Pre­sea­son stand­outs: What’s next?

USA TODAY US Edition - - SPORTS - Michael Mid­dle­hurstSchwartz

With no stakes and lim­ited im­ple­men­ta­tion of teams’ schemes, the NFL pre­sea­son of­ten can feel like a throw­away. But it also can serve as a stage for sev­eral of the league’s promis­ing young stars to show what they’re ca­pa­ble of.

Thurs­day marks the end of the pre­sea­son sched­ule, with many teams hold­ing their starters out of ac­tion.

Ahead of the fi­nales, we look at 10 play­ers who stood out in the pre­sea­son and as­sess what could be ahead for them once the reg­u­lar sea­son be­gins.

DESHONE KIZER, QB, CLEVE­LAND BROWNS

Two weeks af­ter his quar­ter­backs coach said he wasn’t ready for the top job, the sec­ond-round pick from Notre Dame im­pressed head coach Hue Jack­son so much that he was named the Week 1 starter. Kizer’s raw num­bers (in­clud­ing a 6-for-18 pass­ing per­for­mance in his third out­ing) weren’t im­pres­sive, but he es­tab­lished him­self as the best play­maker for the of­fense.

What’s next: Kizer will be­come the 27th start­ing quar­ter­back for the Browns since they re­turned to the NFL in 1999, and he should have con­sid­er­able li­cense to play through mis­takes af­ter Jack­son said the rookie’s des­ig­na­tion was per­ma­nent. He should jolt an of­fense that only had 15 pass­ing touch­downs in 2016 but needs to be more con­sis­tent and make bet­ter de­ci­sions to make progress.

CHRIS­TIAN MCCAFFREY, RB, CAROLINA PAN­THERS

Con­sid­ered a front-run­ner for of­fen­sive rookie of the year, the No. 8 over­all pick has met the im­mense ex­pec­ta­tions fac­ing him this sum­mer. He racked up 72 to­tal yards and a touch­down in his sec­ond pre­sea­son out­ing and has com­fort­ably split first-team reps with Jonathan Ste­wart.

What’s next: McCaffrey’s full role within the of­fense is likely yet to be re­vealed. In ad­di­tion to op­er­at­ing in a back­field time­share with Ste­wart, he should take on a more vi­tal func­tion in the pass­ing game as a check­down op­tion for Cam New­ton, who was lim­ited ear­lier in train­ing camp while re­cov­er­ing from off­sea­son shoul­der surgery. McCaffrey will have to es­tab­lish a rap­port with New­ton, but he could be in­te­gral to Carolina’s plan to take some of the bur­den off the for­mer MVP.

DALVIN COOK, RB, MIN­NESOTA VIK­INGS

The for­mer Florida State stand­out made a smooth tran­si­tion to his new sur­round­ings, mak­ing the most of his first-team reps while Latavius Mur­ray was out with an an­kle in­jury. Cook also proved to be an all-pur­pose threat with solid work as a re­ceiver and a pass blocker.

What’s next: Mur­ray is back, but ev­ery in­di­ca­tion shows that Cook has a run­way to the start­ing job. Af­ter scor­ing 48 touch­downs over three years in col­lege, Cook brings a big-play facet to a team ded­i­cated to im­prov­ing the league’s worst rush­ing at­tack in 2016.

KA­REEM HUNT, RB, KANSAS CITY CHIEFS

A third-round pick from Toledo, he quickly made his mark in Kansas City. He had 63 yards on 11 car­ries in the sec­ond pre­sea­son game.

What’s next: With Spencer Ware ex­pected to miss the sea­son with a knee in­jury, Chiefs coach Andy Reid said Hunt will take on the fea­tured back role. Work­ing in a solid of­fense, he should be in for a sub­stan­tial work­load and could be one of the year’s break­out play­ers.

CHRIS CAR­SON, RB, SEAT­TLE SEA­HAWKS

The sev­enth-round pick from Ok­la­homa State quickly dis­played a skill set that be­lied his draft sta­tus. Car­son has steadily earned more reps in the run­ning back ro­ta­tion, and he notched 90 to­tal yards on 10 touches in the third pre­sea­son game.

What’s next: It’s im­por­tant to keep the hype pump­ing out of Seat­tle in per­spec­tive af­ter Chris­tine Michael’s “awak­en­ing ” last pre­sea­son re­sulted in the run­ning back be­ing waived in Novem­ber. Car­son finds him­self be­hind Ed­die Lacy, Thomas Rawls and C.J. Pro­sise, but all three have had trou­ble stay­ing healthy.

TAYWAN TAY­LOR, WR, TEN­NESSEE TI­TANS

No. 5 over­all pick Corey Davis was side­lined for most of Au­gust with a ham­string in­jury. Tay­lor, a third-round se­lec­tion from Western Ken­tucky, took the op­por­tu­nity to step up and give Ten­nessee an ex­plo­sive new di­men­sion in the pass­ing game. He has av­er­aged 18.1 yards per catch, and team­mate Brice McCain com­pared him to In­di­anapo­lis Colts stand­out T.Y. Hil­ton.

What’s next: With Davis and free agent ac­qui­si­tion Eric Decker back at prac­tice, Tay­lor likely will be pushed down the depth chart. Early op­por­tu­ni­ties prob­a­bly will be lim­ited as he op­er­ates be­hind the other re­ceivers and tight end De­lanie Walker in a run-heavy of­fense. But Tay­lor presents a needed big-play threat from the slot and could be­come a more in­te­gral piece as the sea­son pro­gresses.

DEVANTE PARKER, WR, MI­AMI DOL­PHINS

It was easy to see why the Dol­phins coach­ing staff talked up the for­mer first-round pick all off­sea­son. Parker showed the abil­ity to cap­i­tal­ize on big-play strikes, in­clud­ing a 72-yard catc­hand-run in his third pre­sea­son game.

What’s next: He could be­come the big­gest ben­e­fi­ciary of Jay Cut­ler step­ping in as the start­ing quar­ter­back af­ter Ryan Tan­nehill suf­fered a sea­son-end­ing knee in­jury. Cut­ler called the third-year wide re­ceiver a faster ver­sion of Al­shon Jef­fery, his for- mer Chicago Bears team­mate. Parker has been Cut­ler’s fa­vorite tar­get, and he should thrive with more jump balls and downfield op­por­tu­ni­ties that suit his play­ing style.

KENNY GOLLADAY, WR, DETROIT LIONS

Af­ter build­ing a con­sid­er­able buzz in train­ing camp, the thir­dround pick from North­ern Illi­nois roared into the pre­sea­son by mak­ing two touch­down catches in his de­but.

What’s next: De­spite show­ing plenty of prom­ise and work­ing with the first-team of­fense, Golladay might find chances dif­fi­cult to come by as a rookie given the pres­ence of Marvin Jones, Golden Tate and other es­tab­lished op­tions in the pass­ing game. Still, he should thrive as a red-zone threat and stands as a promis­ing prospect for the near fu­ture.

DEREK BAR­NETT, DE, PHILADEL­PHIA EA­GLES

As the first player in South­east­ern Con­fer­ence his­tory to record 10 or more sacks in three con­sec­u­tive sea­sons, Bar­nett dis­played his pass-rush­ing prow­ess early by record­ing three sacks in his first two pre­sea­son games.

What’s next: Philadel­phia’s de­fen­sive line is loaded, but co­or­di­na­tor Jim Schwartz in­tends to work plenty of play­ers into his ro­ta­tion. Bar­nett should have am­ple pass-rush­ing op­por­tu­ni­ties de­spite his likely role of work­ing be­hind pro­jected starters Bran­don Graham and Vinny Curry.

REUBEN FOSTER, LB, SAN FRAN­CISCO 49ERS

Af­ter miss­ing time in the off­sea­son with a shoul­der in­jury, Foster showed lit­tle rust in the pre­sea­son, which in­cluded eight tack­les and sev­eral big hits in his third out­ing.

What’s next: The first-round pick has locked down a start­ing role at weak­side line­backer and could be a lead­ing con­tender for de­fen­sive rookie of the year. Coach Kyle Shana­han said the for­mer Alabama star is “ahead of sched­ule,” though he wants to see im­prove­ment on some fun­da­men­tals.

KIM KLE­MENT, USA TO­DAY SPORTS

In some­what of a sur­prise, rookie DeShone Kizer is set to be­gin the sea­son as the Browns’ start­ing quar­ter­back.

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