25 Under-the-Radar Rookies Who Are Quietly Dominating the 2012 Preseason

Alessandro Miglio@@AlexMiglioFeatured ColumnistAugust 24, 2012

25 Under-the-Radar Rookies Who Are Quietly Dominating the 2012 Preseason

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    Andrew Luck has lived up to the hype. Robert Griffin III has had his ups and downs. Ryan Tannehill earned a starting gig earlier than expected. Even Justin Blackmon has looked good despite missing some camp because of contract issues. 

    We are not here to talk about those guys—the ones who have been in the limelight or close to it. Here are 25 relatively unheralded rookies who have made an impression this preseason.

Kirk Cousins

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    Remember when the Redskins took two quarterbacks with their first two draft picks and some thought there would be a battle to start?

    That was amusing while it lasted, but the Redskins must be encouraged by the play of their backup quarterback of the future. Cousins exploded for 264 yards and three touchdowns in Washington's second game against the Bears. He has the fourth-most passing yards in the preseason thus far.

    Cousins is probably not going to be RGIII's backup this season—a rookie behind a rookie has the makings of disaster should Griffin get hurt—but he is certainly pushing Rex Grossman for that job sooner than expected.

Omar Brown

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    It will be impossible to follow in Ed Reed's footsteps, but Omar Brown seems to have some of Reed's ball-hawking instincts

    Despite receiving an All-Conference USA selection and leading his team in tackles, Brown was an undrafted rookie out of Marshall. Perhaps some of that has to do with the fact Brown stands at just 5'11" and weighs 195 pounds, but that has not stopped him from impressing thus far this preseason.

    He picked off a pass and picked up two fumble recoveries in his first game in the NFL. Notwithstanding that he was playing with the backups, his debut was pretty impressive. He followed that up with another fumble recovery in his second game, picking up an onside recovery as well.

    Brown may well be on his way to making the team in Baltimore. Considering the defensive tradition the Ravens boast, this would be no small feat for the undrafted rookie.

Jeff Fuller

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    Jeff Fuller was on the first-round radar as a junior before an abysmal senior season sank his draft stock all the way out of the draft.

    Despite his rapport with newly minted starter Ryan Tannehill, Fuller was considered a longshot to make Miami's roster when he signed. The Dolphins already had Brian Hartline, Davone Bess, Legedu Naanee, Julius Pruitt, Roberto Wallace, B.J. Cunningham and Rishard Matthews ahead of him in line.

    Now he is just one more good preseason performance away from making the final cut.

    Fuller has come on lately after a bit of a roller coaster involving some drops. He has not played lights out, but he has performed well enough to earn first-team reps and get some run with the starters in Miami's game against Carolina. 

Ron Brooks

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    The Bills made a concerted effort to improve their defense during the offseason, including drafting Stephon Gilmore with their first-round pick. Who knew that their fourth-round cornerback would turn more heads this preseason?

    The man who played in the shadows of giants at LSU is shining in the light of competition. Sitting behind the likes of Patrick Peterson, Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu during his tenure with the Tigers was, perhaps, the biggest reason why Brooks fell so far in the draft.

    He is in serious contention for a roster spot. Considering 31-year-old and oft-injured Terrence McGee has yet to play this preseason, Brooks has a good shot to supplant the veteran.

Amini Silatolu

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    Nobody outside Charlotte is talking about the mammoth lineman out of FCS school Midwestern State, but Amini Silatolu has locked down a starting job for the Carolina Panthers this preseason.

    The 315-pound guard has been listed as the No. 1 left guard on the depth chart since training camp began, something the Panthers rarely do with rookies. Silatolu has rewarded their confidence with a solid camp and two good games thus far.

    Do not expect Silatolu to lose that starting job anytime soon.

Alshon Jeffery

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    The buzz in Chicago this summer has mostly followed the trade for Brandon Marshall, but there is another big receiver in town making a name for himself.

    Alshon Jeffery may not be as under-the-radar as most of the other guys on this list because he was a second-round pick, but the offseason has been dominated by talk of Justin Blackmon, Michael Floyd, Kendall Wright and A.J. Jenkins when it comes to rookie receivers. Fellow second-rounder Rueben Randle, who was selected after Jeffery, has even gotten more run in the public eye.

    If Jeffery's time thus far in a Bears uniform is any indication, Chicago is in for a treat at receiver. This would be an unusual and welcome sight in the Windy City, a sports town that has seen few great receivers roll through there.

Kelechi Osemele

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    The Ravens needed someone to replace Ben Grubbs. Jah Reid, Gino Gradkowski and rookie Kelechi Osemele were supposed to duke it out this season, and the rookie might be winning.

    Osemele has been on the first-team offense, and he has played well enough to stay there (via Edward Lee of the Baltimore Sun):

    “He’s handled it like a champ,” Harbaugh said after Sunday’s practice at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium in Annapolis. “He’s handled it extremely well. He hasn’t missed a beat. He’s made some rookie mistakes. His pass sets are inconsistent at times. But other than that, he’s done extremely well. He’s done great with the playbook. He’s smart and he works hard at it.”

Jayron Hosley

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    One of the draft's more underrated pickups was Jayron Hosley out of Virginia Tech. Hailing from a school known for producing great cornerbacks in recent years, Hosley adds young talent to the Giants defensive backfield after the departure of Aaron Ross.

    If Hosley's 77-yard interception return for a touchdown is a sign of things to come, the Giants got a steal at the end of the third round. Unfortunately he hurt his toe on the play, which could keep him out for the rest of the preseason, but Hosley may have made enough of an impression to be the starting nickel back.

Rod Streater

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    Organized team activities were all about Juron Criner. Everything since then has been Rod Streater, at least as far as rookie wide receivers go.

    Streater has sizzled thus far this preseason, catching 13 passes for 108 yards. He has yet to make a huge play—his longest catch is for 18 yards—but the undrafted rookie has been the surprise of camp for the Raiders, who find themselves with a perpetual glut of talent at the receiver position even after trading Louis Murphy away.

    Streater and Criner sit behind Darrius Heyward-Bey, Denarius Moore and Jacoby Ford on the depth chart right now—assuming all three can stay healthy for more than 30 seconds at a time—but Streater has made a strong push to get on the field as the team's fourth wideout.

    Not too shabby for an undrafted rookie out of Temple.

Travis Benjamin

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    The hoopla surrounding Josh Gordon after the Browns used a second-round pick to take him in the supplemental draft has overshadowed solid play by fellow rookie Travis Benjamin.

    The fourth-round pick has flashed some of that famed Miami speed thus far with the Browns, playing his way into a slot receiver role for the Browns while Gordon struggles to get his football mojo back.

    Speed has not been his only asset either. Benjamin has been a good route-runner and shown a good football IQ when called upon. The rookie has made play after play this preseason, impressing coaches and fans alike. What a difference a year will make if the Browns actually have some viable weapons at receiver this season.

Cole Beasley

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    The Cowboys are searching for a consistent No. 3 receiver after Laurent Robinson's departure. They may have their man in Cole Beasley.

    Aside from throwing up on the field, the rookie receiver has put on a show for the Cowboys this preseason. His competition is not exactly elite in Kevin Ogletree and Dwayne Harris; if he keeps up his good play, Romo will be looking Beasley's way on Sundays. (Or Mondays or Thursdays or Saturdays late in the season.)

    Fantasy owners take note: With Miles Austin's injury issues, whoever ends up being the No. 3 could have a Robinson-like year. Beasley looks like he will be that man.

Michael Smith

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    Buccaneers fans collectively gasped when LeGarrette Blount went down with a groin injury against the Titans. Okay, maybe there were more shrugs than gasps considering Doug Martin's presence on the roster, but another rookie has also made his mark in the backfield.

    The speedy back has made more of an impression than second-year man Mossis Madu, who suddenly finds himself in danger of being cut. Both have pinned their roster hopes on their special teams contributions, an area where Smith has shined thus far this preseason.

    It doesn't hurt that the seventh-round pick out of Utah State has 4.33 speed.

Joe Adams

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    Joe Adams may not be the biggest or fastest receiver to come out of the 2012 draft, but he could be the most elusive.

    Breaking tackles is Adams' modus operandi, and he puts it to good use when returning punts. It is no wonder he won the inaugural Johnny Rodgers National College Football Return Specialist Award last season. The rookie receiver out of Arkansas has been electrifying at times.

    Adams has a chance to get on the field as a receiver behind Steve Smith, Brandon LaFell and David Gettis to boot.

Justin Bethel

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    If blocked kicks and returned touchdowns are your thing, Bethel has been your man this preseason.

    Bethel blocked three kicks—three!—in his two games, returning one for a touchdown. His prowess on special teams makes the rookie out of little-known Presbyterian a good bet to make the 53-man roster as a safety:

    Oh, and Whiz said rookie Justin Bethel is a "safe bet" to make the team. he's blocked a FG, punt, PAT in 3 games.

    — Kent Somers (@kentsomers) August 18, 2012

    The Cardinals could use a bit of Bethel's mojo elsewhere considering the state of their offensive line.

Derek Wolfe

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    The Broncos have needed an upgrade at defensive tackle for a while, and losing Broderick Bunkley exacerbated the issue.

    Enter Derek Wolfe, the former Bearcat transformed into a Bronco this past spring.

    The Cincinnati alum had to wait to graduate coming out of college before joining the Broncos, putting him behind the eight ball coming into camp. He has proven to be a quick study, showcasing his pass-rushing skills from the middle throughout the preseason for Denver.

    Suddenly a defensive front that looked suspect in the middle looks to be strong all around.

Justin Tucker

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    Poor Billy Cundiff.

    The Baltimore kicker was roasted by Ravens fans after missing a kick in the AFC Championship game that would have sent it into overtime. Now he may be out of a job thanks to rookie Justin Tucker.

    It was a bit of a long shot that Tucker would beat Cundiff out this preseason when he signed with Baltimore as an undrafted free agent out of Texas, but the big-legged kicker has been rather impressive thus far. He has put some serious heat on Cundiff as a result, despite nailing Joe Flacco's wife in the head with a kick.

Audie Cole

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    Speaking of returns and touchdowns, how often do you see back-to-back interceptions returned for touchdowns—by the same player?

    Audie Cole did just that against the Bills in Minnesota's second preseason game.

    Cole's exploits extend beyond a spectacular sequence at the end of one preseason game, however (via Joe Oberle of http://www.cbssports.com/general/blog/nfl-rapidreports/19831312/vikings-notebook-lb-audie-cole-has-made-strong-case-to-make-the-cutCBSSports.com):

    “Well, it definitely helps when a guy makes plays in a game,” said coach Leslie Frazier on Sunday. “You don't want to discount that. That means something whether it is the first unit or third unit. It was good to see him step up and make some key plays when he had the opportunity to. Others guys at times will be in those situations and don't make those plays. So you like it when a guy does.”

    “He has good instincts and he has good anticipation," Frazier said. "He's a smart football player and that can offset a guy who doesn't have blazing speed. But you take that all into account. We have a few weeks more in camp. We will look at his entire body of work as we are tying to make a decision on what's best for our team.”

    He might be hard-pressed to repeat his back-to-back feat ever again, but he might take making the team as a consolation.

Derrick Shelby

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    The pass rush has been lacking in Miami during the preseason. Derrick Shelby has not been part of the problem.

    Miami's defensive front is relatively deep, and Shelby was a long shot after he signed out of Utah. His motor has been a breath of fresh air for a stagnant defense, so much so that he has risen to the second-team defense and is almost a lock for the 53-man roster.

    Shelby has tallied six tackles and a sack thus far in limited duty with the Dolphins. Perhaps his drive will be infectious—the defense looks like it could use a lift. 

Travaris Cadet

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    Darren Sproles 2.0?

    Travaris Cadet has come out of nowhere to lead the league in receiving this preseason with 19 catches and 171 yards. As a quarterback-turned-running back no less.

    Granted, there are plenty of reasons for this, including the fact the Saints have played one more game than every other team and Cadet has seen more playing time than the first- and second-string players around the league.

    Caveats aside, Cadet has made the most of his opportunities this preseason, including some impressive catch-and-run displays. 

    Cadet can wiggle, and wiggle is not a Chris Ivory staple. The rookie has so much of it that he has fans and pundits wondering if he will overtake the incumbent fourth-stringer for a roster spot. Considering Ivory's slow start this preseason, this is a very real possibility.

T.J. Graham

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    Be honest, when the name "T.J. Graham" flashed across the screen early in the third round of the 2012 draft you scratched your head.

    The Bills had, to that point, had a marvelous draft and would wind up with a solid draft class, but Graham stuck out like a sore thumb. Was the speedster out of North Carolina State worth it for a relatively high pick?

    It certainly looks that way thus far for the Bills, who seemingly knocked their draft out of the park considering the contribution they are getting from most of their rookies. The receiver with track speed and pedigree has been impressive as the deep threat the Bills were hoping to get when they took him.

    Good things will happen for the Bills offense if he can continue to blow the top off defenses. 

Marvin Jones

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    Much like in Oakland, Marvin Jones has caught Mohamed Sanu after the latter was the talk of OTAs.

    Brandon Tate and Amon Binns sit above Jones on the depth chart, but the rookie has turned some heads thus far in camp and the preseason. It would be unsurprising if Jones caught Binns or Tate sooner than later for the No. 2 spot on the receiver depth chart.

    Jones provided one of the few offensive bright spots for the Bengals against the Packers on Thursday night, and he should get an extended run in Cincinnati's final preseason game.

    He certainly looks better than a late fifth-round pick, though most draftniks could have told you that before the draft.

Casey Hayward

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    Much has been made about the Packers' need to upgrade the defensive front, but their back line left something to be desired last season as well. The unit gave up 4,796 yards last season. That was the most in the league, though injuries had something to do with that.

    Casey Hayward is a draft pick that was overlooked time and again as part of Green Bay's effort to fix a defense that finished last in the league last year, and it looks like he could have been one of their best picks.

    The rookie out of Vanderbilt is making a push to start with a strong preseason (via Jason Wilde of ESPNMilwaukee.com):

    “(That) would mean a lot. Not too many people can come in and just start, especially at the corner spot,” Hayward said. “I feel I can start in this league. A lot of people said I couldn’t be a starter – (that) I’m more of a nickel person. I just want to come in and prove them wrong. They drafted me high, and when they draft you that high, they’ve got expectations for you, and I just want to live up to them

    “I’m running with the 1s with House down, with Sam down, (so) I’ve got to live up to my opportunity, and when my opportunity comes, let’s take advantage of it. I’d been getting a lot of reps before (House) was out, as well, (but) not as much with the 1’s. It’s my opportunity and I’m going to try to make the best of it.”

    Ted Thompson strikes again!

Bobby Wagner

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    Bobby Wagner was not a big name heading into the draft, and the splash the Seahawks made when they drafted him in the second round barely registered.

    Wagner has been making waves of his own this preseason, so much so that the Seahawks traded Barrett Ruud—whom they had just signed this offseason—for half a ham sandwich and named Wagner the new starter.

    Pete Carroll likes Wagner so much that he entrusts him to anchor the middle of a talented defense. That is high praise in and of itself. Of course, it looks like Carroll will be tabbing a rookie quarterback to helm the offense. It is a risky strategy that would not work if Wagner was less talented.

    It will work.

Kendall Reyes

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    The Chargers wanted help along their defensive front, which is why they took Melvin Ingram in the first round.

    They got another good one in Kendall Reyes, who has been mentioned alongside Derek Wolfe as interior linemen who have shined thus far. Reyes has been impressive for the Chargers, so much so that he will likely start at defensive end (via Bill Wiliamson of ESPN.com):

    A player who has been a standout is second-round pick Kendall Reyes. While it is early, all indications are the Chargers have potentially found something special in Reyes. 

    The Connecticut product has fit right into camp and does not look overmatched so far. He has a combination of pass-rushing and run-stuffing ability that gives him the chance to be a complete player for a long time. While he has yet to prove anything, I think the Chargers feel comfortable playing him right away. 

    If the Chargers can get back to playing stellar defense, they might be the favorites to come out of a stacked AFC West. Reyes will be a big part of that turnaround.

Nick Foles

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    Mike Kafka has been injured behind Michael Vick, who has been injured. Rookie Nick Foles has taken full advantage.

    One of the more unlikely rookie breakout quarterbacks, Foles has lit up opposing defenses. The Arizona product currently boasts the top NFL rating for qualifying quarterbacks this preseason. He has looked poised and confident under center, a departure from the "project" label he got when the Eagles drafted him.

    Maybe all he needed was some NFL coaching. Whatever the case may be, the Eagles might already be thinking about how much they can get out of the Arizona Cardinals for Foles next season.

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