Right tackle Jordan Mills (No. 67) and right guard Kyle Long (No. 75) both make the preseason rankings for the Chicago Bears.
For every NFL rookie who has a nameplate above their locker, the first goal of his NFL career is complete: making his team’s 53-man roster.
As determined by draft position, that goal is an expectation for some rookies, with their real first goal being to earn immediate playing time and make an instant impact on the team. Throughout the league, however, many undrafted rookies have earned their way onto rosters.
Draft position no longer matters. Whether a player was a first-round pick or an undrafted free agent, every single rookie is trying to not only get onto the field, but also to help his team win football games once he gets there. If he cannot do that, he won’t have a nameplate for long.
Throughout the season, I will be keeping track of the league’s top-25 rookies with Bleacher Report's NFL Rookie Power Rankings.
So which rookies are making the most tangible impact for their team, exceeding expectations and/or leading award races? In this slideshow, we’ll take a look each week at which rookies have stood out up to that point in the season in order to help answer such questions.
In our preseason edition of the rankings, however, we’re going to take a look at which rookies have done the most this preseason to put themselves in positions to succeed. All rookies—from early draft picks validating their teams’ selections to undrafted rookies who have fought their way onto rosters—were considered.
This list is not intended to be a prediction of the top-25 rookies this season, as it will likely change drastically after the season’s first week. Instead, this slideshow is intended to highlight the exceptional rookie performances of the preseason, while looking ahead to how those performances might put certain players in positions to succeed in 2013.
Khiry Robinson, RB, New Orleans Saints
Robinson has made an immediate impression this preseason, leading all NFL rushers with 228 rushing yards on 49 carries. He also led all running backs with 11 receptions. The undrafted West Texas A&M product is buried on a deep running back depth chart in New Orleans, but he could be a valuable piece down the road (reminiscent, situationally, of Chris Ivory).
Tavon Austin, WR, St. Louis Rams
Austin didn’t have huge production this preseason—catching just eight passes for 66 yards—but he has shown the flashes to be the explosive playmaker everyone expects him to be. His highlight of the preseason came on an 81-yard punt return versus the Denver Broncos, during which he showed the value of his speed and acceleration.
David Bakhtiari, OT, Green Bay Packers
Although Bakhtiari was only the 21st offensive lineman selected in this year's draft, he is the only rookie burdened with the tough position of starting immediately at left tackle. He has held his own in the most important capacity of his position (protecting the quarterback), allowing just one sack on 70 pass-blocking snaps this preseason, according to Pro Football Focus (subscription required).
Akeem Spence, NT, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Spence is in line to start immediately as a rookie at the nose next to Buccaneers star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and he has earned that role. He showed that he could hold his ground well in the trenches this preseason, displaying strength and quickness while notching six tackles and earning an overall +2.4 grade from PFF.
Sio Moore, OLB, Oakland Raiders
On what may be the weakest roster in the NFL, Moore has the potential to be a bright spot in 2013. Moore started off his preseason well with a sack in the opener, and he played well enough throughout to earn the team’s starting strongside linebacker job. Moore is a very good athlete who can be an immediate asset in both run defense and pass-rushing, both areas in which he made plays this preseason.
Ryan Allen, P, New England Patriots
After beating out veteran Zoltan Mesko in New England, Allen will be one of three rookie punters in the NFL this season. Allen needs to get more consistent hangtime on his punts to lower opposing punt returns, but the two-time Ray Guy Award-winner showcased his leg this preseason with a 45.9-yard punting average. Beating out Mesko was a good accomplishment for the undrafted rookie.
Luke Joeckel remains the safest bet from the 2013 draft class to have a strong rookie season. Joeckel will be an immediate starter at right tackle opposite Eugene Monroe, and he should excel in both pass protection and run-blocking.
Joeckel played 75 snaps this preseason and played well enough to earn a plus-1.8 overall rating from Pro Football Focus. Joeckel missed some time this preseason with a hip flexor injury but “looked solid overall,” according to Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union.
For a player of Joeckel’s caliber, the lights of the NFL regular season will not be too bright. He may not stand out as much as some rookies because of the inglorious position he plays, but he should make an immediate impact with less of the struggles that most of his fellow first-year players will encounter as they continue to acclimate to the professional level of play.
Paul Worrilow was undrafted out of Delaware, but he quickly made a name for himself and earned a roster spot through his play in the preseason.
On a team lacking solid linebacker depth, Worrilow was a tackling machine this preseason. His 24 tackles in were tied for the NFL-lead.
He played well enough to earn not only a roster spot, but a major role in the Falcons’ linebacker rotation behind the team's three starters. He should project ahead of fellow undrafted rookie Joplo Bartu, the only other backup linebacker on the roster, on the depth chart.
Worrilow proved this preseason that he is a sound tackler and an active defender who has very solid athleticism and range. He should be able to step in at any linebacker position if called upon and be a solid presence in both coverage and run defense. He should also make an immediate contribution on special teams.
Tony Jefferson certainly isn’t the most high-profile rookie safety on the Arizona Cardinals (more to come on that in a later slide), but he may have been the most impressive this preseason. The undrafted rookie earned a roster spot by making plays all over the field for the Cardinals this summer.
Jefferson’s shining moment came in the team’s second preseason game versus the Dallas Cowboys, when he had five tackles and two interceptions. He finished the preseason with 14 tackles and had the highest Pro Football Focus grade (plus-8.4) of any NFL safety.
The question for Jefferson now becomes whether his impressive play was good enough to earn him a role on the Cardinals defense this season. At the very least, he should provide solid depth behind starting strong safety Yeremiah Bell while also being a stalwart on special teams.
Jefferson was one of the most surprising players to go undrafted this year, in part due to a slow 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine (4.75-second 40-yard dash). He has shown the skills this preseason, however, to overcome his speed deficiency and be a difference-maker with his nose for the ball.
Another emerging playmaker with a nose for the ball this preseason was Green Bay Packers fifth-round pick Micah Hyde.
Hyde doesn’t have standout measurables for an NFL cornerback (6’0", 197 lbs, 4.56 40-yard dash time at the NFL Scouting Combine), but he was able to make up for it with his instincts, physicality and ball skills in preseason play.
The cornerback was very active, racking up 17 tackles, two sacks and three pass deflections over the course of four games. He also led all Packers defenders with 156 snaps played, according to Pro Football Focus.
He is not in a position to start on a defense that already has Sam Shields, Tramon Williams and Casey Hayward, but his impressive preseason could earn him an immediate role in dime packages. A situational role could give him an opportunity to utilize his aggression in blitzing and making plays on the ball.
Hyde should also be a core player on special teams.
In transitioning to a 3-4 defensive scheme after struggling mightily on defense in 2012, the New Orleans Saints needed to find some young gems. It appears they may have found one in undrafted rookie Glenn Foster.
Foster had a fantastic preseason, coming up with four sacks in as many games, while also providing solid run defense. Pro Football Focus graded Foster as the NFL’s best 3-4 defensive end this preseason with an overall rating of plus-11.3.
As a result of his impressive preseason, the Saints could call upon Foster to immediately play as a rotational 5-technique defensive end/defensive tackle behind starters Cameron Jordan and Akiem Hicks. He is a promising athlete who should be to able to bring energy and interior pass-rushing ability to the field.
Foster may have entered training camp fighting for a roster spot, but he’s contending for serious playing time now.
With Justin Blackmon suspended for the first four games of the Jacksonville Jaguars season, fourth-round pick Ace Sanders is in position to start in Week 1. Even when Blackmon is back, Sanders projects to be on the field often as a slot receiving weapon for the Jaguars.
Viewed by some as a poor man’s Tavon Austin as a draft prospect, Sanders has made an immediate impression this preseason. He caught seven passes for 82 yards in the preseason, and in a poll of Jaguars veterans conducted by Ryan O’Halloran of The Florida Times-Union, he was voted the team’s “most impressive” rookie (Sanders received five votes, while Luke Joeckel received two).
Sanders is very small (5'7'', 179 lbs) and does not have the speed Austin does, but he is a strong route-runner with the open-field moves to make defenders miss. He will make plays with his hands, and he is also in line to be the team’s punt returner this season. He had a 22-yard punt return this preseason.
The Jaguars need many of their rookies to step up this season, and Sanders is arguably their leading candidate to do so.
Giovani Bernard was the first running back selected in this year’s draft and has arguably been the most impressive rookie running back this preseason. While he didn’t put up huge numbers, he showed the burst, quickness and receiving ability to be an immediate playmaker out of the Bengals backfield.
Bernard had 27 carries for 116 yards and three touchdowns, while also adding seven receptions for 71 yards. He has shown the ability to quickly gain yardage with his speed along with the moves to make defenders miss.
Bernard still needs to improve as a pass-blocker. That said, he should immediately provide a dynamic change-of-pace option out of the backfield in tandem with starter BenJarvus Green-Ellis, whose game is more predicated on physicality between the tackles.
Defensively, second-round pick Kiko Alonso is in line to immediately become a three-down player as the Bills’ starting middle linebacker.
Alonso’s preseason was limited to two games due to injury (shoulder), but he showed enough this preseason to earn the starting job outright. Though he did take some poor angles on the field, he showed playmaking ability as both a hitter in run defense and when dropping back in coverage.
As pointed out by Mark Armstrong on Bills.com, Alonso is already taking on play-calling responsibility for the Bills. He will likely continue to have ups and downs throughout his rookie season, but he looks to be an instant-impact player and difference-making upgrade in a rebuilt linebacker corps.
With Rob Gronkowski continuing to work his way back from offseason back surgery, the New England Patriots could turn to undrafted rookie Zach Sudfeld to start at tight end in Week 1 versus the Buffalo Bills. That opportunity is one Sudfeld has earned through an impressive preseason.
At least as a receiver, Sudfeld has a number similar traits to Gronkowski. He has great size (6’7”, 260 lbs), is a natural downfield runner and has terrific hands. He has already emerged as a reliable receiving target with his ability to get open, consistently catch the ball and impose his measurables on his opponents.
Sudfeld’s preseason statistics (eight receptions, 101 yards) may not stand out, but the playmaking ability he showed did. His best play of the preseason came on a spectacular 22-yard diving touchdown catch versus the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that can be seen in the video above.
Even when Gronkowski is back on the field, Sudfeld should continue to see significant playing time if he starts out the season well. The Patriots are known for using two-tight end sets, and while Sudfeld is not nearly the blocker that Gronkowski is, he has more open-field quickness and can be moved around the field as both an in-line and flex player.
The New York Jets desperately need someone to step up at wide receiver, and that someone just may be undrafted rookie Ryan Spadola. The Lehigh product made a big impression this preseason and has a good shot to get on the field immediately on a weak wide receiver depth chart.
Spadola ranked third among NFL receivers this preseason in receptions (13) and receiving yards (216). He had no dropped passes and showed his ability as both an intermediate and deep target.
Jets veteran wide receiver Santonio Holmes is expected to play in Week 1, according to Seth Walder of the New York Daily News. If so, he will form the Jets’ top trio of wideouts with Stephen Hill and Jeremy Kerley. Still, Spadola played well enough this offseason to be the team’s No. 4 wideout, and if Holmes has more injury issues, Spadola could work his way into the team’s top trio of receivers.
Spadola has already overcome a lot in his life—his father’s suicide at the top of that list. His next obstacle will be getting on the field in regular-season action, and he has shown the skills thus far to make that happen.
The Jacksonville Jaguars have almost completely overturned their secondary with new players, leaving the team with little choice but to start third-round pick Dwayne Gratz at cornerback. Fortunately for the Jaguars, Gratz’s NFL career got off to a strong start this preseason.
Gratz had six tackles and two interceptions this preseason, holding up well with the daunting task of playing cornerback right away against first-team offenses.
He allowed seven receptions this preseason, according to Pro Football Focus, but the tackling and playmaking ability that he is already showing will take him a long way as his game continues to develop.
Gratz is sure to have some growing pains while being thrown into a situation where he could immediately become the No. 1 cornerback, but his strong start this preseason should make the Jaguars confident.
Many were surprised by the Arizona Cardinals’ decision to select Tyrann Mathieu in the third round of this year’s draft after he had been kicked off the LSU football team prior to the 2012 season for failed drug tests.
Since joining the Cardinals, however, Mathieu has quickly worked his way past the doubters.
Mathieu has put himself in position to be an instant-impact player for the Arizona defense. Though not expected to start right away, Mathieu should see immediate playing time as a situational defensive back.
He played mostly at free safety this preseason, but he has also been used as a nickel and dime cornerback, which could be where he has the best playmaking opportunity as a rookie. When he is on the field, he displays the speed, quickness and ball skills to make plays.
Mathieu finished this preseason with 12 tackles and an interception. He was impressive enough that Sports Illustrated’s Peter King predicted Mathieu as his choice to win the Defensive Rookie of the Year Award.
Named the starting free safety for the San Francisco 49ers, Eric Reid has big shoes to fill. The first-round pick is Pro Bowl safety Dashon Goldson’s replacement for the defending NFC champions, and the rookie looked to be up to the task this preseason.
The second consecutive LSU product playing free safety on this slideshow, Reid is a physical, instinctive safety who should be active in run support and adept in coverage.
He may not have made the highlight reels this preseason, but he provided steady coverage and finished with nine tackles and a pass deflection. He can be an immediate three-down player in the 49ers secondary and provide center-field stability for one of the NFL’s elite defenses.
Thanks to injuries and immaturity, running back Christine Michael never performed with the level of production he was capable of at Texas A&M. This preseason, however, the Seattle Seahawks’ second-round pick was very productive.
Even though he missed the Seahawks’ second preseason game and only managed 15 yards on 13 carries in the preseason finale versus the Oakland Raiders, he still put up some of the best numbers of any running back this preseason based on the strength of his other two games.
Michael ran for 201 yards and one touchdown on 40 carries, while adding three receptions for 47 yards.
If Michael can stay on the field and continue to adjust quickly, he has all the tools to be special. He is a big back with terrific speed and athleticism, and he has the ability to both run through tackles and make defenders miss.
The biggest question for Michael is whether he will be able to consistently get onto the field in Seattle. He is listed as the No. 3 back on the Seahawks depth chart behind a strong one-two punch of Marshawn Lynch and Robert Turbin. But after his impressive preseason showing, expect the Seahawks to work hard to find ways to get Michael on the field.
Few rookies will go into the season facing higher expectations than Carolina Panthers defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. In the Panthers’ third preseason game, a nationally televised contest versus the Baltimore Ravens, Lotulelei showed that he is more than capable of living up to the hype.
Lotulelei had a dominant performance in that contest. He showed his ability to push the pocket and be a dominant run-stuffing tackle, while also using his quick burst and inside pass-rushing ability to come up with a sack. In just 31 snaps, Lotulelei came away with a plus-4.6 rating for the game from Pro Football Focus.
As Lotulelei gains experience, he should be able to consistently play at the high level he did versus the defending Super Bowl champions this preseason. If he does that, he has the potential to become one of the NFL’s best nose tackles. He displays a rare combination of size (6'2'', 311 lbs) quickness and power that can make him dominant in run defense and dangerous as an interior pass-rusher.
The top safety selected in this year’s draft, Kenny Vaccaro is not in line to start immediately, but he is expected to make an immediate impact after standing out this preseason.
Vaccaro could challenge Roman Harper for the New Orleans Saints’ starting strong safety job, and he is expected to play immediately as the team’s third safety and as a nickel cornerback. This will allow him to be an aggressive playmaker, both in run support and in coverage, allowing him to take advantage of his hard-hitting ability and ball skills.
Known for being a very active run-defender at Texas, he continued to be one this preseason, making six tackles in each of the three games he played in. He also recorded a pass deflection versus the Oakland Raiders.
Vaccaro may not start as a rookie, but the Saints certainly appear to have plans to get their first-round pick onto the field. The Saints defense is in transition and needs playmakers, and Vaccaro has the potential to offer exactly that.
DeVonte Holloman made an immediate name for himself this preseason, returning an interception for a 75-yard touchdown in the preseason-opening Hall of Fame Game versus the Miami Dolphins. The sixth-round pick continued to make plays throughout the preseason, and it looks like he could emerge as a valuable role player for the Dallas Cowboys this season.
A converted safety, Holloman showed his prowess as a coverage linebacker this preseason. He had two interceptions and had an NFL-best Pro Football Focus coverage rating of plus-4.1 for 4-3 outside linebackers. Holloman also ranked among the best 4-3 OLBs by only allowing 0.34 yards per coverage snap, according to PFF.
Holloman tallied up 16 tackles over the course of the preseason, and he also had the fourth-best pass-rushing productivity of any 4-3 OLB with two pressures (one sack) in just six pass-rush snaps, according to PFF.
While Holloman has shown the ability this preseason to be an asset in every facet of the outside linebacker position, his immediate role as a rookie is likely to come as a situational coverage linebacker. He should see the field alongside Sean Lee on passing downs, and he could soon make a full push for Justin Durant’s starting job at strongside linebacker.
Holloman should also be a key special teams player for the Cowboys as a rookie.
The Chicago Bears needed to revamp their offensive line this offseason, and they made moves to add starters at left tackle, left guard and right guard.
The Bears will now have a fourth new starter on their offensive line, however, thanks to the emergence of an impressive fifth-round pick at right tackle.
The Bears had originally shifted J’Marcus Webb over from left to right tackle in order to make him the starter on the right side, but they cut him on Aug. 30. Webb became an expendable part when he was beaten out for the starting job by Jordan Mills, a Louisiana Tech product who has shown enough this preseason to earn the team’s faith.
Mills has made some mistakes, but the overall results have been impressive since he became the Bears starter in their second preseason game. A 6’5”, 316-pound tackle with solid power and good feet, Mills has been effective as both a pass-protector and run-blocker.
Mills gave up no sacks in 78 preseason snaps, according to Pro Football Focus. He received an overall rating of plus-1.4 for the preseason.
The Bears had one of the NFL’s worst offensive lines last year, but their rebuilding effort for the future is off to a good start, especially with Mills looking like a key part of that long-term effort.
I know what you’re thinking: A kicker in the top 10? While there are a handful of rookie specialists who have won their teams’ jobs with strong showings this preseason, Sturgis was the one who truly made a statement this preseason.
Sturgis did all he needed to do to prove his worth as a fifth-round pick and beat out incumbent kicker Dan Carpenter this preseason. He made all nine of his field-goal attempts, with four from 40 yards or more, including a long field goal of 58 yards. He also had 15 touchbacks on 21 total kickoffs.
Whether Sturgis will be this season’s Blair Walsh remains to be seen, but the early returns from the preseason are very promising. He has consistently struck the ball accurately and has shown that he has all the leg needed to be a great NFL kicker.
As a middle linebacker for the Chicago Bears, Jon Bostic has a long line of history to live up to—from Dick Butkus to Mike Singletary to Brian Urlacher. Yet while he still has a long way to go, Bostic flashed the potential for greatness this preseason.
In the Bears’ preseason opener versus the Carolina Panthers, Bostic returned an interception 51 yards for a touchdown. Against the San Diego Chargers, he made a highlight-reel hit on San Diego Chargers wide receiver Mike Willie to break up a pass (as can been in the slide video), though he was fined by the NFL for the hit. He had his most consistent game in his final preseason appearance versus the Oakland Raiders, tallying eight tackles.
Bostic suffered from inconsistent play throughout the preseason and ended up with a minus-1.0 overall rating from Pro Football Focus as a result. That said, he showed serious playmaking ability, athleticism and the raw potential to develop into a special player in the middle of the Bears defense.
Although the Bears signed D.J. Williams this offseason to be their starting middle linebacker, Bostic’s preseason play could end up earning him the starting job. As of Wednesday morning, the Bears had not yet named a starter at the position.
If EJ Manuel didn’t get injured halfway through the preseason, he could have ended up at the top of these rankings.
Manuel was impressive in the Buffalo Bills’ first two preseason games, showing the ability to orchestrate drives with smart, accurate passing. He threw two touchdown passes and completed 78.8 percent of his throws.
A minor knee procedure following the second game ended Manuel’s preseason prematurely. However, he is healthy and ready to start in Week 1 against the New England Patriots.
Manuel is one of only two quarterbacks on the Bills roster, the other being undrafted rookie Jeff Tuel. While one could say Manuel won the quarterback job by default, he was clearly the best quarterback the Bills had on their roster at any point this preseason.
One of the biggest stories of the NFL offseason has been the New England Patriots’ need to replace four of their five leading receivers from last season, with the other (Rob Gronkowski) recovering from injury. The Patriots came into the preseason needing at least one of their rookies to step up.
The expectation coming in was that Aaron Dobson or Josh Boyce would do just that. Instead, the biggest impact has come from two undrafted rookies: Zach Sudfeld at tight end and Kenbrell Thompkins at wide receiver.
Thompkins worked as a starting wideout throughout the preseason and rightfully earned the opportunity to remain a starter going into the regular season. He showed the ability to consistently run great routes to get open against coverage at the intermediate passing level, while he was also impressive tracking the ball downfield.
As a result, Thompkins caught a league-leading 15 passes this preseason for 166 yards. Working with Tom Brady and the first-team offense, Thompkins appears to have emerged as one of Brady’s new go-to receiving options.
In an offense with no proven receiving options outside of Gronkowski and Danny Amendola, Thompkins could be in a position for a huge season.
Alec Ogletree took the starting position at weakside linebacker right away this preseason, but he didn’t just earn the starting job by default. An athletic player with great playmaking range and hitting ability, Ogletree was a standout for the Rams defense this preseason, and he should play a huge role in the team’s defensive success right away.
Ogletree had his ups and downs in coverage—including getting beat on a Dion Lewis out route for a touchdown in the team’s preseason opener versus the Cleveland Browns—but he put his playmaking ability on display in the Rams’ third preseason game versus the Denver Broncos. In that game, Ogletree had two pass deflections, an interception, a forced fumble, a fumble-recovery touchdown and six tackles.
If Ogletree can perform even close to that level consistently, he and James Laurinaitis could form a fantastic duo at the second level of the Rams defense. With his closing speed and ability to make plays on the ball, he is a player who opposing offenses will immediately have to game-plan for this season.
While the consistently negative national coverage of the New York Jets has focused on the struggles of two Jets rookies (cornerback Dee Milliner and quarterback Geno Smith), one of their other early-round draft picks has actually been a standout this preseason.
No. 13 overall pick Sheldon Richardson looks like an immediate difference-maker on the Jets defensive line, and he could be a strong candidate for Defensive Rookie of the Year.
In line to start at right defensive end opposite Muhammad Wilkerson, the Jets have taken advantage of Richardson’s versatility this preseason by moving him to multiple spots along their defensive line. He had 12 tackles in three preseason games and recorded a sack in the third versus the New York Giants.
Richardson’s statistics may not stand out as much as some of the players on this list, but he has played almost completely against first-team offenses. He has made an impact at filling gaps and occupying blockers, even when that has not shown up on the stat sheet.
He projects to be an immediate three-down player for the Jets this season and could form an elite defensive end/tackle duo with Wilkerson.
After his third preseason game, I wrote about why Chicago Bears right guard Kyle Long had been the most impressive rookie in NFL preseason action to that point.
Long did not play in the Bears’ final preseason game, but he looked fantastic in the first three outings. He used his athleticism well as both a pass-blocker and run-blocker. He showed the ability to stay with pass-rushers, make key blocks at the second level of the defense and open holes as a pull-blocker.
Long won the right guard job with ease this preseason and looked as though he could quickly end up becoming one of the NFL’s elite guards. The son of Oakland Raiders defensive end Howie Long and brother of St. Louis Rams defensive end Chris Long, Kyle has shown the skills to be a huge asset for an offensive line that needed improvement.
Long finished the preseason with a plus-7.9 overall rating on Pro Football Focus, making him the highest-rated guard in the NFL.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL draft featured columnist for Bleacher Report.