The NFL preseason isn’t just a warmup for players as the regular season approaches. It’s a time for coaches to sort out the depth chart, while some veterans are forced to fight for roster spots. Additionally, it’s the first taste of NFL action rookies get, and there are some exciting first-year players worth watching. These 11 in particular certainly warrant fans’ attention, whether it’s because of their sheer playmaking ability or the fact that they’re battling for a starting job.
Sterling Shepard, WR, New York Giants
The Giants need a second wide receiver to play alongside Odell Beckham Jr. Victor Cruz can’t be relied upon to remain healthy, which means the second-round pick Shepard will get ample opportunities. He plays a bit like Beckham with his speed and route running ability, just with a hair less athleticism. He had one catch for 24 yards in the preseason opener, but he wasn’t on the field much. Shepard is poised for a huge rookie year, and that will become evident in Weeks 2 and 3 of the preseason.
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Myles Jack, LB, Jacksonville Jaguars
If not for a knee injury, Jack would have been a top-10 pick. He appears to be healthy after making his preseason debut on Thursday, and he’s going to get increased snaps as time goes on. Jack is a legitimate Defensive Rookie of the Year candidate and is one of the most explosive defenders in football when healthy. He is going to have a huge impact on the Jaguars’ defense – more so than fellow rookie Jalen Ramsey, the No. 5 overall pick.
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Noah Spence, DE, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Noah Spence fell in the draft due to off-field issues, but his talent between the lines is undeniable. He can be a 10-sack player as a rookie, which is a mark most first-year pass rushers fail to reach. Spence is a player worth keeping an eye on as he battles for a starting job at defensive end. If he plays well in the preseason, he could be well on his way to being a three-down player.
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Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
The Cowboys entered training camp with somewhat of a mess at backup quarterback. That mess was made even worse when presumed No. 2 option Kellen Moore went down with a broken fibula. Dallas has been reluctant to add a veteran quarterback, and perhaps Dak Prescott is the reason. He lit it up in the team’s preseason opener, cementing his spot as Tony Romo’s backup. Granted, it was just half of a preseason game, but Prescott was just about perfect in his debut. Not only is he worth watching for his exciting style of football, but because he’s well on his way to being Dallas’ No. 2 quarterback if he keeps up this play.
WPPRODMark J. Terrill
James Bradberry, CB, Carolina Panthers
James Bradberry has huge shoes to fill this season, but he hasn’t shied from the spotlight thus far. Instead, he’s welcomed it, wearing Josh Norman’s old number (24) as a rookie. The second-round pick is a big, long corner with great athleticism, and that showed in the preseason opener. Bradberry will have to step up and mature quickly if the Panthers hope to have a strong secondary yet again this season. He’s a surefire starter who will get plenty of attention this preseason.
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Corey Coleman, WR, Cleveland Browns
Robert Griffin III is in need of playmakers on the outside as he hopes to resurrect his career in Cleveland. Corey Coleman, the first receiver taken in the 2016 draft, is one of those players. He missed the preseason opener with a hamstring injury, but he’ll be on the field before the start of the regular season. And when he is, fans will realize why he was drafted so high. He’s a dynamic weapon at receiver and will undoubtedly be a starter when the season kicks off.
Jalen Mills, DB, Philadelphia Eagles
Mills was taken in the seventh round due to character concerns, but he’s gaining momentum as a starter in the Eagles' secondary. Mills has had an outstanding training camp, surpassing 2015 second-rounder Eric Rowe on the depth chart as a second-string cornerback. He had an up-and-down debut in the preseason, but he’s a draft sleeper who can have a huge impact as a rookie. Mills is a playmaker, which Philadelphia desperately needs.
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Kenneth Dixon, RB, Baltimore Ravens
Justin Forsett is the presumed starter right now, but Terrance West and the fourth-round pick Dixon are vying to take snaps away in the backfield. Forsett was held out of the preseason opener, which gave Dixon increased snaps. He carried it nine times for 44 yards and looked like an elusive back capable of handling an NFL workload. He has an uphill battle to supplant West and Buck Allen, but a strong preseason will help his case.
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Laremy Tunsil, OL, Miami Dolphins
As of now, the Dolphins’ top pick won’t be playing his natural position of left tackle. Instead, he’s expected to kick inside to left guard, though even then he’s not guaranteed the starting job. He’s currently the second-string left guard behind Dallas Thomas, and even coach Adam Gase admits he has “a lot to learn.” Tunsil will need a strong preseason to win the starting job, and if he fails to, it’d be a huge disappointment for the rookie.
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Karl Joseph, S, Oakland Raiders
Joseph surprisingly made his NFL debut on Friday, coming off of a torn ACL last season at West Virginia. He played just nine snaps, but he made an aggressive tackle and looked healthy, which is most important. He’ll be the starting strong safety this season, and fans should be eager to see his play in the preseason. He’s a big hitter with outstanding range and could be the closest thing to Earl Thomas we’ve seen in some time.
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Derrick Henry, RB, Tennessee Titans
Henry is blocked by DeMarco Murray on the depth chart, but he’s going to start at least one game this season. Why? Because Murray has started all 16 games only once in his career. The oft-injured back should improve over his putrid 2015 campaign with the Eagles, but he’s sure to surrender carries to Henry at some point. For now, Henry will have to show he’s more than just a downhill runner and display the agility required to play at a high level in the NFL, which he did in the opener. He’s an exciting back to watch.