A lot has been made about the value of preseason and there are teams who largely keep their starters out of for the most part, but every year there are guys who stand out when they finally get a chance to prove themselves on the field and they deserve to get their props. So this list doesn’t include any actual star players and in a lot of cases not even starters at this point. You won’t hear me talk about Patrick Mahomes looking nearly flawless in limited action or how a star pass rusher beat up some kind of third-string tackle. Usually I like to give guys credit who play the less-heralded positions, but with how many young quarterbacks have made an impression on me, they had to be the main topic of this article. Of course you have to take some performances with a grain of salt because we haven’t seen any game-planning or schemes being utilized, but what you can evaluate is physical ability, energy and play-making ability. So here are some of the guys who have stood out to me:
Darwin Thompson, RB, Chiefs
I just talked about the position battle for the RB2 in Kansas City in one of my latest articles and unlike most people did, I really never felt like Carlos Hyde would be the clear-cut second option out of the backfield. This is primarily due to this sixth-round pick out of Utah State. Darwin Thompson is a much more explosive player and has that big-play boost that Andy Reid loves as part of an offense who calls it’s speedy receiving corp the “Legion of Zoom”. Versus Cincinnati in week one Thompson had three consecutive four yard runs before powering ahead for an impressive nine-yard gain. But it was at the start of the second half that the rookie really stood out, ripping of a 16-yarder where he showed his hops, which ended up being called back, only to come back the very next play and turn a little angle route over the middle into a 29-yard score. In week two against the Steelers he continued that success, bouncing outside on some runs when nothing was there. Thompson has shown great contact balance for a guy right around 200 pounds and that he isn’t afraid of running into big linebackers. He has displayed an incredible jump-cut to get to the edge and ankles of steel to slip underneath of his blockers. He didn’t look bad in blitz pick-up either, using good cutting technique.
Mack Wilson, ILB, Browns
When I put together my positional rankings for the 2019 draft, I had this Alabama prospect as my number three linebacker after the two Devins (Devin White from LSU and Devin Bush from Michigan), who were really in a tier of their own. While I thought there was a big drop-off from those two guys in a murky linebacker class and Wilson didn’t show the best instincts all the time, I thought a speedy, physical linebacker with great ball-skills was certainly worth a day two selection. Instead the Browns stole him in round five. Wilson didn’t wait long to make an impression, as he came up with two outstanding interceptions in week one versus the Redskins – one trailing a running back out of the backfield without having to turn his back and taking it back to the house and the second one drifting out with a crosser one way and then sinking back to the deep middle to pick off the ball with full extension. Throughout the preseason he has shown his range chasing guys around and stringing them towards the sidelines, even if week one was definitely the highlight. The fifth-rounder was awarded the Browns’ award for the top rookie in training camp.
Daniel Jones, QB, Giants
As much as I hated the selection of the Duke quarterback sixth overall because of all the talent that was on the board at that point, I’m really happy to see Jones shut some people up this preseason. I watched several hours of tape on the Giants future QB and had serious questions about his arm-talent and ability to complete some of those passes outside the numbers against NFL speed, but I was really annoyed by all the TV “experts” and casual fans mocking the pick and player. However, with the way Jones is being talked about in the media now, you could argue that he is being overhyped, but I don’t want to take away any credit from the young man. Jones put up a perfect passer rating in his one and only drive of his debut performance and through these three games, he has gone 25 of 30 for 369 yards and two touchdowns. He had some ball-handling problems under center in week two and has had some easy completions off wide open crossing routes, but you have seen him play with confidence, keep the offense on schedule and actually surprise me with the way he drives some balls to throw his receivers open.
Andre Dillard, OT, Eagles
As soon as I first put on the Eagles film, I could not really tell if it was Jason Peters at left tackle or not. Andre Dillard has shown incredibly quick feet as we already knew, but also his anchor strength looked more than adequate for the NFL. He really popped out of his stance and got into his pass-set before the defender in front of him even got off the ball. While he still doesn’t blow his man off the ball in the run game, which is why I didn’t have him as a top ten prospect, that’s pretty much it. Dillard has the agility to seal or reach defenders and stays engaged to his man. The first-round pick only allowed his first QB pressure in week three against the Ravens. That’s one pressure surrendered on 75 pass-blocking snaps despite starting every game in the void of Peters. I’m not sure if this will change the Eagles’ plans of Dillard being more of a swing tackle and highly valuable back-up, but when he takes over on the blind-side in 2020, he should not give up that spot for the next decade.
Deion Cain, WR, Colts
When I put together my positional rankings ahead of the 2018 draft, I had Cain as a top ten receiver prospect coming out of Clemson due to his speed and YACability making him a candidate to develop into an excellent number two. The following training camp, he really impressed coaches but ended up missing his rookie season with a torn ACL. This preseason he has been doing everything to earn a role for these Colts. After just two catches for 15 yards in week one versus Buffalo, Cain exploded against the Browns with seven grabs for 80 yards. He had a couple of passes slip right through his fingertips, but also made a few tough grabs and showed what he can do with the ball in his hands. Cain did a nice job eating up the cushion he was given and working the underneath areas, while being elusive after the catch. He also got the ball in his hands quickly on screen passes on two different third-and-long situations near the opposing red-zone to improve field goal positioning. Cain’s highlight play came during Indy’s third game against Chicago, when he caught a deep in-route, where he broke the first tackle and went the rest of the way for a 46-yard score.
Josh Allen, OLB, Jaguars
Rarely do you have a guy, who primarily was looked at as a pass-rusher, make a list like this without picking up a single sack in three preseason games. However, Allen has flashed big-time as a dynamic addition to a defense that is looking to regain their 2017 form. While the former Kentucky Wildcat will still be most valuable as a threat off the edge in the passing game, he can be that SAM linebacker in base sets and move up as that third D-end on passing downs when they want slide Calais Campbell inside. The Jaguars have already utilized him rushing off either side from a two-point stance as well as with his hand in the dirt and he has looked natural off the ball to go with it. Allen had a dominant showing versus the Dolphins starters in week three, where he slipped one block and shot upfield to take down running back Kalen Ballage for a five-yard loss. In addition to that he put three hits on Ryan Fitzpatrick, showing the skills to dip under and knock away the hands of offensive tackles, and had another nice TFL on a swing route by the running back. While obviously having shown the ability to rush the passer, he has also been excellent at defending the run and tracking guys down in space.
Chad Kelly, QB, Colts
This was my fifth-highest ranked quarterback back in the 2017 draft, but off-field concerns made him that year’s Mr. Irrelevant and Denver ended up cutting him after being arrested. It took until now for a team to feel good about taking a chance on him. Through these three preseason games, Kelly has completed 72 percent of his passes 445 yards (7.8 yards per attempt) and a couple of TDs, with his one interception coming on a ball being stripped out a Colts tight-end’s hands. He has displayed great elusiveness, strength and most importantly composure in the pocket, not getting flushed and finding his check-down option if nothing opens up downfield. He had an amazing touchdown throw on third-and-ten versus Chicago, which I already referenced, when it looked like he was about to get stripped, but he hung in there and fired a laser to Deion Cain on a deep in-route. When he did have to escape, Kelly ran the ball seven times for 87 yards and another score. He has shown off his immense arm strength driving the ball on out routes, put it in the air for deep post shots and zinging the ball into tight windows on in-breaking routes. He played the entire first half versus Chicago’s number twos in week three, when he went six of seven on third downs outside of being sacked twice. After Andrew Luck’s surprising retirement at 29 years old, Jacoby Brissett is obviously the starter under center at this point and I have said before that I think he is one of the top 32 in the league, but I’m not counting a Kelly out for anything.
Jakobi Meyers, WR, Patriots
I had this former N.C. State receiver among my undrafted free agents, who could make an impact early on back in May. While Ryan Finley and Kelvin Harmon definitely were the guys I put on the Wolfpack tape for, I couldn’t help but notice number 11 making difficult catches over the middle on third down routinely. I didn’t think Meyers was a special athlete, but because of his hands, toughness and blocking abilities as a slot receiver, I really liked him. Several reports came out of New England about how the rookie has wowed everybody at training camp and he showed off in three straight weeks of preseason. Over that stretch he has caught 19 passes for 225 yards and two touchdowns. And 13 of his 19 catches went for first downs even though only one of those gained 20+ yards. While Meyers is at his best working the middle of the field, the Pats have used him as a wideout as well, especially from tight splits. With how much Bill Belichick emphasizes competition and the best man plays, I could easily see this kid be their number three pass-catcher in 2019.
Ed Oliver, DT, Bills
As my fourth overall prospect in the 2019 draft right, I had Ed Oliver right behind the aforementioned Josh Allen. To me it seemed like people overthought this kid. As we saw Oliver tear up his pro day and we moved closer to April 26th, I thought the Houston D-tackle had a good chance of being a top four pick, but ultimately mocked him to Buffalo. So far we have seen why he is a special prospect – supreme quickness and athleticism for a 285-pounder, natural power and high energy. While he hasn’t even collected a solo tackle so far, you have to put on the tape to see what this kid could be soon. In his first showing versus the Colts, he drove All-Pro guard Quenton Nelson back into Jacoby Brissett’s lap, forcing a bad throw, and he surprised me with his ability to anchor against double-teams. Week two against Carolina Oliver worked against two blockers and perfectly timed swatting down the ball at the line. And then in their third game against Lions there is no specific play that stood out, but he showed a tremendous motor and forced the Detroit QBs to move off the spot routinely. Six of the seven drives in that game went for 22 yards or less. Oliver has started all three of those contests and will directly take over for a Buffalo warrior in Kyle Williams as their 3-tech defensive tackle.
Tony Pollard, RB, Cowboys
This kid was the number two running back behind Darrell Henderson at Memphis, but has already given Cowboys owner Jerry Jones reason to joke to a reporter, responding with “Zeke who?” when asked about his star running holding out from training camp. During his collegiate career, the 205-pound back was mainly used on jet sweeps and outside run plays. However, Pollard has shown the vision and toughness to get it done in-between the tackles as well. He has impressed with his burst through the hole and balance to bounce off defenders or run through arm tackles. Those abilities have led to an average of 5.6 yards per carry, including a strong showing versus the Rams, even if they didn’t play any starters. With that being said, Pollard also missed an assignment in pass protection versus the Cowboys, which led to a sack on Dak Prescott. No, he won’t be able to replace one of the NFL’s premiere backs in Ezekiel Elliott, but he could be an asset alongside Zeke as a good role player and receiving option, but also simply a reliable RB2.
Taysom Hill, QB, Saints
After primarily being a gadget player and wildcat QB as well as special team star with the Saints up to this point, Hill is starting to make a case for being capable of getting the job done as a full-time quarterback. The former undrafted free agent out of BYU had already displayed impressive arm strength and power as a runner as part of Sean Payton’s packages for him last year, but this preseason he has demonstrated that he can lead the show. Hill has continued to dash with his speed and power as a runner, picking up 113 yards on the ground on 8.7(!) yards per rush, but he has also displayed the ability to defeat the blitz and make some big throws from the pocket. At some point he completed nine passes in a row versus the Chargers in week two and lead the Saints to three scoring drives, which made for 16 of their 19 points. Overall, he has completed 64.3 percent of his passes for 343 yards and three touchdowns and one early pick, while averaging 8.2 yards per attempt. Hill obviously has better arm talent and athleticism than 40-year old Drew Brees and he has absolutely outplayed Teddy Bridgewater throughout this preseason, which has me believing he could take over for New Orleans once Drew decides to hang them up.
Brian Burns, OLB, Panthers
It didn’t take the 16th overall pick long to make his mark on the NFL. Burns made most of his ten snaps in his preseason debut, earning a couple of sacks. He had a rather eventless week two, but came back versus the Patriots and had another two-sack performance, including a strip-sack to stop a promising drive, even though New England let their tight-ends slow him down at times. The former Florida State standout has shown a natural ability to rush the passer. He has added a pretty effective long-arm to go with his skills to bend and speed around the edge. In addition to his natural abilities, he has a displayed a feel for chips and when he has to come back underneath after getting too far upfield. On a defensive front that has Kawann Short, Dontari Poe, Mario Addison and now Gerald McCoy as well as Bruce Irvin, Burns should find himself in a lot of one-on-one opportunities and could put up numbers that will put him in the Defensive Rookie of the Year conversation. He might already be their most dangerous threat on the outside and should flirt with double-digit sacks.
Tanner Hudson, TE, Buccaneers
If I asked a hundred people about who is leading all players in receiving yards through this preseason, the only who would say Tanner Hudson would be the guy in the back, who I don’t see peaking at his phone and looking it up. Coming out of Arkansas State the tight-end wasn’t highly coveted, even if he was a second-team All-Division II selection his senior year. Hudson signed with the Bucs as an undrafted free agent in April of 2018, but didn’t see the field all year. So far he has been the star of preseason for them, recording 226 receiving yards, with 11 of his 17 catches going for first downs, including four of them for 20+ yards and he has reached the end-zone twice. He had an amazing performance against Miami, when he showed off his ability to gain yardage after the catch against zone and made two outstanding catches against man-coverage to set up the Bucs’ game-winning field goal. His best play however came last week, when he had a ridiculous one-handed grab on a big third down versus the Browns. With O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate cemented ahead of him on the depth chart Hudson’ opportunities in the regular season will certainly be limited, but he showed have absolutely earned a roster spot already.
Bradley Chubb, Broncos
As one of the few truly established players in this league, I thought Bradley Chubb deserved a spot on this list after looking like an absolute nightmare for offensive tackles. The second-year man only really “got on the board”, meaning put up any statistics in one game, but he also only played on series outside of week two. Against the 49ers, who he actually got some reps against, it looked like Chubb really worked on his pass-rush repertoire. He is still at his best converting speed to power, but seemed to have added some different swipes to turn a tighter corner and inside moves to direct a more direct path. On five pass-rushing snaps against San Francisco’s Joe Staley, Chubb directly forced an incompletion and a pick by putting hits on Jimmy Garoppolo and he recorded a strip-sack against the second QB. One of the other two snaps was a screen pass. Oh, and in the one series against Seattle, Chubb had another hit on the elusive Russell Wilson. His strength to control the point of attack and some work in pass-coverage were also impressive. If Chubb can improve on those 12 sacks from last season with Von Miller coming off the opposite edge, this pass rush could be scary.
Jarrett Stidham, QB, Patriots
The Patriots have drafted quarterbacks in the middle rounds pretty much every second year with Brady at the helm, because they understand the importance of the position and that they can always get back value for them, which they have done with guys like Jimmy Garoppolo and Jacoby Brissett, This year they selected Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham in the fourth round. The former five-star recruit was projected to be a first-rounder a year prior, but a letdown season for the Tigers without a lot of help around him really hurt the young signal-caller’s stock. I wasn’t sold on him either because of the amount of quick screens and easy completions making up the majority of his numbers, but watching him in that Patriots system, Stidham has really looked good. He has completed almost 70 percent of his passes for over 500 yards and a couple of touchdowns on 8.2 yards per attempt. His transition to an under-center, play-action based offense has been smooth, showing poise inside the pocket and a strong arm. You won’t see Brady get pushed off the throne any time soon and most of this came against second- and third-stringers, but Stidham was already the QB2 in week three and could some day replace the legend.
Daeshon Hall, DE, Eagles
The preseason is exactly for guys who have been on multiple teams and have yet to really cement themselves on a roster. Daeshon Hall only appeared in one game as a member of the Panthers in his rookie year and was a practice squad member on two teams in 2017. Last season he joined the Eagles and finally saw the field a little more, as he got half a sack in very limited action. This preseason he has been around opposing quarterbacks constantly and he has recorded three sacks already. Hall is an impressive power-rusher who is very effective with his hands and even drove back the Ravens starting right tackle Orlando Brown, who is a huge man at 350 pounds or so. More importantly however, he has been disruptive throughout games and he has displayed outstanding effort whenever I put my eyes on him, not only continuing to work his way to the quarterback but also flattening towards the ball-carrier coming from the backside of run plays. While he had two sacks in Jacksonville, Hall’s most impressive game might have come week one versus the Titans, when had a couple of QB hurries, a strip-sack, and a TFL on a counter play.
Some other names:
Chase Winovich, DE, Patriots
James Washington, WR, Steelers
Ryan Finley, QB, Bengals
Jalen Reeves-Maybin, LB, Lions
Austin Hooper, TE, Falcons
Quinnen Williams, DT, Jets
Justice Hill & Miles Boykin, RB & WR, Ravens
Corey Ballentine, CB, Giants
Miles Sanders, RB, Eagles
Eric McCoy, C, Saints
Devin Bush, ILB, Steelers
Chris Godwin, WR, Buccaneers
Sam Darnold, QB, Jets
Kemoko Turay, DE, Colts
All Bills running backs
Cody Barton, LB, Seahawks
J.J. Arcega-Whiteside, WR, Eagles
Oshane Ximines, OLB, Giants
Dre’Mont Jones, DL, Broncos
Richie James, WR, 49ers
For more coverage around the NFL and college football go to halilsrealfootballtalk.com