Which Rookies Are Already Shining in NFL's Preseason?
Whether a player is a first-round pick or an undrafted free agent, preseason football is less about the score and more about the individual play on a per-snap basis. Exhibition contests give rookies the opportunity to shine and earn extra playing time.
Players don’t make the 53-man roster on the practice field; they make the 53-man roster based on their level of play during preseason games. Every year there are one or two fierce competitors who come out of nowhere to state their case and land on an active roster.
From there, some stick and make it in the NFL. Others don’t, and they quickly fizzle out. Regardless of draft status, let’s take a look at eight rookies who are already shining through the second week of the NFL’s preseason schedule.
Kyle Long, OG, Chicago Bears
Even though Kyle Long only played one year of football at the Division I level, he’s already making a name for himself in the NFL. Through two preseason games, he has looked like a man among boys while logging 86 snaps at right guard.
During the Bears' second preseason game against the Chargers, Long played so well that Pro Football Focus (subscription required) awarded him with a plus-5.7 grade. His outstanding degree of play currently has him rated as the top offensive guard in the league.
Yes, it’s only the preseason, but NFL talent evaluators are convinced he will be just as dominant during the regular season. Matt Miller of Bleacher Report called Long "quick, powerful and smart." Miller also noted that Chicago hit on something special by drafting the 313-pound mauler.
The praise didn’t stop there. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com stated that Long has some of the same skills as Baltimore Ravens guard Marshal Yanda—quite the praise considering Yanda is a two-time All-Pro selection.
With Long at right guard and Jordan Mills at right tackle, the Bears offensive line is starting to show signs of improvement.
Damontre Moore, DE, New York Giants
It has been said time and time again that Giants general manager Jerry Reese knows how to draft pass-rushers. For years, defensive ends Osi Umenyiora, Justin Tuck and, more recently, Jason Pierre-Paul have been wreaking havoc in the NFC East.
With Umenyiora out of the picture, it’s time for a younger, fresher face to work his way into New York’s defensive line rotation. When the organization drafted defensive end Damontre Moore out of Texas A&M, pundits were split on the pick.
Some loved the selection because it occurred in the third round, yet others weren’t fond of the choice because of Moore’s character concerns and poor showing at the NFL Scouting Combine. Nevertheless, the first-team All-SEC member has yielded positive results through one preseason game.
While playing 31 snaps against the Steelers, Moore tallied one quarterback hit and three quarterback hurries. He did a bang-up job against the run by registering two defensive stops.
Look for Moore to garner more playing time during the Giants' second preseason game versus the Colts.
EJ Manuel, QB, Buffalo Bills
When EJ Manuel was the first quarterback off the board this past April, plenty of people had no problem showing their displeasure with the pick. The naysayers weren’t sold on his decision-making skills or his ability to consistently make accurate throws.
Fortunately for Buffalo, Manuel has taken it upon himself to improve his game and emerge as the Bills’ starting quarterback. In two preseason games, he has easily been the most impressive rookie signal-caller from this year’s draft class.
Aside from the fact that he has yet to throw an interception, Manuel has tossed a pair of touchdown passes and completed 78.8 percent of his throws on 33 attempts. However, his stat line only impresses Buffalo’s front office so much. The thing it really loves about him is his mental makeup, according to Ian Rapoport of NFL.com.
Manuel has been nothing short of a preparation freak since he arrived in Buffalo. He is as honest as they come, and he’s always looking to be well-groomed for every situation. One of the first things he asked the coaching staff about was the proper way to prepare for a pro game versus a college game.
One has to like the approach of the 23-year-old quarterback. Let’s just hope he bounces back quickly from his minor knee procedure and is ready for the team’s Week 1 contest against the Patriots.
Tyrann Mathieu, DB, Arizona Cardinals
A year away from football has had no ill effects on defensive back Tyrann Mathieu. Mathieu has been everything the organization could have hoped for and more. Ever since the Cardinals opened up camp, the third-round pick out of LSU has been taking some first-team reps.
His strong showing against Green Bay has head coach Bruce Arians and the rest of the coaching staff drooling over his potential as a full-time starter at free safety. Arians made it apparent to Darren Urban of AZCardinals.com that Mathieu is big enough and fast enough to play in the base defense.
His total body of work from the Packers game and his public backing from Arians helped him earn the starting free safety job for Arizona’s second preseason game versus the Cowboys. Mathieu didn’t disappoint.
He registered a team high in tackles with seven, and he drew rave reviews from experts around the league. Daniel Jeremiah of NFL.com tweeted out that Mathieu reminded him of San Diego Chargers safety Eric Weddle. Both are tough, instinctive players who played some cornerback at the collegiate level.
If the Cardinals want to turn things around in the desert, they will need Mathieu to play like a Rookie of the Year finalist.
Zach Sudfeld, TE, New England Patriots
Signing undrafted free agent tight end Zach Sudfeld out of Nevada is looking like New England’s best draft-day move. Who would have thought Sudfeld would have the opportunity to open the season as the Patriots’ No. 2 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski?
Thanks to two solid preseason performances, the 6’7” athletic pass-catcher has a chance to become a real asset to 13-year veteran quarterback Tom Brady. During training camp, Sudfeld has been viewed as a shining star because of his continuous progression.
Since the beginning of camp, his blocking and knowledge of the playbook has vastly improved. Here’s what head coach Bill Belichick told Doug Kyed of NESN.com after Friday night’s game:
Zach’s worked hard to learn our offense. It’s a little different than what they did at Nevada. He’s a smart kid and he’s got some skill. He’s been very diligent in his preparation. He’s been out there almost every day out there practicing. Coach [George] Godsey has done a good job with him. He’s had to learn how to be an on-the-line tight end.
Coach Belichick is not one to just hand out compliments to anyone. Sudfeld has to feel pretty good about where he stands right now. A tough path to playing time in the NFL will make for a feel-good story once he’s catching touchdown passes from Brady in the regular season.
Benson Mayowa, LB, Seattle Seahawks
As we all know by now, the Seattle Seahawks have one of deepest, most talented defenses in the NFL. They have superstars along the defensive line, at the linebacker position and in the secondary. But that doesn’t mean the team doesn’t have room for one or two undrafted additions.
Well-run front offices are always churning the bottom of the roster looking for under-the-radar players. Following two big showings at outside linebacker, undrafted free agent Benson Mayowa will not let general manager John Schneider forget his name.
Mayowa has stood out as a pass-rushing specialist. He has three quarterback sacks, two quarterback hits and three quarterback hurries. The best performance of his young preseason career came when Seattle traveled to San Diego (two sacks, one hit and three hurries).
His notable outing helped him earn a start against the Broncos. Mayowa has an uphill battle on his hands to make the 53-man roster, yet the coaching staff may not have a choice if he keeps jumping off the tape on a weekly basis.
Khiry Robinson, RB, New Orleans Saints
Unless you’re a fan of the Saints, chances are you haven’t heard of undrafted free-agent running back Khiry Robinson. Prior to joining New Orleans, Robinson rushed for 1,621 yards with 15 touchdowns in 13 games at West Texas A&M.
Despite not being a well-known commodity by most, Robinson was viewed as a sleeper by some draft analysts. Through two contests in the preseason, the potential diamond-in-the-rough find has shown an elusive running style.
Out of the backfield, he has forced seven missed tackles. As a receiver, he has forced six. His performances have helped him make a strong case for a spot on the club’s 53-man roster. To ensure that No. 4 position on the depth chart, he’s going to have to leapfrog second-year back Travaris Cadet.
With two games left to state their cases, Jeff Duncan of NOLA.com believes Robinson’s stock is up while Cadet’s is down. This should come as no surprise, as Cadet has only averaged 1.9 yards per carry on 18 carries and has fumbled twice on his last five carries.
Without question, Robinson is a guy to watch from here on out.
Kawann Short, DT, Carolina Panthers
The Panthers’ pass rush already looks to be much improved over last year, thanks in large part to a certain rookie defensive tackle. Even though it would be wise to assume Star Lotulelei is the defensive tackle making the most noise for Carolina, second-round pick Kawann Short has been lights out.
In 56 snaps at left defensive tackle, Short has tallied one quarterback hit and four quarterback hurries. His dynamic play comes from his ability to shoot gaps. This, in turn, makes him and Lotulelei the perfect pair at defensive tackle.
The interior defensive line play has been so pleasing that head coach Ron Rivera took the time to single out Short and Lotulelei’s play. Carolina’s early-season success on defense will be predicated on the overall play of the defensive line.
Expect defensive ends Greg Hardy and Charles Johnson to have even better years because of enhanced play in the middle. General Manager Dave Gettleman is already making his presence felt with a keen eye for defensive line talent.