Biggest Winners and Losers of 2022 NFL Preseason
The NFL preseason came to a close Sunday, marking the final step until we can officially count down until Week 1. The Thursday Night Football showdown between the Buffalo Bills and Los Angeles Rams is right around the corner.
But first, we're reflecting on the biggest winners and losers of the 2022 NFL preseason.
Some individuals fully grasped their opportunity to earn playing time or show growth. Others not only failed to play well, but also raised enough concerns about their futures on their respective teams.
Earning a spot in the doghouse so early in the year can be difficult to overcome.
Can our winners continue their trajectory and blossom throughout the regular season? The NFL's landscape in 2022 will look completely different if the preseason was at all predictive.
Each of these winners and losers brings storylines we must track throughout the year. Let's dive into the four biggest winners and four biggest losers of the 2022 preseason.
Winner: Steelers Quarterbacks
Thought to be a position of weakness this offseason, the Pittsburgh Steelers' overhauled quarterback room performed extremely well in the preseason. Newcomers Mitch Trubisky and Kenny Pickett both showed promise. The two played differently, but both found success moving the ball and converting drives into points.
Trubisky completed 24-of-34 attempts for 283 yards and two scores. He was more aggressive in attacking passing lanes downfield, notably taking advantage of his explosive receiving corps. Add in his ability to scramble and create plays with his legs, and Trubisky showed more of the promise we saw in his rookie year than over the past three seasons.
Pickett wasn't far behind the veteran despite being a rookie. Instead of hunting big plays downfield, Pickett took advantage of what defenses gave him and was relentless with his short accuracy, completing 29-of-36 attempts for 261 yards and three touchdowns.
The rookie's play established him as the second quarterback on the depth chart even though Mason Rudolph played well in his time on the field. Rudolph, in the final year of his contract, completed 26-of-39 attempts for 220 yards and two touchdowns. Pittsburgh may be able to trade Rudolph elsewhere for a draft pick since their new additions were so impressive.
Rookie receiver George Pickens certainly enjoyed his own breakout, too. His ability to win over cornerbacks and on contested-catch opportunities rounds out what was already a talented unit. Honestly, his preseason performance nearly merited its own slide.
Loser: Drew Lock
If Drew Lock had any opportunity to win the Seattle Seahawks' starting quarterback job entering Week 3 of the preseason, he ruined his chance with poor play. Lock endured a preseason of setbacks, ranging from missing Week 2 because of a positive COVID-19 test, to throwing three interceptions in Week 3, to taking a sack on 40 percent of snaps he was pressured on.
Throughout his tenure in Denver, Lock was easily rattled and saw his accuracy become completely unpredictable when a defender entered his sightline. Growing past this career-killing trait is incredibly rare for any quarterback. Dallas continued to exploit this weakness in Week 3, as Lock completed only 13-of-24 attempts to go with his three picks.
Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll named Geno Smith the starting quarterback for Week 1 shortly after that game. Lock not only failed to show his readiness to start, but it's also fair to wonder whether Seattle should look elsewhere for a backup.
Winner: Isaiah Likely
The Baltimore Ravens have invested in Rashod Bateman, Devin Duvernay, James Proche II and Tylan Wallace over the past three offseasons with little return. After much hand-wringing over what their plans were to replace Marquise Brown and expand their passing game, the best answer may be backup rookie tight end Isaiah Likely.
Likely, a 2022 fourth-rounder, is looking like he could bring notable boost to the offense. All-Pro tight end Mark Andrews will still dominate the target share, but Likely's 6'4", 241-pound frame moves exceptionally well on routes. Baltimore can use him as an in-line tight end, slot option or even on the boundary at the same time Andrews is on the field.
Likely's 12 catches for 144 yards and one score in two games were all Baltimore needed to see before resting him in Week 3. The formal Coastal Carolina star emerged as a truly dominant threat in 2020 and 2021, totaling 89 catches for 1,513 yards and 17 touchdowns.
Lamar Jackson will continue to feed Likely as long as he's open. Brown received 317 targets over the past three years, topping out with 146 last year. It's possible Likely could take half those targets and prove to be the third receiver on this offense in 2022.
Loser: Kenny Golladay
Since suffering a hip sprain in Week 8 of the 2020 season in Detroit, there haven't been many positive moments in Kenny Golladay's career. The four-year, $72 million contract he signed with the New York Giants was based on optimism he'd reclaim the dominant vertical status he established throughout 2018 and 2019.
His 2021 season with the Giants was a mess. Golladay's average yards per game dropped from 65.3 in Detroit down to a mere 37.2 last season. It was the first time he failed to register a touchdown all season, and his catch rate dropped almost 10 percent from his career average.
Things have not gone better for the big-name free agent this summer. In Sunday’s preseason finale against the New York, Golladay logged 14 offensive snaps with one target and zero catches. For the preseason, he hauled in a single catch for six yards.
It led new Giants head coach Brian Daboll to make some eye-opening post-game comments on Sunday, saying Golladay is competing for his role.
To be clear, the Giants are not going to release Golladay. He has $17.5 million guaranteed for the 2022 season, and New York would take a $31.35 million dead-cap hit by releasing him.
That said, no team is going to trade for the free-agent bust, either. But we wouldn’t be surprised if he found himself as a reserve when New York opens the regular season against the Tennessee Titans on September 11.
Winner: Malik Willis
From being benched in his first preseason game to starring in his final contest in Week 3, Malik Willis showed rapid growth in a short amount of time. Willis' playmaking with his legs was never in doubt as he entered the NFL, but his 50-yard near-score against Arizona was a thrilling moment.
The thought of pairing Derrick Henry with a dynamic run threat like Willis would be terrifying for any defense.
The more important aspect of Willis' development is his consistency as a passer. Blessed with one of the strongest arms in the NFL, Willis had the tendency of throwing a fastball regardless of the situation while at Liberty. His touch was there, but he didn't feature it enough.
There was a clear progression from last fall as Willis completed 15-of-23 attempts for 131 yards, one score and one interception against the Cardinals. His sidearm touchdown throw to Treylon Burks was another highlight moment, but we had already seen Willis' creativity with sidearm attempts in each of the previous two games.
Although Willis may not be ready to push Ryan Tannehill for the starting job yet, the Titans have an immensely gifted playmaker developing behind the veteran. If Tannehill struggles as much this season as he did last year, they may need to think about whether Willis can give the unit a boost like Lamar Jackson helped the Ravens midway through 2018.
Loser: Browns passing game
Losing Deshaun Watson to an 11-game suspension will significantly hurt the Cleveland Browns' postseason hopes. His initial six-game suspension created more margin for error, and now there is basically none.
Instead, the Browns will try to make do with Jacoby Brissett. Brissett is a high-end backup who proved to be a fringe starter throughout his time in Indianapolis and Miami. Asking him to start for six games might've been reasonable, but he'll be exposed more over the course of 11.
The Browns' passing game was dreadful in their lone outing with Brissett in the preseason. He completed only 13-of-23 passes for 109 yards and an interception. It's important to note Cleveland rested Nick Chubb, Kareem Hunt and Amari Cooper for those snaps.
Still, the Browns' backups showed they lack depth at receiver. Anthony Schwartz looked unplayable, as he struggled with three drops on six targets. He averaged just 1.25 yards per route run despite having elite track speed.
Cleveland will need to grind out games and play an ugly style of offense until Watson returns. This unit could use another playable receiver to go with Cooper, David Bell and Donovan Peoples-Jones. Look for them to be active on the waiver wire after cuts are made.
Winner: Rookie Running backs
Although we didn't see a running back drafted in the first round of the 2022 NFL class, the early returns from this crop of rookies are promising. New York Jets second-rounder Breece Hall, Washington Commanders third-rounder Brian Robinson, Houston Texans fourth-rounder Dameon Pierce and Atlanta Falcons fifth-rounder Tyler Allgeier have each positioned themselves into a role early on.
While Hall was expected to quickly find success, Robinson and Pierce are more pleasant surprises.
Robinson's recovery from an attempted robbery in which he suffered multiple gunshot wounds represents an unexpected setback for someone who was pushing Antonio Gibson as the starter.
Pierce had a less congested way to earning RB1 status on the Texans, yet he impressed in his preseason opportunities nonetheless.
How Atlanta treats 2022 will be fascinating. The team re-signed 31-year-old Cordarrelle Patterson and signed 30-year-old Damien Williams despite having one of the worst rosters in the NFL. They'd be wise to integrate rookie quarterback Desmond Ridder and Allgeier sooner than later to see if either can be foundational starters throughout their rebuild.
The two connected on a touchdown reception near the goal line in Week 3 of the preseason.
Loser: New England Patriots
The New England Patriots offense lost a major piece of what made them successful when Josh McDaniels accepted the Las Vegas Raiders' head coaching job. It was unlikely the Patriots could replace him with someone who would be just as creative and timely with their play calls, but New England didn't give themselves much of a chance. They decided to rely on Matt Patricia and Joe Judge to fill the opening.
Patricia, a former defensive coordinator, and Judge, a former special teams coach, have little--to-no experience developing a quarterback. Mac Jones has looked lost in preseason games, completing 61.9 percent of his passes for 132 yards, one terrible interception and three sacks. He's thinking more than he had to last year with McDaniels, and his processing has slowed down considerably.
New England's starting offense couldn't find a rhythm in a 23-6 to the Raiders' backups in Week 3. Jones' interception was especially bad, as he threw the ball directly to a linebacker who had been standing in a similar spot throughout the play.
This might be a tough year of regression for Bill Belichick's team as they pay for his decision to replace McDaniels with Patricia and Judge.