Preseason NFL is all about the youngsters.
Sure, there are position battles, final rosters spots and yadda yadda yadda to decide during these four weeks, but arguably the most compelling part is seeing talented players take advantage of increased opportunities.
With Week 3, AKA the "dress rehearsal," widely regarded as the most telling week of the preseason, let's take a look at some offensive skill players who are beginning to establish themselves as potential 2014 breakouts and will continue to do so.
Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
If Rob Gronkowski misses any more time with injuries this season, it's alright. We've got a backup Gronk to take his place, and his name is Travis Kelce.
Alright, so that's not a fair comparison. Gronkowski has caught 42 touchdowns in 50 career regular-season games, which are unrealistic expectations for just about anyone. But you can see why similarities are being drawn. Kelce is a load (6'5", 260 pounds) with the speed to give defenses nightmares down the seams.
In the preseason opener, the Cincinnati product took a reception in the middle of the field and proceeded to accelerate away from the defense for a 69-yard score. Just to reiterate, a 6'5", 260-pounder outran guys who play in the secondary. That's not supposed to happen.
Against the Carolina Panthers on Sunday, he caught a pass up the seam and dragged defenders into the end zone for a 43-yard touchdown:
Through two games, Kelce has six catches for 136 yards and a pair of highlights that exhibit his tantalizing upside. Head coach Andy Reid talked about what he'd like to see moving forward, via the team's official website:
He’s just got to keep coming with it and there’s more than just the route running. You got to be able to run block and then you got to detail all your work there. But, you sure got to give him credit for the effort that he’s giving in the pass game and he sure has a nice skill level.
The only thing left to see now prior to the start of the regular season is Kelce getting more work with the first-team offense, and not just in two-tight end sets. This team is desperate for down-field weapons (especially with Dwayne Bowe's Week 1 suspension), and the 24-year-old provides so much more than Anthony Fasano in that regard.
Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee Titans
Justin Hunter began his preseason with one catch for five yards against the Green Bay Packers. Three days later, the Tennessee Titans slapped him with the embarrassing "Just Another Guy" tag.
The motivational tactic seemed to work, as the second-year wideout responded in the team's second game with four catches for 111 yards and two touchdowns—one 64-yard scamper and one unbelievable grab in the corner of the end zone:
At 6'4" with 4.44 wheels, Hunter is a home-run threat every time he steps onto the field. He averaged 19.7 yards per catch as a rookie, while The Tennessean's Jim Wyatt noted his immense potential:
Hunter is not "Just Another Guy." He is a guy with the talent to perfectly complement Kendall Wright and vault this offense up several notches.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
Justin Hunter is a heck of a weapon in the red zone. If he stays healthy, he's going to do what Kenny Britt was supposed to #Titans— Jim Wyatt (@jwyattsports) August 16, 2014
Nearly every time Devonta Freeman touches the ball, something good happens.
Through two preseason games, the rookie out of Florida State has received 18 touches. Of those, 11 have gone for at least four yards, while he has also had a 23-yard touchdown and a five-yard run called back by penalties.
Overall, he has tallied 81 rushing yards on 16 carries (5.1 yards per carry) and 68 receiving yards on a pair of catches. NFL.com's Chris Wesseling offered his praise:
There's just one problem.
He's buried on the depth chart. A slow start to the offseason put Freeman fourth on the Falcons depth chart, and that hasn't changed. During both preseason games, he has come in after both Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith, while projected starter Steven Jackson nurses his hamstring injury.
That has to change. Yes, the rookie still has to improve his pass-blocking, but he has looked far and away the most dangerous player in that backfield.
It's only a matter of time before he rises up the depth chart. Look for him to get some time with the first team Saturday against the Titans, and look for good things to happen.