Surprising Stars Emerging from the 2012 NFL Preseason
The NFL preseason is always a parade of the mostly obvious. Starters play very little, usually look mostly like themselves or mostly like they're not trying, and the fourth quarters are played out between players who mostly aren't going to make the team.
But every year, a handful of surprising players grab headlines. A handful of players you'd never expect defy the depth charts (and defy the odds) to make news. Whether it's getting into the MVP discussion, getting into the starting lineup, getting onto the 53-man roster or just getting their life's 15 allotted minutes of fame, preseason always makes stars out of a handful of players.
This preseason is no exception.
No one can say for sure whether these players will still be playing like stars at the end of the season, or if they'll even be on the roster. They may be perennial All-Pros, or they may be on the waiver wire next season. But right now, the following six players are surprising preseason stars.
Willie Young, Detroit Lions Defensive End
This 2010 seventh-round draft pick has slowly cranked up the heat on the starters above him with every opportunity. In the Lions' first preseason game this season, Young got the opportunity to start over the just-returned-from-holdout Cliff Avril, and he made the most of it.
With a sack-fumble of rookie Brandon Weeden (which he recovered himself), Young put the finishing touch on an impressive performance.
Against the Ravens in the second preseason game, Young came off the bench—and blocked a punt from the middle of the line.
Look for Young to play a major rotational role with the Lions in 2012—and perhaps a starting one after that.
Roberto Wallace, Miami Dolphins WR
With the release of Chad Johnson, the depth chart released by Miami Dolphins head coach Joe Philbin looks awfully thin at wide receiver. But the name "Roberto Wallace" officially appears as a third-stringer on that chart.
However, according to Palm Beach Post writer Ben Volin, the 6'4" Wallace has been seeing plenty of reps with the ones in camp. His four catches for 71 yards in the preseason opener reinforced that status; that's a huge promotion from being signed as an undrafted free agent in 2010.
As long as he can outproduce Legedu Naanee and/or Davone Bess, Wallace could be one of the best stories of the 2012 regular season too.
Jordy Nelson, Green Bay Packers WR
Jordy Nelson is no camp darling. Nelson didn't come out of nowhere to make a few surprising catches in the first preseason game. In fact, Nelson caught 68 passes for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. Not only that, Nelson had no catches on two targets in the Green Bay Packers' first preseason game.
So how could he possibly be a surprising star?
Nelson's sole catch against the Cleveland Browns was just that good. Nelson, lined up against outstanding Browns cornerback Joe Haden, went down the sideline for six. He beat Haden, but Aaron Rodgers just barely overthrew him. Then, with Haden and everyone else knowing what the Packers were trying to do, Nelson beat Haden over the top with exactly the kind of touchdown catch he's not supposed to be able to make.
With no Greg Jennings on the other side drawing coverage away, Nelson squared off against one of the NFL's best cornerbacks and beat him deep—twice. If you thought Nelson was just a slot receiver, or just a product of the system, be prepared to be surprised this season.
Omar Brown, Baltimore Ravens Safety
Omar Brown isn't the kind of player that typically stands out in camp. He was an undrafted rookie free agent after the 2012 NFL draft—picked up by the Baltimore Ravens out of Marshall. He's an undersized (5'11", 195 pounds) safety. He doesn't have blazing speed. He's exactly the kind of guy who makes it into camp, gets some reps on special teams and in the fourth quarter, and that's that.
But Brown's incredible knack for being around the ball will make him very hard to cut. In the first game, against the Atlanta Falcons, Brown had two fumble recoveries and an interception. In the second game, against the Detroit Lions, Brown had another three fumble recoveries—Willie Young's blocked punt, a goal-line snag that kept the Ravens in the game and an onside kick.
Brown's surprising ball-hawking skills this preseason have surely earned him a spot on the Ravens' roster—or somebody else's.
Jordan Senn, Carolina Panthers LB
If I told you a 5'11", 225-pound linebacker from Portland State made an NFL roster at age 27, you'd probably be surprised. If I told you that, pressed into starting duty after 50 career tackles in four seasons, he'd rack up 43 solos, 28 assists, an interception and three forced fumbles, you'd probably be shocked.
But Jordan Senn is set on proving he's not a random one-season wonder. In the first preseason game against the Houston Texans, Senn notched an outstanding 10 solo tackles and three assists. With another two solos and two assists against the Miami Dolphins, Senn is making a case for the smallest linebacker in the NFL to be the biggest surprise of this preseason.
BONUS: Andrew Luck, Indianapolis Colts QB
There's no way to argue that Andrew Luck is a surprising star. He was the consensus No. 1 overall 2012 NFL draft pick from the moment the 2011 NFL draft ended. He has all the physical tools, an impeccable college resume and not even a yellow flag to his name, much less a red one.
But the way Luck and his Indianapolis Colts absolutely dominated the St. Louis Rams shocked even the most diehard Luck believers. Completing 10 of 16 attempts for 188 yards and two touchdowns (including an absolute strike to Austin Collie), Luck and the Colts cruised to an effortless 38-3 victory.
We'll see if Luck can do the same in his second game, against the Pittsburgh Steelers on Sunday Night Football—or, for that matter, in the regular season. But for right now, Andrew Luck is living up to his star billing and then some, and it has to be one of the most pleasant surprises of this preseason.