NFL preseason coverage usually consists of highlight videos on social media and, unfortunately, breaking news headlined by injuries. Attempting to make a name for themselves are the rookies, but not the first-year players that have signed two to three-year deals to be a foundation piece for the team. Instead, the ones trying to prove themselves the most are the prospects who fell under the radar in the draft because of a multiplicity of reasons.
It’s fun to check the boxes of big-time draft picks doing what organizations expected them to do when they selected the player. It’s also fun to keep tabs on the draft additions that look to seize opportunities that they may not have expected to see in year one.
One of the more enjoyable parts of following the NFL draft is seeing which big names fall. Not to knock the playing style of the big-name players, but it’s just fun to witness the unveiling of incredible value selections or reaches. Whether that’s a big name or a player who was underappreciated during the process, the quality of a roster can greatly improve even in just one offseason.
Each preseason, players step up to the plate eyeing opportunities and look to find any way possible to not only see the field, but also to make the final roster cut. This is the moment when the later-round picks and undrafted free agents come to battle to prove their worth. Any breach of opportunity that comes their way, these players must inch their way in and make an impact.
With chances already unfolding in front of them, these rookies have the most to gain this preseason.
**Rookies listed range from fourth-round selections to undrafted free agents.
Brandon Facyson, Chargers, CB (2018 NFL Draft: Undrafted)
Injuries are unfortunate, but they also open opportunities for other players. With another injury to the talented Jason Verrett, the Los Angeles Chargers now have a question mark that it did not intend to have heading into the season.
A silver lining from the injury is that at least it happened early in training camp to give more time for his replacement to develop. Undrafted free agent Brandon Facyson prides himself on using his physicality and length to stagnate receivers at the line of scrimmage.
Brandon Facyson allowed just 38.1% of passes thrown his way to be caught in 2017 pic.twitter.com/DdkPO461Dg
— PFF College (@PFF_College) February 20, 2018
His shutdown capabilities fit right into where the Chargers find the void left by Verrett’s misfortune. Facyson’s physical attributes (6-foot-2, 203 pounds) and consistent tackling add an extra edge versus others battling for the same position. Facyson faces stiff competition, as Los Angeles’s secondary, with the addition of first-round pick Derwin James, is one of the more talented and deep units in all of football.
Facyson has his work cut out for him this preseason, but he has every opportunity to solidify a roster spot and earn playing time. Adding to his ball skills will only help his cause. The rookie recorded five career interceptions for Virginia Tech, all in 2013.
Jeff Holland, Broncos, OLB (Undrafted)
It’s not often that a player leaves the SEC after a 10-sack season and goes undrafted. That’s the current story for former Auburn Tiger Jeff Holland. Holland lined up in Auburn’s BUCK position in his last season and looks to play a similar role for the Broncos.
Jeff Holland just pushed OT Leon Johnson so hard he fell down. In the one-on-one drills, Holland has now beat OTs with speed around the edge and with power bull rushing.
— Zac Stevens (@ZacStevensDNVR) July 30, 2018
Denver is filled with flashy pass rushers but has a rotation set to feature the whole bunch in a variety of ways. Holland looks to battle with Shane Ray as primarily a third down pass rusher. Holland has the upper hand at the moment, as Ray is still recovering from an aggravated wrist injury.
“We record all of the positives that guys make, and right now he’s blowing people away,” defensive coordinator Joe Woods told 247Sports. “He had a big day at the end of last week in OTAs, but right now he’s leading the charge. We just need to see what he does in training camp and in the preseason.”
Denver has a theme of working with undrafted players and turning them into important pieces. Current members Chris Harris Jr. and Shaquil Barrett were free agent pickups after their drafts, along with former running back CJ Anderson.
Justin Jackson, Chargers, RB (Seventh Round, Pick 251)
Phillip Rivers and the Chargers topped the NFL in passing yards per game last season (276.9) but fell to 24th in rushing (90.0). Melvin Gordon led the way with 1,105 yards, but the next most productive back, Austin Ekeler, finished the season with just 260 rushing yards.
After Gordon, the depth chart is wide open. That’s when one of the most productive college backs in history steps in. Justin Jackson runs with a blend of quickness and toughness and shows the receiving skills to see the field early.
“All in all, the Chargers are one of merely two teams (Giants) with just two running backs on their roster with an NFL carry under their belt,” Ricky Henne of Chargers.com said. It appears everything is falling in place for seventh-round pick Justin Jackson to carve out a meaningful role in his first year with the Bolts. That’s not always the case for a rookie, so it’s clear the Northwestern product is in a fortunate situation
Los Angeles has struggled to find a No. 2 back since the departure of Danny Woodhead in 2015. Jackson looks to add reliability and consistency to a position group that is yearning for an upgrade.
Brendan Mahon, Panthers, OL (Undrafted)
Brendan Mahon was not a household name in the 2018 NFL Draft but has an opportunity to see the field early. Mahon played both tackle positions and left guard throughout his college career at Penn State, and his versatility only helps him in camp.
If you're keeping track, UDFA Brendan Mahon is getting second team reps and is the first one off the bench when Trai Turner needs a rest.
— The Riot Report (@RRiotReport) July 30, 2018
Daryl Williams, the projected starter at right tackle, suffered an MCL tear during training camp, and Mahon has already received first-team snaps in his vacancy. Mahon looks to be a long shot at filling the starting role at right tackle but has a legitimate chance to see a high percentage of playing time at left guard.
The Panthers signed Jeremiah Sirles to solidify its left guard position, but the fifth-year player has yet to account for any consistency in his brief career. With his inconsistency comes opportunity for an undrafted free agent like Mahon.
Skai Moore, Colts, LB (Undrafted)
After a rocky college football career leading to being undrafted, Skai Moore is receiving positive buzz in camp. Moore’s fluid and reliable pass coverage skills are catching eyes early
While projected starting middle linebacker Anthony Walker is dealing with a groin injury, Moore as taken advantage of the opportunity. Though viewed more as an outside presence, Moore’s versatility is being used to fill the role of the vacant MLB.
“The Colts’ overhauled defense left a completely wide-open competition at linebacker, and Moore is taking advantage,” Jake Arthur of Colts.com said. “He saw some occasional snaps with the first-team defense at MIKE during the spring offseason. He’s tracking plays down very quickly, getting into passing lanes, and is giving big effort against the pass. It’s earned him some reps as the lone linebacker in some dime packages, as well.”
The Colts’ linebacker unit is a young group, currently featuring four rookies. Though Colts fans might be discouraged about this entering the season, Moore has provided some relief with his above-average practice performances.
Jordan Thomas, Texans, TE (Sixth Round, Pick 211)
At 6-foot-6 and 265 pounds, Jordan Thomas has caught attention in camp. In his last season with Mississippi State, the sixth-round pick reeled in 22 catches for 263 yards with three touchdowns in a hybrid role between tight end and receiver. Thomas has the receiving skills to get on the field, but his blocking skills have impressed Texans head coach Bill O’Brien so far.
“The first few days here, he’s actually done a decent job blocking relative to being a young player,” O’Brien said. “He’s good in the passing game. I really like what we’ve got there.”
Thomas was actually the second tight end selected by Houston in the 2018 NFL Draft, the first being Jordan Akins, but he still has plenty of momentum heading into the slate of preseason games.
“With the loss of CJ Fiedorowicz, the Texans lost their only valuable blocking tight end in the run game,” TexansWire’s Cole Thompson said. “Thomas should at least carve out a role in run blocking schemes as well as in the red zone.”
Thomas seems to be doing the little things to gain the attention of the head coach. With Houston aiming to run its offense with a two tight end set, Thomas has plenty of opportunity to see the field early and often.