Time to switch back to NFL football! I have now watched pretty much every snap of the first three weeks of preseason and it’s time to point out the guys, who have impressed me the most. I’m not here to tell you that legends like Tom Brady have looked sharp, but rather this list is about rookies and a few second- and third-year players, who aren’t on a lot of people’s radars at this point and have looked like impact performers to this point. Not all of these youngsters might see a significant amount of snaps this season because of the veterans ahead of them taking away opportunities, but they have looked like guys who could step in and make a difference for their teams. With that being said, these young men have caught my eye:
Kerryon Johnson, RB, Lions
I know he was the sixth running back selected and the Lions brought in veteran LeGarette Blount to go with two guys on their roster, who each had over 700 yards from scrimmage, but I believe Kerryon Johnson could be in for a big year. He kicked off the preseason with 34 yards on the ground on just seven carries and four catches for 33 yards at Oakland. However, it was a 47-yard run by him at the start of the second half that called back for a hold, where he showed the explosiveness, power and open field moves that have me thinking Johnson will end up being the Lions’ number one back. Versus the Giants and Buccaneers he saw limited action with nine touches for 44 yards, but I think this was more due to what Johnson had already shown the organization in training camp and that first game. He has made people miss in the backfield, displayed the acceleration from a dead-stop and was already used split out in empty sets as a pass-catcher. LeGarette Blount will definitely have a role as he always does, especially on the goal-line and in short-yardage situations, and Theo Riddick is one of the better receiving backs on third downs, but Ameer Abdullah had all the opportunities in the world to grab that lead-spot and he hasn’t done anything that would make me think he will touch the ball a lot. I know this looks like a clouded backfield, but I think Kerryon will be their featured guy and I just grabbed him in my fantasy league. It might take a few weeks for him and the retooled O-line to gel, because of how patient Johnson is in that Le’Veon Bell-type mode and the way the big guys up front will try to stay on those double-teams longer in the zone game, but once they figure it out this Detroit offense should finally have a lethal rushing attack again.
John Kelly, RB, Rams
I was really high on Kelly coming into the draft, having him as my eight-highest ranked RB available, but he fell all the way to the sixth round. The former Volunteer back wasn’t really looked at because he split carries with Alvin Kamara in 2016 and his average yards per attempt dropped heavily as the number one guy last year, but when you consider that Tennessee had close to no passing attack and defenses tried to stop him first, you get a different perspective. Looking at his tape, I was blown away by his contact balance. Of course I loved Saquon and those other top running backs in the draft, but there was nobody in this class who could take on a defender in full sprint and simply bounce off him like Kelly. You see some of that in preseason action now. Kelly has also shown a great jump-cut, excellent vision and great effort in pass protection. While he is a downhill runner by nature, who gains yards after contact, he has the eyes to burn defenses cheating on the edges and the wiggle to shake guys in the open field when they pursue too hard. Todd Gurley was in the backfield for more than two thirds of snaps even though the Rams blew several teams out last season, so I don’t expect any of their backs to put up significant numbers, but I think Kelly has a good shot at landing second on the depth chart eventually. Malcolm Brown looks like the clear-cut number two guy at this point and Justin Davis had a strong preseason a year ago himself, but I have been riding that John Kelly train ever since I watched him dismantle the Florida defense last season. In his first three weeks against NFL competition, he has amassed 215 yards from scrimmage and reached the end-zone three times.
Chris Warren, RB, Raiders
Marshawn Lynch got his one noteworthy run called by in week one of preseason, but there was a different “Beastmode” in the building for the Raiders. Chris Warren III is an undrafted rookie out of Texas, who touched the ball an average of 75 times over his three years as a Longhorns, stuck behind D’Onta Foreman his first two seasons and then as part of a three-headed backfield in 2017. His father Chris Warren II was a three-time Pro Bowl running back with the Seahawks. While this young man didn’t quite seem to be on the same path as a three-year backup at Texas, he has made some noise in recent weeks. Standing at 6’3”, 246 pounds Warren has looked like a monster when he ran over Detroit’s 2017 first round pick Jarrad Davis in practice and has continued doing so in game-action. In his first three showings, Warren has rushed for 250 yards on 46 carries, which leads the NFL by a wide margin. At his size, Warren looks a little like Bo Jackson in that 34 jersey and he is an angry runner. He has the short-are quickness to step around a blocker if he sees a defender cheating, can spin and twist out of the traffic around him and keeps his legs churning through contact, at times literally stepping out of the hands of a tackler. Oakland has Marshawn, Doug Martin, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard on their roster, so that backfield seems pretty loaded, but with how hard Warren has been running throughout preseason action, I wouldn’t be surprised if they let go of Washington in favor of the rookie. If they actually decided to let Warren leave, some team will definitely let him touch the rock.
Josh Allen, QB, Bills
I never thought Allen was a top-ten prospect and I had him as my number five quarterback available, but he has proven me wrong so far this preseason. It’s crazy to say this, because it was my biggest concern for the former Wyoming signal-caller, but what has impressed me the most about Allen has been his movement inside the pocket. When I watched his college tape I saw no ability to maximize his space in the pocket and deferring to getting on the move and trying to squeeze in some crazy throws. His first touchdown versus the Browns was everything I thought he could not do in terms of avoiding the rush, while keeping his eyes downfield. Allen had a free rusher in his face, but dipped his shoulder, stepped up and threw an absolute dime to the back of the end-zone. Of course his arm strength is ridiculous and he’s shown it off plenty, but even though I wasn’t as concerned about his accuracy issues in college as many others, I’ve been more impressed with his ability to get the ball out on time and target. Yes, he attempted a really stupid pass falling down in week one versus the Panthers and there will be some growing pains, but Allen has looked much more pro-ready than I anticipated and none of the other two guys on that roster have really taken the job. Unfortunately, in his first start in week three of the preseason, the rookie QB was under constant heat from the Bengals pass rush, but I put that more on the offensive line, even though he will have to adjust when the real games roll around. Allen to me has looked Roethlisberger-esque with a wiggle and deceptive speed once he decides to tuck it.
Chad Kelly, QB, Broncos
I know it’s not the most prestigious list of names, but I believe Chad Kelly could end up being the best Mr. Irrelevant ever. Talent-wise Kelly rarely looked like the final pick of the draft at Ole Miss. I had the former Rebel as my fifth QB available in last year’s draft purely based on his potential, but off-the-field weirdness took him off the board for most teams in the league. Coming out of college, I liked Kelly’s quick release, escapability, toughness and how he shined in two huge wins over Alabama. An injury to his throwing hand and being stuck behind Trevor Siemian, Paxton Lynch and even Brock Osweiler didn’t help getting his career off on the right track. Going into his second season with the Broncos, Kelly has shown mobility, arm strength and no fear of delivering passes while getting hit through the preseason. In week one versus the Vikings he knew exactly that he would have to take a shot, but he stood in there and connected with his back on an angle route for a touchdown. That performance versus Minnesota earned him the second-string spot behind Case Keenum already. Kelly rewarded the Broncos with a beautiful seem ball to Courtland Sutton for a touchdown on his first drive versus the Bears and so far he has looked very comfortable taking deep shots off hard play-action as well as throwing the ball on the move off bootlegs. He has also gotten the ball out quickly on hot-reads to his backs and extended plays with his legs. In three weeks of game-action, Kelly has gone 28 of 41 for 340 yards, three touchdowns and a pick. He has clearly put Paxton Lynch at the end of the depth chart, who has struggled with ball-placement and looked gun-shy.
Javon Wims, WR, Bears
The Bears front office brought in a bunch of new toys for quarterback Mitch Trubisky and the creative head coach Matt Nagy. Not only did they acquire veterans Allen Robinson, Trey Burton and Taylor Gabriel, but they also drafted Memphis’ Anthony Miller in the second round and they might have found a gem in seventh-rounder Javon Wims. My notes on him coming out of Georgia basically read “big body, good hands and defeats corners on several back-shoulder fades”. However, in his first few games of NFL action, he has looked much more dynamic than I anticipated him to. Wims leads all NFL players with 227 yards through the air this preseason on 15 catches. Not only did 11 of his receptions go for first downs, Wims is also a big-play threat with two 40+ yards plays. He can hop-step and create separation out of his breaks on slant routes, tracks the ball exceptionally well, makes contested catches and even brought in a pass while getting up after falling to the ground. What I really like about the rookie is that he immediately turns upfield once he secures the catch and constantly stretches out late to gain extra yardage when there’s room while holding on tight to the ball in traffic. Wims has displayed awareness for where he is on the field and has shown the ability to toe-tap along the sideline as well as in the end-zone. In addition to that, he has already displayed signs of understanding where to sit down or when to round off his routes versus zone coverage. Outside of all those additions the Bears have made, I expect Tarik Cohen to be kind of a gadget player like Tyreek Hill was for Nagy in Kansas City and they still hope to see something from former top-ten pick Kevin White, but Wims has been outstanding so far.
Dallas Goedert, TE, Eagles
There was this thing going on at the draft in April, where people went crazy because the Eagles selected Dallas Goedert in the second round one pick ahead of the Cowboys who had just lost Jason Witten to retirement, putting them in desperate need for a tight-end and a guy with the same name as their city looking like the perfect match. While I thought that was overblown and I don’t even know if they wouldn’t have gone with Texas O-lineman Connor Williams anyway, America’s team could have definitely used a big target in the passing game like Goedert. In fact, I think the South Dakota State product would start for almost half the teams in the league. The 6’5”, 255-pound rookie was my number two tight-end prospect because of his frame obviously, the speed to stress defenses down the seams, the ability to go up and dominate on 50-50 balls as well as the all-around skill-set he presented with the multitude of ways his coaches used him in college. Through the first three weeks of preseason, Goedert has continued to showcase his natural receiving abilities, as he has totaled 149 yards, catching balls from third-string quarterback Nate Sudfeld for the most part. The rookie TE creates easy separation on deep over and out-routes. Not only has he run away from guys in man-coverage, but he also showed football IQ in week one versus the Steelers, when he slowed down on four verticals out of a two-by-two set against cover-three, to not lead the throw into the middle safety. I saw a couple of drops when he didn’t look the ball in and shifted his eyes downfield too early, but I have no concern whatsoever with his hands and the effort level as a blocker is unquestionable. With Zach Ertz as the go-to guy at the position it will be tough for Goedert to receive a ton of targets, but he should at least fill the role of the departed Trey Burton in year one.
Duke Ejiofor, Edge, Texans
I thought Ejiofor was an absolute steal for Houston back in April. The Texans grabbed the Wake Forest product in the sixth round, while I had him as my 93rd overall prospect in the draft, and he has stood out in training camp and the preseason. Ejiofor was borderline unblockable versus Chiefs in week one, as he consistently got the angle rushing off the left end. He won with a basic speed rush and dip, club-swim and spin move. He might not have shown up on the stat sheet, but his tape was highly impressive. In week two versus San Francisco he stayed hot, making the tackle on the opening kickoff and staying home on an end-around on the first play from scrimmage, where he showed excellent closing speed and cost the Niners six yards. Ejiofor has set a physical edge and provided constant pressure throughout the first three weeks of preseason, despite not recording a single sack during that stretch. The Texans run a base 3-4 defense, but with Jadeveon Clowney putting his hand in the dirt on the majority of snaps and NFL teams using sub-packages on about 70 percent overall, this is a hybrid front anyway. J.J. Watt likes to slide inside and expose guards with quickness and last year the coaches moved around Clowney all over the line. Whitney Mercilus is coming back as their designated edge rusher, but Ejiofor could see plenty of action on the opposite end. Plus, I thought he had some upside as an interior rusher on sub-packages anyway based on what I saw on tape. This Houston front looks loaded on paper, but you could have argued that they are a little slim on the edge. If Ejiofor can keep this up in the regular season, that argument is over.
Hassan Ridgeway, DT, Colts
This dude was a monster versus the Ravens, as he showed up in the backfield constantly. The Colts need defensive playmakers badly and while Jabaal Sheard, Malik Hooker and possibly rookie linebacker Darius Leonard look like cornerstones for this unit, they hardly have any proven guys on that roster. Even though Hassan Ridgeway has only recorded 22 career tackles in his first two seasons, I think he could be a difference-maker for them in 2018. Al Woods should be the Colts run-plugger as that shade nose, but they need a penetrator to emerge for them and the third-year man could be the guy. Baltimore has pretty really talented young interior offensive linemen behind their starters, but Ridgeway just killed them, producing two tackles for loss and two sacks (even if one came off a stunt). He already had a couple of QB-takedowns in week one versus the Seahawks and wrecked their O-line in the fourth quarter. In week three against San Francisco he showed some flashes, but also exposed the one downside to his game – he tends to go upfield so far, that he opens up running lanes behind him. Regardless of that, the disruption he can deliver is something nobody has brought for them on the inside for a while now. Ridgeway displays outstanding quickness for a guy at 305 pounds and so far he has gotten an angle on the ball-carrier pretty much every time because of how often he lands that initial club and then he gets past with that quick arm-over. While unproven, the Colts have some intriguing options on the defensive line thanks to their last two drafts, so it will be interesting to see how they pan out and if Ridgeway can emerge for them.
Jayon Brown, LB, Titans
When I watched Brown’s tape at UCLA a year ago I saw a lot of intriguing abilities, but the shortcomings in the run-game to take on blockers combined with a strong linebacker class made me put him just outside my top 15 names at the position. So to see him show no hesitancy to simply run through guards and fullbacks this preseason has been a delight. What I really liked about him in college was the safety-like coverage skills he displayed and how fluid he was at changing directions in space. In his debut as a sophomore against the Packers, Brown was all over the field. Although he whiffed badly on one tackle early on, he completely took away guys out of the backfield and surged through traffic to stop the run, as he recorded six tackles, deflected a pass and got a pick off a tipped pass. Brown has been so quick to sniff out screens and once even stepped right in front of the back to shut that play down. Moreover, he has looked dangerous as a blitzer with a running start and in game number two versus the Bucs he got one official QB takedown as well as being a split-second late to picking up another strip-sack. Brown and veteran Wesley Woodyard have started games so far with Rashaan Evans out for training camp until about a week ago, but the Titans drafted him to be their inside thumper. So they need that more high-flying coverage linebacker to go alongside him. Brown is a dynamic guy on passing downs, who has shown no problems following backs and tight-ends split out wide, so I think he should complement the second backer very well. His Bruin teammates used to call him a crazy talker and former head coach Jim Mora described him as a special leader and energizer for a defense.
Josh Jackson, CB, Packers
I’m not sure how Jackson felt about falling to the middle of the second round after a 2017 campaign, in which he intercepted eight passes, which led to winning the Jack Tatum award for the top collegiate defensive back and a unanimous All-American selection. While I had some questions about his long-speed, there is no doubt he can be a playmaker for a Packers defense that desperately needs guys like that. It didn’t take Jackson very long to make a huge splash when he did his best impression of veteran teammate Tramon Williams, taking back the second pick-six on the day for Green Bay, as he undercut a deep comeback route. Yes, the interception came off Joshua Dobbs and not Ben Roethlisberger, but this is the type of stuff Jackson can bring to the table. He has been physical with receivers and run stride for stride with them, his length to redirect pass-catchers and get a hand in late has been apparent, plus he hasn’t shied away one bit from tackling bigger bodies coming right at him. Jackson almost took another interception back to the house versus the Raiders, but he had it called back due to a defensive holding penalty against one of his teammates, who covered a receiver on the opposite side where the quarterback never even peaked at. Overall he has allowed just one reception for nine yards on nine targets. Things just look easy out there for the former Iowa breakout star, so I’m intrigued to see what he does when he is lined up against the game’s elite receivers once the regular season rolls around. The Packers selected another lanky corner in Washington’s Kevin King with the first pick of round two of last year’s draft and they got my number two-ranked corner in this year’s class in Louisville’s Jaire Alexander, but I can’t really see how Jackson doesn’t see the field. The possibility of him and King disrupting receiver on the perimeter and Alexander lining up at nickel is very intriguing to me.
Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Dolphins
I had Fitzpatrick as my number four overall prospect in the draft and to me he was the final can’t-miss guy available, So the Dolphins had to be thrilled that he fell to them at pick number 11. The biggest question mark with Minkah throughout the draft process was the fact he didn’t have a clearly defined position, but with the NFL demanding more versatility every year from their players, I don’t see a problem here. The Alabama DB started his collegiate career on the outside, but stepped in at free safety once Eddie Jackson went down with an injury in 2016 and played a variety of roles for the Tide last year, when he played some single-high, but also covered slot receivers and lined up as a dime linebacker. While I believe his natural position in the league will be free safety, his versatility is nothing but a plus. Fitzpatrick has already shown what kind of a pure football player he is throughout preseason. Versus the Bucs he covered guys down the field, separated receivers from the ball and simply brought energy to his defense. In the second game versus Carolina the Dolphins used him primarily at nickel, where he consistently carried receivers down the seams and took them away, staying step for step with speedsters. In the Baltimore game he lined up some in the box and blew up a screen to Kenneth Dixon. I think he and Reshad Jones will make an excellent safety duo, because it allows Jones to roam around and their corners to be aggressive because Minkah has the range to clean things up as an air-traffic controller. With TJ McDonald as their third safety, they can move the rookie around however and ask him to drop down into the slot if needed in a specific matchup.
Roc Thomas, RB, Vikings
James Conner, RB, Steelers
Joe Mixon, RB, Bengals
Royce Freeman, RB, Broncos
Taysom Hill, QB, Saints
Patrick Mahomes, QB, Chiefs
Taywan Taylor, WR, Titans
James Kumerow, WR, Packers
James Washington, WR, Steelers
Tre’Quan Smith, WR, Saints
Carl Lawson & Jordan Willis, Edge, Bengals
Harold Landry, Edge, Titans
Arden Key & Maurice Hurst, DL, Raiders
Andrew Billings, DL, Bengals
Roy Robertson-Harris, DL, Bears
Barkevious Mingo, LB, Seahawks
Jah’Waun Bentley, LB, Patriots
Darius Leonard, LB, Colts
Oren Burks, LB, Packers
Nick Nelson, CB, Raiders
Chidobe Awuzie, CB, Cowboys
DeShon Elliott, S, Ravens