Once upon a time, I relished preseason football for the opportunity to study incoming rookies, veteran running backs and aerial attacks developing chemistry. Those days are gone.
With Rams head man Sean McVay leading the way, more and more coaches have elected to withhold key starters, favoring September rust over August injury risk. The good news is that the NFL will enter the 2019 season with a healthier stable of superstars, a turnaround from years past, when a host of marquee players fell victim to a plague of injuries in August and September. The bad news is that the rookies might be the only remaining appeal of preseason action.
With that trend in mind, let's examine the rookie field, singling out at least one promising first-year player for each of the NFL's 32 teams. What is the preseason telling us about rookies with the chance to make or break Super Bowl hopes?
Baltimore Ravens: I lost track of the missed tackles forced by fourth-round running back Justice Hill, who showed sharp jump-cuts behind the line of scrimmage, elusiveness in the open field and a nose for the end zone at the goal line during last week's game versus Green Bay. Even in a crowded backfield, he's going to force his way into a supporting role behind free-agent acquisition Mark Ingram.
Buffalo Bills: A former rugby player on the English national team and current showpiece for the NFL's International Player Pathway Program, Christian Wade has popped a pair of big plays courtesy of game-breaking speed. Still learning America's version of football, he's almost certainly ticketed for Buffalo's practice squad while third-round tailback Devin Singletary pushes LeSean McCoy and Frank Gore for touches this season.
Cincinnati Bengals: NFL Network analysts Kurt Warner and Brian Baldinger each highlighted Ryan Finley as the most impressiverookie quarterback through two weeks of the preseason. The fourth-round pick completed his first nine passes against the Redskins last week, showing a veteran's touch, vision and subtle pocket movement. It will be a major upset if he doesn't beat out Jeff Driskel for the No. 2 job behind Andy Dalton.
Cleveland Browns: Second-round cornerback Greedy Williams is already running with the starters, but it's fifth-round linebacker Mack Wilson who jumps off the screen in preseason action. After registering two interceptions, a touchdown and a pair of QB hurries in the opening win over the Redskins, Wilson was once again a mainstay in the backfield versus the Colts last week. This time around, he mixed in a few missed tackles to go with his stops and hurries. It's yet to be determined whether this boom-or-bust rookie will see regular snaps in September.
Denver Broncos: Second-round guard Dalton Risner has stepped right into an overhauled offensive line, but it's first-round tight end Noah Fant who will gain more notice in Joe Flacco's aerial attack. Fant suffered a mild foot injury early in Monday night's game, forfeiting a chance to showcase his high-end athleticism on national television. Provided he's healthy, Fant will enter the season as the featured tight end and an Offensive Rookie of the Year dark horse.
Houston Texans: A physical cornerback at 6-foot-2 and 213 pounds with 4.39 speed in the 40-yard dash, second-round pick Lonnie Johnson was booted from joint practices after lowering the boom on a pair of Packers pass catchers. He went on to surrender a touchdown in his preseason debut at Green Bay. If he can shorten his learning curve, the Kentucky product could come on quickly in a shaky cornerback corps featuring veterans Johnathan Joseph, Bradley Roby and Aaron Colvin.
Indianapolis Colts: Offseason hype bunny Parris Campbell has missed the past three weeks with a hamstring injury, shifting the spotlight to the rookies on defense. While cornerback Rock Ya-Sin and linebacker Bobby Okereke have yet to distinguish themselves in preseason action, second-round edge rusher Ben Banogu shook off a hamstring strain to disrupt Cleveland's offense in joint practices last week. He followed that up with a promising showing in his preseason debut.
Jacksonville Jaguars: Boasting prototypical size and length, first-round edge rusher Josh Allen tackled Ravens power back Gus Edwards for a loss on the first snap of his pro career. A week later, he came unblocked to put a hurting on Eagles rookie QB Clayton Thorson. Keep an eye on undrafted cornerback Tae Hayes, who has shown NFL-caliber ball skills and instincts since camp opened.
Kansas City Chiefs: Already the NFL's most dangerous big-play offense, the Chiefs added even more speed and explosiveness in second-round receiver Mecole Hardman, who has flashed angle-beating speed on scoring plays in back-to-back weeks. Not to be outdone, sixth-round scatback Darwin Thompson has showcased an intriguing dual-threat skill set that might just push veteran Carlos Hyde off the roster. On the other side of the ball, ballhawking safety Juan Thornhill has been a camp sensation in his own right.
Los Angeles Chargers: Second-round safety Nasir Adderley is under the microscope now that Derwin James is out for several months, but he's missed the first two preseason games with a hamstring strain. Monstrous defensive end Jerry Tillery, the No. 28 overall pick in the draft, easily dispatched veteran guard Nick Easton for an impressive sack of Saints QB Taysom Hill last week. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah is already raving over Tillery's combination of rare size, quick hands and athleticism.
Miami Dolphins: First-round defensive tackle Christian Wilkins not only registered his first sack but also split the center and guard for another hit versus the Buccaneers. Where was he on Charles Harris' sack? Occupying three blockers to give Harris a clear path to Blaine Gabbert. As veteran linebacker Kiko Alonso nurses an undisclosed injury, former Saskatchewan Roughrider Sam Eguavoen has been running with the starters -- and holding his own.
New England Patriots: With the receiving corps in flux, all eyes have been on first-round pick N'Keal Harry and undrafted camp sensation Jakobi Meyers. It's time to concentrate on the third-round pick screaming off the edge on the other side of the ball. Former Michigan standout Chase Winovich has been an unblockable dervish through two preseason outings, dominating overmatched backup tackles. In one second-quarter stretch last week, he single-handedly shut down a Titans offense trying to take a look at fancy new backup QB Ryan Tannehill. When Tennessee coach Mike Vrabel was interviewed at halftime, I expected him to relay his top priority of the second half: building a moat in front of No. 50. You finally get Winovich blocked -- often illegally -- on defense, exhale for a minute, and he hunts down your returner in kick coverage. Twice. This was one of the best preseason performances I've ever seen. How did the other 31 teams let the Super Bowl champions get their hands on this guy?
New York Jets: First-round defensive tackle Quinnen Williams bulldozed veteran guard Jamon Brown into Matt Ryan's lap and forced a holding penalty as the Jets' defensive front dominated the Falcons' offensive line in Week 2. Along with Pro Bowl safety Jamal Adams and new middle linebacker C.J. Mosley, Williams is a nucleus player on Gregg Williams' defense.
Oakland Raiders: Already given starter treatment, first-round running back Josh Jacobs has played just six snaps in two preseason tilts this month. His four carries for 21 yards against the Cardinals included a textbook cutback for an 8-yard gain. Jacobs leads a loaded Oakland draft class that might feature as many as four Week 1 starters, along with edge rusher Clelin Ferrell, safety Johnathan Abram and perhaps even fifth-round receiver Hunter Renfrow in the slot.
Pittsburgh Steelers: The Steelers are in love with first-round linebacker Devin Bush, who was all over the field in a head-turning preseason debut against Tampa Bay. Already tasked with calling Pittsburgh's defense, Bush is getting hands-on instruction from former All-Pro Ryan Shazier. He might just enter the season as the favorite for Defensive Rookie of the Year honors.
Tennessee Titans: While first-round defensive end Jeffery Simmons is expected to begin the season on the reserve/NFI list following a pre-draft ACL surgery, undrafted DL Isaiah Mack might just take his spot on the roster. A local star at Chattanooga, Mack has backed up a strong camp with a promising preseason effort, including beating Patriots guard James Ferentzto take down backup QB Brian Hoyer last week.
Arizona Cardinals: The preseason is a pigskin Rorschach test. If you harbor the opinion that No. 1 overall pick Kyler Murray is bound to take his lumps on a talent-deficient team behind a porous offensive line with a neophyte head coach, the first two weeks of action function as confirmation bias. If you believe, on the other hand, that Murray is a phenom simply biding his time until he treats the NFL the way Robert Griffin III did with the Redskins in 2012, you take solace in the fact that the Cardinals are keeping their true offense under wraps in August. In fact, Murray told reporters Tuesday that the Cardinals have been running "literally six or seven plays." That's due to change this week against the Vikings.
Atlanta Falcons: If the Falcons are going to bounce back to playoff form this season, they need first-round picks Chris Lindstrom and Kaleb McGary to step in and immediately fortify a shaky offensive line. To date, the results have been mixed, to say the least. McGary recently returned to individual drills after undergoing a cardiac ablation procedure on his heart earlier this month. Lindstrom may be struggling in pass protection, but at least he's working with the starters.
Carolina Panthers: First-round outside linebacker Brian Burns announced his presence with authority, notching a pair of sacks in just 10 snaps during his preseason debut. Although Burns will have to bulk up to improve his spotty run defense, he's slated for a major role as a designated pass rusher opposite veteran Mario Addison this season.
Chicago Bears: Third-round pick David Montgomery has been my favorite offensive rookie of the preseason, showing prototypical instincts, vision, balance, jump-cuts, power and hands in the Bears' opener. Born to be a running back, the former Iowa State star is the best college prospect Pro Football Focus has tracked in terms of forcing missed tackles. His college coach declared him the best route runner on the team -- including wide receivers. Don't be surprised if Montgomery is making a strong push for Offensive Rookie of the Year honors come Thanksgiving.
Dallas Cowboys: In an effort to needle training camp holdout Ezekiel Elliott, the Cowboys may be going a touch overboard in their love fest for Tony Pollard. That said, their excitement over the versatile fourth-round running back is genuine. Dominating the first-team snaps, Pollard was Dallas' most effective skill-position player in last week's victory over the Rams. Already playing fast and earning high marks for pass blocking, Pollard is ticketed for a weekly role regardless of Elliott's status.
Detroit Lions: Although the Lions have kept many of their key players in bubble wrap, first-round tight end T.J. Hockenson finally caught his first pass last week, nearly hurdling a pair of defenders at the end of a 22-yard play. Along with second-round linebacker Jahlani Tavai, Hockenson figures to force his way into a prominent role right out of the gates. Third-round safety Will Harris is also worth monitoring after he tallied six tackles and a touchdown against the Texans.
Green Bay Packers: Camp darling Ty Summers has shown a disturbing penchant for missed tackles at inside linebacker, while first-round defensive end Rashan Gary struggled in run defense versus the Ravens. The good news is that fellow first-round pick Darnell Savage appears to be as advertised, starting at safety alongside Adrian Amos.
Los Angeles Rams: Averaging a measly 2.4 yards on a dozen carries, third-round running back Darrell Henderson has yet to demonstrate the talent that has Rams fans salivating over a 1-2 backfield punch with All-Pro Todd Gurley. Coach Sean McVay has directed glowing praise, on the other hand, toward second-round safety Taylor Rapp. Although Eric Weddle and John Johnson are locked in as the starters, Rapp has seen time at linebacker in dime packages and even aligned along the line of scrimmage in certain packages.
Minnesota Vikings: Hand-picked as the pivot in Gary Kubiak's outside-zone rushing scheme, first-round center Garrett Bradbury walked in the building as a Day 1 starter. The more intriguing question is what Kubiak and offensive coordinator Kevin Stefanski will get out of second-round tight end Irv Smith Jr., who hauled in a touchdown among his five receptions versus the Seahawks last week. Minus an established slot receiver, the Vikings could opt to feature Smith alongside veteran tight end Kyle Rudolph.
New Orleans Saints: Newly christened Hall of Famer Gil Brandt listed second-round center Erik McCoy as one of the NFL's rookie risers early in camp. Already established as the starter, McCoy might just be an upgrade on Max Unger, who struggled down the stretch last year before retiring in January. While undrafted receiver Emmanuel Butler has generated buzz in camp practices, it's 5-foot-6 punt returner Deonte Harris who is opening more eyes in preseason action.
New York Giants: After pitching a perfect series in his preseason debut, first-round quarterback Daniel Jones continued to move the offense versus Chicago last week, completing 11 of 14 passes. His ability to shake free in the pocket and make all of the throws are traits that Eli Manning began losing a few years ago. It's worth asking if the Giants will regret road-blocking their rookie from the competition as the Browns did with Baker Mayfield (remember Tyrod Taylor?) a year ago.
Philadelphia Eagles: The drumbeat for Miles Sanders began two weeks ago, when beat writers reached the consensus that the second-round pick had emerged as the best all-around running back in camp. That opinion is not likely to subside after Sanders sidestepped a tackle and dragged a coterie of Jaguars past the first-down marker on a 16-yard rumble last week. Since polished first-round tackle Andre Dillard appears to be ticketed for a redshirt season behind future Hall of Famer Jason Peters, Sanders is the Eagles rookie with the best opportunity for a 2019 impact.
San Francisco 49ers: No. 2 overall pick Nick Bosa was giving San Francisco's offensive linemen more than they could handle before suffering an ankle sprain that cost him any preseason action. In the meantime, rookie receivers Deebo Samuel and Jalen Hurd garnered accolades for playmaking performances in the 17-9 victory over Dallas. Absent a true No. 1 receiver, coach Kyle Shanahan might see fit to rush Samuel and Hurd up the depth chart.
Seattle Seahawks:*Cody Barton* has taken full advantage of starter's snaps in the wake of Bobby Wagner's platelet-rich plasma injection. The third-round linebacker has even been anointed "special" by defensive coordinator Ken Norton Jr. It will be interesting to see how Norton finds playing time for his favorite rookie now that Wagner is slated for a return to practice. With D.K. Metcalfgoing under the knife, undrafted 6-foot-5 receiver Jazz Ferguson is also making a strong push for a roster spot.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Already entrenched as a starter, first-round pick Devin White will team up with Lavonte David to comprise one of the most feared inside linebacker tandems in the league. With the exception of a blitz that nearly hit home for a sack, White has yet to show up on preseason film. I want to see more out of him in this week's clash with a pair of fellow former LSU stars, Browns receivers Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry.
Washington Redskins: At one end of the spectrum, strong-armed quarterback Dwayne Haskins has struggled with consistency and decision-making through two preseason games. At the other end, seventh-round cornerback Jimmy Moreland has been a playmaking machine in the secondary. The mystery man, however, is third-round receiver Terry McLaurin, who has inexplicably seen just one snap so far. Has he been deemed so valuable that coach Jay Gruden don't want to risk injury? Is Gruden simply playing coy because he has top secret plans to unleash the multi-talented McLaurin in creative ways? Stay tuned.