Obviously the preseason doesn’t count, but we can still get a glimpse at the potential impact of young players and their upside moving forward. Week one of the preseason featured plenty of flashes from rookies and second year players, but let’s whittle it down to three categories.
The Baltimore Ravens, Carolina Panthers, and Houston Texans all saw strong play from rookie and sophomore players that will be expected to contribute this season.
Baltimore Ravens: Young Front Seven Players
Last season the Ravens boasted a tough a front seven that ranked 4th in run defense DVOA and tied for 5th in league allowed 3.7 yards per carry. Brandon Williams, Terrell Suggs, and C.J. Mosley are the big name players in their front seven, but they’ll be expecting a host of first and second year players to play well for them this year.
Here are the first and second year players that will end up getting defensive snaps for Baltimore. Rookies will be italicized:
Last week against the Washington Football Team, the Ravens first team defense balled out and shut down Washington’s offense. Michael Pierce was quietly one of the best run defending defensive tackles in the league as rookie and he looks ready for a strong sophomore season.
Pierce (#97) is playing nose tackle over the center. Watch him jack back the center, throw him aside, and join Brent Urban on the tackle for loss.
A cut of the first second of the play highlights his first step, explosive, and immediate hand placement.
Pierce also had a nice pass rush later in the first quarter that flushed Colt McCoy out of the pocket and into the arms of Brent Urban. His pass rush was an area of concern as a rookie; if he can continue to trend up in this area he’ll be an utterly dominant force on the defensive line.
Willie Henry is another player on the Ravens defensive line that will be expected to contribute after missing his rookie season. His calling card out of Michigan was his lightning-quick first step. For his size he’s an excellent athlete and passed through Justis’ Force Players metric last offseason.
Here’s a visualization of his athletic ability, courtesy of MockDraftable.com:
Henry (#69, nice) showed off that first step early in the third quarter against Washington’s backup offensive line. Even though he didn’t make the tackle on either play, he was able to get some disruption into the backfield. As our good friend Josh Norris says, “Disruption is production.” Henry has the ability to be an up-the-field presence for the Ravens defensive line; something they’ve been missing over the past few years.
According to Pro Football Focus, Tyus Bowser had a great debut for the Ravens earning an 84.3 grade out of 100 for the game. Here’s what they had to say about Bowser’s performance:
Rookie edge defender Bowser recorded a QB hit and two more pressures on just 10 opportunities to rush the passer, all totaling a pass-rush productivity of 22.5.
Bowser also passed through the Force Player filter. These are his measurements compared to other edge defenders in the league.
The Ravens need a young EDGE to step up as Terrell Suggs wraps up his stellar career. Bowser has the ideal athletic profile and fellow rookie Tim Williams was a stud during his career at Alabama.
Carolina Panthers: Christian McCaffrey and Taylor Moton
If a team is going to take a running back in the top 10, that player needs to be dynamic running and receiving the ball. Christian McCaffrey’s career numbers at Stanford showed he could do both at the collegiate level.
The Panthers needed to scale back their passing attack to provide Cam Newton with checkdown options and get younger at running back. Considering those were their goals, Christian McCaffrey was the perfect selection for them.
Some analysts oddly questioned Christian McCaffrey’s ability to run power football…even though that’s what he was asked to run at Stanford for three years. He doesn’t bring the big, bruising style that the stereotypical power back does, but he sets up his blocks well with patience before exploding through them for long gains.
This is a power run by Carolina out of shotgun. He gives his blockers time to get into the hole before he wiggles and explodes through for a first down. If he kept his balance, he would’ve had a chance to take it in for six.
Christian McCaffrey and Curtis Samuel headlined the Panthers’ draft class, but second round pick Taylor Moton might wind up being a gem for Carolina. He played right tackle at Western Michigan and played both guard and tackle in the first preseason game.
Moton tested as one of the most athletic offensive linemen in the NFL. Here’s how he stacks up against guards:
And here’s how Moton athletically compares to offensive tackles:
His athleticism was quickly apparent against the Texans’ backup defensive line. Moton (#72) is the left guard. He’s able to quickly flip his hips to reach the three technique which allows McCaffrey to get upfield.
Moton has the ability to recover versus the run as well. He’s easily Carolina’s most athletic offensive lineman and should lock down a starting spot at right tackle before the end of the season.
— charles mcdonald (@FourVerts) August 10, 2017
Carolina needed to get more explosive on offense and provide better protection to Cam Newton. McCaffrey and Moton combined with Andrew Norwell, Ryan Kalil, and Trai Turner coming back should automatically make the Panthers better on offense.
Houston Texans: Deshaun Watson’s Debut
The Texans been looking for “their guy” at quarterback for what feels like centuries. Every year they reach the playoffs due to strong defensive play (and a weak AFC South), but fumble the opportunity to advance due to nauseating quarterback play. After paying the Browns to take Brock Osweiler’s horrid contract off the books, the Texans traded up to the 12th overall pick to draft Deshaun Watson.
I was extremely high on Watson coming into the 2017 draft. He was my fifth overall player and top-ranked quarterback by a considerable margin. Watson wasn’t a perfect prospect, but the total package that he brings to the table made him a highly coveted quarterback this offseason.
Watson’s biggest flaw at Clemson was his tendency to miss easy throws down the field. Layup opportunities need to be big gains for the offense and he missed one early in his Texans’ debut.
Watson isn’t the Texans’ starting quarterback yet, but he showed much better pocket presence than Tom Savage did while he was in the game. Watson rarely got flustered under pressure in college; it’s encouraging to see that skill translate early on in his career.
As he climbs the pocket with chaos around him, notice that his eyes stay downfield. In the midst of pressure he pump fakes to freeze the linebacker before firing the ball to the tight end.
He knows he’s about to get clobbered and still gets the ball where it needs to be. Composure under pressure may not seem like a huge deal to some, but it’s crippled players like Blaine Gabbert, Jared Goff, Brock Osweiler, and Josh McCown. The NFL is chaotic, players who can’t play in chaos won’t survive.
Here’s another clip where Watson has defenders screaming towards him, but he still completes the pass. The detail here isn’t pocket movement, it’s staying calm under fire. The receiver needs time to complete the route, sometimes the quarterback has to take one for the team in order to complete the pass.
(He showed off pretty good arm strength in this game, huh?)
Watson’s ability as a runner made him a dual threat as a college player and will serve him well early on in his career.
There are two plays in the next clip. The first is a bootleg to the field side where he was able to find his second, intermediate read for a big gain. That type of play is something that Matt Ryan struggled with tremendously in 2015 before figuring it out during his MVP season in 2016. Throwing slightly against your body on the run can be difficult, but Watson made it look easy here.
On the second play, Watson showed off his improvisational skills. Watson’s first read was to the boundary where the Panthers had four defenders covering three receiving options. The numbers favored Carolina on his first read; that would’ve been a dangerous, illogical throw. He came back and focused his eyes on the middle of the field which was wide open for exploitation. He tucked the ball and ran in for a touchdown to bring Houston to within seven points.
There’s a long way to go before anointing Watson as the Texan’s savior, but it was an impressive start for Houston’s most talented quarterback.