The preseason always offers undrafted free agents a shot to earn a roster spot, other plays a way to move up on the depth chart and some just a chance to show the coaching staff what they’re capable of. In this segment, I want to point about twelve players, who I thought proved something in these games leading up to the regular season. All of them fit a different bill and the results will vary for each of them. Either way, all of those guys impressed me and helped themselves earn some more playing time.
The Lions have been waiting for Abdullah to finally stay healthy and be their featured back now since they drafted him in 2015. He has kind of been a preseason hero so far in his career, yet after one-and-a-half promising starts last season, he was done for the year with a sprained foot. After resting the former Nebraska star for the first two preseason games, the Lions let him show off what he can do in week three. Abdullah rushed for 60 yards on 13 carries and added another three catches for 39. What I saw from him on the field was tremendous burst, stretching those zone-plays out wide before deciding to stick his foot in the ground and go. The Patriots defenders repeatedly overran plays because Detroit’s RB pressed the outside so hard, which opened up space in the middle and led to a bunch of five- and six-yard gains. In the passing game, he was a safe outlet underneath, which gave him an opportunity to show off his open-field skills, where he used his speed and ability to make people miss for extra yardage. With a much-improved offensive line, the Lions run game could see a humongous upgrade this season.
Don’t get me wrong, I still thought the Bears should have never traded multiple third-round picks just to move up a single spot in the draft and even the third overall pick would have been far too rich for my blood, but Trubisky gives the Chicago fanbase something they haven’t had for a few years now – hope. I could easily see the one-year starter at North Carolina becoming the best quarterback in NFL history, just because so far that title belongs to … Jay Cutler?! Honestly, the Bears haven’t had a true franchise QB maybe ever and even though I understand we talk about preseason, Trubisky has looked like one so far. The number two overall pick showed excellent understanding of route-development and anticipation, as displayed by him releasing the ball before receivers even came out of their breaks and delivering the ball right on the numbers. Not only did he fit throws into tight windows, he also showed touch when needed. Mitch showed he suits the Bears offense well with running bootlegs off run-fakes and when operating from the pocket he got rid of the ball quickly. All that has led to an average completion-percentage north of 70 percent, QB rating of over 115 and a touchdown in each of the three contests. Let’s see how long they’ll keep the rook on the bench.
This guy had a great three-quarters of last season before going down with an injury finally again, but he didn’t get the recognition he deserved, as he wasn’t even ranked as one of the top 100 players in the NFL according to his peers. This preseason JPP has been all over the place with an interception in week two, a couple of pass-knockdowns, sacks and a surge through the line of scrimmage to force a safety vs. the Jets. If you asked NFL GMs a few years ago who they would select first to start a team with in terms of defensive players, quite a few would have picked the Giants DE. I feel like he’s tired of being banged up and not playing up to his potential. If his energy level in the preseason is already an indication of things to come, he’s in line for a huge season. We just have to see if he brings it each week through entire games. I expect him to get back to double-digit sacks and being one of the more disruptive run defenders from his 4-3 defensive end position, plus he will take away passing lanes with his long limbs as arms.
I had Barnett as my number two edge rusher in the draft and as an early first-rounder because of his pass-rush arsenal. He’s not nearly the kind of athletic freak Myles Garrett is, but that guy can flat out ball. In the first two weeks of the preseason, the all-time leading sacker in Tennessee history has shown heavy hands, excellent bend and an ability to finish plays. I saw some snaps where he looked like a true technician, dipping his shoulder and getting under the blocker, before flipping his hips and flattening to the quarterback. That led to three sacks in two contests, which is tied for the lead in preseason sacks at this point. Philadelphia has one of the premiere defensive lines in all of football with Brandon Graham, Fletcher Cox and Timmy Jernigan. Barnett is the missing piece to really put the heat on opposing backfields. He could be a double-digit sack guy right off the bat, as long as the coaches give him enough playing time, which I think he has earned with his work in the preseason.
I don’t think anybody has had a better preseason than Kendricks. I mean he’s a five-year vet and at some point a couple of years ago I thought he was one of the more complete linebackers in the league, but with trade-rumors last year due to him apparently not fitting Jim Schwartz’s 4-3 scheme and him being frustrated about the lack of playing time all the way until this offseason, it kind of felt like he was the odd man out in Philly. I believe he has shown he can fit in any scheme and make enormous plays. Kendricks has recorded three picks with one of them going to the house. In a linebacking corp that includes Jordan Hicks and Nigel Bradham, who I thought would pay off big time as a free agent addition a year ago, the Cal alumni might not rack up huge tackle numbers, but he will be a significant factor in pass coverage, as those INTs and a pass deflection in each game on top of that indicate. He has also picked up a sack this preseason and outside of his rookie season and a letdown season in 2016, he has proven to be a threat as a blitzer. If the Eagles find a guy to line up across from newly acquired Ronald Darby, their defense should be one of the best in the league.
For all the talk about McCaffrey being too small to run inside and taking the pounding of NFL defenders, the Panthers selected him 8th overall and he has looked like the explosive weapon he was throughout his time at Stanford. He has averaged over five yards on limited carries and added another three receptions for 51. It’s hard to find that guy hiding behind his blockers and once CMC hits the open field he’s dangerous, which he adds onto with his characteristic to fight forward when falling down, leading to an extra yard or two. He might not possess elite straight-line speed, but his acceleration and lateral agility are off the charts, which he showed off when avoiding defenders in the backfield. You saw him split out as a receiver some, but once the regular season starts, the Panthers coaches will let that little guy loose. McCaffrey can run dive plays, work the zone game, catch the ball out of the backfield, he has the route-running savvy barely any wideout in this draft had developed and he just has something special about him.
I was a big fan of Budda Baker coming into the draft despite his height. Much like his new teammate Tyrann Mathieu, he doesn’t let his size define him. He is ultra-aggressive and doesn’t give a damn about anything. I saw that same kind of demeanor when watching him this preseason. The former Washington safety has seen a large part of his snaps for Arizona in the slot, where he has shined with perfect timing to knock balls loose on multiple occasions. At the same time, Baker showed outstanding versatility to move outside or sink deep. I understood the concerns about how well his game would translate to the next level, because he’s playing against grown men now, but he was still the guy who set the tone against his opponents. Budda just flew around the field and was a dart against the run game, blowing up plays before they can even develop. The energy he, the Honeybadger and company bring will give the entire Cardinals team a different attitude, which will show up in the win-loss column as well.
If this preseason and 49ers training camp are any indication of what Foster might become as a pro, look out to everybody going over the middle. The former Alabama captain absolutely jacked some offensive players up over these three weeks, with the highlight being him blowing up fellow rookie Dalvin Cook on the first play from scrimmage on Sunday Night vs. the Vikes. Most people think of him as a run defender and while he is extremely aggressive coming downhill and has the speed to chase ball-carriers sideline to sideline, he uses those traits very well in pass coverage too and once he has a chance to light somebody up who’s going for the ball, he doesn’t hesitate. Not only do those big hits put fear into his opponents, the energy he provides is something his teammates will feed off and instantly improve the last-ranked defense from last season. Foster showed outstanding diagnosing skills, as it seemed like he was always around the ball in their week three matchup against the Vikings, in which he totaled eight tackles. I listed the new Niners LB as one of my favorites to win Defensive Rookie of the Year in my last article and his performance now only makes me believe stronger in him.
From all the rookie quarterbacks making their debuts this preseason, the one I was most impressed with was DeShone Kizer. The kid showed a ton of poise and always seemed to be in control of the offense. I thought he had three excellent showings, even though his stats in week three might not be indicative of his play. Most of his incompletions came on throws towards the sideline, where he tried to push the ball downfield and give his receivers a shot, which I like. It’s wasn’t like he just chucked it and hoped for the best, he just gave his guys a chance to make the play. The former Notre Dame QB displayed outstanding athleticism when avoiding free rushers, stepping up in the pocket and letting it rip. Week one vs. the Saints with two minutes left Kizer faced a 3rd & 24, but stayed calm and delivered a deep in-route to set up a 4th & 2. The following snap, he didn’t look to just pick up a new first, but instead he fired a deep ball for the game-winning touchdown. The Browns new starting signal-caller also added 48 yards rushing on eight attempts and started off a connection with second-year man Corey Coleman, which could turn out to be special one day.
I’ve become a huge fan of this kid coming out of Jacksonville State. The Ravens were the only team giving the undrafted free agent rookie a shot and he has shown out in the preseason. Hill has lined up outside and even more in the nickel and he was asked to do a variety of things for this defense. He played man, dropped underneath, sunk deep, supported the run and blitzed. That has led to two interceptions, five more passes defended, a sack and a couple of critical open-field tackles. What I liked most about his game was the way he played the ball. Coaches have praised his ball-skills and unlike most young defensive backs, he doesn’t panic when receivers get their hands up, but rather extends himself to get in front of the target and arrive at the right time when trying to wrestle the ball away. Entering camp he was an absolute long-shot to make the roster, but in Week 3 versus the Bills he saw game action in the first half and with second-year man Tavon Young out for the season, I could definitely see him get quite a few snaps in the nickel once the regular season kicks off.
The former fourth-round pick for San Francisco has never really found any consistency during his time in the Bay Area, but he has certainly made some noise in a Texans uniform. He just showed a different kind of juice and made some huge spark plays in their week two matchup against the World Champion Patriots – when most of their starting defense was out, which ranked number one in points allowed a year ago. Ellington certainly doesn’t have elite straight-line speed, but he’s very shifty and knows how to get in and out of routes. With DeAndre Hopkins being more of a possession target who can make contested catches and Will Fuller as the speedster to take off the top of defenses, it’s up to Braxton Miller and this fourth-year man to work the middle of the field, operating from the slot. I think Ellington will still be the fourth or fifth receiver on the depth chart, but he could be a guy off the bench who they deliver the ball quickly on screens and gadget plays, letting him show that natural plamaking-ability.
I had Hunt as one of my top ten backs in this year’s draft and he really left an impression on me during the Senior Bowl. The all-time leading rusher in Toledo history was a hammer in college, but he lost 20 pounds while working out for the NFL and looked much more explosive. During the preseason, he showed decisiveness, burst to hit the hole and power on the second level. What stood to me about him was how he changed gears to set up his blockers and how we lowered his shoulder going into contact. Rarely do you see backs win the tackling battle against All-world safety Earl Thomas, but this guy didn’t blink and finished the run falling forward. With Spencer Ware tearing his PCL and probably out for the season, Hunt now looks to be the featured back in Andy Reid’s offense. I thought all along that the rookie would take over the starting gig eventually as the season goes along, but now he’ll be their man from week one on.