The NFL preseason has become an increasingly difficult setting from which to glean any useful information.
The league's expansion to a 17-game regular season – and corresponding reduction of preseason games from four to three – has seemingly prompted teams to be even more reserved in any extended use of starters or key contributors. More than ever, August is a proving ground for end-of-roster decisions rather than battles at the top of the depth chart.
Nevertheless, last week's opening slate of preseason games still presented a few meaningful takeaways regarding several notable figures and franchises.
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Here are the winners and losers of NFL preseason Week 1:
Having been acquired by the Carolina Panthers a little over a month ago, Mayfield seemingly needs only to avoid catastrophe to secure the starting quarterback gig over Sam Darnold. So far, mission accomplished. While Mayfield was no world-beater in Saturday's 23-21 win over the Washington Commanders, he didn't cede any ground in the race, completing four of seven attempts for 45 yards and leading a field-goal drive. Panthers coach Matt Rhule has said he won't declare a starter until after this week's contest against the New England Patriots, but Mayfield appears to have all but ended this so-called competition.
Pickens is poised to be quite the parting gift from Kevin Colbert, the recently retired Pittsburgh Steelers general manager known for his rare ability to find top-notch receivers on Day 2 of the draft and beyond. The Georgia standout, who slid to the No. 52 overall pick this spring after tearing his anterior cruciate ligament last March, might go down as the last of Colbert's shrewd selections. A toe-tapping, 26-yard touchdown reception in the Steelers' 32-25 win over the Seattle Seahawks was the latest bit of evidence that Pickens can help liven up a passing attack in transition. Already a training camp standout thanks to his aggressive approach and penchant for creating big plays, the 6-3, 200-pound target will be difficult to keep sidelined for long.
— Pittsburgh Steelers (@steelers) August 14, 2022
The best performance in Week 1 from an off-the-radar player belonged to McCutcheon, the undrafted free agent wide receiver out of Montana State who hauled in two touchdown passes and a two-point conversion to power the Los Angeles Rams' 29-22 win against the Los Angeles Chargers. The highlight came on a 60-yard score in which the 6-3, 202-pound target leapt for a sideline pass from Bryce Perkins, shook two defenders and raced to the end zone. And he did it all in front of his mother and aunt, who drove down from Montana for the game. McCutcheon is making a strong push to land on the Rams' 53-man roster, and he should be a priority for other teams if he doesn't make the cut.
Yes, another rookie wide receiver makes the list. Perhaps no other player in the NFL created as loud of a buzz in training camp as the 6-2, 201-pound Nevada product did in his first summer with the Green Bay Packers. Doubs' outing against the San Francisco 49ers on Friday did include a few missteps – most notably a couple of drops – but the performance underscored his readiness to be a significant factor in the Packers' rebuilt passing corps. Having built a name for himself this summer with highlight-reel plays, Doubs put his skill set on display when he torched Tarvarius Moore for a 33-yard touchdown reception from Jordan Love. The key to translating his strong start to the regular season will be earning the trust of Aaron Rodgers, but the quarterback has already publicly voiced high praise for Doubs. Despite being a fourth-round pick, he could have an edge on second-round receiver Christian Watson, who was only activated off the physically unable to perform list Sunday.
The 6-for-6, 80-yard performance in one drive that was capped by Hurts' 22-yard scoring strike to Dallas Goedert speaks for itself. Even more impressive, however, was that the Philadelphia Eagles quarterback managed that in his brief appearance against the New York Jets without targeting new No. 1 receiver A.J. Brown and while DeVonta Smith was ruled out. Most importantly, Hurts popped up no worse for the wear after taking a late hit out of bounds from Jets linebacker Quincy Williams.
The Houston Texans might have the most talent-starved roster in the NFL, so seeing some promise from a mid-round pick is an important development for the rebooting franchise. Enter Pierce, the fourth-round running back out of Florida who reeled off 49 yards on five carries, including a nifty 20-yard gain, against the New Orleans Saints. Marlon Mack might be the starter for the short term, but Pierce should have the chance to take over the backfield at some point.
There might not be a Week 1 starter among this year's crop of rookie signal-callers, which was widely seen as one of the weakest groups in years. Still, at least several of the first-year passers flashed some promise in their debut outings. Kenny Pickett, the lone first-rounder of the bunch, had the strongest showing, completing 13 of 15 attempts for 95 yards and two touchdowns while working with the Steelers' third-team offense. Malik Willis dazzled with a few throws and a 7-yard scoring jaunt, though Tennessee Titans coach Mike Vrabel pulled the third-rounder for being too indecisive as a passer. Desmond Ridder of the Atlanta Falcons and Sam Howell of the Commanders each had encouraging days as well. Of course, there was one notable exception ...
In contrast to his fellow first-year passers, Corral is continuing down a troublesome track with the Panthers. The third-round pick from Mississippi seems to be the forgotten man in the position group, as he was the fourth quarterback to see the field against Washington, entering the game after third-year veteran PJ Walker. Corral only hurt his cause from there, completing just one of nine passes. Playing anytime soon is likely out of the question for Corral given Rhule's hot-seat status. While that might end up being best for Corral's long-term development, there's little reason for optimism about where things are headed on that front in the early going.
In January, McCarthy said reducing penalties was the No. 1 priority for the Dallas Cowboys, the league's most-flagged team in 2021. Whatever offseason lessons he emphasized have yet to land with his team, as the Cowboys racked up 17 penalties for 129 yards in Saturday's 17-7 loss to the Denver Broncos. There's plenty of time to set things straight, but the importance of improving discipline isn't lost on McCarthy, who said afterward the penalties were "clearly way too much." If that sloppiness remains, the trend could derail Dallas' season in the same fashion it did last year and leave the third-year coach with a blazing hot seat.
The preseason is typically a better format for evaluating individual players rather than entire teams, but the Browns hit several substantial roadblocks. Deshaun Watson, making his preseason debut for the Browns while awaiting a decision on the NFL's appeal of his six-game suspension, completed just one of five attempts in three series. Wide receiver Anthony Schwartz had two drops. And most notably, starting center Nick Harris suffered what is expected to be a season-ending knee injury. This effort will mean little in the grand scheme of things, especially relative to what the final decision is on Watson. But Cleveland might not be able to shake off Harris' loss, especially if the team doesn't bring back last year's starter in JC Tretter, who remains a free agent.
Since arriving from Denver in the Russell Wilson trade, Lock has had work to do to catch up to Geno Smith for the starting quarterback job with the Seahawks. This weekend looked like a prime opportunity until a fourth-quarter fumble marred his two-touchdown day. Lock admitted that he mishandled the protection and missed a hot read on the play, allowing a free rusher to barrel into him for a sack and turnover. Given his ugly track record with protecting the ball (25 career turnovers in 24 games), Lock might be running out of time to convince Pete Carroll he can be trusted over the more reliable Smith.
Speaking of ball-security issues ... Gibson's fumbling woes don't appear to have been resolved. The Commanders running back had the most fumbles (six) of any non-quarterback in the NFL last year, and he coughed the ball up again Sunday. Rookie Brian Robinson stepped in and had a strong day, logging 26 yards and a touchdown on six carries. Robinson is the more decisive runner of the two, and he could end up taking a major chunk of Gibson's previous workload.
The Chicago Bears' offensive support for their starting quarterback looks about as shoddy as the grass at Soldier Field on Saturday. Fields took two sacks and was under constant duress against the Kansas City Chiefs, though he did manage to uncork an impressive 26-yard connection with Darnell Mooney. But the bottom line is clear: This offensive line ranks as one of the NFL's worst, and Fields can't expect much assistance from any of his supporting cast in 2022.
A regime change can leave recent top draft picks of a given team in an unenviable spot. Leatherwood, the No. 17 overall pick in 2021 by ousted Las Vegas Raiders general manager Mike Mayock, already looks to be on notice. Despite starting 17 games last season at right tackle and right guard, the 6-5, 312-pound blocker didn't play Sunday against the Minnesota Vikings until the second half, taking a back seat to seventh-round rookie right tackle Thayer Munford. The Raiders' pervasive offensive line problems should mean that Leatherwood will have a chance to re-establish himself, but the Alabama product looks to be off to a shaky start under new coach Josh McDaniels and general manager Dave Ziegler.
Follow USA TODAY Sports' Michael Middlehurst-Schwartz on Twitter @MikeMSchwartz.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: NFL preseason winners, losers: Cowboys, Browns out of sorts in Week 1