Great to have football back is it not? Not everyone is a fan of pre-season football, but as someone who has spent countless hours scouting these guys in college, the chance to watch these young rookies battle it out for roster spots makes every game a must-watch for me. And not the big-name first rounders. There will be none of that here. In fact, for the most part we won’t even be mentioning many from even day two of the draft let alone day one. No, this here is a focus on a few of the lesser known names, many of whom went undrafted. In truth, there isn’t really any particular criteria to be mentioned on this list. It’s just some guys who stood out for me personally in a positive way while watching all the games this past week. Some of them still might not make the team. It is what it is, there are no rules! But I will begin with a fairly well-known name, but as a fourth round draft pick, he doesn’t undermine everything that was just written above! So, let’s get on with it:
Dak Prescott, QB, Dallas Cowboys
I’ve not been following much of the media coverage elsewhere in reaction to the first set of pre-season games, but there’s no doubt to me who the standout rookie of Week 1 was, and I suspect that the former Bulldog quatrerback has been receiving a heap of praise in the aftermath of his debut versus the Rams. And you know what? Rightly so. He was fantastic, absolutely looking the part. Considering how relatively behind he came into the league in terms of experience as a pocket passer, having to develop his raw game that utilised his running ability early on during his time in the SEC. He developed and improved year on year as Mississippi State’s quarterback in the pass game, including in working through his progressions and anticipating when to throw his receivers open, but most still felt like he would be a couple years away from being able to take the field competently as a pocket passer at the NFL level. While it’s only the first pre-season game, and not the pressure of a regular season contest, the composure and decision making he showed this weekend was hugely impressive, well played kid. His execution as he drove the offense down the field was great, which included finishing one with an on-point jump ball to Dez Bryant (pretty good tactic to go with), and a very visually pleasing 32-yard drop in the bucket to Terrance Williams for six. Yes, it is only Week 1 of pre-season, but it didn’t hurt to impress while the number one pick is on the opposition team was looking far less convincing in his own debut. While we’re dealing with quarterbacks, have to say, Joe Callahan looked decent for the Packers in his first shot. Considering he’s coming from Division 3 Wesley, he showed promise. Certainly has that scramble technique down at the very least.
Alex Erickson, WR, Cincinnati Bengals
It was frankly a bit of a surprise that no-one took a shot on Erickson with an actual draft pick earlier in the year. Anyone tuning in to Wisconsin football could see what a fantastically reliable and clever receiver that he is, and it’s not like he didn’t put up the numbers to back it up, finishing his senior year with 77 receptions for just shy of 1,000 yards on run-first team without many other targets for defenses to worry about and take away pressure. His situational awareness, precise route running and safe hands made him a very dependable target, and received a late round grade from ourselves at RealSport. The Bengals won’t mind as they acquired his services as a free agent, and he already looks like his polished skill set could translate to this level of competition. He began with a well-executed three-yard touchdown grab, beating his coverage for positioning for a straight forward score. While he didn’t have any other catches on offense during his limit snaps, he blocked well. Erickson then made his presence known on special teams, collecting the ball around his own 15-yard line before taking it all the way to the house for his second touchdown of the game. Two scores, a big impact and lots of optimism to make this roster. Draft picks Boyd and Core may be the higher profile new young wideouts, and both certainly did well on their debuts too, but Erickson became an instant hit in his own right. Let’s see if that continues as pre-season goes on.
Cory Johnson, DL, Atlanta Falcons
Another undrafted, unheralded rookie. Johnson flashed some exciting interior pass rush ability as a junior at Kentucky, leading to anticipation that he could breakout in the SEC in his final year in college, with several teammates graduating in theory, opening up extra opportunities. It didn’t quite fully materialize in terms of the pass rush, with just a couple sacks, but his all-round game saw him pile up good tackle numbers and even some plays in coverage. There’s certainly no doubt that he has NFL size and skills, and he really caught the eye during his rotations on the field throughout Atlanta’s 23-17 win over Washington (no thanks to the first team offense). The highlight was a sack of fellow rookie Nate Sudfeld, with Johnson blowing past right guard Nila Kasitati and closing on the helpless quarterback. He had three tackles in total along with the sack and looked dangerous and tough to handle. The 6’2”, 300 lbs defensive lineman might have enough to make this team.
Evan Boehm, C, Arizona Cardinals
As a big fan of play in the trenches, including an offensive lineman is an absolute must, but in truth, not too many stood out. That included most of the bigger names too, with the Lions’ Decker and Spriggs of Green Bay in particular having some early struggles, though Tunsil looked the part in his move to guard. If I’m going to pick out a later round guy who looked pretty good, I’ll go with fourth round center Boehm. He hasn’t done enough through training camp to challenge for a starting position but performed well while playing a large portion of the game against the Raiders. There was an unfortunate moment where Boehm messed up a snap with the resulting penalty being his fault and earning a glaring look from head coach Bruce Arians. Outside of that however, he looked the part. His sturdy frame and strong anchor were always built to hold up at the NFL level and looks like that will prove the case, and made a few effective blocks in the run game too, promising given that isn’t his forte.
Nelson Spruce, WR, LA Rams
We’ve had “Heeeeeeath”. We’ve had “Kuuuuuuhn”. Is “Spruuuuuuce” next on the list of crowd-appreciation-that-sounds-like-they’re-booing? Terrell Owens asked the question of who are the Rams receivers, well, Spruce stepped up. Third string quarterback Sean Mannion took a liking to the Colorado rookie and the pair connected on six occasions all during the fourth quarter that included a seven-yard touchdown reception. Spruce is not the biggest or the fastest, yet consistently found ways to get open for the Buffaloes during his time in college, and his knack for doing so showed up during a brief but notable ten minutes or so. Spruce had 195 catches over the last two seasons, and on a struggling team like Colorado, that is even more noteworthy. We happened to think his level of production and traits outside of the measurables warranted a late draft selection but it was not to be. There’s competition for places at the position in LA, and it’s a promising start to live scrimmage action for him. His early chemistry with Mannion is one thing, but it’s much more important that he develops that with Goff and/or Keenum as soon as possible, given that one or the other will be distributing the ball, not Mannion. A mention too for tight end Tyler Higbee. His draft position didn’t take a hit for his off-field trouble in the build up to the draft, and the risk the team took is due to the excellent skill set, size and athleticism on offer, and he hinted at some of that with five catches for 49-yards.
Dwayne Washington, RB, Detroit Lions
Taking a special teams play all the way back is a fantastic way to get yourself noticed as an undrafted free agent. Erickson listed above did so, and Washington was another for the Lions. There was fair reason for Washington to not entice anyone to go as far as investing a draft pick on him. His injury history is troublesome and might ultimately result in a shortened career regardless. In addition, the converted wide receiver still looks in many ways more of a wide receiver than a back in build and style, and though he made big plays at that level too, never truly established himself on a consistent basis with the Huskies, in part due to the many disruptions through injury. But his size at 6’1”, 221 lbs, with impressive power and speed make him a big play waiting to happen. That was made absolutely clear when he collected the ball on his own four-yard line and took the ball all the way for the remaining 96-yards for a spectacular special teams score. He got involved as both a runner and receiver as well to show some versatility, albeit with only two and one touches respectively in those areas, and is still very raw in his vision and decision making a s a ball carrier. But if he can make plays like that, he could earn a spot on the 53. While we’re praising special teams scores, nice one J.D McKissic of the Falcons.
Brandon Williams, CB, Arizona Cardinals
Now on the surface, this is a bizarre choice. Williams got beat, time and time again against the Raiders as each Oakland quarterback continued to throw his way and find success. But you know what? Williams took it. He took his trial by fire, got torched, and kept coming back for more, didn’t let his head go down and showed a lot of positive character. Plenty others in a similar situation would have had their confidence shattered in similar circumstances. Williams is a fantastic athlete with blazing speed to go with his 6’0”, 200 lbs size, a great combination of measurables for a cornerback. But he only played corner for one year in college for Texas A&M, converting from running back, and despite the third round investment, he was always going to be a work in progress as someone who is still learning the transition to his position let alone transitioning to the NFL. He’s been balling out in camp, earned the start for the pre-season opener as a result, and I’m sure Arians will remind him of that. He’s ahead of schedule. It’s a good sign how he stayed composed, and while he obviously has a long way to go, and is no lock to eventually get there, I get the impression he’ll give himself every chance to be successful with his attitude and work ethic. Keep at it, young man.
Joe Walker, LB, Philadelphia Eagles
The rise and rise of Joe Walker. He’s always been a very effective linebacker for the Oregon Ducks, and has had his highlight moments such as being the man to return that infamous Kaelin Clay fumble, where the Utah receiver dropped the ball to celebrate before actually crossing the goal line. Walker picked it up and took it 100-yards the other way to instead put a touchdown on the board for his team. The real rise began though with an eye-opening pro day that had scouts buzzing afterward, and resulted in the Eagles using one of the final selections of the 2016 draft (number 251 in the seventh round) on a player that earlier in the process was generally considered to be a priority free agent. Up to this point during training camp, he has stood out, and rather than simply proving Philly correct to use a pick, is more and more looking like he could have been significantly under-drafted. Doing it in camp is one thing though, can he do it on game day? Once again, and regrettably the last time for now, “it is only Week 1 of the pre-season”, but the signs are in the affirmative so far. He totalled six tackles during the win over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, but the highlight was his superb tackle for loss on a fourth and one, easily beating his guard and taking down the ball carrier to turn the ball over. He looks good. So far.