What's the Verdict on 2019 NFL Preseason's Top Breakout Performers?
Preseason football generates excitement as fans take initial glimpses at rookies and free-agent acquisitions expected to help their teams. Young players with potential tend to look impressive against second- and third-stringers, but teams have to separate isolated flashes from diamonds in the rough.
Life in the NFL can change drastically within a year. In 2018, Oakland Raiders running back Chris Warren III led all ball-carriers in rushing yards (292) during the preseason. Now, he's out of the league after the team waived him in July because he didn't meet "fitness expectations."
On the flip side, Baltimore Ravens running back Gus Edwards listed fifth in rushing yards (174) during last year's exhibition stretch, and he led the team in the category (718) for the regular season. The front office signed Mark Ingram II in March, but Edwards—a 2018 undrafted free agent out of Rutgers—should hold a role in the backfield.
Let's take a look at unproven players who have fewer than four years in the league and haven't served as primary starters. All the selections stood out in multiple preseason games or generated notable buzz from exhibition performances.
We'll focus on each player's skill set rather than their prospective role for the upcoming year and decide whether they are just a preseason performer or have the potential to be a significant regular-season contributor.
QB Ryan Finley, Cincinnati Bengals: Preseason Performer
Quarterback Andy Dalton has two years left on his deal. He'll have a chance to play out his contract or earn an extension. If the Cincinnati Bengals go in another direction under new head coach Zac Taylor, Ryan Finley has certainly put himself on the radar.
Finley didn't wow spectators with several deep throws downfield, which may lead to questions about his arm strength, but he showed efficiency and accuracy over the past three weeks. The rookie fourth-rounder completed at least 70 percent of his passes in each of the outings, throwing for 414 yards and three touchdowns with an interception.
Finley will have an opportunity to learn the position behind Dalton, which will give him time to develop his pocket awareness and presence with the backups during practices. If called upon in spot duty or amid a lost season, he's capable of throwing short-to-intermediate darts.
Right now, Finley looks like a serviceable backup who would dink and dunk his way downfield. He's not ready to take over a huddle against starting talent, but in a year or two, the 24-year-old may offer more upside.
2019 Projection: 325 passing yards, 2 TD, 2 INT
RB Mike Boone, Minnesota Vikings: Preseason Performer
Running back Mike Boone made the most of his opportunities in the first two preseason games, ripping off a 64-yard run for a touchdown against the New Orleans Saints and totaling 111 yards from scrimmage versus the Seattle Seahawks.
Boone and Alexander Mattison have handled the bulk of the Minnesota Vikings' carries during the preseason, but the former has averaged 5.4 yards per rush attempt compared to 3.7 for the latter.
Last year, Boone played only 62 snaps, 36 on offense and 26 on special teams, and his role may not change much with Mattison in the picture. He's capable of big plays against inexperienced players and backups, but the 24-year-old doesn't have the package to hold and maintain a consistent role on offense.
At best, Boone projects as a low-end committee running back who can occasionally shock defenses with long gains as a ball-carrier or pass-catcher.
2019 Projection: 300 yards from scrimmage
WR Jakobi Meyers, New England Patriots: Regular-Season Contributor
The NFL reinstated Josh Gordon last weekend. If he's available this entire season, New England Patriot wide receivers not named Julian Edelman will take a step back in the pecking order. Nonetheless, Jakobi Meyers is a quality wide receiver.
Meyers flashed throughout training camp and translated that momentum into preseason production. He's recorded at least six receptions and 69 yards in three exhibition contests.
The undrafted rookie out of North Carolina State didn't catch a pass from quarterback Tom Brady on Thursday, but he still finished with seven receptions for 74 yards against the Carolina Panthers.
Meyers took harsh criticism after he came up empty on three Brady targets, per NESN's Zack Cox.
"I was like, 'Man, I'm really getting yelled at by Tom Brady,'" he said.
Meyers can internalize that as a welcome to the Patriots' 53-man roster. After hauling in 19 targets for 225 yards and two touchdowns, he'll see more passes thrown his way during the regular season. Based on his recent track record, expect the 22-year-old to execute.
2019 Projection: 610 receiving yards, 3 TD
WR James Washington, Pittsburgh Steelers: Regular-Season Contributor
Last year during the preseason, James Washington had one extraordinary outing against the Green Bay Packers, logging five receptions for 114 yards and two touchdowns. Yet he caught only 16 passes for 217 yards and a touchdown in the regular season.
Over the last two weeks, Washington has flashed consistently, registering four catches in each outing and averaging 21.0 and 19.5 yards per reception. Will he put together a stronger performance from September to December?
After the Pittsburgh Steelers traded wideout Antonio Brown to the Raiders, they signed Donte Moncrief and selected third-rounder Diontae Johnson to fill the void. Washington has more familiarity in the offense than either of the newcomers. He also shed 15 pounds and cleared some mental blocks during the offseason, per Teresa Varley of the team website.
"I was thinking too much. Talking to Coach [Mike Tomlin], he gave me some encouragement," Washington said. "I talked to Ben [Roethlisberger], and that cleared up a lot of confusion with myself and my capabilities."
Washington's second year with Roethlisberger should result in big plays, as he's shown during the preseason. He could finish second on the team behind JuJu Smith-Schuster in the major receiving categories.
2019 Projection: 724 receiving yards, 6 TD
DT Anthony Rush, Oakland Raiders: Regular-Season Contributor
Anthony Rush's pathway into the spotlight included multiple detours before he flashed on the field with the Raiders. The undrafted rookie in May signed with the Philadelphia Eagles, who released him July 27. He visited the Detroit Lions but received a call to join the Silver and Black on Aug. 1.
Despite missing the early portion of the Raiders' offseason program, Rush has caught on quickly and become a disruptive force in the middle. Head coach Jon Gruden spoke highly of him after the team's first exhibition contest against the Los Angeles Rams, per Las Vegas Review-Journal's Adam Hill.
"Anthony Rush is a 340-pound guy that really took advantage of his snaps," Gruden said. "Caused some tackles for loss, made a couple of plays and pushed the pocket pretty good. We like him."
Rush has recorded nine tackles in three games, but you have to look beyond the stat sheet to understand his impact near the line of scrimmage. He has a quick step off the snap. His arm length coupled with his powerful jab can knock the strongest offensive linemen off balance, as shown by Chris Reed of Raiders Beat.
Rush will be a tough assignment to block because of his ability to reach and bat down passes at the line of scrimmage. He'll have multiple pass breakups to go along with a handful of tackles for loss.
2019 Projection: 22 solo tackles, 6 TFL, 1 SK, 2 PD
DE Daeshon Hall, Philadelphia Eagles: Preseason Performer
Daeshon Hall put together a strong junior campaign at Texas A&M, registering 54 takedowns, 14.5 tackles for loss, seven sacks and two pass breakups. He didn't match that production as a senior before he was picked by the Carolina Panthers in the third round of the 2017 draft.
In two seasons, Hall has appeared in four games, logging three tackles and one-half sack. The Eagles signed him off the Houston Texans' practice squad in December, and he'll attempt to extend his stay.
Hall recorded three sacks in the first two exhibition games. But that was likely a flash rather than a career rebirth.
Dating back to his collegiate years, Hall hasn't shown enough to suggest he's going to become a force near the pocket. Secondly, he's not a strong run defender even with the weight he added to play in defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz's four-man front.
Though Hall has put his name back on the radar, he's not a quality contributor in the long-term.
2019 Projection: 8 solo tackles
LB Sam Eguavoen, Miami Dolphins: Regular-Season Contributor
Based on the buzz out of training camp and his performances during the preseason, linebacker Sam Eguavoen could push a veteran out of a roster spot. According Barry Jackson of Miami Herald, the 2015 undrafted linebacker out of Texas Tech, who spent three seasons with the Saskatchewan Roughriders in the Canadian Football League, could significantly impact the veterans at the position.
"Sam Eguavoen's emergence and Jerome Baker's evolution—and the fact Miami is expected to play three linebackers less than half the time—have left Kiko Alonso and Raekwon McMillan in a tenuous position," Jackson wrote. "McMillan obviously is not going to be released, but his playing time likely will be impacted."
Eguavoen has flashed all over the field, making several stops in each of three preseason outings. He also forced a fumble on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second offensive drive last weekend. He's not at his best in coverage, but he will help patch up the Dolphins run defense, which ranked 31st last year.
At 6'0", 236 pounds, Eguavoen can move in space—field awareness will play a part in his development as a pass defender on 3rd-and-long situations. He got a late start to his NFL career, but the 26-year-old has the tools to become a mainstay in the middle of the Dolphins defense.
2019 Projection: 56 solo tackles, 3 PD, 2 FF
CB Herb Miller, Kansas City Chiefs: Preseason Performer
Because of the turnover within the Kansas City Chiefs cornerback group, Herb Miller will have an opportunity to play a significant number of snaps if he continues to stand out in the preseason.
Through two games, Miller has six tackles; an interception, which he returned 67 yards; a forced fumble; and two pass breakups. Typically, he's around the football, which bodes well for his chances to make the 53-man cut.
Though Miller has shown ball skills, Steelers backup Joshua Dobbs completed a 40-yard pass to James Washington with the undrafted rookie in coverage.
In 2018, the Chiefs gave up 247 first downs through the air—by far the most in the league. Kansas City can't afford to field a cornerback susceptible to big plays.
Miller's preseason production should help him earn a spot on the roster, but he's not a quality starter at this stage in his career. The Florida Atlantic product may take snaps in spot press-man duty, but quicker wideouts could beat him downfield.
2019 Projection: 12 tackles, 2 PD