We’re now three weeks through the 2019 NFL preseason, and there’s been a lot to like so far, especially from the first-year players who have done the incredibly difficult but necessary job of distancing themselves from their classmates.
Some of these players were drafted to be the future of their respective franchises, others have come out of nowhere to secure a place on their 53-man rosters, others may face the chop on Aug. 31 but have done enough so far to make them a prime target for teams looking to add depth to their practice squad.
Here, in reverse order, are the top-25 first-year players so far this preseason.
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25. DI Greg Gaines, Los Angeles Rams – 79.5
While playing for the Washington Huskies in college, Greg Gaines was one of the top run defenders in all of college football. And through three weeks of preseason play, it’s easy to see that his stout play against the run is translating well to the NFL. Gaines has obliterated his opponent in run defense thus far, and when lined up at nose tackle, he has recorded an 82.1 run-defense grade and has also yet to lose to his blocker at that alignment.
24. DI Quinnen Williams, New York Jets – 79.7
Expectations were high on interior defender Quinnen Williams coming into the preseason, as he came away as the highest-graded defensive player we have ever seen in the PFF College era (since 2014). Williams has met these expectations thus far. With a standout performance against the Saints in Week 3 that earned an 88.6 overall grade, Williams has now bumped his pass-rush win rate to an impressive 19.1% this preseason.
23. WR Jakobi Meyers, New England Patriots – 79.8
Jakobi Meyers has been a workhorse this preseason, seeing 26 targets through three weeks of action (seven more than any other wide receiver). He has made the most of every single pass thrown his way though, generating a passer rating of 124.7 while collecting 2.65 yards per route run and a total of six total explosive plays (15-plus yards). Meyers has really thrived against man coverage where he has caught 9-of-10 targets and recorded a 90.6 receiving grade.
22. WR Keelan Doss, Oakland Raiders – 79.8
As an undrafted free agent out of UC Davis, Doss elected to stay in his home state to try and earn his way as an Oakland Raider. So far, Doss has shown he is every bit of a Gruden Grinder. Doss has been a short-pass receiver for the Raiders, with 11 of his 14 total targets being nine yards or less. On those targets, Doss has averaged 4.6 yards after the catch, showing solid after-the-catch ability. Doss is paving his way to a 53-man roster spot with two broken tackles, three explosive plays and two contested catches overall.
21. CB Lonnie Johnson Jr., Houston Texans – 80.0
After a so-so performance in his preseason Week 1 debut, Lonnie Johnson Jr. bounced back nicely against the Cowboys in Week 3 where he recorded an impressive 91.7 overall grade. On his six targets in coverage, Johnson has now forced three incompletions. At 6-foot-2, 213 pounds, Johnson Jr. is the definition of a long cornerback with a ton of potential and one to keep an eye on throughout this 2019 season.
20. CB Tae Hayes, Jacksonville Jaguars – 80.7
Jacksonville may have found themselves a diamond in the undrafted free agent pool in Tae Hayes. Hayes has been a certified ballhawk for the Jags in the preseason, recording three forced incompletions, one interception and one dropped interception. In addition, Hayes has had four total coverage stops and allowed a stingy 38.2 passer rating in coverage.
19. WR Olabisi Johnson, Minnesota Vikings – 80.8
Seventh-round pick Olabisi Johnson has been lights out on every catch he has made so far this preseason. Out of his six total targets, five of them have had a step or more of separation and four went down as an explosive play. Not to mention, Johnson has also generated a perfect passer rating on his targets and collected 8.2 yards after the catch per reception.
18. EDGE Josh Allen, Jacksonville Jaguars – 81.0
Many thought Josh Allen would go earlier than the seventh overall slot he was selected at, and Allen has shown he was more than deserving of being a top-five pick in this draft. Allen has thrived in the pass-rush where he has come away with seven pressures and a 20.7% pass-rush win rate.
17. LB Ulysees Gilbert III, Pittsburgh Steelers – 81.8
We all know Pittsburgh loves them some blitzing linebackers, and they stole one in the sixth-round with Ulysees Gilbert III. So far, Gilbert III has rushed the passer 17 times and has come away with five pressures and a 41.2% pass-rush win rate. Moreover, Gilbert III has been the first defender to contact on roughly 10% of his defensive snaps, which is no surprise considering he had a 4.46 40-yard time at his pro day.
16. EDGE Dewayne Hendrix, Miami Dolphins – 82.3
Dewayne Hendrix didn’t make a lot of noise for the Pittsburgh Panthers, but he is making some in Miami this preseason. Through three weeks of play, Hendrix has earned a superb 86.2 pass-rush grade, while gathering eight pressures and a pass-rush win rate of 22.2%. With Miami having an underwhelming edge unit after the departures of veterans Cameron Wake and Robert Quinn, they should be ecstatic with what they have seen so far in Hendrix.
15. LB Nate Hall, Dallas Cowboys – 82.3
The Dallas Cowboys already have the top linebacker tandem in the league in Leighton Vander Esch and Jaylon Smith, but they may be starting to form the deepest with undrafted free agent Nate Hall being a part of it. Hall has shown great coverage play this season, earning an 83.0 coverage grade and allowing just two catches on five targets. Additionally, Hall has come away with two coverage stops, one forced incompletion and one dropped interception.
14. DI Ricky Walker, Dallas Cowboys – 82.6
Along with Hall, the Cowboys found another promising defensive player in the undrafted pool in Ricky Walker. As a sole 3-technique interior defender, Walker has put together five pressures and an 81.9 pass-rush grade for the Cowboys in the preseason. Jerry Jones may have thought second-round pick Trysten Hill was the future at the interior defender position for the Cowboys, but it may well be Ricky Walker.
13. EDGE Darryl Johnson, Buffalo Bills – 82.7
North Carolina A&T product Darryl Johnson has lit up opposing tackles on occasion this preseason. Johnson has five pressures overall, and his 46.7% pass-rush win rate on third down is unmatched.
12. EDGE Joe Jackson, Dallas Cowboys – 84.1
Joe Jackson has made his name against the run this preseason, with defensive stops and two tackles for loss or no gain. Further, Jackson has consistently beaten his opposing run-blocker. Overall, Jackson has collected nine defensive stops on 81 total snaps.
11. EDGE Malik Reed, Denver Broncos – 84.3
There may not be a more exciting undrafted free agent so far in this 2019 preseason than Malik Reed. Whether it be a run or a pass play, Reed has excelled with an 80.0-plus grade in both phases this preseason. Along with three run-stops, Reed has eight total pressures and a pass-rush win rate of 27.0%. In Reed’s final season at Nevada, he earned a run-defense grade of 89.3 and a pass-rush grade of 90.2 — safe to say PFF saw this one coming.
10. LB T.J. Edwards, Philadelphia Eagles – 84.6
Former Wisconsin Badger T.J. Edwards has been astounding against the run and in coverage for the Eagles. Four of his run tackles have been for a loss or no gain, and in total, Edwards has eight defensive stops. A 78.0 run-defense grade and 79.8 coverage grade should make Philadelphia excited about Edwards as a prospect.
9. WR Nsimba Webster, Los Angeles Rams – 86.5
With Brandin Cooks, Robert Woods and Cooper Kupp, the Los Angeles Rams already have a top-three receiving unit, so the preseason success of undrafted free agent Nsimba Webster is just an added bonus. Webster has hauled in every single one of his eleven targets so far and has been incredibly productive on a per route basis, with an average of 2.73 yards per route run. His average depth of target thus far has been 5.2 yards downfield, and with three explosive plays and three broken tackles, Webster is showing to be a solid after-the-catch receiver at the NFL level.
8. DI Jonathan Ledbetter, Miami Dolphins – 86.7
The Dolphins drafted one of the top interior defenders in the draft in Christian Wilkins and may have gotten a steal at the same position in the undrafted period with Jonathan Ledbetter. So far this preseason, Ledbetter’s run defense has stood out as he has rarely lost to his opposing blocker and has a run-defense grade of 87.8. Run defense was also his expertise at Georgia, as he had an 88.7 run-defense grade in his final season as a bulldog.
7. LB Josiah Tauaefa, New York Giants – 86.8
Undrafted free agent Josiah Tauaefa has been a pleasant surprise for the New York Giants so far this preseason. Tauaefa has seen most of his preseason time in coverage where he has recorded four coverage stops, but he has also excelled in his limited action against the run and in the pass-rush. The former UTSA product was a legitimate threat as a blitzer in college, as he finished his three-year college career with 63 pressures and a 94.0 pass-rush grade his final season.
6. EDGE Brian Burns, Carolina Panthers – 87.0
Brian Burns has every bit lived up to his first-round selection this season, beating his opponent in the pass-rush 25% of the time and recording five total pressures.
5. DI Albert Huggins, Houston Texans – 87.7
Former Clemson Tiger Albert Huggins has shown great promise as an interior defender in both run defense and in the pass-rush. Thus far, Huggins has collected four run stops and six pressures, with four of those pressures coming when there was a blitz or stunt executed. With back-to-back overall game grades in the 80.0s in preseason Weeks 2 and 3, Huggins’ future in Houston seems to be bright.
4. EDGE Tuzar Skipper, Pittsburgh Steelers – 90.4
Former Toledo Rocket Tuzar Skipper has been a dual-threat edge defender with solid play both against the run (85.4 run defense grade) and in the pass-rush (86.1 pass-rush grade). In total, Skipper has four run stops and nine pressures.
3. EDGE Chase Winovich, New England Patriots – 92.0
Coming into the draft process, Winovich was the 29th overall prospect on the PFF draft board. The Patriots got him in the third round. Nonetheless, Winovich has dominated from day one for Bill Belichick and the Patriots dynasty with three run-stops, 12 total pressures and a pass-rush win rate of 36.7%.
2. S Jaquan Johnson, Buffalo Bills – 92.1
The performance of the preseason may have come from Jaquan Johnson in Week 3 where he finished with a 97.7 overall grade and 96.6 coverage grade. When he's been aligned at free safety, Johnson has seen three targets in coverage and forced an incompletion on all three of those passes.
1. S Donovan Wilson, Dallas Cowboys – 93.7
With two of his three overall game grades surpassing 90.0, Donovan Wilson has gotten the attention of everyone at PFF, and he should be getting everyone else's attention too. Of his three targets in coverage, Wilson has intercepted two of them.