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NFL Preseason Week 2 winners and losers: Whose stock is rising? On the decline?

Some teams took the second week of the preseason seriously and some did not. Patrick Mahomes dropped back to pass 20 times in Arizona; many starting QBs (like Matthew Stafford and Aaron Rodgers) will not take a single preseason snap. The Buccaneers sat their starters after they had a cameo in Preseason Week 1, but Tom Brady is expected to play significant minutes this Saturday in Houston. The Patriots, Chiefs, Broncos, Dolphins and Washington Football Team continue to ramp up their starters with big workloads, while other fans pay full ticket prices to watch Nathan Peterman vs. Bryce Perkins.

There is no longer a formula to how teams approach the preseason. There is no right answer, although you wouldn't know that from reading the Twitter condescension toward two of the greatest coaches of all time, Bill Belichick and Andy Reid, for their belief that playing football might help their players improve at playing football.

So if you don't see your team in the winners and losers of Preseason Week 2, don't blame me. Blame your team's coach for the forgettable game!


Zach Wilson's calm: The Jets rookie showed a lot more in his second preseason game. Not that the first one was bad, but Saturday in Green Bay, Wilson played at a noticeably fast tempo, making swift decisions, showing quick feet and going through his progressions. The arm strength is obvious. This preseason should give him and the Jets confidence he's ahead of schedule, even if his performances have come against backups.

Cowboys' new linebacking duo of Micah Parsons and Keanu Neal: Neal came with Dan Quinn and changed positions. He is now officially a starter alongside Parsons, with veterans Jaylon Smith and Leighton Vander Esch coming off the bench. This is remarkable, considering Smith's contract and Vander Esch's draft pedigree combined with his electric rookie season. But Parsons is simply too good to keep off the field; the No. 12 overall pick's lining up at middle linebacker, Vander Esch's position. Neal passing Smith so quickly is a bigger eye-opener and raises more questions about Smith's future.

Cam Newton's chances to start Week 1: Newton has consistently dominated first-team reps at Patriots practice. Cam backed up that vote of confidence with the best quarter he's had in a Patriots uniform since that loss in Seattle early last season. Monday's news that Newton will be away from the team until Thursday due to COVID protocols following a "misunderstanding" should not impact the big picture, especially with the team appearing to take blame here. (It also leaves time for Newton to get ready for Sunday's preseason finale against the Giants.)

Mac Jones has looked terrific in the preseason -- he's PFF's highest-graded QB! -- but there are concerns about a nagging knee injury that showed up during an awkward scramble against the Eagles. Bill Belichick wants to see what the Patriots' running game looks like with Newton behind center because it's undeniably better that way, and this is going to be a run-heavy team. It's a lot easier to bench Newton than Jones -- and that's likely what will eventually happen unless Cam gets the Patriots into first place and never looks back.

Patriots' front-seven depth: New England's offense may get better, but it's unlikely to be too far above average no matter who is at quarterback. The Pats' defense, on the other hand, has a chance to improve far more in 2021 with Matt Judon, Christian Barmore, Davon Godchaux and the returns of Kyle Van Noy and Dont'a Hightower making the team's front seven look vastly better than a year ago. They are all showing up in the preseason, especially Judon.

Teddy Bridgewater: It felt like the Broncos coaching staff was gearing up to name Drew Lock the team's starting quarterback until Teddy pitched a near-perfect game (in two possessions) against the Seahawks. Bridgewater was excellent at buying time in the pocket, earning comparisons to Tom Brady from Vic Fangio after the game. The coach said Teddy played "extremely well" and applauded his "quarterback awareness," which is the nicest thing I've ever heard Fangio say about a Broncos offensive player.

Lock was forgettable in his relief appearance, partly due to a leaky backup offensive line. Bridgewater has a PFF grade of 83.4 through two games, while Lock is at 64.0. These grades -- like all preseason evaluations -- are from a tiny sample size where a few plays make all the difference. There has to be a better way to choose a starter. (Such as the body of work, when the coaching staff is so familiar with both players. This shouldn't be that hard.)

J.J. Watt: He is returning to practice Monday from a hamstring injury, although "return" feels like a misnomer. He's missed all of training camp and his buildup to the season is worth watching closely on a Cardinals defensive line that has been banged up all August.

DeVonta Smith: I don't care that he dropped a few passes, especially the ones thrown late and behind him by Joe Flacco. I do care that he's back on the field getting wide open against quality competition like New England's J.C. Jackson. Smith's route-running jumps off the screen.

Chiefs' running game: This sounds strange to list on the same weekend that Clyde Edwards-Helaire suffered an ankle injury, but the stranger part is that I don't think Kansas City would miss the second year pro much if the ailment were to linger.

The Chiefs use the preseason to refine their starting offense and they often have explosive games in September to prove it works. It's not hard to spot how much more dynamic and diverse the running game looks this year. The young offensive line -- with three rookie starters -- is full of road graders. Andy Reid wanted to get them quality time to jell in the preseason. Veteran runner Jerick McKinnon looks way more dynamic than he did at any point in San Francisco, and I suspect he'll have a much bigger role behind CEH than many have anticipated. Kansas City's 15-play opening drive against Arizona reportedly mirrored much of camp, with Patrick Mahomes staying in structure and the Chiefs taking what the defense gives them. That could lead to a lot more rushing attempts by a Reid-coached team than we are used to.

Cowboys' offensive line: Tyron Smith, Zack Martin and La'el Collins were on the field at the same time for the first time since 2019. If that continues, this Cowboys offense should be just fine.

Jaret Patterson: Preseason MVP candidate! It's safe to say the undrafted running back from the University at Buffalo is going to make the Washington Football Team. He's great on returns and power runs, finding space through tight quarters by moving laterally. I wonder if Peyton Barber's going to make the team now.

Pat Freiermuth: When Ben Roethlisberger needed to find someone in the red zone, he looked to Freiermuth. (One connection came after a vintage Ben pump fake.) The rookie tight end came through with two contested touchdown grabs, the second of which was a twisting, back-shoulder pluck. Roethlisberger will not forget those plays or Freiermuth's Heath Miller-like skills come the regular season.

"He reminds me of another tight end we had here before," Roethlisberger noted postgame. "I'd like for other teams not to know too much about him."

Colts' young pass rushers: The reports out of Colts camp have been uniformly impressed with No. 21 overall pick Kwity Paye. His burst was obvious on a lighting-fast sack of Kirk Cousins on Saturday. The Colts need Paye to be a factor right away. Meanwhile, former second round pick Ben Banogu continued a big month with a strong game against the Vikings.

Landon Collins: I went into this offseason wondering if Ron Rivera had any more use for Collins at strong safety. After a strong camp and an excellent 10 snaps against the Bengals, there is hope that the former All-Pro's old form is back. While he could be used in a rotation, he's playing too well to be cut by Washington now.

Juan Thornhill: Still slated to be the Chiefs' third safety, Thornhill's diving interception on Friday was a sign that his confidence is returning after slipping to the third team in practice at times.

Texans' pass rush: A positive Texans note! If you are looking for a reason for optimism, Charles Omenihu and Jacob Martin looked at home in Lovie Smith's 4-3 defense, even going against quality Cowboys starters.

Cardinals' defensive watchability: It's not just Zaven Collins' size and jersey number (25). He is a transfixing player to watch play the game. The duo of Collins and Isaiah Simmons is going to make the Cardinals a lot more fun to see on Sundays this year.

Chris Jones' Defensive Player of the Year candidacy: Jones' increasing use as an edge rusher is going to be a problem for opponents. Based on all the camp reports and the preseason, it sure looks like one of the game's 10 best defensive linemen is setting up for a career year.

Myles Gaskin's workload: When NFL Network reporter/Dolphins Svengali Cameron Wolfe says that Gaskin is the clear leader in the Dolphins' backfield, believe him. Gaskins' game Saturday should only make that call easier.

David Njoku's playing time: Another week, another report that Njoku is the best tight end in Browns camp.

Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah: Jacob Phillips' unfortunate biceps tear will only help to open up snaps for JOK. Cleveland's defense needs playmakers and the rookie qualifies.

Joe Tryon-Shoyinka: While we are talking about hyphenated rookies, please notice the name change above. Also get used to saying it because the Bucs' rookie pass rusher looks like a beast.

Bills' young pass rushers: Seeing rookie Gregory Rousseau and second-year pro A.J. Epenesa build on all their glowing practice reports with big efforts on game day is legit preseason inspiration. I feel way better about Buffalo's pass rush now than I did a month ago.

Packers' run game: AJ Dillon looks like a hoss in Year 2, and the Packers found something in rookie seventh-rounder Kylin Hill. Green Bay's offense should be deep and diverse, including on the ground.

Tua Tagovailoa: The Dolphins' second-year singal-caller continues to check boxes. His three consecutive long drives against the Falcons' backups weren't flashy, but he is showing better timing, pocket movement and anticipation.

Titans' young cornerbacks: First-round pick Caleb Farley was the fourth cornerback to hit the field Saturday. Tennessee is taking it slowly with him, and the rookie admitted that he felt like he was playing "stuck in mud," but at least he's out there following a back injury that hurt his draft stock. Third-round slot corner Elijah Molden may not need the same time. He was probably the best player on the field in Tampa Bay.

Ravens' preseason prowess: Nineteen straight preseason wins. The most improbable streak in sports rolls on.


49ers' quarterback clarity: Jimmy Garoppolo barely played again, with half of his six throws sailing high, including an interception that deflected off Brandon Aiyuk's hands.

I believe Kyle Shanahan gave Trey Lance the opportunity to take the starting job during the preseason, as if the coach wanted it to happen. Lance's up-and-down performance for the second straight week hasn't made it easy, but Shanahan's postgame comments Sunday night -- in which he refused to name a Week 1 starter -- indicate it's still an open question.

Lance's bumpy snaps are to be expected for a rookie. After Lance started 1-for-6 with his own deflected interception, the No. 3 overall pick led the 49ers on a touchdown drive in the two-minute drill and added another scoring march in the second half, complete with a gorgeous bullet scoring throw to Travis Benjamin after he looked off defenders. Still, there have been sluggish moments beyond the highlights. Lance was given 14 drives in two games!

The game appeared to be coming fast at Lance, who often held the ball a while, missed some open receivers and could have been picked off two more times. When he started to let it fly and use his legs, it was a lot of fun to watch. Nothing would surprise me here. If Shanahan wants Lance to win the job, it can still happen. Because even if Lance starts the season on the bench, there's no way he ends there.

Bengals' offensive line: "We don't really have starting guards yet" is not what you want to hear head coach Zac Taylor say after two preseason games. It's early, but this sure feels like the same old Bengals up front.

Ja'Marr Chase: The No. 5 overall pick couldn't come down with three catchable passes in three drives Friday. This would be less of a concern if it didn't mirror Chase's reported problems with drops and separation throughout camp. It won't be a surprise if Chase starts the season clearly behind Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd in production. Paul Dehner of The Athletic believes that Auden Tate could wind up cutting into Chase's snaps, too.

Penei Sewell: The Lions drafted Sewell No. 7 overall, then made him change positions. I'll never understand that strategy, and the early returns are not positive. You don't need to be Daniel Jeremiah to see that Sewell hasn't looked comfortable at right tackle. Just look at his usage: Some Lions starters rested Saturday, while others came out of the game before Sewell because the rookie needed extra work.

I would push back on the narrative that Sewell and Chase are struggling because they didn't play football last year. While that should be taken into context, every situation is different. Joe Tryon-Shoyinka, Gregory Rousseau, Micah Parsons and Rashawn Slater were opt-outs, as well, yet they're enjoying terrific Augusts. So this is not a one-size-fits-all situation.

Jets' pass rush: Carl Lawson's torn Achilles -- suffered in practice last Thursday -- was unfortunately the biggest football news of the week. The Jets' defensive identity was set to be up front, with Lawson as the leader. Connor Hughes of The Athletic called Lawson the best player on the team, offense or defense. Lawson's injury exposes the team's thin edge talent. The Jets are also counting on Quinnen Williams coming off foot surgery, and starter Sheldon Rankins missed Saturday's game with an injury. A trade for a veteran would not be a surprise here because the situation is dire already.

Bears' quarterbacks: This is no huge slight to the play of Andy Dalton or Justin Fields on Saturday. They were both uneven, with Fields showing more spark. This is a recognition of how tough their jobs could be with the current state of Chicago's offensive line. It's not just left tackle, where the Bears are hoping Jason Peters can save the day at age 39; right tackle Germain Ifedi also just came off the PUP list Monday. On the offensive line, you need coaching, talent or cohesion. I'm not sure the Bears have any of the above. While the boos for Dalton in the preseason felt unnecessarily cruel, it's worth wondering if Fields' mobility is a better fit behind such a faulty offensive line. Dalton may not get a chance to hit many throws on schedule.

Vikings' backup quarterback situation: Remember when Jake Browning was the only Vikings quarterback in camp, so everyone said he'd win the backup job over rookie Kellen Mond? Now it appears like no one wants this job. With Minnesota's offense looking brutal through two weeks, the Vikings are playing with fire here.

O.J. Howard: He doesn't look the same coming off a torn Achilles tendon. A pair of drops and a blocking mishap further hurt Howard's chances of having a major role in Tampa when the season starts.

Sam Ehlinger's chances to start: On one hand, Ehlinger looks like a guy I'll be watching play preseason football for the next decade, much like fellow UT quarterback Colt McCoy. Then again, Ehlinger's two interceptions on passes thrown into tight windows probably ended his chances to start for Indianapolis Week 1 if Carson Wentz isn't ready. Jacob Eason wasn't any better than Ehlinger in relief, but it's time for Frank Reich to get Eason as ready as possible.

Travis Fulgham: He's clearly behind Quez Watkins on the Eagles' receiver depth chart now. Fulgham should still be safe from the chopping block, but crazier things have happened.

N'Keal Harry: Unnecessarily diving for a pass that he dropped and getting hurt on a perfectly thrown go ball by Mac Jones is unfortunately a perfect snapshot of Harry's Patriots tenure. I'd guess that Harry makes the team, but a late-round-conditional-pick trade is possible, too.

Falcons' backup quarterback situation: Coach Arthur Smith said the Falcons would be looking at the available quarterback market even before AJ McCarron's torn ACL was confirmed. Undrafted rookie Feleipe Franks doesn't look ready for a backup job. Could Atlanta show interest in Nick Foles if the Bears offer to pay some of his salary?

Follow Gregg Rosenthal on Twitter.

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