Preseason football isn't nearly as cut-and-dry as the regular season when it comes to evaluating performances. Context is doubly important, with big names often intermingled with fringe-of-the-roster hopefuls. But that doesn't mean we can't draw a few conclusions in the lead-up to the real matchups. With a week of 2023 NFL preseason in the books, here are some of the most notable winners and losers:
(Check out Fantasy'sand from preseason Week 1.)
Winner: Dorian Thompson-Robinson
One hundred and thirty-nine players went ahead of the UCLA quarterback in the 2023 draft, but the fifth-round rookie has been a legit dual threat in two extensive appearances for the Browns. Against two solid defensive teams in the Jets and Commanders, DTR has gone 17 of 21 (81%) while averaging five yards per rush. He should be in play to open as Deshaun Watson's top backup.
Loser: Mac Jones
The much-maligned Patriots starter didn't suit up against the Texans, but instead watched as 1) backup Bailey Zappe accurately completed all but two of his 14 passes; 2) the retooled offensive line struggled to hold firm; and 3) undrafted rookie Malik Cunningham jump-started the offense with electric scrambling. Jones' job is safe for now, but the urgency for play-making is growing in New England.
Winner: Saints fans
New Orleans is banking a lot on the availability of veterans who've struggled with just that, but seeing Derek Carr dishing it to Alvin Kamara and Michael Thomas against the Chiefs, with Jameis Winston later dumping it to Jimmy Graham (!), must've been encouraging. The NFC South isn't exactly loaded with surefire contenders, so if those big names stay healthy to pair with Dennis Allen's defense, maybe a sneaky playoff run wouldn't be crazy after all.
Loser: Kyle Trask
The Buccaneers have refused every opportunity to simply hand starting QB duties to Baker Mayfield, but Trask was clearly inferior against the Steelers in his first audition for Tom Brady's old job. Whereas Mayfield went 8 of 9 with a touchdown drive capped by a perfect scoring pass, Trask was picked off and sacked three times behind the same line. He probably needs a dominant showing or two in the remainder of the preseason to unseat Mayfield for the Week 1 gig.
Winner: Justin Fields
The young Bears QB finally got reinforcements this offseason, but his brief work against the Titans, complete with the renovated offense, was even more promising than expected. Throwing just three passes, Fields finished with 129 yards and two scores thanks to brilliant after-the-catch burst and vision from both D.J. Moore and Khalil Herbert. Obviously Fields will face different challenges in the real games, but talk about an encouraging first step into 2023. He didn't have nearly the help a year ago.
Loser: Established backup QBs
Some of them were just fine; Drew Lock, for example, looked sharp for Seattle, and Tyler Huntley cemented himself as Lamar Jackson's No. 2 in Baltimore. But there were just as many, if not more, incumbent or presumptive backups who struggled to fend off down-the-depth-chart competition. Nate Sudfeld, who's drawn repeated endorsements from Lions brass, threw two picks in the wake of Teddy Bridgewater's arrival. Marcus Mariota, who joined the Eagles to back up Jalen Hurts, was far more mercurial through the air than rookie Tanner McKee. And Brian Hoyer, the Raiders' new No. 2, became an afterthought as rookie Aidan O'Connell coasted through the 49ers in what amounted to a full start.
Winner: Young WRs
Richie James may not be young by typical standards going on 28, but he's an emergent name and poised for a breakout in Kansas City, where he hauled in a couple of key Blaine Gabbert throws against the Saints. Meanwhile, rookies Jordan Addison and Tank Dell had highlight-reel plays for the Texans and Vikings, respectively, with Addison displaying All-Pro footwork on the sidelines and Dell flashing utility-weapon electricity. The Steelers might also have an underrated deep threat in 2022 fourth-rounder Calvin Austin III, who snuck past the Buccaneers for a bomb of a touchdown.
Loser: Instantly high first-round QB expectations
Growing pains were always inevitable, but most of the highest-drafted signal-callers had a bit of a rude awakening in their first exhibition work. Bryce Young got rid of the ball quickly for the Panthers but managed just 21 yards behind an iffy line. The Texans' C.J. Stroud threw an ugly pick in two scoreless drives against the Patriots. The Colts' Anthony Richardson threw an even uglier one against the Bills and had a nice deep shot dropped. And Titans second-rounder Will Levis failed to outperform 2022 third-rounder Malik Willis, who suddenly looks like a safe bet to back up Ryan Tannehill going into the year.
Winner: Robbie Gould
The 49ers had few answers for the Raiders in Las Vegas' Sunday rout, and it didn't help they couldn't find relief on special teams. Third-round rookie Jake Moody entered with an apparent edge on trade acquisition Zane Gonzalez, only to miss field goals from both 40 and 57 yards. This occurred just weeks after longtime 49ers leg Robbie Gould said he would've liked to return to San Francisco for a 19th NFL season. The 40-year-old Gould is still available, and maybe now the Niners will have reason to call.
Loser: Trey Lance
It's probably more accurate to say the former first-rounder had mixed results in his first game action since early in the 2022 season. If not for a pair of missed field goals, he might've kept the 49ers competitive with the Raiders. But in six series, he led just one score, which came on a near-pick, and took four sacks while improvising behind middling protection. His challenger for the team's No. 2 job, Sam Darnold, floated some prettier passes on a more balanced script. But the fact both guys paled in comparison to Raiders rookie Aidan O'Connell means there's still work to be done behind Brock Purdy in the 49ers' QB room.