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The Biggest Winners of the NFL Preseason

Sam Darnold, Christian McCaffrey, Baker Mayfield, and the players who gained the most in the NFL’s “meaningless” games

Elias Stein/Getty Images

The outcomes of NFL preseason games don’t matter, but what happens in them definitely does. Every year, the exhibition slate gives players the chance to make a statement, whether that’s a young player looking to lock down a bigger piece of the schematic pie, a backup hoping to land a starting spot, or a rookie trying to prove he deserves a spot on the roster.

With the preseason in the books, it’s time to take stock of which players shined the most over the past month. Here are a few of the biggest winners of the 2018 NFL preseason.

QB Sam Darnold, Jets

Darnold’s preseason stats won’t blow you away—he completed 29 of 45 passes for 244 yards, two touchdowns, and a pick at just 5.4 yards per attempt and an 83.9 passer rating—but he displayed all the traits the Jets needed to see before naming him starting quarterback in Week 1. He showed poise, accuracy, mobility, and a wise-beyond-his-years ability to go through his reads and throw the ball downfield. There are still a few issues to correct in his mechanics—his footwork is still pretty sloppy and he throws off balance at times—but at 21 years old, he has plenty of time to smooth all that out.

The third overall pick proved the game’s not too big for him—and he gave the Jets an easy choice in naming him their starter. There’s certainly going to be some bumps along the way, but Darnold’s career is off to a positive start.

QB Teddy Bridgewater, Saints

I can’t fault the Jets for turning the keys to their offense over to Darnold—their young, highly-drafted, infinite-upside QB—instead of to the guy on a one-year deal, but it’s worth noting that Bridgewater did outplay Darnold in preseason action. The former Viking completed 28 of 38 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns, and one pick at 8.3 yards per attempt to register a 104.7 passer rating, and he looked completely in command of the New York offense. He played so well, in fact, that the Saints sent the Jets a third-round pick to acquire the 25-year-old passer (along with a sixth-round pick)—ostensibly to grab the heir apparent to an aging Drew Brees.

New Orleans is going to have to do some cap gymnastics to sign Bridgewater to a long-term deal—he’s a free agent after this season and Brees is set to count $33.5 million against the cap in 2019—but with an excellent preseason performance, Bridgewater proved he’s put the gruesome knee injury that kept him out of football for 15 months behind him. He might have to wait another year (or two) to take the reins in the Big Easy, but Bridgewater showed he can still be a starter in this league.

QB Baker Mayfield, Browns

Mayfield heads into his rookie season as Tyrod Taylor’s backup, but the top overall pick looks more than ready to start—whenever it is that the team calls his number. Mayfield capped an efficient and exciting preseason performance last week by leading the Browns to scores on their first three drives against the Lions, throwing from a wide, balanced base while showing off clean, easy mechanics, precise footwork, accuracy, and the flair for playmaking that helped him win the Heisman at Oklahoma last year.

Mayfield finished with a final preseason line of 501 yards passing at 8.2 yards per attempt, two touchdowns, one interception, and an 88.2 passer rating. There’s no sign yet that Cleveland made the wrong choice with the first pick.

LT Jordan Mailata, Eagles

The Eagles took a flier on the massive, 6-foot-8, 346-pound Australian Rugby League product with the 233rd pick of the draft, hoping to develop the 21-year-old into a quality football player. That might’ve felt like a long shot—most seventh-round picks are—but according to a few offensive line experts, Philly may have found themselves a gem. Former Steelers tackle Barrett Brooks called Mailata a “starter in the real, near future”; former lineman Brian Baldinger said, “he has everything it takes to be a dominant player”; and former NFL lineman Ross Tucker took it a step further:

Mailata’s played just a few weeks of real American football. If he’s the diamond in the rough he’s appeared to be this preseason, it could pay huge dividends for the defending champs, who will need a replacement for the 36-year-old Jason Peters after Peters decides to retire.

RB Christian McCaffrey, Panthers

McCaffrey established himself as a dynamic pass-catching option in the Panthers’ offense last year, but there were still plenty of questions as to whether he could carry a full workload as the team’s bell-cow back. The former Stanford star quieted some of those concerns over the past month, rushing 21 times for 151 yards (7.2 yards per carry) and two scores while dominating first-team reps ahead of free-agent addition C.J. Anderson.

McCaffrey looked explosive, elusive, and versatile—and ran between the tackles with plenty of power. He should be poised for a monster season.

RB Carlos Hyde, Browns

Hyde signed a three-year, $15.3 million deal with the Browns in March, but when Cleveland subsequently took Georgia running back Nick Chubb with the 35th overall pick, some began question Hyde’s role with his new team. The former 49er has looked like a man on a mission in preseason action, carrying the ball 17 times for 108 yards (6.4 yards per carry) and a score—combining vision, burst, and power on a handful of explosive runs.

Chubb’s ran well, too, but Hyde established himself as the clear-cut starter and should get plenty of volume this year for the Browns.

RB Alfred Morris, 49ers

Morris may have gone from street free-agent to a Week 1 starter in the course of a few weeks. The veteran back, a late addition to the team who signed August 13, took advantage of injuries to both Jerick McKinnon and Matt Breida to run for 84 yards on 17 carries in San Francisco’s preseason Week 3 matchup with the Colts, showing that he still knows how to operate in a Shanahan-designed wide-zone scheme (as he did under Kyle and dad Mike Shanahan in Washington).

After that promising performance, 49ers GM John Lynch intimated that Morris could end up as the team’s early-down “churner,” a big role for what could be a high-scoring offense.

RB Royce Freeman, Broncos

Freeman made the most of limited touches in three preseason games, carrying the ball 15 times for 84 yards (5.6 YPC) while tying for the NFL lead with three rushing scores. He showcased all the things that made him a star at Oregon: vision, power, the ability to break tackles, and a little bit of breakaway speed.

So far, Denver’s stopped short of naming Freeman the starter—they seem content to run a committee backfield, pairing the former Duck with Devontae Booker—but the rookie back looks like the real deal. Denver could have a gotten a steal in the third round.

WR Tyreek Hill, Chiefs

It’s not like Hill needed to prove much in these games after catching 75 passes for 1,183 yards and seven touchdowns in 2017, but he did showcase the type of chemistry with Chiefs’ new signal-caller Patrick Mahomes that could foreshadow a big season. Hill finished with 14 catches (seventh among all pass catchers this preseason) for 182 yards (sixth)—and was on the receiving end of this incredible throw by Mahomes.

Mahomes may have the strongest arm in the NFL, and paired with Hill’s speed, we may be seeing a lot of these types of plays in 2018.

DE Robert Quinn, Dolphins

It’s been a while since we’ve seen the elite, game-wrecking version of Robert Quinn. The former Ram was, at one point, one of the game’s elite edge rushers—he posted 40.0 sacks in a three-year stretch from 2012-14—but he’s fought through a series of injuries and subpar performances in the three seasons since. If the preseason is any indication, though, the old Quinn might be back.

The 28-year-old pass rusher (acquired in an offseason trade with L.A.) finally looks fully healthy and has his hand back in the dirt in Miami’s 4-3 scheme. Quinn grabbed 3.0 sacks playing limited snaps in three games this preseason and had a fourth taken away by a flag. If he could get back to his early-career form in 2018, it’d provide an enormous boost for the Dolphins’ defense.

DEs Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson, Bengals

The Bengals already have a fearsome pass rush duo in Geno Atkins and Carlos Dunlap. This year, they might be able to throw four strong rushers at opposing lines, as Willis and Lawson have both looked dominant this preseason. Willis, a second-year pro, finished with 14 pressures in four games—second most among all 4-3 defensive ends, per Pro Football Focus—including three sacks, a hit, and 10 hurries.

Meanwhile, Lawson, who’s coming off an 8.5-sack rookie campaign, finished with nine pressures of his own (tied for 10th), including 3.5 sacks, three hits, and two hurries (PFF credits him with four sacks; the website doesn’t measure half-sacks). The Bengals’ defensive line looks like it could be a force to reckon with in 2018.

DE Rasheem Green, LB Shaquem Griffin, and P Michael Dickson, Seahawks

There’s been talk about what kind of impact Seattle’s first pick this year—running back Rashaad Penny—could make for the team, but a trio of selections from day two and three looks ready to play key roles early this season, too. Green, a third-rounder out of USC, posted 3.0 sacks and 18 tackles this preseason, finishing with 12 pressures on 86 pass rush snaps, per PFF, sixth-most among 4-3 ends.

Much of Green’s production came against backups, so he’ll have to prove he can get to the quarterback against first-team players, but Seattle desperately needs help up front after losing Michael Bennett (trade) and Cliff Avril (release) over the offseason.

Griffin, meanwhile, looks like more than just an inspiring draft-day story. The Seahawks’ fifth-rounder, a former UCF superstar who lost his left hand at age 4 as the result of a prenatal condition called amniotic band syndrome, is poised to start Week 1 at the weakside linebacker spot in place of an injured K.J. Wright after racking up 26 preseason tackles. Griffin’s taken a few poor angles in run defense but has proved that the play-recognition skills and all-around athleticism he displayed in college should transfer to the pros—and more than make up for the fact he’s forced to tackle with just one hand.

Oh, and rookie punter Michael Dickson (fifth round) looks like a future Hall of Famer.

If you’re looking for punter highlight porn, here’s a good thread:

OLB Reggie Gilbert, CB Jaire Alexander, and CB Josh Jackson, Packers

The Packers got some promising performances this preseason from a handful of young defenders. Gilbert, a second-year pro who appeared in just two games as a rookie, paced all 3-4 outside linebackers in pressures during the preseason, racking up three sacks, three hits, and nine hurries. He’s shown power to bull rush opposing tackles:

And speed to get around them on the edge:

Green Bay could have a gem in the former UDFA out of Arizona, and Gilbert looks poised to earn snaps in the team’s outside linebacker rotation early on this season.

Perhaps more importantly, though, cornerbacks Jaire Alexander (first round) and Josh Jackson (second round), both look like potential difference-makers in a secondary that badly needs a few. Alexander made an impressive leaping interception against the Raiders, and Jackson was PFF’s highest-graded corner through the first three weeks of the preseason, notching one pick-six and another that was called back due to penalty. We’ll see how the Packers rotate corners this year—the rookie duo will be vying with Tramon Williams, Davon House and second-year cornerback Kevin King for snaps. But the Packers look to have hit home runs with their first two picks.

CB Chidobe Awuzie, Cowboys

The Cowboys could have a star cornerback in the making. A 2017 second-round pick, Awuzie followed up on a strong second half last year and locked down opposing receivers in coverage during the preseason. He’s provided much-needed help in the secondary while flashing some Odell Beckham–esque playmaking skills:

With Awuzie playing opposite Byron Jones, who’s flashed since making the switch from safety to corner, Dallas suddenly has what could be a solid outside corner duo.

S Jessie Bates III, Bengals

Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis is typically hesitant to start rookie defenders, but this year, he may be taking a different tack. Bates, a rookie second-round pick out of Wake Forest, looks like Cincy’s day-one starter at safety.

Bates played a backup role to veteran starter George Iloka in the team’s first two preseason matchups, but apparently impressed coaches so much that Cincinnati released Iloka (a starter in 76 of the team’s last 80 games) on August 19. That paves the way for Bates to start for the team in Week 1; He’s got outstanding range and plenty of instincts, but he’ll have to prove early on that he can be a factor against the run too. Tackling, per Bengals DC Teryl Austin, was his biggest issue in college. But Austin gave the rookie a public vote of confidence in that area, noting that, “He’s been a really solid tackler. Really good angles. Getting guys down. That was the one question we needed answered.”

S Derwin James, Chargers

The Chargers gave James a featured role in preseason action—his 106 snaps through the first three games was most among the team’s defenders—and the rookie out of Florida State did not disappoint. After starter Jaylen Watkins tore his ACL in L.A.’s preseason Week 2 matchup with the Seahawks, James got the start in Week 3 and wasted no time in picking off a future Hall of Famer.

Chargers defensive coordinator Gus Bradley has been vague about his plan for James early in the year, but all signs point to the rookie opening the season with a starting job in L.A.’s secondary. Even if not, the “starter” label may not matter anyway: James can play any number of roles in the team’s subpackages, from safety, to slot defender, to de facto linebacker, to occasional pass rusher. He showed the versatility to do it all at FSU, and now he looks poised to do the same for L.A.

An earlier version of this story misidentified Jessie Bates III’s university. He attended Wake Forest, not Stanford.