The Relish’s NFL Rookie Rundown

A roundup of the top newbies in each division

We’re almost through preseason, which is essentially a month-long audition to see who makes it to the gameday field on regular-season Sundays (and Thursdays, and Mondays). Especially for the rookies, for whom this truly is a can-you-make-it-in-the-big-leagues make-or-break first impression. Here are the rookies we think you’ll want to keep an eye on from each team this season:

AFC North

Image via BaltimoreRavens.com

Baltimore Ravens: Pass rusher Matthew Judon was the Ravens’ fifth-round pick from a school you probably haven’t heard of (Grand Valley State). Yet he notched a sack in each of his first two preseason games and foiled the Colts’ attempt at a two-point conversion in the second. Granted, those were against second-team offenses, but if he can do the same thing against established starting players, he’ll definitely be a defender to watch.

Pittsburgh Steelers: Cornerback and first-rounder Artie Burns is out with an injury and has yet to play a down in an actual NFL game, so we’re turning our attention to third-round nose tackle Javon Hargrave. He’s the type who is objectively undersized but for whom comments like that will only act as further motivation.

Cleveland Browns: Though he’s been sidelined with a hamstring injury the past couple weeks, Cleveland is buzzing about wide receiver Corey Coleman. In an early August scrimmage against the Buccaneers (who, funny enough, he’ll face again in his preseason debut), he caught passes of 35, 41 and 53 yards, and has been dubbed “the next Steve Smith” by a teammate. On the other side of the line, former Penn State defensive end and Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Carl Nassib picked up two sacks, a fumble recovery, a pass breakup and a tackle-for-loss, all in his first two games.

Image: ESPN via Associated Press

Cincinnati Bengals: Wideout Tyler Boyd caught passes from Andy Dalton and A. J. McCarron in the Bengals’ preseason game against the Lions, the first for 26 yards and the second a short pass he took 12 yards for a touchdown. When a newbie receiver has chemistry with both possible quarterbacks, that can only be a good thing.

AFC South

Image: Horseshoe Heroes (FanSided) via Indy Star (USA Today Sports)

Indianapolis Colts: This one’s a no-brainer (and not just because this author is a Colts fan). Center Ryan Kelly will be depended on to snap Andrew Luck the ball and keep him upright, hopefully for years to come. He played in a pro-style offense at college football powerhouse Alabama and has been solid throughout the preseason; so far, Kelly appears to be (pardon our coach-speak) “trending in the right direction.”

Houston Texans: Center Nick Martin was widely considered the best in the draft at his position behind Kelly, but unfortunately his season is over before it could begin, as he needs surgery on an ankle. The next rookie on offense to keep an eye on, then, is Will Fuller, who was Brock Osweiler’s most-targeted receiver in their game against the Saints. On the defensive side, nose tackle D. J. Reader has already become close with two-time Super Bowl winner and five-time Pro Bowler Vince Wilfork; if he acts like his new mentor on the field too, the Texans’ defense just got even better.

D. J. Reader; image via Houston Chronicle

Jacksonville Jaguars: For the Jaguars rookies, it’s all about defense. Cornerback Jalen Ramsey, middle linebacker Myles Jack and pass rusher Yannick Ngakoue have all impressed, even as the first two struggled with knee injuries.

Tennessee Titans: The Titans may have found Marcus Mariota’s new #1 receiver in fifth-round pick Tajae Sharpe. After preseason week two, he led the team with eight catches for 103 yards, 68 gained against the Carolina Panthers’ starting defense.

AFC East

Photo via MassLive.com

New England Patriots: If Bill Belichick says a rookie’s doing a good job, the rest of the football world should probably take note. In this case, it’s offensive lineman Joe Thuney who earned his coach’s praise. Much of the rest of the Pats’ offensive line is injured, so it would be good for them to have at least one position solidified.

Miami Dolphins: Rookie O-lineman Laremy Tunsil may have slipped in the rankings thanks to an ill-timed (or was it?) video of him taking a bong hit in a gas mask that surfaced on social media right before the NFL draft, but he allowed no quarterback pressures in his first two preseason games, so it seems so far so good.

New York Jets: Rookies on both sides of the line have been shadowing their teammates’ every moves and gotten better for it. On offense, seventh-round wide receiver Charone Peake has been studying Brandon Marshall on the field and on film, and linebacker Darron Lee has been picking David Harris’ brain.

Charone Peake; image via newyorkjets.com

Buffalo Bills: Cardale Jones is probably the most recognizable rookie name on the Bills’ roster as the former Ohio State quarterback, but at this point in his NFL career he’s likely a backup to Tyrod Taylor at best, if not behind E. J. Manuel as well. The Bills’ top two defensive prospects in Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland have gone down to injury, so it’s time for a lesser-known player like third-round DE Adolphus Washington or sixth-rounder CB Kevon Seymour to step up.

AFC West

Denver Broncos: Quarterback Paxton Lynch will probably also end up as a backup (if not third-stringer) this year, but his preseason play is still turning some heads. He’s competing for his job against Mark Sanchez and Trevor Siemian, and the battle has been much closer than many thought it would be.

San Diego Chargers: We might have said first-round pick Joey Bosa, but as he hasn’t signed his contract yet, we’ll look elsewhere. In his first preseason game, tight end Hunter Henry had as many receptions as did 10-year wide receiver James Jones, so we’ll go with him.

Image via raiders.com

Oakland Raiders: Rookie running back Jalen Richard lit up the training camp fields, then had to miss the first two preseason games with a knee injury. He’ll make his debut Saturday, and the Raiders are excited to see what he can do.

Image via kansascity.com

Kansas City Chiefs: Cornerback D. J. White played well enough in his first preseason game against the Seahawks that coach Andy Reid decided to start him in the following game against the Rams. Should White continue to improve at such a rate, he could be one to watch.

NFC North

Green Bay Packers: First-round pick Kenny Clark impressed in training camp (though he recently had to miss his first practice with a sore back), undrafted rookie Kentrell Brice nearly picked off Aaron Rodgers, and these stories about punter Peter Mortell and offensive lineman Kyle Steuck coming to play for their hometown team are too fun not to share.

Chicago Bears: Da Bears are seeing flashes of potential in rookies on both sides of the line. On offense, second-round lineman Cody Whitehair has impressed, and on the defensive side, third-round DE Jonathan Bullard has steadily progressed.

Minnesota Vikings: In their preseason debut, receiver Laquon Treadwell and tight end David Morgan both made plays, while Mackensie Alexander and Jayron Kearse each snagged a big interception.

Image via Michigan Live

Detroit Lions: With the release of fellow running back Stevan Ridley, seventh-round pick Dwayne Washington has a pretty good chance to crack the 53-man roster. Especially after that kick-return-for-a-touchdown stunt he pulled off against the Steelers.

NFC South

Carolina Panthers: Rookie cornerback James Bradberry clearly isn’t afraid of the NFL spotlight. The second-round pick didn’t let a big pass get past him in either of his first two preseason games and was able to quickly pounce on veteran running back DeMarco Murray before the Titan could gain any yards.

Atlanta Falcons: Linebackers Deion Jones and De’Vondre Campbell, second-round and fourth-round picks respectively, have both impressed this preseason — enough that they were both inserted into the Falcons’ starting lineup multiple times. (First-round pick Keanu Neal had also been doing well until he hurt his knee Thursday.)

New Orleans Saints: When your coach endorses you for someone’s fantasy football league, you’re probably doing something right. Wide receiver Michael Thomas is living up to his Twitter handle (@CantGuardMike); in his preseason debut, he caught four balls for 67 yards.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves intercepted Chad Henne twice in his last preseason game and intercepted RGIII twice in a recent Browns-Bucs practice before their exhibition game tonight. Will his streak continue? We’ll have to watch and see.

NFC East

Prescott and Elliott; image via sportsday.dallasnews.com

Dallas Cowboys: While Dak Prescott seemingly came up out of nowhere to firmly establish himself as Tony Romo’s backup (seriously, he was a fourth-rounder picked 137th overall), the name everyone who watches the ‘Boys is excited about is former Ohio State running back and fourth overall pick Ezekiel Elliott, especially since he’ll be running behind what’s considered one of the NFL’s best offensive lines. He had been sidelined with a hamstring injury, which made his preseason debut Thursday even more anticipated — and it was definitely noteworthy. The domestic violence allegations against him are troubling, though, so we’re going to tread carefully until we know more.

Philadelphia Eagles: The Philly faithful have been dying for more Carson Wentz, but they’ll have to wait just a little longer as the rookie QB suffered a hairline rib fracture and will likely sit out Saturday against the Colts. They can shift their focus to defense instead and watch undrafted cornerback C. J. Smith, who batted down a team-high three passes in his preseason debut and impressed veteran Malcolm Jenkins while doing so.

Photo: Associated Press via Penn Live

New York Giants: The Giants’ rookie defenders are sharing the spotlight. While 10th overall pick and cornerback Eli Apple (whose mom might be better known than he is) shakes off a knee injury, fourth-round linebacker B. J. Goodson has notched several tackles in his first two preseason games, including two for loss, and undrafted defensive end Romeo Okwara had three tackles and a sack last week against Buffalo, which led him to be named one of the best rookie defenders in the league by Pro Football Focus.

Washington Redskins: Linebacker Su’a Cravens showed some promise in his preseason debut against the Falcons a couple of weeks ago. He was all over running back Brandon Wilds, tackling him twice for a loss each time and batting down a pass intended for the RB.

NFC West

Photo via NFL.com

Arizona Cardinals: A few weeks ago, coach Bruce Arians called the starting cornerback job Brandon Williams’ to lose, and Thursday, NFL.com writer Gil Brandt named Williams his top candidate for 2016–17 Defensive Rookie of the Year. Add that to praise by AZ QB Carson Palmer and mentorship from fellow cornerback Patrick Peterson, and the Bird Gang might have someone special on their hands.

Los Angeles Rams: (Still not used to typing that. We’re still sorry for your loss, St. Louis.) Jared Goff may have been the first overall pick, but up until this point he has still staunchly been considered Case Keenum’s backup. So we’ll go with other offensive rookies to watch. Tight end Tyler Higbee caught five passes in last week’s game, running back Aaron Green scored the game-winning touchdown, and undrafted receiver Nelson Spruce had a team-leading six catches and 51 yards in his preseason debut.

Seattle Seahawks: The Seahawks rookies to keep an eye on are also on the offensive side of the line. Lineman Germain Ifedi has been…feisty, shall we say. Running back C. J. Prosise will likely be a backup but played well against the Cowboys on Thursday, and we like the persistence of undrafted rookie Tanner McEvoy, who has moved from running back to quarterback to safety to wide receiver to, finally, tight end.

San Francisco 49ers: For the Niners, it’s all about the rookies on defense. Linemen DeForest Buckner and Ronald Blair look to make a splash this preseason and hopefully carry it over to the regular season in a couple weeks


Have your opinions on the rookies changed since watching the first few preseason games of the weekend or just solidified even more? Let us know!

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