The NFL preseason isn’t just the first taste of game action for incoming rookies, but in a lot of ways, they really do take center stage.
As some teams rest their starters or limit their playing time ahead of the regular season kicking off, the three exhibition games give the rookie class a chance to show not only that they belong but that they can be trusted when the bright lights begin to shine.
Here’s a look at six players who have helped themselves the most, so far, during the NFL preseason.
Aidan Hutchinson, EDGE, Detroit Lions
There are some who believe Aidan Hutchinson should have been the Jaguars’ selection with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2022 NFL draft.
But, among other things, judging on his performance against the Atlanta Falcons, the Detroit Lions are plenty thrilled the Michigan star fell to them.
Hutchinson finished with 2 total tackles, drew a holding penalty as he closed in on potentially his first pro sack during his debut against Atlanta, and always seemed to be around the football. Pro Football Focus awarded Hutchinson an 88 overall grade, highest among first-round picks, this week.
There’s plenty more where that came from.
“You have to remember, he’s a really good football player,” an NFC personnel executive told Heavy. “Consistent guy. He might not be ‘special,’ but he’s always good against the run, and always good as a pass-rusher.”
George Pickens, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers
In hindsight, it is almost insane that the Pittsburgh Steelers were able to scoop up Pickens as the 11th wide receiver chosen in the draft, with the No. 52 overall pick.
Pickens’ ascent has been one of the biggest storylines in the entire league, this summer, and he proved against the Seattle Seahawks that he’s far more than a practice warrior. In fact, no rookie graded higher this week than Pickens, who garnered a 91.2 overall mark from Pro Football Focus.
After pulling down a 26-yard touchdown pass from Mason Rudolph, Pickens seems destined to play a vital role in the Steelers’ offense this season.
Jaquan Brisker, S, Chicago Bears
Brisker really stole the show for the Chicago Bears‘ defense in Week 1 of the preseason, against the Kansas City Chiefs.
The former Penn State safety essentially forced a three-and-out, all on his own, on his way to producing 4 total tackles and breaking up a pass, all but cementing his place as one of Chicago’s starting safeties.
Brisker, along with fellow top-50 selection cornerback Kyle Gordon, is a key cog in general manager Ryan Poles’ efforts to build out an elite defense. During his three seasons in Happy Valley, Brisker produced 151 total tackles and 10 tackles for loss, as a bit of a Swiss Army Knife, of sorts, both in coverage and up near the line of scrimmage.
It’s early, but Brisker looks well on his way to reprising that role in the Windy City.
Travon Walker, EDGE, Jacksonville Jaguars
Walker certainly has flashed in both of the Jaguars’ exhibition games, and sent folks scrambling to delete their pre-draft takes off Twitter.
In the shadow of the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, Walker produced his first sack by bull-rushing Las Vegas Raiders tackle Brandon Parker before juking to the inside and taking down quarterback Jarett Stidham for the first of what he and the Jaguars hope is the first of many sacks.
Through two games, Walker has a sack, tackle for loss, helped force a fumble, and has put his explosiveness on tape against NFL offensive tackles that the Jaguars saw from him at the University of Georgia and drew them to make the somewhat controversial decision to pick him first.
Jacksonville invested significant resources along the front seven this offseason, with Walker being the crown jewel as the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. It’s only a brief first impression, but it certainly looks like Walker is going to be a problem for opposing tackles for years to come.
Jordan Davis, NT, Philadelphia Eagles
In his debut against the Jets, Davis was borderline unblockable.
Davis developed the reputation as a space-eater along Georgia’s defensive front that led the way to the Bulldogs’ National Championship, but in his first game in a Philadelphia Eagles uniform, the 6-foot-6 and 336-pound behemoth absolutely wreaked havoc on the Jets.
There’s no question that Davis’ power as an interior bull-rusher is going to be a problem for opposing quarterbacks and make the Eagles a tough front to run on. But, Davis also showed all kinds of hustle to run down and nearly tackle quarterback Zach Wilson from behind on a scramble, showing just how high his motor runs. That’s great news for the Eagles, who love using multiple fronts, but terrible news for the rest of the league.
Jahan Dotson, WR, Washington Commanders
Following an impressive spring, Dotson surged up the Commanders’ depth chart to the point of emerging as one of Washington’s starting receivers in the preseason opener against the Carolina Panthers.
Dotson, chosen No. 16 overall after rewriting the Penn State record book during his three-year collegiate career, didn’t receive a target from Carson Wentz during the preseason opener. However, the speedster did draw a defensive holding penalty on a pass deep down the sideline.
The combination of Dotson’s 2.2% drop rate, and 41.7% catch rate, according to Pro Football Focus, underscore the impact the 5-foot-11 speedster’s catch radius can have both on an offense as well as a quarterback.
Stats don’t always tell the full story, and the fact that Dotson has so quickly risen up Wentz’s target hierarchy and shown the versatility to contribute both outside and from the slot, give him the chance to make an instant impact.