Top 10 rookies of preseason so far
On Wednesday I took a look at how each of the 32 first-round picks from the 2015 draft have fared so far this preseason. Now I’m ranking the 10 rookies who have performed the best through three weeks, regardless of draft position.
Two of the 10 players on this list were drafted in the first round, while the rest are a mix of mid-round picks and undrafted free agents who are putting together some seriously impressive performances as they fight for roster spots.
Here are the 10 best rookies of the preseason so far, plus a bonus selection (PFF grades are in parentheses):
- Ladarius Gunter, CB, Packers (6.8 PFF grade)
Green Bay had major turnover at the cornerback position this offseason, with Tramon Williams and Davon House leaving town and the team spending its first two draft picks on cornerbacks. Though both of those picks have graded well this preseason, they have been put to shame by the play of undrafted rookie Gunter, who has been on fire. Gunter has been thrown at 11 times, allowed just five catches for 48 yards. He has a pick and three passes defensed to his name, meaning when targeted he has given up a passer rating of just 20.3.
- Nick Easton, C, Ravens (6.7)
One of the things you learn watching preseason is just how bad backup offensive line play is league-wide. When you get down to the second and third teams, the O-line is regularly getting destroyed by the D-line, so when somebody stands out from that crowd it can be significant. Easton has been the highest-graded rookie center so far in preseason, by some distance. He may not have been facing first-team defenders, but he has graded positively against the run every game, and has allowed just one hurry over 123 snaps.
- Daryl Williams, OT, Panthers (5.5)
While this year’s high draft picks at tackle struggle against first-team players, lower down the depth chart Daryl Williams, a fourth-round pick of the Panthers, has been the best rookie tackle of the preseason. Like Easton at center, Williams has allowed just a single hurry (from his 91 snaps of play) and has graded positively as a run blocker in each of his three games.
- Kaleb Johnson, G, Ravens (5.4)
Completing our little run of O-linemen here is Baltimore’s Kaleb Johnson, giving the Ravens a pair of backup linemen excelling so far. Playing as a backup left guard, Johnson has graded well as a run blocker in two of his three games and has yet to allow a pressure or penalty of any kind in 153 snaps of play.
- Shane Ray, DE/OLB, Broncos (6.2)
Ray had plenty of question marks coming into the league, but all of the data we had of him as a college player suggested he would be productive as a pass-rusher. So far that data looks dead on, as he leads all rookies at his position. He has an impressive run-defense grade working primarily with the Denver second team, as well as two sacks, five hurries and a batted pass. He should be a valuable rotation guy as a rookie.
- Paul Dawson, LB, Bengals (5.5)
Sometimes great players don’t measure well. That may well be the case for Dawson, who doesn’t wow anybody from a measurables standpoint, but was by far our best-graded off-ball linebacker in the FBS last season. He looks to have carried that right over to the NFL, notching eight defensive stops in just 49 snaps and leading all 4-3 outside linebackers in grade — not just rookies.
- Matt Jones, RB, Redskins (2.8)
Any time you average seven yards a carry you’re doing something right, especially when the longest of those carries is just 24 yards, so there is no huge breakaway run skewing the numbers. Jones has 20 carries this preseason for 139 yards and a score while forcing eight missed tackles on those runs. He has averaged 4.8 yards per carry after contact – yes, after contact — and is the top-graded rookie runner of preseason.
- Jaquiski Tartt, S, 49ers (4.3)
The 49ers have invested heavily in the secondary in recent seasons in both the draft and free agency, but it’s Tartt, a second-round pick out of Samford, who has been getting noticed this preseason. Tartt has graded positively in each of his three preseason games, making plays in both the run and pass game, and even has a hit on the quarterback to his name as a blitzer.
- Amari Cooper, WR, Raiders (1.2)
Cooper was arguably the best player available in the entire draft, so it’s no surprise to see he’s adjusting to life in the NFL without any problems. Cooper is tied for the lead among rookie WRs (with Pittsburgh’s Sammie Coates) with 124 receiving yards on eight receptions from his 15 targets, and has even been showing up players like Patrick Peterson along the way.
- Henry Anderson, DL, Colts (3.5)
Henry Anderson our highest-graded defensive interior player in the entire FBS last season – ahead of Leonard Williams – and so far this preseason he has topped him again, along with all other rookie 3-4 defensive ends. Anderson is a disruptive force in the middle, making himself a constant nuisance for offensive lines trying to block him. There may be flashier players in the league, but there are few more irritating for blockers to deal with.
Special teams bonus pick: Tyler Lockett, KR, Seahawks (5.3)
If there was a receiver in college football who could rival Amari Cooper and Colorado State’s Rashard Wiggins in terms of productivity last year, it was Lockett. And while the Seahawks have been relatively slow to integrate him as a weapon in their passing game, he has been lighting things up as a return man. He already has two touchdowns — one as a kick returner and one as a punt returner — and is by far our best-graded return man this preseason.