What's the Verdict on 2018 NFL Preseason's Top Breakout Performers?

Kristopher Knox@@kris_knoxFeatured ColumnistAugust 26, 2018

What's the Verdict on 2018 NFL Preseason's Top Breakout Performers?

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    We're constantly told NFL preseason games are meaningless, and in many ways, they are. What we see is often misleading, and the final scores have about as big of an impact on the league's landscape as those of a pickup game between you and your friends.

    Of course, there's a big difference between a breakout preseason performance and that four-touchdown game you had nine Thanksgivings ago—aside from the fact that your cousin Carl couldn't cover a pineapple with a parachute.

    Often, a strong preseason is an indication that a player can be a difference-maker. Take the Houston Texans' Deshaun Watson, for example. He racked up 179 passing yards and 24 rushing yards in his preseason debut last season, then went on to be a leading Rookie of the Year candidate before tearing his ACL November 2.

    We're here to scrutinize some of this year's breakout preseason performers and determine which are accurate signs of things to come in 2018 and which are fool's gold. We'll examine players with both strong single-game outings and high overall stats.

    We won't look at established stars here because, well, who cares what guys like Tom Brady and Todd Gurley do in the preseason? We know who they'll be when the final scores matter.


WR Cam Sims: Legit

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    Steven Senne/Associated Press

    Undrafted rookie Cam Sims entered the preseason as a bit of a long shot to make the Washington Redskins roster. The team already has a strong trio of wideouts in Jamison Crowder, Josh Doctson and Paul Richardson.

    Sims, though, has forced his way into the mix.

    "It's been a good competition," former Redskins quarterback Doug Williams said, per JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington. "I think what has happened is ... [Sims] threw a hand grenade in this thing. I think Sims has had a tremendous camp."

    Sims caught two passes for 74 yards in his preseason debut and followed that with a three-catch, 57-yard outing. Pro Football Focus graded him the highest among rookie receivers over the first two weeks as well.

    Sims has the talent to be a notable piece of Washington's receiver rotation this season.

    2018 Projection: 625 Yards Receiving, 6 Touchdowns

WR Breshad Perriman: Fool's Gold

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    Former Central Florida receiver Breshad Perriman has been perhaps the biggest first-round disappointment in Baltimore Ravens history. A knee injury cost him his rookie campaign, and poor play bumped him down the depth chart last season. He did have a 499-yard season sandwiched between 2015 and 2017, but Perriman hasn't proved he deserves to be part of Baltimore's future.

    A strong three-catch, 71-yard performance against the Los Angeles Rams in the Ravens' second preseason game didn't change things.

    Yes, seeing him rip off a 32-yard touchdown reception likely gave Ravens fans some hope that Perriman is about to turn the corner—but it shouldn't. The questions have never been about Perriman's speed or athleticism. They've been about his ability to stay healthy, run clean routes and absorb the nuances of playing receiver in the NFL.

    He is the same disappointing wideout he's always been.

    2018 Projection: 125 Yards Receiving

LB Genard Avery: Legit

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    The Cleveland Browns' 5-0 victory over the Philadelphia Eagles in the Week 3 opener wasn't fun to watch unless you love defensive football. However, Cleveland's pass rush did generate some excitement, and fifth-round rookie Genard Avery was a big part of that.

    Avery earned a sack and a forced fumble while going against Philadelphia's vaunted starting offensive line. It wasn't a fluke. The Memphis product is in position to be a significant piece of defensive coordinator Gregg Williams' pass-rush rotation, and he has the physicality and drive to make the most of it.

    "If you see him out here, he is a human bowling ball," fellow Browns linebacker Joe Schobert said, per Josh Edwards of 247Sports. "He takes it and goes 100 miles an hour in any direction he wants to go. There are not a lot of people in the NFL that can stop him if he gets going where he wants to go."

    Avery will make a few offensive coordinators pay for focusing on 2017 No. 1 overall pick Myles Garrett this season. Unfortunately, it might not be until later in the year, as Avery suffered a hip injury during the Week 3 win.

    2018 Projection: 45 Tackles, 5.5 Sacks, 2 Interceptions

QB Sam Darnold: Fool's Gold

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    Patrick McDermott/Getty Images

    The New York Jets believe former USC quarterback Sam Darnold is the guy to fix their long-standing quarterback woes. He's looked like a future Pro Bowl signal-caller during the preseason—at least on the stat sheet.

    Darnold completed over 72 percent of his passes during the first two weeks of the preseason, even while going against Washington's starters in the second contest. Here's the thing, though. The 6'3", cannon-armed Darnold has been dinking and dunking his way downfield with low-risk throws against bland coverage schemes.

    After Darnold's Week 2 outing, Jeremy Bergman of NFL.com wrote:

    "The rookie attempted just one pass over 10 yards against the Redskins ... and more than half of his attempts were within five yards of the line of scrimmage. Darnold averaged just 4.0 air yards per attempt, by far the lowest of his fellow first-years. The [passing chart] also shows that Darnold was either much more comfortable throwing or more likely to throw to his right."

    Darnold had more success with throwing downfield in Week 3 against the New York Giants, but he also completed just 50 percent of his passes.

    This isn't to say he won't be a successful quarterback or even that New York won't be right to start him in Week 1. However, Darnold's biggest issues in college were a lack of pocket awareness against pressure and a penchant for turnovers. He was, for the most part, a boom-or-bust quarterback, and a couple of efficient preseason games don't prove he's changed for 2018.

    2018 Projection: 3,200 Yards Passing, 24 Touchdowns, 25 Turnovers

DL Hassan Ridgeway: Legit

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Hassan Ridgeway hasn't established himself as a consistent difference-maker in his two seasons as an Indianapolis Colts defensive tackle. He's made just six starts since the team took him in 2016's fourth round, and he has 35 tackles in that span.

    However, the Colts did discover last season that Ridgeway has value in more of a rotational pass-rushing role—he had 3.0 sacks and a safety—and this is the role in which new defensive coordinator Matt Eberflus has placed Ridgeway.

    As more of a pass-rusher than a traditional defensive tackle, Ridgeway racked up 2.0 sacks in each of the first two preseason games. His 4.0 sacks were the most in the NFL.

    Now, preseason sacks aren't the same as regular-season takedowns because they often come against lesser competition. However, Ridgeway showed last year that he can get to the quarterback, and if the preseason is any indication, he's in the right role to do so with more frequency in 2018.

    2018 Projection: 38 Tackles, 7.5 Sacks

RB Wayne Gallman: Fool's Gold

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    Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    New York Giants running back Wayne Gallman had a stellar game in preseason Week 2 against the Detroit Lions. He averaged 5.2 yards per carry, caught two passes and found the end zone twice. He had 42 combined rushing and receiving yards in limited time in Week 3. However, fantasy fanatics shouldn't scramble to grab Gallman.

    The reason? Saquon Barkley. The Giants used the No. 2 overall pick on the Penn State product, and as long as Barkley is healthy, he'll be New York's workhorse runner.

    Gallman can be a solid piece of injury insurance for the Giants—Barkley has been dealing with a hamstring strain—but he won't steal the starting job or even significantly cut into the rookie's workload when he's a full go.

    Gallman got numerous opportunities last season when the Giants couldn't find a consistent rushing attack, yet he never established himself as a starter or had a big game—he reached 60 yards rushing once. He won't suddenly become a star.

    2018 Projection: 220 Yards Rushing, 120 Yards Receiving, 1 Touchdown

WR Jake Kumerow: Legit

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    Mike Roemer/Associated Press

    Former Wisconsin-Whitewater receiver Jake Kumerow has taken an interesting path to the Packers. He signed as an undrafted free agent with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2015, briefly spent time on the New England Patriots practice squad then joined Green Bay's practice squad last year.

    This preseason, Kumerow has been a revelation. He's had long touchdowns (52, 82 yards) and has been a consistent presence in the Packers' passing game. More importantly, though, he's earning quarterback Aaron Rodgers' trust.

    "I have confidence in him," Rodgers said, per Rob Demovsky of ESPN.com. "He's in the right spot all the time; he makes contested catches, finishes the right way. He practices like a pro."

    Yes, preseason stats don't mean much, but Kumerow has flashed the speed, agility and field vision to be a difference-maker. The fact that Rodgers believes in him makes it likely Kumerow will work his way into the offense and make an impact there.

    2018 Projection: 475 Yards, 5 Touchdowns

S Anthony Harris: Fool's Gold

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    Mark Reis/Associated Press

    Th Minnesota Vikings defense, which allowed a league-low 275.9 yards per game, was incredible last season. Based on what we've seen in the preseason, you might believe fourth-year safety Anthony Harris is primed to make it even better this year.

    Harris logged his second preseason interception in Week 3 against the Seattle Seahawks. He leads the NFL in that category and has seven total tackles, 2.0 sacks and three passes defended through three partial games.

    Here's the problem for Harris: The Vikings already have a strong pair of starting safeties in Harrison Smith and Andrew Sendejo. Harris sits behind Smith at free safety, and he isn't likely to see the field much unless the incumbent starter suffers a significant injury.

    Should Sendejo struggle, Minnesota won't put Harris and Smith on the field at the same time. The team recently added former Cincinnati Bengals starter George Iloka, who coincidentally tipped the pass Harris picked off.

    Harris can provide quality depth, but he isn't in position to be a regular-season breakout star.

    2018 Projection: 21 Tackles, 1 Pass Defended


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