Buying or Selling 2014 NFL Preseason's Breakout Stars
Preseason excellence doesn’t always lead to regular-season production in the NFL, but August stars like Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce and Cincinnati Bengals defensive end Margus Hunt will try to ensure that it does in their individual cases this year.
There’s little reason to pay attention to the successes of well-established veterans during the preseason, but the summer session often provides a window into who could be the league’s next wave of rising stars.
Some of those emerging names will quickly fizzle out this fall (remember when Zach Sudfeld was supposed to be the New England Patriots’ next big thing at tight end last year?), but for others, the preseason might only be the beginning of a breakout 2014 season.
Each of the following players has yet to become a household name in the NFL, but all of them became more prominent than ever this preseason by posting impressive performances. That said, not all of them are expected to keep it up this fall.
Devonta Freeman, RB, Atlanta Falcons
The only player to post triple-digit totals as both a runner and receiver this preseason, Atlanta Falcons fourth-round pick Devonta Freeman is already showing the skills to be a key playmaker from the team’s backfield.
Freeman stood out this preseason as a receiver out of the backfield, leading all running backs with 146 receiving yards on 11 catches. He also had a solid month moving the ball on the ground, gaining 134 yards and scoring one touchdown on 32 rushing attempts.
Pro Football Focus (subscription required) graded Freeman as the league’s top performer at running back this August.
The Florida State product is a small back at only 5’8” and 206 pounds, but he’s an aggressive runner who has good burst and shiftiness and attacks defenses downhill. Displaying the ability to run both inside and outside while being skilled as both a pass-catcher and pass protector, Freeman has the tools to be a contributor on any down, his lack of height notwithstanding.
The Falcons don’t necessarily have big plans for Freeman as a rookie. He worked with backups against backups this preseason and is listed as the No. 4 running back on Atlanta’s depth chart.
It will come as a surprise, nonetheless, if Freeman’s role does not quickly increase in the Atlanta offense. It’s quite possible that he could emerge as the team’s best running back as early as this year.
At 31 years old, starting tailback Steven Jackson isn’t what he was in his prime. Jacquizz Rodgers and Antone Smith can contribute as situational backs but will never be feature runners. If Jackson continues to battle injuries or simply doesn’t perform at a starting-caliber level, Freeman should be the back Atlanta turns to for a spark. He’s more than capable of providing it.
Kelvin Benjamin, WR, Carolina Panthers
Coming out of college, Kelvin Benjamin was viewed as the least polished player among the five wide receivers who ended up being first-round selections in this year’s draft. This preseason, however, Benjamin outperformed Sammy Watkins, Mike Evans, Odell Beckham and Brandin Cooks, the four wideouts who were picked ahead of him.
After moving on from all the receivers who caught passes for them last year, the Panthers need their No. 28 overall pick to make an immediate impact as a rookie. Despite only having one year of significant production and two total playing seasons at Florida State, Benjamin looked ready this preseason to be the No. 1 wideout Carolina expects him to be
Working as a starter against starters didn’t stop Benjamin from making 12 receptions for 173 yards.
The 6’5”, 240-pound wideout displayed his big-play ability in his preseason debut, when he made a diving 29-yard touchdown catch against Buffalo Bills cornerback Stephon Gilmore. More importantly, Benjamin showed off consistent hands and impressive route-running improvement as he proved to be a quality intermediate target this August.
It’s no secret that Benjamin has the tools to be a dynamic playmaker in the NFL. His regular size advantage over defensive backs makes him a great jump-ball target. And although he lacks top-tier speed, he is capable of extending plays in the open field with his vision and strength.
The biggest question with Benjamin is whether he can perform consistently. That can also be established over time. His quality play this summer, nonetheless, was a step in the right direction.
Carolina isn’t going to play it slow with Benjamin; it can’t afford to. The rookie already looks to be the team’s most talented wideout, and he will be in the lineup from Week 1 onward. Considering the prominence of his role already, he should be one of the league’s most productive rookie pass-catchers in 2014.
John Brown, WR, Arizona Cardinals
John Brown was a relative unknown when the Arizona Cardinals selected him out of Division II school Pittsburg State in the third round of this year’s draft, but he’s been making a name for himself ever since.
Brown received no shortage of praise and hype during spring workouts and training camp from coaches and media who attended Cardinals practices.
He backed up the positive reports this preseason. The playmaking ability that his team and those who cover it raved about made its way to game action as Brown caught 10 passes for 165 yards, including a diving 30-yard touchdown reception on Sunday Night Football against the Cincinnati Bengals in Week 3, and he didn’t even play in the Cardinals’ preseason finale.
Brown fits the prototype for receivers who have often thrived in offenses led by Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians.
He’s a small pass-catcher, at only 5’11” and 179 pounds, but he has 4.34-second 40-yard dash speed and is not only explosive in a straight line but also laterally. He has displayed his route-running prowess and ability to consistently make hands catches this summer.
Brown has generated as much buzz as any rookie this preseason and already looks as though he could be a small-school steal. At this point, it will be a big surprise if Brown doesn’t continue to impress in the regular season.
He’s currently listed as the No. 5 receiver on Arizona’s depth chart, but he’s already a better player than Ted Ginn and Jaron Brown and should displace both of them to be the No. 3 receiver and primary slot option.
As long as Brown is on the field, he should continue finding ways to get open and make plays. Arians reportedly said that Brown could play “about 60 percent of the offensive snaps” for Arizona’s offense this year, according to The MMQB’s Peter King.
Allen Hurns, WR, Jacksonville Jaguars
An undrafted rookie led all NFL players in receiving yards this preseason. That surprising standout was Jacksonville Jaguars wide receiver Allen Hurns, who compiled 232 yards on 14 receptions.
Unlike most undrafted rookies who pile up stats late in preseason games working against second- and third-team defenses, Hurns started two games for the Jaguars this preseason and was impressive in competition against starting defensive backs.
Hurns, who emerged during his senior season at Miami by catching 62 passes for 1,162 yards and six touchdowns, demonstrated the speed to make big plays as a downfield weapon. He also displayed impressive route-running skill this summer and caught the ball cleanly.
He rightfully earned his playing time with the first-team offense and demonstrated that he could be a legitimate weapon for the Jaguars passing game if called upon.
Despite his preseason success, Hurns might not have as big of a role in the regular season. He started two games this month primarily because two of Jacksonville’s projected top three receivers, Cecil Shorts and Allen Robinson, were battling injuries.
Shorts is the Jaguars’ most established wideout. It’s no guarantee that Robinson will play ahead of Hurns, but it’s likely that the two receivers the Jaguars drafted in Round 2, Robinson and Marqise Lee, will see no shortage of playing time as long as they stay healthy.
Hurns is currently listed as the No. 5 receiver on Jacksonville’s depth chart. He deserves to play ahead of Mike Brown in four-receiver sets, but it’s likely he won’t see a great deal of playing time unless injuries continue to beset the players in front of him. (Robinson, who missed the entire preseason, could play in Week 1, according to Jaguars.com’s John Oehser.)
Corey Washington, WR, New York Giants
The final points scored in each of the New York Giants’ first four preseason games—all victories—came on touchdown receptions from Corey Washington.
An undrafted rookie from Newberry College, Washington didn’t even make it through the month of May with his first team, the Arizona Cardinals, but he found his stride in New York and ended up making the 53-man roster.
No NFL player was more clutch this preseason than Washington. A big target at 6’4” and 214 pounds, Washington proved he could win matchups on the outside with his size—especially in the red zone—as he caught 10 passes for 155 yards and the aforementioned four touchdowns this preseason.
For his efforts, the “Around the NFL” team at NFL.com named Washington as the league’s preseason MVP.
An unlikely success story, Washington earned his place on the Giants roster with his impressive run of big plays this preseason. In comparison to the other wideouts on this list, however, he’s the least likely to make a significant contribution to his team’s offense during the 2014 regular season.
One of the reasons Washington was able to make so many key late-game plays was that he was on the field in the fourth quarter of preseason games, when the lineups consisted largely of players who have since been released. That doesn’t diminish Washington’s impressive play, but it’s also less likely that Washington would have had the same degree of success against top NFL defensive backs.
Washington projects as the Giants’ No. 5 receiver behind Victor Cruz, Rueben Randle, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jerrel Jernigan. It’s possible that Washington could move ahead of Jernigan thanks to his award-worthy August, and he might have earned himself a role in the Giants’ red-zone offense, but it’s unlikely he’ll see much playing time unless there are injuries on the depth chart in front of him.
Travis Kelce, TE, Kansas City Chiefs
Travis Kelce’s rookie season was wiped out by a knee injury, but the 2013 third-round pick from Cincinnati looked ready to make up for lost time throughout this year’s preseason.
Kelce displayed both big-play ability and consistent reliability in Kansas City’s four preseason games, accumulating 193 receiving yards, the most among tight ends this August, on 11 receptions.
The tight end could quickly establish himself as one of the NFL’s most dangerous receiving playmakers at his position. As he showed with touchdowns of 69 and 43 yards in Kansas City’s first two exhibition contests this year, Kelce has a degree of breakaway speed that is rare for his position.
Had Kelce been healthy in his rookie season, he likely would have emerged as a key playmaker in the Chiefs offense. On a roster that has a serious lack of dynamic pass-catchers, the 6’5”, 260-pound target could quickly become one of Alex Smith’s go-to receiving weapons.
Kelce is not a great blocker, which might stop him from passing Anthony Fasano on the depth chart this year, but he has the size and strength to improve considerably in that capacity. Nonetheless, Kelce should see plenty of playing time in two-tight end sets, while his athleticism also enables the Chiefs to flex him out as a receiver.
It became clear this preseason that Kelce is too talented not to have a significant role in Kansas City’s offensive plans this year. As long as he continues to stay injury-free, his first playing season should be a productive one.
Zach Ertz, TE, Philadelphia Eagles
Zach Ertz started to break out during the second half of his rookie season and has seemingly carried that positive momentum ever since. The Philadelphia Eagles tight end has received glowing praise all summer and could be primed for stardom in his second NFL season, if his preseason play was any indication.
The 2013 second-round pick from Stanford was arguably too productive as a rookie to make this list. In catching 36 passes for 469 yards and four touchdowns, Ertz started to establish himself as an inside receiving threat who could stretch the field and make tough grabs in the red zone.
Still, Ertz was far from a mainstay on the field in his rookie year. He was a supporting cast member in 2013 but could be set to play a starring role this upcoming season.
Ertz caught eight passes for 110 yards and one touchdown in the preseason.
He proved that he could separate from defenders with his athleticism and make impressive catches versus coverage. Ertz also continues to progress as a route-runner. Eagles tight ends coach Ted Williams recently called Ertz “one of the best route-runners I've ever seen,” according to Paul Domowitch of Philly.com.
The biggest question with Ertz is whether he will see a significant increase in playing time this year or continue to play second fiddle to Brent Celek. All indications thus far are that Ertz is in line for a much greater role in the offense as a sophomore.
Ertz is an unspectacular blocker, but the athleticism he possesses as a 6’5”, 250-pound target gives the Eagles the ability to move him around their offense and create mismatches with opposing defenses. They should take advantage of that potential.
Margus Hunt, DE, Cincinnati Bengals
As a rookie last year, 2013 second-round pick Margus Hunt clearly wasn’t ready to be a significant contributor on the Bengals defensive line. This preseason has been a much different story.
Hunt regularly dominated his competition throughout the summer session. He finished with four sacks and, according to Pro Football Focus, 14 total quarterback pressures.
The “Around the NFL” team at NFL.com named Hunt the league’s Defensive Player of the Preseason.
Hunt is a spectacular physical specimen even by NFL standards. The SMU product ranked as the most physically gifted prospect in any of the past three draft classes, according to a formula devised by Bleacher Report’s Ryan Riddle for DraftMetric.com.
At the 2013 NFL Scouting Combine, Hunt ran a 4.60-second 40-yard dash at 6’8” and 277 pounds while putting up 38 repetitions of 225 pounds on the bench press. Being a great athlete doesn’t always equate to being a great football player, but his physical tools were certainly clear this preseason.
Hunt’s game remains a work in progress from a technical standpoint, but it’s improved enough from last season that he can now take advantage of his incredible combination of explosiveness, size and length.
Following the departure of defensive end Michael Johnson this offseason, the Bengals need another pass-rusher to step up in their rotation. That player should be Hunt, who has the speed to win around the corner but can also work his way inside blockers to bring heat up the middle.
Hunt showed improvement as an edge-setting run defender this August, and he is always a threat to knock down passes with his 33.75-inch arms. He’s still raw, but it will be a surprise if Hunt doesn’t make some impactful plays this year.
Ethan Westbrooks, DE, St. Louis Rams
The St. Louis Rams' release of Michael Sam is a national story being looked at from many different angles this weekend, but that story is incomplete without a look at how dominant Ethan Westbrooks, the player St. Louis kept over Sam as its fifth defensive end, was this preseason.
It’s fair to argue that Sam deserved a spot on the Rams roster, but Westbrooks clearly earned his place on the team with his play on the field.
The undrafted rookie from West Texas A&M had a tremendous August as both a pass-rusher and run defender, and Pro Football Focus ranked him as the league’s top 4-3 defensive end this preseason.
Westbrooks recorded 12 total tackles this preseason, including two sacks. The 6’4”, 267-pound defensive lineman showed the versatility to disrupt from both outside and inside. He can beat blockers with his quickness off the snap but also has good strength to hold his ground and stop plays at the line of scrimmage.
Westbrooks has the talent to make an impact on the defensive line—he wouldn’t have displaced Sam from the 53-man roster otherwise—and should become a key player in the rotation in due time. However, that might not happen in 2014.
Nearly all of Westbrooks’ preseason playing time came with backups against backups, so he might not be ready to win consistently in the same fashion against starting offensive linemen. More crucial to his rookie season, however, is the talent the Rams have in front of him.
After all, the reason Westbrooks and Sam were fighting for one roster spot is because the Rams already had a terrific quartet of defensive ends on the team in Robert Quinn, Chris Long, William Hayes and Eugene Sims.
Westbrooks’ versatility to line up as an inside rusher increases his value and potential to get on the field, but he’s likely to be stuck at the back of the rotation as a rookie unless players ahead of him miss time.
Jayrone Elliott, OLB, Green Bay Packers
The only player to record a full handful of sacks this preseason, Jayrone Elliott quickly looked like a great find by the Green Bay Packers this offseason.
An undrafted rookie from Toledo, Elliott made a surprisingly fantastic impression this August. The 6’3”, 255-pound edge-rusher showed good burst, quick hands and the ability to win with power as he made a habit of getting to opposing quarterbacks this preseason, recording five sacks and one forced fumble.
Elliott finished the preseason with eight total tackles and was graded as the league’s top performer among 3-4 outside linebackers this preseason by Pro Football Focus.
Elliott had to earn his way onto the Packers roster this summer, and that’s exactly what he did.
The high-level production that Elliott put together this preseason was an unexpected surprise, so it shouldn’t shock anyone if he defies the odds again this fall to become a productive rookie. That said, it’s unclear how much opportunity he will have for significant playing time.
Aside from beating Kansas City Chiefs right tackle Donald Stephenson on a bull rush in Green Bay’s preseason finale, Elliott’s first four sacks came against backup offensive tackles. He displayed tools that should translate to regular-season success, but he hasn’t shown much as a run defender yet and would likely have more flaws exposed by tougher competition.
The Packers signed Julius Peppers this offseason to start opposite Clay Matthews at outside linebacker, and Elliott is currently listed as a third-string player behind Nick Perry and Mike Neal on Green Bay’s depth chart. He could continue to work his way up the roster hierarchy past Perry and Neal if he stands out in practice, but he’s more likely to make a big impact in future years than as a rookie.
All stats courtesy of NFL.com, unless otherwise noted.
Dan Hope is an NFL/NFL Draft Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report.