Televised football is finally here. With fresh games to watch, we can start distancing ourselves from last year's scouting reports, and see which players are rising and falling this summer.
Preseason action is most valuable for the opportunity to gauge veterans returning from major injuries, rookies with the potential for an instant impact and quarterback battles being won or lost.
Brandin Cooks and Mark Ingram, New Orleans Saints: A mainstay on this list, Cooks did nothing to quell the hype after catching five passes for 55 yards and a highlight-reel touchdown against the Rams. He lined up all over the field, playing the slot as well as both outside receiver spots. Watching Preseason Live, I noted that Friday night's performance was easily the best Ingram has looked since leaving Alabama. He was decisive, quick through the hole with noticeable burst and excellent balance and power. It was reminiscent of the form Ryan Mathews showed last August en route to a breakout season. The Saints are throwing a pick-your-poison attack at opposing defenses this season.
DeMarcus Ware, Denver Broncos: Ware turned 32 late last month, but served notice that he is still in his prime against the Seahawks on Thursday. Ware dominated the opening drive, stopping a Robert Turbin run, pressuring Russell Wilson into an incompletion and notching a sack in the first three snaps. His first step is still one of the best in the game.
Jason Pierre-Paul, New York Giants: Reports out of training camp suggests there was a "night and day" difference in JPP's quickness from last year to this year. He looked healthy against the Steelers on Saturday, moving well and beating his man on several plays. If he's finally over his back injuries, Pierre-Paul should return to double-digit sack territory again.
Matt Cassel, Minnesota Vikings: Cassel led the Vikes to their lone touchdown on his one series while rookie Teddy Bridgewater appeared to be not ready for prime time. Bridgewater was slow with his decisions, finishing an uninspiring 6 of 13 for 49 yards and a fumble. With the rookie struggling to move the offense, Cassel is emerging as the favorite to be under center in Week 1.
Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars: Bortles is doing his best to force the organization to rethink its stance that the No. 3 overall pick will sit behind Chad Henne for an entire season. The rookie looked comfortable under pressure, took chances down the field and showed good chemistry with his receivers while completing 7-of-11 passes for 117 yards versus the Bucs. We still believe Bortles will take over the reins by Thanksgiving.
Johnny Manziel, Cleveland Browns: Whether or not Manziel has truly moved ahead of Brian Hoyer in the coaching staff's eyes, Mike Pettine acknowledged Sunday that the No. 22 overall pick "has made a lot of improvements." Pettine is leaving open the possibility that this competition will carry through the third preseason game, contrary to original expectations.
Jordan Reed, Washington Redskins: Two separate Boston news outlets came away from the Patriots-Redskins joint practices convinced that Reed is a full-fledged star. The second-year tight end was one of the best players on the field and is primed for a breakout campaign as long as he stays healthy.
Dri Archer, Pittsburgh Steelers: Teammates have called the third-round gadget player not just a mismatch, but also one of the most explosive players they have ever seen. Beat writers have laughed at the linebackers' attempts to cover him in practice. Archer showed his difference-making speed with a 46-yard screen play against the Giants on Saturday. Coordinator Todd Haley is going to put the ball in his hands as a running back or slot receiver a few times per game.
John Brown, Arizona Cardinals: Another offseason-hyped star, Brown exceeded expectations with five catches for 87 yards on a team-high 10 targets against the Texans. He even drew a 39-yard interference call as cornerbacks struggled to deal with his 4.34 wheels. Having coached a similar rookie in T.Y. Hilton, Bruce Arians is the right strategist to make use of Brown's talents.
Andre Williams, New York Giants: The fourth-rounder out of Boston College has rushed for 83 yards on 14 rushes (5.9 yards per carry) through two preseason games. A powerful runner with arms and legs ricocheting off would-be tacklers, Williams is a dark-horse candidate to lead all rookies in rushing yards. Just don't ask him to catch a pass.
Travis Kelce, Kansas City Chiefs: The 2013 third-round pick outraced the Bengals secondary for a 69-yard touchdown that had coach Andy Reid calling him a standout after watching the film. Kelce might be one of the five fastest tight ends in the NFL. The key is to start working his way into first-team reps.
Ryan Mallett, New England Patriots: As Gregg Rosenthal put it, "Operation Showcase Mallett" blew up in Bill Belichick's face when the golden-armed backup quarterback failed to move the offense against the Redskins on Thursday. It has become the norm for Mallett in preseason action, which helps explain why quarterback-needy teams haven't been buzzing Belichick's phone. At this point, it will be an upset if Mallett doesn't play out the year as Tom Brady's backup before testing free-agent waters in 2015.
Blaine Gabbert, San Francisco 49ers: Football Outsiders' DVOA metric ranks Gabbert as the worst quarterback of the past 30 years. That's exactly how he played en route to 1.8 yards per attempt against the Ravens in the preseason opener. Shortly thereafter, coach Jim Harbaugh conceded that the backup job is up for grabs. The Marc Trestman-Jimmy Clausen duo cruised out to an early lead in the quarterback whisperer-reclamation project battle.
Ryan Fitzpatrick, Houston Texans: Kevin Patra was moved to label Fitzpatrick "the epitome of terrible" after Saturday's performance filled with "awful reads and pitiful passes." Fitzpatrick was so underwhelming that coach Bill O'Brien wouldn't rule out a change in his quarterback rotation when speaking to reporters on Sunday.
Chris Ivory, New York Jets: Ivory has missed time with knee, foot, hamstring, groin, shoulder and concussion issues in his career. After Thursday's preseason opener, we can add rib cartilage injury to the list. Ivory has always run like a poor man's Marshawn Lynch. He just doesn't share Beast Mode's durability.
Robert Woods, Buffalo Bills: After the Hall of Fame game, EJ Manuel said it was a bit surprising that Woods didn't see time with the first-team offense. After the second preseason game, Woods is still behind Mike Williams for the No. 2 spot and battling Chris Hogan for the slot role. There are several factors working against a breakout season for the 2013 second-round pick.
Chris Givens, St. Louis Rams: The Rams' alleged No. 1 receiver for the majority of the 2013 season has given way to Kenny Britt and Brian Quick with the first-team offense. Now losing reps to Tavon Austin and Stedman Bailey, Givens might be relegated to kickoff returns when the season begins.
Offensive line, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs O-line made this list two weeks ago when former All Pro guard Carl Nicks was released. They're back again. Sen'Derrick Marks and the Jaguars defensive line turned in a dominant performance, harassing Josh McCown into two sacks, a pair of fumbles and a pick-six in four series. Marc Sessler suggests Tampa Bay's offensive line is now battling the Cowboys' defense for the worst unit in the league. It's no wonder the Bucs are rumored to be one of the teams poking around on 49ers holdout guard Alex Boone.
Offensive line, Indianapolis Colts: Andrew Luck has absorbed more hits than any other quarterback in the league over the past two years. At the rate Colts linemen are dropping, that's not going to change in 2014. Having already lost veteran guard Donald Thomas for the season, the Colts watched center Khaled Holmes and rookie backup Ulrick John go down with injuries in the preseason opener. Had veteran center Samson Satele not signed with the Dolphins last week, he would likely be fielding a call from Indianapolis right now.
Cornerbacks, New York Jets: Rex Ryan's defensive scheme is heavily reliant upon strong press-man corners to click on all cylinders. That's a problem after Dee Milliner and third-round rookie Dexter McDougle sustained serious injuries in Sunday's practice. McDougle is out for the season while Milliner is battling a high-ankle sprain. It doesn't help that veteran Dimitri Patterson is missing practice with ankle and calf issues. Ryan's secondary threatens to be a problem for the second consecutive season.