These football rookies (and other 2nd and 3rd stringers) showed serious potential during the preseason. Keep your eye on them: It probably won't be long before they're making their way into the starting lineup.
The NFL season is underway. We’ve all overanalyzed our fantasy rosters, made up reasons as to why this is our team’s year, and ate way too much food at the opening kickoff tailgate. But for the past month, we’ve been held over by preseason play, which usually only provides a glimpse of the star players and high-octane action we want to see. It's just a tune-up for guys like Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers or Arian Foster, as most coaches prefer to dodge preseason injury-potential and play second and third stringers...sometimes a frustrating preview for the fans.But for plenty of rookies and back-ups, preseason can serve as their initiation into the NFL. In some cases, it's a do-or-die situation that decides whether players make the roster or get cut. Here’s a list of 10 new players who have either turned heads or exceeded expectations over the course of the preseason. Whether they’re top draft picks or guys battling their way in from small schools or the Canadian Football League, they’ve all proved their worth over the past month. It’ll be interesting to see how the season pans out for each of them. Who knows? By season’s end, you might be starting one of these guys on your fantasy team.
Russell Wilson, Seattle Seahawks QBA third round draft pick out of Wisconsin, Russell Wilson has been one of the most talked about success stories of training camp and the preseason. Seahawks coach Pete Carroll has named Wilson his starting quarterback come opening day, despite the fact that the team put up good money to grab Matt Flynn from the Packers during the off-season. As you might remember, Flynn filled in for Aaron Rodgers in the Pack’s final regular season game last year and delivered an amazing performance – 480 yards passing and six touchdowns in a shootout win over the Lions. Many thought he’d be able to ride that to a starting job on another team, but thus far, Wilson has defied the odds and denied him.Wilson was a preseason stud, completing 63.5 percent of his passes for 536 yards, five touchdowns and just one interception, while also rushing 10 times for 150 yards and another score. These numbers come from all four of Seattle’s preseason games, and realize that he didn’t play any of them in full (and very little in the fourth). Wilson has always been a smart, efficient quarterback with an ability to run when need be – in his last college season he threw for 33 TDs and rushed for six more while only getting picked off four times. That level of patience and cool under pressure should serve him well in the NFL season.
Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts QBLuck was pinned as the no. 1 2012 NFL draft pick before he even started his final season at Stanford. Sure enough, the Colts got him with the first overall choice and released future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. Needless to say, Luck has some big shoes to fill as he looks to become the new franchise quarterback in Indianapolis. He can only do that one step at a time, and he’s done everything in his power to inspire confidence during the preseason.Getting plenty of playing time in the first three games (he was limited to a single series in the last), Luck completed 62.1 percent of his passes for 522 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. He also ran for 18 yards and another TD. Unlike Wilson, Luck doesn’t have a backup breathing down his neck, so we’re sure to see the kid out there all year leading a young offense. Whether it’s a building year or an unexpected success story for Indy, it will be interesting to see how Luck builds off his solid preseason.
William Powell, Arizona Cardinals RBWilliam Powell has not been a stranger to adversity throughout his football career, battling through junior college to eventually get some playing time as a running back at Kansas State, then being cut from the Arizona Cardinals roster last summer. However, he was signed back to the team’s practice squad in December and has taken full advantage of every opportunity that training camp and preseason have presented to him. Powell rushed for 249 yards on 42 carries (5.9 per attempt) and three touchdowns to lead the league in rushing.Powell seemed to climb up Arizona’s running back depth chart from the bottom, and it appears as though he’s looking to challenge second-string RB Ryan Williams and the still-recovering, rusty starter Beanie Wells for some regular season playing time. He’s certainly done his best to earn it, even if he wasn’t able to finish the preseason on a strong note (9 carries, 18 yards), facing a Broncos defense that allowed just 62 yards rushing over an entire game against the Cards.
Travaris Cadet, New Orleans Saints RBHere’s another guy who’s been shredding the depth chart this preseason. Cadet had his work cut out for him at the start of training camp as a generally unknown player from Appalachian State joining one of the NFL’s most high-powered offenses. Going up against successful NFL backs Darren Sproles and Pierre Thomas, along with Mark Ingram, the Saints’ first pick in the 2011 draft, Cadet has still found a way to stand out and demand some attention.He has been a threat on the ground and through the air, doing a great impression of Sproles’ playing style in the process. He finished up with an impressively productive 30 catches for 246 yards, along with another 132 yards rushing and two touchdowns. Cadet has made a great case for himself when it comes to the fourth and final RB slot on the Saints’ final roster. He’s looking to depose Chris Ivory, who has two years of NFL experience but had limited playing time last season due to injury. It’s tough to say what the Saints’ coaching staff will want to go with – Ivory is a more traditional back with experience while Cadet is a bigger passing threat who has made more impact this preseason – but regardless, know that Cadet has done just about everything in his power to earn a shot.
Dwayne Harris, Dallas Cowboys WRIn his second season out of East Carolina, Dwayne Harris is looking to take a huge step forward in contributing to the Cowboys’ success every Sunday. Last year, he appeared in seven games as a kickoff and punt returner, not finding the end zone once while being kept away from any work on offense. However, this preseason, he’s made enough noise to emerge as one of Dallas’ primary slot receivers, and reports say that he will likely split time with Cole Beasley as the team’s no. 3 receiver option.Harris solidified his spot on the roster with some huge plays during Week 3 of preseason against the St. Louis Rams, in which he racked up 118 yards and two touchdowns against first-string players. Overall, he collected 173 receiving yards to be among league leaders. In an offense that hinges on Tony Romo’s passing game, Harris is likely to get some good chances to make a difference.
Damaris Johnson, Philadelphia Eagles WRDamaris Johnson treated the NFL preseason with the urgency he needed as an undrafted receiver out of Tulsa. Johnson put up better numbers than any other receiver on the Eagles, with 12 catches for 195 yards and a touchdown, while also returning punts at an 8.9-yard average. On a team that had three roster locks in the receiving corps coming into training camp – Jeremy Maclin, DeSean Jackson and Jason Avant – Johnson has done a great job in trying to lay claim to the fourth WR slot.It’s hard to say whether Johnson will get a huge number of touches during the season, but he seems to have put himself in a strong position to be a viable option if one of those core three receivers needs to go to the sideline, or if any given play calls for four or five wide-outs. Expect to see Johnson seize some playing time as a punt returner and at least occasionally as a receiver thanks to his stellar performance in training camp and preseason.
Kevin Zeitler, Cincinnati Bengals OGWorking out of a position that’s a little difficult to quantify with statistics, rest assured that offensive lineman Kevin Zeitler has had a great preseason with the Bengals. Cincinnati used their first round draft pick on Zeitler, grabbing him 27th overall. In four years of college football at Wisconsin, he didn’t personally allow a single sack and he provided some tenacious blocking to create holes in defenses for running backs to exploit.This preseason, Zeitler picked up where he left off in college. It’s likely he’ll develop into one of the NFL’s most unmovable pass protectors who will hold down the fort on the right end of the Bengals’ offensive line, an area that needed serious work last season.
Phillip Hunt, Philadelphia Eagles DEPhillip Hunt is a 26-year-old defensive end who could be on the verge of his first breakout NFL season. After going undrafted out of Houston in 2009, Hunt signed with Winnipeg and played two strong seasons in the Canadian Football League, leading all players with 16 sacks in 2010. Last year was his first with the Eagles, but he only played in nine games, with very limited playing time in many of them. Even so, he still managed two sacks and eight tackles, mostly near the end of the season when he got a few more chances.When it comes to whether he’ll see some more action this year, we’ll see, but he’s certainly made a statement about it on the field this preseason. He tied for the team lead with 3.5 sacks, forced two fumbles (the rest of the team forced two altogether) and collected nine tackles. Hunt has been so impressive that one analyst from Sideline View has issued a “breakout alert” on him, claiming he has the potential to compile up to 10 sacks this season. Hopefully that doesn’t serve as a jinx for Hunt, who’s looked great this summer without any hype.
Luke Kuechly, Carolina Panthers LBThe ninth overall pick from Boston College, linebacker Luke Kuechly should be able to do a great job of bolstering the Panthers’ defense – which badly needed help last season as Cam Newton led a strong, exciting offense to several shootout losses, finishing with a 6-10 record.Kuechly was at the top of the college game in each of his three seasons at BC, leading the country in solo and total tackles in his last two years. Getting his feet wet in the NFL has been a success thus far – in his first three preseason games (he played limited time in the fourth), he recorded 17 tackles, good enough for a tie for second in the NFL through Preseason Week 3, with only veteran teammate Jordan Senn having beaten him out with 19. Kuechly is also the only Panther to force a fumble in the preseason. The 21-year-old kid has looked very solid, as expected. It’ll be fun to watch him adapt to the NFL and develop into a force to be reckoned with as the Panthers’ defensive leader.
Audie Cole, Minnesota Vikings LBCole nearly went undrafted, snagged by the Vikings in the seventh round with the 210th overall pick out of North Carolina State. Cole made plenty of people scratch their heads in pleasant surprise this preseason, grabbing two fourth quarter interceptions and returning them for touchdowns in the Vikings’ second preseason game against the Bills. Even Cole himself couldn’t have anticipated that kind of defensive success, having only picked off one pass over his entire college career.Cole also added 13 tackles and a sack throughout the preseason – ripping down eight of his tackles in their final game against the Texans. It’s likely that he’s played well enough to earn some special teams playing time during the season. His performance there will decide whether he can eventually move up to defense, but he’s definitely put himself on the right track.