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