One word comes to mind when analyzing preseason performances—context.
Many will tell you the preseason doesn't matter and should be completely disregarded, and that may be true for the purposes of evaluating an entire team or trying to predict a team's talent level or success. But for individual players, the preseason does matter.
Many players—Terrell Davis and Victor Cruz come to mind as my two favorites—have used the preseason to propel their careers. As cutdown day nears and teams look to steal players who impressed in the exhibition games, there are also many rookies whom evaluators are excited their team grabbed in the 2019 draft, as well as those whom they are sad they didn't get.
After a week of conversations, here are five under-the-radar rookies NFL scouts are impressed by:
Jarrett Stidham, QB, New England Patriots
Scout's Take: "How the f--k do they always do this? Kid falls right into their laps and looks like the second coming. It's like Bill and Josh undid all the damage Auburn did to him."
Stidham has looked very good in the preseason while showing nice chemistry with the Patriots' young receivers. With no clear-cut plan in place for life after Tom Brady, the Patriots rolled the dice on a fourth-rounder who had shown considerable promise in his junior season but struggled behind a very bad offensive line as a senior.
It's early, but the Patriots appear to have another Jimmy Garoppolo or Jacoby Brissett on their hands. This one might stick around to replace the GOAT.
KeeSean Johnson, WR, Arizona Cardinals
Scout's Take: "This might be a blind squirrel finding his nut, because [Steve Keim] hasn't drafted well, but Johnson looks like a starter-quality receiver."
The Arizona Cardinals loaded up on wide receivers in the 2019 draft, but it's not second-rounder Andy Isabella or fourth-rounder Hakeem Butler making waves throughout the preseason; it's sixth-rounder KeeSean Johnson.
Oshane Ximines, EDGE, New York Giants
Scout's Take: "Remember in December  when I told you this kid was a second-rounder? Guess we shouldn't have all panicked because of iffy testing times and just watched him play f--king football."
Ximines fell from a late-season first-rounder on my board to being drafted in Round 3 largely as a result of an NFL Scouting Combine performance (4.78s 40-yard dash, 7.13s three-cone drill) that had evaluators and analysts concerned about his athleticism. But like the scout said, on tape Ximines was dominant at Old Dominion and shouldn't have been overlooked.
The Giants may have hit a home run in Round 3 with a pass-rusher who will at least have a big situational role in his first season.
Chase Winovich, EDGE, New England Patriots
Scout's Take: "Bill being Bill on the Michigan kid. They draft so well for situational football. They'll make him into an eight-sack-a-year player."
The third-rounder from Michigan has impressed as one of the league's most impactful rookies during the preseason. Lining up in a role previously held by Mike Vrabel and Rob Ninkovich, Winovich has shown the pass-rush moves and football IQ that made him the Wolverines' best defender despite not being a first-round pick like teammates Rashan Gary and Devin Bush.
The Patriots use a heavy rotation on the defensive line, so Winovich might not be a Week 1 starter, but he will be a significant role player for the New England defense in 2019.
Jaquan Johnson, DS, Buffalo Bills
Scout's Take: "This one surprised me because he just seemed too small, but his physicality and experience show up on the field. Now we need to see him against 1s and not 3s."
Sixth-round picks aren't even expected to make the team in most cases, but rookie Jaquan Johnson has looked very good in the preseason and is likely to earn a big role as a nickel defender and special teams ace. He's not close to replacing Micah Hyde as the starting strong safety, but with more teams running six and seven defensive backs regularly, Johnson has value thanks to his ability to play both safety spots and even some nickel cornerback.
He also brings immediate value as a tough special teams player. To be a depth safety, you better be willing and able to get dirty on fourth down, and that's something Johnson has done very well throughout the preseason.
The Scout's Report
—An ACL injury suffered by Alabama's Dylan Moses will shake up the linebacker rankings, but there is good news for both Moses and the NFL. Because of the timing of the injury, there is optimism from NFL sources that Moses could sit out the 2019 college football season, declare for the draft and be healthy early in his rookie season.
A surefire first-round prospect before the injury, Moses will be a first-round pick as long as his recovery goes well.
—Aaron Wilson of the Houston Chronicle reported that the Texans have met with five teams about a trade for pass-rusher Jadeveon Clowney. Wilson listed the teams as the Jets, Dolphins, Eagles, Seahawks and Redskins.
All five teams are obvious scheme fits, but the idea of Clowney in a Jim Schwartz defense should terrify fans of any NFC East rivals and maybe the entire NFC. Clowney's pin-your-ears-back-and-go ability as a fast, powerful and long force off the edge would be picture-perfect in Philly.
Before a trade can be executed, Clowney must sign the franchise tender the Texans placed on him, but similar to the Khalil Mack situation last offseason, it's expected that Clowney would sign the tender only after an agreeable trade is in place.
—Former 5-star recruit Trey Smith has been cleared to play for the Tennessee Volunteers after missing the second half of the 2018 season with blood clots in his lungs. Smith, a 6'6", 325-pound true junior, is not guaranteed a starting spot for the Volunteers but was one of the prized recruits from the 2017 signing class. If he can get back to the play that made him one of the nation's top offensive lineman in his class, the Volunteers will have an anchor on the offensive line and the NFL will be watching.
The Big Board
Here's a quick look at my top 32 players with a small update after I spent the week reviewing film and scouting notes. We probably won't see much movement here for the month of September barring injuries.
1. Jerry Jeudy, WR, Alabama
2. Chase Young, EDGE, Ohio State
3. Grant Delpit, S, LSU
4. A.J. Epenesa, EDGE, Iowa
5. Jeff Okudah, CB, Ohio State
6. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama
7. Laviska Shenault Jr., WR, Colorado
8. Justin Herbert, QB, Oregon
9. D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia
10. CJ Henderson, CB, Florida
11. Jonathan Taylor, RB, Wisconsin
12. K'Lavon Chaisson, EDGE, LSU
13. Jake Fromm, QB, Georgia
14. Andrew Thomas, OT, Georgia
15. Tee Higgins, WR, Clemson
16. CeeDee Lamb, WR, Oklahoma
17. Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
18. Isaiah Simmons, LB, Clemson
19. Tristan Wirfs, OT, Iowa
20. Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson
21. Julian Okwara, EDGE, Notre Dame
22. Walker Little, OT, Stanford
23. Trevon Diggs, CB, Alabama
24. Yetur Gross-Matos, EDGE, Penn State
25. Derrick Brown, DL, Auburn
26. Kristian Fulton, CB, LSU
27. Henry Ruggs III, WR, Alabama
28. Lucas Niang, OT, TCU
29. Raekwon Davis, DL, Alabama
30. Terrell Lewis, EDGE, Alabama
31. Bryce Hall, CB, Virginia
32. Jared Pinkney, TE, Vanderbilt
5. Scouting Watch List
Week 1 is finally here, which means there is a host of games to watch and players to evaluate. It would take an entire article to list them all, so instead, here are the key matchups I'm looking forward to throughout Labor Day weekend.
Justin Herbert (QB, Oregon) vs. Auburn
A quarterback many in the NFL believe will be the first off the board has to do two notable things here: travel outside the Pacific Northwest to play a marquee game and face one of the best defensive lines in the nation.
Herbert, who grew up in Eugene, will face Derrick Brown, Nick Coe and a stout Auburn defense under the lights of Jerry World in Arlington, Texas. How he handles the pressure of both will be telling for scouts who have already been talking about Herbert's lack of mental toughness.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn (RB, Vanderbilt) vs. Georgia
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The best senior running back in the country on my list faces a defense that is always tough. Vaughn has excellent vision and contact balance, but will he be able to pick his spots against a Georgia defense that rarely misses when it comes to run fits and assignments?
This could either be Vaughn's coming-out party nationally or a game that scouts go back to often as they pick apart his game. No one will expect Vanderbilt to win, but Vaughn must show he can perform against elite defenses.
Jacob Eason (QB, Washington) vs. Eastern Washington
The Eastern Washington defense isn't particularly stout, but we'll get a first look at Jacob Eason, who took the 2018 season off to transfer to Washington after missing most of the 2017 season with an injury at Georgia. It's been nearly two years since Eason played real football, but the last time we saw him, he looked like a potential stud with a huge arm and excellent natural skills.
4. Stock Up
The Florida defense was relentless in beating up a young Miami offensive line in the college football opener, which is why senior pass-rusher Jonathan Greenard gets a ton of praise for his play this week.
Greenard's 1.5 sacks may have saved the game for the Gators as they let Miami hang around far too long. His first-step quickness and leverage were too much for the Hurricanes to handle, with the offensive tackle often failing to get out of his stance before Greenard was in the backfield.
It's only one game, but the arrow is pointing up on Greenard.
3. Sleeper of the Week
Welcome back, Khalil Tate.
While not a sleeper as a college football player, Tate is a sleeper as an NFL draft prospect. There are still divided opinions on what his pro position will be—some scouts swear he needs to be a gadget weapon offensively, and others have suggested a move to safety—but a healthy Tate was a nightmare for Hawaii to handle in the season opener.
Tate did throw two costly interceptions in a very ugly passing contest that saw six picks total, but his ability to make plays with his legs and his arm was refreshing to see again after an injury-plagued 2018 season.
2. Tailgate Tour
Our Stick to Football tailgate tour was recently announced. If you get a chance to come out, these tailgates are free fan events with no ticket to the game required.
Sept. 7 — LSU at Texas (Austin, Texas)
2:30-5:30 p.m., Pluckers (Rio Grande location)
Sept. 16 — Browns at Jets (MetLife Stadium)
Sept. 21 — Michigan at Wisconsin (Madison, Wisconsin)
Oct. 12 — Oklahoma vs. Texas (Dallas)
Oct. 27 — Rams vs. Bengals (London)
Nov. 9 — LSU at Alabama (Tuscaloosa, Alabama)
Nov. 23 — Cal at Stanford (Palo Alto, California)
1. Stick to Football is back in-house this week with our podcast episodes now also available on YouTube as a video series. Check out the podcast, and subscribe if you haven't already. We will also post a ton of behind-the-scenes content on our Instagram page.
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.