The Biggest Surprises from the 2013 NFL Preseason

Russell S. Baxter@@BaxFootballGuruContributor IAugust 30, 2013

The Biggest Surprises from the 2013 NFL Preseason

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    What constitutes a surprise in the National Football League these days?

    With the 365 days a year, 24/7 news cycle and wall-to-wall coverage the game receives, it’s hard for anyone or anything to simply sneak up on us.

    Still, there are a few performers, usually rookies, who somehow manage to slip through the cracks when it comes to expectations. And in a few cases, even an experienced player is capable of opening a few eyes.

    Here are six performers who caught our attention based on their performances this summer. And the thing to keep in mind is that no one should be shocked as to what we deem a "surprise."

MLB Jon Bostic, Chicago Bears

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    This offseason, the Chicago Bears opted not to bring back eight-time Pro Bowl middle linebacker Brian Urlacher and watched outside linebacker Nick Roach leave the team for the Oakland Raiders.

    The organization signed a pair of veterans in D.J. Williams (Denver Broncos) and James Anderson (Carolina Panthers) to fill those holes.

    While Anderson has enjoyed a solid summer, Williams has been hampered by a right calf injury. And the latter has opened the door for second-round draft choice Jon Bostic to impress during the preseason.

    The former Florida Gators standout totaled a pair of stops and a 51-yard interception return for a score against the Carolina Panthers. A week later, he totaled two more tackles, including a resounding hit on San Diego Chargers wide receiver Mike Willie. And Bostic amassed a team-high eight tackles in the club’s win over the Oakland Raiders.

    Is Williams, who returned to practice on Tuesday, in danger of losing his starting job? That would hardly be a surprise.

SS Duke Ihenacho, Denver Broncos

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    Safety has been a four-letter word in the city of Denver since the month of January.

    More specifically, the four letters are “f-r-e-e.” We are talking about free safety Rahim Moore.

    Fans of the Denver Broncos won’t soon forget the former second-round pick and his role in the team’s 38-35 double-overtime setback to the Baltimore Ravens in the AFC divisional playoffs seven months ago.

    But that’s already ancient history. And the Broncos were busy this offseason shoring up that secondary, signing free-agent cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie.

    Then there is strong safety Duke Ihenacho.

    As USA Today's Lindsay H. Jones pointed out, the second-year pro has made marked improvement since joining the team in 2012 as an undrafted free agent from San Jose State.

    Is incumbent veteran Mike Adams set as the starting strong safety? Or are the Broncos ready to put up their “Duke”?

QB Blaine Gabbert, Jacksonville Jaguars

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    How can a player who was the 10th overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft be deemed a surprise?

    Perhaps the shock here was how easily third-year quarterback Blaine Gabbert wrapped up the job this summer when most felt it was going to be a difficult decision.

    Truth be told, Gabbert played well in the 2012 preseason and was much-improved a year ago before his season was cut short by a torn labrum. But the specter of his 2011 rookie campaign combined with the fact that the Jaguars finished with only two wins last season has skewed a few facts.

    Following a rookie season in which he completed only 50.8 percent of his passes, threw only one more touchdown pass (12) than interception (11) and fumbled 14 times, Gabbert was a different quarterback in 2012.

    In 10 games last season, the Jaguars quarterback improved on his completion percentage (58.3), threw for nine scores, six interceptions and had five fumbles.

    This summer, Gabbert has looked even more in command and certainly more confident. And the one number that jumps out at you is the fact that in 26 pass plays this preseason, Gabbert was not sacked.

    The fortunes of the Jaguars in 2013 may certainly be debatable, but don’t be surprised if their starting quarterback enjoys a solid campaign.

WR Kenbrell Thompkins, New England Patriots

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    There’s a lot to be said about those who always manage to find the silver lining. In the case of New England Patriots wide receiver Kenbrell Thompkins, it hasn’t required too much looking.

    That’s because the undrafted free agent has been hard not to notice this summer and was one of the team’s better players in that 40-9 loss to the Detroit Lions just over a week ago.

    In the preseason, the University of Cincinnati product totaled a team-high 15 receptions for 166 yards.

    It’s also worth noting that the Patriots certainly gave their rookie wideouts plenty of chances to prove themselves this summer. Second-round pick Aaron Dobson finished second on the team with 11 catches this preseason.

    In any case, Thompkins figures to be a pivotal part in the team’s new-look receiving corps. And it’s safe to say that the rookie will learn a few things from his veteran quarterback.

CB Terrell Thomas, New York Giants

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    The fact that New York Giants cornerback Terrell Thomas is playing at all is quite a story. 

    It wasn’t that long ago that the former second-round draft choice from USC was a focal point of the defense. Consider that in 2010, Thomas led the team in tackles (101), passes defended (21) and interceptions (five). He also forced four fumbles, totaled one sack and was a factor on special teams.

    Unfortunately, Thomas has been a non-factor each of the last two seasons. A torn ACL in the 2011 preseason shelved him for the year, and he missed all of 2012 after suffering an injury to the same ACL. 

    But Thomas is finally back, and as the New York Daily News' Ebenezer Samuel points out, the Giants defender now has two preseason games under his belt and likes his chances in 2013.

WR Stephen Williams, Seattle Seahawks

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    If Seattle Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll was looking for a deep threat to add to his passing game, it’s hard to dispute what wide receiver Stephen Williams has done this summer.

    On Thursday night and on the team’s second play from scrimmage versus the Oakland Raiders, quarterback Russell Wilson hit the one-time undrafted free agent deep for a 50-yard gain.

    This preseason, Williams caught only seven passes, but he totaled 236 yards and three scores, averaging a Forrest Gump-like 33.7 yards per reception.

    Williams’ seven catches this summer (in order of appearance) covered 41, 42, seven, 38, 16, 42 and 50 yards. Not bad for a guy who caught nine passes for 101 yards and zero touchdowns in 13 games with the Arizona Cardinals from 2010-11 and did not play football in 2012.

    As long as Williams is able to recover from a concussion suffered in the final preseason game, he’ll be in an excellent position to make the roster.