Which Rookies Are Already Shining in NFL's Preseason?

Nick KostosContributor IAugust 11, 2014

Which Rookies Are Already Shining in NFL's Preseason?

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Week 1 of the NFL preseason is complete, and regardless of which team won and by what score, there were a number of superlative performers. It's time to credit the first-year players who are already making an impact.

    The guys on this list all impressed and turned heads in their NFL debuts, and they drew praise from coaches and teammates in the process.

    • The first two quarterbacks selected in May's draft made the cut, and a case can be made that both outplayed their veteran counterparts. 
    • Three running backs are featured, highlighted by the first rusher selected.
    • Three dynamic receivers deserve attention, and all showed they'll contribute heavily as greenhorns.
    • Two defenders also made it, including the draft's No. 1 overall selection.

Jaguars QB Blake Bortles

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    Since they made quarterback Blake Bortles the third overall pick of May's draft, Jacksonville Jaguars coach Gus Bradley and general manager David Caldwell have insisted that Bortles will not start as a rookie.

    But if Bortles keeps performing like he did in the team's preseason opener against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (a 16-10 Jaguars victory), Jacksonville's power pair might have to reconsider their stance.

    Bortles was excellent against the Buccaneers, completing 7 of 11 passes for 117 yards. Three of his four incompletions were due to drops, so the overall stat line should have been even more impressive.

    Meanwhile, the club's incumbent starter, Chad Henne, completed only 4 of 7 attempts for 30 yards. Henne, 29, is who he is at this point: a below-average starter whose job is to keep the seat warm for Bortles.

    While Bradley told Hays Carlyon of The Florida Times-Union that Bortles won't see time with the first-team offense this Thursday when the Jaguars visit the Chicago Bears, Bortles will have a chance to outplay Henne once more.

Browns QB Johnny Manziel

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    Rick Osentoski/Associated Press

    Cleveland Browns rookie quarterback Johnny Manziel made his NFL debut this past Saturday night in Detroit.

    And while he didn't set the world on fire, he did enough to impress and ramp up the belief that he should be Cleveland's Week 1 starting signal-caller.

    Manziel completed 7 of 11 passes for 63 yards and added 27 yards rushing on six carries, flashing the unique skill set that made him a star on the collegiate level at Texas A&M. He was accurate with the football and had plenty of zip on his throws, and he looked dangerous when he took off running.

    The current No. 1 option on the Browns' depth chart, Brian Hoyer, completed 6 of 14 passes for 92 yards and failed to further distance himself from Manziel.

    Further, ESPN's Bob Holtzman offered this Sunday: "Reported 2 wks ago browns players expected Hoyer to start week 1. Starting to think they were wrong. Team source says Manziel now ahead."

    Manziel didn't claim the starting job with his performance, but he popped the champagne on his NFL career with a solid debut that surely excited football fans nationwide.

Saints WR Brandin Cooks

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    L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

    Perhaps no rookie has been more highly touted over the past few months than New Orleans Saints receiver Brandin Cooks.

    And through one preseason game, he has lived up to the hype.

    Cooks was on point in his team's 26-24 win over the Rams, hauling in five passes for 55 yards and a touchdown. On his scoring play, Cooks turned a seemingly innocuous seven-yard pass into a 25-yard touchdown reception, blowing by the secondary with outstanding speed.

    Yes, the bulk of Cooks' work came against St. Louis' backups, but don't get it twisted: He is the real deal.

    After the game, Saints coach Sean Payton told Katherine Terrell of The Times-Picayune, "(Cooks is) quick with the ball in his hands. I thought he played hard, he's smart, gets lined up very quickly. We'll keep bringing him along."

    Cooks projects as a key cog in the Saints' high-octane offensive attack, and he's already off to a promising start.

Panthers WR Kelvin Benjamin

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    If the Carolina Panthers are to repeat as NFC South champions and/or return to the postseason, rookie receiver Kelvin Benjamin will have to be a major factor in the club's passing attack.

    If one preseason game is any indication, Benjamin is on his way to achieving that goal.

    While he only caught one pass in the team's 20-18 loss to the Buffalo Bills, it was an acrobatic 29-yard touchdown grab that gave the Panthers an early 6-3 lead. Making the catch more impressive was the fact he beat star Bills corner Stephon Gilmore in the process.

    The quarterback who threw the touchdown pass, backup Derek Anderson, waxed poetic about Benjamin's potential, telling Jonathan Jones of the Charlotte Observer, "(Benjamin is) coming a long way. He’s got a long way to go but he’s starting to get a feel for it and if you just get it around his body, he’s going to make some big plays for us."

    With the rest of the depth chart at receiver reading like that of a 12th-place fantasy team from 2011—Jerricho Cotchery, Jason Avant and Tiquan Underwood—it's imperative that Benjamin continues to make big plays.

    Otherwise, it's likely the Panthers' passing attack will be stagnant, regardless of how well quarterback Cam Newton might play.

Cardinals WR John Brown

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Much like Saints receiver Brandin Cooks, Arizona Cardinals rookie pass-catcher John Brown has drawn rave offseason reviews for his speed and playmaking ability.

    And much like Cooks, Brown carried over his sterling practice play into the preseason, catching five passes for 87 yards in Arizona's 32-0 win over the Texans.

    Brown exhibited his game-changing speed and converted on a number of third downs, lending credence to the suggestion that he'll be a factor in his first season.

    After the game, Brown credited the Cardinals defense, telling The Associated Press (via FoxSports.com), "The game was kind of easy because going against the best (defense) every day, it makes it more relaxing out on the field."

    If Brown continues to improve, he'll form a dangerous pass-catching trio along with fellow receivers Larry Fitzgerald and Michael Floyd. That will surely make head coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Carson Palmer happy.

Titans RB Bishop Sankey

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    Wade Payne/Associated Press

    If the Tennessee Titans are to surprise and contend in 2014, they'll need rookie running back Bishop Sankey, their second-round draft pick, to contribute in a major way.

    And in Sankey's first NFL action, contribute he did, rushing 13 times for 37 yards and hauling in three catches for 38 yards and a touchdown reception in Tennessee's 20-16 win over the Green Bay Packers.

    After the game, Titans coach Ken Whisenhunt told Jim Wyatt of The Tennessean that Sankey stood out and grabbed his attention, a good sign for the first-year running back.

    While Sankey's 2.8 yards-per-carry average wasn't great, the fact that Whisenhunt singled him out for his efforts is a positive sign. The Titans offensive line has the potential to be solid this year, and Sankey only needs to beat out veteran Shonn Greene for first-team reps once the season starts.

Chiefs RB De'Anthony Thomas

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    Colin E. Braley/Associated Press

    The award for most jaw-dropping play from Week 1 of the NFL preseason goes to Kansas City Chiefs rookie running back and returner De'Anthony Thomas.

    Thomas turned heads with a dazzling 80-yard punt-return touchdown, seemingly entering light speed like the Millennium Falcon in Star Wars. It was a breathtaking display of pure athletic ability. Once he hit the afterburners, there was no catching him.

    The play set Twitter ablaze, with the hashtag #RunDAT quickly trending.

    Thomas also contributed a kick return for 35 yards and one carry for three yards in what was a stellar NFL debut. He showed that he has the speed and playmaking ability to contribute as a rookie and could potentially add a new dimension to the Chiefs offense and special teams with Dexter McCluster now in Tennessee.

Giants RB Andre Williams

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    Jason Miller/Getty Images

    Through two preseason games, the returns on New York Giants rookie running back Andre Williams have been solid. 

    Williams amassed 14 total rushes for 83 yards and a touchdown, averaging 5.9 yards per carry. He's looked strong and decisive, showing how he was able to rush for 2,177 yards last season at Boston College.

    Williams rushed seven times for 35 yards in the Giants' victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, carrying over the momentum from the Hall of Fame Game triumph over Buffalo. Williams appears set to receive work on the goal line and has emerged as the second option on the depth chart behind starter Rashad Jennings. 

    While he still has work to do as a pass-protector and pass-catcher, Williams has impressed at his primary objective: running the football.

Texans DE Jadeveon Clowney

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    It only took one preseason game for Houston Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney to show why he was the No. 1 overall pick in May's draft, even though his team was dominated 32-0 by the Arizona Cardinals.

    Clowney flashed the form that made him a star on the collegiate level at South Carolina, stuffing Cardinals running back Stepfan Taylor in a play that immediately evoked memories of his most famous moment as a Gamecock.

    And on the first Arizona drive of the game, Clowney was well on his way to sacking Cardinals quarterback Carson Palmer before All-Pro defensive end J.J. Watt got to him first. On that play, Clowney was in the process of dominating Cardinals left tackle Jared Veldheer.

    While Clowney clearly needs to work on his pass-coverage skills—he was badly beaten by Cardinals tight end John Carlson on a touchdown negated by a penalty—his pass-rushing ability and run-stopping prowess were on full display and surely left Texans fans salivating for what's to come.

Ravens LB C.J. Mosley

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    Baltimore Ravens general manager Ozzie Newsome sure knows how to find them, huh?

    Newsome's first-round draft pick this past May, inside linebacker C.J. Mosley, authored an impressive preseason debut, accumulating five tackles and a sack in the team's 23-3 win over the San Francisco 49ers. Mosley played 24 snaps, tied for most on the Ravens defense.

    Count veteran pass-rusher Elvis Dumervil among those impressed by Mosley, as he told Aaron Wilson of The Baltimore Sun:

    It shows the front office made a good decision (drafting Mosley). C.J. is humble and ready to work and he's making plays. It's expected from him. This is a start. He wants to do it, and that's where it starts. He works hard and practices hard. It's a good thing. We need him. He's a good guy. He doesn't say much. He's very mature for his age. He's been a good teammate.

    Mosley is projected to start alongside Daryl Smith at inside linebacker, and if the first preseason game is any indicator, he'll make an impact as a neophyte.