Rookie quarterbacks playing for rebuilding teams have dominated recent headlines. The second week of the preseason was just as noteworthy for the established pros coming back from major injuries.
Tony Romo is a 34-year-old veteran coming off multiple back surgeries. His steady progress throughout August showed up in Dallas' second preseason game with a few nice deep throws. For all the disaster scenarios surrounding the Cowboys' defense, Dallas still has a top-10 quarterback, a top-five wide receiver and a top-five left tackle. Romo just needs to stay healthy.
The St. Louis Rams would be a trendy playoff pick if they competed in any other division. Sam Bradford's first game back from a torn ACL was surprisingly smooth, especially considering his reorganized receiver group. He's fighting an uphill battle, but the Rams have to be encouraged.
Cam Newton doesn't look ready to fully test his ankle yet, but he took a big step in his recovery from surgery on Sunday night against Kansas City. The biggest help for Newton would be a strong running game, and Jonathan Stewart looks healthy again.
Blake Bortles, Jacksonville Jaguars: What more does a rookie have to do to win a starting job? Bortles likely won't be behind center in Week 1, but his sterling play has sped up the team's process. He's taken first-team snaps at practice this week and will do so in the third preseason game. Bortles throws well on the move, which we expected. His calm and accuracy in the pocket thus far has been impressive. The Jaguars are watchable again!
Gerald McCoy, Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The defensive tackle has been absolutely unblockable for two weeks. He's halfway to the coveted preseason Defensive MVP award and is a legitimate candidate for the regular season award.
Jaron Brown, Arizona Cardinals: One week after John Brown blew up the preseason, the lesser-known Brown gained 86 yards on just two catches. Brown has secured a spot on the team and clinched a lot of confusion for announcers. This receiver group is deep.
Minnesota Vikings: The entire offense wins after Minnesota's best-case-scenario second preseason game. Matt Cassel looked very sharp for the second straight week and remains the likely starter. But Teddy Bridgewater's strong second half and game-winning drive is a great sign after a rough week of practice. Assuming Cassel starts in Week 1, the Vikings can feel more confident when they inevitably turn to the rookie. One note of caution: Norv Turner made Brandon Weeden look heroic last August.
I objected to putting Kyle Rudolph on this list, but Chris Wesseling convinced me Rudolph looks faster than he's ever seen the tight end.
Ryan Shazier, Pittsburgh Steelers: Wesseling has shamelessly hyped up Shazier since the day the linebacker was drafted. And then the rookie delivered the best half of defensive football by any linebacker over the weekend.
Around The League's Making the Leap list: Friday night felt like the "Making the Leap" show around the NFL. Titans receiver Justin Hunter scored twice, made two terrific grabs and topped 100 yards. Eagles tight end Zach Ertz continued a big week in Foxborough, Massachusetts, with a score against the Patriots.
Saints safety Kenny Vaccaro jammed a month's worth of highlights into one half with four tackles, one sack, one forced fumble, one QB hit and a broken-up play that looked like a forced fumble. All three second-year players look ready to take a big step.
Hakeem Nicks, Indianapolis Colts: He's passed the eye test for the first time in a while. Nicks would have put up 89 receiving yards if not for a taunting penalty that wiped out one 36-yard gain against his former team. More importantly: Andrew Luck is looking to feature Nicks.
New England Patriots receiver group: Tom Brady is in a much better situation than a season ago. Danny Amendola is healthy, while Kenbrell Thompkins has backed up a buzzy preseason with some strong catches in games. Rob Gronkowski continues to make progress in his return from injury.
Baltimore Ravens running game: Bernard Pierce started the second preseason game and ran well. Ray Rice continues to look quicker than a year ago. The Ravens offensive line appears to be picking up Gary Kubiak's system quickly.
Rex Ryan's one-liners: "I will not be answering any questions about the secondary," Ryan said about his secondary against the Bengals, before he added that the Jets made Andy Dalton look like a "$100 million quarterback."
Atlanta Falcons offensive line: No. 6 overall pick Jake Matthews will move to the left side after Sam Baker's season-ending knee injury. This could be spun as a positive for Matthews' development, but the Falcons spent the entire offseason trying to build up their bulk up front. There is no way to spin losing a highly paid starting left tackle as a positive.
Eli Manning, New York Giants: Perhaps we underestimated the difficulty of Manning learning a new system after so long under offensive coordinator Kevin Gilbride. It's also worth wondering if Manning is a great fit for an offense that relies on quick throws and decision-making. Manning has excelled most when he's stretching the field and taking some chances.
EJ Manuel, Buffalo Bills: Coach Doug Marrone admitted that he didn't plan to play Manuel for the entire first half against Pittsburgh, but it looked like he wanted to see his young quarterback finish a drive. It didn't happen. The Bills keep moving the ball, but the first team offense hasn't scored a touchdown in three games.
Tom Savage, Houston Texans: We've confirmed that Savage is a corporeal entity and not a creation of draft enthusiasts. He just doesn't look ready for NFL action. Case Keenum has surely won the backup job after Savage averaged 2.75 yards-per-attempt in two preseasons outings.
Matt Schaub, Oakland Raiders: Defenders continue to sit on Schaub's routes because they know he can't push the ball down the field. Even the team seems to be coaching around Schaub's limitations. He hasn't completed a single pass that has traveled over 10 yards in the air, according to Pro Football Focus. Matt McGloin has completed 10. Chris Wesseling believes McGloin is a better quarterback than Schaub is right now.
St. Louis Rams running back depth: 2012 second-round pick Isaiah Pead is out for the season with a torn ACL. 2014 third-round pick Tre Mason has not impressed early in preseason action. Unfortunately, three has been the magic number for Mason on the depth chart.