NFL Rookies Who Are Shining Brightest This Preseason

Brad Gagnon NFL National ColumnistAugust 16, 2017

NFL Rookies Who Are Shining Brightest This Preseason

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    DeShone Kizer
    DeShone KizerDavid Richard/Associated Press

    The 2017 NFL preseason is young, and there's still a lot to be determined in all 32 training camps. Heck, we've only seen two episodes of Hard Knocks

    But you know what they say about first impressions.

    Several rookies have come through early to send a message to those who drafted them, those who didn't, their new teammates and even their current and upcoming opponents. 

    Here's a look at a dozen newbies who shined in their live-action debuts and will look to build on that during the second full week of preseason football. 

Honorable Mentions

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    Patrick Mahomes II
    Patrick Mahomes IICharlie Riedel/Associated Press

    Kansas City Chiefs QB Patrick Mahomes II: The No. 10 overall pick didn't make any big-time plays while working with the third-team offense in Kansas City's preseason opener against the San Francisco 49ers, but he was still a solid 7-for-9 for 49 yards and a touchdown. Those numbers would have looked a lot better had a 41-yard sideline completion to Demarcus Robinson not been negated by a penalty. 

    49ers OL Erik Magnuson: The versatile and experienced Michigan product could have a chance to crack the lineup in San Francisco after being named to Pro Football Reference's Week 1 team of the week for his performance at center against the Chiefs. The Niners rushed for 188 yards, and Magnuson didn't surrender a single pressure in pass protection, per PFF.

    49ers LB Reuben Foster: The Niners' other first-round rookie front-seven defender, Solomon Thomas, likewise deserves a nod. The duo of he and Foster has a heck of a future ahead of it, but the latter brought it in his first game. He showed off flash with his breakup of a potential touchdown pass in Kansas City. Unsurprisingly, Niners head coach Kyle Shanahan has already named him a starter at linebacker, per Matt Barrows of the Sacramento Bee.

Chicago Bears QB Mitchell Trubisky

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    Mitchell Trubisky
    Mitchell TrubiskyDennis Wierzbicki-USA TODAY Sports

    The Chicago Bears took a lot of heat for trading up one spot to land former North Carolina quarterback Mitchell Trubisky with the No. 2 overall selection in the 2017 NFL draft. While Trubisky put up silly numbers during his 2016 season with the Tar Heels, that was his only season as a starter in college.

    Trubisky entered the league as a bit of a mystery, and the Bears insisted that veteran free-agent acquisition Mike Glennon would start while they groomed the new kid.

    But in his preseason debut against the Denver Broncos, the 22-year-old went 18-of-25 for 166 yards and a touchdown without committing a turnover or getting sacked. Glennon, meanwhile, struggled mightily with the first-team offense, completing only two of eight passes to go along with a pick-six. 

    Trubisky's performance came against second- and third-teamers, but it was enough to spark a full-blown quarterback controversy in Chicago.

    As Steve Rosenbloom of the Chicago Tribune noted, the Bears still continue to stand behind Glennon as their starting quarterback. Head coach John Fox even shamefully compared the Trubisky hype to Tebowmania

    If Trubisky continues to outplay Glennon on Saturday against the Arizona Cardinals, however, there'll be a lot of pressure on the team to start him in at least one of its final two preseason outings. 

    Right now, it feels like it's only a matter of time before the kid gets his shot. 

Cleveland Browns QB DeShone Kizer

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    DeShone Kizer
    DeShone KizerRon Schwane/Associated Press

    Trubisky wasn't the only rookie quarterback to put on a show in his first NFL preseason game. Several had big outings last week, including Cleveland Browns second-round selection DeShone Kizer. 

    The Notre Dame product outperformed semi-regular 2016 starter Cody Kessler and experienced offseason addition Brock Osweiler in a turnover-free, 11-of-18 performance in a victory over the New Orleans Saints. But the numbers don't do it justice. Kizer was also clutch while showing off his pocket presence and arm strength with a game-winning, 45-yard touchdown strike to Jordan Payton while under literal and figurative pressure in the final two minutes of the fourth quarter. 

    That wasn't an anomaly. Kizer also navigated the pocket superbly before hitting second-year undrafted free agent Richard Mullaney on a 52-yard bomb to set up a 1st-and-goal at the 1-yard line early in the fourth quarter, and he finished with a yards-per-attempt average of 10.2 while also picking up 12 yards on the ground. 

    That effort came mainly against reserves and roster long shots, but quarterbacks working under those circumstances are also surrounded by second- and third-team offensive weapons. It'd be nice to see Kizer get some work with the first-team offense in the weeks to come, but the Browns are being careful. 

    "I think it's way too early to talk about that," head coach Hue Jackson said of a potential promotion for Kizer after his first preseason performance, per ESPN Cleveland's Tony Grossi. "Let's see it for what it was: the guy made some plays at the end to give us a chance to win, but there's still things he needs to do better."

    Browns quarterbacks coach David Lee is on the same page. 

    "He's a lot better than he was in the spring, but he's still not there, guys," Lee recently said, according to Nate Ulrich of the Akron Beacon Journal. "He knows it."

    But things move quickly in this league, so don't be surprised if both are singing a different tune before September arrives. 

Houston Texans QB Deshaun Watson

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    Deshaun Watson
    Deshaun WatsonJason E. Miczek/Associated Press

    While Houston Texans rookie quarterback Deshaun Watson didn't put on as much of a show with his arm as Trubisky and Kizer, he also exceeded expectations in Houston's preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers. 

    The No. 12 overall pick out of Clemson moved the ball efficiently while completing 15 of 25 passes for 179 yards in a turnover-free performance. He led scoring drives in the second and third quarter, the second of which he capped with a swift 15-yard touchdown scramble. 

    Most importantly, the 21-year-old made it clear that he brings more to the table than the guy Houston is currently calling the starter, Tom Savage.

    Savage was fine in the opener, completing nine of 11 passes for 69 yards against first-teamers, but he took a bad sack on third down. The Texans only have the former fourth-round pick atop their depth chart right now because he's entering his fourth season, and that takes some pressure off of Watson. But as John McClain of the Houston Chronicle reports, Watson has been getting increasingly more practice time in with starters. 

    It's only a matter of time here, too. 

Texans RB D'Onta Foreman

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    D'Onta Foreman
    D'Onta ForemanJason E. Miczek/Associated Press

    Texas product D'Onta Foreman ranked No. 2 in the nation with 2,028 rushing yards last season, and yet he wasn't drafted until the third round. That might have been a result of the issues he had with fumbles, blocking and injuries during his time in college. 

    But the Texans gave him a shot in Round 3, and the 2016 Doak Walker Award winner came through with a splendid performance in the team's preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers. 

    Foreman picked up 76 yards on only nine carries while working with the third-team offense. He broke free for 41 yards on his final carry of the night, but he also had a 14-yarder earlier and executed a nice hurdle to buy himself extra yardage on a second-quarter rush. 

    Foreman might not be ready to supplant starter Lamar Miller, but if he can stay healthy and avoid putting the ball on the ground, his big-play potential should give him a shot to challenge backup Alfred Blue ASAP. 

Detroit Lions WR Kenny Golladay

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    Kenny Golladay
    Kenny GolladayDarron Cummings/Associated Press

    Entering training camp and the preseason, Detroit Lions rookie wide receiver Kenny Golladay appeared poised to play a large role in an offense that lost Calvin Johnson last offseason and let Anquan Boldin go in free agency this offseason. 

    Sure enough, the third-round pick came through with a near-perfect performance in limited action as the Lions defeated the Indianapolis Colts in their first preseason game. Per PFF, the sure-handed Northern Illinois product caught all three of the passes he was targeted on. But more importantly, two of those three resulted in touchdowns even though the throws were heavily contested. 

    As Bleacher Report's Sean Tomlinson pointed out in an in-depth breakdown of Golladay's maiden NFL outing, the 23-year-old successfully fought off tight coverage on both of his scores. 

    That prowess combined with the current state of Detroit's depth chart and Golladay's performance thus far in camp have Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press thinking the 6'4", 218-pounder "is on track to play an important role in the Lions offense this fall as a red-zone threat."

    Golladay didn't enter the league as a perfect prospect, but his early work makes one to wonder how the heck he fell to No. 96 overall in the draft. 

Philadelphia Eagles WR Mack Hollins

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    Mack Hollins
    Mack HollinsMike Roemer/Associated Press

    All of the talk regarding the wide receiver position for the Philadelphia Eagles has surrounded free-agent newcomers Alshon Jeffery and Torrey Smith, the outgoing Jordan Matthews and emerging third-year first-round pick Nelson Agholor. That doesn't leave a lot of room for rookie fourth-round wideout Mack Hollins, but the North Carolina produced forced his way into that conversation by kicking off his first preseason with a bang against the Green Bay Packers. 

    Hollins caught four of the five passes he was targeted on for 64 yards last week at Lambeau Field, with 38 of those yards coming on a touchdown pass from Carson Wentz as Hollins got some time with the first-team offense on Philly's first offensive series of the preseason.

    On that play, Hollins gained separation in traffic to make the grab at the 25-yard line before throwing two devastating stiff arms en route to the end zone. It was the definition of dominance.

    He's still raw and has plenty of work to do to become a regular NFL receiver, but with Matthews gone, there will be more opportunities for Hollins to impress the way he did in his first preseason affair. 

New England Patriots TE Jacob Hollister

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    Jacob Hollister
    Jacob HollisterSteven Senne/Associated Press

    Have the New England Patriots found themselves yet another stud tight end? It's early, but undrafted Wyoming product Jacob Hollister is off to a heck of a start. 

    Per PFF, Hollister caught seven of the nine passes he was targeted on against the Jacksonville Jaguars, picking up 116 yards. It wasn't just the number of passes he caught; the way in which he caught them was perhaps even more impressive.

    The 23-year-old was unstoppable in traffic, with two of his receptions coming on plays in which the Jags drew unnecessary roughness penalties. He also showed off his athletic prowess by gaining separation and even hurdling a defender for extra yardage on an 18-yard catch-and-run at the conclusion of the third quarter.

    He made play after play. And though he won't leapfrog Rob Gronkowski or Dwayne Allen on the tight end depth chart anytime soon, Gronk isn't exactly made of Teflon.

    There's little reason to think Hollister can't win the No. 3 tight end job this month. 

Seattle Seahawks OL Ethan Pocic

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    Ethan Pocic
    Ethan PocicJoe Scarnici/Getty Images

    The Seattle Seahawks are praying somebody—anybody—can help their oft-maligned offensive line find some stability. In a one-sided victory over the Los Angeles Chargers to open the 2017 preseason, rookie second-round pick Ethan Pocic threw his hat into the ring. 

    The versatile LSU product excelled at both right tackle and center Sunday, earning high praise for his nasty streak and physicality in both spots. Looking back at the tape, it's hard to find a mistake. And it's easy to love his aggressive approach as well as his refined technique. 

    The question is whether he can keep it up while working with the first-team offense. And if he can, where he'll slot in. Veteran Justin Britt is presumably locked in as the team's starting center, but both tackle spots could be up for grabs. Gregg Bell of the News Tribune reported the Seahawks tried Pocic out at right guard during Tuesday's practice. 

    Expect to see the reigning first-team All-American in multiple spots this season, which might be just what the doctor ordered for Seattle. 

Eagles DE Derek Barnett

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    Derek Barnett
    Derek BarnettStacy Revere/Getty Images

    In his first professional game last week against the Packers, rookie first-round pick Derek Barnett was filthy coming off the edge. The defensive end out of Tennessee recorded sacks on consecutive second-quarter series, added a tackle for loss and finished with four pressures despite playing only about a third of the game, according to PFF

    Even with Barnett coming off a 13-sack season in the SEC, that was a quicker start than expected—especially considering a number of solid players were still in the game when he began putting on a show. 

    In a draft scouting report of Barnett, NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote the 21-year-old is an "admitted slow starter who has had issues with sluggishness to start a season," which makes his debut performance particularly promising.

    Barnett still has some work to do, as he needs to become a more disciplined rusher. However, it appears as though he'll at least be part of the defensive end rotation in Philly this season. 

Washington Redskins DE Jonathan Allen

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    Jonathan Allen
    Jonathan AllenNick Wass/Associated Press

    Sometimes, it takes just one play. At least that's often true in Week 1 of preseason football, during which most players—even rookies—are limited to no more than about 20 snaps. 

    That was essentially the case with Washington Redskins rookie defensive end Jonathan Allen in his team's preseason opener against the Baltimore Ravens. The No. 17 overall selection and reigning SEC Defensive Player of the Year looked like a polished veteran throughout the night, but his second-quarter sack of Ryan Mallett stood out the most. 

    The play epitomized what makes Allen great, from the powerful initial rush to the focus on Mallett's movement to the relentlessness that allowed him to catch the escaping quarterback from behind. 

    Allen finished with three pressures on just 13 pass-rushing snaps, according to PFF, which likely has him on track to continue playing a large role up front throughout the 2017 campaign in D.C.

Pittsburgh Steelers LB T.J. Watt

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    T.J. Watt
    T.J. WattRich Schultz/Getty Images

    Pittsburgh Steelers rookie linebacker T.J. Watt played most of Pittsburgh's preseason opener against the New York Giants and stood out from the get-go. The first-round pick out of Wisconsin lived up to his famous name with constant pressure off the edge and two sacks, both of which came on the Giants' first two passing plays. 

    In both cases, Watt was exactly where he needed to be and did exactly what he needed to do. He rushed with perfect depth while adjusting to the quarterback's movement on the first sack, and he refused to bite on a fake with nobody blocking him on the second one. 

    Throw in three tackles and a pass breakup in the second quarter, and it was a dreamy start for a player who soon afterward officially received a starting role, according to Ed Bouchette of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

    There must be something in the water down in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. 

Dallas Cowboys S Xavier Woods

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    Xavier Woods
    Xavier WoodsJoe Robbins/Getty Images

    Dallas Cowboys rookie safety Xavier Woods recorded 14 interceptions, four sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss and 272 tackles during his four-year tenure at Louisiana Tech. Prior to the draft, Bleacher Report's Matt Miller heard from a scout that the 22-year-old aced his interviews at the scouting combine. But that still wasn't enough to get him drafted early, as Dallas landed Woods in Round 6. 

    He's already looking like a steal after leading all safeties with eight tackles and six stops in the first full week (his second week) of preseason football, according to PFF, which named him to its preseason Week 1 team of the week. He didn't miss a tackle, and the tape shows he was all over the field. PFF also gave him the highest run-stop percentage among all safeties last week. 

    Oh, and he forced a fumble (changed to a pass breakup after a review) with hard, perfectly timed and ideally placed hit late in the third quarter. 

    The Cowboys suffered multiple losses in the secondary in the offseason, giving Woods a chance to challenge Jeff Heath for a starting job. He's off to a promising start.