Ranking the NFL's Top 7 Preseason Mirages of the Past Decade
This year, the NFL canceled the preseason. Teams will put extra emphasis on practices before final cuts in September. Fans won't have a chance to fall for the breakout stars who shine in August games against mostly backups.
Several players have tricked the masses with gaudy stats in exhibition contests. The lead rusher through those games isn't necessarily going to be an electric ball-carrier during the regular season. The dominant pass-rusher through the summer may need more polish on the practice squad.
Here, we'll remember some of the best preseason performers who didn't make a 53-man lineup or struggled on the active roster from 2010 onward.
Most of the selections led a major statistical category through four exhibition games, but, in contrast, did little to nothing beyond that.
7. WR Rashad Ross, Washington Football Team
Wide receiver Rashad Ross had some familiarity with the Washington Football Team before he left his mark on the 2015 preseason. He spent some time on its practice squad throughout the 2014 campaign.
ESPN's John Keim listed Ross as "a player who looks amazing" in summer 2015.
"Ross finished the preseason strong," Keim wrote. "He showed he should win a roster spot here or elsewhere, catching 10 passes for 103 yards. He also returned four punts for 28 yards."
Ross racked up a league-leading 266 yards and four touchdowns. Former Washington head coach Jay Gruden praised the wideout and called the decision to keep him a "no-brainer," per Mike Jones of the Washington Post.
"We talk about taking advantage of your opportunities, making plays, and we're going to do what's right by you, and the right thing was to keep him," Gruden said. "... Talk about a long shot making a team. He came in there, returned kicks, returned punts, he led the league in receiving, I think, and touchdowns and everything."
During the season, Ross scored two touchdowns, one receiving and another on a kickoff return.
Though Ross had a solid year on special teams, recording 684 return yards, he logged 71 of his 184 yards on one reception in the season finale.
In 2016, Ross caught one pass and returned a kick. At the end of the term, Washington waived him, and he never played another NFL down. The Arizona State product fell well short of amazing during the regular season.
6. DE/LB Chris Carter, Cincinnati Bengals
As a disruptive pass-rusher, Chris Carter made headlines during the 2015 offseason.
Initially, Carter caught Cincinnati Bengals defensive coordinator Paul Guenther's attention in OTAs, and he carried that momentum into the preseason, per Jim Owczarski of the Cincinnati Enquirer.
"We were like, whoa, this kid might have a chance," Guenther said.
Carter logged 3.5 sacks through four outings, tied for third in the league. By the end of the preseason, he seemed like a lock for a roster spot. ESPN's Coley Harvey wrote "it's hard to fathom" the team would cut the outside linebacker.
Carter carved out a rotational role and made the 53-man roster. However, he took the field primarily on special teams. In December, the Bengals waived him. He had logged just 10 tackles and a fumble recovery.
Following his tenure with the Bengals, Carter bounced around, mostly as a special teamer. He never recorded a sack in the regular season, which is more disappointing than Rashad Ross, who made a more notable impact on special teams for a year.
5. CB Jaylen Hill, Baltimore Ravens
In 2017, Jaylen Hill rose to prominence on the back end of the Baltimore Ravens defense. The Jacksonville State product tightened his grip on wide receivers during the summer. Chuck Mills of Ravens Wire used the term "shutdown corner" to describe a noteworthy string of performances.
"Hill has been a shutdown corner this season, and with one game to go, it's impossible to see him not making this roster when the final cuts come," Mills wrote. "He's one of the 53 best players on the team, and he's definitely one of the best cornerbacks on the team."
To give further context to Mills' analysis, quarterbacks didn't fare well against Hill, logging a 13.1 passer rating when targeting him in coverage, per Pro Football Focus. Hill also made two interceptions.
Ravens cornerback Jimmy Smith saw the small-school product's pathway to playing time, per Edward Lee of the Baltimore Sun.
"He's very coachable, and with people going down in the secondary this year, he has a shot at being on the field playing," Smith said.
Former Ravens wide receiver Chris Matthews also thought Mills earned a spot on the roster.
"I like his confidence. Hopefully, we keep him around because that dude is going to be special," Matthews said.
Hill only played 16 defensive snaps during the regular season and tore his ACL and MCL in December. He made three tackles, broke up one pass and recovered a fumble in six outings. With little production and a major knee injury, his bright future faded.
Chris Carter took on a solid special teams role; Hill played just 80 total snaps before his late-season injury, so he's one spot higher on this list of preseason mirages.
4. WR Stephen Williams, Seattle Seahawks
After three years on and off the Arizona Cardinals roster, Stephen Williams lit a spark in the Seattle Seahawks passing attack during the 2013 preseason.
Williams emerged as a possible replacement for wideout Percy Harvin, who needed hip surgery. He torched defenses as a big-play threat and made it through final cuts, though his time with the team came to an abrupt end, per Bob Condotta of the Seattle Times:
"Williams turned in a steady succession of big plays to lead the NFL in receiving yards, with 236 on seven receptions and three touchdowns, and earn a spot on Seattle's initial 53-man roster.
"If you've forgotten ... Williams there's good reason—he was waived by the Seahawks after four games having not made a catch, and he would never make another catch in an NFL game."
Williams made all nine of his catches with the Cardinals during his rookie campaign in 2010. He didn't take advantage of a brief reemergence in Seattle.
Williams lists as the first player who didn't make a statistical contribution on offense, defense or special teams following his breakout preseason, which boosted him to No. 4.
3. DE Marcus Rush, San Francisco 49ers
In 2016, Marcus Rush caused a stir within the San Francisco 49ers fanbase.
"Rush, who signed with the 49ers as an undrafted free agent in 2015, became a fan favorite when he racked up a league-high six sacks in the team's four preseason games in August," Kyle Madson of Niners Wire wrote.
Typically, teams will make room for pass-rushers who can collapse the pocket with consistency. The 49ers have to chase down quarterback Russell Wilson at least twice every year, so it makes sense for them to bolster the defensive line.
Though Rush jumped off the screen during exhibition contests, the 49ers released him. He cleared waivers and landed on the San Francisco practice squad, which shocked defensive coordinator Jim O'Neil, per Matt Maiocco of NBC Sports Bay Area.
"I was surprised that we got him back, to be honest with you," O'Neil said. "When I found out that he was going to be on the practice squad, I was really excited about it because for the next four weeks we have three outside backers, and he's a guy that if we need to, we could easily activate him and bring him aboard."
Rush didn't take the field for the 49ers. At the end of the term, he appeared in two games with the Jacksonville Jaguars but didn't play a defensive snap. He has not played a snap since then.
Stephen Williams made it through final cuts. Rush landed on the practice squad and never took a regular-season snap on defense, justifying his spot at No. 3.
2. RB Chris Warren III, Las Vegas Raiders
In Jon Gruden's first year back on the sideline, he unleashed 246-pound Chris Warren III, sparking flashbacks to old-school downhill ground attacks with big running backs.
Through the 2018 preseason, Warren led the league in rushing, recording 58 carries for 292 yards and two touchdowns. NFL Network's Peter Schrager gushed over the Texas product.
"He's going to be a thing in the NFL this season," Schrager said.
The Raiders placed Warren on the reserve/injured list after he ran all over defenses, but at least one beat writer suggested Gruden made the move to keep the big-bodied tailback around for another year.
"Warren was placed on injured reserve after the preseason with a knee injury in a not-so-veiled attempt to stash the young back," Josh Schrock of NBC Sports Bay Area wrote.
Gruden's plan didn't work out. The Raiders didn't re-sign Marshawn Lynch or Doug Martin, which created an opportunity for Warren to complement Josh Jacobs in 2019. Instead, the Raiders waived him because of questions about his conditioning.
"There are certain standards that we have here, and we expect a certain level of professionalism with the players coming to training camp," offensive coordinator Greg Olson said. "He did not meet our fitness expectations, so we decided to make a change."
Warren's approach to the 2019 offseason wiped out everything he had done in the previous year. Because of his unsatisfactory preparation, he squandered an early chance to play in the league, moving him up to No. 2.
1. DE/LB Caesar Rayford, Dallas Cowboys
Caesar Rayford had a unique situation during the 2013 offseason. He put together such a strong showing that the Dallas Cowboys acquired him from the Indianapolis Colts, per ESPN's Mike Wells.
"Rayford was the Colts' most effective pass-rusher in the preseason, leading them with a team-high five sacks to go with two forced fumbles," Wells wrote. "... Players usually don't like to be traded, but in this situation, Rayford should feel good because his preseason performance proved to teams that he could play in the NFL."
The Colts acquired Cam Johnson from the San Francisco 49ers, which allowed them to fish for offers. Rayford's performances—he led the league with those five sacks—spoke volumes loud enough to reach the Cowboys.
Dallas didn't get much return on its investment. Rayford played 145 defensive snaps and logged five tackles in seven outings. In November, the Cowboys cut the Washington product and re-signed him to the practice squad.
Rayford hasn't appeared on an NFL roster after a stint with the Minnesota Vikings during the 2015 offseason.
Though the Cowboys gave up only a 2015 seventh-rounder for Rayford, he garnered enough interest to allow the Colts to acquire compensation for someone who belonged on the practice squad.
Rayford is the only player on this list involved in a trade because of his preseason play, propelling him to the top spot.