Trying to make heads or tails of the NFL preseason is tricky as ever, even with two of the three weeks of the 2022 slate complete. The league's teams continue to approach it in a variety of ways, some opting to utilize starters while others rely on training camp practices and increasingly common joint sessions with other clubs to serve as August's proving ground.
So it's easy to be encouraged when you watch New York Giants fourth-year QB Daniel Jones complete 14 of 16 passes ... until you remember he's flourishing against Cincinnati Bengals reserves. Alternately, it would be nice to get a read on the New York Jets and Cleveland Browns, teams likely to be reliant on backup passers – Joe Flacco and Jacoby Brissett, respectively – to start the season, yet neither veteran has played in a game this month.
Still, plenty of sterling performances surfaced over the weekend – as well as several concerning ones – ahead of Tuesday's league-wide roster cutdown to 80 players per team:
Baltimore Ravens: Their 24-17 victory at Arizona on Sunday was the Ravens' 22nd consecutive preseason win, a streak extending to 2015. These games don't count in the standings, but it's probably no coincidence that Baltimore has basically been a perennial contender for the entirety of the 21st century. "You gotta be ready to play,” said QB Tyler Huntley, who crackled in place of Lamar Jackson, completing 13 of 14 passes for 129 yards and a touchdown. “It just shows we're trying to win every time we touch the field.”
KaVontae Turpin: The USFL's MVP in 2022, he's all but locked up a roster spot with the Dallas Cowboys thanks to Saturday's showing. The 5-9, 153-pounder is listed as a receiver but makes his bones as a return ace. Against the Bolts, he bolted for 12 points courtesy of 98-yard kickoff return and 86-yard punt return, both in the first half.
— Dallas Cowboys (@dallascowboys) August 21, 2022
Rookie quarterbacks: The top three passers selected in April's draft all shone. Expected to ultimately become retired Ben Roethlisberger's successor for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Kenny Pickett – the lone QB taken in Round 1 this year – turned in a second impressive preseason performance, Saturday's occurring with the Pitt product playing with starters and against Jacksonville's varsity defense. His August numbers: 19 completions in 22 attempts for 171 yards and three touchdowns – and zero turnovers. It seems unlikely Pickett will overtake free agent signing Mitchell Trubisky by opening day ... but equally unlikely that the rookie won't finish this season in the saddle.
The Tennessee Titans' Malik Willis was in the starting lineup for the second straight game and threw his first pro TD pass a week after running for one. He still needs plenty of polish but has flashed enough as a run-pass threat to suggest he might nail down the QB2 job before Week 1 and might even push starter Ryan Tannehill out the door before the start of next season.
Finally, the Atlanta Falcons' Desmond Ridder wasn't perfect Monday night but was more than efficient while connecting on 10 of 13 throws for 143 yards against the Jets. Might be a while before he supplants Marcus Mariota, but if the Falcons' season unfolds as expected, good chance Ridder gets a few starts in 2022.
'Hard Knocks' viewers: The Detroit Lions and head coach Dan Campbell should provide plenty of good fodder on HBO this Tuesday night after a few joint practices in Indianapolis followed by a dramatic 27-26 win – thanks in big parts to backup QB David Blough and the defense – over the Colts on Saturday.
— Detroit Lions (@Lions) August 23, 2022
Kayvon Thibodeaux: The fifth overall pick of the 2022 draft, the New York Giants pass rusher escaped with "only" a sprained MCL after his right knee bore the brunt of a cut block by Bengals TE Thaddeus Moss on Sunday night. Coach Brian Daboll couldn't guarantee his gifted rookie will be ready for Week 1, but the outcome is nevertheless a relative relief given the nature of the play when Thibodeaux was injured.
Romeo Doubs: The Green Bay Packers' rookie fourth-round receiver caught his second TD pass in as many weeks and appears to be back in QB Aaron Rodgers' good graces. "He's gonna be expected to play based on his performance so far in camp," Rodgers said Monday, adding Doubs has created a higher standard for himself than the Pack's recent rookie pass catchers.
Matt Araiza: The famed "Punt God" from San Diego State, the rookie displaced Buffalo veteran Matt Haack (released Monday) without even attempting a kick Saturday. Maybe not a huge surprise given Araiza was drafted in the sixth round and launched an 82-yarder the previous week, while Haack generated a pair of 38-yarders this month. Also probably not massively significant given the Bills offense, which punted all of four times in two playoff games last season, looks so good and didn't allow for a proper punting competition. Araiza might spend the bulk of his time this year holding for K Tyler Bass.
Isaiah Likely: The Ravens' fourth-rounder snatched all eight of his targets Sunday to the tune of 100 yards and a TD. Given Jackson's propensity to lean on his tight ends, Likely could be quite a contributor in 2022 ... even if Mark Andrews' fantasy owners prefer he isn't.
Matt Patricia: It appears the longtime Patriots defensive assistant, also formerly the head coach for the Lions, has "won" the offensive play-calling job in New England after performing the role in Friday's game, which was also QB Mac Jones' 2022 preseason debut. “He’s really starting to get a feel for it," Jones said of Patricia. “He’s very easy to talk to on the sideline. Very easy, laid back-type coach but he demands a lot and I respect that about him. Hopefully we can grow for a long time.” And hopefully Jones knows he'll also be talking a lot to Bill Belichick and quarterbacks coach Joe Judge, who shared play-calling duties with Patricia in the preseason opener.
Jody Fortson: The Kansas City Chiefs backup tight end caught a pair of TD passes from QB Patrick Mahomes on Saturday and appears well into a successful comeback after his 2021 season was cut short by an Achilles injury. And given K.C. has been known to use triple-tight sets, the outlook for this converted wideout appears rosy.
Buccaneers: Tompa Bay's Tom Brady is back in the building following his mid-camp interlude ... and not a moment too soon following the Bucs' brutal offensive performance (174 yards, 3 points) in Nashville over the weekend.
Drew Lock: He's still alive for the Seattle Seahawks' starting quarterback job after the Geno Smith-led offense looked totally uninspired while being shut out in the first half at home by the Chicago Bears. Smith also banged up his right knee.
Drew Lock: He missed Thursday's loss, which he was supposed to start, due to COVID-19 and lost an opportunity to create distance from Smith. Not the first time the virus has picked Lock.
Buccaneers: TB12 lost another offensive interior offensive lineman after G Aaron Stinnie, who was in the mix for retired Ali Marpet's post, tore multiple knee ligaments.
Tony Gonzalez: No disrespect to Fortson, but why is he – or anyone – allowed to wear the No. 88 jersey the Hall of Fame tight end popularized in Kansas City?
Sam Darnold: The Panthers quarterback didn't get to play Friday and threw all of three passes in preseason (one for a TD) yet lost the starting job to Baker Mayfield anyway.
Matt Corral: The Panthers quarterback did play Friday ... and suffered a Lisfranc injury that could cost the former Ole Miss star his rookie season. Corral wasn't likely to see the field much – if at all – in 2022, but the prospect of surgery and rehab will only hinder the third-rounder's professional transition.
Cowboys penalties: On the plus side, Dallas reduced its flag count from 17 in the preseason opener to eight Saturday against the Chargers. Yet that number should have been lower still, Team McCarthy offside once, called for illegal formation another time and two false starts for bad measure.
Bryce Hall: Not to be confused with Jets rookie RB Breece Hall, New York's third-year corner – he started all 17 games last season – showed why he seems to be slipping into a reserve role. Hall got burned for a 52-yard catch by Falcons TE Kyle Pitts – not a lot of shame in that – on Atlanta's first drive, but then surrendered a 13-yard TD to WR Olamide Zaccheaus on the next one. Given the choice of targeting rookie CB Sauce Gardner or Hall, pretty good bet whom opposing QBs will choose.
Vikings backup QBs: Reserves Kellen Mond and Sean Mannion were so underwhelming that Minnesota swung a trade for journeyman Nick Mullens on Monday. Mond, a 2021 third-rounder who started Saturday, threw two interceptions and – after former coach Mike Zimmer expressed frustration with him during his rookie season – seems increasingly unlikely to take over for Kirk Cousins in the future.
Charles Cross: Seattle's first-round left tackle committed four penalties before halftime, three of them false starts. A longtime problem area, the Seahawks O-line, which will rely on Cross and fellow rookie tackle Abraham Lucas, remains a work in progress.
Cardinals' alternate uniforms: Sorry, but the black helmets you plan on mixing in this season don't help. Still owners of the league's ugliest threads, this organization should take QB Kyler Murray's advice ... and throw it back or start over entirely. FWIW, Arizona's social media team also proffered good advice ...
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Nate Davis on Twitter @ByNateDavis.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL preseason winners, losers: Isaiah Likely among standouts