rodgers in 2022.

Joey Slye: The strong-legged kicker, who's made 54 of 68 field goals over the past two seasons, was cut by the Panthers. Carolina is rolling with recently acquired Ryan Santoso, who drilled his first field goal Friday ... since he played for the University of Minnesota in 2015. Expect Slye to catch on elsewhere soon despite three wayward field goals in eight attempts this preseason.

New Orleans Saints: Hurricane Ida's approach forced the cancellation of their final preseason game (against the Cardinals) while displacing the Saints to Texas, where they will practice next week at the Dallas Cowboys' AT&T Stadium, per reports. Of course, all things being relative, an inconvenienced NFL team that didn't get to evaluate the bottom of its roster is hardly a major concern at the moment as Ida ravages the Gulf Coast.


Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.