Pre­sea­son he­roes:

USA TODAY Sports Weekly - - INSIDE - Michael Mid­dle­hurst-Schwartz

What could strong sum­mers mean for Baker May­field, Royce Free­man and oth­ers?

With a fluc­tu­at­ing cast of char­ac­ters and opaque team goals, the NFL pre­sea­son is, at best, an im­pre­cise and in­com­plete plat­form for eval­u­a­tion. But it nev­er­the­less is where jobs are of­ten won as well as a barom­e­ter of where cer­tain young play­ers stand headed into Week 1. And with most teams leav­ing the fi­nal con­test to endof-ros­ter cuts, the pre­sea­son has likely al­ready re­vealed its big­gest bur­geon­ing stars after three weeks. Here are nine play­ers (not in­clud­ing es­tab­lished starters) who stood out.

Browns QB Baker May­field

Coach Hue Jack­son quashed any sug­ges­tion of a quar­ter­back con­tro­versy even be­fore the No. 1 pick came on board, say­ing up to and through­out the pre­sea­son that Ty­rod Tay­lor was firmly en­trenched as his starter. Yet the op­ti­mism per­co­lat­ing in Cleve­land is in­ex­tri­ca­bly tied to the pres­ence of May­field, whose stat line (57.7% com­ple­tion rate, two touch­downs and one in­ter­cep­tion) be­lied his per­for­mance. Dis­play­ing poise, pa­tience and ac­cu­racy, he en­gen­dered con­fi­dence in his abil­ity to com­mand the of­fense.

Bron­cos RB Royce Free­man

The third-round rookie from Ore­gon seemed des­tined to emerge from the pre­sea­son locked in a time­share with Devon­tae Booker. But after Free­man demon­strated he was the more dy­namic op­tion after tal­ly­ing three touch­downs and av­er­ag­ing 5.6 yards per carry, it might only be a mat­ter of time be­fore he be­gins to earn a bulk of the work­load for Den­ver.

Raiders RB Chris War­ren III

The son of for­mer Sea­hawks stand­out Chris War­ren had al­most as many yards on the ground in three games (250, most of any back) as he did all of last sea­son at Texas (314). At 6-2 and 246 pounds, War­ren is a bat­ter­ing ram who can help wear de­fenses down when Mar­shawn Lynch and Doug Martin need a breather.

Rams RB John Kelly

No sixth-round rookie would com­pel the Rams to lighten Todd Gur­ley’s work­load, but Los An­ge­les looks to have a promis­ing op­tion for spot work be­hind last sea­son’s of­fen­sive player of the year. With Gur­ley out of pre­sea­son ac­tion after sign­ing a four-year, $57.5 mil­lion deal this sum­mer, Kelly es­tab­lished him­self with 197 yards and three touch­downs on 46 car­ries. The Ten­nessee prod­uct might not im­me­di­ately take the backup gig from Mal­colm Brown but looks poised to leapfrog the third-year back at some point.

Steel­ers WR James Washington

Pitts­burgh gen­eral man­ager Kevin Col­bert has a ster­ling ré­sumé for draft­ing re­ceivers, and he might have an­other hit. The sec­ond-rounder from Ok­la­homa State an­swered ques­tions about his boxy build and deep speed by rou­tinely beat­ing de­fen­sive backs on down­field throws and con­tested catches. So long as the ab­dom­i­nal in­jury he suf­fered in the third pre­sea­son game is not se­ri­ous, Washington should ca­pa­bly re­place Mar­tavis Bryant as a big-play threat and No. 3 op­tion be­hind An­to­nio Brown and JuJu SmithSchus­ter.

Ben­gals DEs Carl Law­son and Jor­dan Willis

Cincin­nati’s young edge rush­ers feasted against back­ups; Law­son and Willis com­bined for six sacks, while rookie Sam Hub­bard also made waves. Law­son could be on the verge of a break­out sea­son after qui­etly rack­ing up 81⁄2 sacks as a rookie. Willis likely has the lower ceil­ing of the two but is stout against the run. With starters Car­los Dun­lap and Michael John­son not signed be­yond this year, both of the sec­ond-year de­fen­sive ends should fig­ure promi­nently into the ro­ta­tion and fu­ture plans.

Ti­tans OLB Harold Landry

An an­kle in­jury suf­fered last week­end was the lone hic­cup this pre­sea­son for the sec­on­dround edge rusher from Bos­ton Col­lege. Al­though Landry logged only three tack­les and one sack, he con­sis­tently beat of­fen­sive tack­les with his abil­ity to turn the cor­ner and bend. New Ti­tans coach Mike Vra­bel won’t set­tle for a pedes­trian pass rush, and Landry should find plenty of work be­hind starters Brian Orakpo and Der­rick Mor­gan.

Pack­ers CB Josh Jack­son

After lead­ing the Foot­ball Bowl Sub­di­vi­sion with eight in­ter­cep­tions last sea­son at Iowa, the sec­ond-rounder re­turned an in­ter­cep­tion for a TD and had an­other take­away for a score wiped out a week later by a penalty away from the ball. He and first-rounder Jaire Alexan­der give Green Bay a promis­ing fu­ture at cor­ner.

VIN­CENT CARCHIETTA/USA TO­DAY SPORTS

Browns quar­ter­back Baker May­field scram­bles against the Giants at MetLife Sta­dium.

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